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August 27, 2018
News Briefs

Russia, China Skip Syrian Chemical Weapons Meeting


June 2020
By Julia Masterson

Russia and China boycotted a May 12 meeting of UN Security Council members and high-ranking officials of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) held to discuss the findings of the OPCW’s April 2020 report that blamed the Syrian Air Force for three incidents of chemical weapons use in a rebel-held Syrian town in March 2017. (See ACT, May 2020.)

The meeting was originally intended to be held as a formal session to examine the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2118, which calls for the verified destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons and preceded the international effort to destroy Syria’s declared stockpile. Instead, council president Estonia opted to hold the meeting in a closed setting using teleconference communications. Syria, although not a council member, was invited to participate in the discussion.

Russia did not join the dialogue and criticized the private setting of the meeting. Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, said holding a meeting to discuss Resolution 2118 and the OPCW report behind closed doors contradicted “the slogans of openness and transparency of the Security Council” and “undermine[d] the prerogatives of states-parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention.” China abstained from the meeting without comment.

The United Kingdom criticized Russia’s absence, saying Moscow was politicizing the discussion of chemical weapons use in Syria and seeking to undermine the OPCW’s work.—JULIA MASTERSON

Russia, China Skip Syrian Chemical Weapons Meeting

Panel Vets U.S. Plutonium Disposal Plan


June 2020
By Shannon Bugos

The U.S. plan to dilute and dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium at the deep-underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico is technically viable so long as the Energy Department addresses certain concerns, according to a top-level scientific review released April 30.

Workers prepare machinery used to move nuclear waste into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. A technical review found that a U.S. plan to store surplus plutonium at the site is conditionally viable. (Photo: Kelly Michals/Flickr)The dilute-and-dispose process replaced the controversial mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel program, which was designed to turn the surplus material into fuel for civilian power reactors but ran into major cost increases and schedule delays. Since 2014, the Energy Department has sought to end the MOX fuel program in favor of the cheaper process of dilution and disposal, which blends down the plutonium with an inert material for direct disposal at WIPP.

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine determined that the dilute-and-dispose process provided “a technically viable disposition alternative to the MOX [fuel] plan, provided that implementation challenges and system vulnerabilities that currently exist within the plan are resolved.” The determination was based on the success of earlier demonstrations of the individual steps of the dilute-and-dispose process through other Energy Department programs.

In 2018, the National Nuclear Security Administration estimated that the process would cost $19.9 billion, or 40 percent of the $49.4 billion cost of continuing the MOX fuel program.

For fiscal year 2020, Congress appropriated $220 million for the Energy Department to close down the program. (See ACT, May 2019.) The Trump administration has requested $149 million for fiscal year 2021 to continue the dilute-and-dispose program.—SHANNON BUGOS

Panel Vets U.S. Plutonium Disposal Plan

Lawmakers Press Esper on Landmine Policy


June 2020
By Jeff Abramson

More than 100 members of Congress expressed their “disappointment” over a new U.S. landmine policy in a May 6 letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper. The message noted that reductions in landmine use and casualties could be put in jeopardy.

Rather than geographically restricting landmine use and setting a notional goal of one day joining the Mine Ban Treaty, the new Trump administration policy announced at the end of January allows for using landmines outside the Korean peninsula. The updated policy also allows combatant commanders to authorize landmine emplacements, a power that was previously held only by the president. (See ACT, March 2020.) Thirty-four senators, led by Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and including Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, signed the congressional oversight letter. In addition, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) joined 105 Democrats on the message, led in the House by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).

The letter asks Esper a list of 27 questions, grouped into sections. The initial six questions on “specific policy issues” are particularly pointed about whether circumstances have recently changed in terms of threats, weapons technology, and the decision-making process to use landmines. Other questions focus on Pentagon reports that might explain the rationale for the new policy, where landmines might be used, alternatives to the weapons, production, transfer, and stockpiling.

Former Vice President and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has indicated he would reverse the Trump policy, Vox reported in February.—JEFF ABRAMSON

 

Lawmakers Press Esper on Landmine Policy

Iran Launches Military Satellite


May 2020

Iran launched its first military satellite into orbit using a new space launch vehicle on April 22.

The launch of the Noor-1 satellite was conducted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s (IRGC) space program using a new three-stage Qased launch vehicle. The Qased’s second stage is a solid-fueled missile that the IRGC unveiled in February.

IRGC Aerospace Force Brig. Gen. Amir Hajizadeh said April 24 that the launch was a success and that Iran is receiving signals from the satellite. He said the IRGC intends to launch a second satellite into a higher orbit in the “not-too-distant” future.

Iran has launched satellites into orbit in the past, including a failed attempt Feb. 9, for communications and remote sensing purposes, but this is the first in the military program. (See ACT, March 2020.)

