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"[Arms Control Today] has become indispensable! I think it is the combination of the critical period we are in and the quality of the product. I found myself reading the May issue from cover to cover."

– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
December 2012
Edition Date: 
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
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Obama Pledges Push to Resume Iran Talks

Kelsey Davenport

President Barack Obama said last month that he would “try to make a push in the coming months” to resume talks with Iran over its controversial nuclear program, but did not specify when negotiations were likely to resume.

In comments during a Nov. 14 press conference, Obama added a note of caution, saying, “I can’t promise that Iran will walk through the door that they need to walk through.” But he also said, “[W]e want to get this resolved, and we’re not going to be constrained by diplomatic niceties or protocols.”

High-level meetings between Iran and six world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) stalled in June when both sides said they felt that little progress was being made to close the gaps that existed between their differing positions. The June negotiations were the third round of talks in as many months.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Oct. 21 that talks could resume at the end of November. (See ACT, November 2012.) At the press conference, however, Obama dismissed the prospect of imminent talks as not true “as of today.”

The six countries, or P5+1, met in Brussels on Nov. 21 to discuss strategy for resuming negotiations with Iran. A spokesperson for Catherine Ashton, the lead negotiator for the P5+1, said Nov. 21 that the six countries agreed to hold a new round of talks “as soon as possible” and that Iran would be contacted “in the coming days.” The spokesperson did not say whether the P5+1 discussed modifications to its negotiating proposal.

Iranian Ambassador to Russia Reza Sajjadi said in a Nov. 19 press conference that he had conveyed to the Russian government that Iran is prepared for new negotiations. He said a priority for Iran when talks resume is to receive a “formal response” from the P5+1 to the negotiating proposal Tehran presented during the last rounds of high-level meetings. (See ACT, July/August 2012.)

Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said on Nov. 26 that the United States should consider supplementing the P5+1 talks by establishing a “parallel dialogue” with Iran. Speaking at an event sponsored by the National Iranian American Council and the Arms Control Association, Brzezinksi said one reason for pursuing that approach is that the long-range motives of P5+1 members China and Russia remain unclear. Although the official position of both countries is to pursue negotiations to resolve the Iranian nuclear controversy, there could be individual officials in China or Russia that may be ambivalent about pursuing an immediate settlement of this issue, he said.

Brzezinski also warned against pursing “strangling” sanctions that could increase the likelihood of conflict. He said there is a fine line between such sanctions and those that are “painful.” The latter kind creates openings for other options, he said.

Bilateral Talks

Although all parties in the talks, including Iran, have indicated that they remain committed to negotiating within the P5+1 framework, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told The Financial Times on Nov. 11 that Russia would “not have a word against” bilateral talks between Iran and the United States on the nuclear issue. He added that Russia would “hope to be informed on the content” of any talks.

The Obama administration has denied that there is any agreement for direct talks, saying that although it is open to bilateral meetings, Iran does not appear to be.

But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a Nov. 8 speech that Iran’s nuclear issues should be resolved bilaterally “through talks with the United States.” It is unclear how much power the president has in negotiations over the nuclear program, however, particularly given that Ahmadinejad is not eligible to run in Iran’s presidential elections in June. Western experts believe that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will decide whether Iran enters into bilateral negotiations with the United States.

Waivers Up for Renewal

In December, the Obama administration will have to decide whether to renew waivers that allow nine countries to continue importing oil from Iran. Under a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2012, these countries were granted exemptions in June that allow them to continue purchasing Iranian oil without penalty after demonstrating that they “significantly reduced” the volume of such imports. However, the law stipulates that the waivers must be renewed every 180 days, during which the country must demonstrate again that it reduced its imports.

The waivers for four of Iran’s top oil importers—China, South Korea, India, and Turkey—all will expire before the end of the year if the administration does not grant renewals. The United States renewed the waivers for Japan and 10 European countries on Sept. 14.

As a result of the sanctions, Iranian oil exports are about half of what they were a year ago, and the country is being forced to cut its oil output due to a lack of storage space.

