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Living on the Edge: Skirting With Nuclear Danger
Published on Thursday, January 26, 2006 by
Living on the Edge: Skirting With Nuclear Danger
by Alice Slater

Speech by Alice Slater at the United Nations, January 19, 2006

It is an honor to be here at the United Nations to pay tribute to a genuine world hero, Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who simply by his good instincts in 1983, went against all he was trained to do and averted a terrible nuclear holocaust on our planet. He refused to follow procedures that could have led to the launching of the Soviet nuclear arsenal against the United States, after he had observed an unexplained intrusion of Soviet air space on his computer while serving as the duty officer at Russia's main nuclear command center. It is incomprehensible that today, more than 16 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the US and Russia are still targeting more than 3,000 nuclear tipped missiles at each other’s cities, ready to go off with even less assurances that an accidental launch could be avoided then we had back in 1983 when Colonel Petrov performed his heroic act. Unhonored by his own country for his extraordinary contribution to humanity, it wasn’t until 2004 that the World Citizens Association acknowledged his contribution. And I’d like to express my appreciation to the Association for bringing this program to the UN today, to let the world know that we are still not out of danger.

It seems, in 2006, that taking US and Russian nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert would be a no-brainer. The “Communist Threat”, used to justify the existence and development of the huge US nuclear arsenals has evaporated. Surely we are in more danger if the weapons remain in their current posture, than if we separated the warheads from the missiles. While that would be an enormous step toward a safer world however, it is not the main task that lies before us. We have managed, under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to keep a lid on the spread of nuclear weapons for nearly 30 years, from the time the Treaty was signed in 1970 to the time India and Pakistan startled the world with a series of underground tests in 1998, announcing that they too had joined the nuclear club, which under the NPT included the US, Russia, China, France and England. Israel had also acquired a nuclear arsenal of about 300 weapons, which the world learned about thanks to another hero, Mordecai Vananu, who spent 18 years in prison for revealing Israel’s nuclear capability, 12 of them in solitary confinement!

But the underlying bargain of the NPT,that the nuclear powers would give up their nuclear weapons in return for a promise from the non-nuclear weapons states not to acquire them was never honored. Indeed, the US is planning to refurbish its entire nuclear arsenal of nearly 10,000 nuclear weapons, with design plans for smaller, more usable nuclear weapons and nuclear tipped underground earth penetrators. Since the time the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was negotiated in 1992, the US started spending $4.6 billion per year, now up to nearly $8 billion per year, for its so called “stockpile stewardship” program that enabled these new designs to go forward. England will soon be debating whether to replace its 400 nuclear weapons carried on its Trident submarine system. France, Russia and China are also modernizing their weapons.

With the abhorrent US policy of preemptive war, it’s new nuclear posture policy that authorizes the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states, and its designation of so called “rogue states” as the “axis of evil”, we are reaping the grim whirlwind of that policy. We now see North Korea and Iran relying on Article IV of the NPT to develop what is ostensibly described as “peaceful” nuclear technology which would give them the capacity and materials they need to build bombs of their own as a deterrent against US threats. Article IV of the NPT provides an “inalienable right to peaceful nuclear technology” as a sweetener to the countries that agreed to forego nuclear weapons. The current flurry of negotiations and the move to try to control the production of the civilian nuclear fuel cycle in one central place, as recently proposed by Mohammed ElBaradei, the Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, simply will not fly. It would be just an additional discriminatory aspect of the NPT, creating yet another class of haves and have-nots under the treaty, as was done with those permitted to have nuclear weapons and those who are not. Now it is proposed that some nations would continue to make their own nuclear fuel, while others, such as Iran and North Korea, would be precluded from doing so.

It’s time to support a protocol to the NPT calling for the establishment of an International Sustainable Energy Fund, as we phase out nuclear power and begin to develop the abundant energy of our earth from the sun, wind, tides, and geothermal sources. Whoever heard of a terrorist attacking a windmill? Article IV’s “inalienable right” to “peaceful” nuclear technology would become obsolete, just as Article V, which provides for “peaceful” nuclear explosions, has been rendered inoperative by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty which forbids nuclear explosions of any kind. Clean safe energy is available to us now. We have the technology. We need to be vigilant in providing the ample evidence against specious arguments that it’s not ready, it’s years away, its too expensive--arguments which are made by the corporations in the business of producing dirty fuel as they spend millions of dollars in false advertising and planted stories in the press.

These are corporation which don’t want to lose their ability to continue to profit from the human misery caused by nuclear and fossil fuels. The sun, the wind, the tides, and geothermal energy are here in abundance for all the world’s people and they are free. We already have the technology to harness the bounty of the earth. And we know how to store it when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow, by using hydrogen fuel cells. It is clearly not beyond our financial means, as argued by the corporate supporters of toxic fuel industries­particularly when you compare the costs of clean, safe energy to the hundreds of billions of dollars spent annually to subsidize fossil and nuclear fuels. Not to mention the cost of war to protect those poisonous energy sources.

