Trouble ahead for the UK nuclear programme?

Yesterday the Nuclear Information Service published their report “Trouble ahead risks and rising Costs in the UK nuclear weapons programme”. This is a brief response to some of the points and recommendations made in the report.

Although the Nuclear Information Service has an anti-Trident agenda and cannot be seen as an entirely objective source, the report is a very credible piece of work. There are some points of contention but it does highlight serious problems brewing in the Defence Nuclear Enterprise, listing 21 specific risks it has identified. These risks need examination but using financial or industrial challenges as an argument to unilaterally abandon the UK nuclear weapons does not stand up. As a majority of citizens and MPs support the renewal of the deterrent, government has a responsibility to fully resource and effectively manage such a critical programme. The NIS suggestion that if the UK arbitrarily divested itself of nuclear weapons it would help bring about a ‘nuclear-free world’ is naive in the extreme.

Real analysis of nuclear programme costs is very problematic because of a lack of transparency, its incredible complexity and difficulty accurately forecasting future prices. The report relies on extrapolation to a large extent but NIS are broadly correct that costs are bound to exceed official MoD predictions. Trying to analyse the entire lifetime cost of the nuclear programme would be a difficult task even for accounting professionals in possession of complete current data. Publicising a huge estimated figure for something that will be spread over 30-40 years could be seen a propaganda tactic designed to scare people. We do not discuss other government expenditure such as the far greater costs of the NHS, Education or Welfare etc in giant 30-year blocks. The deterrent is also closely intertwined with the broader Royal Navy. Personnel, frigates, helicopters and nuclear-propelled submarines all play a part in supporting CASD but have myriad other roles and would be needed anyway, whether we had ballistic missiles submarines or not. Trying to define exactly what constitutes part of the cost of the deterrent is near impossible and the NIS report struggles with this.


Aside from the hard-to-quantify financial issues, the biggest threat to the success of the UK nuclear enterprise highlighted by NIS is the lack of Nuclear Suitably Qualified and Experienced (NSQEP) people. If you are going to lose sleep over anything, it is the lack of engineers and technicians available to UK industry as well as the difficulties the RN faces recruiting and retaining submariners.

Of immediate concern is the continuing delay to the Astute class construction. Although boat 4 (HMS Audacious) is effectively a ‘Batch II’ with some modifications over the first 3 boats, normal expectation would be that lessons learned would drive down the price and build time. Instead, costs are rising and the delivery schedule is for boats 4-7 is little better than boat 1. HMS Audacious was due to begin sea trials last year, then delayed to “Spring 2019” and it is now May with no sign of her leaving the yard. Loss of the skilled workforce on completion of the Vanguard class boats was always cited as the main reason for the initial delays to Astute construction. This is no longer relevant and an official explanation for the slow delivery and ballooning costs for the later Astute boats has never been provided.

Delays to the Astute programme could have knock-on effects for Dreadnought construction. Together with ageing Vanguard boats, the viability of CASD will be under threat in the 2030s. Much of the blame for this lies at the feet of the Cameron government that took the decision in 2010 to postpone the start of the Dreadnought programme by 5 years. This now creates pressure for the delivery of Dreadnought to be exactly on time, and as NIS points out, the signs this will happen do not look encouraging.

The interdependencies of the nuclear programme are also laid bare. Besides the headline submarine build programme by BAES at Barrow, sustaining CASD into the future relies on critical suppliers and infrastructure. This includes reactors manufactured by Rolls Royce in Derby, warheads made at AWE in Berkshire and submarine maintenance by Babcock in Devonport. Each of these supporting elements is experiencing its own challenges which must be overcome.

The NIS is correct when is suggests the MoD hides behind a veil of nuclear secrecy to obscure inconvenient facts from the public. Their contention is that government is so worried that if problems were exposed to real scrutiny, it would undermine support for the programme. This perhaps underestimates the intelligence of the public. If there was real honesty about the issues what is being done to mitigate them, there might be greater trust and understanding. It would also help deflate rhetoric of anti-nuclear campaigners that like to suggest it is a sinister, corrupt and unsafe enterprise on the verge of collapse.

The first 6 of the NIS report’s final 8 recommendations that relate to transparency should be embraced. Not only does the MoD need to solve the problems that have been identified, but there needs to be a complete examination of its communications strategy. It is obviously not possible to provide a running commentary on every detail of very sensitive work but far more clarity would help. On publication of the NIS report which will be used as ammunition by opposition groups, all the MoD would provide was a bland, catch-all statement to Forces News: “Our nuclear deterrent protects us from the most extreme threats to our security and the Government is committed to delivering it as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.” This approach reassures no one and could be perceived as complacency.