President Barack Obama said last month that he would “try to make a push in the coming months” to resume talks with Iran over its controversial nuclear program, but did not specify when negotiations were likely to resume.

Iran Moves Forward on Nuclear Facilities

Kelsey Davenport

Iran installed additional centrifuges in its underground uranium-enrichment facility at Fordow and increased its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, according to a Nov. 16 quarterly report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

In a Nov. 18 statement, Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh said the report “confirms” that Iran’s nuclear activities are peaceful and that “each gram of uranium” is monitored by the IAEA.

The IAEA, however, concludes in the report that it is “unable to provide credible assurance” that all nuclear material in Iran is in “peaceful activities.”

The report, prepared for the Nov. 29-30 IAEA Board of Governors meeting, found that Iran installed 644 centrifuges at Fordow since the previous report on Aug. 30, bringing the total number of centrifuges there to 2,784, which is the maximum capacity for the facility. The number of centrifuges currently enriching uranium to 20 percent, however, remained unchanged at 696 since the previous report. Since August, nearly 1,000 additional centrifuges also were installed at Natanz, Iran’s second enrichment facility, in the area of the plant that produces reactor-grade uranium, although they too are not yet operational.

The report noted that Iran has increased its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent. The size of this stockpile is a principal concern of the international community because this material is more easily enriched to weapons grade. Iran maintains that the material will be used to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes. Resolutions adopted by the IAEA Board of Governors and the UN Security Council, however, have called on Iran to suspend its sensitive nuclear activities, including enrichment.

In total, Iran has produced 232 kilograms of the 20 percent material, of which 135 kilograms are stored and could be enriched further should Tehran decide to pursue nuclear weapons. The remainder of the material has been slated for conversion from uranium hexafluoride gas into uranium oxide, a solid powder from which nuclear fuel is made. Although the powder can be returned to the gas form, experts say this process would take several months.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to comment on the contents of the IAEA report during a Nov. 16 press briefing. She said that the State Department had seen the report and would discuss it with other members of the IAEA board.

Reactors Face Difficulties

The IAEA conducted an inspection of Bushehr, Iran’s sole nuclear power plant, Nov. 6-7 and confirmed in the Nov. 16 report that fuel assemblies had been transferred to the spent fuel pond. Iran informed the IAEA of the transfer Oct. 15.

Mark Fitzpatrick, former deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, told Arms Control Today in a Nov. 20 e-mail that the removal of the fuel “almost certainly indicates a technical problem.” Although it is “theoretically possible” for Iran to extract weapons-usable plutonium from the spent fuel, the IAEA would be “alert to any such misuse,” and speculation about the use of the spent fuel for developing nuclear weapons is “unfounded,” he said.

Russia provides the fuel for Bushehr and currently oversees the operation of the plant. Fereydoun Abbasi, director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said Nov. 10 that the handover of the reactor to Iran will be “made in the near future.”

The Nov. 16 report noted that Iran is continuing to move forward on construction of a heavy-water reactor at Arak, despite resolutions adopted by the IAEA board and the UN Security Council calling on Tehran to halt construction. Iran has pushed back its anticipated date of operation for the reactor to the first quarter of 2014, the report said. IAEA reports earlier in 2012 said Iran had estimated that the operation of the reactor would begin in the third quarter of 2013.

Western governments have expressed concern that the Arak heavy-water reactor is far better suited for plutonium production for nuclear weapons than for the production of the medical isotopes Iran claims the plant is intended to make. In 2004, Iran declared it would not construct a facility that could have been used to reprocess the spent fuel.

Structured Approach

Iran and the IAEA are scheduled to meet again Dec. 13 in Tehran to continue negotiations on a so-called structured approach to resolve the agency’s concerns about Iran’s possible weapons-related activities, which were outlined in a November 2011 IAEA report. (See ACT, December 2011.) Negotiations on the framework agreement began in February.

