"[Arms Control Today is] Absolutely essential reading for the upcoming Congressional budget debate on the 2018 #NPR and its specific recommendations ... well-informed, insightful, balanced, and filled with common sense."

– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
April 2007
Edition Date: 
Sunday, April 1, 2007
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North Korea Talks Stalled by Banking Dispute

Paul Kerr

Hoping to advance an initial agreement to eliminate North Korea 's nuclear weapons program, participants in the six-party talks met in Beijing March 19-22. But progress on the Feb. 13 pact was stalled by an ongoing banking dispute.

Talks recessed because of delays in resolving issues concerning frozen North Korean accounts associated with the Macau-based Banco Delta Asia. According to a statement from China 's Foreign Ministry, the six parties agreed to resume the talks “at the earliest opportunity to…formulate an action plan for the next phase.” No date has yet been set, a Department of State official told Arms Control Today March 29.

Before the recent meeting, the six parties, which also include Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, appeared to have made modest progress. The March round of talks was the sixth in a series since August 2003.

Nonetheless, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill expressed optimism about the talks' future. “I'm pretty convinced we can get back on track, and we certainly have time to complete all the…actions” specified in the February agreement, Hill told reporters in Tokyo March 23.

That agreement called on North Korea to halt the operation of its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon within 60 days in return for energy and economic assistance from the other five parties. Five working groups were tasked with formulating specific plans for implementing the rest of a September 2005 joint statement. (See ACT, March 2007.)

In that statement, North Korea pledged to abandon its nuclear weapons and “existing nuclear programs” in exchange for a series of political and economic incentives. (See ACT, October 2005.)

The parties had agreed during their February meeting to meet the next month to assess the working groups' progress and discuss “actions for the next phase.”

Bank Issue Remains Obstacle

In order to strike the earlier deal, the United States had pledged that the Banco Delta Asia dispute would be resolved within 30 days. U.S. and North Korean officials reached agreement within that time frame, but difficulties in transferring disputed funds have delayed its implementation. North Korean negotiators responded by refusing to engage in further discussions.

The bank matter has been a persistent obstacle to the six-party talks' progress since September 2005 when the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated the bank as a “money laundering concern.” Subsequently, the bank froze North Korea 's accounts, and other financial institutions curtailed their dealings with Pyongyang . The United States has asserted that the bank provided financial services to North Korean government agencies and front companies engaged in illicit activities such as drug trafficking.

On March 19, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes Daniel Glaser announced that the two countries had “reached an understanding” regarding the frozen funds.

The United States accepted a North Korean proposal for resolving the matter, Glaser said, adding that the funds in question will be transferred from Banco Delta Asia into an account held by North Korea 's Foreign Trade Bank at the Bank of China in Beijing . Pyongyang has agreed that the money “will be used solely for the betterment of the North Korean people, including for humanitarian and educational purposes,” he said.

Although Glaser asserted that the agreement resolves the issue, North Korea has refused to negotiate further until the funds are actually in the account. The process of transferring the funds has proven to be a “complex task,” Hill said March 23, adding that the North Koreans “have made very clear they won't talk about other things” until that task is complete. Pyongyang views resolution of the Banco Delta Asia issue as a test of Washington 's willingness to fulfill its part of the February understandings, Hill added. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang told reporters March 27 that all relevant parties “are still discussing” the matter.

North Korea appears also to have conditioned progress on disabling its nuclear facilities on resolution of the Banco Delta Asia issue. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said in a March 14 interview with CNN that North Korean officials had said the government would not shut down the reactor until the bank issue was resolved. An unnamed South Korean intelligence official said the reactor is still operating, the semi-official Yonhap news agency reported March 19.

Modest Progress

In February, the six parties formed five working groups, which were to meet within 30 days to discuss the implementation of various aspects of the agreement. All have met once but appear to have made only modest progress.

No additional working group meetings have been scheduled, the State Department official said.

According to the February agreement, North Korea is to shut down and seal its nuclear facilities “for the purpose of eventual abandonment” and allow IAEA inspectors to conduct the “necessary monitoring and verifications.” Pyongyang also is to discuss “a list of all its nuclear programs” with the other parties.

For their part, the other parties are to provide emergency energy assistance to Pyongyang “equivalent to 50,000 [metric] tons of heavy fuel oil.” Hill said during the March 6 edition of The Charlie Rose Show that the initial shipment, which is to be funded by South Korea, will “probably” arrive in North Korea the same day as when Pyongyang shuts down the reactor.

The next diplomatic phase is less detailed but is to include North Korea 's provision of “a complete declaration of all nuclear programs,” as well as the “disablement of all existing [North Korean] nuclear facilities.” In return, the other parties are to provide “economic, energy, and humanitarian assistance up to the equivalent” of an additional 950,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil.

The details of this assistance are to be determined by a working group charged with managing economic and energy cooperation. A South Korean diplomat told Arms Control Today March 27 that the group discussed the initial fuel deliveries, but little else. Similarly, Hill told reporters March 20 that another group tasked with managing the denuclearization issue had made less progress than he had hoped.

Still, North Korean officials did discuss implementing the nuclear shutdown during the talks with ElBaradei. The two sides “focused on initial monitoring and verification for the shut down” of Pyongyang's nuclear facilities, according to a March 15 IAEA press release. It also stated that the agency must next “reach an agreement” with North Korea on “specific technical arrangements for monitoring and verification.”

Hill said March 6 that he had discussed Pyongyang 's suspected uranium-enrichment program during a bilateral working group meeting in New York . It does not appear that the two sides made progress on the matter. The United States asserts that North Korea has acquired materials for such a program, which can produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. The Yongbyon nuclear facilities produce plutonium, the other fissile material used in such weapons.

The two countries also discussed the normalization of relations, including removing North Korea from a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, Hill added. North Korean Vice Minister Kim Gye Gwan described the talks as “constructive,” the Kyodo news agency reported March 7.

A working group tasked with managing the normalization of Pyongyang 's relations with Tokyo also met. But that meeting was considerably more acrimonious than the U.S.-North Korean meeting, reportedly ending early. The two sides remain divided by Japan 's concerns about North Korea 's past abductions of Japanese citizens.

Editor's Note

Miles A. Pomper

It's never easy to negotiate an arms control agreement. But it's often just as difficult, if not more so, to carry one out. In this month's issue, several experts look at the successes and pitfalls of some recent agreements, as well as the prospects for a new one.

In our cover story, Matthew Bunn analyzes how Washington and Moscow can finally move forward and eventually move beyond a 2000 agreement to dispose of excess weapons plutonium. The agreement has been held up for years by bureaucratic delays, diplomatic wrangling, and shifting disposal strategies in Russia and the United States . Bunn suggests ways both countries could more effectively dispose of the dangerous material and urges that far more of it be made unusable for weapons than originally envisioned.

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), outlawing chemical arms, entered into force 10 years ago this month. Rogelio Pfirter, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which implements the CWC, talks to Arms Control Today about the successes and challenges the international community faces in implementing the treaty.

China 's January test of an anti-satellite weapon raised concerns about an arms race in space and the threat that crucial civilian satellites could be damaged by debris from such actions. In a feature article, Geoffrey Forden proposes a treaty that would seek to prohibit future tests of this sort by banning spacecraft from maneuvering at excessive speeds near other orbiting spacecraft.

Our news section this month contains an in-depth look at European reaction to the tug of war between the United States and Russia over basing U.S. missile defense interceptors and a related radar in Poland and the Czech Republic . It also includes the latest news about negotiations to roll back North Korea 's nuclear weapons program and efforts to pressure Iran to restrain its nuclear program.

In our “Looking Back” this month, Waheguru Pal Singh Sidhu examines the record of the 20-year-old Missile Technology Control Regime, which aims to impede the spread of ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. As with many such agreements, Sidhu finds that the implementation scorecard is a mixed one.

