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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
October 2016
Edition Date: 
Friday, September 30, 2016
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Arms Sales to Kingdom Draw Scrutiny

October 2016

By Jeff Abramson

Amid growing concern about Saudi Arabia’s harm to civilians in its war in Yemen, U.S., and UK lawmakers last month failed in attempts to block arms sales to Riyadh. Legislators in each country promised to continue their efforts, while states-parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) avoided directly addressing the issue at their annual meeting.

On Sept. 21, 27 senators voted in support of a resolution to block a proposed $1.2 billion sale of tanks and other equipment to Saudi Arabia. Co-sponsored by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) when introduced on Sept. 8, Murphy said after the vote that “Congress is watching, and we will not sit on the sidelines.” 

Yemenis gather on September 22, 2016 amidst the rubble of buildings destroyed during Saudi-led air strikes in the rebel-held Yemeni port city of Hodeida the previous day. (Photo credit: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)A number of the resolution’s opponents acknowledged concerns about Saudi conduct. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) argued that the arms sale “is about giving a nation that is under attack by an Iranian-sponsored militia the arms that it needs to defend its people and its territory.”

“As we support the Saudis in the defense of their territorial integrity, we do not refrain from expressing our concern about the war in Yemen and how it is being conducted,” McCain added.

In March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes against Houthi forces in Yemen, seeking to return former President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power. The coalition’s actions, as well as those of the Houthi, have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and contributed to massive suffering and displacement. In August, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN high commissioner for human rights, called for independent investigations into abuses in Yemen after suggesting in March that the Saudi-led coalition may be committing “international crimes.” (See ACT, July/August 2016.)

The European Parliament approved a nonbinding resolution on Feb. 25 finding that European supplies of weapons to Saudi Arabia violate EU arms transfer rules and seeking an embargo on such transfers. Most European countries have now taken steps to tighten arms transfers and licenses to Saudi Arabia, according to a report issued in August by the ATT Monitor.

The United States has long been a top weapons supplier to Saudi Arabia, the leading developing-world arms purchaser according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. The Obama administration formally notified Congress of the $1.2 billion sale during its summer recess on Aug. 8. Congress can block the president from agreeing to a sale if it passes a resolution of disapproval within 30 calendar days of notification. 

In August, a bipartisan group of 64 House members asked the president to withdraw the Saudi arms sale notification, arguing in part that they had not been given sufficient time to exercise their review authority. Some senators chose to start the 30-day clock following their return from summer recess, setting up the unsuccessful September vote. Congress may still act on these transfers because it can block or modify an arms sales at any point up until delivery.

UK Committee Split on Suspensions

In the United Kingdom, members of the Committees on Arms Export Controls produced two separate reports in September that drew different conclusions about whether UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia should be suspended. One report concluded that they should be halted while the other recommended waiting until a review is concluded next year, leaving the committee deadlocked.

Chris White, the Parliament member who chaired the committee’s inquiry into the use of UK-manufactured weapons by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, said in publishing one of the reports that “the government can no longer wait and see and must now take urgent action, halting the sale of arms to the Saudi-led coalition until we can be sure that there is no risk of violation.” 

The ATT Monitor reported that the UK issued more than $4 billion in arms sales licenses to Saudi Arabia from April 2015 to July 2016 and exported 12 combat aircraft and more than 170 missiles and missile launchers in 2015. The UK government has not suspended current licenses or forbidden new ones. 

In December, prominent UK legal experts released a legal opinion finding that the supply of weapons to Saudi Arabia violated national law and EU rules, as well as the ATT, in light of Saudi military intervention in Yemen. In June, the High Court in London agreed to review whether UK exports violated UK and EU law, with the case expected to be heard by the court in January 2017.

Arms Treaty Members Skirt Saudi Issue

At the second annual conference since the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) entered into force in 2014, states-parties established new working groups and took other administrative decisions while generally avoiding formal discussion of arms transfers to Saudi Arabia.

The ATT requires the establishment of national export control systems, as well as assessments of whether exported arms would “contribute to or undermine peace and security” or could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law, acts of terrorism, or transnational organized crime.

During the session on treaty implementation at the Aug. 22-26 gathering in Geneva, civil society members called for stopping weapons transfers to the Saudis. Cesar Jaramillo, speaking on behalf of the Control Arms coalition, said, “[W]e are appalled that states-parties, signatories and aspirant states, including France, the UK, the U.S. and Canada, continue to authorize weapons [sales] to Saudi Arabia.” Other groups echoed this sentiment, but states did not take up the issue.

On the topic, the final report of the meeting simply lists that two documents were submitted by Control Arms: an early 2016 report on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and an August update.

In an opening statement to the meeting, William Malzahn, the head of the U.S. delegation, said that although only a signatory to the treaty, “the United States is already fully compliant with the requirements of the treaty as the U.S. national control system exceeds those requirements.” In a Sept. 22 discussion with Arms Control Today, he defended U.S. arms transfers to Saudi Arabia, explaining that they had undergone internal review procedures and been deemed appropriate.

On other matters, he said he found it positive that the meeting had decided to establish working groups on transparency and reporting, treaty universalization, and implementation, as well as reached agreement on procedures for a voluntary trust fund to assist states in implementing the treaty. States also selected a permanent head for the treaty’s small secretariat.

Malzahn suggested that meetings of the implementation working group, as well as annual conferences of states-parties, could be good forums for discussing how states make their own arms transfer decisions in cases such as the Yemen conflict but that a blanket ban on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia would not be consistent with treaty implementation.

With ratifications by Cape Verde and Madagascar since the conference, the treaty now has 89 states-parties and 44 signatories.

Senators fall short in their effort to block the proposed $1.2 billion sale of tanks and other equipment to Saudi Arabia. 

North Korea Conducts Fifth Nuclear Test

October 2016

By Kelsey Davenport

North Korea conducted its fifth and largest nuclear test explosion last month, prompting a number of world leaders to condemn the action and call for additional sanctions on Pyongyang over its illicit nuclear activities. 

Seismic stations picked up activity on Sept. 9 indicating an underground explosion emanating from North Korea’s nuclear test site, Punggye-ri, in the northeastern part of the country around 9 a.m. local time. North Korea confirmed that the seismic activity was caused by a nuclear explosion in a statement released several hours later and said that the test demonstrated the “toughest will” of the state to retaliate against enemy provocations. 

Researchers in South Korea check the seismic waves caused by a North Korean underground nuclear explosion September 9, which resulted in a magnitude 5.1 earthquake at the test site. (Photo credit: Woohae Cho/Getty Images)The test was North Korea’s second this year, having tested a slightly smaller device in January. North Korea also tested nuclear devices in 2006, 2009, and 2013. North Korea is prohibited from conducting nuclear tests under the terms of various UN Security Council resolutions dating back to Resolution 1718 in 2006. 

South Korean President Park Geun-hye said in response that North Korea will “face even stronger international sanctions and isolation” as a result, and the foreign ministry said that the government will maintain “a high readiness posture” against further provocations from North Korea.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, the international body that is preparing for the implementation of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and monitors the environment for nuclear testing, estimated the seismic event had a magnitude of 5.1. 

Based on that, experts assess that the explosive yield was 10 to 20 kilotons. The test North Korea conducted earlier this year was recorded at magnitude 4.85 and was estimated to have a yield of six to 10 kilotons. (See ACT, January/February 2016.

 The Nuclear Weapons Institute of North Korea said in a statement in the state-run Korean Central News Agency that the successful test “examined and confirmed” the structure and features of a warhead and that the warhead “has been standardized to be able to be mounted on strategic ballistic missile rockets.”

The statement said that the “standard-ization of the nuclear warhead will enable [North Korea] to produce at will and as many as it wants [of] a variety of smaller, lighter, and diversified nuclear warheads.” 

Experts generally assess that North Korea has enough plutonium for six to eight nuclear weapons and could fit a nuclear warhead on a short- or medium-range ballistic missile, although the reliability of the delivery system and warhead detonation would be questionable. (See ACT, June 2014.) North Korea may also be producing highly-enriched uranium for weapons and could have enough weapons-grade material for eight to 10 additional warheads. 

UN Response

In a Sept. 9 press briefing, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described North Korea’s nuclear test as a “brazen breach” of Security Council resolutions and urged the council to “unite and take urgent actions.” 

The council convened an emergency meeting the same day on the request of Japan. Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called for new UN sanctions and said that all states must work to vigorously implement sanctions imposed under past resolutions. The call for additional sanctions was echoed by a number of other members of the council, including France, Japan, and the United Kingdom. 

Speaking to press, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s UN ambassador, called first for a condemnation of the test and said that discussing additional measures to take against North Korea could come later. 

