Does Scotland have nuclear weapons?

Written by Chris Thornton | 8th of August 2023
Does Scotland have nuclear weapons? Photo: Defence Imagery.

Scotland has nuclear weapons, but these are jointly owned by the countries of the United Kingdom, not just Scotland. The storing of nuclear weapons in Scotland is a highly contentious issue; it is a major policy point of the ruling political party - The SNP (Scottish National Party), to remove nuclear weapons from Scotland when/if Scottish independence is achieved.

Read on to find out more about nuclear weapons in Scotland and all the issues surrounding them.

What are nuclear weapons?

Nuclear weapons are powerful and destructive devices that harness the energy released from nuclear reactions, either through fission (splitting of atomic nuclei) or fusion (combining atomic nuclei). Since their development and first use during World War II, nuclear weapons have been at the centre of international politics and security concerns.

The fear of a nuclear weapon is ever present in the psyche of the world's population due to the massive destructive power that even one bomb could unleash. In the event of a nuclear war, its likely life as we know it would no longer be able to continue, and if the initial attack did not kill you, the radiation of the fallout would! A horrible thought.

Trident Nuclear Weapons System

When most people think of nuclear weapons, they think of the big intercontinental missiles (ICBM) launched from silos that can strike anywhere on the planet - the UK does not have this type. Instead, since the cold war, we have a small fleet of four nuclear submarines named the "Trident Nuclear Weapons System".

Trident origins

Lockheed Martin Space Systems, a US-based company, was the original prime contractor and developer behind the submarine-launched Trident missile. In 1982, a historic agreement was struck between the United States and the United Kingdom, allowing Britain to acquire the advanced Trident II missile system (also known as D5) as a replacement for their ageing Polaris system. Interestingly, Trident only became operational in 1994, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The UK contributed 10% towards research and development costs.

Today, the UK's Trident program boasts a fleet of four cutting-edge nuclear submarines - Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant, and Vengeance - each capable of carrying up to 16 Trident ballistic missiles. Impressively, each missile can travel a minimum of 4,000 miles and is armed with three potent nuclear warheads.

In 2007, the UK's House of Commons approved proposals to replace the Trident system. However, the government decided in November to extend the program's lifespan by four years, effectively pushing the replacement deadline to 2028 and delaying any critical decisions until 2016. Despite the annual running costs of approximately £2 billion, the Trident system offers a more cost-effective solution due to its US franchise origins.

Facts on each Vanguard-class submarine:

  • Each submarine carries eight missiles on board - Trident II D5 ballistic missiles - but is capable of carrying 16.

  • Three nuclear warheads can be attached to each missile.

  • Each of these missiles is around eight times as destructive as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945, killing 140,000 Japanese civilians.

  • At least one submarine is on patrol at one time to provide continuous coverage.

  • These submarines can strike targets around 4000 miles/ 7360 km away.

Due to the possibility of these subs being located anywhere around the world and able to strike from huge distances from their target, Trident is a weapon to be feared.

Nuclear technology. Deterrent patrol. Photo: Defence Imagary.
A Vanguard Class submarine. Photo: Defence Imagery.

The Independent Nuclear Deterrent

So what exactly is the "nuclear deterrent"? Basically, it means it deters other countries from attacking the United Kingdom either with conventional forces like planes, tanks and soldiers or from their own nuclear weapons, as they would fear retaliation from one of the submarines hidden at sea.

How do Scots feel about nuclear weapons in Scotland?

Surprisingly most polls show that a majority of Scots want to keep Trident in Scotland even after independence. In May 2022, polling company YouGov asked 1115 adults:

If Scotland became an independent country, would you support or oppose Trident nuclear submarines continuing to be based in Scotland?

Support – 45%
Oppose – 34%
Don’t know – 21%

1115 is quite a small sample size, so it's hard to say if this is the true feeling of Scots throughout the country. There have also been older polls in the past showing 56% opposition to trident renewal.

Why do some Scots want to retain nuclear weapons in Scotland?

Some Scots may want to keep nuclear weapons in Scotland for a variety of reasons, including:

  1. National security: Some individuals believe that maintaining a nuclear deterrent contributes to the overall security of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, by deterring potential adversaries from launching a nuclear attack.

  2. NATO alliance: As a part of the United Kingdom, Scotland is also a member of NATO. Maintaining nuclear weapons is seen by some as an essential component of fulfilling the UK's commitments to the NATO alliance, which aims to provide collective defence against potential threats.

