"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
Arms Control Today

Nuclear Mirage: U.S. Nuclear Cooperation With Saudi Arabia

December 2023
By Sharon Squassoni

Before the violent attack by Hamas on Israel in the early morning hours of October 7, Israel and Saudi Arabia had been inching toward a bilateral agreement on normalizing relations, reportedly brokered by the United States.

U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower (2nd from R) marks the issuance in 1955 of an “Atoms for Peace” commemorative stamp at the White House with, from left, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Chairman of the atomic Energy Commission Lewis Strauss, Senator Clinton Anderson (D-N.M.), Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield and Wilhelm Munthe de Morgenstierne, Norwegian ambassador to the United States. (Photo by Bettmann Archives via Getty Images)For the Middle East, this could have had huge implications for peace, security, and cooperation akin to those of the 1978 Camp David Accords. The rumors began circulating in August that the United States was not just brokering the agreement but would provide security guarantees, access to military technology, and civilian nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia to sweeten the deal.1 By September, Saudi officials announced a long-awaited step to upgrade implementation of their comprehensive nuclear safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This step, fully implementing comprehensive inspections, would be the bare minimum requirement for any significant nuclear cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the United States.

The details of this deal are still murky, but press reports suggest that the United States was considering supplying the kingdom with a uranium-enrichment facility that the United States would control.2 It is not clear whether the Saudis or the United States would own the facility or whether there was a plan to establish multilateral control over the plant.

The need for control in addition to monitoring the plant’s operation and output is essential because uranium-enrichment plants are inherently dual use: they can prepare uranium to fuel nuclear research and power reactors or to be used as the fissile material in an atomic bomb. In the case of Iran, its secret construction of uranium-enrichment facilities led the international community first to sanction the country, then to negotiate limits on its use of that technology. Saudi Arabia repeatedly has declared since 2011 that it would match Iran’s capabilities.

Nuclear cooperation often has been promised by the United States to allies for far fewer returns but never with such obviously high proliferation risks.3 First, the United States is offering nuclear latency to a country that basically has said “all bets are off” if a regional competitor, Iran, proliferates. Second, the United States is no closer to reining in Iran’s nuclear program, which increases the risk of a proliferation cascade. Third, a decision by the United States to build a uranium-enrichment plant in Saudi Arabia would undermine two important U.S. nonproliferation policies: a global policy not to spread uranium-enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing technology to any additional countries and a regional policy to maintain equal terms and conditions for nuclear cooperation with partners in the Middle East.

The war in Gaza has forced a postponement of the broader normalization agreement and, hopefully, the scheme of supplying Saudi Arabia with its own uranium-enrichment capabilities. It raises questions, however, about what exactly the United States is trying to achieve through its nuclear cooperation policies.

A Short History of Nuclear Cooperation

Even as radioactive fallout was settling over Nagasaki, U.S. President Harry S. Truman announced that the United States would seek the means “to control the bomb so as to protect ourselves and the rest of the world from the danger of total destruction.” In his radio address on August 9, 1945, he told Americans that he would instruct Congress “to cooperate to the end that [nuclear weapons] production and use would be controlled, and that its power be made an overwhelming influence towards world peace.”4

International control of nuclear weapons would never materialize, and neither would international control of peaceful nuclear energy. The 1946 Baruch Plan, proposed by the United States, allowed for the destruction of U.S. nuclear weapons only after strict control of all nuclear assets under an international Atomic Development Authority ensured there would be no other proliferation of nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union and Poland, fearing a U.S. nuclear monopoly, abstained from voting on the plan in the UN Security Council, where it failed. As diplomacy faltered, nuclear weapons development continued. In just a few years, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom tested nuclear weapons.

Against this backdrop, the December 8, 1953, speech by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower to the UN General Assembly that launched the “Atoms for Peace” program seems odd. Whether a Cold War propaganda effort or a genuine attempt to allay human fears by suggesting that peaceful uses of the atom could balance military destruction by the atom, the speech heralded a sea change in the U.S. approach. Shifting from strictly guarding all things nuclear, the United States began encouraging access to information, material, and nuclear technology for peaceful uses. Over the next four years, the United States overhauled its laws to allow nuclear cooperation, promoted a 1955 international conference in Geneva showcasing nuclear technology, and helped create the IAEA in 1957, more than 10 years before countries banded together to negotiate and sign the landmark nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that was designed to halt the nuclear arms race and the spread of nuclear weapons.5

For nuclear cooperation, the 1954 revision of the Atomic Energy Act was pivotal. It called for “a program of international cooperation to promote the common defense and security and to make available to cooperating nations the benefits of peaceful applications of atomic energy as widely as expanding technology and considerations of the common defense and security will permit.”6 The amended law allowed for both military nuclear cooperation and peaceful nuclear cooperation. On the peaceful side, the scope of activities included civilian reactor development, production of special nuclear material, and non-electricity industrial applications, as well as research and development. Within a little more than a decade, the United States signed 34 bilateral agreements, two-thirds of which were strictly for research.7

The United States sought to achieve specific foreign policy aims through nuclear cooperation. A 1955 National Security Council report declared that

U.S. determination to promote the peaceful uses of atomic energy, with calculated emphasis on a peaceful atomic power program abroad as well as at home, can generate free world respect and support for the constructive purposes of U.S. foreign policy. Such a program will strengthen American world leadership and disprove the communists’ propaganda charges that the U.S. is concerned solely with the destructive uses of the atom. Atomic energy, which has become the foremost symbol of man’s inventive capacities, can also become the symbol of a strong but peaceful and purposeful America.8

The report gave a nod to preventing the diversion of nonpeaceful uses of any fissile material provided to other countries, but required just two conditions: reprocessing in U.S. facilities or under international arrangements and “the adequate provision of production accounting, inspection, and other techniques” largely not yet devised.

The program promoting nuclear cooperation boldly envisioned a range of technical and financial assistance to foreign countries for research and power reactors, including the design of small reactors specifically for export, continued declassification of reactor technology, and transfer of material. In particular, it urged that cooperation agreements should “seek opportunities for maximum U.S. cooperation in those power reactor projects abroad which offer political and psychological advantages.”

It is fair to say that the United States overreached with the Atoms for Peace program. After sending more than 25 tons of highly enriched uranium overseas as fuel for research reactors, the United States spent millions of dollars and decades trying to get the material back because it belatedly realized that the material posed nuclear security risks. A few early projects, such as those in the Philippines and Brazil, were failures.9 The United States ceased to fund nuclear energy projects with foreign assistance funds by 1960, and although research reactors spread widely, nuclear power did not spread quickly.

For some states, however, assistance for research capabilities helped provide the initial basis of clandestine nuclear weapons programs. By the mid-1970s, it was apparent that nuclear trade needed to be restrained because several countries, including Brazil, Pakistan, and South Korea, were intent on acquiring sensitive nuclear fuel-cycle facilities from foreign suppliers. The United States and other key countries advocated for greater restraint in nuclear trade, establishing the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and tightening national export controls.

In 1974 the Ford administration adopted the first restraint policy in the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology and facilities, prohibiting export of reprocessing and other nuclear technologies, firmly opposing reprocessing in South Korea and Taiwan, and negotiating agreements for cooperation with Egypt and Israel that contained “the strictest reprocessing provisions.”10 In his 1976 statement on nuclear policy, President Gerald Ford called on all nations to join the United States “in exercising maximum restraint in the transfer of reprocessing and enrichment technology and facilities by avoiding such sensitive exports or commitments for a period of at least three years.”11

Almost 30 years later, President George W. Bush called for a similar moratorium in reaction to revelations about the black market transfers to North Korea, Iran, and Libya by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. A U.S. policy of restraint has endured despite the fact that the Atomic Energy Act itself does not prohibit sharing of enrichment and reprocessing technologies.

Nuclear Energy in the Middle East

Nuclear power has been slow to establish a firm footing in the Middle East. Early nuclear cooperation agreements signed by the United States with Israel, Iran, and Lebanon from 1955 to 1964 focused on nuclear research rather than nuclear power. In 1980 and 1981, the United States signed agreements with Morocco and Egypt, respectively.

Undoubtedly, Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel opened the door to other normalization steps by Egypt, including ratification of the NPT and adoption of a full-scope safeguards agreement as the treaty requires. These developments were especially timely because the passage of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act in 1978 moved the goalposts for Egypt by requiring these steps before nuclear cooperation with the United States was permissible.12 Today, after many delays, Egypt is just beginning construction of two Russian nuclear power reactors.

The history of countries in the Middle East with clandestine nuclear activities (Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, and Syria) is well known, and regional rivalries amplify concerns. In 2007 the Gulf Cooperation Council states explored the possibility of a regional nuclear power effort, but by 2009, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia each decided to develop nuclear energy on their own. At the time, Iran’s nuclear activities were a significant concern. Whereas the UAE, in launching its nuclear energy program, understood the need to allay international concerns about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia seems impervious. In contrast to the UAE’s public renunciation of uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing, Saudi Arabia has declared explicitly that it would match Iran’s capabilities, including nuclear weapons.

The Saudis have been relative latecomers to nuclear energy or at least slow to implement their plans, compared especially to the UAE. After establishing the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy in Riyadh in 2010, Saudi officials announced their intention to construct 16 nuclear reactors to generate 20 percent of the kingdom’s electricity by 2032. In 2017, the Saudi National Atomic Energy Project declared that its civil nuclear program would feature large nuclear power plants, small modular reactors, and fuel cycle activities. Initially, Saudi fuel-cycle activities were limited to assessing uranium and thorium reserves and yellowcake production with Jordan.13

Saudi Minister of Energy Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman al-Saud speaks at a conference in Riyadh in June, six months after he declared that the kingdom “wants the entire [nuclear] fuel cycle.” (Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images)In January 2023, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman told a local mining conference that Riyadh wants “the entire nuclear fuel cycle, which involves the production of yellowcake, low-enriched uranium, and the manufacturing of nuclear fuel both for our national use and of course for export.”14 At the same time, the Saudis are only slowly moving ahead with small modular reactor projects and now estimate they will procure just two large nuclear power reactors. Their interest in fuel cycle capabilities seems disproportionate to a scaled-back nuclear energy program.

