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Aldermaston is a huge facility by any stretch of the imagination. I have been there on many occasions for various demonstrations and have always been concerned by its size, but I am concerned above all by its cost and purpose. Nuclear weapons are expensive and extremely controversial. The nuclear weapons expenditure planned for AWEs between the financial years 2008-09 and 2010-11 amounts to £2.65 billion: £800 million in the forthcoming year, rising to £900 million and then £950 million. Over those three years, the Trident replacement programme will add up to another £900 million and other expenditure a further £2 billion, leading to a total expenditure on nuclear weapons of £5.8 billion in the
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next three years, excluding present running costs. Those are phenomenal amounts of money.

On 30 October, after I asked a question about additional funding and what it meant, the Secretary of State for Defence confirmed the figures that I just mentioned for additional funding from 2008 to 2011. The strategic defence review stated that AWE running costs in 1997-98 were £302 million. We are seeing a large increase in expenditure at AWE Aldermaston, and the intention in forthcoming years is to spend even more on it. The total spend on new investment from the main Ministry of Defence budget will be £1.35 billion. There are many other figures that I could quote, but I wanted to give those as examples of the huge expenditure on AWE Aldermaston and the development of nuclear weapons.

A number of issues have been raised by people who live in the area, environmental campaigners and others about the environmental impact of nuclear weapons, particularly the issue of Aldermaston and related facilities at Burghfield in Berkshire and the transport of weapons after development to the Clyde naval base, which is, obviously, a long way away. According to an MOD assessment dated 15 December 2004 and released to the then Green MSP Mark Ruskell in 2005, there was a risk of an “inadvertent yield” from a nuclear warhead, resulting in lethal doses of radiation. It said that “multiple failures” triggered by a vehicle pile-up or aircraft crash could mean that

That is the main barrier to an accidental nuclear explosion. The MOD said that the risk was extremely low, and therefore acceptable

The risk of an inadvertent yield, or a small nuclear explosion, was confirmed in a second MOD assessment obtained under freedom of information law and published in New Scientist in July 2006. The assessment again related to the danger of an explosion caused by an accident. A response to an FOI request by an anti-nuclear group confirmed that there was serious risk of a terrorist attack on the nuclear bomb convoy. David Wray, the MOD director of information, said on 4 May 2006:

That is pretty chilling stuff.

Another report, published in July this year, revealed that bomb convoys have suffered 67 safety incidents during the past seven years, including mechanical faults and equipment failures. The safety of nuclear bomb convoys is not,

for a meeting,

At the very least, we should be asking for independent external assessment of the risks involved and the dangers to the community. The report from which I am reading
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also raises many questions about the safety of Coulport and Faslane, but that is not part of today’s debate, although it is clearly linked to what we are discussing.

Moving on to the future of AWE Aldermaston, a great deal of money is being spent to develop that bomb-making facility. The warheads are transferred to Clyde and fitted to British nuclear submarines, which are then sent out on patrol. They form part of our ill-named independent nuclear deterrent. I have two huge concerns: first, about the development of the Aldermaston site, about safety at that site and the one in Burghfield and, in particular, about the danger from polluted waste from the building leaching into ground water and other bodies of water. The second concern is about the clear dangers involved in moving nuclear explosives along ordinary roads around the country—from Aldermaston several hundred miles to Scotland. We need to consider the huge safety issues involved.

What is it all for? This country is a signatory to the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, signed in 1970, which requires signatory states that are not nuclear powers or holders of nuclear weapons not to own or develop them, or cause them to be developed. In many cases, it has been fairly successful in achieving that aim. Those countries that are declared nuclear weapon states—China, Russia, France, Britain and the United States—are required to take steps towards eventual disarmament and to promote disarmament. I would argue, therefore—this argument has much legal back-up—that the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons, the expansion of the bomb-making facility at Aldermaston and the huge costs involved are in breach of the principles behind the non-proliferation treaty, because it requires us to move in the opposite direction. We are not moving in the opposite direction, but in the direction of developing a new generation of nuclear weapons.

Last year, when the House debated the replacement of the Trident nuclear submarine fleet, we were assured that Britain adhered to the non-proliferation treaty and that there would be a further vote in the House on the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons. The figures that I just quoted indicate that we are spending several hundred million pounds every year on AWE Aldermaston, where a huge capital programme is going on that appears to be making way for the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons. None of that was subject to a debate in this House, other than in the debate on the Trident fleet. However, as I understand it, there has been no specific debate on the levels of expenditure at AWE Aldermaston. I hope that the Minister can throw some light on that and on the associated safety considerations.

