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March 2009
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The Threshold Test Ban Treaty

Edward Ifft

As the likelihood increases that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) will get a new look in the Senate and perhaps advance closer to entry into force in the Obama administration,[1] it is useful to look back at its antecedents. There are three principal ones: the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), known in most of the world as the Partial Test Ban Treaty; the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT); and the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT). The NPT put in place the promise to end nuclear testing forever, and the LTBT repeated this promise and prohibited nuclear explosions in all environments except underground. Meanwhile, the NPT's Article VI disarmament provision was widely understood to include a commitment to enact eventually a comprehensive ban on nuclear testing. Quite properly, constant attention is given to the NPT, and Arms Control Today discussed the LTBT and NPT negotiations recently.[2] The TTBT, however, is sometimes forgotten, which is unfortunate because it was an important step in the 60-year struggle to control nuclear explosions and it has interesting lessons to tell about the art and science of negotiations, as well as verification and compliance issues.

Origins of the TTBT

Beginning with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's famous 1954 call for an end to all nuclear testing, there have been many starts and stops to political discussions and efforts of groups of experts to solve the political, military, and verification problems associated with a potential CTBT. President John Kennedy settled for the LTBT rather than a comprehensive treaty because of Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev's resistance to on-site inspections. Yet, the Soviet Union was pressing for a CTBT by 1974 and gaining public relations points while the United States resisted because of concerns about verification and stockpile reliability. In March 1974, at a meeting between Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, it was agreed in principle to seek to ban nuclear explosions above some yet-to-be-determined yield. The issue was given even greater urgency in May when India exploded a nuclear device in the Rajasthan Desert, calling it a "peaceful nuclear explosion" (PNE).

A few days earlier, a U.S. delegation had flown by military plane to Moscow to begin what were described as "technical discussions" on a possible TTBT. Those of a conspiratorial nature may conclude that this term was used to keep the bureaucracy from getting too excited about what was about to happen. Moscow was chosen as the venue to get the U.S. team away from the distractions of Washington and to allow greater access to Soviet officials, some of whom would not have been allowed to travel outside the Soviet Union because of the sensitive nature of their work.

The chief U.S. negotiator was Walter Stoessel, ambassador to the Soviet Union. I functioned as his deputy, chairing the internal meetings and supervising the preparation of delegation statements and reports to Washington. Norm Terrell, who worked for Helmut Sonnenfeldt, counselor of the Department of State and close colleague of Kissinger, was the primary link to Kissinger through Sonnenfeldt. Nine other members of the U.S. team represented the other relevant agencies. They had a very high level of expertise, especially on the verification issues. Carl Romney, a legendary Air Force seismologist, took the lead on the crucial issue of seismic detection of underground explosions. An unusual and very useful feature of the group was that two eminent geophysicists were "public members" of the delegation, not representing any agency. They were Professor Lynn Sykes of Columbia University and Professor Gene Herron of Southern Methodist University. They added an independent scientific view, which sometimes served as a good counter to entrenched U.S. government views, which were not always correct, and provided added credibility with the scientific community.

The Soviet delegation was also impressive. It was led by Igor Morokhov, deputy minister of the so-called Ministry of Medium-Machine Building (Minsredmash), which ran the Soviet nuclear complex. His deputy was Ambassador Roland Timerbaev, an experienced and skillful negotiator from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. General Aleksandr Osin, thought to be director of the Soviet nuclear test site in Kazakhstan, was the chief military representative. Another important figure was Aleksandr Zakharenkov, introduced as a professor at the Kurchatov Institute, but actually from Minsredmash.[3] The rest of the Soviet team consisted of experts on nuclear testing, PNEs, and verification.

The U.S. delegation had been told they would be in Moscow for "a few days" for "technical discussions." Some unfortunately believed this and packed their suitcases accordingly. In actuality, the negotiations continued for five intensive weeks. I wrote the initial plenary statement on the overnight flight to Moscow. We hit the ground running and held nine plenary meetings in the first 10 days. This was rather remarkable. In the initial Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) negotiations in 1969, Ambassador Gerard Smith had wanted to hold a formal plenary every day but quickly found it impossible to have more than three such meetings a week. This was due to the burden of getting U.S. statements prepared and agreed, along with the necessary extensive reporting and analysis for Washington.

Working conditions in Moscow for the U.S. delegation were cramped. We lived in the old Rossiya Hotel across Red Square from the Kremlin and had our offices in the U.S. embassy. This was the old building on Ulitsa Tchaikovskaya, the current embassy not having been constructed yet. Space was at such a premium that the delegation was allotted two small rooms with three desks and chairs, plus an acoustic conference room for classified work. The team consisted of 13 officers, plus two secretaries. The secretaries got two of the desks and chairs, which left one for the 13 other officers. I joked that the first person to show up in the morning could have the chair and the others would have to stand all day. In practice, the day consisted of one long working session in the conference room. The success of the whole operation seemed to validate the proposition that progress in negotiations is inversely proportional to the comfort of the negotiators. If this is indeed correct, it may explain why progress is so frustratingly slow in places such as Geneva, New York, and Vienna.

The atmosphere in the negotiations was very good from the start. Part of the sense of urgency was the knowledge that there was a summit meeting in July and it would be good to have a treaty ready to sign. Still, it was clear from the start that there were three fundamental issues that needed to be addressed:

1. What should be the yield threshold?

2. How could this threshold be successfully monitored?

3. How should PNEs be dealt with?

The Yield Question

Although this was the fundamental question, there was only so much one could say about it. Both sides were guarded, waiting for the other to state a preference. It became clear that the United States would come down somewhere between 100 kilotons and 200 kilotons, although some in the U.S. delegation preferred a higher number. The Soviets, who preferred a CTBT in any case, were guarded in their statements.[4] There was a limit to what could be tested at the Nevada Test Site-the resultant shaking of buildings in Las Vegas was becoming a problem. Multimegaton tests, such as the 1971 Cannikan test of the Spartan ABM warhead conducted at Amchitka in the Aleutian Islands, caused a public uproar and no longer seemed necessary in any case.

Stoessel normally did not attend internal delegation meetings but did attend an important one near the end of the negotiations in which he asked each person for his recommendation on the number. Not surprisingly, the State Department and Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) representatives advocated a lower number, while those from the Department of Defense asked for a higher level. It is not known what Stoessel recommended to Washington, but it was wisely decided to leave the final number to the summit, which decided on 150 kilotons.

Although this level seemed high to some, it was a real constraint, both sides having conducted many tests above this level before the threshold took effect in 1976. For example, during 1972-1976, the Soviet Union conducted at least 24 tests with yields reported to be more than 150 kilotons, including three with yields between 1.5 megatons and 10 megatons.[5] During this same period, the United States conducted at least 13 tests with yields reported to be more than 150 kilotons. This includes the Cannikan test, whose yield was reported to be "less than five megatons."[6] In contrast to these very large explosions, the device dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of about 15 kilotons, while the Nagasaki bomb had a yield of about 21 kilotons.


Everyone knew that verification would be a big problem because even the testers themselves could not predict or measure yields precisely, but both countries set about to solving it in a scientific, nonpolitical way. The meetings were held in a facility near the famous Tretyakov Gallery. It had blackboards, and it was unusual and gratifying, after the extreme formality of earlier arms control negotiations, to be able to encourage scientists from either side to go spontaneously to the blackboard in the middle of a formal meeting to illustrate their points and argue their case. This informal, problem-solving approach should be applied more frequently in international negotiations. It was crucial to producing a complete treaty from scratch in only five weeks. The completed verification protocol involved a surprisingly detailed exchange of calibration information regarding the actual yields and locations of earlier tests in each geophysically distinct area of the test site, along with the relevant characteristics of these areas, such as depth of water table, seismic velocity, porosity of the rock, etc.

Peaceful Nuclear Explosions

A particularly devilish problem concerned so-called PNEs. The Soviets had a very active program that involved using nuclear explosives for excavations, putting out oil well fires, mining gold, deep seismic sounding, etc. One very ambitious and controversial project under consideration was the Kama-Pechora Canal, which was part of the plan to divert water from flowing north into the Arctic Ocean to instead go south into the Volga and thence to Central Asia. This would have involved excavating a canal with high-yield PNEs. Although the United States was losing interest in PNEs by 1974, it had conducted 27 such experiments under Operation Plowshare and had an interest in using them for exploiting oil shale and other possibilities. More radical U.S. ideas were to excavate a sea-level canal using PNEs across Nicaragua to replace the Panama Canal and the excavation of a harbor at Cape Thompson, Alaska.[7]

Another complication was the fact that Article V of the NPT promised that "potential benefits from any peaceful applications of nuclear explosions will be made available to non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty on a nondiscriminatory basis." There was in fact some interest in "PNE services," for example, excavating a canal to bring water from the Mediterranean to Egypt's Qatarra Depression or excavating chambers deep in hard rock for the permanent storage of high-level radioactive waste. Exasperated at hearing of some negative remarks in Washington by ACDA Director Fred Ikle regarding PNEs, Morokhov described him as "a man divorced from reality." As fate would have it, the tables were turned in 1977 when General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev declared a moratorium on Soviet PNEs. In all, the Soviet Union conducted 124 such explosions.[8]

In theory, it might have been possible to design a regime to distinguish between weapon tests and PNEs and even provide PNE services, perhaps through the International Atomic Energy Agency. In practice, the problem seemed just too difficult, and the United States showed no interest in solving it. It was clearly impossible to combine weapons tests and PNEs in such a way as to prevent any possible weapons benefit from PNEs. The high yields and diverse locations of PNEs would have undermined the efforts to constrain weapon tests. The solution to the seemingly intractable PNE problem was to punt it to a separate agreement. The idea came about late one night when Norm Terrell and I were discussing the issue with Timerbaev. We agreed that the best and perhaps only way to deal with the interrelationship between weapons and PNEs was to have two separate treaties. Although without instructions on the matter, with the summit rapidly approaching, we each agreed to recommend it to our respective governments.

Even though it was near midnight (it is still light then in Moscow in late June), Norm and I went straight to Spaso House to present the idea to Stoessel. He came downstairs in his bathrobe, we discussed it by his fireplace, and he agreed. Norm and I then went directly to the embassy and sent a cable to Washington. Washington and Moscow both readily approved the idea. Unlike the celebrated "Walk in the Woods" between negotiators Paul Nitze and Yuli Kvitsinsky in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces negotiations eight years later, which was rejected by both sides, this was an example of an ad referendum approach that succeeded.[9] The idea that negotiators must never try such approaches is simply not correct.

As the summit drew near, the bureaucracy in Washington suddenly realized that the "technical talks" were about to give birth to an actual treaty, which would be signed in a few days by the two presidents. Several "political-level" officials were rushed to Moscow to take charge, with the result that the already overcrowded work space now became truly chaotic. In reality, the new folks, through no fault of their own, never really caught up to the fast-moving train and had a minimal impact.

The PNE Treaty

President Richard Nixon and Brezhnev signed the completed TTBT on July 3, 1974. The sides then set about to negotiate the companion treaty to govern PNEs. I returned to Washington to work on the SALT II negotiations, and Robert Buchheim became Stoessel's deputy. Other key players were the State Department's Robert Martin and leading scientists from the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. The details of the PNE Treaty, which was signed on May 28, 1976, need not be discussed here. The key problem was to allow large PNE projects without circumventing the 150-kiloton limit on weapons tests. It was solved by allowing group explosions up to 1,500 kilotons, no one of which could exceed 150 kilotons, and setting up an elaborate system of on-site inspections to make sure this limit was not exceeded. The fundamental problem of how to distinguish between weapons tests and PNEs was solved in a clever way. The sides had to declare their weapon test sites-the Semipalatinsk site in Kazakhstan and Novaya Zemlya for the Soviets and the Nevada Test Site for the United States. Any nuclear explosion within these sites would be considered a weapons test and governed by the TTBT. Any nuclear explosion elsewhere would be considered a PNE and governed by the PNE Treaty. Thus the impossible question of the intent of a nuclear explosion was neatly swept aside. The PNE Treaty was never really used because each side had lost interest in high-yield PNEs by that time. This is not the only example in which arms control delegations worked diligently to solve a difficult problem only to have it disappear shortly thereafter.

Verification Problems

Although the sides had given Gromyko and Kissinger exactly what they had asked for with the TTBT, problems soon arose. It had been well understood by the scientists that seismic means alone would carry a significant band of uncertainty when converted into a yield estimate. This conversion required assumptions regarding a host of geophysical factors: type of rock in which the explosion occurred, water content, the coupling to deeper layers of rock, and the transmission paths to the seismic sensors, many of which would be thousands of kilometers distant. This was the reason for the unprecedented exchange of data mentioned above, which would reduce these uncertainties. This remarkable degree of cooperation would only occur with the exchange of the instruments of ratification, which did not occur, due to political factors. In particular, charges that the Soviets were cheating began to appear, most commonly through leaks to conservative newspaper columnists. Although the White House had been warned about the band of uncertainty in estimating yield, they were unprepared for the storm of criticism regarding the alleged cheating; and the scientists could not refute these charges because, due to measurement uncertainties, the data could be used to support a yield estimate either above or below 150 kilotons.

Although many sensitive aspects of the Soviet nuclear program have been revealed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the author's knowledge, we still do not know whether the Soviets exceeded the agreed 150-kiloton limit, either accidentally or on purpose. Indeed, it is not clear how often the United States itself may have accidentally exceeded the limit. An interesting footnote to these damaging controversies is that there were differences between U.S. and British seismologists regarding the methodology for estimating the yields of Soviet tests. The British approach, which led to lower yield estimates, compensated more effectively for differences between the hard-rock geology of the Soviet Union's test site, which absorbed less of the blast, and the U.S. test site, which contained softer rock. These "yield wars" continued for years until it was finally accepted that the British estimates were more accurate.[10]

That a test might accidentally exceed the estimated yield was well known. The sides attempted to deal with this in advance with a rather remarkable understanding to the effect that "one or two slight, unintended breaches per year" of the yield ceiling would not be considered a violation, although they would be a cause for concern and a subject for consultations. This understanding was part of the public record submitted to the Senate for its advice and consent to ratification.[11]

In 1976, with ratification increasingly problematic, each side agreed to observe the 150-kiloton limit pending ratification. This state of affairs, which continued for 16 years, is interesting from several perspectives. Politically, it created the bizarre situation that the sides accepted the limit without the verification regime and data exchange we had painstakingly worked out and that everyone agreed was essential to monitor the constraint. From a legal perspective, it is an interesting variation of the concept of "provisional application," which is recognized in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.[12]

Solving the Verification Problem

By 1986, President Ronald Reagan, having canceled the trilateral CTBT negotiations initiated by President Jimmy Carter, was under pressure from General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's "Peace Offensive," which included a strong push for a CTBT. Reagan proposed an alternative: if Gorbachev would agree to work on solving the verification problems in the TTBT and the PNE Treaty first, the United States would then negotiate "on ways to implement a step-by-step program...limiting and ultimately ending nuclear testing." Gorbachev agreed, and new delegations were sent to Geneva to improve the two verification protocols. The U.S. team was skillfully led by Ambassador Paul Robinson. It included a notable cast of characters with great experience in the U.S. nuclear test program. It was obvious what part of the country some of them came from, adorned with boots, huge silver belt buckles, string ties, and turquoise-fashion statements not usually seen in diplomatic circles in Geneva.

Taking full advantage of Gorbachev's openness to verification and transparency, the teams devised a very intrusive and effective set of measures for both treaties, including a requirement to notify all test explosions in advance. The most innovative provision allowed the monitoring side to make a yield measurement of any explosion more than 50 kilotons using a satellite hole drilled near the actual emplacement hole. The CORRTEX[13] technology employed relies on the fact that, unlike most sound waves, whose velocity is independent of the source, in the extreme conditions of temperature and pressure close to a nuclear explosion, there is a correlation between the yield and the velocity of the shock wave. Measuring the crushing of a coaxial cable in the satellite hole measures the velocity of the shock wave as it moves toward the surface and hence the yield of the explosion. Each side was also allowed to use on-site inspection for tests of more than 35 kilotons, along with three seismic stations to gather data on specified tests. In the United States, these were in Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Washington state, providing a good angular perspective on the Nevada Test Site. Similar stations were established in the Soviet Union.

To test the CORRTEX method, each side agreed to allow the other to monitor a nuclear explosion at its test site. The Soviets did so at the Nevada Test Site on August 17, 1988, and the United States monitored a test at the Semipalatinsk site in Kazakhstan on September 14. These operations were logistically complicated, but both sides were satisfied with the results and gained greater confidence in their ability to verify the treaty. At the participants' 10-year reunion held in Las Vegas and the Nevada Test Site in 1998, it was clear that the experience of working closely with mysterious former enemies had been a positive, life-changing one for many on each side. Ratification proceeded smoothly, and the TTBT and the PNE Treaty, with their new verification protocols, entered into force on December 11, 1990. The Soviets were able to monitor two U.S. nuclear tests before testing was stopped in 1992 by President Bill Clinton.

The United States never got to do the same because Gorbachev instituted a moratorium on Soviet tests in 1991, which was later extended by Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Congress responded in 1992 with legislation imposing a U.S. test moratorium in 1993. The new Clinton administration decided to extend the U.S. moratorium and negotiate a CTBT in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, negotiations that were launched the next year.[14]

Lessons from the TTBT Negotiations

One important lesson from the experience is that the oft-repeated statement that U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations must unavoidably be long, painful, and "adversarial" is simply not true. Of course, any negotiation will be adversarial in the sense that the sides will begin with different positions and perspectives, otherwise there would be no need for a negotiation at all. The TTBT negotiations went from zero to a full-blown and fairly complicated treaty in only five weeks.[15] The secret is that the political leadership must establish clear goals at the outset: What is the problem we are trying to solve? Then the sides must send negotiators who have the authority and the courage to make difficult decisions. Such negotiations need not be painful and certainly can be conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect, regardless of whether one approves of all aspects of the other side's system. Recognition of this fact could help in solving even the most difficult future international security problems.