Saudi Arabia signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States in 2008 as a prelude to a nuclear cooperation agreement. The text stated the Saudi “intent to rely on existing international markets for nuclear fuel services as an alternative to the pursuit of enrichment and reprocessing.”15 Since then, official negotiations with the United States have been sporadic. In 2020, U.S. officials revealed that the United States had asked specifically for Saudi Arabia to sign an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement, which allows for more intrusive IAEA inspections of nuclear facilities, and for restrictions on enrichment and reprocessing.

In testimony last spring, U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Jill Hruby told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States has asked the Saudis “to be consistent with nonproliferation standards that we have for every other country that we work with.”16 Meanwhile, between 2011 and 2016 the Saudis signed arrangements with France, South Korea, Argentina, Russia, China, and Kazakhstan. Some of these projects have already begun training programs for Saudi nuclear workers.

Providing a U.S.-owned and likely U.S.-operated enrichment plant on Saudi soil might be politically more palatable than a national Saudi plant, especially since the size of the Saudi nuclear program does not justify domestic enrichment. NSG guidelines state that suppliers “should encourage recipients to accept, as an alternative to national plants, supplier involvement and/or other appropriate multinational participation in resulting facilities.”17 For actual transfers, NSG guidelines require the recipient to bring into force a comprehensive nuclear safeguards agreement and an additional protocol, which the United States requires as a matter of policy.

A fallback option for Saudi Arabia would be to purchase equity in a foreign enrichment company such as Orano, but this may be unattractive because of Iran’s historically negative experience investing in Eurodif. The Saudis likely would not want to risk a similar fate.

In addition to political hurdles, the technical hurdles of building a new centrifuge plant in Saudi Arabia could be considerable. The case of URENCO’s plant in Eunice, New Mexico, may be instructive. URENCO, an international fuel-cycle service supplier, did not transfer its technology to the United States and required specific procedures to guard against technology transfer. That said, the status of the United States as a nuclear-weapon state made certain processes less difficult, such as hiring U.S. workers with requisite security clearances in the construction phase.

Nonetheless, it still took 10 years between the licensing at the outset of the project and the operation of the first cascades in New Mexico. If the United States were to build a plant for the Saudis, it likely would have to use U.S. centrifuge technology. Yet, Centrus, the U.S. supplier of nuclear fuel and services for the nuclear power industry, currently is operating only a demonstration cascade in Piketon, Ohio, under a U.S. government contract and has not scaled its new technology for the commercial market.18

A plan to build a multinational facility, perhaps with the cooperation of URENCO, might overcome some of the hesitance among NSG members, but the experience of multinational fuel-cycle facilities is not entirely promising. For example, Eurochemie, the multinational reprocessing plant in Belgium, made no effort to compartmentalize knowledge among its international workforce, and URENCO allowed each country involved in the project (Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom) to develop its own technology before choosing one.

Saudi Arabia has been a relative latecomer to nuclear energy, at least compared to the United Arab Emirates, which built this Barakah Nuclear Power Plant in Abu Dhabi. (Photo via Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation)Finally, URENCO Netherlands was the source of much technology for the Khan nuclear black market network. Although there have been many proposals, including from governmental experts and the IAEA, to multilateralize fuel cycle facilities with the objective of diminishing national control of sensitive fuel-cycle capabilities, these usually assume that the benefits will outweigh the risks. The historical evidence, however, is mixed.

Possible Outcomes

The United States has been courting Saudi officials for 15 years on negotiating a nuclear cooperation agreement, with little to show for it. Few nuclear deals have taken so much time to negotiate as this one, and it is still far from finished. Some agreements, such as the first civil nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and China, were relatively quick to negotiate but then languished before Congress because of proliferation concerns. Others, such as the U.S. agreement with South Korea, were extended provisionally to provide more time to negotiate delicate details where interests diverged.

To conclude a nuclear cooperation agreement, the United States almost certainly will need Saudi Arabia to sign an additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement. The kingdom may chafe at this because Iran does not have an additional protocol in force. Other past requests of Riyadh by Washington, such as forswearing enrichment, may be particularly difficult to achieve in the current environment if press reports are accurate. It also carries a risk: If Saudi Arabia forswears enrichment in an agreement with the United States and then procures the capability from other states, the U.S. agreement likely would be terminated. Sanctions likely would follow.

A decision to allow Saudi Arabia to go forward with uranium enrichment, on the other hand, would overturn decades of U.S. policy. The United States has never sold uranium-enrichment or spent fuel reprocessing plants to any country and has led the campaign within the nuclear nonproliferation regime for almost 50 years to prevent such sales globally. Moreover, the United States rarely grants other countries its consent to enrich or reprocess U.S.-origin nuclear material even if they use their own capabilities.

The United States has been adamant about seeking assurances from partners, particularly in the Middle East, that they will not enrich or reprocess, notably in a 1981 nuclear cooperation agreement with Egypt and a 2009 agreement with the UAE. In return, Washington promised in those agreements that it would not grant more favorable terms to other partners in the region. If the United States provided such capabilities to Saudi Arabia, it would face pressure from the UAE and, in the future, Jordan and likely South Korea to provide the same.

Some may argue that if the United States does not supply Saudi Arabia with enrichment capabilities, China or Russia might be willing to supply them. This ignores the fact that NSG guidelines state a preference for avoiding the spread of national capabilities and that the NSG operates by consensus. Russia, which supplies Iran with nuclear fuel, may not desire to supply Saudi Arabia with enrichment capabilities.

Even without a uranium-enrichment plant on offer, approval of a nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia could be contentious in the United States, given the kingdom’s poor human rights record and its frequent statements regarding its intentions to pursue nuclear weapons. It will likely be tough for members of Congress to ignore the brutal dismemberment in 2018 of U.S. journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA blamed on Riyadh. Although the bar is set rather high for Congress to disapprove a nuclear cooperation agreement that has been finalized by a U.S. president, there are still ways for determined lawmakers to delay, derail, and block implementation of the deal until policy goals are satisfied.

Nuclear cooperation agreements, like nuclear energy, carry inherent risks. As vehicles for transferring technology, material, and equipment that can serve peaceful and military uses, such agreements must balance the competing objectives of facilitating engagement without increasing proliferation risk. Their use in cementing strategic relationships often can come into conflict with their basic purpose of delineating the substance and methods of collaboration. The more important the relationship is in terms of commercial, political, and security needs, the greater the pressure there is to adjust the balance of obligations toward engagement. The U.S. government at times has used nuclear cooperation agreements to create strategic alliances, as with India, or to bolster existing alliances, as with Japan and South Korea. With Saudi Arabia, nuclear cooperation seems oriented toward fending off rising competition from China and Russia.

Risks tend to rise when special deals for special allies undermine principled stands. In the last 20 years, two major U.S. principles have been breached: a ban on nuclear trade with countries that had not signed the NPT and a refusal to share nuclear-fueled submarines beyond cooperation with the UK. The United States rationalized both of these exceptions—nuclear cooperation with India and the sale of U.S. nuclear-powered submarines to Australia—by arguing the need to compete strategically with China.

It may be that China’s role in brokering an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran on the war in Yemen helped push Israel and the United States to concoct this trilateral peace-for-arms-and-nuclear-latency deal with Saudi Arabia. It is no secret that China already has provided nuclear assistance to Saudi Arabia and Iran in uranium processing in the form of uranium conversion and uranium hexafluoride production, respectively. More recently, China has proposed building nuclear power reactors for Saudi Arabia.19 The United States was able to dissuade China in the 1990s from making such sales, but since then, China has made nuclear exports a foreign policy objective, much as Russia has done.

What stands out especially about the Saudi nuclear deal is the willful refusal of U.S. officials to acknowledge the kingdom’s overt proliferation intentions. Saudi officials have insisted since 2011 that they will acquire whatever capabilities Iran has. This should be a red flag for any country providing nuclear technology purely for peaceful purposes. No deal should move forward until Saudi Arabia commits to using nuclear technology solely for peaceful purposes regardless of what Iran does.

The Camp David Accords led the way to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979. The United States began negotiating with Egypt in 1979, but only after Egypt signed a comprehensive safeguards agreement in 1981 could the United States complete a nuclear cooperation agreement. Although Egypt had plans to reprocess spent fuel and had been courting Russia, it agreed to put those ambitions on hold and consented to language that specified it would not conduct reprocessing on its soil.

Egypt’s welcome into the nuclear fold took a few years and contained more restrictions than it perhaps desired. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the United States apparently was prepared to put the kingdom on the fast track toward a latent nuclear capability, matching or perhaps exceeding Iran’s enrichment capabilities. Even if the United States owned and operated the enrichment plant, there would be no guarantees against Saudi nationalization in a time of crisis.

Saudi Arabia faces no legal barriers to building a uranium-enrichment facility on its soil if it is prepared to accept full-scope safeguards, but it does face policy barriers. No matter what, the kingdom will have to adopt an additional protocol to its comprehensive safeguards agreement if it would like to receive enrichment technology and equipment from a country that is an NSG member. Outside the NSG, North Korea and Pakistan are potential suppliers, but this scenario is unlikely. Clandestine help likely would be detected, and transparent help would place Pakistani and North Korean technology under monitoring, something that neither supplier would welcome.

It might be possible for Saudi Arabia to receive enrichment technology from other NSG suppliers, but Saudi Arabia, like the UAE, probably has judged that U.S. approval is helpful to allay proliferation concerns, effectively conferring a “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval. The kingdom does not particularly desire U.S. nuclear reactor sales. In fact, because U.S. dominance in nuclear technology exports has been on the decline for a very long time, U.S. influence is now largely sought as a means of enlisting the cooperation of other states that can build nuclear power plants abroad quickly and cheaply, such as South Korea.

