July 11, 2017

UN group signs draft treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons—without U.S.

Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

The BADGER explosion on April 18, 1953, as part of Operation Upshot-Knothole, at the Nevada Test Site

Last week, a United Nations group signed a draft treaty to prohibit the development, manufacturing and testing of nuclear weapons.

When President Donald Trump pulled the United States back from global climate change action earlier this year, that move was met with outrage from many, including elected leaders, across the country. The international action banning nuclear weapons has received far less attention, including here in New Mexico where many communities have been wedded to nuclear weapons research, production and waste since World War II.

Today, the U.S. and Russia together control more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.

Eight countries have tested nuclear weapons, and currently, the United States remains the only one to have deployed nuclear weapons outside of tests. No countries with nuclear weapons, including the U.S., signed onto the draft treaty, which the United Nations General Assembly will vote on later this year.

In March, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, announced the U.S. was boycotting the negotiations. And last week, the U.S., France and the United Kingdom issued a joint statement that they “do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it.” They wrote that a ban treaty will create “even more divisions at a time when the world needs to remain united in the face of growing threats,” and that it “risks undermining the existing international security architecture that contributes to the maintenance of international peace and security.”

New Mexico’s Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group, disagrees. He also believes that the ban would offer New Mexico an opportunity.

“We can no longer assume that nuclear weapons are identified with modernity, with security, with things the world accepts as good,” said Mello, whose organization, among others like International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, worked with UN and international officials who crafted the ban.

“We have big choices to make about whether we are going to be the world’s capital of everything nuclear, including nuclear waste, or whether we’re going to be a state that emphasizes our renewable energy resources, our creativity, our sustainability,” he said. “We won’t be able to develop unless we move on from the Manhattan Project. The rest of the world has definitively left behind the belief in nuclear weapons as the guarantors of security. It’s a brave choice that countries have made and are making, and we need to be brave also.”

The treaty, adopted by the Conference to Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, prohibits signatory states from conducting—or allowing within their borders—the development, testing, production, manufacture or deployment of nuclear weapons. It also prohibits the transfer of weapons or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territories.

More than 130 countries participated in the negotiations, and last week’s vote included 122 votes in favor of the treaty, one opposed and one abstention.

New Mexico hosts two nuclear weapons laboratories, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories. In southeastern New Mexico, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, inters certain types of waste related to nuclear weapons production. On the edge of Albuquerque, the Kirtland Underground Munitions and Maintenance Storage Complex is the world’s largest storage center for nuclear weapons.

And, of course, New Mexico is the birthplace of nuclear weapons. Scientists first detonated nuclear bombs at The Trinity Site, in the Tularosa Basin, and uranium mined from western New Mexico has supplied the fuel for bombs.

Since the 1940s, nuclear weapons have been an integral part of New Mexico’s economy and culture.

And not always with good results.

People who lived in four rural counties downwind from the Trinity Site tests are still suffering health impacts. Earlier this year, the Tularosa Basin Downwinders released a report showing that people in Lincoln, Otero, Sierra and Socorro counties have higher rates of cancers and other illnesses, including thyroid disease, than the general population.

And WIPP was only recently reopened after being shut down for nearly three years after two separate accidents occurred in February 2014. First, a salt haul truck caught fire in the caverns, then nine days later, an air monitor’s alarm went off, signalling airborne radiation. The following day, an air monitor at the surface also detected airborne radiation. Workers at the nuclear waste facility had felt pressured to keep up with the need to be moving waste out of Los Alamos and into the salt caverns.

A recent series of stories from the Center for Public Integrity has highlighted major security and safety problems at Los Alamos, where the federal government plans to produce more nuclear cores for new weapons. The series, “Nuclear Negligence,” looks at safety weaknesses at nuclear weapon sites run by contractors. Among the reporters’ key findings about Los Alamos:

The United States quietly shut down its sole facility for testing and making the cores of its nuclear warheads in 2013 due to the inability of the facility’s managers to control safety risks there.

The facility is still not fully operational and has missed 29 planned tests of the cores of existing warheads in the U.S. arsenal and it has also failed to produce new cores certified as usable in modern weapons since 2011.

The lapse in testing was not highlighted in a series of classified reports sent to President Obama that declared the nuclear weapons stockpile was safe and reliable, according to two people who read them.

The Energy Department paid Los Alamos National Laboratory more than $10 million in bonus profits last year for its work examining the safety and reliability of existing nuclear warheads, even though several of its efforts to test some of those warheads did not produce needed results.

The lab remains the only one of the government’s nuclear weapons facilities judged this year to be deficient in its ability to control the risks of a runaway nuclear chain reaction. The government is presently considering moving its specialized plutonium work elsewhere.

Mello acknowledged that while the treaty can’t make non-signatory countries halt the production and use of nuclear weapons, it will affect the political and diplomatic arena in which the armed states operate.

The treaty prohibits countries that are party to the ban from assisting nuclear-armed states, for example.

“This means that 28 U.S. allies that rely upon a U.S.-nuclear umbrella can’t join the treaty unless they renounce that relationship,” he said. “There are also five countries that allow the U.S. to deploy nuclear weapons on their territories, and this is also forbidden in this treaty.”

As countries join the treaty, he said, there will be more pressure upon the umbrella states to declare whether they are pro- or anti-nuclear weapons. “The relationship of those countries with the U.S. will affect the structure of nuclear deterrence around the world,” he said. “In addition there can be social movements within the nuclear-armed states now that countries of the world are joining a treaty that makes nuclear weapons illegal. That opens a political space that hasn’t been opened before.”

The draft treaty will be voted on in the UN General Assembly in September.

“We hope over the next few months there will be a dawning realization that we need to move on from the world of threatened mutual annihilation,” Mello said. “In an age of climate risks and enormous economic inequality, we can’t afford our Strangelovian obsessions. And the rest of the world has given us a hands’ up if we’ll take it.”