Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Atomic absurdity: exporting nuclear capability and not expecting proliferation

A hitherto secret memorandum, dated 7 October 1955,  has just been released by the excellent  independent US National Security archive that demonstrates the  concern held by early atomic advocates over the implications of exporting nuclear technology and fissile ( explosive) nuclear materials. (
The NSA explainer sets out the context:
During a discussion with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles on the peaceful uses of atomic energy, Philip Farley mentioned that the U.S., the Soviet Union, and other countries had been discussing the importance of controls over nuclear reactor operations and Washington and Moscow’s “common interest in seeing that other countries did not obtain nuclear weapons.” That same day, Farley met with Harold Knapp of the Atomic Energy Commission who, like Farley’s boss, Gerard C. Smith, had been working on a study of controls over the export of fissionable materials for overseas nuclear reactors.

The next day, Knapp read Smith’s paper and Farley read Knapp’s paper which made the point that the “principle threat to peace” was not so much from the export of fissionable materials but from an effect of the U.S. Atoms for Peace program: the “expanded knowledge of nuclear power reactors and plutonium separation.” That meant that any “reasonably advanced” industrial country could “learn from the open literature how to build a plutonium separation plant capable of separating 20 KG a year for about half-million dollars.” “Accordingly, the threat of weapons capability in other countries like the Netherlands, Israel, Argentina and many others is not remote.”
Doc.01. Memorandum for File by P[hilip] J. Farley, Office of Special Assistant to Secretary of State for Atomic Energy, “Control of Peacetime Uses of Nuclear Energy,” 7 October 1955)
Over the next 13 years the US Government, along with its UN Security Council permanent member partners, the USSR and UK, negotiated nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), and despite the concerns outlined above, the NPT text included in it preamble the following backing for the global spread of nuclear energy and materials:
Affirming the principle that the benefits of peaceful applications of nuclear technology,
including any technological by-products which may be derived by nuclear-weapon States from
the development of nuclear explosive devices, should be available for peaceful purposes to all
Parties to the Treaty, whether nuclear-weapon or non-nuclear-weapon States,
Convinced that, in furtherance of this principle, all Parties to the Treaty are entitled to
participate in the fullest possible exchange of scientific information for, and to contribute alone
or in co-operation with other States to, the further development of the applications of atomic
energy for peaceful purposes,
It also included in its Articles the following: ARTICLE IV
1. Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the
Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful
purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.
2. All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in. the
fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information
for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Parties to the Treaty in a position to do so shall also cooperate
in contributing alone or together with other States or international organizations to the
further development of the applications of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, especially in
the territories of non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty, with due consideration for the
needs of the developing areas of the world.

Yesterday (16 July 2019) in the House of Lords peers debated ( a report on nuclear weapons and non- proliferation  - Rising nuclear risk, disarmament and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty- (7th Report, HL Paper 338), produced by the HoL International Relations Committee(
Conservative peer and chairperson of the Committee, Lord Howell of Guildford (who as David  Howell had been Mrs Thatcher’s first Energy Secretary, responsible for nuclear power policy from 1979 onwards) opened the debate warning “This report is presented to your Lordships for debate against a background of a fast deteriorating world arms control environment and rising nuclear risk. Some have now suggested that the risk of nuclear weapons being used is at its highest since the Second World War….”
adding  “the enormous technological impact on the nuclear scene is perhaps the newest and most unnerving danger. The committee was warned clearly about the vulnerabilities to nuclear command and control systems from cyberattacks. If cyberattacks can now knock out early warnings, simulate fake attacks or compromise delivery systems, the entire doctrine of nuclear deterrence is undermined.”
In conclusion, he stressed “without the general determination between nations to co-operate closely, even with those who oppose and frustrate in other areas, the slide away from international rules towards international anarchy is certain, with nations putting their own narrow and short-term interests first, often driven by populist political appeal and force. From there, the step to nuclear deployment, accidental or intentional, unforeseen or sudden, at tactical or strategic level, is now perilously close. We can and must, at all costs, avoid and forestall. I beg to move.
