Britain's road to zero
16 July 2009
The UK has issued a policy paper outlining its beliefs on how the world can move to employ nuclear energy to its full development potential while at the same time eliminating its military use.
The document, The Road to 2010, makes clear the UK's stance in the approach to the 2010 review conference on the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the 'grand bargain' in which 189 countries have promised not to spread nuclear weapons. In the past the treaty has appeared troubled because of a lack of progress in the other half of the bargain - that countries with nuclear weapons should steadily abandon them.
Given that a serious expansion of nuclear energy is required worldwide, the document said, it is essential to ensure the expansion does not result in more nuclear arms. To do that the NPT must be strengthened as must the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) charged with implementing it.
Every country should sign the agreements that allow the IAEA to monitor their nuclear activities in sufficient detail and with sufficient freedom, the UK said, and if the IAEA finds non-compliance there should be a common understanding of what that means and automatic tough action from the UN Security Council. Accordingly, the IAEA and its leadership will have to be properly funded and empowered to take on that role. The UK said it would push hard for those developments, including that it would "encourage" Israel to sign the NPT.
It will be key to resolve tensions that cause countries to see nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent to potential aggressors, and manage a shifting balance of power so that the reduction in nuclear capabilities does not cause a conventional arms race. This is to be a main UK aim, according to today's announcement.
Security was a major topic in prime minister Gordon Brown's announcement. He said it would be "a vital fourth pillar of any strengthened nuclear regime." The UK promised to ratify an amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials, to pressure other countries to do the same and to share advice with any other country on the topic. A £3 million ($5 million) boost to research at the Atomic Weapons Establishment into 'nuclear forensics' should make it impossible for any state to supply nuclear materials to a terrorist group without it ultimately being traced back.
The UK will host the recognised nuclear weapons states at a conference on confidence-building measures towards nuclear disarmament. Those states will likely have to develop a transparent system of verification for any arms reductions as well as complete ratification of the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty to put an ultimate upper limit on the amount of weapons material in the world. Key figures in that discussion will of course be the American and Russian presidents, who between them control 95% of the world's nuclear weapons. A recent agreement by the countries should see them both limit their operational arsenals to 1675 warheads each under a forthcoming treaty.
For its own part, Britain's nuclear weapons policy was renewed in 2006 when the decision was made to keep its submarine-based missile system. The country "will retain only the minimum nuclear deterrent capability necessary to provide effective deterrence," which is currently a limit of 160 operational warheads. The total explosive power of the UK stockpile has been reduced by 75% since 1991 and using the weapons would only be considered to defend the UK or a NATO ally "in extreme circumstances." The missiles are not targeted and require several days' notice before being fired.