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"ACA's journal, Arms Control Today, remains the best in the market. Well focused. Solidly researched. Prudent."

– Hans Blix
Former IAEA Director-General
Shannon Bugos

U.S. Continues Stalling on New START

U.S. Continues Stalling on New START The United States and Russia concluded the latest round of their strategic security dialogue June 22 without agreeing to extend the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ), the last remaining arms control agreement limiting their nuclear arsenals. The United States is “leaving all options available” on the future of the treaty, said Special Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea, who led the U.S. delegation at the talks in Vienna, during a June 24 briefing in Brussels. “We are willing to contemplate an extension of that agreement but...

Reaction to White House Nuclear Testing Proposal Strongly Negative

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Volume 12, Issue 4, June 16, 2020

The United States has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992 when a bipartisan congressional majority approved legislation mandating a nine-month nuclear test moratorium. The following year, President Bill Clinton extended the moratorium and launched multilateral negotiations on a global test ban. In 1996, the United States was the first to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which verifiably prohibits all nuclear test explosions of any yield.

Today, the CTBT has 184 signatories but has not formally entered into force due to the failure of the United States, China, and six other hold-out states to ratify the pact. Nevertheless, the treaty has established a global taboo against all nuclear testing. North Korea is the only country believed to have conducted nuclear tests in this century.

Now, the Trump administration is weighing whether to conduct a nuclear test explosion for political signaling purposes. According to a May 22 report by The Washington Post, senior national security officials discussed the option of a demonstration nuclear blast at a May 15 interagency meeting. A senior administration official told The Post that a “rapid test” by the United States could prove useful from a negotiating standpoint as the Trump administration seeks an arms control agreement with Russia and China.

Making matters worse, in a party-line vote June 11, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to authorize $10 million to execute a nuclear test if necessary. Such a test could be conducted in a matter of a few months underground at the former Nevada Test Site outside Las Vegas.

In reality, the first U.S. nuclear test blast in 28 years would do nothing to rein in Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals or improve the environment for negotiations. Rather, it would raise tensions and probably trigger an outbreak of nuclear testing by other nuclear actors, leading to an all-out global arms race in which everyone would come out a loser.

On June 4, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced legislation that would restrict funds for fiscal year 2021 and all previous years from being used for resuming nuclear weapons testing. Markey’s bill, named the Preserving Leadership Against Nuclear Explosives Testing (PLANET) Act, was cosponsored by 14 senators, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Reps. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) introduced companion legislation in the House June 8.

As Congress now works on the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021, members should include a provision that prohibits any funding for a U.S. nuclear test.

The following are excerpts from the growing number of statements against a resumption of U.S. nuclear weapons testing, as well as some additional resources. —SHANNON BUGOS, research assistant

Statements Against Resumption of Nuclear Testing
*updated June 17, 2020

“The United States not only has conducted the largest number of nuclear tests by any country, it also has built over the last 25 years an expansive science-based stewardship program to sustain the reliability and safety of the nuclear weapons stockpile without testing. This is to our advantage. A return to testing by nuclear weapons states, and increased risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons capability to others, would negate this advantage and undermine U.S. and global security.”

—Ernest J. Moniz, former Secretary of Energy, and Sam Nunn, former U.S. Senator (D-Ga.), May 27, 2020

“The possibility that the Trump administration may resume nuclear explosive weapons testing in Nevada is as reckless as it is dangerous. We have not tested a device since 1992; we don’t need to do so now … The Administration reportedly believes a test will help compel Russia or China to come to the negotiating table on a new arms control agreement. This is delusional. A resumption of testing is more likely to prompt other countries to resume militarily significant nuclear testing and undermine our nuclear nonproliferation goals.”

—Joseph Biden, former U.S. vice president, May 28, 2020

“... a U.S. nuclear test would most likely have a very different effect: opening the door for tests by other countries to develop more sophisticated nuclear weapons. A smarter policy would maintain the current moratorium on nuclear testing and ratify and seek to bring into force the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.”

