Thomas Countryman took office as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation on September 27, 2011. He joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1982. While serving in the U.S. mission to the United Nations in the mid-1990s, he was the mission’s liaison with the UN Special Commission investigating Iraq's unconventional weapons programs.
Arms Control Today spoke with Countryman in his office on April 10. The interview focused on a recent event—the nuclear security summit that took place in Seoul March 26-27—and two upcoming events: the May summit of the Group of Eight (G-8), where the countries are expected to endorse plans for the second decade of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, and the July conference at which countries will undertake negotiations on an arms trade treaty (ATT).
The interview was transcribed by Kelsey Davenport. It has been edited for clarity. A condensed version appeared in the May 2012 issue of Arms Control Today.
ACT: Thank you very much for sitting down with us. I know that your portfolio covers a broad range of issues. We are going to focus on just a couple of them, dealing with weapons-usable material and conventional arms.
First, in what ways did the Seoul nuclear security summit meet your expectations, and in what ways did it fall short?
Countryman: I’ve seen a lot of summits. In general, summits can be dramatic or successful, or both, or neither. In my view, the Seoul summit was not dramatic, but it was certainly successful. Unlike summits that make a ringing declaration of a new policy, the Seoul nuclear security summit was about reviewing a very successful record of accomplishment by a number of states acting individually and in concert, in rededicating themselves to the goals of the 2010 summit [in Washington], and in making specific commitments to continue to meet those goals. So in that sense, it had more substance than a number of other summits I can think of.
In particular, the various agreements announced—whether it was the completion of the removal of highly enriched uranium [HEU] from Ukraine and from Mexico, whether it was the cessation of the use of highly enriched uranium to produce nuclear medical isotopes in Europe, whether it was the extension and building-up of cooperative frameworks to combat nuclear smuggling—all of these are accomplishments in the real world, not just in the policy frame, not just in terms of a declaration. So in that sense, I think it was fully successful.
There remains work to be done, and that is why the parties have agreed to focus on a summit two years from now to review the progress, to review the commitments that we made in Seoul. And I expect to see a similar amount of progress in the real world when we get to the Netherlands two years from now.
ACT: Okay, any areas [in which] you might have hoped for more, but it didn’t quite come through?
Countryman: We still consider a couple of areas where there is progress possible. First, there are a couple of countries that still have significant stockpiles of fissile material beyond any peaceful use, any peaceful requirement that they may have. We hope to convince those countries to continue the process of reducing and ultimately eliminating those stockpiles. Second, we would still like to see in general, across the world, additional steps on nuclear security, on the physical means to guarantee that access to fissile material and radiological sources is limited to those who need it and not open to terrorists or criminals. And third, we would still like to see a more concerted effort worldwide to phase out the use of highly enriched uranium as a reactor fuel and convert all those reactors to low-enriched uranium. So these are tasks for the next two years. There has been progress in the last couple of years, but we need to keep going on those.
ACT: In some of the discussions in the run-up to the Seoul summit, it was indicated that the summit would produce a communiqué that had firmer commitments than the 2010 document. Do you think that the 2012 communiqué accomplishes that?
Countryman: I haven’t read the 2010 document for the last year, but I think that the 2012 document is firm in making commitments. It is not an international treaty, nor is this summit process intended to result in a binding international treaty. But the success of the process so far has been because President [Barack] Obama convened world leaders at this level to focus this level of political attention and devotion of resources to these issues; that has been the key to success, rather than making sweeping commitments that would be binding on all the participants.
ACT: You mentioned the use of highly enriched uranium and some of the things that still need to be done. The communiqué calls for an announcement of specific voluntary actions by the end of 2013, rather than completion of actions by that time. So can you explain how that is consistent with the four-year goal that President Obama announced in 2009 and the summit participants endorsed in 2010? It seemed that you were working toward completing it by 2014 as opposed to having announcements in 2013.
Countryman: We are well on track to meet the target that President Obama established of a four-year lockdown of vulnerable nuclear materials. We made great progress in the last two years. There is still hard work to do, [but] we have confidence that existing fissile stocks should be in a secure situation by 2014. That is not exactly the same question as eliminating all of those fissile material stocks, which we would like to see, which we are working on with specific countries. The minimum requirement is to make sure that those stocks are secure while we progress on the path to eliminating them.
