Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
Nuclear Security & Export Controls

U.S.-Saudi Nuclear Cooperation Policy Still Far from Adequate (UPDATED)

UPDATE, Sept. 19 : A day after we published this post, Bloomberg revealed that Energy Secretary Rick Perry's letter to the Saudi's also stated that "The terms of the 123 Agreement [with Saudi Arabia] must also contain a commitment by the kingdom to forgo any enrichment and reprocessing for the term of the agreement." This is good news and the right policy, as we describe below. Such a commitment should have a long-term duration, be legally-binding, and apply to both U.S.-origin and non-U.S. origin fuel. Over the past two years, the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in...

Assessing Progress on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament: 2016-2019 Report Card

This report is the fourth in a series that assesses the extent to which 11 key states are fulfilling, promoting, or undermining 10 standards identified as critical elements of the nonproliferation and disarmament regime during the period between 2016 and June 2019.

Collectively, states fared worse on the majority of criteria when compared with the prior edition, which covered the 2013–2016 period.

Download this report.

Strengthening Nuclear Security With a Sustainable CPPNM Regime

June 2019
By Samantha Neakrase

In late 2015, investigators discovered chilling surveillance video in the possession of a suspected terrorist alleged to have been involved in the November 2015 attacks in Paris.1 The Islamic State took credit for those attacks, and the video footage suggested it had been watching a high-ranking Belgian nuclear official who had access to secure areas of a Belgian nuclear research facility.2

IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano (second from left) visits the Belgian Nuclear Research Facility SCK-CEN in 2018.  The site was one of those accessible to a Belgian official who was reportedly surveilled by terrorists in 2015. (Photo: SCK-CEN/IAEA)The video’s existence raised concerns that the group was seeking to acquire materials for a primitive nuclear device or a dirty bomb. Was there a plan to abduct the official and ransom him for nuclear or radioactive materials or to bribe or coerce the official to turn him into an unwilling insider?

Other evidence gathered in the same investigation pointed to additional terrorist plans to “do something involving one of [Belgium’s] four nuclear sites,” which include two nuclear power plants, a company that produces medical isotopes, and the nuclear research facility.3 Despite these concerns, authorities had not taken additional measures to protect the facility beyond cautioning employees to “increase their vigilance,” The New York Times reported.4

The intent of the terrorist surveillance remains unclear, but the discovery served as an important reminder that nuclear facilities and materials continue to be targets of interest to terrorists. There are many other incidents tracked by organizations such as Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Incident and Trafficking Database.5 The CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database, a tool launched in June 2013 to track incidents of theft or loss of nuclear and other radioactive materials, contains hundreds of incidents of loss, theft, and unauthorized possession of those materials in 2017 and 2018 alone. Three illicit trafficking incidents were reported in the database in 2017 involving nuclear materials, including one case involving the sale of plutonium-239 and plutonium-241.

More broadly, terrorist attacks continue across the globe, including by the Islamic State and others, and the threat is constantly evolving. New technologies, such as cyberweapons that could disrupt nuclear facility security systems, and access to greater financial resources enable terrorist groups to become more sophisticated.

These continuing threats and documented incidents show that nuclear terrorism is today’s problem. Addressing this threat is an urgent priority. Just as terrorists have not lost focus on their desire to acquire and use a nuclear or radiological bomb, neither can the international community, especially governments, lose focus on the need to prevent such a catastrophic event from happening. Protecting nuclear materials and nuclear facilities from the threats posed by terrorists and other nonstate actors is too important a mission to let slide into complacency and neglect.

The CPPNM Regime

One of the most important tools in the fight against nuclear terrorism is the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM). A 2005 amendment to the convention entered into force in 2016, making it the only legally binding treaty requiring countries to protect nuclear materials and facilities.6 Opened for signature in 1980, the CPPNM today has 155 states-parties, while only 102 have ratified the amendment.

This foundational international treaty is even more important now that the nuclear security summits, the biennial gatherings of more than 50 heads of government that were held between 2010 and 2016, have ended. The summits were convened to focus attention on nuclear terrorism, encourage action and commitments to prevent nuclear theft and sabotage, and strengthen the global nuclear security architecture. Unfortunately, high-level attention has waned since the summits, but 2021 provides an opportunity to reinvigorate global nuclear security efforts at the review conference for the amended CPPNM.

