"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement
July 1, 2020
Daniel Horner

Getting to Know Carolyn Mac Kenzie

May 2016

Interviewed by Daniel Horner

Carolyn Mac Kenzie has spent much of her professional life in pursuit of radioactive sources that are no longer under the control of authorities. These sources, which are used in medicine, research, and industry, can be dangerous if they fall into the hands of people who do not realize what they are or if people do know what they are and want to use them to make a radiological dispersal device, or “dirty bomb.” Mac Kenzie’s experience in tracking “orphan” sources has included stints at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. 

She spoke to Arms Control Today on April 6 from her office at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is the radiation safety officer. The interview, which was conducted by Daniel Horner, has been edited for length and clarity.

I wanted to ask how you got into this field. Could you lay out the path that led you to be interested in radioactive sources?

I sort of fell into it, but I always thought I would be probably pretty good at this when the issue of orphan sources came up in the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

Why did you think that? What is it about you that makes you good at it?

It’s my adventuresome spirit. I’ve traveled the world a lot, and I understand how radioactive sources are used. When I was 20 years old, I had backpacked across Africa, India, and the Middle East. I knew I could comfortably go to out-of-the-way developing countries and help them find these things. 

The first opportunity came up in 2002 working with Russia and radiological thermal generators that are placed along the Arctic Circle to power lighthouses. Livermore was involved with their removal and replacement with solar units. They are a very large source of strontium-90, and they have a potential to be used as a dirty bomb. My background was in radiation safety, and I knew I could help.

So I got my first taste of this, and I enjoyed it. Some people from the IAEA had heard about that work and called me and were interested in having me come over to the IAEA and help them with their orphan-source mission. So it sort of was fate; things fell together.

Did you have a scientific inclination that led you this way, or you just followed the adventuresome spirit?

Right out of college, I got a job at a cyclotron making radiopharmaceuticals. I was taking some fairly significant radiation doses, and the regulator threatened to shut us down. So I got really motivated to try to figure out how to reduce radiation exposure. I then went back to graduate school in biophysics to learn more.

The big focus at the IAEA in 2004 was on a series of incidents around the world in the late 1990s and early 2000s where scrap metal dealers or illiterate people had found large radioactive sources and wanted to salvage the lead around them. They had not a clue what they were, nor did they recognize the trefoil [radiation] symbol as meaning anything. They saw the lead and knew it was valuable. As a result of removing it, they became excessively exposed to radiation, which caused death or severe injuries. I was tasked with helping to locate these sources and finding a symbol for the sources to prevent this from happening.

Tell me about creating the supplementary symbol.

It was fascinating. The task was to help develop a symbol that anybody, especially illiterate people, would recognize as “Danger. Don’t touch. Leave alone.” The intent was to put the symbol right on the lead, right where you would go to take off [the lead]. With the symbol that we ended up settling on, the vast majority of the people saw that there was a grave danger. 

You visited more than 35 countries to do this work. Did you have to do anything differently because you are a woman? 

Initially, in some of the countries, but we got past it. I had this one experience with the Russian military where I think initially they were thinking, “What? Why is she along with us?” And then by the end of the trip, I would be the one going forward first with the [radiation] meter and measuring the source instead of them just marching right in. Later in the trip, they would say, “Oh, Carolyn, you go on in and tell us if it’s safe to come in now.” So you had to earn their respect. 

Her “adventuresome spirit” led to a love of travel and a career that has focused on hunting for radioactive sources.

Summit Looks Ahead Amid Concerns

May 2016

By Kingston Reif and Daniel Horner

The more than 50 national leaders who attended the recent nuclear security summit in Washington endorsed action plans for five key institutions and initiatives to carry on parts of the summit agenda amid concerns from some observers that momentum on this agenda will fade now that the summit process has ended. 

In an April 1 press conference at the end of the two-day summit, President Barack Obama said that “one of the central goals of this summit was how do we build on the work that has been done so that we have an international architecture that can continue the efforts, even though this is the last formal leaders’ summit.”

The meeting was the fourth and final biennial summit on nuclear security since Obama hosted the first one in April 2010 as part of an accelerated effort to prevent nuclear terrorism and secure civilian nuclear material worldwide. Subsequent summits took place in Seoul in 2012 and The Hague in 2014.

The summit participants, comprising 52 countries and four international organizations, issued a consensus communiqué expressing their “collective determination to ensure political momentum and to continuously strengthen nuclear security at national, regional, and global levels.”

To do that, the summit created action plans to highlight and augment the nuclear security roles of the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Interpol, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), and the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. 

In addition, 29 summit countries signed a joint statement creating the Nuclear Security Contact Group. The group, which will consist of an “informed senior official or officials” from each of the participating countries, is tasked with convening annually on the margins of the IAEA General Conference with the goal of keeping senior officials focused on nuclear security and advancing commitments made at the summits. 

Some nuclear security experts warned that these efforts would not be enough to sustain the high-level attention necessary to further improve global nuclear material security in the future.

Matthew Bunn, a professor of practice at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said in an April 4 article published on the website of the school’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs that the communiqué offered “no firm new nuclear security commitments.”

Bunn, a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors, added that the action plans for the five international institutions provided “few steps beyond what those institutions are already doing—certainly less than is needed to fill the gap left by the end of the summit process.” 

In a commentary published on the website of the European Leadership Network, Miles Pomper, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said the end of the summit process “threatens to downgrade the issue from one of high politics to a technical concern that receives insufficient attention—until or unless there is a terrorist attack that uses such materials.”

Central Role for IAEA

The text of the action plan for the IAEA stressed the central importance of the agency in strengthening global nuclear security in the aftermath of the summits and the need to buttress the agency’s nuclear security role and capabilities. 

In particular, the plan expressed strong support for the agency’s convening of a regular, triennial nuclear security meeting “to promote political commitment, enhance awareness and keep momentum on strengthening the global nuclear security architecture.”

The IAEA held the first such meeting in July 2013. The second is scheduled for December 2016.

The plan also calls on summit participants to provide “reliable and sufficient resources” for the agency and to use “information sharing mechanisms managed by the IAEA to build domestic, regional and international confidence in the effectiveness of national nuclear security regimes.”

In addition, states are encouraged to collaborate with the IAEA “to raise awareness of the threat of cyber attacks with potential impacts on nuclear security.” The plan recommends that the agency “develop a methodology for states to report cyber or computer security attacks.”

Trevor Findlay, an associate of the Belfer Center’s Project on Managing the Atom, said in an April 8 blog post published on the center’s website that the essential role given to the IAEA is noteworthy given “years of speculation as to whether and to what extent the Agency could or should take on the summits’ innovative, high-level approach and activities.”

But he said the action plan “is more wish list than action plan.” Findlay added that the plan provides no new authorities or funding to the IAEA and missed an opportunity to propose that the agency’s voluntary recommendations on the security of nuclear and radiological materials ultimately evolve into legally binding standards. 

Russian Objections

With the exception of Russia, all of the countries from the 2014 summit attended in 2016. Russia announced in late 2014 that it would not attend the Washington meeting. (See ACT, December 2014.)

At an April 7 event in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin said a main reason he decided not to attend was because Russia was invited to participate in the drafting of only one of the five action plans in the preparatory process leading up to the gathering. 

“[A] big nuclear power like Russia cannot take part in an event such as this and not have the possibility to influence the drafting of the final resolutions,” Putin said.

Russia remains a co-chair with the United States of the GICNT, a voluntary organization launched in 2006 to strengthen global abilities to prevent and respond to acts of nuclear terrorism. (See ACT, March 2016.)  The action plan for the GICNT emphasizes buttressing the national capacity of partner states in nuclear security, particularly in the areas of nuclear detection, forensics, and response.  

