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Big BenProliferation in Parliament

Back to the main page on the UK

Compiled by Nicola Butler, Spring 2009

Previous editions of Proliferation in Parliament are available at www.acronym.org.uk/parliament.

Prospects for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference 2010

Latest analysis of the 2009 NPT PrepCom and the Outlook for the 2010 Review Conference, by Rebecca Johnson is now available in Arms Control Today. Johnson writes, "The real challenge... is not about what kind of document can be adopted in 2010, but what kind of agreements and commitments are undertaken, and whether the NPT parties have the political will and institutional capacity to ensure their implementation. Although the positive atmospherics of the 2009 PrepCom give cause for hope, the 2010 review conference will be successful only if it results in decisions that are taken seriously and implemented. For this, the key governments need to project beyond 2010 and work hard over the next year to develop convincing action plans and apply the requisite resources for meeting proliferation challenges and moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons."

Cabinet Reshuffle

With David Miliband staying on as Foreign Secretary, Defence Secretary John Hutton has quit on personal grounds to be replaced by one of his ministers, Bob Ainsworth. Lord Malloch-Brown will also continue as Foreign Office Minister. With the government still in flux following the results of the local and European elections and fallout from the expenses scandal, a list of junior ministers is not yet available.

Lifting the nuclear shadow

In recent months John Hutton — whose constituency includes the BAE systems plant that would build any future generation of Trident submarines — had been robustly asserting his support for Trident submarine replacement, at times appearing to undermine attempts by David Miliband and Gordon Brown to position themselves at "forefront of the international campaign to accelerate disarmament".

A new Secretary of State for Defence, who does not have the constituency link with BAE Systems in Barrow, offers an opportunity for the Ministry of Defence to come into line with Foreign Office and Downing Street policy on disarmament, and to begin to readdress long overdue issues such as the rationale and timing of Trident replacement before the Initial Gate decision on procurement is taken.

On 4 February Miliband launched Lifting the Nuclear Shadow: Creating the Conditions for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, a Foreign & Commonwealth Office Policy Information Paper, which gives UK support to the goal of a nuclear weapons free world. Whilst the paper stops short of announcing any new initiatives by Britain, the tone has changed: "We have made clear that when it will be useful to include in any negotiations the small proportion of the world's nuclear weapons that belong to the UK, we will willingly do so," the paper states.

Also on 4 February, Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee Inquiry on Global Security: Non-Proliferation. Rammell called for "greater momentum internationally" on disarmament, but rejected suggestions from Labour MP Fabian Hamilton that continuing to build Trident submarines and to have "a nuclear deterrent, while telling other countries that they may not have them, is a little embarrassing". As Mr Hamilton pointed out an FCO memorandum to the Committee states that, "Counter-proliferation efforts risk being undermined if other states perceive, rightly or wrongly, that the Nuclear Weapon States are not delivering on their side of the bargain and actively pursuing nuclear disarmament".

This was followed on 17 March, by a speech from Gordon Brown setting out his support for "multilateralism", but also calling for "far wider use of civil nuclear power" to combat climate change. Brown announced that the UK intended to publish a "Road to 2010" set of proposals this summer to include "a credible road map towards disarmament by all the nuclear weapon states, through measures that will command the confidence of all the non-nuclear weapon states." Regarding the UK's plans to replace its Trident submarines, Brown was limited to announcing a reduction from 16 missile tubes (as carried by the current submarines) to 12 for the next generation - a reduction that makes little difference in practice to the UK's nuclear operations or posture.

Meanwhile, over in Barrow-in-Furness...

Although the UK has yet to reach the Initial Gate decision on Trident replacement on whether to proceed to the design stage (expected this autumn), let alone the Main Gate decision on whether to proceed with procurement (not expected until 2014, during the next Parliament), Hutton gave the impression that the decision on Trident submarine procurement was already a done deal. In January he told a defence industry conference in Barrow-in-Furness that it was "the Governmentís intention to build the successor nuclear deterrent." "The anticipated injection of £10-15 billion at todayís prices should help ensure the viability of the ship-building industry for future decades," he added.