Article 16 of the amended CPPNM requires the IAEA, the treaty’s depositary, to convene a review conference five years after the amendment’s entry into force. States should use the review conference to create a forum for parties to engage in regular dialogue on how the treaty is being translated into on-the-ground nuclear security progress, monitor and identify gaps in implementation, review progress, promote continuous improvement, and discuss emerging nuclear threats. Parties can turn the amended CPPNM into a living, breathing tool for dialogue and progress and demonstrate their commitment to building a strong, effective, and sustainable CPPNM regime.

Perhaps the most important outcome of the 2021 review conference would be a decision to hold regular review conferences in the future with intervals of not less than five years, as allowed by Article 16. Because the terrorist threat will continue to evolve, the treaty must also be dynamic and evolve. This will require parties to meet regularly to discuss how the treaty’s implementation must change to reflect changes in the threat environment, advances in states’ ability to protect materials and facilities, development of best practices, and emerging technologies. The treaty’s own language, that the purpose of the review conference is to review the implementation of the treaty “in the light of the then prevailing situation,” acknowledges this reality. Continuity of the review process, particularly opportunities for regular dialogue on nuclear security, will enable the treaty to maintain its long-term relevance.

After the CPPNM entered into force in 1987, one review conference was held five years later, but the participants did not exercise their option to call for further review conferences. Repeating this history for the amended CPPNM would ignore the valuable opportunity the treaty offers to review this essential tool. Parties should instead agree at the 2021 review conference to hold review conferences regularly as a standing arrangement, instead of waiting for a request of the majority of parties to do so on an ad hoc basis. Without a decision at the 2021 review conference, there is a risk that it will be the last, as was the case with the original CPPNM.

Ideally, treaty parties would agree to hold review conferences every five years, as permitted by the treaty. It is difficult to imagine that a five-year review cycle would not be warranted given that significant changes in the threat environment, technology, and the tools to address threats are likely. In reality, allowing flexible frequency may be appropriate to account for other international conferences and events, such as the IAEA International Conference on Nuclear Security (ICONS), and to respond to developments in the global security environment. For instance, if ICONS is held every three years, it may make sense for a review conference on the amended CPPNM to be held every six years. Whether parties agree to a fixed period of five or six years, parties could agree that they would be able to adjust the date of the subsequent review conference to account for factors that would affect its timing. At a minimum, parties at the 2021 review conference should set the date for the following review conference and require that each successive review conference will set a future review conference date. In other words, states would agree to hold review conferences in perpetuity, but not on a predetermined schedule. To avoid review conferences being set too far into the future and to reflect the reality of fast-evolving threats, however, parties should agree that the time between review conferences will not exceed a set period, such as seven or eight years.

There is precedent for regularizing a treaty review process when regular review conferences are not required by the treaty. The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), for example, contains similar review conference language to the CPPNM and the amended version. At each of the early NPT review conferences, parties requested the convening of the next review conference in five years’ time. At the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, the parties agreed to continue holding such review conferences every five years.

A Unique Forum for Sustained Dialogue

Regular review conferences are an integral part of many treaty regimes to ensure the treaty’s viability in light of changing circumstances.7 This is even more important when the treaty’s purpose is to address a threat that will continue to evolve. Review conferences can strengthen a treaty regime by developing a common understanding of key provisions and help states set goals for implementation. Given that most major treaties have regular review conferences, it would be an odd omission for a treaty as vital to global security as the amended CPPNM not to be supported by regular review conferences. When it comes to addressing one of the most dangerous threats worldwide, why should the amended CPPNM be treated differently? To the contrary, a regular, substantive review conference for the amended CPPNM will provide unique benefits not available in any other forum. Regular review conferences will have a different character and purpose from other nuclear security forums, such as ICONS or the annual amended CPPNM points of contact meetings that are convened by the IAEA.

The 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., was the last in the summit series. A regular review conference for the amended CPPNM could provide nations with a forum to discuss nuclear security issues. (Photo: Ben Solomon/U.S. State Department)First, the review conference is the only legally mandated forum for enduring nuclear security dialogue. ICONS, which is approved by IAEA member states in an annual nuclear security resolution, was first held in 2013 and is currently on a three- or four-year cycle. Although ICONS covers a range of nuclear security-related topics and informs the work of the IAEA in the area of nuclear security, it is not based on a concrete set of legal obligations. The point of contact meetings, while also useful technical meetings, are not specifically mandated under the treaty and have only been convened since 2016. The legal basis for the review conference provides a stronger mandate for sustained dialogue on nuclear security and greater durability than other conferences and meetings that rely on the continued interest and resources of IAEA member states.

