Banning nuclear weapons: this time lip service will not be enough

A new grassroots network  launches this week with the twin aims of scrapping Trident and persuading the UK to join other governments in multilateral negotiations to achieve a global treaty banning nuclear weapons. If we get our strategies right, the peace movement can win this one, says Rebecca Johnson. 

Large hanger-like building framed by countryside New laser facility for warhead design, AWE Aldermaston. Photo: Author's own

Governments and international humanitarian organisations like the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Red Cross will meet in Oslo next week with doctors, emergency responders and food security experts to hold  “a fact-based discussion of the humanitarian and developmental consequences associated with a nuclear weapon detonation.”  So far over 120 governments have registered to take part.  But the UK - a nuclear weapons producer and deployer - has not. 

These are the humanitarian consequences arising from their own nuclear weapons and policies that Britain and the other nuclear-armed states don’t want to discuss.  This time, however, their refusal to join in will not silence the debates, as the other diplomats and experts will carry on the discussions without them. Civil society has a vital role to play in informing the debates and mobilising public attention to pressure governments to take urgent action to prevent humanitarian catastrophes from occurring. 

Britain is at the sharp end, with a price tag of a hundred billion pounds attached to building and deploying a further generation of Trident nuclear weapons some time in the near future. The Coalition government’s austerity cuts have forced the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to postpone the final construction decision (so-called ‘Main Gate’) and contracts for building new submarines until 2016, after the next election.  The costs are so irresponsibly unaffordable and the justifications for replacing Trident so unconvincingly weak that further delays are likely until Trident replacement disappears under the weight of its own contradictions. If we get our strategies right, the peace movement can win this one. 

Nationally and internationally, the strongest arguments and the majority political, financial, security and humanitarian interests are all moving in the direction of abolishing nuclear weapons. There are still powerful interest groups who would profit from further nuclear production and proliferation, but the ground is shifting beneath them. If we mobilise effectively and pull the stops out for the next 2-3 years, we could achieve the linked objectives of preventing Trident replacement and getting international negotiations to ban nuclear weapons.  Both steps would represent game-changing progress towards the “world without nuclear weapons” that everyone –including the British government – claim to want.  This time, lip service will not be enough.

With that in mind, a new grassroots network – Action AWE (Atomic Weapons Eradication) – is being launched this week with the twin aims of scrapping Trident and persuading this country to join other governments in multilateral negotiations to achieve a global treaty banning nuclear weapons for everyone.  Action AWE is being supported by many peace and environmental organisations, including Greenpeace, CND, Women in Black and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Action AWE follows in the footsteps of Faslane 365, Trident Ploughshares and the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp

Starting this week with launch events in Reading, the nearest large town to Aldermaston and Burghfield, Action AWE has a two year plan to use outreach, education and nonviolent actions, including the arts, theatre and music, to engage many levels of civil society – youth, anti-cuts, women, peace, anti-poverty and environmental groups, pensioners, unions and everyone in between –  to help get rid of Trident. If we can do this together, it will free us up to devote more resources to building security in ways that make sense – investing in people not weapons and protecting our environment rather than the arms industries’ profits. One Action AWE aim is to make it much harder for MPs who support Trident replacement to get elected in 2015. A similar demand was incorporated into the political strategy of Faslane 365, which in 2006-7 ran a yearlong peaceful blockade of the Faslane nuclear submarine base, turning a rather passive opinion-poll majority against Trident in Scotland into more active opposition. In May 2007, the Labour Party was voted out of government in Scotland, in large part because of Tony Blair’s rush to replace Trident.

The next election for the British Parliament is two years away. The Oslo Conference is only one week away. Today, ICAN UK, a network of British NGOs affiliated with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), will be presenting MPs with a series of case studies that look at limited but representative scenarios, such as the humanitarian impact of a bomb dropped on Manchester, if Trident were used against Moscow, or a radiological accident at Aldermaston or Burghfield.

ICAN UK members pulled these studies together to contribute to the debates in Oslo. Soon after Norway’s Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide sent his invitation to UK Foreign Minister William Hague, we followed up with a joint letter urging Hague to send a delegation to the Oslo conference, suggesting that it would be useful for the government to conduct (or make available) UK studies into the humanitarian consequences of some of the accidental or intentional nuclear detonation scenarios of most relevance for the UK, and to analyse the capacity of the emergency services to cope and assist survivors if the worst should happen. Though the Coalition government has declined to respond, ICAN UK will present these studies to MPs today in a meeting chaired by Sir Nick Harvey MP.

