"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
December 2019

Arms Control Today December 2019

Edition Date: 
Sunday, December 1, 2019
Cover Image: 

Nuclear False Warnings and the Risk of Catastrophe

December 2019
By Daryl G. Kimball

Forty years ago, on Nov. 9, the U.S. Defense Department detected an imminent nuclear attack against the United States through the early-warning system of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). U.S. bomber and missile forces went on full alert, and the emergency command post, known as the “doomsday plane,” took to the air.

Former Titan II Missile in its silo, Sahuarita, Arizona. Source: The Titan Missile Museum.At 3 a.m., National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was awakened by a call from his military assistant. He was told that NORAD computers were reporting that 2,200 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States. According to Brzezinski, just one minute before he planned to call President Jimmy Carter to recommend an immediate U.S. nuclear retaliatory response, word came through that the NORAD message was a false alarm caused by software simulating a Soviet missile attack that was inexplicably transferred into the live warning system at the command’s headquarters.

The 1979 incident was one of the most dangerous false alarms of the nuclear age, but it was not the first or the last. Within months, three more U.S. system malfunctions set off the U.S. early-warning systems.

The Soviet Union also experienced false alarms. On Sept. 26, 1983, a newly installed early-warning system erroneously signaled that the United States had launched a small salvo of missiles toward the Soviet Union. Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, the officer in charge that night, would later report that he defied standard military protocol and refused to pass the alert to Moscow because “when people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles.”

On Jan. 25, 1995, a large weather rocket launched off the coast of Norway created the appearance on Russian radars of an initial phase of a U.S. nuclear attack. Russian President Boris Yeltsin reported that the launch prompted him to activate Russia’s mobile nuclear command system.

Although the Cold War standoff that gave rise to massive U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals ended decades ago, the nuclear strategies that could lead to the firing of hundreds of nuclear weapons remain susceptible to false alarms.

Today, each side deploys some 1,400 strategic nuclear warheads on hundreds of sea- and land-based missiles and long-range bombers—far greater than is necessary to deter an attack and more than enough to produce catastrophic devastation. Each side maintains hundreds of warheads that can be fired within minutes of a launch order from the president, and both leaders retain the option to retaliate before they confirm that nuclear weapons have been detonated on their territory. These dangerous launch-under-attack postures perpetuate the risk that false alarms could trigger a massive nuclear exchange.

Complicating matters, Washington and Moscow each reserve the option to employ nuclear weapons first in a crisis or conventional conflict. Each possesses hundreds of so-called tactical nuclear bombs, which produce relatively smaller explosive yields, for use on the battlefield. Both sides regularly conduct drills and exercises involving their respective nuclear forces.

Today, U.S. and Russian leaders have a responsibility to pursue immediate and decisive actions to reduce these grave risks. To start, they should invite all nuclear-armed states to affirm the 1985 pledge made by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Given the risks of escalation, no plausible circumstance could justify legally, morally, or militarily the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat. All nuclear-armed states should announce policies that rule out the first use of nuclear weapons and the use of nuclear weapons before nuclear use on their soil has been confirmed.

In fact, the dangerous launch-under-attack policies of the United States and Russia are unnecessary because a large portion of their nuclear forces could withstand even a massive attack. Given the size, accuracy, and diversity of their forces, the remaining nuclear force would be more than sufficient to deliver a devastating blow to any nuclear aggressor.

Another key line of defense against nuclear catastrophe is dialogue. Washington and Moscow can and should resume a regular military and political dialogue on strategic stability. Such talks can avoid miscalculation over issues such as the use or nonuse of cyberattacks against nuclear command-and-control systems, missile defense capabilities and doctrine, nuclear launch exercises, and more. Similar talks with China should also be pursued.

Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin also should promptly agree to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) by five years, as allowed by the treaty, and begin talks on a follow-on deal to set lower limits on all types of nuclear weaponry. Without the treaty, which expires in 2021, there would be no legally binding, verifiable limits on the world’s largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972; and the likelihood of a dangerous, all-out nuclear arms race would grow.

We were lucky the false alarms of the Cold War did not trigger nuclear war. Because we may not be so lucky in the future, our leaders must act now to take the steps necessary to reduce and eliminate the nuclear danger.

Forty years ago, on Nov. 9, the U.S. Defense Department detected an imminent nuclear attack against the United States through the early-warning system of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

The Decision to End U.S. Nuclear Testing

December 2019
By Frank N. von Hippel

Today, for the first time since the beginning of the nuclear age, none of the world’s nuclear-armed states is conducting nuclear test explosions. After more than 2,000 detonations, the world’s nuclear test sites are dormant. The journey that brought us to this point has been long, and there have been some key turning points and some particularly important decision-makers who have steered us away from nuclear testing and the arms racing and environmental contamination it produces.

The "Icecap" test of a UK nuclear warhead was readied at the Nevada Test Site in the spring of 1993, but never conducted.  (Photo: National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office Photo Library)When U.S. President Bill Clinton took office in January 1993, one of the first issues he confronted was the future of U.S. nuclear testing. At the time, Congress was firmly in Democratic control, and the Democrats had been pressing the resistant Reagan and Bush administrations to agree to end U.S. nuclear testing if other countries, especially Russia, did as well.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had declared a nuclear test moratorium starting on August 6, 1985.1 Despite a lack of reciprocation from the Reagan administration, the Soviet moratorium had a substantial impact on Western public opinion, and Gorbachev extended it through 1986 before pressure from the Soviet military forced him to allow resumed testing.

Public pressure against nuclear testing in Kazakhtan, however, where the Soviets conducted the majority of their nuclear tests, was growing. After an underground test vented at the Semipalitinsk test site in Kazakhstan in February 1989, public outrage grew further, forcing the shutdown of the site.2 Soviet nuclear testing shifted to the Arctic site on the island of Novaya Zemlya, but in the face of international protests, only one more test, on October 24, 1990, was conducted there.

A year later, in October 1991, just before the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev announced another year-long testing moratorium.3 His successor, President Boris Yeltsin, confirmed the extension of the moratorium and called again for the United States to reciprocate.4

In response, Democratic and Republican members of Congress introduced legislation to halt U.S. nuclear testing for one year, which gained momentum and, with some modifications, was approved in October 1992 and very reluctantly signed into law by President George H.W. Bush.

The Hatfield-Exon-Mitchell Amendment

The test moratorium law resulted from the Hatfield-Exon-Mitchell amendment to the fiscal year 1993 energy appropriations bill. The amendment was sponsored by Senator Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), a liberal who had, as a Navy lieutenant, visited Hiroshima a month after the nuclear bombing on August 6, 1945; Senator James Exon (D-Neb.), a moderate serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee; and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine).

The law suspended U.S. nuclear testing for nine months and required a complete halt of U.S. nuclear testing by September 30, 1996, if other countries had stopped testing by then. Clinton adopted that as a goal, and after more than two years of intensive multilateral negotiations at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was opened for signature on September 24, 1996, with Clinton and 65 other national leaders signing on the first day.5 Since that time, only three nations have tested: India and Pakistan in May 1998 and North Korea (six tests between 2006 and 2017).