In addition to not participating in the 2016 summit, Russia decided in late 2014 to end most nuclear security cooperation with the United States. (See ACT, March 2015.)

In his article, Bunn said Washington should “put high priority on rebuilding nuclear security cooperation with Russia, on a different, more equal model.” 

Given the threat posed by the Islamic State and the large stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material in Russia and the United States, cooperation between the two countries is essential, he said.

Legal Standards 

One of the most noteworthy achievements of the final summit was the announcement that the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) received the necessary ratifications to enter into force. (See ACT, May 2016.)

The CPPNM amendment expands the original treaty to require parties not only to protect nuclear material in international transit, but also to protect nuclear facilities and nuclear material that is in domestic storage, use, or transit.

Some observers advocate negotiating more-comprehensive binding standards for securing nuclear and other radioactive material based on the IAEA’s currently voluntary guidance on nuclear security and creating a process to assess implementation and review those standards. 

But in an email to Arms Control Today during the run-up to the summit, a senior White House official observed that it has taken more than 10 years to bring the CPPNM amendment into force and that only a fraction of IAEA member states have endorsed a document originating at the 2014 summit in which countries committed themselves to meet the intent of the IAEA’s voluntary guidelines in their domestic laws and regulations. That track record indicates that “there is not adequate support within the IAEA to create legally binding standards at this time,” the official said in the Feb. 12 email. 

In remarks on March 30 at a high-level nuclear industry gathering held in conjunction with the governmental security summit, John Barrett, president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association, said mandatory standards might be “too much too soon.” In the remarks and an interview afterward, he said binding standards might take some time to develop, as they often do not comport with the existing legal regimes in some countries.

At least at first, the industry might take an approach of forming “coalitions of the willing,” in which some companies jointly agree to accept certain higher standards, he said. A slightly different approach would be to establish industry benchmarks or approved best practices, he said.

In all of those cases, Barrett emphasized, companies not following the model should have to be able to answer the question, “If not that, then what are you doing” to achieve the same goal by different means?

As part of a report for the industry meeting, a working group chaired by Barrett produced a “governance template” that poses a series of questions for organizations that are responsible for the security of nuclear and radiological materials. One question in the template asks how the organization’s board of directors carries out “effective governance and oversight” of the organization’s nuclear security program. It observes that boards of directors “are usually required by law to oversee risk, including security,” and asks, “Does your Board have a mechanism to review security policy and performance? If not, why not?”

In a presentation at the March 30 session of the industry meeting, Roger Howsley, executive director of the World Institute for Nuclear Security, said that a goal for nuclear organizations is that they increasingly see nuclear security “as a strategic issue…rather than a regulatory burden.”

Howsley elaborated in an April 14 email to Arms Control Today, saying that the organizations’ governing bodies should “really believe that the nuclear security arrangements for which they are responsible are key to business success and take a view on the risk and associated security measures, rather than just complying with security regulations on a compliance basis.”

National leaders last month endorsed action plans for five key institutions and initiatives to carry on parts of the nuclear security summit agenda.

OPCW Pressing Syria on Declaration Gaps

April 2016

By Daniel Horner

The policymaking body of the international organization that oversaw the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons expressed concern last month about problems with Syria’s formal accounting of its chemical stockpile and urged resolution of the problems in the next few months.

In a March 23 decision document, the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) cited a report to the council by OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü. The report has not been publicly released, but the council document described it as saying that the OPCW Technical Secretariat “is unable at present to verify fully that the declaration and related submissions of the Syrian Arab Republic are accurate and complete.”

Countries are required to submit a declaration of their stockpiles when they join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria did in 2013. Questions about the declaration emerged almost immediately and have persisted since then.

At a meeting in Washington last month, a U.S. official said the council action and the request for the Üzümcü report on which the decision was based were part of a U.S. initiative stemming from a feeling that the issue required higher-level political attention. Under the resolution, Üzümcü is to meet with Syrian officials and report back to the council before its next meeting, scheduled for July 12-15.

Üzümcü’s meetings are to proceed in parallel with those of an OPCW unit known as the Declaration Assessment Team, which has had primary responsibility for probing the Syrian accounting and had made 15 visits to the country as of late March.

In a March 15 statement to the council on behalf of the European Union, Pieter van Donkersgoed of the Netherlands said the list of unresolved questions “has been increasing during the last two years and is still growing.” Among the issues he cited as examples were “the fate of the 2000 aerial bombs [designed to carry chemical agents] that Syria claims to have converted” into conventional weapons and the discovery by the Declaration Assessment Team of “traces of chemicals directly linked” to the production of the nerve agents sarin, VX, and soman.

The policymaking body of the international organization that oversaw the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons expressed concern last month...

Getting to Know Gabriele Kraatz-Wadsack

March 2016

Interviewed by Daniel Horner

36_GTK.jpg“Getting to Know” is an occasional series that introduces Arms Control Today readers to interesting people active in the world of arms control.

Gabriele Kraatz-Wadsack started out studying veterinary medicine, specializing in microbiology, and ended her career as a senior official with the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, from which she retired last year. She led numerous monitoring and verification inspection missions in Iraq in the 1990s, worked on bioterrorism prevention and response at the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, and served as scientific and policy adviser on disarmament and nonproliferation issues at the German Federal Foreign Office.

Kraatz-Wadsack spoke to Arms Control Today on Feb. 11 from her home in New York. The interview, which was conducted by Daniel Horner, has been edited for length and clarity.

As you pursued your studies, did you think about arms control, international security issues as something of interest, or was it essentially a fluke of your career path that you ended up this way?

Well, I’m always a very curious person. So I think the first step was that while I studied veterinary medicine, my professor in microbiology said I should continue to do my dissertation in microbiology. And then I joined the armed forces, which was definitely not in my plan for life originally. But there was interesting work in microbiology, and I joined the military. And that linked me more into the defense area. And then it’s the [field of] arms control and disarmament. It was step by step, more by chance than a planned career. You have setbacks, but I think it’s really rewarding work.

During the inspections in Iraq, did you encounter any particular difficulties from the Iraqis or from your colleagues or from anyone else because you’re a woman?

Never, no. This was interesting to me as well. Iraq at that time was very secular. Some of my counterparts were women, and the main person in the biological weapons program was a woman. She, Dr. Rihab Taha, was the one I met most of the time, and she was the one in charge for the biological weapons program. At least, that’s what the Iraqis told us. But she was always there, and she was explaining how she produced anthrax and botulinum toxin. I was chief inspector, and my Iraqi counterparts treated me normally, neutrally, I would say. 

How would biological weapons inspections that are conducted today be similar to or different from the ones that you carried out 20 years ago, in terms of technology or training or anything else?

Definitely they would be different. [In Iraq] we had a special mandate [under UN Security Council resolutions]—one was disarmament, and one was to establish ongoing monitoring and verification. It was a very robust mandate, for anywhere, anytime, intrusive [inspections]. The mandate was kind of exceptional, part of a cease-fire resolution.

Nowadays, we have a different environment. There is improvement of technology. There are better tools for detection and enhanced analytical methods. You have advanced overhead imagery to support inspections. Much is different than it was in the early 1990s. But also important are the human skills and training.

The human skills as an inspector on the ground to conduct on-site inspections are the most crucial. We had a special training for hundreds of experts to conduct inspections for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The training was not to improve their technical expertise, but to add additional skills.

Another development relates to the capabilities and possible role of international organizations such as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. In the early 1990s, we didn’t have a chemical-designated inspectorate. So today, you have new mandates for international organizations; you have new international organizations; you have more involvement of international organizations, which also add to international inspection experience. They have accumulated vast experience and expertise, which was not in place in the early 1990s. We really had to do it from scratch in all areas. It was not known. The only entity that had inspection experience was the International Atomic Energy Agency. So at that time, we had to be very innovative and pragmatic, and we needed to know and understand the limits of what could be done.

