"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
November 2006
Edition Date: 
Wednesday, November 1, 2006
Cover Image: 

Nuclear Shockwaves: Ramifications of the North Korean Nuclear Test

Ambassador Robert Gallucci

North Korea’s nuclear test almost certainly failed to achieve its design yield. Nevertheless, it is likely to spread major shockwaves, domestically and internationally. Domestically, the finger pointing has begun, inevitably if regrettably, as a threat to the national security dramatically rises in public awareness on the eve of midterm congressional elections.

As much as we might want to deplore the reduction of a critical and complex foreign policy issue to a debating point in partisan political exchange, however, it is important to sort out the facts of what has happened in the last decade or so if we want to chart a more effective course for policy in the years ahead. The political atmosphere may not be the best for dispassionate analysis and clear thinking, but that is exactly what is needed.

North Korea began building its nuclear weapons program in the 1980s—three nuclear reactors and a plutonium-separation plant—just as it was signing the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). By the time President Bill Clinton was sworn into office in January 1993, Pyongyang had already separated enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons and stood in defiance of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. The president was told by his intelligence community that if the North Korean program was not stopped, the existing reactor and the other two under construction would produce, within five years or so, enough plutonium to manufacture 30 nuclear weapons annually. Following a UN Security Council resolution and proceeding in close consultation with our allies in Seoul and Tokyo, the president authorized direct bilateral negotiations with the North Koreans. Sixteen difficult months of intense, on-again, off-again negotiations later, the Agreed Framework was signed by North Korean and U.S. representatives.

Many of us believe that the deal was only possible because the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula was visibly enhanced while we were negotiating; because, at a critical point, the United States broke off talks to pursue a sanctions resolution in the UN Security Council; and because former President Jimmy Carter traveled to Pyongyang and provided the North Koreans a face-saving way to back away from the brink at the most critical moment. Whether the Agreed Framework was the result of a well-orchestrated political-military strategy or not, it clearly provided for the immediate freezing of the entire North Korean nuclear program and its eventual dismantlement, as well as the resolution of the vexing problem of the original plutonium produced before Clinton took office. To be sure, the North Koreans “won” too, getting the immediate delivery of heavy-fuel oil and the construction of two large, proliferation-resistant nuclear power reactors, financed and supplied by South Korea and Japan to replace the more dangerous reactors they were already building.

This history is pretty clear, but what happens next less so. The North Koreans clearly expected improved relations with the United States, the one benefit that could compensate them for giving up their nuclear deterrent. Some sanctions were lifted, but some remained. The envisioned liaison offices were not opened, and relations between our two countries were not normalized. At the same time, fuel oil was delivered, and construction on the power reactors was begun. North Korea complied with its obligations to freeze its entire nuclear program. Then, however, perhaps three or four years after the negotiation of the framework, North Korea began to cheat by secretly receiving components for a gas-centrifuge uranium-enrichment facility from Pakistan. This was implicitly inconsistent with the framework. The Clinton administration planned to take up the matter with North Korea, along with concerns about its ballistic missile program and conventional force deployments, but time ran out.

So, when President George W. Bush came into office, like Clinton he was confronted with a situation in North Korea, but one that was far less pressing. The plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons was still all that was available to North Korea, while the entire plutonium production program was frozen and under IAEA inspection, and the other elements of the framework were on track. The problem was that of the secret North Korean effort to acquire the components for a gas-centrifuge plant. If completed, the plant could someday produce material for a nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration’s approach to the problem quickly took shape four years ago when it confronted Pyongyang with the knowledge of its secret program and the demand that Pyongyang give it up before any further negotiations could take place. When North Korea refused, Washington abandoned the Agreed Framework, prompting Pyongyang to do likewise, kicking inspectors out, withdrawing from the NPT, starting up the reactor, separating plutonium, and announcing the acquisition of a deterrent.

During the intervening years, Pyongyang has pressed for bilateral talks with Washington, while the administration has insisted on six-party talks that include China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. The talks began in 2003, but little progress was made until last year when the outlines of a new framework were agreed, just as the Department of the Treasury rang alarm bells regarding a bank in Macau it accused of assisting North Korean counterfeiting activities. This prompted the North Koreans to refuse to meet in the six-party mode so long as it was an object of “sanctions.”

What are we to make of this brief history? It is difficult to see how the current situation can be said to have resulted from the Clinton policy of engagement. One could argue, of course, that Clinton failed to solve the North Korean nuclear problem because he left office with the North Koreans secretly acquiring components for gas-centrifuge machines. Although that is true, it begs the question of how proliferation problems can ever be completely resolved. The secret of the bomb is out, and nuclear physicists and engineers can be recruited domestically or internationally. Nuclear weapons development activity that can be stopped can always be restarted. If intentions change, so can capabilities.

At the same time, we might ask what the Bush administration’s policy, which has been far more resistant to negotiating than that of the Clinton administration, has gained the United States. Although we have successfully avoided “rewarding” North Korea with our presence in bilateral talks, Pyongyang has tested a series of ballistic missiles, separated enough plutonium for about eight additional nuclear weapons, and conducted one nuclear test explosion. The Bush administration’s policy may be righteous, but it has failed to secure the nation’s interest.

The international consequences of the latest North Korean provocation have already been felt in domestic political dialogue in Seoul and Tokyo. Not soon but eventually, there will be serious discussion of the virtue of continued nuclear abstinence. Second, North Korea undoubtedly learned something from its test, no matter its actual design yield, just as it learned something from its failed Taepo Dong-2 missile test in July. So, Pyongyang is one step closer to mating nuclear weapons to an extended-range ballistic missile capable of hitting Tokyo today and Los Angeles tomorrow. Most ominously of all, as we and our friends in the UN Security Council pass the toughest sanctions resolutions we can—as we must at least to set an example for others—we push the North Koreans ever closer to crossing the ultimate redline: selling fissile material to al Qaeda. That poses a threat against which our country has no real defense and no effective deterrent. It is the most serious threat to our national security today.

There are now and have always been only three options available to deal with the North Korean problem: military force, sanctions, and negotiation. Although the military option was available but unappealing a dozen years ago, it is barely so today. Limited targets, little reserve force to deal with retaliation, and an ally in Seoul hostile to military action argue against this option. Sanctions, always limited by what China will permit and South Korea will enforce, will not force North Korean compliance. At best, they force North Korea to the negotiating table; at worst, they will amount to a policy of containment or acceptance of a growing North Korean nuclear weapons program. This poses unacceptable risks to our nation’s security. That leaves genuine negotiation in which we expect to get what we need and concede to Pyongyang at least some of what it wants. This is by far the best course, and we had better get on with it.

What would negotiations look like? The modality, administration protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, is not important. If there are six-party talks, the real negotiations will be done bilaterally anyway between U.S. and North Korean diplomats. If the talks are bilateral, Washington will do again what it did a dozen years ago during the framework negotiations, keeping Beijing and Moscow informed and consulting Seoul and Tokyo on a daily basis. Any outcomes that the United States would want to have implemented multilaterally could be accomplished in either negotiating modality.

The real questions about a negotiation with North Korea are substantive. First, will Pyongyang truly give up and dismantle its nuclear weapons program, including old and newly separated plutonium, the operating research reactor and other gas-graphite reactors under construction, its plutonium-separation facility, and its gas-centrifuge and associated uranium-enrichment facilities?

This question goes to the underlying issue of North Korea’s purpose in its nuclear weapons program. If it is truly defensive, to have a deterrent to dissuade the United States from attempting to inflict regime change, then it will give it up only if convinced that the threat has been removed. It would then fall to Washington to make credible its willingness to tolerate a North Korea that forsakes nuclear weapons but clings to ballistic missiles, forward-deployed conventional forces, and a totalitarian regime guilty of most horrendous human rights violations against its own people. It is not at all clear that the Bush administration is willing to do that.

That is the fundamental question, but a secondary issue has arisen in the talks last year that threatens to derail any deal if not addressed successfully. This is the question of whether Washington and its allies in Tokyo and Seoul are again willing to offer Pyongyang light-water nuclear power reactors as a part of the package of inducements, along with security assurances, removal of sanctions, and perhaps other economic concessions.

Those reactors were important to Pyongyang in 1994, and they seem to have renewed importance during negotiations last year. Many in Congress and elsewhere are opposed to providing these reactors or, more accurately, supporting the provision of them by South Korea and Japan, presumably because light-water reactors also produce plutonium. For a variety of technical reasons, however, we concluded in 1994 and should again, if we have the opportunity, that light-water reactors are substantially more proliferation resistant than the gas-graphite reactors and thus could be part of a package of incentives so long as South Korea and Japan are prepared to finance and build them.

In the end, the question is less whether North Korea is prepared to make a deal than it is whether the United States has the stomach for another negotiation and another framework arrangement, knowing that Pyongyang cheated on the last one. Those tempted to answer in the negative should be required to describe a better, plausible alternative to negotiation.

Ambassador Robert Gallucci is dean of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. In 1998, he was appointed the Department of State’s special envoy to deal with the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. He helped oversee the disarmament of Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War as the deputy executive chairman of the UN Special Commission and subsequently helped negotiate the 1994 Agreed Framework to freeze North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Nuclear Shockwaves: Making the Best of Bad Options

Michael J. Green

North Korea’s October 9 nuclear test has been called a failure of U.S., South Korean, and Chinese policy, and those criticisms are undoubtedly accurate to some degree. Lost in the finger pointing, however, is the strong evidence that Kim Jong Il intended all along to demonstrate North Korea’s unambiguous status as a nuclear-weapon state regardless of what steps the other parties took.

North Korea’s steady march toward this test has left a trail of broken agreements and lost opportunities for greater interaction with the international community:

    • The 1991 Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-aggression, Exchanges and Cooperation and the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This agreement explicitly forbade the kind of clandestine North Korean uranium-enrichment program that the United States publicly revealed in 2002.[1]

    • The 1994 Agreed Framework. This deal offered Pyongyang a path toward normalization and the provision of two light-water reactors in exchange for a freeze of the Yongbyon reactor and the eventual accounting and inspections for all other fissile material and programs. North Korea began violating this agreement in the late 1990s with work on its clandestine uranium-enrichment program and never made any progress on discussions toward inspections.

