Wed, Apr 08, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Obama steps up to the challenge of pursuing a nuclear-free world

By Ian Traynor  /  THE GUARDAIN , LONDON

In his whirlwind, debut European tour of summits in Britain, France, Germany and the Czech Republic, US President Barack Obama delivered two speeches, both exactly 26 minutes long.

On Friday in Strasbourg, Obama was rapturously applauded by French and German students when he said he wanted to rid the world of nuclear weapons. In Prague on Sunday, he spelled out his hopes, outlining a host of means to that end and denouncing fatalism in the face of the nuclear threat as a “deadly adversary.”

The world’s estimated arsenal of 24,000 nuclear warheads — all but 1,000 in the US and Russian armories — was the worst legacy of the cold war, Obama said. If the risk of all-out nuclear war had faded, the danger of nuclear attack had increased, he added.

The president pledged a drive on nuclear disarmament, possibly bigger than any ever attempted. He spelled out how he would accelerate arms control agreements with Moscow, following his first summit meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week. The deal to conclude a new arms reduction treaty with Moscow, which would slash stockpiles by about a third was a beginning, setting the stage for further cuts.

MOMENTUM

Building on the momentum of a new agreement with the Russians, Obama said he wanted to cajole the other nuclear powers into agreeing to international arms cuts.

This would include Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent as well as France’s force de frappe and could run into resistance.

British Secretary of Defence John Hutton said last weekend “there would have to be a very significant breakthrough in international nuclear weapons negotiations” before Britain’s arsenal could be put on the table. “It is time for testing of nuclear weapons to be banned,” Obama said.

He called for a resuscitation of the 1996 comprehensive test ban treaty outlawing all nuclear tests. Obama’s democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, signed the treaty, but gave up on it after running into resistance from the Republican-controlled Senate, which refused to ratify it a decade ago. Former US president George W. Bush did not pursue the issue.

The US is the most important country that has not ratified the treaty, although other nuclear countries such as China, Israel and Pakistan, as well as Iran have also declined to ratify.

Obama said he would pursue US ratification “immediately and aggressively.”

In addition to supporting the test ban treaty, Obama pledged to strengthen the non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which dates from 1968 and is the cornerstone of the effort to try to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.

He specified two ways of reinforcing the NPT regime — banning the production of fissile material used for nuclear warheads and establishing an “international fuel bank” that would supply and keep tabs on low-enriched uranium for peaceful nuclear purposes in electricity generation for countries that need it.

This is aimed at keeping countries such as Iran from developing their own fuel enrichment programs and at restricting the growth of nuclear know-how.

Low-enriched uranium is used in power plants. High-enriched uranium is used for warheads. The material can be diverted for weapons use and once you have mastered the fuel cycle for power generation, it is relatively easy to produce bomb-grade material.

‘REAL’ CONSEQUENCES

Obama also insisted on greater resources and authority for international inspections — and “real and immediate consequences” for countries that violate the treaty.

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