Similarly, speaking at a keel laying ceremony for the nuclear hunter killer submarine Audacious in March, Hutton reiterated the importance to the defence industry of avoiding a break in construction in Barrow, saying that "the replacement for the Vanguard class will be our next great undertaking".

Addressing the think tank IPPR, Hutton insisted that "this Government has made its choice: to continue to ensure that the cornerstone of our nationís security policy is maintained through our independent nuclear deterrent. And at a cost of less than 0.2 per cent of UKís GDP over the lifetime of the deterrent, this represents good value insurance in an increasingly changing and uncertain world."

Continuing At Sea Deterrence

With Hutton in charge, Brown's options for reductions may well have been constrained by the Ministry of Defence's commitment to maintain "continuous at sea deterrence" (CASD), the practice of maintaining a UK Trident submarine on patrol at all times, highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee report on the United Kingdom's Future Deterrent Capability.

The Ministry of Defence argues that CASD requires it to press ahead with procurement as quickly as possible in order to have the first successor submarine operational by 2024 when the first two of the existing Trident fleet are expected to have left service. It appears to be pursuing this path without any regard to developments in nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament - like President Obama's call for all the nuclear weapon states to be involved in further disarmament efforts. The MoD also argues that CASD may require the UK to procure four rather than three new submarines - although it states that a decision on this will depend on the technology.

But the government has yet to make the case for the necessity of CASD and there are increasingly high level calls to reexamine the issue. In June 2006, the House of Commons Defence Committee recommended that, "In the light of the reduced threat we currently face, an alternative possibility would be to retain a deterrent, but not continuously at sea."

Conservatives Question Trident

Conservative leader David Cameron has prompted questions over what a Tory government would do about Trident. Asked three times at his April press conference about potential savings from the defence budget Cameron said "We support things that are in the forward defence programme because we think there is good justification for all of them. But that doesn't mean in these difficult circumstances that you don't have to look - just as you're looking across government - look at all these things. But when you are reviewing spending you have to review all spending."

His remarks follow stories in the Guardian and the FT suggesting that senior Conservatives including Defence Committee chair James Arbuthnot, former Armed Forces Minister Nicholas Soames and former chair of the Public Accounts Committee David Davis are urging Cameron to look again at Trident. Arbuthnot is quoted as saying that, "The financial situation has got significantly worse... So the conclusions that need to be drawn from that are going to be more stark. We need to have a debate about the means of deterrent and what is the most effective deterrent. I think there is more of an appetite for such a debate in the country now."

These comments follow an oped in the FT, in which David Davis argues that "We should also, as Conservatives, address some of our own sacred cows. There is no firmer advocate of nuclear deterrence than me, but even I have some difficulty seeing the justification for a wholesale upgrade of Trident. Our system was designed to maintain retaliatory capacity after a full-scale Soviet nuclear onslaught. Now our likeliest nuclear adversary will be a much smaller, less-sophisticated state. Should not the costs reflect that?"

Other senior Conservatives, including those from the Foreign Affairs and Defence teams are reportedly more supportive of replacing Trident and the Conservative debate replacement has prompted a swift rebuttal from the defence industry, which claims that its senior executives have been privately assured that Trident replacement will go ahead.

Economic Costs

The cost of Trident is also coming under increasing pressure in Parliament amidst growing concerns about the level of government debt and the impact of the recession. In April, former Foreign Minister Chris Mullin asked the Prime Minister if "the Government are a little strapped for cash at the moment, might this be the moment to reconsider our commitment to spend £20 billion on a new generation of nuclear weapons?"

A question from Labour MP John Mann revealed that "Costs are greater in 2009-10 than previously announced due to the agreement with the US to design and manufacture a Common Missile Compartment." This prompted Liberal Democrat spokesperson Nick Harvey to probe "from which budget the additional expenditure on the nuclear deterrent" is being drawn.

Warhead Co-operation with the US

A series of written questions from Nick Harvey MP also revealed a continuing high level of co-operation between the UK and the US on warhead development and maintenance. Whilst the UK insists that no decision has yet been taken on whether to develop a new warhead, "additional research is currently being undertaken, some in collaboration with the US, on how we may need to refurbish or replace our current warheads to help inform decisions."

