“For 50 years, the Arms Control Association has educated citizens around the world to help create broad support for U.S.-led arms control and nonproliferation achievements.”

– President Joe Biden
June 2, 2022
Arms Control Today

Russia Bars Ukrainian Operators From Zaporizhzhia

March 2024
By Kelsey Davenport

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has raised concerns that Russia’s decision to cut staff at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is compromising nuclear safety and security.

Rafael Mariano Grossi (C), director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), visited the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant on Feb. 7, a week after Russia announced that workers employed by Energoatom, the Ukrainian nuclear energy company, would no longer be allowed to work at the site. (Photo by Fredrik Dahl/IAEA)IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi visited the facility on Feb. 7, a week after Russia announced that workers employed by Energoatom, the Ukrainian nuclear energy company, would no longer be allowed to work at the site.

After Russia illegally attacked and occupied the Zaporizhzhia complex in March 2022 as part of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it brought in employees from Rosatom, the Russian state-run nuclear company, to operate the nuclear power plant and pressured Ukrainian employees to sign contracts with Rosatom. Until Feb. 1, 120 Energoatom employees were still working there. Following the announcement, Russia informed the IAEA that it had sufficient personnel to run the facility without the 120 Energoatom staffers. Russia said it was necessary to bar Energoatom employees from the site to operate the plant in line with Russian regulations.

After his visit, Grossi said the number of staff is “significantly reduced” from prewar levels and warned that even though the reactor units are in shutdown mode, “the plant still requires sufficient numbers of qualified personnel to conduct both operational tasks and to ensure that equipment important for nuclear safety and security is properly maintained.”

Prior to visiting the Zaporizhzhia plant, Grossi met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and various Ukrainian officials, including Petro Kotin, the head of Energoatom. Grossi said his agency is working to “assess the operational impact of this [Russian] decision.” There is “absolutely no place for complacency” regarding the security and safety of the facility, he said.

In January, the IAEA team at the Zaporizhzhia complex notified the agency that Russia mined the area between the internal and external fences surrounding the site. Russia previously had placed landmines in that zone, but removed them in November 2023.

In a Jan. 19 statement, Grossi said the use of landmines is inconsistent with IAEA standards for nuclear safety.

Russia defended its decision in a Jan. 31 statement to the IAEA, saying that landmines “do not pose any threat to personnel” at the Zaporizhzhia plant and that their use “does not contradict any IAEA recommendations.”

Russia said that landmines are necessary “to deter potential saboteurs.” It argued that deterring sabotage “corresponds” to the five IAEA principles for ensuring the safety and security of the plant, specifically that all structures at the facility must be “protected from attacks or acts of sabotage.” Grossi introduced the five principles at a UN Security Council meeting in May 2023 and continues to reiterate their importance. (See ACT, June 2023.)

In addition to staffing and landmines, Grossi raised additional concerns about nuclear safety and security during a Jan. 25 briefing to the Security Council. He said that the IAEA expert team at the Zaporizhzhia site “has not had timely access to some areas of the plant” and stressed that access is necessary to “effectively conduct” assessments of safety and security.

After the Feb. 8 visit, Grossi emphasized that IAEA personnel must be able to ask questions about conditions at the site. He said that “there were situations where there were suggestions that [agency experts should] look but not talk.” Preventing questions “is not good,” Grossi said.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said Russia’s decision to cut staff at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant compromises safety. 

Sentinel ICBM Exceeds Projected Cost by 37 Percent

March 2024
By Libby Flatoff

The U.S. Air Force notified Congress on Jan. 18 that the new Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) would cost 37 percent more than expected and take about two years longer than planned to build and deploy.

Cost overruns and production delays plague the new U.S. Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile system program. (Image by Northrop Grumman)The cost per unit for the Sentinel system originally was projected to be $118 million and now is estimated at $162 million, putting the projected total program cost at roughly $130 billion over the next decade, up from an estimated baseline of $96 billion, the Air Force told Defense News.

The expected delay of the system’s initial operating capability likely will result in greater sustainment costs to keep the existing fleet of Minuteman III ICBMs operational.

The projected overrun would put the new missile system in “critical” breach of the Nunn-McCurdy Act, a law designed to prevent major cost overruns for weapons systems, a chronic problem plaguing the Pentagon.

