Nuclear five pressed for a complete ban

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Diplomatic Editor

The world's nuclear powers, including Britain, will come under fresh pressure to move towards complete nuclear disarmament at talks to achieve a comprehensive treaty to ban nuclear tests opening at the United Nations in Geneva today.

The five declared nuclear states - Britain, France, US, Russia and China - face calls by countries as diverse as India and Australia to work for the elimination of nuclear weapons. They all say they believe in a test ban treaty, but do not want to broaden the agenda any further.

The five nations are seeking to blunt the campaign by arguing that priority should be given to achieving a test ban treaty by the agreed target date next September, when it should be placed before the UN General Assembly.

"We shall resist any effort to link this treaty to other aspects of nuclear disarmament," a Western diplomat said yesterday. The UN regards a test ban treaty as "one of the most prominent issues on the international disarmament agenda since 1954" and its conclusion would be a great prize, as would an accompanying agreement to ban the production of fissile material for weapons.

But the controversy over French nuclear tests in the Pacific has given new vigour to efforts to compel the five to live up to their existing treaty commitments. The nuclear states formally pledged to work for the removal of all nuclear weapons when they renewed indefinitely the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) last year.

The NPT confirms the five as the only recognised possessors of nuclear weapons, and provides the main instrument to curb the nuclear aspirations of countries such as Iran and North Korea. It was extended only after a taut round of negotiations which left many Third World countries feeling they had been strong-armed into acceptance.

British ministers are on the record as saying that "nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented" and the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, said when he was Secretary of State for Defence that the British Trident nuclear deterrent was the "minimum credible" force - a formula that self-evidently allows no negotiated reduction without loss of credibility.

The Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, yesterday launched a 17- member group of international experts, the Canberra Commission, to prepare proposals for complete nuclear disarmament to put to the General Assembly.

"We've got a fortuitous pause in the arms race," Mr Keating said. "We have to be careful that we don't get into a multi-polar game with the likes of Iraq, perhaps Iran, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel developing nuclear weapons."

The Commission includes the British scientist and Nobel Peace laureate, Joseph Rotblat, the former French prime minister Michel Rocard (his presence a dig at President Jacques Chirac, who is to order one last French test in the near future) and the Vietnam-era US Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara.

"My contention is the indefinite combination of these weapons and human fallibility will lead to destruction," Mr McNamara said yesterday. "There is no learning curve with nuclear weapons - you make a mistake here and you destroy a nation."

The Geneva talks could provide a forum for considerable pressure on the nuclear powers although, in the end, their critics will not obstruct a test ban treaty merely to make a political point.

There will, however, be calls to extend the ban to include "sub-critical" laboratory tests which stop short of an explosion.

These will be resisted. The major powers, with the possible exception of China, all own or have access to sophisticated computer simulations which should make test explosions unnecessary.