The former UN official talks about her experiences as a biological weapons inspector in Iraq and her early days as a student of veterinary medicine.  

Verification Partnership Coalesces

March 2016

By Daniel Horner and Kelsey Davenport

Updated: March 4, 2016

22_NEWS_Verify.JPGAn initiative involving more than two dozen countries has put in place its working groups and has begun its effort to bolster international capabilities for verifying future arms control agreements, officials from the United States and non-nuclear-weapon states said in interviews and email exchanges over the past few months.

A key part of the effort is to expand and develop ways in which nuclear-weapon states can interact with non-nuclear-weapon states in pursuing verification issues.

Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, launched the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification in a speech in Prague in December 2014, calling it a “nontraditional partnership” to “better understand the technical problems of verifying nuclear disarmament and to develop solutions.”

Since then, the partnership has held a kickoff meeting last March in Washington and a plenary meeting in November in Oslo, where it formed three working groups. The groups, which deal with monitoring and verification, on-site inspections, and current and future verification technologies, met in Geneva last month.

In a Dec. 10 interview at the State Department, Frank Rose, assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance, said the working groups are the “driving engine” of the partnership in its quest to “find technical solutions to future problems.” He said each of the working groups was open to all members of the partnership.

Rose said the idea for the partnership came from a 2014 study of verification issues by the private Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). The study drove home the point that an array of countries, not just the ones with nuclear weapons, would have to work to improve international verification capacity to be prepared for future nuclear arms control agreements, Rose said. That led to a collaboration between the State Department and the NTI, he said.

Andrew Bieniawski, NTI vice president for material security and minimization, participated in the Dec. 10 interview and emphasized that the partnership is an “action-driven, deliverables-driven, results-driven initiative,” pointing to the detailed requirements in the terms of reference for the three working groups.

Rose said the partnership’s work is “all going to be done at the unclassified level” and that the goal is to publish the key documents online.

Broad Participation Stressed

Like Rose and Bieniawski, working group chairs and other participants cited the interaction between nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states as an important element of the partnership. In a Feb. 3 email, Robert Floyd of Australia, director-general of the Australian Safeguards and Non-proliferation Office and co-chair of the on-site inspections working group, said, “Nuclear weapon possessor states need to be part of [verification] work, but I don’t think they have a monopoly on good ideas or [are] the only group of states to want confidence in the verification.”

Table 1In a Feb. 4 interview, Kurt Siemon, director for nuclear verification in the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration and co-chair of the working group on technical issues, said the approach would be to “listen to the views of everyone in the room” rather than asking participants to “pick and choose from a menu” that the United States has produced.

María Antonieta Jáquez, deputy director-general for disarmament in the Mexican Ministry for Foreign Affairs, said in a Feb. 16 email that the partnership “has provided a very good space” for dialogue between nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states. That, she said, “is very welcome” amid the widespread “frustration with the lack of progress in nuclear disarmament” by the nuclear-weapon states and the resulting “very divided” discussions on that subject.

Preparing for the Future

A central challenge for the partnership is that its mission is to develop technologies that will meet the needs of future agreements that are hypothetical. 

Jens Wirstam of Sweden, deputy research director of the Swedish Defense Research Agency and co-chair of the working group on technical issues, said in a Feb. 2 email that the problem is not insurmountable because some elements of verification will be “indifferent to the specifics” of any future agreement. For example, he said, any verification system will have to be able to confirm that an inspected item is one that is limited by the relevant treaty rather than being a mere mock-up. He also cited the need to maintain a chain of custody. Beyond elements such as those, he said he hoped the partnership would create “a set of different building blocks…that could be assembled differently in different contexts.”

In the interview, Bieniawski said the “whole life cycle” of a warhead is within the scope of the partnership but that the partners had agreed that the focus for the first 18 to 24 months would be on the nuclear warhead dismantlement process and the monitored storage of the resulting nuclear materials.                 

Political, Technical Elements

In their email correspondence, the members of key delegations gave varying degrees of weight to the technical and policy components of the undertaking.

In his Jan. 29 email, Col. Marek Sobótka of Poland, co-chair of the group on on-site inspections, highlighted the interplay between the two aspects. The partnership is a technical exercise in that it is directed toward “finding practical ways for cooperation” between nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states to create a set of tools that is “ready to use” in designing and verifying “a new future nuclear disarmament treaty,” wrote Sobótka, head of the nonproliferation and disarmament policy division in Poland’s defense ministry. But he said that if the results of the partnership’s work are “properly presented,” they “will prove to the broad international community how complex and difficult” it will be to achieve the goal of nuclear disarmament.

Floyd, Sobótka’s co-chair, summarized the relationship between the two elements by saying, “The tasks of the working groups definitely have a technical focus, but verification must be framed with political objectives in mind.”

Wirstam said that, from his standpoint as co-chair of the group on technical issues, “this is a technical exercise, and in a sense[,] a bottom-up approach where we have the answers to the technical questions” and then “policy catches up.” In that way, he said, “there is a parallel to the earlier process leading up to the [Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty], where work on the technical issues was done over an extended period of time before the political conditions matured.”

Classification Issues

A question underlying much of the partnership’s work is how to carry out useful sharing that does not touch on sensitive information.

In a Jan. 27 email to Arms Control Today, Piet de Klerk, ambassador at large for the Netherlands and co-chair of the monitoring and verification working group, said the ability of the group to navigate classification issues “is the crux of the matter.” A key question, he said, is, “What can you show to outsiders…so that they can draw credible conclusions about disarmament steps without violati[ng] classification rules?” As he noted, under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the nuclear-weapon states are prohibited from sharing information with non-nuclear-weapon states about making nuclear weapons.

One of the goals of the working group dealing with on-site inspections is to identify “[w]ays in which verification objectives can be achieved notwithstanding limitations related to safety, security, national interests and non-proliferation inherent in the operations of different types of military, nuclear, and explosive facilities, including through the application of managed access.”

“Managed access” refers to a practice in which the inspecting party and the inspected party negotiate the extent of the inspectors’ access to sensitive areas.

In his Feb. 3 email, Floyd said, “Good managed access rules can go a long way toward resolving differences over inspector access in the field, but a critical balance between inspection intrusiveness and protection of national interests will have to be struck during future negotiations on treaty instruments.”

In the Dec. 10 interview, Rose and Bieniawski emphasized the work of a UK-Norwegian initiative on dismantlement verification. That effort, which began in 2007, is considered pioneering in the way it brought together a nuclear-weapon state and a non-nuclear-weapon state to collaborate on verification issues. In one of the exercises, Norway played the role of the nuclear-weapon state and the United Kingdom played the non-nuclear-weapon state, an example of the way the project was mutually beneficial and was able to navigate the classification issues successfully, Rose said.

The international partnership is going to build on the UK-Norwegian initiative, but go “much deeper,” Bieniawski said.          

Membership Could Expand

Asked about the members of the partnership, a State Department spokesman said in a email exchange last month that, in addition to the five countries that the NPT recognizes as nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States—Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the Vatican, and the European Union have “attended the various activities” of the partnership.

Some of the sources interviewed for this article indicated that China and Russia, at least officially, have hung back from full participation in some of the activities.

South Africa, which built nuclear weapons and then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, dismantled them and joined the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state, is not a member. The State Department spokesman said, “South Africa’s technical expertise and its own disarmament record would make it a valued addition” to the effort.

The partnership also does not include India, Israel, or Pakistan, nuclear-armed states that have remained outside the NPT. In the interview, Rose said NPT membership is not a specific requirement but that “all current members of the partnership are members of the NPT.”

Rose said the focus for the initial membership was countries that had expressed an interest in verification and could provide technical expertise. Some of the invited countries did not accept, he said.

He said that, at the partnership’s plenary meeting last November, the countries did not come to agreement on the issue of membership expansion but agreed to discuss it at the next plenary, scheduled for June in Tokyo.

The officials interviewed differed on the importance of expanding the membership. Some argued for inclusion of the non-NPT nuclear-armed states and greater representation of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Some said there was no need to expand the partnership in the immediate future. Sobótka said that a “smaller number of participants will inevitably result in obtaining relatively quick progress in developing a solid foundation” for the partnership, “which should further increase its attractiveness to potential new members in future.”

Note: After this article was posted online, the State Department released information indicating that the Tokyo plenary will take place in June. The article has been updated to reflect that information.

Countries with and without nuclear arms are part of the effort. 

Terminate MOX Fuel Plant, Budget Says

March 2016

By Kingston Reif and Daniel Horner

The Obama administration is seeking a permanent stop to construction of the facility that has been the centerpiece of the effort to get rid of plutonium withdrawn from the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

Under the plan, described in budget documents released Feb. 9 and a conference call with journalists the following day, the administration would spend $270 million in the coming fiscal year for termination costs for the plant, with costs of a similar magnitude expected for the next few years. At the same time, the administration would spend $15 million in fiscal year 2017 for preliminary work on the new plutonium-disposition path that the Energy Department and its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have chosen.

The proposal was part of the administration’s $1.8 billion request for NNSA nonproliferation programs in fiscal year 2017.

The plant, which is under construction at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, was designed to turn surplus weapons plutonium into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel—so called because it is a mix of plutonium and uranium oxides—for use in nuclear power reactors. Under an agreement that Russia and the United States signed in 2000, each country is required to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of surplus weapons plutonium.

The Obama administration was widely seen as skeptical of the viability of the MOX fuel strategy since it announced in 2013 that it was considering alternatives. (See ACT, May 2013.) In the recently released budget documents, the NNSA said studies it had commissioned “confirm that the MOX fuel approach will be significantly more expensive than anticipated and will require approximately $800 million to $1 billion annually for decades.”

The new approach, known as “dilute and dispose,” would down-blend the plutonium with an inert material for direct disposal in a repository. During the Feb. 10 conference call, Kelly Cummins, NNSA associate assistant deputy administrator for fissile materials disposition, said the annual costs would rise to $300-400 million.

Supporters of the MOX fuel plant, led by the South Carolina congressional delegation, have suggested that the new approach could face technical, legal, and political obstacles.

Cummins said the termination costs for the MOX fuel plant were expected to total $500-750 million. But she emphasized that those figures are a rough estimate and are “subject to negotiation” with the contractors hired to build the plant.

The lead contractor is CB&I Areva MOX Services Group.

Nuclear Security Programs Cut

Excluding the MOX fuel program, the Obama administration is asking for $1.5 billion for NNSA nuclear nonproliferation and counterterrorism programs, a decrease of $62.4 million, or 3.8 percent, from the fiscal year 2016 appropriation.

The drop is even steeper when measured against what the NNSA projected it would request for these programs in its fiscal year 2016 submission, which was issued in February 2015. The agency had said it planned to ask for $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2017, or $185 million more than the actual proposal.

The largest proposed reduction in the request is to the Global Material Security program, which has the task of improving the security of nuclear materials around the world, securing orphaned or disused radiological sources, and strengthening nuclear smuggling detection and deterrence. The program would get $337 million, a $89.6 million reduction from the fiscal year 2016 appropriation.

The NNSA is requesting $46 million for the international security subcomponent of this program, a decrease of $84.5 million from the fiscal year 2016 enacted level and $182 million from the level projected in last year’s request. According to budget documents, the decline from the enacted level “reflects a commitment to reduce” unspent money left over from previous fiscal years by spending it in fiscal year 2017, permitting a lower request.

In a Feb. 18 email to Arms Control Today, an NNSA spokesperson said the agency does “not have exact projections of carryover” but anticipates “sufficient funds to implement priority tasks” in fiscal year 2017.

In addition, the budget submission reveals that the NNSA is now planning to secure 4,394 buildings containing high-priority radioactive nuclear material by 2033, a change from the previous goal of securing 8,500 sites by 2044.

The NNSA spokesperson said the revision is the result of shifting the focus “from a primarily protect[ion]-based approach to one that emphasizes permanent threat reduction through the removal of sources and promotion of non-isotopic, alternative technologies, when feasible.”

The Material Management and Minimization program, which supports the removal of civilian highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium around the world and converts HEU-fueled research reactors and medical isotope production facilities to the use of low-enriched uranium, would receive $341 million, an increase of $24.5 million over the fiscal year 2016 appropriation.

Nuclear material removal activities would get $68.9 million, a decrease of $46 million. The drop is based in part on “a reduced scope of work” in fiscal year 2017 due to “the completion of several major initiatives in time for the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, including completion of the removal of all HEU and plutonium from Japan’s Fast Critical Assembly,” according to budget documents. 

Elsewhere in the NNSA nonproliferation budget, funding for Nonproliferation and Arms Control activities would fall slightly, from a fiscal year 2016 appropriation of $130 million to $125 million. Spending for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Research and Development activities, which focus on technologies used in tracking foreign nuclear weapons programs, illicit diversion of nuclear materials, and nuclear detonations, would fall to $394 million from its $419 million fiscal year 2016 appropriation.

The NNSA nonproliferation budget request also includes $13 million to support the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, which passed a critical point in its implementation in January (see "Iran Nuclear Deal Implemented"). 

Funding Proposal Questioned

Some observers continue to question the wisdom of proposed reductions in funding for NNSA nuclear and radiological security activities, especially in the run-up to the final nuclear security summit, which is scheduled to take place in Washington March 31-April 1 (see "Nuclear Summit Seeks Sustainable Results").

An Energy Department task force report on NNSA nonproliferation programs released last year expressed concern about the recent trend of falling budgets for those programs, noting that appropriations declined from $2.2 billion in fiscal year 2013 to $1.6 billion for fiscal year 2015, a reduction of 25 percent. “The need to counter current and likely future challenges to nonproliferation justifies increased, rather than reduced, investment in this area,” the report said. (See ACT, May 2015.)

Matthew Bunn, a professor of practice at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said in a Feb. 19 interview that “to propose big cuts in nuclear security spending weeks before hosting the last nuclear security summit is a mistake that will undermine U.S. leadership.”

“Congress should act to correct President [Barack] Obama’s mistake,” added Bunn, a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors.

During the Feb. 10 conference call, retired Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, the NNSA administrator, disputed the claim that the budget request sends a bad signal ahead of the summit.

The proposed fiscal year 2017 spending levels on nonproliferation programs reflect “a hard-headed business decision about where the money is and how we pay for all the things we need to do,” Klotz said. “We’re satisfied with what we have.”

Designed to make plutonium fuel, the plant is now too expensive, officials say. 

Lowering Nuclear Risks: An Interview With Former Defense Secretary William Perry

January/February 2016

Interviewed by Daniel Horner and Kingston Reif

William Perry, shown in this March 2015 photo, was secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997. (Photo credit: Glenn Fawcett/Defense Department)William Perry is the Michael and Barbara Berberian professor emeritus at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the university’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. He was secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997, having previously served as deputy secretary of defense and undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. He is the author of My Journey at the Nuclear Brink (2015).

Perry spoke by telephone with Arms Control Today on December 8, 2015.Much of the conversation focused on the current impasse in U.S.-Russian relations and the nuclear weapons programs in those two countries.

