Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Trident's £100bn footprint across the UK

That last post mentioning the Butec base at Kyle, and the SNP manifesto launch today, reminded me of a piece I did on how the Trident nuclear deterrent has roots in constituencies all across the UK.

I tracked the various ancillary industries that support the base at Faslane and found that the Trident industry extends from Caithness in the far north to the south coast via unlikely places like Beith, Ayrshire, Dumfries, Penrith, Derby and the London suburbs.

The article doesn't make a judgement, it just shows how rooted the deterrent is in the economy and that getting rid of Trident isn't just as simple as sailing the boats out of the Gare Loch.

Trident's Footprint
Torcuil Crichton

Sunday Herald 9 Dec 2006

From Dounreay to Devonport, the UK's nuclear deterrent casts a shadow over the whole country, consting millions of pounds a year

Stand on the pink-white beach of Sandwood Bay, with its eerie sea stack on one side and the cliffs running to Cape Wrath on the other, and you can feel quite lonely. Of course, you are never alone, even on this remote northwestern shore. Stare straight out into the teeth of the inevitable north Atlantic gale and you are looking at Trident's backyard.

Somewhere beneath the grey majesty of the ocean, a sleek 150-metre, nuclear-powered Vanguard-class submarine is on patrol. It might be close by or in a deep Atlantic trench, but one of the UK's four submarines is out there, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, its 132- strong crew drilling over and over again to unleash armageddon.

The sea northwest of Scotland is what used to be called the Greenland/ Iceland-United Kingdom Gap. Once upon a time, the subs of the Soviet nuclear fleet would glide down this corridor from their Barents Sea bases in times of Cold War tension.

Now the undersea hydrophones rarely hear the hum of Soviet engines. The Russian Northern fleet, hobbled by obsolescence and deterioration, spends most of its time tied up at Severomorsk. The Trident boats stake out their territory largely unopposed, poised to deliver instant retaliation against a threat from another era.

Trident's domain is not just the deep Atlantic ocean. From the north Atlantic coastline, the UK's Trident trail makes its way as far south as the market towns of Berkshire, by way of more totemic points of geography - such as Faslane - and unexpected backwaters such as the quiet town of Beith in Ayrshire. Following this route of Trident technology offers a real insight into just how embedded into the geography and economy of the British Isles the nuclear deterrent has become.

The crinkled outline of the west coast of Scotland, with its deep lochs and glens, is one of the most heavily militarised regions of western Europe. The Highlands and Islands play host to war games, missile tests, bombing ranges, torpedo trials, nuclear bunkers, armament depots and, of course, moorings for the nuclear submarines.

The cradle of Britain's nuclear programme, the Dounreay plant in the far north, is still used to test submarine reactors. At HMS Vulcan, the naval reactor test establishment, a small naval team liaise with 300 Rolls-Royce workers. The testbed gives naval crews hands-on experience of running nuclear reactors while safe on shore.

A short distance north of Sandwood Bay is the Cape Wrath bombing range, part of the 253,000 acres of Scottish land owned by the Ministry of Defence. The military has the run of the sea too. There are some 26 submarine exercise areas on the west coast of Scotland, extending from the Butt of Lewis to the southern shores of Arran. This is where submarine crews come to practise and occasionally mispractise.

In November 2002, HMS Trafalgar, one of the navy's nuclear-powered attack subs, ran aground on a well-marked outcrop off the north of Skye during a captains' training programme. The vessel returned to Faslane for embarrassing repairs costing £5 million.

The incidents aren't always hilarious or at the expense of the navy, though. In November 1990, four crewmen on the Carradale-based fishing boat Antares were drowned after its nets were snagged by the nuclear submarine HMS Trenchant, which was taking part in a Perisher exercise for training submarine commanders. After the Antares tragedy, the navy introduced the Subfacts scheme, broadcasting where submarines are due to exercise and when fishing areas are closed.

Some of Britain's deepest waters are found in the few miles between the Isle of Raasay and the mainland Torridon mountains where the ocean plummets to depths of 1500 feet. This is where submarines can run at full speed and where Trident boats come to have their sonar footprint recorded and calibrated.

The British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre (Butec) was set up in Kyle of Lochalsh in the 1970s to test torpedoes and sonar. The base, which employs 115 people, is operated on behalf of the MoD by QinetiQ, the defence contractor created by privatisation of parts of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency in 2001.

