NIS Update: August – September 2010



An independent account of the UK-Norway Initiative, a three-year project between the two nations to investigate the verification of nuclear warhead dismantlement, has been published by the non-government organisation VERTIC (Verification Research, Training and Information Centre).

The UK-Norway Initiative was the first time a non-nuclear-weapon state has partnered with a nuclear-weapon state to explore disarmament verification issues, with VERTIC acting as an independent observer for the Initiative. ‘Remarkably,’ said Andreas Persbo, VERTIC’s Executive Director, ‘the UK-Norway Initiative represents only the second time full-scale simulated dismantlement exercises of this kind have been held, the first being in 1960s America, and the only such undertaking of a bilateral nature.’

The UK-Norway Initiative arranged two mock nuclear weapons inspection visits last year, and VERTIC has found that conclusions from the inspections mirror past findings in striking fashion. ‘All inspection exercises have one thing in common,’ says the report: ‘they all aim to find a balance between the inspector’s need for access and the inspected party’s need to maintain confidentiality.’

The Anglo-Norwegian programme proceeded on two fronts: ‘information barrier’ technology and managed access methodologies, and was ‘driven by the goal of finding verification solutions, not verification problems,’ said Mr Persbo. One of the main conclusions of the Initiative was that properly managed collaboration between a nuclear and a non-nuclear-weapon state in the field of dismantlement verification can be done without fear of compromising sensitive or proliferative information. The report draws an encouraging conclusion: Scientific collaboration between nuclear and non-nuclear-weapon states in this regard is both an achievable and a sensible goal'.



Britain's biggest defence industry trade body has urged the government to clarify how the replacement for the Trident nuclear weapons system will be paid for, voicing fears that its high cost could hit orders for other military equipment.

Ian Godden, chairman of ADS, the trade organisation advising the UK aerospace, defence, and security industries, has written to Prime Minister David Cameron asking for clarity over whether the capital costs of Trident's replacement are to be paid for by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) following statements from Treasury Ministers that no extra funds would be provided to MoD to cover the costs of the replacement programme.

Defence equipment contractors are worried that if the MoD has to pick up the bill for Trident, it could force even deeper cuts than expected to spending on conventional weapons, leading to fewer equipment orders. Mr Godden claimed that uncertainty over the Trident missile system was causing "great concern" and "unsettling" both investors and the UK's allies.

In his letter to Mr Cameron he said the UK-based defence industry had "reflected with great concern on the recent statements by senior ministers in the media about the nation's nuclear deterrent".

Industry needs to know whether replacing Trident would lead to extra cuts in the requirements of the Armed Forces, he continued. "A decision to move Trident renewal to the defence budget without a commensurate transfer of funding calls into question the integrity of the SDSR process and complicates the future funding of our conventional capabilities and our nation's ability to support its allies. It is vital that this confusion is cleared up as soon as possible."

"I would therefore be grateful if you could provide the clarity that industry needs on the future of the nuclear deterrent, especially on how Trident will be funded and whether it will lead to extra cuts in the conventional capabilities required by our armed forces for the long run," he concluded.

The trade magazine 'Aviation Week' has reported that share prices for BAE Systems, owner of the Barrow shipyard where successor submarines to replace Trident would be built, are trading at a 20-40% discount compared with the company's peers, in part reflecting concerns over what may be ahead. The magazine states that “utter uncertainty over the UK budget, especially the carrier,” is a significant factor contributing to the drag on the stock price.



The Ministry of Defence's annual accounts for the 2009-10 financial year have been published, giving a picture of the Ministry's financial performance over the year.

The report gives the Ministry's response to a 2008 National Audit Office report on the Trident replacement programme, which concluded that more information was needed on the costs and risks of the replacement programme. It reveals that MoD cost modeling for the programme's Initial Gate Business Case is continuing in parallel with the Trident Value for Money Review which is currently underway. This should allow MoD to develop a more detailed set of cost estimates for the infrastructure, missile and warhead elements of the programme. The cost model will be subject to independent scrutiny, and commercial accountants Deloitte have been commissioned to validate and challenge the model and the assumptions behind it, as well as the cost inputs for the model. The accounts state that more detailed information on costs gained from the modelling work will be presented at the Initial Gate decision point for the Trident replacement project, which is expected to be reached later this year.

The accounts show that MoD underspent by over a billion pounds last year, with a net outturn for Total Resources expenditure of £41,050,567,000 against an estimate of £42,176,246,000.

