UK's weapons of mass destruction: How Britain became a nuclear power with 215 warheads


Tensions in Europe have rarely been as high as they are now. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine continues, and the country’s president has repeatedly threatened to escalate the conflict. Last month, Vladimir Putin hinted that he could launch nuclear weapons, adding that this warning was not a bluff.

He said: “To those who allow themselves such statements regarding Russia, I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction, and for separate components and more modern than those of NATO countries and when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all the means at our disposal. It’s not a bluff.”

World leaders fear that Russia could push other world powers into direct conflict, including the UK. What are the UK’s nuclear capabilities, and how long has the country been testing its weapons?

Sunday marks the 70-year anniversary since the UK started testing its nuclear weapons. On October 2, 1952. After World War 2, the UK wanted to develop its own nuclear capabilities to avoid being totally dependent on the US.

Ernest Bevin, a high-profile politician at the time, urged the country to develop nuclear weapons, saying; “We have got to have this thing over here whatever it costs… we’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.”

In May 1952, Mr Bevins got his way as the Uk announced it would test nuclear weapons that year in what was called Operation Hurricane. The test would be conducted in the uninhabited Monte Bello Islands off the north-west coast of Australia.

British and Australian naval forces assembled for the test. They waited for southerly winds to ensure radiation wasn’t sent in the direction of mainland Australia.

The bomb was placed aboard HMS Pym in an anchored frigate and was then detonated on October 3. The ship was vapourised by the huge explosion.

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Dr W.G. Penney, the scientist who led the operation, was knighted. His work even caught the attention of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who said: “As an old parliamentarian I was rather astonished that something well over £100million could be disbursed without Parliament being made aware of it.”

The UK didn’t stop there. In 1953, 1956, 1957 and 1958 the country continued to test atomic bombs. In 1957 and 1958, Britain undertook Operation Grapple – nine nuclear tests shared between two locations – Malden Island and Kiritimati (Christmas Island) in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Fast forward over 50 years, and the UK is now one of the world’s nine nuclear powers, alongside China, North Korea, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States.

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The UK now has its Trident nuclear weapons programme. Consisting of four Vanguard-class submarines armed with Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles, the Trident system is operated by the Royal Navy and is based at the Clyde Naval Base at Faslane, on Scotland’s west coast.

It was established in 1980 but didn’t come into working order until 1994. In total, the UK has 215 nuclear warheads, the fifth highest out of all countries.

They have a range of up to 7,500 miles and can inflict eight times as much damage as the famous Hiroshima bomb, dropped by the US during World War 2.


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