THE running of Britain's nuclear bomb base at Coulport on the Clyde is to be handed over to a consortium of multinational private firms led by the controversial US arms dealer, Lockheed Martin, the Sunday Herald can reveal.

Defence ministers in Westminster have decided that the highly sensitive job of managing more than 200 Trident nuclear warheads, and arming the Royal Navy’s submarines with them, should be taken over by the group of companies within the next year.

The decision has been condemned by the SNP, trades unionists and disarmament campaigners, who are demanding an urgent rethink. They describe it as a cost-saving, job-cutting “kick in the teeth to the workforce” that will put nuclear safety at risk.

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Up to 200 Coulport workers have been told that they will be seconded from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to a newly formed private-sector consortium called ABL.

ABL brings together AWE -- which runs the Aldermaston nuclear weapons factory in Berkshire -- Babcock, the British engineering company and US-owned Lockheed Martin Strategic Systems UK. AWE is itself a consortium involving Lockheed Martin; another big US firm, Jacobs Engineering; and the UK management privatisation company, Serco.

According to the MoD’s detailed internal plan leaked to the Sunday Herald, ABL will be granted a contract to run Coulport for 15 years.

The MoD’s timetable is for the contract to be finalised in August, and for ABL to take over Coulport in February 2012. Some 160 MoD scientists and technicians responsible for “strategic weapons support” will be transferred to ABL, plus up to 40 Royal Navy jobs.

Defence ministers rejected an alternative plan to keep Coulport in the public sector but improve its management. Outsourcing to ABL, they decided, “offered the best value for money”.

Angus Robertson, the SNP’s defence spokesman and the party’s leader in Westminster, attacked the decision as “highly questionable” last night.

“Weapons of mass destruction are the most sensitive areas of military technology and should not be put in private hands,” he said.

“The SNP opposition to the nuclear fleet is absolute, but as long as Trident and nuclear missiles remain on the Clyde, their security must be absolute and UK ministers should reconsider their decision to give responsibility to companies outwith the country.”

 

COULPORT’S Royal Naval Armaments Depot is meant to be one of the most secure places in Britain. Sprawled across the slopes above Loch Long, surrounded by cold war-era watchtowers and fences, are buildings and bunkers in which Britain’s nuclear bombs and missiles are kept.

The fact that private companies were bidding to take over running the site caused a furore when it was first disclosed by the Sunday Herald last October. At the time, the MoD said that Coulport’s management was under review, but insisted that no decisions had been taken. Now, however, arrangements for transferring management to ABL have begun.

According to the leaked MoD plan, ABL will be responsible for “processing, handling, and storage” of Trident warheads and missiles, along with “dockside handling”, “explosive handling”, “radiological safety” and “nuclear emergency response”.

But the plan adds: “MoD will remain in overall charge, 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.”

Trades unions nevertheless warn that safety will be jeopardised by switching operations to private hands. Prospect, which represents civilian staff at Coulport, said it was “deeply concerned”.

“We can’t understand the rationale behind the decision,” said Prospect’s national secretary, Steve Jary.

He also accused ministers of ignoring official reports which have highlighted the dangers of outsourcing vital safety posts.

The MoD has said it wants to cut its staff by 25,000 -- and this is what has driven the decision on Coulport, according to Prospect.

Ian Fraser from the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) also condemned the move, and the way it was announced to the workforce. Trades unions were only given two hours’ notice, he said, adding: “This is … a kick in the teeth to the workforce at Coulport.”

PCS is mounting a campaign of opposition to the privatisation, involving the local community in Dumbarton as well as local MPs and MSPs.

Fraser also warned: “This decision may have a major impact on safety at Coulport.”

John Ainslie, co-ordinator of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, pointed out that Lockheed Martin would now dominate Britain’s so-called independent nuclear deterrent.

He added: “Nuclear safety will be compromised as the MoD try to cut corners at Coulport. The ministry may continue to be responsible for safety but they won’t have enough people to carry out this role.”

Lockheed Martin has been criticised in the United States for its “mixed record” on managing large-scale public projects. According to think tank the New America Foundation, there were large cost overruns on the firm’s F-22 combat aircraft, and the unit cost of its new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has doubled in the last few years.

William Hartung, from the Center for International Policy in New York and the author of a book on the Lockheed Martin, said a nuclear weapons depot was much too sensitive to be handed over to a private firm. “This is particularly true in the case of Lockheed Martin,” he told the Sunday Herald.

Lockheed Martin declined to respond directly to the accusations about its record.

The only statement came from ABL on behalf of Lockheed, Babcock and AWE. A spokesman said: “All three companies welcome the announcement on Coulport and will continue to work closely with the MoD in the coming months to help achieve an optimal solution.”

UK Defence Minister Peter Luff MP 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,” he said.

“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.”

The MoD would have a “controlling role”, Luff added.

But this is unlikely to satisfy critics. Peter Burt from the Nuclear Information Service in Reading urged the Scottish Government to ensure that the new operational and safety arrangements at Coulport are subject to the highest standards of independent scrutiny and regulation.

He 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.”