UK nuclear weapons facing ‘perfect storm’ of problems, says report

The UK government’s nuclear weapons programme is facing 21 technical and logistical risks and could end up costing taxpayers £172 billion, according to a new report.

An investigation by the campaign group, Nuclear Information Service (NIS), has uncovered a “perfect storm” of problems besetting plans by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to replace and upgrade nuclear submarines, their reactors and Trident missiles based on the Clyde.

Technical difficulties, changing designs, staff shortages and a plethora of other risks could derail what’s now called the UK’s nuclear weapons “enterprise”, causing multiple delays and cost overruns, the report says.

As a result Westminster is now facing a nuclear “trilemma”, it argues. Ministers will soon have to choose whether to increase the MoD’s budget, cut spending on conventional weapons or cut the nuclear weapons programme.

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The 68-page NIS report, ‘Trouble Ahead: Risks and Rising Costs in the UK Nuclear Weapons Programme’, is to be launched at an event in Westminster with politicians and experts on the afternoon of 30 April.

Among the 21 risks to the nuclear enterprise, it highlights the need to extend the lives of the four ageing Trident-armed Vanguard submarines based at Faslane, near Helensburgh, to cope with delays in introducing their Dreadnought replacements.

Limited capacity at the UK’s other nuclear submarine dockyard at Devonport in Plymouth is also a constraint, it says. As is the prolonged failure to dismantle 27 defunct nuclear submarines berthed at Devonport and Rosyth in Fife, reported earlier in April by The Ferret.

The report warns that beleaguered plans for seven new conventionally-armed but nuclear-powered Astute-class submarines could run into further delays. It suggests there could be continuing fuel problems with new and planned submarine reactors.

Other problems are said to include a shortage of suitably qualified nuclear engineers, poor contractor performance and the MoD failing to make anticipated cost savings. A “stagnant civil nuclear sector” could mean that the nuclear enterprise needs more financial support than currently anticipated.

21 risks facing UK nuclear weapons programme

Ministry of Defence overall equipment plan costings are an underestimate
Late changes are made to the Dreadnought submarine design
Increased cost of individual components within the programme
Reductions in anticipated spending from 2026 onwards do not occur
Delays to the Astute submarine programme cause delays in Dreadnought programme
Delays to planned successor submarines mean Astute service life has to be extended
Delays and cost increases in the nuclear warhead capability sustainment programme
Delays to the Vanguard submarine maintenance schedule
Delays to Dreadnought submarines require Vanguard life extension
Life extension work on Vanguard submarines does not deliver expected increases in service life
Submarine availability issues cause an interruption to continuous at sea deterrence
Fuel element breach problems in the PWR2 submarine reactor design
Focus on the PWR2 fuel breach issue prevents necessary research on the PWR3
Limited dock space at Devonport naval yard causes delays to the maintenance schedule of in-service submarines
Upgrading docks at Devonport costs more than predicted
Cost pressures or limited dock space delays work on dismantling old nuclear submarines
Currency fluctuations increase the cost of components sourced from overseas
A shortage of qualified staff to work on the nuclear programme
Poor contractor performance or financial difficulties in key companies cause problems in the supply chain
A stagnant civil nuclear sector means the programme needs more financial support than currently anticipated
The Ministry of Defence is unable to realise all the savings that are currently included in its cost projections
source: Nuclear Information Service

“As well as the issue of cost there is serious potential for delays to impact on the ability of the submarine fleet to maintain the continuous deployment of one nuclear-armed submarine at sea at all times, known as continuous at sea deterrence,” the report concludes.

It uses MoD figures to estimate that the total cost of the nuclear weapons programme between 2019 and 2070 will be £172 billion. “This is almost certainly a low estimate, and is far higher than the government’s prediction of £31 billion plus an additional £10 billion contingency for building four new Dreadnought submarines,” it says.

