UK government sells stake in nuclear weapons firm

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Trident D5 missile launched from underwater by an American submarine

The British government has decided to sell off its stake in the British nuclear weapon manufacturer, Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE). The move has been met with anger and claims of cover up by the opposition parties. The news was broken by Jacobs Engineering, the California based company who bought the government's shares, and by a single line comment on the British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) website. British Nuclear Fuels plc, a government owned company, held one third of the shares in AWE's operating company, with British firm Serco and American defence contractor Lockheed Martin each having a further third. The Atomic Weapons Establishment, which is based in Aldermaston, produces the warheads for the Lockheed Martin Trident D5 missile used by the Royal Navy's Vanguard class ballistic missile submarines.

The details of the deal have not been published, though opposition Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Vince Cable suggested the deal was "probably in the millions rather than the billions", echoing fears that the firm may have been undervalued in its sale. Both the methods of the deal's announcement and the deal itself have been attacked by both opposition parties. There is anger in some quarters over the deal being revealed on a website rather than through the commons, the Liberal Democrats describing such a failure as staggering. The Liberal Democrats have also raised the issue of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, their defence spokesman Nick Harvey questioned "The whole argument used for Britain having a separate weapons establishment is that this is required by the non-proliferation treaty, as technology sharing is not allowed. We must therefore query the rationale of a US company having a majority shareholding in AWE. How does this all square?"

The Tories have also raised doubts over the decision, with Commons Public Accounts Select Committee member Richard Bacon suggesting that they may involve the National Audit Office. The Tory defence spokesperson, Gerald Howarth, commented that the firm was "critical" and said "What I'm absolutely determined is that the United Kingdom should have total control of its independent nuclear capability". Mr Howarth criticised handing over control to American firms, saying that the British people would want to know "their politicians are in command of the research and development of this capability".

The Ministry of Defence has defended the decision, saying "the UK Government not AWE that sets the UK's nuclear policy". The MoD also assured that the sale would have no affect on the independence of the British nuclear deterrent or on the safe operation of AWE. These statements have been backed up by news from the government that it has retained the ability to re-assert control over the site should it feel the need, due to a "Special Share".