“For half a century, ACA has been providing the world … with advocacy, analysis, and awareness on some of the most critical topics of international peace and security, including on how to achieve our common, shared goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.”

– Izumi Nakamitsu
UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
June 2, 2022
Arms Control Today

Toward a Successful NPT Review

November 2021
By Daryl G. Kimball

Twenty-six years ago, as states-parties negotiated the terms for the extension of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the future of the treaty was not assured.

UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson opens the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York on April 27, 2015. (Photo: United Nations)Yet at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, the world came together, committed to the “complete elimination of nuclear weapons,” and endorsed specific disarmament actions that led to the indefinite extension of this bedrock agreement to reduce the nuclear danger. Additional commitments were made at the 2000 and 2010 review conferences to advance implementation and compliance with all three pillars of the treaty.

But since at least 2010, the nuclear disarmament process has stalled; and the five NPT nuclear-armed states (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) cannot credibly claim they are meeting their NPT Article VI disarmament obligations.

NPT states-parties at the 10th review conference, set for Jan. 2–28, will need to come together on many key issues, including strengthening nuclear safeguards and addressing regional proliferation issues. But the success of this pivotal meeting will hinge, more than anything, on whether and how they can develop an updated, disarmament action plan.

Tensions among the world’s nuclear-armed states are rising, the risk of nuclear use is growing, and hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent to replace and upgrade nuclear arsenals. To varying degrees, the nuclear-armed states are engaged in a qualitative arms race.

In February, at the last moment, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin extended the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) through 2025. In July, they relaunched a dialogue that could evolve into nuclear disarmament talks. But if they fail to promptly conclude new agreements that limit offensive nuclear weapons and strategic missile interceptors, there will be no legally binding constraints on the world’s two largest arsenals.

Meanwhile, China, France, and the UK are not part of any serious nuclear disarmament discussion; and there is growing evidence that China is preparing to double or triple its long-range, nuclear-armed ballistic missile force.

Due to the growing nuclear disarmament deficit, the NPT regime is once again at a crossroads.

All states need to approach the next NPT review conference with a sense of urgency, a spirit of cooperation, and a determination to produce meaningful results that transcend old fault lines.

Some NPT nuclear-armed states may bemoan the fact that the environment for disarmament progress is “challenging.” We can expect they will continue to claim that many past NPT commitments on disarmament have been overtaken by events. Disarmament progress has never been simple or easy, but such deflections are irresponsible.

Instead, the five nuclear-armed NPT states should acknowledge their past disarmament commitments, work with other states-parties on a pragmatic action plan that sets new benchmarks and deadlines, and pledge to act with the urgency that the grave nuclear weapons threat demands.

To create a more constructive atmosphere, these five states must refrain from further specious attacks against the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and its many supporters. They should acknowledge that the TPNW exists and that supporters consider it to be a contribution to meeting NPT Article VI obligations.

Notwithstanding the different views on how to fulfill those obligations, nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-weapon states should cooperate on a serious disarmament action plan that could include the key elements below.

  • A call for the United States and Russia to conclude talks on New START follow-on agreements that achieve further cuts in nuclear warheads and delivery systems no later than 2025.
  • A pledge by the five NPT nuclear-armed states to freeze the size of their nuclear arsenals and by all states to halt the production of fissile material for military purposes.
  • A call for NPT states to begin disarmament talks in a bilateral or a multilateral format no later than 2025.
  • A call for the remaining holdout states to initiate their respective processes to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty by 2025.
  • A call for all states to forswear the introduction of nuclear-armed cruise and hypersonic missiles.
  • A recognition that any use of nuclear weapons would produce catastrophic humanitarian consequences and that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

In the absence of coherent and constructive leadership from the nuclear-weapon states, other responsible NPT states-parties need to fill the void to achieve a good NPT conference outcome.

Germany, Kazakhstan, Sweden, and others have made strides toward a common framework on the next steps on nuclear disarmament. Leaders of the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons and the Non-Aligned Movement also have a role to play.

Now is the time to bolster the NPT's disarmament pillar.

Twenty-six years ago, at the 1995 review conference on the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the future of the treaty was not asssured. But the states-parties committed to the “complete elimination of nuclear weapons” and endorsed specific disarmament actions that led to the indefinite extension of this treaty. But since at least 2010, the nuclear disarmament process has stalled, and the NPT regime is once again at a crossroads.

The Australia-UK-U.S. Submarine Deal: Not Necessarily a Sure or a Good Thing

November 2021
By Trevor Findlay

In June 1987, Canada announced that it intended to build 10 to 12 nuclear-powered submarines, based on a French or UK design and fueled with highly enriched uranium (HEU) possibly of Canadian origin. Faced with insurmountable strategic, political, financial, logistical, and nonproliferation obstacles, the idea sank without trace within two years.1 Although the Australian nuclear-powered submarine proposal, announced 34 years later on September 16, is different in several respects, it faces equally strong headwinds that may deliver the same result.

A Royal Australian Navy diesel and electric-powered Collins Class submarine sits in Sydney Harbour in 2016. That naval weapon is to be replaced by nuclear-powered submarines that the United Kingdom and the United States recently agreed to provide Australia as part of the new AUKUS defense cooperation announcement. (Photo by Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)Much about the Australian project is speculative. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, U.S. President Joe Biden, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson simply released a one-page statement launching “an enhanced trilateral security partnership” called AUKUS aimed at fostering “deeper integration of…security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains.”2 The headline-grabbing item was the announcement of a trilateral effort to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, beginning with an 18-month study to seek “an optimal pathway to deliver this capability.” No numbers were announced, no likely design was suggested, and no nuclear fuel type or acquisition plan was outlined. Although all three partners committed themselves to “the highest standards for safeguards, transparency, verification, and accountancy measures to ensure the non-proliferation, safety and security of nuclear material and technology,” the length of this list alone suggests that complex and profound questions arise not just for the three governments, but for the international community, particularly the global regime governing the use of nuclear energy.

Knowns and Unknowns

At this stage, the unknowns of the project are Rumsfeld-esque in their tortuousness and interrelatedness. Yet, there are some knowns or likely knowns to guide preliminary analysis.

First, for parochial political reasons, the submarines must be built in Australia for the most part, specifically in Adelaide, in the state of South Australia. Australia’s conventionally powered submarines have been built there for decades, resulting in a skilled, specialized workforce. One of the smallest and economically challenged of Australia’s states but electorally important, South Australia has relied on government-funded projects to boost employment and capacity in its industrial sector. The joint project with France to produce conventionally powered submarines that was unceremoniously cancelled seemingly minutes before the AUKUS announcement, required 50 percent Australian “content,” down from the originally expected 75 percent. Australia’s purchase of U.S. or UK submarines off the shelf, as some have suggested, would seem politically untenable.

A second known factor is that Australia cannot produce enriched uranium itself whether low-enriched or highly enriched, for submarine propulsion or any other purpose, despite having among the largest deposits of uranium in the world. It does not have the industrial, technical, or financial capacity or political license to build and operate a standard gas-centrifuge plant. Australia sold off its domestically invented SILEX laser-enrichment technology to the United States two decades ago.3 In any case, Australian federal law prohibits uranium enrichment in the country. Enriched uranium for submarines would need to be imported.

A third certainty is that Australia does not have any current or likely future capacity to build a nuclear reactor, especially for submarine propulsion. Unlike Canada, which developed and operates CANDU reactors, Australia has no experience with nuclear reactors beyond research units based at Lucas Heights in Sydney. The latest model, devoted largely to producing medical radioisotopes, was imported from Argentina. Therefore, Australia would need to buy the reactor and its fuel from the United Kingdom or the United States. If HEU is chosen, the reactors will contain “lifetime cores,” which will operate for around 30 years and require no refueling, a much prized characteristic of HEU-powered vessels. The sealed reactors would presumably be transported by ship to Adelaide to be encased in the submarine hulls and returned to the provider at the end of the submarines’ lifetime for dismantlement and disposition of the spent fuel.

A final important area of clarity is that Australia is seeking to arm its submarines with conventional weapons, presumably sea-launched cruise missiles, not nuclear weapons. For decades, Australia has been a dedicated supporter of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and more recently of the global nuclear security architecture. After initial reservations, Australia signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in February 1970, just before it entered into force, and ratified it in 1973. It has subsequently become one of the strongest champions of the treaty and of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its safeguards system.

Australia not only has a comprehensive safeguards agreement as required by the NPT, but also imposes bilateral safeguards on Australian-origin uranium exports. It was the first country to sign an additional protocol to its safeguards agreement and was the first to receive the so-called broader conclusion, indicating that it has accounted for all nuclear material subject to safeguards in its territory. Australia was instrumental in negotiations on the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga, which created a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the South Pacific. It is also an active member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other export control arrangements.

In the nuclear security realm, Australia’s track record is also impressive. It is party to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and its 2005 amendment, along with all other nuclear governance conventions. It has consistently been rated number one by the Nuclear Threat Initiative in the annual Nuclear Security Index and has enthusiastically contributed to continuing efforts to strengthen nuclear security resulting from the four nuclear security summits between 2010 and 2016.

One might imagine, then, that if any country were to become the first non-nuclear-weapon state to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, Australia’s would be the safest pair of hands. Indeed, some have argued that Australia could use its submarine acquisition plan to strengthen global nuclear governance. Better Canberra than Brasilia or, at worst, Tehran. Even so, the implications for the nonproliferation regime are far-reaching, overlapping, and complex.

Disturbing the Nonproliferation Zeitgeist

The NPT and the collection of other treaties, arrangements, and organizations that compose the nonproliferation regime do not exist in a vacuum, but are profoundly affected by states’ attitudes, perceptions, and actions. As a nonproliferation “white knight,” Australia’s announcement that it is considering acquiring nuclear-powered submarines in partnership with two nuclear-weapon states portends a further roiling of the political atmosphere around a regime that is already being buffeted by numerous gales. The worst of those include the ongoing noncompliance cases of Iran and North Korea; the absence of India, Israel, and Pakistan from the NPT; the continuing nonfulfillment of undertakings by the nuclear-weapon states-parties to the NPT to achieve nuclear disarmament; the modernization and expansion programs of almost all of the states with nuclear weapons; the decades-long lack of progress at the Conference on Disarmament, especially in negotiating a fissile material cutoff treaty; and the non-entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The AUKUS submarine proposal will undoubtedly be added to this litany of woes at the 10th NPT review conference, originally scheduled for 2020 but now deferred to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is not that anyone suspects Australia of seeking nuclear weapons through the backdoor of nuclear submarine propulsion, but rather that the idea reeks of the hypocrisy that has always plagued a regime built on the premise of a more or less eternal divide between nuclear haves and have-nots. Unlike the IAEA Statute, which envisaged no military use of nuclear material, the NPT carved out an exception for non-explosive military use, apparently at the suggestion of Italy, with U.S. and Soviet acquiescence.

The United States nonetheless has consistently refused to provide nuclear-propulsion technology to non-nuclear-weapon states, including to allies such as Canada, South Korea, and reportedly Japan, due to proliferation concerns. It has now made an exception for Australia as an exclusive member of the “Anglosphere,” whatever that means for three increasingly multicultural societies. Australia itself carved out an exception to its policy of not supplying uranium to non-NPT parties by doing a deal with India, a state with nuclear weapons that from the outset sought to undermine the treaty. The constant chipping away at the fundamentals of the nonproliferation regime, especially by erstwhile champions, can only increase cynicism and undermine confidence in its longevity.

Setting Unsettling Precedents

If the AUKUS project is realized and assuming that Brazil, which is building its own nuclear-powered submarines, does not get there first, Australia will become the first non-nuclear-weapon state to acquire a nuclear-powered submarine. The precedent will be set, paving the way for other states to demand similar capability, either as a legitimate defense asset or as cover for more alarming nuclear ambitions, such as nuclear weapons development. Unlike Australia, some of the states that have expressed interest in nuclear-powered submarines, including Brazil and South Korea, also wish to enrich their own fuel. Exhibit A on this list is Iran, which has long argued implausibly that it needs to enrich its own uranium for peaceful purposes, notably its Tehran Research Reactor and Bushehr nuclear power plant, currently supplied by Russia, but has now added nuclear-powered submarines to its list.

Australia would set another precedent by becoming the first state to take advantage of the “loophole” in comprehensive safeguards agreements that permits nuclear material for a non-explosive military purpose to be removed from safeguards for the duration of that use. If Australia chooses the military-to-military option whereby the reactor and its HEU fuel are supplied by the U.S. or UK navies and returned to their control when the submarine is decommissioned, it might be assumed that there will be no requirement for removal or reapplication of safeguards because the material will originate from, remain in, and return to military use. Yet, allowing a non-nuclear-weapon state to import HEU outside of safeguards in this manner would make a mockery of the entire nonproliferation regime.

Fortunately, Australia’s safeguards agreement, like all others, requires that it notify the IAEA of its intention to acquire nuclear material for a non-explosive military purpose and help devise suitable verification arrangements with the IAEA to ensure that the material is not diverted to nuclear weapons. In working with the IAEA on this challenging task, Australia would be setting a precedent, for good or ill, that other states will be able to exploit. The sensitivity of the technology and the inaccessibility of the reactor to inspectors preclude a traditional approach. Instead, new approaches and methods will have to be devised to satisfy the IAEA that no diversion of nuclear material to weapons purposes takes place, while protecting confidential, proliferation-sensitive information .

Australia has already notified IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi of its intentions and signaled its willingness to work with the agency, presumably along with the United States and the UK, to craft suitable arrangements. Grossi has responded publicly by noting that verification will be “very tricky.”4 For Australia itself, the situation may become even trickier. Under the strengthened safeguards system that Australia has long championed, the IAEA accords a state the broader conclusion when it is able to certify that, based on the information available to it, it has accounted for all nuclear material within the state. Just how this conclusion could be reached after Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines have begun operating, especially at sea, is unknown. Australia has insisted that the IAEA should not automatically reissue the broader conclusion for states without reassessing their current circumstances, as occurred for Libya when civil war prevented the agency from ensuring the continuity of safeguards in its territory. Australian officials will undoubtedly work in good faith with the IAEA to craft an effective arrangement to ensure verifiability to the extent possible, but there is an element of moral hazard for Australia. It may succeed in making the world “safe” for the proliferation of nuclear-powered submarines in the hands of non-nuclear-weapon states.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (fourth from left), French President Emmanuel Macron (second left) and other officials visit the Australian submarine HMAS Waller in Sydney in May 2018 when France was still planning to sell submarines to Australia. That deal has now been upended by the AUKUS arrangement. (Photo by Brendan Esposito - Pool/Getty Images)A final precedent relates to nuclear security. The Australian project would see the acquisition of HEU by a non-nuclear-weapon state at a time when the United States and others, including Australia, are attempting to minimize global holdings of HEU, including by converting reactors to using low-enriched uranium (LEU) and repatriating HEU to the United States or Russia for disposition. Although the nuclear material in submarine reactors is relatively secure, albeit nonstationary, the use of HEU for naval propulsion by a country that has been HEU free goes against the grain of the impressive efforts in recent years to ensure that nuclear material does not fall into the hands of terrorists or other nonstate actors. Some observers have suggested that Australia use LEU for its submarines, perhaps in collaboration with France, which uses such fuel. This may assuage French fury at the cancellation of its contract to build Australia’s conventional submarines, whose design paradoxically was to be based on French nuclear-powered submarines at Canberra’s insistence. IAEA verification, however, would become more challenging because LEU-fueled submarines, at least those using existing technology, require periodic refueling.

Going Quietly Into the Deep?

Despite an opinion poll indicating immediate domestic support for the AUKUS announcement, there remains significant public skepticism in Australia about the use of nuclear energy for any purpose. It remains to be seen whether this will shift as the 18-month study proceeds, details emerge, and the political, diplomatic, military, economic, nonproliferation, security, and opportunity costs become clearer. Although the opposition Labor Party has felt it politically expedient to support the AUKUS announcement, this is conditional on nonproliferation concerns being assuaged. A general election is due within a year. The Australian nuclear-powered submarines could be destined to go the way of Canada’s. In the meantime, the AUKUS partners need to explain how they propose to deliver the gold standard safeguards, transparency, verification, and accountancy measures they have promised.



1. See Tariq Rauf and Marie-France Desjardins, “Opening Pandora’s Box? Nuclear Powered Submarines and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons,” Aurora Papers, no. 8 (1988).

2. “Joint Leaders Statement on AUKUS,” Prime Minister of Australia, September 10, 2021, https://www.pm.gov.au/media/joint-leaders-statement-aukus.

3. “Message to the Congress Transmitting the Australia-United States Peaceful Nuclear Technology Transfer Agreement,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, William J. Clinton, 1999, Vol. 2 (Washington: U.S. Office of the Federal Register, 1999), pp. 1963–1965.

4. See John Carlson, “IAEA Safeguards, the Naval ‘Loophole’ and the AUKUS Proposal,” Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, October 8, 2021, https://vcdnp.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Safeguards-and-naval-fuel-JC-211008.pdf; Laura Rockwood, “Naval Nuclear Propulsion and IAEA Safeguards,” Federation of American Scientists Issue Brief, August 2017, https://uploads.fas.org/media/Naval-Nuclear-Propulsion-and-IAEA-Safeguards.pdf. Francois Murphy, “AUKUS Submarine Deal ‘Very Tricky’ for Nuclear Inspectors—IAEA Chief,” Reuters, September 28, 2021.

Trevor Findlay is a principal fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. His next book, Transforming IAEA Safeguards Culture: The IAEA, Iraq, and the Future of Nonproliferation, will be published in early 2022.

From an Australian perspective, there are lots of questions to be answered about the Australia-UK-U.S. submarine deal.

The Australia-UK-U.S. Submarine Deal: Mitigating Proliferation Concerns

November 2021
By Frank N. von Hippel

On September 15, U.S. President Joe Biden joined UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to announce an Australian-UK-U.S. security pact (AUKUS) under which the United States and the United Kingdom will assist Australia in building at least eight nuclear-powered attack submarines. The purpose is to strengthen the alliance trying to contain a growing Chinese navy. The first submarine is
not expected to be operational before 2040.

Brazil, a non-nuclear-weapon state with a program to develop nuclear-powered attack submarines, plans to power its first submarine with LEU fuel but has not forgone the right to use HEU. Photo from 2019 shows ceremony in Rio de Janeiro celebrating Brazil's French-designed, Brazilian-built Humaita submarine, which runs on diesel-electric propulsion. (Photo by Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images)The AUKUS countries said that it would take 18 months to work out the specifics of the deal, but obvious candidates for the submarine designs to be provided to Australia are the U.S. Virginia-class attack submarine and the UK Astute-class submarine, in production since 1999 and 2001, respectively.

Both submarine classes are fueled with U.S. weapons-grade uranium enriched to more than 90 percent uranium-235 that was declared excess to weapons needs following the drastic downsizing of the U.S. Cold War nuclear warhead stockpile. Both submarine types have life-of-ship cores, which means they should not have to be refueled during their design lives of approximately three decades.

The deal replaces one that Australia reached with France in 2016 under which Australia would have received 12 French Suffren-class submarines equipped with conventional propulsion rather than the nuclear propulsion used by France. In 2016, Australia did not wish to develop the infrastructure required to supply fuel for a nuclear-powered ship.1 France refuels its nuclear submarines every 10 years.

Life-of-ship cores could enable Australia to avoid having to produce its own nuclear fuel, refuel its submarine reactors, and dispose of the spent fuel. The United States or UK could simply sell Australia the reactor cores and then take them back for disposal when the submarines are decommissioned.

A Troublesome Precedent

The proposed AUKUS submarine plan, however, would set an important precedent of a nuclear-weapon state selling nuclear submarines to a non-weapon state. The use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel makes the AUKUS precedent especially troublesome from a nonproliferation perspective.

HEU can be used directly by nations to make nuclear weapons. It also could be used by terrorists to make a simple gun-type nuclear weapon like the Hiroshima bomb.

Because HEU is so easily weaponized, the United States has spent $2 billion since the September 11 terrorist attacks to eliminate it as a research reactor fuel and replace it with low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel, containing less than 20 percent U-235, which cannot be used to make a nuclear explosive.2 As part of this effort, the United States has converted most of its own research reactors to LEU use and has cleared HEU from 33 of 55 countries down to a level of less than one kilogram, a small fraction of the amount required to make a nuclear weapon.3

At the same time, U.S. and UK naval reactors are the world’s largest consumers of HEU. Annually, about three tons of weapons-grade uranium, enough for more than 100 nuclear weapons, are being fed into their naval reactors. In contrast, Chinese and French submarines are fueled with LEU, while India and Russia are believed to use HEU enriched to 21–45 percent U-235.4 HEU in this enrichment range is considered weapons usable, but has a critical mass much larger than weapons-grade uranium.

The United States and UK should be designing their future naval reactors to use LEU fuel. They certainly should not be setting the precedent of spreading HEU-fueled naval reactors to non-nuclear-weapon states such as Australia, especially when Iran and a few other non-nuclear-weapon countries are considering fielding their own nuclear-fueled submarines. Whether to fuel research reactors or naval reactors, expanding the use of HEU increases the risk of this material being diverted to nuclear weapons use.