U.S. officials should keep in mind, however, that the United States still is a leader in promoting nonproliferation, nuclear safety, and nuclear security standards and that deviating from key principles, such as opposing the spread of sensitive fuel-cycle capabilities, will only reduce its influence.

More broadly, the United States should embrace the possibility that normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia is possible without nuclearization and look to bestow other key benefits on the kingdom in exchange for a regional peace that would truly reflect democratic and sustainable development goals.



1. Dion Nissenbaum, “Saudis Agree With U.S. on Path to Normalize Kingdom’s Ties With Israel,” The Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2023.

2. Dion Nissenbaum and Dov Lieber, “Israel Mulls Accepting Saudi Nuclear Enrichment,” The Wall Street Journal, September 21, 2023.

3. It could be argued that the U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements with Russia, China, and India contain security risks, but because these are all states with nuclear weapons, they would not strictly constitute proliferation risks.

4. “August 9, 1945: Radio Report to the American People on the Potsdam Conference; Transcript,” Miller Center, n.d., https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/august-9-1945-radio-report-american-people-potsdam-conference (accessed November 21, 2023).

5. For an excellent description of the origins of the International Atomic Energy Agency, see Bertrand Goldschmidt, “The Origins of the International Atomic Energy Agency,” IAEA Bulletin, Vol. 19, No. 4 (August 1977).

6. 42 U.S.C. § 2013(e).

7. Ellen C. Collier, “United States Foreign Policy on Nuclear Energy,” Library of Congress Legislative Reference Service, May 6, 1968, p. LRS-7.

8. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-1957, Regulation of Armaments; Atomic Energy, Volume XX, ed. David S. Patterson (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990), doc. 14 (NSC report no. 5507/2, dated March 12, 1955, on peaceful uses of atomic energy).

9. Maria Drogan, “The Atoms for Peace Program and the Third World,” Cahiers du monde russe, Vol. 60, Nos. 2-3 (2019): 441-460.

10. Nuclear Proliferation Factbook, S. Prt. 103-111, December 1994, pp. 48-62 (containing President Gerald Ford’s statement on nuclear policy, dated October 28, 1976).

11. Ibid., p. 54.

12. Sharon Squassoni, “Looking Back: The 1978 Nuclear Nonproliferation Act,” Arms Control Today, December 2008.

13. See Rashad Abuaish, “Saudi National Atomic Energy Project,” n.d., https://gnssn.iaea.org/NSNI/SMRP/Shared%20Documents/Workshop%2012-15%20December%202017/Saudi%20National%20Atomic%20Energy%20Project.pdf (presentation).

14. Simon Henderson and David Schenker, “Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear ‘Asks’: What Do They Want, What Might They Get?” PolicyWatch,
No. 3771 (August 15, 2023), https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/saudi-arabias-nuclear-asks-what-do-they-want-what-might-they-get.

15. Christopher M. Blanchard and Paul K. Kerr, “Prospects for U.S.-Saudi Nuclear Energy Cooperation,” CRS In Focus, IF10799, September 28, 2023, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF10799.

16. Ibid.

17. International Atomic Energy Agency, “Communication Received From the Permanent Mission of Kazakhstan to the International Atomic Energy Agency Regarding Certain Member States’ Guidelines for the Export of Nuclear Material, Equipment and Technology,” INFCIRC/254/Rev14/Part 1, October 18, 2019 (containing “Guidelines for Nuclear Transfers”).

18. Office of Nuclear Energy, U.S. Department of Energy, “HALEU Demonstration Project
Starts Enrichment Operations in Ohio,”
October 11, 2023, https://www.energy.gov/ne/articles/haleu-demonstration-project-starts-enrichment-operations-ohio.

19. Summer Said, “Saudi Arabia Eyes Chinese Bid for Nuclear Plant,” The Wall Street Journal, August 25, 2023.

Sharon Squassoni is a research professor at The George Washington University who previously held positions at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the State Department, and the Congressional Research Service.

The United States often has promised nuclear cooperation to allies for far fewer returns than it discussed with Saudi Arabia but never with such high proliferation risks.

How the Next UK Government Could Reduce the Risk of Nuclear War

December 2023
By Louis Reitmann

The next UK general election is due by January 2025, and for the first time in more than 10 years, a win by the Labour Party seems possible. Polling between 44 and 47 percent, Labour is as popular as the Conservative Party was when Boris Johnson won a landslide victory in 2019.1 Remarkably, 62 percent of members of Parliament believe that Labour will win the next election, as do most voters and 48 percent of Conservative voters.2

The administration of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party (L), seen here in 2020, stunned the world in 2021 by raising the limit on the country’s nuclear stockpile. The government of his Conservative Party successor, Rishi Sunak (R),  shows no interest in changing course. (Photo by House of Commons/PA Images via Getty Images)With a potential change in government on the horizon, the United Kingdom has an opportunity to rethink its nuclear weapons policy and return to a leadership role on nuclear risk reduction and disarmament among the five nuclear-weapon states recognized under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). After decades of reductions, the Johnson government stunned the world in 2021 by raising the limit on the UK nuclear stockpile from 180 warheads to 260 warheads and by reducing arsenal transparency.3 With this decision, the UK lost political leverage over other nuclear powers, further polarized the global disarmament debate, and contributed to growing nuclear risk. The present government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has shown no interest in changing course.

Although Labour has criticized Conservative nuclear weapons policy, it is far from united on the issue. The party seems stuck in a cyclical debate about whether to appear tough on defense or pursue nuclear disarmament, but there is a clear path by which a Labour government could take meaningful yet realistic action to reduce nuclear risk and make progress toward disarmament without unilaterally surrendering the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Giving Perspective to a Disillusioned Party

The issue of the UK’s nuclear weapons has been thorny for Labour. Its vocal pro-disarmament wing has exposed the party to questions about its commitment to national defense and nuclear deterrence. Credibility issues intensified under Jeremy Corbyn, the previous party leader and a lifelong disarmament advocate who said that he would never use nuclear weapons if elected prime minister.

The current leader, Keir Starmer, has tried to silence the critics by cementing Labour’s commitment to the UK’s nuclear weapons as “non-negotiable” and by underlining support for the ongoing modernization program.4 More recently, Starmer abolished the Office of Shadow Minister for Peace and Disarmament, held by a lawmaker who campaigned for the country to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).5 In terms of electoral strategy, this seems smart; voters currently prefer Labour policies in all areas except defense, where the Conservatives have an 18-point lead.6 To win the next election, Labour must appeal to more center-right voters, the majority of whom support the UK having nuclear weapons.7

At the same time, Starmer’s Labour Party has condemned the Johnson government for breaking its goal of gradually reducing the stockpile, criticized the Dreadnought-class submarine program’s spiraling cost as wasteful, and pledged to “lead efforts to secure multilateral disarmament.”8 There is a clear desire to differentiate Labour from the Conservative approach without appearing “weak” on defense.

To do so, Labour has to move beyond the limits of its internal debate, which has long been defined by an imagined binary choice between maintaining the arsenal as it is and complete nuclear disarmament, when in reality there are many options in between. If Labour wants to restore UK leadership in the global nuclear order, it should take a long, hard look at them.

Taking Meaningful, Realistic Action

A future Labour government’s nuclear weapons policy should be based on several broad objectives: countering the trend toward nuclear armament, reducing the risk of nuclear war, and easing the tension between the five nuclear-weapon states and TPNW states-parties that undermines a collaborative pursuit of nuclear disarmament. Implementing the following policy options would help achieve these objectives.

The lowest hanging fruit for a Labour government would be to declare a moratorium on increases to the nuclear weapons stockpile enabled by the 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. This would leave open the option of growing the stockpile in the future while acknowledging the questionable strategic necessity of a larger stockpile at this moment.

Defense officials at the time said that the cap increase was “driven by a desire to be more assertive and ‘not apologize’ for the UK’s position as a nuclear state,” rather than by strategic thinking.9 Not only was the decision unforeseen by the expert community, it also contained very little detail about the capabilities of adversaries that made a stockpile increase necessary and why alternatives, such as increasing the operational part of the stockpile, arming the patrolling submarine with more than 40 warheads, or enhancing submarine stealth or missile reentry for greater arsenal survivability, were not viable options. Going a step further, a Labour government could reinstate the previous limit of 180 warheads and resume work toward this goal to be completed in the mid-2030s.

Reversing a second decision announced in the 2021 Integrated Review, a Labour government could enhance transparency by resuming publication of the number of deployed UK missiles and warheads, and the size of the operational stockpile. The decision to pursue strategic ambiguity was meant to complicate the decision-making of adversaries during crises, but critics note that there is little evidence that ambiguity about capabilities strengthens deterrence. Indeed, the principal lesson from the Soviet-U.S. arms control experience was that mutual transparency increased both sides’ confidence that credible deterrence was possible even with fewer nuclear weapons.10 Strategic ambiguity raises the risk of miscalculation, which is why governments, such as those involved in the Stockholm Initiative, a cross-regional group of 14 countries committed to advancing nuclear disarmament, have been calling for enhanced information exchanges, dialogue, and transparency to reduce nuclear risk.11

Strategic ambiguity is inconsistent with the UK’s practice of lobbying for transparency and national reporting under the NPT and undermines its ability to credibly criticize Chinese and Russian nuclear secrecy. It also may increase distrust within the P5 process, a consultative mechanism initiated in 2009 to facilitate cooperation among the NPT’s five nuclear-weapon states that the UK inaugurated and shepherds. As former UK Defense Secretary Desmond Browne concluded, “There is really no good explanation for ending this transparency.”12

Adopting a Sole-Purpose Policy

By adopting a sole-purpose policy, the UK would declare that its nuclear weapons are only intended to deter an attack with nuclear weapons, not with any other weapons of mass destruction, conventional weapons, or cyberweapons. This change would reflect the broad consensus in the UK nuclear community that it is unthinkable that London would ever use nuclear weapons first and that the arsenal is too small to deliver a preemptive strike against its main adversaries, Russia and China. There also is no majority support among the UK public for a first-use policy.13

A sole-purpose declaration would be a positive step toward risk reduction, helping to prevent miscalculations by adversaries that could trigger a nuclear first strike against the UK. The argument that retaining a first-use option deters conventional war ignores the fact that even a lower-yield nuclear response to a conventional attack easily could escalate into full-blown nuclear war.