The road to the signing ceremony was a bumpy one. One of the most important issues in the U.S. internal policymaking process was how the safety and reliability of U.S. nuclear warheads would be maintained in the absence of testing.

The Hatfield-Exon-Mitchell amendment recognized that problem and allowed up to 15 tests before September 30, 1996, for fixes of specific safety and reliability problems. It also allowed up to three of these tests to be conducted with the United Kingdom, which had no test site of its own, if the UK had a problem with an existing warhead type that needed fixing.6

The “physics packages” of all U.S. nuclear warheads have been designed by two Department of Energy laboratories, the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories, located in New Mexico and California, respectively. The associated electronic controls for the warheads are designed and procured by the Sandia National Laboratories, which has sites near both of the weapons physics labs. These three weapons laboratories therefore had to recommend whether any tests were required before the United States ended testing and, if so, bring them for approval to the secretary of energy.

O’Leary and Her Own Review

In the spring of 1993, Hazel O’Leary, Clinton’s newly confirmed energy secretary, was asked to sign off on 15 nuclear tests, the maximum allowed by the law: six for Livermore, six for Los Alamos, and three for the United Kingdom.7 Much to the astonishment of her staff, however, O’Leary did not agree immediately. She said she needed to learn more about the issues involved.

U.S. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary (center) visits Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1994 with laboratory director Alvin Trivelpiece (left) and Representative Marilyn Lloyd (D-Tenn., right). After reviewing arguments from a range of experts in 1993, O'Leary concluded that explosive nuclear testing was not needed to ensure the safety and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons. (Photo: Energy Department)Despite the fact that the production and maintenance of nuclear weapons and the environmental cleanup of past plutonium production for weapons accounted for two-thirds of the Energy Department’s budget, O’Leary, like most of her predecessors, had no nuclear weapons background. She had a law degree and had been a prosecutor and an assistant attorney general in New Jersey. She moved to Washington and joined the Carter administration, ending up as administrator of the Economic Regulatory Administration within the Energy Department. During the Reagan administration, she served as executive vice president of Northern States Power, a public utility in Minnesota that operated a two-unit nuclear power plant. O’Leary is a black woman, and it was widely believed that one of the reasons that Clinton selected her as his energy secretary was because she increased the diversity of his cabinet.

O’Leary also turned out to be a strong-willed activist. Among her achievements as energy secretary was the Openness Initiative, which reversed the culture of secrecy that the department had inherited from the Atomic Energy Commission.8 She also launched the Lab-to-Lab Initiative under which the U.S. national nuclear laboratories helped their Russian counterparts strengthen the security of nuclear materials in their newly open country.

After the Republicans took control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, however, they demonized O’Leary so effectively for her costly overseas travel that Time magazine included her in its list of 10 worst cabinet members ever.9 Clinton chose a new energy secretary for his second term.

Before she was nominated to become energy secretary, I had met O’Leary once at a dinner. Either because of that dinner or because I had written an anti-testing memo that Dan Ellsberg, then a nuclear arms control activist living in Washington, had distributed to incoming members of the Clinton administration, or perhaps both, in the spring of 1993, I was invited to a meeting that had been organized to inform O’Leary about the issues that she would have to weigh in her decision on whether to approve the tests proposed by the weapons laboratories.

The associate directors responsible for nuclear weapons at Los Alamos and Livermore presented the proposed tests.10 They were accompanied by their laboratory directors.11 Al Narath, the Sandia director, was there, as was Victor Reis, the Pentagon’s director of defense research and engineering, who would soon transfer to the Energy Department as assistant director for defense programs, i.e., for nuclear weapons.

Three other outsiders also had been invited: James Schlesinger, who had been assistant director of the Bureau of the Budget, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, CIA director, and secretary of defense under President Richard Nixon and later served as the first energy secretary for President Jimmy Carter; Sidney Drell, a Stanford physicist who had been for decades a high-level government advisor on nuclear weapons issues and had chaired a 1990 congressionally commissioned panel on nuclear warhead safety;12 and Ray Kidder, a retired Livermore nuclear weapons expert who had written reports on warhead safety and reliability for test ban supporters in Congress, rebutting the arguments being made by the nuclear weapons laboratories against a nuclear test ban.13 Very conscious of the limitations of my own expertise with regard to nuclear weapons design, I had suggested that Kidder be invited. (I had not had a clearance until the Energy Department gave me one for the O’Leary meeting.)

One of the associate lab directors who presented the proposed tests recalled them as being for “IHE [insensitive high explosive] warheads that were suitable for the Navy systems…a Stockpile Confidence test for each system currently in the stockpile, and for tests that optimized warhead performance margins and manufacturability (that was the idea behind RRW [Reliable Replacement Warhead]), tests to elucidate holes in our basic physics understanding and some tests having to do with shortfalls in our understanding of potential proliferant devices.”14

A specialist examines the remnants of nuclear test measurement facilities at the Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan in 2011. Kazakh anti-nuclear activists built public pressure to end Soviet testing in the 1980s, enabling U.S. and Soviet leaders to begin negotiating a global ban on tests. (Photo: Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP/Getty Images)Reliable Replacement Warheads. One of the arguments the labs had made was that, despite the fact that a test ban had been a high-priority U.S. objective since the Eisenhower administration, U.S. warheads were so highly refined to have the highest possible yield-to-weight ratio that they could not be kept operational without testing. They argued that, in contrast, Russian warheads, with their lower yield-to-weight ratios, would fare better under a test ban. They therefore wanted to design Reliable Replacement Warheads whose designs would have larger “margins” between success and failure. This idea was pursued until 200815 by which time, most in the U.S. nuclear weapons establishment had concluded that the existing tested designs were well enough understood that confidence in their reliability could be maintained indefinitely without testing. Also, the performance margins of the fission “primaries,” the part of the warhead whose reliability is of the greatest concern, have been made larger by increasing the amount of tritium-deuterium fusion “boost” gas injected into the hollow plutonium pit just before implosion.16

Insensitive high explosive. Designs with IHE have become a persistent part of the debate over the current U.S. nuclear stockpile. The concern is not about the possibility of a nuclear explosion as a result of the chemical explosive around the plutonium pit being detonated in a crash or by a terrorist’s bullet. U.S. nuclear weapons are designed to be “one-point safe.” If a detonation starts in only one point in the chemical explosive, the pit will not be imploded symmetrically enough to become supercritical. In fact, the high explosives in U.S. nuclear bombs have gone off in a number of crashes with no nuclear yield.17

Some accidents, however, have dispersed plutonium, which is highly carcinogenic if inhaled. The most famous such accident occurred over Spain in 1966, when a B-52 bomber carrying four multimegaton bombs collided with its refueling tanker. The chemical explosives in two of the bombs detonated on impact with the ground and dispersed plutonium over fields near the village of Palomares. Sixteen hundred young U.S. military men were brought in for a cleanup operation that took almost three months amid worldwide attention.18

To reduce the chances for such accidents, all U.S. nuclear bombs and cruise missile warheads now have IHE. Three of the four ballistic missile warheads in the U.S. “enduring” stockpile do not: the W-78, the older of the two warhead types on Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and the W-76 and W-88, the warhead types on the Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). In 2018, the Nuclear Weapons Council, a joint organization of the Defense and Energy departments, decided to replace the ICBM warhead, the W-78, with a variant of the more modern ICBM warhead, the W87, which contains IHE.19

