Will the age of austerity kill off Trident?

Tom Griffin
28 April 2009

Tom Griffin (London, OK): Monday's Guardian carried an alarming report about safety at the Trident submarine base in Faslane: 

The worst breaches include three leaks of radioactive coolant from nuclear submarines in 2004, 2007 and 2008 into the Firth of Clyde, while last year a radioactive waste plant manager was replaced. It emerged he had no qualifications in radioactive waste management.
The repeated safety breaches, which have been revealed in documents released to Channel 4 News, are so serious that the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) has warned that it would consider closing the base down if it had the legal powers to do so. 

This revelation comes at an obviously sensitive time, with the longstanding opposition to Trident renewal in the Scottish Parliament being compounded by growing questions about its affordability at Westminster.

The Observer reports that Stephen Byers is calling for the Government to scrap Trident replacement and ID cards, both programmes he has previously supported, because of the recession. The Conservatives have up to now regarded defence spending as sacrosanct, but according to the Times, some shadow ministers are now talking about the possibility of cuts to the Trident programme.

Over at Next Left, Sunder Katwala notes Sir Malcolm Rifkind's proposal to extend the life of the existing system until 2042. That would be more in keeping with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty than all-out renewal, but would presumably only compound the problems identified at Faslane.

Is it really worth the opportunity cost to extend the life of an aging and unsafe system, of doubtful relevance to the real challenges facing Britain in the Twenty-First Century?

Update: Channel 4 News revealed last night that the Government has decided to base all nuclear submarines at Faslane. The Scotsman picks up on the political significance of the move.

With a report from the Scottish Government's working party into how Scotland and the Faslane area can have a Trident-free future due by June, the plans outlined in the MoD documents instead entrench the future of British nuclear weapons in Clyde.
It would also be a slap in the face for Holyrood in terms of the UK government ignoring the wishes of MSPs over reserved issues. A majority of MSPs have voted in the past for Trident to be removed from Scotland.  

The Scotsman's Hamish Macdonell suggests that "the UK government has snubbed the SNP administration in one easy move." Whether this demonstration of the limits of devolved power will ultimately benefit Labour or the SNP's cause of independence is open to question.

In any case, the Scottish political calculation may yet be overtaken by wider economic realities. 

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