"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement"
July 1, 2020
September 2019

Arms Control Today September 2019

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

Close the Door on Nuclear Testing

September 2019
By Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director

Everybody knows that nuclear weapons have been used twice in wartime and with terrible consequences. Often overlooked, however, is the large-scale, postwar use of nuclear weapons: At least eight countries have conducted 2,056 nuclear test explosions, most of which were far larger than the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States alone has detonated more than 1,030 nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, underwater, and underground.

Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association, outside the P-1 area at the Semipalatinsk Test Site in Eastern Kazakhstan, August 2018.Hundreds of thousands of people have died and millions more have suffered from radiation-related illnesses directly caused by the fallout from nuclear testing. The global scale of suffering took too long to come to light.

Secrecy ruled over safety from the start, such as 70 years ago, on Aug. 29, 1949, when the Soviet Union conducted its first nuclear test in eastern Kazakhstan near the secret town of Semipalatinsk-21. Authorities understood that the test would expose the local population to harmful radioactive fallout, but they pushed ahead in the name of national security, only acknowledging the damage after information leaks in the late-1980s revealed that far more people were exposed to radiation, with more harmful effects, than the Kremlin had previously admitted.

Today, the Kazakh government estimates that Soviet-era testing harmed about 1.5 million people in Kazakhstan alone. A 2008 study by Kazakh and Japanese doctors estimated that the population in areas adjacent to the Semipalatinsk Test Site received an effective dose of 2,000 millisieverts of radiation during the years of testing. In some hot spots, people were exposed to even higher levels. By comparison, the average American is exposed to about 3 millisieverts of radiation each year. The rate of cancer for people living in eastern Kazakhstan is 25 to 30 percent higher than elsewhere in the country.

By 1989, growing concerns about the health impacts of nuclear testing led ordinary Kazakh citizens to rise up and demand a test moratorium. They formed the Nevada-Semipalatinsk anti-nuclear organization. The grassroots movement grew, and popular pressure against testing surged, prompting the Kazakh political establishment, including then-president of Soviet Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to finally shut down all nuclear testing at Semipalatinsk on Aug. 29, 1991.

On Oct. 5, 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev announced a one-year nuclear test moratorium, which led a bipartisan U.S. congressional coalition to introduce legislation to match the Soviet test halt. In 1992 the bill became law over the protestations of President George H.W. Bush. The following year, under pressure from civil society leaders and Congress, President Bill Clinton decided to extend the moratorium and launch talks on the global, verifiable Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which were concluded in 1996.

The CTBT has established a powerful taboo against nuclear testing. Global support for the treaty, which now has 184 state signatories, is strong, and the treaty’s International Monitoring System is fully operational and more capable than originally envisioned. Today, for the first time since 1945, no nuclear-armed state has an active nuclear testing program.

Yet, the door to further nuclear testing remains ajar. Although the treaty has been signed by 184 states, its entry into force is being held up by eight states, most notably the United States, China, and North Korea, which have refused to ratify the pact.

Making matters worse, the Trump administration has accused Russia of cheating on the CTBT without providing evidence, has falsely asserted there is a lack of clarity about what the CTBT prohibits, and has refused to express support for bringing the CTBT into force.

Given their existing nuclear test moratoria and signatures on the treaty, Washington and Beijing already bear most CTBT-related responsibilities. But their failure to ratify has denied them and others the full security benefits of the treaty, including short-notice, on-site inspections to better detect and deter clandestine nuclear testing.

The treaty’s entry into force also would prevent further health injury from nuclear testing and allow responsible states to better address the dangerous legacy of nuclear testing. In Kazakhstan, for example, access to the vast former test site remains restricted. Many areas will remain unusable until and unless the radioactive contamination can be remediated.

In the Marshall Islands, where the United States detonated massive aboveground nuclear tests in the 1940s and 1950s, several atolls are still heavily contaminated, indigenous populations have been displaced, and some buried radioactive waste could soon leak into the ocean. The U.S. Congress should act to include the downwinders affected by the first U.S. test in 1945 in the health monitoring program established through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990.

For the safety and security of future generations and out of respect for the people harmed by nuclear testing, our generation must act. It is time to close and lock the door on nuclear testing by pushing the CTBT holdout states to ratify the treaty and address more comprehensively the devasting human and environmental damage of the nuclear weapons era.

Everybody knows that nuclear weapons have been used twice in wartime and with terrible consequences. Often overlooked, however, is the large-scale, postwar use of nuclear weapons: At least eight countries have conducted 2,056 nuclear test explosions, most of which were far larger than the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Risky Business: Four Ways to Ease U.S.-Russian Nuclear Tension

September 2019
By Sarah Bidgood

The era of traditional U.S.-Russian arms control appears to be ending.1 The latest casualty of the crisis in relations between the two nuclear powers, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, was suspended in February when Washington declared it would withdraw from the pact because of alleged Russian noncompliance. Moscow made no great effort to resist U.S. intentions, and with surprisingly little fanfare, the treaty expired in early August.

From left to right, Andrea Thompson of the United States, Fu Cong of China, and Nicolas Roche of France attend a Jan. 31 panel discussion following a P5 nuclear powers meeting in Beijing. P5 representatives could not agree to reaffirm the Reagan-Gorbachev Cold War motto: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” (Photo: Thomas Peter/AFP/Getty Images)This leaves just one bilateral arms control agreement in place, the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which is itself due to expire in 2021. The treaty could be easily extended for up to five years, thus ensuring a vital degree of transparency and stability in U.S.-Russian relations, but the Trump administration has shown little outward enthusiasm for this step. If the clock is allowed to run out on this crucial element of strategic stability, it will mark the first time that the United States and Russia have not had an arms control treaty in place or under negotiation in nearly five decades.

The potential lack of treaty constraints on nuclear arms increases the need for other tools to minimize misunderstandings, avoid accidents, and build confidence between the United States and Russia. Such risk reduction measures have contributed to maintaining stability in the past, and they are needed now more than ever as U.S.-Russian arms control falters.

Arms Control in Trouble

The depth of the demise was illustrated in January 2019 when the P5—the five nuclear powers recognized under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)—convened in Beijing for the eighth meeting of the P5 process.2 China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States identified three measures to strengthen their coordination and safeguard the NPT, but they could not agree to endorse the simple motto established in 1985 by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”3 What should have been a relatively easy lift, delivering a joint statement capturing this sentiment, was torpedoed when only China was prepared to endorse it. In a climate where agreeing to this most basic principle is no longer tenable, it is not surprising that more ambitious actions required to sustain bilateral arms control now appear to be out of reach.

These circumstances make a return to nuclear arms racing more likely not only by established nuclear powers, but also by nations that have forsworn such weapons. Although Moscow and Washington worked closely to prevent new parties from acquiring a nuclear capability during the darkest days of the Cold War, these joint efforts have all but halted.4 Their disengagement has contributed to the turmoil within the nonproliferation regime, where past commitments are left unfulfilled and the way forward is far from clear.5

U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shake hands after signing the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in Prague on April 8, 2010. If the treaty expires in 2021, there will be no negotiated limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons. (Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)The degree to which the United States and Russia are now at odds in this domain has been impossible to ignore during the run-up to next year’s NPT review conference. Russia has accused the United States of violating the NPT through its NATO nuclear-sharing arrangement, while the United States has lambasted Russia for undermining the norm against the non-use of weapons of mass destruction and allegedly violating the INF Treaty. The two sides certainly have not seen eye to eye on all nonproliferation issues in the past, but they placed such a premium on presenting a united front to the other NPT states that they were often accused of “superpower collusion.”6 Today, however, there seems to be little interest in maintaining even the pretense of alignment on key issues. This development is revealing of the state of the bilateral relationship today, and it does not portend well for global security.

A less visible consequence of the collapse of U.S.-Russian nuclear engagement is the precipitous decline in opportunities for routine interaction between diplomats and policymakers from the two countries. The result is an erosion of trust that could make accidents, miscommunications, or misinterpretations more likely to escalate into nuclear use because there is no assumption of benign intent on either side. This development is especially problematic when reviewing the litany of close nuclear calls in U.S. and Soviet/Russian history.

That these have not culminated in nuclear use in the past is, in many cases, thanks to human decision-makers who determined, for example, that automatic missile warning systems were giving false alerts. This past January marked 25 years since one such scenario, in which Russia’s early-warning system misidentified a research rocket launched off the coast of Norway as a U.S. Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile. Russian nuclear attack response procedures were reportedly triggered, but Russian President Boris Yeltsin ruled out the likelihood of a surprise U.S. nuclear strike and decided not to retaliate.7 Were there to be a replay of this incident today, is it realistic to assume that decision-makers on either side would act in a similar fashion? It is only a matter of time before this hypothetical is put to the test.

In the absence of cooperation on arms control and nonproliferation and faced with urgent crises that require U.S.-Russian efforts, the challenge for the nuclear policymaking community today is twofold. It must find and support feasible opportunities for U.S.-Russian engagement on nuclear issues so that more ambitious efforts to shore up strategic stability and the nonproliferation regime are possible in the future. It must also actively pursue steps to prevent a nuclear catastrophe while the two sides get their relationship in this domain back on track. Fortunately, these two goals are mutually reinforcing and served by a renewed focus on nuclear risk reduction.

Practical Steps to Reduce Nuclear Risk

The United States and Russia could pursue at least four meaningful risk reduction measures that would contribute to these efforts. Even more significant steps than these are needed, but this menu comprises points of entry that may be feasible under the current circumstances.

A Parallel Risk Assessment
U.S. and Russian officials could engage in a parallel risk assessment, where both sides would identify independently the technologies, behaviors, and past and future scenarios they believe are most likely to lead to nuclear use and then compare their answers.8 This exercise would lay the groundwork for determining what types of risk reduction efforts are most needed. It could also serve as an opportunity to clear up misconceptions about the other’s capabilities or practices, including with respect to the alleged Russian policy of “escalate to deescalate.” The 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review report states that Russia might conduct a limited nuclear first strike to end a conventional conflict on its terms, but this strategy is not described in any official Russian documents pertaining to its nuclear doctrine. Determining conclusively that this policy is not part of Russian strategy would free up both sides to focus on mitigating actual, rather than assumed, nuclear risks.

The P5 process presents a useful forum to operationalize this recommendation, at least initially. Not only is it already in place, but conducting a parallel risk assessment in this setting would contribute to the nuclear-weapon states’ attempts to better understand each other’s nuclear doctrines. The fact that all five delegations committed to making the “utmost efforts” to prevent nuclear risks at their 2019 Beijing meeting suggests that this recommendation might be welcomed as a concrete first step.9 Furthermore, this exercise could appeal to states with different perceptions of risk because its focus would be on identifying similarities and differences in their views, rather than on a preordained list of concerns with which all states might not agree.

Revive Consultations on Nuclear Risk Reduction
While many channels for U.S.-Russian nuclear engagement have now shut down, recent strategic security meetings held by Russian and U.S. officials raise the prospect of renewed high-level dialogue on arms control, nonproliferation, and related topics.10 Washington and Moscow should capitalize on this opening to initiate regular consultations on nuclear risk reduction. The United States and Russia are destined to cooperate on this issue by virtue of their vast nuclear arsenals. Their shared responsibilities are even greater under the present circumstances, in which mutual suspicion, acrimony, and instability in their bilateral relationship increase the likelihood of nuclear use, intentionally or by mistake.

