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former IAEA Director-General

Fissile Material

Nuclear Materials: Summits Made Some Headway on Security

The nuclear security summits are the venue for the president’s most significant nuclear materials control accomplishments.

December 2016

By Miles Pomper

When Russian troops intervened in Crimea in 2014 and sparked a crisis over Ukraine, global tensions spiked. Thanks to the nuclear security summit process initiated by President Barack Obama, there was at least one worry that no longer troubled White House officials: the presence of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in Ukraine that might have given leaders in Kiev a nuclear weapons option. 

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States had been seeking to remove 234 kilograms of HEU, enough for several weapons, from Ukraine’s former Soviet research reactors. Yet, nearly two decades of efforts had failed to break through political obstacles in Kiev. When Washington conditioned Ukraine’s participation in the nuclear security summits on taking action, the final hurdles came down. The last HEU was transferred from Ukraine to Russia, where it was due to be down-blended into low-enriched uranium, by the time of the second nuclear security summit, held in 2012 in Seoul.

President Barack Obama speaks as Secretary of State John Kerry and then-United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron listen during Obama’s fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit April 1 in Washington. (Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)The Ukraine case offers a vivid example of the gains of the summits, the venue for the president’s most significant nuclear materials control accomplishments and an outgrowth of his 2009 Prague speech putting forward nonproliferation goals that included organizing international efforts to secure vulnerable nuclear material.

The summits successfully leveraged the desire of foreign leaders for good relations with Obama and the United States to break down some long-standing political barriers to nuclear security. In addition to Ukraine, more than a dozen other countries have given up HEU since the summit process began. In addition, other measures to improve nuclear security cooperation advanced. Most notably, shortly after the summit process wrapped up this year, an important amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM) finally entered into force. It requires states-parties to take steps to protect nuclear facilities and materials on their territory. This was buttressed at the 2014 summit in The Hague by a joint commitment by some three dozen states to have in place regulations that are at least as good as the detailed voluntary International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) guidance and to invite the IAEA to review these regulations. 

Still, the format and nature of the summit process, which brought together countries to make mostly voluntary commitments, failed to repair many of the long-standing weaknesses in global nuclear security. Despite meetings involving more than 50 world leaders, the legal regime remains quite weak in its rigor and in the materials to which it applies. For example, the summit focused on civilian materials although more than 80 percent of weapons-usable uranium and plutonium are in noncivilian hands. 

Furthermore, radiological materials, which are highly vulnerable to terrorists’ theft because of their wide use in hospitals, industry, and universities, received short shrift and are not covered under even weak legal measures like the CPPNM. Those materials could be used to make a “dirty bomb” that at a minimum would cause panic and perhaps large economic losses. In addition, because of the power of reprocessing industries in countries such as France, the summits did not even attempt to tackle the growing stockpiles of civil-sector separated plutonium. 

The summit process also did not fully succeed in building sufficient institutional mechanisms to sustain its gains. The formal attempt at doing so was a series of five vague action plans ostensibly aimed at pushing countries to help institutions such as the IAEA and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism to hold exercises and other practical actions but committing them to do very little. More hopefully, some of the summit countries have formed a contact group aimed at sustaining progress in these forums; and additional countries, most notably China and India, have signed up to the 2014 commitment on the IAEA guidance on nuclear security. Making these a success will require President Donald Trump to spend political capital to sustain and extend Obama’s initiatives. 

Miles Pomper is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and a former editor-in-chief of Arms Control Today.

Posted: November 30, 2016

Trump Election Puts Iran Deal in Doubt

European leaders were quick to voice support for the nuclear deal with Iran after Donald Trump’s election raised concerns about the future of the agreement. 

December 2016

By Kelsey Davenport

European leaders were quick to voice support for the nuclear deal with Iran after Donald Trump’s election raised concerns about the future of the agreement. 

Trump has made a range of comments about how, if elected, he would approach the July 2015 nuclear deal that the United States and its P5+1 partners (China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom) negotiated with Iran. In a March 21 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel group, Trump said his “number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” He has also described the agreement as the worst deal ever negotiated and said he would seek to renegotiate it.

An Iranian man holds a November 10 newspaper with front-page news about the election of Donald Trump, who pledged during his political campaign to end the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. (Photo credit: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)The agreement, which has been in force since January, limits Iran’s nuclear activities and subjects the program to intrusive monitoring. In exchange, Iran received relief from nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union, and UN Security Council. 

Trump has not provided any details on how he would renegotiate the deal, an effort that European allies have already signaled they will resist. 

In remarks to press on Nov. 13, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini emphasized that the deal is a multilateral agreement and said that it is in the “European interest” to “guarantee that the agreement is implemented in full.” French President François Hollande also voiced his support for the deal after Trump’s election, telling reporters on Nov. 16 that the agreement “gives us all security” and that the “absence of the accord would be very serious.” 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Iran intends to continue abiding by the agreement, despite remarks made by Trump. In Nov. 9 remarks, Rouhani described the deal as an agreement between a group of countries approved by the UN Security Council and said that “there is no possibility that it can be changed by a single government.” 

The UN Security Council endorsed the agreement in Resolution 2231, which was passed unanimously in July 2015. 

Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, a military aide to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reportedly told state television on Nov. 15 that it would be a “strategic mistake” for Trump to pull out of the Iran deal. Safavi noted that presidential candidates often make statements while campaigning that do not reflect their positions in office. 

U.S. Commitments

Although the deal is a multilateral agreement, Trump could decide to unilaterally pull out of the agreement or stop implementing U.S. commitments. 

Under the terms of the deal, U.S. sanctions relief comes from presidential waivers during the initial years of the agreement. Trump, as president, will need to periodically reissue those waivers to continue sanctions relief. 

The passage of the additional nuclear-related sanctions by the United States would violate Washington’s commitments under the agreement. 

Donald Trump at a campaign rally October 18 in Grand Junction, Colorado, with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who has been named to become White House national security adviser. (Photo credit: George Frey/Getty Images)In personnel announcements Nov. 18, Trump selected vocal Iran-deal opponents to fill two key national security posts. He named retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a former director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, to be his national security adviser and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee and a tea party favorite who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, to head the CIA.

“I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism,” Pompeo wrote on Twitter a day before the announcements.

If Trump does decide to take action to dismantle the Iran agreement, he may face opposition from members of Congress who initially opposed the agreement. 

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told MSNBC on Nov. 16 that the agreement should not be discarded immediately and that “the beginning point is for us to cause them to strictly adhere” to the deal. Corker opposed the agreement during the congressional review of the deal last year. 

Corker noted in the interview that Washington has lost its leverage with Iran because it has already provided relief and the United States needs to “keep the Europeans and others with us in this process.” 

Both opponents and supporters of the deal acknowledged the critical role that international support for sanctions played in pressuring Iran to return to negotiations over its nuclear program. Mogherini made clear that if the United States leaves the agreement, she will continue working to implement it. 

Nicholas Burns, who was U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2005 to 2008, said that efforts by Trump to reimpose sanctions or kill the deal would poison relations with key nations. “It would be an act of diplomatic suicide by the United States,” he said Nov. 10 at an Asian Society forum in New York.

Excess Heavy Water

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) quarterly report on Iranian compliance with the conditions set out under the nuclear deal noted that Tehran slightly exceeded the heavy-water stockpile limit of 130 metric tons. The report said that Iran had 130.1 metric tons on Nov. 8. 

Under the terms of the agreement, Iran can continue heavy-water production, which is used as a moderator in some nuclear reactors, and store up to 130 metric tons of the material. Iran can sell any excess. The IAEA report said that Iran notified the agency of its intention to ship out five metric tons in a letter dated Nov. 9. 

The concern about heavy water, which contains an isotope of hydrogen called deuterium, reflects the fact that it can be used as a moderator for reactors that are particularly well suited for producing weapons-grade plutonium. Iran was building a heavy-water reactor at Arak that would have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium annually for about two nuclear warheads, but that reactor is being modified as part of the deal. It will now produce negligible amounts of weapons-grade plutonium and ship out all of the spent reactor fuel. 

Prior to Iran exceeding the limit, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano expressed concern about Iran’s stockpile of heavy water after inspectors noted on Oct. 25 that Tehran had exactly 130 metric tons. 

At the agency’s Board of Governors meeting Nov. 17, Amano urged that Iran strictly comply with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear accord’s formal name. “It is important that such situations should be avoided in the future in order to maintain international confidence in the implementation of the JCPOA, which represents a clear gain for nuclear verification in Iran,” he said.

Laura Holgate, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, at the meeting called on Iran to “complete without delay its plan to resolve the issue.” Her Nov. 17 statement also said that Iran’s notification to the international community that it is willing to sell heavy water does not fulfill Tehran’s commitments under the deal and that “any excess heavy water cannot remain in Iran.” 