Labour’s Lord Browne of Ladyton (a former Defence Secretary) – and currently a vice-chairman of the international arms control lobby group, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, argued that “ the NPT regime is coming under increasing threat. There are several reasons for this, including: lack of progress on disarmament; increasing risk of nuclear weapons use, proliferation, and terrorism; and deepening divisions among the international community on the role of nuclear deterrence, the vision of nuclear disarmament, and the steps required to prevent nuclear weapons use. Two of the most significant drivers contributing to this negative political context are: the growing divide between the recognised nuclear weapon states under the NPT and the non-nuclear weapon states —as the evidence heard by the committee made clear, the ban treaty is a direct result of these divisions—and the mounting frustration felt by many countries; and the deteriorated political relationship among the nuclear weapon states.”​
Liberla Democrat, Lord Purvis of Tweed observed:  
“It was striking that the Government’s response [to the report] seemed to recognise that cyber and hybrid threats create greater uncertainty, but they have not indicated that that, combined with the political and rhetorical instability, is a greater threat to world peace—and the two are combined… The Government imply that we secure political leverage to our advantage with this £50 billion expenditure on [Trident nuclear WMD] renewal—equivalent to the entire Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget for 50 years, and representing less than 1% of all global nuclear capability. The Government state that they are still committed to a nuclear weapon-free world, and that the retention of those weapons gives us a political capability, but they do not state what political conditions they are seeking to achieve to bring this about, nor how they intend to secure them. The argument also follows that we secure a voice with this political tool by retaining our independent nuclear capability, but this has not always been the case either.
It was interesting to read the Cabinet papers from the period between the early 1960s and the signing of the NPT. Both the Macmillan and Wilson Governments argued for a NATO nuclear force. In 1963, Macmillan and Kennedy agreed in principle,
“to use their best endeavours to develop a NATO Nuclear Force … and a new component may be introduced in the shape of internationally-owned and internationally-manned surface ships or submarines armed with Polaris missiles”.
The Wilson Government continued with this and formally proposed the establishing of an “Atlantic Nuclear Force”, including a “mixed-manned element” which,
“would allow the non-nuclear countries to take part in a meaningful way”.​
The Cabinet conclusion of 26 March 1965 went further, proposing a single European vote on doctrine and deployment,
“if the major nations of Europe achieve full political unity, in such a way as to enable the European vote to be cast as one. The European unit exercising a single European vote would have the same veto rights as individual Governments taking part in the Force”.
Therefore, pre-NPT, there was a vibrant debate in government and in Parliament, including in this House, about the Government’s ability to have both a combined deterrent approach and a combined doctrine with our European partners.
Therefore, if the Government’s position today is markedly different from that, which it clearly is—that our ownership of nuclear weapons is purely political, that it is imperative that it is independent, and that it is not concerned with warfighting—we are justified in asking how active their commitment is to disarmament. We will discover this in the periodic review, but there was little optimism among our witnesses that it will contain radical proposals. As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, indicated, the impetus proposed by the 2010 review will need to be restored. Even that seems unlikely.
Given the committee’s assessment that the security environment is now more uncertain and unstable, it is imperative that the Government put their full weight behind pillar 1 of the three pillars of the 2010 NPT review conference action plan on disarmament. Action 3 refers to,
“implementing the unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals … through unilateral, bilateral, regional and multilateral measures”.
The Cross Bench peer, Lord Hannay of Chiswick – a former UK Ambassador  to the United Nations - stressed “…we need now to give a much higher priority to nuclear diplomacy, strategic stability and arms control than we have done for the last 30 years, is surely perfectly obvious. It is, however, far from clear that the Governments of the two main possessor states, the US and Russia—or indeed our own Government—have reached that conclusion, and, more importantly still, that they are prepared to act upon it. If I may be allowed a brief digression, it is not even clear that the basic facts on nuclear diplomacy are appreciated at the higher levels of our own Government. Yesterday in Brussels, the Foreign Secretary told the press:
“We are totally committed to keeping the Middle East denuclearised”.
