Home Articles Features Remarks to CNDP 10th Congress Delhi 10 Dec 2010

Remarks to CNDP 10th Congress Delhi 10 Dec 2010

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India and Global Nuclear Disarmament

First of all let me acknowledge what an honour and a privilege it is to share a platform with Mani Shankar Aiyar, Sukla, and Prof. Achin Vanaik, Much of what I have to say directly concerns Mani, and his creation, the Rajiv Gandhi Peace Plan.

When that plan appeared in 1988 it was perhaps, a year or two too early. However, in stating that the large-scale use of nuclear weapons would mean in effect not just the destruction of civilisation but possibly of the human species, I believe the Rajiv Gandhi Peace Plan said what needed to be said. These remain the stakes for which the nuclear disarmament game is to be played even now. The catastrophic global climatic effects of large-scale and even of subcontinental, nuclear weapons use, especially when nuclear weapons are used for their 'default function', namely the destruction of cities, needs to be brought to public attention and to the political spotlight over and over again. The recent (2006) work by Toon and Robock, essentially a recalculation and re-run of the 'nuclear winter' model with the most up to date NASA atmospheric models, painstakingly peer-reviewed and published in the most reputable physics and climate science journals, simply proves that Rajiv's remarks to the General Assembly all those years ago were right on the mark - and still are.

Let's go over the grim details, just so we know, of exactly what a large nuclear exchange would still do, and what a subcontinental exchange would do.

The US and Russia continue to maintain some 2000+ nuclear warheads each (out of a total of approx 23,000 warheads between them), on 'high alert' status, meaning that they can be launched in less than 2 minutes. The fact that these warheads can be launched in such short timeframes means that during an emergency, decisions as to their use must be made very very quickly, giving the president of the US (and Russia) less than 8 minutes to make decisions that are truly apocalyptic.

Assuming that in a crisis, a decision is made (probably in error) to use these warheads, that would mean that - if these warheads are all used for city busting - that up to 4,000 cities would immediately be destroyed (within 40 minutes), turning each of them into a firestorm in which up to a million people would instantaneously perish, and giving a 'prompt' body-count of up to 50% of the worlds population.

As the 2-4,000 cities burn, approximately 150 million tonnes of very dark soot is lofted into the upper stratosphere, where it stays for up to a decade. The effect of this dark material in the upper atmosphere is to drastically lower temperatures world wide, in both the northern and the Southern Hemisphere. There would then be up to a decade in which worldwide temperatures would drop to levels not seen since the last ice-age. An aging Soviet Academy of Science publication ('The Night After'), suitably adorned with an Albrecht Durer horsepersons of the Apocalypse, actually shows at one point, subzero temperatures at the equator. If that were to take place the 95% of complex life - forms that live in tropical jungles will perish. This is of course a worst-case projection.

The results of subcontinental nuclear war, while they do not quite amount to the end of the world for everyone else, would clearly bring about the complete destruction of both India and Pakistan as functioning societies, the destruction of ALL of Pakistan, and the destruction of all India's main cities, infrastructure, and of course, government. Estimates of 'prompt' bodycounts range from millions through tens of millions and up to 150 and even 300 million, as fallout from the destruction of Pakistan drifts back (as it will under any conditions other than monsoon) - over India.

A study by Ira Helfand of PSR suggests that the smoke from the burning of Indian and Pakistani cities would then cause a global 'year without a summer' in which large-scale crop failure would bring up to a further billion deaths from starvation.

All of this indicates the essential sanity of the Rajiv Gandhi peace plan and especially of its emphasis on the catastrophic humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons use, and therefore of the overwhelming need to GET REAL about the abolition of nuclear weapons. In this context, the inclusion of reference to the 'catastrophic humanitarian consequences' of the use of nuclear weapons in the last NPT Review Conference final document is highly significant.

But are we any closer to actually getting rid of nukes? And if we fail what are the possible nuclear flashpoints?

STARTING (and stopping) START

In 1990, the US and Russia signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, since known as START. START expired last December. It's successor is 'New START', which after all the hype about going to nuclear zero, has been somewhat underwhelming, envisaging as it does modest cuts of  between 20 and 30% in warhead totals, as applied to 'operational strategic weapons', compared to the very elastic 'Moscow Treaty' which goes out of existence the second it comes into force in 2012, and was signed by Bush and Putin. Ratification of the New START Treaty would mean that there was at least an ongoing framework for monitoring US and Russian arsenals however, and would perhaps provide for further progress.

New START does nothing - in spite of UN resolutions urging progress in this area - to lower the high alert status of US and Russian arsenals, so thousands of strategic warheads will STILL be launchable in minutes.  And worse still, the 'deal' that has been struck with the US nuclear weapons establishment envisages the largest expenditures EVER on the US nuclear weapons complex. Finally it seems entirely probable that in spite of the $85 billion modernisation package, START will not be ratified at all.  The terms in which the current debate on new START are taking place in Washington seem to have been hijacked by the 'Tea - party', and indicate a 'Washington consensus' 'bubble' quite at variance with the rest of the world and with reality, in which the only thing that matters is to ensure that the US maintains its capability to terminate civilisation at roughly 2 minutes notice.

In the event that new START is NOT ratified, especially if the modernisation package goes through anyway (and Obama has not indicated that he will veto it if START falls over), much of the momentum toward zero nuclear weapons is in danger of being lost. There is at least the danger that in the absence of an over-arching treaty framework and verification system, the US and Russia may return to a nuclear arms race.  This sends out an absolutely terrible signal to the rest of the world.

The scene here on the subcontinent is not exactly promising either, though it could be a lot worse (and has been a lot worse). While it might be a slight exaggeration to describe what is going on between India and Pakistan as exactly an 'arms race', and there is certainly not the kind of confrontation there was in 2002-3, Pakistan, according to a Wikileaks document is making more nuclear warheads than any other country at the moment, while India recently tested missiles. (To put this into perspective, it must be noted that the US tests missiles at Vandenberg every 2-3 months.) And there is not the spate of both Pakistani and Indian missile tests that took place last time I was at a CNDP conference.  But it hardly equals the confidence-building measures and the nuclear build-down that are really needed to put Indian and Pakistani relations onto a stable footing for the foreseeable future. Above all I believe India and Pakistan need to create ongoing processes and institutions between them that will carry on a process of rapprochement and tension elimination that will proceed regardless of the day-to-day political ups and downs on either side, and regardless of even catastrophic terrorist events (while thereby making such events less likely).

There is one more specific issue on which India has over the years played an important role in the UN and that is de-alerting. De-alerting is of vital importance because by drastically diminishing the likelihood of accidental nuclear war bought about by computer and/or human error, it literally 'takes the apocalypse off the agenda' or nearly so. India continues (and I hope will continue to) sponsor the resolution 'Reducing Nuclear Dangers' in First Committee and in the General Assembly.  This resolution has unfortunately tended to gather support from what has been unjustly and derisively termed the 'NAM Ghetto' by folks who forget that NAM covers approximately 3/4 of all the worlds governments and that it is they who are in the 'NATO Ghetto''. However, support from non - NAM and especially US allies, is vital to give a resolution on operational readiness, however excellent its text, the 'purchase' it needs to be effective. It was this consideration that led myself and other international activists, armed with an appeal from 44 nobels, to urge the government of New Zealand, who were quickly joined by Sweden, Switzerland, Chile, Malaysia and Nigeria, in 2006, to put up a resolution on operational readiness that would attract as broad support as possible. With the aid of a series of panels organised by myself and Steven Starr, and much energetic lobbying of UNGA, we have managed to make the operational readiness resolution consistently the one with the 'buzz' in First Committee. I view the Reducing Nuclear Danger, and the Operational Readiness resolution as complimentary: Reducing Nuclear Danger has in my view a stronger text, while Operational Readiness is clearly worded to give as little excuse to not vote for it as possible by NATO members and others.  The two resolutions should complement, not compete, with each other. I would encourage India to talk to the sponsors of the Operational Readiness resolution with a view to maximising the effectiveness of both resolutions as a means of pressing for a lowering in operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems. Maybe India's new-found international respectability could be utilised for that  purpose.

India can and I believe should, place a high priority on playing a key role in a global movement to zero nuclear weapons. Ultimately it will have to make choices as to whether to prioritise its own short - term security or the longer term security of the entire planet as it does this. However even as it does this it should remember that nuclear weapons do not in fact bring security at all, but merely make ones opponents obtain more of them, lowering rather than enhancing security. Ultimately the best guarantee of India's security is a stable and friendly relationship with its somewhat erratic neighbour, leading to a denuclearised South Asia and a denuclearised world.

In the other direction lies increased tension, increased spending on doomsday weapons, and, ultimately, an entirely avoidable apocalypse.
Last Updated on Sunday, 08 February 2015 22:10