The interview was transcribed by Elizabeth Philipp. It has been edited for clarity.

ACT: In your book, you write that Russia’s ongoing and planned production of new nuclear delivery systems is likely to motivate Moscow to test new warheads for its new missiles and that you expect it to withdraw from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTBT] soon and begin those tests. Can you elaborate on why you believe that to be the case?

Perry: First of all, let me say that I don’t have any inside information from anybody in the Russian government. That’s not what my point was. It’s just that I know they are developing new nuclear weapons. They’ve said so themselves. I’m confident that that will lead the weapons designers to request new tests. That will put [Russian President Vladimir] Putin up to a decision. He will have to decide whether to allow that or not. I don’t know what that political decision will be, but I do believe that the pressure to test will be strong. So it will come down to a political decision on Putin’s part. Will he accept their recommendations, or will he think the political costs are too high? One of the reasons the political costs will not be as high as they should be is because we have not yet ratified the CTBT. That makes a decision to test easier for him.

ACT: Given that, is there any feasible way to prevent the resumption of Russian testing?

Perry: The best thing we could do is to ratify the CTBT. That would make the political costs substantially higher for Putin. That might lead him to decide then not to test.

ACT: Following up on the issue of U.S. ratification, even if the United States were to ratify the CTBT tomorrow, entry into force could still be years away if not longer. What steps should the United States pursue in the near term to strengthen the global moratorium against nuclear testing, especially in light of your belief that Russia may be on a path to the resumption of testing?

Perry: I think it’s very important to get China to ratify. I do believe that our ratification will put very strong political pressure on them to ratify, and I believe that they would. If that happens, then I think we’ve got a pretty good case to go forward, pushing to bring the treaty into force even if, let’s say, North Korea does not ratify.

I think a good argument can be made that we should not let an outlier like that stop the whole treaty from coming into force, but that decision is still ahead of us. The first step is to get the U.S. to ratify, then put the pressure to China, and then I think we should go forward with a program to try to bring the treaty into force even if the outliers do not ratify. 

ACT: Shifting to another treaty, the United States has accused Russia of being in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces [INF] Treaty. Russia has denied the accusation and charged the United States with being in violation of the agreement. How do you evaluate the situation?

Perry: I don’t have enough data to make a judgment on whether or not Russia is in violation. That’s what our government has stated, and that’s all I have to go on. But I do not have an independent judgment of that.

ACT: Do you have any thoughts on how to get out of the impasse that the two countries seem to be in with regard to this violation alleged by the United States?

Perry: On that point, as well as other points of contention we have with Russia, what is badly needed is serious and meaningful dialogue with Russia, which we do not have today, at high levels. So I think it’s imperative for the United States to begin serious dialogue with Russia. It’s imperative for both countries to take the political step of high-level and serious dialogue. Even if there is disagreement, the dialogue is not only desirable, but necessary.

ACT: Okay, is there anything specific with regard to the INF Treaty, or is it all part of the larger picture?

Perry: No, it is a part of the larger picture. I think it is very desirable to keep that treaty in force. But the bigger problem is the bad relations between the United States and Russia, of which this is just a symptom, I think.

ACT: In a recent appearance in Washington, you said that any reasonable definition of deterrence would not require intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs], the land-based leg of the U.S. triad. You argue that ICBMs are unnecessary and destabilizing because they are an attractive target and entail a greater risk of accidental launch than other nuclear weapons. How would you propose to phase out the ICBM leg of the triad?

Perry: I simply would not recapitalize it. If we decide to keep the ICBMs in the force, then in a number of years, not very many years, we have to begin to focus on building the replacements for the first ICBMs. So instead, I would simply let the present force phase out.

ACT: What would you say to the senators and representatives of those states in which U.S. Minuteman III ICBMs are based who say that the missiles and associated bases are an essential part of the U.S. deterrent and vital to the economies of their states?

Perry: I don’t believe it. They’re not an essential part of the deterrent. We have ample deterrence from the submarine force, and certainly if you add the bomber force to that, that’s an overwhelming deterrence force. So I cannot understand the argument that we also need ICBMs for deterrence. We might need ICBMs for other reasons, for geopolitical reasons, but not for deterrence. Any sane nation would be deterred by the incredible striking power of our submarine force.

ACT: You have said that a desire to maintain parity with the Soviet Union and later Russia has been and continues to be a main driver of the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and that this approach doesn’t make sense. Why do you believe that parity should no longer guide U.S. force requirements?

Perry: Because I don’t think it has anything to do with deterrence. I think deterrence has to do with our power and our ability to strike. The fact that we need to have, for example, ICBMs in the force, which is a kind of a parity, just doesn’t hold up. I don’t understand the argument that we need to have an equivalent number of weapons and equivalent type of weapons as Russia as an argument for deterrence. That is a political argument, and I understand the political argument. But that’s not an argument for deterrence.

ACT: Do you have in mind a rough number of [warheads], what a U.S. nuclear force should look like, should be composed of?

Perry: Certainly less than the numbers we have now. But I also understand the political argument that as we bring the numbers down, we ought to see if we can find some way of having the Russians come down at the same time, whether that be by a treaty or by some sort of a mutual understanding.

ACT: I want to go back to the larger point about U.S.-Russian relations that you raised before. As you were saying, the relations now are at a very low point. Is there anything that Russia and the United States and maybe other countries could do to improve the situation?

Perry: We have a number of points in common with Russia. So I would think our diplomacy would emphasize trying to strengthen cooperation in the areas in which we feel the need to cooperate, the desirability of cooperating. For example, we did cooperate on the Iranian agreement, and that was a big plus. We certainly have a need to cooperate in the field of terrorism and especially nuclear terrorism, and there are certainly trade areas where we could find a reason for cooperating as well, as we did in the Cold War. We should look at issues of mutual importance—certainly preventing nuclear catastrophe has to be highest on that list—and find a way of cooperating in those areas without having to agree with the Russians or having even political accords with Russians in other areas.

ACT: What would an agreement on nuclear terrorism look like that goes beyond what’s already currently agreed under the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism? What more would they be able to do?

Perry: One of the principal actions would be protecting fissile material on a global basis. The program that the president has initiated, the nuclear [security] summit [process], I think is an excellent example of what we can do along those lines. I certainly applaud the administration for their initiative on the nuclear summit and their continued pursuit of it. I think that all we can be sure of at this point is that there will be one more nuclear summit, the one in Washington next spring. So I would put the highest priority on getting major agreements at that summit meeting, and that could be facilitated by prior discussions with the Russians on what one can mutually hope to accomplish at that nuclear summit. Certainly it’s as much for the security benefit of Russia as it is for the United States to solve nuclear terrorism. So it should be a very powerful argument for working together to get major steps forward on the nuclear summit upcoming this spring.

It’s one thing just to go to the meeting and talk. It’s another thing to go to the meeting with a plan worked out with the Russians ahead of time on what the two of us might be able to accomplish to help get the fissile material controlled in other countries. So I think I would put that number one on the list of areas of cooperation with the Russians that can greatly reduce the danger to both of us of nuclear terrorism.

ACT: Do you believe that that’s realistically achievable in the here and now?

Perry: I certainly do. We have still a few months where we can be meeting and talking with the Russians. So we could have a solid program of accomplishment that we mutually agree on that we would like to see come out of that possibly last summit meeting.

ACT: Switching gears slightly, we understand that you have recently visited a number of U.S. allies in Europe and East Asia to discuss nuclear and other related security policy issues. In your conversations with officials, did they express any concerns about the credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent in light of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and increasing Chinese assertiveness in its near abroad?

