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UK - Botched Nuclear Warhead Projects - The Economist

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UK - Botched Nuclear Warhead Projects - The Economist

Old 9th Feb 2020, 10:13
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UK - Botched Nuclear Warhead Projects - The Economist

Botched nuclear projects put the future of Britain’s defences at risk

Costs have ballooned as decrepit facilities remain in use Britain Feb 6th 2020

FOR OVER 50 years without pause, there has always been a British submarine hidden somewhere in the depths of the world’s oceans, loaded with thermonuclear weapons. This unceasing prowl—known as a Continuous At-Sea Deterrent (CASD)—depends on a sprawling infrastructure of nuclear sites across Britain. But a report published in January by the National Audit Office (NAO), Parliament’s spending watchdog, suggests that Britain’s nuclear complex is in the throes of crisis.

The NAO reviewed three construction projects: a facility to build the Dreadnought-class submarines that are scheduled to carry British nukes from the early 2030s, another to produce their nuclear reactor cores and a third, known as MENSA, to assemble new warheads and dismantle old ones. All three have been fouled up. Costs have ballooned by £1.35bn, over twice the original estimate, with half of that caused by construction starting prematurely. Badly written contracts left the government, rather than contractors, on the hook. And MENSA is so severely delayed, by over six years, that decrepit 1960s facilities are being used long after they should have been decommissioned.

The report makes for “grim reading”, says Tom Plant, an expert at the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank, and formerly an official at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), which builds and maintains Britain’s nuclear warheads. But the situation is even worse, he says. Two other desperately needed facilities have also been botched. AWE was supposed to have built a £634m site for handling enriched uranium—the fissile material, along with plutonium, which goes inside bombs—four years ago, but the project was put on ice years ago. The facility used instead is so rickety that it had to be shut down for safety reasons in 2012-15.

Then there is the question of designing the warheads in the first place. For over 18 years Britain’s nuclear scientists have said that they need better data from hydrodynamic experiments, which model the high pressures and shock waves that occur when fissile material implodes inside a warhead. Britain has not conducted a live nuclear test since 1991, and signed a treaty forgoing all tests in 1996. But a planned facility which would have allowed three-way X-ray photographs of implosions was canned in 2010, though not before blowing through £120m. An equivalent capability, based in France as part of an Anglo-French agreement, is not due to turn up until 2022 at the earliest.

All this could have serious implications for Britain’s status as a nuclear-armed country. Its stockpile of 200 warheads is expected to become obsolete in the late 2030s. Extending their life or making new ones (a decision is due shortly) would require modern facilities in good working order. If delays persist or the new sites are sub-par, “then clearly CASD as we currently know it would be at risk”, warns Mr Plant, “perhaps from a safety-related shutdown to an ageing programme-critical facility, or from a lack of data or components to design and produce new warheads.”

Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief aide, is already on the warpath over mismanaged defence projects and profligate spending. The nuclear complex may be next in his sights.■
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Old 9th Feb 2020, 14:58
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Not surprised by this. HMG has an appalling record when it comes to costing, contracts and the ability to deliver anything at all from new computer systems to Chinook helicopters. This is what happpens when appointment at these very senior levels depends more on being "the right sort" than actual ability.
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Old 9th Feb 2020, 16:45
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I suspect it's more that the "decision takers" aren't experts nor are they in post for very long. How many defence secretaries have there been in the last 10 years? Worse than football management
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Old 9th Feb 2020, 18:08
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Here's the report if anybody is interested.
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Old 9th Feb 2020, 18:37
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Perhaps someone will correct me but. I cannot remember - within the last forty years - any capital project, either taxpayer funded or privately that has been finished on time and within budget. At a fundamental level, I wonder whether it has anything at all to do with grade inflation in the State educational system in GB.

At first glance, that might seem rather remote but, if, as I know from first hand experience, youngish middle manager material cannot properly express themselves because they are inadequately trained in basic literacy and numeracy then their professional career could stumble when expected to write reports prepare estimates and illustrate summaries
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Old 9th Feb 2020, 19:17
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Originally Posted by Capt Kremmen View Post
Perhaps someone will correct me but. I cannot remember - within the last forty years - any capital project, either taxpayer funded or privately that has been finished on time and within budget. At a fundamental level, I wonder whether it has anything at all to do with grade inflation in the State educational system in GB.

At first glance, that might seem rather remote but, if, as I know from first hand experience, youngish middle manager material cannot properly express themselves because they are inadequately trained in basic literacy and numeracy then their professional career could stumble when expected to write reports prepare estimates and illustrate summaries
Project inflation in the public sector has a simple cause : If the company told the Govt the proper full price at the start they'd never start the project! So a digestible figure is supplied, signed off, then the slow creep up begins. Same as the builder on your house does - quotes the job then starts adding to the bill as you make changes. That's the jam on the job.

G
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Old 9th Feb 2020, 19:38
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Originally Posted by Capt Kremmen View Post
Perhaps someone will correct me but. I cannot remember - within the last forty years - any capital project, either taxpayer funded or privately that has been finished on time and within budget. At a fundamental level, I wonder whether it has anything at all to do with grade inflation in the State educational system in GB.
London 2012 Olympics under budget (needless to say they were on time!)

Quite often the trouble in the public sector is that during planning, costs are driven down in a blind push for ‘efficiencies’ so that they match the limited sums available. These ‘efficiencies’ get the expenditure approved and the work on contract but turn out to be unachievable in practice, especially when gold plating gets continually added to requirements. Then, the vulnerability of the masses to the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ ensures that the extra money is found to finish the work and avoid embarrassing failure being plastered all over the front pages. All in a year’s work on Whitehall.

