(Title Image: BBC)
The issue of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons presents major ethical, policy and strategic challenges for an independent Wales in their own right – that’s why it wasn’t included last summer.
What use are WMDs?
Killing the maximum number of people, or destroying the maximum number of buildings, with the minimum amount of effort – it’s as simple as that, even though there’s no single internationally-agreed definition of a WMD.
As hinted, the term usually refers specifically to chemical, biological or nuclear/radiological weapons but doesn’t extend to conventional explosives even if they can be, or are, just as destructive.
WMDs are usually used as strategic weapons – meaning they’re designed only to be used against targets far away from a front line of a conflict (i.e. against enemy cities instead of enemy troops). This is certainly the case for nuclear weapons, but chemical and biological weapons have and are used in close combat situations too – the Syrian government has almost certainly used chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War, while VX nerve agent was recently used to assassinate Kim Jong-nam.
WMDs are also designed to act as a deterrent under the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD): by having the ability to annihilate, not just damage, an enemy’s entire infrastructure and/or create a major panic amongst their population, the nation possessing the WMDs is protected from a similar attack against themselves.
Around 40 nations possess chemical or biological weapons, while 9 nations (USA, Russia, France, UK, North Korea, Israel, India, Pakistan, China) also have nuclear weapons.
WMDs: The UK Stockpile & International Law
The UK possesses nuclear weapons delivered via the Trident nuclear missile system. There are estimates that in 2016 the UK had 215 nuclear warheads (of which around 120 were active).
The UK also possesses the ability to develop biological and chemical weapons and carries out high-level research at the Porton Down facility in Wiltshire. There are stockpiles of agents, chemicals and other toxins that could be used to develop such weapons but – officially at least – the stockpiles are there to develop counter-measures, not weapons themselves.
The UK’s chemical and biological weapons programme ended in the 1950s, and the UK has ratified both the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention – both of which forbid the use and stockpiling of chemicals, toxins and biological agents to create or be used as weapons. Breaches are investigated by the UN Security Council.
The UK has ratified the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which: forbids assisting non-nuclear weapons states to develop nuclear weapons; encourages signatories to take part in good faith negotiations aimed at ending a nuclear arms race and start nuclear disarmament; acknowledges the right for nations to develop peaceful uses for nuclear technology (i.e. energy and medicines).
As you all well know, the UK is set to introduce a new fleet to replace the existing 4 Vanguard class submarines – known as a “like for like replacement for Trident”. (see also: Rust in Peace….Trident?)
As the number of warheads is to remain the same it complies with NPT criteria, but the cost of the programme is expected to be at least £31-41billion up front (to replace the submarines) and another £2billion a year for the 40-year lifetime of the replacement missile system.
So in total, the Trident replacement will cost – over its lifetime – at least £111billion. A proportional Welsh share would be £5.44billion, or £136million a year for 40 years.
Other international agreements ban the use of WMDs on the ocean floor, in outer space or in Antarctica, while the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty bans all peacetime nuclear explosions, including tests – though it hasn’t been signed or ratified by all nuclear weapons states, including China, the United States, India, Pakistan and North Korea.
Could Wales develop WMDs?
In short, yes – there’s no technological reason why not.
Chemical weapons are relatively inexpensive to create but expensive to decommission (about $100million per 100 tonnes). Wales has the industrial capacity and infrastructure to create them, but facilities to store them – like the old Tracwn depot in Pembrokeshire – would need to be recommissioned and that would be pricey.
Biological weapons will vary depending on what type. Bacterial weapons (botulism etc.) and spore-based weapons (i.e anthrax) are easier to develop than viral weapons (i.e. Ebola) and nerve agents like VX. Obviously, any facilities used to develop such weapons would have to have the highest levels of security – again, at significant cost.
And yes, Wales could develop a nuclear weapons programme.
Re-processed spent nuclear fuel from Wylfa Newydd could separate enough weapons-grade plutonium for nuclear weapons, though I don’t know how many. The depleted uranium from Wylfa A and Trawsfynydd could also have military uses (particularly armour-piercing weapons) as well as many peaceful civilian uses.
We could decide to enrich uranium ourselves – to 85% for a traditional multi-kiloton nuclear device, or 20% for a “dirty bomb” that would spread radiation without the resulting explosion. Depending on the method chosen (gas centrifuges are the most common), an enrichment programme – even if used to develop nuclear fuel as opposed to nuclear weapons – would probably cost around £2billion.
As enrichment takes up about half the cost of developing weapons – because it’s incredibly energy demanding – the other half would need to be spent to develop the method of delivery. So you’re looking at at least £4billion to develop a Welsh nuclear weapons programme, more if it involves complex delivery systems like submarines and long-range missiles. So call it a nice round £6-8billion to take into account other associated costs.
