Select Committee on Defence Fourth Report

4  The Atomic Weapons Establishment

116. A second element of our nuclear deterrent which is manufactured in the UK is the nuclear warhead, which is designed and built at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in Aldermaston and Burghfield, Berkshire. As part of our inquiry, we examined the Government's investment programme at the AWE and considered the extent to which the level of that investment was consistent both with maintaining key skills and infrastructure in the design and manufacture of nuclear warheads and with the stewardship of the UK's existing nuclear warhead stockpile.

The role and operation of AWE

117. Since the 1950s, all of the UK's nuclear warheads, including those fitted to the UK's current Trident D5 missiles, have been manufactured at the Atomic Weapons Establishment.[114] The AWE is responsible for supporting the entire life-cycle of the UK's nuclear warheads, from design and manufacture, to maintenance and certification of the existing warhead stockpile, and, ultimately, to decommissioning and disposal. It is also responsible for the transportation of warheads from Aldermaston to Coulport, at HM Naval Base Clyde, where the warheads are fitted to the Trident missiles and installed on the Vanguard-class submarines.

118. The AWE operates on two major sites: Aldermaston, where design research and manufacturing of the UK's nuclear warheads is undertaken; and nearby Burghfield, where final assembly, maintenance and decommissioning of the warheads is conducted. It also has a forensic seismology centre, AWE Blacknest, a few miles west of Aldermaston, where it monitors and detects underground nuclear testing prohibited under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

119. The AWE is a Government-owned, contractor-operated establishment. In 2000, the AWE plc signed a contract to operate the AWE on behalf of the Ministry of Defence for an initial period of 10 years. The contract was extended to 25 years in 2003. The company is owned by a private consortium, AWE Management Ltd, made up of three equal partners, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd, Lockheed Martin and Serco. It employs around 4,000 people. A further 1,500 people work for long-term contractors to the AWE.

120. The 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) underlined the importance the Government attached to the continuing work of the AWE and to the retention of a sovereign capability in the design and manufacture of nuclear warheads:

For as long as Britain has nuclear forces, we will ensure that we have a robust capability at the Atomic Weapons Establishment to underwrite the safety and reliability of our nuclear warheads, without recourse to nuclear testing. There are no current plans for any replacement for Trident, and no decision on any possible successor system would be needed for several years. But we have concluded that it would be premature to abandon the minimum capability to design and produce a successor to Trident should this prove necessary.[115]

The Government's investment programme

121. In order to sustain that capability, the Ministry of Defence agreed in 2000, in its new contract with AWE Management, for the modernisation and replacement of "many of the major science, manufacturing and assembly facilities" at Aldermaston and Burghfield. The MoD's memorandum to us, of November 2005, stated that this modernisation requirement was driven by three factors: by the need to replace old and outdated infrastructure at the sites, much of which dated back to the 1950s and was "becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to sustain"; by the introduction of a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty which "required the introduction of significant new methods to underwrite the safety and reliability of the UK's weapons stockpile"; and by demands of the nuclear regulatory regime, which "imposes stringent safety requirements" and which "are increasingly challenging to meet without additional investment in facilities built to modern safety standards".[116]

122. In July 2005, the then Secretary of State for Defence, Dr John Reid, announced a major new programme of investment at the AWE. He said the Government would invest an additional £350 million per annum over the following three years to "sustain the core capabilities" of the AWE. He also stated that the "AWE is a critical national asset and this decision is a clear demonstration of the Government's commitment to the existing deterrent and to the defence and security of the UK".[117] During our visit to the United States in May 2006, we visited the National Nuclear Security Administration and were told of the value the United States attached to US-UK collaboration in the nuclear sector and of the enormous respect of the US Administration for the skills and abilities of the workforce at Aldermaston.[118]

123. The MoD's November 2005 Memorandum states that the new investment programme would ensure the UK's stockpile of nuclear weapons remained "safe and effective", particularly in light of "the increasing age of the Trident warhead stockpile, and of the scientists and engineers who support it".[119] It further states:

This additional investment at AWE is required to sustain the existing warhead stockpile in-service irrespective of decisions on any successor warhead. This investment will sustain core skills and facilities that could also be used in the future to develop a successor but no decisions have yet been made either in principle or practice on this issue.[120]

