The Nuclear Sunset

“We humans were smart enough to invent nuclear weapons but not smart enough to not invent them.”  – Marty Rubin

(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)

This week is a historic milestone in the long campaign against nuclear weapons. On January 22nd, 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) came into force having been passed by the support of 122 countries at the United Nations in July 2017. This treaty comprehensively bans nuclear weapons in all of their forms, bans countries from developing those weapons, funding their development, hosting weapons owned by others or even allowing them to be transported through their territory. 1 country (the Netherlands) voted against the treaty and another (Singapore) abstained. Several countries, including the United Kingdom, all other nuclear armed states as well as NATO nations, did not vote.

One of the strictures of the treaty was to set up a regular forum where State Parties (those countries who have signed and ratified the treaty) could come together and lay down the processes required to meet the various commitments that the treaty binds them to. This week, the First Meeting of the State Parties came together in Vienna to begin that process of bringing about the end of the age of nuclear weapons. A nuclear sunset to conclude the nuclear dawn that broke on July 16th, 1945.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

All countries who have not signed the Treaty were invited to observe this first meeting and some have done so. The UK refused to send anyone, however Scotland has been represented there by SNP MSP Bill Kidd who has been an anti-nuclear campaigner for many years and secured a debate day in Parliament to debate and endorse the treaty although, unlike Wales and despite a clear Parliamentary majority in favour, the Scottish Parliament has not yet formally voted in its support for an independent Scotland’s signing TPNW at the earliest opportunity.

In Vienna, three of the principal topics being discussed related to firming up the practical details around elimination and removal of nuclear weapons from the territory of a State Party (whether owned by them or hosted by another state), how the international community should address remediation of victims of nuclear attacks and tests and how the environment can be restored following such an attack or test. All three are likely to significantly impact Scotland’s own journey alongside nuclear weapons and how we ensure that they are removed from Scotland and ultimately eliminated. The testimonies of survivors over the course of this week have been important and harrowing. From elderly Japanese hibakusha telling us that we are and should be the last generation to hear the first-hand stories of the survivors of a nuclear attack, through Americans who were downwind of tests in Nevada and are now ravaged with cancers despite being told how “safe” everything was, to French Polynesians asking for help from international scientists to prove their cases because France recently changed rules about claiming compensation due to nuclear testing to deny it to anyone who can’t prove that they were exposed to radiation decades ago and, well…it’s not as if everyone carried Geiger counters back then.

Scotland sorely needs to properly discuss our own nuclear legacy and the impact of independence because a danger looms in the debate over the future of Faslane, Coulport and other nuclear infrastructure in Scotland (I’ll refer to Faslane only as shorthand but know I’m not forgetting everything else). Officially, Scottish Government policy is that when Scotland becomes independent, the UK’s nuclear arsenal will be removed from Faslane, Scotland will sign TPNW and Scotland will join NATO. However, there is a radioactive devil in the detail of how they seem to be going about all of this.

It’s widely recognised that the UK has limited options when it comes to rebasing its nuclear weapons. Other sites in the UK would need to be significantly upgraded (and the local population might object in a way that can’t be as easily ignored as the local Scottish population evidently can be) and sites overseas in other allied nuclear states (chiefly the US or France) have their own downsides in terms of logistics or strategic concerns. If the UK doesn’t want to take the opportunity of Scottish independence to rid itself of these tools of mass destruction – in which case, removal can be done comparatively quickly –  then it will have to consider how to do this. One idea is for Scotland to “rent” Faslane back to rUK for a period until it can sort out the infrastructure for a permanent rebasing. I wrote about this idea on my personal blog three years ago. There’s a significant danger here around what either Scotland or rUK would consider a suitable “rent”. If it’s too low, then rUK has little incentive to build a new base as it would be cheaper to just pay the rent. There is instead a very strong incentive for the “temporary” rental agreement to become permanently extended. This is precisely what happened when Kazakhstan agreed to rent the Baikonur space facility back to Russia following their independence. Kazakhstan, understandably, had always been upset about the environmental impact of launches from that site (and the toxic debris each launch dropped onto the “empty” Kazakh steppe) and wanted to shut the base down. Russia, also understandably, didn’t want to lose their access to space. The initial “ten-year deal” agreed in 1994 has since been extended till at least 2050.

The flip side is if the “rent” paid for Faslane is too high. In that case, it might be that Scotland could lose a significant revenue stream on the expiry of the lease and the pressure to extend the lease might not come from rUK, but from the Scottish Government. And here’s the rub – the line between “too low” and “too high” might well be narrow or non-existent. In my blog I calculated the “peppercorn rent” rate to be about £130 million a year. At this price, it would be cheaper for rUK to rent Faslane for the lifetime of the new generation of nuclear weapon submarines than it would be to refit the potential base sites outwith Scotland. The upper bound, I estimated to be between £300 million per year (which would cost rUK about as much as the overrun already priced into the budget for the weapons) and £6.5 billion per year (which would only double the cost of the submarines and weapons over their lifetime). £6.5 billion per year is around twice Scotland’s notional defence budget. It would make the Faslane Rent the fourth largest source of revenue in the Scottish budget after VAT. It might be a “courageous” politician who’d give up that nuclear goldmine lightly.