Second, the amended CPPNM can offer a different level of interaction than ICONS and point of contact meetings. ICONS features a one-day ministerial session attended by relatively few actual ministers, and the bulk of ICONS is dedicated to technical sessions attended by diplomats, technical experts, academics, and representatives from nongovernmental organizations. The point of contact meetings are attended by technical experts, usually regulators. In contrast, the appropriate level of participation for the review conference would be senior officials who can go beyond technical discussions and discuss policies and priorities for nuclear security. They would be knowledgeable about nuclear security and empowered to make decisions.

Third, the purpose of the review conference and its agenda should be different from ICONS and point of contact meetings, neither of which provide for a high-level, multiday dialogue on forward-looking policies and priorities for nuclear security. At the ICONS ministerial, senior officials make national statements and issue high-level principles for nuclear security, but the meeting is quite limited in scope. At the technical sessions, experts give presentations on a range of nuclear and radiological topics. The point of contact meetings similarly are much more limited in scope. These one- or two-day meetings focus on the technical aspects of implementation of the amended CPPNM, but do not assess nuclear security progress or set priorities for the future and are not aimed at taking forward-looking action to strengthen the CPPNM regime. In contrast, the review conference provision is broad and flexible enough to provide for a multiday, substantive, policy-level discussion of a range of themes and topics relevant to the treaty, such as the threat environment, nuclear security progress, gaps and challenges to implementation, and priorities for future progress.

Finally, the review conference can be a forum for countries to commit to nuclear security progress and further strengthen implementation of their treaty obligations. Just as nuclear security is never finished and requires continuous improvement, implementation of the treaty requires constant attention and committed action. Parties could pledge to host peer reviews, participate in international workshops and trainings, implement IAEA nuclear security guidance, and share best practices and lessons learned. Commitments made at the review conference would be more specific and tailored to each country’s own circumstances than the broad commitments made in the ICONS ministerial declaration; the point of contact meetings have no decision-making or commitment-making component.

A Vision for the Review Conference

The amended CPPNM provides almost no guidance for the review conference, only stating that it will “review the implementation of this Convention and its adequacy as concerns the preamble, the whole of the operative part and the annexes in light of the then prevailing situation.” This minimal guidance allows parties to design a review conference with outcomes that are most likely to achieve the objectives of a strong, effective, and sustainable treaty regime. States should be ambitious and take advantage of this singular opportunity.

The review conference should have a robust, substantive agenda designed to allow for an in-depth dialogue on themes or topics derived from the treaty’s operative text and preamble, a more effective approach than taking a narrower provision-by-provision approach. These themes could be incorporated into a plenary agenda and supported by additional breakout sessions to facilitate in-depth discussions about topics relevant to subsets of countries or specific regions.

One theme could cover the IAEA’s role in nuclear security. Such a dialogue would be productive and appropriate given the agency’s role as the treaty depositary and convener of the review conference. The discussion could build awareness of and promote significant IAEA nuclear security resources, including its Integrated Nuclear Security Support Plans and its peer reviews such as the International Physical Protection Advisory Services, which support member states’ implementation of the treaty’s provisions. Promoting implementation of IAEA nuclear security guidance would also be a positive step toward building common, international nuclear security standards and would be consistent with the treaty’s reference to “internationally formulated recommendations” in the preamble and the fundamental principles in the operative text. Countries could also share success stories of IAEA assistance in implementing nuclear security, which could encourage additional financial and political support for the IAEA’s important nuclear security mission.

Emerging technology is ripe for discussion, including offensive use of technology that could lead to theft or sabotage and defensive use of new technology to protect materials and facilities. As technology evolves, so must the assessment of those technologies as potential security assets and risks. Cybertools, for example, can be used to enhance security as technology becomes more sophisticated and reliable, but they can also be used to defeat digital security systems designed to protect nuclear materials and facilities.8 Building awareness of cyber capabilities and the need to develop measures to prevent or mitigate cyber-mediated theft and sabotage would be a significant contribution to nuclear security.

