Nuclear Proliferation — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:07 pm on 26th March 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat 1:07 pm, 26th March 2009

My Lords, 64 years ago on 16 July 1945, the first test of a nuclear weapon occurred in Alamogordo, New Mexico. As he saw the now familiar and sinister mushroom cloud arise, Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear bomb, said, "I am come, Kali, destroyer of worlds, brighter than a thousand suns", a quotation from the holy scriptures of Hinduism, the Upanishad, which to this day resonates with those of us who look at the issue of nuclear power.

The world pulled itself together and established a nuclear proliferation treaty, originally signed in 1968 and coming into effect in 1970, which established a system of regulation and control over nuclear power that has lasted extraordinarily well among the disarmament treaties that the world has signed at one time or another. In the 40 years since, the number of nuclear powers has risen from five to nine. That is troubling, but it is in many ways remarkable that the world has managed to restrain the development of nuclear military power to that extent.

Also in those 40 years, there has been a strong awareness of the dangers and threats constituted by nuclear power. However, the nuclear proliferation treaty was based on a crucial bargain, which is expressed in Articles 4 and 6. Under Article 4, nations have the right to develop civil nuclear power to enable themselves to produce energy from nuclear fuel under strict safeguards. However, each nation state is absolutely free to take the advantages offered by Article 4. Under Article 6, the other part of the bargain, the existing nuclear powers, which by this time were the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France, committed themselves to energetically and persistently pursuing nuclear disarmament. That is the fundamental bargain on which the NPT rests.

That bargain has unquestionably eroded. In 2005, the preparatory commission for the nuclear proliferation treaty, which has to be renewed in the spring of 2010, was unable to reach agreement because the non-nuclear weapons powers felt that they had been effectively deceived. They regarded the nuclear powers as having failed to carry out their commitments under the treaty.

If we go back to the years between, we can say quickly that in the 1980s there was a remarkable movement forward in disarmament treaties that affected military nuclear power. The long, and in many ways extraordinarily benevolent, American presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush the elder, if one can properly so describe him, produced in START, SALT and the Moscow treaty remarkable disarmament agreements. Under them the world's supply of nuclear weapons was, very broadly, halved. They deserve credit, as do President Brezhnev and, even more, President Gorbachev of Russia, for the active part that they played in those disarmament treaties.

By the end of the 1980s, it began to look as if the world would be able to control nuclear weapons. Sadly, there succeeded a whole decade of, effectively, lost time. Between 1998 and 2008, the world saw its movement towards control of nuclear weapons moving backwards and not forwards. A large part of the responsibility rested on the Administration of the United States, who pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty without consulting their allies, let alone their potential enemies, and who essentially weakened the conventions that dominated the control of chemical weapons and biological weapons.

By 2008, Russia still had 14,000 nuclear warheads and does so to this day. The United States had 9,400 nuclear warheads, although it is fair to say that 4,200 of them are due to be dismantled. However, they have not yet been dismantled, or made operative. Finally, the little nuclear powers, which, paradoxically, include China as well as France and the United Kingdom, had between them just over 1,000 nuclear weapons, which constituted only 4 per cent of the world's supply.

There are now, I think, two major threats. The first is to the existing system under which we live—the new risks. The second is to the nuclear proliferation treaty structure itself. The first of those new risks is familiar: the probable massive expansion of civil nuclear power. At present in the world, there are 439 power stations or, more often, small research centres, mostly based on low-enriched uranium, which are matters of concern to those who wish to control nuclear materials. Most of them are small, well organised and well controlled, but all these centres exist. On top of that, we now have another 37 proposals for new nuclear power stations and some 300 in the planning process. In other words, the potential for new nuclear power centres or stations would double the existing provision of nuclear centres in the world.

Perhaps even more important is that a great many of those planned and those under construction are in countries with virtually no experience or knowledge of managing nuclear power. The lack of knowledge and awareness is terribly important. Already, we have in the world a couple of generations of men and women who have no idea of the threat that nuclear power can present and are therefore in some ways rather apathetic about it or even complacent.

Therefore, the first issue is the huge expansion of nuclear power. Does it matter? Yes, it does. The process of producing nuclear power for civilian purposes and for producing nuclear weapons is similar in the early steps. In the first stages of the enrichment of low-enriched uranium or other nuclear materials to the point where they can be used either to produce energy or to produce nuclear weapons, it is difficult to know the intention of a country.

