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New Opportunities for Nonproliferation
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Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering

The 40th anniversary of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the treaty's looming 2010 review conference offer serious opportunities to think anew about the challenges and the opportunities in the critical field of nuclear nonproliferation.

We have done better in the last 40 years than we might have originally expected. Now we face new and very serious challenges that will not get easier. After 40 years, it is time to take stock and look at some directions for the future.

Nonproliferation, disarmament, and the related problems of dealing with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction also should form a key part of a broader strategy for the next administration. Dealing with these issues more effectively would respond to the concerns expressed by many countries that the United States has not been taking a sufficient leadership role in this area. Moreover, action in this arena would strengthen essential bilateral relationships. The nuclear disarmament initiative with Russia outlined below could form an important part of a renewed effort of working with that important country to address many of the world's most vexing problems. Other aspects of this broader strategy would further strengthen crucial U.S. relationships in the Middle East and with the rising Asian powers of China and India.

The next president will find that a careful mix of multilateral efforts, bilateral arrangements, and unilateral actions continues to constitute the best strategy for achieving these goals and a more secure, stable world. That objective will continue to be best served by the smallest number of nuclear-armed states, each one dedicated to reducing the size of its armaments while finding new and more effective ways to increase stability, confidence, and understanding.

That objective in turn will be best served by political and economic arrangements that resolve disputes and serious problems between and within states and other groups that might give rise to the use of force. By providing effective mechanisms to participate in that set of actions, the international community would help to minimize and eliminate the possibility for the use of nuclear weapons.

Indeed, there is now a discussion of the possibility of a world without nuclear weapons, as millennial and utopian as that may seem, thanks to the landmark collective contributions of former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.).[1]

Whether one accepts that these ideas can be accomplished, few if any would argue that the effort should not be made to do so safely and securely. As we seek to address the current challenges to the nuclear nonproliferation system, we should try to enhance the possibility of eliminating these weapons altogether.

Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiatives

What directions might approaches to nonproliferation now take, and how can disarmament goals be advanced? First and foremost, it is clear that further steps in strengthening the Russian-U.S. bilateral arms control regime can and ought to be taken.

Several serious possibilities need urgent consideration to advance the progress already made and to deal with the need for a serious follow-up in 2009 to the existing regime. Whatever else is to be done, agreement should be reached early to preserve in force the present agreements, the 1991 START and the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), until they are replaced or superseded by additional steps. START is set to expire in 2009 and SORT the day its limits becomes effective on December 31, 2012.

Second, a major new Russian-U.S. initiative in the direction of further serious reductions should be undertaken. One suggestion would be to aim to bring the size of each country's deployed strategic arsenal down roughly 50 percent to 1,200 to 1,500 warheads over the coming five years and a similar, related number of delivery vehicles as the next significant stage for nuclear reductions. Although verifying the number of warheads reduced has always presented a serious challenge, it is suggested below that this be addressed through a requirement to provide an amount of highly enriched uranium (HEU) for blending down or plutonium for disposition in fuel or immobilization related roughly to the number of warheads being reduced. I would strongly favor a serious verification regime, based mainly on national technical means, but with arrangements within the agreement to use Russian-U.S. bilateral inspections and to facilitate the use of those technologies. (One example is open silo doors at particular times to assure that missiles are or are not in place.) The value of a solid verification arrangement in building continued confidence and dispelling suspicions and uncertainties should not be underestimated, especially at a time when Russian-U.S. uncertainties and tensions are increasing.

The agreement to reduce warheads might be facilitated by both countries making another major contribution of significant quantities of weapons-grade HEU for blending down for use as civil nuclear reactor fuel. The 2000 U.S.-Russian plutonium disposition agreement could also be extended to take into account additional material. The quantities should be determined nominally by the number of warheads being taken out of service and perhaps by the inclusion of additional material representing military fissionable material (HEU) being held "in stock" but not yet incorporated in weapons. These could form contributions to the stock of civil reactor fuel, which might then be made available under a future international nuclear fuel supply and spent fuel take-back arrangement discussed below.

A further suggestion might include the reduction and elimination of tactical nuclear weapons as a specific part of the arrangement. This step would be more difficult to verify with regard to numbers and full elimination, but given the continuing stocks of longer-range weapons, full verification is not likely to be an exigent strategic requirement for either party.

It would also be valuable to complete work on two pending agreements related closely to the obligations of the nuclear-weapon states under Article VI of the NPT, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) proposal.

