AWE visits to the USA give insight into US-UK nuclear co-operation

Recently revealed information on visits to the United States of America by staff from the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) has shed a little more light on the nature of US – UK co-operation on nuclear weapons programmes.

Peter Luff, Minister for Defence Equipment, Support, and Technology, has released figures showing the numbers of visits by AWE staff to US government and nuclear establishments under the terms of the 1958 US-UK Mutual Defense Agreement in response to a Parliamentary Question asked by Labour MP Paul Flynn in December 2010.  The figures released show the numbers of visits made by AWE staff over each of the three years 2007 – 2009 (a copy of the letter is available to download below).

By far the greatest numbers of visits took place to three Department of Energy national laboratories that play key research and development roles in the USA's nuclear weapons programmes: Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico and California.  AWE staff notched up 221 visits to the two Sandia sites in 2009, against 166 visits to Lawrence Livermore and 164 visits to Los Alamos.

The three laboratories have a range of sophisticated research facilities which are able to conduct high energy density physics experiments far beyond the ability of AWE's own facilities.  Data from such experiments can be used to model the behaviour of a warhead during a nuclear explosion without the need to conduct a full nuclear test.

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is able to conduct high power laser experiments, including experiments with the recently opened National Ignition Facility –  the world's highest energy laser facility.  The Laboratory also undertakes high performance computing simulations to model nuclear explosions using experimental data.

Los Alamos National Laboratory also plays an important role in modelling and testing the behaviour of the USA's nuclear weapons and their components, sharing high level expertise in plutonium production, chemistry and metallurgy research; and weapons engineering with colleagues from AWE.  Research facilities available at Los Alamos include the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center (LANSCE), one of the world's most powerful linear accelerators, and the Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility (DARHT), currently the only facility in the world able to conduct double-viewpoint hydrodynamic tests of nuclear weapon mockups.

Sandia National Laboratories undertakes design and testing work on nuclear weapons components and conduct assessment and certification of modifications and upgrades to nuclear weapons and their components.  Last year Sandia undertook the first trials test for the upgraded W76-1 UK Trident warhead, providing qualification data critical for the  implementation programme for the warhead upgrade.  AWE's scientists are also able to conduct experiments using Sandia's  'Z facility', a pulsed power accelerator able to create extreme temperatures and pressures to evaluate weapon science phenomena and investigate warhead materials.  Sandia National Laboratories is managed by the Sandia Corporation, a subsidiary company of Lockheed Martin – one of the partners managing AWE – which may explain why visits to the Sandia sites were more frequent than visits to Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos.

The total number of visits made to US establishments by AWE staff in 2009 was 787 – meaning that on average around 15 staff visited the USA every week of the year.  The number of annual visits has fallen steadily since 2007, when 900 trips to the USA took place: possibly a reflection of the more stringent financial climate over recent months.

AWE scientists also made significant numbers of visits to the Nevada Test Site (now known as the Nevada National Security Site).  Although underground nuclear testing at the site ceased in 1992, the site continues to conduct sub-critical nuclear weapons tests and tests involving special nuclear materials and conventional explosives, as well as criticality experiments.

The Y-12 site at Oak Ridge in Tennessee, the Pantex site in xxxx, Honeywell's Kansas City Plant – all involved in warhead and component production operations – and the National Nuclear Security Administration headquarters in Washington DC were also visited frequently by AWE representatives.

The variety of sites visited gives a rough indication of the areas in which collaboration between the USA and UK has been taking place over recent years.  AWE appears to have benefitted from co-operation with the USA on high energy density physics research, warhead systems testing, design of production facilities, and production methods.

The US-UK Mutual Defense Agreement was signed in 1958 to allow the two countries to co-operate on their nuclear weapons programmes.  The Agreement is reviewed and renewed every ten years, and is next scheduled to be reviewed in 2014.  The Mutual Defense Agreement enables exchange visits to take place between each country, with a record kept for each visit.   AWE staff record details of each visit in an 'International Exchange Report', of which around 4500 had been produced by the end of 2007.

Click on the image to visit an interactive visualisation of the data which will allow you to compare and contrast between visits made each year:




You can download a copy of Peter Luff's letter to Paul Flynn here:


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