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March 7, 2018
Daniel Horner

White House Makes Case for Syria Strike

Daniel Horner

President Barack Obama and administration officials last month vigorously argued for punitive, targeted U.S. military strikes against Syria, basing their case in part on an intelligence assessment that the administration said provided compelling evidence that Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack on contested and rebel-controlled areas in the Damascus suburbs.

In an Aug. 31 address, Obama said the attack “risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.” Obama also announced that he would seek authorization from Congress for the U.S. action, a step that he said is not legally required.

That decision pushes back the timetable for the strikes beyond what many observers were expecting, but Obama said the ability of U.S. forces “to execute this mission is not time sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now.” The action will be “against Syrian regime targets” and “designed to be limited in duration and scope,” he said.

The announcement came two days after the British Parliament voted against military action in spite of strong support for it by Prime Minister David Cameron. The previous day, Aug. 28, a British proposal to obtain UN Security Council support for military action in Syria foundered on objections from Russia, Syria’s strongest ally on the council, and China, according to accounts of a closed-door meeting of the council’s five permanent members.

A summary of the U.S. intelligence assessment said the U.S. government has “high confidence” that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21. “High confidence” is “the strongest position that the U.S. Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation,” said the summary, which the White House released Aug. 30. It added, “We will continue to seek additional information to close gaps in our understanding of what took place.”

The summary said a “preliminary” U.S. assessment had tallied 1,429 deaths from the Aug. 21 attack, including at least 426 children. A British intelligence document issued earlier in the week said there were “at least 350 fatalities.”

According to the U.S. intelligence summary, the Syrian government used a nerve agent in the attack. On Sept. 1, Secretary of State John Kerry, citing analysis conducted since the issuance of the document, said the agent was sarin.

The summary described preparations by “Syrian chemical weapons personnel” in the three days prior to the attack and said that afterward the United States had “intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21 and was concerned with the U.N. inspectors obtaining evidence.”

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said Aug. 31 that “the alleged call made by a Syrian officer after the alleged attack is too ridiculous to be discussed.” Overall, the U.S. evidence, which Kerry presented in an Aug. 30 speech, is “based on old stories which were published by terrorists over a week ago and are full of fabrication and lies,” the news agency said.

The team from the United Nations arrived in Syria on Aug. 18, after several months of negotiations between representatives of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the specifics of the team’s access to sites of earlier alleged chemical weapons use by the Syrian government and rebels. But after the Aug. 21 attack took place, the team shifted its focus to sites connected with that event and left the country Aug. 31, the day before its permission to stay in the country expired. At a press conference later that day, Ban spokesman Martin Nesirky said the team had “given a very clear undertaking to the Syrian authorities that it will return” to investigate “all the pending allegations” of chemical weapons use.

The team, which is led by Swedish scientist Åke Sellström and includes nine experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and three from the World Health Organization, flew to The Hague, the site of OPCW headquarters. The evidence collected by the UN team, which includes environmental and biological samples, now is to undergo laboratory analysis. That process “may take up to three weeks,” the OPCW said in an Aug. 31 press release, adding that “every effort will be made to expedite this process.”

The OPCW is the organization charged with implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which came into force in 1997. Syria is one of seven countries that are not party to the CWC. Under a 1987 UN General Assembly resolution and language in the convention, the UN secretary-general has the authority to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use involving CWC nonparties.

In his Aug. 31 address, Obama said he was “confident in the case our government has made without waiting” for the UN team to complete its analysis. As administration officials have noted, the mandate of the UN team is to determine whether chemical weapons were used and not who used them. Therefore, Kerry said in his Aug. 30 remarks, “[b]y the definition of their own mandate, the UN can’t tell us anything that we haven’t shared with you this afternoon or that we don’t already know.”

But Raymond Zilinskas, a microbiologist and former member of the UN Special Commission that was charged with verifying Iraq’s destruction of its chemical and other weapons after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said in a Sept. 1 e-mail to Arms Control Today that “the role of the UN team is more important than ever[,] whatever its findings.”

The team could provide critical information on the means of delivery for any chemical agents, he said. “If there were bombs and rockets of whatever origin used in attacks, it is reasonable to believe that there almost certainly will be remnants of the weapons like shards, splinters, craters with degradation products from explosives and chemicals and, if the inspectors are really lucky, duds,” he wrote.

If the rockets turn out to be Iranian or Russian, that would implicate the Assad regime, he said. But if they are “homemade,” that would be a strong indication that they came from the rebels, and “Assad probably would be off the hook,” he said.

The intelligence summary was skeptical of the possibility that the rebels were responsible for the attack. In one example of the basis for that conclusion, the summary said that “[s]atellite detections corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred.” Those neighborhoods are controlled by the rebels or are contested, Kerry said in his speech.

Overall, Zilinskas said, the intelligence summary is not a full assessment because it does not include information on “sample collections, chain of custody, methods of analysis, or results of analysis by reference laboratories.”

President Barack Obama and administration officials last month vigorously argued for punitive, targeted U.S. military strikes against Syria...

Compliance Report Cites Myanmar Gains

Daniel Horner

The United States “remains encouraged” by Myanmar’s movement toward several key nuclear nonproliferation commitments, but still is on the lookout for signs of a nuclear weapons program in that country, the State Department said in a recent report on global compliance with arms control and nonproliferation agreements.