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the launch in an April 25 statement and said it proves that Iran’s space program is “neither peaceful nor entirely civilian” as Tehran has claimed. He told reporters that the launch was inconsistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2231 and said Iran needs to be “held accountable for what they have done.”

Resolution 2231 calls upon Iran to refrain from activities relevant to developing ballistic missiles designed to be nuclear capable, but the language is non-binding. Satellite launch vehicles and ballistic missiles do share features, but there are differences in their technical requirements and trajectories.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

Iran Launches Military Satellite

Russian ASAT Test Sparks War of Words


May 2020

The U.S. military reported on April 15 that it tracked a Russian test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile (ASAT). The test did not involve the destruction of a satellite, which can produce space debris.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Ryabkov (right) speaks with Russian Ambassador Grigory Berdennikov at a 2017 meeting. Ryabkov said in April that Russia would not be the first nation to place weapons in space. (Photo: National Nuclear Research University (MEPhI)/CTBTO)The Pentagon pointed to Russia’s test as evidence of Russia’s malign intentions. The “test provides yet another example that the threats to U.S. and allied space systems are real, serious and growing,” said Gen. John W. Raymond, commander of U.S. Space Command and Chief of Space Operations for the U.S. Space Force.

Raymond added that the “test is further proof of Russia’s hypocritical advocacy of outer space arms control proposals designed to restrict the capabilities of the United States while clearly having no intention of halting their counterspace weapons programs.”

TASS reported April 16 that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said Moscow remains committed to not being the first to place weapons in space and criticized the United States for refusing to engage with Russia on the subject.

For more than a decade, Russia and China have proposed talks on a treaty that would ban the placement of any type of weapon in orbit or on celestial bodies and obligate states-parties “not to resort to the threat or use of force against outer space objects.”

“If the United States rejects [the Russian] proposal, the natural conclusion that we draw is that they are headed for the creation of attack systems for deployment in outer space,” Ryabkov told TASS on April 16.

In an April 6 briefing, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford called the Russian-Chinese proposal a “terrible” idea in part because “it would by careful design fail to address in any meaningful fashion the terrestrially–based ASAT systems.”

U.S. and Russian diplomats have held inconclusive on-and-off talks on limiting or banning ASAT systems for decades but have not taken up the question in many years.

Instead, Ford said “U.S. diplomats are looking ... to work constructively with their counterparts in other spacefaring nations to develop approaches to outer space norms that will help improve predictability and collective ‘best practices’ in the space domain.”

In 2007, China used a ballistic missile to destroy one of its aging weather satellites, which produced a large amount of harmful debris in orbit. The 2008, the United States used a modified SM-3 missile to intercept and destroy one of its aging weather satellites. In April 2019, India successfully test-fired an interceptor missile that shot down an orbiting satellite.—DARYL G. KIMBALL

Russian ASAT Test Sparks War of Words

Firearms Export Changes Partially Blocked


April 2020

Despite opposition from some members of Congress and a wide range of civil society groups, Trump administration changes to its oversight of certain firearms exports took effect in March. A federal district judge, however, issued a temporary injunction on portions of the rules that deal with 3D gun-printing plans.

The rules came into effect on Mar. 9, despite congressional efforts such as those of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who had twice sought holds on the new rules in 2019. The new system transfers overall authority for the export of certain types of semiautomatic and other firearms and their ammunition to the Commerce Department from the State Department. (See ACT, March 2020.) Renewing a letter delivered in May 2019 from more than 100 civil society organizations, 23 groups sent a message to Congress on March 4 encouraging them to stop or reverse the changes, arguing that the new rules “will thwart congressional oversight and exacerbate gun violence, human rights abuses, and armed conflict around the world.”

On March 6, Judge Richard Jones in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington ordered a preliminary injunction in a case filed by more than 20 state attorneys general that sought to block all the changes. Jones limited the injunction to prohibit changes to how online 3D printing plans for firearms, sometimes called “ghost guns,” are regulated.

Some of the attorneys general criticized the president’s efforts. “If the Trump administration has its way, these ghost guns will be available to anyone regardless of age, mental health or criminal history…. We will keep fighting back against this unlawful, dangerous policy,” said Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson on March 9.—JEFF ABRAMSON

Firearms Export Changes Partially Blocked

Court Ends Final Bid to Save MOX Program


April 2020

A U.S. federal court dealt the final blow Feb. 20 to a troubled project at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina that would have converted surplus plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for nuclear power plants.

The H Canyon at the Savannah River Site had been intended to participate in the process to produce mixed-oxide fuel from surplus U.S. plutonium. (Photo: Energy Department)Judge J. Michelle Childs of the U.S. District Court in South Carolina formally terminated a lawsuit brought by the state in 2018 after the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced it would end construction of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Plant at the site.