    • The September 17, 2002, Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration. This pact included not only a commitment to end the nuclear programs but also to maintain a missile launch moratorium, which North Korea violated in July 2006 with a test of seven missiles, including short-, medium-, and long-range varieties.[2]

  • The September 19, 2005, Joint Statement of the fourth round of the six-party talks. Pyongyang pledged to eliminate all nuclear weapons and nuclear programs in this agreement in exchange for an array of security assurances, non-nuclear energy cooperation, economic assistance, and normalization talks from the other parties. Only days after this agreement was signed, North Korea said it would not return to the talks until the United States dropped what Pyongyang called its “hostile policy,” specifically the U.S. clarification in coordination with the other parties that North Korea would not be allowed to discuss the provision of light-water reactors until nuclear weapons and programs had been completely dismantled.[3] North Korea also took exception to sanctions the United States imposed that month on a bank in Macau that had been laundering illicit North Korean funds.

In retrospect, each of these episodes suggests that North Korea treated agreements and negotiations as a tactic to buy time and space to continue with the one goal to which Pyongyang was truly committed: possessing nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them to target. Each diplomatic turn in the story, however, also demonstrated that North Korea is not completely immune to the coercive power of the international community or the possible inducements available from participating in diplomatic negotiations. In the end, no clear conclusion can be drawn about what might have stopped North Korea from testing or might in the future convince Pyongyang to roll back its nuclear weapons programs.

Four Schools of Thought

The debate in the United States over what might induce or compel North Korea to give up nuclear weapons has been framed by four basic schools of thought. With each provocation by Pyongyang, the dispute among these four points of view has only intensified. Engagers argue that the United States could make a breakthrough by directly negotiating a package of security assurances in exchange for denuclearization with Pyongyang.[4] Hawkish Doves argue for presenting such a package directly to Pyongyang but backing it with the threat of military action if Pyongyang does not change its behavior.[5] Tailored Containers argue for isolating North Korea and creating a prophylactic seal around the nation to prevent the transfer of nuclear materials in or nuclear weapons out.[6] Regime Changers argue for an aggressive policy to end the North Korean nuclear and human rights problems once and for all by toppling Kim’s government.

Thus far, the administration has not embraced any of these strategies in full, focusing instead on the six-party talks that bring together China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, the United States, and North Korea to address the North Korean nuclear issue. The six-party talks were designed to provide a framework for negotiation with North Korea that would bring to bear the additional leverage necessary to supplement the limited leverage of the United States. After all, the United States has virtually no trade with North Korea to embargo, while unilateral coercive military options are difficult to employ without counterproductive side effects, such as South Korean divergence from the United States or the risk of North Korean military strikes on Seoul or Tokyo. Moreover, the six-party talks framework ensures that powers thus far not fully engaged in the diplomacy, particularly China, are fully invested in the outcome. This aspect of the six-party dynamics helps to explain why Beijing has been far more forthcoming in the UN Security Council debate over North Korea than would have been the case four years ago.

At this point the focus is on implementing targeted sanctions under UN Security Council Resolution 1718, approved October 14. The other parties, however, particularly China and South Korea, will expect a fuller tool kit that includes a diplomatic track. In the process of constructing that full tool kit, it may be worth re-examining the four schools of thought. North Korea may be the land of bad options, but within each bad option lies some useful elements of a new strategy.

Bilateral Engagement

It is a myth that the Bush administration has not engaged in bilateral dialogue with North Korea. In addition to the three days in October 2002 spent in Pyongyang by the delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Jim Kelly, senior U.S. officials have clocked hundreds of hours talking to their North Korean counterparts in sessions during the six-party talks and with North Korea’s UN representatives in the so-called New York Channel. Nevertheless, serious proponents of greater bilateral engagement argue that the North Korean power structure requires that U.S. negotiators participate in direct discussions and full negotiations with Kim in order to reach an agreement. In addition, Engagers argue that a substantive package has yet to be put on the table to demonstrate that North Korea can benefit from ending nuclear weapons. Finally, they maintain that public criticism of the North Korean leader or system is counterproductive to diplomacy and that security assurances and softer rhetoric will prove more effective.

Many of the advocates of more direct bilateral engagement are veterans of past negotiations with the country and know from that experience that the North Korean Foreign Ministry has little flexibility beyond strict guidance presented by Kim. Moreover, they are correct that if the administration is serious about implementation of the September 19 joint statement, there will have to be extensive direct negotiations between U.S. and North Korean officials to work out many of the details. It is also clear that U.S. criticism of North Korea’s system or Kim will often cause the North to walk away from talks.

Yet, there would be serious pitfalls in a strategy premised on the assumption that the main obstacle to success is North Korean insecurity or an inability to deal directly with Kim. It should not be surprising that Pyongyang professes an interest in discussions of “peaceful coexistence” with Washington because North Korea’s version of such an entente would mean validation of the ongoing nuclear weapons program without requiring verifiable dismantlement. Indeed, North Korea benefited immensely in terms of international aid and diplomatic recognition after the Agreed Framework was concluded in 1994, and Pyongyang clearly sought a visit by President Bill Clinton in 2000 to consolidate those gains. The cost to North Korea was a temporary freezing of its known and easily targeted Yongbyon reactor, but weapons development based on previously extracted plutonium and a clandestine highly enriched uranium program continued, a massive investment by North Korea that was not simply a hedge against U.S. noncompliance with the Agreed Framework. North Korea’s demand for bilateral negotiations and specifically for light-water reactors is aimed at returning to that dynamic and casting the nuclear weapons program as a response to U.S. actions rather than an objective in itself that ultimately threatens the entire region. The demand for the provision of light-water reactors puts further pressure on the U.S. side to “deliver” and allows the North Korean side to delay any meaningful inspections or dismantlement, a tactic further enhanced by claims of a “hostile” U.S. policy.

There is also reason to question whether Pyongyang is waiting for the right enticements in order to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. It is striking, for example, that North Korea refused to follow up on South Korea’s July 2005 offer to transmit two million kilowatts of electricity to North Korea in exchange for steps to freeze and dismantle its nuclear programs.[7] Equally telling has been Pyongyang’s preoccupation with establishing a right to “peaceful” nuclear capabilities in the six-party talks and North Korea’s complete disinterest in exploring the other parties’ specific proposals for security assurances, non-nuclear energy assistance, and economic development.

Finally, although remaining silent about North Korea’s horrific human rights record and state-sponsored export of drugs and counterfeit money might remove a frequent obstacle to North Korea’s participation in the six-party talks, a policy of self-censorship on these issues would also define international deviancy downward in ways that would only enable North Korea’s illicit behavior and nuclear activities. If the international community is going to muster the will to stop North Korea’s nuclear programs, it is critical that the nature and actions of the North Korean regime not be brushed aside. It is important, however, that the international community speak with one voice on the nature of the regime while making it clear that the goal is a change in behavior and not in regime, a point that the U.S. delegation made very clearly to Pyongyang in October 2002.

Ultimately, it is the tactical insight that direct bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang are critical at some point in the process that proves most useful to our comprehensive tool kit. Yet, those bilateral negotiations should not come in response to a nuclear test because that sends the wrong signal to North Korea and other proliferators, such as Iran. Moreover, the negotiations must be firmly embedded within the six-party process and must be part of the implementation of the North Korean agreements to address the concerns of the other parties.

Bigger Sticks and Bigger Carrots

The Hawkish Doves likewise begin with the premise of the Engagers that North Korea can be convinced to abandon nuclear weapons with the right incentive package, but they recognize that there also has to be considerable pressure to sharpen Kim’s thinking. This “preventive defense” concept informed former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry’s negotiations with North Korea in May 1999.[8] At that time, the Clinton administration was prepared to move toward flexible deterrence options if North Korea did not implement its commitments to verifiably abandon nuclear weapons. Advocates of this approach argue with some justification that the current multilateral approach toward North Korea has thus far lacked sufficient urgency or consequences for bad behavior, given Pyongyang’s undeterred development of nuclear weapons.

The main shortcoming with the preventive defense approach is that the strategic situation surrounding the Korean peninsula has changed in unfavorable ways over the past decade. North Korea now has an arsenal of about 200 Nodong ballistic missiles capable of striking Japan, a deterrent that did not exist in the mid-to-late 1990s. In addition, South Korean attitudes have shifted so profoundly against military options, encouraged by the left-leaning government of President Roh Moo-hyun, that even the implied threat of force can drive a dangerous wedge between Seoul and Washington, weakening the overall diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang. Any actual use of force would put South Korea at risk of massive retaliation because Seoul is roughly 50 kilometers from the demilitarized zone and targeted with thousands of artillery tubes and Scud missiles.[9] If the United States struck and Seoul took the brunt of the retaliation, the U.S.-South Korean alliance and the overall U.S. strategic position in Northeast Asia could be irreparably damaged. Of course, North Korea is now widely acknowledged to possess at least several nuclear devices, a situation that was not as clear a decade ago.

Nevertheless, although military tools may be less useful to diplomacy today than they were a decade ago, the Hawkish Doves’ focus on the need for sticks to back diplomacy is an insight that can add to a better tool kit. North Korea must see that there are concrete negative consequences for noncompliance.

Tailored Containment

Recognizing the pitfalls of relying either on diplomacy or the use of force, a third view has emerged advocating prophylactic containment of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Under this strategy, the international community would be encouraged to cut off trade and diplomacy with the North, and a web of export controls and active interdiction operations would be put in place to prevent Pyongyang from transferring nuclear weapons or related materials into or out of the country. Missile defense and enhanced deterrence planning would serve as further insurance until the North Korean regime no longer exists.

The assumption behind this strategy, that North Korea is prepared to incur great adversity rather than abandon its nuclear weapons program, appears increasingly accurate. Moreover, new tools developed in the war on terrorism to track terrorist financing have proven highly effective against North Korea, which relies heavily on banks in places such as Macau to launder drug and counterfeit money and to finance acquisition of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-related materials. In addition, the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) has largely succeeded in establishing interdiction as an international norm, with about 80 states quietly cooperating with the United States and its allies to stop trade in WMD-related technologies. China and South Korea have not participated in PSI, but China’s support for UN Security Council Resolution 1695 on July 15 and Resolution 1718 three months later demonstrates that Beijing is increasingly willing to impose targeted sanctions, interdictions, and export controls on North Korea.[10]

A pure strategy of tailored containment, however, would face significant challenges. North Korea’s money flow is vulnerable to interdiction and sanctions, but it would be impossible to establish a leak-proof seal against the transfer of nuclear weapons or technology. Moreover, a strategy of tailored containment would signal that the United States has abandoned diplomacy, which could push South Korea and China to pursue separate diplomatic agreements with North Korea or risk undermining the credibility of the U.S. extended deterrent in Japan, which rests on deterrence and U.S. diplomatic leadership.

Where tailored containment fills out, the tool kit is on the hedging and pressure side of the equation. North Korea may never abandon its nuclear weapons programs, and the United States has an obligation and an ability to use interdiction and other measures to slow Pyongyang’s progress and at least to complicate external transfer. These actions also provide useful sticks to back up diplomacy, although they would proceed regardless of North Korea’s diplomatic stance because they target activities that are in themselves threatening or illegal.