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Troubled Disposition: Next Steps in Dealing With Excess Plutonium

Matthew Bunn

What should the United States and Russia do with the tons of plutonium they no longer need for nuclear weapons? The two countries have been struggling to answer this question since the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, however, despite the signature in 2000 of the U.S.-Russian Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), projected schedules for getting rid of these dangerous stockpiles have slipped by more than seven years, and the estimated costs of the effort have increased dramatically. A pitched battle over the future of plutonium disposition is now being waged in Congress.

Disposition of excess plutonium can still offer security benefits worth its mounting costs, but only if disposition is ultimately applied to far larger stocks of plutonium than committed so far, as part of a broader pursuit of deep and irreversible nuclear arms reductions, and if stringent standards of security are maintained throughout. Whether it will make more sense to use the bulk of the excess plutonium as reactor fuel or immobilize it for disposal with high-level wastes depends in part on the answers to questions of cost, practicality, and Russian attitudes that should be answered as quickly as possible.

Massive Stockpiles

The United States and Russia still possess massive stockpiles of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) built up over decades of Cold War arms racing. Today, the United States has a stockpile of about 92 metric tons of plutonium separated from spent fuel. The United States has declared that 45 tons of that material is excess to its military needs, leaving 47 tons in reserve, enough to support a stockpile of some 10,000 warheads.

Russia is thought to have a stockpile of some 145 tons of separated weapons-grade plutonium, although the uncertainty in that estimate is about 25 tons, along with some 40 tons of civilian separated plutonium, which also is weapons usable. Russia has declared that “up to” 50 tons of its weapons-grade plutonium is excess to its military needs, but the only plutonium it has definitely committed to get rid of is the 34 tons covered by the PMDA. This represents one-quarter of Russia 's estimated stock of weapons-grade plutonium and one-fifth of its total stock of separated plutonium, leaving enough remaining for tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. The U.S. and Russian stockpiles of HEU are even larger.[1]

Why Disposition?

Because these huge stockpiles could readily be turned back into nuclear weapons, eliminating them would mark a key step toward deeper and less-reversible nuclear arms reductions. Such reductions, in turn, could strengthen international political support for measures to repair the global nonproliferation regime.

But plutonium disposition will not achieve this security objective unless the United States and Russia are pursuing deeper and irreversible arms reductions. Disposition must also be applied to most of the total stockpiles on each side so that the remainder is only enough to support low, agree-on numbers of nuclear weapons. If Russia and the United States agreed to reduce their nuclear weapon stockpiles to 1,000 total warheads, for example, they would only require four to five tons each of military plutonium. That would almost triple the amount of weapons-grade plutonium viewed as excess in Russia and nearly double the amount of excess material in the United States .

In principle, disposition of these large stocks—physically transforming them into forms that would be difficult and costly to recover for use in nuclear weapons—could also decrease the risk that some portion of them could be stolen and fall into the hands of terrorists or proliferating states. The British Royal Society warned in 1998 that even in an advanced industrial state such as the United Kingdom , the possibility that plutonium stocks might be “accessed for illicit weapons production is of extreme concern.”[2] This risk, however, is not closely related to the total size of the nuclear material stockpiles, as a building containing one ton of weapons-usable nuclear material poses effectively the same theft risk as a building containing ten tons of such material. If the goal is to reduce the risk of nuclear theft, the first priority should be to remove the nuclear material entirely from as many small, vulnerable facilities as possible and then to beef up security at the remainder.

A disposition program that removed the material from a substantial number of potentially vulnerable buildings could reduce the risk of nuclear theft, but a program that only removed one-quarter of Russia 's excess plutonium stock and only removed some of the plutonium at each location would do little to reduce the risk of nuclear theft and terrorism.

Indeed, unless very high standards of security and accounting are maintained throughout the disposition process, removing this material from secure stores, processing it, and transporting it from place to place could increase rather than decrease theft risks. For this reason, and because getting plutonium or HEU is the most difficult part of making a nuclear bomb, a 1994 study from a committee of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended that, to the extent practicable, HEU and separated plutonium should be as well secured and accounted for as nuclear weapons themselves, the so-called “stored weapons standard.”[3]

Fissile material disposition may also serve a “good housekeeping” purpose, avoiding the costs and hazards of storing this material indefinitely. If that is the principal purpose, however, it is important to focus the effort on those stocks that are in fact expensive and dangerous to store. Ironically, these tend to be the heavily contaminated stockpiles that are less likely to be used for nuclear weapons.

Plans, Delays, Costs, and Obstacles

When the PMDA was drafted, both sides laid out tentative plans for their disposition efforts. Russia planned to use all of the 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium covered by the agreement as uranium-plutonium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel in operating nuclear reactors—a few tons in the BN-600 fast-neutron reactor at Beloyarsk and the rest in Russia's VVER-1000 light-water reactors (LWRs).[4]

The United States planned to use 25.6 tons of uncontaminated plutonium as MOX fuel in LWRs and immobilize the other 8.4 tons covered by the agreement, along with nearly eight tons of other material not covered by the agreement. The immobilization approach on which the Department of Energy has focused, known as “can-in-canister,” involves making small cans of either glass or ceramic mixed with plutonium. These cans are then arranged inside huge metal canisters. Molten glass containing intensely radioactive high-level waste from ongoing waste disposal programs would then be poured into these canisters. (The process of mixing plutonium or high-level waste with glass is known as “vitrification.”) Hence, as with plutonium in spent fuel (the result of the MOX approach), the plutonium ends up as a small percentage of the total weight of a large, intensely radioactive object slated for storage and eventual disposal in a geologic repository.

Both sides projected that they would have full-scale MOX plants operational in 2007; the U.S. immobilization plant was to be built and operating a year later. Cost estimates around the time of the agreement suggested that disposition of the Russian material covered by the agreement would cost $1.8 billion ($2.1 billion in 2007 dollars), after subtracting $350 million for the expected value of the fuel produced.[5] The U.S. disposition program, which covered more material than just the 34 tons covered by the agreement, was expected to cost $4.1 billion ($4.8 billion in 2007 dollars), after similarly subtracting $565 million for the expected value of the MOX fuel to be produced.[6]

Today, the projected costs of these efforts are far higher and the expected schedules are much slower. The latest estimates suggest that a full-scale MOX plant will not start operations in Russia until 2018 and that the Russian program will have a total cost of $4.1 billion, from which the value of the MOX fuel produced might subtract $500 million or so, although this was not estimated in the most recent study.[7]

Although the original agreement called for each side to start off at a rate of two tons of plutonium a year and seek to move to four tons a year, the four-ton objective appears to have been largely abandoned, and the planned Russian program now stretches to 2040. Similarly, the Energy Department does not expect its MOX plant to open until 2016, although it hopes that an immobilization plant might open as soon as 2012. The capital and operating costs for disposition of U.S. excess plutonium using these facilities are now estimated at more than $10 billion in 2006 dollars, more than twice the earlier estimate.[8]

The Energy Department argues that the earlier cost estimates were unrealistic and did not adequately include contingencies to hedge against cost overruns; payment for the costs of providing site services such as water, electricity, and fire protection; and the like. Nevertheless, the capital and operating costs projected for both the U.S. and Russian MOX plants are far higher than the costs for comparable European plants that have already been built and operated, and the reasons for that difference have not been publicly explained. One part of the answer is that the Office of Management and Budget has constrained the effort to flat annual funding, stretching out construction and driving up costs.

A wide range of other obstacles have contributed to these slowing schedules and escalating costs. After delays resulting from a year-long Bush administration policy review, the Bush team delayed matters further by demanding that Russia accept liability provisions that would make Russia liable even for damage caused by intentional sabotage by U.S. personnel, a provision Russian negotiators predictably rejected. Because construction of the U.S. and Russian MOX plants had been linked, this dispute resulted in years of delay in both countries. A liability protocol for plutonium disposition, in which the Bush administration effectively abandoned its earlier demands, was finally signed in September 2006, ironically not long after the linkage between U.S. and Russian construction was dropped.

