Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 9:50 pm on 6th June 1985.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Durant.]

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

I have to tell the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) that the digital clocks are incorrect, and that he should time his speech on the clocks at the end of the Chamber.

Photo of Mr Jonathan Sayeed Mr Jonathan Sayeed , Bristol East 10:15 pm, 6th June 1985

I shall look at the right clock.

The debate on super power nuclear arms control is rarely out of the news, and rightly so. The waste of resources and the fear engendered by escalating nuclear arsenals is the frightening consequence of our inability to agree on a reversal of the nuclear arms race. The super powers' massive overcapacity in nuclear weapons, unbalanced though it is, will mean suicide for all, whoever initiates a nuclear war. Therefore, I believe that neither of the major powers, East or West, has people in control who are so malignant, so unfettered by the party or Government apparatus, to wish or to be permitted to consign his own countrymen and the rest of the world to ultimate destruction.

Monstrous though the arms race is, I believe that our over-preoccupation with it, to the exclusion of all else, blinds us to the greater and growing danger of nuclear and atomic proliferation. I am convinced that if nuclear war ever broke out it would be initiated not by the super powers but by a nation without any sense of responsibility, where power is concentrated in the hands of the evil, the insane, or the bigoted dictator.

That threat is real. To understand why that is so it is necessary for me to digress, and briefly explain how bombs are made, who has them and the effectiveness or otherwise of past and current controls.

There are two methods to producing these weapons —the plutonium route and the separated uranium 235 route. The plutonium method originally required large plant and considerable expenditure, but utilised only moderately sophisticated technology. Nowadays, the plant is cheaper, but the technology is considerably more complicated and the plutonium bomb is difficult to explode.

The uranium route previously required large and complex plant and was very expensive. Today, the plant is relatively cheap and compact, and the technology is well known to those who have the expertise to look it up. In a room the size of a large drawing room, one could make enough fissile material for one bomb a year, and that bomb is relatively easy to explode.

Initially the control of nuclear and atomic knowledge went well. It was difficult to produce separated uranium 235 from uranium 238 by the diffusion process, the plant was cumbersome, expensive, fraught with technical difficulties, and the countries that had discovered uranium effectively controlled its export. Consequently, those nations that wanted to beat a path to the nuclear door were forced to follow the more expensive plutonium route by building heavy water research reactors, and in time a classic route developed for nations wishing to build a nuclear weapon. That route was that a state first obtained its natural uranium, then announced a civil nuclear programme to produce electricity and stated that it needed to undertake research into its production. To do that, it had to build a heavy water reactor, which would make plutonium and hence the material for the plutonium bomb. That is what India has done at Trombay — using Canadian technology. It is what the Israelis say that Iraq was doing — using French technology — before Israel blew its reactor to pieces. It is what has been suggested that Argentina is doing, and Israel and Pakistan are alleged to be doing.

However, there are drawbacks to this method. The technology is sophisticated, and hence costly, and because of their size a plutonium production reactor and associated reprocessing plant takes time to construct and in consequence its operation can be monitored externally and its capability quite easily estimated by experts.

The passage of time and the advances in technology have made the second route, the uranium route, far more insidious. Using centrifuges or the jet process or lasers, uranium 235 is technically easier to produce than plutonium 239, the consequent bomb is easier to explode and, as I have indicated, the plant can simply be hidden or disguised.

Thus the technology is known and the material is available, and Third world countries have grasped the opportunity. India exploded a weapon in 1974; Pakistan and Argentina have embarked on the centrifuge route to an uranium bomb; South Africa has embarked on the jet process route; Brazil and Israel are using a variety of methods. Some may have already reached their goal.

It is sometimes simplistically suggested that if the major nuclear powers denied nuclear technology to other nations and removed the assistance they are already giving, all would be well. If the answer had been that simple, the world is still sane enough, and its leaders sensible enough, to have ensured that such a moderately simple action would have been taken. Indeed, that is what they have attempted. To begin with, the United States was able to impose controls to prevent other nations from acquiring a nuclear capacity by gaining a monopoly over the technical know-how and uranium deposits, and it worked—for a short time.

As other western nations invested huge sums in gaining nuclear expertise, they felt the need to recoup part of their investment, and assist exports, by passing on their knowledge to Third world countries. In 1956 the Americans, through the United Nations, attempted to ensure that all countries in receipt of nuclear technology opened their programmes to inspection by the new International Atomic Energy Agency. The Soviet Union and other countries since have refused, although the Soviets may well be changing their mind because I have little doubt that they are as frightened about proliferation as we are.

