British Nuclear Investment Sparks Debate

Kelsey Davenport

The announcement by the British Ministry of Defence that it plans to spend 2 billion pounds ($3.1 billion) on new facilities at the Aldermaston nuclear weapons complex has prompted a strong reaction from members of Parliament who argue that the funding pre-empts the legislature’s October 2010 decision to postpone authorizing development of a new warhead until after the 2015 elections. (See ACT, November 2010.)

In comments published Nov. 27 in The Guardian newspaper, Caroline Lucas, a Green Party member of Parliament, said the ministry’s plan made a “complete mockery of the democratic process” because the ministry had “signed off” on the spending before Parliament decided on whether a new warhead was necessary. A ministry spokeswoman told The Guardian that the decision to invest in new weapons facilities maintains “essential facilities and skills” and “the capability to design a replacement warhead” if it is required.

However, obtaining that capability is not the primary purpose of the investment, said Peter Luff, a Conservative Party member of Parliament and the minister for defense equipment, support, and technology, during a Dec. 7 debate in the House of Commons. Citing the timetable in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, he said the decision on designing a new warhead would be made “at the right time.” Luff also said that he made “no apology whatsoever” for taking seriously the responsibility for funding measures that the government deemed necessary to maintain and secure nuclear systems. The costs for the new facilities are being “closely scrutinized,” he said.

Under the plan, the government would spend 231 million pounds ($350 million) from 2011 to 2015 on a high-explosives fabrication facility. The 2016-2020 time frame includes funding for a 734 million pound ($1.1 billion) warhead assembly and disassembly facility and 634 million pounds ($980 million) for a plant where uranium components are manufactured and produced.

The British government is conducting a study on alternatives for the United Kingdom’s Trident submarine replacement program, but has said it will not publish the completed study. During the Dec. 7 parliamentary debate, Luff said that releasing the results would be “irresponsible and put national security at risk.”