Once again the auditor's statement on the accounts was qualified, meaning that MoD had not properly complied with the government's financial reporting requirements. Expenditure, assets, and liabilities on certain contracts had not been properly accounted for, with the auditor unable to quantify the impact of this “because the Ministry of Defence has not maintained the records or obtained the information required to comply with Financial Reporting Standards”. The auditor also reported that the Ministry had failed to maintain adequate accounting records and supporting evidence for deductions from pay to military personnel (recorded as having a value of £87 million) and had failed to operate adequate stocktaking and asset verification procedures relating to assets with a total value recorded as £6.3 billion.




Defence Secretary Liam Fox has announced that the government's Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) has exposed the need for changes in the Ministry of Defence itself, and has launched a full review of how the Ministry of Defence is run and how the armed forces can be reformed, establishing a new Defence Reform Unit to make the necessary changes.

Dr Fox has announced that the review will follow two broad principles: a structural reform which will see MoD reorganised into three pillars for Policy and Strategy, the Armed Forces, and Procurement and Estates; and a cultural shift which will see a leaner and less centralised organisation able to operate with greater accountability and transparency.

The work will be led by the Defence Reform Unit, which Dr Fox described as “a heavy-hitting steering group of internal and external experts [who] will guide the hard thinking and challenge preconceptions”.

The unit will be chaired by Lord Peter Levene, Chair of the Lloyds of London insurance market and former Chief of Defence Procurement at the MoD, supported by Baroness Sheila Noakes, George Iacobescu, Dr David Allen, Björn Conway and Raymond McKeeve. It will work with the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Service Chiefs to find ways of devolving the running of the armed forces, and has a remit to complete the blueprint for reform by September 2011.

The new three pillar structure for the MoD is intended to stop the constant over-specification and then re-specification of programmes which has led to cost overruns and programme delays, and also allow more decision-making power to be delegated to the military so as to break away from the over-centralising tendency that has become the hallmark of the MOD in recent years.




Work to shape the design of the next generation of ballistic missile submarines for both the Royal Navy and US Navy continues apace, with news that further contracts have been issued for the design of a 'common missile compartment' for the two fleets.

The common missile compartment will contain the missile launch tubes and accompanying systems that would be used to launch new ballistic missiles which will be successors to the current Trident D5 missile fleet. The UK buys its Trident missiles directly from the USA, and so the launch tubes for the successor to the Vanguard class Trident submarines must be compatible to both the current Trident missile and whatever design the US eventually decides to replace it with.

The missile compartment will reportedly carry just 12 tubes, as opposed to the 24 currently in the USA's Ohio class Trident submarines and the 16 in the UK's Vanguard class submarines. As well as acting as a launch compartment for nuclear missiles, the compartment is likely to be adaptable to allow the submarines to launch cruise missiles, unmanned drone aircraft, unmanned undersea vehicles, and special forces from the tubes.

Two contracts for work on the compartment were issued in June by the US Navy's Strategic Systems Programs office. The first, to Northrop Grumman, was for work valued at 148.6 million on the missile compartment’s advanced launcher development program, including technical engineering services to support the common missile compartment concept development and prototyping effort. Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co was awarded a second contract for systems engineering services, to help integrate current Trident D5 nuclear missiles into the new submarine’s common missile compartment, with a value of 29.7 million.

A number of earlier contracts have already been issued to the General Dynamics Electric Boat Company for concept studies and design of the common missile compartment.

New US submarines are to begin replacing the service's 14 Ohio-class boats in 2029, with construction of the first vessel scheduled to begin in 2019. Expected to remain in service through the 2080s, the submarine has not yet been designed in detail. The replacement programme is several years behind the programme to replace the UK's Vanguard class submarines, and the US Navy is watching the UK's replacement efforts closely to learn from the experience. Initially – at least – the vessel will carry the same type of ballistic missile as is fielded today.

In March US Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that the USA's future submarine programme could be very costly, with an estimated price of roughly 7 billion for each boat at current prices.





The Health and Safety Executive has announced annual figures for holdings of civil plutonium and highly enriched uranium. At 31 December 2009 the UK held 112.1 tonnes of unirradiated plutonium (up from 109.1 tonnes held the previous year) with a further 34 tonnes of plutonium contained in spent civil nuclear reactor fuel. The vast majority of this material was held at the Sellafield reprocessing plant. Holdings of civil high enriched uranium totalled 1404 kilograms (1412 kilograms in 2008), with civil holdings of civil depleted, natural and low enriched uranium totalling 100,500 tonnes.