However, even if Israel does not admit to its undoubted possession of nuclear weapons, the hard fact is that the Middle East has not been “denuclearised” for many decades. Finding some way of moving towards a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction is going to be a key issue at next year’s NPT review conference, at which the UK, as one of the three NPT depositary states, needs to use as imaginative and constructive an approach as possible. I wonder whether either of the two aspirants to be Prime Minister know any better than the right honourable Jeremy Hunt revealed yesterday: I rather doubt it.”
[Indeed, when asked by Baroness Tonge, now independent, former Liberal Democrat peer, 24 June 2019 “what assessment they have made of the report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) SIPRI Yearbook 2019, Armaments, Disarmaments and International Security, published on 17 June, which claims that Israel has between 80 and 90 nuclear warheads? (HL16619) foreign affairs minister  Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon answered on 4 July saying that: “Israel has not declared a nuclear weapons programme,” which is nearly true, but misses the point (In a December 2006 interview, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stated that Iran aspires "to have a nuclear weapon as America, France, Israel and Russia.,7340,L-3338783,00.html;  It’s Official: The Pentagon Finally Admitted That Israel Has Nuclear Weapons Too,” The Nation March 15, 2015;; ]
“To other conclusions of our report the Government’s response seems less satisfactory. The insistence—several times repeated, I may say—that the UK has gone as far as it could on nuclear disarmament is rather odd, because the report at no point suggested that we should do so. Defensive reactions like that will not be a very useful guide to policy in the newly risky period we are living through. If we really are a responsible possessor state, as the Government proclaim us to be, and I recognise that that is a reasonable aspiration, then we will have to have some imaginative diplomacy. Both parts of the Government’s response—simply dismissing out of hand any consideration of no first use or of clearer negative security assurances to non-nuclear weapon states—seem to me to be distinctly unimaginative. The Government’s attachment to what they call “constructive ambiguity” over the circumstances in which we might use nuclear weapons is deeply unconvincing, in my view.”
Another Conservative peer, Baroness Anelay of St Johns  recalled “My generation grew up during the Cold War. We were keenly aware of the risk of the use of nuclear weapons. I still remember clearly the development of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 and its impact on the view of civil society, and on our view, as schoolchildren, about the risk of nuclear war. The confrontation between the US and Soviet Russia followed the US discovery of Soviet deployment of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles in Cuba with a range that could hit most of continental USA.
The minimal attention paid by the media and civil society to the risk of nuclear conflagration over the past few decades could be considered proof of the success of the negotiation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force in 1970. That treaty approaches its 50th anniversary next year. More countries have adhered to the NPT than to any other arms limitation or disarmament agreement —a testament to the treaty’s significance. It has its successes: it has near-universal membership; it has established an international norm against new states acquiring nuclear weapons; and there has been a considerable reduction in nuclear stockpiles since the 1980s…the treaty remains a critical part of international security. As has been mentioned, it is often seen to be based on a central bargain of three pillars: that non-nuclear weapon states agree never to acquire nuclear weapons but that, in exchange, the NPT nuclear weapon states agree to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology and to pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals. I therefore welcome the Government’s response to paragraph 96 of our report, where they now clarify that they remain,
“committed to implementing all three pillars”.
She closed asserting: “Preparations for a successful 2020 [NPT] RevCon [Review conference] are vital for our future security. It is not just our diplomatic reputation that is at stake but our global security. …Complacency about nuclear risk is the greatest ​risk to our global safety. There is an old saying: “a watched pot never boils”. It is time for everyone internationally, parliaments, Governments, media and civil society to watch the nuclear pot with increased care. It cannot be allowed to boil.
A Green Party peer, Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb ( who  made the declaration that she is a vice-president of the London Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) opened by observing in her view “the world is now almost out of control. We are not taking into account just how powerful these weapons are; they are weapons of terror, and their use is the greatest crime against humanity…” adding “One day, I hope, foreign policy based on mass murder and the inevitable extinction of humanity will be viewed as the most barbaric and depraved idea ever conceived.”
