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Behind the wire: UK's porky pies at the NPT
As the UK delegation to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference pack their suitcases, their speeches on verification and a shiny new presentation about some decommissioning they did several years ago, will they also have room in their briefcases for the Aldermaston Site Development Strategy Plan (SDSP?
We suspect that the government's massive investment in a new building programme at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Aldermaston won't quite fit into the package that the UK, as one of the five nuclear weapon states, will present in New York in May.
Yet the available evidence suggests that behind the wire at Aldermaston the Ministry of Defence is preparing to develop the next generation of nuclear weapons, which would violate the UK's obligation under article VI of the NPT: “.... to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament...”.
Plans, trucks and cranes
“Decisions on whether to replace Trident are not needed during this Parliament, but are likely to be required in the next one. We will therefore continue to take appropriate steps to ensure that the range of options for maintaining a nuclear deterrent capability is kept open until that decision point.”
Despite government statements to the contrary, it looks as if UK practice is in advance of policy, and that decisions have already been made. Not only are plans to build the infrastructure to support the next generation of nuclear weapons in place, but from where we're standing (outside the wire at AWE Aldermaston) they are already busy with demolition and survey work in advance of the construction of a new laser facility, two IT buildings and an office to house the contractors working on the new developments.
The story so far
In the 1998 Strategic Defence Review the government stated: “Following ratification ... of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the maintenance of Trident and the capability to build a successor will have to be achieved without conducting nuclear tests. This poses considerable scientific and technical challenges. We are therefore developing a complex science-based programme at AWE that will require special facilities across a variety of disciplines. These are the main drivers for the future development of the Aldermaston site.”
In July 2002, AWE Management Ltd (AWE ml) -- a government-owned, contractor operated company (comprising British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, Lockheed Martin and Serco) -- published their SDSP outlining plans for new facilities which would provide the means to design and test new weapons. These included a laser facility to test nuclear materials under simulated conditions of a nuclear explosion; a new hydro-dynamics facility producing test data equalling that previously only available from under ground tests; new material science laboratories to provide underground test-quality diagnosis of weapon materials; and a new supercomputer able to transpose test data into mathematical models of warhead performance. AWE does not need to build new production facilities, as the A90 warhead production complex (built during the Trident programme) can build and service nuclear warheads for many years ahead.
Since 2002, the government has extended AWE ml's 10-year contract to 25 years, and bumped up the value of the contract from #2.3 bn to #5.3 bn. AWE subsequently started recruiting scientists -- up to 300 are planned by 2008.
In October 2003 the Ministry of Defence (MOD) submitted outline plans for the new Orion laser facility and, in June 2004, West Berkshire Planning Committee finally approved them. By September 2004, preparatory work appeared to have begun on the proposed Orion site, and has continued since, most recently with the demolition of buildings in advance of work on the site. As yet the final plans for Orion have not been submitted for approval, but two further applications, one for office accommodation for up to 150 contractors and staff and another for two enormous IT buildings (which may be linked to the supercomputer), were submitted, and approved in February 2005.
This is not for “stockpilestewardship”, but represents a substantial investment in facilities to assist in the design and development of new systems.
“We remain committed to pursuing nuclear disarmament under our international obligations, including Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”
Meanwhile, despite a few funding hiccups, similar building programmes have begun at US nuclear sites. Under the 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement (MDA), Aldermaston has collaborated with its US counterparts on the development of nuclear weapons -- with the possible exception of the now decommissioned WE-177 free-fall bomb -- including Trident (which uses leased US missiles bodies). With the renewal of the MDA (which leading lawyers held to potentially violate the NPT) in 2004, the partnership continues, with regular exchanges of information and visits between AWE and the US nuclear facilities; around 800 scientists from the US and Aldermaston make reciprocal visits every year. But, rather than being the poodle in this relationship, Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) has observed that in some areas, UK nuclear technology is already more advanced than in the US.
Current US nuclear policy suggests that Aldermaston maybe involved in the research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons. But LASG also suggests that a new weapon may be the least of our problems: as in the US, Aldermaston may be involved in repackaging existing warheads -- improving accuracy, command and control, targeting and penetration. Whether they're planning a successor to Trident, a “mini-nuke”, or whatever, from here it doesn't look like disarmament, or an attempt to fulfil the UK's obligations under the NPT.
At a glance
- Article I: obligation on the nuclear weapon states, defined as the five major powers that had already conducted a nuclear explosion, not to transfer nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.
- Article II: obligation on the non-nuclear weapon states not to seek to acquire, receive or transfer nuclear weapons or weapons-related technology and materials.
- Article III: obligation on the non-nuclear weapon states to conclude bilateral safeguards agreements with the IAEA, allowing inspections to verify that nuclear energy programmes are solely for peaceful purposes. No parallel verification obligations on the nuclear states, although they have concluded limited voluntary safeguards on their non-military facilities.
- Article IV: facilitation and participation in nuclear energy, characterised as an “inalienable right”.
- Article V: defunct permission to benefit from peaceful nuclear explosions, superseded by the 1996 CTBT which bans all nuclear explosions.
- Article VI: obligation on nuclear weapon states to pursue nuclear disarmament “in good faith”, and on all states to seek general and complete disarmament.
- Article VII: permission to form nuclear weapon-free zones.
- Article VIII: provisions for amendments and five-yearly review conferences.
- Article IX: provisions governing signature, ratification and entry into force.
- Article X: provisions for withdrawal from the treaty and its extension beyond the initial 25 years (the NPT was indefinitely extended in 1995).
- Article XI: texts, depositories and procedural housekeeping.