Dismantling Trident: the price of peace
As the UK parliament votes on whether to renew the Trident nuclear submarine programme, the cost implications of the country’s arsenal have been widely debated. Less focus, however, has been placed on the cost of dismantling weapons that already exist.
Since 2010, the UK has been scaling back its nuclear capabilities, in line with its international obligations to disarm. In 2010, the UK had around 160 operational warheads; today there are no more than 120. Each Vanguard-class submarine now carries a maximum of 40 warheads, down from 48, loaded onto Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles, capable of striking targets up to 12,000 km away.
In addition to the 120 operational warheads, the UK has 95 that have not been deployed; that is, they have not been placed on missiles or located on bases with operational forces, taking the total number to 215. The government has committed to reducing the total stockpile of warheads to 180 by the middle of the next decade.
The work is being carried out at a weapons disassembly plant on a facility in Burghfield, Berkshire, which is operated by the Atomic Weapons Establishment, a private consortium, under an arrangement with the MoD. How much this operation has cost to date, and how much it will cost in future, is shrouded in secrecy.
In response to a request from Raconteur, an MoD spokesperson said: “we will not be releasing these figures for security reasons”. An AWE spokesperson declined to elaborate on the MoD’s response.
One widely-quoted figure ahead of the Scottish independence referendum came from the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which claims that the current stockpile could be removed and dismantled for less than £150 million. That number was based on a 2006 answer from the MoD to an MP’s question, and is unlikely to represent the reality today – not least because it does not include the costs of disposing of the radioactive material within the weapons.
Military plutonium makes up some 5 per cent of of the UK’s 90 million tonnes of plutonium holdings, according to a British nuclear industry report from 1995 – also long out of date.
“Despite the ongoing reduction in the number of weapons, the prospects for genuine progress towards nuclear disarmament remain gloomy.”
The cost of dismantling the nuclear arsenal might be a fraction of the tens of billions of pounds that it could cost to renew it, but disarmament is an unlikely prospect. The UK’s stockpile is dwarfed by those of Russia and the US, who each have more than 7,000 warheads. Between them, the former Cold War adversaries account for 93 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons.
In terms of any decrease in the overall number of nuclear weapons in the world, the greatest impact would naturally result from Russia’s and the USA’s efforts to reduce their inventories. Despite the two signing a bilateral treaty to draw-down their supplies, little progress has been made.
UNESCO has estimated that the cost of global disarmament would be in excess of $7 billion (£5.3 billion) per year for a decade.
“Despite the ongoing reduction in the number of weapons, the prospects for genuine progress towards nuclear disarmament remain gloomy,” according to Shannon Kile, head of SIPRI’s Nuclear Weapons Project. “All the nuclear weapon-possessing states continue to prioritise nuclear deterrence as the cornerstone of their national security strategies.”