One of the country's top scientists has said it is time to address how the skills and resources at Britain's nuclear weapons factory could be used if the government decided to cancel the Trident programme.
Writing in the foreword to a new Nuclear Information Service report about the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), the Berkshire factory where the UK's Trident nuclear warheads are built and maintained, Professor Martin Rees (Lord Rees of Ludlow), Astronomer Royal and a former President of the Royal Society, said that it was “highly relevant” to consider how these skills and resources “might be gradually redeployed in the civil sector”. The report is available to download at the end of this article.
AWE's future is closely linked to the future of the Trident programme and the report, by the Reading-based Nuclear Information Service, examines the consequences of a decision by a future government to close the programme, and sets out a blueprint to show how the Establishment could successfully diversify its work into the civilian sector.
Heightened political debate about the Trident programme – and the possibility that it may be postponed, modified or even cancelled – has led to lively discussion about the future of industrial sites such as AWE which rely on Trident.
Sir Martin paid tribute to AWE as “one of the premier technological establishments in the United Kingdom”, but pointed out that its ‘mission’ is controversial – “and one that most people hope will not persist in future decades”.
He said that the future of Trident was “a crucial strategic and ethical decision” which merits “far wider and more open discussion than it is currently getting”.
The report from Nuclear Information Service acknowledges that AWE is an important national resource in terms of its scientific expertise and equipment, and a major local employer which makes a significant contribution to the local economy. AWE currently employs around 4900 people directly and a further 890 contractors.
It concludes that if the Trident programme was cancelled, the likelihood of outright closure of the Establishment would be “low”. Decommissioning of radioactively contaminated facilities is likely to last into the 2040s / 50s, with a need to hold radioactive wastes securely at the site until at least 2070. AWE's expertise on disarmament verification and nuclear threat reduction would most likely be retained by government regardless of any decision to cease warhead production.
The prospects for a post-Trident AWE to move away from its current role into civil sector markets are good, and are compatible with regional economic development strategies for the Thames Valley which aim to increase technological innovation in the area. As a result, “jobs and economic benefits at AWE need not be lost in the short to medium term” and could be conserved in the long term “by putting the Establishment's assets and skills to work in pursuit of innovative new civil sector business opportunities”.
AWE is well placed to co-operate on new high-tech civil sector work through association with the Universities of Reading, Oxford, and Surrey, which are located relatively close by, and its partnerships with a number of other universities around the country.
The report draws parallels between AWE, the former nuclear research site at Harwell, and the former laboratory at Porton Down, responsible for government research on chemical and biological weapons. Harwell and Porton Down were both successfully converted to commercially viable enterprises undertaking a diverse range of work, with a smaller core remaining within the government sector. These sites “provide models for the future trajectory of AWE”, says the study.
Download the NIS report 'AWE – Britain's Nuclear Weapons Factory: Past, Present, and Possibilities for the Future' here: