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SRT: No Time to Waste

SRT: No Time to Waste

Wednesday February 5 2020

To mark the 50th anniversary of the Church’s Society, Religion and Technology Project (SRT), a new series of columns considers some of the issues on the agenda. In the first, Dr John Francis, the SRT Project’s first director, reflects on the nuclear threat.

It’s a fair and reasonable assumption that the peace of the world will continue to rest on remarkably thin ice.  We should continue to reflect on that stark reality thereby avoiding complacency.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the SRT Project (SRTP) of the Church of Scotland worked alongside the World Council of Churches (WCC) to examine the effectiveness of international treaties and conventions, including the 1968 UN Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which is still intended to control the risks and spread of nuclear weapons. 

The WCC programme on ‘The Future of Science & Technology’ was initiated by the distinguished ecumenical leader, Paul Abrecht, and, as SRTP director, I was invited to become a principal advisor.  The global energy crisis of 1973, resulting from quadruple increases by OPEC in the price of crude oil, prompted many nations to search for alternative sources of energy. In turn their governments were found to be moving towards more rapid development of nuclear power than had been anticipated.

In August 1974 the WCC Central Committee asked for ‘an assessment of the risks and potentialities of the expansion of large-scale nuclear power’.  Anticipated links to nuclear weapons had also to be considered, and so, after extensive consultation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, we set out to prepare the International Ecumenical Hearing to be held in Sigtuna, Sweden, in June 1975.

A fully-representative group of nuclear scientists, engineers, environmentalists and ethicists was brought together with Professor Casimir, President of the European Physical Society in the chair.

The final report ‘Facing Up to Nuclear Power’ (Eds. John Francis & Paul Abrecht) was published by Saint Andrew Press in 1976. Prior to publication the findings were agreed and endorsed by the WCC with this highly significant caveat: 

‘It is regrettable but inevitable that one cannot speak about nuclear energy without thinking about nuclear weapons. For the nuclear nations, their armaments programmes will hardly be influenced by the existence of power-producing reactors.  For other countries, the situation may be just the opposite: nuclear weapons will be a spin-off from nuclear energy.’

This initial assessment was to be followed by a further WCC investigation ‘on the current threat to world peace with special focus on the increased danger of nuclear war’.  The second Ecumenical Hearing took place in November 1981 at the Free University, Amsterdam, with John Habgood, then Bishop of Durham, acting as Moderator. The Hearing made a number of far-reaching proposals to the churches including the following:

‘the concept of deterrence, the credibility of which depends on the possible use of nuclear weapons, is to be rejected as morally unacceptable and as incapable of safeguarding peace and security in the longer term.’

Subsequently the Church & Society Council reached the same conclusion in its May 2006 report to the General Assembly:

‘In line with the Church of Scotland’s frequently stated policy on the immorality of nuclear weapons, call on Her Majestys Government not to replace the Trident missile system with a new generation of weapons of mass destruction.’

There was general concern at the time that any potential replacement of the Trident system might involve moves to smaller, lower-yield nuclear weapons, in contrast to the existing range of inter-continental ballistic missiles. 

It was also argued that if the possession of nuclear weapons is morally unacceptable to extend the possession of nuclear weapons into the future would add further to the risks of eventual use. 

The basic question to be asked of the Trident system, or any possible replacement, remains.  What are these weapons for if they can never be deployed or used without grave and far-reaching consequences, all of which appear to be accepted under the political concept of nuclear deterrence?

It’s clear that the UK military doctrine of nuclear deterrence will continue be challenged at all levels of the United Nations, including the Security Council of which the UK is a permanent member. There are no conceivable circumstances to ever justify the risks of using nuclear weapons. Any such future usage would inevitably be described as ‘crimes against humanity’. 

Within the UN these threats have been condemned outright as a further gross infringement of customary international law. Those politicians and pressure groups who continue to argue in favour of multilateral nuclear disarmament are completely missing the point. The long-term commitment of the international community should always be towards achieving global peace and sustainability rather than to constantly surviving under the devastating threat of nuclear weapons.

That profound and ethically-wise judgment must create a precedent to be faithfully endorsed by all those with realistic concerns for future generations.  Collectively the churches should continue to lead in this regard and seek to persuade the reluctant supporters of multi-lateral disarmament to join them. There is no time to waste!

Looking back at the history of the SRT