Monday, 24 March 2014

UK, the unintended nuclear proliferator

UK, the unintended nuclear proliferator

With the bi-annual Global Nuclear summit opening in the Hague today, ministers do not see their policies as promoting nuclear proliferation, and probably would be vociferous in rejecting this grave charge. But proliferators they are, just as ministers in the predecessor Labour Government were. It is part of the problem that under-informed ministers do not recognise the impact of their promotional policies. But they urgently need to do so.

Perhaps ministers are suffering from acute cognitive dissonance when pursuing their twin-track policies of nuclear promotion and nuclear controls. What do I mean by this?

“Social psychologists refer to cognitive dissonance as the presence of incongruent relations among cognitions (thought and understanding) that frequently results in excessive mental stress and discomfort. Ultimately, individuals who hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas and/or values frequently experience cognitive dissonance.”

This is a very dangerous condition for senior decision-makers when dealing with a technology that carries the twin dread-threat of a major accident and malevolent misuse by determined terrorists.

At the beginning of January at Lancaster House, the foreign Office conference venue in London, The Home Office, supported by the Atomic Weapons Establishment, Ministry of Defence and Foreign and Commonwealth Office, hosted major international gathering of concerned parties to the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, which the UK co-chairs.

In a speech opening the conference, Home Office minister James Brokenshaw, responsible for co-ordinating UK counter terrorism policy, focused on nuclear forensics can help us to tackle nuclear terrorism (“ How nuclear forensics can help us to tackle nuclear terrorism, “


He stressed that “The impact of a terrorist attack involving chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear materials would be potentially catastrophic our focus is to ensure that the UK remains a hard target for any terrorist with ambitions to use these materials against us, emphasising “  the UK’s national security is the first priority of this government.”


But the correct question at this point should be: is it really?

Mr Brokenshaw went on the claim that he thought “in framing the debate, it’s important to look at this in the wider context.” And went on to assert, without supplying any supportive evidence: “To bring this into the direct focus of nuclear terrorism, fortunately and thanks to combined efforts the likelihood of terrorists obtaining a functioning radiological or nuclear device to attack the UK is low.”

He did concede “But that doesn’t mean the risk isn’t real. It is important that we take this risk seriously and continue to ensure the UK is a hard target. .” going on to state: “The International Atomic Energy Agency’s Incident Tracking Database records incidents of radiological and nuclear materials being found outside of regulatory control – and between 1993 and 2012, the IAEA’s Trafficking Database recorded 419 incidents of unauthorised possession and criminal activity relating to radiological or nuclear material.
And the availability of nuclear material could increase as more nations adopt nuclear energy.”

He further stressed:” As we approach the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, (being attended by President Obama), we will continue to work with global partners to catalyse action on securing sensitive nuclear information.

The UK attaches great importance to the global effort around protecting sensitive nuclear information. We know that the acquisition of nuclear knowledge and know-how is as important to a would-be nuclear terrorist as the acquisition of the nuclear or radiological material itself.”

Asserting that “the importance of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism remains a key part of our fight against nuclear terrorism, he pointe dout that since joining in 2006, its mission has been “to strengthen global capacity to prevent, detect and respond to nuclear terrorism by conducting multilateral activities that strengthen the plans, policies, procedures and interoperability of partner nations.”
Today the Global Initiative is a partnership of 85 nations and four official observers - the EU, IAEA, Interpol and UNODC.

He also recalled that last year, the UK hosted the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism Symposium on the Enhanced Detection of Special Nuclear Material also at Lancaster House, which  gathered around 70 international experts from 20 partner nations and three observer organisations.

Building upon the knowledge and capabilities of the Atomic Weapons Establishment we have created a dedicated nuclear forensics analytical capability that allows the UK to investigate criminal acts involving nuclear materials.

Noting that conventional Forensics Analysis Capability can recover fingerprints, fibres, DNA and other traditional trace forensics markers from material that have been contaminated with radiological, nuclear or explosive materials, he said that the British
detection facility – opened in May 2012 – is state-of-the-art technically, and operationally a “meticulous process that enables subject matter experts to draw inferences about nuclear and radiological material.”