Another important lesson is the need for effective verification in arms control agreements and prompt and effective responses to compliance problems.[16] Charges and denials of cheating, particularly when played out in public and allowed to fester, will severely damage any regime, no matter how well crafted. This remains true for U.S.-Russian relations in spite of the admirable openness and easy communication we now enjoy. It will be even more so in future agreements with more difficult partners, such as Iran or North Korea.

One of the major problems with the TTBT and the PNE Treaty is that they never had much of a constituency in the United States. Advocates of nuclear testing feared that they put us on a slippery slope that would lead to a CTBT. On the other hand, the arms control community was not enthusiastic because they felt the treaties were a diversion that would delay a CTBT. Some were also displeased that the outcome appeared to legitimize PNEs. History has proven both sides partly right and partly wrong. The treaties provided many useful lessons and innovative ideas, only some of which are discussed here, and were probably the best approach in the circumstances of their time.

As a signatory state for the CTBT, the United States is bound by the Vienna Convention not to undermine the object and purpose of that treaty. In addition, the TTBT and the PNE Treaty remain in force. Their provisions would come into play if nuclear testing were resumed by either side. It is problematic whether either side has the equipment and trained inspectors ready to carry out these provisions on short notice. It is the hope of essentially the entire world, including all close allies of the United States, that the day is not far off when the CTBT will enter into force and take the place of the TTBT and the PNE Treaty and we can close the books on these agreements, which are fascinating, but only stepping stones to the ultimate goal.

Edward Ifft is a retired Department of State official who served as the deputy head of negotiations on the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, deputy director of the On-Site Inspection Agency, and senior adviser to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. He is an adjunct professor in the security studies program of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy of the U.S. government.


1. As a candidate, Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) stated, "As President, I will reach out to the Senate to secure the ratification of the CTBT at the earliest practical date and will then launch a diplomatic effort to bring onboard other states whose ratifications are required for the treaty to enter into force." "Arms Control Today 2008 Presidential Q&A: President-elect Barack Obama," Arms Control Today, December 2008, special section.

2. Daryl Kimball and Wade Boese, "Limited Test Ban Treaty Turns 40," Arms Control Today, October 2003, pp. 37-38; George Bunn and John Rhinelander, "The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Then and Now," Arms Control Today, July/August 2008, pp. 56-60.

3. Roland Timerbaev, "On the Threshold Test Ban Treaties of 1974-76," Security Index, Vol. 13, No. 2 (82) (2006).

4. For a discussion of the internal Soviet deliberations, see ibid.

5. I. A. Andryushin et al., "50 Years of Peace-The History of Nuclear Testing in the USSR," DSWA-TR-96-87, October 1997.

6. U.S. Department of Energy, "United States Nuclear Tests," DOE/NV-209 Rev. 14, December 1994.

7. Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) Preparatory Commission, "Peaceful Nuclear Explosions," www.ctbto.org/nuclear-testing/.

8. Timerbaev, "On the Threshold Test Ban Treaties of 1974-76." See Milo Nordyke, "The Soviet Program for Peaceful Nuclear Explosions," Science and Global Security, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1998), pp. 1-117.

9. Miles A. Pomper, "In Memoriam: Paul H. Nitze (1907-2004)," Arms Control Today, December 2004, pp. 44-45.

10. Peter Marshall and Alan Douglas, "Strategic Perspectives Through Oral History," in U.S.-UK Nuclear Cooperation After 50 Years, ed. Jenifer Mackby and Paul Cornish (2008), pp. 291-295.

11. U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Arms Control and Disarmament Agreements (1996), p. 134.

12. Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, art. 25 (1969). For a discussion of the legal issues associated with possible provisional application of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), see Edward Ifft et al., "A New Look at the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty," Security Paper, No. 6 (2008).

13. CORRTEX stands for Continuous Reflectometry for Radius Versus Time Experiments. The Soviets had a similar system known as Methods of Impulse Sensing (MIS).

14. For further details on the history of negotiations on nuclear testing, see UN Institute for Disarmament Research, "In Pursuit of a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty," 1991. For a detailed chronology of events, see SAIC, "A Chronology of Comprehensive Test Ban Proposals, Negotiations and Debates," 1994. See also Jaap Ramaker et al., The Final Test, (Vienna: CTBTO, 2003).

15. Of course, one may object that the treaties required extensive "fixing" later, but this does not invalidate these conclusions.

16. "Effective verification" has become one of the key criteria for most arms control agreements. The concept clearly will be interpreted differently by different people in different contexts but has generally been defined as the ability to detect cheating that would be militarily or politically significant in time to take corrective action. For a good discussion of effective verification in the context of the CTBT, see David Hafemeister, "The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: Effectively Verifiable," Arms Control Today, October 2008, pp. 6-12.


Complete Cutoff: Designing a Comprehensive Fissile Material Treaty

Arend Meerburg and Frank N. von Hippel

President Barack Obama has pledged to "lead a global effort to negotiate a verifiable treaty ending the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes."[1] Fissile materials are the chain-reacting fissionable materials that are the essential ingredients in nuclear weapons, in practice, highly enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium. Obama is not the first president to back the negotiation of such a treaty: President Bill Clinton did so after the UN General Assembly in 1993 adopted by consensus a resolution calling for negotiation of a "non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other explosive devices."[2] Even the administration of President George W. Bush tabled a draft treaty at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD), albeit without international verification.

Despite the passage of more than a decade since initial negotiations began and sputtered out, negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) have yet to be renewed, stalled largely over disagreements about the negotiating agenda of the CD. For years, many countries have supported a proposal to have a CD work program that included parallel negotiations on an FMCT, nuclear disarmament, a binding agreement by the nuclear-weapon states not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states, and the prevention of an arms race in outer space. The U.S. position, however, has been that negotiations on an FMCT should not be linked to negotiations on other issues.[3] Because the CD operates by consensus, any single country can block agreement on the program of work. Should this logjam be broken and Obama be able to fulfill his pledge and begin talks, disputes about the scope of the treaty and its verification provisions would move to the fore.


Four of the five nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) nuclear-weapon states (France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) announced in the 1990s that they had ended their production of fissile material for weapons. China has made no official announcement but is generally believed to have stopped producing during the same period. This means that the proposed FMCT primarily would constrain non-NPT states India, Israel, and Pakistan, all of which have nuclear arsenals.

Many non-nuclear-weapon states, joined by Pakistan, argue that an FMCT should go beyond prohibiting the production of new fissile material for weapons. They point out that the existing stocks of fissile materials in some nuclear-weapon states are so large that a cutoff would have no practical effect on restricting the number of nuclear weapons that they could produce.

In fact, only about one-half of the global stockpile of HEU and about one-third of the global stockpile of separated plutonium is in weapons stockpiles. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Russia and the United States declared excess almost one-half the fissile materials in their weapons stocks. Even though more than one-half of the weapons HEU that was declared excess has since been blended down to low-enriched uranium (LEU), the amount that remains to be blended down or used as HEU constitutes about 20 percent of the global stock of HEU. Disposition of the weapons-grade plutonium that Russia and the United States declared excess has not even begun.

Among the nuclear-weapon states, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States fuel their naval reactors with HEU; India plans to do so as well.[4] The United States is the only country thus far to declare a dedicated reserve of HEU for naval fuel, 128 metric tons of weapons-grade material. In the past, the United States has also supplied HEU to fuel British submarines.

France, Russia and the United Kingdom also have accumulated huge stocks of separated civilian plutonium; indeed, one-half of the global stock of separated plutonium is civilian. Surely, many non-nuclear-weapon states argue, an FMCT should capture all these stocks of non-weapon materials as well.

In 1995, Canadian Ambassador Gerald Shannon was tasked with finding a way to accommodate the various views concerning the scope of an FMCT. His report became a CD-backed consensus proposal known as the Shannon Mandate. It called for moving forward with the talks without first deciding the issue of fissile material stocks: "[I]t has been agreed by delegations that the mandate for the establishment of the ad hoc Committee does not preclude any delegation from raising for consideration in the ad Hoc Committee any of the above noted issues [pre-existing stocks and management of fissile material]."[5]

IPFM Draft Treaty

To facilitate negotiations when they are finally launched, the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), of which we are members, decided to produce an alternative to the U.S. draft FMCT. This draft treaty, which may be found on the IPFM Web site,[6] would prohibit using all or nearly all pre-existing stocks of non-weapons fissile materials for nuclear weapons and include verification. Such a broader treaty is necessary because an FMCT that banned the production of new fissile material for weapons but allowed production of new weapons from the massive existing stocks of civilian, excess weapons, and naval fissile material would not effectively cap nuclear arsenals or make reductions irreversible. Because it goes beyond a cutoff of future production, we designate the IPFM draft treaty as a fissile material (cutoff) treaty [FM(C)T].[7]

On the date the treaty entered into force, all fissile material in the civilian sector and any material produced after that date would be subject to safeguards. Some material that had been declared excess for military purposes might not be immediately transferable to the civilian sector because it was still in weapons components. It could be subjected to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring, however, by an approach similar to that of the Trilateral Initiative.

One issue to be addressed early would be the IAEA monitoring of pre-existing stocks of HEU reserved for future naval purposes. This possibility is likely to be resisted fiercely by the British and U.S. nuclear navies. As a result, in the absence of a presidential-level commitment to inclusion, the negotiators may quickly jettison such monitoring. For any HEU newly produced for naval reactors, however, verification arrangements for nondiversion of HEU from naval fuel cycles will have to be developed. The only way to avoid such verification arrangements would be to convert HEU to LEU fuel before the stockpiles of pre-existing HEU are depleted. For Russia and the United States, existing stocks of excess weapons HEU will last for many decades. Other countries, notably India, could face the need to make HEU for naval fuel much earlier.

FMCT Verification

By calling for a verifiable treaty, the Obama administration appears to have rejected the Bush administration's position that an FMCT could not be effectively verified. The draft FMCT that the Bush administration submitted on May 18, 2006-the only draft FMCT that any government has submitted thus far-did not contain any provisions for international verification.[8] It was accompanied with a white paper that put forward the administration's position on the verifiability of an FMCT: "[E]ven with extensive verification mechanisms and provisions-so extensive that they could compromise the core national security interests of key signatories, and so costly that many countries would be hesitant to implement them-we still would not have high confidence in our ability to monitor compliance with an FMCT."[9] The two primary concerns behind this conclusion appear to have been the difficulty of determining without unacceptable intrusiveness that HEU is not being diverted to weapons from the naval-reactor fuel cycle and whether undeclared fissile material production capabilities might be present in nuclear-weapon-related facilities.[10] The discussion of FM(C)T verification that follows therefore begins with these challenges.

Safeguarding Naval HEU

One of the challenges to the verification of a broad FM(C)T would be detecting any significant diversion of HEU in naval fuel cycles to weapons.

Naval reactors are a challenge to the verification of the NPT as well because that treaty allows non-nuclear-weapon states to acquire nuclear-powered ships and submarines and its associated safeguards regime and has a potential loophole that could be exploited vis-à-vis fuel for such military vessels.[11] Brazil is the first non-nuclear-weapon state that is developing a propulsion reactor for a nuclear submarine. Fortunately, it is to be fueled with LEU.

The best solution from many points of view would be for LEU fuel to become the norm.[12] France already has shifted its naval reactors to LEU fuel. In 1994 the U.S. Congress requested a study from the Department of Energy's Office of Naval Propulsion of the costs and benefits of shifting to LEU.[13] More recently, the Senate Armed Services Committee directed "the Office of Naval Reactors to review carefully options for using low-enriched uranium fuel in new or modified reactor plants for surface ships and submarines."[14] The National Academy of Sciences should be commissioned to do an independent cost-benefit analysis.

In the meantime, however, the problem of HEU-fueled naval reactors must be addressed. The IPFM has not solved the problem of safeguarding this HEU but has developed some ideas that could be useful.[15]

To begin, the IAEA should monitor any HEU stockpiles reserved for naval fuel use, and the owner countries should inform the IAEA when they need to withdraw specific amounts for specified propulsion reactors. The IAEA could do a rough check of the reasonableness of these numbers by comparing them with published estimates of the amounts of HEU used in the cores of different types of naval vessels.[16] The IAEA would then verify the amount of HEU being removed from the safeguarded store and shipped to a naval fuel fabrication facility.

The IPFM's effort has been focused primarily on determining whether it would be possible for the IAEA to verify the amount of HEU coming out of the fuel fabrication facility in the form of fuel in a sealed container. In doing so, we have patterned our approach on that of the Trilateral Initiative within which Russia and the United States discussed with the IAEA from 1996 to 2002 how to monitor the fissile material in excess weapons components until they could be converted to unclassified form. The initiative proposed that the IAEA monitor plutonium-containing weapon "pits" by measuring the emissions of neutrons and energies of the gamma rays coming out of their containers and then processing the data through a computer "information barrier" that would indicate to the IAEA only whether a container held more than a threshold quantity (e.g., two kilograms) of weapons-grade plutonium.[17]

For the naval fuel, the question is whether it would be possible for the IAEA to determine the amount of uranium-235 in HEU in a container without determining additional design information about the fuel (e.g., alloying material, cladding, fuel rod or plate thickness). Our current idea is to shoot a beam of neutrons into the canister holding the fuel and to look for events in which many more neutrons are emitted than could be attributed to a single fission. This would be an indicator of chain reactions and therefore a measure of the density of U-235. Work on such an approach has been initiated at Princeton University.[18] A related approach is being pursued at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.[19]

If it is possible to verify the amount of HEU in a fuel container, it will also be necessary to have confidence that the fuel actually is installed in a naval reactor. This is done routinely by the IAEA for light-water power reactors, where the owner installs the fuel in the presence of IAEA inspectors and then the pressure vessel is closed and sealed by the IAEA. There would be sensitivities, however, about having the IAEA present during the fueling of naval ships and submarines.

The challenge would be similar to that which confronted the negotiators of START when they had to negotiate procedures that would allow verification of the declared number of warheads deployed on strategic missiles. We believe that, as the saying goes, "if there is a [political] will, there is a way."

Challenge Inspections

The other major challenge to FM(C)T verification would be the possibility of undeclared production of HEU or plutonium. The same challenge exists under the NPT. Since the discovery of Iraq's undeclared enrichment program in 1991, the IAEA's capabilities to detect undeclared activities have been strengthened in those states that have ratified versions of the 1997 Model Additional Protocol.[20] This protocol requires a country to declare all of its nuclear-related activities, including, for example, centrifuge research and development and manufacture, and allows the IAEA access to check on the declaration's "correctness and completeness." From mid-July 2003 until February 2006, while Iran was complying voluntarily with the protocol, the IAEA successfully used the access that it provided to surface activities that Iran had tried to conceal, such as its enrichment experiments at the Kalaye Electric Company.[21]

For the IAEA to be able to detect clandestine fissile material production under an FM(C)T, the nuclear-weapon states would have to agree to something like the Model Additional Protocol. In fact, the United States already has a version of the Model Additional Protocol with the IAEA.[22] The U.S. additional protocol is identical to the model for non-nuclear-weapon states except that it contains an added clause (Article 1b) that allows the U.S. government to exclude the IAEA in circumstances where the application of the additional protocol "would result in access by the Agency to activities of direct national security significance to the United States or in connection with locations or information associated with such activities."

The United States delayed depositing its instrument of ratification of its additional protocol to the very end of the Bush administration while it worked out in advance how it would handle challenge inspections at every nuclear facility in the United States.[23]

Facilities that could conceivably conceal clandestine fissile material production activities are the Energy Department sites where spent fuel reprocessing and uranium-enrichment research and development are carried out and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)-licensed sites, including those where nuclear fuel is fabricated for naval propulsion reactors. The Energy Department has instructed the managers at all its sites, and the NRC has similarly instructed the owners of the sites it regulates, to prepare managed access plans in case the IAEA requests an on-site inspection.[24] It is very encouraging that even the Bush administration was not inclined to simply invoke the national security exemption at all of its military nuclear sites.

The Department of Defense, however, has demanded a blanket exemption of all its sites from reporting or inspections under the U.S. additional protocol.[25] Hopefully, the Obama administration will reconsider this Pentagon position. Japan and all non-nuclear-weapon states in western Europe have ratified versions of the Model Additional Protocol, which would allow IAEA inspectors to have managed access to their defense facilities.[26] The U.S. defense establishment differs from its counterparts only by virtue of having nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered ships, but neither could credibly conceal clandestine fissile material production activities.

In any case, all defense-related sites already are subject to challenge inspections under the Chemical Weapons Convention by inspectors of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). IAEA inspectors would be looking for different activities than OPCW inspectors, but the elaborate procedures that have been developed for OPCW inspections would provide useful templates for IAEA inspections of sensitive nuclear sites. One OPCW instrument, for example, a gas-chromatograph mass spectrometer, includes a database that allows inspectors to identify 3,000 specified chemical weapons agents, precursors, and degradation products but no other chemicals. The IAEA is examining instrumentation that could similarly identify surface deposits containing uranium and fluorine, an indicator of the presence of uranium hexafluoride, the chemical form of uranium that is used in centrifuge enrichment plants, while not revealing the isotopic makeup of the uranium. Similarly, Geiger counters could be used to detect the presence of highly radioactive fission products, an indicator of reprocessing activities, without providing any information about the isotopic composition of any uranium or plutonium that is present.[27]

Problems With the Focused Approach to Verification

Some diplomats have proposed a "focused approach" to verification for an FMCT that only banned new production of fissile materials.[28] This would involve IAEA monitoring of only enrichment and reprocessing plants initially. For enrichment plants, if they were determined not to be producing HEU, that would be the end of the story. Plutonium newly separated at reprocessing plants and any newly produced HEU would be subject to IAEA safeguards in storage and through processing into fuel until the fuel was irradiated in a reactor.

