"I really enjoyed the last phone conference. For those of us who support ACA but do not work in this field, these phone conferences are very educational."

– Maura Davenport
December 12, 2017
December 2005
Edition Date: 
Thursday, December 1, 2005
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Letters to the Editor

Reprocessing Is Less Risky

Steve Fetter and Frank von Hippel notwithstanding (“Is U.S. Reprocessing Worth the Risk?,” ACT, September 2005), new reprocessing technologies can increasingly make plutonium inaccessible for diversion by terrorist groups and by governments and can reinforce the ability of the United States to oppose the spread of current pluto­nium-separation tech­nology to additional countries.

Like it or not, nuclear reactors are destined to play a much larger role in the world’s energy mix. Those among us who are serious about international stability and controlling nuclear weapons must get to understand what modern nuclear technology can and cannot do.

Fetter and von Hippel make a convincing case against cycling plutonium back into today’s reactors. We fully agree, and in fact one of us [George S. Stanford] has published a technical analysis making that very point.

Nonetheless, we have to flag a serious problem. Fetter and von Hippel equate reprocessing with plutonium separation, a blanket association that is no longer valid. Their narrow focus on the drawbacks of current recycling technology—PUREX reprocessing and mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in thermal reactors—could be taken to mean that all recycling of reactor fuel is to be deplored. This is definitely not the case.

The expansion of nuclear power will necessitate the processing of reactor fuel. The important point is that the recycling must be into new-generation fast reactors. Current thermal reactors, with or without recycle, can extract no more than a hundredth of the energy in the original ore.

Metal-fueled fast reactors, which Fetter and von Hippel dismiss without serious consideration, are the key.

  • Their fuel cycle is proliferation-resistant since the nature, amount, and disposition of plutonium are limited as outlined below.
  • They can consume plutonium and other long-lived actinides (such as uranium, neptunium, and americium), reducing to less than 500 years the required isolation time for waste in a repository, and postponing, perhaps indefinitely, the need for more repositories.
  • Their fuel can be recycled pyrometallurgically, a procedure that is inherently incapable of separating pure plutonium from used reactor fuel. To make it chemically pure enough to be used for weapons, a proliferator must process it further in a PUREX-type facility.
  • They can extract all the energy, making uranium a power source that can last indefinitely.

The world is already awash in reactor- and weapons-grade plutonium, and the supply is increasing daily in spent fuel from current reactors. Fast reactors with pyroprocessing will increasingly make that plutonium inaccessible for diversion.

  • Fast reactors can be set up to be net consumers of plutonium or to breed plutonium, but that does not give them any special proliferation potential because any reactor can be subverted for the production of weapons-grade plutonium and a fast reactor is no worse than any other. All reactors need safeguards to prevent diversion.
  • They take plutonium out of storage and out of commerce. Once plutonium has entered an integrated fast-reactor/pyroprocessing facility (IFR), none ever needs to come out unless more is wanted to prime new reactors.
  • Diversion by terrorists would be essentially impossible from an IFR system. A Livermore National Laboratory study has shown that, even given successful diversion, the heat generation alone from pyroprocessed fuel would be so intense that a bomb’s high explosive (not the plutonium) would self-detonate or melt. Not even a nation seeking nuclear weapons would waste any time on it.

The key to preventing proliferation during the inevitable worldwide expansion of nuclear power is a concerted effort to amend the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to eliminate the right of each nation to develop its own full-scale fuel cycle. In return, the “nuclear club” needs formally to guarantee fuel supplies and waste disposal at reasonable prices through an international entity such as the International Energy Agency or the International Atomic Energy Agency. The negotiations will not be easy, but because preventing proliferation is in everyone’s interest, they may succeed.

Fetter and von Hippel say that reprocessing would be too expensive, a claim that is true of PUREX and thermal reactors but has two serious problems in the context of pyroprocessing and fast reactors. First, it neglects external costs. The overall cost of energy from a given source depends not only on direct costs, but also on “externalities,” the hard-to-quantify costs of outside effects. Economic comparisons that ignore such costs are unrealistic and misleading. For example, burning coal causes thousands of excess deaths per year in the United States alone. Fissioning uranium in nuclear reactors causes none, nor does it release carbon dioxide. By absorbing such external costs, society subsidizes fossil-fueled power.

The second error is the assumption that, even neglecting externalities, costs are well established. They’re not. At least one external analysis concludes that an IFR-type system would be competitive. By contrast, Fetter and von Hippel quote from a 1996 study by the National Academy of Sciences to the effect that “the excess cost for an S&T [separation and transmutation] disposal system...easily could be more than $100 billion.” But the report included an important caveat right before the passage they quoted: “Assuming the feasibility of pyroprocessing of spent LWR [light-water reactor] fuel, the design information for a commercial-scale reprocessing facility needed to make cost estimates is not available.” Apparently the committee was estimating the cost of a separation and transmutation disposal system other than one involving pyroprocessing, so a higher cost for such a system cannot be assumed at this time.

The energy and dollars needed to implement large-scale deployment of MOX recycle technology would be better spent on wrapping up the development of fast reactors and their fuel cycle, thus achieving ultimate closure of the fuel cycle, an assured energy supply in perpetuity, removal of plutonium from commerce, proliferation-resistant nuclear energy, and optimal utilization of the Yucca Mountain repository.


Gerald E. Marsh is a physicist, retired from Argonne National Laboratory. He was a consultant to the Department of Defense on strategic nuclear technology and policy in the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations and served with the U.S. START delegation in Geneva. George S. Stanford is a physicist, retired from Argonne National Laboratory. He is co-author of Nuclear Shadowboxing: Contemporary Threats From Cold-War Weaponry (2004).

Steve Fetter and Frank von Hippel Respond:

We are gratified that Gerald Marsh and George Stanford agree that it makes no sense to use existing commercialized reprocessing technologies to separate plutonium for recycle in light-water reactors. This would be more expensive, present much greater proliferation risks, and have no waste-disposal advantages over the direct disposal of spent fuel. This is an important conclusion because this is the only approach to reprocessing and recycling that could be deployed in the near term.

The technologies that Marsh and Stanford advocate—fast reactors with pyrometallurgical separation and recycling of the minor transuranic isotopes in addition to plutonium—are not commercially proven. Past failed attempts, in which tens of billions of dollars have been spent in efforts to commercialize fast reactors in France, Germany, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, produced reactors with high costs, questionable safety, and poor reliability.

The technical barriers to full transuranic recycle in fast reactors may be overcome in time, but the economic barriers to their adoption are likely to remain for the foreseeable future. Marsh and Stanford are wrong when they say “[t]he expansion of nuclear power will necessitate the processing of reactor fuel.” Fast reactors can indeed make far more efficient use of uranium, but even with inefficient light-water reactors, the cost of uranium currently constitutes less than 2 percent of the price of nuclear-generated electricity. In a recent article in Nuclear Technology, one of us [Steve Fetter] has estimated that the price of uranium would have to grow by a factor of five to 10 in order to make full transuranic recycling in fast reactors cost effective. There is enough lower-cost uranium to sustain a substantial expansion of nuclear power using current once-through technologies for at least 50 years and probably much longer. By that time, we should have a much better sense of the longer-term role of fission power among our energy options. There is no urgency to develop and deploy fast reactors.

The waste-disposal advantages of full transuranic recycle cited by Marsh and Stanford are overstated. The direct disposal of spent fuel is inexpensive: $0.001 per kilowatt-hour, or less than 2 percent of the cost of electricity. Fast reactors would greatly reduce (but not eliminate) required repository space only if all transuranics are separated and recycled until they are fissioned and if the long-lived fission products were also separated and stored on the surface for several centuries, thereby defeating the main safety advantages of storing spent fuel underground. Admittedly, there are political barriers to expanding geologic waste disposal, but it is by no means obvious that the political barriers to the widespread deployment of fast reactors and associated reprocessing and surface waste-storage facilities would be substantially smaller.

They also exaggerate the potential nonproliferation benefits. One of us [Frank von Hippel] has completed a technical analysis of the nonproliferation aspects of the pyroprocessing technology that has been developed at Argonne National Laboratory. The analysis, soon to be published in Science and Global Security, indicates that the proliferation benefits claimed by Marsh and Stanford are quite short-lived. Unless spent fuel is pyroprocessed and recycled within two years after discharge from the reactor, the penetrating radiation emitted by the minor transuranics and those fission products that remain with the plutonium would not make it so dangerous to handle that it would be self-protecting by the International Atomic Energy Agency’s standards. This exception is irrelevant to the current debate over the reprocessing of U.S. spent fuel, which is on average already about 20 years old.