  3. Economic benefits: The presence of nuclear weapons in Scotland, particularly at the Faslane naval base, generates economic activity and provides jobs in the region. Some Scots argue that removing the nuclear deterrent could have negative consequences for local employment and the broader economy.

  4. Influence in international politics: Possessing nuclear weapons is often seen as a symbol of power and influence on the global stage. Some Scots may believe that retaining nuclear weapons helps to maintain the United Kingdom's position as a significant international player, with benefits for Scotland as well.

  5. Cost of disarmament: Decommissioning nuclear weapons and dismantling the infrastructure associated with them can be expensive and time-consuming. Some individuals may argue that the costs associated with disarmament outweigh the potential benefits.

  6. Deterrence against conventional threats: While nuclear weapons primarily serve as a deterrent against other nuclear-armed states, some argue that they can also deter conventional military threats. Maintaining a nuclear capability could be seen as a means to protect Scotland and the rest of the UK from potential conventional military aggression.

  7. Uncertain international security environment: In the face of an unpredictable and rapidly changing global security landscape, some Scots may see the retention of nuclear weapons as a necessary precaution to hedge against unforeseen threats and challenges.

Nuclear powers. Photo: Defence Imagary.
Aft view of a Vanguard submarine. Photo: Defence Imagary.

Why do some Scots want nuclear weapons removed from Scotland?

Some Scots may want to remove nuclear weapons from Scotland for a variety of reasons, including:

  1. Moral and ethical concerns: Many people argue that the use of nuclear weapons would cause catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences, making their possession morally and ethically indefensible.

  2. Support for disarmament: Scotland's government and the Scottish National Party (SNP) have been vocal supporters of global nuclear disarmament efforts, such as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Removing nuclear weapons from Scotland would align with these disarmament goals.

  3. Risk of accidents or incidents: The presence of nuclear weapons and related infrastructure in Scotland carries inherent risks, such as accidents or incidents that could result in radioactive contamination or even an unintended nuclear detonation. Scotland's largest city, Glasgow, is only 33 miles away from the naval base.

  4. Financial burden: Maintaining a nuclear deterrent is expensive, with the UK's Trident program costing billions of pounds. Some argue that these resources could be better spent on other priorities, such as education, healthcare, and social programs. The replacement for Trident is conservatively estimated at £205 billion.

  5. Encouraging nuclear proliferation: By hosting nuclear weapons, Scotland may be seen as contributing to global nuclear proliferation rather than promoting disarmament and non-proliferation efforts.

  6. Potential impact on Scottish independence: The presence of nuclear weapons in Scotland is a contentious issue in the debate surrounding Scottish independence. Removing these weapons could help to build consensus and facilitate a smoother transition if Scotland were to become an independent nation.

  7. Environmental concerns: The storage, maintenance, and potential use of nuclear weapons can pose significant environmental risks, including radioactive contamination and damage to ecosystems. Some Scots may argue that removing nuclear weapons is essential to protect the environment and promote sustainable development.

  8. Alternative security arrangements: Critics of nuclear weapons in Scotland may argue that there are alternative ways to ensure national security, such as investing in conventional defence capabilities or strengthening diplomatic efforts and international cooperation.

Nuclear weapons in an independent Scotland

If Scotland one day did vote for independence (Why does Scotland want independence?), the future of the Faslane Naval Base would be in question. Not only would the remaining UK's only nuclear weapons system be in another country, but it would also no longer be able to meet its commitments to the NATO alliance.

It seems unlikely that the Scottish Government would agree to the ongoing hosting of nuclear weapons on Scottish soil, but the base would continue for some time. This may be a valuable political bargaining point when Scotland achieves independence; for example, the base could remain at a cost to the remaining UK while a new base is built in Wales, Northern Ireland or England.

To dismantle the Faslane Naval Base safely would also be a slow, expensive and laborious process. If the UK Government renewed the Trident weapons system at a cost of £205 billion and then had to move the infrastructure south, again, this would be a massively expensive process.

Faslane Naval Base.
Gare Loch and Faslane Naval Base. Photo Trawets1.

Pollution at Gare Loch

In addition to the four Vanguard-class submarines, Faslane is also host to a variety of other subs, including Trafalgar and Astute classes and will host a future Dreadnought class. Waste from the maintenance of the nuclear reactors and processing of warheads at nearby Coulport creates liquid radioactive waste.

Cobalt-60 and tritium discharges have raised significant concerns with the local community due to radiation exposure and its effects on flora and fauna in and around the loch.