The Southeast Asian country, also known as Burma, has been suspected of pursuing a nuclear weapons program. In 2010 an opposition group released a documentary making that claim. (See ACT, July/August 2010.)

The State Department report cited an announcement last November by Myanmar that it intended to sign an additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). That would give the IAEA expanded rights of access to information and sites, including undeclared sites, in the country.

In the announcement, Myanmar also said it would “give effect to the modified standardized text of the Small Quantities Protocol.” That protocol holds in abeyance much of the IAEA’s inspection authority as long as a state’s nuclear material holdings do not exceed certain thresholds. In September 2005, the IAEA Board of Governors approved modifications to the protocol to correct what the board said was “a weakness of the safeguards system.” The modifications provide for safeguards inspections and require early reporting on decisions to construct nuclear facilities.

Myanmar’s announcement means that it has pledged to recognize the modified version of the small quantities protocol.

The IAEA declined on Aug. 27 to comment on the status of the discussions on the two protocols.

In the compliance report, which was released in July and covers events during 2012, the State Department said that “U.S. concerns cannot be fully alleviated” until Myanmar has taken action on the two protocols and “has cooperated with the IAEA in accordance with these agreements to resolve any outstanding IAEA questions.”

According to the report, Washington “remains alert to any indications of Burmese nuclear weapon-related activities or intentions to develop a nuclear weapons capability, although available information does not suggest the current Burmese government has any such ambitions.” The second part of the sentence is slightly different from the language in last year’s report, which said that “available information did not support a conclusion that Burma had engaged in activities prohibited by its NPT [nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] obligations or IAEA safeguards.” (See ACT, October 2012.)

As recently as last year, reports suggested that North Korea provided illicit nuclear goods to Myanmar. (See ACT, December 2012.) The State Department report noted that Myanmar has said it would comply with UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, whose provisions include a variety of restrictions on trade with North Korea, including a ban on trade in nuclear goods.

North Korea, along with Iran and Syria, continued to be in violation of its IAEA safeguards agreement and the NPT, the report said. Repeating language from last year, the report said North Korea “did not take any concrete steps toward fulfilling its international obligations and commitments.”

As the report noted, North Korea agreed in February 2012 to a moratorium on a number of nuclear and missile activities, but did not abide by that agreement.

Repeating another finding of a year ago, the report said that “Chinese companies continued to supply missile programs in countries of concern.” The report did not specify the recipient countries, but North Korea appears to be one of them. During congressional testimony in April 2012, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was asked about potential Chinese assistance to North Korea’s missile program and replied, “I’m sure there’s been some help coming from China.” He said he did not know the exact extent of the aid. (See ACT, May 2012.) A UN panel is investigating the role of a Chinese company in supplying North Korea with vehicles Pyongyang converted into transporter erector launchers for its missiles.

The report’s language on biological weapons was very similar to last year’s. The report said the United States “is concerned” that Syria “may be engaged in activities that would violate its obligations” under the Biological Weapons Convention if it were a party. Syria has signed but not ratified the treaty.

A companion report covers chemical weapons, but does not address Syria’s program in that area because Damascus has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention.

The United States “remains encouraged” by Myanmar’s movement toward several key nuclear nonproliferation commitments, but still is on the lookout for signs of a nuclear weapons program in that country...

U.S. Pursues Penalty for Renouncing NPT

Daniel Horner

The U.S. government is “cautiously optimistic” that the parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will be able to reach agreement at the treaty’s 2015 review conference on “a meaningful way” to respond to countries that withdraw from the pact, a senior U.S. official said June 18.

Speaking at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said the treaty parties are “very near consensus” that the issue should be addressed.

A key issue, as Countryman framed it, is that a country that joins the NPT can take advantage of the opportunity to receive peaceful nuclear assistance under the terms of the treaty but then withdraw and “apply those technologies for nuclear weapons purposes.”

Article X of the treaty says that a party has the right to withdraw on three months’ notice “if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of [the NPT], have jeopardized [its] supreme interests.” The issue gained importance after North Korea announced its withdrawal from the treaty in 2003, an action that NPT members have not officially recognized.

Since the 2003 announcement, the United States has “aggressively” pursued the issue of how to respond to a party’s withdrawal, Countryman said. In the preparatory meetings for the 2015 conference, the United States is seeking to foster agreement that “withdrawal cannot be without consequences,” he said. “But there are so many ideas about how you deter and how you respond to a threat of withdrawal, that I think we have more work to do in the next two years,” he said.

At the most recent NPT preparatory meeting, held April 22-May 3 in Geneva, the parties discussed the issue of withdrawal, according to a summary by the meeting chairman, Cornel Feruta of Romania. The summary said that some countries “stressed” that a withdrawing country “remained responsible under international law for violations committed” while it was a party to the treaty, a point that often comes up in discussions of North Korea’s actions.

But the summary cited some parties as “affirm[ing] that they did not support efforts to reinterpret or restrict the sovereign right of withdrawal” and “emphasis[ing] the importance of encouraging” countries to remain parties to the treaty, in part by “addressing the root causes that might lead [them] to withdraw.”

At the June 18 event, Countryman said he would include the United States among the countries that “do not wish to amend Article X.” He decried the “deliberate misunderstanding on the part of some to imply that we are trying to tinker with an important right that is contained within the treaty and to abrogate that right.” The U.S. goal, he said, is “a series of measures that would be an appropriate reaction to blatant, deliberate abuse of the treaty.” When the issue is framed that way, fewer states oppose it, he said.

