The virtual option

The BASIC Trident Commission was set up almost a year ago to investigate the United Kingdom's nuclear weapons policy and the issue of Trident renewal and, better late than never, I've just got round to submitting Nuclear Information Service's evidence to the Commission.

The Trident Commission is an independent, cross-party commission of senior political figures and experts which will consider evidence from a wide variety of sources before preparing its report, with the aim of stimulating debate on the UK's nuclear weapons before the next election.  Already a formidable body of evidence has been submitted to the Commission from viewpoints ranging from the 'Trident at all costs' position of Conservative MP Julian Lewis to the committed pro-disarmament angle of Bruce Kent.

NIS's evidence (available to download at the bottom of the page) looks at NATO's contribution to the UK's security and the role that the UK can most effectively play in NATO, the risks the UK faces in remaining a nuclear-weapon state - and in particular safety issues associated with the Ministry of Defence's nuclear programme – and some of the alternatives to replacing Trident.

One of the more interesting alternatives to replacing Trident which we discuss is the possibility of the UK abandoning its nuclear weapons but becoming a 'virtual' nuclear power.  

As a state which had renounced its nuclear  arsenal, the UK would retain a significant repository of knowledge about nuclear weapons technology.  This would allow the UK to  retain the capability to develop an improvised nuclear weapon at relatively short notice and rebuild its nuclear weapons capability over a longer period if the international situation deteriorated to such an extent that this became necessary.

Marvin L. Adams and Sidney D. Drel
l, two American authors with considerable authority on the US nuclear weapons programme, contend that the critical asset in sustaining a nuclear enterprise is the quality of the personnel and expertise available to a nation, and that a pool of innovative high quality scientists and engineers plays a major deterrent role.  According to Adams and Drell, “Expert personnel constitute more of a deterrent to evolving threats than do facilities or even existing weapons.  Given sufficient resources, people with the appropriate expertise can respond quickly to unanticipated problems or changes in requirements and can provide confidence in the solutions they produce”.

If the UK was to become a virtual nuclear power the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), where the UK's nuclear weapons are developed, manufactured, and dismantled, would have a key role to play.  The Establishment's scientists would need to retain  weapons design skills, but more importantly, would have to further develop their work on national nuclear security, verification and confidence-building.  AWE's work in these areas should be developed in a planned and systematic way so that, if the UK were to dismantle its nuclear weapons, AWE would be able to play the role needed to prevent other nations from cheating on disarmament pledges and maintain a latent nuclear capability within the UK.

Trident replacement is not the only nuclear option open to the UK, and a virtual nuclear capability is only one of a wide range of alternatives.    More discussion and debate is needed on the alternatives before the government makes an irreversible decision to replace Trident.

Download Nuclear Information Service's evidence to the BASIC Trident Commission here: