Lords Debate – 26 March 2009

Debate at the House of Lords on Nuclear Proliferation (Thursday 26 March 2009)

Baroness Williams of Crosby (Liberal Democrat): That bargain has unquestionably eroded. In 2005, the preparatory commission for the nuclear proliferation treaty, which has to be renewed in the spring of 2010, was unable to reach agreement because the non-nuclear weapons powers felt that they had been effectively deceived. They regarded the nuclear powers as having failed to carry out their commitments under the treaty.


There are now, I think, two major threats. The first is to the existing system under which we live—the new risks. The second is to the nuclear proliferation treaty structure itself. The first of those new risks is familiar: the probable massive expansion of civil nuclear power…the potential for new nuclear power centres or stations would double the existing provision of nuclear centres in the world.

The second major threat to existing structures has been little discussed and debated: the emergence of cyber power in a major way. Cyber power, the capacity to effectively disrupt, alter or diverge information in the computer world and in the world of space, can effectively disrupt and even destroy the command and control systems on which the present controls over nuclear power and nuclear weapons are conducted.

I will mention the third danger only in passing, as I have spoken about it already. Put simply, there is a population in both nuclear weapons powers and non-nuclear weapons powers that is fundamentally unaware of the dangers of what it is dealing with.

Lord Anderson of Swansea (Labour): The world, as the noble Baroness has said, needs a greater reliance on civilian nuclear energy to reduce carbon emissions. Essentially, the problem is how to harness nuclear potential for the good of mankind, while minimising the dangers.


On Pakistan, when we learnt of the activities of AQ Khan, we gained some indication of the difficulty of enforcing global controls. It is difficult to accept that his activities were unknown to high officials in the Pakistan Administration. That is why, realistically, the situation in Pakistan is probably a greater threat to world peace than the Middle East, given the instability of the Government.


Realistically, Iran is in many ways less of a risk; there is a Government in control of the country. Israel…would probably consider a surgical strike at some stage. However, that would need the agreement of the United States which, given the current mood of the US in its talks with Iran, is highly unlikely and would be counterproductive for Israel.

Lord King of Bridgwater (Conservative): My first point is not about the major issue of nuclear weapons, about which I will say a word in a minute, but about my enormous concerns about the very dangerous world in which we now live and the risks presented particularly by the permanence of fissile material.

When we first experienced the problems of 9/11 and Afghanistan, a failed state, it seemed a rather isolated item on the world stage. When one looks at the situation now, one sees Somalia and the extremely daunting situation in Pakistan—a nuclear weapon state—and, amazingly for the Americans, the present challenges in Mexico. We thought that the world order was reasonably stable, but it now looks much more uncertain. Into this dangerous mix have come non-state actors and terrorist groups, whose ambition is to cause as many casualties and as much destruction as they possibly can. The existence of nuclear or radioactive material is a major challenge, and we go into this situation against a background of the considerable failure to control nuclear and other materials of this nature. I was interested to see the reference to the evidence of smuggling in the Caucasus in eastern Europe; Mohamed El Baradei has talked of 1,500 incidents of trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials…It is also assessed that there is enough uranium and plutonium in the ex-Soviet Union for another 40,000 weapons.

Lord Owen (Crossbench): ….. We all know that haunting a non-proliferation treaty will be the outcome of discussions and negotiations—call it what one will—between the United States and Iran. Here I think we have to recognise a few basic things. There is little doubt—experience of our failure to stop Pakistan getting nuclear weapons shows this—that we always underestimate the extent to which a country has gone in its objective of achieving sufficient nuclear-enriched material to make a bomb. There is little doubt that Iran has passed that threshold. One cannot realistically discuss this without recognising that reality.

There is an air of unreality about the current negotiating position. I will not go into it in depth while negotiations are at a delicate stage; that would not help. However, the idea that countries have to stop enrichment before serious talks start is not realistic. The nature of enrichment is an important question. There cannot be any escape from far more stringent on-ground IAEA inspections, without warning. That is essential; but putting all your weight behind stopping enrichment prior to getting into detailed dialogue is a mistake.

The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells (Bishop): While few can doubt that that will be anything but a difficult path, which the Prime Minister observed will be crossed in steps and not in one leap—I agree—what causes nations to arm themselves to the point of mutually assured destruction is a complex mix of fear, anger, xenophobia and much else besides. When the Prime Minister speaks of the need to act together to take the next steps in building confidence in a new and dangerous nuclear era, one can do little but say, “Amen to that”. However, I believe not in simply wishing for it, or being unrealistic about what we might determine as the future of disarmament programmes. We need a new ethic for our times: an ethic that enables us to leave for future generations a time marked by hope and not by fear and despair.