Nuclear Submarines and Non-Nuclear-Weapon States

Nuclear-powered attack submarines have been of interest to non-nuclear-weapon states for some time. In the late 1980s, Canada explored buying some from France or the UK to reinforce its sovereignty in its northern waters, but with the end of the Cold War, abandoned the project as too costly.5

Brazil has a program to develop nuclear-powered attack submarines that dates to the 1970s.6 It is learning from France how to build conventional submarines and is assembling a land-based prototype reactor inside a mockup of a hull section of a future nuclear submarine. The Brazilian navy developed and controls Brazil’s uranium-enrichment plants. This was a major proliferation concern for the United States when Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship in 1964–1985 and before it entered a nuclear transparency agreement with Argentina in 1991 and joined the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1998. Brazil plans to fuel its first submarine with LEU, but has not forgone the right to use HEU fuel if that proves advantageous.

In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in and his administration have expressed a sustained interest in developing nuclear-powered submarines.7 The United States has refused to change the two countries’ nuclear cooperation agreement to allow South Korea to enrich uranium. Therefore, South Korea may look to Russia, which has offered Seoul an icebreaker propulsion reactor design that can be fueled with 19.75 percent-enriched LEU.8 Russia’s existing nuclear agreement with South Korea covers only “peaceful uses of atomic energy.”9 If the United States can change its agreement with Australia,10 however, Russia can change its agreement with South Korea.

In the past, Japan has not expressed an interest in nuclear submarines. After the AUKUS deal was announced, however, two of the four candidates for prime minister declared their interest,11 although not Fumio Kishida, who won the Liberal Democratic Party’s support and was sworn in as prime minister in October.

There is also the case of Iran. In 2013, during the hard-line administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran suggested Tehran might require uranium enriched to 45–56 percent U-235 for a nuclear submarine program.12 In April, as U.S.-Iranian negotiations stalled on reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran began producing 60 percent-enriched HEU.13

After the AUKUS deal was announced, two journalists from The New York Times interviewed aides accompanying Iran’s new hard-line foreign minister to the United Nations and reported that the aides noted that HEU “could be used in naval reactors, suggesting they might want to use it for that purpose. And they cited Mr. Biden’s new deal with Australia, which calls for [the United States and the UK] to supply Australia with the technology for nuclear-propelled submarines,” which use HEU.14

HEU and Naval Fuel

The United States and UK are creating a dangerous precedent by proposing to export HEU naval fuel to a non-nuclear-weapon state. Other countries are likely to see the deal as creating a more permissive environment to acquire their own HEU-fueled nuclear submarines and, in the absence of a willing supplier, make HEU fuel themselves as Iran threatens to do. The world does not need HEU in more places and more being produced in more countries.

IrFour torpedo tubes in the bow of a Suffren-class nuclear attack submarine, under construction in north-western France in 2017, during a visit by French Defence Minister Florence Parly and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Australia would have bought 12 Suffrens equipped with conventional propulsion from France under a deal Australia abrogated in favor of buying nuclear submarines from the United Kingdom and the United States. (Photo by Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Imges)onically, the nuclear version of France’s Suffren-class attack submarine, which Australian leadership insisted in 2016 should be converted to diesel-electric power, is fueled with LEU containing an average of only 6 percent U-235.15

To make LEU weapons usable, a country would have to run it through an enrichment plant to produce HEU. In a non-nuclear-weapon state, especially one that has an additional protocol to its safeguard agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency would have a good chance of detecting such an activity. Therefore, if non-nuclear-weapon states feel they need nuclear submarines and to have their own enrichment plants to fuel them, the fuel should be LEU.


Congressional Interest in LEU Fuel

Since 1994, reducing the risk of proliferation of naval HEU fuel has been the primary driver behind efforts by some members of Congress to require the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Office of Naval Reactors to develop LEU fuel for future U.S. submarine and aircraft carrier propulsion reactors.

As the office has made clear, however, its priority has been to achieve life-of-ship cores. In fact, it believes it has done so for the Virginia-class attack submarine, which began production in 1999, and for the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, the first of which began construction in 2020. The design lives of these submarines are 33 and 42 years, respectively. This means that, after the older classes of U.S. submarines have had their midlife refueling, there will be no need for routine refueling of submarines. Refueling equipment and capabilities will be retained only on a standby basis for core repair or replacement following potential fuel-element failure.

The Office of Naval Reactors’ first report in response to Congressional interest in LEU fuel was in 1995.16 It stated that because the U-235 chain reaction provides almost all of the fission energy from the fuel, if the U-235 were diluted to just below 20 percent U-235, which is the top of the LEU enrichment range, it would be necessary to increase the volume of the core threefold to achieve the same core life. This would require a larger, heavier pressure vessel and a bigger hull.

The Virginia-class attack submarine Minnesota (SSN-783), shown under construction in 2012, is among the class of submarine that could be sold to Australia. (U.S. Navy Photo)For Virginia-class submarines, the Office of Naval Reactors found that a life-of-ship core would require the diameter of the submarine to be increased from 10 to 11 meters. The office did not expect a significant impact on the sizes of the larger ballistic missile submarine and aircraft carrier. If, as reported,17 the SSN(X) next-generation U.S. attack submarines are to have hull diameters significantly larger than the Virginia-class, they too could accommodate larger LEU cores.

In 2012, Congress asked for an update and this time, the response was more encouraging. The Office of Naval Reactors reported it was developing a new higher uranium-density fuel that might not require as large a core volume increase for an LEU life-of-ship core.18 Yet, it was testing the new fuel design with weapons-grade uranium to pack more U-235 into the core and to increase U.S. submarines’ lifetime energy budgets for higher-speed transits across the Pacific Ocean and other uses. The energy requirement for potential LEU cores was therefore a moving target.

Congress asked for a research and development plan for developing and testing the new fuel design with LEU.

The Office of Naval Reactors delivered the outline of a plan in July 2016. The report emphasized that the R&D would cost about $1 billion and take “at least 15 years” and that “success is not assured.” It also said that providing LEU cores for aircraft carriers would cost an additional “several billion dollars,” including the cost of a land-based prototype aircraft carrier propulsion reactor.19 This would be comparable to the cost of an additional nuclear-powered submarine.

The Office of Naval Reactors also asked JASON, an elite technical group of mostly academic consultants for the Department of Defense, the NNSA, and other agencies, to review its proposed program for developing LEU fuel. The JASON report, which was partially declassified three years later was supportive. It emphasized, however, that there is only a limited opportunity to make sure that the follow-on to the Virginia-class submarine, the not-yet-named SSN(X) that is scheduled to be procured starting in the early 2030s,20 will be able to accommodate an LEU core. “If the reactor compartment is not designed to accommodate a life-of-ship LEU core, and if later re-design to accommodate such an LEU core is impractical, then HEU cores will be required for all [SSN(X)s], the last of which will launch in the 2060s. On the other hand, if design parameters and fuel development allow an LEU reactor…then it is possible that the Navy's final HEU core will be built in the 2040s.”21

Unfortunately, the Navy came to oppose even conducting that R&D. The simplest explanation is that the Navy does not view minimizing HEU use as its responsibility. Members of Congress sympathetic to this perspective inserted into the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) the requirement that “the Secretary of Energy and the Secretary of the Navy shall jointly submit to the congressional defense committees the determination of the Secretaries as to whether the United States should continue to pursue research and development of an advanced naval nuclear fuel system based on low-enriched uranium.”

At the beginning of 2018, the Trump administration responded that it saw no benefits to the Navy incurring the cost of shifting to LEU fuel use.22

Despite this opposition, Congress has appropriated funding for Navy LEU fuel development every year since fiscal year 2016, starting at $5 million and rising to $20 million in fiscal year 2021.23 Given the Office of Naval Reactors’ resistance, congressional advocates of LEU fuel for naval reactors shifted the funding for LEU fuel development to the NNSA Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation.

The executive branch, however, has never requested funding for this program. For fiscal year 2022, the House of Representatives voted to appropriate another $20 million, but the Senate Armed Services Committee recommended in the 2022 NDAA a provision that would “prohibit the obligation or expenditure of any fiscal year 2022 funds [by the NNSA] to conduct research and development of an advanced naval nuclear fuel system based on low-enriched uranium unless the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Energy, and the Secretary of the Navy communicate certain determinations to the congressional defense committees.”24

What Is Next

Recently, a group of nonproliferation experts, including the author, wrote to the Biden administration stressing the importance of designing future U.S. naval reactors to use LEU fuel.25 The AUKUS deal highlights the fact that the United States and UK are undermining the nuclear nonproliferation and anti-terrorism regimes by fueling their naval reactors with weapons-grade uranium. Now they propose to export these reactors to a non-nuclear-weapon state.

If the United States does not switch to using LEU naval fuel by about 2060, when its excess stock of weapons-grade uranium is projected to run out, it will have to restart production of weapons-grade uranium for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

The United States and UK should instead exploit the opportunity created by the furor over the AUKUS deal to commit to design their future naval propulsion reactors to use LEU fuel. They also should use the planned 18-month period of study and evaluation of the technical and policy details of the proposed AUKUS submarine deal to do their utmost to design any submarines built by or leased to Australia to use LEU-fueled propulsion reactors rather than the more problematic HEU-fueled option. Otherwise, the three AUKUS countries, long-time leaders in efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, may well find themselves on a path that would undermine global nonproliferation norms and long-standing nonproliferation objectives.



1. Malcolm Turnbull, “Address to the National Press Club,” 29 September 2021, https://www.malcolmturnbull.com.au/media/address-to-the-national-press-club-september-2021.

2. U.S. Department of Energy, “Budget & Performance,” https://www.energy.gov/budget-performance (accessed October 22, 2021).

3. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), “NNSA Removes All Highly Enriched Uranium From Nigeria,” December 7, 2018, https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/articles/nnsa-removes-all-highly-enriched-uranium-nigeria.

4. Frank von Hippel, “Banning the Production of Highly Enriched Uranium,” International Panel on Fissile Materials Research Report, no. 15 (March 2016), https://fissilematerials.org/library/rr15.pdf.

5. Adam Lajeunesse, “Sovereignty, Security and the Canadian Nuclear Submarine Program,” Canadian Military Journal, Winter 2007–2008, pp. 74–82.

6. Andrea de Sá, “Brazil’s Nuclear Submarine Program: A Historical Perspective,” Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 22, No. 1 (2015): 3.

7. Jun Ji-hye, “South Korea Moving to Build Nuclear-Powered Submarines,” The Korea Times, September 5, 2017.

8. “Russia May Help South Korea to Build Nuclear Reactor for Maritime Vessels,” Sputnik International, August 7, 2018; Atomenergomash JSC, “Solutions for the Shipbuilding Industry,” n.d., https://aem-group.ru/static/images/buklety/2020/Booklet_sudostroenie_en.pdf.

