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RAF LAKENHEATH, England — News that U.S. nuclear bombs had been removed from England has British protesters celebrating. But many now question why government and military officials are reluctant to announce weapons consolidations in Europe.

The Federation of American Scientists, which studies the U.S. nuclear arsenal, on Thursday reported that 110 bombs had been removed from RAF Lakenheath — the largest U.S. base in England. Not surprisingly, however, U.S., British and NATO officials declined to comment on the issue this week, saying that it was against policy to discuss any aspects of nuclear weapons at specific locations.

The withdrawal at Lakenheath — which had housed nuclear weapons since 1954 — could have been authorized by the Bush administration as early as 2004, said Hans Kristensen, a researcher with the federation.

Kristensen said his findings are based on reports of nuclear inspections and exercises, but said he also relies on official statements, documents and leaks.

"None of this is open book," he said. "It’s about reading the nuclear fingerprint and the statements that have been given in the past and hints of procedural changes in official documents and running it by people who do have access to certain information. "This is a building of information that has been going on for several years. But it wasn’t until I got some recent confirmation that I became confident."

Kristensen revealed the news on his blog on the federation’s Web site.

The move at Lakenheath coincides with similar reductions at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, in 2005 and Greece in 2001, and reduces the total number of U.S. nuclear bombs in Europe to between 150 to 240, Kristensen said. The remaining B-61 bombs are at Aviano Air Base in Italy and Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, as well at other bases in Italy, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.

Coupled with security concerns highlighted in a recent Air Force investigation of nuclear weapons in Europe, the apparent reductions could be the first sign of a major nuclear weapons consolidation on the continent, he said.

But by keeping the withdrawals secret in the post-Cold War era, Kristensen wrote, "NATO and the United States have missed huge opportunities to engage Russia directly and positively about reductions to their non-strategic nuclear weapons, and to improve their own nuclear image in the world in general."

"What is at stake is not whether NATO should be protected with nuclear weapons, but why it is still necessary to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Japan and South Korea are also covered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, but without tactical nuclear weapons deployed in Asia," he wrote. "The benefits from withdrawing the remaining non-strategic nuclear weapons from Europe far outweigh the costs, risks and political objectives of keeping them there.

The only question is: Who will make the first move?"

Still, the news was welcomed by groups such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which has protested outside the gates at Lakenheath and elsewhere in the country where British nuclear weapons have been stored since 1958.

"Our first reaction is we’re very pleased," said Kate Hudson, chairwoman of the London-based group, which last staged a demonstration at Lakenheath in May.

"Obviously we’re concerned about where the bombs are going. We want them disarmed. We’re not happy if they’re just going to be deployed somewhere else," said Hudson, adding that the group plans to celebrate at the gates of Lakenheath next Friday.

Hudson, like Kristensen, questions the policy of nuclear secrecy.

"This is a positive thing. It can really help the international political climate," she said. "It would be so constructive to let people in on things.… It’s not conducive to an atmosphere of trust. I wish they would explain what they’ve done."

But other anti-nuclear advocates warn that public disclosure of arms reductions must be handled with kid gloves.

"At the moment relations (with Russia) are not positive," said Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council, a nuclear disarmament group based in London. "So you have to tread lightly when making demands on Russia to avoid the unintended consequences of pushing them in the corner."

Still, the withdrawal at Lakenheath "was the most obvious step," he said. "These tactical nuclear weapons have no military significance. They only have political significance in tying the European states in the U.S. nuclear strategy."


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