Bilateral dialogue has always been recognized as a key component of risk reduction. It is mandated in the 1971 USSR-U.S. Agreements to Reduce Risk of Nuclear War, which obliges the two sides to “hold consultations, as mutually agreed, to consider questions relating to implementation of the provisions of this agreement, as well as to discuss possible amendments thereto aimed at further implementation of the purposes of this agreement.”11

Reviving these consultations would contribute to international security while paving the way for more routinized and wide-ranging dialogue in the future. Not only would they provide a forum for officials to interact, which could itself reduce the likelihood of nuclear use, but they would also facilitate discussions on risks associated with emerging technologies, which have significant implications for the future of strategic stability. Given this orientation, these consultations would benefit from the involvement of scientific and technical experts, as well as policymakers and government officials. Cooperation on technical issues can flourish even during difficult moments in the bilateral relationship. Emphasizing this dimension of these consultations could increase the likelihood that they would generate meaningful results.12

The initial agenda for these consultations could focus on reviewing Cold War-era nuclear risk reduction measures and identifying ways to update and multilateralize them. Aside from the 1971 USSR-U.S. Agreements to Reduce Risk of Nuclear War, other relevant agreements include the 1972 U.S.-USSR Agreement on the Prevention of Incidents on the High Seas,13 the 1973 U.S.-USSR Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War, and the 1987 Agreement Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Establishment of Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers. They could also meaningfully include risk reduction measures that were considered in the past but never formalized or adopted, such as this recommendation itself, which was borrowed from a similar proposal put forward by the Soviet delegation to the UN General Assembly in October 1977.14

Updating and multilateralizing U.S.-Soviet risk reduction agreements could open the door to engaging other nuclear-armed states in these efforts, particularly China. Doing so could introduce greater stability and predictability into the trilateral relationship while reducing the likelihood that nuclear entanglement in the three countries will escalate into nuclear exchange.15 Although Beijing has established its own crisis hotlines with Moscow and Washington, a host of other risk reduction measures are part of past agreements and could be meaningfully implemented today.16 Exploring opportunities to do so would represent a more realistic way to deliver President Donald Trump’s desire to include Beijing in a future arms control agreement with Moscow, which is unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon.

Despite these advantages, revisiting U.S.-Soviet proposals carries risks of its own, which include the potential for past points of contention to resurface with detrimental outcomes. For example, Russia could reprise failed Soviet calls for the United States to remove forward-deployed nuclear weapons from Europe in the name of preventing their accidental or unauthorized use.17 Although U.S. experts have made similar proposals in recent years, Washington may suspect Moscow of using risk reduction to advance its national interests, which could cause talks to fail. Similarly, efforts to multilateralize past agreements could falter if Russia and China press for limits on U.S. ballistic missile defense as a step toward reducing the risk of nuclear use.18 Avoiding these pitfalls will require thoughtful compartmentalization, where participants find ways to work around larger strategic stability concerns without dismissing them as illegitimate in the process.

Ban on Cyberattacks on C3 Systems
The United States and Russia could conclude an agreement that cyberattacks on nuclear command, control, and communications (C3) systems are off-limits.19 Such an agreement would be consistent with recent Russian and U.S.-sponsored UN General Assembly resolutions that emphasize the need for rules to govern state behavior in cyberspace. Although Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential elections has made cooperation in the cyber domain exceptionally difficult in recent years, the potential risks posed by the cyber vulnerabilities of nuclear systems are significant enough to warrant treatment in a separate category. An agreement not to exploit these vulnerabilities would contribute significantly to reducing nuclear risk while complementing ongoing efforts to articulate and codify cyber norms in other areas of international security.20

Concluding such an agreement could be complicated by the reliance of many C3 systems on at least some dual-use assets. Because early-warning satellites are used to detect nuclear and non-nuclear missile launches, for instance, a cyberattack intended to limit an adversary’s ability to defend against a conventional strike would also constitute an attack on its nuclear C3 system.21 The United States and Russia would need to determine how to disentangle these assets in a way that still addressed their potential to precipitate nuclear escalation. In this process, the two sides should consider how best to make use of the cyber hotline, which was installed in the U.S. and Russian Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers in 2013. The hotline was designed to allow both sides to “make inquiries about cybersecurity incidents of national concern.”22 It could provide invaluable crisis stability during a cyberattack without requiring significant changes to existing infrastructure.

Joint Statement at the 2020 NPT Review Conference on Risk Reduction
The United States, Russia, and potentially the other nuclear-weapon states should issue a joint statement at the 2020 NPT Review Conference reaffirming the importance of nuclear risk reduction and reporting on any concrete measures they have adopted during the review cycle. Considering that the five countries will likely have little progress to report on nuclear disarmament, doing so would demonstrate some progress toward fulfilling the commitments they made at the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cuts the ceremonial ribbon at the opening of the updated U.S. Nuclear Risk Reduction Center at the State Department on Oct. 24, 2012. The center and its Russian counterpart are operational at all times and intended to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict. (Photo: State Department)A particular selling point of this recommendation is the importance of nuclear risk reduction in avoiding the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from nuclear use. From this vantage, nuclear risk reduction may constitute one of only a small handful of issues on which nuclear-weapon states, proponents of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and supporters of the humanitarian initiative could agree. The nuclear-weapon states would need to be careful not to frame risk reduction as a substitute for nuclear disarmament in the NPT setting, but if they succeed, this issue could represent an opportunity to find common ground at a time when few others exist. A focus on risk reduction would also align with the NPT preambular language, which recognizes the “devastation that would be visited upon all mankind by a nuclear war and the consequent need to make every effort to avert the danger of such a war.” Reaffirming the shared assumptions that underpin the NPT would be appropriate at the 50th anniversary of its entry into force.

Little Risk in Risk Reduction

These recommendations represent four steps that the United States and Russia could take to reduce nuclear risks today. They appear to align with both countries’ national security interests, which should increase their appeal among policymakers and may make it possible to implement them in spite of the current crisis in relations. In Washington, at least, these proposals may benefit from the lack of constraints they would place on U.S. military flexibility. Their narrow scope could help them gain traction with the current U.S. administration when more far-reaching and effective measures such as the defunct INF Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and New START have not.

If these recommendations nevertheless prove too ambitious, the United States and Russia could take a host of other, more modest steps to reduce the risk of nuclear use. Indeed, because bilateral relations are in such a deep state of crisis, virtually any activity that fosters dialogue or lends predictability to the two countries’ interactions would likely hit this mark. Moreover, risk reduction, unlike arms control, can take many different forms, from treaties to confidence-building measures to the installation of dedicated crisis-management infrastructure.23 This flexibility provides scalable options that may appeal to decisionmakers in both Moscow and Washington.

The latitude afforded by nuclear risk reduction may help explain why some U.S.-Russian engagement in this domain continues, albeit on an insufficient scale. The National Risk Reduction Centers in Washington and Moscow still operate 24 hours a day, providing an uninterrupted channel for crisis communication as they have for the last three decades. Likewise, the United States and Russia continue to co-chair the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, where they have overseen efforts to prevent unauthorized nuclear use for more than 15 years. These operational channels reinforce the notion that, if expanded, risk reduction measures could preserve what is left of the bilateral relationship while laying the groundwork for closer cooperation. In a quickly deteriorating environment with few other alternatives, this argument is as good as any for seeing where these efforts could lead.



1. See Steven Pifer, “Nuclear Security, Arms Control, and the U.S.-Russia Relationship,” American Ambassadors Review, Spring 2019, https://www.americanambassadorslive.org/post/nuclear-security-arms-control-and-the-u-s-russia-relationship.

2. The P5 process was established in 2009 with the goal of identifying transparency and confidence-building measures leading toward progress on nuclear disarmament. See Andrea Berger and Malcolm Chalmers, “The Art of the Possible: The Future of the P5 Process on Nuclear Weapons,” Arms Control Today, October 2014.

3. Li Song, “Briefing on P5 Beijing Conference,” February 5, 2019, https://www.unog.ch/80256EDD006B8954/(httpAssets)/2A29BA6AFFA30F6CC125839B0051305C/$file/China_for+website.pdf (presented to the Conference on Disarmament); Jerry Brown and William Potter, “Open Forum: Time for a reality check on nuclear diplomacy,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 24, 2019 <https://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/openforum/article/Open-Forum-Time-for-a-reality-check-on-nuclear-13793344.php?psid=ftMG0>

4. For examples of cooperation, see William C. Potter and Sarah Bidgood, eds., Once and Future Partners: The United States, Russia, and Nuclear Non-Proliferation (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies [IISS], 2018).

5. Paul Meyer, “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament: Striding Forward or Stepping Back?” Arms Control Today, April 2019.

6. William Potter and Sarah Bidgood, “The Good Old Days of the Cold War: U.S.-Soviet Cooperation on Nonproliferation,” War on the Rocks, August 7, 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/08/the-good-old-days-of-the-cold-war-u-s-soviet-cooperation-on-nonproliferation/.

7. Patricia Lewis et al., “Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy,” Chatham House Report, April 2014, p. 17, https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/field/field_document/20140428TooCloseforComfortNuclearUseLewisWilliamsPelopidasAghlani.pdf.

8. For more, see William C. Potter and Sarah Bidgood, “Chapter 8: Lessons for the Future” in Once and Future Partners: The United States, Russia, and Nuclear Non-Proliferation, ed. William C. Potter and Sarah Bidgood (London: IISS, 2018).

9. Song, “Briefing on P5 Beijing Conference.”

10. “Deputy Secretary Sullivan’s Participation in Strategic Security Dialogue With Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov,” U.S. Department of State, July 17, 2019 < https://www.state.gov/deputy-secretary-sullivans-participation-in-strategic-security-dialogue-with-russian-deputy-foreign-minister-sergey-ryabkov/>

11. “Agreement on Measures to Reduce the Outbreak of Nuclear War Between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” September 30, 1971.

12. For examples, see Siegfried S. Hecker, ed., Doomed to Cooperate (Los Alamos, NM: Bathtub Row Press, 2016).

13. The continuing relevance of this agreement was underscored by the near collision of U.S. and Russian warships in the Pacific Ocean in June 2019. See “U.S. Navy: Russian Warship’s ‘Unsafe’ Move Nearly Caused Collision With Cruiser,” National Public Radio, June 7, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/06/07/730593184/u-s-navy-russian-warships-unsafe-move-nearly-caused-collision-with-cruiser.

14. “32 UNGA: New Soviet Initiative,” October 18, 1977, https://aad.archives.gov/aad/create
(cable from secretary of state to U.S. Mission to NATO).

15. For a definition of entanglement and an explanation of how it could precipitate nuclear use, see James Acton, Tong Zhao, and Li Bin, “Reducing the Risks of Nuclear Entanglement,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 12, 2018, https://carnegieendowment.org/2018/09/12/reducing-risks-of-nuclear-entanglement-pub-77236.

