After the NPT extension: testing 3, 2, 1...

By Metta Spencer | 1995-09-01 12:00:00

The NPT Extension Conference ended on May 12 in New York with a decision to extend the Treaty permanently. The nuclear powers generally wanted this outcome, but they had been opposed by a small group of non-aligned states that wanted the Treaty to be extended for fixed periods of five years, to be renewed on the condition that progress was made during the first interval toward a CTB and actual disarmament. Neither side got its way completely. The nuclear states accepted a degree of accountability as demanded by the non-nuclear states. For example, all states agreed to encourage "all states" to join the NPT; this apparently bland clause actually was meant to refer to Israel in particular, and the Americans' willingness to accept it was especially important to the Arab states.

Many states and nongovernmental organizations demanded the elimination of all nuclear weapons, rightly accusing the nuclear powers of having failed to keep their part of the original agreement. Yet after complaining, most states accepted the indefinite extension without conditions. The non-aligned group of countries found themselves too weak to demand conditions. However, they did insist on more accountability and Canada took the lead in promoting this compromise position. It was South Africa that bridged the gap, producing a proposal that gave the non-weapon states some leverage, without making the extension actually conditional on compliance with their demands. Vice President Gore accepted the South African approach.

Thus, without taking a vote, the states reached an agreement that calls for a review conference every five years, just as there had been reviews throughout the first 25 years. Moreover, a set of seven objectives and principles was established which should be studied at those review conferences. These included universality; nonproliferation; nuclear disarmament; nuclear-weapon free zones; security assurances; safeguards; and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Nevertheless, the language outlining all these objectives was not strong enough or specific enough to satisfy many of the non-nuclear states. In one respect, however, the agreement was extremely specific: it called for a CTB to be concluded in 1996. Because the terms were not satisfactory, the conference never agreed upon a Final Declaration. Still, by the end the nuclear states had made stronger promises than before--agreements that some participants considered "politically binding," if not truly binding in a legal sense.

But did the nuclear states actually consider themselves politically committed to these agreements? Canadian peace activists had opposed the indefinite extension of the NPT all along, predicting that the nuclear states would feel free to demonstrate their disregard, if not contempt, for the rest of world opinion. This prediction seemed to come true, beginning with China.

China's Renewed Nuclear Testing

On May 15, three days after the conclusion of the NPT conference, China conducted its 42nd nuclear test. China had been expected to resume its testing, but not so soon--especially just after the nuclear nations had agreed to use "utmost restraint" until the CTB Treaty is reached.

Their blast, set off in Lop Nor, the test site in western China, was equivalent to between 40 and 150 kilotonnes of TNT. Some reports foresee that as many as five more tests will be carried out there in 1995 and 1996.

The Chinese responded to worldwide criticism of their tests by declaring themselves willing to stop testing as soon as the CTB enters into force, probably considerably later than their previous pledge to stop testing as soon as the CTB is ratified. This new statement seems to hint that the Chinese will continue testing throughout that interim period.

Five Greenpeace activists held a demonstration in Beijing on August 15, but were instantly arrested. However, the Chinese were not alone in reversing the agreements made at the NPT extension conference; the French had followed suit almost as quickly.

Chirac Goes For Further French Testing

While campaigning for office, President Jacques Chirac never exactly stated his policy about nuclear testing. Shortly after the elections in May, however, the new Defence Minister announced that probably more tests would be needed to "guarantee the effectiveness and security of our nuclear arsenal." Chirac soon made it clear that he agreed. Seven or eight tests will be conducted in the Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia before any CTB is in place.

When the French plan was officially announced in June 4, a worldwide protest movement began to take shape. Especially throughout the Pacific region, people were outraged. Former President Mitterrand condemned the decision and told the press that "the time has come to put an end to the nuclear armaments race." By June 14, the International Peace Bureau had issued a call for the boycott of French wine, cheese, perfume, and tourism. Demonstrators met to protest outside French consulates around the world. Virtually every politician in New Zealand spoke out in opposition to the move, recalling the tragic events that happened a decade earlier when a French team sank the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, in their Auckland harbor, killing photographer Fernando Pereira.

Again Greenpeace's intrepid ships set out for Mururoa to try to impede the tests, followed at a distance of about 10 miles by a French warship. The Rainbow Warrior II entered the 12-mile exclusion zone around Mururoa on July 9, on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the bombing of the first Rainbow Warrior. They launched four inflatables, at least one of which managed to reach the lagoon at the atoll. Just then, however, the French ship rammed the Greenpeace ship and some 150 French Commandos came aboard; they knocked down doors, smashed windows, threw tear gas into the Warrior, captured the ship's crew and the five journalists who were on board, and cut communication between the ship and the outside world. The captured crew was treated extremely roughly, but within one day they were released. Three of the Greenpeace activists, including David McTaggart of Vancouver, remained at large in their inflatable boats for several days.

People around the world expressed their outrage by demonstrating and asking their governments to take action as well. Some did so. In Germany, for example, the government vigorously expressed displeasure. (How could it do otherwise when an estimated 95 percent of the population disapproved of further nuclear testing by anyone?) France came out of this conflict looking terrible, while Greenpeace gained support by their daring exploits.

