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Nuclear

Last Updated: August, 2015

The United Kingdom's involvement in the development of nuclear weapons and energy dates back to 1940 when two émigré scientists based in England, Otto Frisch and Fritz Peierls, laid the conceptual groundwork for how an operational atomic bomb could be constructed.

Nuclear

The United Kingdom's involvement in nuclear energy and weapons development dates back to 1940 when two émigré scientists based in England, Otto Frisch and Fritz Peierls, laid the conceptual groundwork for the atomic bomb.

Initially conducting its own research, the United Kingdom later sent several scientists to Los Alamos to contribute to the Manhattan Project. Following the war, and the passing of the Atomic Energy Act in the United States, the United Kingdom decided to pursue its own nuclear weapons program. This program was led by William G. Penney—a British scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project. Penney's position at Los Alamos Laboratory equipped him with the tacit knowledge needed for a successful nuclear program.

Multiple factors influenced the United Kingdom's decision to pursue an indigenous nuclear weapons program. As a result of its diminished economic and military strength in the immediate post-war years, the United Kingdom viewed nuclear weapons as a way to maintain its status as a global power. An independent nuclear deterrent was also intended to augment, or at least "hedge" against a breakdown of, the U.S. nuclear guarantee in Europe. [1] The emerging Soviet threat in Eastern Europe led UK defense planners to consider a "second center of decision-making" which would, in the event of conflict, force Moscow to take into account responses from both London and Washington. [2]

These considerations, coupled with United States' domestic political environment, led to the United Kingdom's first nuclear test on 3 October 1952. [3] The test, codename "Hurricane," was held at the Monto Bello Islands off the coast of Australia. The UK's first indigenously produced weapon—a plutonium fission bomb nicknamed the "Blue Danube"—entered service with the Royal Air Force in 1953. [4]

Current Force Configuration

The United Kingdom's nuclear forces today are entirely sea-based. They consist of four Vanguard-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) that each carry up to 16 Trident II D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). Four submarines are believed to be the minimum number required to carry out continuous at-sea deterrence (CASD) while allowing adequate time for the four phases of the continuous patrolling cycle: patrol, reserve, training and repair. [5] While the submarines are designed and constructed in the United Kingdom, the Trident missile is purchased directly from the United States—a process that is deemed more economical as it allows the United Kingdom to "exploit American economies of scale." [6] Furthermore, the UK nuclear warhead, although independent, is based on the U.S. W76 design. [7]

Britain's strategic submarine fleet is based at Her Majesty's Naval Base in Clyde, Scotland, while its operational nuclear warheads are stored at the nearby Coulport ammunition base. [8] Although the United Kingdom does not design its own ballistic missiles, the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermarston does design, build, and maintain the UK nuclear warheads. [9] The strategic submarine fleet has been the key component of the UK deterrent since 1962 when President Kennedy offered then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan the Polaris submarine-launched missile system. [10]

Modernization

Although the United Kingdom has no plans to expand its strategic deterrent, it is planning to replace the existing Trident-carrying nuclear submarines with what it calls a "like-for-like" system (essentially the same delivery platform but in modernized form). [11] The modified submarines will be powered by the PWR3, an updated pressurized water reactor. The PWR3 has longer in-life service and lower through-life maintenance costs. [12] The decision was first presented to the UK parliament in December 2006 by former Prime Minister Tony Blair and laid-out in the 2006 White Paper entitled "The Future of the United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent." [13] The White Paper estimated that replacing all four submarines would cost between GBP 15-and 20 billion. [14] Given that the current Vanguard-class SSBNs will likely begin leaving service in 2024, and it will take over ten years to commission a replacement submarine, a final "main gate" decision on the design plans for the upgraded fleet was considered urgent at the time. [15]