Regime Change

Given the human rights crisis in North Korea and the difficulty of convincing dictators to abandon nuclear weapons, regime change has struck many as the only reliable approach to North Korea. The very words “regime change” can cause panic in some parts of Washington and Seoul, but contemplating the implications of such an approach has merit. For one thing, there are fissures and vulnerabilities in North Korea. Kim does not enjoy the legitimacy or aura of infallibility commanded by his father, Kim Il Sung. The army is the spine of North Korean society, but its million-plus soldiers are undernourished, poorly trained, and poorly equipped. Finally, the October 9 nuclear test and the international community’s response may ultimately unleash forces within North Korea that have unpredictable effects.

Despite the intellectual merits of considering regime change strategies, however, the practical obstacles and risks are still insurmountable. China and South Korea each fear the chaos of regime collapse as much as they do North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Beijing at least appears positioned to inject enough aid into the regime to keep it afloat even if there is escalation by Pyongyang. Moreover, although regime change may be the most effective guarantee of complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programs, it is also the most permissive scenario for transfer of nuclear weapons or technology outside of the country. After all, the regime can be deterred from using or transferring nuclear weapons, but a North Korean general with access codes, a Swiss bank account, and no central power above him might not be as easily deterred or stopped.

An active policy to force regime change is therefore least compatible with the six-party talks framework and the other three strategies reviewed here. There may be a day when regime change is the preferred strategy, but the situation has not reached that point yet, given the enormous complications and downside risks associated with any attempt to topple Kim. Nevertheless, regime change does prompt consideration of two elements that should be part of a tool kit. First, no actions should be taken that artificially prop up the regime or enable Pyongyang to continue with business as usual, absent significant steps at denuclearization. Second, given the probable fragility of the regime, it is important to prepare with our allies and the other parties in the talks for the possible consequences of instability or unanticipated unification.

In short, regime change is not a viable strategy at present, but it could still occur at any time. The other parties should begin quietly preparing for such a scenario.

Building a Tool Kit From the Range of Bad Options

Although each of these four strategies would be incompatible with the others if applied in toto, key elements from each could be combined as part of a new approach that would enhance both risk mitigation and the prospects for a diplomatic resolution. In some respects, the Bush administration has already been moving in that direction, but this brief review of the North Korea debate suggests additional components worth considering.

To begin with, the United States and the other parties should hold regular meetings of the six-party talks regardless of North Korea’s attendance. North Korea should not be empowered to extract concessions merely for showing up at the talks. If Pyongyang refuses to attend the scheduled meeting, the United States should refuse direct bilateral talks. China has thus far resisted cornering Pyongyang in this way, but the October 9 nuclear test has shifted thinking in Beijing in important ways.

Second, the United States should take the lead with the other parties in formulating a five-party package to Pyongyang. Modeled on diplomacy with Iran, the United States and the other parties to the talks should present Pyongyang with a coordinated road map for implementing the September agreement as well as the consequences for noncompliance. As with the Iran package presented by the European Union to Tehran on June 1, the United States should be prepared to put incentives, such as enhanced high-level dialogue and specific details about security assurances and non-nuclear energy assistance, in the package. In exchange, China and South Korea would have to agree to join in punitive sanctions should North Korea refuse to comply or escalate further.

Third, the Bush administration should move forward with discussions on a broader peace mechanism as captured in the September 19, 2005, joint statement, but in tandem with Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea, should North Korea not be prepared to return to the talks with meaningful steps toward rolling back its nuclear weapons programs.

Fourth, the United States, Japan, and South Korea should revitalize the Trilateral Oversight and Coordination Group, which has been largely dormant for the past year. Close trilateral coordination among the allies is essential to building momentum toward better cooperation from China and Russia.

Fifth, the United States and the other parties should maintain robust momentum in implementing UN Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1718. This means picking up the pace of PSI and other diplomatic measures aimed at interdicting North Korean illicit trade in missiles and WMD-related materials as well as of establishment of a network for information sharing and cooperation in the enforcement of the sanctions under these two resolutions. Chinese and South Korean reluctance to participate may evaporate after the North Korean nuclear test but might be won either way if Washington is prepared to put forward some of the diplomatic initiatives and offer bilateral negotiations under the conditions described earlier. In addition, the United States should continue expanding cooperation to crack down on North Korean money laundering, drug exports, and counterfeiting.

Sixth, the Bush administration should multilateralize human rights. The focus should be on establishing a consensus that improvement of the North Korean people’s deplorable condition is a universal goal. The center of gravity is the younger generation in South Korea. If the South Korean government speaks more clearly on human rights, North Korea will no longer be able to dismiss the issue as an American-made obstacle to diplomacy. A clear voice on human rights is not incompatible with the diplomatic process, but the strategy must focus on finding a way to cooperate with Seoul on human rights rather than simply proclaiming U.S. indignation.

Seventh, the United States should continue to reinforce extended deterrence. Pyongyang’s nuclear test requires expanded missile defense capabilities to buttress extended deterrence as well as renewed dialogue with Japan and South Korea (the latter will have to be handled delicately) to ensure that U.S. retaliation is reliable and credible. President George W. Bush’s clear statement reaffirming the U.S. nuclear umbrella was a good first start and that declaratory policy must continue to be reinforced. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s unequivocal declaration that Japan will not consider developing its own nuclear weapons followed directly from the U.S. statement and should also be repeatedly reinforced by Tokyo.

Finally, the United States and the other parties should expand dialogue on how unification or collapse might be managed in ways that protect the core interests of all the parties. Internal planning and bilateral discussions on how to manage the collapse of North Korea are not incompatible with diplomacy or deterrence, if handled discretely and, where necessary, i.e., with China, elliptically.

Although neither the six-party talks nor this expanded tool kit are likely to lead to a quick fix with North Korea—we should avoid the temptation of a quick fix above all else—the steps elucidated above would at least put the United States in a better position to mitigate risk and increase prospects for rolling back North Korea’s program. First and foremost, they would demonstrate that the United States has a sense of urgency about the problem, which is critical for shaping our allies’ own strategic decisions about how to respond to North Korea. Second, they would take the initiative away from Pyongyang by regularizing the six-party talks process. Third, they would accustom the other parties to working together to manage the Korean peninsula whether North Korea is helpful or even in existence. Finally, they would demonstrate to Pyongyang that failure to roll back the nuclear problem will have significant consequences, an important signal not only to Kim but to Iran and other potential proliferators.


Michael J. Green is a senior adviser and the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an associate professor of international relations at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He served as director and then senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council staff from 2001 through 2005.


1. Bureau of Arms Control, U.S. Department of State, Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation Between the South and the North (to enter into force as of February 19, 1992).

2. Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration, September 17, 2002 (signed in Pyongyang).

3. “Spokesman for DPRK Foreign Ministry on Six-Party Talks,” Korean Central News Agency, September 21, 2005.

4. Donald Gregg and Don Oberdorfer, “Wrong Path on North Korea,” The Washington Post, September 6, 2006, p. A15.

5. Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry, “If Necessary, Strike and Destroy: North Korea Cannot Be Allowed to Test This Missile,” The Washington Post, June 22, 2006, p. A29.

6. Michael Gordon, “Threats and Responses: Asian Arena; U.S. Readies Plan to Raise Pressure on North Koreans,” The New York Times, September 29, 2002, p. A12.

7. Glenn Kessler, “ South Korea Offers to Supply Energy If North Korea Gives Up Arms,” The Washington Post, July 13, 2005, p. A16.

8. Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry, Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for America (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999); Leon V. Sigal, “North Korea Is No Iraq: Pyongyang’s Negotiating Strategy,” Arms Control Today, December 2002, p. 8-12.

9. See http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/rok/seoul.htm.

10. Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, “UN Security Council Demands North Korea End Nuclear Program,” The Washington File, July 15, 2006.

North Korea’s steady march toward this test has left a trail of broken agreements and lost opportunities for greater interaction with the international community.

A Technical Analysis: Deconstructing North Korea’s October 9 Nuclear Test

Richard L. Garwin and Frank N. von Hippel

On October 9, North Korea announced that it had carried out an underground nuclear test. In subsequent days, the apparent low yield of the device and initial lack of reports of detection of radioactivity from the test raised questions about whether North Korea had actually tested a nuclear device or if a test had failed.

One week later, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement confirming the detection of radioactive debris and stating that North Korea had conducted a nuclear explosion with a yield of less than 1 kiloton (1,000-ton TNT equivalent).[1] Our analysis of the available public information is consistant with this conclusion. We also judge that, although the test did not succeed as planned, North Korea might have been testing a lower-yield design than many commentators have assumed. This imperfect test may well lead North Korea to test again.

Our analysis concerns three questions: How powerful was the explosion? Was it a nuclear test? If nuclear, was the test successful?

How Powerful Was It?

North Korea reportedly informed China that it would be conducting a nuclear test, with a yield in the range of 4 kilotons.[2] Such an explosion in hard rock would produce a seismic event with a magnitude of about 4.9 on the Richter scale.[3] By contrast, the U.S. Geological Survey reported the explosion to have a seismic magnitude of 4.2.[4] South Korea’s state geology research center reported the magnitude as lower, between 3.58 and 3.7, and estimated a yield equivalent to 550 tons of TNT.[5] An uncertainty in seismic magnitude of 0.5 translates into a shift in yield of about a factor of 4.6. Compounding this uncertainty is that the relationship between seismic magnitude and yield depends on the hardness of the rock in which the explosive is buried.[6]

Given all these uncertainties, it is not surprising that a range of yields has been reported. Terry Wallace, a seismologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, based on an unclassified analysis of open data, estimates a yield of between 0.5 and 2 kilotons, with 90 percent confidence that the yield is less than 1 kiloton.[7] Lynn R. Sykes of Columbia University estimates a yield of 0.4 kilotons, with 68 percent confidence that the yield is between 0.2 and 0.7 kilotons and a 95 percent probability that the yield is less than 1 kiloton.[8] One notable by-product of the test is that it has demonstrated that university and other independent seismic detection systems, as well as those of governments and the International Monitoring System of the Vienna-based Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, very effectively detect underground explosions in the subkiloton range.

Was It a Nuclear Test?

From the seismic data alone, the source might have been an explosion of a mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil (ANFO), an inexpensive explosive used in mining all over the world. Five hundred tons of ANFO would fill the last 60 meters of a tunnel with a height and width of about 3 meters.

The radioactivity detected in the atmosphere of the region two days after the explosion could strengthen the evidence that it was indeed a nuclear test. No information has been made public about the nature of the radioactivity that has been detected. If a nuclear test occurred, however, particulate matter and gases might have been vented at the time of the test, or radioactive gases might subsequently have seeped out through the cracks in the rocks above the explosion.