The second major threat to existing structures has been little discussed and debated: the emergence of cyber power in a major way. Cyber power, the capacity to effectively disrupt, alter or diverge information in the computer world and in the world of space, can effectively disrupt and even destroy the command and control systems on which the present controls over nuclear power and nuclear weapons are conducted. This is much more dangerous than people believe. You only have to read a little bit about cyber hackers and others, many of whom are individuals with rather curious intentions, to see how dangerous cyber power can be. It is one of the reasons why China is particularly concerned about the move towards space weapons and the shooting down of cyber satellites. With cyber satellites goes a fully sophisticated inspection system on which we all now depend for our safety.

For reasons of time, I will mention the third danger only in passing, as I have spoken about it already. Put simply, there is a population in both nuclear weapons powers and non-nuclear weapons powers that is fundamentally unaware of the dangers of what it is dealing with.

On the threats to the system, the discussions about the extension of the nuclear proliferation treaty—I repeat that it will expire in the spring of 2010 unless it is extended or renewed—are already in considerable danger because we have seen that the non-nuclear weapons powers are increasingly not prepared to co-operate. What can be done about that? The coming of the Obama regime in the United States, which coincides with what at least seems to be a more questioning regime in Russia, is the best chance, and perhaps the only chance, that we have of controlling this extraordinary multiplication of nuclear power in the world.

What steps should be taken in order to bring that about? The first is passing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The parallels with the banking crisis are close. In both instances, trust is the factor that has disappeared, which has made producing a new architecture extraordinarily difficult. In the case of a nuclear architecture, the CTBT is vital to restoring trust, a first step, which means that it has to be ratified by the American Senate. In my view, the second crucial step is to move from that to reducing the arsenals. I have said how large they are. Privately, the United States and Russia agree that 500 nuclear weapons would suffice, and would be far more than is necessary, as a minimum deterrent. Therefore, to get from 14,000 to 500 or from 9,400 to 500 is a perfectly possible second step towards building trust.

The third step is a fissile material cut-off treaty, which means that we do not keep pouring more and more nuclear weapons into the system. The fourth step was interestingly debated only a few weeks ago at the fuel cycle conference in London, which, to his great credit, Gordon Brown initiated. It is to recognise the need to internationalise the fuel cycle from its beginning in fuel materials to its ending in waste materials from nuclear power and other nuclear installations. That is a huge step, as it involves confronting the immense pressures of national sovereignty. National sovereignty is the great enemy of building a new nuclear architecture. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to confront that.

The United Kingdom has already proposed bringing down the existing deterrent of Trident to the absolute bare minimum that would leave it as a deterrent, from 160 warheads to 120. There may come a time when we have to look again at Trident. That will be the point at which we move away from the idea of a minimum deterrent to the glittering idea of a nuclear-free world. It is an idea that the Prime Minister has adopted, as has President Obama in the United States, although, understandably, neither offers us a timetable at present.

How do we get to the first base? Most of us agree that the abolition of nuclear weapons cannot be done in one great leap. I think that it was the French historian Braudel who said that you cannot cross a chasm in two leaps. To cross this chasm, we must move from island to island. I have already mentioned the first island of CTBT, fissile material cut-off, reduction in arsenals and the gradual multilateralisation of the fuel cycle, which would mean that fuel banks were available to any country that obeyed the terms of the nuclear proliferation treaty. The United Kingdom has put forward a proposal for what is called nuclear assurance. In turn, this must be linked to a fuel bank. The first fuel bank already exists. I declare an interest as a member of the board of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an American-led, non-governmental organisation that has so far raised $116 million, some of it from Sunni Arab powers, to create an international fuel bank, which would be available to any country that keeps to the rules.

The final step, as I have mentioned, is the abolition of nuclear weapons. That means taking one further step and introducing a treaty of fuel material stocks and international globalised inspection. The IAEA is central to this and we must build up its resources and inspectors to enable them to carry out this huge task. I conclude with a quotation from a speech that our Prime Minister made at the nuclear fuel cycle discussion on 17 March, when he said that,

"the nuclear question ... is about the values of the global society we are trying to build".

Let me put it more succinctly, in the words of a great poet, Wystan Hugh Auden:

"We must love one another or die".