There are two levels of breaches under the act. A program is in significant breach when the program unit cost increases by 15 percent of the current baseline or 30 percent over the original cost estimate. A critical breach occurs when the cost increases by 25 percent of the current baseline or 50 percent of the original estimate.

In 2020, Northrop Grumman was awarded a sole-source $13.3 billion contract for engineering and manufacturing Sentinel missiles to replace the current arsenal of 400 deployed Minuteman III ICBMs.

The Sentinel development program calls for acquiring 659 missiles, updating 450 launch silos, and modernizing more than 600 facilities to “like new conditions,” according to Air Force Global Strike Command. (See ACT, May 2023.)

In 2020 the Pentagon estimated that the total cost of the next-generation Sentinel program, including decades of operations and support, could be as high as $264 billion. (See ACT, March 2021.) Taking the new cost increases into account, the total cost of the program over its planned 50-year life cycle could be as high as $300 billion, plus another $15 billion for the production of the new W87-1 warhead for the missiles.

Under the act, the Defense Department is required to report to Congress whenever a major defense acquisition program exceeds certain cost thresholds. The notification must include an explanation of the cost increase, changes in the projected cost, changes in performance or schedule, action taken or proposed to control cost growth, and prior cost estimating information.

In addition, the department must submit a new selected acquisition report containing the new status of the total program cost, schedule, performance, cost per unit, and cost breach information. The report on the Sentinel program is due to be submitted within 45 days after President Joe Biden submits his budget to Congress, now set for March 9.

With a critical breach, the Office of the Secretary of Defense is required to conduct a root-cause analysis to determine what factors caused the cost increase.

Under the act, if the program is to continue, the defense secretary must certify no later than 60 days after the new selected acquisition report that the program is essential to national security, the new cost estimates are reasonable, the program is a higher priority than those whose funding will be cut to cover the cost increase, and a new management structure is in place to control additional cost growth. If the certification and requirements are met, the program will be allowed to continue.

At the Air Force Association forum on Feb. 11, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said that “nothing is off the table right now.… [W]e’re going to take a look at the totality of the [defense] budget” when addressing how to cover the additional $35 billion needed for the Sentinel program.

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee and co-chair of the bicameral Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control Working Group, argued in a statement Jan. 18 that the overrun is “proof that we must look closely at our nation’s nuclear policies…[and] address our security needs without compromising fiscal responsibility.”

Some experts, such as Gabe Murphy, a national security policy analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense, say that the United States should get rid of ICBMs entirely. “Whatever strategic value nuclear ICBMs may have held in the past, in our current security environment, they serve as little more than a bottomless pit…[into] which the Pentagon throws taxpayers’ hard-earned money,” Murphy wrote in an Feb. 11 essay for Stars and Stripes.

In 2016, former Defense Secretary William Perry wrote in The New York Times “that the United States can safely phase out” its land-based ICBM force. He argued that although the ICBM force is too costly and dangerous, submarine and bomber forces are highly accurate and thus are “sufficient to deter our enemies and will be for the foreseeable future.”

Despite the cost increases, congressional backers of the Sentinel program say it should go full-speed ahead. “Sentinel is absolutely necessary for the future of our nuclear deterrent. I’m committed to conducting vigorous oversight of the program and ensuring the Air Force follows through on making the necessary changes to address the cost overruns while continuing to advance the program,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said in a Jan. 19 press statement.

Others urged support for Sentinel whatever the cost. “Despite these challenges, abandoning or downsizing Sentinel isn’t an option. Our nation’s safety and prosperity depend on an updated and fully operational nuclear deterrent,” argued Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), the ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and its strategic forces subcommittee, respectively, on Jan. 19 in The Wall Street Journal.

The projected overrun would put the new intercontinental ballistic missile program in breach of a law designed to prevent major cost overruns.

Russia Rejects New Nuclear Arms Talks

March 2024
By Libby Flatoff and Daryl G. Kimball

Russian leaders have rejected a formal U.S. proposal to resume talks “without preconditions” on a new arms control framework to succeed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) that expires in two years.