We focus here on two radioactive xenon isotopes, Xe-133 and Xe-135, with half-lives of about five days and 0.4 days, respectively, that are often detected after underground tests. Xenon is chemically unreactive, like helium, and therefore does not plate out on the surfaces of cracks in the rock or get scrubbed out of the atmosphere by rain. We assume that the weapon was made of plutonium. North Korea is known to have enough plutonium to make at least several Nagasaki-type weapons, although it is alleged also to have a clandestine uranium-enrichment program.[9] The ratio of the production of Xe-135 and Xe-133 in plutonium fission is known. Because the Xe-135 decays much more rapidly, the ratio of their concentrations in the plume provides a rough measure of the number of Xe-135 half-lives and therefore the time since the test.[10]

It would require the fission of about 60 grams of plutonium to produce a yield of 1 kiloton. That much fission would produce about 2 grams each of Xe-133 and Xe-135. Because of their radioactivity, these xenon isotopes can be detected at levels of about 1,000 and 100 atoms per cubic meter of air respectively.

Martin Kalinowski has provided us with a calculated trajectory of the first gas that might have been released by the test. By the end of the third day, he estimates that the plume would have traveled about 1,000 kilometers in a zig-zag track over the Sea of Japan.[11] At that point, the plume might be 1 kilometer high by 200 kilometers wide. If the radioactive xenon produced by a 1-kiloton underground explosion were released into the atmosphere at a typical rate of 0.1 percent per day of the undecayed xenon, the concentration of Xe-133 and Xe-135 in the plume would still be 100 and 10 times above the detection limit respectively. If the ratio of Xe-133 and Xe-135 concentrations was consistent with the time of the explosion, that would verify that it was nuclear.

Indeed, detection of Xe-133 alone after even a week or more could in itself confirm the nuclear nature of the explosion, but its trajectory would have to be “backcast” to make sure that it was not due to leakage from reactors in South Korea or Japan. Much more could be learned if particles as well as gas leaked from the explosion, including its yield and whether it truly was a plutonium device.[12]

Was It a Successful Test?

Much has been made of the apparently low yield of the North Korean test in comparison to the first U.S. plutonium explosive, the Nagasaki bomb, which had a yield of about 20 kilotons. In the Nagasaki bomb, tons of high explosive served to implode a solid subcritical sphere of plutonium to a higher density to make it supercritical. If Pyongyang tried to replicate the Nagasaki design, it is indeed likely that something went wrong.

Before the Nagasaki bomb was used in August 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the bomb-design effort at Los Alamos, wrote to General Leslie Groves, the overall head of the U.S. nuclear-weapon effort, that there was a 2 percent chance that the yield could be lower than 1 kiloton.[13] This would happen if a neutron started the chain reaction just when the plutonium first became critical, 10 millionths of a second before it reached its maximum supercriticality. The reason was that there was a 2 percent probability that the plutonium would produce a neutron spontaneously and start the chain reaction early. Other possibilities in the North Korean test are that extra neutrons might have been generated by the alpha particles from plutonium decays interacting with light-element impurities or the neutron initiator might have been mistimed and fired too early or too late.

The fact that the weapon designers predicted a 4-kiloton yield suggests, however, that they were not aiming for the Nagasaki design. The Nagasaki bomb weighed about 4 tons, much more than could be lifted by any North Korean missile. Perhaps North Korea’s weapon designers tried to go directly to a weapon in the 500-1,000-kilogram class that could reach South Korea on a Scud missile, Japan on a Nodong missile, or the United States on a Scud launched from an offshore merchant ship.

A 4-kiloton or even a 1-kiloton explosive would still be a terrifying weapon. Recall that the 1995 Oklahoma City explosion involved only a few tons of ANFO. A 1-kiloton bomb could kill people in an area of about one square mile and partially destroy a much larger area.[14] Most of these deaths would be from fire or from the prompt nuclear radiation.

If, as the seismologists have concluded, the yield of the explosion was much less than the design yield, North Korea can have little faith in its nuclear-weapon stockpile. It is likely that its weapons team will regroup. The North Korean government has already raised the possibility of a second test.[15]

Richard L. Garwin is an IBM fellow emeritus at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights, New York, and Frank N. von Hippel is a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University.

Nuclear Forensics and the North Korean Test

Harold Smith

The power and versatility of nuclear forensics, particularly radio-chemical techniques, could not have been better demonstrated than by its application to the recent underground test in North Korea.[1] Some might have thought that all the debris from the explosion would have been contained in the underground cavity. After all, that was the original purpose of testing underground.

In fact, any nuclear explosion creates radioactive noble gases, notably xenon and krypton, that do not combine with other elements in the geologic structure. Therefore, they can more easily leak to the surface and into the atmosphere where they can be detected beyond national boundaries. Because at least two different gases escape, it is possible for radio-chemists to determine if the fissile material was plutonium or uranium, which of course is exactly what happened. (Press reports said the material was plutonium.)[2] Unfortunately, the chemists cannot determine much more. If there has not been direct venting to the atmosphere, they will not be able to answer the mystery of why Pyongyang’s device seems to have produced such a low nuclear yield, reportedly less than one kiloton, or less than 5 percent of the yield of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

The same would not be true if a nuclear weapon were exploded above ground. Then, the debris would be unfiltered, and much more critical information could be obtained, such as the sophistication of its design and whether there exists a stockpile containing fissile material with similar isotopes. The last should be a key consideration for North Korea or any other government that might contemplate providing nuclear materials to terrorists.

Thanks to the inspections associated with implementation of the 1994 Agreed Framework, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and/or the United States may possess the isotopic data of the North Korean plutonium. North Korea must be made aware that use of its fissile material can be traced to Pyongyang and that it must anticipate the retribution that would follow if any of its weapons or fissile material should be used by any of its accomplices or customers. Perhaps, this is the time for the Bush administration to speak directly to the North Korean government and make this clear.

Pyongyang might conclude that President George W. Bush was not making an idle boast when he said October 9 that “the transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable of the consequences of such action” One can hope, therefore, that forensic science combined with strong and credible diplomacy can deter North Korea from passing plutonium to terrorists or to other countries.

Harold Smith is a distinguished visiting scholar and professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley. He served as assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs during the Clinton administration.


1. For more information on nuclear forensics, see William Dunlop and Harold Smith, “Who Did It? Using International Forensics to Detect and Deter Nuclear Terrorism,” Arms Control Today, October 2006, pp. 6-10.

2. David Sanger, “North Korean Fuel Identified as Plutonium,” The New York Times, October 17, 2006, p. A-11.



1. “Analysis of air samples collected on October 11, 2006 detected radioactive debris which confirms that North Korea conducted an underground nuclear explosion in the vicinity of P’unggye on October 9, 2006. The explosion yield was less than a kiloton.” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Statement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence,” press release, October 16, 2006, http://www.odni.gov/announcements/20061016_release.pdf.

2. Mark Mazzetti, “Preliminary Samples Hint at North Korean Nuclear Test,” The New York Times, October 14, 2006.

3. For a stable tectonic setting such as Novaya Zemlya, the relationship between explosive yield Y (in kilotons) and magnitude (mb) is approximately mb = 4.45 + 0.75 log Y. See http://www.iris.edu/news/IRISnewsletter/fallnews/political.html. For other Mb-Y relationships, see Lynn R. Sykes and Göran Ekström, “Comparison of Seismic and Hydrodynamic Yield Determinations for the Soviet Joint Verification Experiment of 1988,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, Vol. 86, May 1989, p. 3456. According to this paper, for a low-yield test in hard rock or below the water table, a 0.5 increase in Mb would translate into an increase in yield by a factor of about three.

4. The coordinates are given as 41.294 N, 129.094 E, and the depth is given as shallow. See U.S. Geological Survey, “Magnitude 4.2 – North Korea,” http://earthquake.usgs.gov/eqcenter/recenteqsww/Quakes/ustqab.php.

5. Lee Chi-dong, “N. Korea Claims Success in Nuclear Test,” Yonhap News, October 9, 2006.

6. Lynn R. Sykes, “Dealing With Decoupled Nuclear Explosions Under a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty,” in Monitoring a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, eds. E. S. Husebye and A. M. Dainty (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995).

7. Terry Wallace, personal communication with authors, October 14, 2006.

8. Lynn R. Sykes, personal communication with authors, October 15, 2006.

9. North Korea produced an estimated 30-40 kilograms of plutonium prior to 1994. See David Albright and Kevin O’Neill, Solving the North Korean Nuclear Puzzle ( Institute of Science and International Security Press, 2000). Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, visited North Korea in January 2004 and August 2005. According to Hecker, he was told during his first visit that North Korea had reprocessed all the pre-1994 spent fuel stored at its Yongbyon plutonium-production reactor. During his second visit, he was told that reprocessing of fuel that had been irradiated from February 2003 through March 2005 was almost complete. (Between 1994 and 2003, the reactor was shut down by an agreement brokered by former President Jimmy Carter.) See Paul Kerr, “ North Korea Increasing Weapons Capabilities,” Arms Control Today, December 2005, pp. 33-34.

10. Martin Kalinowski, “Characterization of Prompt and Delayed Atmospheric Radioactivity Releases From Underground Nuclear Tests at Nevada as a Function of Release Time” (unpublished). See also Martin Kalinowski, et al., Preparation of a Global Radioxenon Emission Inventory: Understanding Sources of Radioactive Xenon Routinely Found in the Atmosphere by the International Monitoring System for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, Arms Control Disarmament and International Security Research Report, University of Illinois, December 2005.

11. Martin Kalinowski, personal communication with authors, October 12, 2006.

12. Press reports suggest that such evidence has been obtained but give no specifics. Thom Shanker and David Sanger, “North Korean Fuel Identified as Plutonium,” The New York Times, October 17, 2006. At press time, the South Korean government announced that it had detected radioactive xenon from the North Korean test, The Associated Press, October 25, 2006.

13. Albert Wohlstetter, “Spreading the Bomb Without Quite Breaking the Rules,” Foreign Policy 25, (Winter 1976-77), p. 160.

14. Richard L. Garwin, “Nuclear and Biological Megaterrorsim,” August 21, 2002, http://www.fas.org/rlg/020821-terrorism.htm.

15. “N. Korea Raises Threat of New Test,” BBC, October 11, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/6039438.stm.

Number Nine

Daryl G. Kimball

North Korea’s October 9 nuclear test explosion could cause irreparable damage to an already beleaguered global nonproliferation system. Unless the world’s ninth active nuclear weapons program is verifiably halted and reversed through more effective diplomacy, the test may be the tipping point that prompts other states to follow suit. The blast should also trigger far more energetic action to tighten global nuclear nonproliferation standards and ensure universal compliance with those already on the books.