ACT: So by 2014, we just want to have them secure, but not necessarily removed from countries? That would include having them in secure storage within the country rather than having them removed from the country?
Countryman: The goal is security of those materials. It is a country-by-country situation. And I think that we want to work quietly with those countries that need the assistance or the political cover to complete the process of removing those stocks.
ACT: Before, during, and after the summit, there were various lists of what different countries would do by certain dates. One list had seven countries that were planning on removing their HEU by 2013, and that list included Belarus and South Africa. Some reports indicate that those countries are moving more slowly. So could you bring us up to date with what is going on with those two countries, because they are two key ones?
Countryman: They are two key countries, and they are at very different places in terms of their standing in the world. You can’t compare the very positive relationship we have with South Africa on a range of issues with the very difficult relationship that we and the European Union have with Belarus. In the case of South Africa, we will continue to work with them on alternatives to maintaining the [HEU] stockpile, trying to find a solution that is economically beneficial to South Africa, for what it correctly considers to be a valuable resource.
In the case of Belarus, we’ve done our best to isolate this issue from the general political difficulties between Belarus and the rest of the world. That’s been one of the successes of the nuclear security summit, to avoid having this issue trip over every other issue in a country’s bilateral relationship. But there are both political and technical issues still to work with Belarus [on]. It remains our goal to finish the removal of HEU stocks from Belarus by 2014.
ACT: Okay. Is there any sign that that process is going to be re-engaged from the sort of the limbo that it is in now?
Countryman: I would not say that it is in limbo, but these things do take time.
ACT: Then on South Africa, as you said, the relationship is much more friendly. So given that, were you perhaps expecting more from [the South Africans]? Because their statement at the summit seemed to assert a right to use material at whatever enrichment level they choose as long as they took the necessary steps. [See sidebar 1 below.] And they seem to tie a phase-out of civilian HEU to completion of a fissile material cutoff treaty, which clearly is not happening anytime soon. So in the context of that friendly relationship, is that an area where perhaps more was hoped for?
Countryman: Well, first the nuclear security summit process is not about abridging the rights of any nation under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It is, rather, making a common commitment that [governments] choose not to exercise certain rights in the name of protecting the security of [their] people in individual countries and worldwide. And that is the context in which we have our discussions with South Africa and with everybody else. So it is not a question of rights; it is a question of making a choice that is rational both in terms of economics and in terms of security. They did make a connection to the fissile material cutoff treaty. We remain interested in seeing those negotiations commence soon. It is frustrating to us, as to the rest of the world, that [they have] not been able to begin. Whether that connection is valid and whether it should persist when there are valid security reasons for proceeding with down-blending this material are questions better addressed to the South Africans.
ACT: Many independent experts have said they are concerned that, despite the important progress made in the nuclear security summit process, there are still no internationally agreed binding standards for nuclear security. What is the Obama administration’s view regarding the international instruments in place regarding nuclear security? Are they sufficient to meet U.S. goals to improve global nuclear security standards, or is there a need for something more?
Countryman: Well first, it’s a process. The summit is not intended to be an end in itself, but is intended to lead to greater responsibility on the part of all states. Part of that process, from the beginning, has been to give greater authority and resources and encouragement to the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] to help develop a framework for commonly understood international standards on nuclear security. The IAEA is moving forward on that front. That’s not the same as development of a new legal standard or new legal requirements, but that was not ever the purpose of the summit.
ACT: So do you feel that the standards that are established through the IAEA, those are sufficient? It is just a matter of implementing those standards?
Countryman: I am not sure that we have seen them yet, so I’m not sure I will say they are sufficient, but it is the logical next step in developing the sense of responsibility that every country needs to have when it comes to securing nuclear materials.
ACT: In the context of what you have just said about IAEA standards, and looking ahead to the Netherlands summit in 2014, what can you say about what the United States goals are for that summit and especially beyond? You say it’s a process, there will be work to be done, I’m sure, after 2014. What can you tell us about how the United States sees the process beyond 2014?