—Amb. Steven Pifer, former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs and special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia on the National Security Council, May 28, 2020

“In general, any actions or activities by any country that violate the international norm against nuclear testing, as underpinned by the CTBT, would constitute a grave challenge to the nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime, as well as to global peace and security more broadly.”

—Dr. Lassina Zerbo, executive secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, May 28, 2020

“Not only could this kick off a new arms race, but other countries would have far more to gain from nuclear testing than the United States. We do not need to resume nuclear testing to ensure the reliability of our nuclear arsenal. Doing so would be expensive and further strain an already over-taxed Energy Department nuclear enterprise.

“Nuclear testing has also killed or sickened thousands of military personnel who were involved in the detonations, as well as civilians who lived on or downrange from the testing sites. These impacted communities are still dealing with the devastating legacy of nuclear testing decades after the U.S. conducted its last nuclear test. A decision to resume U.S. nuclear testing would dishonor their experiences.”

—Letter to Congress from 24 nuclear arms control, environmental, and peace organizations, May 28, 2020

“No. Hell no. Not now. Not ever. Nevada will not be subjected to nuclear bombing again.”

—Editorial Board, Las Vegas Sun, May 31, 2020

“An American test would likely be answered by Russian and Chinese tests, and perhaps by others. Although the United States, Russia, and China have mature arsenals and don’t need the tests to improve design, other countries like India, Pakistan, and North Korea would see an American test as an excuse to improve their designs to fit on smaller missiles. Worst of all would be the signal that the United States is willing to break treaties and brandish the world’s most destructive weapons for political means.”

—Cheryl Rofer, former chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, May 2020

“Especially in the midst of a global pandemic, a resumption of testing is both unjustified and destabilizing, and opens the door to an expensive arms race. We staunchly oppose resurrecting the era of worldwide nuclear testing, especially in light of the unnecessary risks such actions would pose to the American people. The decision to resume nuclear testing is not one that should be taken lightly.”

—Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation Subcommittee, Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), and 23 other members, June 5, 2020

“A return to nuclear testing is not only scientifically and technically unnecessary but also dangerously provocative. It would signal to the world that the U.S. no longer has confidence in the safety, security, and effectiveness of our nuclear weapons. It would needlessly antagonize important allies, cause other countries to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, and prompt adversaries to respond in kind—risking a new nuclear arms race and further undermining the global nonproliferation regime. None of these developments would improve America’s national security or strengthen its position in the world.”

—Letter from U.S. Representative Bill Foster (D-Ill.), U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and a bicameral group of 80 other colleagues urging President Trump not to resume explosive nuclear testing, June 8, 2020

“It is unfathomable that the administration is considering something so short-sighted and dangerous, and that directly contradicts its own 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which this administration often cites as inviolable, makes clear that ‘the United States will not resume nuclear explosive testing unless necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.’”

—Letter to Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and Defense Secretary Mark Esper from House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.); Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.); Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces; Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water; and Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, June 8, 2020

“We have seen firsthand how nuclear weapons testing puts Americans at greater risk for cancer and hurts our livelihoods. This administration should not use our lives as a bargaining chip for a last-ditch attempt at a trilateral arms-control deal with unwilling parties.”

—Jennifer Seelig, former Utah House Minority Leader (D), and Ryan Wilcox, former Utah State Representative (R), June 8, 2020

 “Such [nuclear] tests would bring no military or strategic benefit to the United States. Instead, they would undermine the foundational global agreement that has curbed the spread of nuclear weapons worldwide for more than 50 years, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).”

—Amb. Thomas Graham, former U.S. special representative for arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament, June 10, 2020

Resuming nuclear testing “is not necessary to ensure the continued reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It could also increase threats to U.S. and allied security by giving a green light to other countries, including dangerous proliferators, to conduct nuclear tests of their own…There is no technical reason to resume testing now. The Stockpile Stewardship Program works extraordinarily well in ensuring the reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.”