The U.S. government is “cautiously optimistic” that the parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will be able to reach agreement at the treaty’s 2015 review conference...

GAO Studies IAEA Nuclear Security Funds

Daniel Horner

Efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to help countries improve nuclear security are hampered by a heavy reliance on so-called extra-budgetary contributions from member states, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report released June 17.

Relying on the extra-budgetary funds makes planning difficult for the IAEA, because the funding level fluctuates from year to year, the GAO said. IAEA member states provide such funds on top of their assessed contribution to the agency.

Another problem with the extra-budgetary funds is that the contributing countries often direct them to specific projects, the report said. The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, recommended that the State Department “evaluate the nuclear security program’s long-term resource needs and assess whether the [IAEA’s] heavy reliance on extra-budgetary contributions is sufficient to plan and meet those needs.” In its response, published in the GAO report, the State Department disagreed. It acknowledged that “[b]y its nature,” extra-budgetary funding is “voluntary, unpredictable, and often comes with conditions,” but said that “given the limited regular budget for nuclear security, the IAEA will continue to rely heavily” on the extra-budgetary funds.

The report also covers the IAEA’s work to strengthen its safeguards program and establish a nuclear fuel bank.

Efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to help countries improve nuclear security are hampered by a heavy reliance on so-called extra-budgetary contributions...

Nunn-Lugar Program Scaled Back

Daniel Horner and Tom Z. Collina

Russia and the United States on June 14 agreed to a pared-down replacement for a 1992 pact that formed the basis of their joint efforts to control or destroy Russian weapons of mass destruction and related material and delivery vehicles.

The Obama administration described the new pact as a recalibrated extension of the old agreement. But some current and former congressional staffers said they saw it more as the sunset of the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, commonly known by the names of the authors of the 1991 legislation that established the effort, Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.).

The new accord replaces the so-called CTR umbrella agreement, which expired June 17.

Cooperation between the two countries will continue “in a broad array of nuclear security and nonproliferation areas,” such as security of nuclear and radiological material and conversion of research reactors from using highly enriched to low-enriched uranium fuel, according to a June 19 State Department summary of the agreement. But Russia “will assume the costs [of] and complete without further U.S. assistance” two main parts of the CTR effort—destruction of ballistic missiles and chemical weapons—the summary said.

That shift is reflected in the roster of “executive agents” listed in the agreement. For Russia, the list includes the State Corporation for Atomic Energy, commonly known as Rosatom, which is the principal Russian agency for the work on nuclear materials security and nonproliferation, but does not include the Ministry of Defense, which was responsible for the work on ballistic missiles, or the Ministry of Industry and Trade, which was the main Russian agency for CTR work on chemical weapons destruction.

For the U.S. side, the executive agents are the Energy and Defense departments. The June 19 summary includes the State Department on its list of agencies that “will remain involved.”

The new agreement “reflects the evolution” of the U.S.-Russian partnership, the summary said. In a June 25 interview, a State Department official said that the effort has developed into “more of an equal partnership” than it was at its inception. Russia is “more comfortable” with that form of the relationship, and so is the United States, the official said.

Russian media reported last year that Moscow may not want to continue the CTR agreement at all because it no longer needs Washington’s financial assistance to carry out the program and does not want to risk revealing sensitive information to the United States. According to Western experts, Moscow had resented being dependent on Washington to pay for securing its own weapons.

The State Department official said that some parts of the program are “winding down,” but described the new agreement as a “continuation of the relationship, just in a different form.”

In a June 17 statement, Nunn, who is now co-chairman and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, acknowledged that “key elements of what we have known as Nunn-Lugar will not be carried forward under this umbrella agreement” and said that “[w]e must find ways beyond this agreement to work together” on issues relating to weapons of mass destruction.

Thomas Moore, a former Lugar staffer who is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a June 21 interview that the joint effort “was going to end sometime, and now it has.” The new agreement “marks the final chapter in the end of the Cold War,” he said.

A Republican congressional staffer expressed a similar view in a June 25 e-mail to Arms Control Today, saying that “[t]he programs that are ending are largely completed, at least as much as the Russians are going to allow us to do. And those that are continuing should continue. Do I have confidence that the Russians will match our standards? No. But I hope they will be good enough. I don’t see that we have any option.”

Paul Walker, a former House Armed Services Committee staffer who heads the environmental security and sustainability program at Global Green USA, had a mixed response. In a June 24 e-mail to Arms Control Today, he said the new agreement is “a positive step forward,” but he cautioned that “there…remain thousands of nuclear warheads and millions of chemical weapons to dismantle, as well as hundreds of strategic launch systems.”

“Russia no doubt decided that the meager funds weren’t worth the foreign intrusion at their most sensitive military sites,” said Walker, who is a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors.

He said he hoped that Russia and the United States “can still work out bilateral agreements specific to projects, for example, to finish construction at the chemical weapons destruction facilities at Shchuch’ye and Kizner so that Russia does not continue to fall behind in [its] destruction schedule.”

The Russian embassy in Washington did not respond by press time to a request for comment.

In addition to the programmatic changes, a key difference between the new agreement and its predecessor is in its liability provisions.

Under the original agreement, the U.S. government and its contractors were shielded from virtually all liability for accidents that could occur under the program’s work in Russia. In 2006, when the agreement was being renewed for the second time, the deal reportedly was on the verge of collapse due to Moscow’s concerns over liability.

