From banning nuclear tests to banning nuclear weapons

Sixty years after Britain’s first atomic weapons test, we need to consider the parallels between how the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was achieved in the 1990s and today’s nuclear challenges. The British government is, yet again, unable to read the writing on the wall, says Rebecca Johnson

Half-submerged submarine in a Loch at dawn Trident nuclear-armed submarine near Faslane, Scotland. Photo: R. Johnson

Sixty years ago, on October 3 1952, the United Kingdom conducted its first nuclear test explosion, codenamed ‘Hurricane’.  Marking Britain’s entry into the nuclear club, this atomic weapons test was a Commonwealth collaboration, conducted in the Monte Bello islands off the coast of Australia, with Canadian plutonium to supplement the meagre British supplies from its Windscale plant in Cumbria (later renamed Sellafield after nuclear fires and other accidents made the name Windscale a by-word for disaster).

The Aboriginal people and Pacific Island nations were not consulted. These were the people who were to suffer most grievously from the radioactivity and associated health and environmental consequences of nuclear testing conducted in the Pacific by the United States, Britain and France over a period of more than forty years.

That first British bomb was based on the ‘Fat Man’ design that destroyed Nagasaki. Its detonation gouged a deep, 30 metre-wide crater, still visible on the seabed. Over the next few years the UK government conducted 21 further nuclear explosions in the South Pacific, including ‘dirty bomb’ trials that deliberately dispersed plutonium dust and severely contaminated inhabited lands at Maralinga, Australia. As well as the devastating consequences of such irresponsible experiments for people living nearby, the nuclear testing programme caused serious health problems for young servicemen who were ordered into harm’s way in the name of ‘national security’.

When nuclear tests in the atmosphere and underwater were prohibited in 1963, Britain transferred its programme to Nevada, where underground testing continued under US auspices. The last UK nuclear test was detonated in Nevada in 1991. The British government hadn’t intended this to be the final test. In fact they had already put the next ‘device’ (a new warhead design for Trident) into a deep shaft under the Nevada Test Site, all ready for a nuclear test in October 1992. When the first Bush administration signed into law a moratorium that suspended the US nuclear test programme on October 2, 1992, the UK Ministry of Defence found itself stuck. The moratorium legislation, a civil society initiative carried forward by the US Congress, called for negotiations on a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and even specified a target date for its conclusion: 30 September 1996. Much of this history is detailed in my book on the CTBT negotiations, titled “Unfinished Business”.

The Conservative government of John Major was caught out and tried to leverage the ‘Special Relationship’ to get the US moratorium cut short. Civil society on both sides of the Atlantic exposed the backroom talks and intensified pressure for nuclear testing to be permanently halted. Taking the lead to get media attention for the health, environmental and humanitarian effects of nuclear testing, 13 peace women - mostly from Greenham networks and the Aldermaston Women’s Peace Camp - gate-crashed a royal garden party at Buckingham Palace in July 1993, making front page news. Within a month the moratorium was extended and the multilateral Conference on Disarmament in Geneva soon after adopted a negotiating mandate for the test ban. CTBT negotiations opened in January 1994 and on 10 September 1996 the resulting treaty was resoundingly adopted in the UN General Assembly by 158 votes to 3 (India, Bhutan and Libya), with 5 abstentions. It was opened for signature on 24 September, and immediately signed by 70 countries, including the five nuclear-weapon states. Though China and France had not refrained from testing during the talks, when they signed the treaty they joined Russia, the United States and Britain in ending their nuclear test programmes forever. Today, the CTBT has been signed by 183 countries, and secured 157 ratifications, making it one of the most widely supported security treaties in the UN system.

On this anniversary of Britain’s first nuclear test, it is worth reflecting on the history of how nuclear testing came finally to be prohibited. The concept of a global, comprehensive test ban had been around since the 1950s, but was persistently belittled as a long term (read unachievable) goal by government analysts who patronised advocates as ‘idealists’ while they themselves clung to status quo ‘realism’. By the early 1990s, the nuclear-armed states had seen off so many attempts to start CTBT talks that John Major’s government perhaps thought it could depend on (and hide behind) traditional French and American intransigence to face down any new calls.

