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Dialogues in UK and France

IPPNW talks to decision makers

Foreign and Commonwealth Office
London, October 26, 2005

An IPPNW delegation comprising Ron McCoy, Liz Waterston, Douglas Holdstock, John Loretz, and medical student Flora Ogilvie met for two hours with policy staff of the FCO Department of Counter Proliferation and the Ministry of Defence. In keeping with Chatham House rules, under which IPPNW Dialogues are conducted, the names of the individuals with whom we met are not published here, nor are statements attributed to individuals with whom the delegation met.

The delegation arrived in London just as the issue of Trident replacement was heating up, both in Parliament and in the media. Newly released public opinion polls showed a majority of the British public opposing Trident replacement once they were informed of the £20 billion estimated cost. Several MPs opposed to Trident replacement attended a panel discussion the evening before our FCO meeting, the centerpiece of which was a new, anti-Trident study called "The Future of the British Bomb." Trident and the prospect of a new generation of British nuclear weapons, therefore, was the principal focus of the London Dialogue the next day.

The overall tone of this Dialogue was quite positive, and the quality of the exchanges was open and constructive. The staff with whom we met, while not senior decision makers themselves, are responsible for briefing government leaders on the entire range of nuclear policy options and are, therefore, important people with whom to nurture an ongoing relationship. They are young, bright, relatively new to their appointments, and relatively free of Cold War-era preconceptions about nuclear policy.

The IPPNW delegation acknowledged the positive steps toward dismantling nuclear weapons that have been taken by the UK, including the removal of all nuclear weapon systems other than Trident, ratification of the CTBT, and the work on verification in which the UK has been a leader. We also expressed our frustration at the failure of the 2005 NPT Review, our disappointment that the UK had not done more to promote the disarmament goals of Article 6 and the 13 Steps while in New York, and our concern that "counter proliferation" had replaced the twin foundations of disarmament and non-proliferation on which the NPT was built [note, for example, that the FCO department's name has been changed from "non-proliferation" to "counter proliferation" within the last two years]. The FCO/MOD response was that the UK remains committed to Article VI, but that proliferation threats in countries such as Iran and the DPRK, as well as nuclear terrorism, make abolition difficult, if not impossible, and that the UK continues to need its "independent strategic deterrent."

Specifically on the Trident issue, FCO and MoD asserted that:

1. No decision to replace Trident has been taken by the Blair government;
2. No decision will be taken until there has been a full and transparent debate in Parliament, though the form of that debate has not yet been determined; and
3. Funds already released for upgrades at the Aldermaston facility are not related to Trident replacement, but are for maintenance of current warheads.

They went so far as to say that a decision made behind closed doors would be unacceptable to the British public and to the government. While these assurances were offered openly, they were not consistent with assessments coming out of Parliament, knowledgeable NGOs, and journalists that the decision to replace Trident has been made in principle at the highest levels (Blair and Secretary of State Jack Straw) and that the arguments against Trident replacement, while they might get a public airing, are likely to be dismissed out of hand.

We asked whether the existing Trident system is, in fact, de-alerted -- as we have been told in the past -- given advances in very-low-frequency (VLF) radio transmissions that allow subs to communicate with bases on the surface while under water. This led to a sometimes obscure discussion of what kinds of time frames are required for a system to be considered "de-alerted." Since the submarines must still surface in order to acquire targeting data from GPS satellites, there seems to be at least some inbuilt delay between a decision to launch and the ability to do so, but the delay seems to be measured in hours rather than the weeks or months typically ascribed to a system that has been stood down from high alert.

Other topics of discussion included a recent proposal made in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that the UK and France engage in bilateral negotiations for nuclear disarmament in Europe (which the FCO considered interesting but unlikely to happen) and recent legislation in the US enabling the transfer of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to a Canadian medical technology firm.

Perhaps the most interesting moments in this Dialogue were our references to the medical consequences of nuclear war and the concerns of physicians. We learned, for example, that new members of the FCO staff dealing with nuclear policy, as part of their orientation, attend in-depth presentations about the medical effects of nuclear weapons, and that this makes a profound impact on their attitudes towards their jobs. As the Dialogue ended, they emphasized the value these meetings have for them, in that we challenge them to think outside of their normal policy mindsets and to be reminded of the true nature of nuclear weapons.