“As a consequence, the government is likely to soon face a ‘trilemma’, consisting of a choice between increasing the overall MoD budget at the expense of other government priorities, reducing spending on conventional weapons to fund nuclear weapons or reducing spending on the nuclear weapons programme.”

The report’s analysis of MoD’s data shows that spending on nuclear-related projects will be nearly £3 billion over budget between now and 2028. It also predicts a shortfall on wider equipment spending over the same period up to £15 billion, and points out that nearly £1.25 billion in extra funding for the nuclear programme was announced in the last financial year.

The NIS report says that slightly reducing the UK’s nuclear capability would yield “relatively modest” savings. Greater savings would be made by larger reductions, including a temporary period where nuclear weapons were not deployed at sea and were either kept in storage or scrapped.

NIS recommends that Westminster should review the UK’s nuclear weapons programme to consider the full costs and risks. The MoD should also publish full-life costings of all elements of the programme, it says.

The report’s author, NIS director David Cullen, pointed out that the cost estimate of £172 billion was based on MoD projections. “Many of the risks they are facing could easily materialise over the next few years,” he told The Ferret.

“These are perfect storm conditions, and nothing in the MoD’s record justifies their optimism that their nuclear weapons upgrade projects will be delivered without delays and further cost rises. Ministers need to be honest with the public about what the situation is and the choices they face.”

The Scottish National Party (SNP) accused the UK government of prioritising nuclear weapons over support for the most vulnerable in society. “Renewing the Trident fleet is an act of monumental folly and waste of public funds by a government which has presided over record levels of child poverty and the widening of the life expectancy gap between the richest and poorest,” said SNP defence spokesperson, Stewart McDonald MP.

“As the MoD faces enormous black holes in the funding of its conventional commitments, the money this government is throwing at nuclear weapons would make you think that the Prime Minister’s magic money tree has suddenly produced a bumper crop.”

He added: “The public will expect us to get to the bottom of this sorry saga and that requires a public inquiry and the halting of the nuclear renewal programme.”

According to the Scottish Green MSP, John Finnie, the NIS report highlighted the “misplaced priorities” of the UK government. “Tory Ministers plead poverty as they slash social security payments, impacting some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, but always seem to have a few billion spare to fund these weapons of mass slaughter,” he said.

The Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament called for Trident to be scrapped, and for the money saved to be spent on sustainable jobs and public services. “This report makes a compelling case for abandoning Britain’s involvement in nuclear weapons,” said campaign chair, Arthur West.

“It clearly highlights the ever increasing and unsustainable costs involved in continuing to have these deadly weapons of mass destruction.”

The Ministry of Defence issued a brief statement in response to the report. “Our nuclear deterrent protects us from the most extreme threats to our security and the government is committed to delivering it as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible,” it said.

Scottish Labour did not respond to a request to comment.

Photo thanks to Ministry of Defence.

1 comment
  1. Earlier this year, the Public Accounts Committee of the UK Parliament released its report on the Ministry of Defence’s 10-year forward Equipment Plan. It concluded that for a second year in a row, the Equipment Plan is not affordable and went on to list failings in MoD’s procurement process which has led to this sorry state of affairs.

    Commenting on the report, the Chair Meg Hillier branded MoD a “repeat offender” when it comes to poor financial planning, not least, because it keeps doing the same thing over and over again – and expecting different results! This is especially true for the Trident nuclear submarine programme, which is currently in the manufacture and build phase.

    The share of blame attributed to people at MoD for delays and cost overruns has been documented extensively over the decades. But what is the role played by MoD’s other half of the partnership, namely defence contractors, in this epic tale of failure?

    This question is especially relevant given that 97% of contracts on the Defence Nuclear Enterprise are held by just four prime contractors.

    The risk that new equipment procurement programmes will fall behind schedule is driven by three significant factors – all of them, entirely within the control of the Contractor:

    (a) Work allowed to commence without the full complement of Task Performers being assigned to the project performance team, right from the start.