Reza Najafi, Iranian ambassador to the IAEA, pushed back against describing the excess heavy water as a breach of the deal’s limits. He told reporters at the IAEA on Nov. 17 that the text of deal says that Iran’s heavy-water needs are “estimated” to be 130 metric tons and that does not create a clear limit for the stockpile size. 

On Nov. 20, state-owned Press TV quoted a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran as saying that Iran had transferred an unspecified quantity of heavy water to Oman and that more would be sent there in the future.

This is the second time that Iran has exceeded the heavy-water limit. The IAEA quarterly report in February noted that Tehran had 130.9 metric tons. Since that excess was reported, Iran had sold heavy water to the United States and Russia to remain under the limit.

Posted: November 30, 2016

The Feasibility of Ending HEU Fuel Use in the U.S. Navy

Naval reactors account for more than half of the global use of highly enriched uranium and most of the global stockpile of HEU for nonweapons use.

November 2016

By Sébastien Philippe and Frank von Hippel

Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has sought to remove weapons-useable highly enriched uranium (HEU) containing 20 percent or more uranium-235 from as many locations as possible because of concerns about the possibility of nuclear terrorism.

President Barack Obama worked to make this effort a global priority with biennial nuclear security summits between 2010 and 2016.

The $12.9 billion USS Gerald R. Ford is the lead ship in a new class of aircraft carriers powered by two nuclear reactors using highly enriched uranium fuel. Already about two years behind schedule, the U.S. Navy’s costliest warship was scheduled for delivery earlier this year but is facing further delays amid Pentagon questions about the performance of key systems. (Photo credit: Chris Oxley/Huntington Ingalls Industries)The primary focus of this HEU cleanout strategy has been on replacing HEU civilian research reactor fuel and uranium “targets” used in the production of medical radioisotopes with non-weapons-usable low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel and targets. Eliminating the use of HEU in naval fuel was not on the agenda. Yet, naval reactors account for more than half of global HEU use and most of the global stockpile of HEU for nonweapons use.1 As the phase-out of other uses continues, naval reactors will become increasingly dominant among nonweapon users of HEU unless actions are taken to convert them as well.

Given the focus after the September 11 attacks on reducing the possibility of nuclear terrorism, prioritizing the elimination of civilian uses of HEU was understandable. The security at most civilian sites is typically much lower than at sites where naval fuel is fabricated and stored, but the continued use of HEU for nonweapons purposes has implications for nuclear weapons proliferation.

The proliferation implications of the acquisition of nuclear-powered military vessels by non-nuclear-weapon states has been a cause of concern for almost 30 years.2 Yet, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) allows non-nuclear-weapon states to produce HEU for naval reactor fuel. Furthermore, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreement permits them to remove HEU from safeguards for “non-peaceful activities” other than nuclear explosives.3 

Nonintrusive safeguards for the military naval nuclear fuel cycle have been proposed to address this loophole.4 Whether non-nuclear-weapon states would accept such additional “discriminatory” safeguards is uncertain. Fortunately, nuclear submarines are so costly that, although some non-nuclear-weapon states have signaled their intention to build or acquire them, none has done so—yet. The example of HEU use established by the U.S. Navy and the three other navies that use HEU fuel (India, Russia, and the United Kingdom) could be used by any non-nuclear-weapon state-party to the NPT, however, to legitimize acquisition of HEU – mostly likely through indigenous domestic production – and thereby a nuclear weapons option. In fact, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran played that card at the height of the confrontation over Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, just before Iran’s 2013 election brought to power a leadership more interested in making a deal.5 

Thus, although the primary rationale for eliminating HEU in civilian use has been the danger of nuclear terrorism, the primary rationale for eliminating HEU as a naval reactor fuel is to strengthen the nonproliferation regime. Furthermore, the inability to divert HEU from naval fuel cycles would greatly simplify the verification of a fissile material cutoff treaty.6

Conceptual Plan

The U.S. Navy accounts for about 60 percent of global naval HEU use today, or about 2.5 tons, enough for 100 nuclear weapons, each year. A July 2016 report to Congress by the Office of Naval Reactors within the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous unit of the Department of Energy, raised the possibility of converting at least U.S. aircraft carriers to using LEU fuel. The report sketched out a $1 billion, 15-year plan to do irradiation and production tests on a new LEU fuel design.7 The office believes that this fuel could replace the weapons-grade HEU fuel currently used by U.S. aircraft carriers. According to the report, a minimum of an additional 10 years would be required to build a land-based prototype reactor and a fuel production line. The whole program therefore would take at least 25 years before the first LEU core could be loaded into an aircraft carrier.

The report argues that the new LEU fuel is not suitable for submarines because it could not be used to build lifetime submarine cores without a costly increase in submarine size. This conclusion is not obvious. Also, the priority that the U.S. Navy has placed on achieving lifetime cores can be questioned. Among the six countries that deploy nuclear submarines, only the United States and the UK, which is dependent on the United States for naval reactor technology, have made it a priority to develop lifetime cores. 

LEU fuel is already used in Chinese and French naval reactors. Little is known about China’s technology, but France has been relatively open about the conversion of its navy from HEU fuel to LEU fuel starting more than 30 years ago.

The depth of U.S. nuclear naval expertise accumulated over the past seven decades is unsurpassed, including more than 30 different reactor designs, an excellent safety record, and a steady increase in the uranium density of naval fuel. Given this expertise, it should be possible for the Office of Naval Reactors to begin to produce LEU cores for all existing U.S. aircraft carriers and for newly designed U.S. submarines within about 20 years.

In any case, Congress, the White House, and the leaderships of the departments of Defense and Energy need more input before taking the decision on whether to support the proposed program or a more ambitious program that would be aimed at ending completely the production of naval HEU fuel in about two decades. During the summer of 2016, JASON, an independent group of technical defense consultants, conducted a classified review of the Office of Naval Reactors proposal. Hopefully, an unclassified summary of the JASON report will be made available. In the meantime, this article is an attempt to provide a critical, unclassified analysis based on publicly available information. 

Congressional Prodding

Thus far, discussion of shifting U.S. naval reactors to use LEU fuel has been driven by the interest of a few members of Congress. The first expression of interest appeared in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 1995 as a request for a report on the use of LEU fuel instead of HEU fuel for naval nuclear reactors.

The response from the Office of Naval Reactors was negative: “[T]he use of LEU in U.S. naval reactor plants is technically feasible, but uneconomic and impractical.”8

Two decades later, however, a request in the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act for an update elicited a more positive response from the office. “[R]ecent work has shown that the potential exists to develop an advanced fuel system that could increase uranium loading beyond what is practical today while meeting the rigorous performance requirements for naval reactors. Success is not assured, but an advanced fuel system might enable either a higher energy naval core using HEU fuel, or allow using LEU fuel with less impact on reactor lifetime, size, and ship costs.” The report added that “[d]evelopment of an advanced fuel system would help maintain the unique naval nuclear technology base…. Once ongoing new ship design work is complete, it will not be practical to sustain all of the [Office of Naval Reactors] unique technology capabilities or develop an advanced fuel system without other sources of funding.”9

The office therefore was proposing a deal: It would examine the option of developing LEU fuel to convert ships using HEU fuel in exchange for funding that would sustain its fuel development team and infrastructure until it is time to develop the next new naval propulsion reactor.

Congress responded in the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization and energy and water appropriations acts with $5 million and a request for a research and development plan. In its 2016 report, the NNSA responded with a plan to develop and test the advanced LEU fuel and build a laboratory-scale production line. The LEU fuel would be enriched to 19.75 percent uranium-235 (U-235), just below the 20 percent threshold where enriched uranium is defined to be HEU and weapons usable.10 The HEU currently used in U.S. naval fuel is enriched to 93 percent and was originally produced for use in Cold War nuclear warheads. 

If funded by Congress, the R&D program would be launched in fiscal year 2018 with a 15-year budget that would average about 4 percent of the Office of Naval Reactors’ fiscal year 2016 budget level.11

Proposed Program 

In the preface to the 2016 report, the current director of the Office of Naval Reactors, Admiral James Caldwell, observes that the plan has “the potential to deliver a fuel that might enable an aircraft carrier reactor fueled with LEU in the 2040s [but that] the fuel is unlikely to enable converting current life-of-ship submarine reactors to LEU.” 