In another thematic discussion, countries could consider whether physical protection includes protection against cyberattacks. There are strong arguments for doing so. Cyberweapons are just one of many types of weapons or tools, such as guns, bombs, or other traditional weapons, that could be deployed to defeat physical security measures, and efforts to defend against cybertools link directly to physical protection. A flexible definition of physical protection means the CPPNM regime will remain relevant as the threat evolves and as adversaries adapt their tools to defeat security.

The review conference should devote time to discuss the risk environment. Review conferences should not occur in a vacuum but in light of current, evolving, and predicted future threats. Consistent with Article 16’s reference to reviewing implementation “in light of the then prevailing situation,” a discussion of the risk environment would be an opportunity to assess how implementation and interpretation of the treaty need to adapt to reflect contemporary and emerging threats and to maintain the treaty’s relevance as a long-term tool for nuclear security.

Another item to be addressed at the review conference could be Article 14, which requires states to submit information to the IAEA on “the laws and regulations which give effect to” the convention. An important outcome for the 2021 review conference would be for all states to submit their reports at or before the meeting and to discuss best practices in reporting, including a possible reporting template. States could go beyond their Article 14 obligation by making nonsensitive portions of their reports public, as some countries have done already. They also voluntarily could provide broader information on their nuclear security programs and the steps they are taking to continuously improve security.9 In fact, Article 5 encourages information sharing among parties for the purpose of “obtaining guidance on the design, maintenance, and improvement of its national system of physical protection of nuclear material.” Sharing information on nuclear security practices, while protecting sensitive information, provides valuable opportunities for states to learn from one another and build confidence in the security of their nuclear materials. Releasing information to the public also helps to build confidence in nuclear security, which “may contribute to the positive perception, at a national level, of peaceful nuclear activities, globally,” according to the resolution on nuclear security adopted by the 2018 IAEA General Conference.10

2021 and a Unique Opportunity

The amended CPPNM invites states to be ambitious by providing a broad, flexible basis on which to design a robust agenda for nuclear security dialogue. This is vital for building on significant nuclear security achievements and preventing international complacency over nuclear terrorism. This can be achieved with a robust and meaningful, outcome-oriented review conference in 2021. The 2021 review conference will be an important, and perhaps the only, opportunity to establish the building blocks for a strong, effective, and sustainable CPPNM regime for combating nuclear threats, now and in the future. Seizing this opportunity requires vision, ambition, and strong leadership. This is too great a chance to squander when the collective mission to prevent nuclear terrorism is so consequential.



1. Alissa J. Rubin and Milan Schreuer, “Belgium Fears Nuclear Plants Are Vulnerable,” The New York Times, March 26, 2016, p. A1; Milan Schreuer and Alissa J. Rubin, “Video Found in Belgium of Nuclear Official May Point to Bigger Plot,” The New York Times, February 18, 2016.

2. Milan Schreuer and Alissa J. Rubin, “Video Found in Belgium May Point to Bigger Plot,” The New York Times, February 19, 2016, p. A4.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. For a list of other incidents, see Matthew Bunn, Nickolas Roth, and William H. Tobey, “Combating Complacency About Nuclear Terrorism,” Project on Managing the Atom Policy Brief, March 2019, https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/2019-03/NuclearSecurityPolicyBrief_2.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3OcJ37tRb4y-Qpk1PCtFChMXE8lWrzrhLTT9VA1_3-IWh1Sg6ZK8EvEj8. For the database, see “CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database,” April 25, 2019, https://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/cns-global-incidents-and-trafficking-database/.

6. The CPPNM covers only physical protection of nuclear materials in international transport, but the 2005 amendment significantly expands the treaty’s scope to require protection of all nuclear materials against theft and of nuclear facilities against sabotage. See Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM), October 26, 1979, 1456 U.N.T.S. 24631, art. 2. Compare this to article 2A of the 2005 amendment to the CPPNM. See International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “Nuclear Security - Measures to Protect Against Nuclear Terrorism: Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material,” GOV/INF/2005/10-GC(49)/INF/6, September 6, 2005. There are two other international legal instruments relevant to fighting nuclear terrorism: the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, which requires states to criminalize and cooperate in the prosecution of acts of terrorism, and UN Security Council Resolution 1540.