Most U.S. officials believe that the U.S. excess plutonium stockpile poses few security issues and see getting rid of Russia 's excess plutonium stockpile as the main reason to bother with getting rid of the U.S. excess stockpile. The other major driver for the U.S. disposition effort is South Carolina , which would only allow the Energy Department to consolidate many of its plutonium stockpiles at Savannah River if there was a clear plan to do something with these stocks that would provide jobs and ultimately take them back out of the state. Congress has passed legislation that requires the Energy Department to pay substantial fines to the state if it does not meet plutonium disposition deadlines.

Disposition of Russia 's excess plutonium has been problematic, as the Russian government does not see excess plutonium stockpiles as a major security problem. Russia 's view has long been that its plutonium stockpiles should be used to produce energy as part of its long-term plan for a closed nuclear fuel cycle, and if the international community wants Russia to begin using this plutonium as fuel sooner than would otherwise be economic, the international community should pay the costs of doing so. In response, rather than agreeing to pay the full cost of Russian plutonium disposition itself, the United States has sought to put together a multilateral financing plan. So far, the total pledges only come to about $850 million, including $400 million from the United States , far less than needed to finance Russia 's plutonium disposition.

Some U.S. officials hope that, with earlier disputes resolved, further pledges will be forthcoming and that Russia may ultimately agree to pay to run the disposition facilities if the international community pays to build them, cutting the needed pledges roughly in half. Indeed, U.S. negotiators report that Russian negotiators in recent months have begun to acknowledge that Russia might pay a significant part of the costs of options that support Russia 's plans for nuclear energy growth. Nevertheless, for now, it appears more likely than not that Russian plutonium disposition will only move forward if the United States is prepared to make major additional investments in the effort. With Russia 's newfound oil wealth and huge planned expenditures on new reactor construction, it may be difficult to convince Congress to put in more U.S. funds.

In addition to the financing problem, the low priority Russia assigns to this problem has meant that each bureaucratic issue has taken longer to resolve. Moreover, different factions in the Russian and U.S. nuclear establishments have had very different ideas about what technical options for plutonium disposition should be pursued, leading to prolonged uncertainties over which projects would finally move forward.

Congress, observing these delays and mounting costs, has become increasingly skeptical, and congressional constraints have themselves added to delays. During 2006, these concerns came to a head when House appropriators, led by Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), then chairman of the energy and water appropriations subcommittee, attempted to terminate funding for the U.S. MOX plant, shifting the United States toward an all-immobilization strategy. Earlier this year, Hobson and other MOX opponents sought to get the MOX plant zeroed out in the continuing resolution that is funding most U.S. government operations for the remainder of fiscal year 2007, which ends September 30. Senate appropriators, by contrast, sought to keep the U.S. MOX plant going. The final resolution provided a substantial budget for the MOX effort but prohibited the secretary of energy from beginning construction until August 1. That gives opponents an opportunity to try again to kill the funding before construction begins. Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), the new chairman of the subcommittee, joined with Hobson in a February 2007 letter to the Energy Department questioning the MOX plant and demanding a wide range of data about MOX and possible alternatives, clearly signaling a bipartisan challenge to the Energy Department's current plans.


All of this raises the question of what the best disposition options would be. The NAS study recommended options that would convert the excess weapons plutonium into forms “roughly as inaccessible for weapons use as the much larger and growing quantity of plutonium in spent fuel from commercial nuclear-power reactors,” known as the “spent fuel standard.” After examining approaches ranging from shooting the plutonium into space to dissolving it in the oceans, the committee concluded that the two least problematic options were the use of plutonium as fuel in existing reactors and immobilization of the plutonium with high-level wastes. Later Energy Department studies reached the same conclusions, and I believe they remain valid today.

U.S. Plutonium Disposition

In the United States , the biggest immediate fight is between advocates of an all-immobilization approach and the Energy Department's mixed MOX-plus-immobilization plan in which 34 tons of the excess are currently slated for MOX and the rest, which is too contaminated to use as MOX, for immobilization.

Advocates of the Energy Department's MOX-focused approach make several points:

• An all-immobilization approach in the United States might lead to no disposition in Russia . Russian negotiators have long argued that immobilization is just another form of storage because the plutonium could in principle be recovered in weapons-grade form, albeit at great cost, and have objected to the idea of the United States immobilizing its plutonium while Russia uses its plutonium in reactor fuel, transforming it to reactor-grade material.

• Immobilization is not as technically mature. A variety of reactors in Europe have been using MOX fuel commercially for years, but immobilization of plutonium has never been accomplished on a large scale.

• There may not be enough high-level wastes at Savannah River with which to immobilize the plutonium. Energy Department officials have argued that the Savannah River plant could finish the high-level waste vitrification process before immobilization of all the excess plutonium could be completed. That could potentially leave the plutonium cans with no high-level waste canisters to be put into and therefore no radiation barrier to increase the difficulty of using the plutonium in weapons.

• Immobilization may not save much if the costs of disposition and of storage until disposition could be completed are taken into account. An Energy Department study prepared last year concluded that its preferred mixture of MOX and immobilization would cost $15 billion and an all-immobilization approach would cost only slightly less.[9]

• MOX fuel poses few additional security risks. The risks from transporting MOX fuel to reactors and storing it at reactors can be reduced to a low level by sufficient investment in security for this material.

Immobilization advocates, by contrast, argue that the MOX option raises serious risks that plutonium in MOX form might be stolen, because it is more difficult to protect MOX fuel in transit or in storage at civilian reactors than plutonium secured in vaults or immobilized at a major nuclear weapons complex site. They also warn that MOX fuel carries additional safety risks; since the core of a plutonium-fueled reactor contains more long-lived actinides, there might be more deaths in the event of a catastrophic radiation release. They also argue that immobilization would be cheaper and faster than MOX fuel.[10]

Although the Energy Department considered an all-immobilization option based on building a new greenfield facility, which would be expensive and time-consuming, it does not appear to have given detailed consideration to the idea of making the immobilization plant it plans to build in existing facilities at Savannah River slightly bigger and running it longer in order to handle all of the excess plutonium and not just the contaminated material. The Energy Department projects that this facility could be operational in 2012, well before the planned MOX plant, and would process roughly two tons of plutonium a year. If it could be expanded to three tons per year, which is not certain given the space constraints in the facility where it is to be built, the 45 tons of separated plutonium currently considered excess could be processed by 2027, a year before the high-level waste vitrification plant is now scheduled to shut down.[11] The cost of operating this plant for a longer period and making it slightly larger would likely be substantially less than the costs of building and operating the MOX plant, currently estimated at more than $6 billion.

Congress should direct the Energy Department to provide an immediate assessment of the feasibility, costs, and safety and security risks of this all-immobilization option compared to the MOX-plus-immobilization option and should require an independent review of this assessment, perhaps by the NAS. The administration and Congress should also explore an all-immobilization option with Russia . Given the Russian focus on its own plutonium as an energy asset rather than a security issue, I believe there is at least a reasonable chance that a high-level U.S. approach to the Russian government combining a willingness to cooperate in developing nuclear energy (already being pursued) with a desire for Russia to accept an all-immobilization U.S. approach could be successful. It is in any case worth trying. On the other hand, Russia may be more reluctant to accept an all-immobilization U.S. approach if the two sides really were going to apply disposition to all but a small remaining stockpile of plutonium.

Disposition of Russian Excess Weapons Plutonium

In Russia , the entire nuclear establishment rejects the immobilization idea, so the main argument over technical options is over which reactors would use excess weapons plutonium as their fuel. This argument has seesawed back and forth between two camps. One group argues for using the plutonium in fast-neutron breeder reactors that create more plutonium than they consume, which can then be recycled as additional fuel—Russia's long-term nuclear-energy vision. The other group contends that fast-neutron reactors will not be commercialized for some time and it would make sense to use MOX fuel in the near term in LWRs, as has been done in Europe . The early 2006 announcement of the U.S. Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, with its focus on fast-neutron reactors, which is designed to consume plutonium and other actinides rather than breeding more, briefly brought the fast-neutron advocates in Russia to the fore again. Russia has restarted major construction on the BN-800 fast-neutron reactor, using its own funds.