Moreover, Marsh and Stanford are wrong when they argue that the heat generated by the minor transuranics that remain mixed with plutonium make it unusable in a nuclear weapon. Indeed, the same analysis indicates that this mixture could even be used in a nuclear weapon like that dropped on Nagasaki. In any case, because the radiation dose rate from the mixture is relatively low, the plutonium could easily be chemically separated from the minor transuranics in a glove box.

In summary, despite the continuing enthusiasm of Marsh, Stanford, and some of their Argonne colleagues for the long-term possibilities of fast-neutron reactors and pyroprocessing, the promotion of those technologies is a diversion from the nearer-term issue we analyzed. Our article focused on the proposal recently agreed to in the November 2005 House-Senate conference on the energy and water appropriations bill that calls for the secretary of energy to submit a detailed plan for recycling by March 31, 2006, with “construction of one or more integrated spent fuel recycling facilities” to begin in fiscal year 2010.

As explained in our article, interim spent-fuel storage would be much less costly and less undermining of U.S. nonproliferation policy. With interim storage, any potential future energy value of the spent fuel will be preserved. There is much more time available to debate the long-term future of nuclear power than there is to strengthen the nonproliferation regime and dispose of the huge quantities of already separated nuclear weapons materials.

Steve Fetter is a professor and dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. Frank N. von Hippel is a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University.

"Getting Serious" About North Korea

Daryl G. Kimball

Despite the breakthrough agreement in September on a Joint Statement of Principles outlining a series of action-for-action steps to denuclearize North Korea in a verifiable manner, the main antagonists are again at odds over the substance and sequencing of the deal.

Following an unproductive round of six-party talks last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on North Korea to “get serious” about dismantling its nuclear program. North Korea, however, insists that the United States must act first before it freezes and then dismantles its nuclear weapons program.

Enough already. To break the cycle and test Pyongyang’s seriousness, President George W. Bush should borrow a page from his father’s playbook: unilateral, reciprocal actions that demonstrate the good faith of both sides and improve the likelihood of success.

Fourteen years ago, North Korea and South Korea were at odds over an agreement on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. To help break the impasse, the first Bush administration decided in late 1991 to remove U.S. tactical nuclear warheads from the peninsula. On December 31 of that year, the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was signed.

Unfortunately, the rules and methods for verification were left for later, and North Korea resisted calls for international inspections. A year later and after considerable internal debate, officials in the George H. W. Bush administration decided to take a second, bold, but low-cost step: it temporarily suspended the annual “Team Spirit” military exercises with South Korea, prompting North Korea finally to announce it would allow international inspections of its nuclear facilities.

Although the denuclearization agreement and the subsequent 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton administration ultimately fell apart, it was because leaders on each side failed to follow through on their baseline commitments through concrete action.

Today, following the 2002 disclosures about North Korea’s secret uranium-enrichment efforts and its ejection of inspectors in 2003, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States understand they must hammer out verification arrangements in advance. The task is to ensure that North Korea has frozen its nuclear material production activities, accounted for all of its plutonium, and dismantled any nuclear weapons it may have. Washington is reportedly preparing a list of sites that will be subject to intrusive monitoring, a list that the North will not easily accept.

Bush administration officials are urging North Korea to begin the disarmament process by suspending its plutonium separation operations at Yongbyon. Doing so would give both sides more diplomatic breathing space and restore the valuable plutonium production freeze established by the Agreed Framework.

Bush hard-liners, however, have not allowed U.S. negotiators to bargain with North Korea to achieve this result for fear that they appear to be pursuing Clinton’s past policy. That is counterproductive. Unless it reimposes a freeze, North Korea can continue to produce and perhaps to export nuclear bomb material.

For its part, North Korea has said it wants a light-water nuclear power reactor before it “dismantles its nuclear deterrent” and rejoins the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The United States has balked, saying it will be willing to discuss the civilian nuclear assistance at “an appropriate time.” That is the right stance for now. No state, whether it is India, Iran, North Korea, or South Korea should have access to such nuclear assistance if it is not in compliance with the NPT and does not allow for comprehensive safeguards.

But the nuclear reactor and sequencing issues should not be allowed to become deal-breakers. The United States and others should recognize that Pyongyang’s demand for reactors represents something more fundamental: the importance of tangible steps on the part of each side to show their good-faith commitment to terms of the Joint Statement.

North Korea is particularly interested in steps that recognize its sovereignty and provide assurances against attack. A North Korean government editorial published Oct. 26 by the state-run news agency urges the United States “to show…a practical action to remove mistrust and hostility between the two sides and create an atmosphere of confidence.”

To overcome present-day hurdles, the United States could announce it will cancel the next round of annual joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which continue to rile the North Korean regime. If North Korea reciprocates by suspending activities at Yongbyon, the United States might also pledge to withdraw some of its strike aircraft from the region to demonstrate its commitment to its pledge in the Joint Statement that it has no intention to attack or invade the North.

The opportunity for progress through the six-party process may be fleeting. All sides, especially the United States and North Korea, must be willing to undertake the bold and necessary steps to keep the diplomatic process moving, reduce longstanding tension, and prevent the emergence of a ninth nuclear-armed state.


Editor's Note

Miles A. Pomper

It is an old lesson but one that many states seem to forget: rather than become more secure when they develop new weapons systems, countries may make themselves less so. After all, other countries are likely to counter any new weapons development, and the resultant arms race may leave everyone worse off.

Two articles in this month’s issue examine the hidden dangers of U.S. plans to develop space-based defenses, especially space-based missile defenses. Such defenses are intended to counter the potential threat of an ICBM attack from a country such as North Korea or Iran, neither of which has flight-tested even an intermediate-range missile.

Hui Zhang points out in our cover story that U.S. space plans could prompt China to react with several steps that could in turn endanger U.S. security. Rather than moving toward space weaponization, he argues that the United States should sign on to a Russian and Chinese proposal for a treaty banning the weaponization of space.

Ambassador Thomas Graham Jr. warns that U.S. space weaponization plans may have another hidden cost: increasing the likelihood of an accidental nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia, which still retain thousands of long-range nuclear weapons. He too urges the negotiation of a treaty banning weapons in outer space.

One international institution that the United States and other countries have relied on to deter arms proliferation is the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), charged with deterring and detecting the illicit use of nuclear materials and technologies for weapons purposes. The United States and other countries, however, have expressed concerns that states such as Iran and North Korea have been able to evade or violate IAEA safeguards without consequence. To deal with this problem, President George W. Bush pushed to establish a special IAEA committee to improve the agency’s monitoring and inspection activities. Jack Boureston and Charles D. Ferguson lay out a number of suggestions for what this committee might accomplish

To many Westerners, there is no region of the world that looks more like a living demonstration of the folly of arms competition than South Asia. Robert M. Hathaway reviews three books that examine the history, roots, and significance of the nuclear rivalry between India and Pakistan and questions whether the forces and fortune that have prevented a nuclear war there will continue to prevail.

In November, Congress acted to cut back on one arms program: research into development of a “bunker-busting” nuclear bomb. Among other issues, our news section looks at this development and the latest international talks and deliberations to rein in the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.



Treaty Amended to Outlaw WMD at Sea

Wade Boese

States will be able to subscribe to new international instruments early next year making it a crime to use nonmilitary ships to intentionally transport or launch attacks with biological, chemical, or nuclear arms. Employing these types of weapons in attacks against or from a fixed platform at sea, such as an oil rig, will also be illegal.

These new prohibitions are part of two protocols concluded Oct. 14 to amend the 1988 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, also known as the SUA Convention. The protocols will be opened for signature Feb. 14, 2006, after official texts are completed in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.

The protocol pertaining to ships will enter into force 90 days after 12 countries sign it without reservations. The fixed-platform protocol only requires the signature of three countries without reservations to trigger its 90-day countdown to entry into force. As with all treaties, only those countries signing the protocols will be legally bound by them.