16. Avery Goldstein, “First Things First: The Pressing Danger of Crisis Instability in U.S.-China Relations,” International Security, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Spring 2013): 49–89.

17. Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Semenov issued this call in an October 1974 meeting on SALT II. “Deputy Minister Semenov’s Statement of October 4, 1974,” October 4, 1974, https://aad.archives.gov/aad/createpdf?rid=221079&dt=2474&dl=1345 (cable from U.S. delegation to SALT II to the secretary of state).

18. Laura Grego lays out arguments both countries could reasonably make. See Laura Grego, “The Faulty and Dangerous Logic of Missile Defense,” Scientific American, April 24, 2018, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-faulty-and-dangerous-logic-of-missile-defense/?redirect=1.

19. Wilfred Wan also makes this proposal in Nuclear Risk Reduction: A Framework for Analysis (Geneva, Switzerland: UNIDIR, 2019), p. 29, < http://unidir.org/files/publications/pdfs/nuclear-risk-reduction-a-framework-for-analysis-en-809.pdf>

20. See Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace, “Norm Package Singapore,” November 2018, https://cyberstability.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/GCSC-Singapore-Norm-Package-3MB.pdf.

21. For an overview of the challenges that dual-use command-and-control assets create for risk reduction, see James M. Acton, “Inadvertent Escalation and the Entanglement of Nuclear Command-and-Control Capabilities,” International Security Policy Brief, October 29, 2018, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/inadvertent-escalation-and-entanglement-nuclear-command-and-control-capabilities.

22. The White House, “Fact Sheet: US-Russian Cooperation on Information and Communications Technology Security.” June 17, 2013 < https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/17/fact-sheet-us-russian-cooperation-information-and-communications-technol>

23. Joseph Nye made a similar point in 1984. See Joseph S. Nye Jr., “U.S.-Soviet Relations and Nuclear-Risk Reduction,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 99, No. 3 (Autumn 1984), p. 404.

Sarah Bidgood is director of the Eurasia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) in Monterey, California. She also leads the Young Women in Nonproliferation Initiative at CNS.

Risk reduction measures are needed more than ever as just one U.S.-Russian treaty limits the size of the two nations’ strategic nuclear arsenals.

Brazil’s Nuclear Posture Under Bolsonaro

September 2019
By Matias Spektor, Togzhan Kassenova, and Lucas Perez Florentino

Promising a shake-up of Brazil’s policies, the far-right Jair Bolsonaro won the nation’s presidential elections in October 2018. A staunch supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, from whose playbook he borrowed extensively on his rise to power, Bolsonaro unveiled plans for an ambitious transformation of the country’s nuclear policy.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speaks on May 7, 2019. Since taking office in January, he has embarked on a transformation of Brazil's nuclear ambitions. (Photo: Everisto Sa/AFP/Getty Images)Some seeds for change had been planted before he came to power, as an official working group set up by his predecessor drafted new principles and guidelines to govern the country’s nuclear sector,1 but Bolsonaro’s administration doubled down on implementing a fast-paced reform from the outset. In the last eight months alone, the president began to open up the nuclear sector to private investment, substituted old tenets of nuclear diplomacy for new ones, and restated ambitious plans to acquire additional capabilities. Over the next decade, Brazil aims to launch a nuclear-powered submarine, produce naval nuclear fuel, explore new uranium mines, construct a third nuclear power plant, expand uranium-enrichment capacity, and launch a new research reactor.

The Brazilian government is undergoing a massive program of fiscal adjustment to curb public spending, so the administration reasons that if it is to maintain and extend its nuclear capabilities, it needs to invite private investment into a field that has traditionally relied on public funds alone.

To achieve these nuclear ambitions, not only will Brazil require an updated regulatory framework capable of unlocking public-private partnerships, but also one that responds to growing demands for strengthened nuclear safety and security, and improving oversight to curb the risk of political corruption and embezzlement.

In the process, the Brazilian Navy has gained even greater ascendancy over the management of the nuclear sector, with relevant implications for the country’s stance on nuclear safeguards.

Pursuing Nuclear Energy

For decades, Brazil has relied on oil, gas, ethanol, and hydropower for its energy needs. The country currently operates two nuclear power units, Angra 1 and Angra 2, which generated a mere 2.7 percent of the country’s electricity in 2017.2 Bolsonaro now wants to increase the role of nuclear power in the electric grid, and a third reactor at the Angra site will, when completed, add 12 million megawatt hours to the grid each year.3

Budget restraints prevented consistent progress, but all work stopped in 2015, when a major corruption scandal saw the imprisonment of top-ranking officers at Eletronuclear, the state-run company in charge of the nuclear power sector. This effectively halted all on-site construction and electromechanical assembly contracts. Eletronuclear estimates that resuming construction will require an overnight cost of $3.4 billion and about 55 months to complete. Abandoning the project is not an attractive alternative, with liquidation costs estimated at $2.9 billion. Brazil now wants foreign investors to complete the work. France’s EDF, Japan’s Mitsubishi, China’s CNNC, and Russia’s Rosatom are among potential foreign partners.

The government’s other nuclear priority is progress on naval nuclear propulsion and a domestically built nuclear-powered submarine. In June 2018, the navy began testing the integration of the turbogenerators of the land-based propulsion reactor prototype without its nuclear component. The prototype’s completion is scheduled for 2021.4 The industrial infrastructure for the construction of the nuclear-powered submarine is already in place and is currently used for building conventional submarines. The navy expects to start developing the detailed project for the nuclear submarine soon. The most recent estimates indicate that the first nuclear-powered submarine will be ready in 2029, with operations starting in 2030.5

Brazilian leaders alsoA technician examines the control room of Brazil's Angra 1 nuclear power plant in 2011. Efforts to build a third nuclear plant have stalled following a corruption scandal at the nation's state-run nuclear company. (Photo: Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images) seek to expand efforts at Caetité, the nation’s only operating uranium mine, and to license new uranium and phosphate mining in Santa Quitéria. To do this, Brazil will have to streamline existing regulations and clearly divide labor between the state-controlled Nuclear Industries of Brazil (INB) and the private sector, divvying up the tasks involving nuclear and environmental licensing, safety and radiological protection and all remaining operations involving uranium. As of 2019, it is unclear what the final arrangement will be, and nuclear sector representatives worry that further delays may compromise the entire sector moving forward.6

Brazil also plans to expand uranium-conversion and uranium-enrichment capabilities to reduce dependence on foreign suppliers. Even though Brazil’s installed capacity for fuel fabrication at 250 metric tons per year exceeds the demand of the country’s nuclear power reactors,7 Brazil lacks an industrial-scale conversion facility needed to make uranium hexafluoride gas for later enrichment.8 The Brazilian Navy’s still-uncommissioned, small-scale conversion facility will only cover naval needs. Brazil currently enriches uranium up to 4.3 percent uranium-235 at an industrial level and fabricates fuel for its nuclear power plants. On occasion, Brazil enriches to up to 19.9 percent U-235 for research reactors on a laboratory scale. As of 2017, Brazil’s domestic uranium-enrichment capacity provided a mere 14 percent of the amount needed to fuel Angra 1 and Angra 2.9 In 2018, the INB launched its seventh cascade of uranium-enrichment centrifuges, allowing for a 25 percent increase in production.10 The INB plans to meet the total national demand for enriched uranium by 2033.11

Addressing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, official Brazilian documents suggested for the first time in December 2018 that Brazil might seek to exploit irradiated fuel from its nuclear energy program: “Spent nuclear fuel will be stored at the appropriate site for future utilization of reusable material.” Some have interpreted this as a signal that Brazil might develop the capabilities to reprocess spent fuel. Such a capability would be a game-changer not only in terms of waste management at home but also of perceptions abroad of Brazilian nuclear ambitions.

In recent years, friction between Brazil’s nuclear sector and the environmental protection agency resulted in conflicting standards and methodologies used to govern nuclear and environmental regulation, poor coordination among overlapping regulatory authorities, and ineffective communication among the operators, regulatory agencies, local population, and social movements. Earlier this year, local residents and authorities in the region of Caldas, Minas Gerais, raised concerns about the structural integrity of a dam containing waste from the closed uranium mine in the region. As of February 2019, the dam operated without a safety certificate from the National Agency of Mining.12 In September 2018, the INB identified an “unusual event” in the drainage systems of the tailings dam, and a technical report identified serious damage and internal infiltration. To preserve the integrity of the dam, the INB carried out maintenance work, which it completed in June 2019.13 A productive working relationship between the nuclear and environmental authorities has always been a challenge and will likely remain so in the immediate future. Improvement is needed, however, as awareness is growing that improving standards for environmental protection will be key for the future of the nuclear sector, especially if it becomes increasingly integrated with private actors.

Perhaps the most critical change underway in Brazil’s nuclear governance is the decision to create an independent nuclear regulator. Calls for an independent nuclear regulator are not new due to concerns that the National Nuclear Energy Commission (CNEN) had conflicting interests when it simultaneously licensed and inspected state companies under its control. The decision to split existing functions has been a long time in the making and now looks irreversible.

The Navy Keeps Influence

The Brazilian Navy has been the key player in the country’s nuclear sector since the late 1970s. It holds exclusive ownership over the design and fabrication of uranium-enrichment centrifuges. It leases enrichment technology to the civilian nuclear industry under black-box conditions and fully vets and controls who has access to operating enrichment services at the INB. The Naval Command appoints the INB head of isotopic enrichment as well.

Brazil's newest submarine, the Riachuelo, was launched Dec. 14, 2018. It is the first of five planned submarines, including one nuclear-powered boat which is scheduled to begin operations in 2030. (Photo: Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images)The navy keeps strong connections with Brazil’s Nuclear and Energy Research Institute (IPEN), the country’s leading nuclear research and training institution. The navy helped IPEN secure funds for a new multipurpose reactor project, without which IPEN would be in dire financial straits. Navy officials lead Fundação Pátria, a nonprofit foundation that facilitates cooperation between IPEN and the Argentine nuclear technology company INVAP, the main partner in the multipurpose reactor project. Naval officers also occupy key positions on the governing board and the executive board of the project.

The navy is one of the key players in the negotiations on nuclear safeguards. CNEN continues to be Brazil’s point of contact with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but the navy retains strong influence. Some of that is direct, with naval officers leading interactions with the IAEA, while some influence is more indirect, such as with the informal consultations that take place among the navy, the Foreign Ministry, and CNEN personnel.

An admiral also now bears responsibility for nuclear safety and security in the federal government, and naval officers staff the president’s technical working groups tasked with proposing new legislation in the field.

Since taking office, Bolsonaro has reinforced the trend. He appointed the former director of naval technological and nuclear development as minister of mines and energy, with great influence in the cabinet on energy policy matters and with new oversight rights over the INB and NUCLEP, a company that produces heavy equipment for the nuclear sector, including for the newly built submarine construction facility. A retired navy captain now acts as INB president, and the navy appoints the NUCLEP director for industrial activities.

More recently, starting in March 2018, the navy launched a new Naval Agency for Nuclear Safety and Quality to develop and enforce the norms and procedures on safety and quality of designing, commissioning, operating, and decommissioning the nuclear-powered submarine. Officials in the navy and in the civilian nuclear sector claim that the specific safety requirements for the operation of a nuclear-powered submarine are outside of CNEN’s regulatory expertise and experience, which specializes in land-based nuclear reactors.

