New warheads are being built and delivered while perfectly serviceable ones are being withdrawn and decommissioned in order to keep the production capability but not go over the ceiling of 200. This has come to light during the Environment Agency's consultation on radioactive discharges from AWE when a break-down of discharges from the decommissioning and production of Trident warheads was published. New warheads also replace those destroyed in stockpile checks. The life of each Trident warhead has been extended following these checks. Verification monitoring of SNM convoys has confirmed our view that the tritium-collecting run to Chapelcross near Gretna Green in Scotland is the one to highlight in future. Tritium is the most easily identifiable load essential for warhead manufacture now that there is a surplus of Plutonium at AWE.
Now that Vanguard, the first of the four SSBN Trident submarines has entered the Devonport Management Limited (DML) dockyard for refitting after seven years at sea, attention is focusing on the risks attached to servicing nuclear powered submarines. The most dangerous part of the process is when old fuel rods are removed from the nuclear reactor and replaced with new ones. Another aspect of the refit is the discharge of nuclear waste into the River Tamar. These are the safety issues for the people of Plymouth, in the heart of whose city DML is located, next to the naval base and only yards from a residential estate and school. It is hard now to see how the navy came to decide on this site, given that as far back as 1967, it agreed it was not a suitable site for a nuclear base and would never build one there.
The reason Trident submarines are not popular when it comes to the reality of their servicing requirements is that they bring little or no benefit to a locality, only fear and worry. This characterises their purpose in international politics too. Fear and worry is intended to prevent a foreign government from launching a devastating attack on Britain. But since 11th September that is not the biggest worry. Indeed the vulnerability of a docked Trident submarine to attack from a suicide bomber must be the higher risk.
The only thing that will encourage ordinary people to come to terms with having a working nuclear submarine dock nearby is if the work done actually prevented the problem from continuing into the future. That means decommissioning the submarine. We know this is a general public view from the ISOLUS Consultation report, when the public were asked where old submarine reactor compartments could be stored. If Vanguard comes out of service and is laid up, then the dilemma for the navy is partly solved. Where it is laid up would remain open to discussion, but at least the servicing dangers would be halved: the operation to remove the reactor fuel rods would not be followed by the operation to replace them. This solution would give the navy time to address the problems of a future location and at the same time, Britain would make a significant contribution to arms control.
The dilemma for those pressing for nuclear disarmament is that decommissioning a nuclear submarine has to be done somewhere. There is no magic fix. Devonport is not the place, but Rosyth, the other possible site in Scotland, has already been rejected by the government. The prospect of achieving public acceptance of a completely different site is nil – thus is the dilemma.
If the people of Plymouth, nuclear disarmers and the navy are not willing to compromise, then the risk of a nuclear accident has no end in sight. To arrive at a watertight (sic) policy that has the confidence of ordinary people will take time. Confidence Building Measures are needed in the meantime to pave the way for future progress. Such a measure would be to acknowledge that Trident policy is not written in a tablet of stone, and that women and men of goodwill can resolve the current crisis. Whether or not the navy has the will for compromise, it may find it is its 'least worst' option.
Since HMS Vanguard entered Devenport Dockyard for its refit the campaign and monitoring group Nukewatch has launched an initiative aimed at monitoring the nuclear refuelling process. You can download their leaflet in pdf format here – Attachment: refuel.pdf.