9. Agreement Between the Government of the Republic of Korea and the Government of the Russian Federation on the Cooperation on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, May 28, 1999, 2396 U.N.T.S. 43273.

10. Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of Australia Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, May 4, 2010, T.I.A.S. no. 10-1222, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/10-1222-Australia-Atomic-Energy-Peaceful-Uses.pdf.

11. Steven Stashwick, “Japan’s Kono Says He Supports Building Nuclear Submarines,” The Diplomat, September 28, 2021.

12. “Iran May Need Highly Enriched Uranium in Future, Official Says,” Reuters, April 16, 2013.

13. International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Directors, “Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in Light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015),” GOV/2021/39, September 7, 2021, p. 6.

14. David Sanger, Michael Crowley, and Rick Gladstone, “Rebuking Biden, Iran’s Chief Diplomat Demands More Sanctions Relief,” The New York Times, September 24, 2021.

15. Sébastien Philippe and Frank von Hippel, “The Feasibility of Ending HEU Fuel Use in the U.S. Navy,” Arms Control Today, November 2016, p. 15.

16. Director, Naval Nuclear Propulsion, U.S. Navy, “Report on Use of Low Enriched Uranium in Naval Nuclear Propulsion,” June 1995, https://fissilematerials.org/library/onnp95.pdf.

17. Sam LaGrone, “BWXT CEO: Navy’s Next-Generation SSN(X) Attack Boat Will Build Off Columbia Class,” USNI News, November 2, 2020, https://news.usni.org/2020/11/02/bwxt-ceo-navys-next-generation-ssnx-attack-boat-will-build-off-columbia-class.

18. Office of Naval Reactors, U.S. Department of Energy, “Report on Low Enriched Uranium for Naval Reactor Cores: Report to Congress,” January 2014.

19. NNSA, “Conceptual Research and Development Plan for Low-Enriched Uranium Naval Fuel: Report to Congress,” July 2016.

20. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Next-Generation Attack Submarine (SSN[X]) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service In Focus, IF11826, September 15, 2021.

21. JASON, “Low-Enriched Uranium for Potential Naval Nuclear Propulsion Applications,” JSR-16-Task-013 (November 2016), https://irp.fas.org/agency/dod/jason/leu-naval.pdf (declassified portions).

22. Richard V. Spencer and Rick Perry to Deb Fischer, March 25, 2018, https://fissilematerials.org/library/usn18b.pdf. The same letter went out to the ranking Democratic senator and to the chair and ranking member of the counterpart House of Representatives subcommittee.

23. “Navy LEU Fuel R&D,” Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, January 2, 2021, https://sites.utexas.edu/nppp/files/2021/02/Navy-LEU-Fuel-RD-2021-Jan-2.pdf.

24. Senate Committee on Armed Services, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022, S. Rep. No. 117–39 at 354.

25. Joe Biden from Robert Gallucci et al., “Mitigate the Proliferation Impact of Offering Submarines Fueled With Weapon-Grade-Uranium to a Non-Nuclear-Weapon State by Committing to Design Future US Naval Reactors to Use Low-Enriched-Uranium Fuel,” October 6, 2021, https://sgs.princeton.edu/sites/default/files/2021-10/AUKUS-Letter-2021.pdf.

Frank N. von Hippel is a senior research physicist and professor of public and international affairs emeritus with the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University.

The proposed AUKUS submarine plan would set a precedent of a nuclear-weapon state selling nuclear submarines to a non-weapon state. The use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel is especially troublesome.

Back to the Future: Reviving U.S.-Russian Lab-to-Lab Cooperation

November 2021
By Noah C. Mayhew

An era of remarkable cooperation between two Cold War adversaries started in 1988 with a controlled detonation of a nuclear device at the Nevada Test Site. Teams of U.S. and Soviet scientists looked on, hoping that the heavy instrumentation they had jointly designed would accurately measure the yield of the explosion in support of verification of the 1974 Threshold Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.1 The exercise, known as the Joint Verification Experiment, was a success. It was also the first concrete manifestation of official laboratory-to-laboratory cooperation on nuclear treaty verification between the two nuclear superpowers.

A controlled nuclear test and a joint verification experiment between U.S. and Soviet scientists at this test site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, in 1988 and a similar exercise at the Nevada Test Site in the United States opened the door to decades of laboratory-to-laboratory cooperation between the two nuclear superpowers.  (Photo by TASS via Getty Images)This exercise and an analogous test at the Semipalatinsk site in Kazakhstan four weeks later would open the door to decades of intensive collaboration between U.S. and Soviet scientists, and later Russian scientists, on reducing the legacy nuclear dangers born of the Cold War. During this unprecedented period of cooperation, lab-to-lab projects became a constructive tool in the bilateral diplomatic tool belt. They transformed the old adage “trust but verify” into “trust and benefit” and provided a parallel track for advancing mutual security alongside traditional governmental diplomatic channels.

Due to the serious downturn in U.S.-Russian relations in the last decade, however, lab-to-lab cooperation has all but disappeared. A crushing blow came in 2016 when Russia, under the pressure of intensifying U.S. sanctions, suspended a 2013 agreement on scientific cooperation that built on the landmark 1992 Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program.2

That history is relevant now as the United States and Russia pursue strategic stability talks at a moment of intense animosity and distrust. The summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in June opened a window to begin to stabilize the bilateral relationship; reviving lab-to-lab cooperation could be a relatively easy first step on that difficult path.

The two leaders articulated a clear-eyed vision of their national priorities and met without any pretense that the summit would be, as Biden put it, a “kumbaya moment.” The outcome was modest: an agreement to launch a series of talks on strategic stability that will be “deliberate and robust” and will seek to “lay the groundwork for future arms control and risk reduction measures.”3

With no treaty yet lined up to replace the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and two other treaties—the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty, which were undermined by the withdrawal of Washington and Moscow—U.S.-Russian relations are at a crossroads, and success at these talks is sorely needed. If the dialogue, which started in July and September, devolves into toxic accusations, bilateral relations would become even more hostile and could result in New START expiring in 2026 with nothing to replace it.

On the other hand, productive talks could advance relative stability and predictability in the U.S.-Russian security domain by facilitating new treaties, a reduction in deployed and maybe nondeployed nuclear weapons, and perhaps further cuts in fissile material stockpiles. Without a doubt, any agreement with a realistic chance of entering into force requires verification and a mechanism to resolve disputes. These components are no panacea—they did not save the INF Treaty, for example—but without them, no agreement is possible at all.

As the two sides move to discuss verification, they need to consider the rich history in which the U.S. and Russian national laboratories worked together on technical solutions to one of the core challenges of any arms control agreement: verifying that both sides are adhering to their commitments. Reviving and expanding formal lab-to-lab cooperation and technical cooperation between the national academies of sciences would be an easy way for the White House and the Kremlin to test their commitments to ensuring that strategic stability talks make progress.

The Urgency

Success will depend heavily on the confluence of political will and technical verification capability. As political will can be fleeting, cooperation at the technical level needs to be put in place to support the critical verification aspects of a potential agreement. Commencing formal lab-to-lab cooperation on nuclear verification now will make it more likely that a potential agreement can be operationalized immediately.

Past arms control agreements, including New START, have been verified through on-site inspections, notifications on the movements and status of nuclear armaments subject to the agreement, and data exchanges, including on telemetry information related to intercontinental ballistic missile and submarine-launched ballistic missile launches. Today, the nuclear arms control community is facing new challenges in verification, and emerging technologies could help address them.

For instance, it may be desirable to use remote sensing or monitoring technology, paired with jointly trained machine-learning algorithms to augment the work done by inspectors. This could increase confidence in implementing an agreement at a time when trust is virtually nonexistent. Given the U.S. intelligence community reports of rising Russian cyberattacks against the United States, joint development of such a tool could be a useful way to shield a future agreement from accusations of cheating or more efficiently deal with them should they arise.

If lab-to-lab cooperation is not prioritized early, it may lead to a situation where political will to conclude an agreement will not be matched by the technical capability to verify it. As demonstrated by the demise of the Trilateral Initiative, which was envisioned by the United States, Russia, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to remove excess fissile material from weapons programs and place it under IAEA safeguards without exposing proliferation-sensitive information, the technical capability often takes longer to develop and authenticate than the political will lasts.4

The initiative was active from 1996 until 2002. Although U.S. and Russian scientists continued to jointly develop the technical aspects of verification after the project ended, they did not demonstrate a prototype that would satisfy U.S. and Russian security officials until 2010, long after the political will to implement the initiative had dissipated.5

The Benefit

Lab-to-lab and other technical cooperation, such as through the national academies of science, do not just help avoid pitfalls in treaty verification. Research into new and emerging technologies could be used to strengthen a verification regime, perhaps by identifying options to verify provisions that once were considered unverifiable. Verification is about the balance between transparency and secrecy. Each side must disclose enough information to ensure effective verification but not more than is absolutely needed. New technologies can expand options available to negotiators as they search for that balance.

As they are developed and authenticated, new approaches could include machine learning to better analyze large data sets and enhanced use of satellite imagery. Utilizing these technologies would not come without challenges. Machine-learning algorithms require extensive development before deployment, and their application would likely be limited to open-source data. They would not replace on-site inspections as both sides would surely wish to keep their own “boots on the ground,” but they may provide an extra layer of confidence that both sides are adhering to an agreement. They could also enable a jointly managed technical basis for addressing potential discrepancies or suspicious activities should they arise.

Similarly, satellite imagery is already used as national technical means, but the quality is much higher than in the past and can now provide more data. If used for treaty verification, however, more work will need to be done to ensure mutual access to data from satellite imagery and to assure both countries that no one has tampered with the data.

Another possibility for cooperation is distributed ledger technology (DLT), commonly known as blockchain, which is used to establish a digital, cryptographically verified, tamper-evident, shared ledger that could record data related to arms control verification activities.6 DLT could be used to share data in a more secure way, inspiring confidence that data exchange logs are genuine and have not been altered while avoiding complete disclosure of sensitive data. The tamper-evident feature of the technology is particularly salient, considering the allegations of Russian cyberattacks.

These and other tools are already being researched for application in IAEA safeguards, but could also have applications in arms control verification if the parties to an agreement can authenticate them for use. Emerging technologies cannot replace any existing part of arms control verification, such as on-site inspections or radiation measurements, but they could augment existing capabilities and increase confidence that all parties to an agreement are in compliance.