In 2008 there were 280 meetings of the 17 Joint Working Groups that cover practically all aspects of warhead technology. In addition AWE personnel were involved in hundreds of visits to US facilities including Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories and the Nevada Test Site. Britain has also increased its contribution to the controversial US National Ignition Facility.

Environmental Costs and Risks

A question from Angus Robertson MP (SNP) revealed that the collision between HMS Vanguard and Le Triomphant is only the latest in a long list of submarine accidents and fires. Further questions from Robertson concerned the seven nuclear submarines that are currently laid up at Rosyth awaiting decommissioning (a further four are laid up at Devonport). A total of 27 nuclear submarines will eventually need to be decommissioned and UK afloat storage is expected to run out by 2020. The MoD intends to make an announcement on its plans for decommissioning and a proposed dismantling site in 2010. But decommissioning will involve significant risks and require interim storage of intermediate level waste (ILW) until at least 2040.

Towards 2010

In the House of Lords, Baroness Williams of Crosby initiated a highly significant and informed debate on Nuclear Proliferation, noting that the "fundamental bargain on which the NPT rests... has unquestionably eroded." Reflecting the growing mood of support for greater progress on nuclear disarmament, many Lords gave their support to the Kissinger, Nunn, Perry and Schultz initiatives and the letters to the Times by Hurd, Owen, Rifkind and Robertson (see Proliferation in Parliament Summer 2008) and by former British military leaders (see Proliferation in Parliament, Winter 2008 - 2009).

Speaking in the debate Lord Owen argued that "this country has been spending far beyond its means... it is abundantly clear, taking into account a 25 per cent trade-weighting reduction in the value of sterling, that the bill will be far higher than first thought. Also, we see day by day our defence budget so obviously squeezed that it is causing actual deaths among our servicemen. No Government who come in after the next election will be able to avoid looking again at the question of Trident replacement; that is not credible."

Owen called for the decision on Trident replacement to be reviewed prior to the Main Gate decision, "I pray in aid, first, that the decision announced to Parliament in 2007 in another place is more tentative than many people have understood. It says that there must be a review by 2014, and explains the decision-making framework of 2009—the first phase of submarine replacement—then 2011 and 2013. I was struck by a recent book by Michael Quinlan, the high priest of nuclear theory and a remarkably able man. Even he was not dismissive of the need to reconsider the 2007 choice by Parliament. He wrote that it should take place, “not later than about 2013”."

"If we are serious about ultimately moving to abolition of nuclear weapons, some countries will have to move faster than others. It seems logical that those of us who have chosen a minimum deterrent must be ready at some appropriate moment to take the first step. I agree that this will not be in the immediate future of the next 10 years. However, I find it very hard to consider spending billions of pounds on a deterrent that will last into the 2050s when it is possible to retain our nuclear option over the next 15 to 20 years at a much cheaper rate, and hold open the option of giving up nuclear weapons," he stated.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer highlighted the risks still posed by nuclear weapons saying that, "De-alerting to a more acceptable level that does not lay us open to such random rolls of the dice must be the highest priority."

Former chief of the Defence staff Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank made clear that he was in favour of the UK retaining nuclear weapons, but also agreed "very strongly with the views of the noble Lord, Lord Owen, on Trident’s replacement. Although I do not think the time is right to abandon nuclear weapons, we should seriously examine the number of submarines that we have and whether we always need to have one boat at sea."

Lord Ramsbottom, one of the authors of the letter to the Times by former retired military leaders, told the Lords that "the more you look at the practicality and utility of using weapons with the capability of the Trident system, the more useless they appear to be as deterrents of the types of violence against which we are currently, and for the foreseeable future appear likely to be, faced." He called on the government to exercise "courage and leadership" on proliferation by "declaring that they will carry on with what they have for as long as possible, while considering further reductions or change in the context of the NPT."

Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesperson Lord Dykes also highlighted "the fallacious irrationality of the submarine-based deterrent arguments and their continuation in the future". He told the Lords: "That hugely expensive so-called deterrent system has been our mainstay for a long time... The idea of its continuing on this irrational basis, which is so expensive for countries of our size of a population of 60 million, with hugely stretched resources because of the worldwide financial and economic crisis, is to my mind utterly absurd."