This focused approach would minimize IAEA inspection costs incurred as a result of an FMCT. It also has attractions for some of the nuclear-weapon states because it would allow them to limit routine entry by IAEA inspectors to facilities into which "new" fissile material had been introduced, i.e., material produced after an FMCT came into force for that country.

The cost savings from the focused approach are often exaggerated, however, because the IAEA inspection effort required to safeguard a reprocessing plant in a non-nuclear-weapon state is about 100 times greater than at a reactor fueled by LEU. In 2007 the IAEA had 924 facilities under safeguards in non-nuclear-weapon states,[29] but two reprocessing plants in Japan account for 20 percent of the global IAEA safeguards budget.[30] A 1996 Brookhaven study found that just safeguarding reprocessing and enrichment plants would account for two-thirds of the cost of safeguarding all nuclear facilities in the nuclear-weapon states, including 364 power reactors and 419 other facilities such as fuel fabrication facilities and research reactors.[31]

The focused approach would be insufficient in any case for the more extensive treaty we envision, which should capture as much fissile material as possible, not only that newly produced.[32] Monitoring existing civilian and weapons excess stocks as well as HEU for naval or other military reactors would require more extensive verification measures.

Of course, the IAEA would have to prioritize, at least while it was building up its capabilities. The highest priority targets should be reprocessing and enrichment plants and facilities with large stocks of fissile materials. Monitoring the fuel cycles of reactors fueled with LEU, i.e., most power reactors and an increasing fraction of research reactors, should be a lower priority.

Two particular challenges for inspectors would be employing safeguards at pre-existing reprocessing plants and detecting undeclared HEU production at enrichment plants that produced this material in the past.

Safeguards at Pre-existing Reprocessing Plants

The size of the flow of plutonium through a large commercial reprocessing plant is so large that, if inspectors solely apply mass measurements, a country might well be able to divert enough plutonium for one nuclear bomb or several without being detected. At Japan's new Rokkasho reprocessing plant, for example, the design throughput is 8,000 kilograms of plutonium per year. With measurement errors on the order of 1 percent, which is 80 kilograms per year, and the "significant quantity" of plutonium required to make a nuclear weapon being eight kilograms or less, the IAEA cannot certify on the basis of measurements alone that a significant quantity has not been diverted. Mass measurements are therefore supplemented with process monitoring to detect anomalous flows and concentrations and with "containment and surveillance" to detect activities that might be associated with diversions. Whether these measures are adequate has been questioned.[33] Furthermore, at pre-existing reprocessing plants, surveillance measures necessarily would be more limited than at a new reprocessing plant, where the IAEA can verify the declared locations of pipes before concrete is poured and install independent measuring instruments in reprocessing cells before high levels of radiation makes them inaccessible.

Shirley Johnson, who oversaw the development, installation, and implementation of IAEA safeguards at Rokkasho, has proposed a design for safeguards at pre-existing reprocessing plants that would require real-time declarations of the operations being performed within the plant and input of these declarations into a detailed computer model of the plant's internal configuration. Inspectors would then compare the predicted flows and concentrations with continuous measurements by automated instrumentation at strategic points and by IAEA inspectors during six to eight random unannounced visits each year. Finally, the plant would be cleaned out annually to check whether, within measurement uncertainties, the amount of separated plutonium oxide that came out of the reprocessing plant matched the amount of plutonium measured in the input accountability tank.

By eliminating the costly resident inspection team and on-site safeguards laboratory that account for a major part of the IAEA costs at Rokkasho, Johnson was able to drive estimated IAEA safeguards costs down to about one-fifth of those at the Rokkasho plant, or about $2 million per year.[34] Safeguarding reprocessing plants and the associated fuel fabrication plants for uranium-plutonium mixed-oxide fuel, however, will be problematic under an FM(C)T just as it is under the NPT.

Detecting Undeclared HEU Production at Enrichment Plants

A sense of the challenge of safeguarding a large pre-existing enrichment plant to ensure that it is not being used to produce HEU is conveyed by the picture from inside the centrifuge hall of one of Russia's huge centrifuge enrichment plants.

Perhaps the most potent tool the IAEA has to check for HEU production is to take swipes of surfaces and then look for microscopic HEU-containing particles in the dust collected. Yet, three out of four of Russia's existing enrichment plants produced HEU in the past. To our knowledge, Russia ended HEU production in these facilities in 1987 or 1988. It therefore would be necessary to look for new HEU particles against a background of pre-1988 particles.

Alexander Glaser has done a review of progress in age-dating small particles of HEU and believes that the state of the art has progressed to the point where it should be possible to distinguish new particles from pre-1988 particles.[35] This approach would not work for the enrichment plants currently producing HEU in India and Pakistan, but those plants are small. Monitoring the flows and enrichment of uranium hexafluoride within their cascades would be feasible.


The work done by the IPFM thus far encourages us to believe that it should be feasible technically for an FMCT to capture under IAEA safeguards pre-existing stocks of fissile material in civilian use, declared excess for military use, and in naval fuel reserves and to verify the treaty about as well as the NPT can be verified in non-nuclear-weapon states. Such a verified treaty would be a vital building block for further nuclear disarmament measures. The political task of persuading states to agree to such constraints and access, however, may be the more difficult challenge (see sidebar).

Key Countries and a Fissile Material (Cutoff) Treaty

If U.S. negotiators should embark on negotiations on a fissile material (cutoff) treaty (FM(C)T), they will have to keep in mind the quite different perspectives of some of the key countries that would have to be involved in the talks.[1] There are also several related steps that they and representatives from other countries could take to make talks more successful.

First and foremost, bringing about a treaty will require China, India, and Pakistan to decide that they have enough nuclear weapons materials. Indeed, some of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) nuclear-weapon states question the point of an FM(C)T if non-NPT states India and Pakistan, which are in the process of accelerating the rate at which they are producing fissile material for weapons, refuse to join. France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have declared that they have ended their production of fissile materials for weapons.

China is believed to have halted its production of fissile material for weapons around 1990 but has not declared a permanent halt because of concerns that U.S. long-range conventional precision-guided missiles and missile defense programs could eventually threaten the deterrence value of China's small ICBM force. If the Obama administration were to reconsider the Bush administration's open-ended and unconditional commitment to strategic missile defense and prompt global strike, that might mitigate China's concerns.

Countries also have differing perspectives on whether a treaty should cover pre-existing materials. For the most part, the nuclear-weapon states want a treaty that simply cuts off further production of fissile material for weapons and does not cover pre-existing stockpiles of fissile materials. The non-nuclear-weapon states, in contrast, want an FM(C)T to serve as a significant step toward the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. They therefore want a cutoff treaty that includes deep cuts in existing weapons stockpiles, at least in those of Russia and the United States, and would prevent the conversion to nuclear weapons of pre-existing stockpiles of civilian and other fissile material declared excess to weapon needs.

Pakistan is in the camp of countries interested in reductions in existing stocks because it fears that a cutoff treaty could lock it into a position of disadvantage relative to India. Whether Pakistan actually has a significantly smaller stockpile than India, however, depends in large part on whether India's separated reactor-grade plutonium is considered civilian or weapon material. India exempted its separated reactor-grade plutonium and the fuel cycle of its plutonium-breeder reactor program from international safeguards under the recently approved U.S.-Indian nuclear agreement. It would mitigate Pakistan's concern if India declared these materials civilian and subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards under an FM(C)T.

With regard to verification, all the nuclear-armed states appear to worry to a greater or lesser degree about the intrusiveness and cost of inspections. That makes the "focused approach" to verification of a minimal treaty a lowest-common-denominator compromise. Under this approach, IAEA inspections would focus initially on enrichment and reprocessing plants and then expand only to follow newly produced highly enriched uranium and plutonium until they were irradiated. Much of the value of an FM(C)T would be lost in such a compromise.

Among the nuclear-weapon states, France and the United Kingdom should be the least nervous about international inspections because all their civilian nuclear facilities are already subject to Euratom inspections. The United States has included all of its civilian nuclear facilities in its "voluntary offer" for IAEA inspections, but the IAEA has not had enough funding to mount inspections at more than a very few U.S. facilities of special interest.[2]

Finally, there is Israel. Its current production rate is not publicly known, and it fears that an FM(C)T would force its nuclear weapons program out of the closet and strengthen pressures on it to disarm. Israel also sees discussion of an FM(C)T as a distraction to the effort to end Iran's uranium-enrichment program.

Given these complexities, negotiations on an FM(C)T could last several years. It would therefore be desirable in the meantime for more countries to join the current voluntary production moratorium and offer their production facilities and major civilian and excess military stocks of fissile materials for voluntary IAEA safeguards.


1. See Jean-Marie Collin et al., "Country Perspectives on the Challenges to a Fissile Material (Cutoff) Treaty," International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), 2008.

2. IPFM, "Global Fissile Material Report 2007," pp. 67-81, www.fissilematerials.org/ipfm/site_down/gfmr07.pdf.




Arend Meerburg retired from the Netherlands Foreign Ministry in 2004 after 34 years spent mostly working on multilateral arms control, including the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. He was involved in the International Fuel Cycle Evaluation, international plutonium storage regime discussions, and the Nuclear Suppliers Group and served as a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency expert group on multinational nuclear approaches to sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle. Frank N. von Hippel is a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University. During 1993-1994, he was assistant director for national security of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Both are members of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, and this article is based on the panel's "Global Fissile Material Report 2008."


1. "Arms Control Today 2008 Presidential Q&A: President-elect Barack Obama," Arms Control Today, December 2008, special section.

2. UN General Assembly, Resolution 48/75L, 1993.

3. Reaching Critical Will, "Governmental Positions on the Core Issues at the Conference on Disarmament, Publicly Stated Positions Since 1 January 2003," June 19, 2008, www.reachingcriticalwill.org/political/cd/positions_matrix.html.

4. We are aware of no definitive public information on the enrichment of the fuel used in China's nuclear-powered submarines.

5. "Report of Ambassador Gerald E. Shannon of Canada on Consultations on the Most Appropriate Arrangement to Negotiate a Treaty Banning the Production of Fissile Material for Nuclear Weapons or Other Nuclear Explosive Devices," CD/1299, March 24, 1995.

6. International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), "Draft Fissile Material (Cut-Off) Treaty," January 23, 2009, www.ipfmlibrary.org/fmct-ipfm_feb2009draft.pdf.

7. We found very valuable in our work a draft treaty developed by Thomas Shea, which is still broader, including commitments on proliferation resistance and materials security.

8. "U.S. Tables Draft FMCT Text at Conference on Disarmament," May 18, 2006, geneva.usmission.gov/Press2006/0518DraftFMCT.html.

9. "United States of America: White Paper on a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty - Conference on Disarmament," May 18, 2006, geneva.usmission.gov/Press2006/0518WhitePaper.html.

10. These positions are attributed to "one delegation" in "Report to the President of the Conference on Disarmament on the Informal Meetings During the First Part of the 2008 Session by the Permanent Representative of Japan to the Conference on Disarmament, Ambassador Sumio Tarui, Coordinator on Agenda Items 1 and 2 With a General Focus on the Prohibition of Production of Fissile Material for Nuclear Weapons or Other Nuclear Explosive Devices," CD/1846, August 15, 2008, p. 15 (app. III).

11. Paragraph 14 of INFCIRC/153 (corrected), June 1972, the model safeguards agreement between the IAEA and non-nuclear-weapon states that are parties to the NPT, permits a country to remove nuclear material from safeguards for use "in a non-proscribed military activity," i.e., for fuel in naval propulsion or other military reactors, as long as the state makes clear that "during the period of non-application of safeguards the nuclear material will not be used for the production of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices."

12. Ma Chunyan and Frank von Hippel, "Ending the Production of Highly Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactors," Nonproliferation Review, Spring 2001, p. 86.

13. Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion, "Report on Use of Low Enriched Uranium in Naval Nuclear Propulsion," June 1995, www.ipfmlibrary.org/onnp95.pdf.

14. Senate Committee on Armed Services, "National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009," 110th Cong. 2d sess., 2008, S. Rep. 355, p. 515, http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=110_cong_reports&docid=f:sr335.110.pdf.

15. Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, Alexander Glaser, and Frank von Hippel, "HEU in the Naval Fuel Cycle," in IPFM, "Global Fissile Material Report 2008: Scope and Verification of a Fissile Material (Cutoff) Treaty," September 2008, pp. 76-85, www.fissilematerials.org/ipfm/site_down/gfmr08.pdf.

16. These estimates are based on public information on the shaft horsepower of the ships and the refueling frequency of their reactors, standard assumptions concerning the efficiency of conversion of the thermal energy released by fission into mechanical power and the percentage burn-up of the U-235 in the fuel, and estimates of the average fractional power output of the reactor. See for example, Ole Reistad and Styrkaar Hustveit, "HEU Fuel Cycle Inventories and Progress on Global Minimization," Nonproliferation Review, No. 15 (2008), p. 265.

17. Thomas Shea, "Weapon-Origin Fissile Material: The Trilateral Initiative," in IPFM, "Global Fissile Material Report 2008," pp. 62-75. For excerpts of this material, see "The Trilateral Initiative: A Model for the Future," Arms Control Today, May 2008, p. 17.

18. Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, Alexander Glaser and Frank von Hippel, "A Dedicated Detector for the Verification of Highly Enriched Uranium in Naval Reactors" (paper, Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, Tucson, July 12-16, 2009).

19. The Oak Ridge group has focused on the problem of verifying fissile material in the sealed cores of small transportable power reactors. Brandon Grogan and John Mihalczo, "Simulated Verification of Fuel Element Inventory in a Small Reactor Core Using the Nuclear Materials Identification System (NMIS)" (paper, Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, Tucson, July 12-16, 2009); Brandon Grogan and John Mihalczo, "Simulated Verification of Fuel Enrichment in a Small Reactor Core Using the Nuclear Materials Identification System (NMIS)" (paper, Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, Tucson, July 12-16, 2009).

20. IAEA, "Model Protocol Additional to the Agreement(s) Between State(s) and the International Atomic Energy Agency for the Application of Safeguards," INFCIRC/540 (corrected), 1997.

21. IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran: Report of the Director General to the IAEA Board of Governors," November 10, 2003, annex 1, para. 21.

22. The full name is "Protocol Additional to the Agreement Between the United States of America and the International Atomic Energy Agency for the Application of Safeguards in the United States of America." The U.S. Senate approved the protocol on March 31, 2004, as Title II of the Hyde Act.

23. U.S. Department of State, "The President Approves Ratification of the U.S.-IAEA Additional Protocol," December 31, 2008.

24. U.S. Congressional Budget Office, "The Cost of Implementing the Additional Protocol to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons," March 5, 2004, table 1.

25. Ibid.

26. IAEA, "Strengthened Safeguards System: States With Additional Protocols," January 21, 2009, www.iaea.org/OurWork/SV/Safeguards/sg_protocol.html.

27. Frank von Hippel, "Challenge Inspections at Military Nuclear Sites," in IPFM, "Global Fissile Material Report 2008," pp. 86-95.

28. See John Carlson, "Can a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty Be Effectively Verified?" Arms Control Today, January/February 2005, p. 25-29.

29. IAEA, Annual Report 2007, table A5.

30. Shirley Johnson, "Reprocessing Plants," in IPFM, "Global Fissile Material Report 2008," pp. 50-61.

31. David Dougherty et al., "Routine Inspection Effort Required for Verification of a Nuclear Material Production Cutoff Convention," BNL-63744 (1996), table 1.

32. In addition to HEU and plutonium, neptunium-237, americium-241, americium-243, and any other fissionable isotope suitable for the manufacture of nuclear weapons are classified as fissile materials in the IPFM draft treaty.

33. See for example, Marvin M. Miller, "Are IAEA Safeguards on Plutonium Bulk-Handling Facilities Effective?" Nuclear Control Institute, 1990, www.nci.org/k-m/mmsgrds.htm.

34. IPFM, "Global Fissile Material Report 2008," pp. 50-61.

35. Alexander Glaser, "Uranium Enrichment Plants," in "Global Fissile Material Report 2008," pp. 40-49.


President Barack Obama has pledged to "lead a global effort to negotiate a verifiable treaty ending the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes." Fissile materials are the chain-reacting fissionable materials that are the essential ingredients in nuclear weapons, in practice, highly enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium. Obama is not the first president to back the negotiation of such a treaty: President Bill Clinton did so after the UN General Assembly in 1993 adopted by consensus a resolution calling for negotiation of a "non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other explosive devices." Even the administration of President George W. Bush tabled a draft treaty at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD), albeit without international verification.(Continue)

Five Plus Three: How to Have a Meaningful and Helpful Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty

Christopher A. Ford

The Obama administration has stated its intention to conclude a treaty cutting off production of fissile material, highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, for nuclear weapons. So did the administrations of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Although a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) has been a key objective of the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) for many years, that organization seems unable to break out of its now customary paralysis.[1] This experience should encourage the Obama administration, if indeed it wants such a treaty, to look to another forum for realization. More importantly, it may be vital for the new U.S. administration to take a different approach because pursuit of an FMCT as currently contemplated at the CD might well have the ironic and presumably unintended consequence of gravely undermining the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Fortunately, such a new approach may well be available.

The Current FMCT Impasse

The current impasse at the consensus-based CD began a decade ago. A significant part of the blame for the collapse of initial negotiations on an FMCT should be apportioned to the Nonaligned Movement (NAM)-never a group to pass up a chance to impede something good by insisting on what it thinks would be ideal-for trying to force greater attention on accelerating disarmament. China and Russia are similarly at fault for preventing progress on such talks by trying to link FMCT discussions to commencing negotiations on their disingenuous draft of a treaty banning space weapons. That initial Chinese-Russian linkage of unrelated issues grew into the laundry list of pet arms control projects known as the A-5 proposal containing, amazingly, negotiating mandates for four major treaty efforts (disarmament, negative security assurances, space weapons, and an FMCT), which most CD members now recognize as completely unworkable as a practical matter.

