The laser has landed...

IssueOctober 2005
Feature by Sian Jones

Well maybe not. Plans to build a £20 million state-of-the-art laser facility at Aldermaston are beginning to unravel. Thefate of the laser, which forms part of the massive new developments at AWE Aldermaston, the UK's nuclear bomb factory, currently lies in the hands of the West Berkshire planning committee.

For the past two years, Aldermaston Women's Peace Camp (AWPC) have been attempting to undermine AWE's plans, through opposing the developments as they come up before the planning committee. Given that objections can only be made on planning grounds--and not on the illegality, immorality or other unredeeming features of nuclear weapons--this has been a tough call. But--not unsurprisingly--the planning anoraks amongst us have discovered that the government (quite happy to violate international law, including the nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty) also seem quite happy to flout aspects of their own planning and environmental impact legislation.

Pushing the debate

On 21 September, local government at least appeared to get the point, when Juliet McBride of AWPC, speaking to the tiny committee in a small community hall outside Reading, against the proposal for four more office buildings to house staff and contractors to work on the laser, ran out of legal arguments and told the assembled committee that they were just having the wool pulled over their eyes by AWE management.

Refusing to accept the assurances from the eight AWE personnel present that the new laser was just for "stockpile stewardship" (looking after existing Trident weapons system), verification and "continuing operations" and of course nothing to do with new weapons, the committee moved that this point "should be taken to a forum where the MOD could be asked such questions, which, as a planning committee, they could not". For those of you who aren't planning anoraks, this may not seem much progress, but we can assure you it is. Meanwhile, John Reid in the Guardian on 13 September, promised a full public debate on Trident replacement: "It is not only a good thing that there will be such a discussion, it is an inevitable thing. We are not going to have a secret Chevaline-like [predecessor to the current Trident system] decision taken by some of the cabinet which then proceeds without any public discussion or debate."

Getting on board

There are many of us who argue that--based on what we can see them building at A WE Aldermaston--the decision is already made, but if we're being "allowed" to have a public debate, then let's assume that we can turn things round, before it is too late. Indeed the debate has already started, with press articles arguing against the replacement of the UK's weapons systems appearing around the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima from the late Robin Cook, (the surprising) Michael Portillo, and others.

Now, three years after the proposed new developments at Aldermaston were made public, (and after not an inconsiderable amount of lobbying by AWPC and some solid work by organisations like Acronym), the antinuclear establishment are also onboard. At the CND "Trident replacement" conference on 3 September, in an unusually focussed and productive meeting, speakers from Acronym, CND, Greenpeace, the GreenParty, trades unions and other organisations outlined their strategies for challenging the decision to build the next generation of nuclear weapons.

Take action!

However, there's no time for complacency; the closing date for objecting to the laser--a key element in AWE's ability to test, design and build a new generation of nuclear weapons was 30 September; by the end of the year, unless we take further action, it will be a done deal.

If you like letter-writing, then write to John Reid, welcoming his call for a public debate, and calling for the new developments at AWE to be withdrawn from the planning process, pending that debate, and put to a formal public inquiry.

We also need to keep up the pressure at AWE Aldermaston - construction work on four office blocks connected with the new developments has begun, and preparatory work continues on the laser site. These must be opposed: blockades of the gates and other demonstrations to stop contractors and materials from entering AWE Aldermaston have been taking place over the last months, organised by Block the Builders. More nonviolent disruptive actions are needed--and soon--if we are to make an impact.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons