All of a sudden Sellafield and the plutonium economy make headline news, with the publication of the damning report on safety failures and the falsification of data by BNFL. Of course CND has been campaigning against the development of MOX (mixed oxide fuel) for years, on the grounds that recovery of weapons grade plutonium from MOX would not be too difficult: increasing the amount of plutonium in the world plus careless transport constitutes a proliferation risk.
British Nuclear Fuel’s Thorp plant which cost more than £2 billion to build, ‘reprocesses’ nuclear waste, taking spent fuel from nuclear power stations and extracting the plutonium. When Thorp was designed it was envisaged that there would be a market for plutonium as a power station fuel but fast breeder reactors have fallen out of favour with the nuclear industry, leaving BNFL two options: either stockpiling plutonium at Sellafield or returning it to the main customers, Germany and Japan. Faced with the problem of unwanted plutonium piling up at Sellafield BNFL built a further £300 million plant to turn it into MOX which would present less hazards in trans-shipment than pure plutonium and could be burned by some specialised nuclear reactors in Japan.
Japan’s rejection of the first trial batch of MOX has exposed the whole expensive farce for what it is — a smokescreen to cover the fact that nobody really wants the waste from nuclear reactors and nobody knows what to do with it. Gordon MacKerron, an economist at Sussex University, has calculated that Thorp running costs are greater than the costs of simply storing the used nuclear fuel [“Exploding the great nuclear myth”, Bronwen Maddox, Times 15·2·2000] The obvious conclusion, given that spent nuclear waste needs to be kept safe for 250,000 years, is that it would be sensible to stop producing any more of the stuff!
This encouraging report in the Times [8·2·2000] claims that the US and Russia recognise a common interest in preventing plutonium falling into the wrong hands. Russia has promised to stop reprocessing spent fuel from its nuclear reactors in return for an additional $100 million (£62·5 million) from the US to help increase security for Russian civilian nuclear materials. (There have been stories from the major site at Mayak in the Southern Urals of plutonium in canisters the size of milk churns stored in a shed secured by only a padlock....) Interestingly, the Times correspondent suggests that the US/Russia agreement could put pressure on Japan, Britain and France to end the reprocessing of fuel.
This is the official justification for the UK government vote against the New Agenda Coalition resolution at the United Nations in December:
John Spellar M.P., Minister of State MoD, writes: “We share the frustration of the members of the New Agenda Coalition at the slow pace of wider progress towards nuclear disarmament. We continue to urge further progress in bilateral efforts to reduce the nuclear arsenals of the two major powers. We are eager to see the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty... brought into force... and we are impatient to begin negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty. We recognise that the New Agenda Coalition proposals support all these measures.... But we question whether by going beyond [the] internationally-agreed agenda and proposing a range of further measures... their initiative makes a practical contribution at this time to forward progress towards nuclear disarmament. We examined several of the suggested measures in detail during the course of the Strategic Defence Review... and concluded that they were at the present time incompatible with the maintenance of a credible minimum deterrent.... I hope this explains the situation.”
It does indeed make the situation very clear. The British Government is eager to pay lip-service to international disarmament negotiations, provided that it is not required to give up its own nuclear weapons — its ‘credible minimum deterrent’.
The forthcoming Non-Proliferation Treaty Review conference will be the focus of campaigning for the next two months. The conference will take place in New York from 24th April until 19th May — and crucial to the outcome will be the extent to which the nuclear weapons states demonstrate progress towards fulfilling obligations under Article VI: “Each of the parties to the treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the 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.”
CND is asking us to write to the Prime Minister urging him to make the conference a priority for himself and the Government and to attend the conference in person — to take the lead on the international stage.
Britain is one of the major nuclear weapons states and a signatory to the 1968 NPT, and the Labour Government has consistently reiterated its desire for world-wide nuclear disarmament. Here is an opportunity to make these fine words come true and to alter the course of history.Rt. Hon. Tony Blair M.P.
You could also write to Ian Soutar, British Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament, asking him to call upon his fellow Ambassadors from the other nuclear weapons states to demonstrate their commitment to Article VI and to support positive proposals for negotiations on a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons.37/39 Rue de Vermont
Nigel Chamberlain, CND’s Press Officer writes “A senior diplomat from the developing world told me in New York in 1995 [the last NPT Review] that the nuclear weapons states would not make any substantial moves towards nuclear disarmament unless and until the ordinary people of those countries made their collective voice heard.”
