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Against Nuclear Rearmament

Interview with Angelo Baracca, anti-war physicist and scientist
by Olivier Turquet; first published in “Buone Nuove” - 26th October 2006. This interview, the first on the subject of nuclear disarmament, is part of the international campaign launched by humanists all over the world to draw people’s attention to the “forgotten” problem of nuclear rearmament, and its immediate danger. It is a great pleasure to begin the series with Angelo Baracca, not only because of his undeniable expertise, and the intelligence and clarity of his viewpoint, but above all for the rare virtues of kindness and humanity he has shown on every occasion we have cooperated.

Angelo Baracca, Professor of Physics at the University of Florence, Italy, has researched various fields of physics and the history and criticism of science. He is involved in a collaboration with the Faculty of Physics at the University of Havana, Cuba. His publications on science and its history include textbooks for universities and secondary schools; and regular articles in the Italian daily newspaper “Manifesto”, and in the magazines “Giano”, and “Guerre & Pace”.

Angelo Baracca has been involved for a long time with the problems of nuclear weapons and international relations – participating actively in the anti-war movement. His latest work in this field is the book “A Volte Ritornano: Il Nucleare: La Proliferazione Nucleare Ieri, Oggi e Soprattutto Domani”, (Sometimes Nuclear Problems Crop Up: Nuclear Proliferation Yesterday, Today and above all, Tomorrow ” ); Milano, Jaca Book, 2005.

North Korea’s nuclear test shocked the world: what were the motives behind this?

The distorted logic or rationale behind this decision can only be understood as a consequence of the arrogant, coercive policies of the great powers – the nuclear powers in the first place, with the United States at the head of them. Fortunately, throughout the Cold War period, nuclear weapons played only a deterrent role: that is, to dissuade adversaries from attacking - with the tragic, specious exceptions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The clearest interpretation of the North Korean test so far was given the following day by the Israeli newspaper “H'aretz”: “A state with nuclear weapons is immune from attacks against its installations”; obviously drawing the conclusion that Iran must be attacked and stopped before it can equip itself with the bomb; just as the nuclear reactor then being constructed in Iraq was bombarded in 1981.

What good are the warheads that North Korea appears to possess (or the warheads that Iran could (very hypothetically) acquire, if they actually used them; since this would automatically cancel them from the geographic map? Even if Tehran could one day destroy Israel, the 5 extremely modern submarines that Germany has generously sold Israel at a bargain price would remain unscathed and capable of devastating revenge.

For these countries, however, nuclear weapons serve only to deter; not to attack anyone. Leaving aside the nature of the North Korean regime, its decision to develop nuclear weapons obeys an understandable logic: a reply to US threats and arrogance. Essentially, while Korea’s language and behaviour in asking for help is obviously distorted; it is much less so than Washington’s arrogance.

The best way to ensure that the Iranian nuclear programme is not diverted towards military ends would be to set up a cooperation - such as Tehran’s so-far ignored offer a few weeks ago - to involve France in controlling its processes to enrich uranium for civil ends.

If I feel called upon to “defend” Iran’s civil nuclear programmes - even though I’m against nuclear power, and know full well that Iran’s decision is a result of its internal political problems – it is clearly because international regulation is the first condition that must be respected by everyone.

Regarding other issues, what Iran says it wants to do (denying any military ambitions) has already been settled by many other countries, including Brazil, for example. That country had already developed a military nuclear programme by the mid-1980s; which it later abandoned after obtaining all the materials and the necessary know-how to assemble the bomb. The International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) recognises that at least 44 countries can do this, but no-one bats an eyelid! Double standards have always been adopted by the strongest states.

The real problem behind all this is that the nuclear states have never complied with the obligation for controlled, total nuclear disarmament imposed on them 36 years ago by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This has been confirmed since in countless resolutions of the UN General Assembly, and formal meetings of international institutions.

To look back a little; what use have been the existing nuclear stockpiles, and what is happening in this field?

The role of our existing nuclear stockpiles; whether officially acknowledged, or open secrets, like those in Israel, has radically changed. During the Cold War, by means of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), they were used to avoid open military confrontation between the two blocks. Many attempts by other States during those decades to equip themselves with nuclear weapons were basically aimed at obtaining a status symbol and increased negotiating power by becoming members of the nuclear club.