After the collapse of the A-5 proposal under its own weight, the formula advanced in the document L.1, now embodied in document CD/1840, became the current focus of debate at the CD. This approach still supports "discussion" mandates for the other issues but more feasibly proposes a negotiating mandate only for an FMCT. Even progress on this more modest document, however, has so far been impossible. Specifically, China and Pakistan-the former being the only nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) nuclear-weapon state to be increasing its nuclear arsenal rather than reducing, the latter apparently still too concerned about India to be very interested in restraint-have blocked negotiations on a treaty. Perhaps not surprisingly, they have been joined by Iran in their opposition to negotiating an FMCT. So far, none of these three countries is apparently interested in foregoing the option of producing fissile material for nuclear weapons.[2]

Although only Beijing, Islamabad, and Tehran remain as obvious obstacles to the commencement of FMCT negotiations, with Jerusalem and New Delhi remaining more circumspect with regard to their intentions, many hurdles still lie ahead with regard to their conclusion. Among these challenges is the issue of verification. After 1995, the CD's agreed negotiating parameters for an FMCT were defined by the so-called Shannon Mandate, which required pursuit of a treaty that was "non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable."[3] This goal was accepted by the Clinton administration and may yet be supported by the Obama administration.[4] The Bush administration concluded in 2004 that no FMCT, regardless of how costly and intrusive a verification system one postulates, much less an FMCT likely to be agreed on by all parties at the CD, would likely be effectively verifiable. In Washington's view, this should not have presented an obstacle to commencing FMCT negotiations and indeed concluding a normative FMCT, but it did require states to agree to revising the Shannon Mandate's requirement to achieve such verifiability.

The Shannon Mandate required, up front, that any concluded FMCT be both universal and nondiscriminatory-that it not apply different rules to different countries, which was a continuing source of criticism about the NPT-and effectively verifiable. Although the Bush administration was not averse to discussing verifiability during FMCT negotiations and U.S. officials did not require ruling out ever adopting some verification measures, Washington deemed it improper for the mandate to require the achievement of what was arguably unachievable as a precondition for even beginning negotiations. Today, except for China and Pakistan, all parties at the CD apparently stand ready to begin negotiations that all assume will include extensive discussions of and efforts to achieve at least some degree of verifiability.

The issue of verifiability will not go away, therefore, and it is likely that even if negotiations are started on an FMCT, many disputes and problems will arise over whether effective verifiability can be achieved and, if so, whether the cost of doing so is one that all CD negotiators will prove willing to pay.

Technical Issues Associated With Verification

Today, U.S. government verification experts have apparently made enough headway in explaining their position that many CD delegations have conceded privately that effective verification is indeed impossible. This has not dimmed the enthusiasm of many of them for adopting some verification measures and for deeming even partial measures to be "good enough." (In this author's presence, in fact, some have actually advocated pretending that whatever measures end up being adopted in fact amount to effective verification, although no one seems to have been so bold as to say this publicly.) To the extent that effective verification remains an important objective of negotiations, one can expect that the road ahead for an FMCT will remain a rocky one.

The United States has explained its verification arguments on many occasions, in print in the context of NPT review-cycle debates[5] and in person through numerous expert-level and diplomatic briefings and discussions with CD partners. It is beyond the scope of this article to detail all the arguments, but some of the salient points from a technical perspective include the difficulty for the verifier of (1) conducting adequate verification inquiries at facilities associated with nuclear weapons work or other sensitive activities without compromising the host government's national security information, (2) dating the point of first "production" for plutonium that has been reconditioned subsequent to its initial separation, (3) ascertaining the true intention behind fissile material production under a treaty that will not ban all such production but rather only that done for purposes of use in nuclear explosives, and (4) telling anything useful from environmental sampling at nuclear weapons facilities where fissile material has been produced for years and particulate contamination is already ubiquitous. Conceivably, there could be clever ways around these problems, but such solutions apparently have yet to be offered, and effective verification seems as distant a dream as ever.

Policy and Programmatic Issues for Verification

An FMCT's problems, however, are only partly technical. Some of the difficulties are more political in nature. An FMCT would clearly be more verifiable, which is not the same thing necessarily as thinking it effectively so, if all existing stocks of fissile material were to be subject to examination and monitoring under an FMCT verification regime. Because such stocks include material actually used in nuclear weapons by possessor states, kept as raw material within their weapons programs, or held for highly sensitive purposes not related to nuclear explosives, such as fuel for naval nuclear reactors, however, it is very difficult to imagine any FMCT could be concluded by consensus that actually covered all existing stocks in a meaningful way. (One must also guard against having an FMCT verification protocol become a mechanism for proliferating nuclear weapons know-how.)

Much of this problem would go away were it possible to apply different rules to states possessing nuclear weapons than to nonpossessors, as does the NPT, but this would fly in the face of the widespread desire that an FMCT be nondiscriminatory. In other words, within the constraints of the political requirement that uniform rules must apply to all parties, an FMCT could be either comparatively verifiable by virtue of covering all existing stocks or it could be negotiable, but probably not both. (The possessors of nuclear weapons presumably will not all be willing to permit intrusive inspections of their weapons programs for so long as such arsenals remain. This is not a law of nature, of course, and some in the arms control community apparently hold out high hopes that possessors will suddenly decide that it is no longer important to conceal such details from each other and from nonpossessors. My assumption, however, is likely to hold true for a long time.)

Yet, the problems do not stop there. From my discussions with participants in recent FMCT debates, it has become clear that further problems lie ahead for the current CD approach to a fissile material treaty, including the danger that it could undermine the NPT itself. This issue has not so far been the subject of much if any public discussion. Nevertheless, such worries underlie some countries' grave concerns about any effort to achieve FMCT verification within the context of the treaty's still presumptively universal application and likely nondiscriminatory character.

An FMCT verification regime, it is feared, might undermine the NPT regime in three ways.

1. It might tend to legitimate the development of "peaceful" fissile material production capabilities in ways incompatible with the survival of the nonproliferation regime.

2. An FMCT verification system, if pursued on the basis of universality and nondiscrimination, might seem to offer an alternative but weaker standard of verification that would undercut and in practice replace adherence to the 1997 Model Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), particularly in worrisome states such as Iran.

3. Debates over FMCT verification with regard to existing fissile material stocks and fissile material held for sensitive but nonexplosive purposes, such as fueling naval reactors, would draw unhelpful attention to a long-standing potential loophole within the IAEA-run verification system for Article III safeguards under the NPT. Agreement on an FMCT verification regime could worsen this problem and generalize this loophole by the de facto adoption of a standard that would not merely leave the FMCT unverifiable but would also undercut existing approaches to nuclear safeguards.

Legitimating Ubiquitous Fissile Production

The first concern is more symbolic and purely political and relates to ongoing disputes over the wisdom of permitting, not to say facilitating, the further expansion of fuel cycle capabilities around the world. It has long been understood that fissile material availability is the principal hurdle to be overcome for any country seeking to develop nuclear weapons and the major pacing element for a weapons program. This is why, for instance, U.S. assessments of Iran's reported suspension in 2003 of certain weaponization-related aspects of its nuclear weapons effort in response to international pressure[6] have done so little to allay concerns about Tehran's nuclear weapons ambitions. As Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell put it, Iran seems to have suspended only what is "probably the least significant part of the program."[7] Once fissile material production capability has been obtained, the rest is comparatively easy, quick, and concealable. Iran's uranium-enrichment program has underlined these concerns and spurred the Bush administration to place even greater emphasis on preventing the spread of uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing (for plutonium) to additional countries. By threatening to create a world in which many countries possess a rapid and easy nuclear option, the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technology presents a grave challenge to the nonproliferation regime.

In this context, the advent of an FMCT would not necessarily be an unequivocal good. As it is currently contemplated, an FMCT would not ban the production of all fissile materials. Instead, current debates at the CD revolve around a draft FMCT, offered by the United States, that would prohibit only "produc[ing] fissile material for use in nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or us[ing] any fissile material produced thereafter in nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices."[8]

Some have expressed concern that achievement of an FMCT, by seeming to ensure that fissile material will not thereafter be produced for explosive purposes, would be perceived to guarantee the permissibility and the harmlessness of fissile material production for other purposes by essentially anyone else. After all, the NPT does not speak directly to the issue of fissile material production. Even Article IV, which is often taken, in my view mistakenly, to convey or acknowledge some kind of general enrichment and reprocessing rights, does not directly address the question. The broad assessment of Article IV issues offered by the Bush administration in 2005 therefore remains correct:

Some have asserted that any State Party in demonstrable compliance with the NPT has a specific right to develop the full nuclear fuel cycle, and that efforts to restrict access to the relevant technologies is inconsistent with the NPT. The Treaty is silent on the issue of whether compliant states have the right to develop the full nuclear fuel cycle, but...it does provide for discretion on the part of supplier states regarding the nature of their cooperation with other states.... While compliant State[s] Party should be able to avail themselves of the benefits that the peaceful use of nuclear energy has brought to mankind, the Treaty establishes no right to receive any particular nuclear technology from other States Party-and most especially, no right to receive technologies that pose a significant proliferation risk.[9]

An FMCT, however, might reshape the still-contested terrain of contemporary enrichment and reprocessing debates by more directly addressing the issue of fissile material production. If a formal treaty had been concluded to prohibit fissile material production for explosive purposes, it might seem obvious that there existed a right to produce fissile materials for nonexplosive purposes and all that much less reason to object should any FMCT state party propose to do so. As a consequence, an FMCT could contribute to the proliferation of sensitive capabilities that would result in more countries attaining the option of acquiring nuclear weapons virtually at will. To say the least, it is not obvious that an FMCT that notionally banned fissile material production for weapons purposes but which in fact contributed to the global ubiquity of an enrichment and reprocessing-facilitated nuclear weapons option would be a net benefit for global security.

Undermining the Model Additional Protocol

The second concern relates to the danger that an FMCT verification regime would undermine efforts to achieve broader adherence to and ultimately the universality of the IAEA Model Additional Protocol. The model protocol was drafted in the wake of revelations after the 1991 Persian Gulf War about how close Iraq had come to developing nuclear weapons under the very noses of IAEA inspectors. Those inspectors had relied on monitoring declared nuclear material, facilities, and activities conducted pursuant to traditional comprehensive safeguards agreements reached with the agency. These safeguards, however, were wholly inadequate to the challenge of detecting undeclared activities in any country that might wish secretly to use nuclear technology for illicit purposes. The subsequent protocol expanded the reporting requirements of member states and gave inspectors additional access rights in order to determine the absence of undeclared activities.[10] A critical component of the new protocol was the right of agency inspectors to collect environmental samples.

To date, adherence to additional protocols is still far from universal, having been entered into force by only 89 states. To be sure, the IAEA director-general and its board of governors have made clear that even an additional protocol's new authorities are inadequate to the challenges presented by IAEA verification activities in the face of sophisticated denial and deception activities undertaken by countries such as Iran.[11] Nevertheless, if nuclear safeguards are to provide any sort of meaningful barrier against nuclear weapons development, an additional protocol is widely and correctly regarded as being essential to the survival of the safeguards system.

There is concern, however, that an FMCT verification regime could undermine the prospects for universalizing the Model Additional Protocol by appearing to provide an alternative and most assuredly weaker international nuclear safeguards baseline to which countries might tend to adhere. The protocol is aimed at allowing the IAEA some chance to ferret out undeclared activities in non-nuclear-weapon states; it does not have to worry about applicability to nuclear weapons possessors with a legitimate need to protect nuclear weapons-related national security equities and restrict the dissemination of proliferation-sensitive information.[12]

Moreover, the authorities an additional protocol provides to inspectors are reasonably broad and intrusive and impose no small burden, in political terms and with regard to financial and administrative costs, on countries adhering to it. Given the costs, some countries, especially in the developing world, have resisted agreeing to an additional protocol and resent suggestions that it be made a precondition for the provision of nuclear technology pursuant to Nuclear Suppliers Group rules.[13] (Other countries, most obviously Iran, have less legitimate reasons for resisting and resenting the Model Additional Protocol's focus on trying to detect undeclared nuclear activities, but oppose it they do.) Universalizing the protocol is strongly supported by many supplier states and the IAEA as a measure indispensable to preserving the integrity of the nonproliferation regime, but it remains somewhat controversial.

Because an FMCT, as currently contemplated in the CD, is expected to be universal and nondiscriminatory, its verification mechanisms, as noted above, would of necessity be weaker than those of the Model Additional Protocol. It might be possible to set up a two-tier FMCT verification system that would treat possessors of nuclear weapons differently than all others in the international system, which is done for IAEA safeguards under NPT Article III, including in connection with the Model Additional Protocol; but in practice this would be politically difficult, not to mention incompatible with the idea of nondiscrimination as it is usually employed.[14] More likely, FMCT verification rules would have to be developed on a lowest-common-denominator basis through the consensus-based CD, with the result that inspector access and other authorities established for purposes of FMCT verification would probably end up being a pale reflection of those provided in the Model Additional Protocol.

If an FMCT offered a verification program less burdensome and effective than Model Additional Protocol safeguards, states might find adherence to an FMCT a tempting excuse to decline or repudiate the protocol. The fact that such a country had signed on to FMCT verification provisions also would make it correspondingly more difficult, as a political matter, to pressure that country to agree to the Model Additional Protocol. In a world of finite financial resources and political capital, it might be difficult to maintain two parallel and independent systems of international verification, particularly if the IAEA were itself to be entrusted with most of the work of FMCT verification, as is frequently discussed in CD circles.

Some participants in FMCT debates thus worry that a more lenient FMCT verification system might come to undermine and eventually replace today's emerging, Model Additional Protocol-based system of nuclear safeguards. This outcome would not necessarily take too much time to manifest itself either. The countries about which one should worry the most and whose adherence to the protocol would be most valuable-Iran comes to mind once more-would presumably also be the ones most likely to jump ship quickly in favor of a weaker FMCT verification regime. The replacement of the Model Additional Protocol approach by a less stringent FMCT system would therefore probably undermine nonproliferation efforts and would poorly serve the interests of international peace and security. The Hippocratic oath is perhaps here instructive: "First, do no harm."

Cementing in Place a Safeguards Loophole

A third concern with an FMCT verification system relates to its interaction with a potential loophole in current comprehensive safeguards agreements required by NPT Article III and currently in place for all but 30 NPT states party. The IAEA information circular INFCIRC/153 provides the model for all such agreements presently in force. Paragraph 14 of the first part of INFCIRC/153 provides for the possibility that a country subject to a comprehensive safeguards agreement will "exercise its discretion to use nuclear material which is required to be safeguarded thereunder" for a "non-proscribed military activity."[15] This model agreement thus theoretically allows countries to remove nuclear material from safeguards for purposes of using it for a nonpeaceful purpose that is nonetheless not prohibited by the NPT. This could presumably cover a range of potential uses for nuclear material, provided that these uses do not relate to nuclear explosives, but Paragraph 14 is most obviously applicable to the use of enriched uranium in the nuclear reactors used to power naval vessels.

Provided that this provision is indeed only used in connection with legitimately sensitive activities such as naval nuclear propulsion and only by states already possessing nuclear weapons, it need present no fundamental problem for the IAEA's system for nuclear safeguards verification. The provision is potentially subject to enormous abuse, however, because a rush of NPT non-nuclear-weapon states suddenly declaring or pretending a sudden interest in naval reactor development would result in the removal of nuclear material from safeguards in quantities more than sufficient to conceal nuclear weapons work prohibited by NPT Article II. Abuse of Paragraph 14 could therefore create a vast hole in the safeguards system.

The specific parameters and scope of acceptable uses for Paragraph 14 have not been defined, but its provisions have not emerged as a problem for safeguards verification largely because Paragraph 14 issues have not been the focus of much attention or debate.[16] Efforts to develop a universal and nondiscriminatory FMCT verification protocol could change this. It seems unlikely that countries engaged in sensitive but nonproscribed military activities such as naval nuclear propulsion would all be willing to open such programs to detailed examination by FMCT verifiers. (If these activities were not militarily sensitive, the issue would not arise in the first place.) Consequently, an FMCT verification protocol would probably have to have some kind of verification exemption for such activity, just as it would presumably also contain an exemption for nuclear weapons-related activity in the nuclear-weapon states. (The necessity of creating such exclusions, which would presumably be a precondition for acceptance of the treaty by countries engaged in such work, is another reason why it is so difficult to imagine an FMCT being genuinely verifiable.) In the course of debating and codifying universal and nondiscriminatory rules for FMCT verification, attention would likely be drawn to the issues of verification-exempt sensitive but nonproscribed activities and a set of understandings reached about their scope and nature as things in which any country may engage. Otherwise, an FMCT verification protocol would be discriminatory.

There is, therefore, reason to fear that FMCT verification efforts could damage IAEA nuclear safeguards verification under the NPT, by effectively flagging Paragraph14 as a safeguards loophole and providing the international community with a de facto working definition of its parameters that could gravely undermine the effectiveness of verification work pursuant to comprehensive safeguards by allowing essentially any country to remove nuclear materials from safeguards on the pretense of working on naval nuclear reactors or other such programs. FMCT verification negotiations could become the vehicle through which a provision unproblematically used only by nuclear-weapon states to permit the continuation of legitimate activities metastasizes into an NPT-destructive means by which non-nuclear-weapon states could easily defeat IAEA safeguards verification and conceal prohibited nuclear weapons work.

An Alternative Route to a Meaningful FMCT?

What is one to do if one still hopes for some kind of a ban on the further production of fissile material for nuclear weapons? Must we give up on the idea of an FCMT? The search for a way to surmount or sidestep these many challenges might begin with an admission that a treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear explosive purposes would add nothing of significance to the nonproliferation obligations of any NPT state party that does not already lawfully possess nuclear weapons.