Many countries, including major suppliers such as France, refused to sign the non-proliferation treaty in 1968, for sovereignty or commercial reasons, or in the case of non-nuclear states, because they felt that by signing it they would not necessarily enhance their ability to obtain the promised benefits of civil nuclear power. Meanwhile, we and the United States recognised the problem but failed to deal with it. We have demanded "full scope safeguards", in other words, the right to inspect all nuclear facilities including those we have not assisted with, if we are to provide assistance with future civil nuclear plant. Many nations have refused to accept such conditions and, despite the cost, have gone it alone. Even those countries that have signed the 1968 non-proliferation treaty, such as Japan and West Germany, find it easier under the terms of the treaty to sell nuclear technology to non-signatories such as Brazil, Argentina, Israel and Chile, than to those that have signed the treaty.

Therefore, the treaty is failing in two ways. First, there are significant omissions among the countries subscribing to it—India, Pakistan, Israel, Argentina, South Africa, France, China, Chile and Brazil. Secondly, commercial considerations appear to persuade signatories to sell to non-signatory nations in preference to those who are signatories. Furthermore, the non-weapon states do not believe, or at least use as an excuse, that the nuclear states are complying with article 6, the disarmament clause. In addition, non-nuclear states fear that nuclear states will use the threat of cutting off nuclear supplies as an element of non-nuclear foreign policy if they deal with an NPT signatory. But all the countries that have recently obtained the technology to produce nuclear and atomic weapons attest that their only reason for investing in this technology is to enable them to have a civil nuclear programme. Maybe the best way to curtail proliferation is to take them at their word.

The paradox is this. Whilst the major nuclear powers deny other countries access to nuclear technology, these countries always have the excuse that they require fissile material-producing research reactors in order to develop their own expertise in civil nuclear power generation.

But the Soviets supply their Communist satellites with all nuclear services on the provision that all spent fuel is returned to the USSR for reprocessing, and they ensure that that happens. That is the model that we should adopt. By supplying the technology for nuclear reactors to Third world countries, but only leasing the nuclear fuel, which would have to be returned for reprocessing, there would be no excuse for building a pilot reprocessing plant, or for producing uranium 235 from uranium 238. Indeed, any country building such a plant would be doing so only in order to gain the facility for producing nuclear or atomic weapons. The existence of a plutonium plant would be difficult to hide from external view, and by ensuring that all spent fuel was returned, none of the plutonium could be purloined for the manufacture of weapons.

I therefore believe that the non-proliferation treaty must be amended to permit the major nuclear nations to supply the technology required for the construction of nuclear power plants and the associated fuel cycle services on the understanding that: first, the nuclear fuel is only leased and must be returned for reprocessing; second, the recipient agrees not to engage in a uranium or plutonium weapons-building programme, or develop its expertise in those directions; and, third, an internationally agreed inspectorate is permitted to examine all civil nuclear plants as part of the "nuclear fuel leasing service".

As the recipient country will know that its development of plutonium bombs can be monitored, it will be put off from doing so by the certain knowledge that it would lose assistance with its civil nuclear programme. Once the recipient invests in that programme, the power generated and other trade and commercial considerations will be so great that the donor nations will be able to exert an effective pressure if the recipient ever appeared to be undertaking the atomic bomb route.

But the donor nations will also have to provide assurances. They will have to agree not to curtail nuclear supplies or services for reasons other than non-compliance with the three reasons I have given, or in the event of war. They will need to do that to reassure the eventual recipient that he will not be cut off from nuclear power generation.

Some have suggested that the non-proliferation treaty needs to be enforced more rigorously, and that that is all that is necessary. I do not agree. I believe that entrenching failure — because I believe that the non-proliferation treaty has failed, and I have demonstrated that it has failed —is not the answer. There is not time between now and September to rewrite and renegotiate a new treaty. Let us keep the current treaty and renegotiate a new treaty in a year's time or perhaps later. I feel that the Soviets would be interested in that.

While the world is in the midst of recession and while development of civil nuclear programmes is so expensive, my suggestion might have some chance of success. But with the world coming out of recession and nuclear expertise becoming more widespread, that chance is slipping away. It is not too late for our world to limit nuclear and atomic weapons, but it could soon well be.