—William Courtney, former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, Georgia, and the U.S.-Soviet commission to implement the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, and Frank Klotz, former commander of Air Force Global Strike Command and administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, June 10, 2020

“With no stated justification to resume testing, we unequivocally oppose any Administration’s efforts to resume explosive nuclear testing in Nevada. Not only would such an action compromise the health and safety of Nevadans, degrade vital water resources, and harm the surrounding environment, but it would also undermine future stockpile stewardship efforts, undercut our nuclear nonproliferation goals, and further weaken strategic partnerships with our global allies.”

—Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), and Rep. Susie Lee (D-Nev.), June 12, 2020

“As scientists with expertise on nuclear weapons issues, including many with long involvement in the US nuclear weapons program, we strongly oppose the resumption of explosive testing of US nuclear weapons. There is no technical need for a nuclear test. Indeed, statements attributed to administration officials suggest the motivation is that a nuclear explosive test would provide leverage in future nuclear arms control negotiations with Russia and China. ”

—12 former nuclear weapons scientists in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, June 16, 2020

Additional Resources

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The Trump administration is weighing whether to conduct a nuclear test explosion as a negotiating standpoint as it seeks an arms control agreement with Russia and China. Making matters worse, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act to authorize $10 million to execute a nuclear test if necessary.

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Trump Administration Debates Resuming Nuclear Testing

The Trump administration reportedly weighed whether to conduct a nuclear test explosion during a May 15 meeting with national security agencies. The United States has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992, and no other nuclear-armed country besides North Korea has conducted such a test since 1998. If the United States chooses to conduct a nuclear test, it would undoubtedly invite other nuclear-armed countries to do the same and launch a new nuclear arms race. The Washington Post first reported on this meeting on May 22. The administration did not make a final decision, with a senior...

U.S. to Withdraw From Open Skies Treaty


June 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States officially notified its intent to withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, prompting bipartisan opposition in Congress and expressions of regret from U.S. allies.

Danish F-16 fighter aircraft escort a Russian observation aircraft during a flight over Denmark in 20008. (Photo: OSCE)President Donald Trump justified the withdrawal decision on the grounds that Russia was violating the agreement, but he said, “There’s a very good chance we’ll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a May 21 statement that the withdrawal will take effect in six months. “We may, however, reconsider our withdrawal should Russia return to full compliance with the treaty,” Pompeo added.

Pompeo cited Russian noncompliance with the accord as “making continued U.S. participation untenable.” The United States asserts that Russia has violated the agreement by requiring that observation missions over Kaliningrad limit flight paths to 500 kilometers, establishing a 10-kilometer no-fly corridor along Russia’s border with the Georgian border-conflict regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and denying a requested overflight by the United States and Canada in September 2019.

Pompeo also alleged that “Moscow appears to use Open Skies imagery in support of an aggressive new Russian doctrine of targeting critical infrastructure in the United States and Europe with precision-guided conventional munitions.”

Pressed to provide further information on this allegation on May 21, Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said that he was “not at liberty to go into some of the details of why we think that this is a concern.” He then added, “[W]hile not a violation per se, it’s clearly something that is deeply corrosive to the cause of building confidence and trust.”

Asked about what Russia would need to do in order to return to compliance with the treaty, Ford said, “I would say that that’s a fact pattern we’ll have to deal with when we encounter it.”

The Defense Department said in a statement that “we will explore options to provide additional imagery products to Allies to mitigate any gaps that may result from this withdrawal.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the U.S. exit from the agreement in a May 22 statement, calling it “a deplorable development for European security.”

On the U.S. allegation that Russia is using the treaty to gather inappropriate intelligence, the statement said the “charge is being made by the party that insisted from the beginning on opening the entire territory of the participating states (above all, naturally, the [Soviet Union] and later Russia) to observation flights.”

The statement added that Russia’s future participation in the treaty “will be based on its national security interests and in close cooperation with its allies and partners.”

U.S. allies expressed varied responses to the U.S. exit from the treaty, but none of them signaled support for the move or indicated that they plan to follow the United States out of the agreement.

In a joint statement, 11 European countries (Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden) expressed “regret” over the U.S. decision.

