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Editorial: The third nuclear age?

Perhaps 2003 will be remembered as the year the world's nuclear states (and aspiring ones) began another chapter in the development of genocidal weapons of mass destruction. Hopefully not.

In early November, while commenting on Iran's cooperation with nuclear inspections, Mr El Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency warned that somewhere between 35 and 40 countries were believed to now have the ability to build nuclear weapons.

Death of the NPT

During the year most of the Nuclear Weapons States sent signals suggesting that they might be intending to engage in nuclear proliferation (though it should be noted that in November Iran stated that it would - at least temporarily - suspend its uranium enrichment process and agreed to sign the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty).

Of course while the US and other western powers are leaning heavily on countries like Iran and North Korea, they appear to be gearing up for a spot of proliferation themselves. And the development of new nuclear weapons by the US and Britain would probably be the final nail in the coffin for the NPT.

End of “deterrence”

Disarmament Diplomacy reported “in April, the United States produced a weapons grade plutonium pit - the core of a fission bomb - for the first time in 14 years”. Then in May 2003 the US senate agreed to lift a ten year ban on the research and development of “mini-nukes” (tactical weapons which can be used “in theatre”) and, in July, the US government disbanded the nuclear watchdog, a body which held public hearings and published reports on nuclear weapons issues.

According to US campaigners, the Pentagon is planning to publish a report backing the development of a new generation of these low-yield nuclear weapons. Entitled Future Strategic Strike Force, it is due to be released by the end of 2003.

The next generation?

In Britain, while there has been no formal government statement on the issue, the Ministry of Defence has just submitted a Notice of Proposed Development for the building of a new laser facility at the AWE Aldermaston weapons production factory - part of long term development strategy estimated to be costing hundreds of millions of pounds.

The laser facility will enable the testing of nuclear explosions without the need for “live” testing (banned under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), and further new facilities (hydrodynamics facilities, new laboratories, etc) are in the pipeline The recent recruitment of new nuclear scientists at the plant has only further fuelled speculation.

Mais non!

Towards the end of October, reports appeared in several European newspapers suggesting that France has re-targeted its nukes to (unspecified) “rogue states”. While the president's office stated that there has been no change in nuclear policy since 2001, senior military sources and forthcoming budget proposals suggest a different scenario.

At the end of October, United Press International noted “a 2003-2008 blueprint for French defence earmarks $20 billion for nuclear development”.

Local race While relations between India and Pakistan may have been poised to warm slightly following India's recent “peace proposals”, in October Pakistan test-fired three long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and India confirmed that it was buying an early warning radar system from Israel.

In early November - following a state visit to North Korea - president Musharraf reiterated that his country was perfectly justified in developing its nuclear arsenal.

Get ready!

When looking where the nuclear states are putting their energy and resources, their posturing and not-so-gentle undermining of the Non Proliferation Treaty, their investment in “getting round” the CTBT and their wilful refusal to disarm, it appears that we may well have entered the “third nuclear age”.

After the early technical development and cold-war era deployments, followed by 15 years of “wilderness” (an ideal period in which the nuclear weapons states could have gotten rid of the evil devices once and for all), the enemy has now been identified (in all its inherent abstractness ... what is a “rogue” state anyway - except one you don't like the look of and who won't play ball) and the rules of engagement are being determined.

Anti-nuclear campaigners had better get to work and start priming local communities, educators, other activists, the media and sympathetic politicians, otherwise the next thing we will hear is another bland government announcement, only this time it will be confirming the production and deployment of a new nuclear weapon system and the runaway train of proliferation will be unstoppable.

Topics: Nuclear Weapons