An End To The UK's Nuclear Weapons?

In this article based on his presentation to the SGR conference, John Finney, University College London, argues that a decision should be made now not to replace the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons.

Article from SGR Newsletter 28, November 2003

Background: does Britain need nuclear weapons?

In 1995, a British Pugwash Group (BPG) report addressed the question of whether Britain actually needs nuclear weapons. According to that study, British nuclear weapons have had no detectable influence on the course of events. They represent less than 2% of the NATO arsenal, they have deterred no enemies, and no serious consideration has ever been given to their use in any war the UK has been involved in. It was never reasonable to think that the UK would use nuclear weapons in circumstances that the US would not. Consequently, the conclusion was that British nuclear weapons could be dispensed with, not because the Cold War was over, but because of their uselessness ever since their introduction.

Nothing has happened since 1995 to alter the basis for the above conclusion. UK nuclear weapons were of no use during the cold war and now they actually have a negative value - i.e. they present us with additional risks in terms of accident possibility and attracting pre-emptive strikes. Their retention is an incentive for others to acquire nuclear weapons.

The UK is legally committed to nuclear disarmament under the terms of the Non Proliferation Treaty, and this was unequivocally confirmed at the NPT review conference in 2000.


Current status of UK nuclear weapons

The UK nuclear weapons programme today is based entirely on Trident. It consists of 4 British-built submarines carrying up to 16 US D5 missiles each with up to 8 British-made warheads. At least one submarine is on patrol at any time. They patrol in a reduced state of alert, with notice to fire periods of days, and missiles not routinely targeted.

The UK has a stockpile of less than 200 warheads, but there has been no explanation of why the UK military chose this number. It may relate to ability to penetrate missile defences around Moscow. Warhead yield is about 100 ktons, with a lower yield option available (1-5 ktons?). We have no information about possible sub-strategic use scenarios.

The Trident system has an operational lifetime of 30 years, and this is determined by the design life of the submarines. The warheads can be maintained indefinitely in service through a programme of inspection, refurbishment and remanufacture at Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) Aldermaston. The missiles can be upgraded (a US programme exists). However, unlike the US, the UK has never implemented any life extension programmes for the submarines. Consequently, a decision to replace the Trident submarines will be needed this decade.


Prospects for multilateral progress

The UK Strategic Defence Review (1998) made it clear that the UK wishes to see mutual, balanced and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons. A year later, George Robertson set a lead through our policy of minimum deterrence.

The 2000 NPT Review commits states to “accomplish” disarmament but lacks the timescale to give the process any meaning and impetus. There have been setbacks such as proliferation in India and Pakistan (and, arguably, Iran and Korea), US development of “missile defence” and the US Nuclear Posture Review 2002. The latter spells out an intention to maintain large stockpiles and develop new low yield weapons. Furthermore there has been a failure of states to sign or ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the UN Conference on Disarmament is moribund. All in all, there is little reason at present to expect significant progress towards multilateral disarmament.


Public opinion in the UK

In terms of public opinion the salience of nuclear weapons has all but disappeared over the last 15 years (see figure below). When polled a substantial majority favours Britain retaining nuclear weapons as long as other keep them. However, a 1999 MORI poll showed that two-thirds of Britons would support Blair taking a lead in negotiations to remove nuclear weapons worldwide.


UK policy options

So what policy options exist for the UK to move forward on the nuclear weapons question? The UK could disarm unilaterally now. Or it could intensify work towards multilateral disarmament, by pressing for a fissile material cut-off treaty, promoting No First Use as NATO policy, or by encouraging moves towards global fissile material protection, control and accounting. Redirection of AWE and BNFL resources could contribute to the latter. Unilaterally, the UK could reduce warhead numbers and clarify the rationale behind the number retained, or adopt a No First Use national policy.

On the other hand, the UK could decide now not the replace Trident when its design life expires in 2020. This would establish a timetable to meet our obligation under the NPT and galvanise the UK to throw its full weight behind multilateral disarmament. It would also be a relevant argument against the perceived need for smaller states to join the nuclear club.

Supporting actions could include reducing the military Plutonium stockpile, announcing that no more tritium will be produced or procured after the Chapelcross nuclear facility closes in 2005, and fundamentally reassessing the role of AWE, ending warhead design and production. Work at Aldermaston could be redirected, expanding current work on verification and other aspects of arms control. It could contribute to initiatives aimed at enhancing the security of nuclear materials in Russia. Conversion of Aldermaston to a fully defensive role could have a positive impact comparable to the 1956 decision to halt development of chemical and biological weapons at Porton Down. Another possibility could be civil redeployment of the AWE facilities in areas such as high energy physics, lasers, materials sciences etc. Finally, there is the option of simply closing AWE Aldermaston.



The UK government should decide and announce that the UK will not acquire a replacement for Trident when its operational life expires about 20 years from now.

In addition, the UK government should:

  • justify the number of warheads deployed
  • clarify the circumstances in which they would be used
  • announce that no further military tritium will be produced or purchased after 2005
  • reduce the UK military plutonium stockpile to the minimum needed to see out Trident, with the surplus being placed under international safeguards
  • AWE should no longer retain a warhead design and development facility
  • AWE work should be redirected towards certification, nuclear arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament work
  • Consider realigning stewardship-related science towards civil research.

John Finney is Professor of Physics at University College London and Treasurer of the British Pugwash Group.

This article was prepared from Prof. Finney’s slides by Patrick Nicholson, SGR newsletter editor.

For further information see the British Pugwash Group report “An end to the UK’s nuclear weapons” published in 2002 and downloadable from < documents/end-to-uk-nuclear-weapons.pdf>.
British Pugwash Group, Ground Floor Flat, 63A Great Russell St, London WC1B 3BJ.
Tel.: 020 7405 6661