Perry: No, nobody raised that question with me. It seems clear to me that any informed and objective observer would see that our nuclear deterrent is quite powerful.

The nuclear deterrent, however, does not prevent the Russians from doing many things that are not directly nuclear related. I always have believed and I think events have demonstrated that nuclear deterrence is pretty well limited to deterring a nuclear attack, not deterring many other objectionable actions. During the Cold War, Russia took many actions that were very highly objectionable to us, and our nuclear deterrent did not stop them from taking those actions. Arguably, all that U.S. nuclear weapons have done is stop the Russians from carrying out a nuclear attack on us.

ACT: In any of your conversations, did any officials from allied nations take a position on whether the United States can further reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in its national strategy?

Perry: The only such issue I have come across, particularly with Japan, is the extent to which our nuclear deterrence is specific to Japan—that is, whether it involved nuclear weapons specifically designed to protect Japan as opposed to general deterrence. That has to do with maintaining shorter-range nuclear weapons. But there’s never been a question that I’m aware of as to whether our long-range nuclear weapons were capable of deterrence. This was an issue we had, as you may remember, back during the Cold War. Even though we had overwhelming capability in our strategic nuclear forces, the Germans felt it necessary to have nuclear forces based in their country to guarantee our deterrence to them, extended deterrence. That was, I think, a misguided judgment on the part of the Germans. But they certainly felt strongly, and as a consequence, we did keep medium-range nuclear weapons based in Germany to give them the confidence of our deterrence. I don’t see that lack of confidence today, though.

ACT: As you write in your book, progress on nuclear disarmament has slowed since the early days of President [Barack] Obama’s first term. How can multilateral disarmament move forward when the forums for multilateral diplomacy, such as the Conference on Disarmament [CD] and the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT] review conference, appear to be in a stalemate?

Perry: I think they are in a stalemate. I would not say that arms negotiations has slowed; I would say it has stopped. I don’t see any significant action between the U.S. and Russia today that has any chance of moving towards another treaty. I know that many people in the U.S. government that would like to do that and are trying to move in that direction. But they haven’t gotten any two-sided discussions that seem to have any significance going forward yet. I’d say this is not the fault of the U.S. officials; it’s just that Russia isn’t showing any interest in moving forward in nuclear arms agreements. So that’s one of the main issues ahead of us, and if we can get a stronger positive relation with Russia on other issues, we should also be working with them to try to get forward motion again on a follow-on to New START [the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty].

ACT: I was also asking about multilateral diplomacy, not just the bilateral U.S.-Russian interaction. Is there any way to stimulate movement in the CD, to deal with the issues that have divided the NPT members at their last review conference, issues like that? Who needs to take action to do that? Is there anyone besides the U.S. and Russia who can move that process or help move that process?

Perry: Probably yes, but I don’t have a good answer to your question.

ACT: In your book, you write that the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program over the past 15 years “is perhaps the most unsuccessful exercise of diplomacy in our country’s history.” What could the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have done differently to avoid this outcome?

Perry: Well, we had a negotiation going with the North Koreans in 2000, which was very close to an agreement. When the administration changed, the Bush administration simply cut off any discussions with the North Koreans. That was demonstrated to be not an effective way of dealing with the North Koreans, but it didn’t seem to me to be a wise way even before we saw the outcome. We should have kept the dialogue going, and that was a big mistake, I think.

ACT: With regard to the Obama administration’s approach to North Korea, how would you assess its strategy toward reducing the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program?

Perry: It evidently has not been effective. But I would say, somewhat in their defense, that by the time they got into office, North Korea already had nuclear weapons. In 2001, North Korea did not yet have nuclear weapons. There was an opportunity for a much easier negotiation; it was much more feasible to negotiate with them not to develop nuclear weapons and not to produce nuclear weapons. Once they had nuclear weapons, the negotiation got very much harder. Now the administration had to argue with them to give up what they already have, and so I think the opportunity that was lost was between 2001 and 2008. That was when we had the chance to stop the North Korean nuclear program.

ACT: Given where we are now, what realistically in your view can be achieved at this point to stop and perhaps roll back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program?

Perry: I don’t have any better advice on that than Sig Hecker, the former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, has given. He said that, given that they already have the nuclear weapons, making our position in the negotiations that they must give them up is a very hard negotiation. So he argues instead to put that aside for the time being and take a more limited goal in diplomacy. It’s what he calls the three noes, which is no new nuclear weapons, no more nuclear weapons, and no selling of nuclear weapons or technology.1 Those are the three noes that he states, and he offers some positive incentives we might give for that to happen. He said that should be the basis of the negotiation. If we ever succeed in that, then we can take the next step in trying to get them to roll back their arsenal. But as far as I can determine, we have not proceeded along the lines of those three noes. That was a tactical approach that Sig had that I supported at the time and still do. I think it was a reasonable approach to dealing with the North. 

ACT: I want to go back to the issue of nuclear terrorism, which we touched on briefly a few minutes ago. You wrote in your book that the threat of nuclear terrorism is the “gravest threat of our time.” Why do you think that’s the case?

Perry: The threat of nuclear weapons is the greatest threat of our time, and nuclear terrorism is the most likely form of it. If you consider the deterrent we have to somebody attacking us with nuclear weapons, it’s very powerful. But we have no deterrent to nuclear terrorism, and it’s relatively easy to imagine how such an attack could happen. So it’s not that it’s as catastrophic as a nuclear war; it’s just it has a much higher probability.

ACT: You mentioned the nuclear security summit process. How successful do you think that’s been in addressing this problem of nuclear terrorism?

Perry: I think it’s the most effective thing we can do because the most likely way for a terrorist to get a nuclear weapon is to get the fissile material and then build a crude, improvised bomb himself. So the biggest obstacle to a terrorist getting a nuclear weapon is getting the fissile material, and the nuclear summit process is specifically addressed to putting fissile material all over the world under much better control or eliminating it.

ACT: So as a result of the nuclear summit process, do you feel less troubled or less concerned than you did, say, seven years ago before the process started? 

Perry: Yes, I do. I mean, there are just fewer opportunities now for a terrorist group to get ahold of the fissile material. But I don’t feel by any means relaxed about this because there’s still a lot of it out there not under really good control. That’s why I think this final nuclear summit next year is so important. It gives us an opportunity to take even stronger actions than we’ve taken in the previous summits, including the opportunity for setting an international standard for the control and protection of fissile material.

ACT: What should be done to continue to focus high-level attention on the problem after the summit is completed? 

Perry: I’m sorry to say that the thing that would really give high-level attention to the problem is a nuclear terrorist incident. Then what had once seemed to be a theoretical possibility will become real. All I’m hoping and working for is that we can find the actions to stop nuclear terrorism without having that triggering event.

ACT: On the question of the likelihood, periodically people say within so-and-so many years there’s such-and-such a percentage chance of a nuclear terrorist incident taking place. People have been saying that for the last 30 years or so, and there hasn’t been one. So what do you think is the likelihood and over what time period?

Perry: I’ve never been able to put a number on it. But I would say it is quite feasible for it to happen in the next year, and I don’t see the actions we have now to keep that from happening as strong enough to give me any comfort that it’s not going to happen. It could happen next year; it could happen the following year. It’s a matter of the terrorist group putting the priority on doing that and putting the resources and the effort to making it happen. But I just don’t know how to put a number on it, a probability on it. Certainly, the likelihood of that happening is much higher than any of the other nuclear catastrophes.

