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“For half a century, ACA has been providing the world … with advocacy, analysis, and awareness on some of the most critical topics of international peace and security, including on how to achieve our common, shared goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.”

– Izumi Nakamitsu
UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
June 2, 2022
May 2019

Arms Control Today May 2019

Edition Date: 
Wednesday, May 1, 2019
Cover Image: 

U.S. Conducts ‘Salvo Engagement’ GMD Test


May 2019
By Shervin Taheran

U.S. missile interceptors successfully destroyed a mock intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on March 25 in the most realistic test so far of U.S. defenses against long-range missile attacks, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) announced.

A ground-based interceptor is launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., March 25. This and another interceptor successfully destroyed a long-range missile target, according to the Missile Defense Agency. (Photo: Missile Defense Agency)After launching a “threat representative” ICBM target from the Kwajalein Atoll, the agency dispatched two ground-based interceptors (GBIs) from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., to destroy the target. It was the first time such a salvo engagement had been tried, and MDA Director Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves called the test a “critical milestone.”

The two interceptors launched exoatmospheric kill vehicles (EKVs) to identify and destroy the mock warhead. The first EKV attacked the target. The second assessed the resulting debris field, determined that the initial target was no longer present, and then struck “the next ‘most lethal object’ it could identify,” an MDA press release reported.

The test was “the most complex, comprehensive, and operationally challenging test ever executed,” Greaves said in April 3 congressional testimony. The test’s success in assessing the debris field meant that “any concept of operations which seek[s] to confuse our missile defense system by launching junk or debris would not be successful. That’s why it was a success,” he added.

Congress first required a salvo test of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system in 2001, passing legislation that said the “early stages of system development” should incorporate “events to demonstrate engagement of multiple targets, ‘shoot-look-shoot’, and other planned operational concepts.”

The March test was the 19th overall and the 11th reported as successful. The previous test was conducted May 30, 2017. (See ACT, July/August 2017.) The next test has not been announced.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has raised concerns that none of the previous GMD tests included “realistic decoys” or “other countermeasures that the system could be expected to face in a real attack,” according to a January 2019 report, which said that some of the tests included decoy balloons, which are easier for EKVs to distinguish from mock warheads or other objects because of their distinguishing characteristics. The May 2017 test included at least one decoy, but it is unclear whether the 2019 test used any decoys or other countermeasures designed to fool the kill vehicles.

The GMD system currently consists of 40 GBIs deployed at Fort Greely, Alaska, and four more at Vandenberg. In its 2019 Missile Defense Review, the Trump administration proposed raising the total number to 64 by 2023 by adding new GBIs at Fort Greely armed with the new Redesigned Kill Vehicle, which the review calls “more effective, reliable, and affordable.” Developmental delays, however, could slow the fielding of the new version to fiscal year 2025, according to recent budget request documents. (See ACT, April 2019.)

The Missile Defense Agency declares success after first-of-its-kind missile defense test.

Nuclear Security Funding Cuts in Future


May 2019
By Kingston Reif

For the third year in a row, the Trump administration is proposing to reduce funding for core U.S. nuclear security and nonproliferation programs at the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The fiscal year 2020 budget request has prompted concerns from experts and lawmakers who have warned of persistent threats of nuclear terrorism and diminishing international attention to nuclear security.

Workers load a cask of spent highly enriched uranium removed from a Vietnamese research reactor into a container bound for Russia. The Trump administration is seeking to reduce financial support for the Energy Department's nonproliferation efforts. (Photo: Sando Tozser/IAEA)Even NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty suggested that the submission is insufficient, telling a congressional committee last month that she would gladly take additional funds above the budget request “to secure more nuclear materials around the world because that’s nuclear materials that are less likely to fall in the hands of terrorists or adversaries.”

The Trump administration is asking for $1.3 billion for core nuclear security and nonproliferation programs at the NNSA next year, a decrease of about $100 million, or 7 percent, from the fiscal year 2019 appropriation.

When measured against what the NNSA said it would request for these programs during the last year of the Obama administration, the fiscal year 2020 proposal is more than $200 million less than projected.

The largest proposed reduction in the request is to the Global Material Security program, which has the task of improving the security of nuclear materials around the world, securing orphaned or disused radiological sources, and strengthening nuclear smuggling detection and deterrence. The program would get $342 million, a $65 million reduction from the fiscal year 2019 appropriation.

According to budget documents, the decline from the enacted level reflects “a return to the baseline budget” after one-time increases from Congress in fiscal year 2019 to programs addressing domestic and international radiological material security and nuclear smuggling.

Asked at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on April 9 what the NNSA could do with an additional $80 million for international nuclear security programs, Gordon-Hagerty said the agency could acquire additional cesium blood irradiators, undertake “additional training around the world,” and help other countries with “security installations.”

The Material Management and Minimization program, which supports the removal of civilian highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium around the world and converts HEU-fueled research reactors and medical isotope production facilities to the use of low-enriched uranium, would receive $334 million, a decrease of $59 million from the fiscal year 2019 appropriation.

The budget request would increase funding slightly for nonproliferation and arms control activities from a fiscal year 2019 appropriation of $130 million to $137 million. Spending for nonproliferation research and development activities, which focus on technologies used in tracking foreign nuclear weapons programs, illicit diversion of nuclear materials, and nuclear detonations, would rise to $495 million from its $477 million fiscal year 2019 appropriation.

Experts and lawmakers are questioning the wisdom of the proposed reductions in funding for NNSA nuclear and radiological security activities.

A policy brief from Harvard University’s Managing the Atom Project published in April argued that the “budget request for programs to reduce the dangers of nuclear theft and terrorism is too small to implement the ambitious approach that is needed.”

Although past U.S. efforts to improve nuclear security around the world have been highly successful, the brief notes, “momentum is slowing, raising serious doubts as to whether national leaders are fulfilling their commitment to continue to make nuclear security a priority.”

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), the chairwoman of the House energy and water appropriations subcommittee that oversees the NNSA’s nuclear weapons and nonproliferation work, expressed concern at an April 2 hearing on the NNSA budget request “that the administration is taking its foot off the gas pedal with respect to key nonproliferation programs.”

During the first two years of the Trump administration, Congress provided almost $300 million more than what the administration requested for core NNSA nuclear security and nonproliferation programs.

Elsewhere in the NNSA nonproliferation budget, the administration is requesting $220 million to close down the controversial mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel facility and $79 million to support an alternative strategy to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program. (See ACT, March 2019.)

The MOX fuel facility, designed to turn the surplus material into fuel for civilian power reactors, has been plagued by major cost increases and schedule delays. The Energy Department has sought to end the program since 2014 in favor of
a cheaper alternative, known as dilute and dispose. That process would down-blend the plutonium with an inert material for direct disposal at the deep-underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

The NNSA estimated last year that the dilute-and-dispose process would cost $19.9 billion, or 40 percent of the $49.4 billion cost of continuing the MOX fuel program.

Trump pursuing cuts to U.S. nuclear security, nonproliferation programs.

Officials Say IAEA Inspected Warehouse in Iran


May 2019
By Kelsey Davenport

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reportedly inspected a warehouse in Tehran that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleges was used to store documents and materials related to Iran’s past nuclear weapons program. News reports did not specify exactly when the inspection took place, but one official said inspectors visited the site in March, according to a Reuters article.

IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano (left) and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meet in Washington, DC, on April 3. During his U.S. visit, Amano described his agency's efforts to monitor Iranian compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.  (Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)Netanyahu revealed the location of the warehouse during his speech at the UN General Assembly in September and said it was used for “storing massive amounts of equipment and material for Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program,” including 15 kilograms of radioactive material that had recently been removed from the building. Netanyahu called on IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano to “do the right thing” and send inspectors to visit the site “immediately.”

The IAEA typically does not comment on inspections and has not confirmed that a visit to the warehouse took place, but Amano said on April 3 that the agency had not seen any activities taking place “contrary to the Iran nuclear deal.”

