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Nuclear Weapons Proliferation

Volume 495: debated on Thursday 9 July 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mary Creagh.)

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to bring the important and urgent matter of nuclear weapons proliferation before the House. The nuclear non-proliferation treaty, or NPT, is the cornerstone of the international non-proliferation regime. The treaty came into force in 1970 and is recognised as having been a real success. It was negotiated at a time when there was a very real danger that the number of states with nuclear weapons could reach 20 or more within a decade or so. The fact that that did not happen is recognised as being in large part due to the treaty. The NPT is also given credit for the decision of a number of states that had set out on nuclear weapons programmes, or that had inherited nuclear weapons from their Soviet predecessors, to abandon that path.

The NPT is essentially a deal between those of us with nuclear weapons and those without. The non-nuclear weapons states agree not to pursue nuclear weapons. In return, they have access to civil nuclear energy and a promise of disarmament from the five recognised nuclear weapons states—China, the US, Russia, the UK and France. While the so called “grand bargain” at the heart of the NPT is easily described, supporting and enforcing it is a constantly changing task as technology advances and politics shift. The fundamental issue is whether the NPT is the way forward for the next 20 years.

The developments in nuclear proliferation have been something of a roller coaster ride in the past two decades. Following the end of the cold war, steps were taken to strengthen the non-proliferation regime, and the NPT review conferences of 1995 and 2000 gave us real grounds for optimism.

Review conferences are held every five years as part of the ongoing operation to ensure that the mechanisms in place to protect the world from nuclear proliferation are up to the job. The conferences of 1995 and 2000 were significant successes, with the conference in 2000 adopting a 13-step programme of action for the total elimination of the nuclear arsenals of the nuclear weapons states.

From 2000 onwards, however, we have been going backwards. The last review conference, in 2005, ended in failure. Nothing was achieved. Later in 2005, further efforts to strengthen the regime were made at the UN millennium summit, based on Kofi Annan’s high-level panel report, “In Larger Freedom”. Again, these efforts got nowhere. In the meantime, the United States and India reached a deal that significantly undermined the NPT central bargain. India is a non-NPT country, yet the US agreed to supply India with civil nuclear fuel and technology.

I am sure that other parties were content to see the lack of progress and content to let the US take the blame, but it is clear that the previous US Administration were not working to strengthen the global non-proliferation regime, to say the least. The former UK ambassador to the UN, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, has said:

“From the year 2000 onwards...the George W Bush administration applied itself quite deliberately to the de-construction of rules-based systems in the fields of arms control and disarmament.”

All the while, resentment continued to grow towards the nuclear weapons states that their disarmament obligation was not being met.

The link between non-proliferation work and disarmament is strong, and is brought out in the recent report of the Foreign Affairs Committee. It is far more difficult to deal effectively with a less co-operative state, or to build support for measures to strengthen anti-proliferation work, if dissenting parties can point to the failure of the nuclear weapons states to make progress towards disarmament. At this point, I will restate my own view that the UK’s decision to replace Trident is a setback.

My right hon. Friend might be coming on to this point, but the decision to go through the initial gate—possibly in September when the House is not sitting—is more than a little bizarre. Does he agree that the Government ought to be brought kicking and screaming back to this place—certainly as the Americans and Russians have moved the debate on—so that we can properly debate whether that is the right way forward?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I agree. There is real concern—certainly among Labour Members—about the September decision. I do not quite see why it has to be made in September and I would like to think that there could be some movement on this point. We know that the Trident replacement bid is a big issue that will not go away—far from it, as it seems to be getting more and more prominent for a range of reasons. My view, like that of my hon. Friend, I think, is that Trident should have been cancelled many years ago. However, I agree with his point.

Having endured those bleak years, are we now on the way up? There are, in my view, real grounds for optimism. The first is the new Administration in the United States. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), then Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, told the Foreign Affairs Committee:

“The prospects for disarmament under President Obama are much greater and stronger than they were under President Bush.”

That, I think, is incontrovertible.

The new President has declared that he wants to work towards a world without nuclear weapons, to pursue the US ratification of the vital comprehensive test ban treaty and to support a verified fissile material cut-off treaty. As the House will be aware, the US and Russia made progress earlier this week on a joint understanding for a new strategic arms reduction treaty. The START follow-on treaty would reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads and delivery vehicles. Surely that encouraging development points up the difference in President Obama’s approach from that of his predecessor. I would go so far as to say that President Obama provides us with the best hope we have had for years in the area of non-proliferation.

Our own Government have shown that they are seized of the importance of progress at next year’s NPT review conference. In March, the Prime Minister announced that the UK is to work with other countries to set out a “Road to 2010” plan. I understand that publication is likely to come before the House rises, and I hope that is right.

There are signs of movement at an international level, too. In May the preparatory committee agreed by consensus an agenda for the 2010 NPT review conference. That might not sound like much, but it is a lot better than what has been achieved in the past. Indeed, it was the first time that that has been achieved in the preparatory committee for 15 years. Later in May, the UN conference on disarmament, which had been deadlocked for 12 years, agreed a programme of work, including the negotiation of a fissile material cut-off treaty.

It seems there is indeed scope for progress, and it is vital that we seize this opportunity, because the challenges that we face are urgent. Iran and North Korea are NPT signatories and they have breached their NPT obligations—North Korea has tested nuclear devices. India, Israel and Pakistan have all acquired nuclear weapons since the treaty came into force, with major implications for security in their regions. All three refuse to join the NPT. The NPT nuclear weapons states still hold massive nuclear arsenals, and would continue to do so even after the planned START follow-on treaty is fully implemented.

The security of nuclear material is a great concern, especially as the use of civil nuclear power worldwide is expected to expand. The A.Q. Khan proliferation network shows the ongoing threat of the illicit transfer of technology and materials, and the threat of terrorist efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and materials is surely a continual concern.

So how do we proceed? Looking to the 2010 review conference and beyond, a consensus has been emerging over some of the steps that need to be taken. First, we must see the early entry into force of the comprehensive test ban treaty. It can come into force only when all five nuclear weapons states and all states with civil nuclear reactors have signed. Nine such states, including the United States and China, have still to make this commitment. As I have mentioned, President Obama has pledged to pursue this, and the fact that the Senate is Democrat-led gives further ground for hope.

Secondly, to strengthen measures that prevent the illegal diversion of material to nuclear weapons programmes, we must have universal adoption of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s additional protocol, which allows inspectors more intrusive access. The Government recognise that progress here is a priority.

Thirdly, a fissile material cut-off treaty would halt the further production of plutonium and weapons-grade uranium. The Government have identified that as an essential step towards a world without nuclear weapons and, as I have mentioned, President Obama has reversed the position of the previous Administration and reinstated US support for the treaty.

Fourthly, moves to guarantee supplies of fuel for peaceful nuclear energy uses, enabling countries to forgo the development of fuel-cycle facilities, would limit the risk of diversion and of terrorist intervention. If progress is to be made here, participating states must have absolute confidence that supplies would be guaranteed.

Fifthly, we need proper enforcement measures for states that breach or withdraw from the NPT system—a point made by President Obama in his speech earlier this year in Prague. I am pleased to say that this is also a priority of the UK Government.

Sixthly, we nuclear weapons states must take steps to de-alert our existing arsenals, reduce our dependence on those arsenals in our defence policies, and improve our levels of transparency. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has pointed out, the fact that we do not even have an authoritative estimate of the total number of nuclear weapons attests to the need for greater transparency.

Finally, we nuclear weapons states have an obligation to disarm. As I have said, disarmament is one of the three pillars of the NPT, and the world is watching closely. The progress towards a successor to START made by the US and Russia this week is an encouraging step in the right direction. Non-nuclear weapons states will need to see that we nuclear weapons states have an ongoing commitment to further, deeper cuts in our arsenals.

This week, Robert McNamara, US Defence Secretary during the Cuban missile crisis, died. Unlike most hon. Members, I can remember the Cuban missile crisis. I was a student and can remember the genuine fear that we all—students and university lecturers—felt at the time. Forty years after that crisis, McNamara famously revealed how close the world came to nuclear war. He said:

“It was luck that prevented nuclear war...Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.”

The case for a world without nuclear weapons was made by Robert McNamara in one sentence, and I will close with it today. He said:

“The major lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is this: the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations.”

Surely the greatest security challenge facing us today is to do all that we can to ensure that that does not happen—not in our lifetimes, not in our children’s lifetimes, not in our children’s children’s lifetimes: not as long as mankind inhabits this planet.

I wholeheartedly congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) on securing this debate. As he rightly pointed out, this issue is one of the most important issues facing our generation, and generations yet to come. What the present generation faces is different from what a slightly older generation faced, but this is a matter of timely concern.

First and foremost, the debate is timely because in Moscow this week President Obama and President Medvedev signed a successor to the strategic arms reduction treaty. Over seven years, it will lead to a fairly dramatic reduction in the number of warheads held by the two countries, limiting each to an arsenal of between 1,500 and 1,675 weapons. That is something we heartily welcome, and which we might not have thought possible two or three years ago.

The debate is also timely because the UK has an extremely strong record in this area. Since the cold war we have reduced our nuclear firepower by 75 per cent. Since 1997, we have reduced the number of warheads by 50 per cent., and I think all Labour Members, and for that matter all members of the Labour party, take particular pride in that. The UK’s firepower now represents less than 1 per cent. of the global total. Worldwide figures for nuclear weaponry are now the lowest since the 1950s. Indeed, as my right hon. Friend said, the next five-yearly review conference of the non-proliferation treaty will be in 2010—next year—so it is timely for us to be looking at such issues.

As my right hon. Friend pointed out, there are some strong reasons for a degree of optimism. Not only did we see the agreement between the United States of America and Russia this week, but we also have President Obama’s clear and unambiguous pledge to seek ratification of the comprehensive test ban treaty. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out earlier this year, there is probably greater optimism about wider ratification of the treaty than there has been for some considerable time.

