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.
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
“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.