The Nov. 16 report said there have been no “concrete results” from the agency’s attempts to work with Iran to resolve these issues and that, in the past year, the IAEA has obtained additional information that “further corroborates” the analysis from the 2011 report.

Soltanieh said that the Dec. 13 talks could “clear up ambiguities” if political provocation is avoided. Fitzpatrick, who is now at the International Institute for Security Studies in London, said progress was “unlikely” if there was no “positive movement” in talks between Iran and six world powers. He said Iran is “holding the IAEA hostage” to progress in those talks.

Iran installed additional centrifuges in its underground uranium-enrichment facility at Fordow and increased its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, according to a Nov. 16 quarterly report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Rising Costs for B61 Prompt Questions

Tom Z. Collina

A Defense Department review has found that the program to extend the service life of the B61 nuclear bomb, many of which are currently deployed in Europe, may cost billions of dollars more and take years longer than previously estimated.

The projected cost growth and schedule delay raise new questions about the viability of the program in the face of increasing pressures on the federal budget and the bomb’s uncertain future in Europe, congressional staff and former administration officials said.

The United States currently keeps about 180 B61s for tactical use on short-range aircraft in Europe to support NATO. These weapons have become a major symbol of U.S. military commitment to the alliance. But pressure from some NATO allies, such as Germany, to remove the weapons raises the possibility that the bombs might not be needed a decade from now, when the proposed rebuilding program would be complete.

An additional factor is the prospect that a future agreement between Russia and the United States might require that such bombs be deployed only on those two countries’ territories. As one congressional staffer said in a Nov. 16 interview, “By the time these weapons are ready, will we still have nuclear weapons in Europe?”

The Pentagon review of the B61 life extension program (LEP), dated July 13, has not been publicly released. Arms Control Today obtained a copy in November.

The study estimated that the program would cost $10.4 billion and would not produce the first refurbished bomb until fiscal year 2022. With about 400 B61s reportedly planned for renovation, that works out to roughly $25 million per bomb.

The Energy Department’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees the B61 program, is sticking to its current estimate that the program will cost about $7 billion and produce its first bomb in fiscal year 2019. Two years ago, the NNSA estimated that the program would cost $4 billion and start in 2017.

The Pentagon review, conducted by the Cost Analysis Program Evaluation (CAPE) office, said the NNSA was underestimating labor costs and the complexity of the B61 LEP, which Sandia National Laboratories said in April is roughly three times more complex than the LEP for the W76 warhead deployed on Trident submarine-launched missiles. An NNSA spokesman said in a Nov. 15 e-mail to Arms Control Today that the agency was reviewing the CAPE study and other information “so that we’re certain we have a cost baseline that is as accurate as possible.”

Congressional Scrutiny

The cost increases in particular have drawn attention to the program on Capitol Hill. When the Defense Department estimate of $10.4 billion, one of the few elements that has been made public, was first revealed in July, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that controls NNSA funding, said the new price tag requires the NNSA to find billions of dollars “at a time when budgets are shrinking.” For fiscal year 2012, Congress, concerned that NNSA plans for the B61 LEP were too risky, required an independent review by JASON, a group of senior science and defense advisers to the government.

The projected schedule slippage also is potentially significant as the Pentagon and the NNSA have stated that B61 bomb parts will need to be replaced soon or the bombs will no longer meet operational requirements, such as the ability to produce a specific explosive yield. The NNSA had planned to complete the program by 2022, but the Pentagon review suggests this deadline would be missed by a few years.

“NATO reaffirmed recently that it wants U.S. forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons to remain in Europe,” said Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, at an Aug. 1 hearing. “Yet, we are faced with the risk, of our own doing, that we may fail to honor that commitment,” he said.

The B61 is the only tactical nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal. The Obama administration called for the B61 LEP in its 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review Report.”

In interviews in recent weeks, congressional staffers and former administration and national laboratory officials involved with nuclear weapons policy said the bombs will not, as one put it, turn into “green cheese” if the upgrades are not completed on time. The bombs will still explode, they agreed, and one said the actual yield may differ from the planned yield by 10 percent.