By December 2006, however, when the two sides completed a joint schedule and cost estimate for a Russian-proposed “base case” scenario, this Russian plan was back to the same one described in the PMDA, using a small amount of plutonium in the BN-600 and the bulk of it in the VVER-1000 LWRs. But the joint report explicitly held open the possibility that Russia might later switch to fast-neutron reactors or that the gas-turbine modular helium reactor (GT-MHR), being developed with funding from both sides might provide a supplement to other disposition approaches in the later phases of the project.[12]

Several key issues would have to be resolved before the United States gives its financial support to Russian fast-neutron reactors. First, as originally designed, the BN-800 is a plutonium breeder reactor, producing more weapon-grade plutonium than it consumes. Russian officials have expressed some willingness to remove some of the uranium “blankets” where the new plutonium production takes place, converting the reactor into a net plutonium burner. Moreover, under the PMDA, Russia is obligated not to reprocess irradiated fuel from plutonium disposition reactors until after disposition of the plutonium covered by the agreement is complete. What happens after the disposition program? Should the possibility that Russia might add breeder blankets preclude U.S. financing for construction of such reactors? Would Russia be willing to commit not to put on such blankets and not to process the fuel from this reactor in a way that would separate weapons-usable plutonium? In addition, the spent fuel from such a reactor would be in smaller fuel assemblies with lower radiation fields, higher plutonium concentrations, and better isotopics than if it had been used as MOX fuel in an LWR, making it potentially easier to recover for use in nuclear weapons.

By contrast, high-temperature gas reactors such as the GT-MHR, with their high-burn-up, difficult-to-reprocess fuel, do not pose similar policy issues. For them, the main issues are the cost of building such reactors and the time needed to do so. If Russia built such reactors for their nuclear energy value and they became available while there was still excess plutonium to burn, their use for that purpose should certainly be considered.

Reactors outside of Russia provide another option. Europe 's reactors licensed to burn plutonium fuel already have more civilian plutonium than they can handle. Nonetheless, there are at least a few possibilities that deserve exploration. Some German utilities, for example, might be willing to invest substantial sums in Russian plutonium disposition if, by contributing to disarmament, they could get a reprieve from government orders to shut their reactors down within a few years. In any international option, extremely stringent standards of security would have to be maintained during transportation, the point in nuclear material's life cycle when it is most vulnerable to forcible theft.

The only way Russia 's plutonium might be immobilized is if the United States (or some other donor) actually bought Russia 's plutonium and then paid for it to be immobilized. Although many Russian officials have rejected such ideas in the past, purchasing Russia's plutonium would allow Russia to realize the commercial value it sees in this plutonium immediately, and although this option would amount to paying for it twice, it might turn out to be cheaper than the surging costs of the MOX approach.[13] In any case, the United States should restart a joint plutonium-immobilization research and development program with Russia.

Plutonium Swaps

As a backup and complement to other approaches, the United States should also consider the possibility of swapping some portion of U.S. or Russian plutonium for European plutonium. Today, some 10 tons of reactor-grade civilian plutonium is already being burned as fuel for European power reactors each year. By far the fastest and cheapest approach to reducing stockpiles of excess weapons plutonium, if agreement could be reached on it, would be to substitute excess weapons plutonium for this civilian plutonium, thereby burning some 10 tons a year of excess weapons plutonium while using existing fuel fabrication facilities and contract arrangements.[14] Ten tons a year of civilian plutonium would be displaced and would build up in storage, effectively transforming a problem of excess weapon-grade plutonium in Russia and the United States under no international safeguards to a growth in the existing problem of excess reactor-grade plutonium stored in secure facilities in Europe under international safeguards.

The Way Forward

An immense amount of work and some major policy changes will be needed if this sad saga is to have a happy ending.

First, the United States and Russia should do everything in their power to ensure that all their stockpiles of nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials and all other such stockpiles worldwide are secure and accounted for, to standards sufficient to defeat the threats that terrorists and thieves have shown they can pose. The Energy Department should move aggressively to consolidate its plutonium and HEU in a smaller number of highly secure locations, achieving higher security at lower cost, and should work with Russia to do the same.

Next, because all plutonium disposition options will take from years to decades to implement, the United States and Russia should move rapidly to commit their excess material never to be used in weapons and open this material to international monitoring. Years ago, both countries were pursuing such an approach in a trilateral initiative with the International Atomic Energy Agency, under which they were also developing special procedures for monitoring classified material without revealing sensitive information. Neither government was enthusiastic, however, and the initiative has effectively been abandoned. Rapid U.S. and Russian action to put all of their excess plutonium and HEU under international monitoring would be a substantial step toward convincing the international community that the two countries were serious about fulfilling their arms reduction obligations, which would strengthen international support for the measures that are now needed to strengthen the nonproliferation regime.

The United States should adopt a policy of seeking deep, transparent, and irreversible nuclear arms reductions. Among other things, this should include reducing stockpiles of separated plutonium and HEU to the minimum required to support whatever reduced warhead stockpiles are agreed on.

In that context, the United States should maintain both a domestic plutonium-disposition program and a program to support disposition of Russian excess plutonium and should seek to begin disposition under the PMDA. Once talks on deep nuclear arms reductions are underway, the United States should begin discussions with Russia about disposition of material far in excess of the 34 tons on each side covered in the PMDA and designed to make those reductions more difficult to reverse. Facilities and programs for disposition should be designed to be expandable to handle much more material when more is declared excess. The goal should not be getting rid of only one-quarter of Russia 's weapons-grade plutonium by 33 years from now.

There need not be an ironclad commitment to go beyond 34 tons to justify moving forward with construction of disposition facilities, but there should at least be a policy that clearly identifies going well beyond 34 tons as a goal, and discussions of going further should not be left for the indefinite future. Otherwise, there is too great a risk that political leaders in the United States , Russia , and elsewhere will put in place measures to address the 34 tons covered in the PMDA and then walk away, wrongly thinking that they have solved the plutonium problem.

The Energy Department should quickly provide Congress with an in-depth assessment of the relative merits of all-immobilization and MOX-plus-immobilization options, which should be subject to independent review. The U.S. government should then pick an option and stick with it. Whether Russia implements the same option is not important, but it is important that Russia also pick an option and move forward to implement it.

In short, the United States should adopt policies that will make it possible for plutonium disposition to make a substantial contribution to U.S. national security and then move forward with disposition of a substantial fraction of the U.S. and Russian plutonium stockpiles.

Matthew Bunn is a senior research associate in the Managing the Atom project at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Previously, he served in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy where, among other responsibilities, he staffed the interagency working group on plutonium disposition. He was the study director for the two-volume National Academy of Sciences study Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium, published in 1994 and 1995.


1. For updated estimates of the total stockpiles and the amounts declared excess, see David Albright and Kimberly Kramer, eds., Global Fissile Material Inventories (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Science and International Security, 2004); and International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), “Global Fissile Material 2006: Report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials,” Program on Science and Global Security, 2006. The total U.S. declared stockpile is 99.5 tons, and the amount declared excess is 52.5 tons, but 7.5 tons of this amount is plutonium in spent fuel slated for disposal. Unclassified estimates suggest that modern nuclear weapons might contain an average of roughly four kilograms of plutonium. See David Albright, Frans Berkhout, and William B. Walker, Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium, 1996: World Inventories, Capabilities, and Policies (Solna, Sweden, Oxford, and New York: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 34, 49; and IPFM, “Global Fissile Material 2006,” p. 16. Supporting a stockpile would require some additional material that was in various stages of the warhead and material life-cycle outside of operational warheads.