The U.S. Navy currently has 10 nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carriers in operation. The USS Gerald R. Ford, the lead ship of a new class of aircraft carriers, is in precommissioning status. The nuclear submarine fleet currently numbers 75. Five new Virginia-class attack submarines are under construction, and a new class of ballistic-missile submarines, the Columbia class, is being designed for production beginning in fiscal year 2021.12 Each of the aircraft carriers has two propulsion reactors that are much more powerful than the single reactors that power the submarines. The aircraft carriers are refueled once in the middle of their 50-year design lives. 

The latest generation of U.S. attack submarines, the Virginia-class, however, is equipped with cores designed to propel them for their entire 33-year design lives. The cores of the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines also are being designed to propel them for their full (42-year) design lives. The basis for the Office of Naval Reactors’ conclusion that U.S. nuclear submarines could not be converted to LEU use was that LEU cores of the same size as the current HEU cores would not provide enough energy to last a submarine’s lifetime.

Advantages and Disadvantages 

The pursuit of lifetime cores is a U.S. design choice justified by the fact that, in the past, the lengthy process of refueling has reduced U.S. submarine availability. The UK, whose submarines are based on U.S. technology and fueled by U.S. HEU, has made the same choice. 

The first U.S. nuclear submarines had reactor compartment hatches to facilitate refueling operations,13 but the United States and UK abandoned refueling hatches in later designs. It therefore became necessary to cut open the submarine hulls to access the reactors and then carefully weld the hulls shut again after refueling. This was a difficult process, requiring extreme quality control to maintain the strength of the hull structure. According to the 1995 report of the Office of Naval Reactors, refueling added eight to 10 extra months in dry dock to a long engineering overhaul. 

Refueling French submarines, which are equipped with hatches above the reactor compartment, takes weeks at most.14 The U.S. Navy has not explained publicly what operational advantages are achieved by removing refueling hatches from its nuclear submarines. Diving depth and quietness have been mentioned, but hatches can be designed so that they are no weaker than other parts of the hull. Indeed, the United States has installed large hatches for other purposes, most notably the three rapid-replenishment logistic hatches on Ohio-class submarines.15 The submarine deck typically covers the seams associated with the hatches so that they do not create turbulence and noise. One of France’s oldest Rubis-class nuclear attack submarines was quiet enough so that, in a war game in 2015, it reportedly “sank” a U.S. aircraft carrier and a number of its escort vessels.16 

France and Russia and possibly China refuel their submarines regularly. France, which has been operating LEU-fueled naval reactors for more than 30 years, refuels every seven to 10 years during its submarines’ general engineering overhauls. In its new Suffren-class submarines, average fuel enrichment has been reduced to less than 6 percent by increasing the volume of the core without increasing the mass or volume of the reactor.17 Using LEU fuel of commercial-level enrichment avoids a cost that the United States will face when its current supply of excess Cold War HEU runs out and it has to build a special enrichment plant to produce either HEU or 19.75 percent-enriched LEU for its naval reactors. 

Although further optimization could lead to a Suffren-class submarine core life of 20 years, hardware upgrades and required maintenance require a long overhaul every 10 years in any case, and refueling does not significantly impact the duration of the overhauls. Visual and ultrasonic inspection of the reactor pressure vessels and their primary piping can take up to three months, but are done in parallel with other operations conducted at each long overhaul.18 To isolate the reactor work from work on other parts of the submarine, a mobile workshop is hermetically sealed to the hull above the reactor compartment.19

When problems occur in the nuclear propulsion systems of U.S. and UK submarines, the absence of a refueling hatch can result in long outages. Repairing a faulty weld in piping near the reactor of a Virginia-class submarine has kept the submarine in dry dock for two years thus far, and three other submarines may have the same problem.20 Discovery of a problem in the fuel used in UK ballistic missile submarines will require the replacement of the lifetime core of at least one and perhaps all of them.21 

Finally, lifetime cores will only last the lifetime of a submarine if the submarine is kept on a strict energy budget. This issue came up in 2003 when the director of the Office of Naval Reactors informed Congress that the increased fraction of time at sea for U.S. attack submarines and the increased transit speeds to their stations that had been required since September 11, 2001, could substantially reduce the longevity of Virginia-class submarines.22 

The LEU fuel design being considered by the Office of Naval Reactors would contain a higher density of uranium than current HEU fuel but a lower density of the chain-reacting isotope, U-235, because of its lower enrichment. The 2016 report states that “[a]n LEU-fueled submarine with this [new] fuel is expected to require at least one refueling, or the reactor (and hull) would need to be increased in size correspondingly.”

The “at least one refueling” statement, i.e., at least two cores in the lifetime of the submarine, gives a measure of the increase in the uranium density of the proposed new LEU fuel because the report states that if LEU were substituted for HEU in the existing lifetime cores of Virginia-class submarines, they would have to be refueled “as many as three times,” or up to four cores in the lifetime of a submarine. The 1995 report made the same statement and added that a lifetime LEU core would have three times the volume of an HEU core at the same level of technology. On the basis of these statements, the new higher-density fuel presumably would make possible an LEU lifetime core with a volume only twice that of the current HEU lifetime cores.

The Office of Naval Reactors judges that the reactor pressure vessels in Ford-class aircraft carriers could accommodate LEU cores with the new higher-density fuel large enough to keep their refueling frequency to one refueling at midlife but that current submarine reactors could not accommodate lifetime LEU cores. More controversially, however, the report argues that if U.S. submarines were designed with reactor pressure vessels large enough to accommodate lifetime LEU cores, the submarine hulls would have to be made larger, which would increase their costs significantly. The Office of Naval Reactors made a similar claim in its 1995 report, in which it asserted that an LEU lifetime core with triple the volume of the HEU core of a Virginia-class submarine would require an increase in the hull diameter and its displacement by about 3 feet and 12 percent, or 1,000 tons, respectively. 

These assertions are questionable because the reactor cores are very small in comparison to the submarines that they power. The hull diameter of the smallest U.S. nuclear submarine currently in production, the Virginia-class, is about 10 meters, while the cavity in the M-140 cask that the Navy uses to ship spent submarine fuel is only 1.2 meters high, which makes that an upper bound on the height of the core.23 Increasing each dimension by a factor of 1.26 would double the volume. If the height of the existing cores were 1.2 meters, doubling their volumes in such a way would increase their heights by 0.3 meters. It is possible that the reactor vessel might have to be increased in diameter, but it is difficult to believe that its internals and control rod system could not be reconfigured to allow a small increase in core height without forcing an increase in the submarine’s hull diameter. Alternatively, the core volume could be doubled without increasing its height by simply enlarging its diameter by a factor of 1.41. The challenge of accommodating larger cores within the larger hulls of U.S. ballistic missile submarines would be less. 

An important revelation in the 2016 Office of Naval Reactors report is that irradiation tests of the new fuel design with HEU had already begun in fiscal year 2015.24 Indeed, it states that the decision on whether to do irradiation tests with LEU beginning in fiscal year 2022 would be based primarily on the evaluation of the HEU irradiation tests. Yet, because an LEU lifetime core is approximately two times larger, its fuel would only have to demonstrate that it performed well up to about half the irradiation level of the HEU core, measured in terms of fissions per cubic centimeter. Therefore, the new fuel design possibly could be useable for LEU fuel but not HEU fuel. On the other hand, if the tests were successful up to the irradiation level that would be required for an HEU core, the United States would have a choice of an LEU core or a more compact HEU core. In that case, the decision on whether to use the new fuel design with LEU fuel for nonproliferation reasons or the higher-performance HEU cores would depend on the priorities of future U.S. governments. The enacted fiscal year 2016 authorization and appropriation bills make clear, however, that congressional support for this program is based on the belief that the new fuel design should be used with LEU fuel. 

Deployment Costs

The Office of Naval Reactors report estimates that production and testing of advanced cores would require at least an additional 10 years beyond the 15-year R&D program and cost several billion dollars. The projected costs include $600 million for a new fuel production line and “[s]everal billion dollars” for a new land-based reactor for testing a prototype core.

On average, this program would cost several times as much annually as the R&D program. The office also estimates that LEU cores will cost 25 to 35 percent more than HEU cores. 

A nuclear reactor vessel is lowered into a French ballistic missile submarine, Le Terrible, which runs on low-enriched uranium fuel. (Photo credit: DCNS)Congress might balk at these costs. A careful examination of the estimates to determine whether they are justified will be important. 

Land-based prototype reactor. The Office of Naval Reactors once had a number of prototype reactors for training and fuel testing. It currently has only one, originally built as a prototype of the S8G reactor that powers the current generation of Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. About $1.6 billion is currently being spent to overhaul and modernize the reactor and to manufacture a new core of the type that is to be used in the next-generation U.S. ballistic- missile submarine.25 The refurbishment of the S8G, to be completed in fiscal year 2021, will allow it to operate for another 20 years, until fiscal year 2041.26

Given that the prototype will be 63 years old in 2041, the Navy may need a new training and prototype reactor in any case. It therefore may not be fair to charge its entire cost to the LEU fuel development program. 

