Britain offered its first public accounting of its nuclear arsenal Wednesday, disclosing that it has a stockpile of 225 warheads in a move that offers transparency to non-nuclear states in hope of winning stricter global controls on the spread of atomic weapons.
The announcement, made without fanfare in the House of Commons, follows the Obama administration’s disclosure that the United States has stockpiled 5,113 nuclear warheads and “several thousand” more retired warheads awaiting the junk pile — the first public description of the secretive arsenal born in the Cold War and now shrinking rapidly.
The U.S. made the announcement at the May 3 opening of a five-year review of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, considered the cornerstone of global disarmament efforts, where Washington and its allies are seeking stronger measures to prevent the spread of nuclear arms. Britain made its announcement as the monthlong conference at the United Nations nears an end on Friday, with intense debate under way on a final document.
“We believe that the time is now right to be more open about the weapons we hold,” Foreign Secretary William Hague told the House of Commons. “We judge that this will assist in building a climate of trust between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states and contribute, therefore, to future efforts to reduce the number of nuclear weapons worldwide.”
Britain had earlier disclosed that it possessed 160 operational warheads, but Hague’s comments that the country’s “overall stockpile of nuclear warheads will not exceed 225 warheads” was the first time the maximum size of the total stockpile was revealed. The Foreign Office later said the 225 figure was the number of warheads the country now holds.
Countries that don’t possess nuclear weapons have long demanded more openness from the nuclear-weapon states — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China — about the size and nature of their arsenals as an essential step toward nuclear disarmament, which is a key plank in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Four other nations have or are suspected of having atomic arms — Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.
British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt told a briefing for U.N. reporters that Hague sent him to New York as the treaty review conference nears an end to emphasize the importance of the announcement in the House of Commons.
“We are very conscious that everything relating to nonproliferation depends on confidence, the confidence between those who are parties to the treaty, those who are nuclear weapon states and those who are not,” Burt said.
The new British government also is conscious that, over the last decade, the treaty had come under pressure with no outcome from the 2005 review conference, Burt said.
“We wanted to make an immediate and positive contribution to that process,” he said.
For that reason, Burt said that Hague announced “two particularly strong confidence-building measures” — the maximum number of warheads in Britain’s stockpile and a review of the government’s policy on the use of weapons.
On the nuclear arsenal, Burt said, “until this moment that number has always been kept secret.”
“The foreign secretary has today revealed that number openly as part of our determination to be as open and transparent as a nuclear weapon-holding state in this process,” he said.
Burt stressed that Britain holds only 1 percent of the world’s stock of nuclear weapons and “the explosive power of Britain’s stockpile has been reduced by something like 75 percent since the end of the Cold War.”
On the policy review, he said, Britain’s position has always been that “the use of nuclear weapons would only be in the most extreme circumstances of self defense following attack in certain particular circumstances.”
Hague has now offered “a review and a discussion” of that policy, Burt said.
Asked whether Britain’s decision to disclose its arsenal was made in consultation with the United States, he said the five nuclear powers continually talk to each other.
Burt, part of the new coalition government that took power earlier this month, said Britain was encouraged by the U.S.-Russian agreement in April to further reduce their nuclear arsenals.
This and other nuclear-related events indicated “that 2010 provided a much better background than 2005 and 2000 to take things on,” he said.
“It’s very much done with a sense of this is what other nations are doing in terms of confidence-building measures and transparency, and we very much wanted to play our part at the very earliest stage that we possibly could,” he said.
Edith M. Lederer reported from the United Nations in New York.