Under the new agreement, Russia is to notify the United States when it believes it has grounds for a liability claim against the United States or its employees or contractors. The two sides “shall…attempt to achieve a mutual understanding within 90 days” of the notification. If they do not reach this understanding, Russia can begin legal proceedings.

The liability arrangements are described in a protocol to the 2003 Framework Agreement on a Multilateral Nuclear Environmental Programme in the Russian Federation (MNEPR), which replaces the CTR umbrella agreement as the underlying legal basis for the threat reduction work. The MNEPR has traditionally outlined the legal underpinnings for countries to assist Russia with spent nuclear fuel safety and radioactive waste management.

Russia and the United States have replaced the 20-year-old Nunn-Lugar program to provide U.S. assistance to secure and dismantle Russia’s excess weapons of mass destruction with a more limited agreement.

U.S. Says Chemical Weapons Used in Syria

Kelsey Davenport and Daniel Horner

The U.S. intelligence community has “high confidence” that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on a small scale against opposition forces multiple times over the past year, the White House said in a June 13 statement.

In the statement, Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said that physiological samples and reporting from multiple sources within Syria were consistent with exposure to chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin. The United States worked with its partners, allies, and individuals inside Syria to obtain and evaluate this information, he said.

Syria is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and has not disclosed the size and composition of its chemical weapons stockpiles. However, the U.S. intelligence community has estimated that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad possesses a large and complex chemical weapons program, including several types of nerve gases that can be delivered by missiles and bombs. After a Syrian government spokesman publicly acknowledged the existence of its chemical weapons last summer, President Barack Obama called the use or movement of chemical weapons within Syria a “redline” for U.S. action. (See ACT, September 2012.)

The United States has been evaluating claims of Syrian chemical weapons use for several months. In an April 25 letter to members of Congress, Miguel Roriguez, Obama’s director of legislative affairs said that the U.S. intelligence community had determined with “varying degrees of confidence” that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against the Syrian population. More evidence was needed to confirm the use, the letter said, because there were doubts over the “chain of custody” of the evidence. (See ACT, May 2013.)

The June 13 statement described the evidence of use as “credible.”

Independent analysts have raised questions about the change in the U.S. assessment. In a June 18 interview, Amy Smithson, a senior fellow with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said the statement does not explain the increase in confidence since the April 25 letter or describe the chain of custody for the underlying evidence. Moreover, she said, the U.S. government has not provided evidence that rules out the possibility that rebel forces, who may want to incriminate the Assad regime, are responsible for the cases of small-scale use to date.

Jean Pascal Zanders, a former research fellow with the European Union Institute for Security Studies, said in a June presentation in Brussels that the United States, like France and the United Kingdom, had provided “[v]irtually no factual details on the nature and provenance of the samples [or] the laboratory results” that were the basis for its conclusions, “making independent assessments impossible.” It is not clear if, in its June 13 statement, the United States is drawing on the British and French evidence or its own analysis, he said in a June 19 interview.

Crossing Redlines

Rhodes said the intelligence community findings cross “clear” redlines and violate international norms. Accordingly, Obama changed his calculus on Syria and already increased nonlethal assistance to the opposition, he said. A number of “legal, financial, diplomatic and military responses” also are available, according to Rhodes.

In a follow-up press call June 13, Rhodes said that the U.S. aim is provide assistance that has “direct military purposes” and is “substantively different” from past aid. He would not confirm specifics of the assistance package. News outlets quoted unnamed administration officials as saying that small arms would be provided to the Syrian opposition forces.

Rhodes’ statement followed reports by the United Nations and France that each had concluded that chemical weapons were being used in Syria.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said June 4 that there was “no doubt” that Assad used sarin on several occasions. The French government tested samples smuggled out of Syria that confirmed the use of sarin, Fabius said.

The June 4 UN report said that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that chemical weapons were used in Syria on two occasions in March and two in April but that it was not possible to identify the chemical agents or determine who used them.

After allegations that chemical weapons were used near Aleppo on March 19, Assad requested that the UN investigate the claims. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the UN would investigate in conjunction with the World Health Organization and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which oversees implementation of the CWC.

Syria has yet to allow investigators into the country due to a disagreement over the scope of the UN inquiry. Syria wants to restrict the investigation to the March 19 incident. Ban said the mission must be allowed to investigate “all the allegations” made by member states. (See ACT, May 2013.)

Syrian opposition forces have claimed that the Assad regime used chemical weapons in the March 19 incident. France and the United Kingdom have asked Ban to include other sites where the rebels have said the Assad regime used chemical weapons.

In the June 13 statement, Rhodes said that Washington briefed the head of the UN team, Åke Sellström, on its evidence and sent a letter to Ban informing him of the intelligence community’s evidence and assessments. The United States also is pushing for the UN team to have “immediate and unfettered access to conduct on-site investigations” in Syria, he said.

UN Probe Stalled

After Ban’s announcement, Sellström’s team assembled in Cyprus. But because of “the continued absence of an agreement” with the Syrian government on the terms of the team’s access, the team has left that country, UN spokesman John Ennis said in a June 19 e-mail to Arms Control Today.

The team “has been continuing to monitor developments and collect available information,” and Sellström has “visited capitals and has also been assessing other options for fact-finding activities outside of Syria, including in neighbouring countries,” Ennis said. In spite of the considerable time that has elapsed since the alleged March 19 incident, it is important for the team to be able to conduct an investigation in Syria because “[t]here are a range of possible on-site activities extending beyond the collection of environmental samples, which still could provide information on whether or not chemical weapons were used,” Ennis wrote.

