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Is Britain conducting nuclear tests?

Britain took part in a test 1,000ft beneath the Nevada desert, but the explosion was too small to produce a nuclear blast.


Ian Sample
Saturday February 25, 2006
The Guardian


Yes and no. On Thursday, Britain took part in a "subcritical" test of nuclear material 1,000ft beneath the Nevada desert. But the explosion was too small to produce a nuclear blast.

Known as the Krakatau test, the detonation was conducted, according to the Ministry of Defence, for the purposes of "stockpile stewardship", meaning it served to ensure that the country's nuclear bombs have not deteriorated while in storage and will still go off should they ever be launched.

At the heart of the test is the nuclear warhead material, plutonium. Because plutonium can undergo phase changes which can alter its behaviour as it ages, nuclear warheads are regularly refurbished, but subcritical tests are still used to ensure that different compositions of warhead materials perform as expected.

Britain is forbidden from carrying out real nuclear tests under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, although weapons experts at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Aldermaston use computer simulations to check whether warheads will explode.

The Krakatau test has raised concerns among some that Britain and the US will use the data to help develop next generation nuclear warheads.

"There's a dual use behind this test," said Paul Ingram, a senior analyst at the British American Security Information Council. "The other possible use is to improve on the computer simulations that they use for new weapons designs."


According to Mr Ingram, the US is particularly keen on developing "robust nuclear earth penetrators", or bunker-busters, which can destroy bunkers deep underground.

"They're very keen for the weapons experts to come up with devices that can survive a deep thrust into the Earth before detonating," said Mr Ingram.

"It's quite likely that this test will be used to produce data for that process of developing new nuclear weapons," he added.

The Bush administration's funding to modify two existing nuclear warheads for earth penetration was blocked by Congress in 2005 and 2006.

However, funding was approved for the Reliable Replacement Warhead programme, and some US politicians are concerned that this is a cover for new warhead development.

Britain's live nuclear test programme ended in November 1991 at the Nevada test site where the Krakatau detonation was conducted. The first British test was carried out in 1952 off the Australian coast.

Before the end of the current parliament, a decision has to be made on the future of Britain's nuclear deterrent, the Trident missile system.

No more than 200 warheads are believed to be active in Britain's arsenal, but the submarines designed to carry them are rapidly wearing out as their hulls accumulate damage from being at depth. A decision on replacement submarines is closely tied to future plans for an upgraded or alternative Trident system.

"This particular test, we suspect, will be used by Britain not just for stockpile stewardship, but to allow weapons scientists to take part in any research that could lead to a replacement for Trident," said Mr Ingram.

guardian.co.uk