An Oct. 21 Department of State fact sheet hailed the protocols as providing “the first international treaty framework for combating and prosecuting individuals who use a ship as a weapon or means of committing a terrorist attack, or transport by ship terrorists or cargo intended for use in connection with weapons of mass destruction programs.”

In addition to prohibiting shipments of unconventional weapons, the first protocol outlaws the transport of “any equipment, materials or software or related technology that significantly contributes to the design, manufacture or delivery of a [biological, chemical, or nuclear weapon], with the intention that it will be used for such purpose.” Many items used in producing unconventional weapons are dual-use, meaning they have both civilian and military applications, so proving intent could be challenging.

In a Nov. 17 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a State Department official downplayed the issue, asserting, “The intent provisions of [the] SUA [Convention] do not complicate prosecution any more than the intent provisions of most other criminal activity.” The official added that the protocol’s dual-use provisions are a valuable supplement to UN Security Council Resolution 1540’s legal obligations that all states adopt measures to deny nonstate actors unconventional weapons. (See ACT, May 2004.)

Although Russia said it supports the protocol, it argued Oct. 14 that the dual-use provision “is excessively wide and may open possibilities for subjective interpretation.” Moscow also added that the protocol could not be used to justify interdiction of ships carrying cargo to and from Russia.

Under international law, a vessel cannot be stopped and boarded in international waters without the consent of the government whose flag the ship is flying, except if the ship is suspected of piracy, slavery, or illegal broadcasting. The new protocol does not change this rule, but it does outline a voluntary expedited interdiction procedure. Through the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a government may grant prior authority for its flagged ships to be stopped and searched if a boarding request by another state goes unanswered for four hours. The IMO is a 166-member specialized UN agency responsible for international shipping matters.

The United States has negotiated similar bilateral shipboarding agreements as part of the May 2003 Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to interdict unconventional weapons transfers in transit. (See ACT, July/August 2003.) PSI is voluntary and does not provide any legal authority for participating states to carry out interdictions at sea. The State Department official stated the new protocol’s provisions facilitating shipboarding and criminalizing the transport of unconventional weapons at sea “lend additional legal strength to the objectives of PSI.”

India and Pakistan criticized as discriminatory the new protocol’s provisions that only states-parties to the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) can legally transport nuclear material. The protocol also holds that it is illegal to transfer equipment or material that can be used to produce fissile material—plutonium or highly enriched uranium—to destinations without comprehensive international safeguards for deterring or detecting the use of such material to build nuclear weapons. Neither India nor Pakistan is an NPT member, and neither has a comprehensive safeguards agreement in place.

New Delhi said Oct. 14 that it could not accept what it said was the protocol’s implication that India does not have a right to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear energy and expressed its “disappointment about the review process” leading to the adoption of the protocols. Similarly, Islamabad declared the same day that it “cannot accept NPT-related obligations which are reflected in the amendments to the Convention.” It further alleged the review process “was conducted in an arbitrary manner.”

Negotiation of the protocols stemmed from a November 2001 IMO Assembly decision to launch a review of the SUA Convention in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Actual talks got underway in April 2002 and were wrapped up at a five-day October conference involving 74 SUA Convention states-parties, including India and Pakistan.


U.S. Puts Onus on India for Nuclear Ties

Wade Boese

U.S. government officials are putting the onus on India to advance a bilateral initiative to expand global civil nuclear trade with New Delhi.

Specifically, the officials say that India must take the first step in separating its nuclear infrastructure into civilian and military spheres to prevent future nuclear trade from aiding New Delhi’s nuclear weapons program. Until then, Bush administration officials have said they will not make any specific proposals to modify any U.S. law or international restriction to enable India to import more nuclear materials or technologies. President George W. Bush promised such changes to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh July 18. (See ACT, September 2005.)

In 1974, India improperly used nuclear technologies imported for “peaceful purposes” to explode a nuclear device, prompting the United States and other nuclear suppliers to curtail their nuclear dealings with India significantly. Still, New Delhi defied international pressure, continued to build a nuclear arsenal, and conducted a series of nuclear tests in May 1998. India is one of three countries never to have signed the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

To guard against further Indian abuse of civil nuclear trade, India’s separation “must be both credible and transparent,” Robert Joseph, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Nov. 2. He added that the plan “must ensure…that cooperation does not in any way assist in the development or production of nuclear weapons.”

Joseph detailed some ways this could be done. He suggested India should designate as many of its facilities as possible as civilian and subject them to international safeguards “in perpetuity.” Safeguards are measures designed to deter and detect the diversion of nuclear materials and technologies for civil purposes to nuclear bomb-making. “Nuclear materials in the civil sector simply must remain in the civil sector,” Joseph declared.

This prescription conflicts with earlier Indian expectations that New Delhi would retain the flexibility to reassign facilities from one sector to another. A July 29 Indian government press release stated that the United States has “the right to shift facilities from the civilian category to military and there is no reason why this should not apply to India.”

New Delhi has repeatedly maintained it wants to be treated the same as the United States and the other four recognized nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom. All five of these states have voluntary safeguards agreements, which Joseph ruled out as an acceptable option for India.

The issue has stirred protest in India. Former Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has led a chorus of criticism that separation would be too difficult and costly and impinge too much on India’s nuclear weapons program. Yet, Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran told a New Delhi audience in late October that “it makes no sense for India to deliberately keep some of its civilian facilities out of its declaration for safeguards purposes if it is really interested in obtaining international cooperation on as wide a scale as possible.”

Although assessing the separation process as “complex” and “time-consuming” at the Nov. 2 hearing, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns also described it as “arguably the most important of [ India’s] obligations.” He noted New Delhi had yet to formulate a separation plan and predicted its implementation might not start before April.

Indeed, negotiations between Burns and his Indian counterparts have yet to yield an implementation schedule. Burns has invited Saran to Washington, D.C., in December and will travel to New Delhi in January for further talks.

Bush administration officials previously suggested that the deal would move at a faster pace in an effort to show tangible progress before Bush visits India early next year. A day after the July 18 agreement, Burns asserted, “I know that, over the next month or two, and especially when Congress comes back from the summer recess, we will want to put in front of the Congress a specific program.”

But such a plan has not been delivered, and lawmakers have indicated they will be in no rush to act once it is received. House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) cautioned Oct. 26 against “needless haste,” while the panel’s ranking minority member, Tom Lantos ( Calif.), echoed the same day, “[T]here is no hurry.”

Hyde also warned the administration against taking congressional approval for granted. “I am troubled by a number of public statements by administration officials that congressional support for the overall agreement is broad and that our consent is virtually guaranteed.” Several days earlier, Burns had asserted that “substantial support” existed for the agreement in Congress.

Similarly, top senators have yet to embrace the deal. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) labeled India’s nuclear record Nov. 2 as “unsatisfying.” Contradicting repeated administration statements about India’s stellar nonproliferation credentials, Lugar cited a case last year in which Indian scientists were sanctioned for “providing nuclear information to Iran.” The panel’s top Democrat, Joseph Biden ( Del.), described the proposed cooperation as a “gamble” and “not a slam dunk.”

Despite the deal’s lukewarm reception by several lawmakers, Joseph urged them not to try and remedy any perceived shortcomings on India’s behalf. Specifically, he advised them against conditioning their approval of the deal on obtaining additional Indian commitments to cease production of fissile material—plutonium or highly enriched uranium—for building nuclear weapons, sign the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or renounce nuclear weapons and join the NPT. Such demands would be “deal breakers,” Joseph said.


British Debate Replacement for Nuclear Force

Ron Gurantz

Activists and politicians in the United Kingdom have begun debating whether and how to replace its nuclear weapons system, known as Trident. Parliament is expected to make a decision on the matter before the current parliament ends in 2010.

The United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal consists of four Vanguard submarines, each carrying 16 U.S.-supplied Trident long-range ballistic missiles equipped with up to three warheads. The Royal Navy deploys one submarine at a time, maintains its missiles on a reduced state of alert, and keeps them untargeted. This posture has been in place since 1998, when the United Kingdom reduced its number of deployed nuclear warheads by one-third and removed nuclear-armed aircraft from service. The United Kingdom, which became the third nuclear-weapon state in 1952, has one of the smallest nuclear arsenals among such states, with fewer weapons than France, Russia, or the United States.