Furthermore, most naval cores are no longer tested in prototype. The director of the Office of Naval Reactors testified in 2013 with regard to the use of a new higher-density HEU fuel in the cores for the new ballistic missile submarines, saying that “[w]e did not have to build prototypes and do direct testing, but we could do that modeling in the high-performing computer.”27 The primary use of the S8G prototype today is for training naval reactor operators. 

New fuel production line. The Office of Naval Reactors report asserts that if LEU fuel is used in U.S. aircraft carriers and HEU fuel is used in U.S. submarines, two production lines will be required. Yet, there are straightforward, nondestructive techniques to verify that LEU has not mistakenly been substituted for HEU in fuel or vice versa. Unless the new LEU fuel is very different in terms of the fabrication techniques involved, it is difficult to understand what would justify the cost of an entirely new production line. Currently, diverse HEU fuels are apparently manufactured on the same line. The fuel assemblies for the aircraft reactors are much longer than those for the submarine reactors, and the cladding of the fuel for the new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines is of a different material than that for the Virginia-class cores.28 Their production is most likely kept separate by processing the different fuels in separate batches during the different stages of production. 

LEU fuel cost. The most important long-term issue will be whether LEU fuel will be much costlier than HEU fuel. If so, there will have to be a debate over whether the nonproliferation benefit is worth the cost. The Office of Nuclear Reactors indicates that the two HEU cores for the reactors on the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier cost about $1.5 billion and that LEU cores would cost 25 to 35 percent more. The reasons given for the cost increase are “[m]anufacturing and overhead costs [that] are expected to increase for the more complex fuel fabrication, LEU material costs, costs to down blend HEU to provide initial LEU fuel, and inefficiencies related to supporting separate LEU and HEU production lines.”29 

The fuel designs are secret, so it is not possible to comment on the relative complexity of the current HEU fuels and the proposed LEU fuel. With regard to the other arguments, however, there will be an extra cost in the near term for blending HEU down to 19.75 percent LEU; but in the long term, when the supplies of excess Cold War HEU are exhausted, it would be somewhat less costly to produce LEU for several reasons, including the lower security costs at the enrichment and fuel fabrication plants and for transport and storage of the LEU. In the 2016 Office of Naval Reactors report, it is estimated that security costs at the Navy’s two nuclear fuel-fabrication facilities would be reduced by about $30 million per year if they no longer handled HEU. The issue of supporting two production lines has already been discussed.

Accelerated Timeline 

According to the timeline in the Office of Naval Reactors 2016 report (see figure 1), the office would determine in fiscal year 2032, after the evaluation of the first irradiation tests of LEU fuel specimens, whether the LEU naval fuel is technically viable. Yet, the ongoing irradiation tests with HEU of the new fuel design that are to be completed at the end of fiscal year 2020 are of the same fuel design and therefore should provide the same information. Indeed, it should be possible to examine some of the HEU fuel samples after the halfway point of the irradiation tests in fiscal year 2018, when they will have reached irradiation levels beyond those required to qualify LEU fuel. If the conclusions from the HEU fuel irradiation and fabrication tests are positive, the program to test prototype LEU fuel and develop production capacity could be launched in the early 2020s, a decade earlier than in the proposed plan, and deliver LEU cores for aircraft carriers starting in the 2030s.

If decisions are made with Defense Department and congressional support to design the next-generation attack submarines, notated as SSN(X), to accommodate large lifetime LEU cores or with hatches that would allow quick midlife refuelings, they too could be equipped with LEU cores. If the SSN(X) is deferred in favor of continuing with Virginia-class attack submarines, a new larger reactor vessel might be included in the major redesigns that often occur between “blocks” of production of a submarine class. The Block V Virginia-class submarines that are to be purchased starting in fiscal year 2019, for example, will have a 70-foot “payload module” added immediately in front of the nuclear reactor compartment, with four large tubes that could store and launch up to seven Tomahawk cruise missiles each at a cost of about $300 million per submarine.30 It would be too late to install LEU cores in the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines that are already at an advanced design stage, but if and when they are replaced, their replacements too could be designed for LEU cores. In this scenario, therefore, no HEU cores would be installed after approximately 2040.

Other Countries 

Nuclear-powered vessels are very costly. Virginia-class attack submarines cost about $2.7 billion each, Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines are projected to cost twice as much, and Ford-class aircraft carriers twice as much again.31 This results in the club of countries with nuclear-powered ships being very small. For nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, it is almost a club of one, with the United States having 11 aircraft carriers and France one. Only six countries have nuclear-powered submarines: the United States, Russia, France, the UK, China, and India. Of these, four use HEU fuel, and two use LEU fuel. 

Among the HEU fuel users, the UK is tied to the United States by technology and HEU supply. Therefore, if the United States switched to LEU fuel, the UK presumably would as well. The reactors that dominate Russia’s current submarine fleet have zoned cores with enrichments much lower than those used by the United States and UK, ranging from 21 percent U-235 in the core interiors to 45 percent U-235 at their peripheries, and are designed to be refueled every 10 years or so with normal usage.32 Technically, therefore, it would be much easier for Russia to switch its submarines to LEU fuel than for the United States. In fact, the reactors on Russia’s next-generation, civilian nuclear-powered icebreakers are to be fueled with LEU.33 India’s submarines appear to be based on Russian designs. If the United States and UK switched to LEU fuel, it is possible that Russia and India would do so as well, thereby ending all global use of HEU for naval fuel and thereby potentially for all non-nuclear weapons uses. 


The Office of Naval Reactors has responded to congressional interest with a serious plan to develop a new higher-density fuel that could facilitate conversion of naval reactors to LEU fuel. It sees the LEU fuel of potential interest for aircraft carriers but not for submarines because lifetime LEU cores would not fit into current reactors and reactors designed for larger lifetime cores would not fit into submarines of the current size. The first point is more credible than the second. Furthermore, if the Navy were willing to design a refueling hatch into its submarines, the time penalty for refueling would not be significant.

The office believes that testing a core would require a new land-based prototype reactor costing several billion dollars. The government will have to decide in any case whether to build a new training and prototype reactor to replace the aging S8G reactor in West Milton, New York.

The office also estimates that LEU cores will cost 25 to 35 percent more than HEU cores. The effect on cost of the “more complex” fabrication of the LEU fuel is difficult to assess, but the other arguments for higher cost are not persuasive.

Finally, the office estimates that if the fuel development program is successful, it will be possible to begin building new LEU cores starting in fiscal year 2047. That schedule probably could be shortened by a decade.


1.   Frank von Hippel, “Banning the Production of Highly Enriched Uranium,” International Panel on Fissile Material Research Report, No. 15 (March 2016), p. 10 (table 2).

2.   Marie-France Desjardins and Tariq Rauf, Opening Pandora’s Box? Nuclear-Powered Submarines and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons (Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament, 1988).

3.   Greg Thielmann and Wyatt Hoffman, “Submarine Nuclear Reactors: A Worsening Proliferation Challenge,” ACA Threat Assessment Brief, July 26, 2012, https://www.armscontrol.org/files/TAB_Submarine_Nuclear_Reactors.pdf.  

4.   Sébastien Philippe, “Safeguarding the Military Naval Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” Journal of Nuclear Materials Management, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Spring 2014).

5.   “Iran May Need Highly Enriched Uranium in Future, Official Says,” Reuters, April 16, 2013.

6.   Chunyan Ma and Frank von Hippel, “Ending the Production of Highly Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactors,” Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 8, No. 1 (2001): 86-101.

7.   National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), U.S. Department of Energy, “Conceptual Research and Development Plan for Low-Enriched Uranium Naval Fuel: Report to Congress,” July 2016, http://fissilematerials.org/library/doe16.pdf

8.   Director of Naval Nuclear Propulsion, U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on Use of Low Enriched Uranium in Naval Nuclear Propulsion,” 1995, p. 1, http://fissilematerials.org/library/onnp95.pdf

9.   Office of Naval Reactors, U.S. Department of Energy, “Report on Low Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactor Cores: Report to Congress,” January 2014, p. 5, http://fissilematerials.org/library/doe14.pdf

10.   Alexander Glaser, “On the Proliferation Potential of Uranium Fuel for Research Reactors at Various Enrichment Levels,” Science and Global Security, Vol. 14, No. 1 (2006): 1-24.

