Thousands of stockpiled nukes worry Evans –  Mark Colvin, ABC PM (Radio transcript), 23 March 2010 

MARK COLVIN: The Cold War ended more than 20 years ago but thousands of the nuclear weapons that the superpowers stockpiled before that are still around.

The 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START as it's called, expired in December and the US and Russia haven't yet managed to negotiate its successor. Hillary Clinton's visit to Moscow last week was expected to produce an announcement but the world is still waiting.

Australia's former foreign minister Gareth Evans is co-chairman of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament. At the height of the Cold War the nuclear clock stood at less than one minute to midnight. I asked him where they stood now.

GARETH EVANS: I think it's six minutes to midnight at the moment. It's come back a bit with the momentum that's been generated by President Obama and President Medvedev to be fair in Russia over the last 12 months which has generated a new sense of optimism that maybe we can reverse the process that's been so alarming for so long.

But I don't think anyone is complacent about where that clock is at at the moment as the existing stockpile of weapons with a combined destructive capability between them of 150,000 Hiroshima bombs and capable of destroying this planet many times over.

Add to that the fact that a couple of thousand of them are still on very high alert even though it's 20 years since the end of the Cold War and you've got a still a high level of irrationality in terms of the dependence on these weapons for generalised deterrence and so on.

So it's absolutely critical that we start moving away from reliance to recognise that these things are not militarily useable and recognise that as Kissinger, Schultz, Nunn and Perry said in that famous Wall Street article a couple of years ago now that the risks associated with retaining nuclear weapons in this day and age far outweigh any of the advantages that might be thought from retaining them.

MARK COLVIN: President Obama has got his health care through. It frees him to some degree to start thinking about other things. Will one of those be nuclear disarmament?

GARETH EVANS: Well he's been very clear that he wants major movement on nuclear disarmament as well as a consolidation and tightening of the constraints against proliferation. It's a very, very central item on his agenda and hopefully this political win will give him some new wind in his sails.

But there are some very important tests ahead in the near future. One is the US-Russia bilateral negotiation for significant strategic arms reduction...

MARK COLVIN: Now there with the START as it's called, Hillary Clinton went to Moscow the other day and people were rather hoping that there would be an agreement announced then. What happened?

GARETH EVANS: Well although it's been delayed and delayed I think we're very close to the actual nailing of it down as between the two executive governments. It's after all an agreement that should have been negotiated about five or six years ago. It's not that big deal.

So I don't really think there's going to be a huge problem with the actual text itself. The question mark however is will the Senate pony up the 67 votes that are necessary for treaty ratification. And the Democrats certainly don't have any numbers like that at the moment while a year ago...

MARK COLVIN: What would you be hoping to see in the treaty? What kind of numbers should we be looking for?

GARETH EVANS: Well we're looking at reducing the number of strategically deployed weapons down from something over 2,000 each down to around 1500.

That doesn't address the larger question of tactical weapons. It doesn't address the larger question of weapons in storage or not otherwise dismantled because the US has about 9,000 warheads in total. The Russians have about 13,000.

And what we want is this current treaty to be followed on itself within the next few months by a further series of treaties in fact getting the numbers right down to very much lower limits than that. But of course that will depend...

MARK COLVIN: Because 2,000 strategic weapons going down to 1500, I mean it's still mutually assured destruction isn't it?

GARETH EVANS: Of course it is. And with the big numbers that I've talked about, 13,000 and 9,000 respectively, even if that comes down by another 2,000 or 3,000 or 4,000 we've still got very big numbers indeed, hair-raising numbers.

So there's a very long path ahead for disarmament. Our commission made it clear that we can get down to pretty low numbers over about a 15-year period but that is going to depend on continued leadership from the US and Russia.

And that's going to depend on this first step being bedded down not only between the two executive governments but being ratified in the Senate. And that's still going to be a political problem for the President in the present environment.

MARK COLVIN: I don't know if this stuff keeps you awake at night but of the different categories what would worry you more - America, Russia or other countries?

GARETH EVANS: Well they're all worrying because I think we've become much too complacent about the risks that are associated even between the two major superpowers with their allegedly sophisticated command and control systems.

We are learning with each passing month new stories coming out of the Cold War period about just how close we came to human error or machine error producing catastrophe. And in the new cyber age and much more sophisticated capacity for intrusion of erroneous and misleading IT signals the scope of something going wrong even between Russia and the United States is great.

Add to that the other nuclear-armed countries around including the more recent entrants into the field who have much less sophisticated systems and you've got a problem before you even get to potential new countries coming into the game as proliferators or before you even get to the obviously also important current issue of non-state terrorist actors getting their hand on nuclear materials or nuclear weapons and setting them off in some heavy population centre.

MARK COLVIN: Not selling uranium to India is starting to loom as more and more of an irritant in relations between the two countries. Should we sell uranium to India?

GARETH EVANS: Well it's a tricky issue. We've basically sold the pass already by going along with the consensus that the other many member countries of the Nuclear Suppliers Group did in endorsing the US-India nuclear deal to supply uranium and technology from the world in return for not very strong reciprocal commitments by India.

I think that horse has bolted from the stadium, from the stable and we now have other countries cheerfully selling uranium to India. And I don't think frankly in the practicalities of this whether we do or we don't sell uranium is going to make much difference to India's capability.

So it will be a matter in due course for the Australian Government to make the decision one way or the other as to whether we should concentrate our fire on things that are more likely to be productive. But I don't get into that debate at this stage nor do we in this report.

MARK COLVIN: Gareth Evans, co-chairman of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament.

The report he was referring to is called Eliminating Nuclear Threats. It was launched by the commission in December last year. You can look at it, there'll be a link, and you can listen to a longer version of that interview on our website from later this evening.

Contact details

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