Trident nuclear project can’t be delivered, says watchdog

Delivery of nuclear reactors to power a new fleet of Trident submarines on the Clyde has been branded as “unachievable” for the second year running by a UK Government watchdog.

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) has given a £3.7 billion reactor-building project run by Rolls Royce for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) a “red” rating for 2022-23. The project was also assessed as red in 2021-22, as reported by The Ferret.

According to the IPA, red means that “successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable”. This is because of “major issues” that do not appear to be “manageable or resolvable”.

The 2022-23 rating for another scheme crucial to renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system — a £1.9bn construction project at the Faslane and Coulport nuclear bases near Helensburgh — has been kept secret. In 2021-22 it was assessed as red.

The planned date for the final delivery to the Clyde of the new Dreadnought-class submarines, armed with Trident nuclear warheads, has also been classified as confidential by the MoD “for the purpose of safeguarding national security”. 

The Scottish National Party (SNP) accused the UK Government of desperately trying to hide how “outrageously unaffordable” the Trident programme had become. The Scottish Greens described the programme as “a grotesque money pit”.

Campaigners criticised the MoD for “rewarding failure” by throwing money at nuclear projects, and for concealing the truth about the problems and delays. They warned of “everyday harms” from the risks of radiation leaks, as well as “catastrophic accidents”.

Rolls-Royce accepted that the reactor programme was “challenging” but stressed it was working hard to ensure no further delays. The MoD argued that IPA assessments were not “comprehensive” and said it was improving project management.

The IPA’s latest annual report for 2022-23 assessed the feasibility of 52 military projects costing a total of £255.4bn. Eleven were related to the UK’s nuclear weapons programme and together cost more than £57bn, though the overall costs for three of them were kept secret.

The manufacture of nuclear reactors at a Rolls-Royce factory in Derby was the only project to be publicly rated as red. The reactors are to drive four new Trident-armed Dreadnought submarines due to start replacing existing Vanguard submarines at Faslane “in the early 2030s”.

The IPA warned that there were “significant and ongoing challenges associated with achieving the required core delivery date for Dreadnought”. The date was important, it said, for keeping at least one nuclear-armed submarine on patrol all the time, a policy known as “continuous at sea deterrence”.

Eight other MoD nuclear projects were assessed as “amber” which meant they had “significant issues” requiring management attention. They included the overall £34bn Dreadnought delivery programme, the building of nuclear-powered Astute submarines at Barrow and the dismantling of defunct nuclear submarines at Rosyth in Fife.

Another previously mysterious project called Aurora was rated as amber. It is to make the plutonium components for new nuclear bombs at Aldermaston in Berkshire and is reckoned to cost between £2bn and £2.5bn.

The planned completion date for Aurora has been kept secret, along with the end dates for four other nuclear projects, including the Dreadnought and Astute submarine programmes. The dates were withheld under a freedom of information law exemption meant to protect national security.

2022-23 assessments for two other nuclear projects have also been classified as confidential so as not to prejudice international relations and the defence of the UK. One, Teutates, is a collaboration on nuclear weapon safety with France and the other is called “Clyde Infrastructure”.

The Clyde project is to build a series of new facilities at Faslane and Coulport to support nuclear submarine operations. It was rated as red by the IPA in 2021-22, and amber in 2020-21 and 2019-20.

The cost of the Clyde project has increased 19 per cent from £1.6bn to £1.9bn in the last year. According to the IPA, this is because of “challenges in delivering in a nuclear and operational environment”.

Trident ‘a moral abomination’

The SNP lambasted the UK Government for writing “blank cheques” to maintain the Trident programme. “The veil of secrecy surrounding nuclear spending is a desperate attempt by the UK Government to hide how outrageously unaffordable these weapons have become,” said the party’s Westminster defence spokesperson, Dave Doogan MP.

“The hollowing-out of the armed forces to pay for the ever-expanding nuclear vanity-weapons budget has led the UK to possess just 0.1 per cent of the world’s nuclear warheads — but at eye-watering cost while conventional capabilities atrophy.”

The Green MSP Ross Greer described nuclear weapons as a “moral abomination” that had no place in Scotland. “As these figures show, they are also a grotesque money pit that is swallowing up billions of pounds and giving huge handouts to international arms dealers,” he said.

“The Scottish Greens are proud to have secured the Scottish Government’s support for the international treaty banning nuclear weapons, already signed by 92 other countries.”

MoD ‘trying to hide’ Trident delays

The Nuclear Information Service, which researches and criticises nuclear weapons, pointed out that the MoD had been repeatedly given additional billions for its nuclear programme. “But there’s no sign that throwing money at the problem is having any effect beyond rewarding failure,” the group’s director, David Cullen, told The Ferret.

“There is a clear pattern of the MoD withholding information that could show whether HMS Dreadnought will come into service on the planned date. The obvious conclusion is that they are trying to hide the risk of delays from the public.”

The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament attacked the nuclear industry for its  “big back catalogues” of cost escalations and time over-runs. “The nuclear propulsion of the nuclear weapon system only adds to the repertoire of everyday harms from radiation leaks and opportunities of catastrophic accidents,” said campaign chair, Lynn Jamieson.

Nuclear reactor project ‘challenging’

Rolls-Royce pointed out that building a new reactor construction plant was very complicated. “We’re working closely with the MoD to ensure this important project faces no further delays,” said a company spokesperson.

“The findings of the IPA report are being addressed and improvements have been recognised by the review team since the previous report. While the programme remains challenging, progress has accelerated and the majority of the technical and infrastructure challenges are now behind us.”

The Ministry of Defence highlighted that the IPA report showed “clear progress” on some programmes. “Delivery confidence assessments are not a comprehensive reflection of project performance but reflect a project’s likelihood of success at a specific snapshot in time if issues and risks are left unaddressed,” said a spokesperson.

“The majority of our programmes are rated amber, meaning successful delivery is feasible, against mitigated risks that are regularly reviewed to support successful delivery. We continue to improve our management of major projects.”

The MoD spokesperson added: “Our nuclear deterrent protects every UK citizen from the most extreme threats, every minute of every day.”

Cover image thanks to Ministry of Defence.

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