Nuclear Weapons - Issues for UK Policy

SGR Conference and AGM 2003

Friends Meeting House, London; 13 September 2003

Main presentations:
'The Risk of Nuclear Terrorism' by Dr Frank Barnaby, Oxford Research Group
'An End to the UK's Nuclear Weapons' by Prof John Finney, British Pugwash Group/ University College London

Summary

 

Stuart Parkinson, Director of SGR, opened the conference with a few words on the relevance of the conference theme in the context of ongoing world events.

Frank Barnaby then spoke on "the Risk of Nuclear Terrorism". Dr Barnaby is a nuclear physicist, a former Executive Secretary of the Pugwash Conferences and currently works for the Oxford Research Group. Dr Barnaby suggested that, given the evident difficulties in effectively using biological and chemical weapons (e.g. nerve agents in Japan, anthrax in the USA), terrorists are more likely to attempt nuclear attacks. He then went through possible scenarios for terrorist use of nuclear and radiological weapons. These included detonating a primitive home-made nuclear explosive device or stolen military nuclear weapon, attacking a nuclear reactor or reprocessing plant, attacking nuclear material in transit, and detonating a radiological weapon ("dirty bomb"). In one example, Dr Barnaby discussed the possible effects of an attack on the high level waste tanks at Sellafield. Each tank of the 14 active tanks contains around 6 times the amount of Caesium-137 as was released at Chernobyl, and its dispersal could potentially result in 170,000 fatal cancers. Finally Dr Barnaby discussed steps that could be taken to counter nuclear terrorism, concluding that effective intelligence was of the greatest importance.

Questions from the floor followed, which included discussion of the risks in the UK's export of mixed oxide (MOX) fuel given its potential as a "dirty bomb" or as a source of plutonium for nuclear weapons. Export of MOX contradicts stated government policy to reduce risks from nuclear terrorism, and could be an important issue for SGR to take up. Also, worries were voiced about colluding in generating an atmosphere of public fear rather than addressing the root causes of terrorism.

John Finney, Professor of Physics at UCL and Treasurer of the British Pugwash Group (BPG), gave a talk entitled "An End to the UK's Nuclear Weapons" based on the report of the same name published by the BPG in 2002. Prof. Finney began by summarising the arguments of the 1995 BPG Report that concluded that British nuclear weapons have had no detectable influence on events and could be dispensed with. UK nuclear weapons had been of negligible use during the cold war and now they actually have a negative value - i.e. they pose an additional risk. He gave an overview of the UK nuclear weapons programme, which is based entirely on Trident. Prof. Finney discussed the prospects for multilateral disarmament, concluding that little progress can be expected at present. He then summarised possible UK policy options on nuclear weapons. From this, he concluded that a decision now not to replace Trident when its design life expires in 2020 would be a useful and realistic step forward. Prof. Finney suggested a number of additional steps the government should take including justifying warhead numbers, reducing military plutonium stockpiles, redirecting AWE Aldermaston towards arms control and verification work, and work towards a multilateral "no first use" agreement.

Questions were then taken by both Dr Barnaby and Prof. Finney. Points discussed included worries about the non-proliferation issue being moved from an arms-control and verification agenda towards a neo-conservative agenda of military interdiction, and how SGR could best contribute to progress towards nuclear disarmament. The dependence of the UK deterrent on the US was noted, as was the fact that the US was probably the only state capable of posing a real threat to UK Trident submarines on patrol. Another point was that the IAEA reports to the Security Council on proliferating states but not on states failing to honour their commitment to disarm under article VI of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It was suggested that we also need to focus on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a key arena in terms of redirecting scientific work, as well as looking at the NPT. Prof. Finney was clear that the focus of the BPG report was the NPT.

SGR AGM

Following a short break, the SGR AGM took place. Phil Webber (Acting Chair) opened the AGM with brief comments about major developments during the year. SGR now has a part time (50%) Executive Director, a part time (20%) Press Officer (Richard Scrase), and a part-time (50%) researcher (Chris Langley). The Administrator's part time post has been expanded from 40% to 50%. Following acceptance of the previous AGM, the Annual Report was presented to the meeting. In addition to internal expansion, SGR has been increasingly active in terms of conferences, lectures, website presence, media-work, lobbying and research. The importance of increasing membership in order to capitalise on and expand SGR activities was stressed, with members being asked to take away new SGR promotional material and invite new members to join. The election of the National Co-ordinating Committee took place. All those standing were elected, as follows:

  • Chair: Phil Webber
  • Treasurer: Jenny Nelson
  • Secretary: Tim Foxon
  • Members: Alan Cottey, Patricia Hughes, Patrick Nicholson, Eva Novotny, Vanessa Spedding.

Updates were then given on specific SGR activities including the ethical careers guide and briefings, and the research project on vested interests in science and technology. Chris Langley summarised his progress to date on the Military Influence project.

The conference was closed by Stuart Parkinson who thanked the all the speakers and participants for their contributions.