Tuesday 13 November 2012

UK nuclear weapons privatisation

  Number 1:  The UK "independent" nuclear deterrent

The first ever successful British nuclear test in 1953.
The UK nuclear weapons development programme was launched in 1940. After the United States joined the Second World War in 1941 the nuclear programmes of the Britain, Canada and the United States were amalgamated into the Manhattan Project which eventually led to the creation of the first nuclear weapons and atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After the conclusion of the Second World War, the United Kingdom requested information on the Manhattan project, to which their scientists had contributed, however to their shock and amazement, the United States government refused to grant access to the information to which the British scientists had contributed. This refusal led to the re-establishment of the British nuclear programme, which became known as the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment in 1950. The first successful British nuclear test in 1952 involved the detonation of a nuclear device inside the hull of HMS Plym, a river-class frigate near Trimouille Island, in the Montobello Islands off the coast of Western Australia. In 1957 the AWRE successfully tested their first batch of Hydrogen (fusion) bombs in the Pacific islands between 1957 and 1959.

In the following decades the AWRE developed several nuclear deterrents and undertook 45 nuclear tests in the Pacific Islands and later at the US test facilities in Nevada. The last British nuclear test took place in 1991.

In 1987 the Conservative government renamed the AWRE as the Atomic Weapons Establishment AWE and in 1989 they announced plans to privatise the operation of Britain's nuclear weapons arsenal under a Government Owned - Contractor Operated (Go-Co) arrangement.

In 1993 the contract to run the UK nuclear deterrent was awarded to a consortium called Hunting-BRAEA, which was composed of the now defunct British company Hunting Engineering, a subsidiary of the American corporate behemoth Halliburton called Brown and Root and the privatised Atomic Energy Authority.

By 1998 all independently developed British nuclear weapons had been phased out, leaving only the Vanguard Submarine based Trident nuclear missiles (built by the American company Lockheed Martin). The British government made a big song and dance about the fact that the missiles may be American, but that the warheads were still British having been designed by AWE.

After several safety breeches including an incident where workers ended up inhaling plutonium, Hunting-BRAEA lost the contract to maintain Britain's nuclear weapons arsenal in 1999, which was transferred to a new consortium called AWE Management Ltd (AWE ML) in the form of a 25 year non-revokable contract. AWE is another tripartite consortium which originally consisted of the UK government owned publicly listed company BNFL, the American weapons giant Lockheed Martin and the UK based outsourcing giant Serco.

AWE ML assumed control of all of Britain's nuclear weapons establishments on April 1st 2000, however the government defended the process pointing out that the sites still belonged to the Ministry of Defence and that the MoD held a "golden share" in the operation (a golden share is a single share which can outvote all other shares in specific pre-determined circumstances).

A problem with the golden share "control" system arose in 2003 when the European Union declared the UK government's golden share in the privatised British Airports Authority illegal because it was deemed contradictory to the principle of free circulation of capital within the EU. The EU has since ruled many other golden share options illegal including Spanish government's golden shares in Telefonica, Repsol, Endesa and Tabacalera and the Portuguese government's golden share in Energias de Portugal. However the fact that golden shares seem to be illegal under EU competition law hasn't stopped the UK government and the MoD repeatedly "talking up" the importance of their golden share in AWE.

As part of the shutdown of BNFL the BNFL stake in AWE was sold to the American firm Jacobs Engineering Group in 2008, meaning that American companies controlled 67% of the operations of the UK nuclear deterrent and research facilities, including complete control of the Trident missiles themselves, guidance systems, components, warheads, research and development and testing.

It has been estimated that the MoD pays over £600 million a year to AWE, and that if the government do decide to renew Trident, these private companies will soak up the vast majority of the estimated £76 billion development cost. In 2011 the MoD agreed to plough another £750 million into AWE for them to renew the Project Pegasus uranium enrichment plant, that is on top of £500 million on Project Mensa warhead assembly plant at AWE Burghfield and another £120 million completely wasted on development of the cancelled Project Hydrus hydrodynamics research facility at AWE Aldermaston. In 2012 the MoD announced another £700 million in spending on the development of the "successor submarines" to replace Trident.

That the British so-called independent nuclear deterrent now relies upon American missiles (built by Lockheed Martin) and is administered by a private consortium which is two thirds controlled by American companies (Lockheed Martin and Jacobs Engineering) to the cost of over £600 million a year to the British taxpayer, (plus vast cash injections for nuclear infrastructure and design programmes) is nothing short of a scandal. How on Earth can it be considered an independent nuclear deterrent when the delivery system is an entirely American off-the-shelf missile system and the private company that is responsible for every aspect of the British nuclear programme, including the design of the warheads themselves is two thirds American?

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