Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence

Memorandum from MEDACT

  MEDACT is a UK charity of health professionals concerned with the health effects of nuclear weapons, conflict, poverty and the environment. It is the UK affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW: Nobel Peace Prize 1985). Medact welcomes this opportunity to submit evidence to the House of Commons Defence Committee on the White Paper on the Future of the UK's Nuclear Deterrent.

  1. Our evidence addresses the Government's views as expressed in the White Paper in detail on pp 2-8. In summary we make the following points:

    (a)  The UK's possession of nuclear weapons—far from ensuring national security—contributes to a more unstable international security environment.

    (b)  Nuclear weapons are recognised to be the most deadly and devastating weapons of mass destruction (WMD). They cause massive physical and social destruction with catastrophic consequences for health, making an effective medical response impossible.

    (c)  The nature of nuclear threats has changed and deterrence as outlined in the White Paper will not be able to avert the new dangers.

    (d)  Further proliferation will greatly increase the risk of nuclear accident, inadvertent use, acquisition opportunities for terrorists and other non-state actors, and the possibility of a nuclear exchange.

    (e)  The indiscriminate nature of a nuclear weapon—whatever the yield—means that it cannot conform to international humanitarian law (IHL) and this has in fact been recognised in legal judgements at the highest level.

    (f)  That the present tentative plans to reduce the UK arsenal in the absence of any ongoing nuclear disarmament discussions, concurrently with a stated intent to carry out new nuclear procurement, does in fact put the UK in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).


  2.  Nuclear weapons are recognised to be the most deadly and devastating weapons of mass destruction, distinct from conventional and even other WMD in terms of their destructive power and long-term effects. The Government advocates the continued possession of nuclear weapons as an insurance policy against the possibility that other states will develop them. However continued possession by the Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) is likely to have the opposite effect.

  3.  It is widely accepted that in the international and intrastate conflicts of the second half of the 20th century there was no relevant role for nuclear weapons. Even during the Cold War, the fact that they were nuclear powers did not enable the US or Russia to gain their objectives in Vietnam or Afghanistan respectively. Nuclear developments in North Korea and Iran and revelations of the activities of Dr A.Q. Khan (Pakistan) have exacerbated concerns about the attraction of nuclear weapons for weak leaders and non-state actors. The continued retention, maintenance and manufacture of nuclear weapons by the NWS will not deter these developments but will on the contrary add to the risks of and impetus towards proliferation. If the NWS continue to proclaim the value and indispensability of their nuclear deterrents in the 21st century, they increase the incentive for other nations to acquire nuclear weapons.

  4.  The concept of deterrence depends on the perceptions of those involved, and it can only function if there is some level of shared values between the protagonists. Further, the parties involved must be able to communicate, comprehend and make similar rational calculations. The complexity of communications and interactions on which deterrence would have to rely would massively increase the risks of its failure. Paradoxically, the position may be reached where the possession of nuclear weapons renders a nation more likely to be the target of a nuclear attack. [1,2]

  5.  The nature of nuclear threats has changed and the main nuclear dangers include:

    (a)  Proliferation to states with aggressive intent.

    (b)  Regional rivalries between two nuclear armed states.

    (c)  Weak states or non-state actors gaining access to fissile material to make a nuclear weapon or dirty bomb.

    (d)  Adoption of nuclear deterrence doctrines by governments as a political strategy for domestic control and to ward off outside interventions.

    (e)  Further development of doctrines of nuclear pre-emption and retaliation.

    (f)  The use by a NWS of a nuclear weapon against a Non-Nuclear Weapon State (NNWS) with the rationale of protecting its "vital interests".

  6.  These threats are inter-related and compounded by the continued possession of nuclear arsenals by a small number of states. Clearly, the risk that nuclear weapons will be used rises the more they spread around the world. This is especially relevant when proliferation occurs in unstable regions or if the weapons come into the possession of non-state actors. The risks are also increased when nuclear weapons are deployed on high alert or in ways that invite pre-emptive attack and exacerbate the risk of accidental use.

