New Internationalist

The bomb stops here

Issue 412

The world is nuking up again, to new and alarming levels. So why are disarmament campaigners so optimistic? Jess Worth spots a window of opportunity.

ILLUSTRATION: nick purser
ILLUSTRATION: nick purser

‘When the bomb dropped on Hiroshima I was one kilometre from the explosion. I was 14. Now I’m 77 – a lucky number in Japan.’

It’s Easter Monday, and I’m listening to Yushio Sato’s story in the Great British drizzle, outside Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment. ‘My mother and sister died in the months following,’ he tells the crowd. ‘My brother and I survived – but we have had many diseases. 26 years after the explosion, I had an operation to remove half my stomach because of cancer. My brother died of liver cancer. Now I am the only survivor of my family.’

Around 5,000 of us have gathered at our country’s nuke factory to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first protest march from London to Aldermaston. The 1958 march was a defining moment in the history of the peace movement. It marked the founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the launch of the iconic peace symbol, and the beginning of annual Aldermaston marches which – at their height in the 1960s – attracted hundreds of thousands of people.

But this isn’t just a symbolic event. We are here to protest about what’s happening today. The British Government is spending $11 billion developing Aldermaston in order to research, build and test a new generation of nuclear weapons – including ‘mini-nukes’ intended for actual use in the battlefield.

After we have all spread out to surround the base and declare to the slightly soggy media that ‘the bomb stops here’, I decide to take a stroll around the perimeter fence. It turns out to be an eight kilometre hike. The place is vast, and the scale of new construction work staggering.

I’ve always found it hard to get my head around the idea that my country even possesses weapons of such indiscriminate and cataclysmic destructive power – let alone that we are prepared to use them. Surely the suffering of Yushio Sato and his family, and the hundreds of thousands of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims, should have been enough to shock the world into banning the atom bomb before it could be used again?

Apparently not. Political leaders express their commitment to nuclear disarmament on a regular basis. But my trip to Aldermaston has provided a grim dose of reality. As I gaze through the fence at the shiny new dome built to house ‘Orion’ – a super-powerful laser that will simulate the conditions of a nuclear explosion so that the British Government can bypass the pesky Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty – it becomes quite obvious that, behind the rhetoric, maintaining our grotesque ‘deterrent’ decades into the future is the real plan.

So it has come as a welcome surprise to find that disarmament campaigners are more optimistic than they have been in years. In fact, circumstances have converged to create a window of opportunity to begin ridding the world of nuclear weapons for good. The question is whether we can seize the moment.

*A new kind of madness*

Before I started working on this magazine, nukes weren’t very high up my list of things to be worried about. Like acne and exams, fretting over atomic armageddon seemed to belong to a bygone era. The fact that the NI hasn’t done a magazine on nuclear weapons since the 1980s shows I’m not the only one to have deprioritized the nuclear threat.

Back then, the Cold War was at its height. NATO and the Warsaw Pact were deploying 65,000 nukes, sucking up 85 per cent of the world’s military expenditure. One NI focused on how to break the ‘suicide pact’ of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) in which the US and USSR were locked in a state of common vulnerability. Military strategists at the time argued that MAD helped keep the peace, but in fact it was having the opposite effect, fuelling a potentially apocalyptic arms race which was being played out through proxy wars all over the Majority World.

In the 1990s the Cold War melted away, and stockpiles were scaled back substantially. The world stepped back from the brink and breathed a sigh of relief. The NI started laying into globalization instead.

However, in recent years we’ve entered a frightening new phase of nuclear proliferation, and the rules have changed. It’s a new kind of madness. Since Hiroshima, the bomb has been a building-block of empire: every US President has threatened to nuke at least one country, ignoring arms control treaties to continue expanding its arsenal. But now the US is the sole superpower, for the time being. It has attained a state of nuclear supremacy, striving for ‘full spectrum dominance’ whereby it can destroy any country without fear of nuclear retaliation: and thus rule the world.