“We will continue to implement the Open Skies Treaty, which has a clear added value for our conventional arms control architecture and cooperative security,” they said. “We reaffirm that this treaty remains functioning and useful.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged Russia to return to compliance with the treaty after a May 22 meeting of the North Atlantic Council. He said that the United States withdrew in a manner “consistent with treaty provisions.”

Poland said in a statement that efforts to return Russia to compliance “have proved unsuccessful.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas noted that Germany, along with France, Poland, and the United Kingdom, had previously told Washington that Russian noncompliance concerns did not justify a U.S. withdrawal from the agreement.

Prior to the U.S. decision to withdraw, the Trump administration consulted U.S. allies and other states-parties to the treaty, including by distributing a written questionnaire earlier this year. Throughout the process, allies expressed their support for continued U.S. participation in the treaty. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Several Democratic and Republican members of Congress excoriated the withdrawal decision and accused the administration of breaking the law.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who sits on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, called the Trump administration's move to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty a "dangerous and misguided decision."(Photo: Pete Marovich/Getty Images)“The dangerous and misguided decision to abandon this international agreement cripples our ability to conduct aerial surveillance of Russia, while allowing Russian reconnaissance flights over U.S. bases in Europe to continue,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who sits on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) first sounded the alarm about the Trump administration’s plans to withdraw the United States from the treaty last October. (See ACT, November 2019.) Reacting to the withdrawal announcement, he said that “the president’s reckless plan…directly harms our country’s security and breaks the law in the process.”

The fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act required that the Trump administration notify Congress 120 days before announcing an intent to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, which it failed to do. (See ACT, January/February 2020.)

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that he does “not accept the legitimacy of the administration’s reckless decision.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), chairman of the committee’s strategic forces subcommittee, echoed the legal concerns and called the withdrawal “a slap in the face to our allies in Europe.”

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who represents Offutt Air Force Base, where America’s OC-135B treaty aircraft are based, called the administration’s decision a “mistake.” He also urged that the administration adhere to the requirements in the defense authorization bill.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a longtime treaty critic, voiced support for the withdrawal. He said that he was “particularly heartened” that the United States would now not have to fund the replacement efforts for the two treaty aircraft.

Congress appropriated $41.5 million last year to continue replacement efforts for these aircraft, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper in March told Congress that he halted the funding until a decision on the future of the treaty was made. (See ACT, April 2020.)

Signed in 1992 and entering into force in 2002, the treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities. All imagery collected from overflights is then made available to any of the 34 states-parties.

Since 2002, there have been nearly 200 U.S. overflights of Russia and about 70 overflights conducted by Russia over the United States. Between 2002 and 2019, more than 1,500 flights took place.

 

Citing Russian noncompliance, the Trump administration has triggered the Open Skies Treaty’s withdrawal provision.

U.S., Russia to Meet on Arms Control


June 2020
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States and Russia have agreed to discuss nuclear arms control issues, according to U.S. President Donald Trump’s arms control envoy following a May 8 phone call.

Marshall Billingslea, shown speaking in Latvia in 2019, has been tapped to become undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. He outlined the Trump administration's plans at a May event at the Hudson Institute.  (Photo: Latvian State Chancellery)Marshall Billingslea, whom Trump also has nominated to serve as U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov agreed “to meet, talk about our respective concerns and objectives, and find a way forward to begin negotiations” on a new arms control agreement.

“So, we have settled on a venue, and we are working on an agenda based on the exchange of views that has taken place,” he said.

Billingslea described the conversation during May 21 remarks at a Hudson Institute event in Washington, where he also criticized the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and sketched out some of the Trump administration’s goals for a new trilateral agreement with Russia and China.

New START expires in February 2021 unless Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin agree to extend it by up to five years. Russia stated in December 2019 that it is ready to extend New START without any preconditions, but the Trump administration has yet to make a decision on the treaty’s fate.

“Any potential extension of our existing obligations must be tied to progress towards a new era of arms control,” Billingslea emphasized on May 21. Earlier, in a May 7 interview with The Washington Times, he also stated that the administration wants “to understand why the Russians are so desperate for extension, and we want the Russians to explain to us why this is in our interest to do it.”

