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The price of the atomic bomb at home

by Sofia Basso

by Sofia Basso. Journalist, researcher of the Greenpeace Investigation Unit

Even though the national secrets and mysteries of the Italian state are by now resolved, a great “unspoken” issue endures in Italian politics: our role in NATO nuclear sharing. Even if Italy has never admitted it, our country hosts about 40 American nuclear bombs and our armed forces regularly engage them in practice exercises. NGOs monitoring nuclear arsenals have calculated that there are around 150 warheads left in Europe of the 7,300 deployed during the Cold War. Of these, 20 are located at the military base of Ghedi (Brescia) and the same number also at the Aviano base (Pordenone). All this, according to many commentators, represents a serious violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which since 1970 has prohibited “non-nuclear” countries from procuring atomic weapons. In addition, these devices will soon be replaced by more modern and sophisticated bombs such as the B61-12. Obviously, these decisions are made without any official communication to the public.

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Yet the presence of nuclear weapons poses enormous risks to the population and the environment. As told to Greenpeace Italy by a former NATO evaluator, and as reported in an investigation called The Price of Atomic Bombs at Home, years ago the Ministry of Defense explained to those responsible for nuclear safety the potential damage of a terrorist attack against the atomic bunkers of Ghedi and Aviano, revealing that radioactive fungus would have reached between 2 and 10 million people, depending on the direction of wind propagation and the intervention times. It would be a real massacre.

The nuclear explosion could also be triggered by an accident. In recent decades, Hans M. Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), released numerous confidential documents reporting security problems in the vaults of European nuclear power plants: «The United States corrects the defects they find,» he specified in an interview with Greenpeace, but «obviously they cannot solve the problems they do not know about.» Until 1997, for example, they did not know that if lightning struck the fighter’s hangar while the bomb was without its protection, the risk of an atomic reaction would increase. Furthermore, in the event of a conflict against NATO countries, the two “nuclear” bases of the North East would find themselves targets.

If the risks of the atomic bomb at home are not diminished, supporters of nuclear deterrence are struggling to clearly indicate – in a context of increasingly asymmetrical threats – what are the benefits of the warheads deployed in Europe that cannot be achieved with the “strategic” nuclear weapons stationed in the United States. Some experts describe a possible NATO nuclear attack as a “mission of seven consecutive miracles”: that is, almost impossible to carry out successfully. But the Italian government carries on, and the few parliamentary motions that question nuclear sharing are invariably rejected.

Yet, every time they are questioned, the Italians have been clearly opposed to nuclear weapons. A recent poll commissioned to IPSOS by Greenpeace reveals that 80% of respondents are against hosting atomic bombs and against having fighter-bombers capable of dropping them. A full referendum (81%) would support the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which aims at the “complete elimination” of nuclear weapons, as “the only way to ensure that they are never used under any circumstances.” With 51 ratifications and 86 signatories, the Treaty will enter into force on January 22, 2021, after reaching the milestone of 50 ratifications on October 24.

But Italy does not seem to have any intention of joining. In line with NATO partners, it has distanced itself from UN work from the very beginning. As an undersecretary of the executive Gentiloni explained to the Chamber, it was «considered inappropriate to support initiatives likely to lead to strong opposition within the international community.» The position of the yellow-green government (Conte I) is even harder, which even raised «doubts about the real capacity of the Treaty to act as an irreversible, transparent and verifiable instrument of nuclear disarmament.»

Recently, some senators from M5S [the political party founded on 2009 by Beppe Grillo, former comedian and blogger] and LeU [a left-wing parliamentary group in the Chamber of Deputies and a sub-group in the Senate] have returned to urge our country to join the TPNW. From Palazzo Chigi [the seat of the Council of Ministers and the official residence of the Prime Minister of Italy], however, there is no answer. Yet, when in 2017 ICAN – the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons – asked parliamentarians from all over the world to commit themselves to the accession of their country, about 250 signatures from deputies and senators arrived from Italy, essentially PD, M5S and LeU, i.e. the forces currently in government. Some signatories today have leading positions, such as the Speaker of the House Roberto Fico and the Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio. Despite this, the Farnesina [the seat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation]remains critical of the TPNW. In a note sent to Greenpeace, the Foreign Ministry expressed the fear that «the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – rather than contributing to the common goal – risks instead exacerbating the opposition within the international community.»

In addition to jeopardizing everyone’s safety, atomic warheads have very high and constantly growing costs. Italy also has its own nuclear budget. But, unlike the US, it does not disclose it. A first, and prudent, estimate conducted by the Milex Observatory in 2018 calculated that the costs directly attributable to the presence of nuclear warheads on Italian soil fluctuate between 20 and 100 million euros a year. To this figure, we must add the costs to replace the old Tornadoes used in Ghedi for nuclear tasks with the infamous F-35. According to internal sources, precisely the need to make the new fighter-bombers compatible with nuclear bombs would have led Italy to choose the expensive stars and stripes jets, instead of the cheaper Eurofighters, which had very high adaptation costs to US warheads.

Assuming that Italy reserves twenty F-35As for nuclear tasks, the costs of buying them and using them for thirty years are around 10 billion euros. Faced with the choice on how to use this sum, only 5% of the interviewees by IPSOS indicated the need to «have the latest generation of fighter-bombers to be used for nuclear missions.» 95% of the sample opted instead for other jobs, from the health system (35%) to the economic system and work (34%), up to the school system (16%). It was an unequivocal verdict. «An increasingly unstable planet is safer without nuclear weapons,» says Giuseppe Onufrio, Director of Greenpeace Italy. «It is time for Italy to take a clear and definitive position on atomic weapons, demanding the complete withdrawal of American bombs from its territory and ratifying the TPNW, a historic agreement that allows us to hope for a future of peace, finally free from the nightmare of nuclear holocaust.»

Sofia Basso

Sofia Basso

Journalist, researcher of the Greenpeace Investigation Unit

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