By David Lowry: Published 13th November 2014
Why is the government planning to ratify a treaty which appears to breach the requirements of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons treaty?
Last week Parliament debated for the first time in 20 years an obscure treaty between the UK and US on mutual support for their programmes of nuclear weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
It ought not to be obscure, as it underpins the entire Trident nuclear WMD project.
Let me put this in a historical context, as its importance in 2014 can only be understood by knowing what happened to lead us to this important moment for security policy, diplomacy and parliamentary scrutiny of British nuclear WMDs.
When the United States detonated the first atomic bomb in anger over the Japanese city of Hiroshima on that fateful day of 6 August 1945, the then British Prime Minister Clement Attlee and former Prime Minister Winston Churchill made a joint statement, which revealed that:
“Under the general arrangements then in force for the pooling of scientific information, there was a full interchange of ideas between the scientists carrying out this work [on the atom bomb] in the United Kingdom and those in the United States.”
“It is now for Japan to realize in the glare of the first atomic bomb which has smitten her what the consequence will be of an indefinite continuance of this terrible means of maintaining a rule of law in the world.
“This revelation of the secrets of nature long mercifully withheld from man should arouse the most solemn reflections in the mind and conscience of every human being capable of comprehension. We must indeed pray that these awful agencies will be made to conduce to peace among the nations and that, instead of wreaking measureless havoc upon the entire globe, they may become a perennial foundation of world prosperity.”
(Statement by Prime Minister Attlee and former Prime Minister Churchill on the atomic bomb)
A few weeks later, Mr Attlee wrote in a secret memorandum:
“The only course which seems to me to be feasible and to offer a reasonable hope of staving off imminent disaster for the world is joint action by the USA, UK and Russia based upon stark reality. We should declare that this invention has made it essential to end wars. The New World Order must start now. All nations must give up their dreams of realising some historic expansion at the expense of their neighbours. They must look to a peaceful future instead of to a warlike past.
“This sort of thing has in the past been considered a utopian dream. It has become today the essential condition of the survival of civilisation and possibly of life on this plant.”
(Extracts from a memorandum on the Atom Bomb from Prime Minister Clement Attlee, 28th August 1945. Catalogue ref: CAB 126/257.)
When Winston Churchill returned as British Prime Minister in autumn of 1951 following the October General Election, he also took on the responsibility as Defence Secretary.
A year later, in a statement on the first UK atomic bomb test in Australia, he told Parliament of his discovery of the secret nuclear weapons programme the post war Attlee Government had pursued, saying:
“As to the cost, I was astonished that well over 100 million pounds should be disbursed without Parliament being aware of it.” (Official Report, 23 October 1952 column 1271)
(Atom bomb test, Australia, Official report, 23 October 1952 vol 505 cc1268-71 1268.)
By the mid 1950s, the atomic collaboration between the UK and US, which had been blocked post war in 1946 by the draconian US Atomic Energy Act, which sought to protect American atomic secrets from all, including its allies, was resumed on civil nuclear technology.
A detailed deal was signed on 14 June 1956 at the British Embassy in Washington DC between the chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, Rear Admiral Strauss, and the British Ambassador, Sir Roger Makins (later Lord Sherflield), broadening the collaborative scope of the more tentative initial atomic energy support agreement of 1955.
Then in 1958 the powerful Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy held detailed hearings for five months – from end of January to end of May – on loosening the American grip on nuclear secrets with its allies, in particular, the UK.
The full text of the hearing to amend the US-UK MDA the first time, is found here. (Amending the Atomic Energy Act of 1954: exchange of military information and material with allies hearings before the United States Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Subcommittee on Agreements for Cooperation, Eighty-Fifth Congress, second session, on January 29-31, February 4, 5, 27, March 5, 26-28, April 17, May 28, 1958. United States. Congress. Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Subcommittee on Agreements for Cooperation.)
By contrast, the UK held no debates at all.
Indeed, when the MDA was debated for the first and only time twenty years ago, Alan Simpson who initiated the debate—which started at 1.56 am!—pointed out:
“Parliament is systematically deceived and has been so ever since the first signing of the agreement. The systematic and consistent refusals by the Leader of the House to hold a full debate before Parliament in Government time are part of a process which goes back almost 40 years.”
(Official Report, 15 December 1994, c1236 onwards )
We can now make that 60 years, so uncooperative has this current Coalition been in timetabling a debate. We should be grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for showing greater wisdom than the government in arranging our debate today.