‘At some point this change occurred. The great powers were stuck with arsenals they could not use, and nuclear weapons became the weapons of the poor’

The 21st century has so far been marked by jaw-dropping hypocrisy, with Bush and his war poodle Blair outraged at the very idea of other countries developing their own nuclear capability; and in the case of Iraq, even using non-existent weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as an excuse to invade and occupy.

The US and Britain are not alone in flouting their disarmament commitments. All the other major nuclear weapons states are busy ‘modernizing’ their nukes, although both Russia and China have been more than a little provoked by Bush’s aggressive push for a ‘Son of Star Wars’ ballistic missile defence system that looks suspiciously like it’s aimed at them.

Since the end of the Cold War, despite – or rather, because of – the refusal of states to disarm, we have seen a new phenomenon: the rise of the ‘nuclear poor’. A Russian entrepreneur making megabucks out of the nuke trade describes how ‘at some point this change occurred. The great powers were stuck with arsenals they could not use, and nuclear weapons became the weapons of the poor.’1 India and Pakistan built themselves the bomb in the late 1990s, and North Korea enraged its southern neighbour with a test in 2006. At least 13 nations have the ability to ‘go nuclear’ in the next decade, including Algeria, Indonesia, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Many more could soon join them as nuclear energy spreads across the world, providing access to bomb-making technology.

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, expressed exasperation last February over the actions of the ‘big boys’ which are encouraging poorer countries to want their own weapons. ‘Any country with an average infrastructure can develop a nuclear warhead. Iran is just one example of the new phenomenon of becoming “nuclear weapon capable”: you don’t really need to have an actual weapon. It’s enough to buy yourself an insurance policy by developing the capability and then sitting on it. But let us not kid ourselves. Ninety per cent of it is insurance, because the big boys continue to say “we need nuclear weapons but it is bad for you to have them”. Nuclear weapon states have to lead by example.’

As if the prospect of a multi-polar nuclear world weren’t disquieting enough, it’s conceivable that terrorist groups might get their hands on the technology to build and detonate some kind of nuclear device. ElBaradei can confirm 150 cases a year of illicit trafficking in nuclear materials: ‘But a lot of material stolen has never been recovered and a lot of the material recovered has never been reported stolen. This system leaves a lot to be desired.’2

*Seismic shifts*

So what possible reason can anti-nuclear activists have to be so upbeat? Well, quite aside from the moral issues, nuclear deterrence is a laughable dogma these days. A journalist who recently went on a tour round a Trident nuclear submarine asked who the missiles are pointed at. ‘Nobody,’ came the answer. So who is the enemy? ‘We don’t have an enemy. It’s a deterrent.’3

But the real security threats for countries like Britain cannot be deterred by the promise of a nuclear attack. Terrorism, climate change, global economic meltdown – however many ballistic missiles you’ve got, they won’t help. Instead, as Commander Robert Green, now retired from the Royal Navy, summarizes: ‘Weapons stimulate hostility, create instability, promote proliferation and generate an arms race. They are dirty and poisonous and the ultimate virility symbol. They represent terrorist logic on the grandest scale imaginable.’4 And they’re incredibly expensive to maintain.

We should be channelling the piles of public money being blown on building bombs into financing large-scale changes to cut greenhouse gases

Many countries agree with this analysis, perhaps even some nuclear states, who are realizing that having nuclear weapons makes them more, not less vulnerable. There is growing support in the international community for a Nuclear Weapons Convention that would provide a framework and timetable for disarmament – a ‘palpable buzz about reaching a tipping point, where disarmament becomes respectable and achievable’, reports expert and activist Rebecca Johnson.5 It’s a matter of bringing the big boys on board – and this is just starting to look possible.

In the US, a seismic shift in attitude is taking place. While the Bush administration has continued to love the bomb, many mainstream military strategists have had a startling change of heart, epitomized by an open letter to the Wall Street Journal in January. Entitled ‘Toward a nuclear-free world’, it is signed by four notorious Cold Warriors: two former Secretaries of State (George Shultz and Henry Kissinger); a former Secretary of Defense (William J Perry) and a retired Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (Sam Nunn). They argue that nuclear weapons are fuelling insecurity, which is in no-one’s interest, and that the US and Russia must take the lead in disarming.