11.   NNSA, “Conceptual Research and Development Plan for Low-Enriched Uranium Naval Fuel,” table V.B.1. The Office of Naval Reactors is funded through both the Department of Energy and the Navy. The Energy Department appropriation for this office for fiscal year 2016 was $1.4 billion, and the Navy appropriation was $0.5 billion. Office of Chief Financial Officer, U.S. Department of Energy, “FY 2017 Congressional Budget Request: National Nuclear Security Administration,” DOE/CF-0119, Vol. 1, February 2016, p. 607; U.S. Department of Defense, “Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 President’s Budget Submission; Research, Development, Test & Evaluation, Navy: Budget Activity 4,” Vol. 2, February 2016, p. 465.

12.   Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, U.S. Department of the Navy, “Report to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2017,” July 2016, p. 5, table 1, https://news.usni.org/2016/07/12/20627.

13.   See, for example, the account of the defueling of the second U.S. nuclear submarine, the USS Seawolf. C.V. Moore, “Defueling of the S2G Reactor,” Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, May 1959, p. 2.

14.   The defueling and refueling of the Améthyste (a Rubis-class submarine) took five days during its 2005 overhaul. “Maintenance des sous-marins nucléaires: Les performances au rendez-vous,” Mer et Marine, October 25, 2005, http://www.meretmarine.com/fr/content/maintenance-des-sous-marins-nucleaires-les-performances-au-rendez-vous

15.   For a photograph of one of these hatches open, see https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/be/USS_Michigan_(SSBN-727).jpg. It appears to have a diameter of at least two meters. 

16.   Lyle Goldstein, “How to Sink a U.S. Navy Carrier: China Turns to France for Ideas,” National Interest, December 13, 2015.

17.   Charles Fribourg, “La propulsion nucléaire navale,” Revue Générale Nucléaire, No. 2 (1999), p. 43. Fribourg is a former head of Technicatome, the builder of France’s naval and research reactors.

18.   Charles Fribourg, “Navires à propulsion nucléaire,” 2001, http://www.techniquesingenieur.fr/base-documentaire/energies-th4/typologie-des-reacteurs-nucleaires-42456210/navires-a-propulsion-nucleaire-bn3140/

19.   “Maintenance des sous-marins nucléaires.”

20.   “Secret Weld: How Shoddy Parts Disabled a $2.7 Billion Submarine,” Navy Times, March 27, 2016, https://www.navytimes.com/story/military/2016/03/27/minnesota-two-years-in-the-yards-virginia-class-attack-sub/81600432/

21.   “Nuclear Submarine to Get New Core After Test Reactor Problem,” BBC News, March 6, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-26463923. The UK ballistic missile submarines were refueled with the new lifetime fuel that is being used in new UK submarines. Christopher Palmer, “Management of Key Technologies in the UK Naval Nuclear Propulsion Programme,” 2011, http://fissilematerials.org/library/2011/09/management_of_key_technol.html.

22.   Frank Bowman, Statement to the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, April 10, 2003.

23.   U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “Certificate of Compliance for Radioactive Material Packages, Number 9793,” rev. 15, April 11, 2012, http://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML1210/ML12102A188.pdf

24.   NNSA, “Conceptual Research and Development Plan for Low-Enriched Uranium Naval Fuel,” fig. V.B.1.

25.   Historic and proposed expenditures on the S8G refurbishment and refueling from Department of Energy Congressional Budget Requests, NNSA Volume, for fiscal years 2010 through 2017, http://energy.gov/cfo/reports/budget-justification-supporting-documents.  

26.   Admiral John Richardson, Statement before the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, April 3, 2014, p. 82.

27.   Admiral John Richardson, Testimony before the House Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, April 3, 2014, p. 85.

28.   Admiral John Richardson, Response to the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, February 14, 2013, p. 176.

29.   NNSA, “Conceptual Research and Development Plan for Low-Enriched Uranium Naval Fuel,” p. 10.

30.   Karl Hassinger and John Pavlos, “The Virginia Payload Module: A Revolutionary Concept for Attack Submarines,” Undersea Warfare, No. 47 (Winter 2012), http://www.public.navy.mil/subfor/underseawarfaremagazine/issues/archives/issue_47/virginia.html; Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress,” RL32418, May 27, 2016, pp. 7-8. 

31.   O’Rourke, “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement”; Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Ohio Replacement (SSBN[X]) Ballistic Missile Submarine Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” R41129, October 3, 2016; Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Ford (CVN-78) Class Aircraft Carrier Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” RS20643, May 27, 2016.

32.   Eugene Miasnikov, “Russian/Soviet Naval Reactor Programs,” in The Use of Highly-Enriched Uranium as Fuel in Russia, International Panel on Fissile Materials (forthcoming) (citing V.M. Kuznetsov, Power Plants of the Nuclear Submarine Fleet, pp. 31-32).

33.    G.V. Kulakov et al., “Particulars of the Behavior Under Irradiation of Dispersion Fuel Elements With the Uranium Dioxide + Aluminum Alloy Fuel Composition,” Atomic Energy, Vol. 117, No. 4 (2014).

Sébastien Philippe is a Ph.D. candidate in applied physics in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University and a member of the Nuclear Futures Laboratory and Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security. Frank von Hippel, a former assistant director for national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, is a senior research physicist and professor of public and international affairs emeritus at the Program on Science and Global Security.

Posted: October 31, 2016

Russia Suspends Plutonium Agreement

An increasingly troubled relationship takes a toll on U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation.

November 2016

By Kingston Reif

Russia announced last month that it is suspending cooperation under a 16-year-old agreement with the United States to dispose of 68 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium as relations between the two countries continue to deteriorate. 

In an Oct. 3 presidential decree, Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, citing “unfriendly actions” by the United States and the “inability” of Washington to fulfill its obligations under the agreement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a speech at the opening session of the newly elected State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, in Moscow on October 5. The Duma on October 19 acted on his call to set conditions that would have to be met for Russia to resume cooperation under a plutonium disposal accord. (Photo credit: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images)Putin also submitted a draft law to the Russian parliament outlining conditions that would have to be met for Russia to resume cooperation. These include lifting all U.S. sanctions against Russia enacted in response to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, compensating Russia for the damage caused by the sanctions, and reducing the U.S. military presence on the territory of NATO member states that joined the alliance after 2000, which covers eight neighboring countries that were part of the Soviet Union or its Warsaw Pact military alliance. The parliament approved the law on Oct. 19.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Oct. 3 that Russia’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the agreement was “disappointing.” The United States “has been steadfast since 2011 in implementing our side of the bargain, and we would like to see the Russians continue to do the same,” he said.

A Troubled Disposition History

Signed in 2000 and amended in 2010, the plutonium agreement commits the United States and Russia each to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium, or enough material in total for approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons. 

Under the earlier version of the deal, Russia would have turned the plutonium into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel—so called because it is a mix of plutonium and uranium oxides—for use in Russian light-water reactors to produce electricity. That effort stalled over programmatic, financial, and legal differences. 

Russia’s suspension of the plutonium disposal accord with the United States is a new blow to the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility under construction near Aiken, South Carolina. Completion of the project, shown in a June 20 photo, was already in doubt due to cost increases and schedule delays. (Photo credit: High Flyer/SRS Watch)In 2010 the United States and Russia signed a protocol to the agreement that allowed Russia to dispose of the plutonium using fast-neutron reactors as part of its plan to expand the use of the material in its civilian nuclear power industry. Meanwhile, the United States pledged to continue with the MOX fuel approach at a facility under construction at the Energy Department’s Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina.

Under the amended agreement, both countries would begin disposition in 2018. The protocol also called for international monitoring and verification of the disposition process by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

There are no indications that, in suspending the deal, Russia intends to abandon its plan to dispose of its share of the plutonium. Putin’s decree stated that the plutonium covered by the deal “is not being used for the purpose of making nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices…or for any other military purposes.”

It remains to be seen whether Moscow will allow international monitoring of the disposition process as called for under the agreement. 

The U.S. effort to dispose of its plutonium via the MOX fuel path has suffered from large cost increases and schedule delays that put the project in jeopardy, and the Obama administration announced earlier this year that it intends to terminate the project and pursue an alternative approach. (See ACT, March 2016.

The alternative “dilute and dispose” process would down-blend the plutonium with an inert material for direct disposal in a repository. That approach can be implemented decades sooner at a much lower cost and with fewer risks, according to the Energy Department. (See ACT, June 2015.)

Despite the Energy Department’s efforts to terminate the MOX fuel project, Congress, led by the delegation from South Carolina, has refused to abandon it. 

Russia argues that the new U.S. plan does not meet the terms of the deal because it does not change the composition of the plutonium from weapons grade to reactor grade and the diluted plutonium could still be retrieved and used again for weapons. The Energy Department disputes this claim, arguing that the technical effort and financial cost required to retrieve the diluted and buried plutonium would be prohibitive. 

