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Britain\'s Secret Nuclear Blueprint - Sunday Times Article

For nearly a year British scientists at Aldermaston have been secretly working with the Americans on a replacement for Trident. Two weeks ago a gro up of Britain’s brightest young physicists gathered at the US nuclear test site in the Nevada desert and headed for Control Point 1. There they waited for a test codenamed Operation Krakatoa to erupt. The controlled detonation, measuring the effect of conventional explosives on a small piece of plutonium, was ostensibly to help ensure that the UK’s nuclear warheads, deployed on Trident submarines, remain effective. But that was only half the story. The data produced by the test were part of a much wider, secret research programme to build a new nuclear weapon that some experts say will breach the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (NPT). Over the past few years the government has quietly been pouring hundreds of millions of pounds of extra funding into the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), based near the Berkshire village of Aldermaston, in pursuit of a replacement warhead for the Trident ballistic missile system. Among the purchases have been powerful new supercomputer and laser systems and the recruitment of a new generation of boffins. While the British remain highly secretive about their plans, sources interviewed in America were more forthcoming and say the architecture or concept for the new weapon has been settled and that the race is now on to produce a working design. The prize both teams are chasing, they say, is a new weapon known as the “Reliable Replacement Warhead” (RRW), a system that can meet the demands of modern warfare but also the rigours of international law against full-scale nuclear testing. The Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore laboratories have been working on an RRW since May 2005, but the officials in Washington are impressed the way “the Brits have done so much with so little”. The initiative threatens to be hugely controversial, however. While Tony Blair and his Government are committed to retaining Britain’s existing nuclear deterrent, the question of replacing or renewing the system is far more contentious. The need, cost and legality of any new system are all challenged by politicians, lawyers and even some former military commanders. Under the NPT, which came into force in 1970, Britain is committed to prevent proliferation and to “pursue” disarmament. The Foreign Policy Centre, a Blairite think tank, will publish a report questioning whether Britain needs a nuclear deterrent at all. “The unfortunate reality for the British people is that, unknown to them, they have a nuclear weapon that is not independent and is committed to support unrealistic US-led policy for the military use of nuclear weapons,” the Report will state. “The UK should cease to try to keep up appearances and adopt a policy based on the reality that it is not an independent nuclear power.” Far from rubber- stamping a Trident replacement for which work is already under way, many backbench MPs are calling for the government to publish a full assessment of national threats, nuclear costs and alternative options. “The government denies it, but it’s possible (a decision has already been taken),” said Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North and chairman of the parliamentary CND group. “The evidence for it is the huge amount of money being spent on Aldermaston. One can only infer that it is possibly for a new generation of warheads.” So what exactly is the “reliable” new system that scientists in Britain and America have been working on? Is it really just a Trident upgrade, or an entirely new system? Is it legal? And how does it fit with Britain’s commitment to fighting nuclear proliferation? The new Astute submarine planned by the Royal Navy is big enough to house the Trident launch tubes, and the US Navy is extending the life of its own Trident missiles to 2042. That is the thinking behind the research into the Reliable Replacement Warhead. In comparison with the existing warhead, RRW will do the same job but require much less maintenance, dramatically extending its shelf life. The RRW, as one official explained, is intended to be a warhead that can almost be produced on a production line, built to deliver as small or large a blast as required. That may breed new risks. “The danger is you lower the threshold at which you will use them to the point that someone does,” said one official. “It’s just too tempting and highly dangerous. We were better off in the cold war with mutually assured destruction.” For politicians, however, it has a clear attraction. Easier and quicker to produce, the RRW could be presented as an update, even a simplification, of Trident rather than a new system. That, proponents could argue, would not breach the Non-Proliferation Treaty. TO campaigners for nuclear disarmament, the Trident system already contravenes international treaties. CND believes that “Trident is illegal, immoral and a waste of resources.” Kate Hudson, chairwoman of CND, will be one of those giving evidence this week to the defence committee. Matrix Chambers, the law firm for whom Cherie Blair works, has drawn up a legal opinion advising the Peacerights organisation that any replacement of Trident would constitute “a material breach” of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. “The missiles are there as virility symbols,” said Paul Flynn, a Labour backbencher. “Who on earth are we going to take on with them anyway? We certainly need a debate before any decision is made. Replacing them wrecks any standing we have when we preach non-proliferation to countries like Iran.” Just up the hill from the pretty village of Aldermaston the countryside morphs into a barbed-wire encampment. Behind the 10ft fence, there is little sign that this is the site of world-leading research into new nuclear weapons. But the AWE has just ordered one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, a Cray XT3 costing £20m. To be known as Larch, the computer will be so fast that, as the AWE systems manager puts it, “the 6 billion inhabitants of earth would have to make nearly 7,000 calculations per second each to keep up with it”. That enormous number-crunching will model nuclear explosions, helping to design the next generation of RRW warheads. The reality, as one US official put it, is that whatever the public political niceties, “Britain is focused on a successor to the Trident warhead