Defence ministers in Westminster have decided that the highly sensitive job of looking after more than 200 Trident nuclear warheads, and arming the Royal Navy’s submarines with them, should be handed over to a consortium of four multinational companies within the next year.
The decision has been condemned by the SNP, trade unionists and disarmament campaigners who are demanding an urgent rethink. It is a cost-saving, job-cutting “kick in the teeth to the work force” that will put nuclear safety at risk, they say.
Up to 200 Coulport workers were told last week that they will be seconded from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to a newly formed private sector consortium called ABL. It brings together AWE, the group that runs the Aldermaston nuclear weapons factory in Berkshire; Babcock, the British engineering company; and the US-owned Lockheed Martin Strategic Systems UK.
AWE is itself a consortium involving Lockheed Martin; another big US firm, Jacobs Engineering; and the UK management privatisation company, Serco. According to the MoD’s detailed internal plan leaked to the Sunday Herald, ABL will be granted a contract to run Coulport for 15 years.
The Mod’s timetable is for the contract to be finalised in August, and for ABL to take over Coulport in February 2012. Some 160 MoD scientists and technicians responsible for “strategic weapons support” will be transferred to ABL, along with up to 40 Royal Navy jobs.
Defence ministers rejected an alternative plan to keep Coulport in the public sector but improve its management, known as the “Do Better in House Option”. Outsourcing to ABL, they decided, “offered the best value for money”.
Angus Robertson, the SNP’s leader in Westminster and defence spokesman, attacked the decision as “highly questionable” last night. “Weapons of mass destruction are the most sensitive areas of military technology and should not be put in private hands,” he said.
“The SNP opposition to the nuclear fleet is absolute, but as long as Trident and nuclear missiles remain on the Clyde, their security must be absolute and UK ministers should reconsider their decision to give responsibility to companies outwith the country.”
The Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport is meant to be one of the most secure places in Britain. Sprawled across the slopes above Loch Long, surrounded by Cold War watchtowers and protected by at least three barbed wire fences are buildings and bunkers in which Britain’s nuclear bombs and missiles are kept.
The fact that private companies were bidding to take over running the site caused a furor when it was first disclosed by the Sunday Herald last October. At the time the MoD said that Coulport’s management was under review, but insisted that no decisions had been taken.
Now, however, that has changed, and arrangements for transferring management to ABL have begun. According to the leaked MoD plan, ABL will be responsible for “processing, handling, and storage” of Trident warheads and missiles, along with “dockside handling”, “explosive handling”, “radiological safety” and “nuclear emergency response”.
But the plan adds: “MoD will remain in overall charge, with Naval Base Commander (Clyde) retaining overall responsibility for nuclear activities, explosive safety policy, security and emergency management planning, including retention of the Incident commander role in response to all contingency scenarios.”
Trade unions nevertheless warn that safety will be jeopardised by switching operations to private hands. Prospect, which represents civilian staff at Coulport, said it was “deeply concerned” about the decision, which was aimed a cutting civil service jobs.
“We can’t understand the rationale behind the decision,” said Prospect’s national secretary, Steve Jary. “We are equally concerned that the base will lose its ability to act as an intelligent customer – in an area where this role is crucial to maintain.”
He accused ministers of ignoring official reports, which have highlighted the dangers of outsourcing vital safety posts. The Haddon Cave inquiry into the death of 14 people in an RAF Nimrod crash in Afghanistan during 2006 urged the MoD to retain sufficient staff to act as intelligent customers when dealing with the private sector.
The MoD has said that it wants to cut its staff by 25,000, and that is what has driven the decision on Coulport, according to Prospect. The union is calling for the decision to be reversed.
Ian Fraser from the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) also condemned the MoD’s move, and the way it was announced to the workforce. Trade unions were only given two hours notice, he said.
“This is a totally unacceptable way to consult with trade unions and a kick in the teeth to the work force at Coulport,” he stated.
He argued that the MoD had failed to invest in the workforce over the last 15 years. “This transfer was always about the MoD transferring the risk to the private sector, therefore enabling them to point a finger at the contractors for any mistakes in handling the weapons system.”
PCS is mounting a campaign of opposition to the privatisation, involving the local community in Dumbarton as well as local MPs and MSPs. “This decision may have a major impact on safety at Coulport,” warned Fraser.