Netanyahu did not specify what type of radioactive material was removed from the warehouse. To comply with its nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty commitments, Iran is required to declare certain nuclear materials, primarily uranium and plutonium, to the IAEA. There are no restrictions on other types of radioactive material, such as cobalt and radium.

The diplomats quoted in the Reuters article said the IAEA collected environmental samples to test for the presence of nuclear materials, but those results may not be fully analyzed until June.

Netanyahu has also been pushing the IAEA to follow up on archival materials documenting Iran’s past nuclear weapons-related work that Israel stole from Iran in January 2018. (See ACT, May 2018.) Netanyahu has argued that the archive’s existence is evidence that Iran is still seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

Without naming Israel, Amano has spoken out against efforts by states to influence IAEA monitoring and verification activities. He said on April 5 that states “should not intervene in our work of safeguards implementation.” He emphasized that IAEA work depends on its independence and said that “if attempts are made to micromanage or put pressure on the agency in implementing nuclear verification, that would be counterproductive and extremely harmful.”

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), described Netanyahu’s efforts to pressure the IAEA to further investigate as “futile.” He said on April 9 that the IAEA’s investigation into Iran’s past activities is closed “legally and politically.”

Iran was not required to destroy archives detailing its past nuclear weapons-related work as part of the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The deal does commit Iran to address concerns raised by the IAEA about the military dimensions of its nuclear program prior to receiving U.S., EU, and UN sanctions relief.

In a December 2015 report assessing the material provided by Iran, the IAEA concluded that Tehran had an organized nuclear weapons development program until 2003 and continued some activities intermittently through 2009, but there were no indications of nuclear weapons-related work after that point. (See ACT, January/February 2016.)

U.S. intelligence assessments reached a similar conclusion, and in the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats assessed that “Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device.”

Meanwhile, Iran has continued nuclear research and development allowed by the JCPOA. During the celebration of National Nuclear Day on April 9, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani drew attention to the country’s nuclear achievements and announced the installation of 20 advanced IR-6 centrifuges at its Natanz facility.

Iran is permitted to enrich uranium using only up to 5,060 of its first-generation IR-1 centrifuge machines under the nuclear deal, but Tehran can test limited numbers of advanced centrifuges based on the terms of the JCPOA and a more specific research and development plan submitted to the IAEA that is not public.

The nuclear deal states that Iran can test limited numbers of IR-6 centrifuges in small and intermediate cascades, but does not provide specific numbers until eight and a half years after implementation of the deal, at which point Iran can test 30 machines in a cascade. Iran is allowed to introduce uranium into the cascades, but cannot withdraw any enriched material.

A European official from one of the states party to the nuclear deal told Arms Control Today on April 12 that if Iran follows through on Rouhani’s announcement, “it would not appear” to violate the terms of the nuclear deal.

 

U.S. Ends Exemptions to Iran Oil Sanctions

Ramping up U.S. pressure on Tehran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on April 22 that the Trump administration will no longer exempt any countries from U.S. sanctions designed to shut down Iranian oil exports.

U.S. sanctions targeting Iran’s oil sales took effect last November as part of President Donald Trump’s May 2018 decision to withdraw from the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Tehran and reimpose pre-agreement sanctions on Iran. The Trump administration issued 180-day waivers in November allowing seven states and Taiwan to continue importing Iranian oil, but those waivers expire May 2. (See ACT, December 2018.) The president has the authority to renew the waivers every 180 days if a nation significantly reduces its oil imports from Iran.

Pompeo said that issuing the waivers in November gave U.S. allies and partners time to “wean themselves off of Iranian oil and to ensure a well-supplied oil market.” The United States is now “going to zero,” Pompeo said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif described the U.S. decision as an act of “economic terrorism.” Iranian officials said Tehran will respond and raised the prospect of closing the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 30 percent of the world’s seaborne oil passes on a daily basis.

China, the largest purchaser of Iranian oil, denounced the U.S. decision, and experts speculate that Beijing may continue importing oil despite Pompeo’s announcement. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on April 23 that Beijing “opposes U.S. unilateral sanctions” and is committed to protecting the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese enterprises.”