However, the current coalition government has delayed making a final "Main Gate" spending decision until 2016 (after the next general election) and any decision on a replacement warhead has been delayed until 2019. If approved, these new submarines would likely enter service in 2028. [16] The postponement of the project has been largely attributed to the UK's overstretched defense budget, and the belief that a delay will save money. [17] Forecasts estimate that the cost of modernization will range from 15 to 20 billion, and in-serve costs will take up to 5-6 percent of the annual defense budget. [18] Additionally, the Liberal Democrats―the junior partner in the UK's coalition government—have been critical of the decision to replace the current naval deterrent with a "like-for-like" system, and have argued that cheaper alternatives have not received due consideration. [19]

In response to Liberal Democrat concerns, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister jointly commissioned the Cabinet Office to investigate possible alternatives to the Trident system. Published in July 2013, the study found that the Trident II missile was not only the most capable system, but also the most cost-effective, backing up a similar finding from the 2006 White Paper, which determined aircraft equipped with cruise missiles, land-based ballistic missiles, and surface sea-based options would either cost more to develop or fail to meet the UK's deterrence requirements. [20] The 2013 review did acknowledge, however, the possibility of cutting costs by ending the permanent SSBN deterrent patrols, and Liberal Democrats praised these savings as a step forward for disarmament. [21]

According to a report by the International Panel on Fissile Materials, the United Kingdom "…is investing in modernizing its nuclear weapon complex. This includes the new Pegasus facility for manufacturing uranium components for weapons to be built at Aldermaston, and the Mensa plant for warhead assembly and disassembly to be located at Burghfield." [22]

To ensure the safety and viability of their nuclear weapons stockpiles - while adhering to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty - the UK and France signed a bilateral agreement in November 2010 allowing for cooperation in this area. [23] Joint activities will involve the construction of a simulation facility in Valduc, France, where scientists will conduct work on the safety and security of their respective warheads. A joint Technology Development Center will also be established in Aldermaston, UK, to develop simulation technology for the center at Valduc. It is estimated that the Valduc facility (EPURE) will become operational around 2015 with construction costs to be split equally between France and the United Kingdom. [24]

Force Posture and Doctrine

The UK nuclear deterrent is assigned to NATO and its primary function is to contribute to the Alliance's collective defense. It has performed this role since 1962 when the United Kingdom agreed to purchase the Polaris ballistic missile system from the United States. [25] Although the four Vanguard-class submarines and their Trident missiles are fully assigned to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), they remain independent due to the nature of NATO command and control systems, which allow British commanders to communicate with both NATO and UK authorities. [26] As a result, SACEUR commands can be overruled in defense of the national interest.

Although the United Kingdom no longer maintains tactical nuclear weapons, the 1998 Strategic Defense Review (SDR) did suggest that the Trident missiles could be given a "sub-strategic" role if required. The term "sub-strategic" was used on numerous occasions in the past, but in 2007 Defense Secretary Des Browne stated, "we have deliberately chosen to stop using the term 'sub-strategic' Trident." [27] Des Browne further explained that the weapons were not meant for use on a battlefield but were rather a form of "self-defence." [28] The insistence that nuclear weapons would only be used in the most extreme circumstances, reflects the 1996 Advisory Opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ). [29]

The 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) gave, for the first time, an assurance that the United Kingdom "will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states parties to the NPT." [30] However, the document also emphasizes that the assurance does not apply to any state deemed to be "in material breach" of its nonproliferation obligations. [31] This language is reflective of the United States' 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which provides a similar assurance and caveat. In addition, the SDSR states that the UK will retain a degree of calculated ambiguity by remaining "deliberately ambiguous about precisely when, how and at what scale" it would contemplate the use of its nuclear weapons. [32] In support of this declaratory policy, the UK maintains a minimal nuclear force that would only be used in "the most extreme circumstance of self defence," including the defense of NATO allies. [33]

