chapter  8
62 Pages

The UK Nuclear Weapons Programme, Fissile Material Cut-off and Safeguards 1956–1973

Arms control could not hamper UK offensive BW programmes for the simple reason that there were no such programmes to hamper. Nuclear weapons were a different matter, so it is time to turn to the UK’s nuclear weapons programme and disarmament. Apart from the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty no other arms control measure threatened the development of the UK weapons programme more than the proposed cut-off in the production of fissile material (plutonium 239 and uranium 235) for weapons purposes. Both in the late 1950s and again in the 1960s, US initiatives in this area presented an unwelcome dilemma for the UK. Ministers and officials did not find it at all comfortable to stand out against disarmament measures, but at the same time they wanted to ensure that the UK weapons programme as planned could meet its targets without interference or delay. When it came to a choice, the demands of the weapons programme took precedence over arms control and disarmament. We can see that in early 1956 the UK position that the military programmes of the UK, US and USSR should be excluded from any measures taken to prevent the manufacture of nuclear weapons by other countries.1 The chronic shortages and expense of fissile material in the UK were recurring problems throughout the period covered in this book, and in the early period this shortage meant that scarce fissile material was devoted primarily to the build up of the strategic deterrent.2 It was a factor in shaping the contents of the nuclear weapons testing programme and was instrumental in the creation of the 1959 barter agreement with the US on exchanges of fissile material whereby UK plutonium was

exchanged for US highly enriched uranium (HEU). The prospects of a fissile material cut-off accelerated the growing dependence of the UK programme on US assistance. Officials spent a good deal of time worrying about a cut-off and how to accommodate such an initiative whilst meeting UK production requirements. As early as 1955 it was felt that the stock of fissile material in the UK was never likely to be sufficient to meet all requirements.34