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“The Arms Control Association and all of the staff I've worked with over the years … have this ability to speak truth to power in a wide variety of venues.”
– Marylia Kelley
Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment
June 2, 2022
January/February 2024
Edition Date: 
Thursday, January 11, 2024
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Nuclear Dangers and the 2024 Election


January/February 2024
By Daryl G. Kimball

As the new year begins, the existential risks posed by nuclear weapons continue to grow. A crucial factor in whether one or more of today’s nuclear challenges erupt into full-scale crisis, unravel the nonproliferation system, or worse will be the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.

(Photo by Stefani Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)How the winner of the 2024 race will handle the evolving array of nuclear weapons-related challenges is difficult to forecast, but the records and policies of the leading contenders, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, offer clues.

A major responsibility for any commander in chief is to avoid events that can lead to a nuclear war with Russia over its war on Ukraine and with China over its claims to Taiwan. One indicator of Trump’s more confrontational approach came in 2019 when, at a meeting of senior officials from the five nuclear-armed states recognized under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), China proposed a joint statement reiterating that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Two years later, Biden administration officials successfully pressed the group to reaffirm this Reagan-Gorbachev maxim, first enunciated in 1985.

Since then, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale attack on Ukraine and threats of nuclear use have raised the specter of nuclear conflict. To his credit, Biden has not issued nuclear counterthreats and has backed Ukraine in its struggle to repel Russia’s invasion. In 2022, Biden also joined leaders of the Group of 20 states in declaring that the use of nuclear weapons and threats of their use are “inadmissible.”

Well before Putin’s nuclear rhetoric turned ominous, Trump engaged in an alarming exchange of taunts with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2017. His threats of unleashing “fire and fury” against Pyongyang fueled tensions on the Korean peninsula and provide another clue how he might behave in a crisis with China, North Korea, or Russia in a second term.

Effective U.S. leadership on arms control will be critical to avoid a destabilizing, three-way arms race after the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expires in 2026. As the treaty’s first expiration deadline of February 5, 2021, was approaching, Trump refused to agree to simple extension of the pact, focusing instead on a failed effort to cajole China into joining Russian-U.S. arms talks. This left the incoming Biden administration only days to reach a deal with the Kremlin to extend the pact by five years, and it did.

In June 2023, the Biden administration proposed talks with Russia “without preconditions” on a new, post-2026 “nuclear arms control framework.” As long as there is war in Ukraine, the best outcome likely is a simple deal committing both sides to stay below the current limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads until a longer-term framework is concluded. Biden also has pursued nuclear risk reduction talks with China, which continues its nuclear buildup begun during the Trump era. In November, senior Chinese and U.S. officials held the first such talks in years.

Meanwhile, Iranian leaders continue increasing their capabilities to produce weapons-grade uranium in response to Trump's 2018 decision to withdraw unilaterally from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and impose tougher U.S. sanctions to pressure Tehran into negotiating a new deal. They now are threatening to pull out of the NPT if the United States or other UN Security Council members snap back international sanctions against Iran.

Biden’s efforts to restore mutual compliance with the 2015 deal have been stymied by Iranian demands on matters outside the nuclear file and tensions over the war in Gaza. Avoiding a more severe crisis over Iran’s nuclear program will require more sophisticated U.S. diplomacy.

Kim has ramped up North Korean nuclear and missile development and stiff-armed overtures for talks with Washington ever since the disastrous 2019 Hanoi summit, when Trump flatly rejected Kim’s offer to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex in return for limited sanctions relief, then walked out of the meeting. Renewed talks on curbing North Korea’s weapons program will require a recalibration of the U.S. approach.

Concerns about a possible nuclear testing revival also are rising. The Trump administration did not help when it declared in 2018 that the United States did not intend to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and in 2020 when senior Trump officials discussed resuming explosive testing to intimidate China and Russia. Biden, on the other hand, has reaffirmed U.S. support for the treaty; and his team proposed technical talks on confidence-building arrangements at the former Chinese, Russian, and U.S. test sites.

Most Americans do not vote based on candidates’ positions on nuclear weapons, but they are aware and deeply concerned about nuclear dangers. A 2023 national opinion survey found that large majorities believe that nuclear weapons are the most likely existential threat to the human race.

In 2024, the candidates’ approaches to these dangers deserve more scrutiny than usual. Presidential leadership may be the most important factor that determines whether the risk of nuclear arms racing, proliferation, and war will rise or fall in the years ahead.

As the new year begins, the existential risks posed by nuclear weapons continue to grow.

Underlying Challenges and Near-Term Opportunities for Engaging China


January/February 2024
By Tong Zhao

In the lead-up to the Xi-Biden summit in San Francisco in November, China and the United States engaged in a consultation on arms control and nonproliferation, the first such effort in recent years and one that occurred amid a severe downturn in their bilateral relationship.

U.S. President Joe Biden (L) greets Chinese President Xi Jinping at the start of their bilateral summit Nov. 15 on the sidelines of the  Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting near San Francisco. It was the first Biden-Xi encounter in a year and marked an effort to ease growing tensions between the two countries. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)Although a positive step, the consultation’s long-term impact will be contingent on the arrangement of subsequent meetings in an institutionalized setting. For these meetings to transcend symbolism and address substantive issues of concern, it will be essential to include representatives of the Chinese defense policy establishment and, ideally, military officials alongside the usual foreign
policy diplomats.

Beijing has attributed the intensifying rivalry to what it perceives as increased strategic hostility from Washington. This perception has led China to believe that expanding its nuclear capabilities is crucial to stabilizing bilateral relations and that it should avoid being lured into self-imposed restrictions. Unless this viewpoint shifts, bilateral nuclear competition probably will continue escalating. Meanwhile, diplomatic engagement stands as one of the limited but crucial means to establish a safety net and reduce the risk of conflict.

As China increasingly seeks to win the hearts and minds of the international community, the United States and other countries have an opportunity to focus on engaging Beijing in endorsing broad guiding principles for collaborative management of international security challenges rather than presenting specific arms control proposals. For example, China has taken a more active role in global discussions on artificial intelligence (AI) governance, signaling its intent to be a responsible leader in addressing the implications of such emerging technologies. Some Chinese media reports suggested that Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden would jointly declare their support for maintaining human oversight in nuclear weapons decision-making processes during their November summit.1 Although the joint announcement did not happen as reported, the concept has garnered considerable backing within Chinese policy circles.

In an era when China is resistant to specific limitations on its military growth, its endorsement of overarching principles regarding certain military conduct and emerging military technologies remains beneficial. This stance allows the United States and the international community to advocate for further operationalization of these broad principles through official and expert-level dialogues. Once China’s leadership publicly supports such overarching principles, it paves the way for more detailed engagement by Chinese officials at the working level and policy experts in crafting specific rules of behavior.

An example is China’s endorsement of the principle of human involvement in nuclear decision-making, which could lead to in-depth discussions on defining adequate human oversight in nuclear decisions at a practical level. Future dialogues could focus on shared understandings concerning safety protocols, fail-safe mechanisms, and realistic simulations to acquaint decision-makers with the capabilities and potential pitfalls of AI in supporting decisions. These conversations are crucial for adding guardrails to an intensifying Chinese-U.S. nuclear rivalry.

Policy Incoherence in China

With China experiencing significant internal transformations under Xi, the shift toward a more centralized and personalistic decision-making model has markedly heightened internal incoherence in strategic decisions, including the expansion of nuclear capabilities. The apparent sidelining of nuclear policy experts in policy discussions, the growing tendency of bureaucrats to align with and reinforce the paramount leader’s views on power politics, the reduction in the scope for internal debate, and the erosion of checks and balances have made achieving policy coherence increasingly challenging.

China is deviating notably from its long-standing nuclear policy in several aspects. These changes include a shift toward simultaneous quantitative expansion and qualitative improvement of capabilities and the development of a nuclear triad with a massive investment in silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Other changes include a transition from a relaxed posture to a “rapid response” stance with the potential adoption of a launch-under-attack doctrine and new official narratives directing Chinese nuclear forces toward achieving “strategic decisive victories.”

Along with their delegations, Chinese President Xi Jinping (L, Center) and U.S. President Joe Biden (R, Center) discuss issues of security, economics and curbing fentanyl production during a summit at Filoli Estate, near San Francisco, on November 15.  (Photo by Rao Aimin/Xinhua via Getty Images) Many Chinese nuclear policy experts find themselves perplexed by the logic and rationale behind this unprecedented nuclear expansion. This confusion raises concerns that the shift in China’s nuclear policy may be more reflective of the top leader’s political instincts rather than a carefully considered strategy aligned with a clearly defined consensus goal within the policy community. In a system of open and free debate, Chinese leaders might have recognized that China’s buildup could trigger U.S. responses, potentially deteriorating China’s security environment. Yet, basic scrutiny of strategic decisions is becoming increasingly challenging.

In the United States, there is a notable underestimation of the disorganized nature of China’s nuclear expansion and the growing issue of policy incoherence within it. Consequently, U.S. strategists often presume that China’s nuclear buildup is underpinned by well-thought-out rationality, clear objectives, and strategic long-term planning. This perception gives rise to prevalent concerns that Beijing’s nuclear growth signals a shift to an offensive nuclear posture, aiming not merely for parity with Washington but possibly for nuclear superiority. Nonetheless, remarks by top Chinese officials indicate a continued preference for asymmetric deterrence, at least for the time being.

Rather than succumbing to worst-case scenario assumptions regarding Chinese nuclear ambitions, the United States would benefit from understanding better the implications of China’s growing policy incoherence for U.S. policy options. The lack of clarity and consistency in Chinese nuclear policy thinking should prompt Washington and the international community to reassess and adjust their objectives and strategies in their interactions with Beijing.

For instance, instead of focusing on arms control measures that Beijing is unlikely to adopt in the foreseeable future, Washington and the international community might be better served by shifting their focus to a new goal: stimulating and encouraging internal policy discussions and debates within China. Fostering a more vibrant internal policy dialogue can act as a safeguard against questionable policy directions and is essential for ensuring democratic, accountable decision-making. Enhancing the quality of internal policymaking has become critical for preventing destabilizing nuclear policies, benefiting China and the global community.

In this context, the United States and the international community can play a constructive role, particularly in empowering Chinese experts. By supporting extensive expert-level dialogues and exchanges, the United States and other countries can assist Chinese experts in gaining a more comprehensive, nuanced understanding of policy thoughts and practices in the United States and other nations. Such insights and expertise could bolster the influence of these experts in China’s internal policy deliberation, enabling them to more effectively challenge and refine prevailing perspectives.

U.S. research institutes and civil society organizations should place greater emphasis on bringing U.S. domestic debates into the Chinese policy arena. A prominent discussion in Washington now revolves around the U.S. response to China’s nuclear expansion. The debate centers on whether U.S. efforts to enhance its nuclear capabilities in response to the Chinese buildup will more effectively deter Chinese aggression and encourage arms control negotiations or if it will result in greater Chinese nuclear expansion.

Exposing Chinese nuclear officials and experts to these internal U.S. debates, including the diverse perspectives of U.S. strategists and how their views are shaped by historical and contemporary evidence, could help Chinese policymakers understand the serious concerns in Washington regarding China’s nuclear path and the intense pressure that the United States faces in reacting to Chinese nuclear advancements. U.S. officials and experts, particularly those advocating a tougher stance on Chinese nuclear policy, should make an active, persistent effort to engage in Chinese-U.S. Track 2 and 1.5 dialogues, which can help convey these complex dynamics and foster a deeper understanding of the strategic considerations at play in an unofficial, less formal environment.

Exposing Chinese experts more widely to this U.S. debate would help draw Chinese attention to the fact that the U.S. response to the Chinese buildup will hinge on whether the United States perceives the buildup as primarily a defensive measure to ensure deterrence or an aggressive move aimed at coercion. Greater awareness of this debate within China could motivate Beijing to offer reassurances to Washington and to elucidate the rationale behind its nuclear expansion, potentially leading to greater nuclear transparency from China.

The U.S. Differential Nuclear Policy

Given China’s strategic competition with the United States and its historical skepticism toward arms control, China is likely to play hardball even if it is somehow compelled to join arms control talks. China’s approach may be more constructive, however, on issues that align more closely with its core interests, such as the no-first-use policy and mutual nuclear vulnerability between China and the United States.