A Russian Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile on display in Red Square  in Moscow in 2009. (Photo by Dmitry Kostyukov/AFP via Getty Images)If the decision holds, it means that the only remaining bilateral nuclear arms control agreement limiting the world’s largest nuclear weapons arsenals will expire on Feb. 5, 2026, along with its strict verification provisions.

In a written response to the United States on Dec. 2 obtained by Arms Control Today, the Russian Foreign Ministry said, “The proposal of the U.S. Side to launch a bilateral dialogue ‘to manage nuclear risks and develop a post-2026 arms control framework’ is unacceptable to us. Such ideas are completely inappropriate and absolutely untimely for they cannot be considered adequate to today’s realities and to the state of Russia-U.S. relations.”

Citing NATO and the “acute conflict around Ukraine,” the Russian diplomatic note also said, “At the moment, the U.S. Side does not demonstrate any interest in a mutually acceptable settlement of the current crisis [Ukraine], does not show readiness to take into account Russia’s security concerns…. Thus, there is no visible basis for a constructive and fruitful dialogue with the United States on strategic stability and arms control.”

The U.S. proposal was first announced by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at the annual meeting of the Arms Control Association last June. Sullivan said that the United States is ready to engage in nuclear arms control diplomacy with Russia and with other nuclear-armed members of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) “without preconditions.”

“Rather than waiting to resolve all of our bilateral differences, the United States is ready to engage Russia now to manage nuclear risks and develop a post-2026 arms control framework,” he said. Three days later, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov described Sullivan’s comments as “important and positive.” (See ACT, July/August 2023.)

But by August, Russian officials at the preparatory committee for the 11th NPT Review Conference had already started signaling that, in their view, nuclear arms control talks “cannot be isolated from the general geopolitical and military-strategic context,” which includes the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The United States followed up Sullivan’s June speech with a written proposal to Russia that was transmitted in September. (See ACT, December 2023.)

On Jan. 17, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov elaborated on Russia’s written response to the U.S. proposal, saying that “amid a ‘hybrid war’ waged by Washington against Russia, we aren’t seeing any basis, not only for any additional joint measures in the sphere of arms control and reduction of strategic risks, but for any discussion of strategic stability issues with the United States.”

Pranay Vaddi, senior director for arms control at the U.S. National Security Council, said at an event hosted by Center for Strategic and International Studies on Jan. 18 that the rejection “linked other politics to arms control in a way that has not been done in the post-Cold War era…[and] as a result, we don’t have a conversation to be had.”

Vaddi expressed disappointment that Russia had not even offered a counterproposal on nuclear arms control and disarmament. In failing to do so, “Russia is minimizing their obligations under the NPT” and not even attempting “to pursue negotiations in good faith” as required by Article VI of that treaty.

Shortly after Russia’s rejection of the U.S. proposal became public, the U.S. State Department on Jan. 31 released its annual report to Congress on the implementation of New START. It said that the United States had 1,419 warheads on deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and heavy bombers, below the limit of 1,550 deployed warheads permitted by the treaty.

The report said that Russia’s decision to pause New START inspections in 2022 and its failure to provide data on its strategic nuclear forces since it suspended implementation of the treaty in early 2023 “negatively affects the ability of the United States to verify Russia’s compliance” with the New START deployed-warhead limit.

Despite the verification obstacles, the report assesses that Russia “likely did not exceed” the treaty’s deployed-warhead limit in 2023 and “that there is not a strategic imbalance between the [United States] and [Russia] that endangers the national security interest of the United States.”

But the report noted that “due to the uncertainty generated by Russia’s failure to fulfill its obligations with respect to the [t]reaty’s verification regime, the United States was unable to verify that [Russia] remained in compliance throughout 2023 with its obligation to limit its [number of] deployed warheads…to 1,550” on delivery vehicles subject to the treaty.

Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in an interview with RIA Novosti on Jan. 22 that, “for now, we are focusing on the task of maintaining the quantitative indicators of strategic offensive weapons at the levels established by the treaty on the condition that further destabilizing steps by Washington will not make such a task meaningless for us.”

The decision means that the remaining Russia-U.S. nuclear arms control treaty limiting the world’s largest nuclear arsenals will expire in 2026.

