Rob Edwards / New Scientist – 2004-06-19 14:26:07
LONDON (June 17, 2004) — The US and UK governments will this week be accused of conspiring to break the international agreement to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
The claim will be backed by detailed evidence of the large-scale collaboration by the two countries to develop their nuclear arsenals, an activity that the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) is specifically designed to prevent.
The claim comes from the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), a think tank based in London and Washington DC. Although the UK and the US cooperated on nuclear matters throughout the Cold War, the extent of their collaboration since then has never been documented.
However, BASIC has managed to glean something of the scope of the collaboration from official sources. The figures show that the collaboration remains surprisingly strong, despite the commitment of both countries under the NPT to disarm.
Hundreds of US and UK Nuclear Researchers Involved
In 2002, over 300 scientists from the UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire visited 25 sites in the US, including the national nuclear laboratories at Sandia and Lawrence Livermore in California, and at Los Alamos in New Mexico.
In the same year, 485 nuclear scientists from the US visited Aldermaston. There are at least 16 joint working groups between the two countries, covering topics such as nuclear materials, weapons engineering, warhead physics, warhead accidents and “terrorist nuclear threat response”.
And Everet Beckner, the man in charge of the US nuclear weapons programme at the US Department of Energy, used to be deputy chief executive of the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment.
The exchanges of personnel, information and even nuclear materials are part of a US-UK accord known as the Mutual Defence Agreement, which is at the heart of the “special relationship” between the two governments. Signed in 1958, it allowed the two countries to exchange anything to do with nuclear weapons short of the weapons themselves.
This covered expertise, technology, bomb components and nuclear explosives such as plutonium and highly enriched uranium, but the extent of the cooperation has always been a closely guarded secret.
The agreement was last renewed in 1994 and runs out in 2004. The US and UK are now finalising another 10-year extension, which they hope to sign within the next few days. This has prompted BASIC to challenge the legal and moral legitimacy of the renewal.
Would the Agreement Breach the NPT?
Along with another nuclear think tank, the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy in London, BASIC is seeking a legal opinion on whether renewing the agreement would breach the NPT, to which the US and the UK both say they are committed.
Nigel Chamberlain, BASIC’s nuclear analyst, says that the agreement promotes just the kind of proliferation that the NPT was designed to prevent. He argues that the agreement undermines Article 1 of the NPT, which forbids countries from transferring nuclear explosive devices “directly or indirectly”, and could lead to a breach of Article 6, which promises nuclear disarmament.
Miguel Marin-Bosch, Mexico’s former deputy foreign minister and the country’s ambassador to the 1995 NPT Conference, agrees with BASIC.
“The [Mutual Defence Agreement] is inconsistent with the spirit and letter of the NPT,” he told New Scientist. Before the agreement is renewed, he suggests it ought to be referred to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Other experts, however, point out that the NPT was carefully drafted by the US and the UK in the 1960s to permit exchanges under the Mutual Defence Agreement to continue. For example, the UK’s nuclear weapons system, the submarine-launched Trident missile, is well known to be the result of a substantial collaboration with the US.
According to George Bunn, a former US government lawyer who helped draft the treaty, “protecting existing arrangements with allies was a key US-UK goal”.
But BASIC questions whether the renewal of a bilateral agreement should take precedence over an established international treaty, especially as many non-nuclear weapons states are now unhappy with what the US and UK are doing.
The Threat of Smaller ‘More Usable’ Nukes
With Trident nearing the end of its life, BASIC is concerned that if the agreement runs for another 10 years, UK scientists will tap into the development of the smaller, more usable weapons like mini-nukes and bunker-busters being planned by the Bush administration.
Although the UK has not yet decided to replace its Trident missiles, it says it is keeping open a “range of options for maintaining a nuclear deterrent capability”. The defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, has refused to say what these options are.
The UK Ministry of Defence insists that the Mutual Defence Agreement is “fully compatible” with the NPT. Jon Wolfsthal, a nuclear policy expert who used to advise President Clinton, thinks that the agreement does not violate the NPT.
“However, there can be no denying that the US-UK nuclear cooperation undercuts the moral position of both as they work to prevent other countries from seeking nuclear weapons,” he says.
The accusation comes at a difficult time for the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which is due to be reviewed in 2005. “The accusations of hypocrisy are harder to deflect as non-nuclear weapon states’ resentment intensifies,” says Chamberlain.
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