So why don't we have it now? Why don't we have a ten-year crash program to achieve a nuclear, fossil-free, and biomass-free energy transition? Because of the forces that insist on peddling their polluting and proliferating sources of energy--their "cash cows". Once the infrastructure is created to harness the sun, wind, tides, and geothermal, there will be nothing to sell. It would probably be the best way to end poverty on the planet as well--since poor countries can get free, clean earth energy, abundantly available, and will not have to spend their meager budgets for their critical power needs. We need new thinking and it has to start with us­ordinary people who have no corporate interest in perpetuating disastrous forms of energy on the planet. We mustn't buy into the propaganda that it's not ready or that it's too costly. There's ample evidence that those statements are falsehoods, deliberately expounded by corporate interests to keep their profits coming and to oil the war machine.

Now, with the headlines screaming about imminent war against Iran, Mohammed El Baradei is proposing that civilian nuclear materials be produced and controlled centrally to avoid giving Iran and North Korea the keys to the bomb factory. But going for controls and central processing of nuclear fuels, is like starting down a path similar to the one we’ve been on for the last 50 some-odd years for nuclear arms control. Do you think France, Japan, or the US, for example, will surrender control of nuclear materials production, any more than the nuclear powers have surrendered control of atom bombs? It would be a long drawn-out effort with discriminatory rules in the end­when, instead, we could we be expending our energy and intellectual treasure on shifting the energy paradigm to make nuclear and fossil fuel obsolete. If, as we work to phase in safe, clean energy, we continue to work for weapons abolition, we'll have a real road map to a nuclear free world. Otherwise, I fear we are not dealing with a full deck and are doomed to failure in two ways--halting nuclear weapons proliferation and saving our planet from the ravages of climate change caused by the massive carbon releases into our atmosphere. And don’t be fooled by industry deceptions about how “clean” nuclear power is carbon free. Fossil fuel is used in every step of the process of creating these standing bomb factories­from the mining, milling, and reprocessing of uranium to the decommissioning of aging plants and the transporting and storing of nuclear waste.

What are the prospects for taking nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert and achieving nuclear abolition? Last spring more than 40,000 people marched in Central Park calling for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons on the eve of the failed 2000 NPT Review. More than 1,000 people came from Japan and we had over 40 Hibakusha­survivors of the terrible destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have launched their Mayors for Peace Campaign calling for negotiations for the elimination of nuclear weapons to be completed in 2010 with complete dismantlement by 2020. Abolition 2000, a global network of over 2000 organizations in more than 90 countries is working with the Mayors for a treaty to abolish nuclear weapons. It has drafted a model nuclear weapons convention which is now an official UN document. Abolition 2000 has recognized the inextricable link between nuclear weapons and nuclear power and is circulating a model statute for the establishment of an International Sustainable Energy Fund.

A newly formed Parliamentary Network for Nuclear Disarmament is working with the Mayors and Abolition 2000 to get initiatives started in Parliament for nuclear abolition. Germany has issued a call to work with like-minded countries to amend the NPT to recognize the right to clean, safe energy as a human right and to establish an International Renewable Energy Agency which would be added as a protocol to the NPT. The Global Alliance for the Prevention of Nuclear Weapons and Power in Space is working with grassroots groups all over the world to support the Chinese and Russian annual initiatives to keep weapons out of space which the US has repeatedly blocked. The Norwegian Ministry of Finance has excluded seven companies from their Government Pension Fund - because they are involved in the production of nuclear weapons. A new Abolition 2000 Working Group has been established to work on a divestment strategy. Another Abolition 2000 Working Group is campaigning to get US nuclear weapons out of Europe where more than 400 US weapons are deployed in NATO countries. Working with the Mayors and Parliamentarians, the Belgian Senate has passed a resolution calling for the removal of US nukes from NATO. Next year, a massive demonstration is being organized by the women of the UK at Faslane in Scotland to protest the rebuilding of the Trident submarine arsenals in England. Following the example of the women of Greenham Commons whose 19 year protest and encampment resulted in the removal of NATO’s nuclear tipped Cruise Missiles from the UK, we expect this to be a great civil action that will serve to create a breach in the armor of the nuclear powers, beginning with the UK.

This past fall, led by Canada and Mexico, a group of middle power nations nearly succeeded in establishing ad hoc committees in the Committee for Disarmament in Geneva to begin discussions on nuclear disarmament and a space treaty. Under enormous pressure from the US, they withdrew their proposal, but promised to follow through next fall if there is no progress. The Middle Powers Initiative is supporting this process and other potential avenues to break the disarmament deadlock with its newly formed Article VI Forum. There is a burgeoning grassroots movement for nuclear abolition. The various elements must all be addressed. A realistic plan for nuclear abolition includes the dealerting of nuclear weapons as a first easy step. But if we do not phase out nuclear power and maintain the heavens for peace, we will find ourselves in a state of perpetual war with little chance for a lasting and peaceful nuclear-free world. Humanity was given a great gift when Colonel Petrov followed his human instincts to avert a global catastrophe. Let us not push our luck!

Alice Slater, President of the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment, is an expert in the field of nuclear disarmament. Email to:


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