Please continue collecting signatures on the petition forms sent with the February newsletter.
During a debate in Westminster Hall on 18 January, Foreign Office Minister of State Peter Hain welcomed the work of Ann Cryer MP for Keighley [the Chair of Parliamentary Labour CND] and said that it was “good to have such a voice heard loud and clear in Parliament again.” He also thanked Malcolm Savage MP for Aberdeen North for initiating the debate on Weapons of Mass Destruction and for his efforts to set up an all-party group to discuss these issues. It is very unusual for any member of government to be so openly supportive of CND and we should interpret this statement as an invitation to us to further develop our lobbying work.
Peter Hain said: “A lot of leading countries in the world, including the United States and Russia, have to take their responsibilities much, much more seriously to ensure we are put back on the road to peace and stability”. The Minister also said that it was vital for all United Nations states to pursue an arms control and reduction agenda and pointed out that “the main instrument for preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons is the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)”. He pledged that the government would continue to push for US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, despite the defeat in Congress last year. While expressing his support for the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Minister showed some concern about the US’s proposed missile defence system.
Should we now dare to take Peter Hain at his word and believe that Britain is at last having a change of heart and might now play a positive and leading rôle in the international disarmament process? Amongst the Minister’s many positive statements, there was also a call for Israel, India and Pakistan to sign the NPT, destroy their nuclear weapons capability and accept their obligations as non-nuclear weapons states. He then went on to praise the government for reducing the number of ‘operationally available warheads by 50%’, thus reinforcing the inherent discriminatory nature of the treaty. Is the Minister implying here that deterrence is acceptable for some but not for others?
We enjoyed a very stimulating evening on February 8th when Alison Williams spoke, and led a most interesting discussion on the future of the UN.
Alison approaches the problems of the UN in a matter-of-fact spirit which is very refreshing. The UN is the most important global institution that we have — human beings designed the UN and have to make it work — “we have to maximise what is good about the UN and minimise the bad.” She gave us a brief tour through the workings of the UN — pointing out that very few people actually understand how the UN operates as an institution. Before criticising the UN for inactivity we need to remember that the UN Secretariat is frequently frustrated by its powerlessness (under the UN charter) to tell UN member states what to do — and all too often the most powerful members fail to put common purpose ahead of their own sovereign interest.
It was interesting to learn about the historic involvement of the non-governmental organisations, whose influence we tend to think of as a modern-day phenomenon. In fact American NGOs of the 1940s were very influential in the drafting of the UN charter and although the present UN now has formal relations with several thousand NGOs there is still a heavy bias towards those which are US-based.
The most obvious way in which the UN has changed since 1945 is the huge growth in membership associated with decolonisation, transforming the size and composition of the General Assembly. The Security Council, in contrast, has expanded only marginally (from 11 to 15 members) and is still dominated by the “Permanent Five” — who could be said to have won their seats by historical accident only. This situation is under challenge from most other countries and Alison feels that the Security Council will almost certainly get bigger.
Alison discussed questions of UN staffing and budget — countering the common accusation of bureaucracy and waste. The total size of the UN Secretariat is about the size of the civil service in the US state of Wyoming, and the total annual Secretariat expenditure is equivalent to the annual amount spent by US citizens on cut flowers and potted plants!
The rôle of the NGOs at the UN is increasing, with greatest public profile at big global conferences such as the Rio Environmental Summit. The expertise and grassroots experience of the NGOs is respected by governments but there is as yet no institutionalised partnership. Alison is very much involved in developing this UN link with ‘civil society’. Failures of the UN are failures of the ‘political will of the members’. People in democracies have a responsibility to tell their governments what they should be doing!
In Britain, there is considerable secrecy about governmental policy at the UN, which is largely determined at the ‘UN desk’ in the Foreign Office. A better suggestion, promoted by the UK United Nations Association, is that policy should be the responsibility of a Select Committee of the House of Commons, open to question and scrutiny. Above all, we must keep up pressure on our government to back the UN and to show a commitment to UN reform and development.