Aldermaston Women

IssueFebruary 2013
Feature by AWPC

Protest is alive and well in Berkshire at Aldermaston and Burghfield, the two facilities of the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), where all British nuclear weapons have been designed and made. In 1985, Greenham Women set up Aldermaston Women’s Peace Camp (AWPC) – and we are still there. Whatever the weather, you can find us on the second weekend of every month outside the ‘Citadel’ (A340) gate – look for the peace flags and banners!

“AWE has a poor safety record, with fires, explosions and flooding”

In camping at Aldermaston, we draw attention to the high security area where plutonium and other materials are machined to form the nuclear ‘pit’ at the core of Britain’s Trident warheads. We occupy Ministry of Defence (MoD) land (we have been to the high court to continue the right to camp), but have not made this a permanent camp because it would not be good for our health!

In addition to its radioactive discharges into the air and waterways, AWE has a poor safety record, with fires, explosions and flooding that the emergency services have struggled to contain.

Aldermaston also develops special high explosives that are packed around the plutonium pits at AWE Burghfield, seven miles away. The warheads are then transported by road to Coulport in Scotland, where they are stored ready for loading onto the US-made Trident missiles that are carried on nuclear submarines based at Faslane.

AWPC is part of the Nukewatch network of citizens who monitor and track the military convoys that carry the warheads between Coulport and Burghfield. If a convoy is spotted on the road we track it and let others in Nukewatch know. If we can do so safely, we may halt and mark it.

Privatised: US money

Though the nuclear weapons are the responsibility of the MoD, the Aldermaston and Burghfield bomb factories are managed by a private conglomerate, called AWE Management Limited (AWEML), made up of Serco and two US arms companies, Lockheed Martin and Jacobs Engineering.

The day-to-day running of AWE is carried out by another legal entity called AWEplc in which the government holds a special share. Although AWEML has the overall management contract, much of the work is subcontracted to other companies, including Jacobs Babtie, Mott MacDonald, Amec, WS Atkins, RWE Nukem, and Babcock. Of the 6,500 staff employed at AWE, 2,000 are subcontractors.

Taxpayers’ billions

We protest against the massive increase in spending at AWE, especially as parliament has made no decision to replace Trident. Last April, the MoD announced spending up to March 2018 at about a billion pounds a year, 40% of which is for capital projects at Aldermaston and Burghfield. Key construction projects include:

  • ORION – laser facility that simulates nuclear tests required for designing new warheads (to begin operation in April 2013)
  • GEMINI – office complex for the hundreds of new scientists and computer specialists recently employed
  • PEGASUS – handling facility for enriched uranium (still at an early stage)
  • CIRCINUS (where high explosives are fabricated) including, as you can imagine, a vital lightning conductor
  • SCORPIUS – planned for explosives powder manufacture
  • LEO – components manufacturing at Burghfield
  • MENSA – new warhead assembly and disassembly plant at Burghfield (due for completion in 2015)

In addition, AWE has been upgrading and refurbishing existing buildings and laboratories. Two new WILLOW supercomputers and a new Bull Systems computer called BLACKTHORN have been installed. Used together with a sophisticated visualisation computer known as IVY these new computing facilities replace and massively outstrip the capabilities of AWE’s old Cray computer.

French collaboration

Britain and France signed the Teutates Treaty, which enables them to save money by sharing certain nuclear resources. AWE therefore dropped plans to build a new hydrodynamics facility to test nuclear warhead components, and will use the French EPURE hydrodynamics equipment instead. In return, France will share Aldermaston’s Technology Development Centre when it becomes operational.

Violating the NPT

AWE’s expensive construction projects are for one purpose – to ensure nuclear weapons can be maintained, designed, modernised and manufactured for the next 50 years or more.

This contradicts UK obligations under international law, including the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which includes the commitment to pursue nuclear disarmament in good faith. In successive NPT conferences – most recently in 2010 – Labour and Coalition governments have committed the UK ‘to undertake concrete disarmament efforts’ and also to ‘make special efforts to establish the necessary framework to achieve and maintain a world without nuclear weapons.’ Only AWE’s verification work – a tiny fraction of its budget – is compatible with the UK’s disarmament obligations, which were spelled out in 13 key paragraphs that NPT states adopted in 2000.

Instead of making warheads, AWE could have a future fulfilling Britain’s disarmament obligations and verifying the elimination of nuclear weapons

Join the protest

The next two years are critical. Our Camp is linked with a resurgent movement of peace campaigners such as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICANW) and ActionAWE, aiming to halt Trident replacement and work for a multilateral treaty to ban nuclear weapons globally.

The visual impact of AWE is shocking, but it is empowering to do something to stop its nuclear business. The common living experience of camping, cooking, laughing, planning, discussing and creating provides inspiration to continue campaigning.

All women are welcome, whether for a few hours or the whole weekend. We have a warm campfire, delicious veggie food and equipment to share, but we encourage you to bring good personal kit and your own banners and visual messages if you can. Come and recharge your batteries as well as bear witness by our physical protest.