With a shore base at Kyle of Lochalsh and a range head at Applecross, Butec measures the acoustic signature of surface ships and submarines using underwater hydrophones. Sound patterns from the tests are recorded at a complex on the island of Rona.

Nearby Broadford Bay on Skye is designated as one of the few remaining Z berths where nuclear submarines can lay up in an emergency. The others are Loch Ewe, close to the Aultbea refuelling depot, Coulport and Loch Goil, near the home base of the fleet, and Rothesay. But nobody has seen a large black submarine berthed at the Clyde holiday resort for some time.

The submarines are easily seen by anyone taking the ferry to Bute though, or by anyone at the Rhu Narrows near Dunoon. Faslane has been a naval base since the 16th century and the submarines have been in its deep and easily defended waters since 1917.

THE UK's hunter-killer fleet slips in and out of the Faslane base through the morning mist, sleek, sinister and black, but at 16,000 tonnes displacement, the gigantic Trident boats are harder to miss. The omegas of warfare fill your line of vision as they are nursed in by a school of tugs and bobbing protection dinghies.

Here, just a short drive from Glasgow, past the mansions of Helensburgh, behind a vast expanse of razor wire, lies the beating heart of Britain's nuclear arsenal. Faslane, the Royal Navy Clyde Submarine Base - or, to give it its official designation, HMS Neptune - is where the submarines come in from ocean patrol. Yet you could drive through the whole of pine-covered Argyll without ever realising the immense destructive power housed just around the next glen and bay.

Apart from the perimeter wire and graffiti left by anti-nuclear protesters, there's little to indicate that Gare Loch is home to Britain's nuclear submarine fleet. All four of Britain's intercontinental missile submarines (the Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant, and Vengeance) are based at Faslane. Each is armed with Trident D5 missiles, purchased in the last days of the cold war and with the power to unleash 1500 Hiroshimas.

Faslane is the largest single site employer in Scotland. More than 7000 military and civilian staff work here for the navy and defence company Babcock Naval Services. By comparison, the Chrysler car factory at Linwood, which wreaked economic devastation when it closed in 1981, employed just over 8000 people at the height of production.

In 2004 there were more than 24,000 members of the MoD and armed forces working at military sites all over Scotland - 15,000 military personnel and nearly 9000 civil servants. Some £1.5 billion of defence expenditure is spent directly in Scotland. The bill for Trident is just a little more, about £1.7bn a year or 5% of the defence budget. Trident, and its proposed replacement, costing about £25bn, will go down in history as the most costly UK industrial projects ever undertaken in peacetime.

In addition to the Trident fleet, Faslane also houses five conventionally armed Swiftsure nuclear submarines (Sovereign, Sceptre, Spartan, Superb and Splendid).

Just six miles along the road from Faslane on the Rosneath peninsula is Coulport. Lined with genteel Victorian villas and the original site of the Kibble Palace, before it was moved to Glasgow's Botanic Gardens, the area is now a vast warehouse for Britain's Trident missiles stockpile.

At the Royal Naval Armament Depot (RNAD) at Coulport on Loch Long, 16 underground atom bomb vaults with airlocked doors have been built into a ridge overlooking the shore to store spare missile warheads. The warheads can be detached from the Trident missiles and unloaded using a custom-built lift on a huge covered jetty.

The missiles themselves can also be removed at Coulport, but this is usually done at the Strategic Weapons Facility Atlantic at Kings Bay, Georgia, in the United States. RNAD Coulport and the huge munitions depot in Glen Douglas, covering an area of 650 acres, are also storage and loading facilities for conventional torpedoes.

From Coulport, Trident watchers can track the nuclear warhead lorry convoys as they make their way back and forth from Aldermaston and Burghfield in England. Every loch in this part of Scotland seems to have a military function.

Carving deep inland, Loch Goil is home to another QinetiQ testing facility, while nearby Loch Striven was used during sea trials of Vanguard submarines, though nowadays the casual visitor could not fathom any military purpose.

Deep into the Ayrshire countryside is the next link in the Trident chain. Covering more than 1000 acres and with 21 miles of internal roads, the defence munitions depot at Beith produces, tests and stores missiles and torpedoes for the armed forces.

Behind six miles of razor wire, 18,000 cubic metres of high explosives can be stored in buildings designed to implode in the event of an accident. Beith is also sub-contracted by BAE Systems to produce Spearfish torpedoes, the heavyweight Trident self-defence weapon. The torpedoes are tested at the Butec range at the Kyle of Lochalsh.