2. Royal Society, Management of Separated Plutonium (London: Royal Society, 1998).

3. Committee on International Security and Arms Control , U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1994).

4. “Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Russian Federation Concerning the Management and Disposition of Plutonium Designated as No Longer Required for Defense Purposes and Related Cooperation,” 2000. Actually, on the Russian side, the agreement will likely end up covering some 38 tons of total plutonium because it permits Russia to blend the 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium with up to four tons of reactor-grade material, in order to keep the isotopics of its weapons-grade stockpiles secret.

5. Joint U.S.-Russian Working Group on Cost Analysis and Economics in Plutonium Disposition, “Cost Estimates for the Disposition of Weapon-Grade Plutonium Withdrawn from Russia's Nuclear Military Programs,” 2001.

6. Office of Fissile Materials Disposition, U.S. Department of Energy, “Plutonium Disposition Life Cycle Costs and Cost-Related Comment Resolution Document,” DOE/MD-0013, 1999. This was already a dramatic increase from the $2.2 billion estimate (in 1996 dollars) that formed part of the basis for the Energy Department's Record of Decision on plutonium disposition in 1997.

7. Joint U.S.-Russian Working Group on Cost Analysis and Economics in Plutonium Disposition, “Analysis of Russian-Proposed Unified Scenario for Disposition of 34 Metric Tons of Weapon-Grade Plutonium,” 2006 (hereinafter “Analysis of Russian-Proposed Unified Scenario.”)

8. For the MOX schedule, see U.S. Department of Energy, “FY 2008 Congressional Budget Request: National Nuclear Security Administration,” 2007, p. 501. For the immobilization schedule, see U.S. Department of Energy, “FY 2008 Congressional Budget Request: Environmental Management,” 2007, p. 333. Officially, the start of operations is not yet determined, but all construction costs are projected as being completed in 2011. The planned 2012 start date is also confirmed in internal Energy Department documents. For the total cost estimate, see U.S. Department of Energy, “Disposition of Surplus U.S. Fissile Materials: Comparative Analysis of Alternative Approaches,” November 2006. This study estimates the costs, including storage pending disposition, for an alternative including both MOX and immobilization as $15 billion (in constant 2006 dollars) through 2050. Without storage, the costs for MOX and immobilization were just under $10 billion. These are going-forward costs, however, neglecting the hundreds of millions of dollars already spent. The total costs for these efforts, including funds already spent, would be well more than $10 billion.

9. U.S. Department of Energy, “Disposition of Surplus U.S. Fissile Materials.” An earlier version of this study indicated that the all-immobilization option would be more expensive than the MOX option. Why this changed has not been publicly explained.

10. These arguments are summed up, with a large number of references, at the Nuclear Control Institute's “Plutonium Disposal” page, available at http://www.nci.org/nci-wpu.htm. See also Edwin S. Lyman, “The Future of Immobilization Under the U.S.-Russian Plutonium Disposition Agreement,” in Proceedings of the 42nd Annual Meeting of the Institute for Nuclear Materials Management (Indian Wells, California, July 15-19, 2001); and Allison Macfarlane and Adam Bernstein, “Canning Plutonium: Cheaper and Faster,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 1999, pp. 66-69.

11. The several-year delay in vitrifying high-level waste at Savannah River , now not scheduled to be completed until 2028, leaves more time and more waste canisters available for immobilizing plutonium once an immobilization facility comes on-line. Moreover, the canisters produced so far at Savannah River contain only a small fraction of the radioactivity per canister that would be necessary to vitrify all the waste in the Savannah River tanks in the planned number of canisters, suggesting that more canisters will have to be made over a longer time, again offering more opportunities for plutonium immobilization. If the U.S. government declared more plutonium excess in the future, as it should, it is at least possible that canisters containing immobilized plutonium but without high-level waste could be shipped from Savannah River to Hanford , where vitrification of the high-level waste has not yet begun and will last longer. Whether sufficient waste canisters would likely be available for this option is one key factor that Congress should ask the Energy Department to address in detail and which should be reviewed independently.

12. “Analysis of Russian-Proposed Unified Scenario.”

13. In the ongoing HEU Purchase agreement, for example, in which Russia is taking HEU from dismantled nuclear warheads and blending it to low-enriched uranium, which the United States purchases for use in commercial reactors, the total price the United States would pay was originally set at about $12 billion for 500 tons of HEU. If the United States or another purchaser offered the same price per ton for excess weapons plutonium, which would be exceedingly generous because plutonium is so expensive to make into fuel that it actually is a net liability at present, 50 tons of excess plutonium would cost $1.2 billion.

14. For an outline of this approach, see Thomas L. Neff, “Perspectives on Actions Necessary to Move the Plutonium Disposition Program Forward,” paper presented at “International Policy Forum: Management and Disposition of Nuclear Weapons Materials,” Bethesda, Maryland, March 23-26, 1998. If appropriately presented and packaged with reasonable incentives for all concerned, this approach could be designed so that it would not interfere with European fuel-cycle choices, but indeed would effectively lock in use of plutonium fuel for a decade or more as part of a nuclear arms reduction initiative.

GAO Calls for Security Prioritization Changes

Scarlet Kim

The Department of Energy should better prioritize which foreign sites with radioactive materials should be protected against terrorist theft, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The GAO, which conducts studies for Congress, reviewed the Energy Department's International Radiological Threat Reduction Program at the request of Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii). Established in 2002 following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the program aims to implement security upgrades at foreign sites with radioactive materials and recover lost or abandoned high-risk radioactive sources.

Radioactive sources are devices that use radioactive materials for myriad purposes, including medical and industrial applications. Terrorists potentially could acquire these materials, such as cobalt-60, cesium-137, and strontium-90, to produce a radiological dispersion device, or a “dirty bomb,” which uses conventional explosives to spread radiation. Dirty bombs are not as lethal or destructive as nuclear weapons, but they are commonly referred to as weapons of mass disruption because their detonation could cause mass fear and panic.

The March 15 GAO report recommended that the Energy Department prioritize sites by concentrating efforts on those with the greatest amount of radioactive materials. Despite the Energy Department's success at improving the security of hundreds of sites in more than 40 countries, the report found that “many of the most dangerous sources remain unsecured, particularly in Russia .” Of particular concern are more than 700 Russian operational or abandoned radioisotope generators, which are electrical generators powered by radioactive decay, and 16 out of 20 waste storage sites in Russia and Ukraine.

The GAO asserts the program has focused a disproportionate amount of attention on securing material at medical facilities, which contain much smaller quantities of radioactive sources. One explanation is that upgrading the security at medical facility, compared with securing radioisotope generators, entails less scope and cost. As of September 2006, almost 70 percent of all sites secured were hospitals or oncology clinics.

In visits to Russia, Lithuania, Poland, and Georgia, the GAO also discovered that some sites were not properly maintaining earlier security enhancements. The report noted the absence of a plan to sustain such security upgrades.

As of January 2007, the Energy Department has spent $120 million on the program, but future funding is uncertain. According to a department official interviewed by the GAO, since 2003 the agency has steadily decreased funding on program implementation. It intends to redirect future funds to projects such as securing plutonium and highly enriched uranium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons.

The Department of Energy should better prioritize which foreign sites with radioactive materials should be protected against terrorist theft, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). (Continue)

Budget Woes Haunt Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone

Justin Reed

On Feb. 14, Latin American and Caribbean countries marked the 40th anniversary of the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the region, the first of its kind in the world. Yet, at this historic milestone, the organization charged with keeping the region free of such arms is threatened by persistent budget shortfalls.

“We are surviving month to month,” Ambassador Edmundo Vargas Carreño, secretary-general of The Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL), told Arms Control Today March 15. “Some countries are not paying.”

OPANAL oversees the Treaty of Tlatelolco, ratified by all 33 states-parties in the region, and supports other nonproliferation and disarmament measures. It includes a council of five states that meets every two months (current members are Argentina, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru ) and holds a general conference of all states-parties every two years. OPANAL's draft budget for 2007 totals $324,000, of which Argentina , Brazil , Mexico , and Venezuela are expected to pay the largest percentages. OPANAL employs five people.

Senior diplomatic sources said that Brazil and Argentina , two of the organization's primary sponsors, have continually neglected their dues to the organization over a period of “many years.”

