Country Report: United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is a member of the NPT as a nuclear weapon state. The country faces the decision on the renewal of its Trident nuclear weapon system in 2016. BASIC monitors the progress on this decision and other news relevant to the UK nuclear weapons policy in its Getting to Zero update. Read the summaries below in reverse chronological order.

August 2012

The Scottish National Party (SNP) is considering dropping its opposition to joining NATO, should Scotland eventually become independent, citing Denmark and Norway as possible role models for an independent Scotland that would be part of the Alliance without hosting nuclear weapons. The SNP strongly opposes nuclear weapons while Scotland currently bases UK Trident nuclear forces, which are also considered linked to NATO’s overall strategic deterrent forces. However, the SNP was facing challenges by SNP Scottish Members of Parliament who are opposed to changing the 30-year policy against NATO membership. The SNP plans to choose its formal position on NATO membership in October during its party conference, with a referendum on Scottish independence scheduled for 2014.

The Ministry of Defence has released data indicating that the United Kingdom’s nuclear-armed submarine fleet suffered 74 fires over the past 25 years, with one taking place on a docked vessel. The government contends that none of the blazes ever had an impact on nuclear safety or the ability to operate the submarines.

The Ministry of Defence signed a 15-year contract with ABL Alliance for support of the Trident strategic weapon system at the Clyde naval base in Scotland. The ABL Alliance consists of AWE, Babcock, and Lockheed Martin UK Strategic Systems, and will provide support at Faslane and Coulport, the two primary sites at the Clyde base, where the submarines are kept and the warheads are stored, respectively.

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June 2012

The Scottish National Party called for a vote of secession by 2014, which could have serious implications for the United Kingdom’s Trident SSBN program that is based solely in Scotland. The SNP announced its intentions for Scotland to become a non-nuclear state and to remove the Trident docking and storage facilities at Coulport and Faslane. Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey has said in evidence to Parliament that relocating the bases would cost a ‘gargantuan’ amount of money, costs borne by tax-payers both sides of the border, and would take a very long time.

The SNP has cited Norway for maintaining an anti-nuclear posture in international fora, such as the NPT, while still signing up to NATO and its nuclear deterrent policy. Current SNP policy stands in strong opposition to hosting nuclear weapons in Scotland as well as NATO’s commitment to keep open the possibility of using nuclear weapons in a first strike option.

The potential development may factor into the United Kingdom’s ongoing debate on Trident replacement. The United Kingdom expects to finalize its decision (‘Main Gate’) regarding its successor nuclear submarines in 2016 (after the next general election in 2015).

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February 2011

Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, has called for a vote on independence from the United Kingdom to happen by 2014. Confronted with the possibility, the Royal Navy has warned that finding a new home port for the SSBN fleet would be too difficult and costly for an immediate move, and therefore a negotiated solution with Scotland would need to be found in order to be able to keep the fleet based there for a number of years. However, the First Minister seemed to reject this prospect during a debate in Scottish Parliament, “It is inconceivable that an independent nation of 5.25 million people would tolerate the continued presence of weapons of mass destruction on its soil.”

UK defence equipment minister Peter Luff told Parliament that the country should expect to have spent £3.9 billion in support of the “successor” to the current Vanguard –class fleet before the final “main gate” decision in 2016 to place the contracts for the submarines. He said that the spending was necessary to keep open the option of Trident renewal for the next government.

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November 2011

In the wake of Liam Fox’s resignation in mid-October as Defence Secretary, speculation ensued over whether his replacement, previous Transport Secretary Philip Hammond, would be as adamant on going ahead with the full successor program for the Trident nuclear weapons submarine system. Dr. Fox was known for his threat to resign if the successor submarine plans were scrapped. Hammond had been absent during a key vote on Trident, and has a reputation for focusing on budget lines – also having served as the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury during the previous government. These factors have lead some to speculate that he will be more open to reconsidering Trident replacement with an eye toward cutting costs from a program now projected to reach about £25 billion. However, when asked about Trident in a radio interview, Hammond stated that he was “absolutely committed to the Trident program and always [has] been”.