The Navy, which has not had a plutonium-dispersal accident, has been resistant to IHE because it could result in an increase in the weight and size of its warheads, decreasing the range of its missiles20 and requiring new reentry vehicles.21 The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency within the Energy Department that is responsible for nuclear weapons, expects to complete a refurbishment life extension program (LEP) of the W-76 warhead in 2019 and is expected to begin an LEP of the W-88 in 2020, both with conventional high explosive.22 The NNSA states, however, that the W87-1 with IHE that it is developing to replace the W78 ICBM warhead may be adapted as well to be used on the Trident II inside the Mk-5 reentry body, which currently holds the W88.23

The Hatfield-Exon-Mitchell amendment set quite stringent standards of justification for nuclear test explosions designed to improve warhead safety and reliability. For safety tests, it required that the test be of the addition of a specific safety feature to an existing warhead. The only new safety feature that the labs were proposing was IHE in the SLBM warheads, but the Navy had vetoed those changes. For a reliability test, the law required that “the President certifies to Congress that it is vital to the national security interests of the United States to test the reliability of such a nuclear weapon.” It did not appear that the labs had specific concerns about the reliability of any of their weapons.

At the spring 1993 meeting convened by O’Leary, Kidder and I therefore expressed skepticism about the technical justifications for the different tests that were being proposed.

Political concerns. Drell and Schlesinger focused on more political concerns that cut in the other direction. Drell believed that it was politically necessary to carry out the tests to get the support of the lab directors for the ratification of a CTBT, which was a high priority for the Clinton administration. Negotiations in the CD began the following year, 1994, and were completed in 1996.

Ratification of a treaty requires that two-thirds of the Senate vote in favor. When the Senate finally held its ratification vote in 1999, however, the Clinton administration failed to obtain even a majority vote for the CTBT. Control of both houses of Congress had shifted to the Republican Party, and 50 of the 54 Republicans and one independent senator voted against it.

Uncertainty about the ability of the labs to keep U.S. warheads safe and reliable without testing was only one of the issues raised by the treaty opponents. They were also skeptical about the verifiability of the treaty and about claims that it would strengthen the nonproliferation regime.

Republican hard-liners led by Senator Jon Kyl (Ariz.) felt that the United States would comply with the treaty while other countries would not and that U.S. national security would be reduced as a result. Kyl mounted a secret campaign to get his fellow Republican senators to commit in advance to vote against the treaty, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) limited the time for hearings and debate to a period too short for CTBT supporters to mobilize public opinion.24

Subsequently, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed the technical issues that had been raised and concluded that the benefits of a CTBT in constraining further developments of nuclear weapons far outweighed any advances that might be achieved by very low-yield clandestine tests.25

Schlesinger had a different political concern in 1993. He wanted to allow the UK to test. He argued that, in that case, the United States should test as well. “Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb,” he said. He did not explain why he felt so strongly about the UK being able to test. Possibly it had to do with the fact that preparations had been made for a joint Los Alamos/UK test of the single UK warhead type scheduled for that spring. The test, called Icecap, involved cooling down a ballistic missile warhead with dry ice to see whether the cooling that would occur during its transit in space would affect its performance. A hole eight feet in diameter and 1,600 feet deep had been drilled, and a rack loaded with instruments was in place hanging in the tower above the hole, ready to be lowered as soon as the warhead was hung from its bottom. The tower, rack, and hole are still there, now a tourist attraction.26

After the presentation of the proposed tests, it must have been clear that O’Leary was not convinced. The lab directors could have tried to go over her head to the National Security Council (NSC) or to Congress to get their tests, but given that Clinton was pro-CTBT, as were the large Democratic majorities in both houses
of Congress, they would have had an uphill battle.

At that point, my recollection is that Narath said to O’Leary, in effect, “[I]f you give us as much funding for not testing as you have been giving us for testing, we could see it your way.”

Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship

This was the origin of the science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP), which Reis developed in partnership with the labs’ leaderships. I have been told that it was not smooth sailing when O’Leary presented to the NSC her conclusion that there was no need for safety or reliability tests. The defense secretary, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state all lined up on the other side of the issue, but the president sided with O’Leary.

On July 3, in his weekly radio address, Clinton announced

After a thorough review, my administration has determined that the nuclear weapons in the United States arsenal are safe and reliable…. Additional nuclear tests could help us prepare for a test ban and provide for some additional improvements in safety and reliability. However, the price we would pay in conducting these tests now by undercutting our own nonproliferation goals and ensuring that other nations would resume testing outweighs these benefits.27

He added, “If, however, this moratorium is broken by another nation, I will direct the Department of Energy to prepare to conduct additional tests while seeking approval to so from Congress.”

Two months later, I joined the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as assistant director for national security and found Bob Bell, a former aide to Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who had joined the Clinton administration NSC, enforcing on the Office of Management and Budget a minimum budget of $3.6 billion per year for the Energy Department’s weapons program with instructions that the labs should have great freedom on how to spend the money. The directors of the three national labs each specified investments in the capabilities of their labs that would be essential to their support of a CTBT.28

The most expensive of the resulting lab projects was Livermore’s $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility (NIF), which has 192 huge lasers delivering up to two megajoules of energy, about the amount of energy released by a half kilogram of chemical explosive, to implode millimeter-radius spherical pellets of frozen deuterium and tritium.

Although NIF has not achieved its goal of igniting the fuel to produce more energy than the lasers put in,29 it gave Livermore, which some in the Clinton administration considered redundant in the post-Cold War era, a lifeline for its continued existence.

Other investments were more successful. Notably, Los Alamos and Livermore invested in cutting-edge computers and used massive parallel processing to achieve ever more fine-grained simulations of implosions that could be tested against experiments at NIF and subcritical plutonium implosions.30 As a result of this stockpile stewardship, it has been possible for a complex, multifaceted review process to continue to certify that each weapon type in the U.S. stockpile is safe and reliable, would perform after being exposed the conditions of delivery, and would be militarily effective and that therefore no tests are required.31

Figure 1 shows the Energy Department weapons budget in constant 2016 dollars. It can be seen that the post-Cold War decline ended in 1995 with the launch of the SSP and that today the spending level is well above Cold War levels despite the fact that the number of operational weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile has declined by about 80 percent since the end of the Cold War and no new designs have been introduced. It would be unfair to blame all this budget growth on the SSP. It is in part a manifestation of the broader dysfunction of the NNSA and perhaps to some degree that the labs are now run by profit-seeking consortia.

China Tests

Almost immediately after I took up my position in the Clinton administration in September 1993, I learned that U.S. reconnaissance satellites had detected preparations for a test on China’s test site. I recalled Clinton’s July 3 warning if the moratorium was broken by another nation. I wrote a passionate memo to the president’s science advisor urging that this threat not be implemented. If the United States resumed testing, so would Russia and, with our permission, the UK. This would undercut our effort to extend the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) indefinitely in 1995. Through an intermediary, I also sent an email to Hu Side, the head of the China Academy of Engineering Physics, China’s nuclear weapons laboratory, urging him not to proceed with the test. I knew him in an earlier incarnation, when he had launched in 1988 the biennial Beijing Seminars on International Security, to which experts from around the world were invited to discuss the dangers from nuclear weapons and how to reduce them.