U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz (L) and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze signed the Joint Verification Experiment Agreement in Moscow in 1988, providing the first opportunity for scientists from the two nuclear superpowers to cooperate on measuring nuclear test yields. (Photo by Stanford University)Revitalized scientific cooperation would also be beneficial in advancing existing techniques, such as radiation measurements using neutron multiplicity counting and high-resolution gamma spectrometry. They have been used for verifying fissile material, including warheads, for decades.7 Could these techniques be used more effectively? Might they be reconfigured to suit new verification challenges? U.S. and Russian scientists have worked together in this domain before and could do so again.

In this regard, scientific cooperation serves not just as a supporting mechanism for treaty negotiations, but also as a mechanism to lay the groundwork for future cooperative endeavors. Over the years, the experience of implementing joint projects provided the United States and Russia a view into each other’s nuclear thinking. They cooperated not just on nuclear safety, security, and other defense-related fields, but also on the fundamental sciences. It proved that cooperation did not threaten national security, but rather strengthened it.

The Challenge

Lab-to-lab cooperation is not an arms control panacea, nor is it as simple as flipping a switch for it to resume. Although immensely beneficial to the United States and Russia in the 1990s and 2000s, such collaboration is very sensitive and requires a level of trust that is now absent in the U.S.-Russian relationship. That is why one of the first tasks of the strategic stability talks must be establishing a minimum level of confidence that would allow scientific cooperation to proceed.

History has proved that such cooperation is possible, and the field of nuclear arms control would be well served to capitalize on the experience of those who have already participated in these activities.

The bilateral relationship is at a critical juncture. If the talks go well, a period of more stable relations could ensue, even as certain tensions persist. If talks do not go well, the already poisonous state of U.S.-Russian relations could worsen.

Both governments must invest now in new confidence- and transparency-building measures to keep their delicate relationship from breaking. As with the nuclear age itself, that starts with cooperation among the scientists and engineers who command the technical nuclear expertise.



1. See Siegfried S. Hecker, ed., Doomed to Cooperate: How American and Russian Scientists Joined Forces to Avert Some of the Greatest Post-Cold War Nuclear Dangers (Los Alamos, NM: Bathtub Row Press, 2016).

2. Government of the Russian Federation, “Suspending the Russian-U.S. Agreement on Cooperation in Nuclear- and Energy-Related Scientific Research and Development,” October 5, 2016, http://government.ru/en/docs/24766/.

3. The White House, “U.S.-Russia Presidential Joint Statement on Strategic Stability,” June 16, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/06/16/u-s-russia-presidential-joint-statement-on-strategic-stability/.

4. Thomas E. Shea and Laura Rockwood, “IAEA Verification of Fissile Material in Support of Nuclear Disarmament,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, May 2015, https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/iaeaverification.pdf.

5. Sergey Kondratov et al., “Testing the AVNG,” Los Alamos National Laboratory, LA-UR-10-02626, July 11, 2010.

6. Cindy Vestergaard and Maria Lovely Umayam, “Complementing the Padlock: The Prospect of Blockchain for Strengthening Nuclear Security,” Stimson Center, June 2020, https://www.stimson.org/2020/complementing-the-padlock-the-prospect-of-blockchain-for-strengthening-nuclear-security/.

7. Edward M. Ifft, “Verifying Nuclear Arms Control and Disarmament,” in Verification Yearbook 2001, n.d., https://www.vertic.org/media/Archived_Publications/Yearbooks/2001/VY01_Ifft.pdf.

Noah C. Mayhew is a research associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation focusing on nuclear non-proliferation, safeguards and verification, arms control, and U.S.–Russian relations. He is a commissioner on the trilateral Young Deep Cuts Commission and the co-chair of the Emerging Voices Network’s nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty Working Group.

Scientific cooperation could offer a relatively easy way to begin stabilizing troubled ties.

Banning the Bomb: Smashing the Patriarchy and The Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons: How It Was Achieved and Why It Matters

November 2021

Reviving Hopes for Nuclear Disarmament

Banning the Bomb: Smashing the Patriarchy
By Ray Acheson
(Rowman & Littlefield, 2021)
438 pages

The Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons: How It Was Achieved and Why It Matters
By Alexander Kmentt
(Routledge, 2021)
272 Pages

Reviewed by Rebecca Davis Gibbons


As a former denizen of Washington working in the nuclear weapons space, I know how it can seem as though the only important conversations about nuclear weapons are happening in the U.S. capital, or Omaha, or Brussels, or in capitals of the other nuclear-armed states. Yet, two recent books on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), often called the nuclear ban treaty, demonstrate that activists around the world and diplomats from non-nuclear-weapon states have also been engaging in serious discussions about the future of these weapons. Both books make clear why so many diplomats and activists came together in 2017 to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear weapons despite significant criticism from nuclear-armed states and their allies. Understanding their arguments matters for the future of nuclear deterrence and U.S. alliance relationships, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and global governance of nuclear weapons more broadly.

In Ray Acheson’s Banning the Bomb: Smashing the Patriarchy and Alexander Kmentt’s The Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons: How It Was Achieved and Why It Matters, readers are offered two recent histories of the movement to change the discourse surrounding nuclear weapons and bring about the TPNW. The books offer unique but complementary views from two actors involved in the process. As the director of Reaching Critical Will and a member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) steering committee, Acheson offers the insights of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) participant. Kmentt, a career diplomat who is the director of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation in the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, provides the perspective of someone operating within the core group of states leading the effort. The books are rich, behind-the-scenes accounts that reveal key details of the process of trying to ban nuclear weapons. Both would be enjoyable for general audiences interested in nuclear issues. More importantly, they should be read by those in the nuclear policy space, whether they support the ban treaty or not, because the arguments behind the movement have become part of the global conversation on the future of nuclear weapons and they are not going away.

Each book provides an account of the development of the humanitarian initiative, an effort to bring humanitarian considerations into global discourse about nuclear weapons, and the TPNW. The recent origin of these efforts lies in concern over the future of the 1968 NPT. In addition to prohibiting all but five countries from having nuclear weapons, NPT Article VI calls for all treaty members to pursue effective measures toward complete disarmament. Many non-nuclear-weapon states that signed the treaty never expected the five treaty members possessing nuclear weapons (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) to
retain them permanently.

Both authors point to deep dissatisfaction and impatience over the perceived lack of progress on nuclear disarmament after several disappointments in the past two decades. Kmentt highlights the 13 “practical steps” to which all NPT members agreed at the 2000 NPT Review Conference. Included in these steps were promises related to further disarmament progress, but consensus on these steps did not survive U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration.

Furthermore, the Conference on Disarmament (CD), the UN body for arms control and disarmament negotiations, has remained paralyzed since 1996, unable to make progress on any new agreements. Kmentt writes, “By 2008, the state of health of multilateralism in the field of nuclear disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation was bleak.” In this period, some diplomats with experience working on the anti-personnel landmine and cluster munitions ban treaties began to consider ways to bring the humanitarian framing that had been so important to the development of those conventions into the nuclear weapons arena.

In early 2009, President Barack Obama’s “Prague Agenda” renewed hope for greater change and helped bring about a consensus document at the 2010 NPT Review Conference. This time, NPT members developed a 64-item action plan for disarmament progress.

Once again, the lack of follow-through on the promises made in that 2010 NPT action plan disappointed those seeking greater progress on nuclear disarmament. That perceived failure, when added to Obama’s multibillion-dollar nuclear modernization plan, resulted in several diplomats and activists deciding to chart a new path outside of the NPT context. As Kmentt recalls, “The loss of impetus to Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons helped galvanize the disarmament-minded states and civil society towards a different type of process and a goal they could achieve without, if necessary, the involvement of the nuclear-armed states.”

Norway played a significant role in pushing this initiative forward by providing funding to anti-nuclear civil society groups in the early 2010s, in what Kmentt calls the “operational launch” of the humanitarian initiative. These organizations would focus on reframing the discourse around nuclear weapons to emphasize the devastating humanitarian effects of these weapons’ use. In April 2012, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, now the prime minister, announced that his government would host a conference on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons in March 2013.

Delegations from 127 states attended the conference in Oslo. It was followed by similar conferences in Nayarit, Mexico, and Vienna in 2014, with more states attending each time. These conferences presented diplomats from all over the world, especially those from the younger generations, with a better understanding of the effects of nuclear weapons use on human bodies, communities, and the environment. The three conferences ultimately created momentum for an open-ended working group on disarmament in 2016 and treaty negotiations in 2017, both sponsored by the United Nations.

The treaty, adopted in July 2017, bans all activities related to nuclear weapons including manufacturing, testing, transferring, stationing, using, and receiving nuclear weapons and assisting in their creation or threatening their use. No one negotiating the treaty anticipated it would quickly eliminate nuclear weapons; the aim is to create a strong normative opposition to these armaments as part of a long-term plan for their abolition. Acheson explains, “The renewed focus on the humanitarian and environmental impacts of nuclear weapons constituted a deliberate effort to devalue, delegitimize, and stigmatize nuclear weapons.” With 50 ratifications, the TPNW entered into force in January 2021; the first meeting of states-parties is scheduled for March 2022 in Vienna.

The two books differ in their framing of the history. Acheson in chapter 1 provides several different theoretical lenses, or “ideologies,” through which to view nuclear weapons and nuclear governance, including political economy, the social meaning of nuclear bombs, patriarchy, colonialism, and racism. In subsequent chapters, Acheson refers back to these perspectives to explain and evaluate the process of banning nuclear weapons and to illustrate why the effort is embraced by some and resisted by others. Kmentt does not employ theory to the same extent, but repeatedly returns to the concept of human security, a people-centric form of security in which individual needs are met and communities remain secure. The chapter in which Kmentt provides detailed refutations of common criticisms of the TPNW should not be missed.

Of the several themes throughout both books, three in particular stand out as being of interest to the broader nuclear community. Both argue for broadening the participation and content of nuclear discourse. Traditionally, policy discussions are limited to experts within the nuclear-weapon states with strong emphasis on nuclear deterrence, extended nuclear deterrence, strategic stability, escalation, and credibility. Underlying the humanitarian initiative is the argument that all states and all people should have a say in what happens with the world’s nuclear weapons because all states could be affected by nuclear blasts. Not only would a nuclear weapon detonated in a populated area have devastating humanitarian consequences for the population immediately affected (“To tissue. To hearts. To brains. To limbs. Skin. Eyeballs,” Acheson writes), but other nearby states could be overwhelmed by spreading radiation, terrified people fleeing across borders, and serious damage to agriculture, infrastructure, and economic systems. If several bombs were detonated, the destruction would multiply.