Pompeo said that the United States will “enforce sanctions and monitor compliance.” He warned that “any nation or entity interacting with Iran should do its diligence and err on the side of caution.”

The United States will maintain the sanctions until Iran ends its “pursuit of nuclear weapons,” ballistic missile testing and proliferation, and terrorism sponsorship, Pompeo said.

He did not offer any evidence that Iran is actively pursuing nuclear weapons or violating the 2015 nuclear deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency, tasked with monitoring the agreement, has repeatedly stated that Iran is meeting its obligations.

Prior to the November sanctions, Iran had been exporting approximately 2.5 million barrels of oil per day. That volume has dropped to about 1 million barrels daily as a result of the sanctions.

Pompeo said the United States was in close contact with other oil suppliers to ensure that the oil market remained balanced. In an April 22 statement, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said that Riyadh would be “monitoring” the market, but did not commit to increasing production.
—KELSEY DAVENPORT

The nuclear watchdog has continued monitoring activities in Iran as suspicions linger.

Trump Vetoes Yemen War Powers Restraint Effort


May 2019
By Jeff Abramson

President Donald Trump issued an April 16 veto of a congressional resolution to assert authority over direct U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen. In a statement explaining the move, Trump said that U.S.-provided intelligence, logistics support, and in-flight refueling did not constitute direct engagement in hostilities and that the “resolution is an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities, endangering the lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future.”

A Yemeni graffiti artist protests the continuing conflict in her country on April 25.  (Photo: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images)The expected veto followed the House of Representatives passage on April 4 of the War Powers Act resolution by a 247–175 vote, with 16 Republicans joining 231 Democrats. The resolution had been approved by the Senate by a 54–46 vote on March 13. (See ACT, April 2019.)

Supporters of the resolution called the measure a success despite the veto. The effort will “caution this and future administrations from going to war without first seeking authorization from Congress,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who introduced this year's House version of the resolution. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who introduced the Senate resolution, called April 22 for a vote to override the veto. He argued that U.S. involvement meets the War Powers Act definitions and that “Congress must now act to protect that constitutional responsibility [to declare war] by overriding the president’s veto.” Because the Congress-approved resolution originated in the Senate, a veto override must begin in that chamber and be approved by a two-thirds majority before moving to the House. The veto was just the second of the Trump presidency, both coming after the 2018 elections that resulted in a Democratic majority in the House.

Earlier in the month, Sanders said, “[T]he people of Yemen desperately need humanitarian help, not more bombs.”

 

A rare rebuke from Congress sees the presidential knife.

Indian ASAT Test Raises Space Risks


May 2019
By Kelsey Davenport

India’s successful March 27 test of a weapon designed to destroy satellites has raised concerns that the resulting debris field may threaten orbiting space objects and that other states will develop similar weapons.

InIndia launched a satellite interceptor on this booster March 27. (Photo: Defense Research and Development Organization) dian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that New Delhi had successfully used a ballistic missile interceptor to destroy an orbiting satellite, becoming just the fourth country after China, Russia, and the United States to test such anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons.

India launched the target satellite into low orbit in January, and the interceptor, developed as part of India’s ballistic missile defense system by the Defense Research and Development Organization, was launched from the Abdul Kalam Island launch center. India may have attempted an earlier test on Feb. 12, but that effort appears to have been unsuccessful.

Modi called the test a “historic feat” and said that the country is now “an established space power.” Modi said that India continues to maintain that “space should not be an area for warfare and that remains unchanged” despite the successful test. He described the test as defensive and said it was not targeted at any particular country.

Despite Modi’s insistence that the test was defensive, India’s development of ASAT capabilities could be perceived as offensive and destabilizing. ASAT weapons allow a state to target another country’s satellites, which could cripple intelligence and communications in the event of a conflict.

India has been seeking to match and deter Chinese military capabilities, and New Delhi’s pursuit of an ASAT weapon may have been designed to send a signal to Beijing, which conducted its own ASAT weapons test in 2007. ASAT capabilities are less useful against India’s other regional adversary, Pakistan, because Islamabad relies less on satellites for military and security purposes.