Underlining the importance of achieving some "positive results" at the 2010 NPT Review Conference Lord Hannay of Chiswick identified the need for the RevCon "set a clear direction of travel for both nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states for the years ahead, a direction of travel which demonstrates that they all mean to make a reality of their commitments under the treaty, on the one hand, to move towards nuclear disarmament and, on the other hand, to strengthen the safeguards against any blurring of the line between civil and weapons programmes."

Liberal Democrat Defence spokesperson Lord Lee of Trafford argued that "while we cannot disinvent nuclear technology and while, ultimately, I do not believe the world’s superpowers will ever totally give up their nuclear arsenals, we have to speed up the disarmament process, reduce excessive stockpiles, support our Government’s step-by-step approach and take a hard look at our Trident replacement policy. Above all, we have to believe that substantial nuclear disarmament can be achieved in the Obama slogan “Yes we can”."

For the Conservatives, spokesperon Lord Astor of Hever welcomed the Government's Lifting the Nuclear Shadow policy paper and the Prime Minister's 17 March speech, saying that the Conservatives had "long called for this country to lead a drive to revive and reinvigorate the non-proliferation treaty," and that "It is unsurprising that we should welcome these measures, as they are Conservative proposals."

Responding for the Government Lord Malloch-Brown argued that, "Beyond the safer fuel cycle, the issue of weapons and the disarmament example that the UK can or cannot make in terms of Trident is a key next step." However, "It would not be possible to reduce the number of submarines in service from four to three, because that would not allow us constant coverage at sea," he said, acknowledging that the recent announcement of a reduction in the missile tubes on future Trident submarines were "marginal changes that we are contemplating, which fall far short of the prospect that a number of noble Lords properly raised of the retirement of the weapons system."

Missile Defence - the questions continue

In February former Labour Defence Minister Peter Kilfoyle succeeded in getting an adjournment debate on missile defence and the UK's role at Fylingdales and Menwith Hill. Kilfoyle highlighted government promises to hold a debate on the issue and called for Parliament "to debate and decide whether the UK should continue to participate in the US missile defence programme."

Reflecting the change of emphasis on missile defence since Obama's election, in the government's response, Quentin Davies MP started by making a statement on whether missile defence interceptors could be based in the UK - an idea mooted while Blair and Bush were in power: "There is an illusion, which I wish to lay to rest, that the Government have a plan to deploy interceptors—an anti-ballistic missile system—in this country. We have no such current plans. That is an error in the early-day motion to which I have referred and I hope that I can lay it to rest," he said. "The Government have made a commitment that, if we should take a decision to locate an anti-ballistic missile system with interceptors in this country, there would certainly be an opportunity for Parliament to debate the matter before we did so. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that no such decision has been taken and none is in prospect at the present time." He continued nonetheless to make the case for continuing with UK involvement at Fylingdales and Menwith Hill.

And finally

For those who hope that the nuclear industry may provide solutions to climate change or nuclear proliferation, figures released by the government concerning the MOX plant at Sellafield (run by BNFL) provide a salutory tale. After years of operating problems and dogged by the scandal of falsifying certifications to overseas customers such as Japan, a question from former Environment Minister Michael Meacher revealed that the plant had failed to come close to anticipated levels of production, with cashflow showing a net loss in millions of pounds for every year that it has been in operation — a very different picture from the projections given when the government was deciding whether to proceed with MOX in the 1990s.

Expect similarly dire results from the sister THORP plant at Sellafield.

In this month's issue:

We welcome your comments and feedback. Please send your comments to info@acronym.org.uk.

Index

Westminster Parliament

Government Speeches and Policy

Conservatives Question Trident

Select Committees

Defence and Foreign Policy Debates

Trident and Nuclear Submarines

Atomic Weapons Establishments and Warhead Development

Sellafield - MOX Plant

  • Sellafield, Written Questions, 2 Apr 2009 : Column 1368W

Non-Proliferation and Disarmament

Missile Defence and Space

Testing and Test Veterans

Middle East

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© 2009 The Acronym Institute.