Feeds

Duff UK nukes risk 'popcorn' multi-blast accident apocalypse

Atom bombs very dangerous, says CND man

High performance access to file storage

Last week many Britons were amazed to read in the quality press that the UK's nuclear weapons are thought to have a "design fault" which could see a transport accident detonating multiple warheads in a devastating chain reaction apparently known as "popcorning".

"More than 1,700 warheads are affected by the problem which would cause them to explode one after another," trumpets the Daily Telegraph. Holy Crap.

The Telegraph, veering somewhat from its normally establishment right-wing stance, picked up the scoop from New Scientist scribe Rob Edwards. Edwards cites "a nuclear-weapons safety manual drawn up by the MoD's internal nuclear-weapons regulator".

The manual was "seen by New Scientist", as the Telegraph notes, lending the story a frisson of newsworthiness - no doubt Edwards was shown it by a worried whistleblower, or perhaps a mysterious Deep Throat-style insider source.

The document apparently says that the present impact-safety standard for warheads is "single-point". That is, the warheads cannot be made to go off or partially function by a violent blow, or a succession of blows, as they might sustain for instance in the case of falling off a crane.

However, the MoD nuke boffins say that a recommended "design objective" should be to produce warheads which can provably resist multiple simultaneous impacts from different directions. It isn't that the current ones are thought likely to go off in such a scenario; it's just that you can't prove they won't, as this wasn't part of the design spec.

Not really a design fault as such, then. Tomorrow's cars will be safer than today's - do today's therefore have design flaws?

As for popcorning, you can't say that would happen - or how much it would happen - if one warhead partially functioned close to others, but it's at least theoretically possible.

"For popcorning to happen, a significant number of specific and unlikely events would need to occur in sequence," the MoD said in a statement. "The likelihood of this sequence of events occurring is incredibly remote."

So it could happen; but realistically it would make more sense to worry about a rogue submarine crew firing the weapons on purpose than a popcorning accident. Indeed, it would surely make more sense to worry about a rogue prime minister, or a rogue head of a different nuclear-armed state with a grudge against the UK.

But "the effects of a popcorning accident would be dire," says Edwards. "In the worst-case scenario, people a kilometre away would receive a radiation dose of 100 sieverts - that's 16 times the lethal dose."

Dire indeed - though not in the same league as a warhead actually functioning as designed, and immensely less likely. Popcorning requires many implausible events to happen in sequence, then yet another multiple roll of double sixes has to occur for the effects to become serious. An undetectably insane or simply evil person or group of persons getting firing authority somewhere is likelier.

Still, secret MoD nuke documents are always interesting. Although these ones aren't actually secret; without giving details, Edwards admits that the manual he quotes was "declassified last month".

In fact, a redacted copy of Joint Service Publication (JSP) 538 Regulation of the Naval Nuclear Weapons Programme was placed in the House of Commons library last month in response to a Parliamentary question. You can't read it online, though; it's hard copy only.

Only someone with a very good reason would go and read an entire fist-chewingly dull MoD manual and then struggle so desperately to squeeze a scary headline out of it. Funnily enough, Edwards has just such a reason. He is a former leading light of the Scottish Campaign to Resist the Atomic Menace, a former CND campaigner, and the co-author of Britain's Nuclear Nightmare and Still Fighting for Gemma.

The latter work focuses on the harrowing death of a young girl from leukaemia, and lays the blame squarely on atomic power. It's a simple message: Nuclear technology equals little children dying in agony. Be afraid and horrified.

In more recent times, Edwards has tended every year to dredge up a dusty MoD publication and run a scare story during the summer news drought. Last year it was "UK nuclear accidents blamed on poor safety". In 2006 it was "Road Crash could set off Nuclear Blast".

So "popcorn warhead design fault will lead to innocent kids dying in agony" can probably be filed in the same place you'd file "terror threat means all civil liberties must be suspended", "reefer skunk death puff will make your kids go insane", "drinking booze is the most evil thing you can ever do". Etc, etc.

In fact, it might be best to just stop reading the news for the next couple of months always check the Reg for the unvarnished scoop. ®

High performance access to file storage

More from The Register

next story
Android engineer: We DIDN'T copy Apple OR follow Samsung's orders
Veep testifies for Samsung during Apple patent trial
Did a date calculation bug just cost hard-up Co-op Bank £110m?
And just when Brit banking org needs £400m to stay afloat
One year on: diplomatic fail as Chinese APT gangs get back to work
Mandiant says past 12 months shows Beijing won't call off its hackers
EFF: Feds plan to put 52 MILLION FACES into recognition database
System would identify faces as part of biometrics collection
MtGox chief Karpelès refuses to come to US for g-men's grilling
Bitcoin baron says he needs another lawyer for FinCEN chat
Big Content goes after Kim Dotcom
Six studios sling sueballs at dead download destination
Alphadex fires back at British Gas with overcharging allegation
Brit colo outfit says it paid for 347KVA, has been charged for 1940KVA
Jack the RIPA: Blighty cops ignore law, retain innocents' comms data
Prime minister: Nothing to see here, go about your business
Singapore decides 'three strikes' laws are too intrusive
When even a prurient island nation thinks an idea is dodgy it has problems
Banks slap Olympus with £160 MEEELLION lawsuit
Scandal hit camera maker just can't shake off its past
prev story

Whitepapers

Mainstay ROI - Does application security pay?
In this whitepaper learn how you and your enterprise might benefit from better software security.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
3 Big data security analytics techniques
Applying these Big Data security analytics techniques can help you make your business safer by detecting attacks early, before significant damage is done.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Mobile application security study
Download this report to see the alarming realities regarding the sheer number of applications vulnerable to attack, as well as the most common and easily addressable vulnerability errors.