After the end of the Cold War, it was thought that nuclear weapons would finally become obsolete, and could even be abolished. Their potential destructive power now seemed disproportionate in the new world situation, and the threat of total destruction seemed much more concrete too, given the asymmetrical forces involved.

This illusion didn’t last long, even if some important international agreements seemed to confirm it. These included the START-II treaty in 1993, to reduce strategic nuclear forces, which however lapsed before its function had been completed. Then, in 1996, the proposed CTBT nuclear test ban treaty failed to be ratified by the USA and some other states. The shock of the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998 was rapidly forgotten too in the cause of the “war against terrorism”. In reality they were directed against China.

Today the role of nuclear weapons has completely changed. There have been official declarations by the US administration which affirm that the USA never intends to ever renounce nuclear weapons.

Why has this happened?

The USA’s delirium of power: to uphold its hegemony and sustain its economy by military means is leading it to consider nuclear warheads as a decisive weapon in waging conflicts, rather than an ultimate resource. The new strategies of the Pentagon put these arms on the same level as other components of its defence system, and explicitly allow for their use, even preventively.

The USA, and other powers as a result, are frantically searching for nuclear weapons of a new type, with reduced power and radioactive fall-out, which can be used in the battlefield. They are seeking to erase the “troublesome” distinction between nuclear weapons and other arms known horrifically as “conventional”.

Then there are nuclear arsenals like that of Israel, explicitly wanted by Washington to guarantee the absolute supremacy of a gendarme specially created to guard its imperialist interests in a decolonising region. In the face of these trends and threats, the aspiration of those countries which feel threatened and are seeking to forearm themselves by developing nuclear weapons is understandable; even if not justifiable, or in the least to be supported.

What economic interests are being hidden behind nuclear rearmament?

I think there are many inter-related aspects of this problem. The Cold War arms race, especially involving nuclear weapons, was also aimed to drag the USSR into a competition that would inevitably exhaust it. Bear in mind that the cost of nuclear weapons does not just involve warheads, but also the whole system of missile launchers, submarines, alarm and control systems, maintenance, training and so on.

Bear in mind that the so-called “military–industrial complex” had completely different functions in the USA and the USSR. In the USA the state military apparatus has been deeply integrated with powerful private industries which operate in this sector, and government arms investments became the economy’s flywheel. In the USSR however, everything fell under the control of State, and its arms investments were therefore unproductive, and blocked the economy instead of helping its development.

Today the military industrial complex is even more powerful, if this is possible. This explains the need for more wars, for a system of permanent war, and research for ever more sophisticated weapons. Their “necessity” is often urged on by the arms companies, since this renders their existing weapons obsolete, and ensures their replacement, or their “consumption” and trial in wars.

Nuclear weapons are developed in three enormous US research laboratories, financed by the government with the direct participation of arms companies. Thousands of scientists and technicians work in these, who also create the proposals for new types of arms for new functions. Or even better - new types of military functions for new types of arms. This is a closed circle which feeds off itself. It is more than ever necessary today to remember that these same business interests are behind the campaign to renew “civil” nuclear energy programmes for the production of electrical energy. Remember that nuclear energy produces less than 17% of world energy requirements, and has recorded, and still tends to run up, the biggest losses.

To this “internal” economic function we can add the “global” function already mentioned, to ensure supremacy which is tottering on the purely economic level.

What happened to the non-proliferation treaty?

Unfortunately the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) has never managed in the slightest to fulfil the function it was conceived for. It was substantially a compromise between non-nuclear states, which renounced the possession of nuclear weapons in exchange for a commitment by the nuclear states, under the terms of Article VI, to “negotiate in good faith to find effective measures to end the nuclear arms race as soon as possible; and for nuclear disarmament, including a Treaty for general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control”.

The NPT has only apparently, and partially, limited proliferation; bearing in mind that apart from those countries which have recently acquired the bomb ( Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, North Korea) many others possess the materials and the scientific and technological know-how to build advanced nuclear weapons immediately. In the first place, but not alone, are Japan, Germany and Brazil. The IAEA recognises that at least 44 states now have the know-how to develop nuclear weapons, even if many cannot do this immediately.