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July 2011

U.K. Defence Secretary Liam Fox announced on June 29 that the program for implementing the reductions in the number of U.K. nuclear warheads, as laid out in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), has begun and that the first submarine patrol with 40 warheads, reduced from 48, had just commenced. Dr. Fox further reaffirmed the United Kingdom’s commitment to fulfilling its obligations under the NPT, and expects the reduction of the United Kingdom’s total stockpile to no more than 180 warheads will be completed by the mid-2020s.

Former British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett has said the United Kingdom should be able to continue its policy of continuous at sea deterrence (CASD) with one fewer of its planned four Trident submarines because the next generation of reactor did not require mid-life overhaul. She also questioned the necessity of CASD.

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May 2011

On May 18, the Trident successor nuclear weapons submarine project officially moved into the early design phase known as “Initial Gate.” The Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) website affirmed that “the main build decision for the submarines will not be taken until 2016, more detailed design work will be undertaken and long-lead items ordered so that the first submarine is delivered in 2028.” Defence Secretary Liam Fox (Conservative) said, “We do not know how the international environment will change over the next 50 years and we cannot dismiss the possibility that a direct nuclear threat to the UK might emerge,” with the MoD release stating that the successor program will provide for a “UK nuclear deterrent well into the 2060s.”

The MoD’s plans were provided in greater detail in its “Initial Gate Parliamentary Report.” MoD will also conduct an 18-month review of alternatives, to be led by the Liberal Democrats, the junior coalition partner that has been opposed to a full replacement of the current Vanguard-class fleet. The government has agreed to select Pressurized Water Reactor 3 to power the successor submarines.The decision may add an additional several billion pounds to the program’s original cost estimates of over £20 billion. The nuclear reactors that are in the current Vanguard fleet, and still being installed on the Astute-class attack submarines, have additional safety risks [see GTZ Update March 2011] that would preclude the successor program from using similar designs. The decisions around the successor submarine’s reactor contributed partly to the delay in entering the Initial Gate phase.

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March 2011

Defence Secretary Liam Fox stated that for the moment there could be no downsizing of the SSBN fleet based around the Trident missile, until such time that this could be considered without compromising Continuous at Sea Deterrence (CASD). Fox said in mid-March that the Initial Gate decision on the replacement fleet should happen within the coming weeks, after a considerable delay caused by the complexity of decisions over technical details, particularly the choice of reactor.

Flaws were discovered in the reactors of deployed nuclear submarines, including the current Vanguard-class SSBN fleet and those being installed in the new Astute-class attack submarines. The information has been revealed through the declassification of a submission on the successor submarine project to the Defence Board. According to the submission, the reactors on the submarines could leak and cause a radiation hazard up to 1.5km out from the submarine itself. Decisions over the reactor design for the successor program have apparently contributed to the delay in reaching the Initial Gate phase of the project, but it now appears that the decision has been taken on safety grounds to opt for the new PWR3 designs, currently used by the U.S. navy. This is likely to significantly increase the overall costs of the project, and could introduce further delays in the timetable.

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December 2010

The HM Inspectorate of Constabulary is reviewing whether British nuclear plants and other elements of national infrastructure are secure. A bunker at Sellafield in Cumbria is one of the sites under investigation, which will ultimately hold 100 tons of untreated plutonium. The security weaknesses discovered at the site prompted a wider investigation. The problem was apparently revealed during terrorist threat exercises.

A diplomatic cable released through Wikileaks reveals that during a meeting in 2009 French officials expressed their concerns about British positions on nuclear disarmament. Jacques Audibert, French MFA Director for Strategic Affairs, Security, and Disarmament, told U.S. representative to the NPT, Amb. Susan Burk, that France and the United States should partner more closely within the P5 context to balance a United Kingdom that was considering disarmament. French disarmament and nonproliferation official Martin Briens added that he thought the United Kingdom took disarmament seriously and that it might eventually give up its Trident nuclear weapon submarine fleet. Another leaked cable showed that some British officials were surprised when then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced during his U.N. General Assembly speech on September 23, 2009 that the United Kingdom might move from a fleet of four Trident nuclear submarines down to three, and sought to reassure U.S.contacts that U.K. policy had not significantly changed.