After all, NPT non-nuclear-weapon states are already prohibited by NPT Article II from "manufactur[ing] or otherwise acquir[ing] nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices,"[17] a rule that has long been understood to cover not merely the end stage of "manufacturing" a nuclear device but also such prior steps as may have been undertaken in service of this illicit purpose.[18] Producing fissile material for a nuclear weapon unquestionably counts as a violation under this standard. The only reason that an FMCT would be interesting or valuable, therefore, lies in its potential to constrain fissile material production for weapons purposes in the NPT nuclear-weapon states[19] and in countries such as India, Israel, and Pakistan presently outside the NPT but which have demonstrated or are presumed to have nuclear weapons. For these states, an FMCT would be a significant step because it would formally constrain the size of their nuclear weapons programs for the first time.

As the foregoing discussions indicate, however, attempting to craft a universal and nondiscriminatory FMCT verification regime would run into a great many problems in trying to fit one-size-fits-all provisions to the very different situations presented by the presence in the international community of weapons-possessing and non-weapons-possessing countries. What if one were to relax the reflexive requirement enshrined in the Shannon Mandate and retained in the negotiating mandate of CD/1840 that an FMCT be nondiscriminatory and universal?

As suggested earlier, one way to approach an FMCT more seriously from a verification perspective might be to permit it to become discriminatory like the NPT: treating possessors of nuclear weapons differently than nonpossessors. An alternative approach, however, and conceivably both a more efficient and ultimately a better one, might be to jettison the ambition to universality. Because an FMCT would not add meaningfully to the obligations of NPT non-nuclear-weapon states anyway, why bother with all the trouble, uncertainty, and negotiating headaches of developing an FMCT in a consensus-based forum such as the 65-member CD when all one really wants to do is reach eight states (China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States)?[20]

Limiting one's FMCT approach to the "Five Plus Three" countries-the five NPT-recognized nuclear-weapon states plus the three outliers who have not adhered to the NPT-would have an admirable parsimony. It would tailor the legal remedy precisely to the wrong of fissile material production for nuclear explosive purposes in the only countries for which this is not already prohibited by international law. It would do so without having to wrestle with accommodating an additional four or five dozen members of the CD in consensus-bound multiparty negotiations or to sweep into a treaty some 180 NPT non-nuclear-weapon states to whose legal obligations an FMCT would add in no meaningful way, but whose IAEA safeguards obligations might thereby effectively be weakened.

Restricting an FMCT to the Five Plus Three countries might actually help the treaty sidestep some of the formidable verification hurdles it would otherwise face in a world that contains countries as vastly differently situated, in nuclear weapons terms, as the United States and Swaziland. It is not that any fewer accommodations detrimental to verification confidence would be necessary to make an FMCT acceptable to countries engaged in nuclear weapons development and often in sensitive nonproscribed military activities. What would distinguish a Five Plus Three treaty from a universal FMCT is the degree to which the uncertainty created by such exemptions would matter.

Effective verification is not a hard science or a subject well suited to quantification and rigid, bright-line rules. Levels of verification uncertainty unacceptable in one context may be quite tolerable in another. To contrive a simplistic example, the inability of verifiers to rule out a half-dozen nuclear warheads remaining hidden in a country subjected to arms control limits would have dramatically different consequences if the limits in question were at the level of 1,000 warheads or at the abolition level of "zero." A hypothetical six-warhead margin of error might be acceptable in the former case, perhaps amounting to "effective verification," but could be a catastrophic level of uncertainty in the latter. (Retaining a handful of concealed warheads in a disarmed state or acquiring them in any state under an abolition regime would be a strategic coup of great magnitude.) The key in verification analysis is therefore sometimes not the specific error margin per se, but policy judgment calls weighing such factors as the likely impact of a violation on the military balance being regulated by the legal norm,[21] the ease and speed with which other parties could respond to or remedy a violation after its detection, or the degree to which parties have incentives to cheat in the first place.[22]

It might also be the case that confining an FMCT to states already possessing a demonstrated or presumed nuclear weapons capability might at least somewhat lessen the daunting problems presented by verification uncertainty. The likely necessity of having verification exemptions for sensitive nonproscribed activities, for instance, would gravely undermine a universal FMCT by making it vastly more difficult to ascertain whether prohibited activity-nuclear weapons work-was in fact occurring in a non-nuclear-weapon-state. In a regime confined to the eight presently weapons-capable countries, however, it might be slightly less disastrous from a nonproliferation perspective to bow to international pressure to settle for some verification or verification that is "good enough," inasmuch as uncertainty with regard to countries that already have nuclear weapons would not open the door to secret weapons work in non-nuclear-weapon states. At least at nuclear-weapon-state warhead levels not drastically lower than those of today, at any rate, a degree of verification uncertainty in an FMCT for the Five Plus Three states would imperil global security less than it would under a universal and nondiscriminatory FMCT.[23]

Once one escapes from the theological presupposition that an FMCT must be universal and nondiscriminatory, in fact, there may be additional advantages in being willing to employ such flexibility, in pursuit of a meaningful and workable treaty even among the Five Plus Three countries. In other words, one verification size need not necessarily fit all. For example, in the case of Russia and the United States, large quantities of fissile material are already being removed from nuclear weapons-related stockpiles and converted to peaceful uses. For these two states, no verification procedures would really be needed-at least for a long time-in order for the international community to have confidence that they were not producing additional fissile material for use in nuclear weapons: the continuing flow of material out of weapons-related stocks into peaceful applications would itself surely be evidence enough that Moscow and Washington felt no need for more fissile material for weapons. In the case of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, very comprehensive voluntary safeguards agreements are also in place that cover nuclear material in peaceful programs. With respect to India and Pakistan, an arrangement similar to that between Argentina and Brazil might help resolve any concerns that these two countries have with respect to each other. These examples do not resolve all possible concerns, of course, but they illustrate how pragmatic arrangements could perhaps be made that would make an FMCT meaningful without trying to find a single solution that would apply to all parties. Even in the context of a "Five Plus Three" treaty, trying to achieve a general solution could lead to extended and unnecessary negotiations.

Why then should one not pursue an eight-party FMCT? At least two objections might be offered. First, it might be contended that it would be inappropriate for the FMCT issue to be taken away from the CD in Geneva. Second, it might be argued that it would be inappropriate to recognize the "non-NPT Three" (India, Israel, and Pakistan) as having a sort of quasi-nuclear-weapon-state status by engaging specifically with them in FMCT negotiations and not approaching the question on a universal basis.

The first of these concerns may most easily be dismissed. To suggest that an FMCT be made universal so that diplomats at the CD can have something with which to occupy themselves is, to put it charitably, putting the cart before the horse. The CD should pursue specific arms control and disarmament proposals when and where its involvement is necessary or helpful for progress on agreements that serve the interests of international peace and security. If the question at hand is to negotiate a universal agreement, such as the Chemical Weapons Convention, a past CD success story, then the conference is presumably at least as good as any other universal negotiating forum available and no doubt rather better than the unfocused and erratic UN General Assembly or UN First Committee.

As we have seen, however, there is no functional necessity for an FMCT to be universal, but there is good reason to approach such a treaty directly and efficiently by addressing it only to the eight countries whose participation would matter in the slightest. If it is desirable to secure full employment for diplomats in the comforts of Geneva irrespective of their ability to reach agreement in the long-paralyzed CD, there are no doubt other universal proposals that could be discussed with satisfying unproductiveness. If one wishes actually to achieve an FMCT, it might be advisable to take discussion directly to the relevant players in a context that stands a reasonable chance of producing results. That said, it was precisely over such concerns of being attacked for killing the CD that the Bush administration chose not to pursue this most logical of options. U.S. officials did not wish to give ammunition to those who accused the administration of being hostile to multilateral approaches and institutions. It may be that such uncharacteristic squeamishness was a mistake and that a Five Plus Three approach outside the CD represents a better route to an FMCT and to improved global security.

The objection focusing on the danger of recognizing India, Israel, and Pakistan as quasi-nuclear-weapon states is a more creditable one. Conducting FMCT negotiations on a Five Plus Three basis is admittedly at least somewhat like according these three countries some special status on account of their actual or presumed possession of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, addressing an FMCT to the only countries for which it is needed-namely, the eight countries that are not NPT non-nuclear-weapon states-is not the same thing as recognizing the three NPT nonmembers among them as NPT nuclear-weapon states. Moreover, one need not necessarily enter into Five Plus Three FMCT negotiations on an eight-party basis. Indeed, the best approach may be to build on what we already have. The draft FMCT tabled by the United States in the CD already contains almost all of the features needed for a meaningful treaty, especially if it were limited to the eight states. Leaving aside any debate that might take place over verification measures, which could in any case be handled in an FMCT protocol or in one or more other side agreements rather than in the treaty itself, the only modifications that might be needed to the current U.S. draft would be with respect to the entry into force and duration provisions.

The duration of a Five Plus Three FMCT, as it applies to any state party, should be such that the treaty would cease to apply to a state that joins the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state. This duration provision would thus make clear that an FMCT is not an end point but rather a step toward the global applicability of the NPT and perhaps indeed an eventual end to the existence of nuclear weapons. If additional verification measures are felt necessary beyond the provisions currently in the U.S. text, these could be negotiated separately among the states that felt that such additional measures were needed. For example, the five NPT nuclear-weapon states may wish to reach an agreement as to what should be covered in their voluntary safeguards agreements. As mentioned earlier, India and Pakistan might feel that they needed additional arrangements to address their concerns. This approach would let verification provisions be tailored to the verification needs of each party, if any, without having to work out a one-size-fits-all approach that applies uniformly and coherently to possessors of nuclear weapons as vastly differently situated as the various members of the eight.

I do not mean to suggest that this approach is a panacea. If China and Pakistan continue to wish to preserve for themselves the ability to produce additional fissile material for nuclear weapons, for instance, they will presumably continue to try to block progress on any sort of FMCT in the CD or elsewhere. After all, diplomats' instinctive faith in the power of diplomacy to improve the world should not be allowed to become naivete: where interests fundamentally diverge, fine talk and clever drafting cannot be expected to bridge them. Pursuing a flexible approach outside the CD, however, may offer the best chance there is for an FMCT. If there are indispensable parties who remain unalterably opposed, there will be no treaty. Nevertheless, even then there might be some value in flushing out objectors, forcing them to reject a sensible and accommodating substantive proposal in the open, rather than sheltering behind procedural gamesmanship and thinly rationalized issue linkages in a consensus-based institution such as the CD. There are worse things than clarity.


The CD is today closer to the commencement of negotiations on an FMCT than at any time since the original negotiations collapsed more than a decade ago. Closer does not necessarily mean close, however, and enormous challenges remain to be overcome before any FMCT would likely be able to emerge. Significantly, these challenges include not merely difficulties related to verifiability but also grave and publicly ignored policy and programmatic issues related to the potential impact of FMCT verification on the nuclear safeguards system. An FMCT could dangerously undermine the existing verification system for NPT Article III safeguards and the IAEA Model Additional Protocol.

It might be politically controversial and some would surely allege that it amounted to a vote of no confidence in the CD; however, an approach to the FMCT question that focused only on the five NPT nuclear-weapon states and the three non-NPT outliers may offer the best chance for progress in light of these problems and for an FMCT that, in the end, genuinely contributes to global security. Arguably far more than current CD negotiations, a Five Plus Three approach offers the chance to achieve an FMCT that is realistically negotiable and meaningful. Can anyone genuinely interested in an FMCT afford to ignore this potential solution?

Christopher A. Ford is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Technology and Global Security at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. Ford served as U.S. special representative for nuclear nonproliferation and as a principal deputy assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance, and implementation during the George W. Bush administration.


1. For a window on recent debates over the future of the CD, see Stephen G. Rademaker, "The Conference on Disarmament: Time Is Running Out," Arms Control Today, December 2006, pp. 13-15; Paul Meyer, "The Conference on Disarmament: Getting Back to Business," Arms Control Today, December 2006, pp. 16-17; Michael Krepon "The Conference on Disarmament: Means of Rejuvenation," Arms Control Today, December 2006, pp. 18-22.

2. When pressed on the issue of fissile material production, Chinese officials, who seem to hate being seen as an obstacle to arms control progress, even or perhaps especially when they are, sometimes privately claim that China has ceased production. It is not clear whether this is true, although it conceivably could be if Beijing has already produced and stockpiled enough fissile material to support whatever plans it may have for its still expanding arsenal. On the other hand, some Chinese have also privately assured me that they are also not actually expanding their arsenal, which seems to be entirely untrue. At any rate, China has thus far refused to allow itself to be held publicly accountable for the claim.

3. "Report of Ambassador Gerald E. Shannon of Canada on Consultations on the Most Appropriate Arrangement to Negotiate a Treaty Banning the Production of Fissile Material for Nuclear Weapons or Other Nuclear Explosive Devices," CD/1299, March 24, 1995.

4. One former Clinton administration official recently urged the United States to reverse its position on FMCT verification, although he mischaracterized Bush administration policy as per se "oppos[ition to] international monitoring" rather than more accurately describing it as opposing the Shannon Mandate's presupposition of effective verifiability. Robert J. Einhorn, "Controlling Fissile Materials and Ending Nuclear Testing," Paper presented to the "Achieving the Vision of a World Free of Nuclear Weapons" conference, Oslo, February 26-27, 2008, p.3. In fact, U.S. officials at the CD under Bush opposed neither discussion of verification issues nor necessarily even the eventual adoption of some verification measures. They merely felt that effective verification of an FMCT was unachievable and refused to agree to a mandate requiring it. Einhorn believes that in general "some monitoring tasks" under an FMCT are "no more difficult than monitoring compliance with the NPT" and that the IAEA could "do the job effectively." Einhorn's qualifier "some" is suggestive, however; and his account provides no explanation of how other FMCT tasks, such as ascertaining the purpose for which undeclared fissile material had been produced, might be effectively accomplished. See Christopher Ford, "The United States and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty," Paper presented to the "Preparing for 2010: Getting the Process Right" conference, Annecy, France, March 17, 2007, www.state.gov/t/isn/rls/other/81950.htm (noting problem of ascertaining purpose of material production, a challenge that is "qualitatively different from those involved in verifying compliance with IAEA safeguards"). At any rate, citing the continued unwillingness of China, India, and Pakistan to forswear production of fissile material for weapons purposes, Einhorn contended that "entry into force of an FMCT is several years away at a minimum" and apparently worries that an FMCT could "remain[] deadlocked." Einhorn, "Controlling Fissile Materials and Ending Nuclear Testing," pp. 4, 6.

5. See Ford, "United States and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty."

6. See U.S. National Intelligence Council, "Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities," November 2007, pp. 5-6, www.dni.gov/press_releases/20071203_release.pdf.

7. Mark Mazzetti, "Intelligence Chief Cites Qaeda Threat to U.S.," The New York Times, February 6, 2008, www.nytimes.com/2008/02/06/washington/06intel.html?_r=2&n=Top/Reference/Times%20Topics/People/Z/Zawahri,%20Ayman%20Al-.

8. "U.S. Draft Text for Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty," May 18, 2006, http://geneva.usmission.gov/Press2006/0518DraftFMCT.html.

9. Christopher A. Ford, "NPT Article IV: Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy," remarks to the 2005 NPT Review Conference, May 18, 2005, www.state.gov/t/vci/rls/rm/46604.htm.

10. See Suzanna van Moyland, "The IAEA's Safeguards Program '93+2': Progress and Challenges," Disarmament Diplomacy, No.11 (December 1996).

11. In 2005, after two years of work to detail Iran's covert nuclear program, for instance, the director-general called on Iran to provide cooperation and transparency above and beyond that required by the Model Additional Protocol. IAEA, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran," GOV/2005/67, September 2, 2005, para. 50 ("such transparency measures should extend beyond the formal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol"). See IAEA Board of Governors, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran," GOV/2006/14, February 4, 2006, op. para. 1 (deeming it necessary for Iran to "implement transparency measures...which extend beyond the formal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol"). Another aspect of the agency's authorities is that they require some nexus to nuclear material, meaning that most aspects of nuclear weaponization remain outside the agency's mandate to investigate, absent the cooperation of the suspected violator, even if the agency is in receipt of evidence that such activities are ongoing. See IAEA Board of Governors, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran," GOV/2005/67, September 2, 2005, para. 49 (noting that the IAEA's "legal authority to pursue the verification of possible nuclear weapons related activity is limited").

12. Indeed, the Model Additional Protocol was explicitly expected not to be required for the nuclear-weapon states. Had the situation been otherwise, its provisions would of necessity been far less intrusive. Although the United States has adopted the Model Additional Protocol in its entirety, on the important condition that it be able to apply a national security exclusion where needed, the protocols adopted by the other nuclear-weapon states have varying degrees of applicability. In no case do they match the Model Additional Protocol. In effect, this is a concrete example of the argument I suggest about an FMCT. Making the Model Additional Protocol universal and nondiscriminatory would have kept it from being particularly useful in helping prevent nuclear weapons proliferation: it could either include authorities that would help with the detection of undeclared activities in non-nuclear-weapon states or it could apply equally to all. It could not do both.

13. For a discussion of recent NSG discussions, see Miles A. Pomper, "Nuclear Suppliers Make Progress on New Rules," Arms Control Today, December 2008, p. 52.

14. The term "nondiscrimination" is unfortunate. Powerfully evocative of generations of legally sanctioned racial and religious prejudice in countries around the globe, the phrase is usually taken in its diplomatic context to mean that all countries should be treated identically. The NPT, for example, is said to be discriminatory because it has one set of rules for recognized possessors of nuclear weapons and one set for non-nuclear-weapon states. It is a category error, however, to assume that treating different countries differently should always be offensive in the way that is racial discrimination. After all, racial prejudice offends our morals because it treats people as being fundamentally different who are in fact fundamentally alike. By contrast, treating a state that possesses nuclear weapons differently than a nonpossessor for purposes of regulating nuclear technology within a nonproliferation regime is not to commit discrimination but instead to recognize and act on a contextually meaningful difference. To refuse to treat unlike things differently is not being nondiscriminatory, it is being indiscriminate, which in other contexts, at least, is often reckoned crude and foolish. In some circumstances, one-size-fits-all rules are not very wise.