Importantly, the trend toward more reliance on the navy to manage the nuclear program is not the result of moving toward nuclear military activities and opacity, but the very opposite. In Brazil, there is a growing perception in policymaking circles and the nuclear sector that the navy is best equipped to restore order to a nuclear program beset by budgetary constraints and corruption scandals.

Contrary to what many observers expected, the navy’s newfound position in the Brazilian nuclear sector has come with a conviction that the country should reform its laws to allow for public-private partnerships. Perhaps more surprising, the navy has become a vocal player defending greater transparency and compliance with international norms and standards, likely due to the navy’s desire for its nuclear program to have legitimacy and respect domestically and internationally.

The navy’s role is bolstered by support from key stakeholders. Civilian authorities are making a conscious decision to delegate the bulk of nuclear policymaking to the military. The level of trust in the military is high across the board, and there seems to be no detectable fear among civilians of current or future insubordination. To a large degree, this legitimacy comes from a widespread perception of effectiveness. Politically savvy naval commanders have provided vigorous leadership in the field and are normally equipped to dominate the terms of public debate over nuclear policy. Furthermore, these commanders have been effective at securing budgets and protecting nuclear projects to the extent possible from budget cuts coming from the Brazilian Congress and budgetary authorities in the executive branch. By and large, there is general sympathy for the involvement of the navy in the nuclear field among the Brazilian nuclear sector, academics, and the media.

Nevertheless, the navy’s ascent as a hegemonic player raises questions about civilian control over nuclear policy moving forward. The trend is particularly worrying because the civilian nuclear sector is losing significant personnel, including in such sensitive areas as the production of vitally needed medical radioisotopes, operation and maintenance of research nuclear reactors, and training of future generations in fundamental nuclear science. The loss of human resources in the nuclear field is especially worrisome in a country in which civil society is too weak to exercise any control or influence on nuclear decision-making. After all, just as the navy has protected and nurtured Brazil’s nuclear industry, its outsized role raises concerns that proper democratic controls over the nuclear sector might erode over time.

Nuclear Safeguards and an Additional Protocol

Since the early 1990s, Brazil has accepted international oversight of its nuclear activities to ensure the absence of a nuclear weapons program. This safeguards system is implemented bilaterally with Argentina, through the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control (ABACC), and multilaterally by the IAEA.14 All of Brazil’s nuclear facilities and material fall under the comprehensive safeguards agreement concluded by Brazil, Argentina, and ABACC with the IAEA, also known as the Quadripartite Agreement.15

For several years, authorities in Brazil and in Argentina argued that these arrangements have been sufficient, and they have resisted calls to conclude an additional protocol to augment their safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Although safeguards discussions are often technical, the issue of the additional protocol became highly politicized and sensitive within Brazil. Some denounced foreign pressure for an additional protocol as an attempt to peep into Brazil’s indigenous centrifuge technologies. Others said that calls for an additional protocol illustrated the hypocrisy of nuclear-weapon states that demand greater transparency from non-nuclear states while offering nothing in exchange. By the mid-2000s, Brazil’s national defense white paper formally stated Brazil would not negotiate any additional safeguards measures until nuclear-weapon states made good on their nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty pledge to disarm.

Before Bolsonaro, various administrations also resisted launching formal debates on the safeguards design for the naval nuclear fuel in a nuclear-powered submarine. This reluctance was backed by concerns about protecting proprietary information on the radioisotopic composition of the nuclear fuel, the quantity of fuel in submarine reactors, and the desire to preserve secrecy over submarine movements and locations. No precedent exists for applying safeguards to naval nuclear fuel in a non-nuclear-weapon state, and no blueprint exists for how to do it, although the first generation of studies started addressing this issue by proposing technical solutions.16

But now change is apace. On both issues, an additional protocol and the adoption of naval nuclear safeguards, the terms of the domestic debate within Brazil are in flux. Leading the conversation is the Brazilian Navy.

For the first time, naval leaders and the scientific community started saying in informal conversations that there are no technical hurdles to the conclusion of an additional protocol and that nuclear scientific secrets could be protected well even if the country signed such a protocol. Although it is difficult to predict whether the talks in this field will progress and how fast they move, any change to the policy would be striking, and it speaks to the fact that as Brazil makes progress on its nuclear submarine, the navy wants to establish as good an international reputation as it possibly can.

Driving the push for change, the navy is seeking to remove any doubts as to the non-weapon nature of Brazil’s nuclear activities. Naval officers are well aware that concluding an additional protocol is a voluntary state commitment, but over the last decade it has become a soft norm: Of the 175 states with comprehensive IAEA safeguards agreements today, a remarkable 134 have additional protocols in force.

The issue of the additional protocol is highly sensitive, however, and any change will be piecemeal. Brazilian officials have made no official statements on the willingness of Brazil to start negotiations for such a protocol. Most likely, the new government will say it is not interested in negotiating an additional protocol at this juncture, but it will not exclude the possibility of doing so in an undetermined future. Even this would be a significant break with the recent past, and it could affect and be affected by Bolsonaro’s relationship with the next president of Argentina, who will take office in December 2019.

The navy is driving the debate concerning naval nuclear safeguards. The IAEA model document for comprehensive safeguards agreements includes a provision for the “nonapplication of safeguards in nuclear material in nonpeaceful activities.” That provision allows a state to withdraw nuclear material from safeguards upon conclusion of an appropriate arrangement with the IAEA for the nonapplication of safeguards if the material is to be used in naval nuclear propulsion. Many international experts argue that this provides a loophole in applying safeguards to naval nuclear fuel. When Brazil designs safeguards for its naval nuclear fuel, it will do so in line with article 13 of the Quadripartite Agreement, which differs from standard IAEA safeguards in that it calls for applying special procedures to nuclear material used for nuclear propulsion, including for submarines and reactor prototypes. This confirms the undertaking of Brazil and Argentina under the Treaty of Tlatelolco to accept safeguards on all their nuclear activities. The fundamental question that Brazil and the IAEA would have to resolve will concern where “military application” starts and where it ends.

Nuclear Diplomacy

For several decades, Brazil focused on promoting global nuclear disarmament, pressuring nuclear-weapon states to disarm, and resisting unilateral concessions on safeguards and transparency measures. More recently, Brazil was an early proponent of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), a treaty signed by 70 states banning nuclear weapons.

A few influential members within the Bolsonaro administration appear to be trying to reverse the trend. Brazilian Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s son and possibly the future ambassador to the United States, has coordinated allies in Congress to stall TPNW ratification. In June 2019, another congressman, Luiz Philippe of Orléans-Braganza, a member of Bolsonaro’s party, called for a public hearing to debate the treaty, while questioning its benefits.17

Perhaps drawing the most international attention was Eduardo Bolsonaro’s May 2019 statement in support of nuclear weapons as tools of peace and stability.18 This is not the first time top-ranking officials in Brazil have publicly supported nuclear weapons or issued statements about their potential utility for future Brazilian administrations. By and large, these are minority views with little if any political traction among the public, but there is a real risk that such utterances will generate confusion and suspicion as the Bolsonaro administration unfolds its ambitious plans for the reform of the nuclear sector over the next four years.


1. Decreto Nº 9.600, Diário Oficial da União, vol. 234 (December 5, 2018), http://www.in.gov.br/materia/-/asset_publisher/Kujrw0TZC2Mb/content/id/53757734/do1-2018-12-06-decreto-n-9-600-de-5-de-dezembro-de-2018-53757633.

2. Empresa de Pesquisa Energética, “Anuário Estatístico de Energia Elétrica 2018 Ano Base 2017,” October 2018, pp. 56-58, http://epe.gov.br/sites-pt/publicacoes-dados-abertos/publicacoes/PublicacoesArquivos/publicacao-160/topico-168/Anuario2018vf.pdf.

3. “Angra 3,” Eletronuclear, n.d. http://www.eletronuclear.gov.br/Nossas-Atividades/Paginas/Angra-3.aspx (accessed August 20, 2019).

4. José Maria Tomazela, “Temer dá início a testes de submarino nuclear e pede ‘otimismo’ em Iperó,” Folha de São Paulo, June 8, 2018, https://politica.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,temer-inaugura-testes-de-submarino-nuclear-e-pede-mais-otimismo-no-pais,70002343057; “Lançamento da pedra fundamental do RMB e início dos testes de integração dos turbogeradores do LABGENE,” Poder Naval, June 8, 2018, https://www.naval.com.br/blog/2018/06/08/lancamento-da-pedra-fundamental-do-rmb-e-inicio-dos-testes-de-integracao-dos-turbogeradores-do-labgene/; Brazilian Ministry of Defense, “Relatório de Gestão Exercício 2017,” 2018, p. 85, https://www.defesa.gov.br/arquivos/lai/auditoria/contas_anuais/relatorio_gestao_2017/relatorio_de_gestao.pdf.

5. Brazilian Ministry of Defense, “Relatório de Gestão Exercício 2017,” p. 98.

6. “Governo vai estimular parcerias para ampliar a produção de urânio,” Valor Econômico, January 7, 2019, https://www.valor.com.br/brasil/6051649/governo-vai-estimular-parcerias-para-ampliar-producao-de-uranio.

7. Brazilian Ministry of Defense, “Relatório de Gestão do Exercício de 2017,” p. 28.

8. Ibid., pp. 52–53.

9. Indústrias Nucleares do Brasil (INB), “Plano Estratégico INB 2017-2026,” n.d., p. 37, http://www.inb.gov.br/Portals/0/Arquivos/Plano_Estrategico_INB_20172026.pdf?ver=2019-03-08-165606-490.

10. “Brasil caminha para conquistas independência no domínio da energia nuclear, diz ministro,” Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia, Inovações e Comunicações, August 30, 2018, https://www.mctic.gov.br/mctic/opencms/salaImprensa/noticias/arquivos/2018/08/Brasil_caminha_para_conquistar_independencia_nodominio_da_energia_nuclear_diz_ministro.html.

11. INB, “Plano Estratégico da INB 2017–2026,” p. 37.

12. “Caldas tem duas barragens sem garantia de segurança da Agência Nacional de Mineração,” G1, January 28, 2019, https://g1.globo.com/mg/sul-de-minas/noticia/2019/01/28/caldas-tem-duas-barragens-sem-garantia-de-seguranca-da-agencia-nacional-de-mineracao.ghtml.

13. “MPF em Pouso Alegre (MG) recomenda implementação de plano emergencial em barragem com rejeitos nucleares,” Ministério Público Federal, February 7, 2019, http://www.mpf.mp.br/mg/sala-de-imprensa/noticias-mg/mpf-em-pouso-alegre-mg-recomenda-implementacao-de-plano-emergencial-em-barragem-com-rejeitos-nucleares; “Obras na barragem avançam em Caldas,” INB, March 29, 2019, http://www.inb.gov.br/Detalhe/Conteudo/obras-na-barragem-avancam-em-caldas/Origem/1634; “Concluída a obra na Barragem de Rejeitos da INB Caldas,” INB, June 25, 2019, http://www.inb.gov.br/Detalhe/Conteudo/concluida-a-obra-na-barragem-de-rejeitos-da-inb-caldas/Origem/395.