China’s first of eight nuclear tests took place on October 5, 1993, with the last on July 29, 1996, two months before the CTBT opened for signature. France, recognizing that the end of nuclear testing was approaching, also decided to conduct a final test series of six tests in 1995 and 1996. Yet, the United States, Russia, and the UK did not test.

To date, of the 44 states whose ratifications are required to bring the CTBT into force, 36 have ratified. The missing eight ratifications are from China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, and the United States, which have signed but not ratified, and India, North Korea, and Pakistan, which have not signed or ratified. Among nuclear-weapon states recognized under the NPT, France, Russia, and the UK have ratified.32

It is likely that the other nonratifying states would ratify if the United States did, but the political conditions for that to happen are clearly not in sight today. Nevertheless, the actions of Kazakhstani anti-testing activists and the decisions made by Russian and U.S. leaders some three decades ago set us on course to end testing and establish a de facto global nuclear test moratorium that has strengthened international peace and security.



1. Seth Mydans, “Soviet to Stop Atomic Tests; It Bids U.S. Do Same,” The New York Times, July 30, 1985.

2. “Kazakhs Stop Nuclear Testing (Nevada-Semipalatinsk Antinuclear Campaign), 1989-1991,” Global Nonviolent Action Database, n.d., https://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/printpdf/content/kazakhs-stop-nuclear-testing-nevada-semipalatinsk-antinuclear-campaign-1989-1991.

3. Fred Hiatt, “Gorbachev Pledges Wide-Ranging Nuclear Cuts,” The Washington Post, October 6, 1991.

4. Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), “The Soviet Union’s Nuclear Testing Programme,” n.d., https://www.ctbto.org/nuclear-testing/the-effects-of-nuclear-testing/the-soviet-unionsnuclear-testing-programme/.

5. “1996: CTBT; A Long-Sought Success,” CTBTO, n.d., https://www.ctbto.org/the-treaty/1993-1996-treaty-negotiations/1996-ctbt-a-long-sought-success/.

6. Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 1993, Pub. L. No. 102–377, 106 Stat. 1315, § 507.

7. There may have been tests of more than 15 devices proposed. The labs sometimes tested more than one nuclear device simultaneously in a borehole and counted them as a single test.

8. Steven Aftergood, “Openness and Secrecy at the Department of Energy After the China Espionage Investigations,” F.A.S. Public Interest Report, Vol. 53, No. 1 (January/February 2000), https://fas.org/faspir/v53n1a.htm. See “The Openness Initiative,” C-Span, May 18, 1994, https://www.c-span.org/video/?56881-1/openness-initiative (video of Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary’s press conference).

9. “Energy Chief’s Travel Comes Under Scrutiny,” Associated Press, December 11, 1995; “Top 10 Worst Cabinet Members,” Time, n.d., http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1858691_1858690_1858654,00.html.

10. They were George H. Miller, associate director for defense and nuclear technologies at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and John D. Immele, associate director for nuclear weapons at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

11. They were Sigfried Hecker, director of Los Alamos, and John H. Nuckolls, director of Livermore.

12. Panel on Nuclear Weapons Safety of the Committee on Armed Services, Nuclear Weapons Safety, H.R. Doc. No. 101–15 (1990), https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31210014946048;view=1up;seq=1.

13. R.E. Kidder, “Maintaining the U.S. Stockpile of Nuclear Weapons During a Low-Threshold or Comprehensive Test Ban,” UCRL-53820, October 1987, https://fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/testing/kidderucrl53820.pdf; R.E. Kidder, “Report to Congress: Assessment of the Safety of U.S. Nuclear Weapons and Related Nuclear Test Requirements,” UCRL-LR-107454, July 26, 1991, https://fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/testing/kidderucrllr107454.pdf; R.E. Kidder, “Assessment of the Safety of U.S. Nuclear Weapons and Related Nuclear Test Requirements: A Post-Bush Initiative Update,” UCRL-LR-109503, December 10, 1991, https://fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/testing/kidderucrllr109503.pdf.

14. George H. Miller, email to author, January 30, 2019.

15. Jeffrey Lewis, “After the Reliable Replacement Warhead: What’s Next for the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal?” Arms Control Today, December 2008.

16. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Technical Issues Related to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2002); NAS, The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: Technical Issues for the United States (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2012), p. 31. The fissioning plutonium would heat the boost gas up to fusion temperatures at which point the reaction D+T→Helium-4 + neutron would produce additional neutrons that boost the rate of fission.

17. U.S. Department of Defense, “Narrative Summaries of Accidents Involving U.S. Nuclear Weapons, 1950-1980,” n.d., https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=26994.

18. Tad Szulc, “Nuclear Accident Bewilders Spanish Farmers; Tomato Crop Left in Fields at Palomares Because of Fear of Radioactivity,” The New York Times, February 1, 1966; Dave Philipps, “Decades Later, Sickness Among Airmen After a Hydrogen Bomb Accident,” The New York Times, June 19, 2016.

19. U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), “W78 Replacement Program (W87-1): Cost Estimates and Use of Insensitive High Explosives; Report to Congress,” December 2018, https://nukewatch.org/newsite/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/W78-Replacement-Program-Cost-Estimates-IHE-1.pdf.

20. John R. Harvey and Stefan Michalowski, “Nuclear Weapons Safety: The Case of Trident,” Science and Global Security, Vol. 4 (1994), pp. 261–337.

21. Futhermore, the propellant in the third stage of the Trident D-5 missile is Class 1.1, which means that it could detonate in a fall or fire and could detonate even insensitive high explosive warheads as a result.

22. NNSA, “Fiscal Year 2019 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan - Biennial Plan Summary: Report to Congress,” DOE/NA-0072, October 2018, p. i.

23. NNSA, “W87-1 Modification Program,” March 2019, https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2019/03/f60/2019-03-08-FACTSHEET-W87-1.pdf.

24. Daryl Kimball, “What Went Wrong: Repairing the Damage to the CTBT,” Arms Control Today, December 1999; Terry Diebel, “Death of a Treaty,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2002.

25. NAS, Technical Issues Related to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty; NAS, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

26. “Icecap,” Nevada National Security Site, August 2013, https://www.nnss.gov/docs/fact_sheets/DOENV_1212.pdf.

27. “Presidential Radio Address - 3 July 1993,” https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Presidential_Radio_Address_-_3_July_1993 (accessed September 13, 2012).

28. Los Alamos required the Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility, which allowed test implosions of plutonium inside a containment sphere with X-ray movies of the implosions from two angles. Sandia required the Microsystems Science and Applications complex. Richard Garwin, communication with author, May 5, 2019.

29. Daniel Clery, “Giant U.S. Fusion Laser Might Never Achieve Goal, Report Concludes,” Science, June 21, 2016.

30. Victor H. Reis, Robert J. Hanrahan, and W. Kirk Levedahl, “The Big Science of Stockpile Stewardship,” Physics Today, August 2016, pp. 46–53.

31. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Nuclear Weapons: Annual Assessment of the Safety, Performance, and Reliability of the Nation’s Stockpile,” GAO-07-243R, February 2, 2007, https://www.gao.gov/assets/100/94668.pdf.

32. Preparatory Commission of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, “Status of Signature and Ratification,” n.d., https://www.ctbto.org/the-treaty/status-of-signature-and-ratification/ (accessed April 28, 2019).


Frank N. von Hippel is a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security.

An insider’s account of the issues and arguments debated by the key policymakers who finally halted U.S. nuclear weapons testing in 1993.

REMARKS: Nuclear Disarmament is Possible and Necessary

December 2019
By Pope Francis

Dear Brothers and Sisters, this place makes us deeply aware of the pain and horror that we human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another. The damaged cross and statue of Our Lady recently discovered in the Cathedral of Nagasaki remind us once more of the unspeakable horror suffered in the flesh by the victims of the bombing and their families.

Pope Francis stands in front of the Memorial Cenotaph as he observes a minute of silence in memory of the victims of the Hiroshima atomic bomb during his visit to the Peace Memorial Park on November 24. (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)One of the deepest longings of the human heart is for security, peace and stability. The possession of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction is not the answer to this desire. Indeed, they seem always to thwart it. Our world is marked by a perverse dichotomy that tries to defend and ensure stability and peace through a false sense of security sustained by a mentality of fear and mistrust, one that ends up poisoning relationships between peoples and obstructing any form of dialogue.

Peace and international stability are incompatible with attempts to build upon the fear of mutual destruction or the threat of total annihilation. They can be achieved only on the basis of a global ethic of solidarity and cooperation in the service of a future shaped by interdependence and shared responsibility in the whole human family of today and tomorrow.

Here in this city which witnessed the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences of a nuclear attack, our attempts to speak out against the arms race will never be enough. The arms race wastes precious resources that could be better used to benefit the integral development of peoples and to protect the natural environment. In a world where millions of children and families live in inhumane conditions, the money that is squandered and the fortunes made through the manufacture, upgrading, maintenance and sale of ever more destructive weapons, are an affront crying out to heaven.

A world of peace, free from nuclear weapons, is the aspiration of millions of men and women everywhere. To make this ideal a reality calls for involvement on the part of all: individuals, religious communities and civil society, countries that possess nuclear weapons and those that do not, the military and private sectors, and international organizations.

Our response to the threat of nuclear weapons must be joint and concerted, inspired by the arduous yet constant effort to build mutual trust and thus surmount the current climate of distrust. In 1963, Saint John XXIII, writing in his Encyclical Letter Pacem in Terris, in addition to urging the prohibition of atomic weapons (cf. No. 112), stated that authentic and lasting international peace cannot rest on a balance of military power, but only upon mutual trust (cf. No. 113).

There is a need to break down the climate of distrust that risks leading to a dismantling of the international arms control framework. We are witnessing an erosion of multilateralism which is all the more serious in light of the growth of new forms of military technology. Such an approach seems highly incongruous in today’s context of interconnectedness; it represents a situation that urgently calls for the attention and commitment of
all leaders.

Pope Francis stands in front of the Memorial Cenotaph as he observes a minute of silence in memory of the victims of the Hiroshima atomic bomb during his visit to the Peace Memorial Park on November 24. (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)For her part, the Catholic Church is irrevocably committed to promoting peace between peoples and nations. This is a duty to which the Church feels bound before God and every man and woman in our world. We must never grow weary of working to support the principal international legal instruments of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, including the Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Last July, the bishops of Japan launched an appeal for the abolition of nuclear arms, and each August the Church in Japan holds a 10-day prayer meeting for peace. May prayer, tireless work in support of agreements and insistence on dialogue be the most powerful “weapons” in which we put our trust and the inspiration of our efforts to build a world of justice and solidarity that can offer an authentic assurance of peace.

Convinced as I am that a world without nuclear weapons is possible and necessary, I ask political leaders not to forget that these weapons cannot protect us from current threats to national and international security. We need to ponder the catastrophic impact of their deployment, especially from a humanitarian and environmental standpoint, and reject heightening a climate of fear, mistrust and hostility fomented by nuclear doctrines. The current state of our planet requires a serious reflection on how its resources can be employed in light of the complex and difficult implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in order to achieve the goal of an integrated human development. Saint Paul VI suggested as much in 1964, when he proposed the establishment of a Global Fund to assist those most impoverished peoples, drawn partially from military expenditures (cf. Declaration to Journalists, 4 December 1964; Populorum Progressio, 51).

All of this necessarily calls for the creation of tools for ensuring trust and reciprocal development and counts on leaders capable of rising to these occasions. It is a task that concerns and challenges every one of us. No one can be indifferent to the pain of millions of men and women whose sufferings trouble our consciences today. No one can turn a deaf ear to the plea of our brothers and sisters in need. No one can turn a blind eye to the ruin caused by a culture incapable of dialogue.

I ask you to join in praying each day for the conversion of hearts and for the triumph of a culture of life, reconciliation and fraternity. A fraternity that can recognize and respect diversity in the quest for a common destiny.

I know that some here are not Catholics, but I am certain that we can all make our own the prayer for peace attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

In this striking place of remembrance that stirs us from our indifference, it is all the more meaningful that we turn to God with trust, asking him to teach us to be effective instruments of peace and to make every effort not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

May you and your families, and this entire nation, know the blessings of prosperity and social harmony!

Adapted from a speech by Pope Francis at the Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park, Nagasaki, November 24, 2019.

Visiting Nagasaki, the pope decries the resources spent on nuclear arms that could be devoted to development and environmental protection.

Moscow Sends Warning on New START

December 2019
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

Top Russian Foreign Ministry officials reiterated their interest in extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and issued a fresh set of warnings about the future of the treaty because, they say, the Trump administration continues to refuse to engage in talks on its extension.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking here in February, accused the United States in November of "evading any serious discussion" about extending New START. (Photo: Alexandra Beier/Getty Images)Washington “is evading any serious discussion, making public discouraging signals regarding the future of this treaty,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a nonproliferation conference Nov. 8 in Moscow.

Lavrov’s deputy, Sergey Ryabkov, voiced similar criticisms at the conference, saying, “[It] looks as if the United States is dragging its feet, if not downright looking for an excuse to get rid of New START right after tearing up” the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

The United States did not send an official representative to the conference.

The remarks from Lavrov and Ryabkov came a week after Vladimir Leontyev, deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s nonproliferation and arms control department, declared that there is not enough time to negotiate any replacement for New START before it expires in February 2021.

“It’s evident that given the time left, we won’t be able to draw up any full-fledged document to replace it,” said Leontyev at a Nov. 1 meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club.

Leontyev also warned that time could run out to secure a five-year extension of the treaty. He said that Moscow would require “at least six months” in order to process a “technical extension.” Ryabkov told a Russian newspaper in July that an extension would require the approval of the Russian Duma.

