Skip to content

Defending the Indefensible

Timmon Wallis, director and Scottish CND representative, reports first hand on the 10th Review Conference for the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

At the start of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York this last week, the UK government launched a glossy report on progress it claims to have made since the last NPT review conference in 2015.

The cover is meant to depict a peaceful, prosperous British Isles as seen at night from the international space station. But it looks eerily like the UK after a nuclear war: an island aflame with radioactive fires burning in all of Britain’s major cities and industrial centres, with plumes of smoke rising up to block out the sun for an indefinite period, causing crop failures and mass starvation across the globe as a result of “nuclear winter.”

This, of course, is the very scenario that the NPT is supposed to prevent. And yet we’re closer to the prospect of an actual nuclear war than at any time since the dawn of the nuclear age more than 75 years ago.

The Global Situation

President Vladimir Putin Speaking into a microphone against a blue backgroundRussian President Vladimir Putin has made thinly-veiled threats to use nuclear weapons against any country which tries to stop his “special military operation” in Ukraine, while the US and other NATO allies continue to ramp up the war there with billions of dollars of high-tech military hardware, training of Ukrainian troops, sharing of intelligence and secretive “special military operations” of their own.

Meanwhile, the US seems intent on provoking a confrontation with China over the issue of Taiwan, and is right now conducting the largest naval exercise in world history just off China’s shores. Renewed tensions and hostilities between the US, Russia and China are hugely dangerous and destabilising.

They have the potential for leading to all-out nuclear war, not only by design, but also through error, accident or miscalculation, all of which become more likely the longer these tensions and hostilities go on.

But it is not only a direct confrontation between US, Russia or China that could trigger a global
nuclear disaster.

Already in Ukraine, Russian forces are using Europe’s largest nuclear power station at Zaporizhzhia as a base to launch missile attacks against Ukrainian forces. This increasingly risks the potential for another nuclear accident on the scale of Chernobyl or Fukoshima, spreading deadly radioactivity across Europe without a nuclear weapon ever fired.

On top of an on-going war in Ukraine and the real possibility of a looming war over Taiwan, numerous other flashpoints across the globe threaten to pierce at any moment the blissful silence of a world sleepwalking towards nuclear disaster.

North Korea is currently preparing its next underground nuclear weapon test, as tensions on the Korean peninsula reach new heights following the election of the hawkish Yoon Seok Youl as the new president of South Korea, and US determination to stop North Korea’s nuclear programme at any cost.

Iran continues to enrich its uranium to levels approaching the enrichment needed to make a nuclear weapon, while talks remained stalled for a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that President Trump unilaterally pulled out of in 2018. The dangerous confrontation over Iran’s nuclear programme also directly involves Israel, the only country in the Middle East possessing nuclear weapons and having the stated aim of “using all means” to prevent Iran from acquiring the same.

As if these were not enough to trigger some kind of response from the world community, another dangerous potential flashpoint for nuclear war remains the Indian sub-continent, where India and Pakistan continue to increase their nuclear weapon stockpiles and continue to demonise and attack each other, not only verbally but also with occasional gunfire and missiles, which on several occasions in the recent past have led to full-scale war between the two countries. The most recent full-scale war between India and Pakistan was in 1999, when both sides had nuclear weapons pointing at each other.

Recent studies into the effects of a “small-scale” nuclear war between India and Pakistan indicate that it could lead to death by starvation alone of up to 2 billion people.

It is against this backdrop of existing confrontations across the globe that could so quickly and easily lead, whether by design or by accident, to an all-out nuclear war, with catastrophic humanitarian consequences for the entire world, that we must view the UK government’s most recent report to the NPT.

During the opening week of the NPT Review Conference in New York, the UK, the other nuclear weapon states, and their closest allies all lined up to attack Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and to justify their continued reliance on a defence policy based on the ability to annihilate human civilisation. But only five countries in the NPT possess nuclear weapons (the other four nuclear weapon states are not parties to the NPT). The other 186 countries in the NPT do not. And even some of their staunchest allies were insisting that more progress on disarmament must be made as a matter of urgency.

Where does Scotland stand?

Blue and cream image with quote in the centre reading "Were the UK forced to move their nuclear weapons from Scotland, they currently have nowhere else to put them."

 “Whether or not the Scottish government holds an unconstitutional referendum on the independence question, it will have no constitutional impact so we can leave that to one side…”


Since all of the UK’s nuclear weapons are based in Scotland, and since the position of the Scottish parliament, the Scottish government and the Scottish people is that these weapons should be removed, it is of great interest to all parties to the NPT as to what would happen to the UK’s nuclear weapons were Scotland to vote for independence in the referendum currently planned for autumn 2023. 

The UK government’s position on this is simply that there will not be a referendum, and if there is a referendum it will not be legal, and that if it is legal the people of Scotland will vote to remain in the UK. Therefore they foresee no risk to UK nuclear weapons remaining in Scotland. 

While this remains the UK government position, other countries at the NPT were very interested to learn that, were the UK forced to move their nuclear weapons from Scotland, they currently have nowhere else to put them. 

The UK Office of Nuclear Regulation sets high safety standards for the storage of nuclear weapons in the UK. These weapons must be stored within easy access of a deep water submarine port, well away from population centres, and set far enough apart from each other as to avoid one explosion triggering all the others. The existing nuclear storage facility at Coulport covers an area of more than two square miles, with almost 20 miles of high security fencing and other security measures. 

Studies by the UK government and the Royal Navy have concluded that there are no other suitable sites for basing the UK’s nuclear weapons and nuclear submarines anywhere else on the coastline of England or Wales.

The UK Controversy

The first week of the long-delayed NPT Review Conference in New York has set the stage for yet another confrontation between the UK and its fellow nuclear weapon states and the vast majority of other countries in the world who are demanding progress on nuclear disarmament. 

By announcing an increase in the UK’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, the UK has set itself up to be the worst offender in terms of backwards steps taken since the last NPT conference. And this despite the attempt by Western powers to put all the blame on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and thinly veiled threats to use nuclear weapons against any country trying to intervene. 

“By announcing an increase in the UK’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, the UK has set itself up to be the worst offender.”

The most promising move towards a world free of nuclear weapons since the last NPT Review Conference has without doubt been the adoption and entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The vast majority of countries at the NPT, as well as the vast majority of countries in the world, support the TPNW and have urged the rest of the world to join it.

The First Member States Party Meeting for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

The First Member States Party Meeting for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

Criticism of the TPNW from the Nuclear Weapon States at the NPT, including from the UK, has so far been muted. The only statement during the general debate that directly criticised the TPNW came from NATO. This was surprising in part because NATO has never been invited to, nor spoken at, an NPT meeting before. 

NATO is a military alliance. It’s not a member of the United Nations nor does it have observer status at the UN as an Inter-Governmental Organisation. Several parties to the NPT expressed outrage that a representative of NATO was allowed to speak.

Meanwhile, the NPT Review Conference continues for another three weeks, mainly through the work of the three committees that focus on disarmament, non-proliferation and “peaceful uses” of nuclear energy. There will be many more side events and many more opportunities to challenge the UK government on its indefensible position of claiming to uphold the NPT while flagrantly violating its legal obligations under the treaty.