Nuclear Trains in Birmingham: Jenny’s Story

Former West Midlands CND Chair, Jenny Maxwell, with former National CND Secretary Bruce Kent, at a meeting in Birmingham in April this Year

There has been a great deal of interest in Brum, this week in a story that the local blog, Bournville Village,  came up with this week:  apparently a ‘nuclear waste’, i.e. more correctly (we are advised) spent fuel train was seen travelling through Bournville station.   The original Bournville blog story is here.  This became front page news in The Birmingham Mail – you can read the expanded story here.   Rapidly the local social media in Birmingham began to debate this.  Could this be true?  Could there really be such trains travelling through Birmingham.   If so did it matter if the story was true?  Maybe this was just an unusual diversion of a train, maybe trains don’t go through Birmingham very often, if they do.   Maybe it does not really matter if there are nuclear trains going through Birmingham?  After all those trains with flasks on them have been tested in dummy crashes … ?

Hall Green CND went to Jenny Maxwell, former Chair of West Midlands CND.  Jenny has also, for around a quarter of a century,  probably been the West Midlands’s top nuclear train spotter.  With Jenny’s full permission we reproduce the following quotation, direct from Jenny:

“Yes, it’s being going on for years, and there have been various campaigns about it.  We had a very interested reporter on the Sunday Mercury once, who went to get pictures, with me, at Barnt Green.  Unfortunately it didn’t come but he went on his own the next week and got some excellent pictures and did a good article.  We still have some leaflets in the office [West Midlands CND Office, rented at the  Friends of the Earth premises at 54 Allison Street, Birmingham]  from local campaigns at Northfield, Kings Norton, Kings Heath and Moseley, using the Sunday Mercury picture.

It used to be relatively easy to see the trains as the times were in publicly available timetables.  However, recently, and I think because of terrorist scares, the timetables are much less precise and say things like “Sometimes Tuesday, sometimes Friday, sometimes never but never both”.  So it requires more dedication to go and look for them.  They come through Barnt Green to Kings Norton, then along the freight line through Kings Heath and Moseley, to Camp Hill, then out to Water Orton and through Sutton Park to Walsall and Wolverhampton.  At Stafford they join with the train that’s come with spent fuel from the South East and they all go together to Sellafield.  Surprised it went through Bournville.

They used to come at least weekly and I have no reason to think that’s changed.  They’re taking spent fuel from Hinkley and Oldbury to Sellafield for reprocessing – possibly Berkley too but that’s being decommissioned and the spent fuel has all gone.  Many people call it waste, but it isn’t – it’s spent fuel.  Glad to see it’s correct in the article. “

Presumably the old Sunday Mercury article is archived.  The Mercury obviously, also, checked out timetables for these trains at one point – there is some information on Highbeam:  here.  Up until recently, as West Midlands CND well knows, all this has been quietly going on under people’s noses, with most people knowing nothing about it.

So the material is spent fuel.  This means that it is:

‘… ‘highly radioactive … which is why we take stringent precautions to store it and to protect the public and the environment … ‘  (British Energy: Managing Fuel at Sizewell B: pdf available on the internet –  p. 7)  British Energy Managing Fuel at Sizewell B is also confident to inform you that:

‘… fuel is likely to be transported in road, rail or sea, in fuel flasks which have been rigorously tested against major impact, fire and extreme water pressure … ‘

This list does not seem to include terrorism.   Various reports over the years, including those commissioned by the Greater London Authority, and Greenpeace,  have concluded that the most serious threat probably is terrorism.   A minor issue?  Why have the public timetables been withdrawn then?   Terrorist attacks, even if not specifically targeted upon a nuclear train (e.g. New York, 2001, or London 2007, could also result in even more disastrous effects if a nuclear train passing through a city caught fire as a result.   Prolonged fire also seems another issue.  Flasks are designed to sustain fire at 800 degrees centigrade for 30 minutes.  Fires have been known to burn for far longer than this in recent rail disasters, eg the Ladbroke Grove disaster, in 1999.  Oil fires can reach temperatures of 2000 degrees centigrade.  The 800 degrees for 30 minutes looks a lot less convincing when you know this.  It seems from studies, eg the London and Greenpeace ones, that a fire in a tunnel could reach temperatures high enough to ignite the material.  See p. 2 of the Greenpeace comissioned report by Large & Associates here, for example: Large & Associates Report for Greenpeace, Outside a tunnel oil fires can also burn for days, so when you add the possibility of oil into the equation …

