Sunday, 29 July 2012

Faslane and Coulport nuclear weapons maintenance to be privatised – Polaris?

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has made a contractual commitment to hand over to a private sector consortium the maintenance of the UK’s nuclear weapons – described by the BBC as ‘Trident and Polaris weapons systems’ – held in Argyll at Faslane and Coulport on the Clyde.

This raises an immediate public information issue.

What is our position on the Polaris system? It was quite a shock to see it mentioned, like a rising from almost forgotten history.

Polaris – and are we storing redundant warheads?

The Polaris missile system was a two-stage solid-fuel nuclear-armed submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). It was built by Lockheeds in America during the Cold War and was carried by the four purpose built Resolution class submarines.

Resolution, Repulse, Renown and Revenge were built between 1964 and 1968 and were based at Faslane.

They carried the UK’s Polaris nuclear deterrent from the end of the 1960s until 1994. At this point it was replaced by the Trident II system carried in the Vanguard class submarines.

During the 1980s, the USA scrapped and replaced its own Polaris missile systems with the Trident I system.

The UK hung on to Polaris for far longer, to the point where the American manufacturing plants had gone over first to building the Poseidon system and later to Trident – and spares for Polaris system were virtually non-existent.

Both the Polaris missile system and the Resolution submarines had gone out of operational use in the UK by 1996, with the last two of the four submarines, Renown and Repulse, decommissioned in that year. Britain’s Polaris era ended in a ceremony at Faslane on 28th August 1996 at mark the decommissioning of the last of them, Repulse.

The news today raises the question about what happened to their missiles?

Privatising missile ‘maintenance’ – now to be contracted out into the private sector – at Faslane and Coulport, would suggest that these, now 16 year old redundant warheads, must be stored in one of those two bases.

Whatever the Scottish government finally decides to do in relation to the Trident submarines operating out of Faslane, it must require the UK government to move redundant warheads out of Scotland.

Should they be said to be in too dangerous a condition to be moved – like the hulks of earlier nuclear powered submarines lying at Rosyth – we would be entitled to inquire about the calibre of maintenance which has applied since they were taken out of service.

In terms of the privatisation contract itself, which the MoD has signed – given that it relates to Faslane and Coulport, did the MoD consult the Scottish government on the matter before going ahead? It would be diplomatically indelicate if it had not, knowing the Scottish Government’s position on nuclear weapons on Scottish soil.

Privatisation of maintenance of nuclear weapons – no new notion

The privatisation of security which produced the inglorious G4S failure, undermined public confidence in the organisation of the ongoing 2012 Olympic Games in London. One would therefore have expected some gesture of consultation with the Scottish government and the Scottish people on any plan to privatise the maintenance of nuclear weapons here.

The plan appears to be to transfer MoD staff to the private sector consortium, along with the contract. The corporate members of the consortium are already defence contractors, so Lockheed Martin is going to have an extended overall influence on direction – AWE, Babcock and Lockheed Martin.

AWE is also an establishment with a poor safety record. Back in May 2008 we published an article on a situation where the MoD was forced to close Burghfield, following the establishment’s six year failure to come to terms with 1,000 safety shortfalls identified by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII).

The shut down of AWE Burghfield left warheads backing up at Coulport that were overdue to be taken to Burghfield to be ‘serviced’ (dismantled and rebuilt) in its highly controversial ‘gravel gerties’. (Safety ban on crucial maintenance at-Berkshire’s Burghfield nuclear weapon factory stops transportation of trident warheads to and from Faslane and Coulport.)

At the end of that year, in December 2008, the UK governement sold its remaining stake in AWE to American company, Jacobs, without troubling properly to inform parliament – a matter on which we also published. (Argyll concerns as UK government sells last stake in-Britain’s UK based nuclear warhead production to America.)

The UK government plan to hive off responsibility for nuclear weapons maintenance to the private sector and to AWE is not new. They tried this at the end of 2010, a move we reported on in early November then. (Argyll’s Coulport nuclear warhead base to be sold to USA private sector.)

Secen months after this, on 29th May 2011, we reported on the unequivocal opposition to this proposition from Argyll and Bute’s MSP, Michael Russell. (UK Government intend to privatise handling of nuclear weapons at Coulport: Michael Russell MSP says No.)

We are asking Mr Russell to establish if the UK government has consulted the Scottish Government on this current variation of its long standing intention; and to establish what the view of the Scottish Government is on the matter.

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