BRITAIN as a “disarmament laboratory”? Tell that one to veterans of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Earlier this year they celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first Easter protest march to Aldermaston, home of the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) where research and design work continues on Britain’s Trident-based nuclear warheads. Yet AWE has lately been turning its nuclear skills to a rather different purpose: finding solutions to some of the many difficulties that disarmament would pose if it ever turned from slogan to reality.
To CND’s regret, and the annoyance of the Scottish Nationalists who want to eject the submarines that carry the country’s nuclear-tipped Trident missiles from their Faslane base on the Clyde, Britain is not about to disarm unilaterally. It remains one of the five officially recognised nuclear powers, alongside America, China, France and Russia. Over the protests of its own left-wingers, last year the Labour government persuaded Parliament to replace the deterrent’s ageing submarines; legislators will probably have to vote before long on replacing the missiles and warheads too.
The “disarmament laboratory” notion was floated last year by Margaret Beckett, foreign secretary at the time and a noted nuclear sceptic. A sop to Labour’s left after the Trident decision? Or a cynical ploy, before the 2010 review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to blunt criticism that Britain is not doing enough to honour its treaty pledge to work towards nuclear disarmament? Away from the politics of it all, defence officials and AWE have a more intriguing story to tell.
For the past 18 months AWE has co-operated with non-nuclear Norway and a London-based NGO, the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (Vertic), on techniques for verifying that when a country promises to cut weapons, it really does. This involves finding ways to let inspectors snoop about places like AWE and other sites where fissile materials from both dismantled weapons and active ones are present, without inadvertently spreading the knowledge of how to build a bomb.
A mock exercise in November in Norway will have the British playing the inspecting sleuths and the Norwegians guarding sensitive materials (though using non-fissile cobalt, rather than the uranium or plutonium that go into nuclear weapons). Another team has been working on a monitoring device to check that materials and weapons are where they are said to be, without design secrets being stolen.
What both sides are learning is just how difficult all this is. Electronic gadgetry is tricky to use around high explosives of the sort used for bomb triggers, and it is hard to make any monitoring device reliably tamper-proof. Inadvertently letting out weapons secrets would not only break the NPT; it could land officials in jail, one admits ruefully. Just tossing around ideas on anything nuclear with an NGO in the room has already proved a culture shock for Britain’s secretive nuclear folk. But Vertic is there to help reassure outsiders that the work is being done scrupulously by both sides. The results will be presented to an NPT preparatory meeting in 2009.
Britain is not doing this work (and other projects AWE is up to on its own) in a fit of altruism. At a maximum of 160 warheads (half its cold-war total), the British deterrent is now probably the smallest of the official five: America and Russia still have thousands of warheads; France has fewer than 300; China is thought to have up to 200. And the lower you go, the more confidence everyone needs that cuts can be properly verified. Even at numbers above CND’s preferred zero, those giving up weapons need to be sure that others are not diverting their nuclear materials and parts to a secret stash. Such “chain of custody” work will also mean exploring reliable tags and seals, and proliferation-proof monitoring of nuclear-storage areas.
Earlier this year the defence secretary, Des Browne, suggested that representatives from the weapons labs of all five official nuclear powers meet to see if some of the technologies mastered for weapons building could in future be turned to verification tasks. Hardly swords into ploughshares stuff. But the place would-be disarmers will have to start.