15. IAEA, "The Structure and Content of Agreements Between the Agency and States Required in Connection With the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons," INFCIRC/153 (Corrected), June 1972, para. 14.

16. Brazil, a country that entertained nuclear weapons ambitions in the past, today claims to be pursuing a nuclear submarine program and already conducts uranium enrichment at its Resende facility under conditions partially concealed from IAEA inspectors. One might wonder whether this is something that supporters of the safeguards system really wish to encourage or to afford a patina of legitimacy under paragraph 14.

17. Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, art. II (hereinafter NPT). The treaty opened for signature on July 1, 1968, and entered into force on March 5, 1970.

18. See U.S. Department of State, "Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments," August 2005, pp. 64-65, www.state.gov/documents/organization/52113.pdf.

19. NPT, art. IX(3) ("For the purposes of this Treaty, a nuclear-weapon State is one which has manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967.")

20. This discussion assumes that the right number, in this regard, is indeed eight and not nine. North Korea has promised to abandon its nuclear programs and return to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state and should be held to this commitment.

21. As articulated by U.S. negotiator Paul Nitze during the negotiations with the Soviet Union on the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty during the 1980s, "effective verification" meant in part that "if the other side moves beyond the limits of the treaty in any militarily significant way, we would be able to detect such violation in time to respond effectively and thereby deny the other side the benefit of the violation." During the negotiations with Russia that led to START, Secretary of State James Baker added the qualification that effective verification must also be able to detect "patterns of marginal violations that do not present immediate risk to U.S. security." David Hafemeister, "The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: Effectively Verifiable," Arms Control Today, October 2008, p. 6-7.

22. A contemporary example of the importance of this last factor can be found in the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT). Despite their general inability to confirm specific Russian warhead levels, U.S. officials found additional verification mechanisms to be unnecessary in part because they assessed that Moscow could not maintain Cold War warhead stocks anyway and wished for its own reasons to reduce Russia's holdings more or less to the very levels contemplated by the treaty. There was felt to be no particular need to worry about significant levels of cheating under the SORT.

23. Ironically, even this qualification would not apply at very low nuclear-weapon-state warhead levels, when it would presumably become impossible to live with the unavoidably significant FMCT verification uncertainties because any production of fissile material for weapons purposes anywhere could represent a grave challenge to the global balance of power. At the point of a disarmament "zero," of course, this problem is the most acute. The more progress is made toward nuclear disarmament, therefore, the more untenable an FMCT verification regime would become. This is an ironic point apparently not recognized by many disarmament advocates.

The context of a U.S.-Soviet (or U.S.-Russian) nuclear balance with large numbers of warheads and delivery systems may have allowed effective verifiability to be more easily achieved in past superpower arms control negotiations than it is becoming in the international community's post-Cold War struggles with issues of nonproliferation and disarmament. Applying the Nitze-Baker "military significance" test in the nuclear weapons proliferation context or, rather more hypothetically, with regard to issues of nuclear disarmament at very small arsenal levels and especially at zero would surely be particularly demanding. As noted above, uncertainty about the possible existence of an extra handful of weapons here or there might perhaps have been acceptable in the context of a Cold War nuclear standoff between parties already possessing many thousands of such devices. The threshold of military significance arrives much more quickly where at issue is the potential arrival of a completely new player in the nuclear weapons business or one country's achievement of breakout from a nuclear weapons abolition regime. There can be very little margin for error in these latter cases, precisely because preventing acquisition of the marginal weapon is the whole point of the exercise. For today's nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament challenges, therefore, one should not be surprised to find decision-makers frequently needing more in order to achieve effective verification than was necessary for Cold War arms control.


The Obama administration has stated its intention to conclude a treaty cutting off production of fissile material, highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, for nuclear weapons. So did the administrations of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Although a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) has been a key objective of the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) for many years, that organization seems unable to break out of its now customary paralysis. This experience should encourage the Obama administration, if indeed it wants such a treaty, to look to another forum for realization. More importantly, it may be vital for the new U.S. administration to take a different approach because pursuit of an FMCT as currently contemplated at the CD might well have the ironic and presumably unintended consequence of gravely undermining the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Fortunately, such a new approach may well be available. (Continue)

The Smallpox Destruction Debate: Could a Grand Bargain Settle the Issue?

Jonathan B. Tucker

One of the longest and most contentious international policy debates has swirled around the question of whether to destroy the last known stocks of the smallpox (variola) virus, which are preserved at two World Health Organization (WHO)-authorized repositories in Russia and the United States. Although smallpox was eradicated from nature more than three decades ago, concerns surfaced in the early 1990s that a few countries may have retained undeclared samples of the virus for biological warfare purposes. Because a smallpox outbreak would be a global public health emergency of major proportions, in 1999 the WHO approved a research program at the two authorized repositories to develop improved medical defenses against the disease.[1]

In May the smallpox research program will mark its 10th anniversary, a milestone that has intensified the debate among the WHO's 193 member states regarding the disposition of the authorized stocks of the smallpox virus. Some analysts worry that the controversy may be headed toward a diplomatic confrontation that would be harmful to all concerned. This article reviews the current status of the smallpox debate, assesses its implications for biological arms control, and proposes a grand bargain to bridge the gap between the pro-destruction and anti-destruction camps.

History of the Debate

A contagious viral disease that infected only humans and had a mortality rate of about 30 percent, smallpox claimed hundreds of millions of lives over the course of history and left the survivors with disfiguring facial scars.[2] In 1966 the WHO launched a global vaccination campaign that over the next 11 years eradicated smallpox from the planet in one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century. Key to the success of this effort was the availability of a highly effective freeze-dried vaccine that was heat stable and, when suspended in saline solution, could be delivered into a recipient's skin by unskilled health workers. Another contributing factor was that the smallpox vaccine was not a killed or weakened form of the smallpox virus itself but a related live virus (initially cowpox virus, later vaccinia virus) that caused a mild infection but was similar enough to the smallpox virus to induce protective immunity against the far more deadly disease. After smallpox eradication was confirmed in 1980, most countries halted the routine vaccination of their civilian population.

Even before the last natural outbreak of smallpox was snuffed out in Somalia in 1977, the WHO sought to reduce the number of facilities holding stocks of the smallpox virus in order to prevent an accidental release that could lead to a reintroduction of the disease. In response to a 1975 survey of biomedical laboratories around the world, 74 reported possessing samples of the virus.[3] Concern about the risks of ongoing research with the live smallpox virus increased sharply after a laboratory accident in 1978 at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom caused two infections and one death. In response, the World Health Assembly, the WHO's top decision-making body of member states, adopted Resolution 33.4 in 1980 urging all countries that possessed the smallpox virus either to destroy their stocks or transfer them to one of four designated WHO collaborating centers. Because the WHO did not have the authority or the ability to verify these actions by member states, the consolidation of the smallpox virus stocks took place on a good-faith basis.

In 1983 two facilities, the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta and the State Research Institute for Viral Preparations in Moscow, became the sole authorized repositories of the smallpox virus.[4] These two sites were chosen because they had served as the WHO reference laboratories during the eradication campaign and thus possessed the world's largest collections of smallpox virus strains. But the poor physical security at the Moscow institute, combined with the political unrest that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, prompted fears that the smallpox virus stocks stored there might be at risk. In 1994, without obtaining prior approval from the WHO, the Russian government moved the repository from Moscow to the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology "Vector" in the remote Siberian town of Koltsovo, near Novosibirsk. Today the CDC has 451 samples of 229 different strains of the smallpox virus, collected from outbreaks in various parts of the world during the eradication campaign, while Vector has 691 samples of 120 strains.[5] At each repository, the virus stocks are stored in liquid-nitrogen freezers and protected with elaborate security measures.

In 1990 a WHO scientific advisory committee recommended that all known stocks of the smallpox virus be destroyed by December 31, 1993, after the DNA sequences of representative strains had been determined for scientific and forensic purposes. Protests from the scientific community and delays in the DNA sequencing effort led the WHO to postpone the date of destruction. Meanwhile, in 1992 a high-level official in the Soviet biological warfare program named Kanatjan Alibekov (aka Ken Alibek) defected to the United States with some stunning information. He told the CIA that during the Cold War, the Soviet Union had developed a highly lethal strain of the smallpox virus as a strategic weapon and had produced and stockpiled several tons of the virus in the form of a liquid suspension.[6] Particularly troubling was Alibek's claim that the Vector laboratory had been directly involved in the weaponization of smallpox. Moreover. the secret development and production program had been in systematic noncompliance with the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), to which Moscow was a party.

Alibek's revelations suggested that Russia and other states might have retained hidden caches of the smallpox virus in violation of WHO policy. The CIA subsequently obtained circumstantial evidence that undeclared stocks of the virus might exist in several countries of proliferation concern, possibly including but not necessarily limited to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.[7] A few scientific research centers also reported finding and destroying vials containing the smallpox virus that had been retained inadvertently in laboratory freezers, sparking fears that other poorly secured samples might exist that could fall into the hands of terrorists.

These preoccupations, combined with the progressive decline in the proportion of the global population with persistent immunity to smallpox, the limited supplies of the smallpox vaccine, the lack of physician familiarity with the disease, and the increased density and mobility of urban dwellers in megacities throughout the developing world, stoked fears that a deliberate release of smallpox virus by a rogue state or terrorist group could result in a rapidly spreading epidemic, posing a grave threat to international health and security.[8] Most Americans born after 1972, except those who had served in the armed forces or traveled to countries where the disease was endemic, had not been immunized against smallpox and hence would be unprotected during an outbreak, while those vaccinated once in childhood were believed to retain only partial immunity.[9] The vulnerability to smallpox of much of the world's population could not be remedied by a return to universal vaccination because the standard vaccine was not risk free. Although the adverse effects, including the rare death, associated with the vaccination of otherwise healthy people could be tolerated when natural smallpox was widespread, these risks became unacceptable once the disease was eradicated. Moreover, no antiviral drugs had been licensed for the treatment of smallpox.

In 1996 the World Health Assembly adopted Resolution 49.10 recommending that the smallpox virus stocks at the CDC and Vector be destroyed on June 30, 1999. Over the next few years, however, the United States became increasingly concerned about the possible existence of undeclared stocks of the virus and the lack of effective medical defenses. In 1998 the U.S. government asked the Institute of Medicine, a policy analysis arm of the National Academy of Sciences, to assess the scientific need for additional research with the smallpox virus. An Institute of Medicine expert committee released a report in March 1999 endorsing further work with the live virus to develop improved diagnostic tools, a safer vaccine, and at least two antiviral drugs that worked by different mechanisms.[10] The rationale was that in the event of a bioterrorist attack with the smallpox virus, the contagion might spread widely before large-scale vaccination could begin. Thus, therapeutic drugs would be needed to treat the first generation of cases and to help contain the epidemic.[11]

Responding to U.S. pressure, the World Health Assembly in May 1999 adopted Resolution 52.10 establishing a three-year program of applied research with the smallpox virus at the two authorized repositories. All access to the live virus would be confined to hermetically sealed biosafety level 4 laboratories at the CDC and Vector, where scientists work in full-body "space suits" equipped with individual air supplies to protect them from infection. The World Health Assembly also established a scientific oversight committee, the WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research, to review proposed experiments with the live smallpox virus and monitor their execution.[12] All approved research projects had to offer direct public-health benefits and could not be justified merely on the grounds of "interesting" science. The experiments also had to be "outcome-oriented and time-limited" and the results published in the scientific literature or summarized in abstracts posted on the WHO Web site. Finally, WHO member states would be guaranteed equitable access to the outcomes of the research, including antiviral drugs, vaccines, and diagnostic tools.

Although the United States wanted the smallpox research program to be open ended, India insisted on amending the resolution to state that all work with the live virus would cease at the end of 2002 unless the World Health Assembly made a positive decision to extend it. The draft resolution, as amended, was adopted by acclamation. In May 2002, following the fall 2001 terrorist attacks and anthrax mailings in the United States, the World Health Assembly adopted Resolution 55.15, which extended the smallpox research program at the CDC and Vector for an indefinite period and put off a decision on the timing of virus destruction until all of the research goals had been achieved.

Retentionists and Destructionists

Proponents of preserving the two WHO-authorized collections of the smallpox virus, known as retentionists, argue that the danger of a reintroduction of smallpox derives less from the known repositories than from unknown stocks of the virus that may be held covertly and illicitly for hostile purposes.[13] If this suspicion is true, then the destruction of the WHO-authorized stocks would be largely meaningless and could create a false sense of security. Retentionists also contend that ongoing research with the live smallpox virus is needed to develop medical countermeasures against its potential use as a military or terrorist weapon. Such defenses would have a deterrent value by reducing the impact of a deliberate release of the virus, thereby thwarting the attacker's objectives.

Over the past decade, the smallpox research program at the CDC and Vector has yielded a valuable collection of vaccines, antiviral drugs, and diagnostic tools, but further work with the live virus may be needed to secure regulatory approval for the use of new therapeutic drugs in humans and to gain additional insights into the disease process. For this reason, retentionists believe that it makes no sense to set an arbitrary deadline for destroying the WHO-authorized stocks until all of the research goals have been accomplished. Some retentionists also contend that samples of the smallpox virus may be needed in the future for scientific reasons that cannot be anticipated at present. According to a supporter of continued research with the live virus, "[T]here is no arguing that we live in a world where ignorance is more dangerous than knowledge.... The task of the medical research community is to anticipate future catastrophic scenarios by continuing to learn from our past adversaries."[14]

Retentionists reject the claim of some critics that U.S. possession of the smallpox virus serves a military deterrent function analogous to that of a second-strike nuclear capability. They note that the Nixon administration unilaterally renounced the U.S. offensive biological weapons program in November 1969 and that the United States became a party in 1975 to the BWC, which bans the development, production, and possession of biological weapons but permits research on pathogens for prophylactic, protective, and other peaceful purposes. The use of biological weapons in warfare is also explicitly banned by the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which the United States ratified in 1975. Thus, even if the United States was attacked with smallpox, it would not retaliate in kind but with other forms of military power.

Proponents of destroying the authorized stocks of the smallpox virus, known as destructionists, argue that continued research with the live virus at the two WHO-approved repositories entails a small but finite risk of an accidental release. Moreover, although the smallpox laboratories at the CDC and Vector are well secured against intruders, any scientist with authorized access to the virus would be capable of smuggling out a small sample and transferring it to a rogue state or terrorist organization, which could then cultivate it in large quantities. This "insider threat" has been underscored by the FBI's assertion in August 2008 that the sole perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax letter attacks was Dr. Bruce E. Ivins, a respected microbiologist who had worked for decades at the U.S. Army's biodefense laboratory at Fort Detrick in Maryland.

Destructionists also argue that, from an international legal standpoint, the smallpox virus collections at the two WHO-approved repositories are not the property of the two host countries but are being held in trust by them for the benefit of the international community. If Russia and the United States continue to insist that access to the live virus is vital for their national security, then other countries may demand to participate in the research. According to a WHO survey in 2007 of states that had voluntarily transferred their smallpox virus collections to the Russian and U.S. repositories during the 1970s and 1980s, one of the seven respondents asserted that it retained "ownership rights" to the transferred stocks, while the other six said that they had waived such rights or had not addressed them in the accompanying documentation. (The identity of the state claiming ownership rights was not disclosed.) The WHO Secretariat concluded that "there appear to be uncertain, as well as variable, ownership scenarios for the stocks in question at the two repositories."[15]

As a practical matter, WHO member states agree that samples of live smallpox virus should never be removed from secure storage at the CDC and Vector. Nevertheless, if a country that transferred its stocks to one of the repositories were to seek access for some of its scientists to work with the live virus, the repository and the WHO would have to consider this request. The dilemma is that the greater the number of scientists granted access to the smallpox virus stocks, the higher the risk of an accidental release or a security breach.

Verification of Virus Destruction

Another thorny issue is how to verify the destruction of the known stocks of the smallpox virus held in Russia and the United States. Although the smallpox laboratory at Vector recently resumed research with the live virus after a hiatus of a few years for safety and security upgrades, its activities are far from transparent. Moreover, in contrast to the verification regimes for nuclear and chemical arms control treaties, no multilateral or bilateral mechanism is capable of verifying the complete and irreversible destruction of a self-replicating entity like a virus with a reasonable degree of confidence.

Even if the known stocks of smallpox virus in the two WHO-authorized collections were incinerated tomorrow, there would be no way of proving that samples of the virus had not previously been removed and stored elsewhere. Indeed, whenever scientists work with the live virus, they cause it to replicate, creating more of the deadly agent. The smallpox virus is highly stable when freeze dried or frozen in liquid nitrogen, making it easy to conceal seed cultures in small vials. Because the virus will replicate in fertilized eggs or cell culture, a tiny sample could be grown into a large quantity.

Further complicating the problem of verification is the suspicion that Russia and possibly other countries may possess undeclared stocks of the smallpox virus outside the two WHO-authorized repositories. Given these concerns, a comprehensive verification mechanism would have to include a provision for short-notice challenge inspections of suspect facilities anywhere in the world. To provide an adequate level of confidence, such inspections would be highly intrusive and without right of refusal, yet it is unlikely that Russia, the United States, or any other country suspected of having clandestine stocks would agree to such an "anywhere, anytime" inspection regime.