UN Security Council Resolution 1718 rightly condemns North Korea for its half-kiloton yield nuclear blast and calls for its return to the negotiating table. North Korea’s leaders now say they will rejoin six-party talks on their nuclear program. If they do, the Bush administration must seize what could be the last best opportunity to check Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities. It must finally engage in genuine diplomacy to implement the step-by-step process of verifiable disarmament in exchange for normalized relations as outlined in a joint statement last year.

After six-years and four previous rounds of inclusive six-party talks, there can be little doubt that the Bush administration’s approach has failed: Pyongyang has hunkered-down and accelerated its nuclear bomb program. Punitive sanctions alone cannot reverse its nuclear program or force the collapse of the already-isolated Kim Jong Il regime. Nor do North Korea’s insecure leaders appear capable of making a bold, Libya-like decision to completely eliminate their nuclear weapons program for fear it would jeopardize the regime’s survival.

For now, North Korea possesses fissile material for fewer than a dozen bombs. It is not yet capable of delivering working nuclear warheads on its ballistic missiles. Such a threat is still deterrable without the United States or other countries resorting to nuclear weapons threats. But if the crisis continues to be mismanaged and Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal grows, Tokyo and Seoul will seriously consider building their own nuclear weapons. Japan, with its large stockpile of “civilian” plutonium and new plutonium reprocessing plant, is a virtual nuclear-weapon state. If it were to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and exercise its capability, South Korea would likely do so too, and China would likely increase its arsenal of some 100 weapons.

To head off this proliferation nightmare, President George W. Bush must finally recognize that dialogue with adversaries such as North Korea is not a reward for bad behavior, but a vital tool to deal with nuclear dangers. U.S. officials should be authorized to meet separately with North Korean officials to resolve issues of concern, including U.S. financial sanctions imposed on North Korea in reaction to its money laundering activities.

To keep North Korea at the negotiating table, China’s leaders must also exert maximum diplomatic and economic influence on Pyongyang. To improve the chances that North Korea will deliver on disarmament, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States must clarify not only the costs of further defiance but the benefits of cooperation. They should develop a detailed proposal outlining the security assurances, trade benefits, and energy support that they would be prepared to provide if North Korea dismantles its nuclear complex. The first priority should be to reinstate a verifiable freeze on Pyongyang’s plutonium production, which would limit the amount of fissile material for weapons and possibly for sale to others.

The emergence of North Korea as the world’s ninth nuclear-weapon state is yet another reminder that we can no longer afford to lurch from one nuclear crisis to the next. The current U.S. policy of isolating “unfriendly” states to try to prevent proliferation while permitting “friendly” states to possess and improve their nuclear arsenals is unsustainable and a recipe for nuclear anarchy.

Today’s security environment requires a more comprehensive and balanced U.S. nonproliferation and disarmament strategy. To prevent the emergence of additional virtual nuclear-weapon states, all states should observe an indefinite moratorium on all new uranium-enrichment and plutonium-separation plants. To cap the size of existing arsenals, all states with nuclear weapons, including India, Pakistan, and Israel, should halt the production of fissile material for weapons and join the global nuclear test ban regime.

Finally, major nuclear-weapon states must restore confidence they will fulfill their NPT obligation to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons and eventually eliminate them. The United States and Russia should resume talks on further verifiable reductions of their strategic and tactical nuclear arsenals, which will still number more than 5,000 warheads each by 2012. All nuclear-weapon states should disavow the development of new types of nuclear weapons and the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states and targets. This would reduce the incentives for other states to develop their own nuclear weapons.

Ambitious? Yes. But the dangers of the bomb are growing. Without more comprehensive global leadership in all, not just some, of these areas, the struggle against nuclear proliferation will fall short and leave behind a more dangerous world for generations to come.

U.S. Nixes Arms Control in New Space Policy

Wade Boese

The Bush administration recently released a new space policy that eschews future binding measures to regulate space activities in favor of keeping open all U.S. options, including space-based anti-missile systems, to promote and protect U.S. security and space assets.

Dated Aug. 31 but issued Oct. 5, the new policy replaces a September 1996 Clinton administration version. The October document was a slimmer, unclassified version of the actual policy.

Some overlap exists between the Bush and Clinton policies. Both extol a goal of preserving U.S. “freedom of action” in space and denying the same to foes. The two policies also instruct the Pentagon to pursue space capabilities for “force enhancement, space control, and force application” missions.

Still, the Bush administration version is more muscular in tone. “Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power,” the new policy declares.

In addition, the Clinton administration policy held out the possibility of negotiating arms control and related measures if they were “equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the security of the United States and our allies.” The Bush administration strategy states the United States “will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space.”

Some aspects of the new policy were foreshadowed by a January 2001 report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, which Donald Rumsfeld chaired before becoming President George W. Bush’s secretary of defense. Declaring U.S. vulnerability to a potential “Space Pearl Harbor,” the commission warned the United States “must be cautious of agreements intended for one purpose that, when added to a larger web of treaties or regulations, may have the unintended consequences of restricting future activities in space.”

The 2001 report further recommended that Washington develop “new military capabilities for operation to, from, in, and through space” and preserve the “option to deploy weapons in space.” However, the Bush policy offers a streamlined formulation of pursuing “unhindered U.S. operations in and through space” and makes no specific mention of weapons.

Still, the new policy calls on the Pentagon to “provide space capabilities to support…multi-layered and integrated missile defenses.” The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) will be seeking $45 million in the administration’s upcoming fiscal year 2008 budget request to begin conducting “space-based interceptor feasibility and demonstration experiments.” All told, MDA is envisioning spending nearly $570 million through 2011 to develop space-based interceptors.

Lieutenant General Henry Obering, the head of MDA, told Arms Control Today in September 2005 that the goal is to create a space test bed comprised of “not even a handful” of interceptors for conducting experiments. (See ACT, November 2005.) The Fort Greely, Alaska, ground-based midcourse defense missile interceptor base was originally described as a test bed and is now the core of the administration’s rudimentary missile defense system. “Being able to go from a test bed into an operational status in a very short amount of time is something that is an advantage, not a disadvantage,” Obering stated.

In an Oct. 19 interview with Arms Control Today, a congressional source who requested anonymity said the test bed could be a stepping stone to a more expansive interceptor network. This perception, the source commented, could lead lawmakers to resist the space missile defense plans, particularly because Congress recently chastised the administration for devoting too many resources to futuristic concepts instead of more near-term technologies. The administration tends “to push the envelope,” the source said.

The administration also draws a distinction between space-based missile interceptors and weapons in space. “The notion that you would do defense from space is different than the weaponization of space,” White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters Oct. 18.

This perspective is not shared abroad, particularly by China and Russia. Motivated in large part by U.S. missile defense plans, the two countries have sought for the past several years to begin negotiations or less formal talks on the prevention of an arms race in outer space in the 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva.

Because the conference works by consensus, the United States has been able to block this initiative despite its broad support. At the same time, other conference members, led by China and Russia, have rejected Washington’s call for the CD to focus exclusively on negotiating a treaty ending the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

Lieutenant Colonel Randi Steffy, a spokesperson for U.S. Strategic Command, which manages U.S. military space operations, told Arms Control Today Oct. 19 in an e-mail that a new policy was necessary because over the past decade “technology advances have increased the importance of and use of space.” Noting that some countries are expanding their space capabilities, Steffy added that, “unfortunately, we anticipate some will challenge the free use of space.”

In an incident first reported Sept. 25 by Defense News and subsequently confirmed by U.S. officials, China at an unspecified time “illuminated” a U.S. satellite with a ground-based laser. Although reportedly no damage was done, a laser could blind or disable satellites.

The United States in 1997 test-fired a laser at a U.S. satellite, but Steffy declined to say whether the United States has illuminated foreign satellites. “As a matter of principle, we do not discuss specific vulnerabilities, threats, responses or steps to mitigate,” Steffy wrote.

Washington contends that there is no arms race in space and that existing restraints are sufficient. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space and outlaws military activities on celestial bodies. In June 2002, the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which barred the development, testing, and deployment of nationwide strategic ballistic missile defenses, including space-based systems.

LOOKING BACK: The Destructive Legacy of Plutonium Reprocessing

James P. Thomas

On February 27, 1986, the Department of Energy released a six-foot-high stack of documents, 19,000 pages in all, concerning the Hanford plutonium plant in south-central Washington State. Most of the documents had been classified as secret or otherwise not available to the public. The shocking contents of those documents helped launch an unprecedented wave of scrutiny of America’s nuclear weapons complex.

Within three years, safety concerns forced the closure of nearly every major U.S. nuclear weapons manufacturing plant. Over the past 20 years, pressure from citizens, tribes, and state officials has forced the government to provide far more information about Hanford’s lethal legacy, although some important details remain classified.

The 1986 collection encompassed 40 years of environmental monitoring reports on plutonium manufacturing at the Hanford Nuclear Site. Originally part of the Manhattan Project, Hanford contributed nearly two-thirds of America’s weapons-grade plutonium. It was built and operated under government contract by corporations such as DuPont (1943-1946) and General Electric (1946-1964).

Before the 1986 revelations, the public and even many workers knew few details about what Hanford had done during its 40-year history of producing plutonium for the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. What those six feet of documents revealed was disturbing: Hanford’s routine plutonium operations had inundated parts of four states— Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and Washington—with large amounts of radioactive materials. Some had even seeped over the border and into Canada. Hanford’s plutonium factory discharged hundreds of thousands of curies[1] of radioactive iodine-131 into the air and millions of curies of various radionuclides into the Columbia River, some of which reached the Pacific Ocean. Nearly all of Hanford’s environmental releases occurred between 1944 and 1964.

Most surprising of all, the huge releases were not the result of accidents, but rather the consequence of routine operations. Although Hanford officials were aware of the danger posed to nearby residents, they were far more concerned with preserving secrecy and increasing plutonium production. Hanford scientists even avoided collecting samples of the contamination so as not to raise any public concern. No wonder it took more than four decades for those exposed to learn of Hanford’s menace.

Because the two wartime reprocessing plants initially had no stack filters, Hanford spewed nearly all of its total iodine-131 atmospheric releases during the first three years (1944-1947). Prevailing winds blew the iodine-131 onto pastures throughout eastern Washington, northeastern Oregon, and the Idaho panhandle. Cows and goats grazed on the contaminated pasture grass, concentrating the radioactive contamination in their milk. People unwittingly drank the contaminated milk, especially young children, whose rapidly developing thyroids received the largest doses. Stable iodine is a nutrient required for the proper development and functioning of the thyroid gland, but those people whose thyroids are exposed to radiation during childhood are at higher risk for developing thyroid cancer later in life. The earlier in life a person is exposed, the higher the risk. Even though Hanford managers knew as early as the first year of operations about the milk contamination, they decided against notifying the public.