Countryman: So you couldn’t just let us relax after Seoul? You want to know what’s next, two years from now?
ACT: Inquiring minds want to know.
Countryman: I know they do. And I think perhaps we are getting ahead of it. The first part of the answer is easy. We want to be able to two years from now say that we have substantially accomplished the lockdown of vulnerable nuclear material that was in the president’s original target. Whether we will be discussing new international mechanisms beyond the summit, beyond the political commitments, frankly it’s too early to say. I couldn’t tell you today.
ACT: And do you have a more general sense of 2014 and beyond? Will that be the last of the summits?
Countryman: Again, it’s too early to say. You heard the diversity of views in Seoul, with a number of delegations praising the value of the summit so far, giving the opinion we should go to 2014 and beyond. You heard a couple of delegations that expressed doubt that we needed to go past 2014. So I would say it’s an open question at the moment. Our intent is to gain as much value from the next two years as we possibly can before we make a decision on that.
ACT: I am going to move on to the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. Last year, the Group of Eight announced that the Global Partnership would continue beyond its original end date of 2012. But the announcement left open many specifics, perhaps most notably the funding level. Could you give us a quick summary of what the partners already have agreed? And what kind of additional details will be discussed ahead of the [May 18-19] G-8 summit at Camp David?
Countryman: First, I think it’s a good moment, 10 years after the G-8 summit that set up the Global Partnership, to evaluate positively how much it has accomplished. Spending $22 billion in 10 years substantially reduced the risk of proliferation of weapons and materials from the former Soviet Union. It was generously funded by G-8 members and others, and its accomplishment is huge. It’s natural, last year and this year, to look into a couple of new dimensions, to look beyond only nuclear materials and consider other proliferation challenges, including biological hazards. It’s also natural to look beyond the former Soviet Union to other regions of the world that confront some of the same issues, in the nuclear, biological, or other fields. So the redirection of the G-8’s focus for the Global Partnership from being centered on the former Soviet Union, centered on nuclear and chemical weapons issues, is, I think, a very positive development. We have tasks to complete in those areas, but we also have new tasks, new partners around the world, who appreciate the importance of providing security against these particular challenges.
President Obama made clear in 2010 that we will continue our level of funding. He has committed at least $10 billion in a 10-year period to this task. And we are spending that money wisely, but also well, through my bureau, through the National Nuclear Security Administration, through the Department of Defense and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and we will continue that funding stream into the future. Even in difficult economic times, this is, for us, an investment in national security rather than a foreign assistance program. We leave to other partners in the G-8 the funding levels that they believe they can afford. So it would not be accurate to try and give you an estimate of the total G-8 spending on this. I would note that we continue to expand the Global Partnership. We’ve added Kazakhstan as the24th member just a couple of months ago. And the sources of funding go beyond the G-8 itself.
ACT: So will there be some further detail on the financial aspect at the upcoming summit? Will there be some sort of announcement? You said that the U.S. made this commitment to a specific number; will other countries publicly state what their commitments are at the summit? Is that something we can look forward to?
Countryman: We don’t know yet.
ACT: Okay. Will the U.S., as the chair of the summit, be encouraging countries to do that? Either publicly or privately, to make these kind of commitments to specific numbers?
Countryman: I think we will be pressing countries to make commitments; whether we will press them to make commitments to specific numbers, I think we’ll see.
ACT: What other kinds of commitments then?
Countryman: To make general commitments to continue their generosity. It’s tricky to get into the game of setting a number and then setting some of our partners up for public criticism if they are unable to meet that number. We were successful in setting a specific number back in 2002, and we were successful in spending and exceeding that on valuable programs that contributed to global security. It is a different moment in time today economically. And I would be hard pressed to say that there is the same value in setting a specific number target at this moment.
ACT: You mentioned that there were some new programmatic goals for the second decade of the Global Partnership. Can you expand a little bit more on that, in terms of the vision for how this might evolve? And you mentioned Kazakhstan as a new partner. Obviously, beyond the G-8, there are the G-20 countries. Are there some of the G-20 countries, particular countries that the United States and the other G-8 countries want to partner with in this broader effort in the next several years?
Countryman: First, we are happy to partner with just about anybody who shares our goals and is able to bring money and expertise to the table. Or even just money. We don’t think, to be honest, in the context of the G-20, which is a group instituted for a particular economic purpose—and you could say the same thing, that the G-8 started that way, it was only about economics, and now it is into proliferation and a number of other issues. But we don’t think about the G-20 in that particular context.
What do we do in terms of new fields? I guess I would talk about biosecurity first. It’s not only a question of preventing the proliferation of technology that can contribute to a biological weapons program. Our entire concept of how the world defends itself against the threat of biological weapons rests upon the capabilities of the world community and individual nations to detect, deter, and respond to biological attacks. The detection and the response is the same for a natural or an accidental outbreak as it is for a deliberate release of a biological weapon. And we have already seen that pathogens crossing from the natural environment into the human environment have had health and economic consequences in many parts of the world. It is being able to monitor that, detect, and react rapidly—this is where the United States has built up its capabilities for national biodefense in such an event and is working hard with partner countries to develop the same kind of detection and response capability, provid[ing] a double insurance policy against both natural and deliberate introduction of disease into the human environment.
So, for those countries that have seen this phenomenon before, of animal viruses entering the human population, particularly in Southeast Asia and Africa, we’ve been working intensively on joint research projects, developing monitoring mechanisms, detection mechanisms, [and] helping to plan responses, both immediate responses and medium-term production of vaccines. I think that these are the kind of biosecurity programs that are not only a public health program, but also help to deter anybody from thinking that biological weapons are an effective weapon to use against human populations.
ACT: So is there a sense that the original mission in Russia and the other former Soviet republics has largely been accomplished at this point? Or is [the Global Partnership] going to continue to do that while doing these other things, given, as you said, the financial constraints?
Countryman: There is still work to finish in the former Soviet Union, and we will finish it in partnership with the Russian Federation and with others, in the G-8 and in the region. But with the amount of funding that we hope to have available, we need to look well beyond the region.
ACT: Part of what I was getting to was that when the G-8 was established in 2002, there were a number of goals in terms of programs and in terms of pledges that were not met over the course of the 10 years. Does that give you some pause about setting too ambitious of an agenda for the coming 10 years?
Countryman: I think everybody in government, and for that matter in your personal life, ought to set an ambitious agenda for the next 10 years. But year by year, you have to be realistic about the resources available and make intelligent decisions about your top priorities for the year. But I’ve never been opposed to ambitious agendas.
ACT: Before we shift topics, if you could just give our readers a more specific sense of what these G-8 Partnership programs are dealing with, and let’s take Kazakhstan in particular. Can you tell us a little bit more about what is planned with Kazakhstan? Does it have to do with some of the security issues, strategic materials that are still at the former Soviet test site there? What kinds of work do you anticipate doing with Kazakhstan? Some work has already been done before, but looking forward?
Countryman: Our cooperation with Kazakhstan in the nonproliferation field has been excellent. In fact, immediately after this meeting I will be talking with the deputy foreign minister of Kazakhstan. We will have a team there this month to review the broad range of cooperation that we have. They’ve been a model partner in this area, and they are also an example of a country that has accomplished so much with the assistance of the Global Partnership program, that they now have the resources and the expertise to share those accomplishments and that experience with other countries in need of the same kind of work.
On specific accomplishments, you saw the announcement at the Seoul summit by Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation, and the United States of substantial completion of cleanup at the Semipalatinsk site. [See sidebar 2 below.] Cleanup may be too strong a word—securing of vulnerable materials at that site. That’s huge. This was one of the greatest concentrations of vulnerable material in the world. And as we close in on completion of that task, it has been a substantial success for the goal of nuclear security. We have cooperation in the biosecurity field as well, with Kazakhstan, both through the State Department and through other agencies.
One area that Kazakhstan is interested in is serving as a center of research, whether you call it a center of excellence or a successor to the International Science and Technology Center in Moscow. And so they are willing, as somebody who has benefited from the Global Partnership, to give back.