The U.S. State Department press release following the March 27 test took note of India’s announcement, but did not condemn the test. The muted U.S. response could be interpreted by India and other states as a green light for future testing, contributing to concerns about igniting a space race.

In addition to enhancing risks of an ASAT weapons competition, the Indian test introduced orbital debris that could threaten other objects circling the globe, including the International Space Station.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said it was a “terrible, terrible thing to create an event that sends debris” above the station. He said it is “not acceptable” to put astronauts at risk.

Other nations’ ASAT weapons tests have created even larger debris fields. China tested an ASAT weapon in 2007, creating more than 2,300 pieces of debris. The Indian test likely produced about 400 pieces, similar to a 2008 test conducted by the United States. The United States argued at the time that its test was necessary to destroy a falling satellite.

The United States, Russia, and China are continuing to develop and refine ASAT weapons, but the testing is largely done through “proximity operations,” which are designed to prevent the actual destruction of satellites.

A March 27 statement from the Indian foreign ministry said that the test deliberately targeted a satellite in low orbit “to ensure that there is no space debris” and that any debris created “will decay and fall back onto the Earth within weeks.”

The Indian test revived calls for negotiating new limits to guide the peaceful use of space. Currently, the only international restraint is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits the placement and testing of weapons of mass destruction and military installations in outer space, but does not address other space-based weapons or ASAT technology.

The European Union began to push for negotiations to develop guidelines on the use of outer space in 2008 and produced a draft code of conduct for outer space in 2012. India participated in the discussions on the code, and the draft included commitments by states to pursue space debris mitigation efforts and a controversial commitment to avoid “intentional destruction and other harmful activities.”

The United Nations held negotiations in July 2015 on the proposed code, which would be nonbinding, unlike a treaty. The Obama administration said at the time that the United States supported the meeting, but would not propose the negotiation of an ASAT weapons test moratorium.

Russia and China also objected to elements of the code and preferred to limit its applicability to civilian space activities, which would not cover ASAT weapons testing.

Preventing an arms race in space is on the agenda for the Conference on Disarmament (CD), but the issue has seen little progress there. Russia and China drafted a treaty and presented it to the CD in 2008. They later revised it in 2014, and a group of governmental experts made recommendations to the CD in 2017 on elements necessary for a legally binding treaty preventing an arms race in outer space. The Russian and Chinese proposal, however, does not definitively define what constitutes a space weapon, and because ASAT missile interceptors are ground based, they would likely not be covered by the draft text.

 

Advocates for the peaceful uses of space decry India’s successful test to destroy an orbiting satellite.

UN Security Council Previews NPT Meeting


May 2019
By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

The UN Security Council endorsed a general statement in support of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) during an early April meeting, but the session revealed persistent fault lines over the pact that serves as the foundation of international nonproliferation efforts. The meeting previewed positions before the two-week preparatory committee meeting for the 2020 NPT Review Conference that began April 29.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas chairs an April 2 UN Security Council meeting to discuss the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. (Photo: Eskinder Debbie/United Nations)German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas presided over the meeting, which began with statements from Yukiya Amano, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Izumi Nakamitsu, high representative of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs.

Many non-nuclear-weapon states stressed the need for increasing the pace of nuclear disarmament, arguing that nuclear-armed powers have made unimpressive progress and are pursuing steps in the wrong direction. Jerry Matjila, South Africa’s permanent representative to the UN, expressed disappointment about nuclear-weapon states’ “lack of urgency and seriousness” about disarmament, and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said that disarmament was the least advanced of the nuclear powers’ NPT obligations. Peru’s representative said that states can only strengthen the NPT if they reduce nuclear arsenals further.

States said that even existing disarmament commitments are under threat, and several diplomats urged the United States and Russia to resolve their dispute over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Indonesia, for example, said that intentions to dismantle existing disarmament commitments must be prevented. Several countries, including Belgium, China, and Germany urged the United States and Russia to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty when it expires in 2021.

Diplomats continued to disagree over the merits of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and whether it complements the NPT. Cote D’Ivoire, the Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Indonesia, Peru, and South Africa expressed support for the TPNW, emphasizing its complementarity with the NPT.