And this exchange in atomic technology was no mere theoretical option. Within a month of the US Congressional hearing ending, the British Parliament was let into the implications. In the UK Parliament in June 1958, Labour’s Roy Mason asked why Her Majesty’s Government had:
“decided to modify atomic power stations, primarily planned for peaceful purposes, to produce high-grade plutonium for war weapons; to what extent this will interfere with the atomic power programme; and if he will make a statement?”
He was informed by the Paymaster General, Reginald Maudling, that:
“At the request of the Government, the Central Electricity Generating Board has agreed to a small modification in the design of Hinkley Point and of the next two stations in its programme so as to enable plutonium suitable for military purposes to be extracted should the need arise.
“The modifications will not in any way impair the efficiency of the stations. As the initial capital cost and any additional operating costs that may be incurred will be borne by the Government, the price of electricity will not be affected.
“The Government made this request in order to provide the country, at comparatively small cost, with a most valuable insurance against possible future defence requirements. The cost of providing such insurance by any other means would be extremely heavy.”
(Official Report, 24 June 1958 vol 590 cc246-8)
This was challenged by Mr Mason, but the minister retorted:
“The Hon. Gentleman says that it is an imposition. The only imposition on the country would have arisen if the Government had met our defence requirements for plutonium by means far more expensive than those proposed in this suggestion.”
The headline story in the Bridgwater Mercury, serving the community around Hinkley, on that day (24 June 1958) was “Military plutonium to be manufactured at Hinkley”. The article explained: “An ingenious method has been designed for changing the plant without reducing the output of electricity… “
CND was reported to be critical, describing this as a “distressing step”, insisting that “The Government is obsessed with a nuclear militarism which seems insane.”
A year later, after the MDA was first amended on 7 May 1959 to permit special nuclear materials for military uses to be exchanged, the following took place in Parliament:
The Tory backbencher, Wing Commander Eric Bullus, asked the Paymaster-General what change there had been in the intention to modify three nuclear power stations to enable plutonium suitable for military use to be extracted should the need arise. The minister, Mr Maudling, replied:
“Last year Her Majesty’s Government asked the Central Electricity Generating Board to make a small modification in the design of certain power stations to enable plutonium suitable for military purposes to be extracted if need should arise.
“Having taken into account recent developments, including the latest agreement with the United States, and having re-assessed the fissile material which will become available for military purposes from all sources, it has been decided to restrict the modifications to one power station, namely, Hinkley Point.”
(Official Report, 22 June 1959 vol 607 cc847-9848)
The Times‘ science correspondent pointed out on 8 May 1959 under the headline “Production of Weapons at Short Notice“, that:
“The most important technical fact behind the agreement is that civil grade—such as will be produced in British civil nuclear power stations—can now be used in weapons … “
A team of research scientists in the US and UK, led by Professor Keith Barnham at Imperial College, London, subsequently demonstrated from complex number crunching of reactor operation data and US sources, that around 7,000 kilogrammes of plutonium from the first generation of UK civil nuclear reactors, including Hinkley A, was sent to the United States under the MDA for military uses. Their work has been published and updated in articles in the respected scientific journal, Nature. (Nature, 19 September 1985, pp 213-214; 5 September 1985, p.406; 6 March 1986, p.9)
A nuclear bomb with explosive capacity of the one that immolated Hiroshima needs around 5 kilogrammes, to put this 7,000 kilos in context.
And so the US-UK MDA became the world’s first Pro-Proliferation Treaty, and remains its most notorious example of promotion of the spread of nuclear weapons of mass destruction.
The history is important to understand just how cynically perverse and staggeringly hypocritical the new amendments are.
The whole 1958 MDA was an enabling treaty created at the height of the Cold War to facilitate the mutual assistance by two states possessing nuclear weapons of mass destruction to reinforce their nuclear elite status. That is, to help each other build and operate nuclear weapons of mass destruction, like Polaris and now Trident.
Yet one of the proposed amendments on “Intelligence and information-sharing on nuclear counter-proliferation”, is “aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons technology.”
Thus, changes to the broad scope of the Agreement includes a modification to the MDA’s introduction reaffirming that “the spread of atomic weapons technology, potentially including State and sub-State actors, imperils the defense and security of both nations.”
The modified Agreement confirms that ongoing nuclear Threat Reduction activities between the US and the UK includes “evaluation of potential enemies, whether state or non-state actors”, providing a framework for the exchange of information and intelligence on nuclear proliferation and security risks.
And at the same time the amended MDA would underpin the entire sharing between one state possessing nuclear WMDs, the US, with another nuclear armed state, the UK, of everything from nuclear technology, designs, nuclear explosive material such as plutonium and enriched uranium, plus the key material Tritium, required to make hydrogen bombs detonate, such as those used in Trident.