Some evidence of chemical weapons use from the environment or from samples—for example, from the blood or urine of victims—is fleeting, but postmortem specimens of brain tissue will indicate the chemicals that caused death, Smithson said. Furthermore, she said, although environmental samples degrade, they do so along known chemical pathways, and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry can reliably identify these degradation by-products.

She cited the case of the 1988 gassing of the Iraqi town of Halabja by Saddam Hussein’s forces. More than four years later, she recalled, a team from Physicians for Human Rights collected samples that then were analyzed by the United Kingdom’s top chemical defense laboratory and found to contain degradation by-products of sarin and mustard gas.

The U.S. intelligence community has “high confidence” that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on a small scale, the White House said.

NSG Revises List, Continues India Debate

Daniel Horner

The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) has completed a revision of its list of controlled exports, the group announced in Prague on June 14 at the end of its annual plenary meeting.

At the meeting, representatives of the 48 member states continued to wrestle with the question of whether to admit India as a member, according to people familiar with the discussions. President Barack Obama proposed that step during a visit to India in November 2010. (See ACT, December 2010.)

The revision of the list, which covers nuclear-specific and dual-use goods, took three years to complete, the June 14 statement said.

The lists “are not static” and must keep up with “the main security challenges, advances in technology, [and] market trends,” said Veronika Kuchyňová Šmigolová, head of the Czech permanent mission to international organizations in Vienna and the chair of the NSG for the coming year, in a June 25 e-mail to Arms Control Today. After last year’s meeting in Seattle, U.S. Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman, the 2012-2013 NSG chairman, said completing the review was his highest priority. (See ACT, July/August 2012.)

The country that chairs the NSG starts its term by hosting the plenary meeting. The group is not a formal organization, and its guidelines are not binding, but members are expected to incorporate the guidelines into their national export control laws.

The June 14 statement said that the meeting participants discussed the role of the private sector in preventing proliferation and how NSG members could interact with companies that export nuclear goods.

In her e-mail, Kuchyňová highlighted the importance of companies’ internal compliance programs to ensure that the firms “do not inadvertently violate national laws and thereby subject themselves to sanctions and reputational damage.” Interaction with the private sector is “an important focus of our outreach,” she said.

Another target of her outreach efforts will be “non-NSG supplier states, including India, Pakistan and Israel,” she said. Those three countries never have joined the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and maintain unsafeguarded nuclear programs.

In September 2008, in a move led by the United States, the NSG eased long-standing restrictions on nuclear trade with India by the group’s members. NSG rules generally forbid the sale of nuclear goods, such as reactors and fuel, to non-NPT countries.

With those restrictions lifted, Indian membership in the NSG is the “next logical step,” Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a June 21 interview. While in the U.S. government, Tellis was a principal architect of the U.S. policy shift toward India that led to the 2008 NSG decision and a similar change in U.S. law.

Like the 2008 decision, the idea of admitting India is controversial within the NSG, which makes its decisions by consensus. The issue of Indian membership “raises some very difficult questions and needs to be discussed further,” a western European diplomat said in a June 26 interview. Tellis and the diplomat each listed France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States among the strong supporters of Indian membership and China as a leading opponent.

A key criterion for NSG membership is that a country is a party to and complying with the NPT or a nuclear-weapon-free-zone treaty. India would be the first country that did not meet that criterion.

A British discussion paper on Indian membership argues that the NSG process for accepting new members “offer[s] the flexibility” to allow India to join. In the paper, which was obtained by Arms Control Today, the United Kingdom said it “believes that the NSG is best served by the inclusion and membership of India” because New Delhi has “an important civil nuclear industry” and “continues to uphold the international non-proliferation architecture.”

Tellis said that, with the 2008 decision, “the debate about principle is over.” The countries that were uneasy about admitting a non-NPT state with a nuclear weapons program “conceded” on the principle at that time, he said. “At the end of the day, they’ll make the same judgment they did in 2008,” he predicted.

The western European diplomat said his country is approaching the issue “with an open mind” but wants “a serious discussion” that “com[es] to grips with the implications” of the decision, for example, what it would mean for the implementation of NSG guidelines.

He said it might be possible to find a formulation that is not “damaging” to the NPT regime but “brings India closer.” India could “take a couple of steps toward the NPT community,” he said. One example would be signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, an “extremely high-value symbolic step” that would have little immediate practical effect on India, in part because the treaty has not entered into force and will not do so until India and seven other key countries have ratified it, he said. Also, he said, there already are other legal and political constraints on India’s ability to conduct a nuclear test.

The June 14 statement did not provide any information on the India discussions, repeating the language used in 2011 and last year. Kuchyňová also declined to provide details.

The Nuclear Suppliers Group completed a revision of its list of controlled exports and continued its internal debate on admitting India as a member.

NRC Nixes Bid for Proliferation Reviews

Daniel Horner

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) last month rejected a petition from the American Physical Society (APS) that would have required a “nuclear proliferation assessment” from applicants seeking a license to use new technologies for uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing.

In documents supporting the decision, which the agency released May 31, the NRC commissioners largely endorsed an analysis by the NRC staff rebutting the claim the APS made in a November 2010 petition that the current NRC licensing process does not adequately take proliferation concerns into account. The staff analysis also argued that “[a]n assessment based solely on information available to a commercial entity would be of little value to the NRC in assessing the proliferation risks associated with licensing a particular facility.”