14. Agreement between the Republic of Argentina and the Federative Republic of Brazil for the Exclusively Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy, 1991, <www.abacc.org.br/en/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2016/10/Bilateral-Agreement.pdf>.

15. Agreement of 13 December 1991 Between the Republic of Argentina, the Federative Republic of Brazil, the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials and the International Atomic Energy Agency for the Application of Safeguards, INFCIRC/435, IAEA, https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/infcirc435.pdf.

16. See, for example, Sébastien Philippe, “Safeguarding the Military Naval Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” Journal of Nuclear Materials Management, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Spring 2014): 40–52.

17. “Requerimento Nº, de 2019,” Comissão de Relações Exteriores e de Defesa Nacional, June 19, 2019, https://www.camara.leg.br/proposicoesWeb/prop_mostrarintegra;jsessionid=F61D5880C17EF7D25DF7B6A7D6245CBF.proposicoesWebExterno2?codteor=1767157&filename=REQ+82/2019+CREDN.

18. “Eduardo Bolsonaro defende que o Brasil tenha armas nucleares,” G1, May 14, 2019, https://g1.globo.com/politica/noticia/2019/05/14/eduardo-bolsonaro-defende-que-o-brasil-tenha-armas-nucleares.ghtml.

Matias Spektor is an associate professor at the School of International Relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) in Brazil. Togzhan Kassenova is a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research at the State University of New York at Albany, a senior visiting scholar at The George Washington University, and a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Lucas Perez Florentino is a research associate at FGV in Brazil.

President Jair Bolsonaro has ambitious plans for Brazil’s nuclear sector.

Probabilistic Verification: A New Concept for Verifying the Denuclearization of North Korea

September 2019
By Mareena Robinson Snowden

Although U.S.-North Korean talks have stalled, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has abided by an apparent moratorium on nuclear testing, keeping alive hopes that an agreement can be reached to denuclearize North Korea. Implementing such an agreement with North Korea, if one can be negotiated, would constitute an unprecedented challenge for the international community.

IAEA inspectors used seals such as these, among many other tools, when it was asked to verify the shutdown of North Korean nuclear activities in the past. The IAEA has maintained readiness to participate in a future verification regime if any nuclear agreement is concluded. (Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA)Verifying such an agreement would require building a monitoring regime that goes well beyond traditional international safeguards and bilateral arms control approaches while accommodating legitimate North Korean concerns over intrusiveness, which would practically preclude “anytime, anywhere” inspections. Creativity will be needed to design a verification scheme to which the United States and North Korea could agree and that could be implemented in affordable and practical ways and that politicians would deem credible.

Verification is the means by which parties to an agreement assure themselves that the agreement is being implemented faithfully. A central tension lies at the heart of verification: the need to balance confidence on one side with the sensitivities regarding intrusive monitoring on the other. In nuclear activities negotiations, verification traditionally has been accomplished through two means: international safeguards inspections on fissile material production and bilateral arms control monitoring of nuclear delivery vehicles, such as missiles and bombers. Both systems focused narrowly on just a few activities or items intrinsic to nuclear weapons and constructed monitoring approaches that would provide high confidence of detecting noncompliance.

Over time, the distinctions between these two types of verification regimes have blurred as some states pursued clandestine nuclear weapons programs. In South Africa in 1990, Iraq after 1992, and Libya in 2003, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) undertook activities that went beyond the narrow confines of fissile material accountancy to verify that all three states had ceased nuclear weapons-related activities. More recently, the IAEA investigated “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear activities, including experiments related to nuclear weapons design and testing.

The North Korean verification challenge is more substantial than these prior examples. Complete, irreversible denuclearization would require defining and implementing “disarmament” of a whole category of weapons and the pertinent infrastructure to develop, produce, and upgrade them—in real time. Still, as challenging as nuclear verification in North Korea may be, these historical approaches and ad hoc innovations offer lessons on how to design an approach that can work in North Korea. Experience from other verification regimes, such as the Chemical Weapons Convention, also can be helpful.

A Unique North Korean Verification Challenge

North Korea’s unique challenge demands innovation in the way verification is approached in practice and is conceived in theory. Since the inception of nuclear arms control and international safeguards, decision-makers, particularly in the United States, tended to frame international treaties and their associated verification regimes in binary terms akin to law enforcement: either actors are complying with the terms of the treaty or not. This legalistic view is reinforced by the belief that adherence to all parts of an agreement demonstrates the intent and trustworthiness of the participants. By extension, unwillingness to tolerate even low-level violations, regardless of military significance, signaled parties’ resolve to detect everything, hold each other accountable, and deter cheating.

This framing of verification narrows the scope of what an agreement can cover. To provide the desired near-certain confidence in monitoring compliance, the verification system must cover fewer activities in a more limited geographic area. This narrow scope served a related purpose in the case of U.S.-Soviet arms control, namely to limit reciprocal inspections and monitoring activity in order to protect national security information and mitigate other security concerns. The consistently narrow focus on missiles and their associated launchers in the last three U.S.-Soviet and U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control agreements—the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) of 1991, and New START of 2010—reflects these considerations.

Achieving the complete denuclearization of North Korea, however, will require negotiators to take a broader view of proscribed activities and items. The tendency of negotiators to focus on easily verified items or activities will be too minimalistic. In addition to monitoring fissile material and nuclear missiles, as done under traditional approaches, a denuclearization regime will need to account for weapons research and development and military-related activities. Additionally, it will need to provide flexibility to resolve inevitable confusion around ambiguous behavior by North Korea.

Stephen Biegun, who leads the U.S. working delegation to negotiate a denuclearization agreement with North Korea, speaks with South Korea's special representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs Lee Do-hoon at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul  on June 28. (Photo: Jeon Heon-kyun/Getty Images)For these reasons, U.S. insistence on a traditional verification framework in negotiations with North Korea—implicit in the U.S. goal of final, fully verified denuclearization in North Korea—does not match the scope of the challenge, nor does it provide negotiators the flexibility needed to reach meaningful agreement. North Korea’s reported resistance to providing an up-front comprehensive declaration of its nuclear program for fear of creating a “target list” shows the need for a new approach.1 The picture is complicated further by the high probability that North Korea will insist on retaining at least some nuclear weapons until the very end of the denuclearization process, as well as missiles that can carry nuclear or conventional warheads. Moreover, given its penchant for secrecy and extreme concerns about regime stability, North Korea probably would not permit on-demand access to sensitive facilities, especially military bases. Beyond resistance by the regime, verifying denuclearization within North Korea also presents specific operational challenges that increase complexity: a poor infrastructure that constrains energy supply, inadequate roads and transportation, risks to the health and safety of inspectors, and topography and tunneling capability that is conducive to the concealment of major items.

All of this amounts to the need to adopt an approach to denuclearization and its verification that is appropriate to this unique combination of challenges and allows for the broad prioritization of key activities and items of military significance. Shifting from the traditional to a probabilistic approach to verification could help negotiators address these challenges and diminish the likelihood that verification becomes an insurmountable obstacle to an agreement.

A Probabilistic Approach to Verification

For a denuclearization agreement to be comprehensive, it would need to prohibit or restrict a broad array of activities and capabilities beyond fissile material production. An associated verification regime requires a high probability of detecting a violation of one or more proscribed activities in time to allow an international response before North Korea could gain a military advantage from the violation. Achieving this target would not require 100 percent confidence that compliance with each and every term of the agreement can be verified. Rather, 100 percent confidence is needed that violation of at least one significant term will be detected in time. This is a critical distinction: though different in its theoretical approach, probabilistic verification in practice can still yield the high confidence required by policymakers in compliance assessments.

Probabilistic verification meets international security needs in situations where perfect or near-perfect verification arrangements are not possible, either because they cannot be imposed on one or more of the parties or because physical or fiscal realities do not allow them. Whereas traditional nuclear verification has focused on one or two readily observable objects or behaviors, such as missile dismantlement efforts or the nonoperation of plutonium-production reactors, probabilistic verification would encompass the many more capabilities and activities that enable a country to build and deploy a nuclear arsenal. In addition to fissile material production, this would cover weapons research and development, delivery vehicle production and systems integration, and military induction of nuclear weapons. This approach draws on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Firewall Project, which identifies key technical and contextual indicators across the range of activities required to develop a nuclear arsenal as a means of distinguishing weapons-related programs from peaceful ones, whether in the context of nonproliferation or nuclear rollback.

The benefit of probabilistic verification comes from an aggregation of detection probabilities that provides an overall monitoring confidence across the full range of activities required for nuclear weapons. Monitoring confidence is a judgment made by nuclear negotiators and the intelligence community about the ability of a monitoring technology to achieve its stated objective.2 For example, if a ban on static rocket motor testing was ever to be negotiated as part of a denuclearization deal between the United States and North Korea, infrared satellite imagery would likely be included as a monitoring technology. As part of this future deal, North Korea would agree not to interfere with remote information gathering by using shields and other masking approaches. The ability of the satellites to observe covert motor tests would be based on how well and how frequently the satellite system was able to observe key zones of interest.

Assessing confidence in monitoring capability can vary based on a number of factors. For example, how effectively an indicator of noncompliance can rise above the background noise of other information will affect confidence in that indicator. The maturity of a monitoring technology will influence its perceived reliability, while its incorporation in previous verification regimes will affect its perceived negotiability. The timeliness of the result will directly affect whether the inspecting state is able to respond to a potential violation before it approaches the threshold of military significance. In the case of satellite-based monitoring of static rocket motor testing, the confidence judgment would be high, based on overall advances in spatial, temporal, and spectral resolution of satellite technology, the increased timeliness of image delivery, and the familiarity with satellite use as a proven information-gathering technology in a military and verification context.

Probabilistic Verification in Practice

A future denuclearization deal would need to monitor a broad range of activity in a variety of technical and military domains simultaneously in order to provide the international community adequate assurance of an end to the North Korean nuclear threat. Some activities for which there are established verification procedures, for example, fissile material production activities traditionally inspected by the IAEA or the deployment of nuclear delivery vehicles under the New START verification protocol, would be relatively straightforward to monitor.

How should negotiators think about the monitoring of activities not historically covered under nuclear agreements, such as the decoupling of warheads from missiles or a ban on weaponization activities and production of large rocket engines? Verifying the absence of such activities would be crucial to ensuring progress toward denuclearization, yet would require a level of access and intrusiveness that has not been negotiated in any previous arms control or international safeguards agreement. A notable exception here pertains to weapons design and development activities proscribed under Section T of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement with Iran, the implementation of which by the IAEA has proven complicated.3 Negotiators would seem to face a choice between omitting weapons-relevant activities because the probability of detecting noncompliance on each and every activity is low or proscribing these activities and accepting that cheating on some may not be detected. In reality, though, a probabilistic verification system makes the latter option clearly preferable and overall more valuable than the traditional approach.