Adopting a sole-purpose policy would require coordination with allies to ensure complementarity with NATO’s nuclear posture. There is potential for the UK and the United States to act jointly on this in the future since the Biden administration was viewed as likely to adopt a sole-purpose policy prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Another option is for a Labour-led Parliament to adopt legislation linking future nuclear weapons modernization to further reductions in the stockpile or nuclear posture, affecting updates to the arsenal after the Dreadnought-class submarines now under construction leave service in the 2070s. This would be a long overdue response to criticism that the nuclear-weapon states are not making concrete plans for disarmament in the spirit of the NPT while still giving the UK another 40 years to prepare for reductions.

Although politically difficult, this option must be considered seriously, not least because each modernization bears a considerable risk that the update cannot be delivered on time, at the expected capability, or at all. Currently, concerns are emerging that the Dreadnought program will not be completed; several components are already severely behind schedule and billions over budget.14 Regarding the development of a new reactor to power the submarines, the UK Infrastructure and Projects Authority has concluded that the “successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable.”15 Facing many challenges from economic security to public health, the UK may not want or be able to take on an immense financial risk like this again.

As for alternatives to the current UK posture with at least one nuclear-armed submarine always at sea, a 2013 governmental review gave concrete options, for example, coordinating deployment schedules more closely with France and the United States to ensure that the UK is protected by NATO capabilities when not deploying its own submarines.16 Reductions in the stockpile or nuclear posture could be combined with a UK Ministry of Defence program to investigate how the state could bolster its conventional capabilities with the savings that accrue from a smaller nuclear arsenal.

Attending a TPNW Meeting

A Labour government could make history if the UK becomes the first nuclear-weapon state to attend a TPNW meeting of states-parties as an observer. This could be a step toward a broader change in the UK approach to the treaty if it no longer works to undermine the TPNW, discourages states from joining it, or asserts the treaty’s incompatibility with the NPT.

Normalizing the UK relationship with the TPNW would be a smart choice. It would acknowledge that the campaign by the nuclear-weapon states against the treaty has backfired by antagonizing many non-nuclear-weapon states and strengthening support for the TPNW. At the same time, a less hostile approach would not prevent the UK from continuing to assert that the treaty has no political or legal effect on itself or other states that are not party to it.

It is worth remembering that the UK previously has changed course in a similar way. After abstaining from the first two conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, in Oslo and Nayarit, the UK and the United States attended the third conference, held in Vienna in 2014, and were the only nuclear-weapon states to do so.

Finally, a Labour government could fund assistance for victims of UK nuclear testing and for restoration of the ecosystems that UK tests have destroyed in Australia, the Pacific region, and Nevada. Assistance could be given directly to the affected communities or via a trust fund that TPNW states-parties are discussing.17

Emphasizing humanitarian and environmental concerns would align well with Labour’s ambitions to carve out a new, progressive role for the UK on the world stage. It also would help address the country’s colonialist legacy as nearly all 45 of its nuclear tests were conducted on or near indigenous land. The UK pays pensions to veterans who worked on the tests, and Labour has promised each veteran a ₤50,000 lump sum.18 Yet, the UK has never extended apologies or support to indigenous peoples who for generations have suffered the trauma and health consequences of nuclear testing. In Kiribati alone, 189 families have been afflicted by illness due to UK tests.19 Despite persistent lobbying, including at the 2023 UN General Assembly, calls for compensation have been ignored.

From an opportunistic perspective, providing such support could further the UK’s self-perception as a responsible nuclear-weapon state. Along with France and the United States, the UK has used this term to differentiate itself from China and Russia, which have embarked on modernization and expansion programs for their nuclear arsenals with minimal transparency.

The UK could even fund assistance to people and places affected by Soviet testing, for example, in Kazakhstan, thus demonstrating the difference between Russian and UK conduct as nuclear powers. TPNW states-parties reject the idea that any state with nuclear weapons could be considered responsible, but expanding the concept to include victims assistance and environmental remediation could strengthen the UK case that there are more responsible ways of maintaining nuclear weapons.

An Opportunity to Be Seized

If elected, Labour must move past its self-sabotaging internal struggle between unconditional commitment to the status quo and unilateral disarmament toward a balanced and results-oriented approach to the country’s nuclear arsenal. Labour’s pursuit of a “safe-choice-for-defense” image should not prevent it from seizing this unique opportunity to restore the UK’s international leadership regarding nuclear risk reduction and disarmament. There are plenty of policy options on the table, from low-hanging fruit to ambitious initiatives.



1. Ipsos, “Latest UK Opinion Polls: Government Approval Recent Changes,” October 4, 2023; YouGov, “YouGov/The Times Survey Results,” n.d., p. 1, https://d3nkl3psvxxpe9.cloudfront.net/documents/TheTimes_VI_231018_W.pdf.

2. Matthew Smith, “Half of Tory MPs Say the Conservatives Are Going to Win the Next Election,” YouGov, July 14, 2023, https://yougov.co.uk/politics/articles/45901-half-tory-mps-say-conservatives-are-going-win-next.

3. Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos, “UK to Increase Cap on Nuclear Warhead Stockpile,” Arms Control Today, April 2021, pp. 18-19.

4. Helen Catt, “Labour Renews Vow to Keep Nuclear Weapons,” BBC News, February 26, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-56198972.

5. Labour Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, “Starmer Removes Peace and Disarmament Role From Shadow Team,” September 8, 2023, https://www.labourcnd.org.uk/2023/09/starmer-removes-peace-and-disarmament-role-from-shadow-team/; Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, “Parliamentarians Supporting the TPNW,” January 7, 2021, https://cnduk.org/parliamentarians-supporting-the-tpnw/.

6. Gideon Skinner et al., “British Public Think Labour Have the Best Policies on Key Issues but Are Often Unsure How They Would Tackle Them,” Ipsos, June 27, 2023, https://www.ipsos.com/en-uk/british-public-think-labour-have-best-policies-on-key-issues.

7. Milan Dinic, “YouGov Study of War: Nuclear Weapons and War,” YouGov, September 21, 2022, https://yougov.co.uk/politics/articles/43812-part-three-nuclear-weapons-and-war.

8. Dan Sabbagh and Jessica Elgot, “Keir Starmer Accuses PM of Breaking Policy on Nuclear Disarmament,” The Guardian, March 16, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/mar/16/keir-starmer-accuses-pm-of-breaking-policy-on-nuclear-disarmament; Dan Taylor, “Row as Labour Criticises ‘Significant Issues’ With Dreadnought Programme,” The Mail, September 7, 2022, https://www.nwemail.co.uk/news/20988403.row-labour-criticises-significant-issueswith-dreadnought-programme/; Helen Catt, “Labour Renews Vow to Keep Nuclear Weapons,” BBC News, February 26, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-56198972.

9. David Cullen, “Extreme Circumstances: The UK’s New Nuclear Warhead in Context,” Nuclear Information Service (NIS), August 2022, p. 36, https://www.nuclearinfo.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Extreme-Circumstances-print-version.pdf.

10. Pavel Podvig, “Transparency in Nuclear Disarmament,” UN Institute for Disarmament Research, March 2012, p. 6, https://unidir.org/files/publication/pdfs/transparency-in-nuclear-disarmament-390.pdf.

11. 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “A Nuclear Risk Reduction Package: Working Paper Submitted by the Stockholm Initiative, Supported by Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Ethiopia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland,” NPT/CONF.2020/WP.9, May 14, 2021, p. 3.

12. James McKeon, “Q&A: Des Browne on the UK’s Decision to Increase the Cap on Nuclear Warheads,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, April 14, 2021, https://www.nti.org/atomic-pulse/qa-des-browne-on-the-uks-decision-to-increase-the-cap-on-nuclear-warheads/.

13. Tim Street, Harry Spencer, and Shane Ward, “The British Government Doesn’t Want to Talk About Its Nuclear Weapons. The British Public Does,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 6, 2023, https://thebulletin.org/2023/04/the-british-government-doesnt-want-to-talk-about-its-nuclear-weapons-the-british-public-does/.

14. NIS, “Trouble Ahead Update - Winter 2022/23,” YouTube, December 20, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SLRP8Q70LA0.

15. NIS, “Increasing Risk of Problems in Derby Delaying Dreadnought Schedule,” August 7, 2023, https://www.nuclearinfo.org/article/increasing-risk-of-problems-in-derby-delaying-dreadnought-schedule/.

16. Government of the United Kingdom, “Trident Alternatives Review,” July 16, 2013, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5a7c65b1e5274a7ee2567320/20130716_Trident_Alternatives_Study.pdf.

17. International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School, “Designing a Trust Fund for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons: Precedents and Proposals,” January 2023, https://humanrightsclinic.law.harvard.edu/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/011323_Trust-Fund-Report-Combined.pdf.

18. UK Labour Party, “It’s Time for Real Change: The Labour Party Manifesto 2019,” November 2019, p. 101, https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Real-Change-Labour-Manifesto-2019.pdf.

19. Becky Alexis-Martin, “Veterans Join Pacific Islanders in Bid for Nuclear Testing Compensation,” The Telegraph, October 19, 2023, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/terror-and-security/britain-nuclear-testing-programme-kiribati-compensation/.

Louis Reitmann is a research associate at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, focusing on nuclear disarmament, export controls, and diversity, equity, and inclusion in the nuclear field.