A major U.S. contribution here would be to have the incoming administration review expeditiously the ratification of the CTBT with a view to completing that early in the first term and hopefully before the 2010 NPT Review Conference begins its work. Although arguments may well be advanced that we will, at some point in the indefinite future, require testing to develop new nuclear weapons, it is increasingly difficult to sustain that proposition because neither side has modernized the weapons arsenal recently through testing and the putative target set, deeply buried bunkers, is unlikely to require the use of such weapons to isolate, disable, or shut off access for a considerable time to such targets. The treaty itself contains an appropriate "supreme national interests" withdrawal clause.

Special arrangements (safeguards) for maintaining the health of the stockpile have been worked out and become widely acceptable in light of the present moratorium on testing in place with the five current nuclear powers that has been urged on India and Pakistan as well.

An FMCT has yet to be fully negotiated and brought into force. Although the five existing nuclear-weapon states have reportedly accepted unilateral moratoria on producing additional fissionable material for use in weapons, all acknowledge that the treaty would be a solid reinforcement of that more-temporary and fragile regime. One important virtue of the now-stalled Indian-U.S. nuclear arrangement was that it ratified and made part of an international commitment India's previous unilateral statements about becoming a party to such a treaty if a verifiable agreement could be negotiated. One would also want to assure to the greatest extent possible that Pakistan would become a member too. That would mark an important forward step in blocking the process of developing more weapons.

Furthermore, although Israel formally has not confirmed its status as a nuclear-armed state, it has made clear in the past that, with the attainment of a general peace settlement with its Muslim neighbors and opponents, it could consider a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East.

An FMCT, coupled with the test ban, would set an enormously important precedent. It  would help to close, in regard to the manufacture of such material, a large part of the present accomodation in the NPT in favor of the recognized nuclear-weapon states. It would also assist in closing the NPT loophole that sets no limits on the production of HEU and the separation of plutonium if a state claims it is doing so for peaceful purposes.

Another general step would be to advance an international nuclear fuel regime. This would provide another reason and perhaps a precedent for eliminating the NPT loophole that permits any member state to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel under the treaty's auspices  and then leave the NPT  and produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. Taking back spent fuel as part of that regime would also help to eliminate the need or excuse for additional states to reprocess spent fuel to recover the plutonium that it contains

Such a regime could take many forms, but in its simplest terms, it ought to:

  • Make low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel available for light-water reactors;
  • Provide fuel on an economically competitive basis by assuring that any potential purchaser can choose from at least two major producers and that any fuel arising from blend-down procedures for former Russian and U.S. military HEU is also competitively priced;
  • Provide that some fuel would be set aside, perhaps under the purview of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in a location under its full ownership and safeguards, to become a provider of last resort. Such a provider would be obligated to provide fuel as long as the recipient was meeting all of its nonproliferation obligations as judged by the IAEA. (Such an approach would offer significant assurance that states inclined to impose conditions other than nonproliferation requirements for providing fuel would not occupy a dispositive position in the regime set up to promote nonproliferation).;
  • Provide that the regime would also take back spent fuel as a part of the process of providing the fuel at prices that were fair and reasonable and that covered the cost of long-term storage at a minimum; and
  • Provide that no new enrichment facilities in additional states would be established to facilitate this arrangement, so states that did not already have the technology in operation would not need to acquire it.

In the short term, the international community has to tackle the deeply troubling, ongoing Iranian effort to develop an independent fuel cycle. A recent proposal co-authored with William Luers and James Walsh[2] has raised interest and some questions. The proposal in its simplest form involves three major steps: direct talks between the United States and Iran, a proposal to negotiate an arrangement for a multilaterally owned and operated uranium-enrichment facility in Iran using Iranian technology and with specific limitations to assure a firewall between enrichment and weapons development, and a linked proposal to provide an effective and thorough inspection arrangement to guard against misuse of the facility on the one hand or clandestine replication on the other.

If Iran accepted, such a proposal would also be accompanied by a UN Security Council resolution explicitly endorsing it and providing for authority to deal with any effort to withdraw from or breach the agreement.

Some might ask if the arrangement is consistent with the longer-term ideas noted above for an international nuclear fuel regime. The answer is that, although not perfectly so, some important constraints would incline states to rely on the international regime rather than seeking similar treatment as Iran. These include the fact that the regime proposed for Iran would be expensive; limited to fuel of low enrichment levels; accompanied by limitations against stockpiling such fuel; allow for the use only of light-water reactors less suitable for proliferation; rely on local technology as the basis for developing any capabilities, thus minimizing proliferation; prohibit reprocessing plutonium from spent fuel; and include an inspection regime designed to provide the widest sort of access to guard against misuse of the facility or the replication of the technology for clandestine production of enriched uranium.