The first Trident submarine entered service in 1994 and is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2024. Using as a benchmark the 14-year timetable that was necessary to construct and deploy the current system, the government has decided that it must make a decision on replacement before the next parliamentary elections in 2010. Defense Secretary John Reid has said that, although it is desirable that a decision be made this year, it is not “absolutely necessary.”

The discussion over Trident is in its early stages, but a July parliamentary briefing suggested three options for replacing the system. The first option is a service-life extension to upgrade the current submarines and warheads, which would enable the Trident system to remain operational for up to 20 more years. The second would be to replace the current system with an identical system, which would cost $26-$34 billion. The third plan is to create a new system, one which would potentially couple conventional and nuclear submarine capabilities.

Activists and some British parliamentarians are advocating nuclear disarmament as a fourth option. Prominent members of the Labour Party, including former Labour government cabinet minister Clare Short, have vocally opposed the Trident replacement.

Blair said Oct. 19 that his government is “committed to retaining the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent.” The government is already recruiting nuclear scientists and investing $8.6 billion in new equipment at its Atomic Weapons Establishment, and Reid has begun talks with the United States and defense contractors about options for replacing the system. Nevertheless, Reid has denied allegations that the decision to replace the system has already been made, promising a “full and open debate” first.

Labour backbenchers have been pushing for a vote on replacing Trident, which the party’s leadership has resisted. Observers believe the issue will be divisive for the ruling Labour Party. Labour supported the policy of unilateral disarmament during the 1980s, but its manifesto in the last election declared that the party is committed to maintaining the country’s nuclear weapons.

Opponents of replacement argue that maintaining a nuclear-armed strategic missile force runs counter to the country’s disarmament obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and that it serves no practical military mission. Article VI of the treaty calls for states to make good-faith efforts toward nuclear disarmament.

Critics also question whether the United Kingdom still needs a nuclear deterrent, given the end of the Cold War. Reid has argued that London should maintain its nuclear deterrent because of future uncertainty, citing India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programs and the controversy over Iran’s nuclear activities as examples of a proliferating and unpredictable global environment. The Ministry of Defense, however, has refused to release its assessment of against which threats the nuclear weapons are deployed, citing national security concerns.

The United Kingdom has always cooperated closely with United States on nuclear-weapon development and deployment. British scientists participated in the Manhattan Project, and the United Kingdom has been granted access to U.S. weapons designs through the 1958 U.S.-British Mutual Defense Agreement. The United Kingdom currently leases its 58 Trident missiles from the U.S. Navy and is believed to base its warhead design on the U.S. W-76 warhead.


Congress Boosts Threat Reduction Funding

William Huntington

In approving fiscal year 2006 budget legislation, Congress increased funding for programs at the Departments of Energy and State aimed at securing and destroying weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related materials worldwide. Congress has yet to give final approval to legislation funding similar Department of Defense programs, but those too are expected to score an increase.

Department of Energy

Threat reduction programs at the Energy Department and its National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) received particularly significant funding increases above the Bush administration request. Funding for the NNSA’s International Nuclear Materials Protection and Cooperation program received a substantial boost to $427 million, an increase of more than $83 million from the president’s budget request. The 2005 funding for the program’s work of securing nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials was $295 million. According to lawmakers, the large increase was due to new opportunities for warhead storage site upgrades. They said that a February summit between President George W. Bush and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, had encouraged further cooperation on safeguarding nuclear materials and facilities. (See ACT, March 2005.)

Congress also added funds to the Elimination of Weapons-Grade Plutonium Production program, which is working to shut down the last three operational Russian weapons-grade plutonium producing reactors and replace them with fossil-fuel plants. (See ACT, April 2005.) Congress appropriated more than $176 million for the program, up from the administration request of $132 million. According to the NNSA, two reactors at Seversk will be shut down by 2008, and a reactor in Zheleznogorsk will be shuttered by 2011.

Funding for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative program was granted at the administration’s requested level of about $98 million. The May 2004 initiative seeks to repatriate Russian- and U.S.-origin nuclear fuel from sites abroad, shut down highly enriched uranium (HEU)-fueled reactors or convert them to the use of low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel, and secure radioactive materials worldwide. The energy appropriations bill provides up to $7 million dollars to convert as many as four HEU-fueled research reactors in the United States to LEU fuel. The targeted reactors are operated by Purdue University, Oregon State University, the University of Wisconsin, and Washington State University.

Previously known as Russian Transition Initiatives, the Global Initiative for Proliferation Prevention program received $40 million from Congress. Although its focus remains on redirecting former Soviet weapons scientists into peaceful pursuits, the program’s new name reflects the expansion of its mandate into other high-risk proliferation regions, such as Iraq and Libya. The administration had sought $38 million for the program.

NNSA programs for fissile materials disposition, which work to decrease Russian and U.S. stockpiles of fissile materials, took a significant funding cut to $473 million, down from the administration request of about $653 million. Included in the final bill are $195 million for U.S. materials disposition and $35 million for Russian materials disposition, considerably below the administration requests of $227 million and $64 million, respectively. Congress appropriated below the requested level because of snags in the negotiation of a liability agreement for U.S. nuclear security contractors in Russia, which has slowed the spending of funds allocated to the disposal of 34 metric tons of fissile material in Russia and the United States. U.S. and Russian officials have recently indicated that the long-awaited liability agreement will soon be completed.

Department of State

In passing the 2006 foreign operations appropriations bill, Congress approved the administration’s funding request for State Department threat reduction programs with one minor reduction. The combined funding for these programs increased by 12 percent over 2005 levels.

Formerly known as Science Centers/Bio Redirection, the Nonproliferation of WMD Expertise program received its requested $52.6 million, an increase of about $2.5 million over 2005 levels. This program seeks to redirect former weapons scientists into peaceful endeavors around the globe.

The administration’s request of $37.5 million also was granted to the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund, a unique pool of funds that allows for ad hoc and rapid response to unanticipated nonproliferation projects. This allocation represents an increase of $5.8 million over the previous year.

The only State Department threat reduction program not to receive the full requested appropriations was the Export Control and Related Border Security Assistance program. It was allocated $43.4 million, which is $1 million below the request but still $5.7 million above the 2005 funding level. The program helps strengthen export control legislation in countries at risk of WMD proliferation.

Department of Defense

Although the defense appropriations bills from the House and Senate have not yet been reconciled, both recommended fully funding the administration’s request for $416 million for the Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, making such funding highly likely.

Although only a very modest increase over the 2005 CTR appropriation of $409 million, this amount is higher than the original Defense Department recommendation to the White House, which called for cutting $46 million from the program, according to a Jan. 12 letter from nine House Democrats. (See ACT, March 2005.)

The fiscal 2006 defense authorization bill, which sets policy parameters for the Pentagon, has also not yet been finalized. One outstanding issue to be reconciled in conference concerns an amendment in the Senate version authored by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). It would permanently waive certain restrictions on the use of threat reduction funds in the former Soviet Union. (See ACT, December 2004.) The House version of the bill provides instead a temporary waiver of the same restrictions that would expire at the end of 2007.


Space Weapons and the Risk of Accidental Nuclear War

Thomas Graham, Jr.

The United States and Russia maintain thousands of nuclear warheads on long-range ballistic missiles on 15-minute alert. Once launched, they cannot be recalled, and they will strike their targets in roughly 30 minutes. Fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, the chance of an accidental nuclear exchange has far from decreased. Yet, the United States may be contemplating further exacerbating this threat by deploying missile interceptors in space.

Both the United States and Russia rely on space-based systems to provide early warning of a nuclear attack. If deployed, however, U.S. space-based missile defense interceptors could eliminate the Russian early warning satellites quickly and without warning. So, just the existence of U.S. space weapons could make Russia’s strategic trigger fingers itchy.

The potential protection space-based defenses might offer the United States is swamped therefore by their potential cost: a failure of or false signal from a component of the Russian early warning system could lead to a disastrous reaction and accidental nuclear war. There is no conceivable missile defense, space-based or not, that would offer protection in the event that the Russian nuclear arsenal was launched at the United States.

Nor are the Russians or other countries likely to stand still and watch the United States construct space-based defenses. These states are likely to respond by developing advanced anti-satellite weapon systems.[1] These weapons, in turn, would endanger U.S. early warning systems, impair valuable U.S. weapons intelligence efforts, and increase the jitteriness of U.S. officials.

