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N E W S C I E N T I S T 24 August 1996

Australia declares war on nuclear weapons

Ian Anderson, Melbourne


BRITAIN'S Trident submarines should stop their patrols of the North Atlantic. And the world's other four nuclear powers should also take their missiles off alert as a first step towards ridding the world of nuclear weapons, according to a high-powered group of experts assembled by Australia. The group, known as the Canberra Com- mission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, was the brainchild of Australia's former prime minister Paul Keating. The 17 members include Robert McNamara, the former US defence secretary, Michel Rocard, the for- mer French prime minister, and Lee Butler, the former head of the US Strategic Command with responsibility for US nuclear forces. Last week, the commission handed its report to the Australian Prime Minister John Howard. The commission was set up last November with the task of devel- oping "ideas and proposals for a concrete and realistic programme to achieve a world totally free of nuclear weapons". The end of the Cold War has created an opportu- nity to eliminate nuclear weapons once and for all, says the commis- sion. "It must be exploited quickly or it will be lost." The five nuclear powers, the US Russia, China, France and Britain: should commit themselves to elim- inating nuclear weapons. They took the bombers that carried nuclear weapons off alert in 1991. Now they should do the same with land and sea-based missiles, says the commission. The nuclear powers maintain thousands of warheads on contin- uous alert. "This perpetuation of the most overtly hostile and risky aspects of the Cold War defies logic. It needlessly prolongs an atmosphere of mis- trust and the potential for accidents," says the commission. The nuclear powers should also take steps to remove weapons from areas where they no longer serve any strategic purpose, such as in Western Europe, and end nuclear testing. The commission also wants an early start to negotiations to further reduce the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the US, which now stand at about 40 000 warheads. "Reinforcing steps" should follow, says the commission. Nuclear powers should tighten controls over nuclear material and technology so they do not end up in the hands of terrorists or in other countries. States should declare how much weapons- grade material they possess and how many nuclear warheads they have. Production of fissile material, such as tritium, should end. The commission urges the US and Rus- sia to bring Britain, France and China into the process of nuclear disarmament. The two former Cold War adversaries could pre- pare the ground for verification by sharing information and expertise on the dismantling of weapons. Andrew Mack, an expert on international relations at the Aus- tralian National University in Can- berra, says the strongest part of the report is its arguments against those who still believe nuclear weapons are needed as a deter- rent. "It's the most powerful rebuttal of the case for nuclear deterrence ... in the post Cold War period," he says. Deepening eco- nomic interdependence, he says, has radically reduced the risk of a war between major powers. Australia will present the report to the UN General Assembly next month then take it to the UN Con- ference on Disarmament in Geneva in January. But the fate of the report will depend in part on how far Australia pushes the recommendations at international forums. That might not be very far. When Keating put forward the plan, his political opponents- those now in power-called it a pre-election stunt. Foreign minis- ter Alexander Downer, who will present the report to the UN, now says it is "practical and realistic" but his earlier hostile continents will be hard to disown.