John Ainslie, the coordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, pointed out that Lockheed Martin would now dominate Britain’s so-called independent nuclear deterrent. “These weapons of mass destruction have no place in modern Scotland, whether they are controlled by admirals sitting in Whitehall or American arms dealers,” he said.
“Nuclear safety will now be compromised as the MoD try to cut corners at Coulport. The ministry may continue to be responsible for safety but they won’t have enough people to carry out this role.”
Lockheed Martin has come under fire from critics in the US for its “mixed record” managing large-scale public projects. According to the US think tank, the New America Foundation, there were large cost overruns on the company’s F-22 combat aircraft, and the unit cost of its new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has doubled in the last few years.
William Hartung, from the Center for International Policy in New York and the author of a book on the Lockheed Martin, said that a nuclear weapons depot was much too sensitive to be handed over to a private company. “This is particularly true in the case of Lockheed Martin,” he told the Sunday Herald.
“Gambling the future of this facility on the management skills of a company like Lockheed Martin is a uniquely bad idea.”
Lockheed Martin declined to respond directly to the accusations about its performance record on Friday. The only statement came from ABL on behalf of Lockheed, Babcock and AWE.
“All three companies welcome the announcement on Coulport,” said a spokesman, “and will continue to work closely with the MoD in the coming months to help achieve an optimal solution.”
Last year Lockheed defended its record by pointing out that it had delivered 88 consecutive F-22s on or ahead of schedule. The company had also successfully supported U.S. Coast Guard modernisation by expanding capabilities in aviation, ships and shore stations.
“In the UK, we employ more than 1,500 British nationals at sites across the country working on a variety of nationally-critical government contracts,” said a company statement.
According to the UK defence minister, Peter Luff MP, Coulport had an “excellent” safety record. “The decision to outsource this work has been taken to ensure that these high standards and critical skills are maintained and sustained into the future,” he said.
“The MoD will continue to own the site and Naval Base Commander Clyde will retain overall responsibility for security and for the activities carried out on the site. The site will also continue to be a nuclear authorised site so will be subject to regulation by the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator, the Office of Nuclear Regulation and other regulatory bodies.”
The MoD’s intelligent customer team would have a “controlling role”, Luff added. “This will provide the necessary assurance to both the department and the regulators that the companies involved operate within the strict safety and security arrangements at Coulport.”
But this is unlikely to satisfy critics. Peter Burt from the Nuclear Information Service in Reading urged the Scottish government to ensure that the new operational and safety arrangements at Coulport are subject to the highest standards of independent scrutiny and regulation.
He said: “As with virtually every aspect of the Trident nuclear weapons programme, this decision has been taken in secret and we have no idea of the costs or risks associated with it.”
The companies that will run Britain’s nuclear bomb store
Lockheed Martin, headquartered at Bethesda, Maryland, is the world’s biggest arms company. It employs over 133,000 people in 75 countries, and generated sales in 2009 worth £28.2 billion ($45.2bn).
Lockheed’s major customer is the US Department of Defence, for whom its makes fighter aircraft and Trident missiles. It also manufactures space satellites and has been buying up UK defence businesses.
Jacobs Engineering, headquartered in Pasadena, California, is one of the world’s largest providers of technical, professional and construction services. It employs over 50,000 people in more than 20 countries, and had revenues of £7.2 billion ($11.5bn) in 2009.
Last year Jacobs bought a one-third share in the management of AWE, the consortium that runs nuclear bomb factories at Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire. It has also been involved in building the proposed new road bridge across the Firth of Forth.
Serco, headquartered in Hook, Hampshire, is a major private contactor for public services across the world. It employs more than 70,000 people in over 30 countries, and had revenues of £4 billion in 2009.
Formed as an America spin-off in 1929, Serco provides a computer and software support system for 66 UK law enforcement agencies. It also runs the Docklands Light Railway in London.
Babcock, headquartered in London, is one of the UK’s biggest engineering support companies. It employs 27,000 people around the world, and earned revenue of around £3 billion in 2010.
Babcock does work for the Royal Navy at the Devonport dockyard in Plymouth, at Rosyth in Fife and at the Faslane nuclear submarine base on the Clyde. The company also provides services for nuclear power stations in Scotland.
The leaked MoD privatisation plan can be downloaded here(340KB Word).