But, drawing primarily from comments by Chairman Allison Macfarlane and Commissioner William Magwood, the five-member commission said the staff “should periodically review our regulations and guidance to ensure that our requirements are robust enough to meet new proliferation challenges involved in building and operating enrichment or reprocessing facilities that use technologies the NRC has not previously licensed.”

In her comments explaining her vote, Macfarlane said that the current system is not “broken or deficient,” but rather “robust and strong” because of the “tapestry of protection” provided by NRC regulations on physical security, information security, material control and accounting, and export control. Also, she said, although the NRC has “an important role in preventing proliferation,” other federal agencies “are on the frontlines.”

Yet, she called for “a more comprehensive strategy for assessing the proliferation risks posed by technologies that we are asked to license” and regular reassessments of “the continually changing nature of the [proliferation] threat.”

In a May 31 press release, the APS called the NRC decision “unfortunate,” but urged companies to conduct independent assessments of technologies that could exacerbate proliferation risks because a covert proliferator could use such technologies to build facilities that are small and difficult to detect.

In its petition, the APS specifically mentioned laser isotope separation, a method of uranium enrichment. The group filed its petition after GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy applied for a license to build and operate an enrichment plant in North Carolina using that technology. The NRC granted the license last September.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) last month rejected a petition from the American Physical Society (APS) that would have required a “nuclear proliferation assessment” from applicants seeking a license to use new technologies for uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing.

Syria Issue Roils CWC Review Conference

Daniel Horner and Oliver Meier

Differences over language addressing the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria sharply divided the recent review conference of states-parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), according to official statements at the conference and interviews with key participants and observers in recent weeks. Some diplomats, speaking on background, described the conference as being on the verge of failing to reach agreement on a final document over the differences on how to deal with that subject.

In spite of the disagreement on Syria and other issues, most notably on possible restrictions on chemical agents known as incapacitants, the conference participants praised the results of the April 8-19 meeting in The Hague. In a May 23 interview in Washington, Ahmet Üzümcü, the director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), called the meeting, which 122 of the treaty’s 188 parties attended, “very productive” and its final document a “very positive outcome.” The OPCW is the body charged with implementing the CWC.

In the final document, the parties “reiterated their deep concern” that chemical weapons may have been used in Syria and “underlined that the use of chemical weapons by anyone under any circumstances would be reprehensible and completely contrary to the legal norms and standards of the international community.”

The parties also “expressed their support for the close cooperation” between the UN secretary-general and the director-general of the OPCW to investigate alleged instances of chemical weapons use.

Differing Views

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon set the stage for conference discussions on the use of chemical weapons on Syria in his opening remarks April 8. Ban urged the international community to act and said that “the use of chemical weapons by any side under any circumstances would constitute an outrageous crime with dire consequences, and a crime against humanity.”

On March 21, in response to a request by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Ban announced he was launching a UN investigation on the alleged use of chemical weapons by rebels, but France and the United Kingdom asked him also to look into the possible use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government. (See ACT, April 2013.) Ban assembled a team of experts and inspectors from the OPCW and the World Health Organization to go to Syria to investigate the competing claims of chemical weapons use in that country.

But the team has not been able to enter Syria, as Ban and Assad have not agreed on the terms of the proposed investigation. Syria is one of eight states that is not a party to the CWC.

At the review conference, the opening statement of Russia, a main ally of Syria, made clear Moscow’s reservations about the UN probe and OPCW involvement. G.V. Kalamanov, deputy minister of industry and trade, said April 9 that Russia welcomed the investigation into alleged use of chemical weapons but wanted to limit it to the request by the Syrian government to examine just one instance of alleged chemical weapons use. Kalamanov warned that “the obscure manoeuvres” to broaden the scope of the investigation “are a cause for serious concern.”

China and Iran joined Russia in blocking stronger language in the final document, a U.S. official who attended the conference said in a May 21 interview. Other diplomatic participants and independent observers confirmed this account.

In his April 19 closing statement to the conference, Robert Mikulak, the U.S. permanent representative to the OPCW, decried the final document’s “vague language” on OPCW cooperation with Ban’s office as “clear evidence that we are heading in the wrong direction.” He said that some delegations were opposing language that they previously had found acceptable.

He was referring to the March 27 statement by Bhaswati Mukherjee of India, issued after a meeting of the OPCW Executive Council in The Hague. In the statement, Mukherjee, who chaired the council at the time, said that it “expressed its unequivocal support” for the UN investigation. The 41-member council is the OPCW’s main policymaking organ.

Üzümcü acknowledged that some parties “wanted to see more on Syria” but that others argued that “the political aspects have to be addressed rather in New York,” referring to the UN headquarters. He said the focus of the final document’s language on the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria and its “unequivocal rejection” of chemical weapons use should be welcomed.

Mikulak also highlighted the importance of that aspect of the document, but said that, overall, the language on Syria “is a faint whisper from a gathering of States Parties that should speak loudly and clearly when the world faces a real threat from chemical weapons.” Mary Whelan of Ireland, speaking for the 27 member states of the European Union, said the language on Syria “does not adequately capture the depth of concerns expressed by many delegations of all groups and regions in the plenary debate.”