Hanford’s plutonium-production reactors pumped more than 100 million curies into the Columbia River. DuPont built three reactors during World War II, and General Electric added five larger ones as the Cold War escalated. All eight had once-through cooling. This process pumped river water directly through the reactor core, where trace amounts of minerals became activated in the intense radiation field.

Following a short time in hold-up basins to allow for some radioactive decay and thermal cooling, the still-contaminated water poured back into the Columbia River. Hanford engineers initially designed the basins to retain the cooling water from four to six hours before its return to the river. Yet, as the reactor’s operating levels dramatically increased in the late 1950s to produce plutonium for the escalating U.S. nuclear arsenal, the retention time dropped to as little as 15 minutes. The result was a dramatic increase in the amount of radioactive contamination present in drinking water for nearby towns and in aquatic life and animals dependent on the river. By chance, scientists discovered significant contamination in oysters along the Pacific coasts of Washington and Oregon. The effluents from Hanford’s plutonium-production reactors made the Columbia River the most radioactively polluted waterway outside of the Soviet Union.

People who had lived in the area during the years of highest releases (1945-1964) wanted to know whether their health problems were caused by radiation from Hanford. In response to these concerns, the federal government launched two scientific studies about the Hanford releases and their impact. The first was the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction (HEDR) project. Its purpose was to estimate the amount of ionizing radiation released from Hanford, to determine which areas were contaminated, and to calculate the dose levels of radiation that individuals sustained.

The second was an epidemiology study that assessed whether those exposed as children to Hanford’s atmospheric releases of iodine-131 were at a higher risk for thyroid cancer than those without similar exposures. Funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle conducted the Hanford Thyroid Disease Study (HTDS).

In 1987 the Energy Department directed the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to carry out the HEDR project. This choice was controversial as Battelle, which operated PNNL, was a longtime contractor at Hanford. Because of concerns about a conflict of interest, the Energy Department created a Technical Steering Panel to guide the study in 1988 and transferred funding to the CDC in 1992. The final reports were issued in 1994.

Because Hanford’s environmental monitoring program had not collected enough samples throughout its 40 years of operations to support a dose reconstruction effort, Battelle had to develop computer models to estimate the amounts of radiation released from the plants, how those releases were transported through the environment, and what foods were consumed by people in the exposure area and in what amounts. HEDR’s work established that as many as two million people had been exposed to potentially harmful amounts of radiation.

The second study examined more than 3,000 people who had been exposed as young children during 1945-1947, the years of highest release of iodine-131. The HTDS final report was released in 2002. Study scientists concluded that the exposures to iodine-131 had not raised the number of thyroid cancers in the study population more than what would otherwise have been expected. Other scientists have criticized the study’s statistical analysis because it failed to properly account for the large uncertainty in the thyroid dose estimates. The critics posit that if the full range of dose uncertainty were incorporated into the analysis, the results would be consistent with previous epidemiology studies. The combined cost of HTDS and HEDR was approximately $53 million.

Shortly after HEDR released a preliminary set of dose estimates in 1990, lawyers representing thousands of former residents filed suit against the contractors who had operated Hanford for the federal government. The first trials were held in 2005 with mixed results. Of the six cases that went to the jury, the plaintiffs won two, and the defendant contractors won four. Each side has appealed the verdicts. To date, the litigation has cost the federal government more than $70 million, as it indemnified the contractors and agreed to pay all of their legal costs.

In addition to the huge amount of radiation transported off the Hanford site, the plutonium manufacturing operations created a vast inventory of wastes. More than 400 billion gallons of radioactive and toxic chemical wastes were discharged to the soil, contaminating more than 200 square miles of groundwater. Years beyond their design life, 177 underground storage tanks hold approximately 50 million gallons of high-level wastes. More than one-third of these tanks have leaked. Mammoth quantities of solid wastes have been buried in unlined disposal trenches. When one considers the numerous leaks from transfer pipes at the site as well as the contamination of the reactors and process buildings, it is not difficult to imagine why some observers have labeled Hanford a national sacrifice zone.

Although cleanup of Hanford originally was estimated to cost $50 billion and to take until 2018 to complete, recent estimates put costs at more than $60 billion and completion at 2035 at the earliest. Yet, the Energy Department has already spent more than $31 billion on the project. With more than 30 years left, the total expenditures could approach $100 billion.

Hanford is not alone. The Energy Department also is cleaning up reprocessing wastes in South Carolina and Idaho. A commercial attempt at reprocessing spent fuel operated for six years in West Valley, New York, but the plant became so contaminated that it became inoperable. The federal government took over the cleanup 24 years ago, but even with this massive effort, much of the job remains to be done.

Despite the lessons of Hanford and these other locations, the Bush administration continues to press Congress to fund the development of a new “responsive infrastructure” to provide the United States with the capability to produce additional nuclear weapons. As the U.S. experience with manufacturing materials for nuclear weapons attests, producing nuclear weapons is costly, not only in dollars but in environmental and health consequences. These costs need to be weighed against strategic objectives.

If the United States continues to maintain nuclear weapons as part of its national security establishment, then it needs to ensure that the development of those weapons does not put its citizens at risk. All manufacturing facilities should be scrutinized to ensure they are in compliance with established environmental, safety, and health standards. Countries should also learn from the U.S. production woes and think twice before constructing any new sites.


James P. Thomas is a Seattle-based consultant in historical research and policy development. He has been involved in Hanford plutonium plant issues since 1984 as a citizen activist, research director of the Hanford Health Information Network, and a paralegal.


1. A curie is a unit of measure for radioactivity. By way of comparison, the accident at Three Mile Island released an estimated 15-24 curies of iodine-131.

NEWS ANALYSIS: The Growing Nuclear Fuel-Cycle Debate

Oliver Meier reporting from Vienna

A series of nuclear-related crises and a growing interest by several countries in nuclear energy production has revived interest in ways to prevent the spread of nuclear technologies that can be easily misused for the production of nuclear weapons materials.

Since the dawn of the nuclear age, governments have cast about for ways to manage the dual-use nature of nuclear technology. In the 1970s and 1980s, several proposals were discussed for creating an international framework to govern uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, but none were implemented.

However, these concerns have taken on a new life as fears have grown that Iran may misuse its nuclear fuel-cycle facilities to produce nuclear weapons materials and after Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan’s clandestine nuclear black market network was unmasked.

Against this background, countries such as Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and nongovernmental organizations such as the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the World Nuclear Association (WNA) are offering novel suggestions on how to rein in this dual-use technology. Although they have yet to agree on a plan, a late September IAEA General Conference and Special Event on the subject indicated growing convergence about the way forward. Most proposals take a cue from IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei and offer various means to establish multilateral control over the nuclear fuel cycle.

The Consensus

First, the proposals generally agree that any fuel-supply mechanism should not disturb the international market for nuclear fuel services. Currently, four large commercial entities provide low-enriched uranium (LEU) for nuclear power: Urenco, managed jointly by Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom; Eurodif, a multinational company headquartered in France; the United States Enrichment Corporation; and Tenex, based in Russia. Together, these providers currently produce enough LEU to satisfy global demand.

LEU can be manufactured into fuel for light-water reactors, by far the most common type of reactor in use globally.

Many of the proposals seek to ensure the market neutrality of a future supply mechanism by designing it as a “reserve” that would be tapped only if supply is interrupted.

Second, advocates concur that the establishment of multilateral fuel-cycle arrangements should be implemented step by step. The front end of the nuclear fuel cycle, that is, the supply of nuclear fuel and in particular LEU for power production, is seen as the most urgent issue to be addressed. How to deal with the back end—nuclear waste and reprocessing of spent fuel—should be addressed at a later stage.

Third, there seems to be broad agreement that having a diverse set of complementary “fuel reserves” may be better than relying on a single source of supply.

Fourth, setting up stockpiles of LEU is seen as more practical than establishing stockpiles of fabricated nuclear fuel. Fuel assemblies are manufactured to the specifications of every reactor type and sometimes specifically for each reactor, making a fuel bank containing nuclear fuel for all possible recipients impractical.

Beyond these shared characteristics, a variety of unique proposals have been advanced.

Global Visions: U.S. and Russian Proposals

The United States and Russia have offered the most far-reaching visions for a global supply mechanism. Both have offered to provide a range of nuclear energy services ranging from fuel supply to fuel take-back and reprocessing.

Under the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), launched in January by the United States, countries that renounce fuel-cycle activities would become eligible to receive U.S. nuclear fuel. Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dennis R. Spurgeon explained Sept. 19 at the IAEA special event that “the purpose of GNEP is to facilitate the safe, secure, and economic expansion of nuclear energy.” It intends to accomplish this by developing and providing novel, proliferation-resistant nuclear technologies as well as fresh fuel and spent-fuel management, with a particular focus on developing countries.

Spurgeon also provided additional details about a separate U.S. offer to down-blend 17.4 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) removed from the U.S. defense program and set the resulting LEU aside in a domestically held reserve, a proposal first announced a year ago. Such a stock, equivalent to six to eight core refuelings of an average light-water reactor, could complement reserves established under control of the IAEA, Spurgeon said. Gregory Schulte, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, said in a Sept. 20 interview with Arms Control Today that the United States is not willing to consider making this material part of an international stockpile because U.S. law requires national control over such material. Schulte conceded that, “for some countries, that will provide reassurance, but for others, perhaps it won’t.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Jan. 25 announced the Global Nuclear Power Infrastructure (GNPI) to provide nuclear power services through a network of international nuclear fuel-cycle centers (INFCC). In an article in the September 2006 issue of the IAEA Bulletin, S. V. Ruchkin and Vladimir Loginov of Tenex said that GNPI-INFCC “is aimed primarily at countries who are developing nuclear power but not planning to establish indigenous uranium-enrichment and [spent nuclear fuel] reprocessing capabilities.” Access would be restricted to countries “meeting established non-proliferation requirements.”

Russia, which apparently has huge surplus uranium-enrichment capacities, boasts that its proposal can be implemented quickly. In a presentation at the IAEA event, Ruchkin emphasized that “key preconditions” for setting up an international enrichment facility “are supposed to be provided by the end of the year.” An international uranium-enrichment center will be established at the Angarsk Electrolysis Chemical Complex, in the city of Angarsk in east Siberia, and could start operating in 2007, he said.