With a potential change in government on the horizon, the United Kingdom has an opportunity to rethink its nuclear weapons policy and return to a leadership role.

AI and the Bomb: Nuclear Strategy and Risk in the Digital Age

December 2023

Nuclear Deterrence: Unsafe at Machine Speed

AI and the Bomb: Nuclear Strategy and Risk in the Digital Age
By James Johnson
Oxford University Press
May 2023

Reviewed by Douglas B. Shaw

James Johnson’s book is the most important book about preventing nuclear war that has been published in recent years. The author confronts head-on the complexity of the dangers that artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies pose for nuclear deterrence. He combines a commanding view of deterrence theory with the imagination to point toward where technology is already obscuring deterrence practice and concludes darkly that, “[i]n the context of AI and autonomy, particularly information complexity, misinformation, and manipulation, rationality-based deterrence logic appears an increasingly untenable proposition.”

AI and the Bomb opens with a gripping account of a “flash war” between China and the United States, taking place over less than two hours in June 2025, in which nuclear weapons are used, millions of people die, and afterward, no one on either side can explain exactly what happened. This story underscores the fact that even if not given control of nuclear weapons, AI and emerging technologies connected to adjacent or seemingly unrelated systems may combine in unforeseen ways to render nuclear escalation incomprehensible to the humans in (or on) the loop.

Johnson’s book is the first comprehensive effort to understand the implications of the AI revolution for the Cold War notion of “strategic stability” at the core of nuclear deterrence. He finds new challenges for deterrence theory and practice in emerging technologies, centering inadvertent escalation as a “new model for nuclear risk.” He formulates a novel “AI-security dilemma” more volatile and unpredictable than the past. He also adds a new dimension of “catalytic nuclear war” by which states without nuclear weapons or nonstate actors might use AI to cause nuclear war among nuclear-armed states.

Artificial Intelligence, Emerging Technology, and Deterrence Theory

The author embraces and extends the emerging conventional wisdom that AI should not be plugged into nuclear command-and-control systems, observing that “the delegation of the decision-making process (to inform and make decisions) to machines is not a binary choice but rather a continuum between the two extremes—human decision-making and judgment and machine autonomy at each stage of the kill chain.” Beyond using AI to facilitate nuclear launch decisions, Johnson shows how AI could affect the nuclear balance by changing nuclear weapons system accuracy, resilience and survivability, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for targeting. AI capabilities also may give conventional weapons systems dramatic new capabilities to attack nuclear weapons systems, through increased ability to penetrate air defenses; increased ability to “detect, track, target, and intercept” nuclear missiles; and advanced cybercapabilities, potentially including manipulation of “the information ecosystem in which strategic decisions involving nuclear weapons take place.”

Importantly, Johnson uses AI as a shorthand for referring to AI and a suite of other emerging technologies that enable AI, including “cyberspace, space technology, nuclear technologies, GPS technology, and 3D printing.” This choice mirrors the practice of other thought leaders, including Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher in The Age of AI and Mustafa Suleyman in The Coming Wave.

The book is a grim journey for scholars of nuclear deterrence theory, forcing them to confront concepts such as “machine-speed AI warfare,” “non-human agents,” nuclear arsenals with a “larger attack surface” in a world in which ubiquitous sensors feed data oceans, and “disinformation cascades” that could lead to an “unravelling of deterrence in practice.” These ominous signs begin to flesh out the broad concerns about nuclear strategy that Kissinger, Schmidt, and Huttenlocher raise, including that “[t]he management of nuclear weapons, the endeavor of half a century, remains incomplete and fragmentary” and that the “unsolved riddles of nuclear strategy must be given new attention.”

Johnson centers Barry Posen’s concept of “[i]nadvertant escalation” as “a new model for nuclear risk.” He finds that “AI-enhanced systems operating at higher speeds, levels of sophistication, and compressed decision-making timeframes will likely…reduce the scope for de-escalating situations and contribute to future mishaps.” He observes AI undermining the utility of Herman Kahn’s familiar “escalation ladder” metaphor: “AI is creating new ways (or ‘rungs’) and potential shortcuts up (and down) the ladder, which might create new mechanisms for a state to perceive (or misperceive) others to be on a different rung, thus making some ‘rungs’ more (or less) fluid or malleable.” Instead of a discrete escalation ladder, Johnson helps the reader envision any number of misperceptions, miscommunications, accidents, and errors interacting with one another across distances, failure modes, and time scales beyond effective human cognition.

‘The AI Security Dilemma’

The book arrives at a moment of urgent, real-world demand for updated nuclear deterrence theory. Last year, Admiral Charles Richard, the U.S. Strategic Command commander, told the annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, that his command was “furiously” rewriting deterrence theory to solve a “three body problem” resulting from China’s emergence as a near-peer nuclear arms competitor to the United States and Russia.1

Johnson carefully examines the specific challenges that AI poses for nuclear deterrence theory. He identifies three ways that AI and other emerging technologies have become a singular aggravator of the security dilemma, the enduring challenge at the heart of international relations by which development of defensive capabilities by one state necessarily threatens others.

First, the AI security dilemma features the possibility of extraordinarily fast technological breakthroughs, incentivizing states in competition with peers in AI technology to move first rather than risk being second. For example, the U.S. National Security Commission on AI found that “defending against AI-capable adversaries [notably China] operating at machine speeds without employing AI is an invitation to disaster.”

Second, the AI security dilemma risks placing latent offensive capabilities in civilian hands, such as the massive data facilitated by communication and navigation satellites. Whereas the traditional security dilemma is driven primarily by the misinterpretation of defensive military capabilities, the AI security dilemma also can be driven by the misinterpretation of ostensibly peaceful commercial capabilities.

Third, the AI security dilemma is driven by commercial and market forces not under the positive control of states. Whereas the traditional security dilemma causes states to fear each other’s actions, the AI security dilemma drives states increasingly to fear the actions of private firms. Taken together, these three novel characteristics of potentially explosive technological breakthroughs, ambiguous commercial capabilities, and the absence of positive control over commercial capabilities led Johnson to conclude that AI is “a dilemma aggravator primus inter pares.”

AI extends the problem of nuclear deterrence stability beyond the nuclear-armed states to all states or other actors with offensive AI capabilities. During the Cold War, nuclear proliferation threatened a possible future world with too many nuclear-armed states for confidence in stable nuclear deterrence. Fortunately, nuclear proliferation has been limited enough to be forced, however awkwardly, into various dyads by which mutual threats render nuclear deterrence practice more or less comprehensible, stable, and aligned with necessary assumptions. Johnson worries that offensive AI capabilities may add additional variables to the nuclear escalation equation. Even without the further spread of nuclear weapons, states or other actors could use AI to leverage the deterrent arsenals of nuclear-armed states through “catalytic war.” As the author writes, “The catalyzing chain of reaction and counter-retaliation dynamics set in motion by nonstate or third-party actor’s deliberate action is fast becoming a more plausible scenario in the digital era.”

Beyond Rational Nuclear Deterrence?

The book demonstrates repeatedly how revolutionary change in the technological terrain in which nuclear deterrence takes place demands urgent theoretical and practical adaptation. Old assumptions and human rationality may decrease sharply in effectiveness as tools for preventing nuclear war.

Johnson offers some initial ideas of how to manage the stark challenges that AI poses for nuclear deterrence. Arms control will remain important, if challenging, in new ways; he suggests that banning AI enhancements to nuclear deterrence capabilities might be an important first step.

Another early step that could align with Johnson’s insight might be to work toward the internationalization of processes modeled on the U.S. nuclear “failsafe review” mandated by Congress in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act and now underway at the Department of Defense. The failsafe review “aims to identify nuclear risk-reduction measures that the [United States] could implement to strengthen safeguards against the unauthorized, inadvertent, or mistaken use of a nuclear weapon, including through false warning of an attack.” Since early 2020, Co-chair Sam Nunn and Co-chair and CEO Ernest J. Moniz of the Nuclear Threat Initiative have championed the initiative’s effort to encourage the U.S. government to undertake such a review aimed at strengthening nuclear failsafe and to challenge other nuclear powers to conduct their own internal reviews.2

Johnson recommends applying AI as part of the solution to support nuclear risk reduction, including through “normative, behavioral and confidence building measures to increase mutual trust.” There may be ways that dangers created or accelerated by AI can be mitigated or better managed through adjustments to legacy nuclear deterrence force structures and practices in which patterns of daily life and the massive “data exhaust” of people and systems constituted less of a vulnerability.

The author also recommends bilateral and multilateral dialogue on strategic stability, including with an expanded range of stakeholders through which “partnerships should be forged between commercial AI developers and researchers to explore risk reduction measures in the nuclear enterprise.” AI-enabled capabilities make more states and even nonstate actors immediately relevant to strategic stability. Multinational corporations and leading innovators increasingly own capabilities and data that may be implicated in nuclear deterrence.

Elon Musk’s change to Starlink operations in apparent response to a nuclear threat from Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this year is a clear signal that the potential exposure of nuclear deterrence to the commercial sector should no longer be ignored. Observing that “it is inevitable that AI is going to be used for things that touch nuclear weapons,” Jill Hruby, the administrator of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, recently imagined a path forward, a future in which “you’re almost going to need AI systems battling each other to do the verification.”3 If the world wants to prevent a future in which algorithms fight nuclear war, leaders must act and invest now in algorithms to prevent nuclear war.

Ultimately, Johnson expects that “AI technology in the nuclear domain will likely be a double-edged sword: strengthening the [nuclear command-and-control] systems while expanding the pathways and tools available to adversaries to conduct cyberattacks and electronic warfare operations against these systems.” He encourages policymakers to act “before the pace of technological change outpaces (or surpasses) strategic affairs.”