New START caps U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed missiles and heavy bombers each. Under its monitoring and verification regime, the treaty allows for short notice, on-site inspections.

Billingslea views the agreement as flawed. “One main failing of New START, among the many problems with it, is that it does not include the Chinese,” he told the newspaper.

Bringing China into nuclear talks would appear to be a challenging task, particularly as China has repeatedly stated that it wants no part in them. Most recently, a Chinese spokesperson told reporters on May 15 that Beijing “has no intention to take part in a trilateral arms control negotiation.” Even Billingslea’s State Department predecessor, Andrea Thompson, said on May 14 “that China’s not going to come to the table before” New START expires next February. “There’s no incentive for them to come to the table,” she said, citing China’s much smaller nuclear arsenal.

But Billingslea insisted that Beijing could be incentivized to negotiate.

“If China wants to be a great power, and we know it has that self-image, it needs to behave like one,” he said May 21. “It should engage us bilaterally and trilaterally with the Russians.”

Billingslea added that “Russia must help bring China to the negotiating table.” Moscow previously said that it
will not try to persuade China to change its position.

He further asserted that the United States would hold Russia to its “public commitments to multilateralizing the next treaty after New START.” Moscow has long said that a future arms control agreement should include additional nuclear-armed states, including U.S. allies France and the United Kingdom.

A new agreement also must include Russia’s large arsenal of nonstrategic nuclear weapons and stronger verification measures than those contained in New START, Billingslea argued.

Billingslea did not say what the United States might be prepared to put on the table in return for limits on additional Russian weapons or concessions from China, nor did he clarify what precisely the administration is seeking from China on arms control.

Russia has frequently raised missile defense as an issue that must be on the table in the next round of arms control talks, but the special envoy said that he did not foresee the United States agreeing to limitations on missile defense.

Billingslea claimed that the United States is in a strong negotiating position and could win a new arms race if necessary.

“We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” he said. “If we have to, we will, but we sure would like to avoid it.”

Russia criticized Billingslea’s May 7 interview with The Washington Times. “The unmistakable impression” is that Billingslea “has not been brought up to speed on his new job,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on May 14.

She also noted that the Trump administration’s desire to include China in arms control talks was “far-fetched.”

Trump and Putin discussed arms control on a May 7 phone call.

“President Trump reaffirmed that the United States is committed to effective arms control that includes not only Russia, but also China, and looks forward to future discussions to avoid a costly arms race,” said the White House in a statement following the call. The statement made no mention of New START.

The Kremlin said in a statement that the two presidents agreed to work to resolve “the urgent problems of our time, including maintaining strategic stability.”

The United States and Russia last held formal talks on strategic security in January. (See ACT, March 2020.)

Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan said on May 5 that Trump had agreed to Russia’s January proposal that the heads of state of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States) hold a summit to discuss a broad range of security topics, including arms control.

“It’s my understanding that the substance and logistics of such a meeting are under consideration,” said Sullivan.

On April 27, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that all parties agreed that the summit “must be face to face.” He added two days later that “the conceptual content” of the summit is in the works.

“There is agreement, an understanding,” Lavrov said, “that it should be devoted to all the key problems of the modern world, strategic stability, and global security in all its dimensions.”

In Washington, Billingslea could be facing a controversial Senate confirmation process before he can officially assume the position to which Trump named him on May 1. Some senators are likely to question his reputation as a critic of arms control and to examine his human rights record. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has not yet scheduled a confirmation hearing.

Billingslea previously served as assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department. He was an adviser to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), an ardent opponent of arms control who opposed U.S. ratification of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In 2019, Trump nominated Billingslea for the top human rights post at the State Department, but his nomination stalled in early 2020 amid concerns about his role in promoting enhanced interrogation techniques that Congress later banned as torture while serving in the Pentagon from 2002 to 2003 during the George W. Bush administration.

 

Officials have agreed on a venue to discuss arms control, but not an agenda.

