Dispute Over US Nuke in the Netherlands: Who Pays For An Accident?

Air transport of nuclear weapons
Who pays for a crash of a nuclear weapons airlift from Volkel Air Base?

By Hans M. Kristensen

Only a few years before U.S. nuclear bombs deployed at Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands are scheduled to be airlifted back to the United States and replaced with an improved bomb with greater accuracy, the U.S. and Dutch governments are in a dispute over how to deal with the environmental consequences of a potential accident.

The Dutch government wants environmental remediation to be discussed in the Netherlands United States Operational Group (NUSOG), a special bilateral group established in 2003 to discuss matters relating to the U.S. deployment of nuclear weapons in the Netherlands.

But the United States has refused, arguing that NUSOG is the wrong forum to discuss the issue and that environmental remediation is covered by the standard Status of Forces Agreement from 1951.

The disagreement at one point got so heated that a Dutch officials threatened that his government might have to consider reviewing US Air Force nuclear overflight rights of the Netherlands if the United States continue to block the issue from being discussed within the NUSOG.

The dispute was uncovered by the Brandpunt Reporter of the TV station KRO (see video and also this report), who discovered  three secret documents previously released by WikiLeaks (document 1, document 2, and document 3).

The documents not only describe the Dutch government’s attempts to discuss – and U.S. efforts to block – the issue within NUSOG, but also confirm what is officially secret but everyone knows: that the United States stores nuclear weapons at Volkel Air Base. 

Michael Gallagher, the U.S. Charge d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Hague, informed the U.S. State Department that environmental remediation is “primarily an issue of financial liability” and discussing it “potentially a slippery slope.” During on e NUSOG meeting, Dutch civilian and military participants were visibly agitated about the U.S. refusal to discuss the issue, and Gallagher warned that “a policy of absolute non-engagement is untenable, and will negatively impact our bilateral relationship with a strong ally.”

Gallagher predicted that the Dutch would continue to raise the issue, and said the Netherlands was ahead of the other European countries that host U.S. nuclear weapons on their territories in having signed and implemented the NUSOG. Unlike Germany, Belgium, Italy and Turkey, the Netherlands was the only country that had raised the issue of remediation in a forum such as NUSOG, but Gallagher warned that the other countries would raise the issue of remediation in the future as similar nuclear weapons operational groups are established.

gallager-timmermans
Charge d’Affaires Michael Gallagher shakes hands with Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans, who wants U.S. nuclear weapons removed from the Netherlands.

The United States has deployed nuclear weapons in the Netherlands since April 1960 and currently deploys an estimated 10-20 nuclear B61 bombs in underground vaults inside 11 aircraft shelters at Volkel Air Base. The weapons are under the custody of the US Air Force’s 703rd Munitions Support Squadron (MUNSS), a 140-personnel unit that secures and maintains the weapons at Volkel.

In a war, the U.S. nuclear bombs at Volkel would be handed over to the Dutch Air Force for delivery by Dutch F-16 fighter-bombers of the 1st Fighter Wing. The Netherlands is one of five non-nuclear NATO countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey) that have this nuclear strike mission, which clearly violates the spirit of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

eurobomb
A B61 nuclear bomb is loaded onto a C-17 cargo plane. Improved B61-12 bombs are scheduled to be deployed to Volkel at the end of the decade.

From 2019 (although delays are expected), the U.S. Air Force would begin to deploy the new B61-12 nuclear bomb to Volkel and the five other bases in Europe that currently store the old B61 types. The B61-12, which is scheduled for production under a $10 billion-plus program, will have improved military capabilities compared with the weapons currently stored at the bases.

The U.S.-Dutch dispute over remediation is but the latest political irritant in the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe, a deployment nearly 200 B61 bombs at five bases in six countries that costs about $100 million a year but with few benefits. President Obama has promised “bold reductions” in U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Volkel Air Base would be a good place to start.

This publication was made possible by grants from the New-Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

3 thoughts on “Dispute Over US Nuke in the Netherlands: Who Pays For An Accident?