Photo of Mr Richard Luce Mr Richard Luce , Shoreham 10:28 pm, 6th June 1985

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) on raising this debate on what is undoubtedly an extremely important issue relating to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. He has done a great service. I assure him that I shall consider carefully the detailed and well-thought-out points that he raised. If I cannot answer them all in the debate, I shall write to him in more detail.

The spread of nuclear weapons to countries that do not now possess them would have the gravest consequences for mankind, as my hon. Friend said. The chief barrier against such proliferation is the non-proliferation treaty, which bans the transfer by nuclear weapon states of nuclear weapons to any other recipient, and their acquisition or manufacture by non-nuclear weapon states. The treaty therefore increases the security of the world and the Government are strongly committed to supporting and strengthening it.

Negotiating the treaty in the 1960s was a major diplomatic achievement and Britain can be proud of having helped to draft it and of having been among the earliest to sign it. As my hon. Friend has said, the third review conference of the treaty will take place this August. We attach considerable importance to this meeting and have played our part as a depository Government in convening it.

I differ from my hon. Friend in his judgment about the success or failure of the treaty. I believe that it has been successful. In the 1960s it was predicted that there would be up to 20 additional nuclear weapon states by 1985. In fact, only one further state—India, which is not a party to the treaty in 1974 — demonstrated the capacity to detonate a nuclear explosive device. That may be partly because nuclear proliferation is not so straightforward technically as my hon. Friend suggests, but much of the credit must go to the existence of the treaty. The treaty is the most widely supported arms control agreement in existence, with nearly 130 parties or four fifths of the United Nations membership, and no state has exercised its right to withdraw from the treaty.

I do not entirely share my hon. Friend's view that the treaty is failing simply because there are significant non-parties, although the non-participation of those states is clearly a weakness. The vast majority of the world community has adhered to the treaty and that fact alone is of the greatest importance to the security of all states whether or not they are parties to the treaty.

Clearly the treaty would be even more effective if membership were universal. In collaboration with other states party to the treaty, we have been lobbying most of the 40 or so non-parties to accede to the treaty. In the past year, eight have done so, four of them in London, thus demonstrating the treaty's continued vitality.

Two states which possess nuclear weapons—France and China—are not parties to the treaty, but France has said that she will act as though she were a party and China has stated that she does not advocate or encourage proliferation.

Among the non-parties which do not possess nuclear weapons several have significant nuclear facilities not open to international inspection. My hon. Friend has 'referred to some of them. They are Argentina, India, Israel, Pakistan and South Africa. We attach particular importance to membership of the treaty by those countries and will continue to co-operate in international efforts to urge them to accede to the treaty. Pending their accession or their acceptance of internationally supervised safeguards on all their nuclear facilities, our policy is not to export nuclear materials, equipment or technology to them except for unambiguously peaceful purposes and then only on a very carefully controlled basis.

Article 3 of the treaty refers to safeguards, on which my hon. Friend has expressed some interesting and important views. He suggests that the treaty should be amended so that fuel would be leased to recipient countries and returned to the supplier for reprocessing, that the recipient should agree not to build nuclear weapons and that an internationally agreed inspectorate should examine all civil plants as part of what my hon. Friend described as nuclear fuel leasing services.

I sympathise very much with my hon. Friend's motives in putting forward those ideas, and I certainly appreciate his concern for adequate safeguards, which is at the heart of the agreement. Nevertheless, I believe that we should be very cautious about any proposals to amend the treaty itself. Any amendments must be approved by a majority of the nearly 130 parties to the treaty. Even if it were possible to win sufficient support, any proposed change would give rise to floods of other amendments that we might not be able to support. I believe, therefore, that it is much better to leave the text of the treaty unaltered so as not to endanger the whole treaty which has served us well.

I remind my hon. Friend of the vital role already played by the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards in verifying the binding international legal obligations which the treaty imposes on non-nuclear weapon state parties not to manufacture or acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. Article III requires such safeguards to be applied to all source or special fissionable material anywhere in the territory of the state concerned or under its jurisdiction or control. Safeguards are designed to detect the diversion of such material away from peaceful uses. All our exports of fissionable material or equipment designed for its processing or use to any non-nuclear weapon state have been subject to safeguards under the existing terms of the treaty. I pay tribute to the valuable role of the IAEA in administering the safeguards system. The United Kingdom will continue to co-operate fully with IAEA safeguards and will assist the agency's efforts further to improve the system. I shall be visiting Vienna next week to learn more about the agency's work.