Mexico meanwhile has been vital in keeping OPANAL afloat. Its recent contributions, along with those from Chile, Cuba, and Ecuador, averted the organization's shuttering in March, according to Vargas, and should keep it open through spring. It was the “first time in history” that the organization faced closure, said Vargas.

Luciano Tanto, second secretary of Argentina's embassy in Washington , confirmed that Argentina has been late with payments but attributed this to the country's 2001-2002 financial crisis that he said has affected Argentina's contributions to many similar organizations. Nevertheless, Tanto stressed Argentina considers the Treaty of Tlatelolco to be “important” and has a “strong commitment to OPANAL.”

Likewise, a Brazilian embassy official attributed the country's lack of payment to “financial constraints” but emphasized that Brazil is working “to make sure the debt is dealt with as soon as possible.”

Vargas remained optimistic. “The important countries that are not paying will have a responsibility to pay if the alternative is that we close. They will finally pay,” he said.

Tanto stated that there is a pledge for OPANAL in Argentina 's present quarterly budget and that “OPANAL will soon receive the money.”

In its efforts to keep the region free of nuclear weapons, OPANAL has been pressing countries to sign and ratify agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) based on the 1997 Model Additional Protocol. The protocol is designed to enhance traditional IAEA safeguards by providing the agency with greater authority to verify that states are not carrying out undeclared nuclear activities. Fifteen Tlatelolco states-parties have signed or ratified additional protocols.

Brazil has not signed an additional protocol, which is of particular concern to outsiders. Brazil had a nuclear weapons program in the 1970s and 1980s and has a new uranium-enrichment facility at Resende. (See ACT, October 2005. ) Such facilities can produce low-enriched uranium for use in nuclear power reactors or highly enriched uranium, which can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

Nonetheless, Vargas expressed confidence that Brazil 's program is only for peaceful purposes and will not take on a military dimension.

In late 2005, Venezuela 's president, Hugo Chavez, announced his intention to have his country develop nuclear energy capabilities with the assistance of Brazil and Argentina . On the possibility that Venezuela might at some point divert nuclear energy research into a weapons program, Vargas said that “it would be ridiculous for Venezuela because it would have nothing to win and a lot to lose.” He added that there are not the political conditions for “any country in Latin America to become a new Iran or North Korea .” Venezuela has yet to sign an additional protocol.

Vargas also said that OPANAL is committed to the extension of nuclear-weapon-free zones to other parts of the world. OPANAL organized a conference of nuclear-weapon-free zones in Mexico City in 2005 and is planning another conference for New Zealand in 2010.

Vargas said that his “dream” is that more nuclear-weapon-free zones are established, “especially in the Korean peninsula.” For this to happen, he cautioned, the participation of the nuclear powers is required. The five designated nuclear-weapon states signed a protocol to the Treaty of Tlatelolco pledging not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against treaty states-parties. The largest challenge, he concedes, is the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East.

Proposal Aims to End CD Gridlock

Wade Boese

At the close of March, the 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) was weighing a proposal to end a negotiating dry spell that has stretched for more than eight years. The plan would launch treaty negotiations on halting the production of key nuclear weapons materials and initiate less-formal discussions on averting a space arms race, pursuing nuclear disarmament, and guaranteeing states without nuclear weapons that they will not be attacked by such arms.

Sri Lankan Ambassador Sarala Fernando presented the work package March 23 to the CD, which operates by consensus. The package had won the support of most CD members when the first of three work periods that make up the conference's annual session ended March 30. But China , India , and Pakistan had still not endorsed the package. Members agreed to try and hold a special plenary meeting sometime in April to take a decision on the plan before they officially reconvene May 14 for the second work period, which concludes June 29.

The proposed negotiations would be devoted to a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would forbid production of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium for weapons purposes. A rudimentary nuclear bomb requires at least one of these two fissile materials, while more modern weapon designs employ both.

France , Russia , the United Kingdom , and the United States already have voluntarily suspended such production, albeit after accumulating significant stockpiles of weapons and weapons-usable material. Still, the four countries want to codify their separate moratoria into a legal instrument and extend its obligations to all other nuclear weapons possessors: China, India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan. Beijing is generally recognized as having ceased fissile material production for arms, although it has made no formal statement to this effect.

Washington and its allies have been pressing the conference to make an FMCT its top priority since the 1996 completion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty outlawing nuclear explosions. Many countries, however, protested that an FMCT should not be the CD's exclusive focus. China and Russia called for equal treatment of preventing an arms race in outer space, and nonaligned countries pushed nuclear disarmament as their favored negotiating topic.

Until late March, the United States resisted taking up these other issues in any manner. A Department of State official told Arms Control Today March 28 that the United States “was willing to set aside [its] misgivings [on other issues] in order to breathe new life into the CD.” The official pointed out that the mandates for the trio of other subjects are not to “negotiate or search for ways to negotiate.” The mandates merely call for “substantive discussions.”

Washington submitted a draft FMCT to the conference last May. (See ACT, June 2006. ) The U.S. proposal did not contain verification measures. The Bush administration contends negotiating such measures would be difficult, time consuming, and ultimately futile because determined violators will find a way to cheat. The draft also exempted existing HEU and plutonium stockpiles from control.

Most CD members support verification measures of some kind. For instance, Canada submitted a March 20 paper on a future FMCT, noting that “an effective verification mechanism is an important element of any non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament agreement.” Other countries, such as Brazil , Egypt , Pakistan , and South Africa , have argued that an agreement also should address existing material.

The March 23 work proposal states that FMCT negotiations will be conducted “without any preconditions,” suggesting all issues are open for debate. Italian Ambassador Carlo Trezza would serve as the negotiations coordinator.

If agreed to in April, there is no guarantee that the negotiations will result in a treaty or even continue past the third and final work period of the 2007 session, which will run from July 30 to Sept. 14. The last time CD members initiated FMCT negotiations in 1998 (see ACT, August/September 1998), they failed to restart the talks the next year.

UK Nuclear Submarine Plan Wins Vote

Wade Boese

Despite some opposition within the ruling Labour Party, British lawmakers recently approved a plan to start designing a new class of nuclear-armed submarines. The vote puts the country on course toward retaining nuclear weapons until around midcentury, although top officials say that could still change.

Last December, Prime Minister Tony Blair's government proposed building successors to the four current submarines composing the United Kingdom 's entire nuclear delivery force. (See ACT , January/February 2007. ) The first two boats of the existing Vanguard-class fleet are expected to be retired by 2024, and the government contends the inaugural replacement vessel must be operational by then to maintain the current posture of always having one submarine on patrol.

Estimating that it will take 17 years to get the first new submarine from the drawing board to the sea, Blair called on legislators to support the project this year. The House of Commons complied March 14, voting 409-161 to start the proposed submarine design phase. Immediately before, lawmakers defeated 413-167 an initiative to postpone the vote.

Opponents offered a variety of reasons for why a decision was unnecessary this year. Some lawmakers said that the Vanguard-class submarines might be modified to last longer than presumed, while some argued that the new class of boats should take no longer to develop than the 14 years required for the Vanguard fleet. Other lawmakers said it was premature to consent to such a consequential and long-term endeavor at such an early stage.

Blair and his backers, however, argued that the claim that development of the Vanguard fleet took only 14 years neglected to take into account all the work needed to complete the system. They also said that lawmakers should welcome the opportunity to give their input sooner rather than later and warned that if delays mounted, British industry might not be staffed and positioned properly to carry out the project.

Blair assured the House of Commons March 14 that this would not be the final opportunity for lawmakers to have a say on the program. “This parliament cannot bind the decisions of a future parliament, and it is always open to us to come back and look at these issues,” the prime minister stated. He implied one chance would be between 2012 and 2014 when the main contracts for design and construction are supposed to be awarded.

Approximately one-quarter of the 352 members of the Labour Party, which campaigned for unilateral British nuclear disarmament during much of the 1980s, were on the losing side of the two votes. Their defection was offset by strong support for the proposal from the main opposition party, the Conservatives.