Bob Peurifoy, a former director of weapons development at Sandia, said in a Nov. 15 interview that the B61, like all modern nuclear weapons, has components that have a limited life and are replaced on a regular basis. This includes the neutron generators and gas transfer systems, both of which use tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen that boosts the yield of the primary stage of the bomb. Tritium decays at a rate of 5.5 percent annually and must be replenished.

The B61 LEP is not focused on these relatively easy fixes, but on replacing the thousands of non-nuclear parts that may degrade over time, such as switches, foams, and cables. Although these parts are getting older, there is no evidence that they are about to fail, Peurifoy said. Aside from the tritium parts, the B61 “should be left alone until the stockpile surveillance process finds a problem,” he said.

Checking for Warning Signs

The stockpile surveillance program, run by Sandia, inspects 11 warheads of each type of warhead in the U.S. arsenal each year to look for problems and conducts experiments to predict when certain parts may begin to fail. Besides the limited-life components, there is no basis for the NNSA’s claim that the B61 would become nonoperational in 2022, Peurifoy said.

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Others disagree. In a Nov. 15 interview, a congressional staffer said that, “of all the LEPs, this is the worst” in terms of the consequences for the weapon’s performance if the upgrades are not carried out. If the directors of the nuclear weapons laboratories lose confidence in the bomb, they may not certify it for operation, a former administration official said in a Nov. 14 interview. Even so, to save money, the NNSA decided to extend the bomb’s life for 20 years instead of 30.

Other than extending the life of the B61, the NNSA wants to “look for opportunities to improve safety and reliability using modern technology along the way,” the agency spokesman said. The NNSA and the Pentagon considered many new concepts early in the process to increase the weapon’s safety against accidental detonation and security against unauthorized access and use, known together as “surety.” But after conducting cost-benefit analyses, the Nuclear Weapons Council, staffed by senior Pentagon and NNSA officials, “rejected all the fancy upgrades,” another former administration official said.

For example, the new bomb would not have “multi-point safety,” a “fire-resistant pit,” or an “optical initiator,” according to a congressional staffer (fig. 1). The B61 already has many of the most modern surety features, and the LEP would not add major new ones. The NNSA spokesman declined to comment on that point, citing classification rules.

Design Consolidation

The U.S. arsenal includes five different versions, or “mods,” of the B61, first produced in 1979. Tactical versions of the B61 would be carried on fighter jets by U.S. and NATO forces in Europe and, due to their forward deployment in the field, are seen as more vulnerable to possible theft than the strategic mods carried by heavy bombers based in the United States.

The NNSA would address these concerns in part by folding four of the versions into a new one, the B61-12, whose design would be based on that of the B61-4. The B61-4 has the lowest maximum yield of the B61 series, meaning it has the smallest amount of fissile material, according to a May 2011 Government Accountability Office report.

The Pentagon also wants to replace the radar, congressional staffers said. The radar tells the bomb when it reaches the right altitude to explode; it is an old model that still uses vacuum tubes.

One cost-saving proposal being discussed on Capitol Hill, according to the staffers, would scale back the B61 LEP by replacing only the parts that are known to be at the end of their lives and only for the weapons that Congress determines are likely to still be deployed a decade from now. For example, the NNSA could just upgrade the strategic B61-7, of which there are an estimated 120 deployed, and replace only the two tritium-dependent parts and the radar. As for the roughly 180 bombs based in Europe, such changes could be made as needed or the bombs could be sent back to the United States.

 

A Defense Department review has found that the program to extend the service life of the B61 nuclear bomb, many of which are currently deployed in Europe, may cost billions of dollars more and take years longer than previously estimated.

Defuse the Exploding Costs of Nuclear Weapons

Daryl G. Kimball

If Congress and the White House are serious about reducing the growing federal deficit, they must seize the opportunity to scale back costly schemes for building a new generation of strategic nuclear delivery systems and rebuilding tactical nuclear bombs.

