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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 44, March 2000

Nuclear Foolishness

So it's official. Russia wants a leaner, meaner nuclear force. Within a week of being elected President, Vladimir Putin is quoted as saying "we will preserve and strengthen the Russian nuclear weapons complex". He also advocated ratification of START II and deeper arms reductions, which is good. But wasn't there something in a treaty the Soviet Union signed in 1968 which contained the obligation to "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament..."? Cessation of the quantitative nuclear arms race has come about, courtesy of the end of the Cold War. But what about the qualitative arms race? Strengthening your nuclear forces doesn't square with the binding treaty obligation in Article VI of the NPT.

In the same week came news that the US Department of Energy was planning to renovate more than 6,000 nuclear warheads over the next 15 years. Could the expensive laboratory programmes and sub-critical tests that Washington and Moscow et al insisted on as the price for the test ban treaty have anything to do with such renovations? Difficult to believe that in spending billions of dollars on 'safety and reliability' those bright young things in the nuclear labs aren't suggesting a few improvements to 'strengthen' the nuclear forces.

Downsizing to rationalise ageing nuclear arsenals saves money. But it isn't disarmament. We may welcome it, because we want to believe that fewer will become few, and on towards zero. But don't expect the non-nuclear countries and disarmament-seeking citizens to be fooled when you go to the NPT Review Conference on April 24 and present such reductions as sufficient to comply with Article VI. Necessary, yes. Sufficient? No. Nowhere in the NPT in 1968 or in the decisions adopted when it was indefinitely extended in 1995 did it say that cutting out the Cold War surplus allows you to keep leaner, more efficient nuclear forces indefinitely. On the contrary. The NPT deal was non-acquisition in return for nuclear disarmament. With a couple of dishonourable exceptions, over 180 countries have kept their side of that obligation. Shamefully, the nuclear-weapon States are still playing the numbers game, more than 30 years after the Treaty entered into force.

The big issues at the NPT Review Conference will once again be nuclear disarmament and universality. When India and Pakistan showed off their nuclear capabilities with explosions in May 1998, the problem was not the number of weapons they possessed, if any; the problem was nuclear ambition. Similarly, for countries in the Middle East, the issue is that Israel has nuclear weapons, not how many. Numbers matter more to the relations among the nuclear powers, which is one reason why US plans to deploy a national missile defence will be the ghost at the NPT wedding.

This does not mean we refuse to clap the nuclear-weapon States when they do some good. The efforts by the United States, Russia and others to render 'excess' fissile materials non-weapon usable and put them under safeguards is certainly to be applauded. Improving safety and security at the weapons facilities is difficult but necessary, and the hard work of officials and scientists to expand initiatives like the Cooperative Threat Reduction programme should be genuinely welcomed and fully supported, politically and financially. Reducing nuclear dangers is vitally important. But it still isn't disarmament.

Speaking of nuclear safety and security, a bizarre handover took place on April 1, also known as April Fools Day. The British Government transferred the management of the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment - which makes Trident warheads - to a private consortium which includes British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) and Lockheed Martin. BNFL presently runs the Sellafield reprocessing plant and has recently been in the news for falsifying quality control documents and then misleading its biggest customer, Japan. Consequently, several important customers have shown what they think of BNFL's attitude towards nuclear safety by suspending or withdrawing their contracts. Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, has been fined in the United States for serious breaches of health, safety and environmental protection legislation. Are profits being put before safety? Why are we giving them the British nuclear weapons complex to manage? Aldermaston, close to London, has problems enough. It is time for a truly NPT-compliant threat reduction programme that would end the production and renovation of nuclear weapons altogether.


© 2000 The Acronym Institute.

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