Following a meeting in Beijing on Nov. 27, Ryabkov said that Russia has proposed to the United States a five-year extension of New START, but reiterated that Moscow is open to extending the treaty for less than five years. A shorter extension "would probably not be an optimal signal," he said, but would be "better than nothing."

As Russia emphasizes the importance of extending New START and indicated its readiness to begin talks on an extension, the Trump administration remains officially undecided about the future of the pact and continues to talk about the need for a more ambitious arms control agreement with Russia and China. (See ACT, November 2019.)

During an Oct. 22 interview with Fox News, President Donald Trump repeated the call for a trilateral agreement. “I believe that we’re going to get together with Russia and with China, and we’re going to work out our nuclear pact,” he said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in Brussels on Nov. 20 that “the world has changed since New START was originally created” and “it’s no longer the case that [the arms control process] can only be the United States and Russia.”

China has stated repeatedly that it is not interested in entering negotiations on a multilateral agreement. Currently, the United States has more than 6,000 total nuclear warheads, while China has about 300.

Trump administration officials have additionally criticized New START for not covering the new long-range nuclear delivery systems that Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled in a March 2018 speech. (See ACT, April 2018.)

“Our position is that we should engage with the Russians now in discussions about including those weapons systems…which are not covered by the treaty,” John Sullivan, currently deputy secretary of state and the nominee for U.S. ambassador to Russia, said at his nomination hearing Oct. 30.

“[I]f we were simply to extend New START now, without touching those other systems, which the Russians have been invested in, we’re tying our hands in not limiting what...the Russians see where their growth [is]…in their strategic assets,” he added.

Russia said for the first time last month that two of the weapons—the Sarmat, a new intercontinental ballistic missile, and Avangard, a hypersonic glide vehicle—would count under the treaty. Article V of the treaty states, “When a party believes that a new kind of strategic offensive arm is emerging,” the two sides can discuss how to take the systems into account.

“If Sarmat comes into existence at least as a prototype while the treaty is still valid, including in the extended period, there will be no problems from the point of view of the New START,” Leontyev said. “There should be no serious problems with Avangard either.”

The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that per the terms of the treaty, “a U.S. inspection group was shown the Avangard missile system with the hypersonic boost-glide vehicle” in Russia on Nov. 24–26.

Leontyev added that there is no chance of including the three other new nuclear weapons systems—Kinzhal, an air-launched ballistic missile; Burevestnik, also known as Skyfall, a globe-circling nuclear-powered cruise missile; and Poseidon, a nuclear-powered torpedo—without amending the treaty, in which case Moscow would have its own list of U.S. capabilities that should be addressed. He said that Russia was open to discussing these systems in the format of strategic stability talks.

The Kinzhal reportedly began trial deployment in December 2017. Russia is currently planning to field the weapon on the shorter-range MiG-31 aircraft, in which case the Kinzhal would not be accountable under New START. Initial fielding of the Avangard and Sarmat could begin as soon as the end of 2019 and 2021, respectively, according to Russian officials. The Burevestnik, a recent test of which resulted in a deadly explosion, and Poseidon are still in development and unlikely to be deployed in larger numbers or before 2025, according to independent open source and intelligence assessments. (See ACT, October 2019.)

It is not clear if the two sides discussed Russia’s new weapons during the most recent meeting of the Bilateral Consultative Commission, New START’s implementing body, which met on Nov. 6–13.

The State Department released a statement Nov 14, saying, “The U.S. and Russian delegations continued the discussion of practical issues related to the implementation of the treaty.”

Moscow and Washington last held strategic stability talks in July. Leontyev said another round of discussions had been scheduled for November but had to be “postponed indefinitely” due to staff changes at the State Department.

Signed in 2010, New START caps the deployed U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 warheads and 700 ballistic missiles and heavy bombers assigned to nuclear missions.

As the treaty's expiration approaches, Russia voices concern.

Iran Newly Breaches Nuclear Deal

December 2019
By Kelsey Davenport

European parties to the 2015 nuclear deal that limits Iran’s nuclear program said Tehran’s decision to resume enriching uranium at its Fordow site makes diplomatic efforts to preserve the agreement and de-escalate tensions more difficult.

Iran has announced it is accumulating uranium enriched by more advanced technology, including these IR-4 centrifuges.  (Photo: Atomic Energy Organization of Iran)Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced on Nov. 5 that Iran had “no other choice” but to resume enrichment at Fordow, violating the 15-year prohibition on enrichment at that site put in place by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The nuclear deal allows Iran to retain 1,044 centrifuges at Fordow, but requires Tehran to convert the uranium-enrichment facility into a medical isotope production and research center.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said on Nov. 6 that 696 of the centrifuges allowed at Fordow would be used for enriching uranium up to 4.5 percent uranium-235, slightly above the 3.67 percent U-235 limit set by the deal. The remaining 348 machines will be used for medical isotope production, he said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed in its Nov. 11 report that Iran began enrichment at the site on Nov. 9.

This is the fourth step Tehran has taken in breach of its JCPOA commitments over the past six months. In May 2019, Rouhani said Iran would “reduce compliance” with its nuclear obligations under the deal in response to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal in May 2018 and its reimposition of sanctions in violation of the accord. (See ACT, June 2019.)

The other parties to the deal (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union) criticized Iran’s decision, but said they remain committed to preserving the nuclear deal.

In a Nov. 11 joint statement, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, the UK and the EU foreign chief said the Fordow decision “represents a regrettable acceleration of Iran’s disengagement” from its commitments under the nuclear deal.

The officials said they “stand ready to continue diplomatic efforts” but it is critical for Iran to uphold its commitments under the nuclear deal and work with them to reduce tensions.

Rouhani said Iran continues to favor a diplomatic resolution to the dispute, but he put the onus on the remaining parties to find a way to preserve the accord. He said on Nov. 5 that Tehran would come back into compliance with its obligations if the parties can reach a “proper solution for the removal of sanctions on our export of oil and metal” and facilitate banking transactions.

Rouhani also said that Iran will take another step in 60 days in violation of the deal if the parties to the JCPOA do not deliver on sanctions relief. He did not specify what action Iran will take.

The European officials did not address Iran’s threat to commit another breach, but they did raise the possibility of using the dispute resolution mechanism laid out in the JCPOA to “resolve the issues related to Iran’s implementation of its JCPOA commitments.”

Any JCPOA party can trigger the dispute resolution mechanism to address an allegation of noncompliance with the agreement. If the party feels that the resolution process did not address the issue, that party “could treat the unresolved issue as grounds to cease performing” its JCPOA obligations “in whole or in part” and notify the UN Security Council, which can snap back sanctions on Iran lifted by the nuclear deal.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Nov. 7 that Iran’s “expansion of proliferation-sensitive activities raises concerns that Iran is positioning itself to have the option of rapid breakout.”

Accumulating enriched uranium produced by the 696 IR-1 centrifuges represents about a 15 percent increase in Iran’s current enrichment capacity. The additional enriched uranium will slowly erode Iran’s breakout time, or the time it would take to produce enough material for one nuclear weapon, which was 12 months when the JCPOA was fully implemented.