  7.  There appears to be a trend towards slow nuclear proliferation, with states gradually crossing the nuclear threshold one by one. Western governments, especially the NWS, take the optimistic view that slow proliferation can be contained and that most non-nuclear states will stay non-nuclear within the terms of the NPT. However the credibility of the NPT is being undermined not only by the statements and actions of the leaders of North Korea and Iran but more importantly by the actions of the current Administration of the United States and by the failure of a number of the NPT parties, including the NWS, to fulfil their obligations in good faith. We believe that the decision by the UK Government to replace Trident in any form could well hasten such proliferation.

  8.  If the non-proliferation regime is allowed to erode further there is a risk that global restraints will crash, causing a cascade of proliferation with perhaps 30 countries becoming nuclear capable within 10 years. Such an increased level of proliferation would decrease security and stability worldwide and greatly increase the risks of nuclear accident, inadvertent use, acquisition opportunities for terrorists and other non-state actors and the possibility of a nuclear exchange. [3,4]

  9.  The US-driven shift from norm-based non-proliferation to counter-proliferation has weakened some of the essential infrastructure that the international community needs for combating nuclear proliferation.

  10.  By deciding not to replace Trident and then using its considerable influence to strengthen international law and exert pressure for full implementation of resolutions and treaties, UK could do much to restore and reinvigorate the international non-proliferation regime. In 1989 the then President of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, by instituting a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, started a cascade of international disarmament measures. The UK could act similarly and, by taking the decision not to renew the Trident missile system, act as a catalyst for the international community to commence global nuclear disarmament.


  11.  Any use of nuclear weapons creates a highly radioactive fireball which generates an intense blast wave, a heat flash, "prompt" radiation and radioactive fallout. Any use is therefore likely to cause "superfluous injury and unnecessary suffering" to targeted combatants and to expose non-combatants (civilians of an attacked state or of neutrals) to the risk of radiation sickness, to leukaemia and other cancers for decades to come, and perhaps genetic change leading to harmful mutations in succeeding generations. For such reasons, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in Paragraph 105 (2) E of its Advisory Opinion, [5] stated that: "the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of international humanitarian law." (Earlier, in para. 47, it stated that if the use of any weapon is illegal under IHL, the threat of such use is also illegal.) The Court could not "... conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake." In his Declaration, the then President of the Court, Judge Bedjaoui, emphasised however that this possible reservation did not constitute an authorisation of use, and that any such use would still have to accord with IHL in respect of indiscriminate effects.

  12.  The White Paper justifies the replacement of Trident on the need to deter possible future nuclear threats to the UK. We would point out that "deterrence" in this sense, even if spun under such language as our nuclear arms being "purely political weapons", constitutes threat of use. We further suggest that it is virtually impossible to imagine a use of Trident or a successor that would be legal within the constraints laid down by the ICJ.

Replacing Trident Would Undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

  13.  The NPT [6] was opened for signature in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. The UK is a Depositary State for the treaty, which defines a nuclear weapon state as one which exploded a nuclear device before 1 January 1967; but, contrary to statements by some Government ministers, there is no implication that such a state is in any way authorised to continue to possess nuclear weapons.

  14.  Indeed, under Article VI of the treaty, all States Parties undertake "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament." In Para. 105 (2) F of its Advisory Opinion [5], the ICJ interpreted Article VI as an obligation to pursue such negotiations and bring them to a conclusion [our italics].

  15.  In the Final Document of the 2000 Review Conference of the NPT, States Parties, including the UK, accepted a 13-point list of "Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament" [7]. Two of these which are particularly relevant to Trident and its possible replacement read as follows:

    "(6)  An unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals, leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States Parties are committed under Article VI." And:

    "(8)  Further efforts by the nuclear-weapons states to reduce their nuclear weapons unilaterally."

  16.  The White Paper only briefly discusses the legality issue and the NPT. The possibility of reducing the submarines to three and warheads to 160 might be claimed to be in accord with Principle (8) above, but is only tentative. The White Paper implies that Trident replacement will be in order to maintain nuclear capability until 2050. At present no negotiations towards nuclear disarmament are taking place, and it is hard to see how the UK could participate in any in good faith having just committed itself to a procurement programme costing £20 billion or so.

  17.  Two reports on the legality of Trident replacement and its possible use in relation to the NPT by specialists in international law have recently been published [8,9]. Both reports suggest that the Government's position, as subsequently outlined in the White Paper, is faulty. They advise that any use (and therefore also threat of use—see our para. 11 above), and, by implication, the UK Government's retention and replacement of Trident, is a material breach of Article VI of the NPT.