124. The MoD's memorandum states that the investment programme:

falls into three broad categories: upgrading of a range of research facilities to underpin the science programme that enables the AWE to underwrite the safety and performance of the warhead; the refurbishment of some of the key infrastructure on the sites; and investment in sustaining core skills within the Establishment.[121]

125. Investment in science facilities at the AWE was "focussed on providing assurance of the safety and effectiveness of the UK's stockpile of operational warheads for use on the Trident D5 missile". The MoD maintained that since warhead safety and reliability must be guaranteed without recourse to nuclear testing, "scientists must be able to demonstrate their understanding of the physical and chemical processes that occur within the warhead" and that "age related changes must be investigated and the implications understood". According to the MoD, this requires advanced and complex "computer simulations" to "predict the effect of future changes" and warheads were "routinely withdrawn from the operational stockpile for forensic examination, which further improves the accuracy of these simulations". To undertake this "assurance work", which represented the "core activity presently undertaken", the MoD stated that the AWE required improved capabilities in high performance computer simulation, hydrodynamics and high energy density physics. To this end, part of the investment at Aldermaston was for a new high energy laser facility, Project Orion, which would replace the existing Helen laser.[122]

126. Investment in infrastructure at Aldermaston was focused on replacing outdated buildings and support systems, such as heating and electrical systems, which had become "increasingly inefficient and expensive to operate". Investment was also needed to "sustain a basic capability to remanufacture key components of the Trident warhead" as faults could develop in existing in-service warheads which required replacement of certain components. In addition, the MoD told us that "a range of skills and facilities will be required safety to disassemble the warheads". As a result, the MoD stated that there was a need to "replace or refurbish some of the basic assembly and disassembly facilities at Aldermaston and Burghfield". These would include "new facilities for handling high explosives and highly enriched uranium…and facilities for non-nuclear components in the warhead".[123]

127. Investment in skills was necessary, the MoD told us, because the average age of the workforce at the AWE was increasing as those who worked on the Chevaline and Trident programmes neared the end of their careers. In its November 2005 memorandum, the MoD stated that "there is…a requirement to recruit new members of staff to ensure that core skills within AWE are sustained" in order to "assist in the infrastructure sustainment programme" and "to operate the new facilities as they come on stream". The intention was to increase the workforce at the AWE by around 350 staff per annum until 2007-08, 70% of whom would be "non-industrial staff" and 30% "industrial staff".[124]

128. In evidence to our current inquiry, the MoD stated that "the Atomic Weapons Establishment has a strength in depth in nuclear science and engineering which is rare elsewhere in the UK". But as the workforce grew older "there was a requirement to recruit new members of staff to ensure that the core skills within AWE are maintained".[125]

129. The White Paper states that:

We will continue the programmes of investment at the Atomic Weapons Establishment, both to ensure we can maintain the existing warhead for as long as necessary and to enable us to develop a replacement warhead if that is required. Additional investment averaging £350 million per annum over the years 2005/06 to 2007/08 was announced last year. Further investment will be necessary, and early in the next decade the costs of AWE are likely—at their peak—to be the equivalent of about 3% of the current defence budget (compared to about 2.5% today).[126]

130. We recommend that in advance of any debate in the House of Commons on the future of the deterrent, the MoD clarifies what additional investment the Government intends to make at the AWE as a result of the recommendations contained in the White Paper.

131. We visited the Atomic Weapons Establishment in September 2006. During our visit we saw, at a distance, the very large A91 building, completed in the late 1980s to house an integrated Radioactive Liquid Effluent Treatment Plant, but never used because it was declared unfit for purpose. In our report on the MoD's Annual Report and Accounts 2004-05, we expressed our amazement at the scale of the losses on the A91 building—some £147 million in total.[127] The Government's response accepted that this was a serious failure. It assured us that the current contracting arrangements at the AWE included specific disciplines and mechanisms governing the visibility, approval, monitoring, management and review of capital projects by stakeholders, and that Earned Value Management and Smart Acquisition principles had been adopted.[128] The MoD and the AWE must apply the lessons from the A91 episode in managing the new infrastructure investment at Aldermaston.

