Britain boosts nuclear bomb research

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  • 09:30 24 May 2003
  • Exclusive from New Scientist Print Edition
  • Rob Edwards

Hundreds of extra scientists are being sought to work on Britain¹s nuclear bomb programme. Their job will be to maintain Britain¹s Trident warheads, to help ensure that new weapons can be designed in the future and to conduct joint research with the US.

But the recruitment drive has raised fears that Britain risks being sucked into fresh US research on low-yield nuclear weapons ­ so-called "mini-nukes" ­ for use as bunker busters on the battlefield.

Britain "is being dragged down the slippery slope towards new nuclear weapons and nuclear testing by the US," says Kathryn Crandall, an analyst with the British American Security Information Council, an independent think tank in Washington DC.

A spokesman for Britain¹s Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston, Berkshire, confirmed to New Scientist that it is planning to increase its workforce from 3500 to 3800 "or even higher" by 2008. It hopes to hire up to 80 physicists, materials scientists and systems engineers in 2003 alone.

No detonation

The AWE says the increase is needed because it is having to adopt new skills to enable it to work on nuclear bombs without detonating them. Britain and the US agreed to cease their joint underground nuclear testing programme in 1996, though there are fears that the US now wants to start testing again.

The new recruits will service the 200 warheads for the Trident missiles carried by four British submarines. They will also help "maintain the capability" to design a replacement for Trident, if that is ever required.

The AWE says that some recruits are "highly likely" to be involved in research with the US under a 1958 Mutual Defence Agreement. This research includes a joint investigation into the properties of plutonium in a series of subcritical tests at an underground laboratory in the Nevada desert, the first of which took place in February 2002.

There are more than 200 visits a year to the US by AWE staff and there are some 16 joint working groups, including one on nuclear weapons engineering and another on nuclear warhead physics.

And the Bush administration¹s request to conduct research into mini-nukes ­ weapons with a yield of less than five kilotons ­ is due to be considered by Congress this week.

Creative and curious

If this mini-nuke research goes ahead, some believe it¹ll be tough for British researchers not to become involved.

"These are creative, curious scientists who want to explore new concepts. They will obviously be interested in any new US research," says Ivan Oelrich, director of the strategic security project at the Federation of American Scientists.

So while AWE says it is not currently working with the US to produce "any kind of nuclear weapon", its denials have failed to dispel suspicions in the antinuclear camp.

Rachel Western of Friends of the Earth believes Britain will eventually investigate mini-nukes, because she says it is on the same weapons production "treadmill" as the US.