Scottish Secession: Ramifications for Trident

Despite the failed Scottish independence referendum which took place on 18 September 2014, Scotland's domestic politics continue to have important implications for Britain's sea based nuclear deterrent. Currently, the United Kingdom's SSBN fleet is based in Scotland at the Faslane naval base, with its nuclear warheads stored nearby at the Coulport weapons depot. [34] Ahead of the independence vote, the Scottish National Party (SNP) released an interim constitution, which stipulated that in the event of independence, Scotland must pursue negotiations towards securing nuclear disarmament and the expeditious removal of all nuclear weapons. [35] Since the vote, SNP has tripled its membership and is now the third largest party in the UK. [36] With the referendum's narrow margin of defeat and the SNP's growing influence in UK politics, London has agreed to increase autonomy for the Scottish government. [37] The plan for maximum devolution (Devo Max) and the possibility of another independence vote in the future make it unlikely that SNP will give up on its plan for exporting UK's nuclear deterrent outside of Scottish territory. UK defense planners must factor in the changing political environment when forecasting long-term plans for its sea based nuclear deterrent.

UK-US Cooperation

Although Anglo-American cooperation was prevalent during World War II, scientific collaboration was halted once the war ended. This was primarily due to U.S. fears over the transfer of knowledge and technology to third parties. But this policy was reversed in 1958 when the U.S. congress passed the Mutual Defense Agreement (MDA), which was primarily a response to the Soviet Union's Sputnik launch in 1957. [38] The United States feared that it was falling behind in the arms race and would benefit from pooling resources and sharing expertise with the United Kingdom. The UK has since had access to U.S. weapons engineering expertise, warhead design, delivery systems, and testing facilities. [39] In return, the United States has benefited from high-level scientific collaboration and access to UK military bases. Technical exchanges between scientists largely took place within the framework of a series of Joint Working Groups (JOWOGs). [40] These groups are still in existence today with both countries benefiting from a "crosscurrent of ideas and information." [41]

This particular relationship is best demonstrated by President Kennedy's Nassau meeting with Prime Minister Macmillan in 1962. Kennedy shared information that the Skybolt missile system, which Britain hoped to procure, had experienced poor test results and offered to sell the Polaris missile system instead. [42] This 1963 Polaris Sales Agreement (PSA) was amended in the 1980s to allow the UK access to the Trident D5 missiles. The agreement will expire in 2040, and Washington has confirmed that it will supply the successor missile to the Trident D5 at the time of its retirement. [43]

Today, cooperation is also evident at the operational level. When the UK's submarines are commissioned, they report to the U.S. naval base at King's Bay, Georgia to load their Trident missiles. Thereafter, they return to the Royal Ammunition depot at Coulport, Scotland to mate their nuclear warheads. [44] All of the UK's Trident missiles are serviced in the United States.

Arms Reductions

During the cold war the United Kingdom maintained a strategic dyad that comprised both sea- and air-based capabilities. It is estimated that in 1989 the United Kingdom had around 250 tactical weapons primarily in the form of WE-177 gravity bombs that could be dropped from a twin-engine Tornado combat aircraft. [45] However, all the WE-177s were retired prior to the Labour government's 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR). In 1989 the United Kingdom also possessed an estimated 43 WE-177A nuclear depth bombs, which were destroyed in 1992. [46]

The 1998 UK SDR concluded that each of the Vanguard-class nuclear submarines should carry a maximum of 48 warheads - a significant reduction from the previous maximum of 96. Furthermore, as part of the 2006 decision to replace the Vanguard-class submarines, former Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that the United Kingdom was implementing a further 20 percent cut in its operational warheads to less than 160. Foreign Secretary William Hague also stated in May 2010 that the United Kingdom intends to possess a total stockpile of no more than 225 nuclear warheads. [47] The most recent UK reductions were outlined in the 2010 SDSR, which contains a commitment to reduce the number of operational warheads onboard each Trident nuclear submarine from 48 to 40, to reduce the number of total operational warheads from 160 to 120, and to reduce the overall stockpile to no more than 180 nuclear warheads. [48] Current debate in the United Kingdom focuses on reductions to the Trident program, with supporters (mainly Liberal Democrats) advocating an alternative weapon system, or a reduction in Vanguard- or successor-class submarines from four boats to two or three. [49] While the number of SSBNs remains four, a number of reductions in warheads have occurred. In 2015 the UK completed reductions of warheads and operational missiles on ballistic missile submarines—40 warheads and 8 missiles—and completed reductions of total operational warheads from 160 to 120 in 2015. [50]