  1. Another groundbreaking article. Thanks Hans!

    You write: “The Netherlands is one of five non-nuclear NATO countries (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey) that have this nuclear strike mission, which clearly violates the spirit of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

    Forget the “spirit,” how about violating the letter of the 1970 NPT?

    The treaty says:

    Article I

    Each nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; and not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear-weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices.

    Article II

    Each non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. [End quote]

    To my mind, that clearly binds the U.S., Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. I wish someone (preferably the U.S. government, but I won’t hold my breath) would explain to me how nuclear weapons-sharing within NATO countries does not directly violate the letter of the NPT. I note that just two weeks ago Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov called for withdrawal of U.S. B61s from NATO countries, while commenting:

    “As an expert on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) I have a question why nuclear armaments are deployed on the territories of non-nuclear countries. What is the nuclear weaponry control system of NATO states? In my opinion, this is a violation of Articles 1 and 2 of the NPT.”

    At least Russian tactical nuclear weapons are on Russian soil. Obama’s hollow rhetoric on “bold reductions” in U.S. and Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Europe is DOA. I hope that NATO’s arguable violations of NPT Articles I and II are the source of lively discussion at the 2015 NPT Review Conference.

    I also recommend that the U.S.’ drive toward new military capabilities for existing nuclear weapons be added to the 2015 NPT Review Conference’s agenda. The prohibition against new military capabilities is declared as official U.S. policy in Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, and I heard ex-State Secretary Hillary Clinton, ex-State Under Secretary Ellen Tauscher and ex-NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino all repeat that line at the 2010 NPT Review Conference. However, as you have so ably reported on, what the U.S. is really doing in “Life Extension Programs” for existing nuclear weapons is completely different from the official policy presented to the international community. That should be the topic of heated discussion at the 2015 NPT Review Conference.

    Jay Coghlan

    Nuclear Watch New Mexico

    1. Actually, I deliberately chose “spirit” versus “letter” because the nuclear sharing arrangement was in place before the NPT entered into force in 1970 and therefore was accepted by the treaty negotiations at the time. But even if one accepts that, the arrangement certainly contradicts everything the NPT regime stands for and the non-proliferation standards the United States and NATO are working to promote worldwide. And the sharing arrangement is always the topic of heated discussion at the NPT review conferences.

      As for Antonov’s assertion that deployment of nuclear weapons on another country’s territory is a violation of the NPT, that is, as far as I can see, not accurate. Notwithstanding the other problems of continuing NATO’s nuclear sharing mission, there is nothing in the NPT that prohibits the United States or any other nuclear weapons state party to the treaty from deploying nuclear weapons on the territories of other countries. As Mr. Antonov is well aware, the Soviet Union did so extensively in Eastern Europe during the 1970s and 1980s.

      The NPT-related problem with the deployment is not the deployment itself but the sharing arrangement according to which the air forces of Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey are equipped and trained to receive and deliver U.S. nuclear weapons with their national aircraft. During peacetime the weapons are under the custody of US Air Force personnel at the bases in Europe (although training and maintenance for the nuclear strike mission also takes place during peacetime), but in wartime control of the weapons would be released to the national air forces of those non-nuclear countries, who would at that moment effectively become nuclear weapon states. Whatever one might think about the need for such an arrangement during the Cold War, it is entirely inappropriate for those NPT countries to be involved in today and NATO should move swiftly to end the nuclear sharing arrangement.

  2. Obviously NATO nuclear weapons-sharing is grandfathered before the 1970 NonProliferation Treaty. However, I have always been struck by the fact that NPT Article I states, “not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever.” (emphasis on “whatsoever”). To narrow my complaint I argue that NATO nuclear weapons-sharing, soon to include the modified B61-12 with improved military capabilities, has violated the letter of the NPT since the treaty went into effect. Regardless of my opinion, here’s hoping that as you say “the sharing arrangement is always the topic of heated discussion at the NPT review conferences,” and that it finally leads to concrete results in 2015.

    Jay Coghlan

    Nuclear Watch New Mexico

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