In recent months, Beijing has intensified its emphasis on no first use of nuclear weapons. Its insistence on the United States adopting such a policy toward China is in line with its overarching aim of ensuring a U.S. acceptance of a mutual nuclear vulnerability relationship with China. To Beijing, Washington’s acceptance of either a no-first-use or a mutual nuclear vulnerability stance would indicate a U.S. commitment not to use its nuclear capabilities for coercing China, which is regarded as a key precondition for upholding bilateral nuclear stability and preventing a nuclear arms race.

The United States has an unclear policy on whether to continue persuading Beijing that its development of homeland missile defense capabilities is limited, expert Tong Zhao writes. Here, an upgraded U.S. ground-based interceptor is shown during a test launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on December 1. (Photo by Ryan Keith/U.S. Defense Department)The United States finds it challenging, however, to accept the concept of mutual vulnerability, such as through a mutual renunciation of the first use of nuclear weapons, even if such an agreement could be reliably verified. Washington harbors concerns that Beijing might exploit such an agreement to carry out strategic non-nuclear attacks that could threaten core U.S. interests. Consequently, Washington believes that it has a legitimate reason to preserve the option of nuclear first use as a deterrent and potential response to such attacks.

Conversely, Washington views the potential first use of nuclear weapons by Beijing, most likely in a conflict over Taiwan, as being driven by a revisionist agenda aimed at coercively altering the territorial status quo and thus unjustifiable. This leads to differing U.S. perspectives on the legitimacy of the potential first use of nuclear weapons by China and the United States. From China’s viewpoint, such a differential U.S. approach is discriminatory in nature and is what motivates Washington to seek nuclear superiority rather than nuclear stability with China.

In the United States, the responsibility of extending a nuclear umbrella to its allies plays a role in justifying its stance on retaining the option of first use of nuclear weapons. Even if the United States did not have this additional responsibility and needed only to ensure its own security, however, there is evidence to suggest that it would still regard its own option of first use as more justifiable than the pursuit of the same option by China, North Korea, or Russia. These countries often interpret this distinction as indicative of U.S. hegemony, whereas many U.S. experts seem to believe that the real reasons for this position are more intricate than mere double standards, stemming from the different behaviors of democratic and authoritarian systems.

The U.S. perspective holds that authoritarian countries are more inclined to initiate unjust wars and pursue revisionist objectives, more impulsive in their threats of nuclear first use, less reliable in adhering to international norms and ethical standards, and more unpredictable in their strategic decision-making. Consequently, the United States sees valid grounds for adopting a different nuclear policy standard toward authoritarian adversaries, underpinned by these perceived distinctions in governance and international behavior.

With regard to Taiwan, a critical flashpoint in Chinese-U.S. military tensions, China admittedly has shown an increasing sense of urgency to alter the territorial status quo, by coercive means if necessary. During the November summit, Xi reportedly told his U.S. counterpart that, on the issue of Taiwan, “peace is all well and good, but at some point we need to move toward resolution more generally.”2 In this context, Washington perceives Beijing’s efforts to deter U.S. nuclear first use in a large-scale conventional invasion as supporting an unjust cause and believes the United States has justifiable reasons to maintain the option of nuclear first use in such a scenario. Such perceptions contribute to the U.S. reluctance to acknowledge a mutual nuclear vulnerability relationship with China.

Besides the matter of nuclear first use, some other aspects of U.S. nuclear policy are formulated in a manner that Washington deems justifiable for itself but not for its adversaries. These include the U.S. pursuit of damage limitation through the development of counterforce strike capabilities.

This differential policy approach is becoming increasingly untenable. As China’s power expands, it is more assertively seeking equal status with the United States and has the resources to develop nuclear strategies and capabilities akin to those of the United States. As Beijing perceives the U.S. differential nuclear policy as a manifestation of U.S. hegemony, it becomes more willing to pressure Washington into recognizing a more equitable nuclear relationship through unilateral buildup. As the two sides continue down the current path, the future of their nuclear relationship becomes increasingly unpredictable.

Theoretically, the United States has three potential responses to address the consequences of its differential policy on nuclear competition with China. The first option involves Washington making a concerted effort to define more precisely the scope of two types of capabilities that it is developing: counterforce damage limitation capability and limited homeland missile defense capability. If Washington can demonstrate successfully to Beijing that its pursuit of counterforce damage limitation and homeland missile defense is genuinely limited in nature and distinctly less extensive than full-fledged capabilities that could undermine the Chinese nuclear deterrent, then China would be more inclined to accept some level of permanent capability asymmetry with the United States.

The second approach involves Washington considering revisions to its nuclear doctrine by relinquishing nuclear employment strategies that it would find problematic if adopted by its peer competitors. This could include restricting the option of nuclear first use and reducing the role of nuclear weapons as a hedge against potential threats from future non-nuclear military technologies.

If Washington is unable to eliminate the differential elements in its nuclear strategy, the third option would be to provide a clear explanation for its stance. When China perceives the U.S. differential policy as rooted in U.S. hegemonic culture, it often responds by sidelining diplomatic and arms control efforts, instead focusing on a unilateral military buildup as a countermeasure. Conversely, if Washington’s rationale is grounded in concerns about its rivals’ lack of credibility or accountability or their specific revisionist policy objectives, this should be more openly and clearly communicated.

A more tailored communications strategy could help draw Beijing’s attention to the need to acknowledge and address these underlying challenges in the bilateral relationship. By recognizing U.S. differential policy while pointing out opportunities for policy changes at the same time, Washington could incentivize Beijing to increase transparency, respond to specific U.S. concerns, and adopt a less coercive approach on regional security issues, including on the issue of Taiwan.

Near-Term Engagement Opportunities

China’s core demand for U.S. acceptance of a nuclear no-first-use or mutual nuclear vulnerability policy faces significant hurdles, intricately tied to the escalating ideological tensions between the two countries and Beijing’s pursuit of coercive security strategies. Given China’s insistence on addressing these issues as a prerequisite for broader nuclear-related security discussions, however, it remains necessary for the United States to engage China on these matters. Fortunately, there are immediate steps both sides can take to engage constructively in ways that are mutually beneficial.

A practical starting point could be to initiate a broad, generic discussion that does not focus exclusively on China and the United States or require either party to modify their existing policies immediately. On the no-first-use issue, the two sides could explore general criteria to assess the credibility of an unspecified nation’s no-first-use policy, including indicators related to its deployed capabilities, operational doctrines, and employment postures. Given the climate of mistrust, neither Beijing nor Washington is likely to be fully reassured by the other’s mere declaration on no first use unless accompanied by additional concrete measures to lend credibility to the declaration. Thus, an essential preliminary step would be to determine if both countries can concur on a set of universal standards for a credible no-first-use policy applicable to any nuclear-armed state.

Examples of potential indicators of credibility might include not deploying low-survivability weapons on rapid-delivery systems near conflict zones; maintaining clear, transparent nuclear doctrines explicitly defining and renouncing nuclear first-use actions; and providing transparency regarding the presence of domestic procedures to check the conformity of political leaders’ nuclear authorization decisions with their declared no-first-use policy. Even if reaching consensus on universal standards proves unfeasible, this exercise could enhance China’s understanding of the difficulties Washington faces in trusting a rival’s no-first-use declaration.

Similarly, on the issue of mutual nuclear vulnerability, Washington could propose to Beijing a broad, generic discussion about the meaning of mutual vulnerability and the elements that define a credible commitment to such a relationship. Comparing China’s main nuclear rivals, China is in a weaker position in the nuclear dynamic with the United States, but is the stronger party in its nuclear relationship with India. In a generic discussion that does not specify countries, China would be encouraged to reflect on the conditions of mutual vulnerability by considering perspectives from both sides of the table, which could help build a more constructive dialogue.

Beyond addressing strategic challenges in their nuclear relationship, China and the United States should strive to clear up specific technical misunderstandings. For instance, the 2023 U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress on China’s military power notes a possible Chinese interest in developing conventional ICBMs. If accurate, such development could further destabilize the Chinese-U.S. nuclear dynamic. It might prompt Washington to expand its homeland missile defense systems to counter Chinese conventional ICBMs, which are perceived as a more immediate threat to the U.S. homeland than Chinese nuclear ICBMs. Yet, the enhancement of U.S. homeland missile defenses could heighten Chinese concerns about the reliability of its nuclear second-strike capability, complicating efforts to maintain bilateral nuclear stability.

What appears to be insufficiently understood in Washington is that, since at least 2020, Chinese experts have been under the impression that the United States was arming some of its ICBMs with conventional warheads.3 This misunderstanding of U.S. policy could be a driving factor behind the reported Chinese interest in developing their own conventional ICBM capabilities.

Similarly, Chinese experts have shown misunderstandings over other specific policy issues. For instance, based on misinterpretation of statements by senior U.S. officials, they believe Washington has been “nuclearizing” hypersonic missiles. In reality, the United States has limited its hypersonic missile development to conventional warheads. Another often-heard claim by Chinese experts is that the United States has been developing space-based land-attack weapons. That is a misunderstanding that likely also has influenced China’s own thinking on the need for similar capabilities and on its overall counterspace strategy.

These misunderstandings could have considerable implications for China’s military and arms control policies. Unlike divergent perceptions about each other’s strategic intentions, however, these specific technical-level misconceptions should be more straightforward to rectify. This can be achieved through a concerted effort to utilize open-source information to clarify details and provide evidence during official and expert-level exchanges. Addressing such seemingly minor issues can go a long way in reducing the intensity of the bilateral arms competition.

 

ENDNOTES

1. Igor Patrick, Mark Magnier, and Amber Wang, “Biden, Xi Set to Pledge Ban on AI in Autonomous Weapons Like Drones, Nuclear Warhead Control: Sources,” South China Morning Post, November 11, 2023.

2. “Biden and Xi Talk Taiwan, Agree to Resume Military Communication,” NHK News, November 16, 2023.

3. Tong Zhao, “Managing the Impact of Missile Defense on U.S.-China Strategic Stability,” in Missile Defense and the Strategic Relationship Among the United States, Russia, and China (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts & Sciences, 2023), p. 9.
 


Tong Zhao is a senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, working for the Nuclear Policy Program and Carnegie China.

If China continues expanding its nuclear arsenal and eschewing arms control with the United States, diplomatic engagement stands as one of the limited but crucial means to establish a safety net and reduce the risk of conflict.

The Future of Arms Control Lies in the Nuclear Ban Treaty


January/February 2024
By Melissa Parke

Nuclear weapons and the decades-long effort to restrain and ultimately eliminate them have reached an alarming inflection point.

The risk that these weapons could be used in conflict has increased to its highest level since the Cold War, largely due to Russia’s nuclear threats during the early days of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and to an expansion of the dangerous practice of nuclear sharing. Meanwhile, bilateral arms control agreements put in place to ensure stability have been atrophying.

Participants in the second meeting of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, including states-parties and representatives of international and nongovernmental organizations, met at the United Nations November 27 to December 1. (Photo by ICAN/Darren Ornitz)Looking back, it is clear that nuclear arms control reached an apogee in the 1990s with the first and second strategic arms reduction treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia and with multilateral agreements such as the Open Skies Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The rot started to set in at the turn of the century when the United States abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. More recently, the dismantling of further bilateral agreements between the United States and Russia accelerated with the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019 and Russia’s withdrawal from the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe last year.

Also in 2023, Russia “suspended” its participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) by refusing to allow U.S. inspections of its nuclear facilities. The agreement remains on the books, and Russia says it will abide by the prescribed warhead limits, but the treaty is due to expire in two years with no prospect of a successor agreement given the current hostility between the two countries.

Although the cornerstone of multilateral nuclear disarmament architecture, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), remains in force, it has stalled with no agreement since 2010 on ways to move the treaty forward. One example of the dysfunction was the 2015 NPT Review Conference, which could not agree on a final outcome document. The main reasons were differences over demands for a conference on creating a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East and the refusal of the five NPT nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) to agree on a timetable for implementing their commitment to disarm under Article 6 of the treaty.1

The 2022 review conference, which was delayed from 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic, failed because Russia refused to agree to references in the final document about Ukraine, which it had invaded a few months earlier. Even if the meeting were held before Moscow launched its full-scale war, many experts believe the prospects for agreement were slim because the non-nuclear-weapon states were frustrated at the lack of movement on disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states.2

Although signed by nearly all states, the CTBT has never entered into force because several key countries that are required to ratify it, including nuclear-armed China, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United States, have not done so. The treaty was dealt a further blow last year when Russia revoked its ratification, part of its strategy to ratchet up pressure on NATO and the United States over Ukraine.