IAEA Warns Iran About Lack of Transparency

March 2024
By Kelsey Davenport

Iran’s failure to provide full transparency into its nuclear program is increasing risk, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, appearing at the the World Government Summit in Dubai on Feb. 13, says Iran’s failure to provide full transparency into its nuclear program is increasing risk. (Photo by RYAN LIM/AFP via Getty Images)IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said on Feb. 13 that Iran is “not entirely transparent” regarding its nuclear activities, which “increases dangers,” particularly given the “accumulation of complexities” in the Middle East.

In addition to seeking answers about undeclared uranium activities at two sites from the pre-2003 period, when Iran had a nuclear weapons program, Iran is not providing the IAEA with design information about new nuclear facilities, as required by its safeguards agreement, or following through on a voluntary commitment in March 2023 to enhance agency monitoring at sites that support the country’s nuclear program but do not hold fissile materials.

Grossi, speaking at the World Governor’s Summit in Dubai, also referenced an uptick in “loose talk about nuclear weapons” in Iran and said a “very high official said…we have everything” to make a nuclear weapon.

Grossi’s remarks appeared to refer to a comment by Ali Akhbar Salehi, former foreign minister and head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) from 2013 to 2020. Asked if Iran has the capability to produce nuclear weapons in a Feb. 11 interview with Nasim TV, Salehi said that the country has crossed “all the scientific and technological nuclear thresholds” necessary to build a weapon.

Salehi’s declaration that Iran has a nuclear weapons capability is not surprising. The U.S. intelligence community has long assessed that Iran has the technical and scientific capacity to build a nuclear weapon if the political decision is made to do so.

Iranian officials, including the current head of the AEOI, Mohammad Eslami, continue to say Iran is not interested in nuclear weapons. In a Jan. 13 interview with Ofogh TV, Eslami said that nuclear weapons are not part of Iran’s defense and security strategy. He said Iran can build a nuclear arsenal but “we do not want to do it.”

Regardless, clashes between the United States and Iranian-backed forces in the region increase the risk that Tehran could determine that the benefits of pursuing nuclear weapons outweigh the costs.

Iran’s nuclear advances since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in May 2018 would allow Tehran to produce enough weapons-grade fissile material for five bombs in about four weeks. U.S. officials have suggested that the weaponization process could take another six to 12 months.

The speed at which Iran could produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon is due largely to Iran’s growing stockpile of uranium enriched to 60 percent uranium-235, a level just shy of the 90 percent-enriched U-235 that is considered weapons grade.

The IAEA reported in December that Iran accelerated the production of 60 percent-enriched U-235 after a decrease in production from June through November. But in a Feb. 19 interview with Reuters, Grossi said Iran had again decreased the rate of production.

He said Iran’s recent changes to the rate of production of 60 percent-enriched U-235 “does not alter the fundamental trend,” which is a “constant increase in inventory” of highly enriched uranium.”

Iran does not have any practical need for uranium enriched to 60 percent U-235. The country’s sole operating nuclear power reactor, at Bushehr, runs on uranium enriched to less than 5 percent U-235, and Russia provides that fuel. Iran operates a research reactor with fuel that uses uranium enriched to 20 percent U-235, which Tehran imports.

Iran recently announced the start of construction on several new reactors but none of the units will require fuel with 60 percent-enriched U-235.

On Feb. 5, Eslami said Iran began pouring the foundation for a new research reactor at Esfahan that will be used to produce isotopes for medical treatments and industrial purposes.

The previous week, Iran began constructing a new nuclear power plant. The site, located on Iran’s east coast, will include four reactor units and take nine years to build, according to Eslami.

Iran did not notify the IAEA when it began construction of these facilities, as required under its safeguards agreement. Iran maintains that it suspended the safeguards provision, known as modified Code 3.1, that requires it to notify the agency when the decision is made to construct a new nuclear facility. Iran says it will abide by the previous requirements, which stipulate that a country must notify the IAEA 180 days before nuclear material is introduced into a facility.

The IAEA argues that Iran cannot unilaterally suspend modified Code 3.1. The agency changed the notification requirements to give inspectors a longer lead time to develop effective safeguards.