The final measure included a commitment to pursue additional steps toward nuclear disarmament in compliance with the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Countries without nuclear weapons pledged to forswear them through that 1968 accord, while nuclear-armed states, including the United Kingdom , promised to eventually eliminate their atomic arsenals.

Whether London would break its NPT obligation by building new submarines was a key issue pitting Labour Party members against each other. Indeed, four members of the government resigned their positions in protest over Blair's proposal. One of them, Nigel Griffiths, who was deputy leader of the House of Commons, argued March 14 that “we must lead the world in campaigning for the eradication of the nuclear threat and we must lead by example.”

Other Labour members echoed Griffiths during the nearly six-hour debate that preceded the two votes. They warned that developing another generation of nuclear-armed submarines would undermine the NPT by signaling that nuclear weapons were vital for preserving a country's security. One Labour member, Jeremy Corbyn, questioned whether adding “vastly enhanced” submarines would be “contrary to the whole spirit of the treaty and likely to encourage proliferation rather than reduce it.”

Blair, other Labour officials, and Conservative speakers asserted the United Kingdom was and would remain in compliance with the NPT, citing past and proposed nuclear reductions. Although developing new submarines is the core of the prime minister's plan, it also calls for shrinking the country's operational nuclear forces by 20 percent, to fewer than 160 warheads. London 's secret stock of reserve warheads is supposed to undergo an equivalent cut.

Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett blasted as “complete and utter rubbish” the notion that constructing new submarines would provoke the spread of nuclear weapons. She further dismissed the possibility of other countries following the United Kingdom 's lead even if it abolished nuclear weapons, saying, “[W]e have been disarming over the course of the past 10 years, with singularly little response.” Since the Cold War's end, the United Kingdom is the sole recognized nuclear-weapon state that has trimmed its nuclear capability to a single type of delivery option and claims to have reduced its nuclear explosive power by about 75 percent.

Submarine proponents repeatedly pointed to other countries' possession of nuclear arms and the suspected pursuit of such arms by other states. The prime minister and his supporters also contended the new submarines would be insurance against the uncertainty of the future, particularly the risk that “rogue” states or terrorists might acquire and use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.

Opponents responded that terrorists would not be deterred regardless of what armaments the United Kingdom brandished and that such a threat was less likely than other dangers, such as global climate change, requiring attention and money. Michael Ancram, a rare Conservative critic, asserted the submarine acquisition costs constituted “a pretty hefty premium against a pretty unlikely threat.”

The government projects that it might cost up to $39 billion to procure four new submarines and nearly $3 billion annually to operate them. Costs could be reduced if London builds only three new submarines, an option Blair has floated.

Skeptics say spending will be higher than estimated because arms programs are prone to exceeding budgets. They point to the United Kingdom 's ongoing and roughly $2 billion over budget Astute-class conventional attack submarine program as the latest example.

A majority of Labour members backed Blair despite, or perhaps because of, their party's past abolition advocacy. Some members appear to attribute, at least partially, the party's poor electoral results during the 1980s to that policy. Explaining his support for Blair's proposal, Labour member Gerald Kaufman stated, “It is one thing to revisit the scene of the crime; it is quite another to revisit the scene of the suicide.”

Still, Beckett said, “today's decision does not mean that we are committing ourselves irreversibly to maintaining a nuclear deterrent for the next 50 years.” She noted lawmakers will have chances in the coming years to affect the United Kingdom's nuclear status by deciding on replacing or renewing British nuclear warheads as well as the U.S.-made and -leased Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles that carry the warheads.

News Analysis: Doubts Rise on North Korea 's Uranium-Enrichment Program

Paul Kerr

As diplomats from six countries continue to hammer out the details of a Feb. 13 agreement to resolve the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, questions relating to Pyongyang 's suspected uranium-enrichment program will likely play a pivotal role. U.S. officials insist that North Korea come clean about the alleged program. Verifying North Korea 's declarations, however, will be a challenge: U.S. officials recently acknowledged that their confidence in intelligence judgments about Pyongyang 's uranium capabilities has declined.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill told National Public Radio March 7 that resolving questions about the program will be essential to the talks' success, explaining that “we're going to have to know precisely what they've done on this before we can give them a clean bill of health.”

U.S. concerns that North Korea has been secretly pursuing such a program have played a central role in the recent nuclear crisis. Indeed, the crisis was precipitated by a U.S. decision to confront Pyongyang about those suspicions in early October 2002.

North Korea has denied that it has such a program but has said it is willing to discuss the matter. (See ACT, March 2007.)

Pyongyang is known to have a plutonium-based nuclear weapons program, but a uranium-enrichment program could provide the country with a second path to such a weapon. Gas centrifuges enrich uranium hexafluoride by spinning it at very high speeds to increase the concentration of the relevant fissile isotope. Highly enriched uranium can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

According to Hill, the United States believes that “ North Korea has attempted and succeeded in buying a number of parts to put together a uranium-enrichment program.” But he added that Washington does not know how “far they got and whether they were successful in actually manufacturing highly enriched uranium.”

Similarly, a senior U.S. intelligence official confirmed in early March that Washington has become less confident than it was in October 2002 that Pyongyang is continuing to pursue an enrichment program. Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, North Korea mission manager for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said in a March 4 statement that all U.S. intelligence agencies “have at least moderate confidence that North Korea 's past efforts to acquire a uranium-enrichment capability continue today.”

By contrast, the U.S. intelligence community had “high confidence” in 2002 that North Korea was attempting to acquire a uranium-enrichment capability, DeTrani said, adding that the U.S. intelligence community “continues to have high confidence” that Pyongyang has pursued such a program in the past.

State of the Program

By the time the United States confronted North Korea in 2002, it had suspected for several years that Pyongyang might be pursing an enrichment program. Former Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation Robert Einhorn told Arms Control Today March 21 that the United States “obtained information” at the end of the 1990s that North Korea was attempting to “obtain certain pieces of equipment that could be used in an enrichment program.” He added, however, that the “information was sketchy” as to whether Pyongyang was “actively pursuing” such a program.

However, a June 2002 National Intelligence Estimate contained “a few comments about a growing belief that North Korea had engaged in at least” a research and development enrichment project, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 2003. The next month, the United States obtained intelligence that North Korea had dramatically increased its acquisition of centrifuge components, he said, adding that this information resulted in a September 2002 intelligence assessment that Pyongyang had “embarked on a production [enrichment] program.”

During a September 2006 Arms Control Association event, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly described the intelligence as “conclusive” and “retroactive in nature.” He also indicated that North Korea had possessed since about 1998 “centrifuges in very substantial numbers—way over a thousand—with associated equipment that would be necessary to run a covert centrifuge facility.”

But the administration's confidence in its knowledge of the program's scale appears to have been decreasing for some time. For example, the CIA reported in November 2002 that North Korea was “constructing a centrifuge facility” capable of producing enough fissile material for “two or more nuclear weapons per year” as soon as “mid-decade.” However, subsequent agency reports to Congress covering Pyongyang 's nuclear programs have become increasingly vague. The most recent such reports have said nothing about the program.

Likewise, a South Korean diplomat told Arms Control Today March 2 that Seoul has seen “elements” of a North Korean enrichment program, such as the importation of relevant materials, but there are “many gaps” in the government's knowledge, he added.

Most observers agree that Pyongyang has imported a significant number of centrifuge components and other enrichment-related materials. But there appears to be considerable doubt as to whether the country has an operating enrichment facility.

North Korea 's centrifuges are believed to be based on a Pakistani design, another former Department of State official told Arms Control Today March 21. Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf acknowledged last fall that a proliferation network run by former Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan had provided Pyongyang with 12 to 20 complete centrifuges, as well as centrifuge designs and components. The Khan network provided two types of centrifuges, including a more-advanced centrifuge known as a P-2. (See ACT, May 2006.)

