Reports. Nuclear Crisis by Dr Scilla Elworthy

European Business Review

ISSN: 0955-534X

Article publication date: 1 August 2000




Rankin, A. (2000), "Reports. Nuclear Crisis by Dr Scilla Elworthy", European Business Review, Vol. 12 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Reports. Nuclear Crisis by Dr Scilla Elworthy


Nuclear Crisis by Dr Scilla Elworthy

Keyword Nuclear industry

In a month's time, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) comes up for reassessment by the countries that have ratified it. The heart of this treaty is the link between non-proliferation and disarmament - countries which do not have nuclear weapons (now over 180 of them) agreed not to acquire them in exchange for the nuclear weapons states agreeing to negotiate in good faith to achieve nuclear disarmament.

Five years ago, these non-nuclear countries agreed (under substantial pressure from some nuclear weapons states) to the indefinite extension of the Treaty under certain specific conditions:

  • completion of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by 1996;

  • early conclusion of negotiations for a treaty banning the production of fissile materials;

  • "determined pursuit" by the nuclear weapons states of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, and ultimately eliminate them.

Progress toward these goals has been unimpressive. A CTBT was adopted in 1996, but of the nuclear weapons states has been ratified only by the UK and France. The USA argued that the test ban necessitated its $4.6 billion per year "Stockpile Stewardship Program", which enables it to design new nuclear weapons and modify existing ones in computer-simulated tests. Then, in an extraordinary about turn last October, the US Senate refused to ratify the CTBT itself, so that it cannot enter into force. Both the USA and Russia continue to conduct "sub-critical" tests. The message being given by example is that the way is now open for any nation to begin testing.

Negotiations on a fissile material treaty, the second promise, have yet to begin. The "determined pursuit" promise has been systematically and progressively ignored by most of the nuclear weapons states.

Former US President Jimmy Carter concludes that the world is facing a nuclear crisis, and that US policy has had a good deal to do with creating it. The USA seems intent on moving ahead with a National Missile Defence plan - a resurrection of President Reagan's failed "Star Wars" fantasy - even if it means destroying the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which most analysts view as a bedrock treaty for further nuclear arms reductions. The USA is moving ahead with the militarisation of space, proclaiming - and I quote from US Space Command's "Vision for 2020" dated April 1998 - its intention of "dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment".

Russia has abandoned its policy of "No First Use" of nuclear weapons in favour of a policy mirroring that of Britain, France and the USA. The START II agreement is stalled and still not ratified by the Russian Duma.

China is modernising its nuclear arsenal, and still refuses to declare openly what its policy is or how many nuclear weapons it has.

India and Pakistan have used the failure of the nuclear weapons states in keeping their promises made 30 years ago, to justify joining the nuclear weapons club. If there is no leadership on the part of the nuclear weapons nations in April, we should not underestimate what a powerful incentive this is to countries like Iran, Syria, Iraq, North Korea, Libya and Egypt to go nuclear. At the last NPT Review Conference in 1995, it was in fact countries with the resources and technology to develop nuclear weapons who helped negotiate agreement to the 1995 bargain, including Egypt, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa (who had them and gave them up). They now feel that this is a bargain which has not only not been kept, but is treated with contempt by the nuclear nations.

Having said this, the UK has been making efforts. We have de-commissioned all our smaller nuclear weapons, keeping only the massively powerful Trident system. We have taken the warheads off hair-trigger alert. We have assisted the Russians in making their nuclear weapons safer. We have tried to start negotiations on a treaty banning the production of fissile materials, and begun to be much more open in declaring our own stocks of military fissile materials and warheads. Talking to officials in the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office, their view is that we have really gone as far as we can go without being considered "offside" by their counterparts in other nuclear nations.

I have just come back from China, from leading a delegation which included senior military, policy and technical officials from Britain, France, and Germany, for informal talks with their Chinese opposite numbers on nuclear issues. While there is considerable willingness to work with the British, the Chinese were vociferous in their outrage at the US plans for a Ballistic Missile Defence System, which in their view will destroy the ABM Treaty. Chinese and British defence scientists agree that the system, which expects to shoot down incoming missiles in space, is unlikely to be able to do that effectively and will not in any way deal with the real threat from "rogue states" - which is more likely to be some version of a suitcase bomb. They are extremely worried that US defence contractors are busy selling ballistic missile defence systems to countries in Asia, particularly to Taiwan and Japan. These developments could therefore de-stabilise the region and provoke not just one new arms race, but several.

Talking with the Chinese left no doubt in our minds that a new Cold War, this time between the USA and China, is about to begin, especially if the USA withdraw from the ABM Treaty. The Chinese were well aware that we in the UK support the US space, intelligence and early warning radar programmes with the use of bases at Menwith Hill and Fylingdales in Yorkshire. The US Missile Defence programme, in order to function, will require that we allow the Americans to use more sophisticated facililities at Menwith Hill and Fylingdales. The UK is thus pivotally involved in the issue. Our official response is that we have not yet been asked by the Americans. Observation over two decades shows me that if Parliament waits until it is told what HMG is agreeing with the Americans on nuclear issues, it can wait so long that it is rendered powerless to act.

If we in the UK can wake up to what is happening, we have considerable power to act. I will leave it to others to outline what this House could do, but I have a list of six actions HMG could take now with no risk to ourselves whatsoever, which on the contrary would make us extremely popular on the world stage. We in Britain have a muscular democracy of which we are very proud, and a Parliament presently full of energy and talent. This is the moment for it to use its muscle.

I will close with some thoughts conveyed to the head of Chinese arms control policy last Wednesday. The technical issues under debate are so complex that it is very easy for officials to get so involved in the detail that they can no longer see the overall view. They require a firm steer. The overall view is now so grave, with regard to the militarisation of space, new arms races and the prospect of nuclear anarchy, there is so much anger and bad feeling between the nuclear nations let alone on the part of the non-nuclear nations, that someone, somewhere, needs to rise above politics and produce statesmanship. Science will not get us out of this, only wisdom will. The nuclear weapons states are desperately in need of far-sighted, courageous and, above all, wise leadership. This is not the time for niggling like children, or merely complaining, or being afraid of big brother across the Atlantic. It is the time for being a wise parent, and looking after the future for our children, and taking action.

Aidan Rankin

Related articles