ACT: As President Obama enters his final year in office, what more can he realistically seek to achieve with regard to the ambitious agenda he articulated in his Prague speech in April 2009?2

Perry: Number one, he could put a major effort into making this last nuclear summit a big success. That would be my number-one priority, I think, particularly since it addresses the threat I’m most concerned about, which is nuclear terrorism. Secondly, if he can get a renewed serious dialogue with the Russians, I would try to get a follow-on to New START under way. Third, a major push on the CTBT, however he could go about doing that, to try to get that ratified before he leaves office. That is a very steep uphill climb, and I don’t want to be optimistic. But as I recommend things to the administration, I do recommend that they make a major effort still to try to push that through, not to give up on the ratification of the CTBT. Many people will say that’s an impossible dream, but I would like a major push to achieve ratification.

ACT: Thank you very much for your time; we really appreciate it.


1.  See, for example, Siegfried S. Hecker, “North Korea Reactor Restart Sets Back Denuclearization,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October 17, 2013, http://thebulletin.org/north-korea-reactor-restart-sets-back-denuclearization.

2.  Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Barack Obama, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic,” April 5, 2009.

The former Pentagon chief says intercontinental ballistic missiles are not essential to the U.S. deterrent, worries about the risk of nuclear terrorism, and advocates a “major push” on the [CTBT].

Getting to Know Cheryl Rofer

January/February 2016

Interviewed by Daniel Horner

Cheryl Rofer speaks about the Iran nuclear deal at Ripon College in Wisconsin on September 30, 2015. (Photo credit: Becky Bajt/RiponCollege)“Getting to Know” is an occasional series that introduces Arms Control Today readers to interesting people active in the world of arms control.

Cheryl Rofer, a chemist, retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory in 2001 after a 35-year career in which she worked on projects dealing with environmental cleanup at Los Alamos and in Estonia and Kazakhstan, disassembly and decommissioning of nuclear weapons, and chemical weapons destruction, along with many other issues. Nowadays she spends a good part of her time writing for the blog Nuclear Diner, which she and two fellow Los Alamos alumnae, Molly Cernicek and Susan Voss, founded in 2011.

Rofer spoke to Arms Control Today from her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The interview, conducted by Daniel Horner, has been edited for length and clarity.

When most people think of Los Alamos, they think of physicists, but you’re a chemist. Tell us about that role.

Los Alamos employs lots of different kinds of scientists—chemists, physicists, biologists. Physicists need chemists to make things happen.

Is that a motto among chemists, or do physicists agree with that, too?

Well, it’s the truth. [laughs] Back in the Manhattan Project, early on, the physicists thought, “Oh, we can do this pretty quickly.” Then they found out that they had to process the plutonium and uranium and that they had to deal with explosives, cast the explosives, formulate them. All that’s chemistry. The fact is, if you’re a good chemist and you’re doing anything real in that area, you learn some physics; if you’re a good physicist and you’re doing something real, you learn some chemistry.

How did you develop an interest in science and chemistry?

I just always loved science. I wanted to be a scientist after I gave up wanting to be a fireman. Sometime early on, I’m guessing I was seven, eight, nine, I got a book for Christmas called All About Atomic Energy. I also read every book on dinosaurs in the public library. So I have been a science nerd pretty much all my life.

A pretty broad range of people, from William Perry to Donald Trump, are saying that nuclear terrorism is the greatest global threat, or words to that effect. But you seem [from your writing on the Nuclear Diner blog] to be a bit more skeptical. Could you explain your skepticism, your views on that?

Nuclear terrorism is a high-consequence, low-probability event. And it’s really hard, particularly in a popular way, to talk about high-consequence, low-probability events. The question is, “How would the terrorists get a nuclear weapon?” That’s where the low probability comes in. There have been a number of articles that talk about a “market” in nuclear materials. Now in order to have a market, you need a seller and a buyer. And as far as I am aware, there are not any buyers out there. 

So the threat is somewhat overblown?

Yeah, if nobody wants the material—and in any case, if a terrorist group could get, say, sufficient enriched uranium to make a bomb, would they be able to make it? There are lots of things that can go wrong.

You’ve been writing a fair amount about the Iran nuclear deal.

I think it is a really good deal, and I’m glad that it was made. And I am very impressed with the people who negotiated it on both sides. I’m also pleased that [Energy Secretary] Ernie Moniz acknowledged the participation of the national lab people. I think that the [International Atomic Energy Agency] can do the verification, and I hope they get the money.

How would you characterize your general philosophy or frame of reference? Some of the opinions you’ve expressed aren’t always found together.

I think that’s an interesting facet of the way I’ve learned the field and the things I’ve done. The national laboratories are almost like universities for developing these ideas and policies. I think that my viewpoints are maybe more grounded in physically doing some of these things than some of the ideas that are out there in the think tanks where people may not have had the experience of figuring out how to contain plutonium in a can.

The former Los Alamos chemist explains why “[p]hysicists need chemists to make things happen” and how she came to her views on topics such as the Iran nuclear deal and nuclear terrorism.

BWC Parties Prepare for Review Meeting

January/February 2016

By Daniel Horner

Delegates to the week-long meeting of states-parties to the Biological Weapons Convention in Geneva attend a session on December 14, 2015, the conference’s opening day. (Photo credit: Eric Bridiers/U.S. Mission Geneva)A December meeting on controlling the spread of biological weapons left several country representatives and independent observers expressing low expectations for a major conference later this year while noting that the recent meeting had achieved some important but minimal goals.

Participants in the annual meeting of states-parties to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in Geneva agreed to a final document, a result that reportedly was uncertain until the end of the Dec. 14-18 gathering. The parties also set the dates for the upcoming BWC review conference and its preparatory meetings.

BWC review conferences take place at five-year intervals.

This year’s review conference is scheduled for Nov. 7-25, with preparatory meetings for “up to two days” April 26-27 and then Aug. 8-12, all in Geneva. The participants also named György Molnár of Hungary as president of the review conference and chairman of the preparatory committee.

According to the representatives and observers, settling on the amount of time was difficult as many countries argued for two weeks of preparation to increase the chances that the November review conference would be productive.

The United States was one of the countries advocating the longer preparation period. In a Dec. 23 interview, a State Department official who attended the December meeting said the final report, although “not quite what we wanted,” was “positive” in that it represents an increase over the four days allotted to the 2011 review conference’s preparations.

The only real opposition to having two full weeks of preparatory meetings at the December meeting was from Cuba and Iran, which were able to gain some sympathy from smaller countries with the argument that they could not devote the additional time and money to send delegations for the longer preparatory meetings, he said.

In a statement on the conference’s first day, Robert Wood, the U.S. special representative for BWC issues, lamented that, “every December [at the annual meetings of BWC parties], we adopt a report that consists mostly of recycled material and broad generalities.” The parties “need to do better” and “do not have to revert to old habits,” he said.

But the State Department official said the conference had met only the “minimal requirements” of Wood’s exhortation. The conference report is “unambitious,” he said, noting that, for many of the BWC’s substantive points, it says only that the parties agree on “the value” of certain issues and approaches without giving direction on a specific course.

Making a similar point in his analysis of the conference, Richard Guthrie, who monitored the meeting for the website CBW Events, cited a sentence from the final report’s discussion of science and technology issues: “States Parties recognized the value of continuing discussions on science and technology developments relevant to the Convention in light of various proposals made by States Parties.” According to Guthrie, “Earlier draft iterations had included references to the need for a dedicated [science and technology] review process; these had been lost in the negotiating process.”

Competing Proposals

A number of delegations offered suggestions for improving the process. The United States submitted a list of proposals that were part of what it called a “realistic agenda” for the upcoming review conference. These included increasing the authority of the annual meetings to make decisions rather than leaving virtually all substantive decisions to the review conferences and strengthening the Implementation Support Unit, the three-person secretariat that provides institutional support to BWC parties.

Similar proposals on those issues were offered at the 2011 review conference, but were not adopted. (See ACT, January/February 2012.)

