Keeping the Safety Catch on OFF

At a time when the existence of nuclear arsenals are contributing to the crisis in the Middle East, when organisations round the world (including many government as well as NGOs) are intensifying their efforts to achieve a Nuclear Weapons Treaty, and when the Secretary General of the United Nations is broadcasting the urgency of a Treaty the British government has just committed an act which beggars belief.

On the 27th October the United Nations General Assembly’s Committee on Disarmament held a vote to have all countries take their weapons off High Alert. 144 states voted in favour. Only 3 state governments voted to retain the High Alert status (which means that the nuclear arsenals are ready to launch at the press of a button). One of them was the British Government (the other two were the United States and France). This appalling act on the part of our government has been given almost no publicity.

The existence of nuclear arsenals risks the end of most human life on the planet. Especially with thousands of weapons on high alert this can happen within an hour and at any moment.

These three nuclear powers appear to take the absurd view that it is OK to have the whole system balanced on a knife edge because nothing can go wrong! Things always go wrong with any system; and especially extremely complex ones like the nuclear arsenal networks.

At the same time as our government was refusing to vote to have nuclear weapons taken off high alert, 50 nuclear missiles at US Warren Airforce base went out of control for 50 minutes due to a computer error. On a previous occasion, at another site, a practice launch sequence went out of control and would not stop. It was only by quick witted military men on the scene driving heavy vehicles onto the silo doors, thus making the launch physically impossible, that the ultimate disaster was avoided. As ‘People for Nuclear Disarmament’ (PND) writes, “We literally owe our very existence to US and Russian military officers who, amidst wailing sirens and flashing lights in nuclear launch control centres, did the right thing and decided not to press buttons.” PND considers that, with high alert still maintained, nuclear Armageddon is firmly on the agenda.

Many other examples can be cited that serious accidents happen. We have been incredibly lucky so far. On 3rd February last year HMS Vanguard and Le Triomphant, two nuclear submarines (both belonging to high alert supporting governments) carrying nuclear weapons unbelievably collided in the Atlantic. Another mega-disaster narrowly avoided. On the evening of 27th August this year a fire broke out in a building within the explosives area of the Aldermaston nuclear weapons manufacturing site near Reading, UK. This could have resulted in our worst nightmare.

But our government sees no particular problem at having nuclear arsenals on high alert!

An observer must surely be completely mystified by a government decision which flies in the face of sense and sanity; a decision which goes against the wishes of citizens round the world; which defies the expressed demand of an overwhelming number of other world governments. What could possible be going on? Are we witnessing a symptom of some deep and secret level of corruption? Is it the emanation from some dark, rigid and outmoded mindset? What?

The existence of an official document relating to this apparent lunacy entitled ‘An Explanation of Vote’ was brought to my attention. Great, I thought, there is an explanation! I assumed this would be an official justification from the UK Cabinet Office or perhaps the Ministry of Defence. No. It is apparently an official pronouncement; but not by a minister of the British or French government; not by a spokesperson from the House of Commons after a debate; and not from the White House or the Pentagon. It is an ‘Explication de vote de S.E.M. Eric DANON, Ambassadeur, Representant permanent do la France aupres de la Conference du Desarmement.’

The ‘Explanation of Vote’ is made on behalf of the UK (and US and French) government by Mr Danon, the French Ambassador to the United Nations ‘Conference on Disarmament’!

I tracked it down. ((A/C.1/65/L.42
Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems
Lead sponsors: Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria and Switzerland
Voting result in First Committee: 144-3-22
Voting result in First Committee on OP1: 145-0-19
Explanation of vote: China, Pakistan, India, France/United Kingdom/United States)) Even emanating from this bizarre circuitous route I couldn’t wait to read our government’s justification. What could it possibly say?

The relevant resolution presented for vote to the Committee on Disarmament is referred to as LA42. It calls for ‘decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems’ and it expresses concern that ‘notwithstanding the end of the cold war, several thousand nuclear weapons remain on high alert, ready to be launched within minutes.’

So here it is.

In the official ‘Explanation of Vote’ Mr Danon writes, ‘With regards to L.42, I am speaking on behalf of France, the United Kingdom and the United States.’

He continues, ‘We continue to disagree with the basic premise of resolution L42 that the current level of readiness of nuclear weapons increases the risk of the unintentional or accidental use.’

Thus the British government believes that having ‘several thousand nuclear weapons remain[ing] on high alert, ready to be launched within minutes’ does not makes us, its citizens, less safe. Do you, the citizens, agree? Is this our government representing the views and wishes of the citizens?

We are told: ‘…we have decreased the operational readiness and alert levels of our respective forces since the early 1990s.’ This is completely beside the point since we know that there are still thousands ready to go at the press of a button.

We are told: ‘….our respective nuclear weapons systems are no longer targeted against any state.’ More obfuscation. It is well known that nuclear weapons can be targeted in seconds.

We are assured that the steps they have already taken ‘….have reduced the value of further “de_alerting” as a priority for nuclear disarmament in our view’ So in the view of our government having thousand of nuclear weapons ready for instant launch is not of any urgent concern. Do you agree?

We further learn that ‘Unhelpfully, the present resolution proceeds from the presumption that lowered alert levels will… lead to heightened international security.’

If your disbelief has reached crisis point at this stage, wait for it – here comes the punch line. ‘..the relationship between alert levels and security is complex, and not reducible to such simple formulaic responses.’

The more the whole teetering Armageddon structure is balanced on a knife edge the more safe we should feel!? Do you agree? There is also more than a hint here of the time-honoured ‘we-know-things-you-don’t-know’ contention; so better keep quiet and let us handle this.

You can read the whole (one page) ‘Explanation of Vote’ on the ‘Securing Political Will’ web site.

So you now know why the British government wants the high alert status of nuclear weapons to remain. You know why it is safer to keep the safety catch on OFF. Or do you? If not, tell them what you think. Only massive protests can bring back sanity. The Students are showing us the way.

Jim McCluskey is the author of The Nuclear Threat. Read other articles by Jim.

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  1. Charlie said on November 13th, 2010 at 1:41pm #

    The explanation of the vote provided by France would be hilarious if it weren’t so tragic. As I read it, I kept thinking that you could use the same ideas to justify keeping loaded, cocked pistols in a child’s bedroom.

    On the other hand, can we really expect anything else from the most heavily nuclear-armed states, who firmly but inexplicably hold that you secure peace by keeping the nation’s finger on the launch button?

    I went to the UN website and read a press release ( ) regarding the 11 other draft texts considered by the Committee in addition to L.42. The associated voting became a race to the bottom for a few apparently trigger-happy nations. Most stunning to me was the vote on a draft resolution aimed at preventing an arms race in space. The vote was 170 in favor and 0 opposed, but Israel and the US abstained. Why?

    In other votes, Israel (a nation that refuses to be part of the Nonproliferation Treaty) sickeningly and hypocritically pointed out that, according to Israel anyway, “The international community should always bear in mind that the majority of non-compliance cases with the NPT had taken place in the Middle East.” Since when does Israel get to police and pass judgment on an area where it is the single greatest nuclear threat?