In contrast, a Russian delegate to the conference called the language “well balanced and demonstrative of a common ground.” In a May 28 e-mail to Arms Control Today, he said it “sends the right message to the right people and avoids taking sides based on political preference.”

Standoff on Incapacitants

The conference also failed to find consensus on the use of incapacitants. Despite extensive discussions, the final document contained no new language clarifying the permissibility of the use in domestic law enforcement of these chemicals, which are developed for the purpose of incapacitating people without killing them. Several delegations, led by Switzerland, raised the issue in their opening statements. Switzerland had pushed consideration of the issue at the 2008 review conference. (See ACT, May 2008.) At this year’s review conference, there were extensive negotiations, primarily involving Russia, Switzerland, the United States, and a few other countries, but the talks failed to produce language on which participants could agree.

Perhaps the most notable use of incapacitants involved Russian police forces in 2002 ending a hostage crisis by pumping incapacitating gas into a Moscow theater where Chechen rebels held 850 hostages. More than 130 of the hostages and 40 attackers were killed during the raid, many of them by the effects of the gas.

The CWC permits riot control agents for “law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes.” The convention defines riot control agents as chemicals that can “produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure.” The CWC has no corresponding definition for incapacitants, which is one reason that many CWC member states have sought clarification of the issue.

“The silence and uncertainty surrounding the use of toxic chemicals for law enforcement purposes other than riot control agents” may erode the CWC, argued Markus Börlin, the Swiss ambassador to the OPCW, in his opening statement to the review conference April 8.

Rose Gottemoeller, acting U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said in her opening statement that “concern has increased that illicit programs could possibly be concealed under the guise of a legitimate treaty purpose, such as law enforcement.”

A Swiss paper drafted for the conference suggested that a definition of incapacitants be included in the final report. Switzerland suggested that the review conference ask the Executive Council to “initiate discussions on what measures should be taken to increase transparency” among states-parties on incapacitants “for law enforcement purposes” and that the issues should then be discussed again at the end of 2013 at the CWC’s annual conference of states-parties.

According to several diplomatic sources, the proposal ran into opposition, particularly from Russia. The 2002 Moscow theater incident was “in the back of everyone’s mind,” the U.S. official who attended the conference said in the May 21 interview.

According to the diplomats’ accounts, Switzerland and Russia, with the involvement of several other delegations, tried to sort out their differences. The day before the end of the conference, participants agreed that the review conference should ask governmental experts to discuss the application of toxic chemicals, except riot control agents, for law enforcement purposes and deliver a consensus report on the issue to the Executive Council. According to several diplomats, Russia on the final day of the conference tried to broaden the focus of future deliberations by suggesting that the experts’ mandate should be expanded to discuss all chemicals that can cause temporary incapacitation through their action on life processes. Such a mandate would include riot control agents. The United States has consistently argued that the use of riot control agents is permissible under the CWC.

The new language by Russia differed “radically” from the earlier version, the U.S. official said. According to him and other diplomats who were present, the U.S. delegation requested guidance from Washington, which did not arrive before the end of the conference. As a result, the final document dropped the issue completely, which many delegations lamented in their final statements.

Several participants argued that the broad support at the review conference for further discussions means that incapacitants are now likely to be discussed in the policymaking organs of the OPCW. In the May 23 interview, Üzümcü conceded that the OPCW Technical Secretariat did not receive a mandate by the review conference to pursue the issue of incapacitants. But he said he expects states-parties such as Switzerland to “continue to raise this issue.”

In the May 28 e-mail, the Russian delegate said that “much will depend on addressing the problems of that one delegation which blocked the adoption of the language on incapacitants,” a reference to the United States.

Mikulak, speaking to the Executive Council on May 6, said “the United States believes that agreement on language [on incapacitants] is within reach.” He promised that the U.S. delegation would “work closely and intensively with the Swiss and other delegations so that this important discussion can continue.”

In her comments on behalf of the EU at the same meeting, Whelan said she regretted that, “in spite of widespread support,” there was no reference to incapacitating agents in the final document. She said that the EU “hopes that this matter can be taken up again soon.”

Stefan Mogl, head of the chemistry department at Spiez Laboratory in Switzerland and a member of Swiss delegation to the review conference, wrote in a May 28 e-mail to Arms Control Today that his country would continue its “efforts to support policy discussion as well as to develop verification methods for incapacitating chemical agents.”

Progress Seen

For years, diplomats at the OPCW, the organization’s staffers, and independent analysts have said they fear that as the destruction of declared chemical weapons stockpiles progresses, and the need for monitoring of weapons destruction therefore decreases as the remaining stockpiles shrink, the OPCW will lose expertise and manpower. Üzümcü referred to this issue in his opening remarks to the review conference, saying that a “sudden reduction of resources for any institution can rapidly erode its capacities, its expertise, its institutional memory, and indeed its ability to carry on the remaining tasks.”

But in the May 23 interview, he cited this area as one in which the final document demonstrated significant progress. According to the document, the parties “[s]tressed that the OPCW should remain the global repository of knowledge and expertise” on chemical weapons issues and asked the secretariat “to identify and implement ways of ensuring continuity in its knowledge base and expertise in these areas.”

Üzümcü said that one idea he wanted to explore is building a center to ensure that the OPCW retains its expertise on the destruction of chemical weapons and is able to provide this expertise when required. The center would include a library and expand the development of “e-learning tools” for use by CWC parties, he said.