Generically speaking, in traditional and probabilistic verification regimes, some activities are exceptionally important and must be verifiable with high confidence. Examples could include plutonium production, uranium enrichment, and nuclear explosive testing. Under a probabilistic system, these top-tier activities would be supplemented with the monitoring of a range of other activities or capabilities deemed militarily significant, such as hydrodynamic explosions or static rocket motor testing. Even if 100 percent confidence in verification of these activities is not possible, they still merit proscription.

The innovation here is in shifting the focus of nuclear negotiations to overall monitoring confidence: the ability to detect violation in at least one monitored activity rather than confidence in detecting cheating on every proscribed activity.4 With this flexibility, negotiators can find agreement on a collection of monitoring activities that meets the U.S. requirement for a high overall monitoring confidence while providing a broader range of verification options to offer should North Korea object to any single approach during negotiation. Further, inclusion of activities with medium or low monitoring confidence does not incentivize cheating. In fact, probabilistic verification introduces an additional benefit by expanding the North Korean perception of the risk of cheating to a much broader range of activities that would be critical for sustaining a parallel program or a reconstitution capability.

As shown in table 1, the aggregation effects in a monitoring regime mean that the probability of detecting violation in at least one activity (Pat least one) increases as the number of monitored activities (i) increases. So even in cases where the majority of monitored activities are judged to be of low confidence, for example, in an inspector’s ability to monitor weaponization activities, increasing the number of monitored activities drives up the overall likelihood of detecting violation in at least one. This approach assumes that the probability of detecting violation in any one given activity is independent from others in the collection of monitored activities and items.

Verification experts may debate what constitutes low-, medium-, or high-confidence levels, but the important shift introduced by a probabilistic view on verification is the prioritization of deterrence value alongside detection probability. The U.S. intelligence community treats monitoring technologies with no better than a 50 percent chance of detecting violation, or with 50 percent uncertainty in a measured quantity, as low confidence.5 Yet, this perspective ignores the deterrent value of wide-scale, multimethod monitoring. For state leaders debating whether to cheat on a nuclear deal, a 50 percent chance of being detected is likely perceived as quite high and would be an important consideration in decisions to cheat in a militarily significant way.

In practice, it would be the job of the negotiating delegations, through the use of expert input from the technical, intelligence, and policy communities, to prioritize the activities and items to be included in the monitoring portfolio and estimate the likelihood of detection for each approach. The figure below shows representative examples of portfolio configurations at either end of the confidence spectrum and illustrates that even when activities outside of traditional verification practice are included, high overall monitoring confidence can be achieved. This alternative perspective sees value in the inclusion of activities and technologies that would be disregarded under a traditional verification framework, understanding that deterrence value should be considered alongside the overall confidence of a monitoring technology.



The advanced state of the North Korean military nuclear program, coupled with the unique nature of U.S.-North Korean relations, makes the denuclearization verification challenge unlike anything the international community has faced. Traditional approaches alone, safeguards and arms control monitoring, will not provide the coverage needed to confidently assess the elimination of the North Korean nuclear threat, nor are they likely to prove negotiable with North Korea. Thus, the North Korean verification challenge requires innovative thinking and problem solving well beyond the bounds of traditional verification approaches.

Critically, verification must be negotiated hand-in-hand with proscriptions on activities. Verification considerations should guide the prioritization of activities to limit, but in a way that broadens the scope and creates flexibility for how such limitations might be verified over time. If Pyongyang accepts proscription of an activity or technology, it would be foolish not to proscribe it merely because North Korea objects to a particular verification approach. The history of breakdowns in the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea and the later six-party talks, largely over differences of view on verification, underscores the importance of synergy between limitations and monitoring approach. A more flexible approach to verification, one that preserves monitoring confidence, provides negotiators with more options, and more fully contains the qualitative and quantitative improvements to North Korea’s nuclear program, is the best chance to provide sufficient verification and, over time, help create conditions under which North Korea would fully disarm.



1. “Trump to Meet With Kim Jong-un, Despite North Korea’s Lapses, Bolton Says,” The New York Times, December 4, 2018.

2. Howard Stoertz Jr., “Monitoring a Nuclear Freeze,” International Security, Vol. 8, No. 4 (Spring 1984): 95.

3. See Jarrett Blanc, “There Is No Crisis in JCPOA Section T,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 17, 2017, https://carnegieendowment.org/2017/10/17/there-is-no-crisis-in-jcpoa-section-t-pub-73454.

4. The probability of detecting violation in at least one proscribed activity is 1-Pnone=1-∏i1-Pi, where Pi is the violation detection probability in activity/item i.

5. Stoertz, “Monitoring a Nuclear Freeze,” p. 95.


Mareena Robinson Snowden is a senior engineer at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Prior to this, she served as a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where her research focused on nuclear arms control verification, nonproliferation, and modernization.

An innovative verification approach could help build confidence that North Korea is complying with any denuclearization agreement in the future.

Roland Timerbaev (1927–2019), At the Vanguard of Nuclear Nonproliferation

September 2019
By Matthew Bunn

Roland Timerbaev, who passed away in mid-August at the age of 91, was a true giant—both as an arms controller and as a human being. I doubt we will see his like again.

(Photo: Center for Energy and Security Studies)From the 1950s, after a brief stint at the fledgling United Nations, Timerbaev was directly supporting Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko on nuclear weapons issues. (He remembered drafting the first Soviet proposal for a fissile material cutoff treaty in 1958.)  Preventing nuclear annihilation became his consuming, life-long passion. He retired from the Foreign Ministry just as the Soviet Union was collapsing, resigning as permanent representative to the international organizations in Vienna, including, of course, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

He is best known for his key role in negotiating the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, where he first met my father, George Bunn, who served on the U.S. delegation. As Timerbaev remembered, while neither of them were the heads of their respective delegations, they were often the “day-to-day negotiators” of the treaty, assigned to find ways to overcome the blockages that arose.1 It was Timerbaev and his colleague Vladimir Shustov, with Bunn and the U.S. delegate Culver Gleysteen, who broke the impasse on the safeguards article during a hike in the mountains near Geneva, even though both sides had been instructed not to compromise.2

Working together on the NPT, Timerbaev and my father built a close friendship and professional partnership that lasted the rest of their lives; in a letter for a Stanford celebration of my father’s career in 2004, Timerbaev wrote that their friendship and cooperation had been “the most rewarding [professional] thing I have ever experienced.”

The NPT was by no means the end of Timerbaev’s nonproliferation work. He played a key role in launching the Nuclear Suppliers Group, working through the night with British ambassador John Thomson (later the founding chairman) in early 1975—with the assistance of a good dinner and some whiskey back in the hotel room—in negotiating the documents that announced the initiative. He made major contributions to IAEA safeguards, to the negotiation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and to many other key nuclear accords.

After leaving the Foreign Ministry, Timerbaev spent several years at what is now the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, teaching, writing, and launching a variety of policy initiatives. He was particularly proud of having brought most of the members of the Ukrainian parliament to Monterey for nonproliferation training before the crucial vote that confirmed Ukraine’s non-nuclear-weapon status.

Working with Vladimir Orlov, Timerbaev then launched the PIR Center in Moscow, one of the most important nongovernmental nonproliferation organizations in Russia. He was an encouraging and tireless teacher and mentor, training generations of Russian and global nonproliferation experts. He was also an indefatigable writer; in particular, his history, Russia and Nuclear Nonproliferation, 1945–1968, became a standard Russian text.

Beyond all these accomplishments, Timerbaev was a warm and generous person, charming everyone from diplomatic counterparts to graduate students. He told his CNS colleague William Potter that he “collected friends the way other people collect art.” A visitor to his home was always welcomed with enthusiasm and with a kaleidoscopic conversation ranging from the fate of the universe to music to the issues of the day—and with a gentle chiding if the visitor preferred water to whiskey or wine. He was a loving husband, father, and grandfather, and a classical music aficionado (especially Rachmaninov’s fiendishly complex 3rd Piano Concerto). He genuinely cared both about reducing the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and about the individual people living under that Sword of Damocles. He will be sorely missed.



1. Roland Timerbaev, “In Memoriam: George Bunn,” Arms Control Today, June 2013.

2. Part of that story is recounted in “In Memoriam: George Bunn.” For Timerbaev’s take on the continuing importance and success of the NPT, see Anton V. Khlopkov, “Roland Timerbaev: The Nuclear Noproliferation Treaty Has Largely Achieved Its Goals (Interview),” Arms Control Today, September 2017.


Matthew Bunn is a professor of practice at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

An architect of the nuclear nonproliferation regime, Roland Timerbaev leaves a long-lasting legacy.

REMARKS: Time for the World to Wake Up

September 2019
By Heinz Fischer

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) remains a shining example of how science and technology can help contribute to positive political and diplomatic outcomes.

(Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)The treaty has had a significant positive impact since it was adopted in 1996. With the notable exception of North Korea, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has achieved de facto implementation despite not having entered into force, with no other nuclear state having carried out a nuclear test since 1998.

And despite the lack of entry into force, the CTBT and CTBTO have made important contributions in making it easier to detect nuclear tests, and in establishing a strong normative taboo against states carrying out nuclear tests.

This has made a notable contribution to protecting the world from the deeply harmful environmental and health impacts of nuclear testing, and is an important step on the path towards total disarmament.

All this has been possible because of the hard work and commitment of a group of scientists and technology experts who nearly 30 years ago undertook intensive, complex and sensitive groundwork to pave the way for a deal.

Their efforts made it easier for the diplomats to negotiate the final text, because there was already a scientific and technological consensus on the parameters.

Therefore, all of us express our admiration and gratitude for all that this organization has done over the decades to support nuclear non-proliferation and the true cause of peace.

But I fear it is a bittersweet moment, because there is today an acute risk that rash and hubristic policy shifts could undo all the valuable work the CTBTO and others have achieved, bringing us closer to the brink of a devastating nuclear war than any time since the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

We currently find ourselves at one of the most dangerous times for arms control efforts for many decades. The bilateral arms control architecture developed between the United States and the Soviet Union towards the end of the Cold War is being rapidly unraveled, through a combination of neglect, hubris and erroneous threat analysis.

The risk of a catastrophic nuclear event, whether by accident or design, is increased by the paralysis in international bodies charged with upholding peace and security, most notably the United Nations Security Council.

Ban Ki-moon had the honor of addressing the Council earlier this month in New York as a member of The Elders, the group of independent leaders founded by Nelson Mandela who work for peace, justice and human rights.

Together with Mary Robinson, he spoke frankly to the Council and particularly its five permanent members—all nuclear-armed states—to remind them of their uniquely heavy responsibility to develop effective processes of nonproliferation and disarmament.

But there are only few signs of the P5 and other states with nuclear weapons capabilities showing willing to meet these, as national and international politics appears increasingly driven by polarization, isolationism and an alarming disdain for the very principles of multilateralism.

The imminent expiration of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in August is the most significant blow, with the potential to threaten the stability not only of Europe, but also much of Asia, if it leads to a renewed arms race involving the United States, China, India and Pakistan.

The decision of U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw from the INF is symptomatic of a much broader negative context of unilateral moves and repudiation of previous agreements.

Consider the possible collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—an agreement negotiated so painstakingly here in Vienna, and which was universally deemed to be working well before the American decision, with all the implications we see now for rising tensions between Iran and the United States and wider Middle East security.