ACT: I just wanted to follow up on the point that we made about diversifying the membership. When we mentioned the G-20, it was not so much as a function of the group, but as one that is somewhat more diverse than the G-8, which is wealthy, advanced, industrialized countries, that has a more representative cross-section of countries. Is there an ongoing effort to get major countries that are not currently included as part of the Global Partnership?
Countryman: Yes, I did not mean that the G-20 are not important countries. I just meant that when we look at potential donors, we don’t do it by categories by G-20 or EU, or someone else. We look at the countries that have demonstrated an interest, and an expertise, and a willingness to spend some money to work cooperatively to reduce global threats.
ACT: Are there any particular countries that are on your radar at this point?
ACT: But you are not going to name them?
Countryman: I would not make an appeal like that in public.
ACT: For the last part, we are going to go to the arms trade treaty. Since 2006, efforts have been under way to pursue a treaty to deal with the transfer of weapons across international borders, and this July there will be negotiations to try and conclude a treaty text. Could you just start out by explaining from the U.S. perspective what the U.S. government’s view is on the humanitarian and security challenges that an arms trade treaty can help address? And then second, why did the Obama administration announce that it would proactively engage in that process?
Countryman: Well, there is a lot there. First, you should look simply at how the United States administers its own export of weapons. And that is, we have a detailed mechanism for considering exports that takes into account security situations in the region, takes into account the human rights situation, takes into account economic dimensions, as well as the usual elements of national interest that go into an arms sale to a friend anywhere in the world. This process is rigorous, it’s exhaustive, and we think that it compares favorably to that of any other country in the world. So by our own actions, we have demonstrated for decades that we believe countries have a responsibility to take into consideration a wide range of criteria before exporting weapons anywhere.
The Obama administration believes it is valuable, that each country in the world should have a similar process. Not an identical process, not identical mechanisms, but a similar process of considering all of these relevant criteria before the export of weapons from one state to another. In our view, this will simultaneously serve to address certain humanitarian [and] human rights concerns and offer the potential to reduce the level of conflict in a number of regions in the world. But at a minimum, what it accomplishes, even if none of those goals are accomplished overnight with a new arms trade treaty, [is that] there is a new sense of responsibility upon every member of the United Nations that you cannot simply export and forget, that the consequences of export of weapons last in the region where they are received, and that has to be in the consciousness of every country that exports weapons.
We have agreed to participate in the arms trade treaty negotiations that will take place in July, in New York, because we believe that there is now a readiness on the part of the world community to embrace a similar concept and to create a set of criteria that will have real meaning for every arms-exporting country. We also believe that the format is such that it will address our concerns, that the requirement to adopt a treaty by consensus is an important way to ensure that the United States’ principles are protected in this process.
Now, what are those principles? Just to mention a couple of key ones. First, that trade in conventional weapons is a legitimate commercial activity and one that states have the obligation to regulate. Second, that there must be international criteria, but there must be national mechanisms, national processes, at the state level, to make these decisions. That is within the sovereignty of the member states of the United Nations, to make these decisions. Third, that a treaty needs to be floor, not a ceiling, that these should be high, but still minimum, criteria for countries to decide, and that if other nations, such as the United States, wish to have still stronger criteria, the treaty does not prevent us from doing so. And finally, I think that it is important to keep in mind that this is a treaty about trade between states. It cannot, it should not, create an international mechanism that seeks to regulate this trade, although it should offer international assistance to states that want to establish this system. And it must not seek to regulate domestic trade, nor can it touch upon the important rights under the Second Amendment of the Constitution enjoyed by American citizens. So these are some of our basic principles. I think there is a wide consensus among members of the United Nations about this framework, and we are hopeful that within a framework, in respect of these simple concepts, an arms trade treaty negotiation can be successful this year.
ACT: So you spoke about the principles, the redlines, that the United States is going to be seeking in these negotiations with respect the right of individuals to possess arms within the United States. I mean, is it even a possibility, given the mandate of the treaty that was established at the UN? If you could just clarify, there are some here in the United States that charge that this is a UN treaty that could affect Second Amendment rights. Is that even a realistic possibility given the mandate, and given the stated positions of the U.S. and other countries in that regard?