    (b) Task Performers arbitrarily (and clandestinely) re-assigned to other priority work during the term of the Contract.

    (c) Task Performers, who are typically on one month’s notice corresponding to pay in arrears, abandon their posts for a better paid job elsewhere.

    The practice of switching the most capable and smartest people (the ‘A’ Team members) from existing project commitments, to working on other contracts running concurrently which have gone ‘critical’, or to producing bid phase deliverables for ITT responses, is very common within defence contractors’ organisations – because the need to continually bring-in money or win new business takes priority over everything else, a foremost characteristic of for-profit organisations.

    Indeed, such is their obsession with future income (and Share Price) that, once they have got a new Contract in the bag, their attention immediately shifts onto chasing the next one – at the expense of compromising performance on the Contract they have just won!

    This all too familiar scenario is further compounded by the fact that:

    (a) Contractors at every tier of the defence industry have mandated enforcement of a minimalist staffing policy of being just ‘one man’ deep in many of their specialist core functions, with no slack or succession plan – which unfortunately, also denies defence workers the opportunity to associate with like-minded people in the work environment, severely impeding their professional development.

    (b) In their desperation to quickly build-up their project performance teams to full strength following down-selection for the first Contract performance phase, Contractors have been less than honest with new employees (particularly those originating from the Public Sector) about their individual role in the project performance team, the job content and near term prospects – because they are not bound by a ‘Code on Ethical Behaviour in Business’. Consequently, these newcomers have no choice but to align their personal and career goals with those of their new employer on the basis of what they are told. It is the disappointment of discovering a substantial gap between the reality on the ground and what they were led to believe at interview that causes these new starters to leave – creating yet more vacancies and disruption!

    (c) Instead of looking upon people on their payroll as human beings with hopes, fears and insecurities, individuals are treated like ‘economic units’ by Contractors – to be bought and sold like commodities, at will, in the free market to serve their own narrow commercial interests.

    (d) Recent years has seen the working relationship between Indirect and Direct labour types to be strained beyond breaking point on account of:

    i. The latter (who are all Task Performers, adding value by producing deliverables which attract payment from MoD) being compelled by the former to partake in activities which are contrary to their professional, ethical and moral convictions. In turn, this has led to Direct labour types to accuse Indirect labour types of ‘living off their backs’ by charging MoD a ‘tax surcharge’ on their labour – creating even more bitterness and division.

    ii. The duplicitous policy enforced by Indirect labour types of making bold pledges in Management Plans, and then promptly rescinding on these work commitments during the follow-on Contract performance phase has had the effect of disenfranchising Direct labour types, because they think this is thoroughly deceitful behaviour.

    iii. The burden of responsibility for executing the resultant grossly under-scoped Programme of Work falling on Task Performers, instead of those people on overheads who made the false, exaggerated claims about the maturity of the proposed technical solution in the first place.

    Even more disturbingly, in the interests of furthering their careers in today’s mobile labour market, many defence industry workers especially those possessing highly marketable skills (the crème de la crème) are now willing to extend their commitment and loyalty only, as far as the next pay packet – having adopted this tactic from observing, at first hand, the behaviour of their own employers who have, for many years demonstrated their willingness to provide a service to MoD which extends only as far as the next milestone payment! Worse still, whereas every Contractor has got a Staff Recruitment Policy, none has a Staff Retention Policy.

    So, when a programme in the Contract performance phase suffers a loss in personnel on the project performance team (usually those most difficult to replace), work on producing deliverables to schedule comes to an abrupt stop – leading to delays and ultimately, cost overruns.

    A risk and associated cost burden that has traditionally been borne by the Ministry of Defence!

    So, it is not only defence procurement officials who are to blame for the malaise afflicting defence procurement – defence contractors are equally culpable in creating a procurement culture which has failed to deliver equipment to the Armed Forces that is fit for purpose, adequately sustained in-service and constitutes value for money through-life.

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