Zero Nuclear Weapons

Public Forum
November 13 and 14, 2009
Toronto, Canada

Nuclear Weapons: A Science for Peace Dialogue

By Metta Spencer

Two atomic bombs were dropped in war 64 years ago, but none since then. Why are you still worried?

A: Because there are still about 23,000 nuclear weapons on earth -- many of them on high-alert, so they could be fired by mistake within a few short minutes. Current ones are 20 - 40 times more powerful than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They could be stolen by terrorists. New states could develop or acquire them. There is a real danger of disrupting the climate and destroying the ozone layer from a large number of nuclear explosions, as in a medium-scale nuclear war.

So what do you want to do about it?

Let's dismantle every one of them. Go to zero! That's the only sure way of preventing catastrophe. But it must be done carefully, with verification, because some people on the planet will probably try to keep a few.

I'll bet! So where are these 23,000 bombs and warheads, and how do we get rid of them?

By most estimates, the United States and Russia own about 95 percent of them, so clearly the disarmament process should begin with them. Three other countries, Britain, China, and France, acquired the bomb early on, and more recently Israel, India, Pakistan, and now North Korea. We have to stop the contagion.

Then Canada doesn't even own any? Why talk to me about it? Go talk to Americans.

True, Canada chose not to build such weapons or to own any, but Canada belongs to NATO. According to NATO's official policy, nuclear weapons will remain for the foreseeable future a part of its weaponry.[1] Canada should seek to change that policy -- or else we should leave the alliance altogether. It makes no sense to oppose nuclear weapons while also planning to use them.

Relax. Nobody's really intending to explode them! During the Cold War, both sides got the bomb just to deter each other. Maybe mutual deterrence actually kept them from being used.

In any case, deterrence can be contagious. China had the bomb so India got its own bomb to deter China. Then Pakistan got its bomb to deter India. Israel got its bomb supposedly to deter Islamic invasion. Next Iran may get a bomb to deter Israel. We have to stop this before every country on earth tries to get its own nuclear weapons.

How? There's something called the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Why hasn't it worked?

It has -- partly. The NPT[2] is an agreement between the Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) and the five initial Nuclear Weapons States (NWS). The signatory NNWS promised not to acquire nuclear weapons, on condition that they be given access to nuclear technology for energy, medicine, and other peaceful uses. For their part, the NWS promised to negotiate and achieve the elimination of their nuclear arsenals -- but they have not done so, though the NPT entered into force 39 years ago. You can see why some NNWS consider the situation unfair. There are 189 parties to the treaty, and almost all NNWS have fulfilled their part of the bargain up to now.

How can you tell? Perhaps some of them are secretly developing nuclear weapons.

No, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)[3] was established in 1957 to support the peaceful use of nuclear technology and to monitor compliance with the NPT. It has high-tech devices that can detect infractions with surprising accuracy, often from a remote distance, and all signatory states are obliged to admit IAEA inspectors. But certainly it would be a good idea to strengthen the IAEA's mandate in inspection and verification of compliance. There are additional agreements that we should support for the IAEA -- notably to bring into force Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements[4] and an additional Protocol that would enable the IAEA to verify the non-diversion of nuclear material in any State.

Moreover, we should make it more difficult for member States to leave the NPT. Either make their nuclear disarmament commitments irreversible or at least make them return whatever material or assistance they received from other member States on the understanding that they were members in good faith.

The Mayors for Peace[5] movement has proposed the "Hiroshima-Nagasaki Protocol"[6] as an addendum to the NPT and is calling upon all States to sign it. Its objective is to achieve a nuclear weapon-free world by the year 2020.

That's only eleven years from now. What's their game plan?

First, all States Parties to the Protocol must promptly stop acquiring nuclear weapons and place the ones they already have, along with all fissile materials, in safe storage. Second, they should negotiate a Nuclear Weapons Convention that will require the elimination of all nuclear weapons and related deployment systems, including delivery vehicles, with all measures subject to strict control by international institutions.

That's so ambitious I question whether it's realistic. If governments haven't taken such strong measures yet, why do you think they are going to do it now?

Because President Obama wants disarmament! He wants the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and bring it into force. He and Russia's President Medvedev agreed to reach a new treaty to reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,500 - 1,675 warheads each, and try to stem the proliferation of nuclear materials and warheads. This momentum is popular in the US and around the world. Let's hope the US will immediately remove all nuclear weapons from high-alert status. We can celebrate their recent decision to abandon their plans to place anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. And let's also hope they ban all weapons in space,[7] as Obama promised to do immediately after his inauguration.[8]

But most governments don't act unless their citizens pressure them to do so. That means it's up to John Q. and Jane Canuck to tell our political leaders what actions to take to build momentum.

Name one such action that a Canadian could lobby for.

Well, there's the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva -- the only multilateral forum for negotiating disarmament. Canada has a permanent mission there and could support the renewed interest there in negotiating a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. It would prohibit the further production of weapons-grade (but not fuel-grade) uranium and plutonium.

Okay. What else have you got for me to do?

Demand a convention (treaty) on nuclear weapons. In the interim you could work for a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone in Canada. Already the whole southern hemisphere is covered by NWFZs. A nuclear weapons-free zone should be established in the Middle East. Recently Pugwash has began to promote an Arctic NWFZ, which would cover Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. We should promote "negative security assurances" for NWFZs and all NNWS; one approach would be to attach a protocol to the NPT with a phrase promising not to use nuclear weapons against them.


[7] Defense Tech.
[8] Reuters on Jan 28, 2009: "Moments after Obama's inauguration last week, the White House website was updated to include policy statements on a range of issues, including a pledge to restore U.S. leadership on space issues and seek a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites. It also promised to look at threats to U.S. satellites, contingency plans to keep information flowing from them, and what steps are needed to protect spacecraft against attack."