A thoroughly fascinating and horrifying look at the state of British civil defence in 1980 hosted by a strikingly young Jeremy Paxman. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 triggered a new age of fear in the west about the possibility of a nuclear confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union with Europe sandwiched in the middle. This in turn sparked questions about Britain’s preparedness for such an eventuality as well as inspire a new wave of anti-nuclear protests.
Those who have seen the BBC’s Threads docudrama will see a lot of familiar scenes only this time acted out with the people who would have really carried out those roles had war broken out. Threads used both this program and a later program made by the BBC in 1982, QED – A Guide to Armageddon, to formulate its frighteningly realistic script before it aired in 1984.
The documentary makes note of the relatively small amount spent on civil defence compared to the immense sums of money spent on the nuclear deterrence itself. It also makes clear the belief that if the deterrence remains effective then the need for a permanent civil defence force is negated.
For those with an interest in both history and nuclear weapons, this is well produced and must-see program from that troubled time which hopefully has now passed.
The following is a booklet issued to members of the Civil Defence Corps and the British emergency services to inform them of the advice that would be given to the general public in times of heightened tension with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. While it outlines the advice the government would give at such a time it was not intended for general public use.
This booklet was kept in use until the mid-1980s when it was replaced with an updated version that had more detail on the effects of nuclear fallout but retained the same basic advice. How effective these measures would have actually been is debatable. The cynical historian would argue that advice such as this had more to do with making the public feel like they could do something to protect themselves should nuclear war break out rather than genuinely useful advice.
In 1980, the UK government conducted an Exercise codenamed Square Leg which looked in to the effects of what they deemed was a realistic nuclear attack on the British mainland. They estimated that the country would sustain an attack with the destructive power in the region of 205 megatons. This would see almost 53% of the UK population – 29 million people – killed in the first few hours with another 19 million people dying in the following days from injuries and radiation.
The trouble with these figures is that Square Leg was heavily criticised as being – if you can believe it – optimistic and conservative. Critics argued that the UK was so densely populated with many strategic and military targets packed closely together that the Soviet Union would have allocated many more weapons to Britain than the government had estimated.
This reinforces the key point of nuclear weapons in that they are so frightening that they prevent a war rather than be a tool for war. We can only hope that the powers-that-be continue to remember that point.
A Downing Street spokesperson speaking on behalf of Prime Minister Theresa May has confirmed that she was made aware of a Trident II D5 missile test carried out in June 2016 before she petitioned ministers to vote to renew the nuclear deterrent. The Prime Minister had side-stepped questions put to her by the BBC following claims in The Sunday Times that she deliberately withheld knowledge of the test because the missile malfunctioned.
When questioned on whether the missile did indeed malfunction however the spokesperson was less clear;
We have been clear that the submarine and the crew were successfully tested and certified. That was the purpose of the operation. What is also clear is that the capability and effectiveness of the Trident missile is unquestionable.
Loosely translated, the spokesperson is stating that the operation was a success because it was designed to test the submarine – namely HMS Vengeance – and not the missile. However, adding that the effectiveness of the Trident missile was “unquestionable” implies that either there was no malfunction during the test or that any malfunction that did occur has now been addressed and the government and MoD is confident that it won’t happen again.
In the last few hours, US news juggernaut CNN reported that an American official had said to them that the British missile was diverted into the ocean. This occurred automatically when the electronics onboard detected an anomaly within the missile’s systems but Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, when quizzed about this today refused to confirm a malfunction took place citing issues of secrecy and security regarding the nuclear deterrent.
Either way the Prime Minister and her government’s handling of the situation has only fuelled the anti-nuclear campaign in the UK with the secretive nature of the Prime Minister’s response on Sunday leading to speculation of a cover-up.
British Prime Minister Theresa May has been put under pressure to answer questions over whether she deliberately withheld knowledge of a malfunction of a Trident missile fired from HMS Vengeance weeks before she lobbied Parliament for the nuclear deterrent to be renewed. The accusation was made by The Sunday Times newspaper claiming a “naval source” broke the story of the malfunction to them.
In June 2016, the Vanguard-class SSBN HMS Vengeance test firedan unarmed Trident II D5 nuclear missile as part of an operation which is designed to certify the submarine and its crew for conducting nuclear deterrence patrols with live nuclear weapons. In the wake of the The Sunday Times claims the MoD issued a statement saying;
Vengeance and her crew were successfully tested and certified, allowing Vengeance to return into service. We have absolute confidence in our independent nuclear deterrent.
The newspaper claims that the missile, which was intended to be fired 5,600 miles to a target area off the west coast of Africa, malfunctioned and instead veered towards the US. Interviewed by Andrew Marr on the BBC, the Prime Minister rebuffed four questions regarding the claim which has left her exposed to criticism from the leaders of two of the major British political parties – Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party and Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party – both of whom have routinely voiced their opposition to maintaining the British nuclear deterrent.
Both the MoD and Downing Street have issued statements denying the newspaper’s claims regarding a malfunction but there are still calls for an investigation.
On July 18th 2016, a month after the test took place, Parliament voted 472-117 to renew the nuclear deterrent based around the Trident II D5 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) carried by the new Dreadnought-class SSBNs. The first Dreadnought-class is expected to enter service in 2028 and the cost of the entire project is expected to be around £40bn.
Composite rendering of how the new class will look (Crown)
The Royal Navy is to see the return of one of its most famous ship names. It has been confirmed that the new fleet of Trident D5-armed ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) previously known as the Successor-class will now become the Dreadnought-class. Construction of first-of-class HMS Dreadnought began last month and along with her three sister ships will carry the UK’s nuclear deterrence in to the 2050s.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon made the announcement during Trafalgar Day celebrations on Friday;
Her Majesty the Queen has graciously approved that Dreadnought, one of the most famous names in the Royal Navy, will become the lead boat and class name for the Royal Navy’s new successor submarines.
The name Dreadnought has now been carried by 12 Royal Navy vessels including those operated by the English Navy before the 1707 Acts of Union with Scotland with the first being a 40-gun man-of-war built in 1553. A dreadnought was present at both the battle against the Spanish Armada and in the Battle of Trafalgar but it is perhaps the revolutionary 1906 vessel that has become most synonymous with the name. That Dreadnought was so revolutionary that not only did it render all other warships obsolete but it gave birth to a whole new type of warship known as the Dreadnoughts.
The name transferred from surface warships to submarines with the launch of another Dreadnought in 1960. HMS Dreadnought S101 was Britain’s first nuclear powered submarine and as such was as revolutionary in the Royal Navy as her predecessor was. The new Dreadnought will continue the tradition of representing technical achievement and innovation being one of the most advanced and stealthy ballistic missile submarines in the world.
On April 26th 1986, there was an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in modern-day Ukraine. It is one of only two nuclear accidents classified as a level 7 event (the maximum classification) on the International Nuclear Event Scale and of those two it was by far the most serious (the other is the Fukishima incident in 2011).
While remembered as a Soviet tragedy the nuclear explosion was in reality a warning to the world of the danger of nuclear energy if not handled properly and an indication of just how much of a threat to all of humanity nuclear weapons are. What makes Chernobyl so frightening is that its consequences went far beyond the immediate disaster area spreading radioactive particles across western Europe and Scandinavia.
Many historians rightly argue that Chernobyl marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War as the calls for a halt to the seemingly restless nuclear arms race became louder and had a rallying cry: no more Chernobyls.
This fascinating documentary covers the details of the accident and the incredible story of the battle to make the site safe.