The Safety Factor

The French claim that nuclear tests are safe and that no harm will come to the inhabitants of the Pacific islands. Greenpeace contradicted this statement by noting that the French had refused to release a confidential safety report that it had carried out late last year under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency. About 20 random samples (including crustaceans, fish, shellfish, and soil) had been taken from four areas of the Mururoa lagoon. Greenpeace reported that the study had found elevated levels of the radionuclide Cobalt-60, probably left behind from old atmospheric tests conducted some years ago.

Jean-Luc Thierry, of Greenpeace France, said, "If testing is so safe, why have the medical records of workers at Mururoa been kept secret, and why has no long-term follow-up study of worker health been conducted? It is simply not credible to make claims of complete health and environmental safety on the basis of a few samples. It is now indisputable that fallout from atmospheric testing will lead to 430,000 excess cancer fatalities worldwide by the year 2000. To claim that atmospheric tests had no ecological or health consequences goes against all the evidence from other nuclear weapon states and from the international scientific community." Thierry added that any proper examination of the effects of the underground tests would require that many hundreds of tests and samples be taken.

Protesters at the demonstration held in Toronto read aloud the letters of several island inhabitants and French individuals, including a customs official and a clean-up worker who had been present during previous tests. These people told terrible stories about the deaths and disabilities of their own offspring, as well as about tons of dead fish and whales that washed ashore after a test, and stories about the careless way in which clothing and other contaminated objects were burned and the loose ashes dumped out of doors.

Dorothy Goldin Rosenberg spoke of Canada's complicity in the production of nuclear weapons. Canada is the largest uranium producer in the world and there is Canadian uranium in most bombs that were built. Rosenberg also offered one explanation for Prime Minister Chretien's failure to denounce the French tests, or even to raise the question publicly during the recent G7 summit in Halifax. She theorized that there had been an implicit deal made between Chretien and Chirac: Chirac would say nothing about Quebec sovereignty if Chretien would say nothing about French nuclear testing.

What Are The Americans Planning?

Finally, Terry Gardner of Science for Peace spoke at the Toronto demonstration, posing an important question about the true intentions of the United States government with respect to future testing. Gardner anticipates that the promised CTB will turn out to be full of holes unless political pressure is brought to bear on U.S. policy.

In April it was disclosed that the Pentagon is urging President Clinton todrop his support for a CTB in favor of a new threshold testing treaty that would permit underground nuclear tests up to yields of 300 or 500 tons. A threshold treaty already exists limiting tests to 150 kilotons, so the proposed treaty would reduce the maximum. Nevertheless, it would allow the further development of nuclear weapons, both on the part of existing, declared nuclear powers and other countries that are not party to the NPT.

To check out this story, I phoned the National Resources Defence Council in Washington in April and spoke with Christopher Paine, who had issued the report to the press the previous week. Paine said that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Department of Defense do not accept the goal of the CTB, and are seeking to overthrow that objective and to negotiate a low threshold test ban instead. "The Clinton administration is waffling," Paine had said, "as it does on everything... It's conceivable that if the NPT is extended indefinitely, the nuclear weapons states will walk away from the CTB. It's possible. The Russians have. Their position has gotten progressively worse, not better during the negotiations. U.S.-Russian relations are going downhill fast, deteriorating... The Russians are seeking to test at higher yields."

I was astonished. "You mean the Russians would go along with the American proposal for a CTB that really isn't a CTB?"

That's correct," said Paine. "At this point, I think they would prefer that. The whole policy process over there is in disarray and policy is really made by the agencies concerned. So the Ministry of Atomic Energy is essentially making the policy on nuclear testing at this point. Perhaps that's an overstatement, but they have a very large influence on it. Here in the U.S. the constituencies are split. Even within the weapons laboratories there are people who favor a Comprehensive Test Ban because they see their future as involved in the 'Stockpile Stewardship Program'--weapons physics without nuclear testing. There's been a big debate in the U.S. as to whether the U.S. can get along without any nuclear tests by relying on new experimental facilities to provide the necessary data to maintain the stockpile or whether they need to test. The divisions on this issue go down even to the laboratory level. This issue is in a state of flux even in the United States. There isn't as well honed a position as it might appear."

At Parliamentarians Global Action

Paine's worry--that Clinton might forego a CTB in favor of a new threshold test ban--was widely shared for a few weeks after the NPT Extension Conference, but by early August, President Clinton announced his government's firm commitment to cease all nuclear testing permanently and to press for a CTB that will be genuinely comprehensive. This statement should put an end to international questions about the American position.

Clinton's new decisiveness may have been encouraged by the world-wide opposition to the French tests.

During the early skirmishes of the Greenpeace versus French Commandos, I phoned Aaron Tovish, Executive Director of Parliamentarians Global Action in New York.

I think the French are in a more difficult political situation now," he said immediately, "because there was an indefinite extension. I'm not arguing that the indefinite extension was the better decision. I'm just saying that I think that the French are more vulnerable to criticism because of it."