Ministry of Defense Foreign Office
Paris, October 27, 2005

The IPPNW delegation in Paris included Ron McCoy, Abraham Behar, Zita Makoi, and John Loretz. The MoD representative was a relatively new staff person well grounded in international law, had considerable experience working with NGOs, and was open to discussing opposing points of view. We all felt this was someone with whom it was possible to have a candid conversation, and the meeting was both open and informative.
We were told that France has always considered its nuclear weapons as a deterrent and not for use, and that France rules out certain nuclear options that the US does not. Reflecting on a recent visit aboard a French nuclear sub, the MoD rep said that he was struck by the fact that the crew, unlike fighter pilots, for example, were proud to have been trained for a mission that they hope never to carry out. We brought up the human factor studies that have been published by the Swedish and Russian affiliates, and expressed our concern that even well trained, cautious submarine crews are subjected to unusual psychological and emotional stresses. He completely ruled out any accidental use of nuclear weapons on French subs because the crews do not have direct access to the launch codes, they are screened carefully for mental health problems before being assigned to sub duty, and there are doctors on board who pay attention to signs of stress.

Some information was just a repetition of things we already knew: France has reduced its nuclear arsenal to about 40% of its highest level during the Cold War. All weapons-grade fissile material production has stopped. What we did learn, however, is that France is producing studies of the health and environmental effects of its nuclear testing program, and will be turning these over to the IAEA, perhaps as early as January.

France is incorporating new threats into its defense strategies, we were told, and while options for continued reductions in the nuclear arsenal will be considered, getting to zero is not possible. This is seen in part as unavoidable reality, and in part as a security choice. We raised the question of the new long-range (6,000 km) M51 missile, which is purported to be a delivery system for a new generation of French nuclear warheads to be introduced around 2015. We were told that this was not a significant new weapon system, simply a modification of existing designs.

During a conversation on the way out to the sidewalk, a member of the IPPNW delegation was told that one of our main problems, not only with the French government but with the other nuclear weapon states as well, is that they are not convinced the world would be a safer place without nuclear weapons. To the contrary, they persist in the belief that nuclear weapons really do deter certain acts of aggression, and we have not persuaded them that the opposite is true.

A second Dialogue took place at the Foreign Office in the afternoon. The same IPPNW participants were welcomed by nuclear policy experts with whom we had met before. This meeting, while cordial, did not seem as open or free-ranging as the others. The FO had a message to deliver, and the message was that "security" and "confidence" need to be important parts of any discussion about disarmament, and mistrust among the States Parties was an important reason for the failure of the NPT Review. "Corrective" approaches will have to be developed. Iran was singled out as a major problem: its reports to the IAEA, we were told, raised technical issues, but its reports to the Security Council were causing even worse political problems. The US also came under French criticism: the SORT was not a treaty, we were told, but a gentlemen's agreement that could not be a model for international relations. France pushed for a good compromise on UN Resolution 1540 (basically the Proliferation Security Initiative), getting the US to accept the idea that norms are sometimes useful.

We raised the concern that nascent nuclear programs in Egypt and Algeria might become a problem in the future, and that nuclear proliferation in the Middle East region could be difficult to contain in the absence of a successful outcome to the peace process between Israel and Palestine. There was no disagreement on this point, but in subsequent discussion it became clear that the FO interprets the NPT as placing a binding commitment on the non-nuclear weapon states not to acquire nuclear weapons, while not really obliging the nuclear weapon states to disarm fully, but only to make reductions as they can. We were told that if the rest of the world took the French position on this issue, there would be no problem.

Both the UK and France are looking for new approaches to the issues of non-proliferation and disarmament coming out of the failed NPT Review. The UK, perhaps more so than France, must now contend with strong public disapproval of an expensive new generation of nuclear weapons. Medact will be campaigning actively against Trident replacement and there may be ways to bring the resources of IPPNW to bear on this effort. A nuclear-weapon-free UK through attrition would be a major step in the right direction. The French affiliate, along with the French network of Abolition 2000, will be campaigning against the new long-range M-51 missile. Some joint campaigning between PSR and the European affiliates to call for the withdrawal of the 480 US tactical nuclear weapons that are still based on European soil would be worth exploring. Germany, in particular, has taken the lead on this issue. While arguably less significant than getting one of the P-5 to renounce nuclear weapons altogether, a success on this issue could lay the groundwork for a more effective challenge to NATO's nuclear sharing policy. While the UK and France would be unlikely to push for removal of the tactical weapons, our impression from these Dialogues is that they would not put up any serious opposition, either.

John Loretz


Learn about Nuclear Weapons

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