The case against UK nuclear weapons

Presentation by Dr Stuart Parkinson, SGR, at Lancaster University

1 December 2014

The presentation covers...

  • Basic intro to nuclear weapons (NWs) and the UK system
  • 4 key arguments against NWs
  • Disarmament initiatives – international and UK


1.      Nuclear weapons – the basics

  • A basic NW brings together a ‘critical mass’ of nuclear material to ‘fission’ leading to a massive explosion
    • Material is uranium or plutonium
    • 5,000 times more effective than conventional bomb
    • Modern designs use both ‘fission’ and ‘fusion’ to create larger explosions – biggest weapons up to 1,000 larger
  • Only type of Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) not yet totally banned
  • Directly causes death by:
    • Burns (intense heat emitted by rising fireball)
    • Blast (winds stronger than hurricane)
    • Ionising radiation (immediate and delayed via ‘fallout’)
  • Other effects:
    • Blinding flash of light
    • Electromagnetic pulse – renders electronics inoperable area over very large areas
    • Destruction of buildings/ infrastructure via blast and fire
      • Injuries to people
      • Vital services unavailable
      • Release of toxic materials from industrial buildings
  • Smoke from fires & ‘firestorms’ can have global climatic effects
  • Long-term radioactive contamination


2.      Hiroshima atomic bomb – key facts and figures

  • Dropped 6 August 1945 on Japanese city
  • Explosive power equivalent to roughly 15,000 tonnes of TNT
  • Fireball temperature: around 6,000 degrees centigrade
  • At least 130,000 died
    • About 80,000 killed immediately; another 50,000 died within 5 months
  • Tens of thousands more injured
  • Two-thirds of buildings destroyed


3.      UK nuclear weapons – basic facts and figures

  • Trident system
  • 160 ‘operational’ warheads (around 50 more in stockpile)
  • Explosive power of each warhead: 100,000 tonnes TNT
    • About 8 times that of the one dropped on Hiroshima
  • Carried on 4 (Vanguard-class) submarines
  • Launch vehicle: Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (leased from US)
  • At any one time: one submarine on patrol carrying 40 warheads
  • Total explosive power carried by one submarine: 4,000,000 tonnes TNT
    • More than the explosive power of all the bombs dropped in World War II


4.      Dangers of keeping nuclear weapons

a. Risk of use is very real – whether by accident or by intention

b. Catastrophic and indiscriminate – if used, large numbers of civilians will die and civilisation would be threatened

c. Deterrence does fail – so is unreliable, especially given the consequences (a) and (b)

d. Doesn’t tackle other more important security threats – indeed, it diverts resources away from dealing with them


a. Risk of use is very real

  • ‘Near-nuclear use’ is when a country comes very close to using nuclear weapons
  • New report by Chatham House (a top UK think-tank)
  • From recently revealed archive material, the report documents 13 cases between 1962 and 2002 – one every 3 years, e.g.
    • Able Archer Crisis, 1983 – NATO war games led to Soviet Union believing an attack was imminent and they nearly launched a pre-emptive strike
    • Black Brant scare, 1995 – Norwegian launch of research rocket led to Russia opening the ‘nuclear suitcase’
  • Probably others that have not been publicly revealed


b. Catastrophic and indiscriminate

  • Civilian population centres generally targeted by all sides
  • If the missiles from one Trident submarine were launched against (e.g.) major Russian cities, main effects:
    • About 10 million dead and millions more injured
    • Firestorms would inject smoke into upper atmosphere causing large temperature drop (known as ‘nuclear winter’) over northern hemisphere – leading to massive crop failures and famine for at least 2 billion people


c. Nuclear deterrence does fail

  • Examples
    • Chinese invasion of Korea, 1950 – faced nuclear-armed USA
    • Egypt/ Syria attack on Israel, 1973 – Israel nuclear-armed
    • Argentinean invasion of Falklands, 1982 – faced nuclear-armed UK
  • NWs also have no effect on other major security threats, e.g.
    • Terrorism
    • Climate change


d. Doesn’t tackle other more important security threats

  • Fails to tackle terrorism
  • Fails to tackle roots of conflict, e.g.
    • Social and economic injustice
    • Resource depletion and climate change
    • International arms trade
  • Need to divert resources from NWs to tackle these


5.      International non-proliferation/ disarmament initiatives

  • Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT)
    • Over 180 states have committed not to develop/ deploy NWs (in return for access to nuclear power)
    • 5 ‘recognised’ nuclear-armed states (USA, Russia, France, China, UK) - but eventual disarmament intended
    • 4 nuclear-armed states outside the treaty (Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea)
    • Has been fairly effective in reducing the spread of NWs
  • Nuclear weapons-free zones
    • Cover more than half the world
  • Nuclear Weapons Convention
    • Proposed total ban
    • Supported by most nations (140+) and civil society
    • Leading campaign group: ICAN


6.   UK political decisions

  • Decision on replacing the current system is planned to be taken by parliament in 2016
  • Cost would be at least £25 billion to build, with total lifetime costs of about £100 billion
  • Spending of at least £2bn already for taken place
  • For the reasons listed above, we should disarm and work with other nuclear-armed states to do the same
  • In practice, given current political resistance, this could be done in steps:
    • Take Trident off continuous patrols, and then reduce these patrols to zero
    • Put nuclear warheads into storage
    • Cancel Trident replacement
    • Disarm completely



Main sources

  • Barnaby F (2003). How to build a nuclear bomb. Granta books.
  • Beach H (2011). What price nuclear blackmail? Abolition 2000 UK.
  • Lewis P et al (2014). Too close for comfort: cases of near-nuclear use and options for policy. Chatham House.
  • Schlosser E (2013). Command and Control. Penguin.
  • Webber P (2013). The climatic impacts and humanitarian problems from the use of the UK’s nuclear weapons. SGR.

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