Moreover, David Polden of the London Nuclear Trains Action Group explains in more detail why tests carried out are not convincing:

The drop test for nuclear flasks is only nine meters.  We have some viaducts higher than that in Brum, around Camphill, Digbeth etc, surely!  The famous 100 miles an hour train crashing into a flask is also flawed.  The flask was not secured, so simply moved with the train.  What happens if a flask encounters a solid object, eg a bridge abutment at speed, or if another train runs into a flask at a crossing point?   The flask could then be broken open, or lose its water coolant.   David also points out that A targeted terorist attack, with instruments designed to penetrate the flask could appear anywhere along a track, with terrorists hidden by vegetation, or on high buildings.

Also, consulting  on-line ‘Freightmaster’ timetables,  which shows trains not listed in ordinary timetables, and is based on observation of actual movements (  David believes that Berkley may not be fully de-commisioned:

'The fact that times for nuclear trains from Berkeley appear in the
current Freightmaster (Oct-Dec. 2010 edition) suggests Berkeley power
station is not fully defuelled yet.  (The listings are claimed to be
based on actual sightings, but this may be a cover, since it has become
an offence against the Official Secrets Act to quote timings from
official documents on this matter.'

You can read more about the work of the Nuclear Trains Action Group here

A disaster is unlikely?   Yes.  Very.  However, not impossible, and the magnitude, and consquences of, such a disaster are unthinkable.

Another concern is the possibility of Leukemia.  There have been significant increases in leukemia clusters in children found around Northhampton and Rugby, near where nuclear trains were reguarly parked, for example.

At present we are building more nuclear power stations.  This will mean more transporation of material, and more potential disasters – and cancers – in the making.

Have you ever wondered what  spent nuclear fuel flask train really looks like  at close quarters?

Here is one photographed at Bristol Temple Meads Station – in a main city station, note.   This is where the trains going through Birmingham are likely to start from. Do you want these trains on your local line, or in your local station?  If you think you have spotted one around in Brum drop us a line, using the comments facility at the bottom of the post here, here – or send us a tweet on @HallGreenCND.

These trains can turn up on unscheduled routes not mentioned in the regular ‘Freightmaster’ timetables.  For example, closer to home, from Hall Green’s point of view, this train was photographed at Bordesley last June.  Nuclear flask train at Bordesley Station: June 2010 This has been identified by Jenny as  what British Nuclear Fuels calls a a ‘spent fuel’ train – this means that the contents of the flasks – far from dormant –  will be turned into plutonium.  At some point on its travels the train must have passed through either Acocks Green or Hall Green, and either Solihull or Shirley.   

It is not only our railway lines which carry nuclear materials though.  Also nuclear conveys carried missiles for retirement, or repair, still regularly travel our roads and are known to travel, mainly at night, through Kineton and Stafford and along the M40 and the M42.  British anti-nuclear organisations like NukeWatchhave been tracking these for years.  Jenny says these conveys are particularly active recently.  Sometimes there is only one or two a year.  Recently this has been around one a month.


4 thoughts on “Nuclear Trains in Birmingham: Jenny’s Story

  1. Pingback: Bournville Village | Bournville blog makes front page news

  2. Yes, an incident involving one of these trains is
    highly unlikely in fact very, very unlikely, but
    as the amount of these trains travelling through
    densely populated urban areas increases, so do the risks
    of an ‘incident’ which could be truely devastating.
    Only last week a cement lorry crashed the parapet
    of a bridge onto a moving train below. This was a
    low bridge and luckily no-one died on the train.
    Imagine 30 tons of cement lorry falling onto a
    spent-fuel container wagon from a high bridge – it
    could happen.

  3. Pingback: Nuclear Trains in Birmingham Suburbs: Jenny’s Letter to the Birmingham Mail « Hall Green CND

  4. Pingback: Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing at Sellafield and Birmingham ‘Nuclear’ Trains: The Truth « Hall Green CND

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