She continued “…we live in dangerous times globally. We have a President in the White House on Twitter, engaged in toilet diplomacy of a kind which can escalate tensions and move global markets in an instant. All the while, his military attaché is just a few metres away with nuclear codes that could be used by mistake or by miscalculation. …There is also the unequal way in which the West treats emerging nuclear powers, casting a blind eye to the nuclear weapons of Israel, India and Pakistan while taking a hard-line stance against Iran and North Korea. All the while, the non-nuclear countries which signed up to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty must feel cheated that the nuclear countries are not holding up their end of the bargain to progressively disband their nuclear arsenals. Instead, we are renewing Trident and expanding nuclear arsenals.”
.., the Foreign Secretary should take a leadership role in this area and represent the UK in international negotiations on nuclear disarmament.​... No serious contender for public office, let alone the Prime Minister, should try to make a political point out of their willingness to initiate a nuclear war and murder millions of innocent civilians. We must strive towards a nuclear-free world where the capability to kill every human being on earth in a matter of moments is consigned to the dystopian nightmares where it belongs.”
Lord Grocott, another rLabour peer said: “…it is inevitable that debates of this sort will be pretty sombre in tone, because this is an extremely sombre—if not deadly serious—subject….
First, to state the opposite, there has not been a complete absence of nuclear proliferation. The number of nuclear states has almost doubled, from five to nine, during the time of the treaty. The four nuclear states who are outside the NPT have a fraction of the number of warheads held by NPT nuclear states, but they are ​significant none the less. We list them in our report. It is estimated that Pakistan has 140 to 150 nuclear warheads; India has 130 to 140; Israel has 80; and North Korea 10 to 20. Of course, North Korea is a special case for all sorts of reasons that I cannot possibly go into, but are the other nuclear states outside the ambit of the NPT now in the “impossible to resolve” category—“We can’t do anything about it, so let’s not even try”—or is there a medium or longer than medium-term strategy to try to bring all the states of the United Nations within the ambit of the treaty?
Then there is the question of the proposed Middle East nuclear-free zone. It was as long ago as 1995 that the review conference of that year stated that the development of nuclear-free zones, of which I have mentioned a number, should be encouraged as a matter of priority, and specifically mentioned the importance of establishing one in the Middle East. Since then, progress has been glacial. Last year, however, a UN resolution called for a conference on a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East to be held in 2019. In our report, we state that the UK should continue to support work towards such a conference and should encourage Israel to participate. I am afraid that the Government in their reply say that the UK remains committed to the 1995 NPT resolution—of which, incidentally, we were co-sponsors —but they remain undecided about whether to participate in the forthcoming UN conference, giving a long list of difficulties.
Of course there are difficulties. This is the most dangerous region in the world, with current or recent wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, not to mention Iran and the JCPOA. But to say that we may well not attend a UN conference to try to reduce the risk of weapons of mass destruction being deployed in this most dangerous of regions seems inexplicable, ..”
Another Labour peer, Lord Collins of Highbury,  observed that the blog by Aidan Liddle, the [UK] ambassador and permanent representative to the Conference on ​Disarmament [has a] clear message is that many countries want to see more progress on disarmament, and another thing he referred to was the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, mandated by the 1995 conference,” adding that Lord Hannay highlighted that the Government said in their response that they remain committed to the establishment in the Middle East of a zone free of nuclear and all other weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems. What are the Government doing about that? What is their strategy? We need to know more about it.
Answering as a stand-in for the unavoidably absent minister Lord Ahmed, Conservative Baroness Goldie said that the NPT “has been at the heart of global efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation and encourage nuclear disarmament efforts for nearly 50 years. It has overwhelmingly delivered on its objectives and we should celebrate its success.”
She then pointedly remarked to Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb that while “I may not support her view on unilateral disarmament, but I respect and see the passion with which she holds it.”
Remarkably, Goldie immediately wh en ton to assert “The NPT has provided the framework and confidence for a significant reduction in nuclear weapons following the end of the Cold War. The UK has provided a good exemplar, significantly reducing its nuclear weapon stockpile since the Cold War peak.”
All of this was, in practice, done unilaterally, as no British nuclear weapons have vet been entered into  multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations under the auspices of Article 6 of the NPT, which reads:
Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes 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, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.
Finally, the minister extolled how the treaty “extended the benefits of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy around the globe “adding  “I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for his recognition of these virtues.”
If only the  minister had read that  warning made in the 1955 memo!
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