"[Arms Control Today] has become indispensable! I think it is the combination of the critical period we are in and the quality of the product. I found myself reading the May issue from cover to cover."

– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
UK Submariner Cites Safety Flaws
Share this

July/August 2015

By Jefferson Morley

The ballistic missile submarine HMS Victorious moves through the water off the west coast of Scotland on April 4, 2013. (Photo by Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)The UK Navy has dishonorably discharged a sailor who posted an online indictment of safety issues aboard the country’s nuclear-armed submarines.

William McNeilly was released from service June 17, a month after posting an online statement alleging up to 30 safety and security problems in and around the United Kingdom’s four nuclear-armed Trident subs. McNeilly, a 25-year-old native of Belfast, was stationed for three months earlier this year at the Faslane base where the subs are housed between tours at sea. In his 18-page letter, which was posted on the WikiLeaks website, McNeilly described himself as “a Strategic Weapons Systems engineer who has sacrificed everything to tell the public how close it is to a nuclear catastrophe.”

McNeilly said fire and floods threaten the safety of the subs’ nuclear weapons, while lax security procedures could enable terrorists to attack. Bans on electronic gear, e-cigarettes, and shaving (to keep hair particles from circulating in the air) are not enforced, he said.

After some members of parliament praised McNeilly in late May, Michael Fallon, the UK defense secretary, dismissed his claims as unwarranted.

“Most of McNeilly’s concerns proved to be either factually incorrect or the result of mis- or partial understanding,” Fallon said in May 28 statement. “Some drew on historic, previously known events, none of which had compromised our deterrent capability,” he said. When appropriate to do so, “lessons had been learned to develop our procedures as part of a continuous improvement programme,” he said.

On June 18, the day after the navy announcement, McNeilly posted a nine-page letter to supporters saying he had been dishonorably discharged.

“I believe Home Office are still doing their investigation, but that’s nothing to worry about,” McNeilly wrote on Scribd, a document-sharing site. “Most people know that I acted in the interest of national security.” 

Trident Safety Record

In an analysis of McNeilly’s comments, John Ainslie, coordinator for the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, noted that there have been several incidents involving UK nuclear subs. His compilation includes a submarine stranded in Gibraltar from 2000 to 2001, a collision between French and UK submarines in 2009, and a submarine running aground in 2010. The report says that it “places McNeilly’s allegations in the context of known safety issue[s] with British nuclear submarines.”

The Trident issue has become contentious in British politics with the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP), which has called for nuclear disarmament. Last September, Scottish voters rejected the SNP’s call for independence and nuclear disarmament in a referendum. (See ACT, October 2014.) The results of the May 15 national parliamentary elections further fortified parliamentary supporters of the UK’s nuclear deterrent, who have pledged to provide the funding to allow replacement of the four-submarine fleet by 2030. (See ACT, June 2015.)

In his May 15 Web posting, McNeilly recounted what he called security lapses bred by the habits of daily routine and the indolence of some sailors. He also cited safety concerns about the maintenance of the submarines, particularly about the risk of fire or explosion near the Trident’s missiles in which nuclear warheads are located near one of the missile’s rocket motors.

McNeilly quoted a passage from the Trident safety manual as acknowledging the risk of “a rocket motor propellant fire.” According to McNeilly, the manual states that “an accident or enemy action may cause rupture of the RB [re-entry body, the shell of the missile], burning or possible detonation of the HE [high explosive] and release of radioactive contamination.”


McNeilly is not the first to call attention to this aspect of Trident’s design. A 1990 Washington Post article reported that nuclear safety analysts were concerned that a volatile explosive used in the warhead of the Trident missiles could explode in an accidental fire, “producing forces that could compress the nuclear core in each bomb and begin a nuclear chain reaction.” The article went on to say that the Trident missile “is considered particularly vulnerable to such an accident because its multiple warheads are arranged in a circle around the propellant fuel in the missile’s third stage.”

Nick Ritchie, a lecturer on international security at the University of York, said in a June 19 e-mail that McNeilly “at times conflate[s] the risk of the detonation of the high explosive in a warhead and/or missile ­propellant that could scatter the warheads’ fissile material (plutonium and uranium)” with the risk of an even worse event, “the inadvertent detonation of the warheads themselves resulting in a catastrophic nuclear explosion.” 

“It is difficult to independently judge the veracity of specific claims without having experienced day-to-day operational practices at the Faslane Naval Base [on board] UK nuclear-armed submarines,” Ritchie said. “However, the account is detailed and supports a public history of problems in the UK submarine fleet and nuclear weapons enterprise.”