Impact of Emerging Biotechnologies

Advances in biotechnology are also changing the nature of the smallpox debate. Until now discussions in the World Health Assembly have proceeded on the assumption that the destruction of the virus stocks would be final and irrevocable, but that may not be the case much longer. The development in the early 1980s of automated DNA synthesizers capable of making customized strands of genetic material from off-the-shelf chemicals, and the steady improvement of this technology over the past 25 years, have now made it possible to produce long fragments of synthetic DNA in the laboratory and assemble them into genes and even entire microbial genomes (the genetic blueprints of living organisms). As DNA synthesis technology continues to progress at a rapid pace, it will soon become possible for cutting-edge scientists to re-create any virus whose genetic sequence has been determined, including the smallpox virus.

Already, U.S. researchers have overcome the technical challenges associated with synthesizing a DNA molecule as large as that of the smallpox virus genome, which consists of about 186,000 DNA units, or base pairs. In January 2008, the J. Craig Venter Institute announced the synthesis of a stripped-down bacterial genome made up of 582,970 base pairs, or more than three times the size of the smallpox virus genome.[16] A second hurdle to re-creating the smallpox virus in the laboratory is the fact that the "naked" viral DNA is not infectious by itself and requires enzymes present in the virus coat to replicate in the host cells, but techniques are already available for working around this problem. At its 2008 meeting, the WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research discussed the potential laboratory synthesis of the smallpox virus and concluded that the remaining technical obstacles could be overcome.[17]

Although the WHO prohibits any lab outside the two authorized repositories from possessing smallpox DNA that exceeds 20 percent of the viral genome, the organization has no way of enforcing this rule. Thus, when it becomes possible in the near future for a technically proficient laboratory to synthesize the smallpox virus, the risk of hostile use will expand beyond any illicitly retained stocks of the virus to include an artificially created weapon. Retentionists contend that the impending ability to create the smallpox virus de novo will render the destruction debate effectively moot. They also warn that within a decade, the technologies and know-how required for viral synthesis may have proliferated widely, making the need for effective medical countermeasures against smallpox more urgent than ever. Destructionists counter that the risk of de novo synthesis makes it all the more essential to prohibit the possession of the smallpox virus in any form, whether natural or artificial. In their view, destroying the WHO-authorized stocks would make it possible to brand any future retention, synthesis, or hostile use of the virus as a crime against humanity, punishable with the most severe economic, political, and military sanctions. Allowing the two existing repositories to retain their stocks of the virus indefinitely would seriously weaken the normative power of such a ban.

Another way that advances in biotechnology have complicated the smallpox destruction debate is by expanding the risk of potential misuse beyond the smallpox virus itself. Some biosecurity experts worry that a state or terrorist group seeking biological weapons would be more likely to use classical genetic engineering techniques to create more deadly forms of other poxviruses that infect humans, such as monkeypox, cowpox, camelpox, and vaccinia (the smallpox vaccine). In their natural state, these viruses cause relatively mild disease and do not spread readily from person to person, but it might be possible to engineer them to become as lethal as smallpox if not more so. Such modifications might involve the insertion into the virus of a toxin gene or, alternatively, a gene coding for a substance that enables the virus to evade or suppress the human immune system.

In 2001, for example, Australian researchers reported that splicing the gene for interleukin-4, a protein that modulates the immune system, into the mousepox virus dramatically increased the virulence of the virus so that it could kill mice that were genetically resistant to mousepox or had been vaccinated against it. A similar genetic modification to a poxvirus that infects humans, such as cowpox, monkeypox, or vaccinia, might enable the engineered strain to cause a fatal disease even in immunized people. Monkeypox virus is endemic in rodents living in parts of central and western Africa and hence would be relatively easy for would-be bioterrorists to acquire. Moreover, because monkeypox naturally infects humans and nonhuman primates, a rogue scientist seeking to turn the virus into a biological weapon could test the lethality of genetically engineered strains in monkeys. Alibekov's revelation that the Soviet biological warfare program experimented with the genetic engineering of vaccinia and other poxviruses has also raised concerns that former bioweapons scientists with this expertise, some of whom are living abroad, might transfer the relevant know-how to states pursuing biological arms or to terrorist organizations.[18]

In sum, retentionists are correct that destroying the WHO-authorized collections of smallpox virus in Russia and the United States would not eliminate the potential risks associated with (1) any illicit stocks that may exist in countries of proliferation concern, (2) the de novo synthesis of the smallpox virus, or (3) the genetic engineering of an animal poxvirus to render it highly virulent in humans. At the same time, destructionists have a valid point that continued research with the smallpox virus at the CDC and Vector would entail safety and security risks and is likely to provoke growing political controversy.

Averting a Diplomatic Disaster

Now that the WHO-approved smallpox research program has reached the 10-year mark and many of its primary objectives have been accomplished, the international debate over virus destruction has re-emerged with a new intensity. Because the developing countries of Africa and Asia suffered disproportionately from the ravages of smallpox during the decades prior to eradication, they have a strong emotional stake in the issue and view the continued existence of the virus as a potential threat. At the 2006 World Health Assembly, 46 states from WHO's Africa region, supported by Jordan, Iran, and Thailand, tabled a draft resolution setting a new deadline of June 30, 2010, for destroying the smallpox virus stocks at the CDC and Vector. The United States, Russia, and a few other countries blocked adoption of the resolution.

The following year, the 2007 World Health Assembly approved Resolution 60.1 affirming "the need to reach consensus on a proposed new date for the destruction of [smallpox] virus stocks, when research outcomes crucial to an improved public-health response to an outbreak so permit." To help build an international consensus, the member states requested the WHO director-general to conduct "a major review in 2010 of the results of the research [with the smallpox virus] undertaken, currently under way, and the plans and requirements for further essential research for global public health purposes."[19] Based on this review, the Sixty-fourth World Health Assembly in May 2011 will attempt to reach global agreement on the timing of destruction. (Coincidentally, the seventh review conference of the BWC has been scheduled for the fall of 2011, but the United States has not used BWC-related meetings to raise concerns about the possible existence of illicit smallpox virus stocks because the supporting evidence would probably be classified, less than conclusive, and almost impossible to prove even if correct.)

In order to prepare for the 2010 major review of the smallpox research program, the U.S. government has asked the Institute of Medicine to update its influential 1999 report on scientific requirements for the live smallpox virus. At the kickoff of the institute's study in October 2008, the government's charge to the expert committee was to "perform a comprehensive evaluation of the research and development work recommended in [the first] report and completed to date, and consider what unmet needs still exist that require the use of live [smallpox] virus."[20] The report, to be completed this year, will likely have a significant impact on the subsequent WHO review.

Meanwhile, an international political imbroglio is brewing over the smallpox destruction issue. Because any WHO member state can call for a voice vote or a roll-call vote at the World Health Assembly, a possible scenario for 2011 is that the African countries will propose a resolution setting a firm date for the destruction of the smallpox virus stocks at the CDC and Vector, and a large majority of member states will vote to endorse it. In that case, Russia and the United States would face a difficult choice among a number of options: (1) comply with the decision and proceed to destroy their stocks of the virus, (2) refuse to accept the decision as legally binding and continue with open smallpox research, or (3) claim to have destroyed all remaining stocks but continue working with the live virus in the "black" (classified) world. Most experts believe that a resurgent Russia, which appears to view the smallpox virus repository at Vector as a symbol of its importance in world affairs, will not agree to destroy all of its stocks under any circumstances. Thus, a decision by the World Health Assembly in favor of destruction could leave the United States in a political quandary.

How can this diplomatic impasse be avoided? The key issue for U.S. policymakers is to decide how much of a defensive bulwark against smallpox is sufficient, given the low probability but potentially catastrophic consequences of a deliberate release of the virus, on the one hand, and the safety, security, and political risks associated with continued research with the live virus, on the other. The United States and other countries may well be called on to make this judgment in 2011.

A Grand Bargain

In order to avoid an international confrontation over smallpox virus destruction that would be harmful to all concerned, Washington should be prepared to negotiate a compromise formula that breaks the current deadlock. Such a grand bargain might consist of the following elements:

1. Russia and the United States would agree to reduce the WHO-authorized stocks of the smallpox virus at the CDC and Vector to a small number of representative strains, perhaps 10 at each repository, and to halt all research with the live virus after two effective antiviral drugs have been developed and licensed. Skeptics might argue that destroying most but not all of the virus stocks is like being "a little bit pregnant" and would not satisfy hard-line destructionists. Nevertheless, because Moscow and Washington so far have been entirely unresponsive to the concerns of other countries, the admittedly symbolic action of destroying most of the virus stocks under their control would be a major step toward reconciliation. Destruction would occur in stages, beginning with the strains that are least valuable scientifically, such as the 14 hybrids of the smallpox virus and animal poxviruses (rabbitpox and cowpox) that were prepared by British virologist Keith Dumbell and transferred to the CDC collection.[21] The Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research found no scientific rationale for further study of the hybrid strains and has recommended repeatedly that they be destroyed.[22] Next on the list for elimination would be roughly 200 strains held at the CDC for which no epidemiological information is available about the clinical effects of the virus in humans. The small number of strains to be retained indefinitely at each repository would be stored under the highest levels of physical security in case there is a scientific need for them in the future. Because most but not all of the virus stocks in Russia and the United States would be eliminated, the standard of evidence required for verification would be less demanding and hence politically more feasible than for complete destruction.

2. All WHO member states would formally acknowledge the threat posed by the potential de novo synthesis of the smallpox virus and reaffirm the existing rules that (a) strictly forbid the chemical synthesis of full-length smallpox virus genomes or their assembly from smaller DNA fragments, (b) prohibit any laboratory outside the two WHO-authorized repositories from holding DNA that comprises more than 20 percent of the smallpox virus genome, (c) ban any genetic engineering of the smallpox virus or the insertion of smallpox viral genes into other poxviruses, (d) require all laboratories outside the two authorized repositories to obtain permission from the WHO to synthesize fragments of smallpox virus DNA longer than 500 base pairs, and (e) authorize the distribution of short fragments of smallpox viral DNA to outside labs that request them through the WHO but permit transfers to third parties only with WHO approval.[23] Under the grand bargain, all member states would pledge to adopt national legislation imposing severe criminal penalties on anyone who breaks these rules and encouraging scientists to report violations to the appropriate national authorities. To facilitate reporting without risk of retaliation, anonymous hotlines or Web sites might be set up for this purpose.

3. To demonstrate the value of smallpox research for the developing world, Russia and the United States would provide assurances that intellectual property rights to drugs or vaccines developed by the research program will be made available free of charge to countries that wish to manufacture them. In addition, Moscow and Washington would contribute to a fund to establish a WHO-controlled stockpile of antiviral drugs for rapid deployment to treat the victims of a smallpox attack, and would increase their allocation of smallpox vaccine to the Global Smallpox Vaccine Reserve maintained by the WHO.[24] Finally, given that smallpox can spread readily from person to person, it is in the interest of all countries to contain an outbreak close to the source, wherever it occurs. To improve the international capacity for prompt detection and containment of smallpox and other epidemic diseases, the United States would offer developing countries technical and financial assistance in setting up national disease surveillance and reporting systems, including diagnostic laboratories, thereby helping them to fulfill the requirements of the revised International Health Regulations.[25]

4. The United States would make medical countermeasures developed under the smallpox research program available for combating monkeypox, a human disease that closely resembles smallpox but is considerably less lethal and transmissible. Monkeypox is endemic in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and, in a less virulent form, the rainforest countries of West Africa. Unlike smallpox, it infects rodents and monkeys as well as humans. (In the summer of 2003, a shipment of infected rodents from Ghana destined for the exotic pet trade caused an outbreak of monkeypox in the United States.) Ever since routine vaccination against smallpox ended, the incidence of monkeypox in Africa has risen in parallel with the proportion of the population that is unvaccinated, and the disease now has the potential to establish itself in humans through person-to-person transmission.[26] Unfortunately, mass vaccination against monkeypox in the DRC may not be possible because of the increasing prevalence of HIV/AIDS infection, which suppresses the immune system and renders the smallpox vaccine less effective and potentially life threatening. However, the antiviral drugs developed to treat smallpox should be effective against monkeypox as well. Once these drugs have been licensed, the United States would agree to make them available at a subsidized price or free of charge for the purpose of treating monkeypox in the affected African countries.

5. The World Health Assembly would request the WHO Secretariat to continue making periodic inspections of the smallpox virus repositories in Russia and the United States to ensure that the residual stocks continue to be stored in a safe and highly secure manner.[27]

Such a grand bargain, or a similar negotiating formula, would aim to bridge the gap between the pro-destruction and anti-destruction camps. The proposed foreign assistance programs would generate goodwill throughout the developing world and might be seen as a reasonable quid pro quo for the continued retention of a small number of smallpox viral strains at the two authorized repositories as a hedge against future developments. In any event, creative diplomacy will be needed to break out of the current deadlock and bring the protracted and contentious debate over smallpox virus destruction to a broadly acceptable conclusion.

Current Status of Smallpox Research

WHO-authorized research with the live smallpox virus over the past decade has yielded a number of medical countermeasures that have made the world better prepared to deal with the potential use of the smallpox virus as a military or terrorist weapon, although a few of the research goals have not yet been met. To date, the program has achieved the following milestones:

  • The entire DNA sequences of 45 different strains of the smallpox virus have been determined, as well as the partial DNA sequences of more than 20 additional strains. This sequencing effort has revealed little genetic variation among different strains of the smallpox virus, suggesting that a drug or vaccine that is effective against one strain should work against them all.
  • Fast and reliable techniques have been developed for the diagnosis of smallpox infection, including two diagnostic assays for field use based on a genetic detection method (polymerase chain reaction) and two "point-of-care" diagnostic assays based on protein detection.
  • An improved version of the standard smallpox vaccine called ACAM 2000, which is manufactured in cell culture rather than in the skin of live calves, has been licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). When the supply of ACAM 2000 is combined with the older stocks of smallpox vaccine, the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile now contains enough doses to protect all 300 million Americans.
  • A weakened ("attenuated") smallpox vaccine called Modified Vaccinia Ankara (MVA) has been evaluated. This particular strain of the vaccinia virus, developed in Germany in the late 1970s, is incapable of replication and hence is safe to use in the 10 to 15 percent of the population that suffers from atopic dermatitis (eczema), for whom the standard vaccine is contraindicated. A European vaccine manufacturer (Bavarian Nordic) has offered to produce large quantities of MVA if sufficient demand exists. Another attenuated smallpox vaccine, known as LC16m8, has been licensed in Japan and also appears safe and effective.
  • Two antiviral drug candidates (CMX-001 and ST-246) have been identified that target different stages of the smallpox virus life cycle and can be given by mouth. Based on data from animal studies, both compounds appear effective for treating smallpox-infected individuals during the incubation period or early in the course of the illness. Preliminary test-tube experiments also suggest that the two drugs may have synergistic effects when administered together.
  • An animal model of smallpox infection has been created in macaque monkeys to assess the efficacy of antiviral drugs and secure regulatory approval from the FDA under the so-called "animal efficacy rule," which permits testing in animal models when clinical trials in humans cannot be performed for ethical or practical reasons. Because smallpox no longer occurs in human populations, the only option for demonstrating the efficacy of new antiviral drugs is the use of an animal model.

Good progress has been made in most of these areas, removing any scientific or regulatory reasons to use live smallpox virus for additional DNA sequencing, the development of diagnostic kits, or the testing of new vaccines. The primary rationale for further work with the live virus is for the testing of antiviral drugs in an animal model of smallpox in order to obtain FDA approval and licensing. The animal efficacy rule requires that the authentic infectious agent, in this case the smallpox virus, be used and that the disease process in the animal model closely resemble that of the human illness.

Because smallpox was a uniquely human affliction, however, simulating it in a nonhuman primate (the cynomolgus macaque) has been extremely difficult. For one thing, monkeys cannot be infected by the natural route of inhaling the smallpox virus into the lungs. Instead, researchers have had to give the animals a massive dose of the virus by intravenous injection, instantaneously producing a systemic infection that seeds the target organs with the virus and gives rise to the characteristic skin rash. Thus, whereas human smallpox had a slow clinical course that began with an incubation period of about two weeks, followed by two to four days of high fever, malaise, and extreme fatigue before the appearance of the skin rash, the illness induced in monkeys is immediate, severe, and lasts only three to six days. Moreover, whereas smallpox in humans had a mortality rate of 10 to 30 percent, the intravenous injection of smallpox virus into monkeys gives rise to a hemorrhagic form of the disease that is almost invariably fatal. Given these discrepancies, U.S. researchers contend that additional work with the live smallpox virus is needed to refine the monkey model (e.g., by reducing the infectious dose and exposing the animals to the virus by a more natural route, such as through the bronchi of the lungs) so that the resulting disease recapitulates the clinical course of human smallpox closely enough to provide a realistic basis for testing the efficacy of antiviral drugs.

Critics of the smallpox-monkey model favor the use of a surrogate virus such as monkeypox, which naturally infects nonhuman primates and is far less dangerous to handle. Recent research also suggests that smallpox infection in monkeys involves a disease process that is physiologically distinct from that of monkeypox in monkeys: in particular, the genes that code for the host's immunological response to the viral infection have different patterns of expression. Because nearly all of the information about how the smallpox virus caused disease in humans dates from the era before the dramatic advances in molecular virology and immunology, it is not known whether smallpox in monkeys or monkeypox in monkeys provides a more accurate model of the disease process that occurred in human smallpox. So far, however, FDA officials have refused to accept the monkeypox-monkey model as the basis for licensing new antiviral drugs for human use under the animal efficacy rule. How this regulatory issue is ultimately resolved could determine the need for continued scientific access to the live smallpox virus over the next few years.