Two white-overalled scientists take earth samples from the ground On-site inspection exercise for CTBT verification.
Photo: R. Johnson
Then, as now, new approaches and strategies were being initiated by women, civil society environmentalists and key non-nuclear governments to put the long-sought goal of a multilateral treaty back on the international stage. Then, as now, British officials dismissed domestic pressure from peace and environmental activists as naive. Evoking the ‘impossibility’ that others would give up testing, they refused to take independent steps, which they stigmatised as ‘unilateral’, while trying to impede others’ confidence-building measures like the moratoria. They ignored analysts who showed them the writing on the wall, and so were caught scrambling and unprepared (with a hefty bill for the aborted nuclear test) when first the Russians and then the French and US governments bowed to public pressure and declared moratoria, paving the way for multilateral negotiations to finally get started. The contradictory British stance played out to the very end: while John Major’s government continued to drag its feet, a few Aldermaston scientists played constructive roles in solving difficult technical challenges to enable the CTBT to be internationally verified.

Now, once again, a Conservative-led government appears out of step with public and international trends in its desperation to push through the replacement of Trident when even senior military leaders are questioning the cost, security case and utility. In Scotland - where Trident is deployed - public opinion polls have long shown overwhelming majorities in favour of scrapping Trident, a fact that the Scottish National Party (SNP) successfully translated into electoral victory in 2007, after Tony Blair steamrollered the initial Trident replacement decision through the Westminster Parliament with the help of a three-line Tory whip. Wales is also strongly anti-nuclear, which the First Minister seemed to have forgotten when he made his technically impractical and politically unpopular offer of Wales as an alternative host for Trident if Scotland goes independent. Among the English, only the Green Party has a clear, rational policy on nuclear disarmament, but opinion polls show that a significant – and growing – majority of people in England now oppose Trident renewal.

As global nuclear disarmament strategies are now coalescing to lay the groundwork for a multilateral treaty that will ban these weapons of mass destruction for good, Britain appears stuck in a time warp. Liberal Democrat MPs have been hitched up to vain efforts to find a cheaper way to stay nuclear, though the cracks have widened since the dismissal of Nick Harvey from his role as Armed Forces Minister and convenor of the Trident Alternatives Review. And when Ed Miliband should be demonstrating Labour’s foresight and constructive alternatives for UK security without nuclear weapons, he seems scared to pull the parliamentary party out of Blair’s short-sighted 2007 trap. By contrast with the timid policies of the party leaders, most Labour and Lib-Dem supporters have understood that Trident’s days are numbered and the billions of pounds earmarked for its replacement need to be directed towards our real security needs, including investment in sustainable energy production and environmental protection measures, not to mention education and health.

It can be argued that despite being supported by over 180 nations, the CTBT has not entered into force. That is because some of the nuclear-armed states placed the structural bar for entry into force much higher than with any other comparable treaty. Early in 1994 UK diplomats originated and then pushed vociferously throughout the CTBT negotiations for the extraordinarily stringent requirement that every possible nuclear capable state must sign and ratify the treaty before it could enter into force.  Unfortunately, they were successful – the last kick of Tory opposition to the treaty before they were ousted in 1997. Yet even though China and the US have not yet managed to ratify the CTBT, and India and North Korea have continued to express their reluctance to sign, the practical political fact is that this treaty has already worked better than expected. It has established a worldwide verification regime and turned nuclear testing from a high status demonstration of nuclear prowess into a pariah activity that responsible states cannot pursue.

The UK lacked the political vision in the 1990s to plan for a time when nuclear testing would be banned, and wasted resources and political capital trying to resist the inevitable when the time came. The CTBT has undoubtedly constrained new nuclear developments, but it wasn’t designed to prevent nuclear proliferation, modernisation or other dangers of nuclear weapons production and deployment. The next step – and one that presents Britain with important choices for our future – is likely to be a new multilateral treaty to comprehensively ban the use, deployment, production and transfer of all nuclear weapons and provide for their verified elimination. This is the strategic objective of a growing number of national and international campaign networks, and supported by over 140 UN member states. It would be a pity if the UK repeats its past mistakes and wastes billions more on starting to replace Trident because our leaders are unable to read the writing on the wall.

( This article was first published in 2012 ).

Rebecca Johnson is speaking at the Nobel Women's Initiative's fourth international conference Beyond Militarism and War: women driven solutions for a nonviolent world in Belfast May 28-31. Read 50.50's full coverage of the conference.  Read more articles on 50.50 from earlier Nobel Women's Initiative conferences

About the author

Rebecca Johnson is the Executive Director of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy and Co-Chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).