More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States still maintains a strategic nuclear triad that is sized to launch far more nuclear weapons than necessary to deter nuclear attack. Today, the United States deploys 1,722 warheads on 806 strategic missiles and bombers, while Russia deploys 1,499 warheads on 491 strategic missiles and bombers. Each side has thousands more warheads in reserve. The direct cost of the U.S. arsenal and its support infrastructure exceeds $31 billion annually, according to independent estimates.

The result is nuclear excess. Other than Russia, the only potential U.S. adversary with a long-range nuclear capability is China, which has no more than 50 to 75 single-warhead strategic missiles, according to the Pentagon. Just one U.S. nuclear-armed submarine loaded with 24 missiles, each armed with four 455-kiloton warheads, could kill millions. As the Pentagon’s 2012 defense strategy paper correctly asserts, “It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force.”

Nevertheless, the Navy wants to design and build 12 new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines to carry more than 1,000 strategic nuclear warheads into the 2070s, at a total cost of almost $350 billion. The Air Force is seeking new, nuclear-armed strategic bombers that would cost at least $68 billion, as well as a new fleet of land-based ballistic missiles. Modernization and operation of the United States’ 450 Minuteman III land-based ballistic missiles would cost billions more.

Meanwhile, Russia is pursuing its own, expensive ballistic missile modernization program to maintain pace with the United States. If Moscow and Washington maintain excessive forces, it is more likely that China will increase the size and lethality of its strategic nuclear force. Rather than inducing others to build up, Russia and the United States should realize that it is in their security interest to accelerate the pace of planned reductions and reduce their stockpiles well below the 1,550-warhead ceiling set by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

The first logical step is to reduce the size of the U.S. nuclear-armed strategic submarine force. In January 2012, the Pentagon said it would delay deployment of the first replacement nuclear-armed submarine by two years, starting in 2031 rather than 2029. This will save $6-7 billion in the next 10 years. Without a reduction in the size of the force, however, the overall cost of the program will remain the same and take resources away from the Navy’s other high-priority shipbuilding projects.

By reducing the existing Ohio-class nuclear-armed sub fleet from 14 to eight or fewer boats and building no more than eight new nuclear-armed subs, the United States could save $18 billion more over 10 years and $120 billion over the 50-year life span of the program. By revising Cold War-era prompt launch requirements and increasing the number of missile tubes and warhead loadings on each submarine, the Navy could still deploy the same number of strategic nuclear warheads as currently planned (about 1,000) at sea on a smaller fleet of eight subs.

For the second step, the United States can delay work on a new $55 billion, nuclear-armed strategic bomber fleet. There is no rush to field a fleet of new bombers given the Pentagon’s plan to retain 60 of the existing nuclear-capable, long-range B-2 and B-52 bombers into the 2040s. Delaying development of the new bomber would save $18 billion over the next decade.

A third way to reduce nuclear excess would be to trim the land-based intercontinental ballistic missile force from 420 to 300 or fewer by cutting one squadron at each of the three Air Force bases where such missiles are deployed and forgoing a follow-on missile program. This move would save approximately $360 million in operations and maintenance costs in the coming fiscal year and billions more in future years.

Furthermore, the White House and Congress must enforce greater budgetary and design discipline for the ambitious B61 nuclear warhead life extension program. According to a new Pentagon audit, the cost of upgrading about 300 units of the tactical version and about 100 of the strategic version of the warhead is estimated to exceed $10.4 billion.

Rather than refurbish the tactical versions of the weapon, which are still deployed in Europe even though they are no longer relevant for the defense of NATO, Congress could save billions by directing the weapons laboratories to focus on replacing the tritium and radar components for just the strategic version, known as the B61-7.

In a time of budget austerity, nuclear weapons that are not necessary to deter nuclear attack by potential adversaries should not be on the Pentagon’s shopping list.

If Congress and the White House are serious about reducing the growing federal deficit, they must seize the opportunity to scale back costly schemes for building a new generation of strategic nuclear delivery systems and rebuilding tactical nuclear bombs.

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