We are talking about a facility that has grown like Topsy since the early 1950s, when it was opened as a research establishment before passing over entirely to AWE. There is now a large degree of public sector involvement in its development and running, hence the murkiness and secrecy surrounding it. Many brilliant people work there. When pressed, the Government often say, “Yes, we adhere to NPT; yes, we are in favour of nuclear disarmament; yes, we are in favour of peace negotiations; and yes, we would like a decommissioning laboratory to be developed.” What plans are there to
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use that skill, brilliance and intelligence at Aldermaston and elsewhere to provide a facility for nuclear decommissioning, rather than nuclear construction? Clearly, the skills are there to achieve that.

It seems to me, as it seemed to many others at Aldermaston on Monday, that we live in a world deeply divided between rich and poor that faces enormous environmental consequences from climate change and other massive problems. Does the fantastic level of expenditure on the development of atomic weapons at Aldermaston actually do anything to make the world a safer or more secure place, or does it merely feed huge sums of public money into the arms industry to create nuclear weapons? I hope that the Minister will say that we will never use them, but if that is the case, why have we got them in the first place? I remain committed to nuclear disarmament, because I do not believe that such weapons make us safe or secure. In fact, they make life more dangerous for the entire planet.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Will he give us his opinion on nuclear power? Some, including myself, suspect that the new efforts to develop nuclear power are not about energy—that is not the best way to deal with the global energy challenge—but about producing fuel for a new generation of nuclear weapons? That might not be true, but it is my suspicion.

Jeremy Corbyn: That is slightly wide of the question of AWE Aldermaston, but as my hon. Friend points out, there is a question about the weapons grade plutonium required for nuclear weapons, which can come only from reactors used in the civil nuclear power programme. I have always been very suspicious of the way in which we promote the development of nuclear power in this country, of our overt and covert subsidies of the nuclear power industry and of the fact that, however it is dressed up and presented, nuclear waste remains dangerous, live and lethal for at least a millennium. Exactly the same argument applies, therefore, to the waste produced in developing nuclear bombs, and to the whole manufacturing process. We cannot un-invent nuclear power and weapons and nor can we wish away the waste that we already have, but we can stop producing more of it, which I believe would be an important way forward.

In two years’ time, the non-proliferation treaty review conference takes place in Switzerland, and the preparatory committee, which meets every year, will meet at the end of April and beginning of May this year. When the British Government present their case to the preparatory committee, I hope that they will indicate that we will curtail the development and expansion of AWE Aldermaston and not develop a new generation of nuclear weapons, and that instead, we will offer the facilities for a decommissioning programme for other countries that also want to divest themselves of nuclear weaponry. That is not pie in the sky—it was hinted at in a speech made by the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), and in recent remarks by the Secretary of State for Defence.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say, and I hope that he will recognise that the debate about the development of nuclear weapons is important,
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given the levels of public money involved and the environmental impact. However, it is particularly important when one considers what we are actually doing at AWE Aldermaston: developing weapons of mass destruction. They do not make for a safer or more secure world but, I believe, for an infinitely more dangerous one.

2.48 pm

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): It is very nice to serve under your watchful eye, Mr. Jones, for the second time today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing the debate. Although he and I come at the issue from very different directions, I, like him, must declare an interest.

Last year, when we debated the replacement of Trident, the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), now the First Minister of Scotland, in response to an intervention from the Conservative Benches, asked how we would like to have a facility like Faslane on our doorsteps in the Thames valley. If I remember rightly, I invited him into my bedroom—not something that I expected to do when I entered the House—because from there one can see, just across the valley, the rooftops of AWE Aldermaston. I own land in that part of the world, close to the AWE and extending right up to the fence of the Royal Ordnance factory in Burghfield. In that part of the Thames valley—Kennet valley—we have become very used to such facilities over the past half century. Not only do we have Aldermaston and Burghfield, but Greenham Common, where American cruise missiles were so memorably based back in the 1980s, is just up the road. I may refer to that later in the context of Aldermaston.

The AWE facility is in my constituency, and I suspect that shortly it will overtake Vodafone to become my constituency’s largest employer. I am a great supporter both of the centre of excellence that it has become, and of many of the wonderful people who work there and live locally. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Islington, North went to my constituency; I hope that next time he visits, he will let me know and we can have a debate with local people about that important facility in their area.

What first strikes people when they visit the AWE is the great emphasis on safety. Almost the first thing that I did when I was elected was to request a visit, with the assistance of the Minister’s predecessor; its purpose was to see the safety procedures for myself and be reassured, as best I could as a layman, that the site was as safe as possible for local people.