Some nuclear-weapon states disagreed. Jonathan Allen, UK deputy permanent representative to the UN, criticized the TPNW’s lack of verification measures. “Disarmament cannot be decreed,” added French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. “Only concrete actions count.”

Andrea Thompson, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, dismissed the TPNW as failing “to address the security challenges that continue to make nuclear deterrence necessary,” in stark contrast, she contended, with the U.S. approach titled “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament.” Thompson argued that NPT members should focus on areas of commonality and not hold next year’s review conference “hostage” to divisive issues such as the TPNW or creating a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East.

Russia announced it would participate in a November UN conference on advancing this Middle Eastern zone and encouraged all nuclear-weapon states to participate. The conference was mandated by a UN General Assembly resolution adopted in late 2018, although the United States voted against it and France and the United Kingdom abstained. (See ACT, December 2018.) An April report by an experts group convened by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs also encouraged states to participate in the conference.

Looking ahead, Nakamitsu recommended four steps for states to take to avoid a failure to reach consensus at the 2020 NPT Review Conference: implement agreements from past NPT review cycles; engage in a genuine dialogue about international security; ensure a balance between advancing disarmament, nonproliferation, and nuclear energy concerns; and think creatively about a successful review conference outcome.
 

 

The final preparatory meeting before the 2020 NPT Review Conference is set to begin.

Congress Seeks Light on U.S. Nuclear Transfers


May 2019
By Shervin Taheran

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation in April to increase transparency into U.S. efforts to export civilian nuclear technology. The action followed reports that the Trump administration quietly issued routine notifications about nuclear information transfers to Saudi Arabia and withheld them from public view in a break from traditional practice.

Hashim Yamani, president of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, addresses an IAEA meeting in September 2017. International pressure has grown on Saudi Arabia to upgrade its IAEA safeguards agreement as the nation works to develop a nuclear energy program. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)After news reports revealed the existence of the notifications, Energy Secretary Rick Perry confirmed in late March that he had approved seven authorizations for the transfer of nuclear information to Saudi Arabia. The authorizations are known as Part 810 authorizations, referring to the portion of the U.S. Code that permits the transfer of certain intangible nuclear technology and assistance to foreign nations.

Perry said the Saudi authorizations were kept private to protect proprietary information provided by U.S. nuclear vendors, but several U.S. senators expressed concern that the Trump administration was trying to conceal its efforts to transfer U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.

In an April 2 letter viewed by Arms Control Today, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs nonproliferation subcommittee asked the Energy Department to provide details of the approvals. “I fully understand and respect the need for U.S. companies to protect their proprietary information from competitors,” Sherman said. “At the same time, however, Congress must be given sufficient information to fulfill its constitutional oversight responsibilities.” Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) shared their “deep concerns” about the authorizations in another letter the same day, seeking the contents of the Part 810 authorizations.

The Energy Department is leading U.S. discussions with Saudi Arabia on a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, commonly called a 123 agreement for a section of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act. This agreement is necessary for the export of U.S. nuclear materials, equipment, or components and requires congressional approval. Unlike a 123 agreement, the Part 810 authorizations do not require congressional approval, but there are several provisions for congressional notification. The fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act required the energy secretary to submit an annual report of the department’s review of Part 810 authorization applications, and Section 303b of the Atomic Energy Act requires any agency to “furnish any information requested” by the relevant Senate and House committees “with respect to the activities or responsibilities of such agency in the field of nuclear energy.”

In April, Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Rubio, and Todd Young (R-Ind.) introduced a bill to amend the 1954 Atomic Energy Act and require the executive branch to regularly disclose when it allows companies to engage in nuclear energy cooperation with foreign countries through Part 810 authorizations.

Part 810 authorizations often cover information transfers before a 123 agreement is needed. According to the Congressional Research Service, the energy secretary must consider several factors before determining whether a specific authorization would serve U.S. interests, such as whether a 123 agreement is already in place with the United States and whether the state is a party to and in full compliance with its obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The Saudi Part 810 authorizations reportedly include approvals for U.S. vendors to share information, but not at a level that would require a 123 agreement.