My hon. Friend may also wish to be reminded that we are one of 22 countries which apply the Nuclear Suppliers' Group guidelines to our exports of nuclear materials, equipment and technology to any non-nuclear weapon state for peaceful purposes. The guidelines reinforce the treaty. In addition to requiring IAEA safeguards on the items transferred, the guidelines require formal governmental assurances to be obtained from the recipient that the exported item will not be used to manufacture nuclear explosive devices, that it will be protected against theft or sabotage, and that if it is re-exported the new purchaser will be required to give the same assurances as the original customer. In the case of enriched uranium or plutonium, the prior consent of the original supplier must be obtained before re-transfer can take place. The guidelines also urge restraint on the transfer of sensitive technology such as reprocessing or enrichment facilities. I believe that the existing requirements go far to meet my hon. Friend's concerns.

As to the specific proposal for fuel leasing, the suggestion is not entirely new and certainly has some attractions. However, the system could not now be watertight because the treaty member states are not the exclusive suppliers of nuclear fuel. As for the establishment of an international inspectorate, that already exists in the form of the IAEA. We should continue to support efforts to extend IAEA safeguards to cover all nuclear facilities in all non-nuclear weapon states that are not parties to the treaty. We are doing all that we can to promote universal adherence to the treaty.

Article IV is an important part of the treaty, which deals with the peaceful use of nuclear energy. When the treaty was negotiated, many non-nuclear weapon states believed that if they were to forgo the option to manufacture or acquire nuclear weapons, this should not be at the expense of their right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. For that reason, article IV of the treaty both reaffirms that right and enjoins all parties to facilitate the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and technology for peaceful purposes.

In association with the safeguards required for article III, article IV seeks to promote the safe expansion of peaceful nuclear trade, but minimises the risk of nuclear proliferation. That can help the economic development of many. of the member states. We have fully complied with our obligations under this article. As one of the first countries to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, we have considerable experience in the area and will continue to share our expertise with other countries, within the limits imposed by our overall non-poliferation policy.

The other important article in the treaty—article VI —deals with disarmament negotiations. It embodies the common determination of the parties to work for nuclear disarmament. The Government are strongly committed to the goals of this article. Therefore, we warmly welcome the arms control negotiations in Geneva between the United States and the Soviet Union. We fully support the agreed objective of preventing an arms race in outer space, and terminating it on earth. Negotiations between the superpowers, which possess 95 per cen. of the world's nuclear weapons, are the first priority in pursuing the effective nuclear disarmament measures prescribed by the treaty.

Some critics maintain that the first step towards fulfilment of article VI is the negotiation of a comprehensive test ban. I hope to explain the Government's views on this issue at greater length in the Adjournment debate which is planned for tomorrow and is to be raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang). All I say at this stage is that, in my view, it would serve no one's interest for progress towards a comprehensive test ban—which is of great importance— to be artificially linked to the continued adherence to the non-proliferation treaty and its future. The non-proliferation treaty is important in its own right. We must not jeopardise it by holding it hostage to progress in other areas, however important they may be.

We are actively preparing for the treaty review conference which begins at the end of August. We have taken a full part in the work of the preparatory committee in which we chaired the group of Western countries. We have maintained close contact with other member states, including in particular the United States and the Soviet Union. It is worth emphasising that non-proliferation is an area of foreign policy where the views of both East and West largely coincide, as my hon. Friend acknowledged in his speech. As a Government we approach this review conference in a positive and constructive spirit.

I shall be attending the conference and will deliver the main British statement in the general debate. Our aim is to provide an outcome which maintains, and if possible strengthens, this arms control treaty. This will be facilitated if the parties review the treaty as a whole in a balanced manner, recognising its success in preventing horizontal proliferation and promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy. We are not complacent about the review conference but are encouraged by the progress made by the preparatory committee and the flexibility and good will displayed by those member states which participated in its work.

I believe that the arms control talks in Geneva between the United States and the Soviet Union will improve the atmosphere of debate on article VI; because such negotiations are precisely what this article requires. Once again, we urge all non-parties to reconsider their position and to adhere to this indispensable treaty which has done so much to make the world a safer place.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue, and I assure him that I shall give very careful thought to the specific points he has raised.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.