132. We asked the MoD whether a new civil nuclear programme would drain skills away from Aldermaston. Mr Gould said that he expected that there might be "some impact" but he stated that the AWE "is a very different operation". The civil nuclear programme, he told us, used "pretty mature technology" and "not the kind of physics which goes on at Aldermaston". Although he conceded that "there might be some overlap" and "some competition for disciplines", there was "not really a great deal of pull to the civil nuclear programme from Aldermaston".[129]

133. We also asked whether the closure of university physics departments was having any impact on the skills base at the AWE. Lord Drayson told us that "it is not affecting us in a dramatic sense", but he accepted that "this country depends on having a significant and growing pool of scientists and engineers" and that "the number of physics departments which have closed in the country is a source of concern to us".[130]

134. Mr Bennett told us that the key skills shortage at Aldermaston was not, in fact, physicists but project managers. He stated that "managing a significant infrastructure programme and delivering that to time…has proved something of a challenge". Across the rest of the AWE, he told us that recruitment and retention rates were good.[131]

Responses to the investment programme

135. In its submission to our inquiry, the Royal Academy of Engineering welcomed the Government's investment programme at the AWE, which it regarded as "essential if we are to maintain the UK's nuclear weapons design and manufacturing capability not only for future systems but also for the maintenance and stewardship of our existing weapons stockpile".[132]

136. Greenpeace, however, was concerned that the Government's investment programme would produce a "quantum leap in AWE Aldermaston's capacity to design and build a new nuclear weapon". Along with the recruitment of "a new generation of scientists, engineers and technicians", Greenpeace argued that this "strongly suggest[s] that a major purpose of current investments is a nuclear weapon development programme".[133]

137. This view was shared by Scientists for Global Responsibility who, in evidence to our inquiry, voiced their "serious concerns" at the Government's investment. The new facilities at Aldermaston and Burghfield "cannot be justified on the basis of maintaining existing stockpiles" and there was a "suspicion that work is undertaken or planned which could assist is or is already part of the development of a new warhead capability or design".[134]

138. Similarly, the Nuclear Information Service stated in evidence that "much of the investment programme…is not relevant to the objective of maintaining key skills and infrastructure".[135] It believed current and projected investment is "at an unreasonable level".[136]

139. The Aldermaston Women's Peace Campaign stated that investment at the AWE has shown "a massive increase" that "far exceeds that required for stewardship of the extant stockpile". It maintained that the Government "has already made a substantial investment in the development of the next generation of nuclear weapons" which had "taken place in advance of a public debate…and a public decision by Government on the replacement of the current Trident system".[137]

140. Greenpeace also questioned the AWE's preference for a science-based stockpile stewardship programme, as opposed to an engineering-based one. This, it stated, "will, inevitably, lead to uncertainty about the performance of nuclear warheads" which would "create political pressure for a return to nuclear testing".[138] Any resumption in nuclear testing, Greenpeace argued, would have serious consequences for the future of the enforcement of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And, even if the UK did not resume testing, Greenpeace said that Aldermaston's experimentation with "exotic technologies to design and build a new nuclear weapon" would "lead other countries to ask: 'why should we continue to respect the CTBT…?'".[139]

141. Concern was also expressed about the manner in which decisions on the investment at the AWE had been taken and implemented. In evidence to our inquiry, Greenpeace said that the process by which the Government decided on the investment was "undermining deliberative democracy and the sovereignty of Parliament". It stated that:

the proper procedure should be an open and informed debate first, then a decision by Parliament on whether to go ahead with the investments necessary to make a bomb, and finally the investments.