Unbelievably this waste is discharged into Gare Loch directly, and as activity at the naval base increases, requests to dump more waste have also increased. In a country known for its natural beauty and abundance of clean water, this is an absolute act of environmental vandalism.

Discharges into Gare Loch from 2013 to 2018 were less than 33,000 mega becquerels per year but plans for future discharges are as high as 175,000!

Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (Scottish CND)

The Scottish CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) is a prominent anti-nuclear organization in Scotland which advocates for the abolition of nuclear weapons both in the country and globally. Established in 1958 as part of the broader UK CND movement, the Scottish CND has been a leading voice in raising awareness about the dangers of nuclear weapons and campaigning for disarmament.

The Scottish CND focuses on a range of activities, including public education, lobbying, organizing protests and demonstrations, and supporting international disarmament initiatives. One of its main goals is the removal of the UK's Trident nuclear deterrent from the Faslane naval base in Scotland.

The organization collaborates with various other peace and disarmament groups, as well as political parties such as the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Scottish Greens, which share similar objectives concerning nuclear disarmament. The Scottish CND plays a significant role in shaping the public debate on nuclear weapons in Scotland and influencing national and international disarmament policies.

FAQs on nuclear weapons in Scotland

Here are a few frequently asked questions about Scotland's nuclear weapons.

What does the Scottish Government say about Nuclear weapons?

The Scottish Government is currently led by the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Greens; both parties are dedicated to removing nuclear weapons from Scotland.

Ross Green of the Greens is quoted as saying:

“Nuclear weapons cannot discriminate between military and civilian targets. They are world-ending weapons of mass slaughter. No-one wins a nuclear war. Beyond that moral case though is the financial outrage of the Westminster government spending hundreds of billions of pounds on a new nuclear arsenal whilst refusing to help families struggling through this cost-of-living crisis.”

Are there nuclear weapons currently located in Scotland?

Yes, the United Kingdom's Trident nuclear deterrent is based in Scotland at the HM Naval Base Clyde, also known as Faslane. The Vanguard-class submarines that carry Trident II D5 ballistic missiles are stationed there.

What is the Trident nuclear program?

The Trident nuclear program is the United Kingdom's submarine-based nuclear deterrent system. It consists of four Vanguard-class submarines, each capable of carrying up to 16 Trident II D5 ballistic missiles, which are armed with multiple nuclear warheads.

Nuclear submarine HMS Vengeance.
HMS Vengeance.

How does Scotland's relationship with the UK affect its involvement with nuclear weapons?

As a part of the United Kingdom, Scotland plays a role in the UK's defence policy, including hosting the Trident nuclear deterrent at the Faslane naval base. However, the Scottish independence movement and the Scottish National Party's stance on nuclear disarmament have led to debates about the future of nuclear weapons in Scotland, particularly if the country gains independence.

What is the Scottish National Party's stance on nuclear weapons?

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has long opposed the presence of nuclear weapons in Scotland. They advocate for the removal of Trident from Scottish waters and have expressed support for international disarmament efforts, such as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

What would happen to the UK's nuclear weapons if Scotland gained independence?

If Scotland gained independence, the future of the UK's nuclear weapons would be uncertain. There would likely be significant discussions and negotiations between the two nations to determine the future of the Trident nuclear deterrent. Potential outcomes could include relocating the nuclear weapons to another part of the UK, decommissioning the weapons, or reaching a new agreement that allows the UK to continue using the Faslane naval base.

Key information on nuclear weapons in Scotland

  • Scotland holds the United Kingdom's only stockpile of nuclear weapons.

  • Faslane Naval Base/ HMNB Clyde is the home of the Trident Nuclear submarine program.

  • There are four nuclear submarines - Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant, and Vengeance stationed at Faslane.

  • Many Scots do not want nuclear weapons to be kept in Scotland and are concerned about pollution and being targeted in a war.

  • The nuclear warheads are stored in silos at RNAD Coulport on the east shore of Loch Long.

  • The base is near Scotland's most populated city - Glasgow.

  • The United Kingdom is one of the five nuclear weapon states.

  • Upon independence, it's likely the Scottish Parliament would vote to remove nuclear weaponry from Scotland.

Gare Loch and Faslane Naval Base.
Gare Loch and Faslane Naval Base.


Scotland does have nuclear weapons as part of the United Kingdom. If Scotland remains in the United Kingdom, it is likely that the Trident Weapons System will be renewed and continue to be housed at Faslane Naval Base. Scottish Independence may change this in the future, but it will take many years for Scotland to be free of nuclear weapons.

Header image by "Defence Imagery".

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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