Consider as well the recent U.S. withdrawal from the Arms Trade Treaty, and growing concern as to whether the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the United States and Russia will be extended beyond February 2021.

The world needs to wake up to the severity of the current threat, and the nuclear states must get serious about taking steps towards disarmament to avert an incalculable catastrophe.

Nuclear weapons constitute an existential threat to the future of humanity, just as much as climate change.

And just as science plays an indispensable role in the fight against climate change, so it must now be mobilized in the service of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.

This includes exact and dispassionate analysis of new technological developments that risk complicating and destabilizing traditional practices of arms control and disarmament, including artificial intelligence, cyber-technology and space-based delivery and tracking systems.

In the longer term, total disarmament is likely to require the multilateral agreement of a Nuclear Weapons Convention.

This may seem a remote prospect today. But, in order for such a convention to be a realistic possibility in the future, there is an important need for substantial work to be done now to find technological solutions that can enable total disarmament to take place with confidence that effective verification and enforcement mechanisms are in place.

All of us need to treat these issues with the utmost seriousness and urgency.

This is why The Elders have launched a new initiative on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, which was presented by Mary Robinson and Lakhdar Brahimi to the Munich Security Conference this February.

They are calling on the nuclear powers to pursue a “minimization agenda” that could help to reduce the nuclear threat and make concrete progress towards disarmament.

Nuclear states should and must make progress in four areas:

  • doctrine—all states making a “no first use” declaration;
  • de-alerting—taking almost all nuclear weapons off high alert status;
  • deployment—dramatically reducing the numbers of weapons actively deployed;
  • and decreased numbers—for Russia and the United States to adopt deep cuts in warhead numbers to around 500 each, with no increase in warheads by other states.

Above all, the nuclear states must work to reduce tensions and take practical, concrete steps to demonstrate to the world that they do not intend to keep these weapons indefinitely.

In this regard, it would be a tremendously positive step for the nuclear states to make concrete progress towards finally bringing the CTBT into force. Ban Ki-moon is calling upon the eight remaining “Annex 2 states” who have not yet ratified the CTBT—six of whom possess nuclear weapons—to do so at the earliest opportunity. There is no good reason to fail to sign or ratify this treaty, and any country that opposes this is failing to meet its responsibilities as a member of the international community.

Steps towards disarmament need to be implemented with the understanding that the binary divide of the Cold War, with Washington on the one side and Moscow on the other, is no longer dominant.

Instead we live in a world of interlinked nuclear chains, where decisions by one state can have a ripple effect beyond any one immediate strategic environment. The threatened collapse of the INF is a case in point; its demise will not just raise security threats on the European continent but also spark instability and potential strategic escalation in other regions, especially Asia.

The only way to tackle these threats is to internationalize and multilateralism the issue, including via the United Nations and bodies such as the CTBTO. Only by facing this threat together, as a global community, can we hope to find a durable solution.

No country individually, nor the international system collectively, has the capacity to cope with the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.

When the first atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, it made no distinction between combatants and civilians, old and young, or victims and the first responders trying to help them.

For the very survival of humanity, nuclear weapons must never be used again, under any circumstances. The only guarantee of the non-use of nuclear weapons is their complete abolition.

We will only reach this goal if the broad mass of humanity understands the urgent nature of the threat, and the political and moral imperative for drastic action to cut the number of warheads and fundamentally reassess strategic defense postures and doctrines.

Adapted from a speech by Heinz Fischer, co-chair of the Ban Ki-moon Centre, at the opening ceremony of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Science and Technology Conference in Vienna, June 24.

The co-chair of the Ban Ki-moon Centre warns of an unraveling system of restraints on the nuclear powers.

U.S. Completes INF Treaty Withdrawal

September 2019
By Shannon Bugos

Less than one year after President Donald Trump informally announced that the United States would withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the State Department announced on Aug. 2 that the move was officially complete. The treaty’s death leaves just the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) in place to limit U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons deployments, and that pact is due to expire in February 2021.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appears at the State Department's anniversary celebration on July 29, three days before the United States withdrew from the INF Treaty. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)For several years, the United States has alleged that Russia was in violation of the INF Treaty by testing and deploying a banned missile system, and Washington pinned its treaty withdrawal squarely on Russia. “Russia is solely responsible for the treaty’s demise,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in announcing the U.S. move. “Over the past six months, the United States provided Russia a final opportunity to correct its noncompliance. As it has for many years, Russia chose to keep its noncompliant missile rather than going back into compliance with its treaty obligations.”

Russia and China strongly criticized the Trump administration’s action and sought to blame the United States for the end of the treaty. “Instead of engaging in a meaningful discussion on international security matters, the United States opted for simply undercutting many years of efforts to reduce the probability of a large-scale armed conflict, including the use of nuclear weapons,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an Aug. 5 statement. He added that Moscow will mirror the development of any missiles that the United States makes.

Similarly, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said on Aug. 2 that “[w]ithdrawing from the INF Treaty is another negative move of the U.S. that ignores its international commitment and pursues unilateralism. Its real intention is to make the treaty no longer binding on itself so that it can unilaterally seek military and strategic edge.”

For its part, NATO supported the U.S. decision, saying in a statement that “a situation whereby the United States fully abides by the treaty, and Russia does not, is not sustainable.” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, however, lamented the end of the treaty, saying that “a piece of Europe’s security has been lost.”

Signed in 1987, the INF Treaty led to the elimination of 2,692 U.S. and Soviet nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Since 2014, the United States has accused Russia of violating the treaty by testing, possessing, and fielding an illegal ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM), known as the 9M729. (See ACT, September 2014.)

In October 2018, on the sidelines of a campaign rally, Trump stated that he planned to “terminate” the INF Treaty. Since then, U.S. and Russian officials held only a few unsuccessful meetings to discuss the treaty.


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Pompeo announced on Feb. 2 that the Trump administration would suspend its obligations under the treaty and withdraw from agreement in six months if Russia did not return to full compliance. When formally withdrawing on Aug. 2, Pompeo argued that “Russia’s noncompliance under the treaty jeopardizes U.S. supreme interests as Russia’s development and fielding of a treaty-violating missile system represents a direct threat to the United States and our allies and partners.”

Trump echoed that statement in Aug. 2 comments, saying that “if [Russia is] not going to live up to their commitment, then we have to—we always have to be in the lead.” The White House previously also cited concerns about the intermediate-range missile arsenal of China, which is not party to the treaty and has deployed large numbers of missiles with ranges that Washington and Moscow were long prohibited from deploying.

Attention has now shifted to how the United States and NATO should approach a world without the agreement. The Defense Department has requested nearly $100 million in fiscal year 2020 to develop three new missile systems that would exceed the range limits of the treaty.

“Sooner rather [than] later, we want to develop this capability and [make] sure we can have long-range precision fires, not just for [Europe], but for the theater that we’re deploying to as well, because of the importance of great distances we need to cover, and how important an intermediate-range conventional weapon would be to the [Pacific Command] theater,” said Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Aug. 2.

The Pentagon conducted the first test of one of these systems Aug. 18, when it fired a GLCM from San Nicolas Island, off the coast of California, to a target more than 500 kilometers away, according to an official statement. A test of an intermediate-range ballistic missile is expected in November.

With limited time remaining, New START could be extended for up to five years by agreement of the U.S. and Russian presidents. The treaty caps U.S. and Russian deployments of strategic nuclear warheads at 1,550 and intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers at 700. The treaty also has a comprehensive verification regime, including on-site inspections and routine data exchanges. (See ACT, January/February 2019.)

If New START does expire with nothing to replace it, there will be no legally binding limits on the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time in nearly half a century.

New START is the only pact left to limit U.S. and Russian nuclear weapon deployments.

Treaty Withdrawal Accelerates Missile Debate

September 2019
By Kingston Reif

Following the formal collapse of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on Aug. 2, attention has turned to how the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia should proceed in a world without the treaty, in particular whether they should pursue development of new ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles to counter Russia and China.

The United States launches a cruise missile on Aug. 18, a test that would have violated the INF Treaty. (Photo: Defense Department)No sooner had the United States officially withdrawn from the agreement than newly confirmed Defense Secretary Mark Esper called for the rapid development and fielding of U.S. missiles once prohibited by it.

On Aug. 18, the Defense Department conducted its first test of such a missile, a ground-launched variant of the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile. In a statement, the department said the “test missile exited its ground mobile launcher and accurately impacted its target after more than 500 kilometers of flight.” The missile was launched from a MK-41 launcher affixed to a mobile trailer.

The test was not of an operational system that the Pentagon plans to field, but rather a political signal that the United States can and will pursue such systems in the absence of the INF Treaty.

The MK-41 launcher is the same launcher, albeit in a different configuration, that is currently fielded in Romania and will soon be fielded in Poland as part of NATO’s missile defense system. Russia long has claimed that this launcher was a violation of the INF Treaty.

A test of an intermediate-range ballistic missile with a range of about 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers is scheduled for later this year.

U.S. plans have raised concerns among friendly and rival nations. Several U.S. allies, for example, sought to distance themselves from Esper’s comments, triggering questions of whether the United States can persuade them to host new intermediate-range missiles. In addition, Russia and China have strongly criticized the prospect of new U.S. missile deployments, creating fears about a new, more dangerous phase of global great-power military competition.

In Congress, lawmakers are divided largely along party lines on the wisdom of withdrawing from the treaty and the case for adding the missiles to the U.S. military arsenal.

Esper told reporters on Aug. 2 that he would like to see the deployment of U.S. conventional, ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Europe and Asia, ideally as soon as possible.

The Defense Department requested nearly $100 million in its fiscal year 2020 budget to develop three types of intermediate-range missiles. (See ACT, May 2019.) The INF Treaty required the United States and Russia to eliminate permanently all their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.

Esper noted, however, that a decision to deploy such missiles would likely be years away, given that it will take time to develop new missiles and a plan for their use, as well as consult with allies in Europe and Asia about potentially basing them on their territory.

Supporters of pursuing the missiles have argued that the weapons would provide more U.S. military options against Russia and especially China, which was not a party to the treaty and has deployed large numbers of missiles with ranges that Washington and Moscow were long prohibited from deploying.

According to one recent study published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, such missiles “could arrest, if not reverse, the erosion of longstanding American military advantages, enhance warfighting, shore up the U.S. competitive position, and ultimately strengthen deterrence, the cornerstone of U.S. global strategy.”


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Critics have countered that the U.S. military can deter any Russian or Chinese aggression by continuing to field ground-, air-, and sea-launched missiles that were never limited by the accord. They have also said that such intermediate-range weapons would need to be deployed on the territory of allies neighboring Russia or China to be of meaningful military value. So far, no country has said that it would be willing to host such missiles.


A Question of Basing

In Europe, several countries, including Poland, have made it clear that any deployment of new INF Treaty-range missiles would have to be approved by all NATO members. (See ACT, March 2019.)

At the June meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance is considering several potential paths in a world without the INF Treaty, including additional military exercise programs; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities; air and missile defenses; and conventional capabilities. (See ACT, July/August 2019.)

