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Nuclear Weapons

Volume 487: debated on Thursday 12 February 2009

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether the Orion laser is capable of (a) developing the nuclear warheads for the new generation of nuclear submarines and (b) producing warheads compatible with future US-designed missiles. (256194)

In the nuclear test ban era, laser physics is one of the principal areas of research essential to underwrite the safety and reliability of the UK's nuclear warhead stockpile. High-powered lasers enable the replication in the laboratory of the physical conditions present in a nuclear detonation on a minute scale, over a tiny fraction of a second.

The Atomic Weapons Establishment's HELEN laser has been operating for over 25 years and is now reaching the end of its technically useful working life. Its replacement, Orion, will enable us to continue to underwrite the safety and reliability of the Trident stockpile through the remainder of its service life.

There is currently no programme to develop a new UK warhead, although decisions are likely to be necessary in the next Parliament.

Whilst not specifically designed for the purpose, the Orion laser could have utility in any research employing laser physics in support of any possible future warhead design.