Westminster Hall Debate – 26 March 2008

Debate at the House of Commons, Atomic Weapons Establishment Aldermaston – Wedneday 26 March 2008. To read the full debate, please click here.


Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North, Labour): …Aldermaston is a huge facility by any stretch of the imagination. I have been there on many occasions for various demonstrations and have always been concerned by its size, but I am concerned above all by its cost and purpose. Nuclear weapons are expensive and extremely controversial. The nuclear weapons expenditure planned for AWEs between the financial years 2008-09 and 2010-11 amounts to £2.65 billion: £800 million in the forthcoming year, rising to £900 million and then £950 million. Over those three years, the Trident replacement programme will add up to another £900 million and other expenditure a further £2 billion, leading to a total expenditure on nuclear weapons of £5.8 billion in the next three years, excluding present running costs. Those are phenomenal amounts of money.

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A number of issues have been raised by people who live in the area, environmental campaigners and others about the environmental impact of nuclear weapons, particularly the issue of Aldermaston and related facilities at Burghfield in Berkshire and the transport of weapons after development to the Clyde naval base…..The risk of an inadvertent yield, or a small nuclear explosion, was confirmed in a second MOD assessment obtained under freedom of information law and published in New Scientist in July 2006. The assessment again related to the danger of an explosion caused by an accident. A response to an FOI request by an anti-nuclear group confirmed that there was serious risk of a terrorist attack on the nuclear bomb convoy.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury, Conservative): …The Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, as I have already said, is a centre of excellence for science and engineering. Although I wish it did not need to exist, let us look at that positive fact, because an enormous amount of the skills from the work at Aldermaston have gone on to assist in the civil areas of science, plasma physics, engineering and many other civilian developments. Many of those advances would not have come about but for the dedication and professionalism of the work force at Aldermaston. The new Orion centre, which is possibly one of the new buildings to which the hon. Member for Islington, North referred, offers fantastic opportunities for non-nuclear weapons-type development of science and engineering, and I understand that there are great plans to involve a range of civil organisations in the work that takes place there.

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Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury, Conservative): …I have spoken about Greenham Common. I would like to see Aldermaston decommissioned and real jobs replace the growing number of posts that are needed to maintain our nuclear deterrent. However, we must ask ourselves whether we want to second-guess the state of the world in several decades’ time. Can we be sure of our relationships with any other country over that time? Have those who supported CND in the 1980s not learned that unilateralism did not work then and that it will not work now or in the future?

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Willie Rennie (Shadow Minister, Defence; Liberal Democrate): …The 2010 talks are coming up very soon, and the preparatory talks are being organised. Those talks will give us an important opportunity to consider the work that goes on at Aldermaston. We had quite a successful round of nuclear non-proliferation talks in 2000, and I commend the excellent work that Robin Cook did in that respect. However, 2005 was considered a major failure, and I hope that we grasp the opportunity that 2010 presents to run down nuclear weapons over time.

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We accept that Aldermaston is part and parcel of a nuclear deterrent system. I should like to see the day when the facility is run down, because we no longer have nuclear weapons. However, as long as we have them, it is part of the system.

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Mr. Ainsworth (Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence): …My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North will be aware of the recent speculation about the safety arrangements at AWE, and I assure him that safety is of paramount importance at all times. The AWE is subject to rigorous safety regulation and licensing by the nuclear installations inspectorate, and the Ministry of Defence has its own internal defence nuclear safety regulator. The AWE has an excellent safety record, which is underpinned by clear safety assurance arrangements within a highly regulated environment.

My hon. Friend and other hon. Members talked about the convoys, and all kinds of lurid stories have been told about the possibility of accidents and so on. However, my hon. Friend knows, and we must make it clear that, first, the convoys are essential; secondly, they are kept to a minimum and, thirdly, there is a separation of material to ensure that no armed material is moved. The risk of an explosion would thus be non-existent. The encasement of the material is such that it would take an awful impact to do any damage at all.

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Mr. Ainsworth (Minister of State (Armed Forces), Ministry of Defence): To sum up, I am pleased to have been able to respond to the debate on this important issue. We are focused on maintaining the right balance between a commitment to strive towards a world free of nuclear weapons, and the need to protect our citizens in an unsafe and uncertain world. Within that context, AWE has served our nation and our allies well, and I am sure that the skill and dedication of its work force, suppliers and partners will continue to serve us in the future.