Because the effects of nuclear explosions do not respect sovereign borders, hypothetically all states could face horrifying ramifications from their use, and thus all states should have the right to have a say in the world’s nuclear future. Talking about nuclear weapons in terms of the humanitarian consequences expands the traditional discourse about these armaments and clarifies the reality of what they can do. Those in favor of possessing nuclear weapons argue that these effects are exactly why nuclear deterrence works, but many of those who understand the devastating consequences of these weapons’ use find it difficult to imagine that their potential use is credible.

Proponents of the humanitarian initiative not only considered the destructive consequences of nuclear weapons use, but the risk of use, whether accidental or intentional. They explored nuclear accidents and close calls. With all of this information, the initiative makes the argument that all of us should be concerned about nuclear weapons, all of us should have a say in their continued existence, and all of us should work toward abolition.

A second theme in both narratives is the perceived missteps by the United States and the rest of the NPT’s nuclear-weapon states as they tried to oppose the humanitarian initiative and the TPNW. Both authors repeatedly emphasized that the actions and rhetoric of the nuclear-weapon states reinforced the disarmament movement’s motivation to seek the nuclear ban. Perhaps the best example occurred in the lead-up to the 2013 Oslo conference on the humanitarian effects of nuclear weapons. The nuclear-weapon states boycotted the conference, hosted by Norway, a NATO ally. All five NPT nuclear-weapon states issued a joint statement explaining that they thought the meeting would distract from their approach to disarmament. Given the failure of the 13 steps after the 2000 NPT Review Conference, the slow progress on the 2010 action plan, and almost 25 years without meaningful progress in the CD, it is not difficult to see why many individuals in the disarmament movement were skeptical of the approach favored by the nuclear-weapon states.

Anti-nuclear activists representing the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and other peace groups protest with the flags of 51 countries that ratified the UN Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons and a banner reading “Nuclear weapons are forbidden! More than 50 states joined. Germany didn't” in Berlin on January 22, 2021. (Photo by TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images)A final theme of the two books is the increased role of NGOs and intergovernmental organizations in global nuclear governance over the past decade. Although this is not a new concept in global politics, the level of participation was unique in the nuclear sphere. ICAN served as the umbrella organization for many anti-nuclear groups around the world and participated in the humanitarian conferences, open-ended working groups in 2013 and 2016, and the treaty negotiations. The International Committee of the Red Cross also played an important role in applying international humanitarian law to the discussions of nuclear use and in the negotiations.

Acheson and Kmentt highlight the symbiotic relationship between states and nonstate actors. For example, Norway provided funding for NGOs that would bring intellectual capital, organizational capabilities, and previous experience on humanitarian treaties to bear in aiding states and pushing them toward the ban treaty. ICAN lobbied states to participate in these conferences and working groups and held regional meetings to bring states on board that do not usually pay much attention to nuclear policy.

Although government officials and nonstate actors cooperated to bring about TPNW negotiations, in the end it was states that had the final say in the treaty text. ICAN was disappointed that some of its recommendations were not included in the final document. Nonetheless, the umbrella group was a significant political force in bringing about the ban treaty negotiations and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this effort in 2017.

After all this, what does the TPNW mean for the NPT and global governance? The fact that the TPNW came to fruition is an indictment of the NPT’s inability to foster progress on disarmament. In other words, states pursued the ban treaty in part because the NPT forum lost legitimacy after the nuclear-weapon states reneged on several disarmament commitments and pursued modernization programs to maintain and expand their arsenals for decades to come.

Maintaining the NPT and the strong nonproliferation norm it enshrines is undoubtedly in the interest of the United States and the rest of the international community. A key question for the NPT nuclear-weapon states is whether the treaty can survive in perpetuity with this loss of legitimacy. Can it continue for another 50 years when the most lethal armaments remain in the exclusive control of a select few powerful states while so many others clamor for disarmament?

Rebecca Davis Gibbons is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine. She previously served as a fellow and associate of the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Her book The Hegemon’s Tool Kit: US Leadership and the Politics of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime will be published in spring 2022.


Two books explore the movement to change the discourse about nuclear weapons and bring the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons to fruition.

The Power of Women Strike for Peace

November 2021
By Kathy Crandall Robinson

On November 1, 1961, an estimated 50,000 women in 60 U.S. cities answered a call to join a one-day strike with the rallying slogan “End the Arms Race—Not the Human Race.”1 Astonishing observers and participants with its success, the strike sparked momentum that could not be contained in a single event. Women Strike for Peace (WSP) was launched, drawing even more women into a whirlwind of action to address the threat of nuclear war and stop atmospheric nuclear tests and the attendant radioactive fallout.

Dagmar Wilson and Coretta Scott King lead a march at the United Nations in New York on November 1, 1963, the second anniversary of Women Strike for Peace, and celebrate the Limited Test Ban Treaty. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)After less than two years of prodigious activity, the WSP shared a significant victory when the Limited Test Ban Treaty, banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere and outer space and under water, entered into force on October 11, 1963. President John Kennedy’s science adviser, Jerome Weisner, later gave specific credit for persuading Kennedy to support the treaty “not to the arms controllers inside government” but to the WSP, along with the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and Linus Pauling.2

The initial call for the strike went out after a small September 22 meeting convened by Dagmar Wilson at her Washington home. Wilson and the strike organizers were alarmed by escalating nuclear dangers and dismayed by the lack of urgent response from primarily male leaders in government and peace organizations.3 They sent the strike call via informal networks using phone trees and chain letters. This impressive low-tech organizing in less than six weeks—imagine if these women had cell phones, email, and social media—reached a receptive audience ready to act.

As Ethel Taylor, who organized the Philadelphia strike, explained,

When I received the letter from Dagmar asking me to organize a strike for peace in the Philadelphia area, I immediately went into action. Her view that radioactive fallout was an emergency, not merely an issue, expressed my feelings exactly. I called a meeting at my home and invited women.… I told them what I knew of Dagmar’s motivation for calling the strike: simply put, nuclear weapons testing was dangerous to our children’s health, and could only escalate the arms race.4

Many women and more than a few men were similarly alarmed and motivated. The moment was ripe for several reasons. The danger of nuclear war felt imminent. Throughout the 1950s, bomb shelters were built, and children routinely practiced “duck and cover” drills in school. Although some people may have been falsely reassured that these activities would protect them, everyone, including young children, knew that nuclear war was a real threat.

In the weeks before the organizers planned the strike, the nuclear threat grew. On August 13, 1961, the Berlin Wall went up along with U.S. and Soviet tensions. In August and September, the Soviet Union, followed by the United States, broke the testing moratorium that had been in place for almost three years. Over the next 16 months, the two countries conducted more nuclear tests than in the 16 preceding years, causing a spike in global radiation levels. On October 30, 1961, the Soviet Union conducted “Tsar Bomba,” the largest ever nuclear weapons test, with a yield of 50 megatons.5

On October 30, 1961, the Soviet Union conducted “Tsar Bomba,” the largest ever nuclear weapons test, with a yield of 50 megatons. Today, the weapon sits in a museum. (Photo by TASS via Getty Images)Along with driving the arms race, atmospheric nuclear testing produced radioactive fallout, a known and alarming public health concern. In fact, some parents were so concerned that they sent their children’s baby teeth to be checked for harmful levels of strontium-90.6

The women who launched the WSP wanted more urgent action in response to this perilous situation. Kennedy had come into office promising an end to nuclear testing and spoke of challenging the Soviet Union to a “peace race,”7 yet he deployed more nuclear weapons, increased Pentagon spending, and resumed nuclear tests.8

Many of the women strikers were involved in key peace organizations, particularly SANE. They felt hamstrung by SANE’s hierarchal structure and by male leaders who the women perceived as “less agitated, more deliberate, and more slowly moved to action.”9 Also, SANE and other peace organizations, including Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), had been targeted by anti-communist red-baiters. This did serious damage to the organizations’ reputations, hindering their effectiveness. It was another frustration for the WSP leaders who felt compelled to leave or distance themselves from SANE and the WILPF.10

WSP leaders took deliberate steps to avoid similar red-baiting. Following the strike, they formed a “non-organization” network that had no membership dues or information that could be collected by entities such as the House Un-American Activities Committee. Also, in 1962, the WSP adopted an intentionally inclusive national policy statement decreeing that “we are women of all races creeds and political persuasions.”11

Wilson summed up the feelings driving the women to act when she wrote, “We were worried. We were indignant. We were Angry.”12 They channeled that emotional commitment into relentless bold action. This included picketing, marching, and various creative demonstrations. For example, one group rented a fallout shelter, parked it in shopping center, and converted it into a “Peace Center” from which the activists distributed educational materials and called attention to the false security promised by fallout shelters.13

There were also persistent lobby activities, or as Amy Swerdlow, WSP member and historian, described, “an uninterrupted stream of visits to congressional representatives, to public officials…and to government agencies.”14 The activism extended internationally; a delegation of 50 women went to Geneva in 1962 to make the case for a test ban at the 17-nation Committee on Disarmament.15

The harmful effects of atmospheric nuclear fallout were a particular focus of education and action with “Pure Milk Not Poison” a commonly used slogan. Concerns about milk contamination included calls for boycotts of fresh milk and instructions on how to use powdered milk as a substitute. One campaign recommended that people threaten to cancel home milk deliveries if efforts to decontaminate milk were not undertaken.16

In 1961 the strikers were predominately white, middle-class women of the early Cold War era.17 They embraced traditional motherhood activities and self-identified as “ordinary housewives.” They wore skirts, hats, and white gloves to demonstrations and brought along their children. In 1962, The New York Times reported that, “[f]or the most part, they stress femininity rather than feminism.”18 In part, this feminine, maternal image helped the women garner media coverage and enabled them to push for radical change while clothed according to the expected norms of society. Although these women started out at the nadir of feminist consciousness, they became part of the rising tide of feminism’s second wave. They were empowered by working together and by the effectiveness of their actions.

Women Strike for Peace gained clout and self-confidence when activists testified at a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee on December 11, 1962.  (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)In December 1962, 14 WSP leaders were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee for hearings that marked the group’s transformative moment. In a masterful theatrical display, numerous WSP activists showed up with children in tow. They cheered the witnesses and handed them roses. The first witness, Blanche Posner, lectured the committee on the women’s maternal motivation, stating, “This movement was inspired and motivated by mothers’ love for children.… When they were putting their breakfast on the table, they saw not only the Wheaties and milk, but they also saw strontium 90 and iodine 131.… They feared for the health and life of their children.”19 The WSP effectively rebutted the committee’s charges, making the congressional accusers look foolish while empowering the women and strengthening the WSP.20

Throughout the 1960s, the WSP evolved with the times, participated in growing movements, and expanded to be what today would be called more intersectional. Key leaders joined and led the “women’s liberation,” or second wave of feminism, movement. Most prominent was Bella Abzug, the WSP national legislative leader who won a seat in Congress in 1970 and was a key voice for women’s rights and political empowerment. Coretta Scott King was also a WSP participant and was in the delegation that traveled to Geneva in 1962.