A New Push for Disarmament

Despite the gloomy picture painted by these developments, there is reason for optimism that multilateral arms control has a brighter future. That is because a new, progressive, multilateral push for nuclear disarmament has been gathering momentum with the negotiation, adoption, and entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which took place between 2017 and 2021.

The TPNW complements the NPT and provides an internationally agreed framework to realize the aim of that treaty, which is not just to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons but ultimately to achieve nuclear disarmament. It does that by filling a gap in the NPT that has allowed the five nuclear-armed states to retain their weapons while banning other states from acquiring them. In exchange, the nuclear-armed states promised to disarm and to support the non-nuclear-weapon states with nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The TPNW builds on this NPT bargain by banning countries from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using, and threatening to use nuclear weapons or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory. It also prohibits them from assisting, encouraging, and inducing anyone to engage in these activities.3

A country that possesses nuclear weapons may join the treaty, but must agree to destroy its arsenal in accordance with a legally binding, time-bound plan that includes all necessary verification mechanisms. Similarly, a country that hosts another country’s nuclear weapons on its territory may join the treaty if it agrees to remove the weapons by a specified time.

The roots of the TPNW are in the international initiative on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons started at a conference in Oslo in 2013 attended by 128 states, UN agencies, other international organizations, and civil society.4 This was followed by meetings in Nayarit, Mexico, and Vienna the following year. Out of these meetings came the idea of a new international treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons because they are the most destructive, inhumane, and indiscriminate weapons ever created, both in the scale of the devastation they cause and in their uniquely persistent, spreading, genetically damaging radioactive fallout. They are unlike any other weapons, including chemical and biological weapons, which were already subject to bans under multilateral treaties.

At the heart of the TPNW lies a focus on the lasting harm caused by nuclear weapons that was inspired by treaties banning landmines and cluster munitions. It took time to gather the signatures and ratifications for these earlier accords, adopted in 1997 and 2008, respectively, and it was always anticipated that the TPNW would take time to garner support in the same way.

Several major states whose armed forces used landmines and cluster munitions joined those treaties because their alleged military value and reputational cost is outweighed by the benefits of giving them up, namely increased diplomatic influence and soft power. Among their number are nuclear-armed France and the UK, as well as other NATO countries that endorse the use of nuclear weapons in their national defense policies. The implication is that these countries accept the principle that a category of weapons that cause lasting harm and are morally repugnant can and should be prohibited. The expectation is that as more countries join the TPNW, the pressure will grow on the nuclear-armed states to follow suit. Already, some NATO countries, including Germany, which hosts U.S. nuclear weapons on its territory, have attended the meetings of TPNW states-parties as observers.5

The TPNW also is rooted in the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons that developed after knowledge spread, despite U.S. attempts at censorship, of what happened to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when their cities were attacked with the first nuclear bombs. A strong international consensus accepts that this taboo has helped restrain leaders from using nuclear weapons again. The TPNW effectively codifies the nuclear taboo and takes it a step further by banning the weapons outright.6

So far, of 197 eligible states, 93 states have signed the TPNW, and 69 states have ratified or acceded to it. At the recent meeting in New York, Indonesia reported that its parliament has voted to ratify the treaty; several other delegations, including that of Brazil, said that their governments will be doing so very soon. This is the same number that had signed and ratified the NPT at this stage in the universalization process. Although the nine states that now possess nuclear weapons (the five recognized under the NPT along with India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan) remain opposed to joining the TPNW, proponents expect that, through a process of stigmatization and delegitimization, the treaty can convince the nine and their allies that it is in all of their interests to join the treaty and eliminate nuclear weapons.7

The TPNW Gains Strength

Since coming into force in 2021, the TPNW has continued to grow in strength. It just completed a successful second meeting of its member states in New York and is about to pass the milestone of having more than half of the world’s countries on board either as TPNW signatories or fully ratified members.

The treaty’s success derives partly from its rejection of the misguided theory of nuclear deterrence. Also important is the TPNW’s fresh approach, marked by inclusiveness and transparency, to verification and to advancing an agenda for nuclear justice based on recognizing the harm that nuclear weapons have done to human health and the environment. In addition to the 215,000 people estimated to have been killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, between 1945 and 2017, Russia, the United States, and other nuclear-weapon states conducted more than 2,000 nuclear weapons tests that contaminated extensive areas around the world that extend well beyond the test sites, making them uninhabitable and causing widespread intergenerational harm to people’s health.8

Melissa Parke, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a leading advocate for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), confers with the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the second TPNW meeting in New York in late 2023. (Photo by ICAN/Darren Ornitz)The TPNW directly challenges deterrence with its prohibition on the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. This principle enabled treaty member states to issue a strong condemnation of nuclear threats at their first meeting in 2022, following Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling regarding Ukraine. The TPNW language has been echoed since by the Group of 20 countries and by individual leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.9 Nuclear experts assess that these condemnations persuaded Russia to stop making overt nuclear threats and thus demonstrated that the stigmatization of nuclear weapons-related actions does influence the behavior of nuclear-armed states.10

The political declaration from the 2023 states-parties meeting reiterated this condemnation of nuclear threats, criticized nuclear sharing among states, and, most notably, strongly denounced the doctrine of nuclear deterrence as a threat to human security and an obstacle to nuclear disarmament.11 This marked the first time that the members of a multilateral treaty have taken such a position on deterrence. Although fundamental to the nuclear doctrines of the nuclear-weapon states, deterrence is an unproven theory that endangers the future of humanity, based as it is on the implicit threat to use nuclear weapons. Thus, the TPNW is breaking new ground given that previous arms control and disarmament treaties did not in any way challenge the doctrine of deterrence.

The states-parties also commissioned a report from the TPNW’s scientific advisory group, working with member states, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), and the International Committee of the Red Cross, on the threat from nuclear weapons and the doctrine of deterrence. It is to be submitted to the next meeting of TPNW states-parties in 2025. In the words of the decision document,12 this report is “[t]o challenge the security paradigm based on nuclear deterrence by highlighting and promoting new scientific evidence about the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons and juxtaposing this with the risks and assumptions that are inherent in nuclear deterrence.”

The TPNW is the only treaty that provides a pathway to verified disarmament, through Article 4. The working group on this article,13 co-chaired by Mexico and New Zealand and supported by the scientific advisory group and civil society, is developing a verification mechanism for when a nuclear-armed state or a state that hosts nuclear weapons joins the treaty.

There are lessons on verification to be learned from past and existing bilateral arm control treaties, but the TPNW is innovating and taking a whole-of-society approach derived from the treaty’s commitment to irreversible, verifiable, and transparent disarmament. That differs from bilateral arms control verification measures in treaties that aim to limit the size and categories of nuclear stockpiles, rather than eliminate them altogether. These other treaties were based on assumptions of distrust and secrecy designed to preserve the integrity of nuclear weapons systems and deterrence.14

TPNW Innovations

The TPNW’s break with the traditional secrecy surrounding nuclear weapons is a welcome one. It should set an example for other nuclear arms agreements, which need to acknowledge that democratic practice is not something that ends when a government is elected or appointed. Rather, when it comes to matters of life and death affecting the whole of society, transparency is essential politically and morally.

Another innovative TPNW approach to disarmament is its plan to advance nuclear justice by mandating member states, under Articles 6 and 7, to provide assistance to communities harmed by the use, testing, and development of nuclear weapons and to clean up the radioactive contamination that remains in many regions. Given that nuclear testing has disproportionately affected Indigenous and colonized peoples, the treaty seeks to right the wrongs of the past.

Survivors and affected communities are actively engaged in the work of the treaty and participate in its proceedings. This underscores the treaty’s commitment to set itself apart from other nuclear agreements that are dominated by governments and military bureaucracies. The TPNW recognizes that given that nuclear weapons threaten all of society, all of society should have a role in decisions about how to manage, control, and eliminate the arsenals.

The recent meeting of TPNW member states heard testimony from affected communities, which delivered an unprecedented joint statement.15 The meeting produced a decision that Kazakhstan and Kiribati, two states affected by Soviet, UK, and U.S. nuclear testing, will continue to lead the working group on Articles 6 and 7. It also produced an agreement that discussion on establishing an international trust fund for victim assistance and environmental remediation will continue, with a recommendation to be made at the next TPNW meeting in March 2025.

The Hope of Multilateral Arms Negotiations

Washington and Moscow still control 90 percent of the global nuclear stockpile and traditionally have sought to make arms control decisions between themselves, but the prospects of Russian-U.S. cooperation on a treaty to succeed New START are dim. At the same time, although the United States made a proposal in June 2023 for arms control talks with China, this too seems a nonstarter, given that both countries seem intent on modernizing their arsenals and China on increasing its stockpile. To avoid a new nuclear arms race and eliminate the threat posed by the existence of nuclear weapons, the way forward will depend on multilateral arms negotiations that go further than limiting stockpiles and delivery systems.

As the TPNW continues to gain more members, the nuclear-armed states and their allies that endorse the use of nuclear weapons in their security doctrines will face increasing political and diplomatic pressure to engage with the treaty. Much of their opposition to the TPNW, before its negotiation and afterward, has been based explicitly and correctly on concerns that the treaty would have the effect of delegitimizing nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence.

This is why when pursuing their national aims, even nuclear-armed states make serious efforts to justify their actions under international law and portray them as normal, accepted practice that follows established precedents. For example, all NPT nuclear-weapon states claim to be complying fully with NPT disarmament obligations and international humanitarian law.

In the past few decades, nearly all nuclear-armed states have joined the biological and chemical weapons conventions, which demonstrates that they see weapons of mass destruction as unnecessary and morally unacceptable. Therefore, they already have accepted the argument that weapons that cause indiscriminate, lasting harm can and should be eliminated.

In the best of circumstances, it will take time before the nuclear-weapon states fully embrace the TPNW. Although this outlook could be discouraging, it is worth remembering that China and France ultimately joined the NPT, even if it took more than 20 years. There are compelling reasons to be optimistic about the TPNW’s future. Increasingly, it is apparent that, in this treaty, the nuclear-armed states have a viable route, established in international law, through which to achieve disarmament fairly and verifiably and to finally eliminate what they all know is the existential threat that nuclear weapons pose to the whole world.

 

ENDNOTES

1. Daryl G. Kimball and Kingston Reif, “NPT Conference Fails to Reach Consensus,” Arms Control Today, June 2015, pp. 22-23.

2. Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, “10th NPT Review Conference: Why It Was Doomed and How It Almost Succeeded,” Arms Control Today, October 2022, pp. 20-24.

3. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), July 7, 2017, 729 U.N.T.S. 161.

4. See Government of Norway, “Conference: Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons,” March 11, 2013, https://www.regjeringen.no/en/historical-archive/Stoltenbergs-2nd-Government/Ministry-of-Foreign-Affairs/humimpact_2013/id708603/.

5. Belgium, Germany, and Norway attended the second meeting of states-parties as observers.

6. Nina Tannenwald, “The Great Unraveling: The Future of the Nuclear Normative Order,” in Meeting the Challenges of the New Nuclear Age (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2018), pp. 6-31, https://www.amacad.org/sites/default/files/publication/downloads/New-Nuclear-Age_Emerging-Risks.pdf.

7. International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), “How the Treaty Works,” n.d., https://www.icanw.org/how_the_tpnw_works (accessed December 15, 2023).

8. Robert A. Jacobs, Nuclear Bodies: The Global Hibakusha (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2022).

9. Indian Ministry of External Affairs, “G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration,” n.d., https://www.mea.gov.in/Images/CPV/G20-New-Delhi-Leaders-Declaration.pdf (meeting held September 9-10, 2023); Stuart Lau, “China’s Xi Warns Putin Not to Use Nuclear Arms in Ukraine,” Politico, November 4, 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/china-xi-jinping-warns-vladimir-putin-not-to-use-nuclear-arms-in-ukraine-olaf-scholz-germany-peace-talks/; Madeline Chambers, “Germany’s Scholz: Trying to Prevent Escalation in Russia-Ukraine War,” Reuters, September 21, 2022; “Opening Remarks by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at a Meeting of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats in the European Parliament,” NATO, September 28, 2022, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_207645.htm.

