The sharing of nuclear weapons technology is part of the “Special Relationship” between the U.S. and U.K., but does the extent of it amount to a violation of the global ban on sharing atomic secrets? And is it encouraging nuclear powers like Pakistan to do the same? WhoWhatWhy takes a closer look.
Is U.S.-U.K. Nuclear Weapons Sharing Imperiling Non-Proliferation?
Prime Minister David Cameron and President Barack ObamaCredit:
June 1, 2014

The United States now shares so many atomic secrets with Britain that many believe both countries are breaching the international treaty banning nuclear weapons proliferation, and risking the spread of warheads to other countries.

The “do as we say, not as we do” element of the U.S.-U.K. atomic cooperation is emboldening other countries with nuclear weapons capabilities that want to have the same kind of freedom to share atomic technology.

Article One of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) bans all countries that have nuclear weapons from transferring "to any recipient whatsoever" any weapon or control over any weapon "directly or indirectly."

David Lowry, former director of the European Proliferation Information Centre, told WhoWhatWhy that analysis of interpretative memoranda from the Foreign Office in the late 1960s reveals officials clearly intended the "indirectly" to cover the kind of activity now undertaken by Britain and America, i.e., the sharing of sensitive information about weapons, and not just the weapons themselves.

"You can see what they meant by those articles quite clearly," he says. "Once they got the non-nuclear states to sign up to it they backtracked and said, 'It doesn't apply to us'."

Supporters of rogue Pakistani nuclear proliferator Abdul Qadeer Khan are now pointing to the British-American agreement to justify their country’s right to share nuclear secrets more freely, Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think-tank, told WhoWhatWhy. Fitzpatrick visited Pakistan in May.

Thanks to Khan's past proliferation activities, Iran now has a uranium-enrichment complex based on the Pakistani model. And Khan is suspected of sharing enrichment technology with North Korea. It’s still not clear whether he did so with the sanction of the government of Pakistan, which is—like Britain and America—an NPT signatory.

The depth of the U.S.-U.K. cooperation will doubtlessly be a focus at next year's review conference for the NPT. Nations that don’t have nuclear capabilities are expected to be critical of the limited disarmament steps taken since the last summit in 2010.

A Double Standard

"The close collaboration between the U.S. and U.K. over their nuclear arsenals remains not only a breach of the spirit and letter of the NPT but a huge symbolic roadblock to disarmament," Kate Hudson, general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, told WhoWhatWhy.

"It is a useful barometer to ask: would the U.S. or U.K. tolerate other states doing the same? Of course the answer is no."

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