As with GNEP, Russian officials also hope that the centers eventually house reactors with a new proliferation-resistant means of burning some of the elements in spent fuel for additional energy, according to other Russian experts.

Although no decision has been made on the exact legal basis for such a center, membership in the consortium would clearly guarantee access to its services and products but not the technology itself. The center itself would be run by Russia.

The Six-Parties Proposal

In June, the six states that operate the largest, commercial enrichment facilities presented a joint Concept for a Multilateral Mechanism for Reliable Access to Nuclear Fuel (RANF). France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States proposed to establish a “last resort safety net” to address potential supply problems. The initiative is vague on specifics but offers a “multi-tiered set of measures” to establish both basic assurances as well as a reserve of enriched uranium that could serve as a backup mechanism in case supplies were interrupted for nontechnical and noncommercial reasons. The IAEA would play the role of an arbiter and also be responsible for making technical judgments about the eligibility of access to the mechanism. The proposal has become a kind of umbrella under which more specific fuel-bank ideas have been advanced.

Limited Proposals

In May 2006, the WNA, a private-sector alliance of major nuclear power enterprises, issued an expert group report that recommended a layered approach to enrichment fuel services. At first, interruptions of supply would be addressed through normal market procedures. If these mechanisms fail and if the IAEA finds that an enrichment contract has been breached for bilateral political reasons unrelated to nonproliferation, it would intervene and invoke collective guarantees by enrichers and thus assure the supply of nuclear fuel from other sources. Should it still be impossible to solve the supply problem, nationally held stocks of enriched uranium product, such as that proposed by the United States, could be used to fill any possible gap. In order to be market neutral, such material could be produced by down-blending HEU stocks from former military stocks.

The most novel offer under discussion in Vienna was the announcement by the privately funded NTI to donate $50 million, provided by NTI adviser and U.S. billionaire Warren Buffet, to create an LEU stockpile owned and managed by the IAEA. NTI would donate the money under two conditions: that within two years, one or several IAEA member states contribute an additional $100 million, and that the agency take “the necessary actions to approve establishment of this reserve,” former Senator and NTI Co-Chairman Sam Nunn said Sept. 19. “Every other element of the arrangement,” Nunn emphasized, “would be up to the IAEA and its member states to decide.”

Still, Laura Holgate, vice president for the Russia/New Independent States Programs at NTI, offered some ideas “in order to advance the discussion of an IAEA fuel reserve.” According to Holgate, NTI believes that such a reserve should be in the form of uranium hexaflouride enriched to a level of 4.9 percent, which is a typical enrichment level for reactor fuel. The initial $150 million would be sufficient to purchase 50-60 metric tons of such materials, the equivalent of one loading of a standard power reactor.

“In order to be seen as a true backup to an extant commercial fuel service contract,” the stockpile would have to be physically placed outside the current six supplier states, Holgate argued.

NTI President Charles Curtis, who chaired the IAEA special event, emphasized in a Sept. 28 interview with Arms Control Today that NTI wanted to shift the discussion from setting conditions to providing assurances for states to dissuade countries from investing in domestic fuel-cycle capabilities. “You’re not going to have states trading away their rights to technology,” Curtis stated.

On Sept. 12, Japan proposed an IAEA Standby Arrangements System for the Assurance of Nuclear Fuel Supply. The proposal is supposed to complement the six-party proposal in two ways. First, Japan’s proposal suggests addressing all front-end nuclear fuel-cycle activities, from uranium mining to fuel fabrication. Secondly, Japan suggests establishing an early warning mechanism operated by the IAEA. The agency would collect and analyze declarations of all participating supplier states and, based on those reports, alert member states of imminent market failures.

In a different take on the idea of fuel-supply assurances, the United Kingdom suggested issuing ”enrichment bonds” as a means of guaranteeing enrichment services. These bonds would be legal arrangements between the supplier state and company, the recipient state and the IAEA that “would guarantee that, subject to compliance with international law and to meeting the nonproliferation commitments to be assessed by the IAEA, national enrichment providers will not be prevented from supplying the recipient state with enrichment services in the event the guarantee is invoked.”

The thrust of the proposal is to increase the confidence that export approvals will be given by placing the final judgment on the export of LEU in the hands of the IAEA and that other issues or political considerations will not stand in the way of nuclear trade. According to notes on its policy that British officials distributed for the special IAEA meeting, such an approach would “significantly limit the criteria upon which export approvals are normally based (to include only nonproliferation considerations)” but argues that “governments must ultimately be prepared to relinquish some rights in exchange for a broader nonproliferation gain.”

Germany also joined the debate with a late and ambitious proposal. In a Sept. 18 interview with the German daily Handelsblatt, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, noting that the IAEA statute provided for the agency to build and operate its own nuclear facilities, proposed to place “multilateral uranium enrichment under the auspices of the IAEA and its export controls.” Steinmeier suggested that a third country could provide an exterritorial area for a uranium-enrichment plant. The facility would be financed by recipient countries that would then have the right to acquire nuclear fuel.

In a Sept. 19 press conference in Vienna, German Secretary of State of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology Joachim Würmeling placed the German proposal in the context of a midterm solution to the concerns about Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs. Würmeling explained that companies from established nuclear enrichment countries would construct the new facility, which would operate as a “black box.” Fuel recipients that currently do not enrich domestically would have no direct access to the facility. The German proposal is not market neutral because it would de facto establish a new competitor on the world market for nuclear fuel services.

Würmeling announced that Berlin would forward its initiative during the first half of 2007, when Germany holds both the EU Presidency and the Group of Eight chair. In a statement to the German Parliament on Oct. 19, Steinmeier described international reactions to his proposal as “encouraging.”

Mixed Reactions

Many speakers, including ElBaradei, emphasized that assurance of supply mechanisms are “not an attempt to divide the nuclear community into suppliers and recipients.” However, it was notable that all proposals to establish fuel reserves or other supply mechanisms emerged from current or potential nuclear fuel suppliers.

Many potential recipients, mostly from developing countries, remained either indifferent or voiced fears that a new “cartel” might be created. Many of them based their positions on the “inalienable right” of nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty states-parties to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Iranian Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh in his statement to the general conference echoed these sentiments by warning “that the developed countries are seeing to create a monopoly” on uranium enrichment.

Malaysia was less critical. In a Sept. 20 statement to the IAEA general conference, Daud Mohamad, director-general of the Malaysian Institute for Nuclear Technology Research, cautioned that a multilateral approach to the nuclear fuel cycle should not be discriminatory. Nonetheless, he said that that it “should provide a more economically attractive option for developing countries embarking on a nuclear power generation program, particularly those countries with a relatively small nuclear program involving only a handful of nuclear power plants.” Malaysia currently does not operate nuclear power reactors but is studying the possibility of doing so.

All proponents of a fuel-bank mechanism emphasize that participation in a multilateral mechanism should be voluntary although eligibility of access might depend on various conditions, such as first renouncing enrichment and reprocessing ambitions.

It is not clear how such voluntary mechanisms would jibe with technology denial approaches, such as the one favored by the United States. The most recent round of the fuel-cycle debate was kicked off in February 2004, when President George W. Bush proposed an international agreement among nuclear supplier states to deny exports of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to countries that do not currently operate such facilities. Schulte confirmed this policy remains in place as far as the United States is concerned. “We still think that it is very important to prevent the further spread of enrichment technologies,” he said.

Some argued that attempts to restrict access to critical nuclear technologies has had unintended side effects. The recent interest of some states in expanding the scope of their nuclear activities has been explained by a desire to join the club of states operating a nuclear fuel cycle before membership is closed. Schulte acknowledged the debate but denied a causal link between U.S. export control policies and the recent expression of interest by Argentina, Australia, South Africa, and South Korea in establishing fuel-cycle facilities. “I don’t buy that argument. I’ve spoken to representatives of all those countries, and these decisions have been in many cases in the works for a number of years,” he stated.

The debate was further complicated by the unclear division between suppliers and recipients. For example, Japan currently enriches uranium only for domestic purposes but intends to export nuclear fuel in the future. It said it rejects the “dichotomy” inherent in the RANF proposal, which differentiates between suppliers and customer of nuclear services. Tokyo’s proposal for a standby arrangement is explicitly intended to bridge that gap.

Canada and Australia currently export uranium ore and provide other fuel services but may not want to foreclose the possibility of enriching uranium in the future. South Africa said that “some might choose to pursue sensitive fuel cycle activities in a limited way or only for research activities.” Brazil presented itself in Vienna as a supplier rather than as a recipient of nuclear fuel services.

There was also a notion that the discussion about fuel-supply arrangements is a solution looking for a problem. Historically, the “breakout” option has not played a large role in proliferation. States that developed nuclear weapons illegally or in a clandestine manner have preferred to set up dedicated military facilities to produce fissile material for the bomb instead of misusing civil facilities for that purpose.

Because the international market provides for reliable access to nuclear fuel from a variety of sources, it is also not quite clear what the added economic value of participating in a fuel-bank proposal is. Existing arrangements already provide certain assurances of supply because standard supply contracts for reactor-grade fuel contain clauses that place the responsibility for uninterrupted services on the supplier. Historically, supplies have rarely been interrupted.

In addition, any fuel-bank mechanism would have to overcome legal obstacles, including the practice of supplier states to maintain consent rights over any fissile material they deliver.

The Way Forward

Any multilateral fuel-supply assurance mechanism would have to overcome a variety of political, legal, and technical obstacles, but several speakers felt that discussions on such a model are already more specific and advanced than ever before. Richard J. K. Stratford, director of the Office of Nuclear Energy, Safety and Security at the U.S. Department of State, pointed out that “today there are numerous suppliers who are willing to take specific steps, and to spend their own money, to implement fuel supply assurances, and for many of the same reasons as in the 1980s.” ElBaradei in his statement to the IAEA special event said that “the urgent need for such a scheme today may help us to succeed.” He warned that “[w]e will all share in the benefits if we succeed, and we will share the risks if we fail.”

In the coming months, the IAEA secretariat will be preparing a “road map” for consideration by the IAEA Board of Governors in 2007. ElBaradei in his opening statement and Curtis in his chairman’s report agreed that establishment of a mechanism to ensure the supply of nuclear fuel should be considered first, starting with those proposals that are easiest to implement. Real “internationalization” of the fuel cycle, including the possible multilateralization of fuel-cycle facilities, is envisaged only in the long term, they said.

IAEA spokesperson Peter Rickwood told Arms Control Today on Oct. 20 that no decisions had been made on when the secretariat would deliver such a report or what its format might be.

Russia, Iran Sign Deal to Fuel Bushehr Reactor

Paul Kerr

Iran and Russia have concluded a revised schedule for Russia to fuel a light-water nuclear power reactor that a Russian contractor is constructing near the Iranian city of Bushehr.