Wouldn't it also be harder," I had asked him, "for the U.S. to renege from a CTB in favor of another threshold test ban treaty?"

Right," Tovish agreed. "The commitment to achieve a comprehensive test ban is as clear as anyone could wish. The proposal to allow testing of a half-kiloton bomb is outrageous. With that you could fully test mini-nukes, which apparently is what the Pentagon is most interested in. We already have weapons that could be considered mini-nukes but they are not in the ideal form for that type of deployment. I don't think Congress is interested in testing such things, but there are people who haven't given up yet on that stuff and they need to be read the riot act: It's over! The days of nuclear weapons development are over! "Stewardship," or whatever they call it, is now just a matter of keeping your bombs polished.

Do you think Chirac is surprised by the outcry?" I asked.

Yes," Tovish replied. "And I think he's going to continue to be surprised by it. It's going to grow. This thing is going to wake people up to the fact that their leaders haven't recognized that the Cold War is over. They are still wasting money on paranoid scenarios that have no relationship to the world. The French testing program is based on the plan to modernize the French nuclear forces that began to be developed about fifteen years ago, carrying it to the year 2005, when they plan to have an entirely new submarine force, entirely new aircraft, an entirely new air delivery force, with new delivery vehicles, new platforms, and new warheads. They've figured out that with eight tests they can probably do the job in a shorter time scale, so they are trying to fit all of that in. The fact is, there is absolutely no need for it."

What do polls show about European public opinion on these French tests?

I heard that 95 percent in Germany are opposed and 60 percent in France are opposed to the testing," Tovish said. "And in the South Pacific, people have taken every opportunity to express their displeasure at the French coming into their region to do this. The French have arrogantly ignored it.

I think that the opposition to the French testing is going to spill over against the Chinese," he added. "There was a sense that the Chinese were going to do it their own way but would come into an agreement. But the French had helped to initiate the moratorium, having joined Russia before the U.S. or Britain had stopped testing, and there's a sense that the French are undermining the process now."

Were Tovish and his organization satisfied with the outcome of the NPT Extension Conference?

We were quite happy with the fact that the review process has been strengthened, beginning in '97," he replied. "We started advocating that way back in December. Initially people weren't very interested in it, but eventually it became one of the key elements in the Extension agreement. Our organization, Parliamentarians Global Action, didn't take a position on how long the treaty should be extended. We thought that was a red herring. Unless some important things are accomplished in the next five to fifteen years, it's not going to make that much difference for how long the treaty's extended. I personally leaned against an NPT of indefinite duration. To me the basic issue was, is this a temporary treaty that needs to be superseded by a more important, far-reaching agreement? Or is it part of the final architecture that we're aiming for? I don't think it qualifies as a piece of the final architecture.

I didn't really buy the argument that limiting the duration of the treaty gave the non-nuclear states a lot of leverage over the nuclear powers. It was very hard to use the extension decision as leverage because, ifyou try that, it casts you in the role of bad guy. It was hard to rally moderate countries to that position. And it was not possible to argue against the NPT on principle. That debate was completely steamrollered by very effective diplomacy by the United States and the people who have the diplomatic resources to go out and it. The opposition, the non-aligned countries, were in shambles."

Did he feel there is any prospect of getting a better treaty in the future?

Yeah, I'm an optimist," said Tovish. "I think we can get a treaty that bans the production of nuclear weapons across the board, so that everyone has to submit to the same verification, and nobody is in the business of acquiring weapons. Once testing stops, they'll see they have no use for production. And once you stop production, there's no point in doing low-yield testing either because you're not going to produce it. I don't worry about possible minor loopholes in the test ban because I think the way to address it is to go after the question of production. Once the cutoff of fissile material is in place, the next thing is production.

Have you heard," he asked, "of the 'Zero Alert Option?' No? The basic idea is that there's no reason why all the weapons can't be taken off their launch platforms and all the warheads can't be taken off the delivery vehicles. Make sure they're stored separately. The weapons are still there but they're not in a crisis deployment. They'll just start gathering dust and people will start questioning why we have these things. We have no reason to want to destroy Russia at a moment's notice and they have no reason to want to destroy us, so this whole posturing is completely out of whack with political reality. It's going to take some time to catch on but I think with proper promotion, it could come in the next five years."

Not The Time To Relax

It is a joy to speak with a man like Aaron Tovish, or to witness those Greenpeace folks in their inflatable boats giving the French Commandos a hard time. The protests are not stopping. On August 8, New Zealand said it would seek an order at the World Court to block France's tests, and Australia promised to support this challenge.

Nevertheless, we have to stay on our toes. Lots of people in the world still want to make newer and better nuclear weapons. As soon as the peace movement turns to other pressing matters, these weaponeers spring into action. But we will not let up. Public opinion all around the world demands the abolition of these terrible devices--but public opinion counts for nothing if it is not translated into political pressure. Perhaps we should be glad the heavy-handed French reminded us of that fact. We won't forget it again.

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1995

Peace Magazine Sep-Oct 1995, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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