Liu Jieyi, China’s UN ambassador, joined in the condemnation of the test, but did not mention sanctions when he spoke to reporters. Liu said all sides should refrain from “mutual provocation” and actions that might “exacerbate the situation.” China opposes the agreement made between South Korea and the United States to deploy missile defenses in South Korea to protect against North Korean ballistic missiles. (See ACT, September 2016.

Gerard van Bohemen, New Zealand’s UN ambassador and president of the Security Council in September, said in a Sept. 9 press statement that the council discussed the test and “strongly condemned” North Korea’s action as a clear violation and “in flagrant disregard” of past Security Council resolutions. He said council members would “begin work immediately on appropriate measures” in a new Security Council resolution. The council’s response by the end of September was limited to its statement of condemnation.

Joel Wit, a former U.S. State Department official who has negotiated with North Koreans, said on Sept. 9 that although the United States should pursue sanctions and protect U.S. allies in the region, “the sanctions road is a dead end.” Wit, a senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said that the “current approach is guaranteed to fail and Pyongyang will keep on testing.” 

The current U.S. policy on negotiations with North Korea, commonly known as strategic patience, requires Pyongyang to take steps toward denuclearization before talks begin while increasing pressure on the regime through sanctions. (See ACT, January/February 2013.)

Increased Rocket Activity

North Korea’s nuclear test has been accompanied by a number of missile and rocket engine tests. 

On Sept. 20, North Korea conducted a rocket engine test at its Sohae Satellite Launching Station that it said will be used for a new space-launch vehicle. North Korea is prohibited from conducting space launches under UN Security Council resolutions because the technology is applicable to ballistic missile development, but Pyongyang does not abide by the prohibition and most recently launched a satellite on Feb. 7. (See ACT, March 2016.

An analysis of the test by aerospace engineer John Schilling, published on Sept. 21 by 38 North, an online publication of the U.S.-Korea Institute, described the rocket engine as “substantially larger and more powerful than anything North Korea has tested before.” 

In the past year, North Korea has upgraded the Sohae site to accommodate larger space-launched vehicles, but has yet to display any new systems. Schilling said that North Korea’s rocket engine tests demonstrate that Pyongyang can build rockets to its own requirements and are no longer “limited to what can be cobbled together from old Russian cold-war leftovers.” 

North Korea conducted missile tests on Sept. 5 that included the simultaneous launch of two Scud missiles with extended ranges, known as the Scud-ER. 

North Korea launched three Scud-ERs, two of which were fired within one second of each other and 30 seconds after the first launch. All three flew about 1,000 kilometers before splashing down 240 kilometers off the coast of Japan in waters claimed by Tokyo as its economic exclusion zone. The trajectories of the first and third missile were nearly identical.

The underground explosion, the second this year, drew condemnation from key world leaders and calls to impose more sanctions on Pyongyang.

Experts Oppose HEU Export Plan

October 2016

By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

The proposed U.S. export of almost 16 pounds of weapons-grade uranium to Europe has alarmed some nuclear nonproliferation experts. In a Sept. 7 letter, more than two dozen experts urged U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to reduce the size of the proposed export consistent with past pledges by Belgium, France, and the Netherlands to phase out their use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to produce medical isotopes.

A technician works on medical isotopes at the Saint-Louis hospital in Paris on November 24, 2009. (Photo credit: Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images)

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous agency within the Energy Department, submitted a request to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an export license on July 14, which was published in the Federal Register on Aug. 15. If approved, 7.2 kilograms of 93.2 percent-enriched uranium-235 metal would be exported to France and fabricated in the Netherlands into “targets” to be used to produce medical isotopes at the Institute for Radioelements in Belgium. The existence of HEU, particularly away from heavily secured military facilities, raises security concerns because 25 kilograms of uranium enriched above 90 percent is generally recognized as the quantity necessary for a nuclear bomb. 

In their letter, the nuclear experts cited the risk of nuclear terrorism and said the proposed export violates the commitment made by the United States, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands at the 2012 nuclear security summit to convert European production of medical isotopes to non-HEU-based processes by 2015. The export would allow for continued use of HEU at the Institute for Radioelements past 2017. Such a violation, the writers said, could weaken the international norm to minimize HEU production and undermine other commitments made at the nuclear security summits dating back to 2010. 

The four countries stated that they would favor minimizing HEU use but not at the risk of a medical isotope shortage. Belgium, France, and the Netherlands have a responsibility to produce a steady supply of medical isotopes “for the benefit of the international medical community and patients worldwide,” the four countries said in a March 2012 statement. In order to meet public demand for medical isotopes, HEU is still “indispensable” because reactors are in the process of being converted to non-HEU fuel and targets, according to a U.S.-European Union statement on March 31.