Johnson concludes his book with a quote from machine learning pioneer Alan Turing: “We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.” AI and the Bomb is a must read for those seeking to understand the first signals of revolutionary change that AI is bringing to the challenge of preventing nuclear war. It sends a clear warning that the world does not yet know how to manage the effects of AI on nuclear deterrence and, without significant urgent effort, it is likely to fall short.



1. Theresa Hitchens, “The Nuclear 3 Body Problem: STRATCOM ‘Furiously’ Rewriting Deterrence Theory in Tripolar World,” Breaking Defense, August 11, 2022, https://breakingdefense.com/2022/08/the-nuclear-3-body-problem-stratcom-furiously-rewriting-deterrence-theory-in-tri-polar-world/.

2. Nuclear Threat Initiative, “The Failsafe Review,” January 25, 2023, https://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/the-failsafe-review/.

3. Jill Hruby, Remarks to the Nuclear Threat Initiative Board of Directors, Washington, October 24, 2023.

Douglas B. Shaw is senior adviser to the president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

This book is a must-read for those seeking to understand the first signals of revolutionary change that AI is bringing to the challenge of preventing nuclear war.

China, U.S. Hold Rare Arms Control Talks

December 2023
By Shizuka Kuramitsu

China and the United States held long-awaited talks on nuclear arms control on Nov. 6, the first such meeting in nearly in five years.

After U.S. President Joe Biden (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in San Francisco on Nov. 15, they directed their teams to hold long overdue followup discussions on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. The groundwork was set nine days earlier in discussions between senior Chinese and U.S. arms control officials in Washington. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)Although the meeting in Washington produced no specific result and no specific date for follow-on talks was announced, U.S. officials said the discussion, which occurred amid rising nuclear and geopolitical tensions, was worthwhile simply because it took place.

In separate statements issued shortly after the meeting, the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department described the discussion between Sun Xiaobo, Chinese director-general of arms control, and Mallory Stewart, U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance, as candid, in-depth, and constructive.

The State Department said the issues under discussion “related to arms control and nonproliferation as part of ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication and responsibly manage the [bilateral] relationship.”

The United States, it said, “emphasized the importance of increased [Chinese] nuclear transparency and substantive engagement on practical measures to manage and reduce strategic risks across multiple domains, including nuclear and outer space,” and “the need to promote stability, help avert an unconstrained arms race, and manage competition so that it does not veer into conflict.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the officials discussed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, cooperation among the five nuclear-weapon states, nuclear security, nonproliferation and export control, compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention, and outer space security and regular arms control.

According to Reuters, a senior U.S. official said on Nov. 7, “I wouldn't say we learned anything new from them or that they delved into a great amount of detail in terms of their own nuclear force, their buildup and whether or not their policy or doctrine could be shifting over time.”

The meeting occurred as Beijing and Washington sought to reengage after a prolonged estrangement and to find a way to manage their way forward as major competitors in an unstable world. The last bilateral meeting on arms control issues took place in 2018 in Beijing when Chinese and U.S. officials “exchanged views” on their respective nuclear policies and on mutual cooperation on nonproliferation, among other topics, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Among Washington’s major current concerns is Beijing’s nuclear weapons buildup and its refusal to allow more transparency into the country’s nuclear program.

In its latest report on China’s military power, the U.S. Defense Department estimated that China will possess in excess of 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030 and will accelerate development of its intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. (See ACT, November 2023.)

“Compared to the PLA’s [People’s Liberation Army] nuclear modernization efforts a decade ago, current efforts dwarf previous attempts in both scale and complexity,” the report said. Regardless, China’s arsenal is dwarfed by those of Russia, which has 4,500 warheads, and the United States, which has roughly 3,800 warheads.

Biden has long called for China to join in arms control talks. The United States is ready to “engage China without preconditions, helping ensure that competition is managed and that competition does not veer into conflict,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told the Arms Control Association annual forum on June 2.

“It’s our hope that…Beijing will be willing to include substantive engagement on strategic nuclear issues, which
would benefit the security of both of our countries and the security of the entire world,” Sullivan said.

During the Stewart-Sun meeting, the U.S. delegation “highlighted the need to promote stability, help avert an unconstrained arms race, and manage competition so that it does not veer into conflict,” the State Department statement said. Beijing, on the other hand, “emphasized that China and the United States should carry out dialogue and cooperation on the basis of mutual respect,” according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

China also “stressed that the two sides should adhere to the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security [in order to] realize lasting peace and universal security in the world.”

The meeting between Stewart and Sun preceded the Nov. 15 meeting in San Francisco between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden and followed other recent high-level bilateral engagements, including between the U.S. secretary of state and the U.S. national security advisor with their Chinese counterparts.

According to a readout by the White House on the Xi-Biden talks, the leaders agreed that their teams will follow-up their discussions in San Francisco with “continued high-level diplomacy and interactions, including visits in both directions and ongoing working-level consultations in key areas, including on…arms control and nonproliferation.”

The State Department reported that the two leaders agreed to resume military-to-military communications and to continue their bilateral engagements “in key areas, including on commercial, economic, financial, Asia-Pacific, arms control and nonproliferation, maritime, export control enforcement, policy-planning, agriculture, and disability issues.”

In 2014, Xi told U.S. President Barack Obama that “the Pacific Ocean is broad enough to accommodate the development of both China and the United States and our two countries to work together to contribute to security in Asia.” When he met Biden, Xi told him that “planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed.”

The first such meeting in nearly five years produced no obvious result but it did begin a dialogue.

UN Command States Pledge Support for South Korea

December 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

Top defense officials from 18 countries condemned North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and pledged to respond jointly to any attack that threatens South Korea’s security.

U.S. Army Chief of Staff General James McConville (C, front) at the military demarcation line separating North Korea and South Korea in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in May. Top defense officials from 18 countries that are part of the UN Command monitoring the DMZ recently pledged to respond jointly to any attack that threatens South Korean security.  (Photo by Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)In a Nov. 14 statement, the states said that they “will be united upon any renewal of hostilities or armed attack on the Korean peninsula” that challenges UN principles and the security of South Korea.

The 18 states were South Korea and 17 of the 22 member states that contribute military personnel to the UN Command, the multilateral forces established by the UN Security Council in 1950 to restore peace on the Korean peninsula. The UN Command continues to monitor the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea and enforce the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War.

South Korea is not a member of the UN Command, and the Nov. 14 meeting in Seoul was the first high-level defense meeting between UN Command members and South Korea. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol prioritized holding this meeting as part of his strategy to bolster South Korea’s defense against North Korea.

In a speech opening the meeting, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik said that if “North Korea again commits an illegal invasion of the South,” it would be a “serious act of betrayal” against the United Nations and “inevitably lead to strong punishment” by the UN Command and the international community.

He said that any country that assists North Korea in an attack “will face the same punishment.”

According to the joint statement, the officials also discussed “the utility and necessity of dialogue” for achieving peace on the Korean peninsula and the important role that all UN member states must play in implementing Security Council resolutions targeting North Korea’s illicit nuclear and missile programs.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin participated in the meeting and said in a keynote speech that the UN Command “helps maintain deterrence by assuring that we can sustain our forces” in the event of a conflict.

Austin noted that since the UN Command was created, there have been “major changes in the regional security environment,” including North Korea’s nuclear, missile, and cybercapabilities, and that the “shared commitment to the defense” of South Korea remains vital. He also expressed concern that Russia and China are helping North Korea evade sanctions and expand its military capabilities.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry called for the dissolution of the UN Command and referred to the body as
a “U.S.-led multinational war tool” that endangers the “security in the Asia-Pacific region.”

In a Nov. 13 statement published by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the Foreign Ministry said the meeting proves that the United States plans to “occupy the whole Korean peninsula by force of arms” and is creating the conditions “for igniting the second Korean war.”

Prior to the UN Command meeting, Austin met with Shin to discuss the South Korean-U.S. alliance. The U.S. Defense Department said in a Nov. 13 press release that Austin and Shin agreed on three key priorities for the future: deterring strategic attacks, modernizing South Korean and U.S. capabilities to strengthen the “combined defense architecture of the alliance,” and strengthening security cooperation with partners in the region.

Austin and Shin also updated the 2013 Tailored Deterrence Strategy, which outlines U.S. extended nuclear deterrence commitments to South Korea.

According to Shin, the revisions are necessary to take into account North Korea’s advances over the past decade. He said the document outlines how South Korea will provide conventional assistance to support U.S. nuclear operations and states that the United States will use its full range of conventional and nuclear capabilities to defend Seoul from a nuclear attack by Pyongyang.

In a press conference following the meeting, Austin also said the United States will use its “full range of nuclear, conventional, and missile defense capabilities” to defend South Korea and that the recent deployment of U.S. strategic assets to the region demonstrates the “ironclad” U.S. commitment to South Korea. He said the United States is now “more forward deployed and more capable to respond.”

The North Korean National Defense Ministry said in a Nov. 16 statement in KCNA that the new deterrence strategy is “aimed at a preemptive nuclear strike” on North Korea and accused the United States of aggravating tensions by bringing strategic assets to the region.

Austin and Shin also met virtually with Japanese Defense Minister Mioru Kihara. Shin said the three countries discussed a previous commitment to share information about North Korean missile launches in real time and agreed to activate the mechanism to enable the information sharing in December.

The launch of the mechanism will enhance the “detection and assessment capabilities” of all three countries, according to a South Korean Defense Ministry statement.

Austin’s visit followed a joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise on Oct. 25 aimed at responding to “Hamas-style surprise artillery attacks,” referring to the Oct. 7 terrorist attack where Hamas fighters crossed into Israel and killed an estimated 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

The three-day drill was aimed at detecting a surprise attack and preemptively striking North Korea’s long-range artillery, which can target Seoul.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also traveled to Seoul in November. After meeting South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin, Blinken said that the military relationship between Moscow and Pyongyang is “growing and dangerous” and that Washington will continue to track and expose military transfers between the two countries. In October, the Biden administration accused North Korea of shipping military equipment and munitions to Russia. (See ACT, November 2023.)

