BERLIN, June 26 (UPI) -- Officials from a German government party and the opposition demand that Germany should be freed from some 20 or so remaining U.S. nuclear warheads stored in military bases in the country.
The discussion was launched after an internal U.S. Air Force report found security and safety standards at most nuclear weapons storage sites in Europe fall well short of Pentagon requirements. This concerns politicians in Germany, who question the need for a nuclear deterrent within the heart of Europe.
"The nuclear weapons in Germany are a hangover of the Cold War and must disappear," Guido Westerwelle, a senior lawmaker of the opposition Free Democrats, told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. "If there are indeed security shortcomings, then we have yet another reason to remove all tactical nuclear weapons remaining in Germany."
The Air Force report, which was posted on the Internet by the Federation of American Scientists, found that sites with U.S. nuclear weapons are often inadequately protected, with infrastructure in need of repair and security guard personnel inexperienced or even unqualified to do their job.
Gregor Gysi, the head of the increasingly far-left opposition group Left Party, said the report showed once again that nuclear weapons are a safety risk.
"If the federal government had a backbone, it would immediately call on the United States to remove the nuclear weapons, even to scrap them," he told the Berliner Zeitung.
Over the past two decades, Washington has significantly reduced the number of nuclear weapons in Europe -- from a record Cold War height of more than 7,000 to an estimated 240 bombs. And even those explosives have diminished in significance, as nuclear warheads today aren't dropped from B2 bombers, but are mounted on long-distance missiles.
The remaining bombs are stationed in five NATO countries: Italy, Turkey, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
In Germany, an estimated 20 to 30 (the German government doesn't give any figures) remain at a German Luftwaffe base in Buechel, in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. This has angered the state government there, led by Social Democratic Party, or SPD, Chairman Kurt Beck, who has called on Berlin to join forces with other NATO allies for a reduction of nuclear weapons in Europe.
The center-left Social Democrats are part of the German government -- they form a coalition with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives -- and belong to a majority in favor of urging Washington to bring home the nuclear weapons left in Germany.
Nils Annen, an SPD security expert, told the Berliner Zeitung a removal of U.S. nuclear warheads would be a "huge help" to global anti-proliferation efforts.
The former German government led by SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder tried to persuade Washington to bring home the warheads stationed in Germany, but because of a rather brusque American rejection, negotiations on the issue were dropped.
Merkel, who has improved ties with Washington in her nearly three years in office, should reopen that chapter, said Reinhard Mutz of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, recently in Berlin.
"This would have symbolic importance," he said.
Yet initial responses by conservative lawmakers were careful.
Eckart von Klaeden, a foreign policy expert with Merkel's conservatives, said it must be guaranteed that security standards are as high as possible when it comes to storing nuclear weapons in Europe.
"But we can't do without them, as long as nuclear weapons exist in the world. They also protect us," he said.
Earlier this week a Foreign Ministry spokesman said at his regular news conference Berlin would directly not press Washington to remove its weapons from Germany.
"We believe that we have to have a deterrent," the spokesman said, adding it was and is the goal of the German government to lobby for a "global reduction of nuclear weapons."
This reduction apparently is ongoing: The Federation of American Scientists also noted Washington recently brought home its last nuclear weapons from Britain. The scientists, relying on several experts, said the United States removed its last atomic bombs from the Royal Air Force base at Lakenheath, where they had been stationed since the 1950s.