The original agreement allows for changes in the method of disposition, subject to agreement by both parties. The United States and Russia had not begun formal talks on the alternative U.S. approach because Moscow was waiting to see whether Congress would require that the MOX fuel project be continued. 

In an Oct. 21 email to Arms Control Today, a spokesperson for the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) said Russia’s decision to suspend cooperation on plutonium disposition “only reinforces the administration’s intent to pursue the already proven dilute and dispose approach, which will save tens of billions of dollars while upholding our commitment to dispose of surplus plutonium.” 

Russia Terminates Other Pacts

Russia last month also suspended a 2013 research agreement on nuclear energy and a 2010 deal on the conversion of six Russian research reactors.

The 2013 agreement provided the legal framework necessary to expand cooperation between U.S. and Russian nuclear research laboratories, institutes, and facilities in a broad range of areas, including nuclear technology, nonproliferation, fundamental and applied science, energy, and the environment. 

The 2010 deal covered feasibility studies for the conversion of six Russian research reactors that use highly enriched uranium, which could be diverted to weapons use, to low-enriched uranium. 

In an Oct. 5 statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Russia was suspending both agreements in retaliation for U.S. sanctions imposed regarding the situation in Ukraine. “We can no longer trust Washington in such sensitive areas as the modernization and security of Russian nuclear facilities,” the statement added.

Russia announced in late 2014 that it planned to suspend most cooperation with the United States on the security of nuclear materials inside Russia. (See ACT, March 2015.) In addition, Russia skipped the fourth and final nuclear security summit in Washington earlier this year. (See ACT, May 2016.)

U.S.-Russian Tensions Rise

The demise of the three nuclear cooperation agreements comes amid rising tensions between the two countries over Syria, U.S. allegations of Russian cyber espionage, and Western concerns about more aggressive Russian nuclear rhetoric and behavior.

Putin announced the suspension of the plutonium accord hours before the United States said it was suspending talks with Russia on ending the Syrian civil war. 

In addition, U.S. intelligence agencies assessed last month that Russian government authorities have authorized cyberhacking of U.S. entities such as the Democratic National Committee and linked the WikiLeaks release of documents to Russian efforts to undermine the credibility of the U.S. electoral process.

The future of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty also remains in doubt as the United States and Russia allege that the other is in violation of the agreement. (See ACT, November 2016.)

At their July summit meeting in Warsaw, NATO leaders characterized as “destabilizing” Russia’s “irresponsible and aggressive nuclear rhetoric, military concept and underlying posture.” Alliance officials have expressed concern over the past two years about Russian actions such as nuclear bomber flights close to the borders of alliance members, aggressive nuclear exercises, and nuclear threats directed at NATO members. (See ACT, September 2016.)

Posted: October 31, 2016

The Complex and Increasingly Dangerous Nuclear Weapons Geometry of Asia


Asian states Pakistan, India, China, and North Korea comprise four of the world's nine nuclear-armed states. The interconnections of these countries must be considered to fully understand how nuclear nonproliferation can be influenced.


July 27, 2016

While much of the world’s attention is focused on efforts to halt the nuclear and missile tests of North Korea, the nuclear arsenals and ambitions of India, Pakistan, and China also pose significant dangers and deserve more attention.

The complicated nuclear weapons geometry of Asia extends from the subcontinent to the other side of the world. While Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is designed to counter India’s conventional and nuclear forces, New Delhi measures its own nuclear weapons program against that of China. Beijing, in turn, judges the adequacy of its nuclear arsenal against the threat it perceives from the United States’ strategic offensive and defensive capabilities. And in its efforts to mitigate the ballistic missile threat from North Korea, the United States and it allies in the region are expanding their strategic and theater missile defense capabilities.

In order to fully understand how the pace and direction of nuclear proliferation can be influenced, the interconnections of these countries must be considered, along with the kinds of nuclear weapons they have at their disposal.

The full PDF of the Threat Assessment Brief is available here.


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. 

Posted: July 27, 2016

Progress on Nuclear Disarmament, Nonproliferation Inadequate to Meet Threats, New Study Finds



A new study suggests that President Obama, failed to make progress in key nuclear disarmament areas during his second term.


For Immediate Release: July 15, 2016

Media Contacts: Tony Fleming, communications director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 110; Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107

(Washington, D.C.)—President Barack Obama failed to make progress in key nuclear disarmament areas over the course of his second term, but did achieve important steps to improve nuclear materials security and strengthen nonproliferation norms, namely the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, according to a new study released by the Arms Control Association, which evaluates the recent records of all the world’s nuclear-armed states.

The report, "Assessing Progress on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, 2013-2016," is the third in a series that measures the performance of 11 key states in 10 universally-recognized nonproliferation, disarmament, and nuclear security categories over the past three years. The study evaluated the records of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea—each of which possess nuclear weapons—as well as Iran and Syria, which are states of proliferation concern.

“The United States is investing enormous resources to maintain and upgrade nuclear weapons delivery systems and warheads and is keeping its deployed nuclear weapons on ‘launch-under-attack’ readiness posture. The lack of U.S. leadership in these areas contributes to the moribund pace of disarmament,” said Elizabeth Philipp, the Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Arms Control Association, and a co-author of the report.

“Obama should use his remaining months in office to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategies and mitigate the risks of inadvertent use. Obama could consider declaring that Washington will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association and co-author of the report.

“U.S. leadership could spur China and Russia to take positive actions and improve the prospects for further disarmament. Russia’s decision to develop a new missile in violation of its treaty commitments and Moscow’s rebuff of attempts by the United States to negotiate further nuclear reductions is very troublesome, as is the expansion of China’s nuclear arsenal and Beijing’s steps toward increasing the alert levels of its forces,” Philipp added.

“Several states did take significant steps over the past three years to strengthen nuclear security, including action by the United States and Pakistan to ratify key nuclear security treaties,” said Davenport.

“The July 2015 nuclear deal struck between six global powers and Iran was also a significant nonproliferation breakthrough that has significantly reduced Tehran’s nuclear capacity and subjected its activities to more intrusive international monitoring and verification. While the international community must remain vigilant in ensuring that the deal is fully implemented, blocking Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons negates a serious nonproliferation concern and demonstrates the consequences of flouting the international norms and obligations,” Davenport said.

“For the third time, the United Kingdom received the highest grade of all the states assessed, while North Korea remained at the bottom of the list with the lowest overall grades. North Korea’s recent nuclear test and its ballistic missile development require the next U.S. administration to pursue more robust engagement with Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear activities,” Philipp said.

“Our review of the record indicates that further action must be taken by all 11 states if they are to live up to their international disarmament and nonproliferation responsibilities. By tracking the progress, or lack thereof, of these states over time, we hope this report will serve as a tool to encourage policymakers to increase efforts to reduce the risk posed by nuclear weapons,” Davenport said.

A country-by-country summary can be viewed here.
The full report card can be downloaded here


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.

Posted: July 15, 2016

2016 Report Card on Nuclear Disarmament, Nonproliferation Efforts

Resuming Negotiations with North Korea


The window of opportunity to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear-armed ballistic missile systems is closing and Washington should explore every serious diplomatic overture from Pyongyang.


By Elizabeth Philipp, 2016 Scoville Fellow 

The window of opportunity to prevent North Korea from fielding nuclear-armed ballistic missiles is closing. Diplomatic engagement with North Korea has been scant in recent years. In response to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests, the United States and other countries, through actions of the United Nations Security Council and independent policies, have adopted an approach of increasing political and economic isolation. Yet, during this time, Pyongyang has improved its nuclear weapons capability quantitatively and qualitatively.

The next presidential administration must prioritize reviewing and renewing Washington’s diplomatic approach to North Korea. With each successive nuclear and missile test, North Korea advances its knowledge and consolidates its capability. History has shown that it is far easier to convince North Korea to negotiate away a military capability it does not yet possess. Washington’s stated primary concern is a North Korean nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Pyongyang will achieve this capability if it is not reined in through a diplomatic agreement or understanding. Once Pyongyang achieves this status, the security balance in Asia will be disrupted and U.S. diplomats will be hard-pressed to convince North Korea to abandon the capability.

To read the full brief, click here.


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. 

Country Resources:

Posted: June 24, 2016

The Global Nuclear Security Grand Challenge

Technology for Global Security is announcing the Global Nuclear Security Grand Challenge to answer the question: “What is the best system design for countries, companies, and other organizations to confidentially and securely verify in real time that 100 percent of their nuclear weapons and weapons-usable fissile material remains in their control and to aid in the recovery of any loss if it occurs?” A great deal of progress has been made since the launch of the Nuclear Security Summits initiated by President Obama in 2010 . The equivalent of 130 nuclear weapons' worth of highly enriched...