7. Jonathan Herbach and Samantha Pitts-Kiefer, “More Work to Do: A Pathway for Future Progress on Strengthening Nuclear Security,” October 2015, Arms Control Today.

8. Another example is drones, which have the potential to enhance security by providing additional eyes and ears to supplement guard force capabilities at facilities and in transport convoys. They can also be used by bad actors to carry out surveillance or attacks.

9. For states that already feel a heavy reporting burden, the Consolidated National Nuclear Security Report offered as a template by the Dutch government at the 2016 nuclear security summit can be a useful tool. See “Consolidated National Nuclear Security Report,” n.d., https://static1.squarespace.com/static/568be36505f8e2af8023adf7/t/570511498259b5e516e16689/1459949897436/Joint+Statement+on+Consolidated+Reporting+Appendix.pdf; Nuclear Security Summit, “Joint Statement on Consolidated Reporting,” April 5, 2016, http://www.nss2016.org/document-center-docs/2016/4/1/joint-statement-on-consolidated-reporting.

10. IAEA General Conference, “Nuclear Security: Resolution Adopted on 20 September 2018 During the Seventh Plenary Meeting,” GC(62)/RES/7, September 2018.


Samantha Neakrase (formerly Pitts-Kiefer) is senior director for materials risk management at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. She has been writing and presenting on the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material regime for several years, including for the 2016 International Atomic Energy Agency International Conference on Nuclear Security.


Holding regular review conferences for the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials would serve to keep nuclear security in the spotlight.

Bipartisan National Security Officials Call on Congress to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism



For Immediate Release: April 2, 2019

Media Contacts: Jack Brosnan, Program Manager, Partnership for a Secure America, 202-293-8580; Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy. Arms Control Association, 202-463-8270 ext. 104; Tony Fleming, Director for Communications and Operations, Arms Control Association, 202-463-8270 ext. 110

(WASHINGTON, D.C.)—Today Partnership for a Secure America and the Arms Control Association released a bipartisan statement calling for Congress to focus greater attention on one of the most pressing national security issues of our time: prevention of nuclear terrorism

Statement signatories include former officials such as: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta; Secretary of State George Shultz; Senators Richard Lugar, Slade Gorton, and Nancy Kassebaum Baker; New Jersey Governor and Chair of the 9/11 Commission Thomas Kean; and House Foreign Affairs Committee and Intelligence Committee Chairman and Vice Chair of the 9/11 Commission Lee Hamilton. These national security and foreign policy leaders joined two-dozen other high-level officials calling for US leadership in securing nuclear and radiological material worldwide.

A full list of signatories is included at the bottom of this release.

Today 22 countries hold 900 tons of weapons-usable nuclear materials. A single terrorist attack using just a few pounds in a homemade explosive could cause mass casualties and untold global financial chaos.

“In the U.S. there has been an erosion of congressional expertise and experience, and successive administrations have proposed shrinking budgets for core nuclear material security and nonproliferation programs,” the statement notes. “Historically, Congress has been the source of bipartisan innovation and support to advance global nuclear security. It must happen again.”

Congress needs to take immediate action to step up efforts to secure worldwide nuclear and radiological materials globally to prevent any possibility of a nuclear terrorist attack. We recommend five simple legislative proposals to promote congressional leadership on nuclear security:

“The Office of Management and Budget should be required to prepare an annual report summarizing the aggregate U.S. budget for nuclear security and non-proliferation programs; a blue ribbon, bipartisan congressional commission should be established to develop a comprehensive strategy to prevent, counter, and respond to nuclear and radiological terrorism; a program of activities should be designed to prevent nuclear theft and trafficking in North Korea; periodic hearings should be held with government and non-governmental nuclear security experts; a sustained effort should be pursued to promote a mandatory international system of monitoring, reporting, and accountability in all countries with nuclear and radiological materials and the facilities that house them.”

The bipartisan statement released today draws from a report published last July by Partnership for a Secure America and the Arms Control Association titled Empowering Congress on Nuclear Security: Blueprints for a New Generation. The report assesses current congressional staff attitudes about nuclear security and explores the role of Congress and case studies in congressional leadership on this issue. The report also offers action items for lawmakers in enhancing nuclear security efforts and reducing global stockpiles of nuclear materials.

