UK's nuclear weapons being dismantled under disarmament obligations

Three Trident warheads a year being taken from navy depot near Glasgow to private contractor in Berkshire to be decommissioned

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 fulfils 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 and 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.

The MoD has not 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 £146.4m.

Contributor

Rob Edwards

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
George Osborne making 'wrong moral choice' on nuclear weapons
Scotland’s deputy first minister accuses chancellor of jumping gun by announcing extra £500m for Trident base

Severin Carrell and Frances Perraudin

31, Aug, 2015 @10:00 AM

Article image
Trident nuclear warhead numbers set to increase for first time since cold war
Defence and foreign policy review expected to signal rise, in move analysts say is diplomatically provocative

Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor

12, Mar, 2021 @7:15 PM

Article image
UK's nuclear deterrent infrastructure 'not fit for purpose', say MPs
Trident faces budget and skills gaps at time of international uncertainty, plus supply threats due to Brexit

Rajeev Syal

20, Sep, 2018 @11:01 PM

Article image
Alex Salmond told nuclear ban out of line with being in Nato
First minister faces questions over defence policy after Scotland secretary says Nato's nuclear stance is finite

Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent

15, Aug, 2013 @6:20 PM

Article image
Challenges Theresa May inherits from Cameron: from Brexit to benefits
On her first day in No 10, the new PM’s in-tray will be packed with problems: on the EU, Trident, schools, the NHS and more

12, Jul, 2016 @2:58 PM

Article image
Let’s have a referendum on renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system | Letters
Letters: How seriously do we take Nicola Sturgeon’s assertion that renewal of Trident is a red line for the SNP?

Letters

12, Apr, 2015 @6:35 PM

Article image
Nato chiefs deal blow to SNP's anti-nuclear strategy

Alex Salmond warned independent Scotland would be prevented from joining defence group if there was row over bases

Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent

14, Aug, 2013 @6:19 PM

Article image
US nuclear warhead standoff 'has significant implications for UK'
Biden administration expected to take ‘critical look’ at next-generation warhead, estimated to be twice as explosive as Trident

Dan Sabbagh

08, Dec, 2020 @2:35 PM

Article image
Nuclear safety getting worse in military facilities, says MoD study

Report says armed forces struggling to maintain nuclear submarines and bombs while facing further cuts to resources

Rob Edwards

25, Aug, 2011 @4:57 PM

Article image
Scottish voters contemplate the nuclear option for Faslane's Trident fleet

Peace camp outside base since 1982 sees yes vote as ending UK's entire nuclear deterrent but electorate is more ambivalent

British military mulls implications of Scottish independence

Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent

04, Sep, 2014 @5:00 AM