Countryman: That’s a very good question. And I agree with you that the mandate of the conference does not encompass that as a possibility. But even if I am wrong about that, the negotiators from the United States will ensure that no such treaty that abridges the rights of U.S. citizens is adopted.
ACT: You spoke about some of the basic requirements. Could you elaborate a little bit more on what are the key elements that the United States thinks must be in the treaty in order for it to be robust enough, in order to be effective, to address the humanitarian, the economic, the development, and the security concerns that the states that are engaged in this want to try and address?
Countryman: I would break it down into kind of three dimensions. One is that it must be relevant to a wide range of weapons, everything from pistols to aircraft carriers; it must apply to a wide range of actions, whether it is direct export, licensing, brokering, or defense industrial export, that is, setting up weapons factories in other countries; and it must include a number of criteria. As I said before, our own process includes considerations of regional balance, regional stability, active internal and external conflict in a country, human rights, humanitarian issues, legal issues, economic. I don’t want to prescribe at this moment that an arms trade treaty must include all of the same criteria that the United States’ system does. But clearly, to be effective, there have to be a number of criteria that states are required to take into account in their national decision-making on arms exports.
ACT: You just mentioned some of the items that need to be part of the scope. One of those items potentially is ammunition, as well as the weapons themselves. U.S. export controls address the transfers of ammunition as well as weapons. So from the United States’ perspective at this point, how might the ATT address the issue of ammunition, which is often, as you know, responsible for the perpetuation of armed conflict as much as the actual sale or transfer of weapons in some cases?
Countryman: I’m not certain I agree with your premise in the last sentence. I am not disagreeing, but I am not positive I agree. Ammunition is different from weaponry. You are right that the United States has a similar process on decisions on export of ammunition. And it is important for us to take that into account and make decisions according to similar criteria. But it still is a different case for a number of reasons. One, ammunition is inherently dual use, between military, law enforcement, and recreational use. Second, the quantities of ammunition involved are just huge. Third, it is more difficult by far to track what happens to ammunition as opposed to any other weapon that might be exported. And fourth, it’s a big administrative burden just to keep track of all of these exports of ammunition. We are not interested in creating in this treaty an obligation that is so financially onerous that states choose to ignore it rather than to honor it. For all those reasons, ammunition is one of the difficult questions that will come up. And at this point, it is hard for us to see how a successful conclusion to the arms trade treaty could include ammunition.
ACT: Let me ask a brief follow-up on this. The United States, as we noted, implements controls over ammunition, where it goes, not tracking it in what happens after the original transfer. How is the United States solving this potential problem of other states making ammunition transfers that undermine the spirit or the intent of the ATT? Or are there some other solutions that might address this, much in the same way that U.S. export controls of ammunition try to do?
Countryman: Well, look, we are always open to good ideas. I’ve outlined some of the reasons that controlling ammunition in the ATT poses a special problem. If there are good ideas, good solutions out there, of course we are prepared to listen to them.
I would not expect the arms trade treaty in its first year of implementation to solve all the concerns about arms transfer around the world. We don’t look at the ATT as a disarmament treaty; it is a treaty that regulates a commercial activity. And we don’t expect that all the conflicts in the world will evaporate as soon as this is put into place. But we do expect it to begin a process of leveling the playing field, and of course, I mean that in a commercial sense, so that exporters from different countries face the same considerations, but I also mean it in a humanitarian sense. It gives advocates of restraint a stronger leg to stand on in making arguments about export of weapons from this country or that country. But will everyone instantly honor it to the same extent? I don’t expect that. But I do expect it to be a solid basis on which to build towards a less conflict-ridden world.
ACT: Final question. Just to kind of put that in perspective, because I think our readers and others need to be reminded of particular situations, I mean, today, in the headlines, conflict in Syria, Mali, Darfur, of course, other states in the Middle East, so how might the arms trade treaty, if it is put into effect, help the United States and other countries leverage the kind of behavior that it is seeking in these particular situations where there are debates over whether weapons should be sold to states in which there are ongoing civil conflicts, human rights violations? I am asking you to be a little bit speculative, but also a little bit more specific about how this might help U.S. and international interests in these tough situations.