Statement by Daryl G. Kimball on Challenges on Disarmament and Opportunities for Progress



Under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), each of the parties, including the nuclear-weapon-state parties...


Political and Security Challenges on Disarmament
and Opportunities to Achieve Progress 

Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association
Framework Forum Roundtable organized by the
Canadian Mission, the Middle Powers Initiative, and Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung 

Mission of the Government of Canada in Geneva, April 18, 2016

Under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), each of the parties, including the nuclear-weapon-state parties, “undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”

In its 1996 advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found that the threat and use of nuclear weapons was generally illegal, but it could not decide whether this illegality applied “in an extreme circumstance of self-defense in which the very survival of a State would be at stake.” Three judges dissented from that ruling, arguing that nuclear weapons were illegal in all circumstances. In its 1996 opinion, the ICJ also concluded unanimously that the disarmament obligation is not limited to NPT parties.

But today, and contrary to these legal obligations, progress on nuclear disarmament is at a standstill, and the risk of unbridled nuclear competition is growing.1

U.S. MX missile re-entry vehicles being tested at Kwajalein Atoll. Each line represents the potential explosive power of about 300 kilotons of TNT. All nine of the world's nuclear weapon states are replacing or upgrading their nuclear weapons strike capabilities. (Photo courtesy of Department of Defense.)As the delegations here at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) and the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on Disarmament realize, there are still no legally-binding restrictions on the nuclear buildups of world’s four non-NPT nuclear-armed states, and are currently no active bilateral or multilateral negotiations to further regulate, cap, or reduce the stockpiles of any of the world’s five original nuclear-armed states.

Worse still, key treaties like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) have not yet entered into force due to political divisions in Washington and inaction by seven other Annex 2 states, leaving the door to renewed nuclear weapons testing ajar twenty years after the Conference on Disarmament completed its negotiation and the treaty was opened for signature.

In addition to the tensions between key nuclear-armed states, the biggest challenge to the disarmament enterprise is the fact that all of the world’s nine nuclear-weapon states are, to varying degrees or another, devoting vast sums of money to modernize, upgrade, and in some cases expand the size and lethality of their nuclear arsenals and delivery systems.

As Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists wrote in in 20142, the numerical nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia may be over; but elsewhere, “a dynamic technological nuclear arms race is in full swing and may increase over the next decade.”

Although there is abundant evidence that even a “limited” exchange of nuclear weapons would result in a catastrophic humanitarian catastrophe—and in the view of many would violate the principles contained in the Law of War and be contrary to widespread interpretations of International Humanitarian Law—each of the nuclear-armed states continue to reaffirm the importance of such weapons for their security and maintain plans for the use of these weapons in a conflict.

U.S.-Russian Tensions

Undoubtedly, renewed tensions between Moscow and Washington are blocking progress on nuclear disarmament. The United States and Russia have a special responsibility to provide leadership to further reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons, but they are not doing so.

Although the number of nuclear weapons is down from its Cold War peak, the United States and Russia deploy far more nuclear weapons—some 1,800 each—than necessary for nuclear deterrence purposes. As President Barack Obama correctly noted in a speech in 2012, “we have more nuclear weapons than we need.”

Yet progress on further nuclear cuts is on hold. As President Obama recently acknowledged and the Russian [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] MFA confirmed, new negotiations on further nuclear disarmament beyond [the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] New START are unlikely any time soon.

Russian leaders cite concerns about limited but unconstrained U.S. ballistic missile interceptors, NATO conventional military capabilities, and third-country nuclear arsenals, as reason for rejecting the June 2013 U.S. proposal for a further one-third reduction in each side’s strategic nuclear forces. But Russia has failed to put forward a counterproposal and has rejected U.S. offers to discuss the full range of strategic issues.

Complicating matters, Russia also has tested ground-based cruise missiles in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. U.S. and Russian officials say they are interested in discussing the issue, but the matter remains unresolved. So long as it does, the prospects for negotiation of a follow-on agreement to New START are low.

Making matters even worse, Russian officials have begun to highlight their nuclear forces as a deterrent against what they see as increasingly threatening U.S. and NATO conventional military capabilities. Late last year, Russia “leaked” plans for a new nuclear-armed underwater torpedo, implying it is eyeing new types of nuclear weapons.

Now, in a troubling shift of rhetoric, the Defense Department has unwisely begun to frame its unaffordable, all-of-the-above plan for replacing and upgrading U.S. strategic bombers, nuclear-armed cruise missiles, and land- and sea-based strategic nuclear forces as part of its strategy to “counter Russia’s aggressive policies in Eastern Europe,” according its fiscal year 2017 budget request.

In reality, U.S. nuclear weapons, including the remaining forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons are irrelevant to the protection of nervous NATO allies in the Baltics and elsewhere.

Obama and his successor, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin, have a responsibility to pull back from a nuclear action-reaction cycle that would put both countries at greater risk and block further nuclear reductions for many more years to come.

Other Nuclear-Armed States

Meanwhile, as the U.S. and Russian tensions and arsenals attract most international attention, China, India, and Pakistan are all pursuing new ballistic missile, cruise missile, and sea-based nuclear delivery systems3 themselves and increasing the size of their warhead stockpiles or their capacity to produce material to make more weapons.

Although smaller in number, these arsenals are just as dangerous. Pakistan has lowered the threshold for nuclear weapons use in a potential conflict with India by developing tactical nuclear weapons capabilities to counter perceived Indian conventional military threats.

Pakistan’s stated concern about India’s larger fissile stocks has led it to block negotiations on a fissile material cut-off treaty, even though the United States has recently opened the possibility of changing the mandate to address fissile stocks4.

For its part, India says it would support fissile cut-off talks, but it appears to be expanding its fissile material production capacity as the CD remains deadlocked.

Leaders in Beijing, New Delhi, and Islamabad profess support for nondiscriminatory approaches to disarmament and minimal deterrence, but their programs are moving in the opposite direction and there is little or no dialogue among them, and with others, on nuclear risk reduction options.

Chinese officials suggest they will not consider limits on their nuclear arsenal unless there are additional, deeper U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons cuts.

Although North Korea may be under tighter and tighter international sanctions, its nuclear weapons and ballistic programs remain unconstrained. With further nuclear and ballistic missile tests, it will likely have missile-deliverable nuclear warheads.

Israel’s nuclear opacity and the inability of the Arab League to find a way to agree on an agenda acceptable to Israel for a meeting Middle East Nuclear WMD Free Zone Treaty has frozen discussion of practical measures to reduce nuclear and missile dangers in that region.

Another challenge is the relatively low-level of public and policy-maker awareness about the dangers of renewed nuclear competition and the consequences of nuclear weapons use is relatively low in the United States—and perhaps elsewhere.

While there is support among Democrats in Congress for efforts to further cut U.S. and Russian arsenals, there is strong skepticism among Republicans in Congress about any further nuclear reductions, and even though the U.S. Defense Department acknowledges that it cannot afford its costly, all-of-the-above plan to replace each component of the U.S. nuclear arsenal5, for the time being there is bipartisan support for most U.S. nuclear weapons modernization programs.

Moving Forward

Obviously, these are very challenging conditions. These difficulties are reflected in the inability to achieve consensus here in Geneva at the CD and in the failure of the nuclear weapon states to meet key 2010 NPT Review Conference commitments and the inability of the states parties at the 2015 NPT Review Conference to agree on an updated action plan on disarmament.

Frustrated by the slow pace of the so-called “step-by-step approach” to disarmament, many non-nuclear-weapon states have tried to catalyze progress through the humanitarian consequences initiative. The effort has helped raise awareness once again about the unique destructive power of nuclear weapons and the dubious legal and moral basis for their possession and use.

But that initiative and the open-ended working group to discuss possible measures “to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons" has not yet produced a unified, realistic diplomatic proposal for halting nuclear competition or starting multilateral disarmament talks.

There is no substitute for serious dialogue, the political will and support to achieve results, and international and domestic pressure to achieve meaningful results.

Simply repeating calls for action are not sufficient. Creative, practical ideas are needed to overcome persistent obstacles and new challenges.

It does not appear to me that there is any one initiative that can overcome these broader systemic challenges that impede progress on disarmament.

Rather, it will likely take the pursuit of multiple, practical, and sometimes bold, initiatives on the part of responsible leaders and groups of states.

So, what options might states participating in the OEWG and the CD pursue to jumpstart progress? Allow me to briefly comment on a few that are in circulation here in Vienna and to offer a few others for your consideration.