Ongoing U.S.-Saudi 123 agreement negotiations have been slowed by Saudi reluctance to adopt the “gold standard” of nuclear cooperation agreements, which call on nuclear importers to forgo uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing activities and to adopt an additional protocol to their International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement, which empowers the agency with enhanced monitoring and verification tools.

Saudi Arabia plans to generate 50 percent of its electricity from nonfossil fuels by 2032, according to the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, and it intends to build nuclear power reactors to contribute to this aim. The kingdom has begun exploratory discussions with multiple nations with nuclear exporters, and it was recently reported that it would select a vendor in 2020.

Saudi Arabia has expressed possible interest in purchasing nuclear powers from South Korea like these under construction in the United Arab Emirates. (Photo: Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation)Sherman and Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), supported in the Senate by Markey and Rubio, introduced legislation on Feb. 28 to require affirmative congressional approval of a 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia, different from the current process in which the agreement, after it is submitted, goes into effect unless Congress specifically disapproves it. (See ACT, April 2019.) Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) spearheaded a Feb. 12 sense of Congress resolution that a 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia must adhere to the strongest possible nonproliferation standards.

Adding controversy to U.S.-Saudi 123 agreement talks is an ongoing congressional investigation into potential conflicts of interest among members of the Trump administration and congressional concerns about Saudi Arabian human rights practices. (See ACT, March 2019.)

Further complicating the issue was an April 15 report from the Daily Beast describing how U.S. nuclear vendors are considering expanded partnerships with foreign vendors, particularly from South Korea, as a way to reduce or eliminate the need for a U.S. 123 agreement.

Menendez and Rubio also requested on March 15 that the Government Accountability Office conduct an “urgent review” into the Trump administration’s efforts to promote nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia since January 2017. Their request letter asked for the probe to cover all Trump administration interactions with official or nonofficial Saudi organizations, to describe all related negotiations conducted by the executive branch between December 2009 and January 2017, and to investigate “the specific initiatives or proposals for nuclear cooperation that have been presented or discussed in those interactions.” That investigation is ongoing.

Saudi Research Reactor and IAEA Safeguards

Saudi Arabia has made progress constructing a small nuclear research reactor in the kingdom with Argentine collaboration, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) asked Riyadh in April to enable stricter IAEA oversight of the facility before nuclear fuel is loaded.

Saudi Arabia currently has a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA that has a Small Quantities Protocol (SQP), which allows reduced monitoring for nations that have no or limited amounts of nuclear material.

As the first Saudi reactor nears completion and the nuclear program grows, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano told reporters on April 5 that the IAEA has “proposed to Saudi Arabia to rescind and replace [the SQP] by the full-fledged comprehensive safeguards agreement.” He added, “They didn’t say no, they didn’t say yes, and they are now giving thoughts. We are waiting. For now, they don’t have the material, so there is no violation.”

Amano has been encouraging all nations to go beyond the standard comprehensive safeguards agreement by voluntarily adopting an additional protocol that gives the IAEA substantially more monitoring and verification capabilities.

“That includes Saudi Arabia,” he said in early March.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, Argentina’s envoy to the IAEA, said his country would require Saudi Arabia to upgrade its IAEA safeguards agreements before Argentina would complete the project. “Saudi Arabia will have to move to a full-scope comprehensive safeguards agreement with subsidiary arrangements before the unit is fueled,” Grossi told reporters April 3.

The new reactor is likely to be a 30-kilowatt research reactor that would be used to train nuclear technicians as Saudi Arabia develops its nuclear energy program, according to an April 4 report in The Guardian, to which Grossi said that the reactor should “be operational” roughly “by the end of the year.”—SHERVIN TAHERAN

Lawmakers pursue several avenues to get more information on Trump administration efforts to promote nuclear trade with Saudi Arabia.

Russia Challenges Changes to CWC

 

Russia officially objected on April 10 to the Canadian-Dutch-U.S. proposal to add Novichok-related chemicals to the list of banned chemicals in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), forcing a vote on the proposal at the next meeting of all treaty parties in November.