Across on the other coast of Scotland, at Rosyth, are the hulks of seven redundant nuclear submarines, including all four Polaris boats. The docks are no longer used to service the nuclear submarine fleet - that work is now carried out at Devonport.

The helicopters that would drop sonar buoys to listen for Russian submarines as the UK nuclear fleet left coastal waters have also moved south from HMS Gannet at Prestwick. Although the danger has lessened, helicopters still fly from their Cornwall base to accompany a change in the Trident patrol. And the Nimrod surveillance aircraft at Kinloss still look for hostile submarines.

Just before the Trident trail leaves Scotland, it pauses briefly at the Chapelcross power station near Annan in Dumfries. The decommissioned plant's original function was to produce plutonium for the nuclear weapons programme, but it was also a crucial supplier of tritium, a vital part of Britain's bomb. For Trident's replacement, an alternative supply of the material - probably from the US - will have to be found.

South of the Border, the first encounter with Trident comes with the radio masts in a cluster of BBC and World Service aerials at Skelton near Penrith. The transmitter keeps the Trident subs in contact with onshore commanders. Anthorn in Cumbria, nearer the coast, is a Nato transmitter that serves the same purpose. Other stations in Europe and the United States are available to communicate orders from command posts in the UK.

Were it not for the Sellafield works, the Cumbrian coastline might feel as empty as Sandwood Bay. Sellafield is where old nuclear submarine reactor cores are stored, so radioactive they cannot be reprocessed.

Further down the English coast, across the sands of Morecambe Bay, at Barrow-in-Furness is where the nuts and bolts of the Trident operation are. The enormous Vickers yard, now run by BAE, has a symbiotic relationship with Trident. It depends on orders for nuclear submarines for its existence, and without the human skills here, Britain could not have a nuclear deterrent programme.

The much-delayed and over-budgeted Astute-class submarines keep the yard working, but the 200 highly skilled submarine designers and technicians at the yard are part of the reason the government is injecting urgency into the Trident replacement programme. If their jobs are made redundant through a lack of orders, the capability to build submarines in the UK will be lost forever.

Derby is the powerhouse of the Trident operation. The reactors that power Trident subs are built by Rolls-Royce just outside the town. The fuel rods - using 98% highly enriched uranium, as high as or higher than is used in the warheads - are also manufactured here.

The servicing of the submarines proper takes places on Britain's south coast at the Devonport Royal Dockyard in Plymouth. HMS Vanguard was re-fitted here, Victoria is here at the moment. Old reactor cores go to Sellafield and old submarines remain on site.

The holy grail of deterrence is the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, near Reading, an hour's train ride west of London in rural Berkshire. This is Britain's bomb factory, the epicentre of nuclear weapons design and production. It is responsible for the manufacture, maintenance and decommissioning of Britain's nuclear warheads.

Aldermaston cooperates extensively with nuclear weapons laboratories in the US on developing of the next generation of nuclear warheads that will replace Trident. More than £1bn has already been spent modernising the facility and recruiting scientists to produce the next bomb. Although the MoD owns the site, private companies run the day-to-day operations.

Aldermaston is synonymous with nuclear weapons, and the CND - launched by the philosopher Bertrand Russell and Canon John Collins - grew out of a demonstration held outside the site during Easter 1956.

Not far away is Burghfield, the huge ordnance factory where the Trident warheads are assembled and maintained. Once complete, warheads are stored temporarily then loaded on to lorry convoys for Coulport.

Three to five lorries, plus escorts, make the three-day journey every couple of months, passing around London on the M25 and either north around Edinburgh or through the centre of Glasgow on the M8, completing a circular Trident trail around Britain.

There is only one location left. Trident's nerve centre, the connection between its political brain and the military muscle is, surprisingly, in London suburbia.

The Northwood command centre of the Royal Navy is where the signal to launch a nuclear attack would be sent from. The control centre has been recently modernised, but peace campaigners reckon the computer system involved for nuclear operations is at Whitehall buildings of the MoD in central London.

There is no way of confirming this or the recent claim by Sir Michael Quinlan, former permanent secretary at the MoD, that Britain's nuclear submarines now go to sea without any target plans. It is likely that the systems are a lot more flexible and that target co-ordinates can be changed from Moscow for Tehran within seconds. It may also be possible that the strategic nuclear deterrent, prowling the oceans day and night, costing £1.5bn a year, may have the ultimate weapon targeted at nobody at all.

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