It is unclear if the cooperative efforts to convert Fordow into a research and development center will continue in light of Iran’s decision to resume enrichment. The JCPOA requires the parties to the deal to assist Iran with the conversion, and the Trump administration had waived sanctions, most recently on Oct. 31, allowing that work to continue.

Yet, Pompeo reversed course on Nov. 18 when he announced the U.S. sanctions waiver for converting Fordow would be terminated on Dec. 15. He said Iran should “reverse its activity there immediately.”

The United States views the Fordow facility as more of a risk than the facility at Natanz, where limited enrichment is permitted by the JCPOA, because of its location. Fordow is an underground facility built into the mountains near Qom. U.S. military officials have stated that the location of the facility would make it difficult to destroy with a military strike.

In addition to confirming enrichment at Fordow, the IAEA also noted in its Nov. 11 report that Iran is accumulating enriched uranium produced by 164 IR-2, 164 IR-4, and 30 IR-6 advanced centrifuges at its Natanz site. Under the JCPOA, Iran is allowed to test limited numbers of advanced machines with uranium but is not permitted to accumulate enriched material.

Rouhani said in September that Iran would no longer be bound by the research and development restrictions in the nuclear deal. (See ACT, October 2019.)

Iran also informed the agency that it planned to install newly designed centrifuges at Natanz for testing. The JCPOA permits Iran to develop new centrifuges using computer modeling, but requires advanced permission from the Joint Commission, the body set up to oversee the deal, before beginning testing. It does not appear that Iran obtained this permission.

The IAEA report noted that Iran continues to abide by the additional monitoring and verification provisions put in place by the deal but encouraged Iran to “continue interactions” with the IAEA to resolve outstanding issues related to an investigation into uranium particles at an undeclared site.

IAEA Acting Director-General Cornel Feruta told the agency’s Board of Governors on Nov. 21 that the uranium was found at an undeclared location in Iran. He said that the matter remains unresolved and called for Iran to work with the IAEA to “resolve this matter promptly.”

Jackie Wolcott, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, called the matter “profoundly concerning” in a Nov. 21 statement.

Iran takes fourth retaliatory step after U.S. pullout from 2015 agreement.

Pentagon Board Issues AI Guidelines

December 2019
By Michael Klare

On Oct. 31, after 15 months of private deliberation and public meetings, the Defense Innovation Board (DIB), an independent advisory arm of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, issued a set of recommendations on “ethical principles” for the use of artificial intelligence (AI) by the Defense Department.

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google's parent company Alphabet Inc., speaks during a National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence conference on Nov. 5. He chaired the Defense Innovation Board which recently issued recommendations on the military use of artificial intelligence. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)The DIB had originally been asked in 2018 to devise such recommendations by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis following a revolt by workers at Google over the company’s AI work for the department. Some 4,000 employees signed a petition calling on Google to discontinue its work on Project Maven, a pioneer Pentagon effort to employ AI in identifying suspected militants, possibly for elimination through drone attack. Google subsequently announced that it would not renew the Maven contract and promised never to develop AI for “weapons or other technologies whose principal purpose or implementation is to cause or directly facilitate injury to people.”

Knowing that the military would have to rely on Silicon Valley for the talent and expertise it needed to develop advanced AI-empowered weapons and fearful of further resistance of the sort it encountered at Google, the Defense Department leadership sought to demonstrate its commitment to the ethical use of AI by initiating the DIB study. This effort also represents a response of sorts to growing public clamor, much of it organized by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, for a treaty banning fully autonomous weapons systems.

The DIB, chaired by Eric Schmidt, former executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, held three closed-door meetings with academics, lawyers, company officials, and arms control specialists in preparing its recommendations. A representative of the Arms Control Association submitted a formal statement to the board, emphasizing the need to ensure human control over all weapons systems and for the automatic deactivation of autonomous systems that lose contact with their human operators.

In its final report, the DIB appears to have sought a middle course, opening the way for expanded use of AI by the military while trying to reassure skeptics that this can be done in a humane and ethical fashion.

“AI is and will be an essential capability across [the Defense Department] in non-combat and combat functions,” the board stated. Nevertheless, “the use of AI must take place within the context of [an] ethical framework.”

The military has long embraced new technologies and integrated them in accordance with its long-standing ethical guidelines, the DIB indicated. But AI poses distinct problems because such systems possess a capacity for self-direction not found in any other weapons. Accordingly, a number of specific “AI ethics principles” are needed when employing these technologies for military purposes. Specifically, such systems must be “responsible, equitable, traceable, reliable, and governable,” the DIB wrote.

Each of these five principles seeks to address concerns raised by meeting participants over the use of AI in warfare. The DIB report led with the principle of ultimate human responsibility over all AI systems deployed by the Defense Department. Similarly, in response to concerns about biases built into AI target-identification systems—one of the issues raised by rebel workers at Google—it offers equity. The Defense Department,
it affirmed, should “avoid unintended bias in the development and deployment of combat or non-combat AI systems that would inadvertently cause harm to persons.”

The precepts of traceability and reliability are responses to scientific critics who worry that AI-empowered machines may act in ways that humans cannot understand or behave erratically, causing unintended harm. Accordingly, those principles state that it is essential that AI systems’ decision-making processes be traceable, hence correctable, by humans and that any programming flaws be detected and repaired before such munitions are deployed on the battlefield.

The final principle, governability, is of particular concern to the arms control community as it bears on commanders’ ability to prevent unintended escalation in a crisis, especially a potential nuclear crisis. The original text stated that all AI systems must be capable of detecting and avoiding unintended harm and disruption and be able to “disengage or deactivate deployed systems that demonstrate unintended escalatory or other behavior.” Some DIB members argued that this left too much to chance, so the final text was amended to read that such systems must possess a capacity “for human or automated disengagement or deactivation” of systems that demonstrate escalatory behavior.

The DIB recommendations will be forwarded to the defense secretary, where their fate is unknown. Nevertheless, the principles articulated by the board are likely to remain a source of discussion for some time to come.

Panel produces recommendations on “ethical principles” for use of artificial intelligence by the U.S. military.

Move Signaled for Firearm Exports Changes

December 2019
By Jeff Abramson

The Trump administration formally notified Congress last month that it would move ahead with controversial changes to regulations on how certain firearms are exported, starting a 30-day clock before final rules could be published. The move pushes past a hold that Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) had put on the changes in February and sidesteps efforts in the House-passed National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would prevent them.

Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) has criticized a Trump administration effort to modify oversight of certain U.S. firearms exports.  (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)Under the proposed rules, semiautomatic and nonautomatic firearms and their ammunition, as well as certain other weapons, would be removed from the first three categories of the U.S. Munitions List (USML), a State Department-administered list of weapons. Sales of weapons from that list that meet certain dollar-value thresholds are notified to Congress, and a complex set of rules governs the reasons for which they may be transferred to and used by foreign recipients. Under the proposed changes, exports of these weapons would be transferred to a list administered by the Commerce Department, known as the Commerce Control List (CCL). The CCL does not trigger congressional notification requirements and allows for more streamlined arms transfer approvals.