The timing for a commission decision is not known.

The proposed U.S. export of almost 16 pounds of weapons-grade uranium to Europe has alarmed some nuclear nonproliferation experts.

NNSA Eyes Shift in Naval Nuclear Fuel

October 2016

By Kingston Reif

The U.S. Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has identified “an advanced naval nuclear fuel system technology” that could power a U.S. aircraft carrier using low-enriched uranium (LEU) instead of highly enriched uranium (HEU), according to a July 2016 department report. 

The report presents a conceptual research and development plan to assess the viability of the fuel system that would take 15 years and cost at least $1 billion in fiscal year 2016 constant dollars. Deploying the new fuel system is projected to cost an additional “several billion dollars,” assuming the development program is successful.  

The label from casks of LEU sitting aboard a C-17 is pictured in this photo from February 14, 2012. (Photo credit: National Nuclear Security Administration)The report added that a successful development effort “might enable an aircraft-carrier reactor fueled with LEU in the 2040’s.” The conversion of current submarine reactors to run on LEU would be “a larger challenge,” according to the report produced by the Office of Naval Reactors, the NNSA division tasked with overseeing U.S. naval nuclear propulsion matters.

The outlined development plan follows a January 2014 naval reactors report, which concluded that using LEU in place of HEU “would negatively impact reactor endurance, reactor sizes, and ship costs,” although an advanced fuel system might mitigate these impacts. 

Roughly 290 metric tons of weapons-grade HEU, enough for more than 11,000 nuclear weapons, are in global naval inventories to power submarines, aircraft carriers, and icebreakers, according to a March 2016 report published by the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Weapons-grade HEU is enriched to 90 percent uranium-235.

The United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, and India use HEU for naval propulsion. France uses and China is believed to use LEU to power their naval reactors. LEU is enriched to less than 20 percent and cannot be used in nuclear weapons.

The NNSA report said pursuing naval fuel that uses LEU would “demonstrate United States leadership toward reducing HEU and achieving nuclear non-proliferation goals” and sustain the nation’s reactor fuel technical expertise. The report warned that the success of developing and deploying an LEU fuel system is not assured and that the use of LEU instead of HEU would “result in a reactor design that is inherently less capable and more expensive.”

In the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress required the NNSA to submit a conceptual plan for a research and development program on an LEU-based naval fuel system. The bill also required the energy secretary and the secretary of the Navy to determine whether the United States should continue to pursue research and development on an LEU system. The secretaries have yet to submit this determination.

The U.S. Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has identified “an advanced naval nuclear fuel system technology”...

New Price Tag for Los Alamos Cleanup

October 2016

By Terry Atlas

The Energy Department said it will cost $2.9-3.8 billion over the next two decades to clean up hazardous waste at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a legacy of the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Although the report made public on Sept. 15 said that funding would complete the cleanup at the 40-square-mile site, Nuclear Watch New Mexico said the government is underestimating the cost to deal fully with the lab’s accumulated waste.

Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Waste Disposal Area G is seen from a helicopter June 29, 2011. (Photo credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory)Nuclear Watch, a research and advocacy group, criticized the estimate as being based on what the report calls “realistic expectations of annual funding” and as failing to adequately deal with the lab’s largest waste site. The group said that 150,000 cubic meters of “poorly characterized radioactive and toxic wastes” at the Area G site are to be capped and covered rather than treated and removed. That would create a permanent nuclear waste dump above the regional groundwater aquifer and three miles uphill from the Rio Grande river, the group said in a statement Sept. 21.

The report by the Energy Department’s environmental management office is the most comprehensive view of the cleanup work remaining after 26 years of efforts to deal with the waste at the lab, a hub of nuclear weapons research and development since the Manhattan Project in 1943. 

So far, 1,168 potential release sites have been “investigated and cleaned up where required,” while 955 potential release sites are covered by the new cost estimate, the report said. In contrast to the figure used by Nuclear Watch, the Energy Department said that “an estimated 5,000 cubic meters of legacy waste remains, of which approximately 2,400 [cubic meters] is retrievably stored below ground.”

The Energy Department committed to expediting the cleanup under a June 2016 consent order with the New Mexico Environment Department, which supersedes a 2005 consent order, under which many deadlines were missed. The new accord reflects concerns expressed by state officials and Nuclear Watch that cleanup funding has declined from a high of $225 million in fiscal 2014 to $189 million for the current fiscal year, even as funding for the lab’s nuclear weapons programs has increased.

