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ScrapTrident


Stopping Trident sneaking out of the Clyde

Every hour of every day, a Trident submarine from the Clyde carrying up to 48 nuclear warheads - each capable of obliterating a city - is hiding somewhere deep under the world's oceans. Some believe they are helping to deter war, but for most people in Scotland they seem supremely pointless, or worse.

The missiles are not targeted on any country. They have not prevented punishing wars in the Balkans, the Gulf and Afghanistan, and they certainly don't deter terrorists. They are draining the UK economy of billions of pounds. And if they were ever fired, they would wreak death and destruction on an unimaginable scale.

That's why opinion polls have consistently shown more than 50% of Scots opposed to Trident. A majority of Scottish MPs in Westminster and a majority of MSPs at Holyrood have voted decisively against replacing Trident, which is what the UK government has said it wants to do.

Every hour of every day, a Trident submarine from the Clyde carrying up to 48 nuclear warheads - each capable of obliterating a city - is hiding somewhere deep under the world's oceans. Some believe they are helping to deter war, but for most people in Scotland they seem supremely pointless, or worse.

The missiles are not targeted on any country. They have not prevented punishing wars in the Balkans, the Gulf and Afghanistan, and they certainly don't deter terrorists. They are draining the UK economy of billions of pounds. And if they were ever fired, they would wreak death and destruction on an unimaginable scale.

That's why opinion polls have consistently shown more than 50% of Scots opposed to Trident. A majority of Scottish MPs in Westminster and a majority of MSPs at Holyrood have voted decisively against replacing Trident, which is what the UK government has said it wants to do.

No surprise then, that the Scottish Nationalist government should try to do something about it. In October, ministers made their initial moves. The First Minister, Alex Salmond, wrote to over 180 countries seeking their backing for Scotland to win observer status at the next round of talks under the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, the world's main barrier to nuclear mayhem.

At the same time the Minister for Parliamentary Business, Bruce Crawford, convened a summit in Glasgow to discuss "Scotland's future without nuclear weapons". On the morning of 22 October, MSPs, trade unionists, councillors, church leaders, anti-nuclear campaigners, legal experts and others gathered for discussions..It was not a perfect event. There was no-one there from the Labour Party or the LibDems, despite many in those parties being opposed to the replacement of Trident. Invitations had gone to party business managers, rather than to individuals known to be sympathetic.

There was, however, a lone representative from the MoD sent at the last minute to remind people that the UK government backed Trident, and that the Clyde was the best place for it because of the easy access to deep water. Once or twice, discussions became a little frayed.

That said, however, most people left feeling buoyed. Maybe - just maybe - Crawford was right when he described the discussions as the beginning of a "historic" process. He announced his intention of setting up a working group to pursue how best to rid Scotland of nuclear weapons.

The group will have a big task. It is going to examine whether Trident can be blocked by international law, by safety regulation, by environmental controls or by planning decisions. It will also investigate future options for the naval base at Faslane without Trident, and help prepare the Scottish Government for attending negotiations on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The legal issues are complex. There was a Scottish High Court ruling in 2001 suggesting that maintaining the Trident nuclear weapons system was legal, but some lawyers argue that this could be overturned. It partly hinges on whether a World Court judgement in 1996 outlawing nearly every use of nuclear weapons is advisory, or binding.

There is also the possibility of making nuclear weapons illegal under Scottish law. That is the aim of private member's legislation - the Prevention of Crimes Committed by Weapons of Mass Destruction (Scotland) Bill 2007 - being introduced to the Scottish Parliament by the SNP MSP Michael Matheson.

The fate of the Clyde naval bases if nuclear warheads were withdrawn is a vital question. Though there may not be much need for the nuclear storage bunkers behind barbed wire and watchtowers at Coulport on Loch Long, the nearby base at Faslane on Gare Loch does more than just service Trident. It is also the home port to a squadron of hunter-killer submarines, armed with conventional weapons and powered by nuclear reactors, as well as a fleet of anti-mine surface ships.

Most of those at the Trident summit, including Bruce Crawford, seemed to be in favour of maintaining Faslane as a naval base. A local SNP councillor, James Robb, argued that closing the whole base was not an option because of the unemployment it would cause. He warned against talk of "shutting down Faslane" because the idea scared local residents.

In a briefing for the summit, the MoD pointed out that there were over 6,500 people employed at the Clyde naval bases. Only 3,600 jobs in Scotland were directly dependent on Trident, it said. It is unclear exactly how a decision to withdraw Trident would affect employment.

Perhaps the most hope for frustrating plans to replace Trident lie in the raft of regulatory, environmental and planning controls available to the Scottish government. There are a series of anomalies and shortfalls in the safety arrangements that could justifiably be challenged.

The most glaring is the complete lack of independent regulation of the nuclear bomb convoys that trundle along Scottish roads up to six times a year. Ageing warheads require maintenance and so have to be regularly moved between the Clyde bases and the bomb factories at Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire.

There is also the danger of a terrorist attack on the bomb convoy. "Such an attack," wrote David Wray, the MoD Director of Information "has the potential to lead to damage or destruction of a nuclear weapon within the UK and the consequences of such an incident are likely to be considerable loss of life and severe disruption both to the British people's way of life and to the UK's ability to function effectively as a sovereign state."

Yet there is no genuinely independent oversight of the safety of transporting nuclear bombs on public roads. In its briefing for the Trident summit, the MoD argued that "independent internal regulation" was provided by the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator, which was accountable to the chairman of the Defence Nuclear Environment and Safety Board, who is appointed "on a personal basis".

But this whole process is shrouded in official secrecy. None of these internal regulators publish any reports, none of their operations are at all transparent, and the people involved seem to be nameless. Responses to requests under freedom of information law have shed a little light on some of the murky workings, but much remains hidden. Many would argue that this flies in the face of the commonly accepted principle that to be effective, safety regulation has to be independent and open.

There are similar deficiencies in the regulation of health and safety at Faslane and Coulport. Official figures show that there were 45 "nuclear safety events" at the bases in 2004-05, double the average for the previous four years. Between June 2005 and May 2006 Trident submarines suffered 22 safety lapses, including failures in radiation protection and mechanical defects.

Although the bases are visited by inspectors from the government's Health and Safety Executive, they do not have the same tough statutory powers as they do at civil nuclear power stations, or even at the Aldermaston and Burghfield bomb factories. Faslane and Coulport are not "licensed sites" so inspectors cannot legally enforce improvements or closures. Health and safety legislation is reserved to Westminster, but some of its anomalies could still be challenged.

It may turn out, in the tussles to come, that by themselves none of these powers will be enough to stop Trident. But they may be enough to stall it. Just conceivably, that could be enough to make UK ministers think again, and shift the submarine bombers elsewhere, or even replace their nuclear warheads with conventional ones.

No outcome, of course, is guaranteed, and Bruce Crawford's working group would presumably evaporate if the SNP lost power. But something critical has changed, and a small, unaccustomed, flame of hope has flickered into life. There is just a chance that, one day, weapons of mass destruction will no longer creep out of the Clyde.

(Rob Edwards Article in Holyrood Magazine)

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