This statement was written in collaboration with Partnership for a Secure America, with funding provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

This statement was signed by:

Howard Berman, 
Congressman (D-CA) 1983-2013;

ADM Dennis Blair, 
Director of National Intelligence 2009-10;

Tony Blinken,
Deputy Secretary of State 2015-17;

John Brennan,
Director of the CIA 2013-17;

Michael Chertoff, 
Secretary of Homeland Security 2005-09; 

Jack Danforth,
Senator (R-MO) 1976-95;

Michèle Flournoy, 
Under Secretary of Defense for Policy 2009-12;

Slade Gorton, 
Senator (R-WA) 1981-87, 1989-2001;

Chuck Hagel,
Secretary of Defense 2013-15;

Lee Hamilton, 
Congressman (D-IN) 1965-99;

Gary Hart, 
Senator (D-CO) 1975-87;

Rita Hauser, 
Chair, International Peace Institute 1993-2012;

Carla Hills, 
US Trade Representative 1989-93;

Nancy Kassebaum Baker, 
Senator (R-KS) 1978-97;

Thomas Kean,
Governor (R-NJ) 1982-90;

Joe Lieberman,
Senator (D-CT) 1989-2013;

ADM Sam Locklear,
Commander PACOM 2012-15;

Dick Lugar, 
Senator (R-IN) 1977-2013; 

VADM Mike McConnell, 
Director of National Intelligence 2007-09;

Don McHenry
Ambassador to UN 1979-81;

Mike Morell,
Deputy Director of the CIA 2010-13;

Janet Napolitano, 
Secretary of Homeland Security 2009-13;

John Negroponte, 
Director of National Intelligence 2005-07; 

Leon Panetta,
Secretary of Defense 2011-13;

Tom Pickering, 
Undersecretary of State 1997-2000;

Jay Rockefeller, 
Senator (D-WV) 1985-2015; 

Mike Rogers, 
Congressman (R-MI) 2001-15;

George Shultz,
Secretary of State 1982-89;

Anne-Marie Slaughter, 
Director of Policy Planning, US State Department 2009-11;

Frances Townsend, 
Homeland Security Advisor 2004-08;

Kenneth Wainstein
Homeland Security Advisor 2008-09;

Frank Wisner, 
Undersecretary of State 1992-93.


Congress needs to take immediate action to step up efforts to secure worldwide nuclear and radiological materials globally to prevent any possibility of a nuclear terrorist attack, say a bipartisan group of national security officials.

Controversy Over Nuclear Safety Board Scope and Size

Overlooked but significant controversies have been simmering about an independent government board in charge of overseeing safety standards and practices at the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons complex, and the battle for independent oversight between the board and the agency. These issues are made all the more concerning against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s costly and expanding plans to recapitalize the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and increase the production of plutonium cores for nuclear weapons. In May 2018, the Energy Department issued Order 140.1 , which would change...

Pressure Builds on Saudi Nuclear Accord

December 2018
By Shervin Taheran

In the wake of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for The Washington Post who was critical of the Saudi government, Democratic and Republican members of Congress called on President Donald Trump to suspend negotiations on a U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear cooperation agreement, especially because the kingdom is seemingly unwilling to accept a ban on uranium-enrichment and reprocessing capabilities.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during an October 16 visit to Riyadh amid international outrage over the Saudi murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The crown prince's alleged role in ordering the killing and his threat to have Saudi Arabia produce nuclear weapons if Iran does so pose new hurdles to concluding a long-delayed U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear cooperation agreement. (Photo: Leah Millis/AFP/Getty Images)Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Todd Young (Ind.), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Rand Paul (Ky.), and Dean Heller (Nev.) wrote to Trump on Oct. 31 urging that he suspend negotiations on a cooperation accord, known as a 123 agreement, “for the foreseeable future.” They noted that their prior reservations, given Saudi unwillingness to accept the “gold standard” of no uranium enrichment or reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel, have been “solidified” in light of the Khashoggi murder, as well as “certain Saudi actions related to Yemen and Lebanon.”

Further, the senators threatened to advance a joint resolution of disapproval as provided for by the 1954 Atomic Energy Act, from which section 123 agreements gets the name, to block any such agreement.

On the same day, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) released his own letter calling on Trump not only to suspend the 123 agreement negotiations but also to revoke existing Saudi “Part 810” authorizations, which allow for the transfer of nuclear services, technology, and assistance, and to indefinitely suspend any further considerations of Part 810 authorizations for the kingdom.