Disarmament

Despite the initial 2006 decision to replace its existing Trident delivery platform, the United Kingdom has been perhaps the strongest supporter of multilateral disarmament among the nuclear weapon states. It currently has the smallest number of deployed nuclear warheads and has cut its nuclear weapons arsenal considerably since the end of the Cold War. Its reliance on only one delivery platform, coupled with the relatively marginal role that nuclear weapons play in the country's defense strategy, means that it would be easier for Britain to cease to be a nuclear power than any of the other nuclear weapons states. [51] Although the UK has resisted calls for unilateral disarmament, Margaret Beckett (former Foreign Minister), David Miliband (former Foreign Minister) and Des Browne (former Defence Secretary) all spoke publically in favor of multilateral and incremental disarmament during their time as ministers. [52] The current coalition government has maintained this stance. [53]

The United Kingdom, in partnership with Norway, has also been carrying out technical research into the verification of nuclear disarmament at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermartson. Both parties hope this research will enable nuclear weapon states to allow non-nuclear weapons states to inspect warhead dismantlement without transferring sensitive information. Toward this end, the initiative focuses on creating information barriers and developing non-destructive assay techniques. [54] Both the United Kingdom and Norway presented an update to their findings at the 2010 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the 2012 NPT Preparatory Committee, and the 2015 NPT Review Conference. [55]

Civilian Nuclear Sector

In comparison to France, the United Kingdom's nuclear energy sector is relatively small, accounting for only 18 percent of electricity generation. [56] This more marginal contribution is due, in large part, to domestic oil and gas reserves in the North Sea. [57] However, the depletion of these resources and the increase in demand means that the United Kingdom will become more dependent on imports - placing greater emphasis on the need for a secure energy supply. [58] This, coupled with the fact that the government is legally bound to curb the country's greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, means that there is a requirement for a significant expansion in nuclear energy. [59] As a result, the government's 2006 energy review acknowledged the need to replace Britain's current nuclear energy infrastructure as and when required. Despite plans to build 12 new reactors, there are many opponents of nuclear energy in the UK who ensure such plans remain subject to debate. [60] There are currently 16 nuclear reactors in the United Kingdom, with the majority of these due to close by 2023. [61] The 2006 report stated that they would be replaced with a new generation of reactors that the private sector will "initiate, fund, construct and operate." [62] In 2009, the government identified ten sites as part of a policy that will include a large expansion in renewable energy and the use of so-called clean coal. As of June 2015, the government had confirmed eight of the ten nominated sites (Bradwell, Hartlepool, Heysham, Hinkley Point, Oldbury, Sellafield, Sizewell, and Wyfla). [63] The UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Energy and Climate Change produced a 2013 report titled "The UK's Nuclear Future," which set the goal of five new nuclear power stations by 2030, pushing back the previous goal of eight sites by 2025. [64] It also appears likely that a further expansion of nuclear power will be needed if the United Kingdom is to meet its ambitious emission targets.

Fuel Cycle Facilities

The United Kingdom imports its uranium supplies but is largely self-sufficient in all other areas of the nuclear fuel cycle. Its facilities can be categorized as follows:

