'Of course you should be worried if you are living close to nuclear bombs.'

Nuclear weapons expert Hans Kristensen (FAS)

The anti-missile demonstration of October 23rd 1983 in Brussels had 400,000 protesters, unique in Belgian history. Thirty years later the nuclear arsenal may have shrunk significantly but a world without nuclear weapons remains a distant objective. MO* spoke with Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) about President Obama’s disarmament promises, Iran’s nuclear plans and the modernisation of the bombs in Kleine Brogel.

  • Joshua Roberts Hans Kristensen Joshua Roberts

Hans Kristensen (52) started his career with Greenpeace Denmark as the national coordinator for the disarmament campaign. This was the early eighties, the middle of the Cold War and Kristensen wanted to know everything about nuclear weapons. Today he is considered one of the world’s experts on the matter. Kristensen is Director of the Nuclear Information Project at FAS. The organisation was created in 1945 by scientists of the Manhattan Project - the project that preceded the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki - that wanted to prevent a nuclear war. FAS is considered the best source of information on the worldwide nuclear weapons arsenal.

How many nuclear weapons are present in Kleine Brogel?

Kristensen: In November 1963, the US stationed nuclear weapons in Belgium for the first time. The codename back then was Pine Cone. Since then Belgium and the US have concluded several bilateral treaties on the stationing, the technical details of the storage, the compensation in case of accidents or incidents, and so on. In 2000, when President Clinton’s term ended, he allowed the US Air Force to maintain a total of 480 nuclear weapons in Europe, twenty of which were in Kleine Brogel. Since then the US has reduced its capacity by more than half - mainly by removing all weapons from Great-Britain and from the German base in Ramstein. The remaining 180 are spread out over Europe. The number in Kleine Brogel may have dropped a bit too, I suspect there are slightly less then twenty there now. The exact number is only known by a select few in the Belgian Ministry of Defence, not even Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo knows. Although he could ask the US if he wanted to know.

The bombs are of the B61 type. What do those look like?

Kristensen: It is a shiny silver coloured weapon, five to six meters long. It weighs nearly half a tonne, has four tail fins and looks like the classic atom bomb you see in cartoons. The nuclear warhead itself is a cylinder 50 to 70 centimetres long with two components inside: an ignition and a charge of highly enriched uranium.

Can the inhabitants of Kleine Brogel sleep soundly?

Kristensen: Of course you should be worried if you are living close to nuclear bombs. There is always a risk. During a security audit in 1997 the US Air Force warned that a nuclear detonation could be caused by a lightning strike when the weapon is brought up for maintenance from its underground shelter. While such a lightning strike scenario is very unlikely, there are other things that can go wrong. Imagine that a transport plane with nuclear weapons crashed and the contents spread out over the crash site. That could mean plutonium contamination. A third potential risk is a security threat against the base itself.

Why would there be a transport plane with nuclear weapons?

Kristensen: The standard operating procedure is to leave the weapons on the base. Small maintenance is done there. Larger maintenance or repairing defects requires the US to recall the weapons. By 2020 all weapons in Kleine Brogel will have been recalled for maintenance in the US. They’ll be modified and returned to Belgium as more accurate nuclear weapons – that at least is how it is projected at the moment.

In The Netherlands former Prime Ministers Ruud Lubbers and Dries Van Agt have recently confirmed the presence of nuclear weapons in their country. Should Belgium follow suit?

Kristensen: Absolutely. The Belgian former prime ministers should join their Dutch counterparts and address the issue. They can disclose the situation during their tenure without exposing the details of the current situation.

Would it make a difference?

Kristensen: Governments mislead their people. They say that they cannot officially confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons. That game of secrecy is used to freeze public debate, they hide behind it. We do not need to answer your security concerns because we cannot confirm or deny the presence of the weapons. It is important that politicians question that secrecy and the Belgian former prime ministers are in a position to do so.

In its coalition agreement the Di Rupo administration promised to: actively support international initiatives for further disarmament, nuclear disarmament included.

Kristensen: So the initiative should come from the international community? You know very well that one country is sufficient to block everything, so nothing will happen. If the Belgian government is serious about it and would like some European progress on this, it should raise the issue and force its own decision to have the nuclear weapons removed from Belgium. Belgium can take that decision itself, within the NATO context. So Belgium should raise the issue within NATO but also discuss it directly with the US. It should inform Washington that it wants the weapons removed within an acceptable time frame. If you look to other countries for decisions, nothing will happen.

In the mid-eighties, at the peak of the Cold War, there were about 70,000 nuclear weapons. What about today?