Complicating matters, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who the U.S. intelligence community reportedly concluded was responsible for the Khashoggi killing, said earlier this year that Saudi Arabia would produce nuclear weapons if regional archrival Iran does so. (See ACT, April 2018.) For that, the Saudis likely would need uranium-enrichment and reprocessing capabilities.

A U.S. State Department official told Arms Control Today that the two governments “have been in negotiations on a 123 agreement since 2012,” but declined to comment on the substance of negotiations. The Energy Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment. (See ACT, January/February 2018.)

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is seeking to ensure Congress is able to keep any 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia at the highest nonproliferation standards. He has been working on legislation that would require positive action by Congress to approval a U.S.-Saudi 123 agreement, and a similar measure is being developed in the Senate.

Under the current process, the president submits a 123 agreement to Congress for automatic approval after 90 days unless Congress objects with a veto-proof majority. Sherman’s bill would require instead that Congress vote in favor of an agreement for it to be implemented. The legislation also would require any accord to include the gold standard provisions and increased inspections authorization for the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as for the White House to produce reports on Saudi Arabia’s state of human rights and its investigations into the Khashoggi murder.

Trump has repeatedly stressed the importance of maintaining financial and diplomatic ties to the Saudis, but has not, at least recently, specifically addressed the potential civil nuclear cooperation agreement, which supporters say could be a boost to U.S. companies in the civilian nuclear energy field, such as bankrupt Westinghouse Electric Co. Complicating matters is the fact that Westinghouse was recently acquired by a Canadian asset management company, and Saudi Arabia has a recent edict prohibiting business with Canada as a result of Canadian criticism of Saudi human rights abuses.

Even if the United States does sign a 123 agreement, there is no guarantee the Saudis would go with U.S. companies. For example, the United Arab Emirates, after reaching an accord with the United States, still chose to go with a South Korean company for nuclear-reactor construction. But the agreement is useful to the UAE because it allows for easier transfer of sensitive technology and information.

In its accord, the UAE, the only other Arab nation in the Persian Gulf to have a 123 agreement with the United States, agreed to abide by the gold standard provisions. If the United States relaxes its standards for the Saudis, the UAE could seek to renegotiate a comparable easing of its 123 agreement.

China, France, Russia, South Korea, and the United States are currently vying to build two nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia, the first of what the Saudis have said could be as many as16 reactors in a multibillion-dollar program over 20 years.

Companies were supposed to be selected by this month, but South Korea said in July that the winner would likely be selected by the Saudis during 2019. That date could slip further in light of Khashoggi’s murder and U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s comments in September that the 123 agreement negotiations were going more slowly than desired. (See ACT, November 2018.)

Saudi Arabia’s state-run press agency announced on Nov. 6 that the crown prince had “laid the foundation stone” for several strategic projects, including Saudi Arabia’s first nuclear research reactor. Although not providing details about the construction timing, purpose, or cost of the “low-energy” research reactor, the statement marked an important milestone as the oil-dependent kingdom aims to diversify its energy mix.

Lawmakers call for suspending talks on nuclear cooperation agreement following the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

High Standards at Issue for Saudi Nuclear Pact


U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry told reporters Sept. 26 that negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the United States on a civil nuclear cooperation agreement have slowed but are continuing. More recently, the diplomatic repercussions from the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi may impact U.S. policy and the complicate the ambitions of companies such as Westinghouse Electric for a U.S. role building nuclear power plants in the kingdom. State Department officials have said that the administration is pressing Saudi Arabia to commit to forgoing the ability to make nuclear fuel and to ratify stricter verification under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s additional protocol. The United Arab Emirates committed to this so-called gold standard in 2009 to obtain its civil nuclear pact with Washington. Perry, who is leading negotiations with Saudi Arabia, has not been so firm in his public statements, and Saudi Arabia has resisted these restrictions. (See ACT, April 2018.). Members of Congress continue to encourage the strictest standards for any agreement with Saudi Arabia, including pushing State Department officials on this issue at a Sept. 18 hearing, and have pressed for a floor vote on a bipartisan-approved Senate Foreign Relations Committee resolution calling for the “gold standard.” (See ACT, September 2018.)—SHERVIN TAHERAN