The Dangers of Failed Early Warning Systems

The Russian early warning system is in serious disrepair. This system consists of older radar systems nearing the end of their operational life and just three functioning satellites, although the Russian military has plans to deploy more. The United States has 15 such satellites. Ten years ago, on January 25, 1995, this aging early warning network picked up a rocket launch from Norway. The Russian military could not determine the nature of the missile or its destination. Fearing that it might be a submarine-launched missile aimed at Moscow with the purpose of decapitating the Russian command and control structure, the Russian military alerted President Boris Yeltsin, his defense minister, and the chief of the general staff. They immediately opened an emergency teleconference to determine whether they needed to order Russia’s strategic forces to launch a counterattack.

The rocket that had been launched was actually an atmospheric sounding rocket conducting scientific observations of the aurora borealis. Norway had notified Russia of this launch several weeks earlier, but the message had not reached the relevant sections of the military. In little more than two minutes before the deadline to order nuclear retaliation, the Russians realized their mistake and stood down their strategic forces.

Thus, 10 years ago, when the declining Russian early warning system was stronger than today, it read this single small missile test launch as a U.S. nuclear missile attack on Russia. The alarm went up the Russian chain of command all the way to the top. The briefcase containing the nuclear missile launch codes was brought to Yeltsin as he was told of the attack. Fortunately, Yeltsin and the Russian leadership made the correct decision that day and directed the Russian strategic nuclear forces to stand down.

Obviously, nothing should be done in any way further to diminish the reliability of the space-based components of U.S. and Russian ballistic missile early warning systems. A decline in confidence in such early warning systems caused by the deployment of weapons in space would enhance the risk of an accidental nuclear weapons attack. Yet, as part of its plans for missile defense, the Pentagon is calling for the development of a test bed for space-based interceptors as well as examining a number of other exotic space weapons. In an interview published in Arms Control Today, Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency, touted what he said was “a very modest and moderate test-bed approach to launch some experiments.” Obering said the Pentagon would only deploy a handful of interceptors: “We are talking about onesies, twosies in terms of experimentation.”[2]

Despite Obering’s claims, however, establishing a test bed for missile defense in space, as opposed to current preliminary research, would be a long step toward space weaponization. Once space-based missile defenses are tested, they are likely to be deployed, and in significant numbers, no matter if the tests are successful.

To see the path that a space test bed is likely to follow, one need only look at the present ground-based program: the Pentagon claims there is little true difference between a test bed and an operational deployment. Moreover, in space the deployment could be more dramatic. Although the current ground-based configuration envisions a few dozen interceptors, continuous space coverage over a few countries of concern would likely require a very large number of interceptors because a particular interceptor will be above a particular target for only a few minutes a day. Today’s missile defenses provide very little real protection as the United States currently faces no realistic threat of deliberate attack by nuclear-armed long-range missiles. But space weapons could actually be detrimental to U.S. national security. They would increase the perceived vulnerability of early warning systems to attack and cause Russia and perhaps other countries such as China to pursue potentially destabilizing countermeasures, such as advanced anti-satellite weapons.

These dangers would be particularly worrisome for those components that are placed in geosynchronous orbits (GEO). Space objects in GEO are sufficiently far from the Earth (about 36,000 kilometers) so that their speed roughly matches the rotational speed of the Earth and they remain “stationary” above one location. To be sure, any country that can place a satellite in these farther orbits—and there are several—could potentially threaten another country’s satellites there. Yet, it would be easier to do so, and perhaps more importantly, the threat perception would be greater with weapons based in space than with existing ground-based technology. The 15 U.S. early warning satellites are almost entirely in GEO. The three functioning Russian early warning satellites utilize two different orbits. Two of the satellites use a highly elliptical orbit, which ranges from low-Earth orbit (LEO)—100 to 2,000 kilometers above the Earth where space objects travel at about 8 kilometers per second—out to GEO. The other satellite is permanently stationed in GEO.

Moreover, a space arms competition could hinder the flow of satellite imagery that can be used to track activities that might reveal programs to develop weapons of mass destruction in countries of concern. For example, activities detected through space-based collection systems can be used to trigger requests for inspections pursuant to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) (implicitly) or the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (explicitly), should that treaty be brought into force. It is important in this respect to recall that the suspicions that Israel and South Africa may have conducted an atmospheric nuclear test in 1979 were driven by readout from a U.S. VELA satellite.

Similarly, the United States has benefited from the revolution in national intelligence that began with and is based on photographic reconnaissance satellites and related systems, which has helped bring to an end the worst-case analysis and close calls with nuclear war that existed throughout the Cold War. If a truly peaceful and stable world order is ever achieved, the advent of this technology beginning in the late 1950s will be regarded by future generations as a major historical turning point.

These are crucial efforts that must never be allowed to be disrupted, either by space-based weapons or with the relatively simplistic ground-based anti-satellite weapon systems that could today be deployed. The United States has considerable anti-satellite weapons capability. An F-15-based homing vehicle system was successfully tested in the 1980s, and the anti-ballistic missile system currently being deployed in Alaska and California has an inherent anti-satellite capability. Right now, no other country is developing a counterspace system, although the Soviet Union successfully tested a co-orbital anti-satellite system in the 1970s and 1980s and Russia and China are believed to be capable of doing so. Notably, 28 countries have ballistic missiles that can reach LEO satellites, and all have the technical capability to develop a LEO anti-satellite system by modifying these missiles.

Active defenses—the deployment of devices intended to deflect, destroy, or render unworkable offensive systems—cannot by themselves be expected to provide adequate protection of space assets either now or in the long term. These technologies, as well as hardening and other passive means of defense, may provide some means of defending against the current generation of anti-satellite technology. Eventually, however, our would-be attackers would find ways to counter those defenses. Thus, it would appear that an agreed legal regime, predicated on mutually beneficial and, of course, verifiable restraint, should at least be considered.

Protecting Early Warning Systems

Rather than building space weapons, it may be best to put space off-limits for arms. Domestic law in major spacefaring countries around the world could prohibit programs for developing space-based weapons. To reinforce this effort, there could be a worldwide understanding that placing weapons in space or further developing existing anti-satellite weapons capability is contrary to international law and thereby a basis for economic and political pressure and punitive sanctions by a united world community. The best way to accomplish these twin objectives is by the development and negotiation of an international treaty on space weapons and anti-satellite weapons. Treaties become domestic law when ratified, and they can establish worldwide norms of behavior.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 is included in a unique class of arms control agreements sometimes referred to as nonarmament treaties. These agreements were intended to prevent and have been successful in preventing the deployment of weapons in areas where they have not previously been present. Today, after more than three decades, space remains free of weapons of mass destruction thanks to the Outer Space Treaty. Pursuant to the initiative of President Dwight Eisenhower, who at the time of his establishment of NASA made it clear that it was U.S. policy to keep space weapons-free, space remains free of weapons of all kinds. Space has long been militarized—early warning systems are military systems—but it has never been weaponized. This policy has served us well for decades, and there is a strong burden of persuasion on any who argue that it should be changed.

It was asserted during the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton that there was no need for limitations beyond the existing Outer Space Treaty as no arms race or threat of an arms race in space existed. The Eisenhower policy held in the United States and was supported everywhere else. Consistent with the Bush-Clinton position, over the years, the United States routinely opposed the creation of a negotiating mandate for outer space at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. A number of years ago, a more formal effort began in Geneva and New York called Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). The United States did not support this, abstaining from voting on the resolution in the UN General Assembly each year. And this year it voted no. Moreover, the standard argument for continuance of the Bush-Clinton position is no longer valid in the wake of the January 2001 report of the Rumsfeld space commission, which declared that a serious risk existed of a “ Pearl Harbor in space.”

It has been suggested that a legal regime to prevent the weaponization of space could be crafted simply by expanding or building on the Outer Space Treaty. There may be some merit to this notion, especially considering that the treaty has more than 90 states-parties. However, the subject is complicated, and there are many important interests to protect in addition to space assets for early warning and for intelligence and verification such as remote sensing, telecommunications, navigation, and the enhancement of ground-based military capabilities.