  • Conversion - Carried out at Springfields and managed by Westinghouse under contract to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. This was completed through a deal with Cameco, a uranium producer; however, this deal was terminated prematurely in August 2014. [65]
  • Deconversion - Urenco is planning to build a deconversion plant at Capenhurst with operation due to begin in 2015. It will treat uranium tails from all three Urenco enrichment sites at Capenhurst, Almelo in the Netherlands, and Gronau in Germany. [66]
  • Enrichment - Carried out by Urenco at its centrifuge plant at Capenhurst. This was previously the site of the gaseous diffusion plant that enriched uranium for defense purposes. [67]
  • Fuel Fabrication - Takes place at Springfields and includes AGR and LWR fuels. [68]
  • Reprocessing - Undertaken at Sellafield, Cumbria. The THORP plant previously took spent fuel from international customers and is expected to remain in operation until at least 2016. [69]
  • Waste - The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) is responsible for cleaning up the United Kingdom's legacy of nuclear waste at reactor sites, reprocessing plants and research facilities. Nuclear waste is currently being stockpiled above ground at short-term facilities at Sellafield. [70] There are plans to construct underground intermediate and high-level nuclear waste storage sites in Harwell and Sizewell, respectively. Construction of a high-level waste storage facility is underway at Sizewell B. Additionally, the NDA has set up the Radioactive Waste Management Directorate, a deep geological repository for high and intermediate level waste. The facility is estimated to cost GBP 12 billion and to become operational in 2040; no site has been selected. [71]
Sellafield

The United Kingdom possesses a significant reprocessing capability that is performed at Sellafield, Cumbria, on England's northwest coast. Its Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) has been in operation since 1994 and is scheduled to close in 2016. [72] It was originally built to provide reprocessing services for international customers following a worldwide expansion in the use of nuclear power, but the level of expansion predicted was never fully realized. Sellafield has been the subject of long-running environmental concerns, particularly with regards to the local marine environment. [73] The site contains a number of disused reactors and the storage pond in Building B30 is said to contain old reactor parts and decaying fuel rods, many of which have now turned to sludge and emit large doses of radiation. [74] The estimated cleanup costs continue to rise. Recent estimates suggested that the clean-up operation at Sellafield might cost up to GBP 70 billion over the next 100 years. [75]

Fissile Material

An August 2014 declaration to the IAEA revealed that the UK possessed 118.1 tons (t) of separated plutonium in product stores at reprocessing plants at the end of 2013. [76] This material is largely being held at Sellafield. In addition, there were 0.8t of plutonium in unirradiated MOX fuel, 1.9t in the MOX fuel manufacturing process, and 1.5t held elsewhere. [77] Plutonium contained in spent fuel at civilian reactor sites was estimated at 8t and a further 23t of plutonium was contained in spent fuel at reprocessing plants. Less than 500kg of plutonium was contained in spent fuel held elsewhere. [78] The United Kingdom currently faces a dilemma about what to do with its plutonium stocks. Three long-term options are being considered: conversion to MOX fuel, immobilization as waste, and part immobilization. [79]

The United Kingdom had previously produced highly enriched uranium (HEU) for defense purposes at the gaseous diffusion plant at Capenhurst. Today it continues to use HEU for military purposes, including naval propulsion reactors and test reactors. [80] According to its 2014 declaration to the IAEA, the United Kingdom's civilian stockpile of HEU stood at 1,396 kg at the end of 2013, including 342kg located at fabrication plants, 914 kg at laboratories and research facilities, and 141 kg of irradiated HEU at civilian reactor or other sites. [81]

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[71] "Nuclear Power in the United Kingdom," World Nuclear Association, 30 June 2015, www.world-nuclear.org.
[72] Martin Forwood, "The Legacy of Reprocessing in the United Kingdom," International Panel on Fissile Materials, July 2008, www.fissilematerials.org.
[73] "Sellafield's oldest nuclear storage pond to be decommissioned," BBCNews, 12 June 2014, www.bbc.com.
[74] Robin McKie, "Sellafield: the most hazardous place in Europe," The Guardian, www.guardian.co.uk, 19 April 2009.
[75] Robin McKie, "Sellafield: the most hazardous place in Europe," The Guardian, www.guardian.co.uk, 19 April 2009; "Sellafield £70bn clean-up costs 'astonishing' MPs say," BBC News, 11 February 2014, www.bbc.com.
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Get the Facts on United Kingdom
  • Relies exclusively on four SSBNs for its nuclear deterrent
  • Removed U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from its territory in 2008
  • Renounced offensive biological weapons program in the 1950s

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2017.