Armenia, Belarus, China, and Russia submitted a document proposing “a legally binding instrument” covering issues such as “the incorporation of existing and potentially further enhanced confidence building and transparency measures, as appropriate, into the [BWC] regime”; measures for addressing relevant developments in science and technology; measures for assistance and protection, based on the treaty’s Article VII, to treaty parties in fending off biological weapons attacks; and measures for strengthening peaceful cooperation under Article X.

Notably absent from the proposal was any provision on verification, which has been a focus of Russian efforts in the past.

Emergency personnel participating in a drill led by the Marine Corps’ Chemical Biological Incident Response Force in New York City on September 22, 2012, attend to a mock victim. (Photo credit: Allison Joyce/Getty Images)The BWC, unlike the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention, does not have an international organization to verify that parties are complying with the treaty. Talks on a verification mechanism collapsed in 2001 after the Bush administration rejected a draft protocol. The Obama administration has said that effective verification under the treaty is impossible and has made clear that it will not seek to revive the talks on a compliance protocol.

In a Dec. 24 email to Arms Control Today, a Russian official who attended the Geneva meeting said that “Russia remains committed to a multilaterally negotiated verification mechanism for the BWC.” He cited a statement last October to the UN General Assembly First Committee by the so-called BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

But recognizing the differing views among BWC parties on verification, the current proposal was drafted to be “as comprehensive as politically possible at this moment” and “is feasible from a practical standpoint,” he said. He characterized the proposal as “a third way” that “may bridge a divide between the NAM [Non-Aligned Movement] and the Western group,” two of the key blocs at the BWC conference and other international meetings.

“Removing verification from our negotiations proposal was a difficult choice to make[,] but we did it in the hope of achieving a very [much] needed breakthrough,” the Russian official said.

In spite of some significant differences in approach, “[t]here is a very good degree of convergence between Russia’s initiative and the US concept paper,” he said. Russia recognizes that its initiative cannot bear fruit “without getting Washington on board,” and “I presume they realise the same is true the other way round.” He added, “We continue talking to each other so that the common ground can be identified.”

The U.S. official said he accepted that “some things” in the Russian-led proposal are “worth attention” but not by means of a legally binding mechanism.

Conference Dynamics

A negative aspect of the meeting was the contentious “political dynamics” between different blocs of countries, the U.S. official said. Disagreements in such meetings often fall along “North-South” lines—that is, between affluent countries and developing countries, particularly those in the NAM. At this meeting, the official said, there also was a strong “East-West” element, citing sharply anti-U.S. statements from Russia.

Nevertheless, as the official noted, there were some areas of agreement between blocs. India and the United States jointly issued a working paper on strengthening the implementation of Article III, which bans transfers or other assistance for biological weapons programs. The U.S. official also approvingly cited a South African paper, issued during the BWC experts meeting last August, on assistance under Article VII. India and South Africa are NAM members.

Overall, the U.S. official said, it is “hard to be overly optimistic” about the upcoming review conference in light of the rifts between blocs. Because the conference makes decisions by consensus, “any naysayer can prevent almost anything,” he said.

In his assessment, Guthrie said the difficulty that the participants at the Geneva meeting had in reaching agreement on “a weak document does not bode well for the Review Conference, in which many more significant issues will be at play.”

The Russian official acknowledged the “tensions in the BWC among states and groups of states,” but noted that such disagreements are not unique to that treaty. He said he has “high hopes” for the review conference, which “will be a very rare opportunity to give a fresh start to the process of strengthening of a very important but neglected treaty.”

He added, “This is a main reason why we have come up with our initiative and invest a lot of effort into promoting it.”

Syrian Chemical Arms Still Seen as Issue

January/February 2016

By Daniel Horner

A tent inside the MV Cape Ray, a U.S. vessel, is illuminated in this January 2014 photo. The tent contains the two units of the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System that were used to neutralize Syrian chemical weapons agents. (Photo credit: C. Todd Lopez/Department of Defense)Participants in a meeting on chemical weapons late last year expressed ongoing and in some cases increasing concern about the information that Syria has provided on the remnants of its chemical weapons program.

Since Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 2013 and declared 1,300 metric tons of chemical weapons agents, there have been doubts about the completeness of the declaration. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the international body responsible for implementing the CWC, in April 2014 established a Declaration Assessment Team to “clarify anomalies and discrepancies that have arisen with Syria’s initial declaration.”

In his statement to the Nov. 30-Dec. 4 meeting, the annual gathering of CWC parties in The Hague, OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü said the team’s most recent report had “identif[ied] several outstanding issues.” The assessment team’s reports are not public.

In a statement on behalf of the European Union, Jacek Bylica, the EU’s special envoy for disarmament and nonproliferation, described the team’s findings as “alarming.”

Mallory Stewart, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for emerging security challenges and defense policy, noted in her statement to the conference that Üzümcü is to report to OPCW members before the scheduled March 15-18 meeting of the group’s Executive Council. She said the United States “will carefully review” his report and “consider the next steps that may need to be taken.”

In a Dec. 23 interview, Paul Walker, director of environmental security and sustainability with Green Cross International, said that although there was no agenda item on Syria at the conference, there was considerable discussion in side meetings on the question of whether Syria was being “sufficiently transparent.”

He said there were “loads” of questions and concerns dealing with issues such as the origin of Syria’s chemicals, the quantities of chemical weapons material produced, the types of delivery systems used, and the program for testing the various elements of the chemical arsenal. Walker, who is a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors, attended the meeting in The Hague.

In a Dec. 28 interview, a U.S. official said there is “growing concern and frustration” that so little has been resolved since the assessment team started its work and, “in fact, new issues have been uncovered.”

As an example, he cited the detection of traces of precursor chemicals for nerve agents at the Scientific Studies and Research Center near Damascus, a facility that Syria has not declared as part of its chemical weapons program. When the issue emerged a year ago, Syria said it would investigate, but nothing has come of that, the official said.

A more serious issue, he said, is the question of Syria’s sulfur mustard, of which Syria declared about 20 metric tons. According to several accounts, Syria claimed that it had destroyed much larger quantities of the chemical prior to its CWC declaration but did not provide documentation to support the claim.

Although “not on the same level” as the sulfur mustard issue, questions such as the one about the research center are “symptomatic” of “Syrian stonewalling,” the official said.

He said there is “no expectation” that Syria “will suddenly clarify all these discrepancies.” Damascus is more likely to make “token gestures,” and the Executive Council will have to decide how to respond, he said.

Syria’s failure to be forthcoming has “real security implications” because it raises the possibility that Syria could re-establish a chemical weapons program in the future or currently has a “smaller hidden capability,” the official said.

Most of Syria’s declared chemical weapons agents were shipped out of the country for destruction, while the rest were destroyed in Syria. The most dangerous chemicals were neutralized aboard the MV Cape Ray, a U.S. vessel. (See ACT, September 2014.) The toxic waste products from the neutralization were then taken to facilities in Finland, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States for a second stage of destruction.

In a Jan. 4 press release, the OPCW announced that the last of the Syrian material, 75 cylinders of hydrogen fluoride, had been destroyed by Veolia Environmental Services Technical Solutions. The company incinerated the material at its facility in Port Arthur, Texas.

In the OPCW release, Üzümcü said, “This process closes an important chapter in the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapon programme as we continue efforts to clarify Syria’s declaration and address ongoing use of toxic chemicals as weapons in that country.”

The findings of an OPCW investigative unit have supported allegations that chlorine was used as a weapon against rebel areas in the ongoing civil war in Syria.

Participants in a meeting on chemical weapons late last year expressed ongoing and in some cases increasing concern about the information that Syria has provided on the remnants of its chemical weapons program.


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