How should the over 190 non-nuclear armed states observing their commitment not to try to obtain nuclear weapons under the nuclear non proliferation treaty (NPT) consider the British and United States compliance with their own obligations under Article One of the NPT, which states in full:
“Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; and not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear-weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices.”
The MDA is clear violation of this obligation, as each of the mutual exchanges it promotes is at least an ‘indirect transfer’, but in several instances, as a ‘direct transfer’.
It should be stressed that this article specifies an undertaking that no such transfer shall take place “To any recipient whatsoever” – i.e. that means nuclear weapons states are prohibited in providing each other such nuclear weapons assistance, as well as not providing such military nuclear capability to nations without nuclear weapons, or indeed non state actors such as ISIS.
As Alan Simpson told the House 20 years ago, “Yet that is precisely what the [Mutual Defense] agreement sets out to do.” (Official Report, 15 December 1994, c1236 onwards )
In a debate in Westminster Hall a week ago, on Arms Exports and Controls, the minister answering the debate, Tobias Ellwood, said: “…It is Britain’s long-term intention to reach that position [ the removal of all nuclear weapons].” (Westminster Hall, Thursday 30 October 2014, Official Report, Column 144WH)
In a written answer to Paul Flynn MP for Newport West last month, Mr Ellwood asserted that “We have made clear that our goal is a world without nuclear weapons.” (Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, question number 211189 Answered on: 27 October 2014.)
But amending and extending the MDA as proposed is an act diametrically opposite to trying to achieve this stated aim.
Dr Miguel Marin Bosch, the Head of Mexico’s delegation to the NPT review conference in 1995, argued at the time that:
“The MDA is inconsistent with the spirit and letter of the NPT. There should be a full and transparent public debate before the UK government decides to renew it. Perhaps an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice would help the UK government in its decision.”
How can ministers possibly reconcile these two mutually incompatible policies?
Responding to the debate 20 years ago, the then minister David Davis responded by justifying the planned ten year extension to the MDA being brought in by the 1994 amendment, saying:
“We intend that Trident will provide a minimum strategic nuclear deterrent for the United Kingdom. Our strategic deterrent provides the ultimate guarantee of our national security and contributes to NATO’s strategy of war prevention … “
“We believe that our independent nuclear deterrent remains our ultimate guarantee of national security as well as a fundamental element of the defence of the alliance of which we are proud to be part. We will not accept that that should be put into question by a procedural objection to the agreement that forms the basis of our nuclear defence co-operation with the United States of America.”
In September this year SNP defence spokesman Angus Robertson was told by the minister in a written answer that,
“In line with long-established practice, and as accepted by Parliament during the 2004 renewal, the annexes of the MDA cannot be placed in the libraries because of the sensitivity of their contents.” (USA, question number 209761, Answered on: 26 September 2014.)
Alan Simpson had some interesting things to say about these annexes—which he had obtained via Freedom of Information Submission in the United States—20 years ago in the earlier debate, when he pointed out:
“The document is entitled ‘The technical annexe to the agreement between the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the United States of America for co-operation on the use of atomic energy and mutual defence purposes of July 3rd 1958’.
“The title is followed by nine pages, all of which are blank apart from three, which have just titles at the top… What concerns me is that the British Government have never even admitted that such an annex exists. The information about it has systematically been kept from Parliament and there has been no discussion about the implications it might have for the governance and defence of the United Kingdom.”
Alan Simpson added:
“It has been a serious error of judgment and a serious dereliction of duty for the Government to think that they could simply ratify an extension of such an agreement without giving the House an opportunity, in Government time, to raise fundamental questions about the ethics, advisability and acceptability—in global terms—of moving along that path.”
Sadly, it seems nothing has changed in the minds of the current crop of ministers or their Whitehall advisors.
This week a group of 24 MPs from several parties have submitted an early day motion (EDM 459 on the US-UK Mutual Defense Agreement – ‘defence’ is spelled with an ‘s’ even in the British version(!) giving a hint where it originated) tabled by the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas which states:
“That the Amendment, done at Washington on 22 July 2014, to the Agreement between the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the government of the United States of America for Cooperation on the Uses of Atomic Energy for Mutual Defense Purposes (Cm. 8947), a copy of which was laid before this House on 16 October 2014, should not be ratified.”
In light of what all these concerns over the validity of amending the US-UK MDA described above, this process needs to be postponed beyond the planned date of ratification on 20 November until the questions raised are resolved.
Just why are ministers so keen to extend a deal that promotes nuclear proliferation? What kind of message does that send the increasingly insecure world?
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