LETTER: UK's variable `plutonium pledge'

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The Independent Online
From Mr Llewellyn Smith, MP

Sir: Some may regard the lukewarm response from disarmament groups to the proposals put to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) conference in New York by the Foreign Secretary (reports, 19 April) as churlish, especially as the British proposals include dropping the special safety- test opt-out for a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty (CTBT) and a halt to the future production of fissile material - plutonium and highly enriched uranium - dedicated to military uses.

But while the concession on a CTBT is helpful in speeding up the completion of a treaty, the commitment to halting military fissile material production needs to be put in context. There are two other options for the Government to obtain fissile material for warheads, should these stocks run short.

Even though Douglas Hurd said in New York that the UK welcomed the International Atomic Energy Agency's latest proposals for strengthening international safeguards on nuclear materials and facilities, these proposals do not address a massive loophole built into the special safeguards agreement Britain concluded with the IAEA (and the EU's Euratom safeguards agency) 17 years ago.

Article 14 of this treaty specifically allows for the withdrawal of civil nuclear material from safeguards "for national security reasons", Parliament was told on 9 March 1983. On 11 January last year I was told by the DTI in a Written Reply that the Government had activated Article 14 on 571 occasions since May 1979.

While the bulk of the withdrawals have been temporary, and notified to the safeguards authorities for technical reasons, some withdrawals of plutonium significantly have been permanent. This demonstrates that the Government is prepared to mine its commercial stockpile of plutonium - now over 80,000 kilograms.

Additionally, last month Mr Hurd formally put before Parliament an amendment to the 1958 US-UK mutual defense agreement on atomic energy cooperation, which entered into force on 23 December last year. This extends for a further 10 years the barter agreement allowing the UK to obtain from the US "special nuclear material for all development of, or use in, atomic weapons".

Parliament needs to re-examine the hypocrisy inherent in the UK's "plutonium pledge" made at the NTP conference.

Yours sceptically,


MP for Blaenau Gwent (Lab)

House of Commons

London, SW1

19 April