Surely the future must lie in a universal commitment to disarmament: “to protect the human” in its totality. We must regain respect for the human through a new ethic based not on xenophobic fear, but on wonder, mystery, respect and humility—not least because the nuclear issue is inextricably tied in to the issues of poverty, climate change, energy, financial instability and global security.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer (Liberal Democrat): ….. As a member of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, a global network of over 500 parliamentarians from more than 70 countries, I can confirm that we share a common interest in working to prevent nuclear proliferation and, eventually, to achieve nuclear disarmament. The group’s strength lies in its non-partisan, international collection of parliamentarians who can play some part in leading public opinion in their own communities and in doing what George Schultz said when he visited the UK Parliament and spoke to the All-Party Group on Global Proliferation. He talked about how when Governments, leaders and presidents make the right moves, we need to get behind them and applaud, and that in itself is a very important role. I see that disarmament will be a long and difficult process and that leaders will need encouragement to keep going with it.

Lord Jenkin of Roding (Conservative): …..There are two underlying drivers of the need to take the multinational approach forward. First, modern reactors require a guaranteed—that word is very important—supply of low enriched nuclear fuel if they are to attract investment into new power plants, but few countries in the world are planning to spend the huge sums necessary to build enrichment capacity. However, they need low enriched fuel. Secondly, while the uranium enrichment process can be used to provide that fuel, it can also be misused to provide fissile material for a bomb. With an increasing number of countries across the world now planning investment in nuclear power plants primarily to provide a secure, low carbon source of energy, it is becoming, if I may put it this way, increasingly urgent for the international community to find a mechanism for ensuring supplies of enriched fuel to these countries, while ensuring that guarantees are in place that they have complied with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank (Crossbench): Remaining a nuclear weapon state for the present enables us to carry more weight and leverage in discussions about non-proliferation. Giving up nuclear weapons today would be something of a gesture which I doubt would influence many who continue to move towards becoming nuclear weapons states. I am afraid that I am extremely sceptical that the money saved by abandoning our nuclear weapons would be immediately ploughed back into the defence budget. Trident is coming to the end of its life and we certainly need to be prepared for that. Nuclear weapons are a good bargaining chip which we do not want to cash in at the moment. The day has not come yet and I think that the Government are on the right course.

Lord Ramsbotham (Crossbench): …..There is also always the great danger either of a disastrous nuclear accident, or of technical know-how—as well as weapons and nuclear material—getting into the wrong hands. In that connection there will always be fears, for example, of Pakistan’s weapon falling into fundamentalist Islamist hands. Yet nuclear weapons of the size and capability of Trident are unusable because of their effects against both the guilty and the innocent, which could be catastrophic in both the short and long term for us as well as for any target.

Lord Dykes (Liberal Democrate): …..I do not think that anywhere near 20,000-plus warheads are necessary in this unstable world. The way in which you stop the spread of nuclear fissile material and dirty bombs, and all the sinister terrorist threats that may be conjoined with those, is to put an end to those weapons as soon as possible, even if, as the noble Lord, Lord Owen, said, it could take 10 years, which is not a long time in these processes, and it may be longer. Whatever the time taken, the whole world and the United Nations must be supported in these matters. We do not seem to be able to get modernisation and reform of the Security Council or an acceleration of the process of nuclear disarmament to create a proper non-proliferation nexus for the global society, where we are more and more interdependent.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick (Crossbench): …..What needs to be done? Put simply, I suggest that we need to ensure that the 2010 nuclear non-proliferation review conference does not turn into the sort of fiasco which the last quinquennial review turned into in 2005, unable even to adopt its own agenda let alone achieve anything positive. To do that we need to ensure not only some positive results next year but also to set a clear direction of travel for both nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states for the years ahead, a direction of travel which demonstrates that they all mean to make a reality of their commitments under the treaty, on the one hand, to move towards nuclear disarmament and, on the other hand, to strengthen the safeguards against any blurring of the line between civil and weapons programmes.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine (Liberal Democrat): I shall make a few general points about the scale of the task of disarmament. I agree with almost everything laid out in my noble friend Lady Williams’s road map for the review conference next year. What I would add is that there is a real and heartfelt belief in the Muslim world—by which I really mean the Middle East and south Asia—that in this new talk of disarmament in the West there is an agenda. Public opinion in those regions sees Israel given a free hand while the Israel/Palestine issue remains unresolved. It sees India rewarded for proliferation with a new co-operation treaty while Kashmir remains unresolved. It sees UN resolutions that favour the resolution of those conflicts ignored, while those that ratchet up sanctions and actions against Muslims are upheld—sometimes, even recently, with the force of arms. It is unsurprising that on the Muslim street there is a sneaky respect for Iran’s standing up to the West, as it is seen.