Today Washington is doing its best to keep the NPT in mothballs. It is scandalous that it has solemnly and officially recognised the nuclear status of India outside the framework of the NPT - which India has not ratified – by means of the nuclear partnership underwritten by Bush a few months ago. This was clearly aimed against China. It would also have done the same with Pakistan if its regime was not so untrustworthy.

Even more scandalous was its support for the not very well hidden militarist, nuclear aspirations of Tokyo, which already possesses at least 40 tons of plutonium, and has just inaugurated a new reprocessing plant which will produce 8 tons of it every year.

Today the gravest military risks weighing on humanity are those produced by a vicious circle involving the refusal of nuclear disarmament, the determination to use such arms, the incontrollable nuclear proliferation at a world level and research for new types of weapons. The only solution lies in the resumption of the movement for nuclear disarmament leading to the total elimination of these weapons, under international control.

What is the situation in Italy?

It’s paradoxical, but no less so than in other countries. Italy is officially a non-nuclear state adhering to the NPT. This status is however loudly contradicted by many facts. Italy is a member of NATO, which has radically changed its nature and role since the end of the Cold War, and especially since the adoption of the “New Strategic Concept” in 1999. This has never been discussed or approved by any Parliament, and entails participating in the doctrine and planning of nuclear strategy, and therefore in the adoption of a nuclear military capacity.

In this context, Italy maintains 90 nuclear gravity bombs deployed on its territory, at the NATO bases at Aviano, and the Italian base at Ghedi Torre; out of a total of 480 in six European countries in NATO. These warheads are what is left of the nuclear weapons deployed in Europe, after the INF Treaty of 1987 removed those carried by the intermediate range Euromissiles; which had taken us to the brink of a nuclear conflict.

Today these arms are obsolete from the strategic point of view, and seem to be little more than symbols of Italian subordination, since those nuclear weapons deployed in submarines and more advanced bases are much more effective. However, their removal could have a positive effect in helping to unblock the disarmament process - Greece, for example, has done this without incurring other political problems.

While the START II treaty arranged for the destruction of all the warheads that were removed, the Euromissiles were removed without deciding the fate of their warheads. As a result, calculating the number of existing tactical nuclear weapons, and their operational state, is a problematic grey area.

Russia however has let it be known that whenever nuclear gravity bombs deployed in Europe are removed, it would be willing to open negotiations on tactical weapons and their removal, which would contribute to opening up the disarmament process.

A more serious and worrying problem are the USA’s nuclear submarines which patrol the Mediterranean, and can enter our territorial waters. They entail a real risk for the population in at least 11 Italian ports, and a target if a nuclear war should explode by mistake (or by a deliberate decision).

It seems that our historical memory has disappeared: what has led those in power to forget disasters such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

These were crimes rather than disasters: historical research has clarified by now that there was no military necessity for those bombs. They were instead aimed to warn off Moscow, which had declared war on Japan. Similarly, the “provocation” of Pearl Harbour was strongly desired by Roosevelt, who did everything to “entice” the Japanese, in order to overcome the opposition of US public opinion to entering WWII.

Our “historical memory” concerning these events has been deliberately wiped out. Their ritual celebration has the role of keeping us unaware of their real tragic nature. Moreover public opinion today is maintained in a state of disinformation and equivocation on the role of nuclear weapons. All the blame was deceitfully heaped on Iraq yesterday, and is being heaped on North Korea and Iran today; to justify in this way their existence and function.

Reality has been turned completely upside-down. The message is “Only we can save you from these rogue states, so have faith in us. The existence of the West, and our way of life, is threatened”. So we are led to believe that we possess nuclear weapons (which in itself is often forgotten) because we have to.

It’s the same thing with “terrorism” – a deliberately vague term, which is never the terrorism of the USA or Israel, but always that of others. This only succeeds in accentuating and radicalising “terrorism”; even when it doesn’t cause it. If nuclear weapons come to be actually used one day, it will be passed off as a necessity and a minor evil, as the only way to stop the terrorists. The remembrance of Hiroshima is already fading into the past.

A similar state of affairs has happened with our memories of the incident at Chernobyl. Its twentieth anniversary represented an attempt by the authorities to forget it – after all, we must allow nothing to obstruct the road ahead for new nuclear programmes! There’s a link between these two events which is hidden from most people. Continual analyses and more negative re-assessments of the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki still comprise the most important source of information on the large-scale, long-term consequences of radioactivity.