The Energy Department said it will cost $2.9-3.8 billion over the next two decades to clean up hazardous waste at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a legacy of the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

The Debate Over Banning the Bomb

By Daryl G. Kimball

For seven decades, UN members have pushed and prodded the world’s nuclear-armed states to address the threats posed by nuclear weapons. The first resolution of the UN General Assembly First Committee on international security, which was adopted in 1946, established a commission to make proposals for “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction.”

This month, for the first time, the UN will consider a resolution to launch formal, multilateral negotiations in 2017 on a “legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” Sponsored by Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria, and South Africa, it will likely be approved with more than 120 states in support. The proposal may allow for consideration of several options and proposals, including a ban treaty.

The UN General Assembly begins the seventy-first annual general debate on September 20. (Photo Credit: Manuel Elias/UN)The resolution follows three international conferences in 2013 and 2014 to consider the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use and an open-ended working group on nuclear disarmament in 2016. 

At its core, the initiative is an expression of frustration with the inability of the nuclear-armed states to follow through on their nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Article VI disarmament commitments. Non-nuclear-weapon states argue, justifiably, that the grave risks posed by nuclear weapons underscores the need to act with greater urgency. 

In response, major nuclear-weapon states insist that the pursuit of disarmament must be “step by step,” which requires time and the right security conditions. They reject the new initiative to negotiate a ban treaty or framework for the elimination of nuclear weapons as “unrealistic.” Some U.S. officials argue it would be “polarizing and unverifiable” and distract from more effective disarmament initiatives.

The reality is that, since 2010, the pace of progress on disarmament has been underwhelming at best. For nearly two decades, the multilateral Conference on Disarmament has failed to agree to begin talks on the long-sought ban on fissile material production, as well as on other disarmament proposals, due to the blocking strategies of a few states. 

In 2013, President Barack Obama invited the Kremlin to negotiate a further one-third cut in U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals. But President Vladimir Putin has said “Nyet,” and the nuclear-armed states have failed to advance new nuclear disarmament initiatives.

Meanwhile, a new, global technological arms race is underway. Nuclear risks and tensions are growing. The United States, Russia, and the United Kingdom are poised to spend vast sums to improve and maintain their Cold War nuclear delivery systems for decades to come. Russia is believed to be developing new types of nuclear weapons. China, India, and Pakistan are also introducing new nuclear capabilities. 

Clearly, as most non-nuclear-weapon states contend, in order to attain and maintain a world free of nuclear weapons, it will be necessary, at some point, to establish a legally binding norm to prohibit such weapons. A ban treaty or framework agreement on their elimination is fundamentally consistent with the spirit of Obama’s 2009 call for action to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons, and it would advance the goals of the NPT. To suggest otherwise defies common sense.

Although the world’s nuclear-armed states will likely boycott the negotiations, the process and the final product could help to further delegitimize nuclear weapons and strengthen the legal and political norm against their use—a worthy goal. 

Negotiations on a ban on nuclear weapons development, possession, and use are not a substitute for necessary, progressive steps on nuclear disarmament. Nuclear disarmament is a joint global enterprise. Nuclear- and non-nuclear-weapon states can and should do more to promote concrete action on disarmament and nonproliferation. These include verifiable cuts in nuclear arsenals, adoption of new policies that reduce the risk of nuclear use, securing a fissile cutoff and control treaty, entry into force of the global ban on nuclear testing, and measures to establish the conditions for new nuclear-weapon-free zones.

How should the United States respond? Rather than foster resentment by actively lobbying states not to vote for the resolution and participate in the negotiation, Obama administration officials and their successors should take the high road. They could simply say that, “at this time, given the global security environment, we cannot join the ban treaty but look forward to observing the negotiations and will continue to work with all states to pursue more effective, verifiable measures to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons.”

Washington also can provide stronger leadership to jump-start progress on effective measures to ease nuclear tensions and reduce the role, number, and skyrocketing cost of nuclear weapons. For example, the current or next president could direct the Pentagon to trim the U.S. deployed strategic nuclear arsenal by one-third, which would still meet official U.S. deterrence requirements, regardless of whether Russia reciprocates.

Achieving and maintaining a world without nuclear weapons requires bold and sustained action. The coming ban treaty negotiations are not an all-in-one solution, but do represent an important new contribution.

For seven decades, UN members have pushed and prodded the world’s nuclear-armed states to address the threats posed by nuclear weapons... 


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