The management of the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, the 'bomb factory' which makes and maintains the UK's nuclear warheads, is now controlled by private US companies following the sale of the government's 33 per cent holding yesterday.
The news, a further nail in the coffin of the flimsy pretence that Britain has an independent nuclear deterent, only came to light in a three line press statement released by BNFL, the state-owned group which officially 'owned' the government's stake.
The government itself made no official announcement, either in Parliament, through the Ministry of Defence, or the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR), which oversaw the sale. Since it still owns the land on which AWE sits, plus a 'golden share' in holding company AWE plc, it thinks that it can maintain the fiction that this development doesn't indicate a further merging of the UK and US weapons programmes.
But in reality, that's precisely what it is. New owners, US firm Jacobs Engineering, join fellow Americans Lockheed Martin and Serco as joint owners of AWE Management Ltd.Both Jacobs and Lockheed come qualified for the job - as they already both help run the US nuclear weapons research base at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, while Lockheed also runs the Sandia national (nuclear weapons) laboratory and the Nevada nuclear test site.
The US contribution to the UK nuclear weapons programme now stands at:
- the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles themselves (leased from and maintained by the US)
- guidance systems software
- certain critical components of existing warheads
- co-operating on development and maintenance of existing warheads
- extensive co-operation on testing and new warhead research
So, everything except the submarines themselves, basically. No wonder the government's so keen to keep the sale under its hat. As our peace campaigner, Louise Edge points out;
"It's outrageous that American corporations which are massively tied in to the US nuclear weapons laboratories are being handed control of Britain's so-called 'independent' nuclear weapons. Sneaking the news out just before Christmas is a classic MoD tactic - MPs should make sure that their new year's resolutions include interrogating the government about the implications of this decision - including how much this will increase the slice of the £76bn 'Trident replacement' fund which will now go to the US."
Opposition politicians have also been quick to question the decision. Tory defence spokesman Gerald Howarth denounced the decision not to announce the sale to Parliament as “unacceptable”, while the Liberals' Nick Harvey went further:
“The government appears guilty of concealing all this from Parliament and the public. There has been a huge degree of suspicion over what has been going on at Aldermaston, particularly over recruitment and how this fits with our obligations under the non-proliferation treaty.
"None of this has been properly explained. Why are we bothering with the fiction of being independent and separate from the US when this is clearly not the case? It sounds to me like this is turning into a farce."
Indeed it does. And a hugely expensive one, given that government spending on AWE has been increasing by between 20 and 30 per cent on average over the past five years, with current annual spending reckoned to stand around £500 million. This big cash injection has been put towards developing new laser, supercomputer, and fissile material research projects at the site, which will evenually enable the building of a new nuclear weapons to replace Trident.
This is as nothing compared to the estimated lifetime cost of building a replacement to Trident - of some £76 billion, but it would be interesting to know how much of the profits from the big building projects at Aldermaston are now flowing out of the country to the US.
When it comes down to it, spending these sorts of sums on weapons of mass destruction we don't need and can't control (at a time when the need to tackle catastrophic climate change is the greatest issue of the day) is not just farcial, it borders on recklessness - and a wilful determination to ignore the realities which are staring us all in the face.