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November 2010

The United Kingdom has delayed the final decision to begin construction of its follow-on nuclear ballistic missile submarine fleet until 2016. Prime Minister David Cameron said “We can extend the life of the (existing) Vanguard-class submarines so the first replacement submarine isn’t needed until 2028.” Renewing Trident has become more contentious given cuts elsewhere in the government’s budget and came at a time when the government announced an eight percent overall reduction in defense spending over the next four years. Spending issues overshadowed accompanying announcements also related to British efforts to reduce nuclear postures in support of disarmament commitments and global non-proliferation. The government confirmed plans to reduce the stockpile of operational warheads from less than 160 to fewer than 120 (with a reduction in the numbers deployed on each patrolling submarine from 48 to 40) and changed the country’s declaratory policy to become similar to theU.S. position announced in the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, in which non-nuclear weapon state parties to the NPT and in compliance with their treaty obligations were guaranteed that they would never be targets for a nuclear strike.

The United Kingdom and France have signed defense cooperation agreements, including a treaty on sharing the development and use of nuclear weapons facilities. The official purpose of the facilities is to assure the reliability and safety of nuclear weapons, though they also provide the capability to develop new warheads or capabilities. The two allies have set up a rota system to protect their own data in order to ensure compliance with Article I of the NPT (which outlaws warhead technology transfer) and to reassure the United States on the security of their warhead designs. The agreement is to last 50 years. They will also begin next year an examination of possible cooperation on nuclear submarine technology and components. Cameron said that the United Kingdom and France were “natural” defense partners and that the agreement was “unprecedented and shows a level of trust never equaled in our history.” The treaties await ratification by the two countries’ parliaments.

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October 2010

The decision over whether to provide a ‘like-for-like’ replacement of the United Kingdom’s nuclear weapon system, a fleet of four Vanguard submarines carrying Trident D5 nuclear ballistic missiles, may be delayed until 2015. Defence Secretary Liam Fox is calling for a full replacement and pulling in funds from beyond the defense budget if necessary, whereas Chancellor George Osborne is insisting that the funds still come entirely from those set aside for defense during a time of demands for austerity. Estimated costs for the replacement program are over 20 billion pounds. Prime Minister David Cameron is under fire from other Conservatives who worry that he is setting in motion a process that will lead to less than full replacement of the Trident nuclear weapon system. The Liberal Democrats, which are the junior partners in the coalition with the Conservative government, have pushed for the ‘value-for-money’ review of the replacement program and are also arguing that considering alternatives should be part of the decision-making process. The replacement program is not up for consideration under the strategic defense and security review.

Prime Minister Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy may discuss during their summit next month in London proposals to conduct joint French-UK nuclear submarine patrols as another possible cost-savings measure.

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July 2010

The United Kingdom experienced the creation of a coalition government between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties during the RevCon. The new Foreign Secretary, William Hague, followed the US lead by announcing the number of warheads that it holds in its nuclear arsenal: 225 (the previous government had announced a maximum of 160 deployed warheads, a number confirmed by the new government). With the United States, the United Kingdom is attempting to shift pressure for more transparency toward China and Russia, which have not disclosed official arsenal figures. France revealed in 2008 that it has under 300 warheads.

Mr. Hague also announced that the United Kingdom will conduct a review of its nuclear declaratory policy, as well as a value-for-money review of the submarine modernization program. The policy will strongly consider as an option the Obama Administration’s recent declaration that nuclear weapons would not be considered for use against non-nuclear weapon states in good standing with their NPT obligations.

The Liberal Democrats had campaigned before the election as skeptics of moving ahead with full Trident replacement, pointing to the amount of expenditure required at a time of belt-tightening. The Conservatives have defended the current plans, agreed by Parliament in March 2007. Their Coalition agreement points to these tensions: “We will maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent, and have agreed that the renewal of Trident should be scrutinized to ensure value for money. Liberal Democrats will continue to make the case for alternatives.” British officials told the Financial Times that options for review could include relying on land or air-launched nuclear capabilities, or reducing the number of nuclear armed submarines from four to three – an option considered to be more likely than the former.

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