Will nuclear weapons be the deciding factor in the Scottish referendum?

Dr Stuart Parkinson, SGR, argues that different views on the ethics of technology could be the deciding factor in the Scottish independence referendum.

ResponsibleSci blog, 11 September 2014

With opinion polls now showing that opposing sides in the Scottish independence debate are neck-and-neck, it’s worth reflecting on the importance that different ethical views on technology could have in deciding the outcome. Arguably the most critical issue is military technology, and specifically nuclear weapons.

It is well known that the Scottish National Party is opposed to nuclear weapons. Indeed, opposition to UK deployment of nuclear weapons has been one of the defining policies of the party since its foundation. This reflects a strongly-held ethical view that nuclear weapons are so destructive and so indiscriminate that no civilised country should deploy them. With the UK’s nuclear-armed submarines based 40km from Glasgow, in an independent Scotland, an SNP government would have these weapons of mass destruction removed from Scottish waters by 2021 [a], which could lead to the UK as a whole abandoning its nuclear weapons system due to the cost and difficulty of establishing a new nuclear weapons base elsewhere in the UK. This is in direct contrast to policies of the three main Westminster parties, who are all currently committed to replacing the current Trident system such that it can be deployed until at least the 2050s [b]. They claim this is necessary for UK security.

It’s worth reflecting for a minute on the available evidence about the destructiveness of these weapons. The UK currently has a stockpile of 225 nuclear warheads [c]. Each warhead has a ‘yield’ – the measure of its destructive capability – equivalent to 100,000 tonnes of TNT [d]. This is about eight times bigger than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, which killed around 140,000 people, from the effects of blast, fire and radiation [e]. One Trident submarine currently carries up to 40 of these warheads – a total destructive capability of 4 million tonnes of TNT [f]. To give an indication of how powerful this is, it is greater than the explosive power of all the bombs dropped in World War II [g].

But it’s not just the direct effects that are a problem. Arguably, the biggest problem is the risk of ‘nuclear winter’ – global disruption of the climate system. Much discussed in the 1980s, the threat of nuclear winter has largely been forgotten in current debates on nuclear weapons. However, new academic studies, using up-to-date scientific work on climate change caused by emissions of greenhouse gases, were published in 2007 [h]. These looked at a range of scenarios, from a ‘regional’ nuclear war (in this case, between India and Pakistan) to a global exchange between the USA and Russia. Under the smaller war scenario, use of nuclear weapons with a total destructive capability of 1.5 million tonnes of TNT were simulated against cities and other ‘combustible targets’. The resulting plumes of smoke would penetrate high into the atmosphere and form a layer which restricted sunlight, resulting in a marked temperature drop over ten years across the northern hemisphere. This would have major impacts on crop yields and thus global food supplies, resulting in massive shortages. Further research [i] using data on crop yields and climate conditions in key agricultural areas around world has concluded that 2 billion people (more than a quarter of the world’s population) would be at risk of starvation in such a situation.

This scenario is possible with the launch of just half the nuclear warheads carried by one UK Trident submarine [j]. The UK’s total stockpile of nuclear warheads has more than ten times this destructive capability. Mainstream parties talk about the UK having a ‘minimum nuclear deterrent’. In reality, we have the means to wreak destruction unparalleled in human history – and the UK itself would be caught up in the nightmare.

This is why the SNP (among others) is so opposed to nuclear weapons. Many Scottish voters support them because of this opposition, and support an independent Scotland because this seems to be the only way in the foreseeable future to rid their country of weapons of mass destruction. In my opinion, without this issue, the campaign for an independent Scotland would be much more likely to fail.

And I don’t think most people in the rest of the UK realise the potentially pivotal role of this issue. If they had done, I think many more of those who are opposed to nuclear weapons would have made their voices heard, helping to push the three main Westminster parties into shifting their position. If these parties were to make an immediate commitment that the whole of the UK would abandon nuclear weapons, this would likely help to keep the country together.


Notes and References

a. SNP (2014). https://www.snp.org/media-centre/news/2014/sep/swinney-yes-vote-opportunity-banish-trident

b. While the Conservatives and Labour currently plan a like-for-like replacement, the Liberal Democrats favour a system based on a smaller number of submarines. Meanwhile, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru share the SNP’s opposition to nuclear weapons.

c. Federation of American Scientists (2014). http://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/

d. Scientists for Global Responsibility (2013). http://www.sgr.org.uk/publications/climatic-impacts-and-humanitarian-problems-use-uks-nuclear-weapons

e. Hiroshima Day Committee. http://www.hiroshimacommittee.org/Facts_NagasakiAndHiroshimaBombing.htm

f. Scientists for Global Responsibility (2013). http://www.sgr.org.uk/publications/climatic-impacts-and-humanitarian-problems-use-uks-nuclear-weapons

g. Schlosser E (2013). Command and Control. Penguin. P19.

h. For example: Robock A, Oman L, Stenchikov G (2007). Nuclear winter revisited with a modern climate model and current nuclear arsenals: still catastrophic consequences. Journal of Geophysical Research, vol. 112, D13107. http://climate.envsci.rutgers.edu/pdf/RobockNW2006JD008235.pdf

i. IPPNW (2013). http://www.ippnw.org/pdf/nuclear-famine-two-billion-at-risk-2013.pdf

j. Scientists for Global Responsibility (2013). http://www.sgr.org.uk/publications/climatic-impacts-and-humanitarian-problems-use-uks-nuclear-weapons