Greenpeace maintained that, instead, "we have an 'Alice in Wonderland' situation of investments first, official decision second, and public debate and Parliamentary vote last of all".[140] Similarly, the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament stated in evidence that the MoD were "trying to pre-empt crucial decisions on the future of nuclear weapons by initiating a very expensive rebuilding programme".[141]

142. We asked the Minister for Defence Procurement how he would respond to these arguments. Lord Drayson told us that the "Alice in Wonderland" accusation levelled by Greenpeace "reflects a misunderstanding" of the purpose of the investments at Aldermaston. This, he maintained, was to "ensure that the existing deterrent can be maintained in a safe and effective form". The moratorium on nuclear testing meant that:

the only way in which we can make sure that the deterrent is safe is to carry out very sophisticated physical and computational experiments and that requires investment in the infrastructure at Aldermaston to make sure that we continue to be able to do that properly.[142]

143. Nick Bennett, Director General Strategic Technologies at the MoD, told us that the investment at the AWE was "unrelated to decision on a future strategic deterrent". The investment in infrastructure at Aldermaston and Burghfield was "essential to maintain the current deterrent". He maintained that, as far as the existing Trident system through to the 2020s was concerned, the investment "underpins that entirely", but "it does not underpin currently a future deterrent".[143]

144. Mr Bennett stated that the investment at the AWE would also ensure that the skills base at Aldermaston was sustained so that options for the future of the deterrent were kept open. The investment in skills and sophisticated equipment needed to maintain the existing Trident system, he said, would be relevant should a decision be taken in future to produce a new warhead. He told us, "in essence the capabilities at Aldermaston…will allow us, should we ever wish to, to develop a new warhead, but they are absolutely essential to the maintenance of the current one". He argued that the two capabilities were "indistinguishable".[144] Similarly, Lord Drayson stated that "it is absolutely true to say that those skills and that know-how does have relation to the capability within this country…to design a new nuclear warhead". But, he argued, "we have to take that decision relating to the maintenance separately".[145]

145. As regards the timing of the investment, Mr Bennett stated that, by around 2002, it had become clear that "we had reached the point where finally we had to do something about it otherwise we would have found ourselves in a position where we would not be able to maintain the current programme".[146]

146. Many observers have seen the investment programme at Aldermaston as a sign that the Government had already decided in principle to retain and renew the UK's nuclear deterrent. We accept Ministers' assurances that this was not the case. We accept too that investment in buildings and infrastructure at AWE was becoming time-critical, which might suggest that the decision on the future of the deterrent should have been taken in the last Parliament. But we are less convinced that investment in the new Orion Laser, the supercomputer and hydrodynamic facilities could not have waited for a decision in principle on the future of the UK's nuclear deterrent. If the investment was made to respond to requirements of regulators, the Government should state this in its response to this report. Large-scale investment should follow, and not precede, policy decisions of such paramount importance to the nation.

147. The widespread suspicion about the work of the AWE and the Government's investment there is partly a consequence of the secrecy which surrounds its work. We fully accept the need to maintain secrecy about some aspects of its work, but there is a case for greater openness, not least to ensure that the public is aware of the positive contribution the AWE makes to the verification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

114   Defence Committee, Memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Defence, The UK's Strategic Nuclear Deterrent, HC (2005-06) 835, Ev 5 Back

115   Supporting Essay 5, Strategic Defence Review, July 1998, Cm 3999 Back

116   HC 835, Ev 3 Back

117   Ibid. Back

118   HC (2005-06) 986, para 120 Back

119   HC (2005-06) 835, Ev 5 Back

120   Ibid. Back

121   HC (2005-06) 835, Ev 4 Back

122   Ibid. Back

123   Ibid. Back

124   Ibid. Back

125   Ev 86 Back

126   Cm 6994, para 5.13 Back

127   Defence Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2004-05, Ministry of Defence Annual Report and Accounts 2004-05, HC 822, paras 83-87 and Ev 27-28 Back

128   Defence Committee, Seventh Special Report of Session 2005-06, Ministry of Defence Annual Report and Accounts 2004-05:Government Response to the Committee's Sixth Report of Session 2005-06, HC 1293, Appendix, paras 45-50 Back

129   Q 282 [Gould] Back

130   Q 280 [Drayson] Back

131   Q 281 Back

132   Ev 107 Back

133   Ev 75 Back

134   Ev 120 Back

135   Ev 87 Back

136   Ev 90 Back

137   Ev 95 Back

138   Ev 76 Back

139   Ibid. Back

140   Ibid. Back

141   Ibid. Back

142   Q 195 Back

143   Q 269 Back

144   Q 270 [Bennett] Back

145   Q 274 Back

146   Q 275 Back

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