While in Davos for the World Economic Forum in January, Grossi emphasized the importance of Iran providing more transparency regarding its nuclear program. He also said it is “unacceptable” for Iran to “hold the IAEA hostage” over “political disputes with others.” Specifically, Grossi said Iran is punishing the agency because of actions taken by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States that Iran’s leaders consider to be objectionable.

He called for diplomacy to prevent the “situation deteriorating to a degree where it would be impossible to retrieve.”

Risks associated with Iran’s nuclear program are heightened by “complexities” in the Middle East, the IAEA chief said.

Ukraine Accuses Russia of Using Chemical Agent

March 2024
By Mina Rozei

Ukraine has accused Russian ground forces in Ukraine of multiple instances of using riot control agents against Ukrainian infantry positions this year in a manner prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

An example of the K-51 gas grenade that Ukraine accuses Russian ground forces of using in their full-scale war in Ukraine in a manner prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention. (State Border Service of Ukraine)Russia used K-51 grenades filled with chloropicrin, a World War I-era chemical substance, 229 times since the beginning of January, according to a Feb. 9 statement from the Armed Forces of Ukraine published via the Ukrainian Army’s Telegram channel.

In a televised statement on Jan. 30, a Ukrainian military spokesperson said Ukraine also has documented incidents from 2023 in which Russia used grenades and drones filled with chloropicrin and more recently with 2-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile gas, commonly known as tear gas, both of which are classified by the CWC as riot control agents.

These agents, which are used widely by domestic police forces around the globe, are banned by the CWC for use by militaries on the battlefield. Article 1 of the treaty specifically obligates states-parties “not to use riot control agents as a method of warfare.”

The spokesperson for Ukraine’s Tavria military group, Col. Oleskandr Shtupun, said on Jan. 30 on Ukrainian national television that each case of alleged use of these agents is being investigated separately. “Appropriate analyses are made, and then the results are submitted to international institutions,” Shtupun said, according to The Kyiv Independent.

The Russian Embassy to the Netherlands denied the charges in a Jan. 26 statement on social media. “All allegations that Russia is using grenades with chloroacetophenone banned by the Geneva Convention are based on unconfirmed data. There are no chemical weapons in the stockpiles of the Russian army, as confirmed by international investigations,” according to the post.

But in November, Mallory Stewart, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, deterrence, and stability, said that “Russia’s problematic behavior has now expanded to Ukraine.”

Speaking to the CWC conference of states-parties, she noted that “reports shared by our Ukrainian colleagues and aired on Russia’s own state media suggest Russian armed forces are using [riot control agents] against Ukrainian forces.”

“We call on Russia…to immediately and unconditionally withdraw from Ukraine and to comply with its CWC obligations, including refraining from using [these agents] as a method of warfare,” Stewart said.

At the same conference, Ukraine’s representative, Kateryna Bila, said her government is in contact with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) “on the threat of chemical weapons use and assistance and protection support from the [secretariat] as well as from [CWC] states-parties.”

The OPCW Executive Council will meet March 5-8 in The Hague, but the alleged use of riot control agents in Ukraine is not on the provisional agenda posted by the OPCW secretariat. Russia lost its elected seat on the council in a contentious vote in November.

Using riot control agents in Ukraine is prohibited by the Chemical Weapons Convention, Ukraine said.

Global Partnership Identifies New Priorities

March 2024
By Kelsey Davenport

Italy has identified new priorities for a multilateral initiative aimed at preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including a focus on the nexus between climate change and chemical security and counterproliferation financing.

Italy aims to stress chemical safety and security during its year chairing the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The Dethlingen pond near Munster, Germany, a graveyard for World War II chemical weapons that is the focus of a multi-million dollar cleanup effort, reflects the challenges that exist in this area. (Photo by Philipp Schulze/picture alliance via Getty Images)As chair of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction for 2024, Italy is responsible for setting priorities for the 31-member initiative. The Global Partnership, which was established in 2002 by the Group of Eight industrialized countries, works to prevent the proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons.

According to a January statement, Italy aims, during its presidency, to improve the “common understanding of well-known and emerging” WMD challenges among member states.

Specifically, Italy said it intends to “increase awareness on chemical safety and security” given the “huge impact of major adverse climate changes and natural disasters associated with the accidental release of chemical material.” Italy said the Global Partnership will focus on enhancing preparedness to respond to such events.