Following the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Vietnam War became the WSP’s major concern. Initiatives such as the Jeannette Rankin Peace Brigade later in the decade brought together activist strands advocating for women’s liberation, anti-racism, anti-poverty, and anti-war policies. Eventually, the WSP embraced a broader peace and human rights agenda, although for key leaders in the group, ending all nuclear testing and the nuclear arms race remained core goals.

In 1988, at a press conference marking the 25th anniversary of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, I was inspired to hear Taylor talk about her experience with the WSP and the effort to secure what she called the unfinished business of a comprehensive test ban treaty. I wondered why, even as a student of U.S.-Soviet relations and arms control, I had never heard anything about mothers who had sent their children’s teeth to be checked for strontium-90 or this huge women’s strike in 1961.

The WSP played a significant role in advocating for nuclear disarmament and in pushing forward the second wave of feminism. Sadly, this story is not told often among peace activists, feminists, or anyone else. It is a history that provides needed inspiration and proof that bold, unrelenting activism can accomplish remarkable change.

Grassroots movements ebb and flow. In recent decades, disarmament progress has continued but mostly at a slower and less momentous pace. Passionate activism has decreased, and nuclear disarmament advocacy has become more the bailiwick of a professional niche community. In the process, too much of the WSP-style sense of urgency has been lost.

Even in today’s very different environment, when atmospheric testing has ended and the threat of nuclear weapons use is not quite as imminent, we could learn from the WSP and recognize that nuclear weapons dangers are not just issues to be discussed, but emergencies that require action.

In the early 1960s, there was little question that nuclear weapons posed an existential threat. When Silent Spring was published in 1962, the harmful effects of nuclear weapons fallout described in the book were well known, although environmental harms from pesticides and other toxins were not yet understood.21 Ironically, people are now keenly aware of the harm done by environmental contaminants and climate change, but are oblivious to the health and environmental damage caused by nuclear weapons production and underground testing and to the fact that nuclear weapons use could wipe out humanity in an afternoon. To revive an old slogan, it is still true that nuclear weapons are bad for children and other living things. Those of us who know this reality should say so more clearly.

We could also take a few lessons from the first years of the WSP. That means devising a strategy with an understanding of the zeitgeist—what issues and events will get media coverage, where to find intersections on key concerns with various partners, how to build political power. There also needs to be coordinated, focused, and dogged action. Ending atmospheric nuclear testing was not the only thing women strikers wanted, but ending testing was their single most urgent goal, and it was clearly understood by most Americans.

Following the first strike, it was evident that the media and policy leaders were paying attention. By the time the bullies on the House Un-American Activities Committee came for the WSP, the women had built power and were executing their game plan. They could not be derailed as other peace organizations had been. They confidently pushed forward for the human race. Now it is our turn to pick up the pace and finish what they started.



1. Amy Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), p. 247. Swerdlow, a historian and Women Strike for Peace (WSP) member who wrote its comprehensive history, notes that this number “became part of the founding legend” of the WSP based on estimates of organizers that she could not independently verify.

2. Andrew Hamilton, “MIT: March 4 Revisited Amid Political Turmoil,” Science, March 13, 1970, p. 1476.

3. Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace, pp. 16–21, 47–48.

4. Ethel Barol Taylor, We Made a Difference (Philadelphia: Camino Books, 1998), p. 1.

5. Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, “30 October 1961 − The Tsar Bomba,” n.d., https://www.ctbto.org/specials/testing-times/30-october-1961-the-tsar-bomba (accessed October 14, 2021); Arms Control Association, “Nuclear Testing and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) Timeline,” July 2020, https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/NuclearTestingTimeline.

6. Jeffrey Tomich, “Decades Later, Baby Tooth Survey Legacy Lives On,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 1, 2013, https://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/health-med-fit/health/decades-later-baby-tooth-survey-legacy-lives-on/article_c5ad9492-fd75-5aed-897f-850fbdba24ee.htm.

7. John Kennedy, “Address Before the General Assembly of the United Nations, September 25, 1961,” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, n.d., https://www.jfklibrary.org/archives/other-resources/john-f-kennedy-speeches/united-nations-19610925 (accessed October 14, 2021).

8. “Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, n.d., https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/jfk-in-history/nuclear-test-ban-treaty (accessed October 14, 2021); John Kennedy, “Special Message to the Congress on the Defense Budget, March 28, 1961,” The American Presidency Project, n.d., https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/236195 (accessed October 14, 2021).

9. Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace, p. 48.

10. Ibid., pp. 45–47; Taylor, We Made a Difference, pp. 5–7 (recounting frustrations with the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy in their dealing with anti-communist witch hunts and how this shaped the WSP development); Harriet Hyman Alonso, Peace as a Women’s Issue (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1993), pp. 157–192, 202 (addressing the struggles of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and noting how the WSP was in part “born directly out of the discontent with WILPF’s hierarchical structure and anti-Communist stance”).

11. Taylor, We Made a Difference, p. 7.

12. Ibid., p. 9.

13. Ibid., pp. 12–13.

14. Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace, p. 81.

15. Ibid., pp. 192–198.

16. Ibid., pp. 81–84.

17. Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2017) (describing the context of the Cold War in the 1960s).

18. Jean Molli, “Women’s Peace Group Uses Feminine Tactics,” The New York Times, April 19, 1962, p. 26.

19. Communist Activities in the Peace Movement (Women Strike for Peace and Certain Other Groups): Hearings Before the United States House Committee on Un-American Activities, 87th Cong. 2074 (1962) (testimony of Blanche Posner).

20. Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace, pp. 97–124; Taylor, We Made a Difference, pp. 19–21.

21. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: First Mariner Books, 2002), pp. 6, 234. See also Mark Stoll, “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a Book That Changed the World,” Environment and Society Portal, July 8, 2020, https://www.environmentandsociety.org/sites/default/files/rachelcarson_silentspring_version2_1.pdf.


Kathy Crandall Robinson is the chief operating officer at the Arms Control Association. For decades, she has advocated for nuclear disarmament and related policies, working with a variety of organizations, including Women's Action for New Directions, the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, and Women Strike for Peace.


Time to take a page from the women who, in the 1960s, put a spotlight on disarmament and helped force action on the Limited Test Ban Treaty.

U.S. Hypersonic Capabilities Advance

November 2021
By Shannon Bugos

The Pentagon continued to move forward this fall with the development and initial deployment of hypersonic capabilities as part of its race to keep pace with China and Russia. At the same time, high-ranking U.S. officials raised questions about the rationale for and affordability of these programs.

Soldiers of 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, 17th Field Artillery Brigade took delivery of the first prototype Dark Eagle hypersonic missiles, also known as the Long Range Hypersonic Weapon system, on Oct. 7 with a ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. (Photo by U.S. Army)“The target set that we would want to address, and why hypersonics are the most cost-effective weapons for the U.S., I think it’s still, to me, somewhat of a question mark,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said on Sept. 21, adding that he is reassessing the department’s hypersonic plans.

Gen. Mark Kelley, commander of Air Combat Command, concurred with Kendall a few days later, telling reporters that “[w]e do need to make sure we have an unambiguous, well-understood [concept of operations for hypersonic weapons] as
we go forward.”

Meanwhile, Heidi Shyu, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, lodged concerns about the price of the weapons, saying on Oct. 12 that “we need to figure out how to drive towards more affordable hypersonics.”

But Mark Lewis, former acting deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, took issue with the scrutiny of the program, telling Breaking Defense on Sept. 24 that he is “puzzled that the Air Force might be pulling back because we had done extensive studies and extensive analysis that demonstrated quite clearly the effectiveness of these systems.”

These remarks came after two failed tests earlier this year of the Air Force’s air-launched hypersonic boost-glide vehicle. (See ACT, September 2021.) In late September, the Pentagon successfully tested an air-launched hypersonic cruise missile, called the Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), and completed deployment of prototype equipment for a ground-launched hypersonic glide vehicle.

All of the primary objectives for HAWC’s free-flight test—“vehicle integration and release sequence, safe separation from the launch aircraft, booster ignition and boost, booster separation and engine ignition, and cruise”—were met, according to a Sept. 27 statement by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The agency conducted the successful test with support from the Air Force.

“The HAWC free-flight test was a successful demonstration of the capabilities that will make hypersonic cruise missiles a highly effective tool for our war-fighters,” said Andrew Knoedler, HAWC program manager in the DARPA Tactical Technology Office. “This brings us one step closer to transitioning HAWC to a program of record that offers next-generation capability to the U.S. military.”

DARPA announced in September 2020 that it had completed two captive-carry tests of two HAWC variants, but “dumb mistakes” and “basic errors” prevented the free-flight test of one of those missiles last December, according to an Air Force Magazine report.

The Army also made recent progress by completing delivery of prototype hardware for its Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) system, also known as Dark Eagle, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.

“Delivery of the hardware began in March 2021 and finished at the end of September 2021,” the Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office said in an Oct. 7 press release. The delivery did not include missiles but rather “a battery operations center, four transporter erector launchers, and modified trucks and trailers that make up the LRHW ground equipment.” The Army plans to field an operational first battery, which would include missiles, in fiscal year 2023.

“Today marks an important milestone in equipping our nation’s first hypersonic battery,” said Lt. Gen. L. Neil Thurgood, who oversees the critical technologies office, in the press release. “Now, soldiers can begin training.” The training began the week of Oct. 18, and the Army unit will be involved in a series of upcoming flight tests, he added on Oct. 11.

The LRHW system features the common hypersonic glide body, which is shared with the Navy for its sea-launched hypersonic weapons capability, called the Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) system, that is scheduled to achieve an initial operating capability in fiscal year 2025. The two services jointly tested the system in March 2020. (See ACT, April 2020.)

In October, the Pentagon also conducted three successful tests of “advanced hypersonic technologies, capabilities, and prototype systems” related to the LRHW and CPS programs in Virginia and an additional failed hypersonic weapons test as part of “a data collection experiment” in Alaska, Reuters reported.

The Pentagon has prioritized the rapid deployment of hypersonic weapons in part to compete with similar Chinese and Russian capabilities.

Moscow fielded the Avangard, a hypersonic glide vehicle, in 2019. Beijing displayed a ballistic missile designed to carry a hypersonic glide vehicle, the DF-17, during its 2019 military parade. In the summer of 2021, China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle, apparently carried on a rocket, that flew through low-orbit space and circled the globe, according to U.S. intelligence sources.