Last edited by Easy Street; 9th Feb 2020 at 19:49.
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Old 9th Feb 2020, 20:19
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To think, the Polaris project was within budget - but it was late. By 15 milli-seconds.

That included the weapon system, warheads, the boats and the infrastructure.
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Old 10th Feb 2020, 08:36
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" I cannot remember - within the last forty years - any capital project, either taxpayer funded or privately that has been finished on time and within budget."

IIRC the recent monster revamp of Reading Railway station and the surrounding tracks (about £ 500 mm??) came in under budget and effectively a year early.......................

Of course we only get headlines for projects which fail so you have to assume that at least SOME come in on time and budget.................
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Old 10th Feb 2020, 08:54
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The government of the day decides that it wants something shiny and new but is never prepared to pay the money needed for it.
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Old 10th Feb 2020, 09:04
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Easy Street - re Olympics, the linked report states "The original budget was set in 2007 and was almost four times the estimated cost at the time London bid in 2005.

It was revised upwards after taking into account previously overlooked costs such as VAT, increased security costs, and an expanded brief to regenerate the lower Lea Valley area"

Not hard to be 'under budget' when you inflate the budget massively in order to achieve a political 'head above the parapet' goal....
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Old 10th Feb 2020, 09:14
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Originally Posted by Asturias56 View Post
" I cannot remember - within the last forty years - any capital project, either taxpayer funded or privately that has been finished on time and within budget."

IIRC the recent monster revamp of Reading Railway station and the surrounding tracks (about £ 500 mm??) came in under budget and effectively a year early.......................

Of course we only get headlines for projects which fail so you have to assume that at least SOME come in on time and budget.................
".........the monster revamp of Reading railway station......"
Unfortunately that's been negated by the mahoosively sexual intercourse-up of the Great Western electrification -much of which has been effectively canned- and the continuing delay/defer joke that is crossrail.
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Old 10th Feb 2020, 12:37
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If it helps other countries are no better, see Berlin Airport and Hamburg Opera House for examples of massively over-budget and late projects.
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Old 10th Feb 2020, 12:39
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Time to scrap CASD and get a cheaper WE177-type option back for the Typhoon/Dave methinks?
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Old 10th Feb 2020, 12:44
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It used to be the case that bidders for most, if not all, private or State funded capital projects, had to submit as a vital part of their bid a banking device called a performance bond. These were designed to operate as per their title. All contract bidders would buy from their bank a performance bond to a pre-set value. This value would represent a percentage of the total value of the contract and the bank issuing or selling the bond would charge usually a fraction of one percent of the bond value.

If the contractor bid was successful, the bond would form a vital part of the contract terms. If the contractor failed to complete the contract on time or required additional funds to enable the contract to be completed, the bond would be forfeit and that could mean a very hefty penalty.

Other forum contributors might know differently but, I've yet to see any evidence that this device is still in use and used to encourage bidders to properly do their sums.

One other matter worth a mention and which still staggers me is the modern way of rewarding failure. The stupidity and incompetence of many of the people supervising capital projects is, to my mind, beyond all understanding. Yet, when they are uncovered no sanctions are applied, instead promotion follows with a commensurate increase in salary! Work that out! I know that some will say that that is a convenient way of getting rid of trouble. Really ? I think it is simply moving it along to create hassle for some other poor bu**er.
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Old 10th Feb 2020, 13:53
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Originally Posted by Capt Kremmen View Post
Perhaps someone will correct me but. I cannot remember - within the last forty years - any capital project, either taxpayer funded or privately that has been finished on time and within budget. At a fundamental level, I wonder whether it has anything at all to do with grade inflation in the State educational system in GB.

At first glance, that might seem rather remote but, if, as I know from first hand experience, youngish middle manager material cannot properly express themselves because they are inadequately trained in basic literacy and numeracy then their professional career could stumble when expected to write reports prepare estimates and illustrate summaries

Looks like even more money is to be wasted.
Work is under way "by a range of government officials" to look at the idea of building a Scotland-Northern Ireland bridge, Number 10 has said. see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-51443191 for the detail

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Old 10th Feb 2020, 13:59
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Originally Posted by golfbananajam View Post
Looks like even more money is to be wasted.
Work is under way "by a range of government officials" to look at the idea of building a Scotland-Northern Ireland bridge, Number 10 has said. see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-51443191 for the detail
Surely the EU will fund that.
Oh hang on...
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Old 10th Feb 2020, 14:38
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Back on subject aren't both Aldermaston & Burghfield in private hands these days?
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Old 10th Feb 2020, 16:21
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Originally Posted by tiddles52 View Post
Project inflation in the public sector has a simple cause : If the company told the Govt the proper full price at the start they'd never start the project! So a digestible figure is supplied, signed off, then the slow creep up begins. Same as the builder on your house does - quotes the job then starts adding to the bill as you make changes. That's the jam on the job.

G
I don't disagree with your view on how it works, generally. Indeed, Nimrod 2000 stands out as the classic example of such incremental creep in costs. However, I believe there is a fundamental legal meaning to the word "quote" as opposed to an estimate of cost.
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Old 10th Feb 2020, 17:24
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If cost is the only driving factor, I’m surprised the UK government doesn’t just award the contracts to a Chinese or Russian firm. They seem to be cheaper for these big UK infrastructure projects.
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