GAO Seeks Light on Nuclear Cooperation Talks


June 2020
By Shannon Bugos

The U.S. State Department may not have notified Congress regularly about its efforts to negotiate a nuclear energy cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia, raising questions about whether the Trump administration has been as transparent as required, according an April report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry speaks in Washington in November 2019, shortly before he left office. Two months earlier, Perry sent a letter to Saudi energy officials demanding that the nation agree to abstain from nuclear fuel cycle activities in exchange for receiving U.S. technical cooperation.  (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)“State officials stated that they consistently provide information to Congress, but the limited information they provided to us does not support this position,” the GAO report said.

The 1954 Atomic Energy Act (AEA) requires that the State Department, the lead agency for negotiating nuclear cooperation agreements, with assistance from the Energy Department, keep Congress “fully and currently informed of any initiative or negotiations” for those agreements. The GAO report stated that it is “unclear” whether the relevant agencies have done so in the case of Saudi Arabia.

The GAO determined that formal negotiations on a 123 agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia took place in 2012 and March 2018. Named after the section of the AEA requiring it, a 123 agreement sets the terms and authorizes cooperation for sharing U.S. peaceful nuclear energy technology, equipment, and materials with other countries.

The auditors identified eight further interactions in which the two countries discussed nuclear cooperation and another five interactions in which a discussion was likely. These additional interactions include bilateral meetings in Washington and Riyadh throughout 2018 and 2019 and a September 2019 letter from U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry to his Saudi counterpart, parts of which Bloomberg reported on at the time. (See ACT, October 2019.)

The GAO requested information from the State and Energy departments, as well as the National Security Council and National Nuclear Security Administration. But the report stated that, “[o]verall, the agencies provided us with limited information in response to some categories we requested and did not provide information in other categories.” Furthermore, the exact roles played by these various agencies in the U.S.-Saudi negotiations “remain unclear” because the GAO did not receive “information to clarify or corroborate such roles.”

Saudi Arabia solicited bids in 2017 from companies in China, France, Russia, South Korea, and the United States for its first two nuclear power reactors, but the kingdom has yet to award a contract. Riyadh plans to build 16 nuclear power reactors over the next 20 to 25 years at a cost of more than $80 billion. (See ACT, April 2018.)

When contacted by the GAO for information specifically on dates or details of congressional briefings on U.S.-Saudi nuclear cooperation negotiations, the Energy Department did not respond, and only after reviewing a draft of the GAO report in January 2020 did the State Department provide a list of briefings more broadly on U.S. nuclear cooperation initiatives since 2013. Still, “State officials declined to discuss the details of any congressional briefings” with the GAO, leaving the office unable to “establish the extent and substance of information the agencies provided to Congress on U.S.-Saudi nuclear cooperation negotiations.”

Of the information that was provided to the GAO, neither the State nor Energy departments “provided documentation within the time frame of our review to support” their claims that they kept Congress informed of U.S.-Saudi negotiations. In order to receive any information, current and former congressional staff interviewed by the GAO said that they learned of developments in the negotiations from the media or representatives of the nuclear industry. One former congressional staff committee member told the GAO that, “since late 2017, the agencies have only provided information to Congress about the negotiations in response to forceful measures, such as holds on nominations or legislation.”

The GAO said that U.S.-Saudi negotiations on a nuclear cooperation agreement have stalled due to two main unresolved issues.

First, Saudi Arabia has not agreed to sign an additional protocol to its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement. A party to the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Riyadh has had a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA since 2009, but has not signed an additional protocol, which provides the IAEA with a broader range of information on nuclear and nuclear-related activities. The fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act included a provision that countries that want to sign a 123 agreement with the United States must first sign and implement an additional protocol.

Second, Saudi Arabia has not agreed to U.S. demands to refrain from enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium, politically and militarily sensitive activities that can be used to make nuclear weapons. (See ACT, December 2019.) The report also said that the United States might be “willing to accept a temporary restriction on enrichment and reprocessing in its negotiations with Saudi Arabia.”

