Coulport nuclear weapons store to be privatised

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AWE will head a commercial alliance that will take over operation of the site where the UK's nuclear weapons are stored from February 2012.

The private sector alliance, comprising of AWE as the prime contractor with Babcock and Lockheed Martin Strategic Systems (UK) as subcontractors, will undertake the highly sensitive role of managing Trident nuclear warheads and missiles stored at the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Coulport, on Loch Long in Scotland.

The news was broken by the Sunday Herald newspaper, which obtained a copy of a leaked briefing to staff on the privatisation arrangements (available for download below).

The contract between Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the consortium of companies – to be known as ABL – is to be finalised in August 2011, with the consortium taking over operations at Coulport in February 2012. Some 160 MoD technicians responsible for strategic weapons support duties will be transferred to ABL, plus up to 40 Royal Navy jobs.

Despite an option to keep operation of the site in-house with improved management, Ministers opted to outsource duties to the private sector as the considered that this would offer the best value for money.  However, no figures on the costs of the contract with ABL, which will last for 15 years, or expected savings have been published.

According to the Prospect trade union, which represents staff at Coulport and AWE, the MoD has a target to reduce staff numbers by 25,000, and this has driven the decision to privatise Coulport.

Under the new arrangements MoD will remain in overall charge at Coulport, with Naval Base Commander (Clyde) retaining overall responsibility for nuclear activities, explosive safety policy, security and emergency management planning, including retention of the incident commander role in response to all contingency scenarios.  The following areas will become the responsibility of the ABL consortium:

  • Processing, handling, and storage of Reentry Boby Assemblies (RBAs, or warheads) and the Trident D5 Missile within the Trident Special Area;
  • Processing and handling of Launcher and Missile Ordnance undertaken within the Small Ordnance Processing and Storage Buildings; 
  • Dockside Handling Building and the Explosive Handling Jetty including RBA and Missile handling activities conducted by the officer in charge of the Strategic Weapon Systems Building;
  • Explosives Handling Jetty operations in support of Tactical Weapons Systems handling (excluding the activities of the Weapon Handling Party); 
  • Processing and storage of Missile Guidance units, maintenance and storage of surface support equipment and engineering support to Strategic Weapon System Sub-Systems on operational SSBNs performed by the Strategic Weapon Systems Building;
  • Radiological Safety, Commodity/Material Management and Nuclear Emergency Response (excluding Emergency Management Planning) both locally and offsite, Documentation Control, General Management and Site Control.

Peter Luff, Minister for Defence Equipment and Technology said: “The decision to outsource this work has been taken to ensure that these high standards and critical skills are maintained and sustained into the future.”

“The MoD will continue to own the site and Naval Base Commander Clyde will retain overall responsibility for security and for the activities carried out on the site.

“The site will also … be subject to regulation by the Defence Nuclear Safety Regulator, the Office of Nuclear Regulation and other regulatory bodies.”

Nuclear Information Service Director Peter Burt said: “As with virtually every aspect of the Trident nuclear weapons programme, this decision has been taken in secret and we have no idea of the costs or risks associated with it.

“The Scottish Government must pursue this matter vigorously with the Ministry of Defence and ensure that the new operational and safety arrangements at Coulport are subject to the highest standards of independent scrutiny and regulation”.

Download a copy of the leaked staff briefing about Coulport's privatisation here: