Britain now has more nuclear weapons on its territory than any European state apart from Russia, following confirmation by Ukrainian officials yesterday that 90 per cent of the warheads on their soil had been returned to Russia, heir to the former Soviet Union.
But in spite of that, the number of nuclear weapons in Europe has reduced dramatically in the past decade and arms control experts yesterday hailed the return of the Ukrainian weapons to Russia as a great success.
Defence ministers from the United States, Russia and Ukraine watched yesterday as a nuclear missile silo was blown up at the military base of Pervomaisk, 180 miles south of Kiev, in a ceremony underlining the success of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (Start), in spite of the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
The Ukrainian Defence Minister, Velery Shmarov, described the destruction of the underground silo - once home to six SS-19 Stiletto intercontinental ballistic missiles, each able to carry six nuclear warheads for 7,000 miles - as an "important political event". The ceremony concluded a two- day visit to Ukraine by the US Defence Secretary, William Perry, and the Russian Defence Minister, General Pavel Grachev. The presence of defence ministers from two superpowers was highly significant. General Grachev had blown up a US missile silo in October
But the ceremony was delayed four hours after poor weather meant that the ministers' aircraft had to be diverted to an airfield farther from the missile site. The plane slid off the icy runway on landing, but no one was hurt.
Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, the spectre of several nuclear-armed states arose. The Lisbon protocol of 1992 committed the former Soviet republics where nuclear weapons were based - Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan - to returning them to Russia.
Ukraine, a country with about the same population as Britain, had 176 intercontinental ballistic missiles on its territory when the Soviet Union disintegrated. These could carry up to 1,200 warheads. Yesterday's announcement that 90 per cent of the warheads had been returned to Russia would leave Ukraine with about 120 - fewer than Britain or France.
All the 18 missiles in Belarus and 66 from Kazakhstan have been returned to Russia. Ukraine"s 176 missiles were the greatest worry, because Ukraine was believed to be the only country with the necessary expertise to maintain a working nuclear arsenal.
"It's a remarkable achievement," said Colonel Terry Taylor of the London-based International institute for Strategic Studies. "There was a great deal of tension when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 - it's a great success story.
"Three states that could have been nuclear states are now non-nuclear states, and they have acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty".
Britain and the US have provided financial and technical help to disarm the former Soviet republics, including the provision of specially designed rail cars and advice on nuclear weapons security.
Although the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces - who were responsible for nuclear missiles - were among the most efficient branches of the Soviet military, they suffered, like the rest, when the Soviet Union broke up.
Furthermore, the Soviet Union had never planned to withdraw its missiles from Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The warheads have been withdrawn with help from the West, although the larger missiles are having to be destroyed in situ because they are difficult to transport.
The MoD yesterday refused to confirm the exact number of warheads still held in Britain. "We've always kept the number of warheads secret," said a department spokesman. The US and Russian nuclear stockpiles have been made public under the Start nuclear weapons treaty. Britain and France, which have not entered into any nuclear disarmament treaties, have kept their nuclear arsenals under wraps.
However, informed estimates put the number of British warheads - including those for the new Trident submarine-launched missiles, first deployed a year ago, and the Polaris missiles they are replacing, free-fall bombs and nuclear depth-charges - at fewer than 300. Another 90 US nuclear warheads are believed to be on British soil, as against 1,500 a decade ago. That puts Britain just ahead of France and Ukraine.
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) said yesterday France could have up to 500 nuclear warheads, although it probably has fewer. The US is also estimated to have 245 warheads left in Germany, 40 in Italy and 10 each in Belgium, the Netherlands and Greece. Ten years ago the figures were nearly 4,000 for Germany, 550 for Italy and 164 for Greece.