An expanded Outer Space Treaty could include first and foremost a prohibition on all weapons in space, both offensive and defensive, as they are not distinguishable. “Weapon” would have to be defined for the purposes of this treaty so as to exclude space objects with a peaceful purpose and items that are not relevant to the objective of preventing space weaponization. Also, space objects designed to support terrestrial military operations such as the Global Positioning System maintained by the U.S. Air Force should be explicitly permitted. Some kind of inspection of payloads of space launches would be necessary, perhaps modified by the principle of “managed access” as found in the CWC. Provisions on transparency of space activities and on information sharing would be required. These amendatory provisions could be negotiated in a separate stand-alone protocol to reduce somewhat the risk of reopening other provisions of the Outer Space Treaty.

Some have argued that it is premature to consider additional legal obligations in space, that informal “rules of the road” would get far more support. Others argue that the United States must resist the call for any new international legal obligations inhibiting the deployment of weapons in space. It is asserted that any such agreement or arrangement would be unenforceable and unverifiable and that “the ignominious record of enforcing and verifying treaties prohibiting activities on Earth is proof enough to give pause to any conversation about a treaty governing activities in space.”[3]

Yet, where would we be without the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty? Likely, more than 40 states would be armed with nuclear weapons, meaning that every conflict would run the risk of going nuclear, and nuclear weapons would be so widespread it would be impossible to keep them out of the hands of terrorist organizations. Where would we be without the strategic arms limitation and reduction agreements of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s? Likely, the United States and Russia would have so many nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles, they could never be controlled. Where would we be without the Outer Space Treaty? Nuclear weapons could be orbiting the Earth with the capability to strike anywhere, anytime without warning. Where are we now in the wake of the dissolution of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty? We possibly could be on the verge of actively considering the development and deployment of space-based ABM systems that would address no current or foreseeable threat but could unhinge strategic stability.

The history of the last 50 years teaches us that, if dangerous weapons and technologies are to be controlled to the safety and security of all, it must be done early, before the programs become entrenched. That time may well be now with respect to weapons in space. The United States does not have a secure future in space without broad and sustained international cooperation. The deployment of weapons in space, whether offensive or defensive, would make this necessary cooperation difficult if not impossible. There would likely be retaliation, which would seriously degrade the progress that has been made over the last five or six decades toward multilateral international cooperation in space.

The groundwork for a comprehensive treaty-based regime has been laid, and the importance of this objective is clear. Much work remains, but the creation of a space regime, under which the international community decisively enshrines space as a peaceful environment, ultimately is the only thoroughgoing alternative to a weaponized space free-for-all. The United States and the rest of the world risk being rendered forever vulnerable to the vagaries and fluctuations of technology development. In this age of a worldwide struggle against international terrorism, this is the last thing we should want.

Preventing the weaponization of space is of paramount importance to world stability. Any deployment of weapons of a significant nature in space, particularly highly capable weapons systems such as a space-based missile defense, could provoke countermeasures. There are many important assets in space, and it is highly likely that they will only continue to flourish in the current sanctuary environment in place since the days of Eisenhower. Above all, we should never take the slightest chance of impairing early warning systems on which the long nuclear peace between the United States and Russia may continue to depend.

Thomas Graham, Jr. is a former special representative of the president for arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament. In this and other senior capacities, he participated in every major arms control and nonproliferation negotiation in which the United States took part from 1970 to 1997. Graham is the author of Disarmament Sketches (2002), Cornerstones of Security with Damien LaVera (2003), and Common Sense on Weapons of Mass Destruction (2004).


1. Michael Krepon, “Space Weapons and Proliferation,” Nonproliferation Review, September 2005.

2. “Defending Missile Defense: An Interview With Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Henry Obering,” Arms Control Today, November 2005, pp. 6-11.

3. Jeff Kueter and Andrew Plieninger, “Saving Space: Securing Our Space Assets,” Marshall Institute Policy Outlook, July 2005.


Ship-Based Anti-Missile System Scores Hit

Wade Boese

The Pentagon ratcheted up the degree of difficulty for the latest test of its nonstrategic ship-based missile defense, and the anti-missile system responded by intercepting its target. This system has showed greater progress recently than other missile defenses under development.

The Nov. 17 test marked the sixth successful intercept test in seven attempts for the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, which is designed to counter short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. This test differed from its predecessors because the mock warhead target separated from the missile booster. Earlier targets stayed in one piece.

Rick Lehner, a spokesperson for the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), told Arms Control Today Nov. 21 that the use of a separating target made “the test more representative of medium-range ballistic missile technology of the type now being deployed by North Korea and Iran.” He added that crew members aboard the ship firing the interceptor were in an “alert window” but “did not know the time of the test.”

The separating, medium-range target was fired from Kauai, Hawaii. Using its onboard Aegis system, the U.S.S. Lake Erie detected, tracked, and fired a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor missile at the target four minutes after its launch. Six minutes later, the interceptor’s kill vehicle rammed into the target more than 160 kilometers above the Pacific Ocean and some 600 kilometers away from Kauai.

By the end of this year, the MDA is supposed to have delivered up to 10 SM-3 interceptors to the Navy, which currently has two cruisers outfitted to launch them. The goal is to have one more cruiser and 18 destroyers capable of launching the interceptors by the end of 2008, according to Lehner.

Meanwhile, the short- to intermediate-range Terminal High Altitude Area Defense had its first flight Nov. 22 after a six-year hiatus. The test did not involve a target or intercept attempt.

The MDA announced last July that it intended to conduct two non-intercept tests with its strategic ground-based midcourse defense before 2006, but Lehner stated it is now likely that only one such test will occur by then. The system’s interceptor failed to leave the ground in its last two tests (see ACT, March 2005), and the last time it hit a target in flight was in October 2002.


Strengthening Nuclear Safeguards: Special Committee to the Rescue?

Jack Boureston and Charles D. Ferguson

In June, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors created a special committee to further strengthen its safeguards system—the inspections, accounting, and analyses the agency uses to detect and deter diversion of nuclear material and technology for weapons programs. The decision was made under pressure from the United States following a February 2004 speech by President George W. Bush in which he proposed creating the committee as part of a seven-point plan to combat nuclear proliferation.

Still, the United States had to compromise to win backing for the decision, which many states feared would hamper peaceful nuclear activities. China, for example, said that the committee should serve only as an adviser to the IAEA board and should not interfere with the board’s authority or role.[1] The new committee will be fully advisory in nature and wholly subordinate to the board. Also, the committee will not intervene in the day-to-day operations of the secretariat, although it could probably draw on the expertise of the IAEA’s safeguards department or other agency offices.

Still, the compromise left a big hole. The committee appears to lack a clear mandate, and there is a struggle to determine what the agenda should be. Some members want the committee to focus on existing safeguards problems and examine legal instruments that are not being fully used, while others, such as the United States, want it to tackle a more ambitious agenda. It is also not clear how the committee will differentiate itself from the IAEA’s long-standing Standing Advisory Group on Safeguards Implementation (SAGSI), established in 1975 to advise the director-general on technical aspects of agency safeguards.

The Evolution of IAEA Safeguards

Wrestling over safeguards is almost as old as the nuclear age. In October 1945, President Harry S. Truman first proposed “international arrangements looking, if possible, to the renunciation of the use and development of the atomic bomb.” The next year, the United States unveiled a detailed plan for international control of nuclear energy through the United Nations. Although this proposal was blocked at that time, it laid the foundation for the eventual development of international safeguards.

The first steps toward today’s safeguards took place after the IAEA was born in 1957. Two years later, the first IAEA ad hoc safeguards were applied to the natural uranium fuel that Canada was supplying to Japan for a small research reactor. In 1961 the first formal IAEA safeguards agreement was developed as document INFCIRC/26. Until 1964, INFCIRC/26 agreements were only applied to reactors of less than 100 megawatts because these were the predominant technologies being exported to countries starting nuclear programs.

To take account of the evolution of nuclear development, the IAEA board in 1965 approved safeguards agreement INFCIRC/66, which applied to reactors of all power ratings. INFCIRC/66/Rev.1 included reprocessing facilities in its provisions, and follow-on revision INFCIRC/66/Rev.2 included fuel fabrication plants. Enrichment plants, however, were not included under the INFCIRC/66 safeguards agreements because none of these facilities were operating in a non-nuclear-weapon state at that time.

