British navy took nukes to Falklands

RELUCTANT ADMISSION: The defense ministry said that weapon containers were damaged during operations, but refused to say if any sank in battle


Sun, Dec 07, 2003 - Page 7

The UK Ministry of Defence admitted for the first time on Friday that British ships carried nuclear weapons in the Falklands war.

The disclosure came as the British government was forced to concede -- after a long-running campaign by The Guardian daily -- that seven nuclear weapon containers were damaged during a series of wartime accidents.

But many of the details of these accidents are still being kept secret by the ministry.

It also refused to say whether any nuclear depth charges were on board the British warship HMS Sheffield, which was sunk during the war.

The ministry's admission confirms persistent rumors that the taskforce which recaptured the islands in 1982 was equipped with nuclear weapons.

The ministry insisted that there was never any intention to use the weapons during the war and that their presence did not break any disarmament treaties. But the admission has provoked concern from the Argentine government. The Argentine defense minister, Jose Pampuro, said he was worried in case the accidents had spread radioactivity and he wanted assurances from the ministry.

According to the limited information released by the ministry, the nuclear depth charges were already on board unnamed ships in the taskforce when it sailed to the South Atlantic at the outbreak of the war.

"A decision was taken to transfer them to other ships heading back home," a ministry spokesman said.

Seven containers were damaged "in some way" when they were transporting the weapons onto other ships.

The ministry claims that none of the actual weapons was damaged and that "in what was considered the worst case, a container sustained severe distortion to a door housing."

The ministry finally released information concerning the accidents after a six-year battle fought by The Guardian under the open-government code.

After the ministry had blocked a request for information, the parliamentary ombudsman criticized the ministry and ordered it to publish a list of 20 accidents and mishaps involving nuclear weapons between 1960 and 1991.

But despite the ombudsman's critical verdict this year, the ministry continued to conceal the Falklands accidents, and has only divulged their existence after further pressure from The Guardian.

Last night's admission by the ministry fails to clear up the most controversial allegation: that the nuclear weapons were sunk along with the HMS Sheffield after the ship was hit by an Exocet missile a month into the war. The crip-pled ship was towed for six days until it sank.

Faced with the ombudsman's refusal to support the ministry's policy of secrecy, the department yesterday opted for damage limitation, putting out a statement to all media in the traditional slot for unwelcome news: late on a Friday afternoon.

The ministry said the transfers of the WE177 depth charges took place at various times during April, May and June in 1982, "well away from other sea-going traffic, and the weapons were held in ships with the best-protected magazines before being returned to Britain."

The ministry insisted that the nuclear weapons never entered the territorial waters of the Falklands or any South American country.