The world situation today shows dangerous signs of tension and deterioration in international relations; there’s a serious risk of a “nuclear incident”. According to you what could possibly happen?

Regarding nuclear weapons, there’s always been risk of a war breaking out through a mistake, and this has nearly happened several times. Today the situation is even more serious, not only because of the unbalanced forces involved, but also because of the grave deterioration in the Russian military situation. Some of its satellite alarms have reached the limit of their operational life, while others are “blind” by now. Russia’s weakness is a risk factor, not a sign of safety.

But unfortunately something much more ominous may be discerned. It is known, and the US media discusses it continually, that the USA and Israel have carefully prepared an attack on Iran, and the nuclear option is included, based on the illusion of striking a decisive blow. If imperialist madness actually crosses this threshold, the consequences cannot be foreseen, but in any case will be unprecedented.

To repeat the central point and the fundamental message we must convey: today the risk due to the presence of nuclear weapons is more serious than in any of the previous decades. Total, controlled disarmament is the only real solution, and is therefore more necessary and urgent than ever.

Sometimes a feeling of impotence may grip us when we think of issues so apparently beyond our possible influence. What can every person do to avoid this tragedy?

I know very well that enormous risks may produce a feeling of impotence and encourage us to evade the problem. But today we haven’t even reached this situation. Public disinformation is abysmal. There’s an enormous gap to make up. It’s possible in principle to find a different approach to raising people’s awareness. Whether it’s practical is another matter, but we shouldn’t shirk it. I think it is possible at least in principle to send messages to mobilise people – the problem is to reach the large majority.

I think there‘s a double message to transmit. The first is that the risk of nuclear war is greater than ever today, and this is due to the refusal of the great powers to eliminate their nuclear stockpiles. The second part of the message must be that “ united we can do it ”.

In the first place I’ve maintained for some time that if we can’t manage to get rid of nuclear armaments, we’ll never manage to get rid of any other types of weapons. No other types of weapons are governed by such precise and binding international legislation, or such a large and authoritative number of treaties and resolutions.

These include the International Court of Justice’s ruling in 1996, which established that even the threat of nuclear attack is illegal, and that nuclear disarmament is mandatory. Besides this there are internationally recognised and accepted instruments and methods to verify disarmament. By contrast, the Convention on Biological Weapons does not even have a protocol for verification, which makes it practically inoperative.

In the second place, people must become aware that nuclear weapons must be got rid of before they are used – afterwards will be too late! This positive message must include concrete suggestions of aims which are practical for everyone, and can be obtained. I have already mentioned the first: compel our government to request and obtain the removal of the 90 gravity bombs deployed in Italy. Greece, I repeat, has already obtained this, and the world has not collapsed. These arms are obviously obsolete.

This aim must be, and can be, extended to a European level, to avoid the bombs being removed from Italy and taken to another country. Last year, the Belgian Parliament requested the removal of its nuclear bombs.

It’s worth remembering that five Italian citizens in Veneto have sued the US government in Pordenone Court, over the risks resulting from the bombs at Aviano base. This shows clearly that we all have concrete possibilities for action. Let’s imagine what would happen if tens of thousands of people, in Italy and the whole of Europe, sued the US government!

Possibilities are under consideration that actions of this type can also be taken by people who live in those ports which may harbour nuclear submarines. These are special examples; but they are practical too. They encourage us to hope that a situation that has been static for 36 years can be liberated by progressive actions, to allow a growing collective will to come together. This will then lead the way for more ambitious aims, such as making the Middle East and the Mediterranean nuclear-free zones, and getting rid of the archaic, excessive British and French nuclear arsenals.

The aim of nuclear disarmament must be pursued with a strong conscious collective will, united to those for the construction of a real European political and social union, and for a reform of the United Nations Organisation. People are retreating and do not want to commit themselves; remaining attached to individualism and absenteeism because they do not see any collective forms of aggregation, resistance or action coming together. I think this is the biggest obstacle we find ourselves faced with today, and the problem of nuclear weapons can be a good starting point.

Perhaps nuclear weapons don’t seem to be linked to the continually more urgent concrete day to day problems of the people, but perhaps for the same reason they can help overcome many political differences and diverse viewpoints. After all, it’s difficult to find anyone fully sane who is in favour of nuclear weapons and the risk of a holocaust.