Does Anyone Need US Nukes in Europe? (Updated)

05/11/2010 12:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

UNITED NATIONS - Germany, other Europeans and scientific groups are taking advantage of the nuclear non-proliferation conference to tell the United States its estimated 200 tactical nuclear weapons on the continent are no longer useful or needed.

According to a briefing by the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), there is some US agreement on general principles but differences remain on the means of deterrence, said the group's executive director Paul Ingram. For the time being, NATO defense ministers are expected to leave them where they are.

Tactical or short-range nuclear weapons are on the territory of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey (in addition to those maintained separately by Britain and France) and contradict the intention of the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) by placing atomic arms in non-weapon states. This was tolerated during the Cold War but is now questioned.

Germany's Minister of State Werner Hoyer, in a speech to the month-long conference, called for "the role of nuclear weapons to be further scaled down in NATO's Strategic Concept" and said Berlin intended "to bring about, in agreement with our allies, the withdrawal of the tactical nuclear weapons still stationed in Germany."

The Belgium and Dutch parliaments have voted for the removal of nuclear weapons from Europe. Netherlands Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen suggested "a phased approach, aimed at the reduction of the role and the numbers of nuclear weapons in Europe."

Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists told the BASIC briefing on Monday:

"Deployment currently is about as big as the entire Chinese arsenal, or nearly as much as India, Pakistan and Israel have combined. That's a lot for an arsenal that NATO says is not targeted or directed against anyone."

Senior officials in the Obama administration support a withdrawal from Europe, he says, despite statements from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that reductions in US tactical nuclear arms must be linked to reciprocal cuts by Moscow.

"Those statements are part of a strategy intended to avoid triggering a backlash from some Eastern European NATO countries and Turkey that could lock NATO's Strategic Concept into decades of nuclear status quo," Kristensen said. The trouble, says Ingram, is that Russia sees no direct threat from these weapons so Moscow is likely to demand additional incentives to cooperate, thereby holding up any future pacts.

President Obama has signed a new strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty (START) with Moscow (subject to approval by the US Senate). But Russia and the United States have never negotiated reductions of tactical weapons.

Rose Gottemoeller, the assistant secretary of State and the lead negotiator on the START treaty, told UN reporters on Tuesday that tactical nuclear weapons "should be up for discussion as an agenda item," with the Russians in the future. She said the 400-page START treaty should be submitted to the Senate shortly. The Obama administration anticipates approval this year

Israel and Iran
But the nuclear weapons in NATO probably will not delay a result in the NPT conference, held every five years to review the 1970 treaty, as much as the question of Iran, now linked to a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, which means Israel.

The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany are negotiating a fourth round of sanctions against Tehran for enriching uranium, which can be used in bombs. Washington would like a "supermajority" among the 189 NPT signatories to further isolate Iran.

But Egypt, instrumental in getting a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East has linked Iran to Israel. "Success in dealing with Iran will depend, to a large extent, on how successfully we deal with the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the region," said Cairo's UN Ambassador, Maged Abdelaziz.

The world's five original nuclear states -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - last week pledged to take "concrete steps" to establish the a nuclear-weapons free zone In the Middle East but did not say how and when this would be done.

But the United States so far says this is impossible without a peace pact and the refusal of countries in the region to talk to Israel.

Some have suggested that as a compromise that Israel, which has not acknowledged its estimated 170 nuclear weapons, ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which it has signed. (The Clinton administration, instrumental in introducing the treaty, also signed it but the Senate did not ratify it.) India and Pakistan, whose nuclear arms are rarely a subject for discussion, also have not signed the CTBT.

The 40-year old NPT treaty divides the world into haves and have nots. The five established nuclear powers - the United States, Russia, France, Britain and China - are allowed to have the bomb but must work towards disarmament while the rest of the world is allowed to have access to civilian nuclear reactors.

And that is a problem with some 60 additional nations eager to have a reactor. The NPT treaty does not deal with enriching uranium for reactor fuel and then reprocessing it for plutonium, which can be used in a bomb.

And despite its renewable energy and low emission rates, reactors are extremely expensive - and often dangerous -- to build.