Today, only Israel, India, and Pakistan have safeguards applied under the facility-specific INFCIRC/66 agreements. These countries are not parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and are known to have nuclear weapons programs. Approval of the NPT in 1970 spurred further updating of safeguards to help uphold the treaty’s underlying purpose: preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons to new countries. In particular, the IAEA in 1971 enacted the so-called comprehensive safeguards agreement under INFCIRC/153.

Comprehensive safeguards, as they are known today, can be described as a set of internationally approved technical and legal measures to verify the political undertakings of states not to use nuclear material to manufacture nuclear weapons and to deter any such use. The basic procedural elements for these safeguards are the facility design review and verification, maintenance of facility operating records, reports on facility operations, and on-site inspections. Information analysis and nuclear material accountancy are also integral to comprehensive safeguards.[2]

In the mid-1970s, faced with growing global interest in nuclear energy and with the political fallout from India’s 1974 “peaceful” nuclear explosive test, the IAEA sought to strengthen and streamline the safeguards system. The following year, Director-General Sigvard Eklund established the 20-member SAGSI to evaluate the agency’s safeguards operations. Since then, SAGSI has examined a variety of topics, including integrated safeguards and new technical measures and equipment. The director-general and the Department of Safeguards continue to use this group of experts from member states for advice on technical and procedural matters involving the implementation of nuclear safeguards.

An urgent push to strengthen safeguards came during the early 1990s following the discovery of Iraq’s clandestine nuclear weapons program, discrepancies in the North Korea’s initial safeguards declarations, and South Africa’s confession that it had clandestinely built nuclear weapons.

SAGSI, in particular, recommended that the agency re-energize its efforts to strengthen safeguards. In response, in June 1996, the IAEA board established Committee 24 to draft a model protocol that was approved in May 1997 as the Model Additional Protocol (INFCIRC/540). An additional protocol requires a state to provide greater information about and inspector access to all aspects of its nuclear activities, from mining uranium to disposing of nuclear waste. It also gives inspectors short-notice access to suspect nuclear related facilities.

But the Model Additional Protocol’s main innovation goes beyond declared nuclear activities. Such protocols grant the IAEA greater authority to investigate and determine whether a state is engaged in any undeclared activities. As of November 25, 106 member states have signed additional protocols to their safeguards agreements, and 69 of those have entered into force.

Because more intrusive inspections require more money and staff, there is a drive to make the strengthened safeguards system more cost effective. When a member state concludes an additional protocol, the result is “additive” measures on top of those under the comprehensive safeguards agreements[3] However, the Model Additional Protocol drafters were not simply seeking to stack varying types of safeguards measures on top of each other. Recognizing that this will result in a certain amount of redundancy, the IAEA developed the concept of “integrated safeguards.” According to one IAEA official, “Integrated safeguards is the search for the optimum combination of traditional safeguards measures with the measures of the [Model] Additional Protocol to ensure a system that is cost efficient while achieving a high degree of effectiveness.”[4]

A state is not eligible for integrated safeguards until it has brought an additional protocol agreement into force, the IAEA has resolved any questions it has about the state’s nuclear program, the IAEA concludes that there has been no diversion of nuclear material from declared facilities, and there is no indication of undeclared nuclear activities or material. As of July, the IAEA has applied integrated safeguards to Australia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Indonesia, Japan, Norway, Peru, and Uzbekistan. For each of these countries, the agency has reduced the number of routine scheduled inspections at certain types of facilities, such as light-water reactors and low-enriched uranium conversion plants.

Committee Agenda: Missing In Action

The 2004 unveiling of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan’s clandestine nuclear network, which supplied Iran, Libya, and North Korea with nuclear technologies, shocked the international community and inspired further calls for changes in the safeguards system. Bush, in a February 2004 speech to the National Defense University, called on the international community to consider seven potential improvements to nuclear controls.

One recommendation was the creation of a special IAEA committee to focus on safeguards and verification. It took the United States more than a year, however, to lay the groundwork for the June decision to create the committee. Part of the delay stemmed from the concerns of other countries. China was emphatic that, in creating the committee, the IAEA needed to maintain its traditional balance between preventing proliferation and promoting peaceful nuclear activities.

Not much has happened since the decision was made. According to a senior diplomat, the panel’s first meeting on Nov. 11 did not produce significant developments. The various parties staked out familiar ground. For instance, the secretariat proposed committee action based on shoring up its existing operational technical needs rather than pushing for new authorities. Western countries called for the committee to work on universal adherence to the Model Additional Protocol. Developing countries pushed predictably for keeping the committee open-ended, working by consensus, and preserving the right to peaceful uses of nuclear technologies.

Consultations are taking place to prepare a work program, while the next meeting is scheduled for January. The lack of progress is particularly noteworthy, however, because the committee is only slated to last for two years, although its term could be extended.

Progress could be further hampered because of the composition of the special committee. It was to be chaired by the chairman of the IAEA board, currently Japanese Ambassador Yukiya Amano. At the first meeting of the committee, however, he declined to be named as the committee’s chair. After consultations, consensus was reached to designate Ambassador Taous Feroukhi of Algeria as the chair for the next year. The committee’s participation is open to any member state on the board. That could prove politically troublesome to the United States because three of its antagonists— Belarus, Cuba, and Syria—have recently joined the board, and Iran has also expressed interest in joining the committee. In his 2004 speech, Bush demanded that states, such as Iran, under IAEA investigation for violating nonproliferation obligations not be allowed to be members of the board or the special committee. Nevertheless, in February the United States reversed this position after some member states insisted on keeping membership in the committee open.[5]

Still, the biggest problem the committee faces is the lack of a clear agenda. The IAEA has recently asked outside consultants to help develop a slate of issues for the committee to consider. In addition, Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei has provided some guidance by pointing out that the committee can act as “a reality check” and can conduct a “revisit of the whole safeguards system to see whether it is still effective to meet emerging challenges.”[6] Some challenges he has pointed to include illicit trafficking of nuclear material and facilities, the threat of nuclear terrorism, and the discovery of clandestine nuclear programs in certain countries.

A high-level official in Vienna fleshed out other possibilities that the committee could consider, such as strengthening measures to enforce compliance of safeguards; assessing existing legal authorities to prevent or halt illicit activities; investigating new or emerging threats from nonstate actors, such as future Khan networks; contemplating the expansion of the agency’s legal authorities to inspect and verify facilities; and examining recommendations from the past, including those made during seminars, SAGSI meetings, and possibly those made in Committee 24 meetings. The committee could also consider more limited steps, such as reviewing annual safeguards implementation reports and assessing IAEA safeguards-related and analytical training programs.

A senior U.S. official said that Washington hopes to see the committee focus on ways to meet new threats and challenges such as nuclear terrorism and clandestine supplier networks, explore ways to bring about universal adherence to the Model Additional Protocol, and find new ways to urge member states to submit their safeguards declarations in a timely manner. Although most member states submitted their declarations on time or just a few days late, some are more than 180 days late, and four states are more than one year late.

The official said the United States was also interested in seeing more member states voluntarily report their nuclear-related export activities. He said he hoped the committee would urge states to be less hesitant about giving information to the agency. Another area the official thought the committee might investigate is implementing recent modifications that the IAEA approved in September in relation to the Small Quantities Protocol. For some years, the IAEA has permitted some NPT state-parties with small quantities of fissionable materials, such as highly enriched uranium or plutonium, to conclude such a protocol suspending certain agency verification requirements. The recent changes introduced more rigorous criteria for states wishing to conclude such agreements and placed further obligations on all present and future states with such protocols.[7]

In addition, the U.S. official suggested the committee look at ways to help states work within the framework of the IAEA to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1540. In April 2004, the Security Council unanimously passed this resolution, which is legally binding on all states because it was adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The resolution calls on states to implement appropriate effective controls to prevent weapons of mass destruction-related materials from contributing to proliferation or terrorism. States are required to file reports to the 1540 Committee specifying what controls they have enacted. However, a major shortcoming of the resolution is that it does not adequately define what is meant by effective controls. To help bridge this gap, the IAEA special committee may consider defining these controls by specifying appropriate standards and best practices in safeguarding nuclear equipment and materials.

What Should the Committee Do?