High Standards at Issue for Saudi Nuclear Pact

U.S., Japan Extend Nuclear Agreement

The United States and Japan automatically extended a 1988 civilian nuclear pact on July 17 as Japanese officials pledged to address concerns about Japan’s substantial plutonium stockpile. The agreement allowed either side to request a review of the deal, but neither side chose to do so. Under its terms, the pact remains in force in perpetuity but each side, if it chooses, is able to terminate the agreement by giving six months’ written notice. Japan’s civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, known as a 123 agreement setting U.S. terms for sharing nuclear energy technology, is unique and controversial due to the blanket consent that it provides Tokyo to enrich uranium and extract plutonium from U.S.-origin spent nuclear fuel. Enrichment and reprocessing activities are considered sensitive because they can be used to make fuel for power reactors and produce the explosive material for nuclear weapons.

Japan had more than 47 tons of plutonium as of 2016, enough to produce around 6,000 nuclear warheads. Ten tons of this material are stored in Japan while the remainder is held in France and the United Kingdom. Critics fear that these materials could be used to build nuclear weapons, thereby granting Japan a latent nuclear weapons capability. The Nikkei Asian Review reported that prior to the pact’s extension, the United States demanded Japan make efforts to reduce the stockpile. On July 31, Japan’s nuclear energy commission adopted a guideline to cap plutonium production and eventually reduce the stockpile, but it provided no timeline or specifics on a plan to do so.—MONICA MONTGOMERY

U.S., Japan Extend Nuclear Agreement

First-Ever Study Finds Congressional Attention on Nuclear Security Waning as Nuclear Terrorism Threat Persists



For Immediate Release: July 26, 2016

Media Contacts: Nathan Sermonis, Executive Director, Partnership for a Secure America, (202) 293-8580; Jack Brosnan, Program Associate, Partnership for a Secure America, 202-293-8580; Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy. Arms Control Association, 202-463-8270 ext. 104; Tony Fleming, Director for Communications and Operations, Arms Control Association, 202-463-8270 ext. 110

(Washington, D.C.)—A new report from Partnership for a Secure America and the Arms Control Association reveals a concerning diminution of congressional engagement and interest in critical efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism.

The report, Empowering Congress on Nuclear Security: Blueprints for a New Generation, assesses current congressional staff attitudes about nuclear security and explores the role of Congress and case studies in congressional leadership on this issue. The report also offers action items for lawmakers in enhancing nuclear security efforts and reducing global stockpiles of nuclear materials.

“As the threat of nuclear terrorism continues to loom, America must maintain its leadership of global efforts to keep dangerous nuclear and radiological materials out of the wrong hands,” said Nathan Sermonis, Executive Director of Partnership for a Secure America. “Unfortunately, congressional interest has steeply declined with nuclear security faded from the headlines. We need, however, an all-of-government approach to advance the most effective measures against this threat.”

This joint report, made possible by funding provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, comes at a time when national attention on the security of nuclear and radioactive materials is decreasing even as these materials remain at risk from theft and more countries express interest in nuclear research and development.

“Despite significant progress in securing and eliminating nuclear materials around the world and the continued dedicated leadership role of several lawmakers, there is a need for Congress to play a more active role in shaping nuclear security policy,” noted Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association. “We provide an important blueprint to build upon Congress’ historic bipartisan achievements on nuclear security and engage a new generation of policy advisers on Capitol Hill.”

To mark the publication of the report, Partnership for a Secure America and the Arms Control Association will be hosting an invitation-only event July 26 on Capitol Hill for congressional staff. The event will feature Ambassador Linton Brooks, Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, and General Frank Klotz.

For more information about the report, please contact Partnership for a Secure America at [email protected] or (202) 293-8580, or the Arms Control Association at [email protected] or (202) 463-8270 ext. 104.

The full report, Empowering Congress on Nuclear Security: Blueprints for a New Generation, is available online.


A new report reveals a concerning loss of congressional leadership and interest in critical efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism.

The Nuclear Security Summits: An Overview of State Actions to Curb Nuclear Terrorism 2010–2016

July 2018

The 2016 Nuclear Security Summit brought to a close President Barack Obama’s high-level initiative to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism and secure weapons-usable nuclear materials. The four biannual summits from 2010-2016 played a significant role in bringing high-level political attention to the threat posed by vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials around the world and strengthening the global nuclear security regime.

Download this report.


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