By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs reporter
The British government in the 1960s was so worried
about an American bomber laden with nuclear weapons
crashing in the UK it decided the best policy would be
to deny everything.
Papers released at the National Archives, formerly the
Public Record Office, reveal that Whitehall wanted to
block US authorities from ordering evacuations if one
of its nuclear weapons fell upon the British
The debate over how to block the US military from
alerting the public - and thereby causing expected
national panic - went on for five years as mandarins
tried to prepare press statements in the event of a
But eventually they recognised that US forces would
have to alert the public in the worst possible
Whitehall feared the publicity surrounding a nuclear accident
The debate began after an accident at RAF Lakenheath
in 1956 when an American B-47 bomber crashed on
landing and smashed into a bunker holding nuclear
The following year, the country experienced a
civilian nuclear incident when a fire broke out at
Windscale power station, later renamed Sellafield.
Against this background, Whitehall asked Washington
exactly what the governments would do in the event of
an American bomber coming down.
Washington replied it already had a major contingency
plan in place to prevent public panic, a strategy
which had been tested after a non-nuclear aircraft
accident in the US itself.
But London was not having any of it, not least because
it feared the press would always ask if nuclear
weapons had been involved.
It decided that
Washington's freedom to talk to the press should be
"It must clearly be for the British government to
provide the necessary background should a crash take
place of an aircraft carrying a nuclear weapon,"
concluded one memo.
"The Foreign Office has since asked the Americans to
ensure that in the event of such a crash, no press
release is issued without prior consultation with the
Ministry of Defence.
"It does not seem right that the US authorities should
make statements about evacuated areas or about
"I think it is certainly right that
the Americans should be discouraged from making
statements, particularly about evacuation."
By 1960, this policy had hardened to effectively deny everything until it was no long plausible to maintain the line.
In one Air Ministry document, a civil servant
describes what to do in various disaster scenarios.
"Initial inquiries from the press should be answered
with a factual statement that an aircraft of a named
type crashed at a named location at a named time,
together with any information about casualties which
can be released under normal procedures," said the
"If at the time this statement is made a nuclear
weapon is known to have been carried or if the
position is uncertain, any questions about nuclear
weapons should be answered on the lines that a further statement will be made by the air ministry as soon as the facts are known.
The policy reflects deep concern amongst government officials
"If it is known that no nuclear weapon was involved,
the sooner this is stated the better."
Officials suggested there were only two situations
where an immediate statement about the presence of a
nuclear weapon would be unavoidable: If a bomb was
lying within sight of the public, or if one had
"If no explosion has occurred it is clearly
undesirable to stimulate public interest in the crash
by announcing that 'there is no danger of an atomic or
high explosive detonation'," he said.
"Until the appearance of such an announcement, the
public would not necessarily imagine that any such
danger had existed.
"If such an explosion had occurred...it would
obviously be necessary as soon as possible to make a statement."
Washington bit its tongue and exercised diplomatic tact.
It agreed to most of the proposed public relations plan.
But it politely suggested that if its personnel were the first on the scene, then they would obviously have the support of the British government to ensure public safety.