Quietly, slowly and without any fuss, Britain is dismantling its nuclear weapons. Three Trident warheads a year are being moved from the Clyde to the home counties to be taken to pieces, according to evidence seen by The Guardian.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has revealed that it is overseeing a programme “to disassemble Trident warheads” at Burghfield in Berkshire, in a way that will prevent them from being put back together. This fulfills a government promise to cut the number of the nation’s nuclear weapons from 225 to 180 by the mid 2020s.
The latest monitoring of nuclear bomb convoys by activists suggests that in 2012 five warheads were sent by road to Burghfield from the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport on Loch Long near Glasgow. Two were refurbished and returned north, they said, while three stayed at Burghfield to be dismantled.
Ministers announced in June 2011 that Britain’s stockpile of nuclear weapons was being reduced by 45 to “no more than 180” over about 15 years to comply with international disarmament obligations. Until now it’s not been clear what was happening to the warheads, with critics suspicious that they could just be disarmed and stored ready to be rearmed if necessary.
But in response to a freedom of information request the MoD has made clear that the weapons are being dismantled at Burghfield. There is a secretive and heavily-fortified weapons disassembly plant on the site operated for the MoD by a private consortium, the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE).
AWE is running a “stockpile reduction programme to disassemble Trident warheads,” said Sue Ford, from the MoD’s Defence Equipment & Support Policy Secretariat at Abbey Wood in Bristol. “All warhead disassembly work is undertaken at AWE Burghfield.”
She added: “The main components from warheads disassembled as part of the stockpile reduction programme have been processed in various ways according to their composition and in such a way that prevents the warhead from being reassembled.”
According to Ford, warheads “yet to be disassembled” are stored at Coulport or as “work in progress” at Burghfield. “A number of warheads identified in the programme for reduction have been modified to render them unusable whilst others identified as no longer being required for service are currently stored and have not yet been disabled or modified,” she stated.
As well as reducing the overall stockpile from 225 to 180, defence ministers have said that the number of “operational” warheads will drop from “fewer than 160” to “no more than 120”. As a result fewer Trident missiles and warheads are being carried by Britain’s four nuclear-powered Vanguard-class submarines, based near Coulport at the Faslane naval base on Gareloch.
The warheads are regularly transported by road between Coulport and Burghfield in heavily-guarded convoys. They are observed by activists from Nukewatch, which publishes annual reports charting the movements.
Its report for 2012, due out this week, will suggest that a minimum of three warheads were kept at Burghfield, while at least two others were returned to Coulport after refurbishment. A similar pattern was observed in 2011.
Jane Tallents from Nukewatch praised the government for taking “concrete steps” to reduce the UK’s nuclear arsenal. “As each of these weapons is dismantled, the world becomes a slightly safer place,” she said.
"However, the good work that is being done in reducing warhead numbers will be undone if the government replaces Trident and develops a new generation of nuclear weapons.”
There are growing tensions between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in the governing coalition over how to replace Trident. A LibDem report last month suggested cutting the number of submarines from four to three, but this was dismissed as “reckless” by the Conservatives.
The MoD hasn’t disclosed how much it is currently spending on decommissioning nuclear weapons. But in a parliamentary answer in 2006, it put the cost of dismantling all Trident warheads at £146.4 million.
The letter from the Ministry of Defence in response to a freedom of information request on nuclear weapons is available to download here (91KB pdf).