Italy also identified proliferation finance as a priority for 2024 and said it would look to build on domestic experience to “renew a strong commitment on counter-proliferation financing” and focus on countering states that use “a variety of illicit activity and sanction evasions schemes” to fund nuclear and missile programs.

Furthermore, the initiative will look at the impact of disinformation on policy responses in the chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear domains, Italy said.

In addition to the new priorities, Italy said the Global Partnership will continue biosecurity work prioritized under Japan’s leadership in 2023, including efforts to “address emerging and ongoing biothreats by building capacities” in Africa, and will pay special attention to WMD risk reduction efforts in Ukraine. (See ACT, January/February 2024.)

One of the mechanisms that the Global Partnership uses to achieve its goals is a match-making process that pairs states with funds and expertise with recipients looking to implement projects that align with the initiative’s mission.

In 2023, Global Partnership members provided funding and expertise for 319 projects across 96 states, according to an activity report released by Japan.

In addition to promoting biosecurity projects in Africa and WMD risk reduction in Ukraine, Japan prioritized the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires states to implement measures to prevent WMD proliferation to nonstate actors.

According to the report, projects funded in Ukraine included a multiyear project to bolster public health and crisis response capabilities in the event of a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear incident. Other projects related to Ukraine focused on providing expertise and funding for nuclear security, including rebuilding security at the former Chernobyl nuclear plant and strengthening the security of radioactive sources.

In the biosecurity space, Japan reported “meaningful progress” in all areas of the Signature Initiative to Mitigate Biological Threats in Africa, including projects aimed at “strengthening international capacities to prevent, detect and respond to deliberate biological threats.”

Consistent with Resolution 1540, the Global Partnership’s members provided “extensive support” to states and regional organizations aimed at strengthening capacities to “prevent, detect, and respond to [WMD] terrorism.” For example, Mexico partnered with Chile and Brazil to conduct a trilateral peer review of national legal frameworks for implementing the resolution.

Global Partnership member states also supported projects to mitigate WMD threats beyond the specific priorities articulated by Japan.

The report noted several projects aimed at building capacity to implement UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea and to prevent the reemergence of chemical weapons in Syria.

Italy has new aims for an initiative to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Japanese Mafia Accused of Trafficking Nuclear Materials

March 2024

U.S. prosecutors have charged an alleged member of the Japanese mafia with trafficking nuclear materials.

Takeshi Ebisawa, charged by the U.S. Justice Department with trafficking nuclear materials, sent photos of substances next to Geiger counters that measured radiation levels, prosecutors say. (U.S. Justice Department)The superseding indictment against Takeshi Ebisawa of Japan and co-defendant Somphop Singhasiri of Thailand on charges of “conspiring with a network of associates to traffic nuclear materials from Burma to other countries” was made public Feb. 21 by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

According to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Ebisawa and his conspirators allegedly attempted to traffic nuclear materials from Myanmar between early 2020 and February 2022. In the course of the operation, they showed samples of nuclear materials to an undercover agent from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who was posing as a narcotics and weapons trafficker. Ebisawa thought he was selling nuclear materials to an Iranian general for use in a nuclear weapons program and aimed to purchase military-grade weapons “on behalf of an ethnic insurgent group” in Myanmar, according to the indictment.

The press release reported that Thai authorities assisted U.S. law enforcement investigators in transferring the nuclear samples to the United States and “a U.S. nuclear forensic laboratory later analyzed the samples and confirmed that the samples contain uranium and weapons-grade plutonium.”

“In particular, the laboratory determined that the isotope composition of the plutonium found in the nuclear samples is weapons-grade, meaning that the plutonium, if produced in sufficient quantities, would be suitable for use in a nuclear weapon,” the release added.

In April 2022, Ebisawa, Singhasiri, and one other Thai national were arrested, indicted, and charged with trafficking in drugs and weapons including surface-to-air missiles. Ebisawa is detained in New York awaiting trial. The new charges are an addition to the existing ones.

Although the Justice Department believes Ebisawa is “a leader within Japanese Yakuza, transnational organized crime syndicate,” Japanese police told Yomiuri Shimbun on July 27, 2022, that there was no confirmed information that Ebisawa was a leader or had a connection to Japanese domestic organized crime.