10. Pavel Podvig, “Why a Russian Nuclear Expert Thinks the Doomsday Clock Should Move Away From Midnight,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 8, 2023, https://thebulletin.org/2023/11/why-a-russian-nuclear-expert-thinks-the-doomsday-clock-should-move-away-from-midnight/.

11. Second Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Revised Draft Declaration of the Second Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: ‘Our Commitment to Upholding the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and Averting Their Catastrophic Consequences,’” TPNW/MSP/2023/CRP.4/Rev.1, December 1, 2023.

12. Second Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Decisions to Be Taken by the Second Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” TPNW/MSP/2023/CRP.3/Rev.1, November 30, 2023.

13. ICAN, “TPNW Informal Working Group: Article 4 - Nuclear Disarmament Verification,” n.d., https://www.icanw.org/tpnw_intersessional_work_article_4_nuclear_disarmament_verification (accessed December 15, 2023).

14. Pavel Podvig, ed., “Verifying Disarmament in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” UN Institute for Disarmament Research, 2022, https://unidir.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/UNIDIR_Verifying_Disarmament_TPNW.pdf.

15. “Affected Communities Statement to the Second Meeting of States Parties to the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, 2023,” n.d., https://icanw.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Affected-Communities-Statement-poster-final.pdf (poster).

 


Melissa Parke, the executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), is a former lawyer for the United Nations and a former Australian minister for international development.

Despite some gloomy developments, there is reason for optimism that multilateral arms control has a brighter future.

Redressing the Toxic Legacy of Nuclear Testing


January/February 2024
By Ekaterina Lapanovich, Laura Lepsy, and Alain Ponce Blancas

On a summer morning in 1953, soldiers evacuated all but a few farmers from a village in the Kazakh steppe without explaining the move.

After the group departed, the farmers left behind were surprised by a huge explosion and went outside to observe the spectacle better. Later, the soldiers returned, wearing protective suits, to conduct measurements on the witnesses.

A Kazakh woman on the steppe in Znamenka, a village on the edge of the former Soviet Semipalatinsk nuclear test site in Kazakhstan in 2016. (Photo by Richard Blanshard/Getty Images)This is the way a survivor described in the book Atomic Steppe how the inhabitants of Karaul, located around 95 kilometers from the former Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan, experienced the day of the first Soviet thermonuclear test.1 The volume is a testament to the fact that the global history of atomic testing is one of ignorance and deception, with innocent civilians deprived of full knowledge about the dangerous aftereffects of the nuclear testing that they unwittingly experienced.

In Kazakhstan, around seven years into nuclear testing, Soviet authorities kept secret information on the health effects of consuming contaminated food and water rather than share it with civilian health institutions that could have used the data to help affected individuals.2 Similarly, populations exposed to U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands were not given access to their own medical records for many years.3

From the farmers in Kazakhstan to indigenous communities in Nevada to the islanders of the Indo-Pacific region, millions of people were harmed, and countless acres were contaminated by fallout from more than 2,000 nuclear tests conducted by the Soviet Union, the United States, and other nuclear-weapon states since 1945. It is a dark legacy of injustice for which the nuclear-weapon states still have not fully atoned.

The Imperative of Justice

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which entered into force in 2021, has made achieving epistemic justice for nuclear testing-affected populations—the remedying of unfair treatment in knowledge-related practices, such as deprivation of access to historical and scientific data—one of its major tenets. The second meeting of TPNW states-parties, held in November in New York, laid the groundwork for taking action.

Regardless of what TPNW states-parties do, however, the effect will remain limited because no nuclear-weapon state will join the treaty soon or engage in related deliberations. To address this problem, the epistemic justice issue should be moved to a broader arena. An expert-level global conference on the legacy of nuclear testing would be a good start.

The TPNW evolved from a series of conferences that dealt with the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, in Oslo in 2013; Nayarit, Mexico, in 2014; and Vienna in 2014.4 The first meeting of states-parties, in 2022 in Vienna, established a working group, co-chaired by Kazakhstan and Kiribati, on victim assistance, environmental remediation, international cooperation and assistance, which presented its recommendations to the second TPNW meeting.

The working group focused on measures to fulfill the “positive obligations” that are anchored in the treaty’s Article 6, on victim assistance and environmental remediation, and Article 7, on international assistance and cooperation. Those measures included the establishment of a voluntary reporting process by which states-parties would share relevant information with each other and the wider public. This reporting process seeks to regularize the exchange of valuable information required to assist victims and remediate the environment. It could also facilitate broader international cooperation and assistance by allowing potential donor states to identify the needs of affected states-parties.5

Foreign Minister Murat Nurtleu of Kazakhstan speaks during the second meeting of states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at UN Headquarters on November 27. His country co-chaired a working group with Kiribati on assistance for victims of nuclear weapons testing, environmental remediation and international cooperation. (Photo by Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)The format encourages states-parties to provide specific data based on the same criteria so that the data can be processed and analyzed systematically. Reporting questions also address epistemic standards related to measuring the effects of nuclear tests, such as the methodology of assessment and criteria used to define victimhood. The format therefore confronts two major barriers to effective victim assistance and environmental remediation: the scarcity of systematic data and the absence of universal standards for defining victimhood.

Although this reporting format may ameliorate past harms, the structural reasons for epistemic injustice can be remedied in most cases only by the states that conducted the tests. For instance, affected states and communities often are unable to access the testing records that may help them identify and develop appropriate policy measures for mitigating the consequences of nuclear testing because such records may be classified, privileged, or simply not readily accessible.6 Only states with nuclear weapons could decide to share this information, but none of them will become parties to the TPNW in the near future and provide a report according to the new standard format.

Kazakhstan and Kiribati are aware of this problem. In their report as working group co-chairs, they noted that one of the major problems in assessing the impact of nuclear testing is the lack of access to relevant information that “may not be held by affected states-parties.” They included a section in the new reporting format that asks states-parties to report about “efforts to engage and exchange information with states not party that have used or tested nuclear weapons regarding their assistance to affected parties.”

The co-chairs took the extra step of putting the legacy of nuclear testing on the agenda of multilateral forums where nuclear-weapon states participate. The revised final draft document of the 2022 review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) contained an appeal to “all governments…with expertise in the field of clean-up and disposal of radioactive contaminants, to consider giving appropriate assistance…in affected areas,”7 thereby effectively bringing TPNW Article 7 into the NPT orbit. In a working paper for the 2023 preparatory committee for the next NPT review conference, scheduled for 2026, Kazakhstan and Kiribati argue that nuclear-weapon states should engage in scientific and technical “information exchanges with [NPT] states-parties whose territories served as test sites [including on] the potential effects of nuclear contamination and types of responses.”8

Most recently, last October, the co-chairs co-sponsored the UN General Assembly resolution on the legacy of nuclear weapons,9 which asked the secretary-general to report on the views and proposals of states regarding efforts and ongoing needs related to victim assistance and environmental remediation, the same questions that the TPNW reporting format aims to answer. Many states-parties at the TPNW meeting in November referred to the October resolution as a mechanism for “universalizing” the TPNW’s assistance and cooperation requirements.

Although 171 states voted in favor of the resolution, all nine states that possess nuclear weapons abstained or voted against it. This result clarifies two major points. On one hand, the agenda of positive obligations in dealing with the nuclear testing legacy enjoys wide support, including from NATO states such as Germany10 and Norway,11 who are not TPNW state-parties but attended the TPNW meeting as observer states and emphasized their interest in working on the humanitarian perspective on the legacy of testing. On the other hand, the fact that all nuclear-weapon states voted against or abstained from the vote on the resolution reflects their reluctance to engage in multilateral forums that address the consequences of nuclear testing. It does not mean, however, that nuclear-weapon states have not taken national action to deal with the consequences of nuclear testing.

The Remediation Record

Most nuclear-weapon states have some form of commemoration or compensation instrument for victims of nuclear testing, even though their depth and scope vary widely from covering only veterans, as China and the United Kingdom do, to also covering civilians as France, Russia, and the United States do, to covering foreign territory, as in the U.S. agreement with the Marshall Islands. Eligibility for compensation may be determined by a number of factors, including an estimated minimum radiation dose to which an individual was exposed as a result of testing, as is the case of China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States.

Establishing accurate estimates of radiation doses is generally difficult due to a scarcity of data, given the insufficient number of monitoring stations in operation at the time of testing.12 Yet, declassifying whatever data exist to process it in model-based analysis may improve the estimates of received dosage. A case in point is a 2022 study using recently declassified documents and atmospheric transport modeling of radioactive fallout to determine that certain local populations received considerably higher effective doses than had been concluded by the French Energy Commission in 2006.13

The willingness of nuclear-weapon states to declassify testing data varies. China has not declassified any data.14 The UK in 2018 even limited access to nuclear testing-related files that had previously been public and are now being reviewed anew for declassification.15 Although Russia declassified many documents on the history of the Soviet nuclear testing program,16 the picture is still fragmented and incomplete. In some cases, when Kazakh officials requested access to relevant Soviet data, they hit a wall of silence in Moscow.17

Recently, there has been some progress in France and the United States, where large-scale data declassification occurred. France in 2021 established a governmental commission to declassify documents relating to testing in French Polynesia.18 The United States declassified 14,000 records on testing in the Marshall Islands and made them publicly available.19 That said, there is considerable room for improvement. In both cases, civil society and expert communities have criticized declassification policies as “chaotic and disjointed.”20 The data made available are often scattered over different archives and, for logistical reasons, cannot be accessed by affected communities.21 In its 2022 feasibility study on declassifying the Marshall Islands testing data, the Public Interest Declassification Board, which was established by the U.S. Congress, emphasized the need not only to declassify data, but also to process and make accessible previously declassified or even unclassified data by means of strategic digitization and application of artificial intelligence technology to identify the relevant records.22

A Modest Proposal

Switzerland, an observer state for the TPNW meeting, has encouraged the states-parties to frame the issues of victim assistance and environmental remediation in such a way that broad support for the treaty, including among nuclear-weapon states, becomes more possible.23 The fact that France, Russia, and the United States have a considerable record of data declassification shows that, in principle, they might be amenable to engage on the matter. Yet, their votes against the UN resolution on the legacy of nuclear weapons may reflect a reluctance to incur some form of universal accountability.

Runit Dome, on Runit Island in Enewetak Atoll in the South Pacific, covers a pit used to bury 84,000 cubic meters of radioactive soil scraped from various contaminated islands in the region, where U.S. nuclear weapons tests took place between 1948 and 1958.  (Photo by U.S. Defense Special Weapons Agency via Wikimedia)If TPNW states want nuclear-weapon states to support the victim assistance and environmental remediation agenda, the TPNW framework or even the NPT might not be viable for the time being. Instead, an international conference on the legacy of nuclear testing with a technical expert-level focus might be a better mechanism to strike the balance between securing the nuclear-weapon states’ commitment and yielding benefits for testing-affected states.24

To initiate such a proposal, one pathway could be adoption of a UN resolution on convening a conference for sharing knowledge about the consequences of nuclear testing. To win support from nuclear-weapon states, this resolution should not include naming-and-shaming aspects. It could be co-sponsored by potential bridge-builders in the areas of victim assistance and environmental remediation, such as Germany, Norway, and Switzerland, as well as allies of nuclear-weapon states that suffered from testing, such as Australia and Kazakhstan.

The conference should enable experts to provide affected states with a better picture of which data and data processing methodology are needed to improve their national remediation programs. That could be done by sharing best practices and modeling techniques of the nuclear-weapon states on addressing a lack of data and on archival research on harvesting existing data. It could serve as an initial brokering point for launching formal and informal partnerships among technical experts, including those from nuclear-weapon states and from states that were affected by testing.

Nuclear-weapon states also could be encouraged to make widely available or share bilaterally with affected states such data as nuclear test site locations, test dates, and isotope composition, including formerly classified data.25 By developing synergies, the conference could be a starting point for a global data-based effort to deal with the humanitarian and environmental legacies of nuclear testing.