Stressing that that nuclear forensics is just one part of a multifaceted picture, he  asserted that  expertise in this area must be embedded and integrated into existing law enforcement and operational systems, “to provide a seamless end to end capability for managing nuclear security incidents.”

Explaining that nuclear security requires “coordinated effort from across government,” including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office leading the counter proliferation work overseas and  the Department for Energy and Climate Change, whose mission includes ensuring that a “robust security architecture exists at our civil nuclear sites.”

The Home Office also has a significant role in combatting nuclear terrorism, through its border detection system that prevents terrorists from trying to move material in the first place and catches them if they do: this is Cyclamen, which aims to detect “the illicit importation of radioactive or nuclear materials by terrorists or criminals,” and operates across the UK, 24 hours a day.

It forms a key part of our work to protect the UK and is a feature of CONTEST.
Cyclamen uses a combination of fixed and mobile equipment to screen vehicles, containers, freight and pedestrians for the presence of radioactive and nuclear material at UK points of entry.

The UK’s “enhanced detection programme” is a collaboration between the Home Office, Ministry of Defence and Cabinet Office and has a number of workstreams led by the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) that Mr Brokenshaw asserted “is making a real contribution to our plans for smarter and more capable mobile detection systems, so we can ensure that resilience.”


The problem is while the Home Office pursues various ways to minimise the dangers from, and impact of failures in nuclear security, both DECC and BIS are promoting respectively the indigenous development of a new nuclear programme and attendant plutonium-based nuclear fuel cycle, and the export of  nuclear  explosive materials in new nuclear fuels.


 In doing so they are following a strategy initiated by the predecessor Labour Government, which in  the summer of 2009 published a document which, while claiming to “lay out a credible road map to further disarmament”, also proposed increasing the civilian nuclear trade across the world. (Cabinet Office  [2009]. Road to 2010: Addressing the Nuclear Question in the Twenty First Century


A year ago, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills ( BIS)  published a suite of documents  supporting the expansion of civil nuclear power in the UK and the nuclear export trade abroad. One key document  was:  Nuclear Energy Research and Development Roadmap: Future Pathways (


This 128 -page document clearly stated in its introduction:

 The potential growth of the nuclear sector in the UK will not be driven by technology alone. A complex mix of Government policy, relative cost of nuclear power, market decisions and public opinion will influence the rate and direction of growth in the decades to come. It is this level of unpredictability that obliges Government to keep a wide range of technological options open for the future and therefore to maintain an agile and flexible Research and Development (R&D) capability.”


It states somewhat incredibly:


“This document assesses the needs and opportunities for nuclear energy R&D in the UK in the context of new build of nuclear generation capacity to levels required in a range of scenarios that Government considers plausible. It sets out future R&D pathways that encompass the full range of technologies and capabilities considered capable of delivering a nuclear contribution to electricity generation capacity of up to 75 gigawatts (GW) by around the middle of the 21st century.” (emphasis added) This scenario, it states, models 75 GW of nuclear power electricity generating capacity by the year 2050 and is equivalent to approximately seven times the current level of installed nuclear power capacity. (emphasis added)

 The perfect pro-proliferation model for would-be proliferators.

In early January, the respected Washington DC-based Nuclear Threat Initiative ( published its latest annual report. The NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with a mission to strengthen global security by reducing the risk of use and preventing the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and to work to build the trust, transparency, and security that are preconditions to the ultimate fulfillment of the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s goals and ambitions.

NTI published a table in its new report that ought to set the alarm bells ringing in DECC and across Whitehall, in its placing the UK bottom in terms of its nuclear materials  security provisions of the 25 countries NTI identified as having the nuclear materials and technologies capable of  making nuclear nuclear WMDs.

That should worry ministers. Instead, they are on a fix to promote proliferation. That way insanity and disaster lies.
David Lowry is a  former director, European Proliferation Information Centre (EPIC)

No comments:

Post a Comment