Commons Debate – 9 July 2009

Debate at the House of Commons on Nuclear Weapons Proliferation (Thursday 9 July 2009)

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh East, Labour): ….The fundamental issue is whether the NPT is the way forward for the next 20 years.

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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.

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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.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud, Labour/Co-op): 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?

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh East, Labour): 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.

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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.

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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.
  • 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.
  • Thirdly, a fissile material cut-off treaty would halt the further production of plutonium and weapons-grade uranium.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Finally, we nuclear weapons states have an obligation to disarm.

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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.

Chris Bryant (The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Labour): 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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.