State Department officials told Arms Control Today in the fall of 2005 that North Korea likely has enough components sufficient for a “pilot” enrichment facility. A former State Department official previously told Arms Control Today that North Korea has probably imported enough components for 3,000 to 5,000 centrifuges and may have acquired enough for 6,000 to 7,000. (See ACT, October 2005.) North Korea , however, may not possess all the necessary components for an operational facility.

A State Department official told Arms Control Today last November that North Korea 's efforts to obtain materials for the program had largely stopped but pointed out that Pyongyang may have learned to produce its own components. Acknowledging that there is a “spectrum” of possibilities regarding the current state of the program, the official explained that North Korea could have an advanced enrichment program but may have halted work on it.

Whether North Korea has a facility capable of producing uranium hexafluoride is unclear. A former State Department official told Arms Control Today last October that the U.S. intelligence community does not have “evidence” that Pyongyang has such a facility.

North Korea is known to have a production line for uranium tetrafluoride, a precursor for uranium hexafluoriude, at its Yongbyon nuclear facilities. Gary Samore, who served as senior director for nonproliferation at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, acknowledged in a March 21 interview that producing uranium hexafluoriude is relatively easy if a country is capable of producing the precursor. But he cautioned that Pyongyang 's production line may no longer be operational.

U.S. officials disclosed in 2005 an intelligence assessment that North Korea supplied Libya with uranium hexafluoride via the Khan network. (See ACT, May 2005.) But U.S. and International Atomic Energy Agency sources expressed skepticism that Pyongyang supplied the material.

Policy Decisions

Even as U.S. confidence about the suspected program has decreased, policy decisions based on those judgments have continued to reverberate.

Kelly told North Korean officials during an early October 2002 meeting that the United States had evidence that the country was pursuing a uranium-enrichment program in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework. At the time, the United States asserted that the North Korean officials admitted to having such a program. (See ACT, December 2002.)

Under the Agreed Framework, Pyongyang froze its nuclear reactor and related facilities in exchange for the delivery of 500,000 metric tons of heavy fuel oil annually and the construction of two light-water-moderated nuclear reactors. An international consortium, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), was charged with implementing these components of the agreement.

Although North Korea indicated it wanted to negotiate, the United States persuaded KEDO's executive board to suspend the heavy fuel oil deliveries.

Pyongyang subsequently ejected international inspectors charged with monitoring the freeze, announced its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, restarted the reactor, and claimed to have reprocessed the spent fuel to obtain plutonium. (See ACT, November 2006.)

The belief that North Korea may have constructed an enrichment plant also apparently influenced at least some Bush administration policy decisions. A former State Department official said in a March 21 interview that some U.S. officials were “intent on making policy” based on the worst-case assumption that Pyongyang had an enrichment facility. For example, some State Department officials forcefully advocated an extremely intrusive verification scheme that would allow the United States to search for a possible North Korean enrichment facility. Several former U.S. officials have told Arms Control Today that such a plan would have been unacceptable to Pyongyang .

Former State Department Korea director David Straub, however, argued in a March 25 interview that some Bush administration officials were “intent on making policy toward North Korea based on worst-case scenarios about everything,” regardless of the enrichment issue. The entire department supported a “very intrusive inspection system, although some even more so,” he added.

A working group established by the six-party February agreement is tasked with devising a suitable scheme to verify that North Korea has complied with all of its denuclearization commitments.

Avoiding a Space Arms Race

By Daryl G. Kimball

Forty years ago this month, the Senate approved the Outer Space Treaty, which bars signatory states from placing into orbit any objects carrying nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Although it has helped protect space for peaceful uses by all countries, the treaty has not closed off all threats to the safety of military and civilian space assets and the pursuit of other types of space-based weapons.

For instance, some countries have developed offensive weapons capabilities that can shoot down satellites in orbit using ground-based ballistic missiles. The United States is now contemplating “defensive,” space-based, kinetic-energy missile interceptors. The time has come once again for states to engage in dialogue on space security and avert a new and dangerous arms competition in the heavens.

As if to highlight the problem, China recently used a projectile carried into space by a ballistic missile to shatter one of its weather satellites orbiting about 850 kilometers above the Earth into thousands of fragments. The highly irresponsible experiment—the first of its kind since U.S. and Soviet anti-satellite testing in the 1980s—reaffirms the vulnerability of surveillance and communications satellites to attack.

At the same time, the Bush administration's fiscal year 2008 budget request includes $10 million for initial work toward a space-based missile interceptor test bed. According to the Pentagon budget documents, testing of a handful of kinetic missile interceptors might begin by 2012. Once proven, the United States could significantly expand the number of orbiting interceptors providing a thin, “multi-shot” defense against intercontinental missiles.

Russia and China worry that U.S. ground-based missile defenses, combined with possible space-based weapons systems, could threaten their offensive nuclear deterrent forces and early-warning satellites. Today, Russia has an arsenal of approximately 800 long-range, nuclear-armed missiles, which will likely shrink significantly in coming years. China deploys approximately two dozen such weapons.

For some defense planners, the Chinese satellite shoot-down underscores the need, as stated in the official 2006 U.S. space policy, “to promote and protect U.S. security and space assets.” As Air Force Maj. Gen. William Shelton said recently to Inside the Pentagon, “As the capability evolves on the part of the people [who] would want to do us harm in space, you've got to stay ahead of them.” But because the United States may not be able to stay ahead technologically and cannot always protect its satellites, it would benefit from agreements that limit the military space capabilities of all countries.

Unfortunately, international discussions that might produce new understandings on maintaining the peaceful use of space have been stymied until, perhaps, now. For years, China and Russia have called for talks at the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament (CD) on “prevention of an arms race in outer space.” Until very recently, the Bush administration had been opposed to even discussions on space weapons, favoring negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would halt production of nuclear material for bombs.

But on March 23, the president of the CD presented states with a package that would allow for nonbinding discussions on space weapons issues, as well as long-overdue negotiations on an FMCT. The proposal has the support of a wide majority of countries, including the United States .

Leaders in Washington , Beijing , Moscow , and elsewhere should seize the opportunity for cooperative solutions. First, member states at the CD should explore options for limiting the testing or use of ground-, sea-, air-, or space-based weapons, including lasers and projectiles, against satellites or other space-based objects, as well as for legally binding standards for the mitigation of space debris.

A formal agreement through the CD, which works by consensus, would be difficult to achieve. Congress could help improve prospects by denying proposed funding for space-based missile interceptors. These are not critical to U.S. missile defense needs and could prompt Russia and China to accelerate work on less-costly countermeasures and retain more of their offensive nuclear-armed missiles.

If talks at the CD do not begin or become deadlocked, the nearly 100 signatory states of the Outer Space Treaty could seek to formally clarify that the treaty was also meant to ban non-nuclear Earth-orbiting weapons designed to strike satellites or missiles—weapons that would undermine space security for all. The treaty clearly allows states-parties to establish interpretations of the original treaty to take into account developments not anticipated in 1967.

As an interim step, like-minded states might also establish a less formal “code of conduct” for space security, whether or not all governments choose to participate. The goal would be to establish stronger norms against dangerous activities in space, including flight tests that simulate hostile attacks against satellites and the deployment of anti-satellite and space weapons.

It is foolhardy to deny that an offensive-defensive space arms competition is in the offing and could have unwanted consequences. The international community stands at a critical space-security crossroads that requires responsible and visionary global leadership.

Forty years ago this month, the Senate approved the Outer Space Treaty, which bars signatory states from placing into orbit any objects carrying nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Although it has helped protect space for peaceful uses by all countries, the treaty has not closed off all threats to the safety of military and civilian space assets and the pursuit of other types of space-based weapons.

For instance, some countries have developed offensive weapons capabilities that can shoot down satellites in orbit using ground-based ballistic missiles. The United States is now contemplating “defensive,” space-based, kinetic-energy missile interceptors. The time has come once again for states to engage in dialogue on space security and avert a new and dangerous arms competition in the heavens. (Continue)


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