“It is chilling to imagine the consequences had these efforts succeeded and the Justice Department will hold accountable those who traffic in these materials and threaten U.S. national security and international stability,” Matthew G. Olsen, U.S. assistant attorney general for national security, said in the press release.

There was no specific information given regarding how the defendants may have acquired or produced nuclear materials.—SHIZUKA KURAMITSU

Japanese Mafia Accused of Trafficking Nuclear Materials

Missile Defense System in Poland Could Be Operational by Summer

March 2024

The U.S. Navy has taken official control of the Aegis Ashore missile defense system in Poland with the aim of making the system fully functional under NATO command as early as this spring.

U.S. Navy and other personnel at the Aegis Ashore missile defense system facility under construction outside the town of Redzikowo, Poland, in June 2019. The facility could become fully operational this spring. (Photo by U.S. Navy Lt. Amy Forsythe, Public Affairs Officer, Naval Support Facility Redzikowo)The Aegis system was deployed to the Redzikowo Air Base in the north of Poland, about 93 miles from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, and transferred to the control of the Navy on Dec. 15. The base originally was intended to begin operating in 2018, but the project experienced delays.

“The acceptance of the Aegis Ashore site in Poland, like its sister site in Romania, is an important step in our efforts to get [the system] ready to protect against the growing threat posed by ballistic missiles launched from Iran,” U.S. Naval Forces in Europe said in a Dec. 18 statement.

The system represents a significant development in NATO's missile defense capabilities. It is part of the structure to protect NATO allies from ballistic missile threats called the European Phased Adaptive Approach, which was conceived during the Obama administration.

The Aegis system is designed to detect enemy missile launches by using satellite systems. Once identified, Standard Missile-3 interceptors are launched from sea or land at the missile, destroying it in space.

The system in Poland is undergoing a planned maintenance period for upgrades and is expected to be fully integrated and operational under NATO command by the summer, the Navy said.

In addition to the Polish air base, the Aegis architecture includes a base in Romania, a radar facility in Turkey, a command center in Germany, and U.S. Navy ships.

According to BBC News, Russia has raised concerns about the Aegis site, arguing that the system in Europe threatens its strategic deterrence. At a press briefing last March, Vice Adm. Jon A. Hill, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, pushed back, saying that the Aegis system “is not designed to go after Russian missiles. It is really about outside of the European sphere.”—CHAD LAWHORN

Missile Defense System in Poland Could Be Operational by Summer 

Belarus Updating Nuclear Military Doctrine

March 2024

Belarus is in the process of adopting a new military doctrine that would allow for the use of nuclear weapons by Russia.

Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin announced the decision at a meeting of the country’s Security Council on Jan. 16, saying that Belarus “will put forth a new military doctrine that for the first time provides for the use of nuclear weapons,” the Associated Press reported on Jan. 17.

At the same meeting, Aleksander Volfovich, the Security Council secretary, said that “statements by our neighbors, in particular Poland…forced us to strengthen” the military doctrine and that “the deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus is intended to deter aggression from Poland, a NATO member,” AP reported.

In late April, the doctrine will go to the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly for approval. The assembly works in parallel with the parliament, and its approval is needed before the doctrine becomes official, according to Russian state media RIA Novosti.

Belarus pushed forward the new doctrine as neighboring Baltic states signed an agreement to reinforce their borders with Belarus and Russia.

“The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of the Republic of Belarus is considered an important measure of the preventive deterrence for potential adversaries from unleashing armed aggression against the Republic of Belarus,” Khrenin said at a briefing on Jan. 19, according to CNN.

In March 2023, as Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine intensified, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he could transfer tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, a close ally. By the end of the year, news reports suggested that the shipments were completed. (See ACT, May 2023.)

Since that time, Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko repeatedly has said that he would not hesitate to order the use of nonstrategic nuclear weapons if Belarus faced an act of aggression.—SHIZUKA KURAMITSU

Belarus Updating Nuclear Military Doctrine

Nuclear Dangers and the 2024 Election

January/February 2024
By Daryl G. Kimball

As the new year begins, the existential risks posed by nuclear weapons continue to grow. A crucial factor in whether one or more of today’s nuclear challenges erupt into full-scale crisis, unravel the nonproliferation system, or worse will be the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.