Countryman: Well, to speculate specifically, what we would expect is that after adoption of an arms trade treaty, we would expect other arms exporters to consider factors similar to those that we consider, and for the world community, including the United States, to have an additional point to argue against the export of weapons to an active conflict zone. Will that in itself be enough to end such conflicts? Perhaps not. But will it contribute to restraint on the part of external parties and perhaps on the part of the conflicting parties at the same time? That is something that you could hope for, whether it’s Syria or Mali, or anywhere else.
ACT: All right; thanks a lot.
Countryman: My pleasure.
1. The Group of Eight (G-8) countries—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—created the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction in June 2002 at their summit in Kananaskis, Canada. The countries pledged $20 billion toward the effort over 10 years, with half of the amount to come from the United States. The roster of the partnership has expanded to include countries outside the G-8.
South Africa is not required to limit itself in the enrichment level of the uranium it uses in its nuclear program, as long as the purpose is peaceful, the country’s leader said March 26.
In a speech at the Seoul nuclear security summit, President Jacob Zuma declared his country’s right to “the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes only, irrespective of the enrichment level.” Zuma acknowledged that “special precautions” are required for highly enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium, but said that South Africa had these measures in place.
Uranium with enrichment levels greater than 20 percent of uranium-235 is considered HEU. Urging states to minimize their use of HEU was a principal agenda item at the Seoul summit.
The Seoul communiqué, a consensus document endorsed by the summit participants, called for states “in a position to do so” to announce by the end of 2013 “voluntary specific actions” to minimize the use of HEU. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak referred to this provision of the communiqué as one of the summit’s “core accomplishments.”
Lee also highlighted the need to convert reactors producing medical isotopes to use a low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel. South Africa has played a lead role in this area by commercially producing a key medical isotope through the use of LEU rather than HEU. (See ACT, January/February 2011.)
Zuma went on to say that focusing on minimizing the use of HEU for civilian purposes should “come to fruition” in the negotiations for a fissile material cutoff treaty. Conclusion of that accord, which would ban the military production of fissile material, is seen as a distant prospect, as the start of negotiations has been blocked for years in the Conference on Disarmament.
Experts estimate that South Africa currently possesses between 600 and 750 kilograms of HEU. That figure includes quantities from the country’s abandoned nuclear weapons program.—KELSEY DAVENPORT
Kazakhstan, Russia, and the United States have made significant progress in a previously secret cooperative effort to secure nuclear materials at a former Soviet nuclear test site, the three countries said in a March 26 joint announcement at the nuclear security summit in Seoul.
At the Semipalatinsk site in eastern Kazakhstan, 456 nuclear devices were tested between 1949 and 1989, according to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization. The site also includes the largest underground testing infrastructure in the world, consisting of 181 tunnels in Degelen Mountain.
A U.S. official said in an April 24 e-mail to Arms Control Today that “[t]he majority of nuclear tests [at Semipalatinsk] resulted in the infusion of fissile material in tons of melted rock, but some types of nuclear tests can leave readily recoverable fissile material.” The trilateral project, which began in 2005, has filled the test tunnels with a special cement that chemically bonds with the residual material, rendering it unusable for nuclear weapons, the official said.
In a March 27 statement at the Seoul summit, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev said that the joint effort of the three governments resulted in “rehabilitation of the test site” and “destruction of the infrastructure.” According to Kazakhstan’s national progress report, a document submitted for the summit describing the country’s progress on strengthening nuclear material security since 2010, the “main part” of the project, which included eliminating the site’s infrastructure, is complete. Cooperation continues on “physical protection of sensitive areas,” which the statement described as “nearing completion,” the report said.
The trilateral effort began when it became apparent that previous measures taken by the three countries to secure the site were insufficient, Ben Rhodes, U.S. deputy national security adviser for strategic communication and speechwriting, said at a March 27 press conference. According to Rhodes, scientists estimated that “more than a dozen nuclear weapons’ worth of nuclear materials” remained in the tunnels. He said that “scavenger activity” in the area and a focus on preventing nuclear terrorism led the countries to reopen some of the underground testing tunnels to “secure and eliminate residual nuclear material.” The prior effort to secure the site ended in 2000, Rhodes said.—KELSEY DAVENPORT