In a Nov. 11 statement in KCNA, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said that the United States should become “accustomed to the new reality” of North Korean-Russian relations, which “will steadily grow stronger.”

The statement said that if the United States is concerned about the relationship, it should “abandon the hostile policy toward the two countries” and “withdraw political provocations, military threats and strategic pressure” directed at North Korea and Russia.

One area where North Korea expressed interest in Russian assistance involves satellite launches. After failed launches in May and August, North Korea attempted to put a military reconnaissance satellite into orbit on Nov. 21 using the Chollima-1 space launch vehicle.

KCNA described the satellite launch as a success in a Nov. 22 statement and said that North Korea now has “eyes overlooking a long distance.”

The South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed that the satellite entered orbit in a Nov. 22 press release but said it is too soon to say if it is functional.

It is unclear the extent to which Russia assisted North Korea with that launch.

Top defense officials from 18 countries condemned North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and pledged to respond to any attack that threatens South Korea. 

U.S. to Develop Unanticipated New Nuclear Bomb

December 2023
By Shannon Bugos

The U.S. Defense Department unexpectedly announced its intention to develop an additional variant of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb, to be known as the B61-13.

Technicians test load a new nuclear-capable B61-12 gravity bomb for the B-2 Spirit bomber at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, in 2022. The U.S. Defense Department unexpectedly announced on October 27 its intention to develop a new variant of the B61 weapons system, to be called the B61-13. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Devan Halstead)“Today’s announcement is reflective of a changing security environment and growing threats from potential adversaries,” said John Plumb, assistant secretary of defense for space policy, in an Oct. 27 statement. “The United States has a responsibility to continue to assess and field the capabilities we need to credibly deter and, if necessary, respond to strategic attacks, and assure our allies.”

The Pentagon acknowledged its hope that the B61-13 variant would help catalyze the stagnant retirement process of the B83 megaton gravity bomb.

“The B61-13 will provide the President with additional options against certain harder and large-area military targets, even while the department works to retire legacy systems such as the B83-1,” according to a Pentagon fact sheet.

Members of Congress have strongly resisted retiring the B83, claiming the largest bomb in the U.S. nuclear arsenal at 1.2 megatons is necessary to target hard and deeply buried targets. (See ACT, November 2023.) The Trump administration contributed to this resistance with the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which called for retaining the B83 bomb, rather than proceeding with its planned retirement. (See ACT, March 2018.)

But the Biden administration aims to follow through on the retirement of the B83. The megaton-class bomb is “of increasingly limited utility, and retiring it does not change the hard and deeply buried target set,” Plumb told Congress last year.

“The case for the B61-13 is strange,” assessed the Federation of American Scientists in an Oct. 27 blog post. “For the past 13 years, the sales pitch for the expensive B61-12 has been that it would replace all other nuclear gravity bombs,” as well as “cover all gravity missions with less collateral damage than large-yield bombs.”

The B61-13 would be deliverable by modern aircraft and have a maximum yield similar to the 360-kiloton B61-7 variant, a massive increase when compared to the most recent 50-kiloton B61-12. The B61-12 is scheduled for initial deployment this year, replacing the 100 B61-3/4 bombs believed to be stationed across Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey under the NATO nuclear sharing mission.

The Defense Department emphasized that the B61-13 would not increase the overall size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. “The number of B61-12s to be produced will be lowered by the same amount as the number of B61-13s produced,” according to the Pentagon fact sheet.

In an Oct. 24 letter to Congress, the Energy Department officially requested to amend its fiscal year 2024 budget request to cover development engineering activities for the B61-13.

Whether the request will be granted remains to be seen because Congress has yet to pass the necessary legislation to fund any department for all of fiscal year 2024.

The Defense Department unexpectedly announced plans to develop a new variant of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb.

UN to Address Autonomous Weapons Systems

December 2023
By Michael T. Klare

The First Committee of the UN General Assembly, which is responsible for international security and disarmament affairs, has adopted a draft resolution calling for the secretary-general to conduct a comprehensive study of lethal autonomous weapons systems.

Austrian diplomat Alexander Kmentt says that in calling for a study of lethal autonomous weapons systems, the First Committee of the UN General Assembly is hoping to lay the ground for regulating these systems. (Photo by Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images)The measure was approved on Oct. 12 by an overwhelming 164-5 vote, suggesting that it will be adopted by the full assembly before it adjourns in December. Eight UN member states abstained.

The committee action marked the first time that the UN has addressed the issue of lethal autonomous weapons systems, which are governed by artificial intelligence (AI) rather than human operators.

In conducting the study, the secretary-general is instructed to consult the views of member states and civil society “on ways to address the related challenges and concerns they raise [regarding the use of autonomous weapons] from humanitarian, legal, security, technological and ethical perspectives.”

A final report is to be readied for the 2024 session of the General Assembly, where further action on these systems
is expected.

“The objective is obviously to move forward on regulating autonomous weapons systems,” Alexander Kmentt, director of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation in the Austrian Foreign Affairs Ministry, told Arms Control Today in an email. “The resolution makes it clear that the overwhelming majority of states wants to address this issue with urgency.” Austria was one of the lead sponsors of the proposed measure.

In calling for the study, the resolution notes that considerable disquiet has arisen among UN member states over the ethical, legal, and humanitarian implications of deploying machines with the capacity to take human lives. Concerns also have emerged over the “impact of autonomous weapon systems on global security and regional and international stability,” the resolution states. In seeking the views of member states and civil society on the use of such systems, the secretary-general is specifically instructed to solicit feedback on those concerns.

Although the resolution would not impose any specific limitations on the use of these systems, as some governments and civil society organizations have demanded, it demonstrates the desire of many states to create options for more vigorous UN action on the topic.

Until now, international efforts to control the development and deployment of autonomous weapons systems have centered largely around negotiations in Geneva to ban such systems in accordance with the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). That treaty is designed to prohibit or restrict the use of munitions that cause unnecessary or unjustifiable suffering to combatants or indiscriminately affect civilians.

Civil society organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, have joined with representatives of Austria, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and numerous other governments to press for the adoption of an “additional protocol” under the CCW restricting the use of lethal autonomous weapons systems or banning them altogether. But because decisions at meetings of the treaty’s state-parties are made by consensus, Russian and U.S. opposition to binding measures in this area has stymied these efforts. (See ACT, April 2023.)

In light of this impasse, proponents of a ban or restrictions on these systems have turned to the General Assembly as a potential arena for achieving progress on the issue because decisions there are made by majority vote, not consensus, and support for such measures appears to be strong, given the lopsided vote in favor of the Oct. 12 resolution.

“Unfortunately, some states seem intent on continuing discussions in Geneva but not to allow progress towards negotiations of a legally binding instrument,” Kmentt observed. “Even if we can’t reflect any substantive progress in the discussions in Geneva, UN member states now have this other avenue to clearly reflect and express what they think ought to be done on this extremely crucial issue.”

Kmentt also noted that the resolution calls for a wider discussion of lethal autonomous weapons systems and the risks they pose than has been conducted at the negotiations in Geneva. “Humanity is about to cross a major threshold of profound importance when the decision over life and death is no longer taken by humans but made on the basis of pre-programmed algorithms, [raising] fundamental ethical issues,” he wrote in his email. “The resolution and the mandated report will hopefully broaden the international debate.”

The First Committee of the UN General Assembly has called for a comprehensive study of lethal autonomous weapons systems, which some see as a first step to international regulations.

U.S. to Use Weapons-Grade Uranium in Reactor Experiment

December 2023
By Shizuka Kuramitsu

The U.S. Energy Department is expected to begin work in the coming months on a civilian research project that relies on weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU), a fuel type that the United States and other countries have long sought to phase out for such energy uses.

Researchers at Idaho National Laboratory work on synthesizing and irradiating a molten chloride salt fueled with enriched uranium. The experiment is attempting to validate the safety and reliability of a simple reactor type that could efficiently provide electricity and heat for communities and industry. (Photo via Idaho National Laboratory)The project has raised concerns among nuclear nonproliferation experts, who say it conflicts with long-standing U.S. nonproliferation efforts to minimize the civilian use of HEU, which can be converted more easily than low-enriched uranium (LEU) for use in nuclear weapons.

A group of 20 experts, including university professors, heads of think tanks, and former U.S. government officials, urged the Energy Department to reconsider alternatives to HEU. But department officials rejected such appeals in September and said the project is consistent with U.S. policy.

The U.S. plan is to have government-funded civilian research reactors use more than 600 kilograms of HEU in a six-month experiment to prepare the design of a new type of reactor. Critics say the fuel to be used would be enough for dozens of nuclear weapons.

The project got underway in December 2020, when the Energy Department selected a civilian energy company, Southern Co., to conduct the new research reactor experiment, called the Molten Chloride Reactor Experiment, at the Idaho National Laboratory. The experiment is aimed at advancing the new TerraPower LLC Molten Chloride Fast Reactor technology.

Specific project details were revealed in March. On Aug. 1, the Energy Department issued a draft assessment that analyzed the potential environmental impacts associated with the project and concluded there would be “no significant impact.”

A 30-day public comment period in August generated expressions of opposition to the use of HEU fuel, concern about the project’s “potential effects on the U.S. nuclear nonproliferation efforts,” and laments about “lack of consideration of environmental concerns.”

But after the Energy Department’s Office of Nuclear Energy considered the comments, it affirmed its original support for the project, according to a department document released on Oct. 19.

The 20 nuclear proliferation experts who wrote to the department on May 30, including Alan Kuperman, an associate professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, and Frank von Hippel, a Princeton University physicist, urged the department to suspend work on the project until it considers an alternative design and prepares an assessment of the nonproliferation impact.

If the department “were to proceed with an HEU-fueled [Molten Chloride Reactor Experiment], the damage to national security could exceed any potential benefit from this highly speculative energy technology,” the experts wrote.

