Ahoy! A nuclear scandal ahead?

Posted by Louise Edge — 14 January 2011 at 6:09pm - Comments
All rights reserved. Credit: John Cobb / Greenpeace

Remember the defence review? The one that left us marvelling at the Alice in Wonderland world we inhabit - where we build two giant aircraft carriers we don’t actually want because building them is actually cheaper than cancelling them? The one that said we can’t actually afford to buy any planes to put on those carriers?

Yes, that was also the review that told us that the thorny issue of whether to build a new generation of nuclear weapons had been kicked into the long grass. The long grass of 2016.

It said the potentially coalition-busting vote on whether or not to replace Trident could be delayed until after the next election – since the existing armed subs can be kept going for an extra four years or so.

With that announcement, the Liberal Democrats sent round the message:

“Trident will not be renewed this parliament - not on a Liberal Democrat watch. Let us be clear, this is a significant victory for Liberal Democrat campaigners, and a fantastic example of what our ministers can and do achieve in government”

At the time I wasn’t so sure about this supposed delay – and now it seems those concerns were well founded.

It seemed strange to me that despite this four year delay, the next step in the replacement programme - excitingly known as ‘Initialgate’ - seems to be staying very much on track. David Cameron even made a point of stressing this in his defence review speech to parliament.

Then alarm bells got louder when I read upbeat newspaper interviews with the boss of the submarine arm of BaE Systems (who are set to build any new subs) about staff increasing over the next few years (video) thanks to assurances from the government about Trident replacement.

So I decided to dig a little deeper to try and find out exactly what was going on.

This involved putting down a raft of parliamentary questions and filing Freedom of Information requests to various government departments.

Finally, much paperwork later we got a reply from the MoD – it shows that their plan is to sign and seal a huge long list of contracts ahead of the 2016 vote, before parliament has decided whether we actually want to build new nuclear subs.

And this isn’t a short shopping list – according to the documents (see page three) they intend to buy things like the submarine hull, the nuclear reactor, generators, switchboards, and “various components of the combat systems”.

I’m no sub designer but it begs the question: what’s left to buy and how much is all of this going to cost?

The simple answer is we don’t know – our Freedom of Information request on this was denied and the MoD answered a parliamentary question by saying the relevant information was not held centrally.

What we do know is that on average 10-15 per cent of total project costs are spent during the assessment phases of military projects. This would make an estimated £1.1-£2.1bn, based on government estimates from 2006 that new submarines cost £11-14bn. However these estimates have been widely criticised and we believe submarine costs are likely to rise substantially.

It sounds like if we don’t watch out we’ll get to the 2016 vote only to find out that we’ve already bought a large part of the first submarine, we’re already tied into various contracts, and the familiar voices will be saying to us that it’s cheaper to go ahead with business as usual than scrap Trident.

Deja vu, anyone?

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