Stoltenberg has repeatedly stated that NATO does not intend to deploy new nuclear missiles in Europe, but has been silent on whether the alliance is considering the deployment of conventional variants.

Although countering Russia was the administration’s primary rationale for withdrawing from the treaty, proponents of developing intermediate-range missiles see the greatest utility for them in Asia. Where the Pentagon could base the missiles in East Asia, outside the U.S. territory of Guam, remains to be seen. Despite concerns about China’s growing military power and more assertive behavior in the region, allies such as Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea have not appeared eager to host them.

Following Esper’s comments, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that basing intermediate-range missiles has “not been asked of us,” is “not being considered,” and has “not been put to us.” A South Korean Defense Ministry spokesperson said, “We have not internally reviewed the issue [of basing U.S. intermediate-range missiles] and have no plan to do so.”

Russia and China Object

Russia and China threatened to respond to any U.S. INF Treaty-range missile deployments.

“If Russia obtains reliable information whereby the United States completes the development of these systems and starts to produce them, Russia will have no option other than to engage in a full-scale effort to develop similar missiles,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Aug. 5.

He added that Russia “will not deploy them in any given region until U.S.-made intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles are deployed there,” but Stoltenberg criticized this proposal, saying that “to offer a moratorium to replace an effective, legal ban is not credible.”

Putin said on Aug. 21 that the U.S. test of a ground-launched Tomahawk missile “means a new threat appearing that we must respond to.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that the U.S. test of a Tomahawk missile from the MK-41 launcher vindicated Russia’s charge that those launchers fielded in Europe violated the treaty.

“We have been objecting for years that the MK-41, according to the manufacturer’s description, can launch not only anti-ballistic missiles, but also combat cruise missiles,” Lavrov told reporters on Aug. 21.

Fu Cong, director-general of the arms control department at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, warned China’s “neighbors to exercise prudence and not to allow the U.S. deployment of intermediate-range missiles on their territory.”

“If the U.S. deploys [intermediate-range] missiles in this part of the world, at the doorstep of China, China will be forced to take countermeasures,” he added.

Meanwhile, North Korea said on Aug. 14 that any deployment of U.S. intermediate-range missiles in South Korea would be “a reckless act of escalating regional tension, an act that may spark off a new Cold War and arms race in the Far Eastern region.”

The Debate in Congress

The Trump administration’s push for new intermediate-range missiles has been controversial in Congress. The Democratic-led House version of the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and defense appropriations bill eliminated the Pentagon’s funding request for the missiles.

The administration has yet to answer repeated congressional calls for information on its decision to withdraw from the treaty or a strategy to prevent Russia from deploying additional and new types of intermediate-range missiles in the absence of the agreement.

The House version of the NDAA would prohibit the Pentagon from spending money to develop new missiles until it meets several conditions. These include presenting a detailed arms control proposal to replace the INF Treaty, demonstrating what military requirements will be met by new intermediate-range missiles, and identifying which countries would be willing to host the missiles. The draft legislation requires that any potential European deployment have the support of NATO.

The bill also requires the Pentagon to conduct an analysis of alternatives that considers other ballistic or cruise missile systems, including sea- and air-launched missiles, that could meet current capability gaps due to the restrictions formerly imposed by the now-defunct INF Treaty.

Given the Republican-led Senate’s support for developing the intermediate-range missiles, the issue is likely to be a contentious one when the two chambers try to reconcile their versions of the defense authorization and appropriations bills in the coming weeks.

The United States acts quickly to test a weapon once prohibited by the INF Treaty.

Iran Crosses Nuclear Caps as U.S. Builds Pressure

September 2019
By Barbara Slavin

Iran has begun to breach some limits of the 2015 multilateral agreement to curb its nuclear activities as the United States continues its “maximum pressure” campaign by ratcheting up sanctions, including by restricting U.S. travel for Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (left) meets UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at United Nations headquarters on July 18. In new sanctions, the United States has limited Zarif's travel, but will allow him to attend UN meetings in New York. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)After its 2018 withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Washington has sought to curtail Iran’s oil exports, but only after the United States announced that it sought to bring those exports down to zero, did Iran begin to exceed some of the deal’s restrictions. Iran contends that the JCPOA allows it to selectively reduce compliance if Iran does not receive the benefits promised under the deal. Iran has begun to enrich uranium to levels slightly higher than the 3.67 percent called for in the JCPOA and is also exceeding limits on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. As of August 19, Iran had 357 kilograms of enriched uranium, 57 kilograms above the limit. The government has said that it will continue to take steps that breach the accord every 60 days if the current stalemate continues.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration announced July 31 that it was placing Zarif on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons. The unprecedented action against Zarif, who led Iran’s delegation to the two-year JCPOA talks, had been threatened for some time but still surprised many in the nonproliferation community. The sanctions, which could interfere with Zarif’s freedom of movement, appeared to reflect frustration on the part of the Trump administration that Iran has not agreed to new talks while US sanctions remain in full force. A report in The New Yorker by long-time Iran expert Robin Wright said the decision to penalize Zarif came after he rebuffed an invitation to meet President Donald Trump in the Oval Office that had been conveyed to the Iranian in New York in mid-July by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

The official announcement designating Zarif made no mention of such an offer. “Javad Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s supreme leader, and is the regime’s primary spokesperson around the world,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin when announcing the July 31 sanction. “At the same time the Iranian regime denies Iranian citizens’ access to social media, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif spreads the regime’s propaganda and disinformation around the world.”


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Iranian officials rallied around Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani called the U.S. action “childish.” Rouhani has said Iran is willing to have “just and respectful negotiations,” but that the country will not “surrender” to pressure. Iranian officials have told Arms Control Today that they would be willing to meet with the United States but only if the Trump administration first takes steps to allow Iran to export oil and receive compensation as required by the JCPOA. Rouhani repeated this in rejecting an offer relayed by French President Emmanuel Macron, to meet with President Trump.

On Aug. 5, Iran said it would give Europe one more month to activate a non-dollar trading mechanism or it would continue to take unspecified steps to exceed restrictions in the JCPOA. This mechanism, known as INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) suffered another blow when the German diplomat designated to head it pulled out from consideration because of remarks defending Iran’s ballistic missile program.

While eliminating permission for other nations to purchase Iranian oil, the Trump administration has taken a different path with other waivers. On July 31, it extended waivers for the remaining JCPOA parties to continue cooperation with Iran on converting the Arak and Fordow facilities in ways that would make them more proliferation resistant. National Security Advisor John Bolton stressed, however, that the extension was for 90 days only, strongly implying that they would be not be renewed again.

The next opportunity for multilateral talks will come when the UN General Assembly convenes for its annual meeting in late September. Although Rouhani and Zarif are expected to attend, there is concern that Washington will delay issuing the required permission or take other steps that Iran would consider humiliating. Already, the United States has restricted Iranian officials in New York to three locations: their UN mission, the
UN headquarters itself, and the Iranian ambassador’s residence on Fifth Avenue. Such restrictions are clearly meant to interfere with the Iranians’ ability to meet with U.S. scholars, politicians and media.

Iran exceeds limits set by the 2015 nuclear deal.

Bolton Renews New START Criticism

September 2019
By Kingston Reif

National Security Advisor John Bolton has continued to disparage the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), casting further doubt on the future of the agreement as the Trump administration seeks a more comprehensive nuclear arms control deal.

National Security Advisor John Bolton (right) listens to U.S. President Donald Trump at a July 18 White House meeting. Recent Bolton comments have created doubt that the United States will seek to extend New START. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)Echoing comments he made in a June interview with the Washington Free Beacon, Bolton told the Young America Foundation’s annual National Conservative Student Conference on July 30 that “while no decision has been made,” New START is “unlikely to be extended.” (See ACT, July/August 2019.)

New START “was flawed from the beginning,” Bolton said, noting that it “did not cover short-range tactical nuclear weapons or new Russian delivery systems.”

“Why extend a flawed system just to say you have a treaty,” he added. “We need to focus on something better, and we will.”

New START caps deployed U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals at 1,550 warheads, 700 missiles and heavy bombers, and 800 missile launchers and bombers each. The treaty is slated to expire in February 2021, but can be extended for up to five years by agreement of the U.S. and Russian presidents.

Previously, Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed interest in an extension, but Russia has raised concerns about U.S. implementation of the treaty that it says must be resolved.

Other administration officials have echoed Bolton’s criticism. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters on Aug. 2 that New START should include the new longer-range strategic weapons Russia is developing, Russia’s larger arsenal of shorter-range nonstrategic weapons, and other nuclear powers, namely China.

Bolton’s latest denunciation of the treaty came just days before the U.S. withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on Aug. 2. New START is now the only remaining agreement constraining the size of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals. If the treaty disappears with nothing to replace it, there will be no legally binding limits on the size of the two arsenals for the first time in nearly half a century.


Despite Bolton’s criticism, U.S. military leaders continue to tout the benefits of the treaty, including Vice Admiral David Kriete, deputy commander of the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM).

“When it comes to…New START…from a STRATCOM perspective, we like the idea of arms control agreements, particularly with Russia, that provide us with some level of assurance that at least a portion of their nuclear forces are capped,” he told reporters July 31.

He added that New START “has a very, very robust verification regime…. If we were to lose that for any reason in the future, we would have to go look for other ways to fill in the gaps for the things we get from those verifications.”

Trump told reporters at the White House on Aug. 2 he has “been speaking to Russia about…a pact for nuclear—so that they get rid of some, we get rid of some.”

“We’d probably have to put China in there,” he added, claiming that “China was very, very excited about talking about it, and so is Russia.”

Trump administration officials have provided few details on how they would persuade Russia to limit broader categories of weapons and China to participate in arms control talks for the first time. (See ACT, June 2019.)

Fu Cong, director-general of the arms control department at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said on Aug. 6 that “given the huge gap between the nuclear arsenals of China and that of the U.S. and the Russian Federation, I don’t think it is reasonable or even fair to expect China to participate in an arms reduction negotiation at this stage.”

Despite White House opposition, Democrats and Republicans in Congress are expressing their support for New START.

By a vote of 236–189, the House on July 11 approved an amendment to the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act offered by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) that would express the view of Congress that the United States should seek to extend New START unless Russia is determined to be violating the agreement or a better agreement is negotiated. Every Democrat, along with five Republican lawmakers, voted to approve the amendment.

The provision, which is based on a bipartisan “Richard G. Lugar and Ellen O. Tauscher Act to Maintain Limits on Russian Nuclear Forces” bill originally introduced in May by Engel and Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), would also require several briefings and reports, including an intelligence assessment of how the expiration of New START would affect the size and posture of Russian nuclear forces and the additional intelligence capabilities the United States would need to compensate for the loss of the treaty’s extensive transparency and on-site monitoring provisions.

In addition, the provision would prohibit the use of fiscal year 2020 funds to withdraw from the treaty unless Russia is determined to be in material breach of the agreement.

The Senate version of the defense authorization bill does not include similar language, but some senators are speaking up.

On Aug. 1, Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) introduced legislation modeled after the Engel-McCaul bill that calls for an extension of the treaty.

Prospects for extending the treaty appear to be weakening under U.S. criticism.


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