Another positive development from the conference, the U.S. official said, is that the OPCW secretariat is preparing a matrix of follow-up activities for the upcoming Executive Council meeting in July. “It remains to be seen how effective the follow-up is,” but the postconference activities have “started on the right track,” he said.

He also said the process was “much better” than in previous review conferences, allowing broader participation among the parties and by nongovernmental organizations.

Differences over language addressing the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria sharply divided the recent review conference for the Chemical Weapons Convention.

U.S. Revisits Plutonium Disposition Plan

Daniel Horner

The United States is planning to slow down construction of the facility that is the centerpiece of its effort to get rid of plutonium withdrawn from its nuclear weapons program and is considering pursuing “an alternative plutonium disposition strategy,” the Obama administration said last month in documents supporting its fiscal year 2014 budget request.

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

The MOX project and its counterpart in Russia, which also would turn surplus plutonium into reactor fuel but would irradiate it in a different kind of reactor, have long been controversial in nonproliferation circles. Some nonproliferation specialists support it, saying the program is a good example of U.S.-Russian cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation and security issues. Turning the plutonium into reactor fuel and irradiating it in a reactor will alleviate concerns about securing the material against thieves or terrorists, particularly in Russia, they say.

Others have opposed the effort on nonproliferation grounds, saying that putting plutonium into civilian programs actually increases the risks that it will fall into the wrong hands. It also undermines U.S. efforts to discourage other countries from pursuing civilian nuclear programs that use plutonium, these critics say.

The United States “remains very firmly committed” to the 2000 agreement, acting NNSA Administrator Neile Miller emphasized during a conference call with reporters on April 10, the day the budget request was released. But because of current budget constraints, she said, the administration wants to take a fresh look at whether construction of the MOX fuel facility “continues to be the best option at best value to accomplish the commitments under that agreement with the Russians or whether there is another option we ought to be thinking about pursuing.”

The fiscal year 2014 budget request proposes spending $320 million for construction of the MOX fuel facility, a drop from the $435 million that Congress appropriated for that purpose for fiscal year 2012, according to the detailed budget justification document for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous agency of the Energy Department whose responsibilities include nuclear nonproliferation. The fiscal year 2013 appropriation has not been firmly set.

The request for operations and maintenance activities supporting the MOX program is $158 million, compared to the $206 million appropriated for fiscal year 2012.

Under NNSA’s latest estimate, the total cost of the MOX fuel facility construction project rose from $4.8 billion to $7.7 billion and the starting date for MOX fuel fabrication slipped from 2016 to 2019. The 2019 figure represents the estimate before the planned slowdown.

The project previously had suffered a number of other cost increases and schedule slippages. It has cost $3.7 billion since work began in 1999, according to the NNSA.

In the budget document, the projected annual request for fiscal years 2015-2018 for the NNSA’s Office of Fissile Materials Disposition is between $220 million and $250 million, with the bulk of those amounts to be spent on plutonium disposition operations and maintenance. The budget line for construction of the MOX fuel plant has zeroes for the four fiscal years starting with 2015.

Those figures, however, should be considered “placeholder” numbers, Andrew Bieniawski, NNSA assistant deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, said during the press call.

Rumors about a serious blow to the MOX fuel fabrication project had been circulating for weeks, and some observers had said that even if the project were not canceled outright, a dramatic funding cut or slowdown in the schedule would be, as one former NNSA official, “tantamount to killing it.” That is because uncertainty about the future of the project would cause workers to leave for more-certain work elsewhere, he said. During the April 10 call, Miller acknowledged that there would be a “workforce impact,” but said that continuing the project still was an option under serious consideration.

With regard to the effect on the Russian program, Miller said that Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman had spoken with his Russian counterpart the previous day about the current U.S. plans for the program. Since then, the two countries’ lead negotiators on plutonium disposition, Michael Guhin of the United States and Vladimir Kuchinov of Russia, met in Washington on April 25.

The main message that U.S. officials are conveying to the Russians is that the United States has decided to review how it gets rid of plutonium, not whether it does, a U.S. official said in an interview last month. The United States had previously planned to dispose some of its less-pure excess plutonium through nonreactor options, most notably by one of several methods of mixing the plutonium with high-level waste that ultimately would go to a geological repository.

Russia historically has opposed U.S. adoption of that approach for plutonium taken from pits and other relatively pure stocks, arguing that the plutonium could be recovered more easily than if it had been irradiated in a reactor. The U.S. official said that the United States had not agreed with that argument but that initial Russian responses to news of the U.S. review involved “no prejudgment and no rehashing” of previous disagreements.

He also noted that although the current version of the 2000 agreement specifies reactor disposition, it allows in Article III for “any other methods that may be agreed by the Parties in writing.”

In an April 20 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Vladimir Rybachenkov, a former Russian diplomat now with the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies in Moscow, said if the U.S. program “is only slowed down[,] this will not have a serious impact on the Russian one.” He cautioned, however, that a “real problem may pop up” if the United States decides to switch to plutonium vitrification, one of the methods of mixing plutonium with high-level waste.

He said he “strongly” believes that the United States “will take into consideration Russia’s position,” as the 2000 agreement might break down otherwise. He said he believes that both countries “attach great political importance” to the successful implementation of the disposition agreement and “will do their best to reach this goal.”

The Obama administration is planning to slow down—and perhaps eventually stop—construction of the facility that is the centerpiece of the U.S. effort...


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