All of these are worthy proposals. It seems evident, above all, that the committee needs to take a step back and fully assess the concept of safeguards, ensuring that halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons is the system’s top priority. It also needs to differentiate itself clearly from SAGSI. One way to do so would be to focus on legal and political issues, while leaving the more technical issues to SAGSI, the body that has traditionally tackled the implementation of safeguards agreements.

The new committee should consider improving IAEA practices in four particular areas: greater access, greater authority, greater capabilities, and greater incentives and disincentives to prevent proliferation.

Greater Access

The agency needs greater access to facilities and information. During the drafting of the Model Additional Protocol, it was agreed that broader access must be provided, but that did not equate to unlimited access. Political and commercial considerations have at times limited access to IAEA inspectors, and this needs to be resolved to the satisfaction of those trying to develop an even more strengthened proliferation and deception-resistant verification system.

The Khan network highlighted the need for a better understanding of nuclear-related transfers of materials between nations. To that end, the IAEA has established a special unit to “investigate, document, and analyze worldwide nuclear trade activities.” The new committee should review safeguards provisions and determine if states can be more transparent about their nuclear related activities such as providing more information regarding their nuclear related exports and imports.

Greater Authority

Hand in hand with greater access requirements, the agency needs greater authority to question national authorities, interview facility operators, and investigate records, reports, and facilities. This equates to the provision of greater legal authority to be more intrusive. In particular, the agency has the authority to request a “special inspection.” However, the IAEA has only twice formally invoked the special inspection provision of INFCIRC/153. In the first instance, Romania in 1992 invited the IAEA to conduct a special inspection to resolve an outstanding issue that had taken place under the Ceausescu regime. In contrast, in the second instance, North Korea in 1993 did not consent to the requested special inspection. Although the board has been reluctant to invoke this special inspection power, these inspections do not have to be confrontational, as demonstrated by Romania, and can help provide needed additional information to gain greater understanding about a state’s adherence to its safeguards requirements.[8] The special committee should help guide the board in determining when special inspections would be appropriate.

Greater Capabilities

The agency needs better capabilities to analyze the nuclear fuel cycle processes, facilities, and research activities of member states. To this end, new safeguards monitoring systems are under development and consideration. In particular, the agency has been developing unattended monitoring systems that can provide continuous coverage of a safeguarded facility while reducing the need for a costly human presence. For example, the Japanese Rokkasho reprocessing plant will make extensive use of this type of technology. The committee should consider whether it is feasible to apply advanced continuous monitoring techniques to Iran’s sensitive nuclear facilities, such as the uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan and the uranium-enrichment facilities, which are currently suspended, at Natanz.

To cut costs and increase monitoring capabilities further, the agency is trying to make use of encoded long-distance transmission of verification data. It is also important to make wider use of environmental sampling techniques to detect possible undeclared nuclear activities. Such techniques allow inspectors to analyze the isotopic composition of uranium and plutonium at enrichment and reprocessing facilities.[9]

One of the biggest concerns is that a state may divert relatively small amounts of plutonium or enriched uranium from facilities that handle bulk quantities of fissile material.[10] Over time, a proliferator could amass enough material for several bombs. To try to diminish this problem, the special committee should investigate whether it is possible to make improvements in fissile material accountancy and measurements to reduce the amount of “material unaccounted for,” but this effort will require close cooperation with facility operators.

Additionally, the agency needs to have a greater ability to differentiate between member states in good standing and those that may attempt to take advantage of or circumvent the system.[11] Officials from Australia’s Safeguards Office recently discussed a new approach to safeguards called “information driven” safeguards approaches, the process of developing safeguards after due consideration of the state’s specific factors. In this new approach, aspects such as the technical capabilities of a member state, potential political motivation to develop nuclear weapons, and any specific indicators that a member state is interested in developing nuclear weapons are all taken into account. The committee should consider adopting this approach.[12]

Greater Incentives and Disincentives

Greater incentives and disincentives can encourage member states to follow the rules. Incentives may come in the form of greater technical assistance in building reactors and a guarantee of fuel and spent fuel disposal if states forgo the development of facilities that could be of proliferation concern. Disincentives might include a possible role for the special committee as a monitoring and advisory group to the board on activities of proliferation concern by member states. In this capacity, committee members from rollback states, such as South Africa and Sweden, could provide an interesting perspective to the detection of questionable activities. In this role, the committee would also assist the board in deciding whether a state is in violation of its safeguards agreement and should be referred to the Security Council.

In addition, the committee could usefully be given three other tasks. One would be to think creatively about how to involve Israel, India, and Pakistan effectively in the safeguards system. In July, the United States and India agreed to expand peaceful nuclear cooperation. Because U.S. peaceful nuclear assistance is usually contingent on the recipient country having comprehensive safeguards, the United States is confronting how to provide such assistance to India. India has pledged to separate its military and civilian nuclear facilities, but still the mere existence of an Indian military nuclear program prevents the implementation of truly comprehensive safeguards. If this deal continues to move forward, the agency could help sort out what safeguards might be appropriate for additional facilities in order to make sure that the nonproliferation benefits of the deal outweigh its costs. Likewise, more safeguards and verification work could be done in all of these countries, especially Pakistan, which served as the headquarters of the Khan nuclear network.

Similar to these countries, North Korea is outside the bounds of the NPT, from which Pyongyang walked away in 2003. During a September round of six-party talks on its nuclear program, Pyongyang declared its intention to return to the NPT to gain access to peaceful nuclear technologies. Before North Korea can rejoin the NPT, it must verifiably and irreversibly dismantle all its nuclear weapons programs. The special committee should contribute its expertise to help determine effective means for verifying that North Korea has done so.

Another useful task would be further study and clarification of the concept of integrated safeguards. Although integrated safeguards are touted as more efficient and cost effective because they reduce the number of inspections per year in countries that have a history of responsible nonproliferation behavior, they may also bring opportunities for countries to restart dormant nuclear programs clandestinely or develop parallel weapons programs without the agency noticing.


It is difficult to say if the safeguards committee will be effective. Based on discussions with one senior diplomat, the committee risks becoming a redundant group of insiders, not willing or able to go beyond the political boundaries so often hampering work. On the other hand, it might also usefully identify gaps in the safeguards system and find ways to fill them.

Having spent significant diplomatic energy to propose and launch the committee, the United States should invest more effort in working closely with other committee members to craft an ambitious agenda. The United States should strive to ensure that the past history of safeguards development does not become the prologue for the future.

The evolution of the safeguards system has usually followed a reactive course in which the IAEA and member states made improvements after major shocks to the system or after countries have acquired new nuclear technologies. By helping the agency gain greater access, greater authorities, and greater capabilities, the committee can help the agency forestall or foresee future threats instead of falling behind.

Jack Boureston is managing director of FirstWatch International, a private nuclear proliferation research group in Monterey, California and Charles D. Ferguson is a science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


1. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs “Chinese Statement on Item 8: Creation of a Special Committee on Safeguards and Verification,” March 3, 2005.

2. Hooper, “The IAEA’s Additional Protocol,” Disarmament Forum, Vol. 3 (1999).

3. John Carlson et al., “Back to Basics: Re-Thinking Safeguards Principles,” Annual Meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Material Management (INMM), July 13-17, 2003.

4. Piet de Klerk, “The Evolution of IAEA Safeguards,” March 2001.

5. “Statement by the United States of America, on Agenda Item 8: Creation of a Special Committee on Safeguard and Verification,” March 3, 2005.

6. IAEA, “Transcript of the Director General’s Press Statement,” June 17, 2005.

7. Paul Kerr, “IAEA Board Closes Safeguards Loophole,” Arms Control Today, November 2005.

8. John Carlson and Russell Leslie, “Special Inspections Revisited,” Paper presented at the INMM 2005 symposium, Phoenix, July 2005.

9. Pierre Goldschmidt, “Present Status and Future of International Safeguards,” Paper presented at JNC International Forum for Peaceful Utilization of Nuclear Energy, February 2003.

10. Paul Leventhal, “Safeguards Shortcomings: A Critique,” September 12, 1994 (Nuclear Control Institute report); Henry Sokolski, “After Iran: Back to the Basics on ‘Peaceful’ Nuclear Energy,” Arms Control Today, April 2005.

11. Kaoru Naito, “Safeguards Challenges: A Japanese View,” Paper presented at INMM Annual Meeting, July 13-17, 2003.

12. John Carlson, email communications with author, September 2005.



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