Almost 75 years after the first nuclear test in Kazakhstan, villagers around the former Semipalatinsk test site are still physically and economically endangered by how little they know about the contamination of their lands. Because toxic acreage is not demarcated from uncontaminated land, the villagers may face health risks by unknowingly accessing contaminated land or may leave safe farming land idle out of fear of contamination.26

To address this challenge, the Kazakh government plans to establish the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Safety Zone, which will demarcate officially and enclose the contaminated land.27 Improved technical and expert cooperation brokered through a conference on the legacy of nuclear testing could help Kazakhstan gain the support required for the effective implementation of its rehabilitation and remediation efforts in the Semipalatinsk region. This would be a step forward in the struggle for long-overdue epistemic justice for victims of nuclear testing and offer a constructive example of the solutions available to other affected countries and populations to atone for this deadly inheritance.

 

ENDNOTES
 

1. Togzhan Kassenova, Atomic Steppe: How Kazakhstan Gave Up the Bomb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022), p. 38.

2. Ibid., pp. 54, 59.

3. See Declassification of Records Relating to Nuclear Weapons Testing and Cleanup Activities in the Marshall Islands: Feasibility Study,
August 2022, p. 18, https://www.archives.gov/files/pidb/recommendations/marshall-islands-feasibility-study-2022-.pdf.

4. For detailed information about the three conferences, see Reaching Critical Will, “Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons,” n.d., https://reachingcriticalwill.org/disarmament-fora/hinw (accessed January 3, 2024).

5. International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School, “Reporting Guidelines for Articles 6 and 7 of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: Precedent and Recommendations,” May 2023, https://humanrightsclinic.law.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/TPNW-reporting-report-5-15-23-FINAL.pdf.

6. See Nuclear Truth Project, “Challenging Nuclear Secrecy: A Discussion of Ethics, Hierarchies and Barriers to Access in Nuclear Archives,” July 2023, https://nucleartruthproject.org/wp-content/uploads/Challenging-Nuclear-Secrecy-report-NTP-31-July-2023-low-res.pdf.

7. 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Draft Final Document,” NPT/CONF.2020/CRP.1/Rev.2, August 25, 2022, para. 93.

8. See Preparatory Committee for the 2026 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Addressing the Past Use and Testing of Nuclear Weapons: Working Paper Submitted by Kazakhstan and Kiribati,” NPT/CONF.2026/PC.I/WP.27, July 28, 2023.

9. UN General Assembly, “Addressing the Legacy of Nuclear Weapons: Providing Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation to Member States Affected by the Use or Testing of Nuclear Weapons,” A/C.1/78/L.52, October 12, 2023.

10. Susanne Riegraf, Statement of Germany to the second meeting of states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), n.d., pp. 3-4, https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/nuclear-weapon-ban/2msp/statements/29Nov_Germany.pdf (meeting held November 27-December 1, 2023).

11. Tor Henrik Andersen, Statement of Norway to the second meeting of TPNW states-parties, n.d., p. 3, https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/nuclear-weapon-ban/2msp/statements/29Nov_Norway.pdf (meeting held November 27-December 1, 2023).

12. Committee to Assess the Scientific Information for the Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program, “Assessment of the Scientific Information for the Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program,” National Research Council, 2005, p. 5, https://nap.nationalacademies.org/read/11279/chapter/1; INTERPRT, Disclose, and Science and Global Security Program, Princeton University, “The Compensation Trap,” n.d., https://moruroa-files.org/en/investigation/battle-for-compensation (accessed December 3, 2023).

13. Sébastien Philippe, Sonya Schoenberger, and Nabil Ahmed, “Radiation Exposures and Compensation of Victims of French Atmospheric Nuclear Tests in Polynesia,” Science & Global Security, Vol. 30, No. 2 (2022): 62-94.

14. Peter Suciu, “China’s Nuclear Tests Might Have Killed Hundreds of Thousands,” The National Interest, April 30, 2021, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/reboot/china’s-nuclear-tests-might-have-killed-hundreds-thousands-184134.

15. Nuclear Truth Project, “Challenging Nuclear Secrecy,” p. 9.

16. See “Атомный проект СССР: документы и материалы” [USSR atomic project: Documents and materials], History of Rosatom, n.d., https://elib.biblioatom.ru/soviet-atomic-program/ (accessed January 3, 2024).

17. Kassenova, Atomic Steppe, p. 6.

18. Nuclear Truth Project, “Challenging Nuclear Secrecy,” p. 7.

19. See U.S. Department of Energy, “Openness Information Resources,” n.d., https://www.osti.gov/opennet/press (accessed January 3, 2024).

20. Patrick Kaiku, “Nuclear Justice for the Marshall Islands in the Age of Geopolitical Rivalry in the Pacific,” Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, August 2023, p. 13, https://cms.apln.network/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/Patrick-Kaiku_August-2023.pdf.

21. Nuclear Truth Project, “Challenging Nuclear Secrecy,” p. 11.

22. The Public Interest Declassification Board, “Declassification of Records Relating to Nuclear Weapons Testing and Cleanup Activities in the Marshall Islands: Feasibility Study,” August 2022, https://www.archives.gov/files/pidb/recommendations/marshall-islands-feasibility-study-2022-.pdf.

23. Statement of Switzerland to the second meeting of TPNW states-parties, November 30, 2023, p. 2, https://reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Disarmament-fora/nuclear-weapon-ban/2msp/statements/30Nov_Switzerland_A6.pdf.

24. Chris Reus-Smit and Ayşe Zarakol, “The Crisis of International Order: Is It About Injustice?” Medium, January 17, 2023, https://medium.com/international-affairs-blog/the-crisis-of-international-order-is-it-about-injustice-8cbcada5aa33.

25. See Second Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Policy Recommendations on Trust Fund, International Cooperation, Articles 6 and 7, Preamble, and Article 1,” TPNW/MSP/2023/NGO/4, November 14, 2023, p. 3; Second Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, “Challenging Nuclear Secrecy: Barriers to Access and Ethics of Nuclear Archives,” TPNW/MSP/2023/NGO/9, November 14, 2023.

26. National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan, “Draft Law About ‘Semipalatinsk Nuclear Safety Zone,’” June 2, 2022, https://www.nnc.kz/en/news/show/372.

27. Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Kazakhstan, “On the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Safety Zone,” December 28, 2023, https://adilet.zan.kz/eng/docs/Z2300000016.

 


Ekaterina Lapanovich is a senior lecturer at Ural Federal University. Laura Lepsy is a consultant on peace, security, and international cooperation issues. Alain Ponce Blancas is a research and communication officer at the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean. All three contributors are alumni of the Arms Control Negotiation Academy at Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

The authors make a proposal to move forward the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

SPECIAL REPORT: A Former Nuclear Test Site’s New Role


January/February 2024
By Daryl G. Kimball

(Nye County, Nevada)—When I visited the primary location for U.S. nuclear weapons testing, the Nevada Test Site, in September 1994 for the first time, whether the era of U.S. nuclear testing had come to a permanent end and whether a worldwide testing halt was possible were still open questions.

Teams from the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration and the Nevada National Security Site host nongovernmental experts on a visit to the site's P-Tunnel, where a nonproliferation experiment was conducted in October 2023.  (Photo by the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration)Two years before that visit, bipartisan majorities in Congress, acting over the objections of the George H.W. Bush administration, approved legislation mandating a nine-month U.S. nuclear test moratorium in response to a Soviet testing moratorium declared in October 1991. In 1993, President Bill Clinton, following intensive interagency consultations, decided that further nuclear testing was not necessary. He would extend the U.S. nuclear test moratorium, establish the Stockpile Stewardship Program to maintain the arsenal without testing, and pursue multilateral negotiations for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) (see box).

Thirty years later, however, on a return visit to the site on November 30 at the invitation of senior leaders of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), I saw ample signs that although the dangerous era of U.S. nuclear weapons testing has ended, the site and the NNSA still have critical roles to play to ensure that nuclear explosive testing is not resumed by the United States or other countries. The visit, which included 12 other nongovernmental experts on arms control and nonproliferation, marked an unusual effort by NNSA leaders to demonstrate transparency about current activities at the site, most of which are now focused on maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal without nuclear testing. This new mission is underscored by the site’s new title, the Nevada National Security Site.

The visit’s aim was to provide firsthand information about how the former nuclear explosive test site “has been transformed into an experimental test bed and training ground for nonproliferation and national security missions,” according to the official invitation from Corey Hinderstein, the NNSA deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation. In addition to the Arms Control Association, participants represented the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Federation of American Scientists, Harvard Kennedy School, Middlebury Institute of International Studies, National Academy of Sciences, Nuclear Threat Initiative, Open Nuclear Network, and Ploughshares Fund and included a French physics professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a German physicist affiliated with the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg.

The Nevada Test Site in 1994

Carved out of tribal land seized from the Shoshone Nation of Native Americans,1 the Nevada Test Site was the location for 928 of 1,054 U.S. nuclear tests, including 100 atmospheric nuclear test explosions between 1951 and 1962 and another 828 tests performed underground.2 The last underground nuclear test, code-named Divider, was conducted in September 1992.

At the time of my 1994 tour, the Nevada Test Site Control Point facility, which was used to oversee and conduct nuclear tests and was located on the southern side of the site, was quiet but still operational and receiving authorized visitors. The 152-foot-tall test tower that was scheduled to house the next nuclear test explosion, dubbed Icecap, was clearly visible from the paved, two-lane highway that traverses the 1,355-square-mile site from south to north. The tower was still surrounded by mobile trailers stuffed with diagnostic equipment to monitor an underground nuclear blast. Icecap, a joint Los Alamos National Laboratory project with the United Kingdom, also demonstrated how the U.S. test site facilitated UK nuclear weapons development under the terms of the 1958 UK-U.S. agreement on cooperation on the uses of atomic energy for mutual defense purposes.

The Test Ban and Test Site Tensions

Three years after Clinton extended the U.S. test moratorium, diplomats at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva concluded negotiations on the CTBT. To overcome an effort by India to block adoption of the text there, states supporting the treaty instead won approval from the UN General Assembly to open the pact for signature on September 24, 1996. Clinton was the first leader to sign it.

ADaryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, in front of the tower for the Icecap nuclear test at the Nevada National Security Site on Nov. 30. The Icecap test was planned for 1993 but not conducted.  (Photo by the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration)lthough not yet formally entered into force because the treaty requires that the United States and eight other specific states ratify it, the CTBT, which now has 187 signatories, has established a de facto halt to nuclear testing. It has become one of the most successful and valuable agreements in the long history of nuclear nonproliferation, arms control, and disarmament. Today, no state is conducting nuclear test explosions. North Korea is the only country to have done so in this century. Without the option to conduct nuclear tests, it is more difficult, although not impossible, to develop, prove, and field new warhead designs.

Yet, as with other nuclear risk reduction agreements, the CTBT is under stress due to inattention and worsening relations between nuclear-armed adversaries, as evidenced by Russia’s recent decision to withdraw its CTBT ratification to “mirror” the U.S. posture vis-à-vis the treaty. As recently as October 10, 2023, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov suggested that the United States might be carrying out preparations at its nuclear test site in Nevada.

Moreover, China, Russia, and the United States are racing to modernize their nuclear arsenals and continuing to engage in weapons-related research activities at their former test sites. As a result, some future subcritical nuclear experiment or chemical high-explosive detonation at one of these sites potentially could be mistaken or alleged to be a CTBT-prohibited supercritical nuclear explosion that produces a self-sustaining chain reaction.3 This might lead these or other countries to consider resuming full-blown nuclear explosive tests for the first time in decades.

Although the International Monitoring System established to verify CTBT compliance is fully operational and far more effective than originally envisioned, very low-yield nuclear test explosions still can be difficult to detect without on-site monitoring equipment or inspections, which will not be in place until the treaty formally enters into force.

During a speech in Vienna in June, NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby said her agency is “open to working with others to develop a regime that would allow reciprocal observation with radiation detection equipment at each other’s subcritical experiments to allow confirmation that the experiment was consistent with the CTBT.”4 Such a dialogue has not begun.

Hruby acknowledged that a primary reason why the NNSA has stepped up efforts to be more transparent about its activities at the Nevada site is to dispel allegations by Russian officials and others that the United States is preparing to resume nuclear explosive testing in violation of the CTBT, which bans all nuclear explosions at any yield.5

The Nevada Site Today

On my November visit to the former test site, little appeared to have changed on the surface. The serene, sagebrush-covered flatlands that stretch for miles are still pockmarked by hundreds of subsidence craters from past underground tests, which produced radioactive contamination that is embedded permanently under the desert floor.

