Do we need to replace Trident?

not a Trident

July 2016


I'll start with the economic argument as it is the simplest to deal with.

The argument has been made by many in the Labour movement that Trident renewal will create jobs. This is true. CND estimate that the life-time cost of replacing Trident is £205Bn. Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, claims in his article in the Guardian that 30,000 jobs rely on Trident.

This gives us a simple calculation : £205,000,000,000 / 30,000 = £6,833,333. So, for every job 'created' by Trident, the tax payer will pay £6.8M. This makes it perhaps the most expensive job creation scheme in history. The nuclear defence industry is one of the most capital intensive industries in the world. A large proportion of the money would go straight to US companies, which provide the missile technology, so this proportion of the money is lost to the UK economy. Instead of being an investment, the money will be tied up in a depreciating asset with huge decommissioning costs.

Spending the money on almost any other project would create more jobs. The jobs creation argument does not make any sense. It would be cheaper to give every one of the 30,000 workers £1M and keep the remaining £175Bn to spend on useful projects.

Tom Watson says in his article in the Guardian "Unite, my union, has said a failure to renew would lead to the obliteration of thousands of its members' jobs and warned many communities would become ghost towns."

But perhaps is he being ironic? Could I rewrite his article slightly? "He said using this weapon would lead to the obliteration of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and warned many communities would be destroyed."

That is the reality of it. These weapons are designed to murder hundreds of thousands of innocent people. I don't think that can ever be a justification for saving jobs. If we need to re-target communities to more useful work, £205Bn is plenty of money to achieve that.

The idea that saving someone's job is a good justification for building a weapon of mass destruction is extraordinary. Are we to have these jobs at any cost? £205Bn cost? At the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives? At the cost of the obliteration of towns and cities? Really?



Caroline Lucas makes the point in her article in the Guardian that nuclear weapons have been involved in 13 accidents worldwide. Just one accident could tip us into a world wide nuclear conflagration. This risk is real, and must be set against the unproven deterrence argument.

UK nuclear powered submarines (not nuclear armed) have also experienced a string of safety breaches, eg. this article describing how the safety valves on two submarines were accidentally sealed off for two years, without anyone noticing, "a potentially disastrous safety problem that left both vessels at risk of a catastrophic accident".

Or this story : "Nuclear scare at Navy submarine base after 'unbelievable' failures" in the Independent :

Experts yesterday compared the crisis at the naval base, operated by the Ministry of Defence and government engineering contractors Babcock Marine, with the Fukushima Daiichi power-station meltdown in Japan in 2011.

The weapons are transported overland between the Aldermaston weapons research site and Coulport in Scotland. This article details some of the things that could go wrong : "Nuclear convoy disaster exercise reveals weaknesses in emergency response"

The plant that makes the warheads had to be closed down in 2013 because of safety problems :

The ONR launched an investigation that concluded AWE had breached a condition of its operating licence meant to ensure safe operation. 'AWE had not fully complied with licence condition 28(1) in so far as its arrangements to examine, maintain and inspect the structure were not adequate to prevent the degradation of the structure, and the resulting challenge to its nuclear safety functions,' said an ONR spokesman.

It only takes one accident to cause catastrophic damage and contamination. The worst case is that an accident will spark off a nuclear war. An all out nuclear war could kill all life on the planet. But we are urged to consider that poor guy in Barrow-In-Furness who might lose his job.


With the current political uncertainty it is possible that Scotland will not stay in the Union. The SNP, the party that currently runs Scotland, has an anti-nuclear policy. The Trident submarines are currently based in Faslane in Scotland. If Scotland were to become independent it is unlikely that they would want to keep this base open.

So, the UK would need to find a new site for Trident, for example see this article : 'Trident missiles could be relocated to Plymouth from independent Scotland'.

Devonport is obvious alternative to Faslane for Britain's nuclear missiles, says Rusi thinktank, despite risk of 'accidental ignition'

Plymouth already plays host to nuclear powered submarines, but they don't have clearance to handle vessels with nuclear weapons on board. In this article it says the MoD has ruled out Devonport :

There are about 166,000 people living within five kilometres of the Devonport base, compared with about 5,200 within that distance of Faslane. In assessing the dangers of a major accident at Faslane's shiplift in 2000, the MoD concluded that the "societal contamination" that could result meant that "the risks are close to the tolerability criterion level".

If a similar accident happened at Devonport, the MoD's tolerability criteria would be massively exceeded, the SCND report says. If there was a light wind blowing from the south-west, it estimates that 800 people would be killed by leaking plutonium.

This implies that risking the lives of 5,200 Scots is somehow 'tolerable'. But even the MoD baulk at 166,000 English.

I don't want a risk of 'accidental ignition'. I don't want to be killed by leaking plutonium. I don't want it in Scotland either.


The deterrence argument goes something like this : No-one would nuke us, because if they did, we would nuke them back. This is the doctrine of mutual assured destruction or MAD.

The 'enemy' was always assumed to be Russia, or the Soviet Union as it was called when these arguments were first formulated. The nuclear arms race dates to the Cold War.

Proponents of Trident claim that having these weapons has kept us safe all these years. This is an impossible claim to prove or refute. We simply don't know. You could say Demark doesn't have nuclear weapons and hasn't been nuked. Most countries in the world don't have these weapons, and none of them have been nuked since 1945.

It could be that the deterrence of the US has kept world peace. It could be that these weapons have provoked an escalation of aggression. We simply can't prove it one way or the other.

What we can say is that the UK nuclear deterrent is insignificant compared to the US one. So it would be legitimate to ask, if nuclear weapons have kept us safe, how do we know it is UK weapons and not the far larger number of US weapons?


The UK is committed to spending 2% of its GDP on defence spending. It has already spent a huge amount on building 2 aircraft carriers. We don't even have any aircraft for these. In the next decade it is possible that drones and autonomous vehicles will render them obsolete. Defence planning is notoriously poor.

Trident will take up a huge slice of the defence budget, reducing the money available for conventional forces.

Those who argue that Trident is all about security ignore that fact that nuclear weapons do nothing to address the real threats facing our world. Even military leaders admit that Trident is useless :

Britain's nuclear submarines are "completely useless" against modern warfare, and the £20bn spent on renewing them is a waste of money, retired senior military officers said yesterday.

"Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently face or are likely to face, particularly international terrorism," the group said in a letter to the Times. "Our independent deterrent has become ­virtually irrelevant, except in the context of domestic politics."

And there you have the crux of it. Trident is about macho political posturing.

See also Rebecca Johnson's article in opendemocracy Trident in a time warp: party politics vs defence needs


Last, but not least, if we manage to make it through the next few decades without a nuclear war, we have the problem of how to dispose of the submarines and their warheads. The nuclear material used in both nuclear power plants and in weapons is hugely toxic and highly radioactive. We don't yet have any plan for disposal for this material and the UK has not yet been able to dispose of any of its existing and retired nuclear powered submarines. No long term storage facility exists. The waste would have to be kept safely for 100,000 years.

In a world where countries can collapse over night and governments can't even plan for the results of their own policies, the idea that we can safely manage waste for this period of time is optimistic to say the least.

The nuclear industry has an appalling record on safety and cost overruns :

And the effects of nuclear accidents are long lasting. For example, see this 2009 report on contamination of Wales and Cumbria from the Chernobyl explosion in 1986.

There is no safe long term solution to the disposal of nuclear waste. It is irresponsible to create more when we can't even dispose of the waste we have already created.

Perhaps we can put some of those 30,000 people to work on solving that problem?