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1 June 2015

Britain’s Trident, and the need to support nuclear personnel

Heather Williams

Heather Williams

Heather Williams is a MacArthur postdoctoral fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. She was previously a research fellow at Chatham House and the Institute for Defense...

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Nuclear weapons have a people problem. In May a 25-year-old submariner in Great Britain’s Royal Navy, able seaman William McNeilly, published an 18-page statement online that listed dozens of safety and security risks he observed in his time working on the HMS Victorious from January to April 2015.

His allegations have caused a great stir among politicians and the press. In fact, though, the kind of nuclear security breaches he cites are neither new nor surprising. In 2009, British and French nuclear submarines collided with one another in the course of conducting routine patrols in the Atlantic Ocean. In 2011, Britain’s Ministry of Defence issued a report saying that submarines’ nuclear reactors were “potentially vulnerable.” In 2013, a crew member committed suicide on board a nuclear submarine, and in 2014, a government watchdog found that the Atomic Weapons Establishment had mishandled nuclear waste. And that’s just in the United Kingdom.

McNeilly’s anecdotes also recall a series of recent personnel issues in the US Air Force, including cheating on exams, misconduct by senior leadership, and a 2007 incident in which active nuclear weapons were flown across the United States. These events prompted a 2014 independent review of the US nuclear establishment, which found serious workload issues due to mismanagement and lack of staff. The report also suggested a distrust of leadership for having promised investments but never delivered. And investigative journalist Eric Schlosser detailed a long list of dangerous near-misses within the US nuclear complex in his 2013 book Command and Control.

McNeilly’s report covered topics as mundane as food hygiene, a flooded toilet, and enforcement of minor restrictions, such as those on e-cigarettes and personal shavers. He also cited breaches as serious as officers cheating on exams, failure to check security passes, alarms being muted, and fires in missile compartments. He said that he acquired much of his information by violating security regulations himself.

Most of the problems cited in these accounts have one thing in common, and it has nothing to do with nuclear technology itself. Rather, they are all personnel issues. All of the reports, both official and unofficial, suggest a lack of morale and vigilance within the nuclear weapons infrastructure. They also highlight some underlying reasons for this state of affairs, specifically, a lack of political and financial support; micromanagement that actually results in heightened risk; and a lack of advancement opportunities and incentives. While the weapons themselves garner a great deal of attention, the people working on them are neglected and deprived of the tools they need to succeed—“tools” being quite literal in some cases: A 2014 official review of the US nuclear infrastructure found that two weapons facilities shared a single wrench that they shipped back and forth.

All this suggests a lack of investment in nuclear programs. But we know that neither Britain’s Conservative majority government nor the United States is averse to spending money on nuclear weapons. McNeilly’s statement comes at the height of a British debate over replacing the four Vanguard submarines that are part of the Trident nuclear weapons programme. The government will probably opt for a like-for-like replacement, at a cost of some 15 to 20 billion pounds ($23 to $31 billion), though Greenpeace estimates that the bill will be at least 34 billion pounds ($52 billion). Across the Atlantic, the US Congressional Budget Office estimates that over the 2015 to 2024 period, the administration’s nuclear plans will cost $348 billion.

But not all “modernization” is created equal. What McNeilly’s report highlights is that investment in people is essential to keeping nuclear weapons as safe as possible. Given the replacement plans in both London and Washington, we will be living with nuclear weapons and their associated risks for the foreseeable future. Reports of misconduct within the nuclear infrastructure, thus, should serve as a warning of the need to invest in the people behind the nuclear weapons in order to reduce those risks. McNeilly’s revelations may not be shocking, but they do highlight a puzzle for nuclear weapon states facing questions of modernization: How do governments invest in the people and infrastructure necessary to keep nuclear weapons safe, while at the same time working towards disarmament?  

The answer to this paradox is multi-faceted. It will require fostering a culture of responsibility and trust. It will require the military establishment to improve working conditions and provide people with the resources necessary to do their jobs, by rethinking the wisdom of 24-hour shifts, repairing security fences and cameras, and buying more wrenches, for a start. The armed services should also provide more incentives to work on nuclear weapons, such as opportunities for professional development and career progression. While making these kinds of investments, governments also need to make tangible shifts in nuclear policy and posture, for example by taking nuclear weapons off of high alert and quick-launch status, and pursuing further arms control or perhaps even unilateral reductions. To be sure, this is not an easy balance to strike.  

Solving the people problem will take a long time and may require a cultural shift, but can start with two education campaigns.

First, the public must be made more aware of nuclear weapons. At the moment, outside of Whitehall and Washington, they remain to most people an abstraction. Increased public engagement will add an additional layer of oversight for those working on the weapons, and encourage greater responsibility. Awareness can also lead to greater public debate, which may contribute directly to nuclear reductions, as it has in Britain.

Second, public education on nuclear weapons should stress both the importance of the nuclear mission and the consequences of lapses in safety oversight. In recent years a movement has arisen to promote awareness of the potential humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. Over the course of three conferences, the (mostly non-nuclear) participating states have raised global awareness of the weapons’ potentially devastating impact and initiated a new narrative about them. The movement could have an important effect working from outside the nuclear weapons establishment.

Leaders within the nuclear establishment and non-governmental observers can also help shift thinking. All staff in the nuclear weapons complex should have an understanding of deterrence, disarmament, and commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Some education programs have arisen to help make this happen. In 2011, with support from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UK government, King’s College London’s Centre for Science and Security Studies established a course to train educators, "Introduction to Nuclear Security Education."

Members of the armed services encounter few incentives to work on nuclear weapons these days, and those who do deal with insufficient resources and a chronic lack of morale. These conditions increase risk. In an ideal world, disarmament would solve the problem, but in the real world disarmament's a slow business. Before we jump to criticize spending on nuclear weapons, we should remember McNeilly’s tales.