Construction on the plant began in 2007 to implement a U.S.-Russian agreement for each nation to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium deemed unneeded by their nuclear weapons programs. Following years of cost overruns and scheduling delays, the Obama administration decided to end the project’s funding in 2016, sparking a backlash from lawmakers in South Carolina. Russia withdrew from the agreement later that year, citing U.S. noncompliance.

After U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry signaled in May 2018 that the department would scrap the project in favor of a less expensive alternative, South Carolina sued to prevent the site’s shutdown, winning a brief injunction. (See ACT, June 2018.) A federal appeals court later ruled in the department’s favor, and the Supreme Court declined to hear South Carolina’s appeal of that decision, leading Childs to put a end to the suit.

The Energy Department is now planning to adapt the MOX fuel facility to join Los Alamos National Laboratory in the annual production of at least 80 plutonium pits, the cores of nuclear weapons, by 2030. The department aims for the planned Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility to produce at least 50 plutonium cores per year by 2030.—PERI MEYERS

Court Ends Final Bid to Save MOX Program

Wassenaar Nations Set New Export Controls


April 2020

Transfers of military-grade software and chip manufacturing technology will face increased scrutiny following an amendment to the Wassenaar Arrangement, an international export control regime.

Established in 1996 and now numbering 42 nations that apply the voluntary trade restrictions, the Wassenaar Arrangement restricts the export of certain conventional weapons, dual-use goods and other technology. Its members include France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. Notable nations not participating include China, Iran, Israel, and North Korea.

At their 25th annual plenary meeting in December in Vienna, members agreed unanimously to adopt new export controls in such areas as cyberwarfare software, communications monitoring, digital investigative tools and forensic systems, suborbital aerospace vehicles, technology for the production of substrates for high-end integrated circuits, hybrid machine tools, and lithography equipment and technology.

In addition, the nations clarified existing export control measures regarding ballistic protection, optical sensors, ball bearings, and inorganic fibrous and filamentary materials. They also relaxed some controls, including those with respect to certain laminates and commercial components with embedded cryptography.

The enhanced export restrictions might affect sales by forensic cybersecurity and chip manufacturing companies, according to articles from Kyodo News and Haaretz.—PERI MEYERS

Wassenaar Nations Set New Export Controls

U.S. Begins Destroying Last Batch of Sarin


March 2020

The United States has begun the final step in destroying chemical weapon munitions at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant in Kentucky, the Program Executive Office, Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives announced in January. The site began destroying its stored munitions in June 2019, and by the end of January, 18 tons of chemical agent, representing 3.4 percent of the original stockpile stored at Blue Grass, had been destroyed, including the first munitions containing sarin.

A waste operator dons safety equipment with the help of an operations support supervisor at the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant in February. The site has made progress in destroying its sarin-filled munitions. (Photo: PEO ACWA)The 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention called for destroying all Schedule 1 agents, including mustard and sarin gases, within 10 years of its entry into force. The United States missed this deadline and a subsequent April 2012 completion target. (See ACT, May 2006.) Today, the remaining U.S. chemical munitions are housed at the Blue Grass facility and at the Pueblo Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant in Colorado.

Speaking on the January milestone of beginning destruction of a sarin-filled munition at Blue Grass, the plant’s site manager told the Lexington Herald Leader that “this is another major milestone toward eliminating the total chemical weapons stockpile in Kentucky.” At the Pueblo site, destruction of munitions containing more than 2,600 tons of mustard agent is ongoing.—JULIA MASTERSON

U.S. Begins Destroying Last Batch of Sarin

Nuclear Powers Discuss Arms Control


March 2020

Nuclear-armed powers discussed a range of arms control issues during a Feb. 11–12 meeting in London in advance of this year’s nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference, scheduled to begin in April. Representatives from the five NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) joined participants from 16 non-nuclear-weapon states to address topics such as nuclear transparency, disarmament, and verification.

Thomas Drew, a senior UK Foreign Office official, chaired the conference. The other nuclear power delegations were led by Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation; David Bertolotti, director of strategic affairs, security, and disarmament in the French Foreign Ministry; Vladimir Leontiev, deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s nonproliferation and arms control department; and Fu Cong, director-general of the Department of Arms Control of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Cong said the nuclear-weapon states are “responsible for strengthening coordination and cooperation and ensuring the success” of the NPT review conference, according to a Feb. 14 statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

He also commented on efforts by the Trump administration to engage Beijing in arms control talks with the United States and Russia. “It is neither fair nor reasonable to encourage the Chinese side to join trilateral arms control negotiations,” he said.

The United States nevertheless encouraged Chinese participation. “Beijing poses a serious threat to strategic security given the trajectory of its nuclear build-up,” said Robert Wood, U.S. permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament, in a Feb. 19 tweet.

The five nuclear powers plan to host a side event during the NPT review conference to “exchange perspectives and answer questions about how we think about nuclear weapons, doctrine, and disarmament issues,” Ford said in December.—SHANNON BUGOS

Nuclear Powers Discuss Arms Control

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