I don’t think it’s worth it. A nuclear base in a now “foreign” land is likely to be treated with even less care and attention than Faslane currently is (ask the Chagossians how they feel about the UK’s “caretaking” of their homeland – another “temporary” deal that was recently extended by decades) and no amount of money is worth betraying our principles that Scotland should be a beacon of peace and safety, not a nuclear target.

This is where the discussions in Vienna will help Scotland greatly. Even if we’re not yet a State Party, we can adopt and endorse the principles that they will lay down this week when it comes to the denuclearisation process and what role the UK will have to play in cleaning up the environmental damage they have created during their tenure there. We’ll have to see how that debate goes over the next few days. It will determine the timescale over which such removals must take place. It may or may not discuss financial compensation to either of the parties to the removal.

In discussing this with my wife Ellen, she presented an idea that may well act as a compromise in terms of the Rent issue – one that would immediately defang any possibility of indefinite extensions to the lease on the grounds that Scotland couldn’t afford to take this nuclear leash off its own neck. One of the discussions going on in Vienna is around setting up an international trust fund to pay for environmental and personal remediation or for scientific investigations such as the ones being asked for in French Polynesia. Scotland and/or rUK should pay part or all of the “rent” due for Faslane into this fund. This would be possible and welcome even if it came from non-State Parties to TPNW in the same way that some countries pay into similar funds for landmine removal despite not being a party to the Landmine Ban Treaty. This way, Scotland wouldn’t have as a direct a temptation to pocket the cash and it would indirectly mean that the UK would be funding the global denuclearisation efforts that it has spent the last several years actively denouncing.

It’s true that no NATO member has yet joined TPNW and that NATO lobbied hard against the treaty, but that effort failed and we now live in a world where nuclear weapons are prohibited by international treaty (even if some non-members may still choose to ignore the ban until they sign it into domestic law too). NATO will now have to adapt to this new world and will one day be confronted by the idea of seeking to have a TPNW State Party join the alliance (say, perhaps an independent Scotland who signs TPNW before making an application to join NATO) or perhaps when an existing NATO member seeks to sign TPNW. There will, of course, be questions about what it would mean to be a nuclear-free state within a military alliance founded on a policy of nuclear first-strike but it is not expressly prohibited by NATO membership structures or by TPNW so long as State Parties do not allow nuclear weapons to be based in or transit through their territory and that they do not assist or support other states in their nuclear activities. In this sense, it is also analogous to the Ottawa land mine treaty in that some but not all NATO members are signatories of that ban (and even as I write this, one prominent non-signatory has taken steps towards banning land mines although it still hasn’t signed the treaty proper).

However, it is extremely concerning and disappointing that the SNP have not recognised this in forming their defence policies. The SNP’s defence spokesperson in the House of Commons, Stewart McDonald made statements last month that strongly implied that temporary basing of NATO nukes would be possible in Scotland post-independence and this week he published a strategy paper ahead of next week’s NATO summit in Madrid which not only did not mention TPNW (despite the fact that the TPNW summit is ongoing) but also gave “strong support” to a statement by the UN Secretary General which included a line saying that the older Non-Proliferation Treaty “is the only way to achieve [denuclearisation]”. Even Germany, another non-TPNW state which hosts NATO nuclear weapons, has stated that TPNW strengthens rather than undermines NPT so it is concerning not to see at least that caveat within McDonald’s strategy paper.

Ariane Burgess of the Scottish Greens has proposed a Members’ Bill to the Scottish Parliament calling for explicit support of TPNW and for an independent Scotland sign the treaty as soon as it is able to do so. I would like to see SNP defence spokespeople like McDonald publicly support this Bill and to confirm that they’d support Scotland signing TPNW before any application is made to join NATO or any other nuclear military alliance. My worry is that the recent pro-NATO rhetoric and the apparent undermining of TPNW is an attempt to manoeuvre the Scottish Government and pro-indy Scottish voters into a “compromise” position where we end up joining NATO first and then political will to join TPNW after quietly drifts away. In that world, Scotland ends up keeping Trident for a “temporary” number of years or decades and then transitions to keeping the base itself around as a “temporary” place for NATO to park its nuclear weapons. Just for now, you understand. Scotland would still be “nuclear free” because they wouldn’t be “ours”.

I’ve warned before that whenever a politician makes a promise, we should assume that they’ll do the absolute bare minimum that they can get away with and still claim to have met that promise. In another nuclear debate, Ronald Reagan famously adopted the Russian proverb of “Trust, but Verify”. Well, I believe firmly in the second part and so ask once again for a clear statement of intent:– Does the SNP and the Scottish Government believe that an independent Scotland should sign TPNW as soon as we are legally allowed to do so?

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