Other countries have played a notable role. I single out two. Since Brazil joined the non-proliferation treaty in the 1990s, it has provided energetic leadership around the world, in particular in Latin America. The UK has had a strong, high-level bilateral commitment with Brazil since 2007. Similarly, when South Africa decided to change its position on nuclear weapons, it too took up energetic leadership on such issues around the world, and we want to work closely with South Africa on them. We also have strong bilateral relations with Russia in that regard and are keen to continue that work.

My right hon. Friend was right to point out that early on, before the non-proliferation treaty came into force in 1970, many academics in the UK and around the world believed that by the early 1970s the number of countries with nuclear weapons would rise to between 25 and 30. However, there are now 189 members of the treaty and only three countries stand outside it, so there are reasons for optimism, but as has been pointed out, there are significant reasons for concern too.

Everybody in this country and the rest of the world who has seen the news about North Korea this year is concerned about the situation there. With a second nuclear explosion in May, North Korea has shown open defiance of its obligations. I am glad that the United Nations moved swiftly, and the Security Council provided an unambiguous response. Similarly, Iran continues to enrich uranium in open defiance of numerous Security Council resolutions. Let me make it absolutely plain that we as a country and a Government want further cuts in stockpiles in all countries that retain nuclear weapons.

The world community is presented with a significant new problem, or challenge, by the expansion of nuclear energy. We need to make sure that there is security in the production of fissile material, and that countries moving towards nuclear energy options—often in response to rightful climate change concerns—are doing so for peaceful ends.

There are key issues that we need to address. First, we want a strengthening of the mechanisms and institutions that surrounded the issue of non-proliferation. We want to make sure that there is early and absolutely certain detection of clandestine activity in countries around the world. If we had been able to detect that more certainly in the case of Iran, we might have been able to provide a far clearer and far earlier response from the international community, but we also point out that Iran has no opportunity to move beyond its obligations, and the international community stands firm in response to what Iran has been doing.

We need to strengthen enforcement, because where there is early cognisance of clandestine activity that could be used to move towards producing nuclear weaponry, there should be robust sanctions, as there have been in the cases of North Korea and Iran. There should be tough consequences for those who seek to withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty, and we want to clarify article X of that treaty. We are interested in the proposals that have come from the European Union, and we want to make sure that the clarification goes ahead; we will work with our allies to make sure that it does. It is clearly important that we secure fissile material. One of the greatest dangers to security around the world is the possibility of rogue states or rogue organisations gaining access to fissile material. For that reason, we have doubled our contribution to the funding of the International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear security fund.

The Government believe that the prospects for the comprehensive test ban treaty—an issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East—and, for that matter, a fissile material cut-off treaty, are brighter than they have been for a good many years. We will continue to make a powerful case for all states to sign up to, and ratify, the comprehensive test ban treaty. We also want talks on a treaty to cap the production of fissile material for explosive military purposes to be under way by early next year. Nationally, we will continue our groundbreaking work with Norway and the non-governmental organisation VERTIC—the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre—on the science of verifying warhead reduction. We will host a conference for the nuclear weapon states on confidence-building measures, including the verification of disarmament, later this year, in September.

My right hon. Friend referred to Trident, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who is not now in the Chamber. Let me make it clear that the decision made was to begin the concept and design work required to make possible a replacement for our current ballistic missile submarine fleet, and to maintain the option of using the Trident D5 missile beyond its current life expectancy. That does not mean that we have taken an irreversible decision that commits us irrevocably to possessing nuclear weapons for the next 40 to 50 years. Nor does it mean that we have decided to “replace Trident”, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East put it. It is true that, as I have said, we have decided to begin concept and design work to make possible a replacement for the platform, but that is not a replacement for Trident itself. That is not a decision to which we are committed for ever and a day.

Of course, we would be happy, if it seemed appropriate, to place our small proportion of the worldwide nuclear arsenal on the table as part of a multinational process of disarmament. Indeed, we very much hope that there will be further moves towards multinational disarmament, and we would very much want to be part of those negotiations. I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that bearing in mind that our nuclear arsenal amounts to a mere 1 per cent. of the global total, we do not believe that a unilateral decision to make it impossible for us to maintain Trident beyond its current life expectancy would make the dramatic difference that some suggest it would.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East for the opportunity to clarify these matters. I end by quoting from a speech made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister earlier this year, when he said:

“Now in 2005 the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference failed. We cannot afford to fail next year”—

when the next review conference comes around. He continued:

“So as we approach the 2010 Review Conference I want us to renew and refresh for our times the grand global bargain, the covenant of hope between nations at the heart of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is a bargain under which we reaffirm the rights and responsibilities for those countries which forgo nuclear weapons. But it is also a bargain under which there are tough responsibilities to be discharged by nuclear weapon states, for as successor states we cannot expect to successfully exercise moral and political leadership in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons if we ourselves do not demonstrate leadership on the question of disarmament of our weapons.”

That was what the Prime Minister said earlier this year. We will be publishing soon a document entitled “The Road to 2010”, in which we will lay out a credible road map to further disarmament because we, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, want to live in a world that is free of the fear of nuclear weaponry.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.