  18.  In view of the above arguments, we conclude that the Government must carefully consider the serious concerns regarding the legality of the UK's strategy on use of nuclear weapons; whether the use of Trident would be compatible with international humanitarian law, and the legality of replacing or upgrading the present system. We also believe the Government would be well advised to look to other possible ways of maintaining UK security into the second half of this century. We therefore make three recommendations:


  19.  Both in its submission to the 2005 NPT Review Conference, and again in the White Paper, the Government emphasises its commitment to the NPT. Internationally, the treaty is regarded as the keystone of the nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation process, and it is vital that our policies should not in any way undermine it. Yet, as noted, expert opinion is that replacing Trident would do just this. We therefore recommend that, as a key part of its deliberations upon the appropriateness of the replacement of Trident, the Committee should invite the authors of the legal opinions cited [8,9], to appear before it, and for the Attorney-General or his representative to respond in detail to their critique.


  20.  We recommend that the UK Government gives consideration to the concept of sustainable non-proliferation. It is essential to assess the balance between the assured dangers of widespread proliferation and the difficulties and uncertainties of global nuclear disarmament. Article VI of the NPT made disarmament an indispensable part of the non-proliferation equation. However, it is unlikely that any government would consider renouncing the option of such a powerful weapon if it thought that other governments would keep them indefinitely.

  21.  The alternative to prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons is not the status quo in which the UK remains one of the privileged "haves", but a planned integrated time-bound verifiable and policed approach to joint measures for disarmament and non-proliferation. Common security is best promoted when disarmament is integrated with non-proliferation responsibilities. We therefore suggest the following integrated approach to disarmament and non-proliferation:

    (a)  Reinforce international laws and norms of the regimes with more effective policing and measures for compliance, enforcement and verification.

    (b)  Implement further deep cuts in nuclear arsenals.

    (c)  Legislate to make any use of nuclear weapons illegal in the form of a Nuclear Weapons Convention (as with Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions).

    (d)  Require each NW possessing nation to develop a time-tied coherent plan to implement their disarmament obligations under the NPT.

    (e)  Legislate to make the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) either for weapons purposes or for civil nuclear reactors illegal.

    (f)  Freeze the financial resources of those who constitute a nuclear threat.

    (g)  Address perceptions of insecurity such as regional conflict, injustice and discrimination, especially with regard to access to education and resources.

    (h)  Research the causes of terrorism and act on this to reduce the likelihood of people resorting to this strategy. (10)


  22.  We urge the Committee to conclude, and advise HMG accordingly, that the expenditure of some £20 billion in procurement and a further £50 billion in running costs on a weapons system which could never be used in accordance with IHL would be unjustified.


  1.  General Lee Butler. Speech to the National Press Club Washington DC 1996.

  2.   Facing Nuclear Dangers. Report of Tokyo Forum for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. Japan Institute of International affairs 1999.

  3.  John P Holdren. The future role of nuclear weapons in international relations presentation to the National Academy of Sciences Washington DC July 2005.

  4.  Scott D Sagan and Kenneth N Waltz. The spread of nuclear weapons, a debate renewed 2003.

  5.   Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. ICJ Reports 1996.

  6.   Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, 1970. Available inter alia in Report of the Inquiry into the Legality of Nuclear Weapons, 2004: Appendix 1: At:

  7.   Nuclear Disarmament Plan of Actions, NPT Review Conference, 2000. Available inter alia in Report of the Inquiry into the Legality of Nuclear Weapons, 2004: Appendix 2: At:

  8.  Rabinder Singh QC & Prof Christine Chinkin. (Matrix, Gray's Inn, London WC1R 5LN) The Maintenance and Possible Replacement of the Trident Nuclear Missile System. Peacerights, December 2005. At:

  9.  Philippe Sands QC & Helen Law. (Matrix, Gray's Inn, London WC1R 5LN), The United Kingdom's Nuclear Deterrent: Current and Future Issues of Legality. Greenpeace, November 2006. Available at:

  10.  Rebecca Johnson. Integrated Disarmament—a prerequisite for sustainable non-proliferation' Disarmament Diplomacy 82 Spring 2006.

12 January 2007

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