(Photo by Stefani Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)How the winner of the 2024 race will handle the evolving array of nuclear weapons-related challenges is difficult to forecast, but the records and policies of the leading contenders, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, offer clues.

A major responsibility for any commander in chief is to avoid events that can lead to a nuclear war with Russia over its war on Ukraine and with China over its claims to Taiwan. One indicator of Trump’s more confrontational approach came in 2019 when, at a meeting of senior officials from the five nuclear-armed states recognized under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), China proposed a joint statement reiterating that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Two years later, Biden administration officials successfully pressed the group to reaffirm this Reagan-Gorbachev maxim, first enunciated in 1985.

Since then, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale attack on Ukraine and threats of nuclear use have raised the specter of nuclear conflict. To his credit, Biden has not issued nuclear counterthreats and has backed Ukraine in its struggle to repel Russia’s invasion. In 2022, Biden also joined leaders of the Group of 20 states in declaring that the use of nuclear weapons and threats of their use are “inadmissible.”

Well before Putin’s nuclear rhetoric turned ominous, Trump engaged in an alarming exchange of taunts with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2017. His threats of unleashing “fire and fury” against Pyongyang fueled tensions on the Korean peninsula and provide another clue how he might behave in a crisis with China, North Korea, or Russia in a second term.

Effective U.S. leadership on arms control will be critical to avoid a destabilizing, three-way arms race after the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expires in 2026. As the treaty’s first expiration deadline of February 5, 2021, was approaching, Trump refused to agree to simple extension of the pact, focusing instead on a failed effort to cajole China into joining Russian-U.S. arms talks. This left the incoming Biden administration only days to reach a deal with the Kremlin to extend the pact by five years, and it did.

In June 2023, the Biden administration proposed talks with Russia “without preconditions” on a new, post-2026 “nuclear arms control framework.” As long as there is war in Ukraine, the best outcome likely is a simple deal committing both sides to stay below the current limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads until a longer-term framework is concluded. Biden also has pursued nuclear risk reduction talks with China, which continues its nuclear buildup begun during the Trump era. In November, senior Chinese and U.S. officials held the first such talks in years.

Meanwhile, Iranian leaders continue increasing their capabilities to produce weapons-grade uranium in response to Trump's 2018 decision to withdraw unilaterally from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and impose tougher U.S. sanctions to pressure Tehran into negotiating a new deal. They now are threatening to pull out of the NPT if the United States or other UN Security Council members snap back international sanctions against Iran.

Biden’s efforts to restore mutual compliance with the 2015 deal have been stymied by Iranian demands on matters outside the nuclear file and tensions over the war in Gaza. Avoiding a more severe crisis over Iran’s nuclear program will require more sophisticated U.S. diplomacy.

Kim has ramped up North Korean nuclear and missile development and stiff-armed overtures for talks with Washington ever since the disastrous 2019 Hanoi summit, when Trump flatly rejected Kim’s offer to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex in return for limited sanctions relief, then walked out of the meeting. Renewed talks on curbing North Korea’s weapons program will require a recalibration of the U.S. approach.

Concerns about a possible nuclear testing revival also are rising. The Trump administration did not help when it declared in 2018 that the United States did not intend to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and in 2020 when senior Trump officials discussed resuming explosive testing to intimidate China and Russia. Biden, on the other hand, has reaffirmed U.S. support for the treaty; and his team proposed technical talks on confidence-building arrangements at the former Chinese, Russian, and U.S. test sites.

Most Americans do not vote based on candidates’ positions on nuclear weapons, but they are aware and deeply concerned about nuclear dangers. A 2023 national opinion survey found that large majorities believe that nuclear weapons are the most likely existential threat to the human race.

In 2024, the candidates’ approaches to these dangers deserve more scrutiny than usual. Presidential leadership may be the most important factor that determines whether the risk of nuclear arms racing, proliferation, and war will rise or fall in the years ahead.

As the new year begins, the existential risks posed by nuclear weapons continue to grow.


Subscribe to RSS - Arms Control Today