Back in the summer of 2002, Britain's Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE - the place where British nuclear weapons are manufactured) published a document in which they outlined a raft of new facilities they intended to build over the coming years. Entitled the Site Development Strategy Plan, the contents of the document, combined with the recruitment of new scientists at the nuclear sites, provoked some antinuclear campaigners to consider whether a new generation of nuclear weapons was on the horizon.
Fast forward more than three years and the issue of a replacement for Britain's Trident nuclear weapons system has now emerged into the mainstream press and public consciousness, and is firmly on the agenda for the wider anti-nuclear movement.
The first hint that campaigners were on the right track was the publication of the Defence White Paper in 2003 when it was confirmed that the government would take a decision about replacing Trident in the coming parliament. In parallel, AWE have been busy building new facilities and recruiting warhead specialists and nuclear materials scientists; last year more cash was released for their operations and new toys.
One of the new buildings in the plan is the Orion laser facility - a monstrously large shed with super-stable foundations - which AWE themselves say “will enable scientists to replicate in the laboratory the physical conditions at the heart of a nuclear reaction”. The facility will help meet the “challenges” faced by WMD makers in the age of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Work can now begin
Although developments on Crown land currently enjoy a certain amount of immunity from the normal planning regulations (though soon to be removed if you believe the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister - which is about to open a consultation on the issue), the government consistently states that it intends to act within the spirit of the regulations which apply to everyone else. This means that everything they wish to build comes before the local authority as a planning notice (Notice of Proposed Development - or NoPD) and on which the authority may comment, choose not to support, but cannot actually reject or block.
Following a protracted battle with the local authority and AWE, to try to obstruct this bureaucratic fake-democratic process - something which certainly appears to have slowed it down - on 23 January 2006 AWE got the final green light to build Orion. A contract for the building was signed with a German company in August 2005 for a reported #20m, to take an estimated five years for completion. Preparatory work has been taking place on the site for several months already and there are now no bureaucratic obstacles to the work cracking on.
A promise is a promise...
For the past three years, the antinuclear NVDA group Block the Builders (BtB) have been promising to do what they can to nonviolently obstruct building work on the site. This has predominantly taken the form of blockading the main gates used for construction traffic into AWE Aldermaston; last year a number of blockades took place, with mixed results. On the run up to the final planning meeting for Orion - held on 23 January - BtB promised that, if the facility got the go-ahead, the group would begin a new series of blockades of the site.
True to their word, on the first Monday after the planning meeting, sixty people turned up for an early morning blockade.
Here is a personal account of the morning's escapades from one of the blockaders:
Although this was a very publicly announced blockade - and large numbers of police had been brought in and were “actively policing” the site and its environs - Thames Valley Police (TVP) seemed completely unable to cope with the few carfuls of activists who approached and piled out (at speed ... the people, not the cars, one hastens to add!) and into the entrances of the base. Had they got so tired waiting for us (they had been up for a while), that they were practically sleeping on the job by the time we arrived?
Blockade participants included a high proportion of “arrestables”, a legal support crew, support teams for those locked-on (especially the ones with no arms left available and who smoked or needed feeding or sips of water periodically ... thank you), a mobile cafe for the morning, and media and transportation support.
The organising process for the blockade, which included lengthy meetings the night before, had been very positive, inclusive and consensual. The process took some time - but was well worth it for the outcome.
Police tactics on the day were interesting (and painful!): other than being dozy at the start, they did manage to intercept one group and confiscate a pile of lock-on tubes (drat!), this meant one of the gates took one hour to clear, whereas the second took almost two.
At Home Office gate, where metal lock-ons were used, the police cutting team were easily defeated (hurrah!), their crappy dremel-type device and nippers were no match (and they either could not be arsed to fetch something bigger, or couldn't bear the humiliation of having to ask for support from another team).
In the end, their laziness/pride meant that they resorted to threats of violence to try to get the seven people locked on at this gate to move. After repeatedly saying they would use pressure points in an attempt to get people to self-release (though they had no idea whether we could or not - and, even if we could, it is unlikely that we would be able to do so while being injured!), they decided that they would use a large number of police to physically pick up all those locked-on. Which is what they did.
They moved one group of three and one group of four. This was a pretty dangerous operation (and it was clear from their own comments and approach that they were perfectly aware that what they were doing was stupid and potentially bone breaking). Being picked up by the police when you have both arms encased in metal - and attached to two or more other people - is like being crucified! In the event there were minor injuries, some pain inflicted and a few bruises by the following morning. Luckily no-one was seriously hurt.
For what it is worth, BtB legal team say they will be sending a formal letter of complaint regarding this operation - and the threats of violence to try to get people to self-release. If they continue with this approach, someone will get hurt - and they did/do have other options for getting people out.
In the end there were eight arrests. One person was released without charge and seven are due to appear in court in the coming weeks. Mainstream media coverage was good. The main entrances for construction and other traffic were closed for between one and two hours. Strangely, none of those who were locked-on using the metal tubes were arrested - and we managed to salvage all the tubes. No doubt they will reappear at some unspecified time in the not too distant future...
A good morning's work!