Nongovernmental organization experts and teams from the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Nevada National Security Site at the site’s Sedan Crater. (Photo by the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration)The massive Sedan Crater, the product of a misguided “peaceful nuclear explosions” program from 1961 to 1973, still stands out as a stunning reminder of the destructive power of nuclear weapons and the excesses of the Cold War-era nuclear weapons establishment. The program was intended to explore the use of nuclear bomb explosions to create canals and expand harbors and to stimulate natural gas production.6

The crater, which is 1,280 feet in diameter and 320 feet deep, was produced by a 104-kiloton thermonuclear device detonated 635 feet underground. The explosion displaced and contaminated about 12 million tons of earth and sent radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. For all intents and purposes, much of the site will remain a national nuclear sacrifice zone for many decades to come.

Yet in many other ways, the NNSA transparency tour revealed how the site’s functions and activities have shifted significantly from a once-active nuclear weapons testing zone to a laboratory for experiments designed to safely maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal without nuclear test explosions and for conducting nonproliferation research. As Marvin Adams, NNSA deputy administrator for defense programs, emphasized in a briefing preceding the visit, “[T]he United States has no technical need to conduct additional nuclear explosive tests and no plans to do so.”

The Icecap test tower, above a shaft drilled to a depth of 1,600 feet, still stands tall in Area 7 of Yucca Flats, but now serves mainly as a monument to the end of U.S. nuclear testing. Stripped of diagnostic cables for the test, it still houses a custom-made, cylindrical instrumentation rack, which would have weighed 350,000 pounds at the beginning of descent and 500,000 pounds by the time it was buried to contain the blast from the nuclear test explosion, which never took place.

Our delegation also explored one of the horizontal nuclear testing tunnels in Rainier Mesa that was excavated in the late 1970s and is known as the P-Tunnel. It was used for six separate nuclear weapons test explosions during the Cold War, but is now utilized for non-nuclear explosive experiments designed to improve capabilities for detecting potential foreign nuclear weapons test detonations. The P-Tunnel, in Area 12, was the site of an October 2023 nonproliferation experiment involving 16 metric tons of chemical high explosives and radiotracers to simulate the blast effects and the movement of gases that would be created by a prohibited nuclear explosion.

According to the NNSA, the experiment, which collected measurements using accelerometers, seismometers, infrasound sensors, electromagnetic sensors, chemical and radiotracer samplers, and meteorological sensors, helped “validate new predictive explosion models and detection algorithms.” Seismic data collected from these experiments are made available to researchers around the globe for analysis via the EarthScope Consortium website.

Although the October 18 verification experiment was designed to improve detection of low-yield nuclear test explosions, recent events suggest that it and similar non-nuclear experiments that produce explosions could create the potential for Russia or another nuclear-armed state to misconstrue or mischaracterize such activities as a CTBT-prohibited nuclear test explosions. In a coincidence of bad timing, the U.S. verification experiment took place the same day that the Russian parliament formalized the country’s decision to withdraw its ratification of the CTBT and as Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that Russia will only continue to refrain from nuclear testing if the United States does the same.

Two days after the NNSA experiment, the deputy speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament called for an international assessment to determine whether the NNSA’s announced experiment was compliant with the CTBT. Ryabkov added that if the experiment was an underground explosion using chemical explosives and “if this information is true—it is presently being verified—this does not involve nuclear weapons testing, and this blast does not contradict either the U.S. moratorium on nuclear tests or the provisions” of the CTBT.

In keeping with the spirit of the treaty, the NNSA notified the Vienna-based Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) in advance about the verification experiment. The organization’s IMS seismic stations detected a very small-scale, human-made explosion at the Nevada site that day. Regardless, these off-site seismic monitors alone cannot distinguish with high confidence between non-nuclear and nuclear explosions at very low yields.

After arriving at the P-Tunnel entrance, our delegation was outfitted with safety gear and escorted into the P-Tunnel for a briefing on the recent nuclear test verification experiment and future NNSA plans for similar experiments. The walking tour deep into the tunnel provided further confirmation that the October 18 verification experiment involved chemical high explosives.

In another sign of the site’s changing mission, our entourage went through Area 3 of Yucca Flats, where the NNSA stores equipment for a presidentially directed program that requires the agency to be ready to resume a nuclear explosive test within 36 months. The large, fenced-in outdoor storage yard was strewn with weather-worn equipment and massive spools of cable and wire and showed no signs of recent or planned activity. The large cranes once used to lower heavy diagnostic nuclear test assemblies into vertical tunnels are no longer at the site. Several experts in the delegation speculated that although an underground demonstration test of the kind reportedly discussed by senior Trump administration officials in 20207 could be conducted in less than 36 months, a fully instrumented, large-scale nuclear test explosion of a new or existing warhead design would take at least three years to tee up and that preparations for such a test would be detected easily by foreign governments and open-source imagery.

The delegation also spent nearly two hours at another key facility, known as U1A and located some 960 feet underground. This site, which was originally intended to be used for nuclear explosive testing, is now called the principal underground lab for subcritical experiments (PULSE).

Since the mid-1990s, the NNSA has conducted 33 subcritical experiments in the underground tunnels at the U1A complex primarily to improve the U.S. understanding of the physics of the aging plutonium in the cores of the Cold War-era nuclear devices that still comprise the U.S. nuclear arsenal. In a briefing, Adams emphasized that subcritical experiments are not “needed” to maintain confidence in the reliability and performance of the warheads in the U.S. nuclear arsenal but provide “important additional data on the plutonium in those warheads to support the continued certification of the reliability and performance well into the future without nuclear explosive testing.”

David Funk (L), vice president of enhanced capabilities for subcritical experiments, and Marvin Adams (R), National Nuclear Security Administration deputy administrator for defense programs, answer questions from nongovernmental experts about the operation of the Cygnus subcritical experiment machine in the “zero room” at the National Nuclear Security Site in November.  (Photo by the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration)Originally, subcritical experiments were conducted in single-use alcoves mined into the walls or in vertical boreholes in the floor of the U1A complex. Our group walked over several of the metal seals that today cover the boreholes from some of these experiments. In more recent years, the experiments have been conducted in a robust confinement vessel located in an isolated “zero room,” which prevents the release of radiological material and conserves space in the underground facility.

The delegation also was shown the main subcritical experiments machine now in use, called Cygnus, a pulsed X-ray radiography system designed to take at least two, time-separated radiographs of an explosive-driven experiment involving a small quantity of weapons-grade plutonium under dynamic shock. Each subcritical experiment takes approximately five years to conduct, from the initial planning to execution. Two more subcritical experiments are planned before mid-2024.

Tunnels under construction will house the more powerful Advanced Sources and Detectors Scorpius machine and the Neutron Diagnosed Subcritical experiments machine, dubbed ZEUS (Z-Pinched Experimental Underground System). These new machines, projected to cost more than $2 billion, will enable subcritical experiments that image the weapons-grade nuclear material with higher fidelity during multiple stages of the experiment. They are due to go online by 2030.

Hinderstein and Adams said that the NNSA continues to examine different technical approaches for potential confidence-building measures that could be applied to PULSE experiments and potentially subcritical experiments at other former test sites to provide independent confirmation that the experiments remain subcritical without revealing any classified information. Because subcritical experiments by design do not allow a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, or criticality, to occur, Adams suggested that the most reliable strategy for independent verification of the absence of a nuclear explosion would involve measuring for the absence of a self-sustained chain reaction. That would be indicated by a very rapid drop-off in the production of neutrons and gamma rays from the experiment.

Some independent experts, including two members of the delegation, said that because the yields of supercritical explosions are typically orders of magnitude larger than those of subcritical experiments, other technical methods also could be used to determine the amount of fission energy released by a contained, very low-yield nuclear experiment months or years later. This could be achieved, they suggested, by measuring the gamma rays from the radioactive decay of fission products and from transmutation products produced by the irradiation by fission neutrons.8

At this juncture, it is not clear whether the United States and the CTBT states-parties can find new ways to address concerns about potential very low-yield nuclear explosions at the former test sites in Russia, China, and the United States before the long-awaited entry into force of the CTBT. What is apparent is that the current NNSA leadership and the Biden administration are determined to show that the 1993 decision to extend the U.S. nuclear test moratorium “was not,” as Hruby said in September 2022, “a mere pause in our nuclear testing efforts but rather the bookend to the nuclear testing age.”9

 

Decisions Leading to the End of U.S. Nuclear Testing

President Bill Clinton’s July 3, 1993, decision to extend the U.S. nuclear test moratorium and seek to negotiate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) halted plans for the next nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site and put a permanent ban on nuclear testing within reach. Although the CTBT had been on the international nonproliferation agenda for decades, Clinton’s decision was precipitated by a crucial chain of events that forced a shift in policymakers' attitudes about nuclear testing.

In the Soviet Union, popular sentiment against nuclear testing grew stronger following a 1989 Soviet nuclear test in Kazakhstan that vented radioactivity into the atmosphere. A popular Nevada-Semipalatinsk Movement emerged to oppose further nuclear testing in Kazakhstan and elsewhere. Meetings and demonstrations were organized in many Kazakhstani and Soviet cities, including Moscow. The Soviets were forced to cancel 11 of 18 scheduled tests in 1989, and the Kremlin officially closed the main Soviet test site near Semipalatinsk in eastern Kazakhstan on August 29, 1991. Three months later, on October 5, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev announced a unilateral, one-year testing halt and invited the United States to reciprocate.

In response, a bicameral, bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), Representative Mike Kopetski (D-Ore.), Senator Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), and Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine), introduced legislation calling for a one-year U.S. moratorium. Backed by a strong citizen lobbying campaign, the legislation gained co-sponsors and momentum, especially after France joined Russia in declaring a nuclear test moratorium in April 1992 and the new Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, reiterated support
for the testing moratorium.

Another key development was the role of Senator Jim Exon (D-Neb.), a member of the Armed Services Committee who toured the Nevada Test Site earlier that year. By the summer, he proposed a compromise bill to establish a nine-month U.S. test moratorium; an end date for all U.S. nuclear tests of September 30, 1996; limits on the purpose and the number of any further tests to no more than 15; and a requirement for a plan to secure a global test ban treaty.

By September, the revised test moratorium legislation was approved by solid majorities in the House and Senate as part of a larger appropriations measurea over vigorous objections from President George H.W. Bush, who reluctantly signed it on October 3 and vowed to rescind it the following year. Bush lost the 1992 election to Clinton, who said during the campaign that he would pursue a global test ban treaty.

Once inaugurated, Clinton had just a few weeks to decide whether to extend the test moratorium. Initially, the White House considered a plan that would have allowed the resumption of U.S. nuclear testing by late 1993 and nuclear test explosions with yields of less than one kiloton as part of a global test ban regime. When The Washington Post broke the story about the draft plan in April 1993, test ban advocates and congressional leaders were furious.b They argued that congressional intent was to bring about a comprehensive test ban treaty, not one that would allow low-yield test explosions.

In the following weeks, as pressure from congressional leaders, newspaper editorial boards, and test ban campaigners to extend the U.S. test moratorium grew, the views within the Clinton administration shifted. Over the objections of the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Clinton was persuaded by his new energy secretary, Hazel O’Leary; his science adviser, John Gibbons; and the Arms Control Disarmament Agency that further nuclear explosive testing was not necessary to maintain the safety and reliability of the nuclear arsenal and that he could and should extend the U.S. nuclear test moratorium and seek a comprehensive test ban treaty.—DARYL G. KIMBALL
 

a. Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act of 1993, 50 U.S.C. § 2530 (2003).

b. R. Jeffrey Smith, “White House Studies Nuclear Test Limits,” The Washington Post, April 30, 1993.

ENDNOTES

1. Princeton University, “Western Shoshone,” n.d., https://nuclearprinceton.princeton.edu/western-shoshone (accessed December 30, 2023).

2. National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Field Office, “United States Nuclear Tests, July 1945 Through September 1992,” DOE/NV--209-REV 16, September 2015, https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/1351809.

3. Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, U.S. Department of State, “Scope of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty,” n.d., https://2009-2017.state.gov/t/avc/rls/212166.htm (accessed December 30, 2023).

4. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), “Remarks by NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby at the CTBT: Science and Technology Conference 2023,” June 19, 2023, https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/articles/remarks-nnsa-administrator-jill-hruby-ctbt-science-and-technology-conference-2023.

5. “Managing an Arsenal Without Nuclear Testing: An Interview With Jill Hruby of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration,” Arms Control Today, December 2023.

6. Nevada National Security Site, “Sedan Crater,” NNSS-SEDN-U-0047-Rev01, May 2022, https://nnss.gov/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/NNSS-SEDN-U-0047-Rev01-1.pdf.

7. John Hudson and Paul Sonne, “Trump Administration Discussed Conducting First U.S. Nuclear Test in Decades,” The Washington Post, May 22, 2020.

8. Julien de Troullioud de Lanversin, Christopher Fichtlscherer, and Frank N. von Hippel, “Reducing Tensions Over Nuclear Testing at Very Low Yield,” Arms Control Today, November 2023.

9. See NNSA, “NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby Commemorates the 30th Anniversary of the Divider Nuclear Explosive Test,” September 23, 2022, https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/articles/nnsa-administrator-jill-hruby-commemorates-30th-anniversary-divider-nuclear-explosive.


Daryl G. Kimball is executive director of the Arms Control Association.

The National Nuclear Security Administration hosted experts on a visit to show how the Nevada site has transitioned from nuclear explosive testing to experiments aimed at ensuring the era of nuclear testing is over.

North Korea Ends Inter-Korean Military Agreement


January/February 2024
By Kelsey Davenport

The tenuous relationship between North and South Korea deteriorated further after Seoul announced its intention to suspend part of a joint military agreement in response to Pyongyang’s illegal launch of a satellite in November. North Korea responded by terminating its participation entirely. It later announced that unification with South Korea is no longer a viable policy goal.

A TV at Yongsan Railway Station in Seoul shows a Hwasong-18 solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile that was launched by North Korea on Dec. 18. It is among the recent provocative acts that are fueling tensions on the Korean peninsula. (Photo by KIM Jae-Hwan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)South Korea announced on Nov. 22 that it will no longer abide by a no-fly zone established over the border area between the two Koreas in the Comprehensive Military Agreement. That agreement, concluded in September 2018 between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, also contains restrictions on guard posts and live-fire exercises near the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries.

The move by South Korea to rescind the no-fly zone component of the agreement in response to the satellite launch does not come as a surprise. South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik repeatedly has raised concerns about the agreement limiting South Korea’s ability to conduct surveillance and threatened to withdraw if North Korea launched a satellite.

Later on Nov. 22, North Korea’s Central Military Commission responded to the South Korean announcement, saying that, “from now on [North Korea] will never be bound” by the 2018 agreement. The commission said that North Korea will “immediately restore all military measures” that were halted by the agreement.

The commission blamed the collapse of the agreement and heightened tensions on South Korea, saying Seoul is creating the “most dangerous situation” and will be “wholly accountable” if conflict breaks out between the two countries.

Since Nov. 22, the two sides have redeployed additional soldiers along the demarcation line and taken steps to restore guard posts that were not in use under the agreement.

Although not directly referencing the agreement, Moon appeared to criticize the current South Korean government for revoking the agreement and its hard-line approach. In a Dec. 10 post on Facebook, Moon said that “abandoning agreements” and dialogue has “only hastened the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.”

In addition to withdrawing from the miltiary agreement, Kim suggested that unification of the Korean peninsula is “impossible,” departing from a long-standing policy goal of uniting the two countries. In remarks on Dec. 31, he said that “reunification can never be achieved,” given South Korea’s goal of absorbing North Korea into its democracy, and that the two countries are no longer “homogenous.”

Kim Yung-ho, the South Korean minister of unification, disputed the claim that unification is impossible. In a Jan. 1 speech, he said that Seoul will work to establish a “master plan” for unification and warned that Kim Jong Un is trying to “suppress” South Korea.

Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un announced further plans to accelerate the production of nuclear warheads and launch an additional three surveillance satellites in 2024. Satellite imagery suggests that North Korea started operating a nuclear reactor in late 2023 that would provide additional fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said on Dec. 21 that the agency observed signs consistent with commissioning what may be a light-water reactor at the Yongbyong nuclear complex.

North Korea justified its military actions and nuclear expansion as a necessary response to the United States.

During a UN Security Council meeting on Nov. 27, Kim Song, North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, said that it is North Korea’s “legitimate right…to develop, test, manufacture, and possess weapons systems equivalent to those that the United States already possess.”

The Security Council meeting was convened to discuss North Korea’s Nov. 21 satellite launch. Pyongyang is prohibited from launching satellites under council resolutions because the rockets utilize technologies common in ballistic missiles.

Kim said that the sanctions are “illegal and unlawful” and it is necessary for North Korea to pursue satellites to “get a clear picture of the dire military moves” of the United States.

The Security Council did not take any formal action to respond to North Korea’s activities due to continued resistance from Russia and China.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield asked the council “how many more times” it must gather in response to illegal North Korean activities before China and Russia “join us in demanding [that North Korea] abandon its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs.”

During the meeting, Russia denied accusations that it provided North Korea with any technical military assistance.

Anna Evstigneeva, Russia’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, called the allegations “groundless” during the council meeting and said that attempts to “vilify” Russia reflect a desire to “divert” the council’s attention from “the United States’ ambitions to strangle Pyongyang at any cost.”

She said that Russia “does not support steps by either side that run counter to the objectives of establishing long-term peace in the region…[but that it] does not come as a surprise” that North Korea would take steps in the “interests of self-defense.”

Thomas-Greenfield disputed the idea that North Korea is reacting to U.S. military activities. She said Pyongyang is “unabashedly trying to advance its nuclear weapons delivery systems by testing ballistic missile technology” and warned that the “reckless, unlawful behavior” is a threat. She reiterated the Biden administration’s “call for dialogue on any topic” with North Korea.

As the United States urges dialogue with North Korea, it continues to take steps to strengthen its alliance with South Korea. The two countries met on Dec. 15 for a second meeting of the Nuclear Consultative Group, which was announced when South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol met with U.S. President Joe Biden in April. (See ACT, May 2023.)

In a joint statement following the Dec. 15 meeting, the United States and South Korea reiterated that “any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies is unacceptable and will result in the end of the Kim regime.”

The Dec. 16 statement noted that U.S. and South Korean officials acknowledged that “nuclear deterrence cooperation deepened” through the Nuclear Consultative Group process. It said that the United States and South Korea “reviewed the enhanced visibility of strategic assets to bolster extended deterrence” and discussed “future plans to demonstrate a strengthening of deterrence.”

In a Dec. 17 statement published in the state-run Korean Central News Agency, a spokesperson from the North Korean Defense Ministry described the work of the Nuclear Consultative Group as “an open declaration on nuclear confrontation.”

The spokesperson accused South Korea and the United States of “maximizing the tension in and around the Korean peninsula with hostile and provocative acts” against North Korea and said the move “pressurizes our armed forces to opt for more offensive countermeasure[s].”

The following day, North Korea tested what appears to be a solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on a lofted trajectory from near Pyongyang. North Korea last tested an ICBM in July.

 

The tenuous relationship between North and South Korea deteriorated further after Pyongyang’s illegal launch of a satellite in November.

TPNW States Challenge Nuclear Deterrence Doctrine


January/February 2024
By Shizuka Kuramitsu

States-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) have begun challenging the long-standing deterrence rationale for nuclear weapons in an effort to inject new momentum into their campaign to rid the world of these armaments.

Mexican Ambassador Juan Ramon de la Fuente (C), president of the second meeting of states-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, Alicia Sanders-Zakre (L) of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), and Veronique Christory (R) of the International Committee of the Red Cross brief journalists on the outcome of the meeting on Dec. 1 at the UN. (Photo by ICAN)At their second annual TPNW meeting held Nov. 27 to Dec. 1 in New York, they approved a political outcome document that unveiled the new strategy, declaring that the states-parties “will not stand by as spectators to increasing nuclear risks and the dangerous perpetuation of nuclear deterrence.”

At the suggestion of the Austrian delegation, the states-parties decided to establish a “consultative process on security concerns of TPNW states” that aims to reframe the debate over nuclear disarmament as a necessary instrument to ensure human security and national security.

“This shift at the TPNW conference indicated in Austria’s working paper is important. There are deep flaws in the assumptions that underline the current nuclear paradigm, and deterrence, although [it] works most of the time, is inherently flawed and will fail over the long run,” Ward Hayes Wilson, executive director of RealistRevolt, told Arms Control Today.

Amid a deteriorating international security environment due to the Russian war in Ukraine and other factors, nuclear-armed states recently have reaffirmed the need to possess nuclear weapons on the grounds that such armaments deter adversaries. This nuclear deterrence doctrine has been at the core of NATO’s mutual security guarantee and collective defense since the alliance was created in 1949.

At the meeting, Germany, a TPNW observer state, stressed that, “confronted with an openly aggressive Russia, the importance of nuclear deterrence has increased for many states.”

“Germany, as a NATO member, is fully committed to NATO’s nuclear deterrence, the purpose of which is to preserve peace, deter aggression, and prevent nuclear coercion,” the head of the German delegation said.

Similarly, during a meeting of the Group of Seven industrialized countries in Hiroshima in May, world leaders reaffirmed their view that “our security policies are based on the understanding that nuclear weapons, for as long as they exist, should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression and prevent war and coercion.”

But in their political document, the TPNW states-parties countered that “[t]he renewed advocacy, [and] insistence on and attempts to justify nuclear deterrence as a legitimate security doctrine [give] false credence to the value of nuclear weapons for national security and dangerously [increase] the risk of horizontal and vertical nuclear proliferation.”

In addition, nuclear threats “only serve to undermine the disarmament and non-proliferation regime and international peace and security,” the declaration stated.

The states-parties named Austria as coordinator for the new consultative process and called for a report to be submitted at the next TPNW meeting with a set of arguments and recommendations.

The process is expected “to better promote and articulate the legitimate security concerns, [and] threat and risk perceptions enshrined in the treaty that result from the existence of nuclear weapons and the concept of nuclear deterrence,” the parties decided.

Further, states-parties in partnership with scientists and civil society decided “to challenge the security paradigm based on nuclear deterrence by highlighting and promoting new scientific evidence about the humanitarian consequences and risks of nuclear weapons and juxtaposing those with risks and assumptions that are inherent to nuclear deterrence.”

Reflecting this move to delegitimize nuclear weapons, Juan Ramón de la Fuente, the Mexican ambassador who served as the TPNW meeting president, told a press conference on Dec. 1 that “there is an incompatibility between nuclear weapons and international security. That is why we are more convinced now than before [that] the only way to really move towards [a] more secure world for all of us is with the prohibition of nuclear weapons.”

At Mexico’s initiative, the meeting reinforced the new strategy by elevating debate on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use and by including scientists from the newly established TPNW scientific advisory group, a speaker from the International Committee of Red Cross, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations and affected communities, including Australia, Kiribati, and Japan, to share their perspectives and findings.

“This was extremely important because it was the first time that we were addressing at this level [of an official UN conference] the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear detonation,” de la Fuente said.

Setsuko Thurlow, an atomic bomb survivor from Hiroshima, told the press conference that “[n]ow with the humanitarian initiative as a guide, we were able to look at the [nuclear weapons] issue as a human issue, to put human being[s] right in front and a center of discussion.”

Some 59 states-parties, 35 observer states, and 122 nongovernmental organizations, participated in the weeklong TPNW meeting, which elected Akan Rakhmetullin, Kazakhstan’s UN ambassador, as president of the next meeting, to be held in March 2025.

States-parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons challenged the deterrence rationale for
nuclear weapons in an effort to inject new momentum into their campaign to rid the world of these armaments.

Congress Cancels Compensation for Radiation Victims


January/February 2024
By Chris Rostampour

Congress cut compensation for victims of U.S. nuclear testing-related activities from a compromise version of the 2024 fiscal year National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) was passed by Congress in 1990 to offer health benefits and compensation to some victims who had developed serious illnesses due to radiation exposure caused by U.S. nuclear weapons development and testing in the 20th century.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), seen here at a Senate committee hearing, has been a leader in the effort to expand U.S. compensation for victims of U.S. nuclear testing-related activities. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)Over the years, as awareness increased about the full effects of these activities and new lawsuits were filed against the U.S. government related to radiation exposure claims, RECA’s narrow scope of coverage was broadened to include more affected communities.

