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U.K. to Sign Contract For Ballistic Missile Sub Reactor

The United Kingdom next week is set to formalize a contract that includes an order for a reactor for a new ballistic missile submarine expected under a plan to modernize the nation's nuclear deterrent, Reuters reported (see GSN, May 22).

The $1.6 billion agreement with Rolls-Royce encompasses an 11-year plan to refurbish the country's only facility for manufacturing atomic reactors for submarines, Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said in an interview with the BBC. "This is sustaining a sovereign capability in the U.K. and some very high-end technical skills in the U.K. for the next 40 or 50 years."

The Conservative-led coalition government has said it would not make a final decision until 2016 on implementing a plan to modernize the country's fleet of four nuclear-armed submarines at a projected cost of more than $31 billion.

The Conservative Party supports moving forward with the Labor-era plan, which would replace all four existing Trident ballistic missile vessels that are slated for retirement starting in the 2020s. The Liberal Democrat Party, which is a junior partner in the government, opposes the current nuclear modernization plan.

In the interim, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have agreed to finance the preliminary work needed for the effort so the vessels can be produced according to schedule if needed. In 2011, London announced it anticipated paying out close to $4.7 billion by 2015 for preliminary preparations on Trident nuclear modernization.

The Liberal Democrats maintain that the orders for preliminary work do not signify a government intention to implement the submarine replacement plan. Some defense experts, however, point out the high improbability that the fiscally constrained government would sign contracts worth billions of dollars for advance planning if it did not intend to move forward with the modernization effort.

Still, the defense secretary claimed London had not made a final decision on the matter.

"The government's policy is very clear. We are committed to maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent and we are placing orders now for the long-lead items that will be necessary to deliver a successor to the Vanguard-class submarines in the late 2020s," said Hammond, a Conservative. "But the actual decision to go ahead and build them won't have to be taken until 2016 and what we are doing at the moment is ordering the things that have to be ordered now to give us that option."

In May, the Defense Ministry signed $548 million in contracts for blueprints for the replacement Vanguard submarines (Tim Castle, Reuters, June 17).

One-time Liberal Democrats chief Menzies Campbell said Monday's announcement of the reactor contract did not mean an official decision had been made to proceed with nuclear modernization, the London Guardian reported.

"The position of the Liberal Democrats before the last general election was that the cost of a like-for-like replacement of Trident was so great that it was necessary to examine alternatives," Campbell said in an interview with BBC. "That (review) is not affected by this announcement. Even if there was no Trident submarine program we would still have had to upgrade these [submarine nuclear reactor] facilities (at Derby) in order to ensure that the reactor cores for the Astute-class [submarines] … were being properly constructed and in a safe environment."

Armed Forces Minister and Liberal Democrat member Nick Harvey is heading up an analysis of possible other options for the British nuclear arsenal. One idea would involve the fielding of nuclear-armed cruise missiles on Astute attack vessels (Nicholas Watt, London Guardian, June 17).

Meanwhile, the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has released a new step-by-step plan for ridding Scotland of all British nuclear weapons no more than two years after a possible vote in favor of secession, the Glasgow Herald newspaper reported on Sunday (see GSN, June 14).

The plan has been warmly received by Scotland's governing Scottish National Party and been declared viable by private analysts, according to the newspaper. The assessment states it would only take seven days to have all four Vanguard submarines returned to their home port at Faslane and their nuclear warheads disabled. Eight days would be needed to disarm the fleet's Trident ballistic missiles.

The country's entire arsenal of 220 warheads kept at the Coulport depot and the nearby Faslane naval base could be disarmed in no more than a year, according to the analysis. All of the nuclear weapons could be withdrawn by land from Scotland within two years and the entire nuclear arsenal could be broken down into components in no more than four years, the guidance states.

The Scottish National Party has called for a vote on independence as soon as 2014. The party is pushing for an independent Scotland to evict all  British nuclear arsenal assets.

"We are firmly committed to the earliest possible withdrawal of Trident from Scotland, and to the pursuit of a world which is free from nuclear weapons. The suggested timetable is a welcome indication of how quickly Trident could be removed once Scotland has the powers to decide its own defense and security policy, and we note that various international experts have highlighted a credible timetable," an unidentified SNP government spokeswoman said to the newspaper (Rob Edwards, Glasgow Herald, June 17).

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