Kristensen: A lot of progress has been made. We’re now down to a quarter of that number, about 17,000. That is the total of all categories of nuclear weapons in all nine nuclear powers: Russia, US, China, Great Britain, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea and India. The US and Russia account for 95% of that number.

Why are these weapons still in existence?

Kristensen: Countries still consider them important for their national security, and status also plays a role. Russia is a superpower because it has nuclear weapons, not because of its economic status or anything else.

The FAS website does not contain a lot of information on the number of nuclear weapons in Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea. Why is that?

Kristensen: While all nuclear powers like to keep their capacity a secret, you can find information about some of them. For those four it is really hard to estimate. We suspect that their weapons are not entirely operational, which is quite different from the US and Russia. They have nuclear weapons ready on ballistic missiles that can be launched within minutes.

How far is Iran from creating a nuclear weapon?

Kristensen: It depends who you ask. Israel says Iran could be ready within six months. The US suspects that it will take at least a couple more years. We, the FAS, can only listen to what other countries say and then form our own conclusions. It does seem that Iran is gathering a lot of the technological components required to build a nuclear weapon. If it decides to build one. It is not clear if Teheran has taken that decision officially but it is a fact that a lot of steps it has taken point in that direction.

How do you think the Iran situation is going to evolve in the next few months?

Kristensen: A new government has come into power in Iran and so far that seems to be a positive development. It remains to be seen whether this new government will attempt to enter into dialog with the Americans, Europeans and the International Atomic Energy Agency. We have good hope that something will move in Teheran. It is a controversy in Iran itself too. The former government used threatening language and strategies to block progress and avoid international control.

During his 2009 speech in Prague American President Barack Obama stated that the US would take active steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. Has any progress been made since then?

Kristensen: The US continuously takes steps to reduce those weapons no longer in use. That is a fact and that process continues. In 2012 Washington retired the Tomahawk, a cruise missile used to fire nuclear weapons from the sea. A new Star treaty with Russia has been concluded in order to further reduce strategic nuclear weapons. That treaty is being implemented now.

Even though the US has reserved 200 billion dollars to upgrade its nuclear arsenal. Isn’t that a contradiction?

Kristensen: You should read the whole speech; there are two parts to it. One is about the reduction of nuclear weapons. The other is the promise to keep the remaining weapons safe and operational. That means that the US will increase the lifetime of its current weapons and build new weapons and launching systems as long as needed. The primary objective is of course to eliminate them. But as long as that hasn’t happened, they’ll update what they have. Which creates an image and perception problem. Other countries don’t understand what the US priority is. I call it a schizophrenic policy.

Crucial in the reduction process is of course the bilateral relationship between Moscow and Washington. Which doesn’t seem good recently.

Kristensen: It hasn’t been this bad since the end of the Cold War. This is a low. Not that there’s a military threat but it’s a series of political issues on a wide range of topics. The situation in Syria has been playing for quite a while, the Snowden case worsened things (the American whistleblower Edward Snowden was given asylum for a year in Russia). And there’s other stuff going on behind the scenes. Obama had written President Putin a letter for a broad discussion on security, but the Russian reply wasn’t very forthcoming.

Is it naive to assume nuclear weapons will never be used?

Kristensen: It is highly unlikely that one of the known nuclear powers will ever use them. But what if they fall into the hands of a terrorist organisation? That has not happened so far but there is constant concern about their assumed willingness to use those weapons if they could get their hands on them.

Are you actually worried about such a nuclear terrorist threat, or is that an unrealistic scenario?

Kristensen: It is possible. The international traffic of fissile material is a concern. What if you miss something? That is a top priority of intelligence agencies throughout the world. Luckily it is very hard to build a nuclear weapon, even a rough version. The moment any organisation starts down that path, it will increase its own profile. Its activities will draw a lot more attention. There are other concerns though. Take an unstable country like Pakistan. What happens with the nuclear weapons if the country falls apart into little region-states? Who gets control over the weapons then?

Why are there still nuclear weapons stationed in Europe?

Kristensen: It’s partly tradition. Governments don’t like to change things around. NATO has reconfirmed the status quo in the past few years, which is a big disappointment. Within NATO there’s a large gap between member states that want the weapons gone from Europe, like Belgium, and other countries that were under Soviet rule not too long ago. They are extremely distrustful of Russia and seek reassurance. Their real security worries have very little to do with nuclear weapons however, and should be addressed with real answers.

What is the best argument against the presence of these weapons in Europe?

Kristensen: They are no longer needed because they no longer serve a military purpose. Don’t forget that they were stationed in Europe to prevent the Soviet army invading Berlin. That era is past. They can go. It is that simple.

More information can be found on www.timetogo.be

Thanks to professor Tom Sauer for his input.

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