In July, a bipartisan group of senators won approval to include a 29-page amendment to the draft NDAA that would extend RECA for two decades and expand its eligibility coverage to new regions and communities harmed by nuclear testing fallout. Additional harmed uranium miners and workers and certain Missouri communities affected by discarded Manhattan Project nuclear waste would have been covered for the first time. (See ACT, September 2023.)

The Senate passed its version of the NDAA by a vote of 87-13 on Dec. 13, and the House passed its version 310-118 on Dec. 14. The RECA amendment was not part of the House version of the NDAA, and the compromise hammered out by a House-Senate conference committee did not include the Senate amendment. The reconciled legislation was signed into law by President Biden on Dec. 23.

Senators who had introduced the RECA amendment blamed its exclusion on the Republican leadership in both chambers of Congress. “Earlier this year, the Senate made real progress on strengthening [RECA] when Democrats and Republicans passed my legislation” as part of the Senate NDAA, Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) said in a statement. “However, at the eleventh hour, [the] Republican Leadership blocked its inclusion in the final bill.”

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who joined Luján in pushing the amendment, also blamed Republican leaders. In an interview with Bloomberg, he said taking the measure out of the NDAA was “100 percent a leadership decision,” referring to House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Hawley told The Hill that Democratic leaders in both chambers “were supportive.”

The Hill reported that McConnell had personally expressed opposition to including the amendment in the bill, telling Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) early in the conference negotiations, “I don’t want RECA in there. I want to get rid of it.”

Hawley filed a motion on Dec. 12 to stop the NDAA procedural vote from taking place, but his plea to table the bill in the Senate failed 26-73.

“The Senate passed the defense bill tonight, but it’s nothing to celebrate. Defense contractors get paid billions, while Missourians poisoned by their government get nothing. It’s a travesty,” Hawley posted on his social media account shortly after the vote.

The RECA program still could still be extended and expanded if it is added as an amendment to another piece of legislation. Luján, who has secured multiple extensions for the program, introduced a separate RECA bill in the Senate in July.

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D-N.M.), who has introduced a companion bill in the House, said in a statement that the fight is not over.

“Our bipartisan coalition will not give up—we will fight to pass RECA and secure justice for our beloved New Mexico communities who unknowingly sacrificed so much for our nation’s security,” she wrote.

 

Congress cut compensation for victims of U.S. nuclear testing-related activities from a compromise version of the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act.

Iran Accelerates Highly Enriched Uranium Production


January/February 2024
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran accelerated its production of uranium enriched to near-weapons grade levels in November, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, seen attending a meeting in Moscow, said in a Dec. 9 speech that the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is becoming “useless.”  (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu via Getty Images)In a Dec. 26 report, the IAEA noted that Iran is now producing approximately nine kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent uranium-235 per month. Iran was producing 60 percent enriched U-235 at a similar rate in early 2023, but decreased production by about two-thirds in June. (See ACT, October 2023.)

Accelerating the production of uranium enriched to 60 percent U-235 is concerning because the material can be quickly enriched to weapons-grade levels or 90 percent.

France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States condemned Iran’s decision in a Dec. 28 statement and described it as a “backwards step” that demonstrates Tehran’s “lack of good will” toward deescalation. The statement said that Iran’s actions “represent reckless behavior in a tense regional context” and urged Tehran to “immediately reverse these steps.”

Mohammad Elsami, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, dismissed the IAEA report as propaganda. The increase in enrichment of uranium to 60 percent U-235 comes amid mixed signals from Tehran regarding its interest in nuclear diplomacy and restoring the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said in a Dec. 9 speech that the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is becoming “useless.” The United States and Iran are “not currently on the path to return” to the nuclear deal, he said, but Iran would consider restoring the accord if it “serves our interest.”

The comments appear to suggest a subtle shift in Iranian messaging regarding the JCPOA. Iran publicly continued to support restoring the accord long after the United States signaled that returning to the nuclear deal is no longer a U.S. priority.

Kurt Campbell, U.S. National Security Council coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, reaffirmed the U.S. position before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Dec. 7. Campbell, the Biden administration’s nominee for deputy secretary of state, said that the nuclear deal is “just not on the table” in the current environment.

It is unclear how the United States intends to respond to Iran’s advancing nuclear program. Iran took limited steps to slow certain nuclear activities in the second half of 2023, but the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza appear to have put discussions on further deescalatory measures on hold. (See ACT, October 2023.)

The Biden administration continues to enforce sanctions against Iran, but it is more challenging now for the United States to garner international support than it was in the period leading up to the JCPOA, when Washington, Beijing, and Moscow were aligned on pressing Tehran to negotiate.

Elsami said that sanctions have failed to halt the country’s nuclear program. In a Dec. 15 speech, he said that Iran will continue to invest in expanding its nuclear energy activities.

Tehran also is strengthening ties with Moscow and supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi met on Dec. 7 with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said that Russia “gained good momentum over the past year” thanks to the support of Iran.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom accused Iran of “deliberately supporting Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine” and knowingly transferring drones for use against Ukrainian civilians.

The three states made the accusation during a UN Security Council meeting on Dec. 18 to discuss the UN secretary-general’s biannual report on implementation of Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA and modified UN sanctions on Iran.

They described Iran’s “continued and long-lasting contempt” for Resolution 2231 and urged Tehran to “cease its reckless proliferative activities in the region and beyond.”

The UN missile restrictions in the resolution expired in October, but the three states referred to evidence that Iran transferred missiles, drones, and related technologies without Security Council approval prior to that date. (See ACT, November 2023.)

During the Dec. 18 meeting, Vassily Nebenzia, Russian ambassador to the United Nations, denied that Moscow received military assistance from Iran in violation of Resolution 2231. He said “there were not and could not be any deliveries to circumvent” the resolution.

Nebenzia also disputed that the UN Secretariat has the authority to investigate and attribute violations of the resolution and blamed the United States and Europe for the current nuclear crisis.

The United States and the European parties to the JCPOA “bear the key responsibility for the failure to implement the nuclear deal,” he said. Nebenzia added that Russia “remains convinced there are no alternatives” to the 2015 nuclear deal and expects “Western countries to abandon their policy of unilateral restrictions” against Iran.

In a report, the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran is now producing approximately nine kilograms of uranium enriched to 60 percent uranium-235 per month.

Congress Endorses New Nuclear Weapon


January/February 2024
By Shannon Bugos

Congress authorized $260 million for a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) for fiscal year 2024, despite the Biden administration’s clear desire not to pursue the weapon’s development.

U.S. representatives, from left, Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.), Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), Harriet Hageman (R-Wyo.), Laurel Lee (R-Fla.), and Mike Collins (R-Ga.), attend the House and Senate conference committee markup of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2024 on Capitol Hill on Nov. 29. (Photo by Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)The administration did not request any funding for the nuclear SLCM in 2023 or 2024 because it assessed that the weapon has only “marginal utility” and would “impede investment in other priorities.” (See ACT, May and November 2023.) But for the second consecutive year, Congress overrode the Pentagon’s decision due to a majority of lawmakers viewing the SLCM as critical in the current nuclear environment.

The fiscal year 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorizes $190 million for the missile and $70 million for its associated warhead.

The topline NDAA came in at $874 billion, a 3 percent increase from the 2023 NDAA. The grand total for national defense, which includes additional national discretionary defense spending that falls outside of the NDAA, is $886 billion.

The Senate passed the NDAA in an 87-13 vote on Dec. 13, followed by the House in a 310-118 vote on Dec. 14. President Joe Biden signed the NDAA into law on Dec. 23.

On Dec. 8, Congress unveiled the final version of the NDAA, which resolved differences between the respective House and Senate versions of the legislation passed in June.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) lambasted the final version of the NDAA because it no longer included an amendment that would have expanded the law compensating people who were exposed to radiation due to U.S. nuclear testing and production, known as downwinders, to additional states, extended the law for 19 years, and added coverage to uranium workers and Missouri communities harmed by discarded Manhattan Project nuclear waste.

Hawley was one of six Republican senators who voted against the NDAA’s final passage. The amendment’s exclusion is “a betrayal of the tens of thousands of Americans made sick by their government’s nuclear waste who have relied on this program for life-saving help,” Hawley said on Dec. 8, referring to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA). With this amendment, Hawley’s state of Missouri, along with Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, and Guam, would have been added to RECA, which currently covers people who resided in Arizona, Nevada, and Utah during the years when nuclear testing took place.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), a co-sponsor of the amendment, told The Hill on Dec. 8, “We cannot turn a blind eye to those who sacrificed for our national security.”

Overall, Congress fulfilled the Biden administration’s 2024 budget requests for nuclear weapons-related programs and activities, with some adjustments.

Lawmakers authorized $4.3 billion for continued research and development and initial procurement of the new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system, which reflects a slight decrease of 0.2 percent from the request. The Air Force aims to purchase a total of about 650 Sentinel ICBMs and deploy 400 of them to replace Minuteman III ICBMs.

Bloomberg reported on Dec. 14 that the Air Force may have to assess whether the Sentinel project should be canceled as a result of major unexpected cost increases. One estimate suggests that the project may cost as much as 50 percent more than its projected $96 billion.

The Pentagon on Oct. 30 awarded Lockheed Martin a nearly $1 billion sole-source contract to provide a new reentry vehicle to carry the W87-1 warhead for the Sentinel system by 2039.

The Air Force conducted a routine test of an unarmed Minuteman III on Nov. 1, but the test culminated in intentional destruction of the test ICBM over the Pacific Ocean due to an unspecified “anomaly” during the launch.

For the Air Force, Congress also authorized $5.3 billion for R&D and construction of the B-21 Raider dual-capable strategic bomber and $958 million, a $20 million decrease from the request, for the new nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile, known as the Long-Range Standoff Weapons (LRSO) system. Over the coming years, the Air Force plans to buy a total of about 100 bombers and 1,000 missiles.

The B-21 bomber, unveiled a year ago, had its highly anticipated first flight test on Nov. 10 in California.

For the Navy, Congress authorized $6.1 billion for R&D and procurement of what ultimately will be a fleet of 12 Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, a $10 million increase from the request. As planned, this will allow for the purchase of one submarine in 2024, the second submarine of the fleet.

The Army does not have a nuclear weapons program, but has been developing a conventional, ground-launched midrange missile, a capability previously prohibited under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which ended in 2019 after the United States withdrew from the agreement. This capability, known as the Typhon system, features modified Standard Missile-6 and Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Congress authorized the requested $170 million for the purchase of 58 new Block V Tomahawk missiles, as well as $32 million for continued R&D.

Although the Pentagon handles nuclear weapons delivery systems, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) maintains and develops the nuclear warheads.

The NNSA asked in October to amend its 2024 budget request to account for its unanticipated decision to develop an additional variant of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb. (See ACT, December 2023.) Congress granted the request for $52 million for developmental engineering activities for the new variant, the B61-13.

The Pentagon hopes that the B61-13 variant will help catalyze the retirement process of the B83 megaton gravity bomb, which some lawmakers have resisted, believing the B83 to be necessary to target hard and deeply buried targets.

Congress authorized the NNSA requests for the B61-12 gravity bomb, the W87-1 ICBM warhead, the W80 LRSO warhead, and the new controversial W93 submarine-launched ballistic missile programs at $450 million, $1.1 billion, $1 billion, and $390 million, respectively. Lawmakers authorized the requested $1.8 billion for plutonium-pit production at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and a $142 million increase to a total of $1.1 billion for plutonium-pit production at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

In addition, Congress authorized the Biden administration’s request for $351 million for the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which endeavors to counter threats from weapons of mass destruction and related challenges, including the spread of dangerous pathogens such as the coronavirus.

Although the NDAA provides the approval for federal defense spending, no money actually can be spent until Congress also passes and the president signs the relevant defense and energy and water appropriations legislation. So far, no appropriations legislation has reached the president’s desk.

Congress authorized $260 million for a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile for fiscal year 2024, despite the Biden administration’s clear desire not to pursue the weapon’s development.

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