They argued that using HEU “would be a convenience rather than a necessity” and that the “reactor does not require HEU fuel.” Converting the project design to LEU fuel would “increase significantly the size of the facility and the amount of fuel, thereby incurring a delay and increasing some costs. However…other costs for security could be reduced,” they added.

In a written response on Sept. 5, the department said this experiment “requires the use of higher enrichment fuel to keep the size of the experimental reactor small.”

It reaffirmed the U.S. policy “to refrain from the use of weapons-usable nuclear material in new civil reactors or for other civil purposes unless that use supports vital U.S. national purposes.” But it also argued that using HEU is fully consistent with this policy because “the experiment will provide vital data to the U.S. national interests assuring the safety and security of this advanced nuclear energy technology” and emphasized that the later commercial operation of the new reactor would not use HEU.

“This experiment does not pose a security or nonproliferation risk akin to the use of HEU in a civilian reactor that operates for decades, continually refuels, and requires production or transport of HEU across distances,” the department letter stated.

Since the 1970s, the United States has led international collaboration to reduce and minimize the use of HEU for civilian purposes. It has converted a total of 71 reactors domestically and abroad from use of HEU fuel to LEU fuel. Over five decades, such diplomatic and financial efforts have contributed to the nonproliferation regime by strengthening HEU minimization norms.

The Energy Department will begin work on a civilian research project that relies on weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium, which the United States and other countries have long sought to phase out for energy uses.


Drones Target Ukrainian, Russian Nuclear Facilities

December 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned that strikes against nuclear power plants must be avoided after an explosion damaged a nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Two days after the Ukrainian facility was targeted, Moscow alleged that Kyiv attempted a drone strike on a nuclear facility in Russia.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, warned that strikes against nuclear power plants must be avoided after an explosion damaged ancillary buildings at the Khmelnitsky Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, shown here in 2013. (Photo by RLuts)The Khmelnitsky Nuclear Power Plant is located in northeastern Ukraine and includes two reactors, one of which is shut down for maintenance. There was no direct strike on the nuclear power facility, but ancillary buildings at the site suffered damage from the shockwaves after Ukraine shot down two drones in the vicinity of the power plant.

IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in a press release on Oct. 25 that the explosion shattered windows and temporarily cut power to external radiation monitors but did not affect nuclear safety and security at the facility.

Grossi said the incident underscores “the extremely precarious nuclear safety situation in Ukraine, which will continue as long as this tragic war goes on.” He warned that “hitting a nuclear power plant must be avoided at all costs.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that the attack on the Khmelnitsky plant shows Russia’s willingness to “target nuclear power stations and other critical facilities” and demonstrates that the “pressure on the terrorist state is insufficient.”

Zelenskyy also said that his country will “not only defend ourselves, but also respond” to attacks on critical infrastructure.

An IAEA press release on Oct. 27 noted that Russia reported drone activity in the vicinity of the Kursk Nuclear Power Plant in western Russia near the Ukrainian border. The Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that it thwarted a Ukrainian attempt to carry out a “terrorist attack” against the nuclear facility that same day.

According to the ministry, none of the three drones caused any damage to the facility, but one exploded near a building used to store spent nuclear fuel.

Russia also said it shot down nine Ukrainian drones near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant on Nov. 2.

Ukrainian nuclear energy company Energoatom continues to operate the Zaporizhzhia complex, but the site has been occupied by Russian forces since Moscow attacked it in violation of international law during the early days of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. (See ACT, April 2022.)

In October, Grossi said that Zelenskyy “personally assured” him that Ukraine will not directly bomb or shell the Zaporizhzhia plant but that “other options are on the table” as Ukraine tries to retake the facility.

Maria Zakharova, spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, accused Ukraine of attempting to disrupt the IAEA’s rotation of staff stationed at Zaporizhzhia and of “carrying out criminal and irresponsible provocations.”

Despite the drone attack, the IAEA confirmed in a Nov. 3 statement that a new team of agency experts was able to rotate into the Zaporizhzhia complex.

Grossi said that the IAEA presence at the site is “vital for efforts to keep this major nuclear facility safe and protect people and the environment in Ukraine and beyond.”

Two of the six units are in hot shutdown to generate steam to heat the nearby city of Enerhodar, where many Zaporizhzhia plant personnel live, and to run the power plant. The other four units are in cold shutdown.

According to the IAEA statement, Russia is still blocking agency access to three of the reactor rooftops. Earlier this year, Zelenskyy accused Russia of planting explosives on the rooftops of the reactors. (See ACT, September 2023.)

An IAEA expert mission was able to access the roof of one of the reactors in October and could observe parts of the rooftops of two other reactors. Grossi said in an Oct. 11 statement that agency experts did not see any mines or explosives, but he emphasized the importance of visiting all six rooftops “one after the other.”

Grossi said the agency will continue to request access to assess adherence to the five principles for ensuring the safety and security of the Zaporizhzhia complex that he presented to the UN Security Council in May. The principles include refraining from using the power plant to store heavy weapons or station military personnel and refraining from attacks “of any kind from or against the plant.” (See ACT, July/August 2023.)

The IAEA also said its experts “need access to all six turbine halls together” and have only been granted partial access to three of the turbine halls.

Grossi said the agency will continue to maintain an expert presence at the Zaporizhzhia site “as long as it is necessary.”

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency warned that strikes against nuclear power plants must be avoided.

IAEA Condemns Iran for Failure to Cooperate

December 2023
By Kelsey Davenport

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) strongly condemned Iran’s decision to reject experienced agency inspectors and continued failure to fulfill its safeguards obligations. Despite these concerns, the agency’s Board of Governors took no action against Iran during its quarterly meeting in November.

Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, addresses journalists on November 22 after an agency board meeting in which he condemned Iran’s failure to comply with its safeguards obligations.  (Photo by Joe Klamar / AFP via Getty Images)States are permitted to reject IAEA inspectors, but IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi told the board that Iran’s actions are “unprecedented and contrary to the cooperation that is required” to effectively implement a comprehensive safeguards agreement.

In a Nov. 22 press conference following his statement to the board, Grossi said that the inspectors that Iran de-designated in September include some of the agency’s most experienced experts on uranium enrichment. He said that excluding these inspectors is a “very serious blow” to the agency’s efforts to implement safeguards in Iran. The IAEA and Iran are discussing reinstating the inspectors, Grossi said.

The head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), Mohammad Eslami, defended Iran’s decision to reject the inspectors. He said in October that the inspectors in question had “politically oriented agendas.”

Grossi also reported that implementation of an agreement reached on March 4 between the agency and Iran on addressing outstanding safeguards issues and voluntarily enhancing monitoring has “come to a standstill.” He said that there has been no progress on additional transparency since May and no further cooperation on the agency’s investigation into previously undeclared nuclear activities. (See ACT, June 2023.)

According to an IAEA report on Nov. 17, Eslami told Grossi during a September meeting not to expect progress on the March 4 agreement until sanctions are lifted. The report did not specify which sanctions, but Eslami likely was referring to U.S. and European sanctions that should have been lifted under the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Although Iran is not legally obligated to provide further monitoring, it is required to meet its safeguards obligations, which include addressing IAEA questions about uranium detected at two locations not declared to the agency. (See ACT, July/August 2021.) The undeclared uranium activities took place prior to 2003, according to samples taken by the agency, but the IAEA is still obligated to determine if the material involved is accounted for.

The IAEA also is looking into a discrepancy in uranium accountancy at Iran’s conversion facility. Iran’s initial responses regarding the discrepancy did not address the agency’s questions, but the IAEA noted in a Nov. 17 report that it is reviewing additional information provided by Iran on Nov. 8.

Grossi reminded Iran that all safeguards issues “need to be resolved” for the agency “to be in a position to provide assurance that Iran’s nuclear [program] is exclusively peaceful.”

Laura Holgate, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, told the board on Nov. 22 that Iran’s “inadequate cooperation with the agency overall is unacceptable.” She said that Iran “should take actions that build international confidence, rather than undermine the [a]gency’s essential assurances.”

Holgate said that “Iran argues it is treated unfairly…[but the] reality remains that Iran continues to single itself out through its actions.”

In a Nov. 13 report, the IAEA provided updates on Iran’s uranium-enrichment activities. It said that Iran continued to produce uranium enriched to 60 percent uranium-235 at a reduced rate. The stockpile of uranium enriched to that level grew by nearly seven kilograms, to 128 kilograms. That quantity is about enough material for three nuclear weapons if it were enriched to weapons grade, or 90 percent-enriched U-235.

The IAEA report noted that the number of centrifuges Iran used to enrich uranium remained unchanged. Since the last quarterly report was finalized in August, Iran did install one additional cascade of IR-4 centrifuges at its Natanz uranium-enrichment facility, but did not begin operating it.

There were no changes to the number of centrifuge cascades at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant, despite Iran’s commitment in November 2022 to increase the number of cascades from eight to 16.

Holgate said Iran’s nuclear expansion has “no credible peaceful purpose” and called on Tehran to halt production of 60 percent-enriched U-235.

The United States also warned Iran against transferring ballistic missiles to Russia. Tehran has support the Russian invasion of Ukraine by transferring drones to Moscow in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and restricted Iran’s ability to import and export certain missiles, drones, and related technologies. Those UN restrictions expired in October.

The Biden administration expressed concern in a Nov. 21 statement that Iran is considering providing Russia with short-range ballistic missiles for use in Ukraine.

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have warned Iran that it could face a snapback of UN Security Council sanctions, including the missile restrictions that expired in October, if it provides Russia with ballistic missiles. Iran has threatened to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty if UN sanctions are reimposed.

A provision in Resolution 2231 allows for the reimposition of UN sanctions on Iran. The reimposition cannot be vetoed.

Although the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency condemned Iran’s failure to implement its safeguards obligations, the agency’s Board of Governors took no action against Tehran at its November meeting.


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