The real question here is: “Can Wales justify having WMDs?”
Wales doesn’t/wouldn’t face any immediate existential threat to ourselves from our neighbours – so we wouldn’t be in the same position as, for example, Israel, India or Pakistan.
Wales doesn’t have any strategic value; we would be pretty low down the lists of potential targets for an attack and would likely only become a target if we sided with a WMD power in a major international conflict.
An independent Wales would be, at best, a “middle power” in international relations, but more likely to be a small power. WMDs are usually only developed by (former colonial) great powers and superpowers because of their need for global power projection to protect their interests and because they have the resources to undertake advanced weapons programmes. The UK needs nuclear weapons for the same reason some men want expensive cars – to compensate for something.
International treaties and agreements make the prospect of WMDs being used in Europe by a nation state distant, though not entirely implausible. Wales almost certainly has targets for a nuclear strike – Milford Haven, Port Talbot, Cardiff, Deeside – but any such attack against Wales would almost certainly prompt a response from NATO even if we weren’t a NATO member.
You would have to be MAD to think it would be a good use of money while, as mentioned, it would violate numerous international laws. If you think it’s silly for Wales to develop them as a waste of resources then, logically, that should extend to the UK too.
You, your children, your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren and your great-great grandchildren will be paying off the cost of both the Trident replacement and safely decommissioning nuclear power plants already within the UK. There’s no need to add to that.
WMDs & Independence
The future of Faslane
One of the big questions amidst the prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum, let alone as an independent state ourselves, is what would happen to the UK’s nuclear submarine base at Faslane near Glasgow should Scotland secede (the SNP are adamant Trident would have to move from Scotland)?
It’s likely the naval base at Devonport near Plymouth would be the #1 choice because it already has proper facilities for maintenance and engineering of ocean-going vessels – with some adaptions.
Milford Haven will, however, also be high on the list of potential alternatives because it’s a natural harbour and is in a relatively remote location (which aids loading warheads) – but it’s less than ideal because of the LNG refineries in the area. The First Minister infamously “welcomed” the prospect of Trident moving to Wales back in 2012, but that was a long time ago and any non-construction jobs would probably be transferred from Scotland, not created anew.
WMDs and NATO Membership
This complicates the Faslane question.
If an independent Wales were to join/aspire to join NATO – I’m personally in favour of an Irish-style neutrality – it would mean accepting the principle of hosting nuclear weapons on Welsh soil or in our territorial waters. In practice, this is only likely to happen in the period of international tension prior to a nuclear exchange, but in principle, it would have to extend to peacetime.
If Wales stayed out of NATO (and the EU) then we could declare ourselves a nuclear weapon free zone (NWFZ) as defined by the United Nations – the first in Europe (Ireland isn’t officially because of the EU’s Common Defence & Security Police). This would ban the deployment, use or development of nuclear or radiological weapons on Welsh soil or in Welsh territorial waters. Doing so would, however, almost certainly prevent us joining NATO; as mentioned, “nuclear sharing” agreements are a core part of the alliance.
- If Wales doesn’t automatically succeed to treaties signed on our behalf by the UK (as a successor state), then we should, at the earliest opportunity, sign and ratify all major WMD treaties including: the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Outer Space Treaty, Seabed Treaty, Biological Weapons Convention and Chemical Weapons Convention.
- Wales could throw our support behind an initiative backed by Ireland, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa (as well as around two-thirds of the UN) for a total ban on the development, storage and production of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are currently the only WMD not explicitly outlawed.
WMDs & Defence Policy
- Wales should relinquish any entitlement to a proportional share of the UK’s WMD stockpile (whether this includes samples at Porton Down or not) – including the Trident missile system.
- As Wales wouldn’t be contributing anything to the upkeep of the Trident missile system or the submarines it would save us a proportional £98million a year (for however long the system lasts after independence); sadly there’s nothing that can be done about the Welsh contribution to the up-front costs of Trident as it’s already been approved by the UK Parliament (working out at between £1.52-£2.01billion).
- Public pension funds could be banned from investing in companies that are known to develop parts and systems for use in/as WMDs.
- The Welsh military will, presumably, be responsible for protecting sensitive sites – like Trawsfynydd and Wylfa – and the issue of protecting spent nuclear fuel and decommissioning works will have to be factored into strategic defence reviews.
- The full cost of decommissioning Wylfa A will be £2billion over 120 years (£16.7million a year – which is similar to Trawsfynydd’s annual decommissioning costs), presumably, a similar cost will apply to Wylfa Newydd in the future. Some of this could be drawn down from a Welsh defence budget, and it would still leave a moderate “saving” compared to the costs of sustaining Trident.