US - UK nuclear co-operation agreement undermines global non-proliferation efforts

A controversial agreement which allows nuclear weapons technology to be shared between the United States of America and the United Kingdom undermines global non-proliferation efforts and should be reformed to make it relevant to work aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, according to a new report from Nuclear Information Service (available to download at the bottom of this article).

The secretive US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement, which was first signed in 1958 but is regularly renewed, allows the two nations to co-operate on the development of nuclear weapons and enables a series of technical exchanges to take place between the Atomic Weapons Establishment, where Britain's nuclear weapons are designed and manufactured, and laboratories and sites in the USA which are involved in the American nuclear weapons programme.  The Agreement is reviewed on a ten-yearly basis and is scheduled to be renewed for a further ten years in 2014.

Renewal of the Mutual Defence Agreement is expected to pave the way for a number of developments which would be key to the future of the UK's nuclear weapons programme over the next decade, including programmes to modernise or replace the UK Trident warhead, development of a new reactor for the 'Successor' Trident replacement submarine, and the exchange of special nuclear materials for use in warheads and reactor fuel.

'Reform not Renewal', a new report from Nuclear Information Service, concludes that co-operation between the USA and UK on nuclear weapons undermines the norms which underpin the international treaties designed to control the spread of nuclear weapons.

Most of the activities conducted under the Mutual Defence Agreement are cloaked in secrecy, and lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic have only the most limited of opportunities to review and scrutinise work conducted under the terms of the Agreement.  In past years the UK government has gone to considerable lengths to prevent debate on renewal of the Agreement in Parliament.  Co-operation under the terms of the Mutual Defence Agreement appears to be expanding, and the report argues that as work conducted under the terms of the Agreement expands, so too should measures to allow elected representatives to control and oversee such work.

'Reform not Renewal' concludes that work should begin now towards the long term aim of reforming the Mutual Defence Agreement so that it is seen to reinforce non-proliferation initiatives, rather than undermine them, by increasing US -UK co-operation on disarmament verification, confidence building measures, and warhead decommissioning instead of collaboration on the development of new nuclear weapons.

In order to quell suspicions that work undertaken through the Agreement is pre-empting key Parliamentary decisions relating to the Trident replacement programme and design of a new UK nuclear warhead, the Mutual Defence Agreement should be extended for an interim period of just five years, until December 2019, rather than the customary ten years.

The report recommends that there should be a Parliamentary debate on renewal of the Mutual Defence Agreement in government time.  The amended Agreement, together with appendices, should be published when it has been signed by both governments, and the US and UK governments should produce an unclassified joint annual report to Parliament and Congress on activities undertaken under the auspices of the Mutual Defence Agreement.

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