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'Secret' nuclear weapons plan

Thursday August 12, 1999

Guardian (London)

Brits developing new generation of warheads with US and France to replace Trident system, CND claims

The [brit] government is secretly spending more than $300m on plans to develop a new prototype warhead for the Trident nuclear missile system, according to a report published today based on US documents and information gleaned from official British publications.

The plans, which appear well advanced, have striking parallels with the Chevaline project, the last Labour government's secret plan to update the Polaris nuclear missile system at a cost of #1bn, five times the estimate, the report says.

They also have potentially serious implications for Britain's obligations under the non-proliferation and test ban treaties as well as for parliament's inability to scrutinise the multi-billion pound nuclear weapons programme.

Evidence that the government is preparing to enhance the Trident system has emerged from official US documents, the latest annual report of Hunting, the arms company which manages the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, and from carefully worded parliamentary answers.

The report, The Next Chevaline Scandal, by Alan Simpson, Labour MP for Nottingham South, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, concludes that there is strong evidence that Britain is designing new warheads in cooperation with the US.

"There is little doubt that Britain is working with the US on prototype nuclear warheads that may replace the Trident warhead if a political decision is taken to continue with a British nuclear weapons capability when Trident starts to be retired in 2020," it says.

Mr Simpson said yesterday: "My contention is that Britain is involved in the development of a prototype for a new generation of nuclear warheads in collaboration with the US and France. It is likely to be deeply damaging to international negotiations supposed to be in pursuit of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament."

The government has repeatedly said that it has no current plans to replace Trident, and that no decision on any possible successor system will be needed for years. However, it does not deny that Aldermaston is actively engaged with the US on a series of projects that will open the way to manufacture a new warhead whenever a formal decision is made.

In its latest annual report on Aldermaston, Hunting refers to exchanges with the US not only in support of the existing Trident programme, but "in preparation for the refurbishment that will be required for Trident early in the next decade".

Last year's strategic defence review committed the government to maintain "a minimum capability to design and produce a successor to Trident should this prove necessary".

The US has admitted that it is preparing new designs for its existing W76 and W88 Trident warheads under the so-called submarine launched ballistic missile warhead protection programme (SWPP). Aldermaston admits that it has been a "significant" contributor to the US W76 upgrading programme.

Britain's Trident warhead is based on the US versions and has the same shelf-life. The US also provides the arming and firing mechanism for Britain's Trident fleet.

A declassified report by the US energy department on the SWPP programme states: "Weapon replacement design options that could be fielded with high confidence without additional nuclear testing will be developed when necessary. These replacement designs would offer alternatives for possible replacement of existing warheads and would be prototyped, which is critical to maintaining our capability to design and fabricate new weapons."

A #150m refurbishment programme at Aldermaston, in addition to the #1.2bn spent to build new facilities to produce Trident warheads, indicates that the plant is preparing to develop a new, updated, nuclear warhead, according to CND. It points to an increase in exchanges in the past year between nuclear scientists at Aldermaston and their colleagues in America and France: visits from the UK to the US have doubled to more than 200 and there has been a fourfold increase in the French nuclear scientists visiting Aldermaston.

Britain is also investing about #100m in the US national ignition facility, the world's largest laser, designed to simulate pressures and temperatures in nuclear explosions.

The Atomic Weapons Establishment said it could not comment on the report and referred the Guardian to the ministry of defence. An MoD spokeswoman last night denied that Britian was planning to develop a prototype for a new Trident warhead. "There are no plans for a future system," she said.

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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