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Home > Politics

Our lead in their pencil

As President Bush vows to close a loophole that allows ‘rogue states’ to secretly use civilian nuclear programmes to produce military material, TFT investigates how the UK and US exploited the same loophole to build their own arsenals.

(The full version of this article appears in this week's Friday Thing.)

26 March 2004

Last month, President Bush made a radical speech on nuclear proliferation, and claimed the credit for fingering the smuggling network run by Pakistan's Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan.

“Terrorists and terrorist states are in a race for weapons of mass murder, a race they must lose,” said George.

The message is clear: Britain and America are taking the issue of nuclear proliferation extremely seriously as part of the global war on terror – or ‘GWOT’, as it’s now chummily referred to in the White House and (inevitably) Downing Street. Bush also called for nuclear proliferation to be declared an international crime by a UN resolution.

What Bush failed to mention was how previous Republican administra-tions illegally permitted Pakistan to buy restricted items for its nuclear arsenal from the US. In this way, Pakistan obtained more material than Saddam Hussein. Also unmentioned was the fact that in exchange for Pakistan’s continued support for its activities in Afghanistan, the US government routinely signed off Pakistan’s foreign aid budget, despite intelligence about its secret nuclear-weapons program.

Bush also failed to recall the New Yorker article in 1993 that claimed “there is indisputable evidence that Pakistan has been able to escape public scrutiny for its violations of the law because senior officials of the Reagan and the Bush Administrations chose not to share the intelligence about nuclear purchases with Congress.”

Instead, a few days after Bush’s speech, Dr. Khan confessed, Musharrif issued a pardon and George W’s government, like others before, looked the other way. So much for GWOT.

Most important was the proposal to close a ‘loophole’ which allows non-nuclear powers to pursue civilian nuclear power programmes. These, Bush said, had been used by countries such as Iran and North Korea as a cover for secret nuclear weapons development. To close the loophole, he said, enrichment and reprocessing of uranium for power plants should be carried out in countries that are already nuclear exporters. Like Britain and America.

There’s one problem: the UK and US used exactly that loophole to build up their own nuclear arsenal. Between 1960 and 1979, three “barter agreements” made under the 1958 US/UK Mutual Defense Agreement sanctioned the transfer of weapons-grade plutonium from the British civil programme to the US. In exchange, America sent Britain highly-enriched uranium and tritium. In 1983, John Moore, then Minister for Energy, gave Parliament a “categorical assurance”: that “no plutonium produced in UK civil reactors has ever been consigned for defence use or exported for defence use”.

A team of researchers, led by Professor Keith Barnham of Imperial College, estimated that the amount of plutonium sent to America was 5.4 tonnes. In 1996, the US Department of Energy published an inventory of its civil plutonium stocks – something the British government refuses to do – with a figure for the British plutonium… 5.4 tonnes. 4 tonnes are listed as being held at US civil destinations. Around 1.4 tonnes are unaccounted for. If sufficiently pure, this ‘missing’ material would provide enough plutonium for up to 300 nuclear warheads.


The full version of this article appears in this week's Friday Thing.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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