If the Prime Minister is serious in now taking the lead towards re-engaging with disarmament in his Road to 2010 Plan, he needs alongside that to begin a fresh approach to a resolution of those twin conflicts in Israel/Palestine and Kashmir. They are both as old as or older than 1945 when in Hiroshima and Nagasaki we saw the full power of man’s propensity for destruction.

Lord Harries of Pentregarth (Crossbench): If I am suspicious of some of those who emphasise the goal of an ultimately nuclear-free world, it is because I worry that they may ignore that sober realism and slip into an unhelpful and perhaps even dangerous utopianism. My emphasis is therefore rather different: not on the goal as such, but on the essential steps that need to be taken now, whether or not that goal is ever achievable. We know that a nuclear-free world would need to be very different from the one that we have now. Above all, it would need much stronger international arrangements to resolve disputes without recourse to war. In short, we must continue to do all that we can to support and strengthen the work of the United Nations, not least the Security Council, and the work of the United Nations through its other instruments and organisations.


The nuclear genie cannot be put back in the bottle. The knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons is with us to the end of time. There is a risk even in a nuclear-free world of a race to use that knowledge to build such weapons again. The only way in which such a race could be prevented would be the existence of authoritative and strong international instruments for conflict resolution. Furthermore, as Michael Quinlan used to emphasise, the final move from a small but effective nuclear arsenal to none at all would be a particularly fraught and dangerous time for the world. That again highlights the need for much stronger internationally agreed political mechanisms than we have at the moment.

Lord Thomas of Swynnerton (Crossbench): …..This has been an extremely interesting and important debate. However, an aspect that has not been mentioned, or even alluded to, is, curiously, that at present we have the pleasure of an opera being staged at Convent Garden on the subject of disarmament called “Doctor Atomic”, which is about Oppenheimer. Also, a month or so ago, the Duff Cooper prize, a primary literary prize, was won for a biography of Oppenheimer. This is perhaps an example of art preceding politics. I hope that it is; it would be very encouraging if it were. Certainly, the history of the slave trade showed that there was a great deal of discussion about abolition long before its possibility was achieved…..

Lord Lee of Trafford (liberal Democrat): My Lords, the world faces three major threats or challenges: an economic and financial threat; the threat of climate change involving food and water shortages; and of course nuclear catastrophe, perhaps by accident as was referred to by my noble friends Lady Miller and Lord Dykes—he referred to the submarine collision—or by design. While there is a relationship between all three, as the right reverend Prelate said, for me the nuclear threat is unquestionably the most deeply worrying. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, time is not on our side.

Lord Astor of Hever (Shadow Minister, Defence; Conservative): We can see that the NPT is being stretched and is not providing sufficient support because of these developments and strained relations—or complete lack of agreement—between nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states. Discussions with North Korea, for example, involved immense diplomacy, incentives and isolation, which we will now have to direct towards Iran. Furthermore, as high oil prices and concern about climate change mean that people move towards nuclear energy, there is an increasing possibility that countries may obtain nuclear weapons through the nuclear fuel cycle. We have seen this already in North Korea and now Iran may be trying to do the same. We therefore welcome the Prime Minister’s speech of 17 March in which, among other things, he pledged to hold a conference of the recognised nuclear weapons powers, action to strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency, and a leading role for Britain in tackling proliferation.

Lord Malloch-Brown (Minister of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office; Labour): I was forced to reflect that there is probably no other legislative Chamber in the world, except perhaps China, where the average age of the Members is greater than that of nuclear weapons, which gives us a historical sweep not allowed to others. Perhaps that is also what makes many of us so certain that we want to see the age when nuclear weapons, too, are pensionable.

On listening to the debate, I came back to the point that I always come back to in my own mind: the nuclear weapon of the greatest threat to our security and to world security today is no longer very sophisticated nuclear warheads but pirated fissile material. That reflects the fundamental change in global security, the relatively reduced threat of war between states—states being the owners of those high-technology nuclear weapons—and the rising threat of terrorists and other groups taking advantage of asymmetrical warfare to use pirated fissile or other weapons, chemical and others, to bring desperate harm to defenceless civilian populations.

Baroness Williams of Crosby (Liberal Democrat): My Lords, I very much thank noble Lords on all Benches and in all corners of the House who have contributed in such a constructive and foresighted way to this very important debate. I was moved by the sensation that the spirit of Sir Michael Quinlan, who was the friend and acquaintance of so many of us, appeared to be present in the debate.

Many noble Lords have referred to the Prime Minister’s speech of last week, which was, indeed, groundbreaking. The Minister deserves the congratulations of us all as an advocate of that speech, capable of building on it beyond the capacity of most of us. Having travelled with him, I am well aware that the high respect in which he is held in this House is multiplied and reflected in other parts of the world, where he is also accorded the highest respect. If anybody is to push forward the programme on which, I think, we are all agreed, he is the right person to do so. It gives me great pleasure to thank him once again and to withdraw the Motion.