Greenpeace Nuclear Free Seas Campaign: HMS Talent arrives in Hamburg in 1995
It's a cold and rainy day in England in 1982. On a road leading
to Portsmouth Naval Base, a lone figure huddles in the only shelter
for miles around, a bus stop. A convoy of vehicles including four
lumbering military transports, a command & control/accident
response vehicle and a fire engine slowly roll past. The man in the
bus stop takes out a slip of paper and notes the time and
description of the vehicles. As part of the nukewatch network, he's
one of dozens of volunteers who are tracking the movement of
nuclear warheads, and he knows precisely where this convoy is
heading - to load nuclear depth charges aboard the HMS
When the HMS Sheffield was sunk some months later, the British
authorities refused to confirm there were nuclear weapons on board.
On December 5th last year, the UK Ministry of Defence admitted for
the first time that some of the ships in its Falklands task force
had set sail in 1982 with nuclear depth charges designed to destroy
Twenty one years for the truth
"We issued a statement in 1982 saying that there were nuclear
weapons aboard the Sheffield. It took 21 years for the UK
government to acknowledge we were right." says our researcher,
Argentina has demanded an apology from the UK, and clarification
of whether nuclear weapons were aboard the Sheffield when she sank,
and if so, whether they were recovered. The British Government
denies that nuclear weapons entered the territorial waters of
Argentina or the Falklands, or that any were aboard the Sheffield
when she was destroyed by an Exocet missile.
But a 1991 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency
stated that there were nuclear weapons aboard the Sheffield when
she went down. The Sheffield was also the only wreck which was
subject to a recovery operation by a UK dive team. The team's
mission was officially to recover "strategic material."
"It's difficult to imagine that weapons were not aboard when she
went down" says Peden. "We monitored all movements of weapons in
and out of Portsmouth during the Falklands war. The Sheffield was
loaded with nukes before the war began. She was four days out of
Portsmouth on a return trip from the Mediterranean when she was
rerouted, so she never had the chance to offload in port. If she
transferred weapons at sea, nothing came back to Portsmouth during
the war. So the question to the MOD, really, is how and where were
they removed from the Sheffield before she sank?"
Gone, but making a unwelcome comeback?
Britain no longer deploys nuclear weapons on submarines or
surface vessels at sea during peacetime, thanks in part to our
Nuclear Free Seas campaign, which pursued the goal of removing
nukes from submarines and surface ships in the 80s and 90s.
In 1991, the US and Soviet Union agreed to remove submarine
launched cruise missiles from ocean deployment, though each did so
through a unilateral pledge and made no binding agreements. The US
Navy has ever since maintained the ability to restore Tomahawk
nuclear missiles to their attack submarines on 30 days notice.
The US Navy has recently proposed phasing out the Tomahawk
capability. But on December 2nd it came to light in an obscure
defence magazine, Inside the Navy, that the US Navy has now
been instructed by Donald Rumsfeld's Department of Defense to
maintain this cold-war capability.
And hard on the heels of that decision, the UK has announced
that they will not be phasing out their own sea-based system, the
Trident missile, but will instead replace it with new weapons not
The US has recently approved funds for research and development
of "mini-nukes" -- small nuclear weapons designed to be used in
battlefield scenarios, which make the prospect of the use of
nuclear weapons during wartime far more likely.
"Nuclear weapons don't belong on planet Earth, but they
particularly don't belong at sea," says Peden. "Missiles on the
oceans again would represent a major escalation of dangerous arms
and an increase in the chances of nuclear accidents. That's not
buying increased security -- that's a ticket back in time to a far
more dangerous world."