Congress has vetoed many of Bush’s bids for new spending on nukes, and US warmongering in the Middle East has never been so unpopular. In the Presidential primaries, Barack Obama broke with the tradition of always keeping the ultimate threat up your sleeve by stating: ‘it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance’ in Afghanistan or Pakistan – to snorts of derision from Hillary ‘I’d-obliterate-Iran’ Clinton. Using such weapons in situations involving civilians is ‘not on the table,’ he continued, and has since pledged to work towards elimination.6 If he wins the Democratic nomination, and then the election, he could turn out to be the most pro-disarmament President of all time.

Of course, the motives of Kissinger et al are by no means pure. They partly spring from a hawkish calculation that a world bristling with other countries’ nukes is dangerous for the US, and prevents it from the total military domination it could otherwise be enjoying. Nevertheless, it’s an extraordinary volte-face and opens up a political space for campaigners that there has never been before.

In Britain, campaigning against Trident has reached a pivotal moment. The fleet of nuclear submarines is based in Scotland, which now has its own Parliament. In 2007, against a backdrop of year-long anti-nuke direct action, the Scottish National Party came to power. They don’t want their country to host Britain’s bombs anymore, and 70 per cent of the Scottish public agree. A parliamentary coalition has been set up to explore legal options, such as using health, safety and environmental legislation to whack Westminster with a massive fine every time a convoy carrying warheads up from Aldermaston crosses the border.

Finding a new home for Trident would be a headache of ballistic proportions for the British Government, as their attempts to upgrade their WMDs may also prove to be. Blair won a preliminary vote last year to replace Trident, but it caused the biggest MP rebellion since the Iraq war, and another vote will be needed for the final go-ahead. In the meantime, campaigners say a colossal defence spending crunch is looming, and the rhetoric on disarmament coming out of Gordon Brown’s Government is the most positive they’ve ever heard. Britain’s submarines are now the weakest link in the nuclear chain.

*Profits of doom*

The ball is clearly in the court of the US and Britain to start serious negotiations to eradicate nukes completely. We have perhaps a handful of years before nuclear weapons spread to more countries and are used in anger once again. But let’s not be naïve: the barriers in our way are enormous.

Perhaps the most formidable is the so-called military-industrial complex: a term coined in 1961 by a disparaging President Eisenhower to describe the unholy matrimony of war-making and money-making. Its influence helps explain why the US now spends a third more on nuclear weapons, in real terms, than the Cold War average.

The current US plan for massive investment in new facilities and warheads is known as ‘Complex Transformation’. William D Hartung, a specialist in the politics and economics of military spending, argues that it has ‘more to do with bailing out the nuclear weapons industry’ than anything else.7 We’re talking seriously big money: well over $200 billion over the next two decades. The main beneficiaries will be eight companies – including Bechtel and Lockheed Martin – who between them received $11 billion in US Government nuclear contracts in 2005. It’s surely no coincidence that these same eight spent $15.3 million on lobbying in 2006 alone.8

The nuclear industry’s talent for persuading politicians to keep on spending is not confined to the US. The reason the Trident replacement vote was rushed through the British Parliament was that the main beneficiary – arms company BAE Systems – went into lobbying overdrive. Most of it was behind the scenes, but Murray Easton, BAE’s Submarines Managing Director, is on record as warning the Parliamentary Defence Select Committee that any delay in replacing Trident would have ‘a significant impact’ on BAE’s ability to develop and build nuclear subs for Britain in the future. Design and drafting staff would have nothing to do all day, he complained, and so would no doubt leave the sector, taking their skills with them forever.9

While this may sound, to some, like a perfect opportunity to diversify British industry away from arms, to my Government it sounded like an order. And when BAE tells them to do something, they do it – as evidenced by Blair’s illegal suspension of a bribery investigation into a BAE arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

While the case against nuclear weapons may seem watertight, countering the influence of the ‘defence’ industry will require massive popular pressure. This is where a second problem kicks in: public apathy. The anti-nuke movement is nowhere near the size it reached in its heyday, despite including some of the most dedicated and heroic activists I have ever encountered. People have been lulled into a false sense of security, believing that nukes are no longer a threat. CND were pleased with a turnout of 5,000 at Aldermaston, but much larger mobilizations are going to be necessary to burst the tyres of this military juggernaught.

A final, escalating problem is the rapid spread of nuclear energy, which is being erroneously touted as a ‘clean’ alternative to fossil fuels. Ban-the-bomb campaigners are split on this issue so tend to keep out of the debate, with damaging consequences for the movement.

Photo: jess worth
Bomb factory: the gleaming new Orion laser at Aldermaston. Photo: jess worth

*Seizing the moment*

If the moral case were enough, nuclear weapons would have been banned long ago. It’s time for a more strategic approach that makes the triple obstacles of military-industrial power, public apathy and the spread of atomic energy work to the advantage of the anti-nuke movement.

We should be linking the abolition of nuclear weapons to the fight against climate change. Nuclear energy is a dangerous diversion, and nuclear weapons are worse than useless against the multiple insecurities that global warming will unleash. By uniting the two causes, a case could be made for channelling the piles of public money currently being blown on building bombs into financing large-scale changes to cut greenhouse gases and build a safer future.

Let’s take Britain as an example. Trident replacement will cost around $154 billion over the next three decades. Why not use that money to finance a wholesale shift to renewable energy? Britain could supply 50 per cent of its energy from offshore wave and wind power by 2030 by diverting funds and skills directly from nuclear submarine manufacturing.10 A mere 1.3 billion Trident bucks a year would fund the transition from car-dependent gridlock to an affordable nationwide public transport system.11 Junking nukes would go a long way towards meeting the estimated $25.4 billion a year cost of helping every British household become low carbon, cutting overall emissions by 80 per cent.12

This ‘two birds with one stone’ approach could help revitalize an ageing peace movement. It could bring the genuine threats posed by nuclear weapons to the attention of a new audience of activists, and push it up the agenda of an environmental movement growing in strength. It makes a case for diverting funding from the bomb that even the most trigger-happy politician may find compelling – especially when the challenge of publicly financing major carbon-reduction infrastructure projects during an economic recession begins to bite…

It’s time to seize the moment. There are fewer and fewer survivors like Yushio Sato left to remind us of the horror humans can now unleash upon each other. We’ve never been good at learning from history and the signs point towards a whole new generation experiencing a nuclear attack first hand in the not too distant future. This struggle is too important to leave to the committed few. It’s up to all of us to grab the window of opportunity we’ve been given and ban the bomb, before the shutters slam back down, for good.

  1. William Langewiesche, The Atomic Bazaar: the rise of the nuclear poor, Penguin, 2007
  2. Mohamed ElBaradei, speech at the 44th Munich Conference on Security Policy, 9 February 2008, reported by Press TV
  3. Sam Alexandroni, ‘The 365 ways to say no’, New Statesman, 26 February 2007
  4. Spoken at CND’s ‘Global summit for a nuclear weapon-free world’, London, 16 February 2008
  5. Rebecca Johnson, ‘Time to outlaw the use of nuclear weapons’, Disarmament Diplomacy, Issue No. 87, Spring 2008
  6. Anne E. Kornblut, ‘Clinton demurs on Obama’s nuclear stance’, Washington Post, 3 August 2007
  7. William D Hartung, ‘Nuclear bailout: a critique of the Department of Energy’s plans for a new nuclear weapons complex’, New America Foundation, 25 March 2008
  8. William D Hartung and Frida Berrigan, ‘Complex 2030: the costs and consequences of the plan to build a new generation of nuclear weapons’, World Policy Institute, April 2007
  9. BAE Systems, ‘Investor brief – November 2006’, http://tinyurl.com/6jce2r/
  10. Steven Schofield, ‘Oceans of work: arms conversion revisited’, British American Security Information Council (BASIC), 27 January 2007
  11. Simon Bullock, Tony Bosworth and Vicky Cann, ‘Way to go – paying for better transport’, May 2004, http://tinyurl.com/yu8em5
  12. Brenda Boardman, ‘Home Truths: a low carbon strategy to reduce UK housing emissions by 80% by 2050’, University of Oxford Environmental Change Institute, November 2007.

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