AWE has admitted that the fire which broke out at its Aldermaston site on 3 August has resulted in a release of asbestos.

The fire broke out in a process building used in the manufacture of explosives in the conventional explosives area which is located to the east of the AWE Aldermaston site. Early indications suggest that it started when methyl ethyl ketone, a solvent used in a manufacturing process, flashed and caught fire.

Asbestos was a common construction material in the 1950s and 1960, when many of the buildings on the AWE site were built. The substance can usually be managed safely but if it is disturbed it can break up into tiny fibres which can cause serious lung diseases.

The company's public statements at the time of the fire stressed that the incident led to no release of radioactive material, but made no mention of potential risks from asbestos. News of the problem only came to light through a report in the 'Observer' newspaper, which reported that the fire had resulted in asbestos contamination at AWE Aldermaston.

AWE has a duty in law to protect people from exposure to asbestos fibres, and advice from the government's Health Protection Agency stresses the need to manage risks by keeping the public informed. The Agency's advice states that “Providing appropriate and timely information to members of the public is a key element of the response to any chemical incident. However, given the public perception of risks from asbestos it is especially important for such incidents.”.

Specialists have now begun recovery work inside the building which was damaged by the fire, and AWE has agreed to undertake an investigation into the incident led by an external independent chairman as requested by NIS and others at the time of the fire. A separate investigation is being carried out by the Hazardous Installations Directorate of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

In response to news reports about asbestos contamination, AWE said: “While the structure of the fire-affected building did contain some asbestos which has sustained damage, this will be dealt with in accordance with established safety procedures. However, thorough sampling – both on and off-site – has confirmed that any asbestos was localised to the immediate vicinity of the building and did not affect staff or members of the public.”




The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate's latest quarterly report on AWE mentions '”significant concerns” that the Inspectorate has regarding delays in construction of a new facility for the treatment of intermediate level radioactive waste.

In 2007 NII issued a specification requiring AWE plc to have made significant progress with the treatment and passivation of intermediate level radioactive waste currently stored on the Aldermaston site by 2014. NII wrote to AWE in June 2010 regarding significant concerns over slow progress with the design of the facility which will be constructed for this purpose. AWE is now “taking steps to address these issues and to restore NII’s confidence in its ability to comply with the requirements of the specification”.

The quarterly report also announces that a leakage of low-level radioactive waste occurred at AWE as a result of a poorly fitting hose joint used during radioactive waste water transfer operations. A number of deficiencies were identified as causes of the event and AWE has embargoed similar operations until a review has been completed and corrective actions have been taken. Both the NII and the EA have written to the company regarding the event and its programme of corrective actions.





AWE has taken delivery of a third new Bull supercomputer to help ensure ‘its understanding of elemental physics and ensure the UK’s nuclear deterrent is safely maintained.’

The system is the largest bought by AWE to date and follows the purchase of two other supercompters from French IT provider Bull earlier this year. It has been given the name ‘Blackthorn’ and comprises 2,160 (6 core) processors in 1080 blades with 750 terabytes of storage. Peak performance is 145 teraflops (trillions of calculations per second). By contrast, the new supercomputer at Southampton University, to date the fastest university-owned supercomputer in the UK, is capable of just 72 teraflops. The fastest supercomputers in the world manage just over one petaflop – 1000 trillion calculations per second.

Having now passed acceptance testing it is the most powerful supercomputer used by AWE, and is believed to be one of the most powerful supercomputers in the UK.

Blackthorn will work alongside two other large scale Bull supercomputers, named 'Willow', supplied to AWE earlier this year. The latest addition is more powerful and is designed mainly to process very large single projects, while the Willows will continue working on several smaller concurrent projects.

Ken Atkinson, AWE's High Performance Computer Strategy Manager, said: “We are going to use Blackthorn for large projects which could take several days or even weeks to complete. It was therefore fundamentally important to us that the supercomputer had no single point of failure so it could survive a problem in, say, one of its disks, without the whole computer breaking down.”

With live testing of nuclear weapons forbidden by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, AWE scientists intend to run extremely complex simulations to design new weapons and form an idea of how reliable existing warhead arsenals will be over time. "This investment will … underpin our continued ability to underwrite the safety and effectiveness of the Trident warhead in the Comprehensive Test Ban era," said Dr Graeme Nicholson, AWE's Director Science and Technology.

Bull also provides computer capacity for the French nuclear weapons programme, having recently supplied a petaflop-grade Tera 100 system to the Military Applications department of the Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique (CEA).


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