UK forensic investigators prepare to examine a vehicle believed to belong to chemical weapon attack victim Sergei Skripal in March 2018 in Salisbury, England. (Photo: Rufus Cox/Getty Images)The Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) voted for the change in January, following a Novichok attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom in March 2018. (See ACT, March 2019.)

The proposal was “clearly substandard from a scientific point of view,” Russia said in a Foreign Ministry statement on April 12, calling one of the chemicals in the proposal “theoretical.”

The Russian objection was a “cynical attempt to undermine the effectiveness of [the] OPCW after [a] shocking attack in Salisbury,” said Peter Wilson, UK ambassador to the Netherlands, in an April 10 tweet. “Canada is very alarmed by this Russian obstruction,” read an April 11 statement from the Canadian Foreign Ministry.

Russia submitted its own proposal to add different sets of Novichok-related chemicals to the CWC, but the Russian proposal was voted down in February in an Executive Council meeting after a technical evaluation. The Russian Foreign Ministry statement suggested considering the rejected Russian proposal together “as a package” with the Canadian-Dutch-U.S. proposal when states-parties vote later this year.

If any change to the list of banned chemicals is adopted in November, this would mark the first change to the treaty’s Schedule 1 list of most dangerous chemicals since the 193-nation pact prohibiting chemical weapons entered into force in 1997.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

Russia Challenges Changes to CWC

Switzerland to Decide on Ban Treaty by 2020

 

The Swiss executive branch decided in April to reconsider joining the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) five years ahead of schedule in response to a parliamentary motion calling on the government to ratify the treaty by 2020. The Federal Council also cited recent international security developments as an explanation for the expedited review.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons awaits signatures on Sept. 20, 2017, in New York. (Photo: Kim Haughton)Switzerland participated in TPNW negotiations in 2017 and voted in favor of its adoption, but the Federal Council ultimately decided in the summer of 2018 to withhold a Swiss signature or ratification. Switzerland committed to attend the first meeting of TPNW states-parties as an observer and reconsider joining the treaty in 2025.

A Swiss parliamentary motion passed in December last year rejected the Federal Council’s decision and called on the government to join the treaty rapidly, by 2020 at the latest.

The authority of the parliamentary motion over the executive branch is in a “legal grey area,” according to Maya Brehm, the co-founder of the Swiss chapter of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and a former researcher at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. In an April 4 email, she told Arms Control Today that parliamentary motions are binding on the Federal Council and Swiss legal culture respects the authority of the parliament, but the prerogative for signing and ratifying treaties rests with the executive branch.—ALICIA SANDERS-ZAKRE

Switzerland to Decide on Ban Treaty by 2020

Trump Orders EMP Readiness Efforts

 

Warning of the dangers of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attacks, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on March 26 directing federal agencies to assess and mitigate the risks of an EMP event on the United States. The order, “Coordinating National Resilience to Electromagnetic Pulses,” calls for integrated action by a wide range of federal agencies to address the threat of natural or malicious EMP events.

The concern over EMP attacks was reflected in the Republican platform during the 2016 presidential election campaign: “With North Korea in possession of nuclear missiles and Iran close to having them, an EMP is no longer a theoretical concern — it is a real threat.”

“The executive order sends a clear message to adversaries that the United States takes this threat seriously,” said Energy Secretary Rick Perry in a departmental release supporting the Trump action.

An EMP is a burst of electromagnetic energy that can “disrupt, degrade, and damage technology and critical infrastructure,” according to the executive order. EMP threats can come in two forms: high-altitude nuclear detonations and natural geomagnetic disturbances, such as solar flares.

Critics have long questioned the merits of devoting significant resources to defeating EMP attacks from U.S. adversaries. “Doomsday headlines in the press regarding [North Korea’s] potential EMP threat are grossly overstated,” wrote Jack Liu of 38 North in a 2017 commentary. “EMP is the new test case of seriousness in national security,” said Peter Singer of New America in 2016. “But not in the way advocates not in on the joke think.”—COLE FALKNER

Trump Orders EMP Readiness Efforts

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