In addition, the GAO report stated that Saudi Arabia has been resisting nonproliferation conditions required by the AEA, which lists a total of nine nonproliferation conditions in Section 123. Although “Saudi officials accepted ‘the vast majority’ of the conditions” in the 2012 negotiations, the report said, the areas of disagreement from 2012 “remained unresolved as of January 2020.”

The GAO report ultimately recommends that Congress eliminate broad interpretations of the AEA’s requirement to keep Congress fully informed by amending the act to “require regularly scheduled briefings, for instance, on a quarterly basis, and specify expectations for the content of such briefings” on nuclear cooperation initiatives and negotiations. The report also recommends that the secretary of state commit to holding those regularly scheduled, substantive congressional briefings.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and committee member Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) requested this GAO report in March 2019. Following the report’s release, the senators said that “it is clear Congress must reassert its critical role in reviewing nuclear cooperation agreements to ensure these agreements do not pose an unnecessary risk to the United States.”

The Government Accountability Office reports that the Trump administration has failed to provide Congress with regular information.

Panel Vets U.S. Plutonium Disposal Plan


June 2020
By Shannon Bugos

The U.S. plan to dilute and dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium at the deep-underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico is technically viable so long as the Energy Department addresses certain concerns, according to a top-level scientific review released April 30.

Workers prepare machinery used to move nuclear waste into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. A technical review found that a U.S. plan to store surplus plutonium at the site is conditionally viable. (Photo: Kelly Michals/Flickr)The dilute-and-dispose process replaced the controversial mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel program, which was designed to turn the surplus material into fuel for civilian power reactors but ran into major cost increases and schedule delays. Since 2014, the Energy Department has sought to end the MOX fuel program in favor of the cheaper process of dilution and disposal, which blends down the plutonium with an inert material for direct disposal at WIPP.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine determined that the dilute-and-dispose process provided “a technically viable disposition alternative to the MOX [fuel] plan, provided that implementation challenges and system vulnerabilities that currently exist within the plan are resolved.” The determination was based on the success of earlier demonstrations of the individual steps of the dilute-and-dispose process through other Energy Department programs.

In 2018, the National Nuclear Security Administration estimated that the process would cost $19.9 billion, or 40 percent of the $49.4 billion cost of continuing the MOX fuel program.

For fiscal year 2020, Congress appropriated $220 million for the Energy Department to close down the program. (See ACT, May 2019.) The Trump administration has requested $149 million for fiscal year 2021 to continue the dilute-and-dispose program.—SHANNON BUGOS

Panel Vets U.S. Plutonium Disposal Plan

U.S. to Withdraw from Open Skies Treaty | U.S.-Russian Nuclear Arms Control Watch, May 27, 2020

U.S. to Withdraw from Open Skies Treaty The United States officially gave notice of its intent to withdraw from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty in May, prompting bipartisan opposition in Congress and expressions of regret from U.S. allies. President Trump justified the withdrawal decision on the grounds that Russia was violating the agreement, but he said , “There’s a very good chance we’ll make a new agreement or do something to put that agreement back together.” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in a May 21 statement that the withdrawal will take effect in six months. “We may, however,...

Welcome to the New Home for Project for the CTBT!

The Project for the CTBT first emerged when the Obama administration stated that it would pursue the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ( CTBT ). “To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty,” President Barack Obama said in Prague in April 2009. Unfortunately, the treaty’s ratification by the United States has yet to pass. The purpose of the Project for the CTBT is to provide the public and policymakers with sound information and analysis about the treaty so as to...

Responses to Audience Questions from April 29 New START Briefing

Top former U.S. administration officials last week expressed support for a five-year extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty ( New START ), the last remaining arms control agreement between the United States and Russia that is set to expire in February 2021. “Put me down in the column of extension, and the reason for that is the clock is running,” said Admiral (ret.) Michael Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during an April 29 event hosted by the Arms Control Association. Rose Gottemoeller, lead U.S. negotiator for the treaty, and Lt. Gen. (ret.) Frank...

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