I was also shown around the museum, which is a horrific catalogue of weapons of mass destruction. Let us not forget that is what we are talking about. Whatever our views on nuclear weapons, they are horrific weapons of destruction, but in fact the man who showed me around was enthusiastic. When he showed me a small device that an aircraft could deliver in a battlefield scenario, I asked, “What would happen if the plane that was training with them crashed?” His reply was one of the best euphemisms I have ever heard; he said, “Don’t worry about that, sir. The casing on this device is designed to withstand a multi-penetration insult.” I have never come across a more fantastic euphemism than that, so I wrote it down in my book when I got home.

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Nevertheless, we must remember what we are talking about: probably the most important issue that can affect the future of mankind, alongside climate change. The Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, as I have already said, is a centre of excellence for science and engineering. Although I wish it did not need to exist, let us look at that positive fact, because an enormous amount of the skills from the work at Aldermaston have gone on to assist in the civil areas of science, plasma physics, engineering and many other civilian developments. Many of those advances would not have come about but for the dedication and professionalism of the work force at Aldermaston. The new Orion centre, which is possibly one of the new buildings to which the hon. Member for Islington, North referred, offers fantastic opportunities for non-nuclear weapons-type development of science and engineering, and I understand that there are great plans to involve a range of civil organisations in the work that takes place there.

As I said earlier, I wish that the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston did not need to exist, but let us consider what is going on in the world in which we live. Let us talk about proliferation. We see the development of nuclear weapons in countries such as India and Pakistan, and in other areas such as Iran and North Korea. Who are we to say what kind of world we will be living in over the next 20, 30, 40 or 50 years, which is the time scale for the replacement of the Trident submarine fleet? No one in this place or beyond can second-guess exactly what kind of world we will be living in, and I cannot identify a single state or group of states that, as we sit here today, we would wish to threaten with our nuclear weapons. However, there may come a time when the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons might just secure the future for our children or their children.

Jeremy Corbyn: May I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that all of Africa, all of Latin America and most of central Asia have already declared themselves nuclear weapon-free zones and have no plans whatever to develop such weapons or to invite people in to develop them? They see that as their contribution to peace in the world. Does he not agree that we should think about doing the same?

Mr. Benyon: The hon. Gentleman has a problem with the whole concept of nuclear weapons, and we must disagree. I believe that the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons was one reason why we were able to face down the Soviet threat and to win what many people refer to as the cold war. I shall come on to the benefits of that in terms of Greenham Common, but it is simply not good enough to say that there are regions of the world which have stated, as we sit here today in 2008, that they have no intention of developing nuclear weapons. It is perfectly possible to acquire from other countries the ability to deliver some sort of nuclear device some time in the future, and I do not want to second-guess or gamble with our future interests or those of future generations, as members of CND seem able to do on a whim.

Harry Cohen: I do not want to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but will he explore a little more the so-called deterrent effect? I think it has been massively
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overstated, but if it is so important, surely Iran should have nuclear weapons to deter other people from attacking it.

Mr. Benyon: The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. We do not want potential rogue states developing nuclear weapons.

Harry Cohen: As a deterrent.

Mr. Benyon: I am talking about a deterrent in terms of how we managed up until the 1980s.

Let us look—[Interruption.] I shall discuss why I believe that deterrents work. If the hon. Gentleman wants a living, breathing example of the peace dividend and the success of the policies of—he will not like me saying this, but I believe it is true—President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in facing down the SS20 threat from the Soviet forces in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, he should go to Greenham Common. On the site, he will see a decommissioned base, the longest runway in Europe, which has been ripped up to form the basis for the Newbury bypass, more jobs in peacetime industries, small businesses, and high-tech industries. That is no thanks to the peace women who stood at the door—

Harry Cohen: It is thanks to President Gorbachev.

Mr. Benyon: —or to the muddled thinking of CND, but with great thanks both to visionary leaders of the west and, I concede to the hon. Gentleman, to President Gorbachev.

Jeremy Corbyn: rose—

Mr. Benyon: We are moving off the point and I shall be ticked off in a minute, but I shall give way a final time.

Jeremy Corbyn: Since the hon. Gentleman mentions Greenham Common, he should remember, as he acknowledges, that the long-running Greenham women’s peace camp was a beacon for peace campaigners throughout the world; it changed atmospheres and attitudes, and attracted people from throughout the world. Surely, it is in part a tribute to them that Greenham Common is no longer a nuclear base but mainly a park.

Mr. Martyn Jones (in the Chair): Order. I am sure that the hon. Member for Newbury will not be drawn along that path.

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