In a Nov. 12 press release critical of the changes, Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) said the rules "will remove critical oversight mechanisms that will increase the probability that U.S. firearms will be misused to create violence and instability around the world." In March, Bera led a hearing on the changes as chair of the House Foreign Affairs oversight subcommittee. Menendez also cited the lack of congressional oversight as one of two primary concerns in his February hold on the changes.

But the administration attempted to address concerns about 3D gun printing technology transfers by adding new rules to the CCL that would require a license for online distribution of 3D printing plans. Currently, such plans are regulated under the USML and deemed an exportable item. The administration’s original proposal did not address the 3D printing issue, which was a second reason for concern highlighted in Menendez's hold and in legislative proposals to address the issue that he and others led. (See ACT, March 2019.)

An amendment passed in July to the House version of the NDAA, patterned after stand-alone legislation introduced by Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif), would prohibit changes to the relevant USML categories. The NDAA conference committee has not reconciled the House bill with the Senate version, which did not include the Torres amendment. Menendez has not indicated if he would attempt to place a hold on the changes again.

Export rule changes have not been as high profile as some other domestic efforts related to assault-style weapons, but Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have explicitly called for export authority to remain with the State Department. Robin Lloyd, managing director at the Giffords campaign to prevent gun violence, said on Nov. 13, "This White House clearly is more concerned with appeasing the gun lobby than making it harder for exported firearms to contribute to international violence and crime.”


Planned shift to Commerce Department reviews for certain U.S. arms transfers triggers strong congressional criticism.

U.S. Goals Unclear for Saudi Nuclear Deal

December 2019
By Shannon Bugos

The Trump administration has not committed publicly to requiring the “gold standard” commitment for an agreement with Saudi Arabia over its nuclear power program.

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, speaking here on Sept. 24, has suggested the United States will seek stringent nonproliferation conditions in any agreement to share U.S. nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia, but the Trump administration has not officially set its terms. (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)Saudi Arabia plans to build up its nuclear power program, but in order to receive U.S. nuclear materials or technology, Riyadh would need first to sign a 123 agreement with the United States. Such an agreement sets the terms and authorizes cooperation for sharing U.S. peaceful nuclear energy technology, equipment, and materials with other countries. A 123 agreement can involve what is known as a “gold standard” commitment in which a country forgoes uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing, which are two pathways to making nuclear weapons.

“To be a good citizen of the world, to show we are going to be responsible and we are going to be world leaders, signing a 123 agreement with the appropriate additional protocols makes an abundance of good sense to me,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry in an Oct. 26 interview with CNBC. That same day during a roundtable in Abu Dhabi, he also predicted that “[t]he kingdom and the leadership in the kingdom…will find a way to sign a 123 agreement with the United States, I think.”

In neither instance did Perry, who announced he would resign from his post at the end of November, state whether the United States would also demand that Saudi Arabia include a gold standard commitment in any 123 agreement. He said only that Riyadh is “absolutely correct” in pursuing nuclear power and that Washington wants it to “understand that the message on nonproliferation is really important.”

According to a September article by Bloomberg, Perry did inform Saudi officials that a 123 agreement “must also contain a commitment by the kingdom to forgo any enrichment and reprocessing for the term of the agreement.” That report has not been confirmed. (See ACT, October 2019.)

Four Democratic senators—Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.)—sent a letter Nov. 13 to Dan Brouillettee, recently confirmed as the new secretary of energy, demanding clarification about the 123 agreement and the inclusion of a gold standard commitment. The Energy Department is leading negotiations for this agreement, which would require congressional approval once completed.

“Do you agree with the text of Secretary Rick Perry’s September letter to Saudi Arabia, as reported, that the terms of any potential civil nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia must also contain a commitment by the country to forgo any enrichment and reprocessing for the term of the agreement?” they asked. They additionally inquired about the overall status of civil nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia. The senators set a Nov. 27 deadline for responses from Brouillettee.


The Trump administration has not clarified if it will pursue the "gold standard" of nonproliferation conditions as it negotiates a nuclear technology sharing agreement with Saudi Arabia.

Cyberattack Hits Indian Nuclear Plant

December 2019
By Melissa Robbins

The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) confirmed on Oct. 30 that a cyberattack against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu had occurred in early September.

Indian officials confirmed that a cyberattack was conducted against the nation's Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in September.  (Photo: India Water Portal/Flickr)This came a day after the NPCIL released a statement denying an attack had occurred, stating that “any cyber-attack on the Nuclear Power Plant Control System is not possible.” Reports that Kudankulam had fallen victim to a cyberattack first surfaced on Twitter on Oct. 27.

Pukhraj Singh, a cybersecurity analyst and former employee of India’s signals-intelligence agency, the National Technical Research Organization, tweeted that there had been “domain controller-level access” at Kudankulam and that “extremely mission-critical targets were hit.”

On Sept. 3, Singh alerted India’s National Cyber Coordination Centre that Kudankulam and the Indian Space Research Organization were targets of “network intrusions” after receiving a tip from a third party, according to several reports.

The Indian Computer Emergency Response Team was informed on Sept. 4 of a malware attack on Kudankulam.
The attack was investigated by the Indian Department of Atomic Energy, which found that only one computer had been targeted, a personal computer connected to the administrative network’s internet servers.

According to the NPCIL, operational networks at Kudankulam—those that control the plant’s two 1,000-megawatt reactors—are completely separate from the administrative systems.

The organization or country behind the attacks has not been determined.

Despite attempts by the plant and NPCIL to downplay the incident, security experts and Indian government officials have expressed concerns over future attacks.

Shashi Tharoor, a member of the opposition Congress Party of India, tweeted, “This seems very serious. If a hostile power is able to conduct a cyber-attack on our nuclear facilities, the implications for India’s national security are unimaginable. The government owes us an explanation.”

Following initial denials, Indian utility reports incident of unknown origin.

Japan Downplays Possibility of Hosting INF-Range Missiles

Japan’s new defense minister downplayed the prospect that Japan might host U.S. intermediate-range missiles formerly banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono, speaking here on Sept. 11, said that as of Oct. 31, the United States and Japan had not discussed the possibility of Japan hosting U.S. intermediate-range missiles. (Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)In an Oct. 31 interview with The Financial Times, Defense Minister Taro Kono said, “The U.S. doesn’t have non-nuclear missiles that can be deployed yet. Maybe they’re in the phase of development. We have not been discussing any of it.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in August after the demise of the INF Treaty that he would like to see the deployment of U.S. conventional, ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Europe and Asia, ideally as soon as possible. South Korea and Australia said at the time that they were not considering such a deployment.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in November continued to rebuke the Trump administration for “dismantling” the treaty, saying that “our American colleagues were only engaged in searching for pretexts to get rid of the INF Treaty.” He also stated that Moscow will not deploy ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles until the United States does.

The Pentagon has stated that it would conduct a test of a ground-launched ballistic missile with a range of about 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers by the end of the year, but the test does not appear to have taken place yet. On Aug. 18, the United States flight-tested a ground-launched cruise missile that would have been prohibited by the INF Treaty.

Signed in 1987, the INF Treaty led to the elimination of 2,692 U.S. and Soviet nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles having ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.—SHANNON BUGOS

Japan Downplays Possibility of Hosting INF-Range Missiles


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