The Checkered History of Smallpox Research at Vector

In 1994 the Russian government unilaterally transferred the smallpox virus stocks under its control to the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology "Vector," which subsequently became one of the two WHO-approved repositories. Because of the financial crisis that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, Vector suffered deep budget cuts and thus lacked the resources to fund its own research with the live smallpox virus. After the World Health Assembly in 1999 authorized the development of medical countermeasures against smallpox, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)'s Biotechnology Engagement Program and the Department of Defense's Cooperative Threat Reduction program channeled funds for smallpox research at Vector through the Moscow-based International Science and Technology Center (ISTC). In addition to financing the renovation of the Russian smallpox repository and laboratory to upgrade its safety and security, the ISTC grants supported several research projects, including work by Sergei N. Shchelkunov and Igor V. Babkin on the genetic characterization of representative smallpox virus strains from the Russian collection, by Evgeny Belanov on the screening of candidate antiviral drugs for activity against the smallpox virus, and by other Vector scientists on the development of new smallpox diagnostic tools.

In 2002, due to lingering concerns about Vector's past involvement in the Soviet biological warfare program, the U.S. Congress sought to increase the transparency of Russian smallpox research by insisting, as a condition of renewed ISTC funding, that U.S. scientists work side-by-side with their Russian colleagues. Although a few U.S. virologists were trained to use Russian biosafety equipment at Vector, the host government never approved the three collaborative research projects that Washington had proposed and in 2004 the ISTC projects became inactive. In May 2005, Vector was classified as a Federal State Research Institution and placed under the control of the Russian Ministry of Health's Federal Inspection Agency for Consumer and Human Welfare Protection. The agency's new head, Gennady G. Onishchenko, fired Vector's director-general, Lev S. Sandakhchiev, who had promoted extensive scientific collaboration with the West, and replaced him with an old-school scientific bureaucrat named Ilyia G. Drozdov.

Since 2005 the HHS has pressed the Russian Ministry of Health to negotiate an extension of ISTC funding for the three joint smallpox research projects at Vector. But despite the personal intervention of then-HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, who agreed to drop the condition that U.S. collaborating scientists be resident and to require only periodic visits, approval from Moscow has not been forthcoming. Meanwhile, the transparency of smallpox research at Vector has declined sharply. Russian virologists who formerly interacted freely with their U.S. colleagues have either stopped attending the annual meetings in Geneva of the WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research or have become far more circumspect.

Now that the safety and security of Vector's smallpox laboratory and repository have been upgraded with U.S. financial support, the Russian government is contributing its own funds to operate the facility. At the most recent meeting of the WHO Advisory Committee in November 2008, the Vector representatives announced that they had resumed screening candidate antiviral drugs against the live smallpox virus after a hiatus of a few years, although they declined to present any data. In addition, Drozdov reported that Vector scientists had transferred a large number of smallpox virus isolates from sealed glass ampoules to unbreakable plastic vials. The purported safety rationale for this operation did not make sense, however, because the process of thawing the samples of frozen virus, opening the glass ampoules, and transferring the contents to plastic vials posed its own set of risks. In another bombshell, Drozdov announced that, after testing the viral isolates in the Russian collection, Vector scientists had thrown out "200 nonviable duplicates," reducing the total number of samples from 891 to 691. The nonviable isolates were destroyed unilaterally, without WHO verification. Thus, Vector's claim to have eliminated 200 samples of the smallpox virus has taken a significant fraction of the Russian collection "off the books" in an unaccountable manner.

In addition to the puzzling new developments at Vector, the U.S. government has lingering suspicions that undeclared stocks of the smallpox virus may exist at a Russian Ministry of Defense facility, the Virology Center of the Scientific-Research Institute of Microbiology, near the city of Sergiev Posad (formerly Zagorsk). During the Soviet period, the Virology Center allegedly mass-produced and weaponized the smallpox virus, and it remains shrouded in secrecy. These unresolved concerns have fostered mistrust and deepened the current chill in U.S.-Russian relations, making it all the more important to enhance transparency and build confidence by reviving the scientific partnership between the two countries. Each side has complementary expertise in smallpox research to bring to the table, as well as unique strains in their respective repositories. Moreover, now that Vector's smallpox laboratory has been upgraded to U.S. government standards, the United States and Russia can become equal partners in research, a status sought for years by the Russian Ministry of Health. To move forward with the collaboration, however, it may be necessary to revise the joint smallpox research projects to take account of the scientific knowledge gained over the past five years. It is to be hoped that the forthcoming Institute of Medicine report on smallpox research will explore new opportunities for U.S.-Russian scientific collaboration in this area.


Jonathan B. Tucker is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and author of Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox (2001). He is also a member of the Arms Control Association board of directors.



1. In addition to the deliberate use of the smallpox virus as a military or terrorist weapon, other possible scenarios for a return of the disease include the thawing, due to global warming, of corpses of smallpox victims buried in the Arctic permafrost, infecting individuals who come in contact with the remains, and the evolution of the monkeypox virus to become more transmissible in humans, filling the ecological niche vacated by the eradication of smallpox. Both scenarios are considered extremely unlikely.

2. Natural smallpox infection spread from person to person through virus particles that were shed from lesions in the mouth and throat and were aerosolized by coughing. The airborne virus was then inhaled by others who came into close contact with an infected individual. A primary case infected an average of 3.5 to 6.0 other people. Thus, although it was possible to break the chain of transmission by isolating patients with a visible skin rash and vaccinating all contacts, an outbreak could spread rapidly before containment measures were put in place.

3. The global distribution of laboratories reporting possession of the smallpox virus to the WHO in 1975 was as follows: Africa (5), Americas (18), Southeast Asia (13), Europe (29), eastern Mediterranean (3), and western Pacific (6). Although China did not respond to the WHO survey, samples of the smallpox virus were then held at the Institute for the Control of Drugs and Biological Products in Beijing, bringing the total number of laboratory stocks to 75. See Frank Fenner et al., Smallpox and Its Eradication (Geneva: World Health Organization, 1988), p. 1340.

4. In 1992, the U.S. Congress passed legislation renaming the CDC the "Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

5. Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research, World Health Organization (WHO), "Report of the Ninth Meeting, Geneva, Switzerland, 29-30 November 2007," 2008, p. 2. In November 2008, Vector representatives claimed to have reduced the total number of samples from 891 to 691.

6. Ken Alibek with Stephen Handleman, Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Biological Weapons Program in the World (New York: Random House, 1999), pp. 107-122.

7. Barton Gellman, "4 Nations Thought to Possess Smallpox: Iraq, N. Korea Named, Two Officials Say," The Washington Post, November 5, 2002, p. A1. In the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War, the U.S.-led Iraq Survey Group failed to find conclusive evidence that Iraq had possessed stocks of the smallpox virus.

8. Routine vaccination of U.S. civilians against smallpox ended in 1972 but was required for travelers to endemic regions until the late 1970s. In most other countries, vaccination of the general population ended by 1982.

9. Contrary to the general belief that the immunity induced by smallpox vaccination diminishes over time, a recent study found that individuals vaccinated one or more times up to 88 years ago maintained protective antibodies for decades at levels similar to those who had lifetime immunity after surviving smallpox in their youth. These data suggest that multiple or recent vaccinations may not be required to provide immunity to smallpox over a lifetime. See Dennis D. Taub et al., "Immunity From Smallpox Vaccine Persists for Decades: A Longitudinal Study," American Journal of Medicine, Vol. 121, No. 12 (December 2008), pp. 1058-1064. Critics note, however, that the types of immunity needed to protect against smallpox are largely unknown and may not be limited to antibodies.

10. Terrorists might disperse the smallpox virus in the form of an aerosol or cloud of microscopic particles. Popular scenarios in which suicide terrorists infect themselves with the smallpox virus and walk into crowds to spread the infection are implausible because the early stages of the disease involve a high fever and extreme exhaustion, which would keep the terrorists bedridden.

11. Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, Assessment of Future Scientific Needs for Live Smallpox Virus (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 1999).

12. For details on the operation of the WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research, see Jonathan B. Tucker, "Preventing the Misuse of Biology: Lessons From the Oversight of Smallpox Virus Research," International Security, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Fall 2006), pp. 116-150.

13. Countries that the United States has accused of pursuing offensive biological warfare programs include China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Syria. See Bureau of Verification, Compliance and Implementation, U.S. Department of State, "Adherence to and Compliance With Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments," August 2005, pp. 18-31 (unclassified version).

14. Grant McFadden, "Smallpox: An Ancient Disease Enters the Modern Era of Virogenomics," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 101, No. 42 (October 19, 2004), p. 14995.

15. WHO, "Smallpox Eradication: Destruction of Variola Virus Stocks: Report by the Secretariat," A61/6, April 14, 2008 (Sixty-first World Health Assembly, provisional agenda item 11.3), p. 4.

16. Daniel G. Gibson et al., "Complete Chemical Synthesis, Assembly, and Cloning of a Mycoplasma genitalium Genome," Science, February 29, 2008, pp. 1215-1220.

17. WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research, "Report of the Tenth Meeting," Geneva, November 2008, www.who.int/csr/disease/smallpox/research/en/index.html.

18. Alfred D. Steinberg, "Recent Worldwide Research on Animal Pox Viruses," Open Source Center, MITRE Corp., January 2008, p. 3.

19. WHO, "Smallpox Eradication: Destruction of Variola Virus Stocks," WHA60.1, May 18, 2007 (Sixtieth World Health Assembly, agenda item 12.2), p. 2.

20. Board on Global Health, Institute of Medicine, "Statement of Task: Assessment of Future Scientific Needs for Live Smallpox Virus," October 2008.

21. Nell Boyce, "Smallpox Mixes Make a Stir," U.S. News and World Report, January 19, 2004, p. 64.

22. WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research, "Report of the Fourth Meeting," Geneva, November 20-21, 2002, WHO/CDS/CSR/GAR/2003.5, p. 1; WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research, "Report of the Fifth Meeting," Geneva, November 4-5, 2003, WHO/CDS/CSR/GAR/2004.15, p. 3; WHO Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research, "Report of the Sixth Meeting," Geneva, November 4-5, 2004, WHO/CDS/CSR/ARO/2005.4, p. 3.

23. WHO, "WHO Recommendations Concerning the Distribution, Handling and Synthesis of Variola Virus DNA, May 2008," Weekly Epidemiological Record, October 31, 2008, pp. 393-395.

24. The Global Smallpox Vaccine Reserve consists of a permanent reserve in Geneva of at least five million doses, as well as vaccine stocks pledged to the WHO by member countries with national stocks and amounting to at least 200 million doses. The WHO has also recommended that at least two vaccine-production facilities be identified globally with reserve standby capacity for the manufacture of at least 20 million doses. WHO, "Smallpox: Global Smallpox Vaccine Reserve: Report by the Secretariat," A58/9, April 7, 2005 (Fifty-eighth World Health Assembly, provisional agenda item 13.6).

25. WHO, International Health Regulations (2005), www.who.int/csr/ihr/en/.

26. Anne W. Rimoin et al., "Endemic Human Monkeypox, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2001-2004," Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol. 13, No. 6 (June 2007), pp. 934-937.

27. The WHO inspected the smallpox repositories at the CDC and Vector in 2002 and 2005. The next visits are scheduled for the first half of 2009.


One of the longest and most contentious international policy debates has swirled around the question of whether to destroy the last known stocks of the smallpox (variola) virus, which are preserved at two World Health Organization (WHO)-authorized repositories in Russia and the United States. Although smallpox was eradicated from nature more than three decades ago, concerns surfaced in the early 1990s that a few countries may have retained undeclared samples of the virus for biological warfare purposes. Because a smallpox outbreak would be a global public health emergency of major proportions, in 1999 the WHO approved a research program at the two authorized repositories to develop improved medical defenses against the disease.

Learning From the A.Q. Khan Affair

Daryl G. Kimball

The world's most notorious nuclear proliferator is once again a free man. Worried about what he might reveal in court about Pakistan's complicity and eager to demonstrate its independence from Washington, the fragile government of Prime Minister Asif Ali Zadari allowed the release last month of the country's former nuclear weapons program chief, Abdul Qadeer Khan.

For more than a decade, Khan was the mastermind of a far-flung global black market network that delivered advanced nuclear weapons-related technology to Iran, Libya, North Korea, and perhaps others.

According to the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, ''[T]he so-called A.Q. Khan affair is a closed chapter." The full extent of and damage from Khan's dealings, however, are still very much a mystery.

Following Khan's public confession in 2004, Pakistani authorities have shielded him from interrogation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or U.S. officials. The conditions for further onward proliferation still exist because Pakistan continues to use the black market to expand its own nuclear weapons capability.

Days after Khan's Feb. 6 release from house arrest, all Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg could do was express "deep concern" to his Pakistani counterparts.

The release of Khan and the tepid U.S. response reinforce the perception, built up over decades of dealings with Pakistan and its rival, India, that U.S. nuclear proliferation concerns will always take a back seat to other geostrategic and economic interests. Even as the new Obama administration seeks further help from Pakistan to deal with al Qaeda and the Taliban, it must do far more to change such perceptions and avoid the mistakes of its predecessors.

Since the 1970s, successive U.S. administrations have passed up opportunities to disrupt Khan's activities and Pakistan's nuclear program. In his capacity as an engineer with the European uranium-enrichment consortium, Khan had access to advanced centrifuge designs and contacts with key suppliers. Unfortunately, Western intelligence agencies failed to act on early clues that Khan was preparing to take his knowledge back to Pakistan to aid its nascent bomb program.

By 1975, Pakistan began to purchase uranium-enrichment components from European suppliers, and four years later, it was apparent to U.S. intelligence that Pakistan was building a large-scale enrichment plant at Kahuta. The United States responded with nonproliferation sanctions, but months later, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Consequently, Washington's proliferation worries were swept under the rug to win Islamabad's support for the anti-communist counterinsurgency.

By the mid-1980s, it was clear that Pakistan had crossed the nuclear weapons threshold. Yet, not until 1990, after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, did President George H.W. Bush officially determine that Pakistan possessed a nuclear device, which triggered wide-ranging sanctions.

Meanwhile, Khan traveled widely, developing Pakistan's nuclear weapons supply network. Numerous accounts suggest that the U.S. and Dutch governments could have detained him but did not. Instead they sought to monitor his activities and avoid revealing the role of European companies in the Pakistani bomb effort.

Following the tit-for-tat Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests of 1998, U.S. sanctions were tightened further, and Washington pressed the South Asian rivals to exercise nuclear restraint. By this time, Khan had passed nuclear secrets to Iran, North Korea, and others. U.S. officials were worried about his contacts but failed to take decisive action.

After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Washington once again began to funnel billions of dollars in military aid to Islamabad, including nuclear capable F-16 fighter bombers, with the goal of maintaining cooperation in the U.S. war against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The George W. Bush administration compounded the damage in 2005 by proposing to exempt India from key U.S. and international nuclear trade restrictions. The arrangement, which will indirectly increase India's fissile material production potential, has already spurred Pakistan to accelerate its bomb production capacity.

Now, President Barack Obama and other world leaders must pursue policies that maintain Pakistan's support for anti-terrorism efforts without sacrificing the struggle to stop the spread of the world's most dangerous weapons and slow the ongoing nuclear buildup in one of the world most dangerous regions.

To start, U.S. aid should focus on Pakistan's economic and political development, and further military assistance should be conditioned on Islamabad's support for nuclear restraint. At a minimum, U.S. officials must leverage its aid to win full Pakistani cooperation in the IAEA investigation of the Khan network and certify that Pakistan has finally ended all black market nuclear activity.

Washington must also renew regional diplomacy aimed at persuading India and Pakistan to put the brakes on their nuclear arms race. A good starting point would be to call on Pakistan, along with India, China, and other states with unsafeguarded plutonium-separation plants, to suspend plutonium production for weapons pending the conclusion of a global, verifiable fissile material production ban.

Such a course may be tough for the Obama team to implement, but failure to do so risks even more severe nuclear proliferation consequences in the years ahead.


The world's most notorious nuclear proliferator is once again a free man. Worried about what he might reveal in court about Pakistan's complicity and eager to demonstrate its independence from Washington, the fragile government of Prime Minister Asif Ali Zadari allowed the release last month of the country's former nuclear weapons program chief, Abdul Qadeer Khan.

For more than a decade, Khan was the mastermind of a far-flung global black market network that delivered advanced nuclear weapons-related technology to Iran, Libya, North Korea, and perhaps others. (Continue)

Editor's Note

Miles A. Pomper

Many arms control issues do not lend themselves to a quick resolution. In our cover story this month, Jonathan Tucker proposes a resolution to one of the longest and most contentious international policy debates: whether to destroy the last known stocks of the smallpox virus. These stocks have been preserved at two World Health Organization-authorized repositories in Russia and the United States. They are intended to help develop improved medical defenses against the disease in case some countries or even terrorists have covertly retained or should figure out how to reconstruct the disease. Developing countries, which suffered disproportionately from the ravages of smallpox, see the continued existence of the disease as an even greater threat.

Another long-standing arms control standoff concerns attempts to move forward on negotiating a treaty that would end the production of fissile materials, particularly highly enriched uranium and plutonium, for use in weapons. For more than a decade, the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva has been unable even to truly begin negotiations on this proposed fissile material cutoff treaty. Two pieces this month offer significantly different means of breaking this logjam. Arend Meerburg and Frank N. von Hippel call for expanding the scope and verification provisions of a proposed treaty to take into account fissile material not used for weapons purposes; Christopher A. Ford calls for a more limited treaty among the eight countries, aside from North Korea, known or believed to have nuclear weapons.

In our news section this month, Cole Harvey looks at the Obama administration's first moves in arms control, Peter Crail discusses signs that North Korea will once again test ballistic missiles, and Jeff Abramson reports that U.S. arms sales notification last year jumped sharply.

Finally, Edward Ifft takes a look back at the negotiations over the Threshold Test Ban Treaty. He notes one important lesson from that experience is that the oft-repeated statement that U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations must unavoidably be long, painful, and "adversarial" is simply not true. Perhaps not, but some other arms control efforts, it seems, take quite a while.



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