According to Sergey Shmatko, head of the Russian contractor for the project, the two countries signed an agreement Sept. 26 providing that Russia would deliver the low-enriched uranium fuel for the reactor by March 2007, RIA Novosti reported. The reactor is to begin operating in September 2007 and begin providing energy two months later.

In February 2005, the two countries concluded an agreement to supply fuel for the reactor for a period of 10 years. At that time, Alexander Rumyantsev, then-director of the Russian Federal Agency for Atomic Energy, said the reactor would begin operating in late 2006, with the fuel to be delivered about six months earlier. (See ACT, April 2005.)

However, the project has since been delayed. Although Russian officials have characterized the delays as resulting from technical issues, officials from other countries have said that foot-dragging also has likely played a role. Iranian officials for their part have expressed frustration with the pace of the reactor construction. According to the official Islamic Republic News Agency, Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who also heads Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, told reporters Sept. 25 that the delays were caused by technical issues as well as incompetence on the part of the Russian contractor.

The project has encountered repeated delays since Russia agreed in 1995 to finish the reactor. The original German contractor abandoned the project following Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

The September agreement came as Russia and five other countries were attempting to persuade Iran to resume negotiations designed to resolve international concerns about its gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program, which the United States believes to be part of a nuclear weapons program. Tehran contends that the program is meant to produce fuel for other future nuclear reactors.

Subsequently, Tehran’s failure to meet an October deadline for resuming negotiations prompted the UN Security Council to take up discussions again on a resolution that would take punitive actions against Iran.

The resolution could affect the fuel-delivery schedule, but Russian officials have repeatedly said that Moscow intends to move ahead with the reactor.

For example, the current head of Russia’s atomic energy ministry, Sergei Kiriyenko, indicated during an early September interview with Reuters that the project was not linked to the other Iranian nuclear issues. “As long as the plant does not violate nonproliferation requirements…there will be no obstacles,” he said. Additionally, Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov said that Moscow “will fulfill all its obligations” with respect to the project, RIA Novosti reported Oct. 3.

Nevertheless, U.S. and European officials have told Arms Control Today that they believe Moscow is pressuring Tehran by slowing work on the project. Press reports have indicated that work has slowed, but Russia has not explicitly linked the project’s pace to Iran’s compliance with UN demands. (See ACT, May 2006.)

The United States had previously urged Russia to end work on the project. But U.S. officials said in 2002 that Washington would drop its public objections if Moscow took steps, such as requiring Iran to return the spent fuel to Russia, to mitigate the project’s proliferation risks.

The 2005 deal includes such a provision, designed to reduce the risk that Iran will separate plutonium from the spent fuel. Separated plutonium can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons. Tehran does not have a known facility for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to obtain plutonium, although it has conducted related experiments.

Russia also contends that the reactor will not pose a proliferation risk because it will operate under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. Agency safeguards agreements require states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to allow the agency to monitor their declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure that they are not diverted to military use.


Russia Looks to Tighten U.S. Nuclear Ties

Miles A. Pomper

Russian officials are eager to work with the United States both to increase their share of the U.S. civil nuclear market and promote the worldwide growth of nuclear power. But to do so, they will first need to address nonproliferation and economic concerns voiced by U.S. officials and lawmakers.

Nikolay Spasskiy, the deputy head of Russia’s Federal Atomic Energy Agency, told a Washington audience Oct. 3 that Russia is eager to “dovetail” its own initiatives with the Bush administration’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). Both countries claim their efforts are intended to slow the spread of potentially dangerous nuclear technologies that can be used to produce either nuclear fuel or the fissile material used for nuclear weapons.

Bush administration officials say that GNEP aims to develop less proliferation-prone technology for generating new nuclear fuel and disposing of spent nuclear fuel. Currently, the same technology used to enrich low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel for civil nuclear reactors can also be used to provide the highly enriched uranium used in some nuclear weapons. Moreover, reprocessing spent fuel to help generate another type of nuclear fuel separates plutonium, the other fissile material used in nuclear weapons. Some U.S. lawmakers have questioned the technical, diplomatic, and financial basis of the GNEP program.

Spasskiy said that Russia is eager to couple GNEP with its own initiative under which Russia has proposed to establish a system of international centers to provide nuclear fuel services, including uranium enrichment. The first of these centers is slated to open in Siberia next year. Russian officials have said that they would like the facilities to produce enriched fuel for use in reactors and to burn elements of the spent fuel from those reactors. Russian officials have pledged that the centers would operate under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards to prevent civil materials and technologies from being diverted to military purposes.

To further U.S.-Russian cooperation, the Kremlin is seeking to strike several deals with the United States. The first would be to conclude a civilian nuclear cooperation accord with the United States, commonly known as a 123 agreement, after Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act that establishes the requirements for such pacts. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in July to pursue such an agreement.

U.S. officials have already presented their Russian counterparts with a draft agreement, according to Spasskiy and other Russian officials. They described it as a good basis for negotiations, which are slated to continue in Moscow in November.

Russia has long sought such a pact, although its public rationale for doing so has shifted recently.

In the past, Russia had indicated it needed the agreement in order to import for reprocessing or storage U.S.-origin spent fuel from countries such as South Korea, Switzerland, and Taiwan. But more recently, it has downplayed this aspect.

Spasskiy said that “this is a taboo subject for a while. It is extremely unpalatable to [Russian] public opinion.” But he said that in the future, when the Russian public saw the economic benefits that might be gained by such an approach, particularly from reprocessing, it might be more willing to consider importing spent fuel. Russian nongovernmental experts say that despite some recent public remarks, plans are moving ahead for striking deals with third countries for the importation of foreign spent fuel.

U.S. policymakers are likely to raise questions about any Russian plans to reprocess foreign fuel using current technology, since it produces separated plutonium. It has been U.S. policy since the 1970s to discourage this practice and the United States has provided billions of dollars in aid to Russia to phase out its existing plutonium-production reactors.

More immediately, Spasskiy said, Russia would like to conclude such an agreement to provide a framework for future technical accords. Currently, he said, any time a new nuclear program is initiated between the United States and Russia, negotiators must go through a difficult and time-consuming process with agencies in each capital to meet regulations governing the transfer of fissile materials and sensitive information.

The second deal Russia is seeking is to amend a 1992 agreement that provides the legal basis for importing Russian LEU into the United States. Under a 20-year program begun in 1993, Russia has converted 275 metric tons of weapons-grade uranium into LEU and provided nearly half of the LEU used in nuclear power reactors in the United States.

Under the 1992 agreement, however, the government-established U.S. Enrichment Corporation (USEC) has been the sole organization permitted to sell the Russian fuel. The Kremlin views USEC as an unnecessary middleman.

Moreover, Russian officials are growing concerned as the 2013 end of the program nears without a new arrangement. They fear they will be shut out of the U.S. market entirely, as U.S. utilities often negotiate long-term supply contracts many years in advance. They have proposed a system under which they would be allowed to sell Russian enrichment services freely to U.S utilities but have said they would be willing initially to limit any sales to no more than 25 percent of the U.S. market. The fuel that would be provided under this scheme would not be down-blended from weapons material, they say.

U.S. utilities have supported this effort while lawmakers representing New Mexico and Ohio, states where USEC and a European consortium have proposed to build enrichment facilities, have balked.

Lawmakers have also cast a wary eye on efforts by Russia to modify a program under which each country is to dispose of 34 metric tons of excess weapons plutonium by blending the material into mixed oxide (MOX) fuel for nuclear reactors.

Lawmakers have been concerned that Russia has signaled that rather than incurring the cost of building new facilities to produce MOX fuel for existing light-water nuclear reactors, it wants to use existing facilities to produce a different blend of MOX fuel instead that could be used in existing and possibly future, advanced, fast neutron reactors. Russia says that such reactors could eventually produce less nuclear waste, although experts caution that doing so would require that the fuel be run through many times over a period that could last decades. These reactors could also lead to the production of more plutonium if run in certain ways.

Spasskiy said Russia was committed to disposing of the 34 tons of plutonium. He said Russia intends to start disposal with an existing pilot, fast neutron reactor but left the door open to using MOX technology with light-water reactors. Russian officials, he said, have found the current technology more complicated than they originally envisaged and complained that promised international assistance to construct new facilities had fallen billions of dollars short.

Nuclear Forensics and the North Korean Test

Harold Smith

The power and versatility of nuclear forensics, particularly radio-chemical techniques, could not have been better demonstrated than by its application to the recent underground test in North Korea.[1] Some might have thought that all the debris from the explosion would have been contained in the underground cavity. After all, that was the original purpose of testing underground.

In fact, any nuclear explosion creates radioactive noble gases, notably xenon and krypton, that do not combine with other elements in the geologic structure. Therefore, they can more easily leak to the surface and into the atmosphere where they can be detected beyond national boundaries. Because at least two different gases escape, it is possible for radio-chemists to determine if the fissile material was plutonium or uranium, which of course is exactly what happened. (Press reports said the material was plutonium.)[2] Unfortunately, the chemists cannot determine much more. If there has not been direct venting to the atmosphere, they will not be able to answer the mystery of why Pyongyang’s device seems to have produced such a low nuclear yield, reportedly less than one kiloton, or less than 5 percent of the yield of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

The same would not be true if a nuclear weapon were exploded above ground. Then, the debris would be unfiltered, and much more critical information could be obtained, such as the sophistication of its design and whether there exists a stockpile containing fissile material with similar isotopes. The last should be a key consideration for North Korea or any other government that might contemplate providing nuclear materials to terrorists.

Thanks to the inspections associated with implementation of the 1994 Agreed Framework, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and/or the United States may possess the isotopic data of the North Korean plutonium. North Korea must be made aware that use of its fissile material can be traced to Pyongyang and that it must anticipate the retribution that would follow if any of its weapons or fissile material should be used by any of its accomplices or customers. Perhaps, this is the time for the Bush administration to speak directly to the North Korean government and make this clear.

Pyongyang might conclude that President George W. Bush was not making an idle boast when he said October 9 that “the transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable of the consequences of such action” One can hope, therefore, that forensic science combined with strong and credible diplomacy can deter North Korea from passing plutonium to terrorists or to other countries.

Harold Smith is a distinguished visiting scholar and professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley. He served as assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs during the Clinton administration.


1. For more information on nuclear forensics, see William Dunlop and Harold Smith, “Who Did It? Using International Forensics to Detect and Deter Nuclear Terrorism,” Arms Control Today, October 2006, pp. 6-10.

2. David Sanger, “North Korean Fuel Identified as Plutonium,” The New York Times, October 17, 2006, p. A-11.


Subscribe to RSS - November 2006