  • A Ban Treaty
    At the February OEWG discussions some states and civil society campaigners suggested it is time to launch talks on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons possession and use. Such a ban is, in my view, eventually a necessary step toward a world without nuclear weapons.

    But if such a negotiation is launched and concluded, it would not help the nuclear weapon states meet their nuclear disarmament obligations and would not likely do much to change opinion, policies, dangerous nuclear use doctrines, or accelerate progress on the elimination of the nuclear arsenals in the nuclear-armed states.

    This is due in large part to the fact that the nuclear weapons states will simply ignore the process and the results. The key is to draw them in such a way that they are compelled or persuaded to shift their approach and accelerate action toward zero nuclear weapons.
  • Challenge Nuclear Weapons Use and Use Doctrines 
    Another, approach—which would help address the longstanding goal of assuring non-nuclear-weapon states against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons—would be to pursue the negotiation of a legally-binding instrument banning the use of nuclear weapons.

    Such an instrument would not, as some have suggested, legitimize the possession of nuclear weapons. Even if the nuclear-weapon states do not initially join in the negotiation or sign the instrument, the process itself and the final product could further delegitimize nuclear weapons, strengthen the legal norm against their use, and put pressure on nuclear-armed states to revise their nuclear doctrines.

    Another approach would be to press each of the nuclear-armed states to report, in detail, on the physical, environmental, and human impacts of their nuclear war plans, if these plans were to be carried out, and how they believe the use of hundreds of such weapons would be consistent with humanitarian law and the laws of war as some nuclear-armed states claim6.

    Such a process could force an examination of dangerous nuclear doctrines and focus public attention on the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons use.
  • UN Study on Effects of Possible Nuclear Exchanges Between Weapons States
    Part of the OEWG mandate is to make recommendations on “measures to increase awareness and understanding of the complexity of and interrelationship between the wide range of humanitarian consequences that would result from any nuclear detonation.”

    One important way to do so is to launch a UN study on the climate effects and related humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons use.

    Tremendous advances in climate modeling and research on both the immediate effects and impacts on climate and agriculture from large-scale nuclear weapons use have been completed since the United Nations looked at the issue 25 years ago. It is time for an up-to-date UN study and report on these issues to inform current and future debate and decisions on global nuclear policy.
  • Disarmament Discussions in the CD or Through Another Forum
    Theoretically, the CD can be a forum for a dialogue on disarmament. The United Kingdom has put forward a useful, and wide-ranging proposal for a working group to discuss and identify effective measures on nuclear disarmament7. It would appear to be flexible enough to all states’ interests into account. If states do not burden this proposal with poison pill demands, it could help extend the conversations taking place at the OEWG and engage key nuclear-armed states. If launched, it would be vital for all states to bring forward detailed and considered proposals, not tired talking points.

    Another option would be to initiate a series of high-level summits approach to put the spotlight on the issue and spur new ideas. This would complement the ongoing P5 [China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States] dialogue on nuclear terms and concepts and the humanitarian impacts initiative.

    Leaders from a core group of states could invite their counterparts from a representative group of 20 to 30 nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states to join a one- or two-day summit on steps to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. The high-level meeting could be a starting point for ongoing, regular disarmament discussions at the expert and ministerial levels on the basis of a clear understanding of the devastating impacts of nuclear weapons use and an objective assessment of the security concerns of states.

    Borrowing a concept from the nuclear security summit process, all participants should be encouraged to bring “house gifts”—specific actions by states that would concretely diminish the threat of nuclear weapons use, freeze or reduce the number of nuclear weapons, reduce the role of nuclear weapons, bring into force key agreements such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or make their nuclear programs more transparent.
  • UN Security Council and UN General Assembly Action to Reinforce the Test Ban Pending Entry Into Force
    The CTBT was concluded twenty years ago, yet entry into force is still many years away. It is essential that states that support the norm against nuclear testing support initiatives that raise the political and legal barriers for testing pending entry into force of the CTBT.

    Specifically, we urge you to actively support a non-binding UN Security Council resolution and a parallel UN General Assembly measure later this year that:
  1. Calls on all states to refrain from testing and calls upon those states that have not ratified the CTBT to do so at the earliest possible time;
  2. Declares that the conduct of a nuclear test explosion would defeat the object and purpose of the CTBT;
  3. Underscores the need for a continuous, real-time global nuclear test monitoring capability to detect, identify, and locate nuclear test explosions, and recognizes the vital contributions of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, including the International Monitoring System and International Data Centre.

    In light of the North Korea’s ongoing nuclear testing, the central importance of the CTBT to the NPT and nonproliferation, and the ongoing efforts by several nuclear-armed states to improve their capabilities, the time is right to take this initiative. The place to begin discussing it is the upcoming June 13 high-level meeting in Vienna on the CTBT.
  • Call for Parallel U.S.-Russian Reductions Without a New Treaty
    In 2010, all of the nuclear-weapon states committed “to accelerate concrete progress on the steps leading to nuclear disarmament,” including “all types of nuclear weapons.”

    Further nuclear reductions need not wait for a new U.S.-Russian arms control treaty. More states need to call upon the United States and Russia to accelerate the pace of reductions under New START to reach the agreed limits before the 2018 deadline and call on both states to continue to reduce force levels below the New START ceilings, to be verified with the treaty’s monitoring regime.
  • New START Follow-On Talks No Later Than 2017
    States can also call upon the leaders in Moscow and Washington to begin formal negotiations on a follow-on to New START, and on other relevant strategic weapons issues, no later than 2017.

    The aim should aim to cut each side’s strategic arsenals to fewer than 1,100 deployed strategic warheads and 500 deployed strategic delivery vehicles, including any strategic-range conventional prompt-strike weapons. Such talks can and should explore a wider range of issues, including transparency and confidence-building steps on tactical nuclear weapons and joint understandings on missile defense capabilities and deployments8. Talks should begin soon and before New START expires in 2021 
  • Reinforce the INF Treaty and Pursue Nuclear-Armed Cruise Missile Limits
    To sustain progress on nuclear disarmament, it is essential to reinforce and expand the INF Treaty. States at the CD and elsewhere need to speak up and call upon the United States and Russia to immediately resolve compliance concerns.

    The United States and other like-minded states could also propose and initiate talks with other states in talks on limiting and eventually phasing out all nuclear-armed cruise missile systems. President Obama could spur progress in this area by cancelling plans for a costly new U.S. air-launched cruise missile, which would have new military capabilities and is destabilizing former U.S. Secretary of Defense William J. Perry and others have proposed9.

    Such an initiative would allow the United States, Russia and other countries to forgo expensive modernization programs for such missiles, and in cooperation with other key states, head off dangerous cruise missile buildups around the globe.
  • Call On Other Nuclear-Armed States to Freeze Their Nuclear Buildups
    The world’s other nuclear-armed states must do their part too.

    In addition to urging the United States, China, and the other CTBT Annex 2 states to finally take the steps necessary to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Russia and the world’s other nuclear-armed states should be called upon by all NPT states parties to freeze the overall size of their stockpiles as long as the United States and Russia continue to reduce their nuclear arsenals. 

    A unified push for further U.S.-Russian arms cuts combined with a global nuclear weapons freeze by the other nuclear-armed states would help create the conditions for multilateral, verifiable nuclear disarmament and an eventual ban on nuclear weapons.

In the coming months and years, creative, bold approaches will be needed to overcome old and new obstacles to the long-running effort to eliminate the potential for nuclear catastrophe.

1. "Race for Latest Class of Nuclear Arms Threatens to Revive Cold War,” By William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, The New York Times, April 16, 2016

2. “Nuclear Weapons Modernization: A Threat to the NPT?,” Hans M. Kristensen in Arms Control Today, May 2014.

3. “India’s Submarine Completes Tests,” Kelsey Davenport, Arms Control Today, April 2016

4. “U.S. Floats New Fissile Talks Formula, “ Daryl G. Kimball, Arms Control Today, March 2016.

5. “The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Spending Binge,” by Daryl G. Kimball, Arms Control Today, December 2015

6. The June 2013 Report on the Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy of the United States claims that: [t]he new guidance makes clear that all plans must be consistent with the fundamental principles of the Law of Armed Conflict. Accordingly, plans will, for example, apply the principles of distinction and proportionality and seek to minimize collateral damage to civilian populations and civilian objects. The United States will not intentionally target civilian populations or civilian objects.”

7. Letter dated 19 February from the Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the Conference on Disarmament.

8. “Second Report of the Deep Cuts Commission: Strengthening Stability in Turbulent Times,” published by the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, April 2015.

9.“Overkill: The Case Against a New Nuclear Air-Launched Cruise Missile” by Kingston Reif, Arms Control Association Issue Brief, October 19, 2015

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Posted: April 18, 2016


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