Finally, we need to give more serious thought to the role of the Security Council in respect to proliferation. In a January 1992 meeting at the level of heads of state, the council decided in a unanimous presidential declaration that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction constituted a threat to international peace and security, thereby establishing an absolute basis for the council to deal with nonproliferation as a regular item on its agenda and as a major responsibility.[3]

A recent report[4] in which I participated suggested that the council should elevate the priority accorded to proliferation; work more closely with the IAEA; strengthen the legitimacy of the council and its actions in this area; develop general, country-neutral rules as it has in Resolutions 984[5] and 1540[6]; consider clarifying the legal status of its actions; have the five permanent  members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) consult more frequently on these issues; strengthen its sanctions approach; and shore up the NPT in such areas as preventing violators from withdrawing while still enjoying the past benefits of NPT membership including access to technology and other assistance. It was also suggested that the five permanent members should improve their efforts to meet the requirements of Article VI of the NPT.


Nonproliferation remains one of our most important priorities. Its salience as a major area of concern for the world community is heightened by the potential nexus between the destructive power of nuclear weapons and their potential use for terrorist purposes.

In the face of these concerns and recent efforts to deal with proliferation in North Korea and Iran, the international community needs to take a new look at the problem and develop responses for all its elements, from the causes that bring states to decide to develop such weapons, through the steps to be taken to deter and prevent proliferation, to the responses of the world community to further proliferation. The multilateral area remains a major locus of effort and perhaps presents the greatest challenges and at the same time the area for the most significant opportunities for early improvement and change.

The new and more salient focus on moving to or toward zero weapons has reinforced this interest in and need for new steps and new approaches as well as for bringing into force many of the agreements long underway and now clearly ready for completion and implementation.

No U.S. administration of the future can afford to ignore these issues. They will be certainly one of the highest priorities for the president taking office on January 20, 2009. A comprehensive, global strategy for the next administration will require serious consideration of disarmament and nonproliferation initiatives designed to treat this problem along the lines outlined in this article. The next president will need the best advice and thinking to make the critical choices that will determine whether the host of problems now before us will dictate the outcome or whether we can continue to advance to a less dangerous world.

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Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering is a former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, ambassador and representative to the United Nations from 1989 to 1992, and ambassador to six countries, including India, Israel, and Russia.


1. These former officials have called for the United States to champion the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons and outlined several immediate steps toward achieving this goal. See George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, "A World Free of Nuclear Weapons," The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007, p. A15; George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, "Toward a Nuclear-Free World," The Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2008, p. A13.

2. William Luers, Thomas R. Pickering, and Jim Walsh, "A Solution for the U.S.-Iran Nuclear Standoff," The New York Review of Books, Vol. 55, No. 4 (2008).

3. UN Security Council, "Note by the President of the Security Council," S/23500, January 31, 1992.

4. In December 2007, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released a working group report titled "The P-5 and Nuclear Nonproliferation." In addition to myself, the working group included veteran senior officials from the other permanent members of the UN Security Council (Yuri Belobrov, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Li Changhe, and Guillaume Schlumberger). It was directed by Robert Einhorn, a senior adviser to the international security program at CSIS. The report is available at www.csis.org/media/csis/pubs/071210-einhorn-the_p-5-web.pdf.

5. UN Security Council Resolution 984, passed in 1995, took note of unilateral pledges that the permanent members of the council had made about not using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states that are party to the NPT. The statements varied, with China giving the broadest no-first-use pledge and the others qualifying their pledges under certain exceptional circumstances. The resolution also expanded on assurances made in 1968 in which the permanent members pledged to come to the assistance of states that were victims of nuclear attacks.

6. Resolution 1540, approved in 2004, is a legally binding Security Council effort that requires all states to implement a variety of domestic measures to prevent nonstate actors from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, their means of delivery, and related materials. States are required to submit a report on the steps they have taken to carry out the resolution's requirements to a committee, which comprises the 15 members of the Security Council and reviews those national reports. The Security Council subsequently approved Resolutions 1673 and 1810, which have extended the committee's mandate until April 2011.

Posted: June 9, 2008