‘Sleekit’ increase in Trident nuclear warheads on the Clyde

The UK Government has secretly boosted the number of Trident nuclear warheads stored on the Clyde over the last five years, according to an analysis of bomb convoys.

Nukewatch, which monitors the transport of nuclear weapons, estimated that 37 new warheads were delivered from England to Scotland between 2015 and 2020. Nine were added in 2019 and 13 in 2020, it said.

In March the Ministry of Defence (MoD) reversed a ten-year-old disarmament plan by announcing the “ceiling” on the UK’s nuclear weapons stockpile would increase from 225 to 260 because of “technological and doctrinal threats”.

But Nukewatch argued this increase has already happened without the public being told. It accused Westminster of failing to provide a “fully accurate picture” and of risking “catastrophic consequences”. 

The Scottish National Party (SNP) warned of a “moral and democratic outrage”. Campaigners lambasted UK ministers for being “sleekit” and treating parliaments and public with “utter contempt”.

The MoD did not deny that more warheads had been sent to Scotland. It declined to comment on nuclear transports, and stressed that warhead numbers were “kept under review”.

The MoD’s “integrated review” of nuclear weapons policy on 17 March 2021 abandoned a pledge made in 2010 “to reduce our overall nuclear warhead stockpile ceiling from not more than 225 to not more than 180 by the mid-2020s.”

It said: “In recognition of the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats, this is no longer possible, and the UK will move to an overall nuclear weapon stockpile of no more than 260 warheads.”

This prompted Nukewatch to examine its recorded sightings of 78 nuclear bomb convoys between 2010 and 2020. There were 43 trips from the nuclear weapons factory at Burghfield, Berkshire, to the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport on Loch Loch, and 35 in the other direction.

Warheads travel in both directions in 20 vehicle convoys because they have to be periodically maintained. One key ingredient is the radioactive gas, tritium, which has a half-life of 12.3 years so needs to be regularly replenished.

Nukewatch found that bomb movements had significantly changed in 2015. In the five years since then it estimated that 37 new warheads had arrived at Coulport, compared to 12 being taken away between 2010 and 2015.

New nuclear weapons on the Clyde

YearChange in number of warheads at Coulport
2011- 4
2012- 3
2013- 2
2014- 3
2015+ 1
2016+ 6
2017+ 5
2018+ 3
2019+ 9
2020+ 13
Source: Nukewatch

This suggested the total number of weapons at Coulport could have risen from 225 in 2010 to around 250 in 2020. “The government has not provided a fully accurate picture of warhead numbers,” concluded Nukewatch.

“The increase in the stockpile ceiling announced in the integrated review has apparently been long planned and is already well on the way to being reached as a result of a secret increase in warhead numbers under way since 2015.”

The campaign group argued that the new Trident warheads were likely to be upgrades known as Mk4A first approved in 2006. One reason for the increase might be to compensate for a fall in similar US W76-1 weapons, it suggested.

Nukewatch accepted that it could have missed some convoys, and that all its assumptions may not be correct. Its figures were “indicative estimates” sufficient to give “a general picture” of changes in the UK nuclear weapons programme, it claimed.

To secretly increase the number of these unwanted weapons of mass destruction on Scotland would be a moral and democratic outrage.

Stewart McDonald MP, Scottish National Party

According to Nukewatch’s spokesperson, Jane Tallents, “citizens’ monitoring” had uncovered the truth about the UK’s nuclear weapons stockpile. She pointed out that another three bomb convoys had come to Scotland in the first three months of 2021.

“The secrecy surrounding all things nuclear means that there are now more of these weapons with the capacity to cause unimaginable humanitarian suffering available to be used in our name without us knowing about it until it is a fait accompli,” she told The Ferret.

“It also means more transport of these weapons on our roads with potentially catastrophic consequences if there is a serious accident — and no public discussion about whether that is a risk communities want to take.”

Tallents added: “Only our persistence in tracking these movements since the 1980’s  — along with information from members of the public who are truly horrified when they realise what they have just seen right in front of them — shines any light on this dangerous and outdated business.”

The SNP’s defence spokesperson at Westminster, Stewart McDonald MP, argued that “allegations of corruption and shady back door deals” had characterised Boris Johnson’s premiership. “It is clear that the Tories see parliamentary oversight and scrutiny as an inconvenience rather than the bedrock of our democracy,” he said.

“If these reports are true, they represent perhaps the most egregious example yet of the UK Government bypassing democratic scrutiny to enact policies no-one voted for. To secretly increase the number of these unwanted weapons of mass destruction on Scotland would be a moral and democratic outrage.”

It is now clear that a succession of UK governments have treated parliaments and the public with utter contempt.

Lynn Jamieson, Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament blamed a series of “sleekit” prime ministers for misrepresenting nuclear realities. “It is now clear that a succession of UK governments have treated parliaments and the public with utter contempt,” said campaign chair, Lynn Jamieson.

“They have deceived their own people by this covert escalation and they have attempted to hoodwink the world at large with a show of compliance with the requirements of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

The suggestion that nuclear weapons brought security was an “arrogant delusional absurdity”, Jamieson argued. Instead they meant “more capacity for mass extinction, life-extinguishing climate change, genocide and risk of irrecoverable accidental catastrophe.”

The Nuclear Information Service, which researches nuclear weapons, backed the Nukewatch analysis. “The numbers raise serious questions about whether the government has been honest with the public about warhead stockpile,” said the group’s director, David Cullen.

“Unless the stockpile was far smaller than widely believed, the Nukewatch figures suggest the previous cap was breached before the integrated review. I think the MoD owes the public an explanation.”

Our stockpile number is a maximum if required, not a target nor our current number, and is kept under review.

Spokesperson, Ministry of Defence

But another expert from the defence think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute, cast doubt on the figures. “I don’t think that the Nukewatch method of estimating warhead transport to and from Coulport is reliable,” said Tom Plant, who used to work on arms control at the Atomic Weapons Establishment, the MoD and the Foreign Office.

The Ministry of Defence highlighted its policy of not commenting on nuclear bomb convoys “for the purpose of safeguarding national security”. Convoy movements were “kept to the minimum necessary to meet operational requirements,” it said.

An MoD spokesperson added: “The UK is committed to maintaining its credible and independent nuclear deterrent, which exists to deter the most extreme threats to the UK and our NATO allies.

“Our stockpile number is a maximum if required, not a target nor our current number, and is kept under review.

“The UK is also committed to the long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons through gradual multilateral disarmament within the framework of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.”

According to the Scottish Greens, it was “exceptionally dangerous” to transport nuclear warheads across Scotland by road. “Given these convoys travel through heavily populated areas, the implications of a safety breach would be catastrophic,” said the party’s external affairs spokesperson, Ross Greer.

“This latest UK Government announcement will mean more convoys with more dangerous materials passing through Scotland’s towns and cities, despite the clear opposition of our population.”

The Ferret reported in January 2021 that 22 nuclear warheads were transported from England to Scotland in eight convoys during 2020. Convoys are tracked and filmed by activists, and often travel close to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham.

We also revealed in May 2018 that safety problems plaguing the convoys had risen to a record high. The total number of incidents logged by the MoD over ten years was 179.

Cover image thanks to Steve Pearson/Nukewatch and video from 2017 thanks to the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

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