If Trident missiles were fired

Two of the studies consider the impact if even one submarine-load of Trident missiles were fired. Assuming the current complement of 40 warheads with an explosive yield of 100 kT (5-8 times bigger than the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945), the case study from John Ainslie of Scottish CND details the effects if Trident were aimed at Moscow, as the Cold War objective of “flattening Moscow” is still regarded in conservative political circles as a criterion for Trident replacement. Ainslie calculates that if fired at targets in and around Moscow, these warheads would cause 5.4 million direct deaths during the first few months, principally from blast, fire and acute radiation poisoning. Residential tower blocks would be shattered, and extensive fires and firestorms would incinerate schools, hospitals and homes across a wide area. Radioactive fallout would affect populations at greater distances, depending on weather and wind conditions. Moscow would be effectively destroyed, its communications, transport and infrastructure crippled, and its hospitals wrecked or incapacitated. 

A second analysis from Dr Philip Webber, of Scientists for Global Responsibility, considers the wider climatic impacts and humanitarian problems if the nuclear weapons on one UK submarine were launched.  Webber considers UK targeting criteria and calculates that Trident could cause the direct deaths of 10 million people if it were launched at Russia’s five largest cities, Moscow, St Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg and Samara.  Of course, many more would suffer from blast and burn injuries and radiation poisoning, compounded by the fact that hospitals and emergency services would be destroyed or overwhelmed. 

Citing recent environmental studies looking at a limited regional nuclear war scenario in which a hundred Hiroshima-sized bombs were used (estimated at approximately 15 kT, with an aggregate explosive power of 1.5 MT – i.e. 1.5 million tonnes, less than half the explosive power on one UK deployment of Trident). Webber concludes that if the firepower from one Trident-armed submarine were used on urban areas in accordance with current doctrines and policies, the consequences would include abrupt and long-lasting climate disruption that would adversely affect agriculture, natural ecosystems and millions of people around the world.  In other words, nuclear winter is not just a nightmare of the Cold War’s preoccupation with all out nuclear war; if Trident were unleashed, that would also cause catastrophic climate consequences and starvation for millions of the world’s poorest people, especially in places like Africa and Asia, where there are already unacceptable levels of food insecurity.

Other studies consider the impact if a 100 kT bomb were detonated on Manchester. One, from Article 36, showed that the blast and thermal effects would cause around 81,000 immediate deaths, leaving 212,000 injured, and destroying vital infrastructure, hospitals, housing and commercial buildings. They conclude: “The capacity of emergency and health services to provide a meaningful response would be minimal and the long-term impact on the psychological, social and economic fabric of UK society would be massive.”  This assessment is shared by the former Chair of the UK Standing Advisory Committee on the Care and Selection of Blood Donors and advisor on blood transfusion to the UK Armed Forces. In a report for Medact, Dr Frank Boulton noted that even with the limited case study of a single 100 kT nuclear detonation on Manchester, medical and blood transfusion services would be quickly overwhelmed, with the added complexity of radiation-induced problems for survivors and responders, ranging from acute sickness to immune suppression and impaired healing.  Radioactive fallout would add to the harm and panic, hampering efforts to help the injured and homeless survivors.  Even outside the zones of direct damage, systems of communication and transport would be left inoperable, while people fleeing the disaster would overwhelm services in the rest of the country. As a consequence, many “short-term survivors” would succumb, unable to receive the help that could save their lives.

Other weapons of mass suffering – biological, toxin and chemical weapons – have been prohibited, as have several types of conventional weapons categorised as inhumane. In view of the appalling humanitarian and environmental effects of nuclear detonations, it is extraordinary that nuclear weapons of mass destruction have not yet been explicitly outlawed. This anomaly persists because of institutional contradictions and Cold War attitudes. These treat the participation of states that have armed themselves with nuclear weapons as essential before a process to ban such weapons can be taken forward

Nuclear weapons are a humanitarian and security threat to everyone, wherever we live. After decades of failed arms control and non-proliferation approaches that keep power in the hands of the countries that possess these weapons of mass suffering, we have to change tack.  Learning from history, nuclear weapons need to be banned before the processes of elimination can be effective. And, realistically, this will only be achieved through concerted action by civil society, in partnership with nuclear-free governments.

Rebecca Johnson will be analysing the next steps to be taken after the Oslo Conference takes place next week