“From the perspective of proliferation, the Chinese and the Russians both have invested significant amounts and made significant progress” with respect to hypersonic weapons, said Brig. Gen. John M. Olson, the Air Force’s acting chief technology and innovation officer, on Sept. 28. “As a nation, [the United States has] taken a substantive early lead and turned that into a national effort to get…caught up and drive forward across the industrial base and the services.”


The Pentagon continued to move forward with the development and initial deployment of hypersonic capabilities as part of its race to keep pace with China and Russia.

China Tested Hypersonic Capability, U.S. Says

November 2021
By Shannon Bugos

China has tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle, carried on a rocket, that flew through low-orbit space and circled the globe before striking within two dozen miles of its target, U.S. intelligence sources told the Financial Times.

The DF-17 Dongfeng medium-range ballistic missile, pictured in a military parade in 2019, may be China's most well-known hypersonic system, although it is not believed to be the one involved in the July 27 test. (Photo by Zoya Rusinova\TASS via Getty Images)Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declined to comment on the Oct. 16 report about the July 27 test. “What I can tell you is that we watch closely China’s development of armaments and advanced capabilities and systems that will only increase tensions in the region,” he told reporters on Oct. 18. “China is a challenge, and we’re going to remain focused on that.”

On the same day, State Department spokesperson Ned Price emphasized the need for “pursuing practical measures with [Beijing] to reduce nuclear risk.”

“We have reached out” to China, he told reporters. “We have made very clear our interest in engaging with [Beijing], as responsible countries would and do, in the context of these powerful weapons and weapons systems.”

Russia, meanwhile, dismissed any concern over the report. “We have allied and partner relationships with China,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Oct. 19. “China is developing its armed forces and weapon systems without going beyond the scope of any international commitments.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed the claim it tested a new weapon. “This was a routine test of space vehicle to verify technology of spacecraft’s reusability,” said spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Oct. 18.

U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall in September seemed to hint at China’s development of a system like the one reported by the Financial Times. He said Beijing is developing capabilities that may allow for “the potential for global strikes, strikes from space.” Kendall specifically referenced the concept of the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS), which was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s and was operationally deployed in the 1970s to bring a missile into Earth’s low orbit. Such a trajectory would allow the missile system to come from the south via Antarctica and evade the Arctic, where U.S. early-warning radar detection is concentrated.

But following news of the July test, Kendall attempted to clarify his remarks. “People have been interpreting my remarks as telegraphing something…[but] the point I was trying to make, I think, was there are a lot of things that are in the realms of feasibility, and…we need to worry about that,” he said on Oct. 18.

Michael Griffin, former undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, described the test as “a really big deal.”

“I’m not one to mince words—it is an arms race,” Griffin told NPR on Oct. 20, “and critically, we didn't start it.”

Some experts suggest that the impetus for Beijing’s possible development of this system can be tied partly to its concerns about U.S. missile defenses. “This is almost certainly, on a technical and strategic level at least, motivated by concerns about a potential breakthrough in U.S. missile defense capabilities,” tweeted Ankit Panda, the Stanton Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on Oct. 18.

The Financial Times, citing two sources, reported on Oct. 20 that Beijing conducted a second test of a hypersonic system on Aug. 13, but there were no additional details.

The alleged tests come after recent revelations that China has constructed at least 250 new missile silos at as many as three locations across China, which fueled concerns of a rapid nuclear build-up in the third-largest nuclear-weapon state. (See ACT, September 2021.)

“It almost seems like we can’t go through a month without some new revelation coming about China,” said Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, on Oct. 18. “I am not surprised at reports like this. I won’t be surprised when another report comes next month.”

China has tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle, U.S. intelligence sources told the
Financial Times.

North Korea Claims to Test Hypersonic Missile

November 2021
By Julia Masterson

North Korea claims to have conducted its first test of a new hypersonic missile, an achievement of “great strategic significance,” according to state media. The Hwasong-8 missile is presumed to be capable of carrying a nuclear or conventional warhead.

North Korea claimed the successful launch on Sept. 28 of a Hwasong-8 ballistic missile with a detached hypersonic glide vehicle. (Photo by KCNA/North Korean state media)Following the Sept. 28 test, North Korean state media said that development of the hypersonic missile was “one of 5 top-priority tasks facing the strategic weapon sector” and released a photograph of the launch, which showed a vehicle resembling the shape of a hypersonic glide vehicle on top of a shortened version of an intermediate-range ballistic missile. Glide vehicles are a new type of hypersonic weapon, which can fly at least five times the speed of sound and are distinguished from traditional ballistic missiles by their ability to maneuver and operate at lower altitudes.

North Korea claimed that “the test results proved that all the technical specifications met the design requirements.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un first alluded to the new hypersonic weapon in January 2021 during the 8th Party Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea. A “hypersonic gliding warhead” featured on a longer wish list of strategic weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons, a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and a military reconnaissance satellite.

Because of their increased speed and greater maneuverability, hypersonic missiles are well equipped to evade ballistic missile defenses. In their analysis of the launch, South Korean military officials assessed that North Korea’s hypersonic missile appears to be in the early stages of development and is unlikely to be fielded in the near future. But once operational and deployed, a North Korean hypersonic missile, especially one paired with a nuclear warhead, could pose significant strategic risks to the region.

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that U.S.-South Korean joint military assets remain capable of detecting and intercepting North Korean missiles.

The U.S. intelligence community is still completing its analysis of the launch, but Gen. Glen Vanherck, commander of U.S. Northern Command, said on Sept. 30 that “right now, it would be my assessment that the homeland would be safe and secure from a hypersonic capability as North Korea claims they have tested.”

The Hwasong-8 contains a fuel ampoule, a technology that allows for liquid-fueled missiles to be filled during production and stored in airtight canisters, thus rendering them launch ready. Missile experts have described North Korea’s adaptation of a fuel ampoule as a “big step” and a “significant milestone.” According to a statement released Sept. 28 by KCNA, Pyongyang’s state media, all North Korean missile fuel systems will be transitioned to ampoule use.

The Sept. 28 launch marked North Korea’s third missile test of the month. North Korea also tested new cruise missiles and ballistic missile delivery system in September. (See ACT, October 2021.)

During a meeting of defense officials on Oct. 11, Kim displayed a cache of ICBMs while condemning the United States and South Korea for causing tension in the region. Kim pledged to continue developing advanced strategic weapons systems as outlined during the January 2021 party congress, but insisted they would all be self-defensive in nature.

Pyongyang’s first hypersonic test also came in the wake of a speech by Kim Song, North Korean permanent representative to the United Nations, on Sept. 27 before the UN General Assembly.

“Our state is a growing reliable deterrent that can control the hostile forces in their attempts for military invasion,” he said. But he was careful to note that Pyongyang “would never violate nor endanger the security” of the United States and South Korea and North Korea’s other neighbors.


North Korea claims to have conducted its first test of a new hypersonic missile, an achievement of “great strategic significance,” according to state media.

North Korea Signals Interest in Talks

November 2021
By Kelsey Davenport

Recent statements by North Korea suggest that Pyongyang may be interested in restarting peace talks with South Korea despite a recent spate of missile tests.

U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Sung Kim (L) speaks to reporters outside of the State Department in Washington on October 18 as his South Korean counterpart, Noh Kyu-duk (R), looks on. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)In a Sept. 24 statement, Kim Yo Jong, vice department director of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, said that both North and South Korea want to recover “inter-Korean relations from a deadlock” and to achieve “peaceful stability as soon as possible.”

Kim, who is the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said that if both sides show respect, “several issues for improving relations,” such as reestablishing the joint North-South liaison office, holding another summit, and declaring an end to the 1950–1953 Korean War, can “see meaningful and successful solution.”

Following Kim Yo Jong’s comments, North Korea on Oct. 5 restored its hotlines and other communications with South Korea. North and South Korea resumed using the hotlines in August after a hiatus, but Pyongyang cut off communications again shortly afterward. (See ACT, September 2021.)

Kim Jong Un said on Sept. 29 that resuming communication with South Korea is part of the effort to rehabilitate inter-Korean relations and pursue “lasting peace” on the Korean peninsula. He said Pyongyang has “no purpose or reason to provoke South Korea” and encouraged Seoul to “get out of the wild dream that it must deter North Korea’s provocations.”

In an Oct. 4 statement, the South Korean Unification Ministry said that restoring the lines of communication with North Korea provides a “foundation for recovering inter-Korean relations” and expressed hope that the two countries will “swiftly resume dialogue.”

Pursing a formal end-of-war declaration seems a particular focus for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who will leave office next year. In his Sept. 21 speech to the UN General Assembly, Moon said he believed that ending the Korean War could lead to “irreversible progress in denuclearization and usher in an era of complete peace.”

In a Sept. 24 statement on state-run Korean Central News Agency, North Korean Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Ri Thae Song said that such a declaration would be “premature” and that there is no indication that ending the war would “lead to the withdrawal of the hostile policy” toward North Korea. But Kim Jo Yong’s comments suggest that an end-of-war declaration may still be an option.

Meanwhile, Robert Carlin, a visiting scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and a former senior policy adviser to the special U.S. envoy for talks with North Korea, observed that North Korea may be shifting the terminology it uses for describing military dynamics on the peninsula. In an Oct. 5 commentary for 38 North, Carlin said that recent statements from North Korea “reintroduced the concept of ‘balance’ and eased off references to ‘deterrence’ in its discussions of military power.”

He said that an early, partial manifestation of this new policy “seems reflected in [North Korea’s] recent, positive stance (and actions) on inter-Korean dialogue.” He also noted that a similar shift in terminology from deterrence to balancing power occurred in 2017. At that time, North Korea was accelerating missile development while signaling it was open to diplomacy with South Korea.

The United States welcomed the restoration of North-South communications. State Department spokesman Ned Price said in an Oct. 4 press briefing that the United States supports “inter-Korean dialogue and engagement as well as cooperation.” The United States will “continue to consult closely” with its allies regarding how best to engage with North Korea to achieve shared goals, he added.

Progress on inter-Korean relations in 2017 and early 2018 paved the way for diplomacy between the United States and North Korea.

The Biden administration has made clear for several months that it is willing to start talks with North Korea without preconditions and to engage in an incremental process that builds on the 2018 Singapore summit declaration. That declaration, signed by U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim, called for a transformation of U.S.-North Korean relations, including denuclearization and peace-building on the Korean peninsula.

Although U.S. officials have declined to discuss publicly what Washington is willing to offer North Korea in the first steps of a negotiation, Price said on Oct. 4 that the United States has made “specific proposals” to North Korea and hopes Pyongyang “will respond positively to our outreach.”


Recent statements by North Korea suggest Pyongyang may be interested in restarting talks with South Korea despite a recent spate of missile tests.


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