Friday, May 25, 2007

Verification Works: START Something Global

Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance and Implementation Paula DeSutter recently told Reuters Diplomatic Correspondent Carol Giacomo that while the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) "has been important and for the most part has done its job,” many provisions "are no longer necessary. We don't believe we're in a place where we need have to have the detailed lists (of weapons) and verification measures."

This doesn’t seem right to us. We have found that looking at things on the basis of careful planning to know what you are looking for and how you will know it if you see it is a great way to know what and where things are. Just the other day, our cat, Dmitri, got out of the apartment while we were doing laundry. As we went to bed, we thought he was in the apartment when he was really lost in the hallway – we didn’t realize this until we went to look for him.

While we only have one cat, so counting is less complicated, the verification challenge is basically the same with nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials. Thinking we know where they are is not as good as checking periodically and having a camera or even a variety of sensors pointed at them. Hoping that access is controlled to locations where nuclear weapons or weapons-usable materials are stored is not as good as monitoring the access points. Wishing that we had been more careful in accounting for them is not as good as actually doing the job.

Assistant Secretary DeSutter laments her task of negotiating a replacement to START, saying “you're never going to know how many warheads they are going to have on various missiles.” But the early days of on-site inspection taught us to never say never. Before the late President Ronald Reagan cracked the Soviet “nyet” that had blocked agreement about on-site inspection since the dawn of the nuclear age, perimeter-portal monitoring, cargoscan, and other technologies deployed to verify the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and later agreements seemed impossible to reach agreement about as well. By the time U.S. START inspectors began to see Russian Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles in the field, everything had changed and smart people were talking seriously about warhead-level verification and the procedural and technological advances it would require. The task was not easy, but the payoff was enormous: Soviet nuclear weapons designed to kill millions of Americans were eliminated and loose nukes were secured.

Assistant Secretary DeSutter is right in understanding that this task is difficult – the U.S. alone cannot account for as much as 8 metric tons of highly enriched uranium, and as the massively oversized Cold War arsenals come down, smaller numbers of weapons and caches of weapons-usable material will become increasingly militarily significant, making the other states with nuclear weapons and some states without nuclear weapons that operate advanced nuclear power programs increasingly important to the discussion. The task of verifying nonproliferation is a daunting global challenge for political and military leaders, diplomats, scientists, businesspeople, engineers, physicians, and even communities and ordinary citizens. The truth is, we are unlikely to be perfectly successful forever. But the number and impact of verification failures are likely to be higher if we do not translate the lessons of the Cold War into a global nonproliferation verification effort. The negotiation of a replacement to START is an excellent place to begin, by bringing in the British, French and Chinese and, as possible, other states of proliferation concern. Maybe not every state will have the same commitments, maybe some will be protocol parties in the first round, but if we want to be able to “trust but verify” in the future we need to start talking about it before the opportunity for credible accounting of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons-usable materials wastes further.

Many non-nuclear weapon states parties to the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) have long viewed this topic as their business too, because the nuclear weapon states parties have committed to each of them through the NPT’s Article VI “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” If we truly want to be in partnership for nuclear proliferation prevention with states that either border states with nuclear weapons-usable materials or are high-volume transshipment points, we should explicitly include them in discussions about global nonproliferation verification.

The Bush Administration is clinging to the weapons of the Cold War, repeatedly proposing new nuclear weapons, rather than learning the lessons of this dangerous period: verification works, and it’s high time we got about creating a global context for it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Welcome to Nukesonablog, and first off, some good news!

Welcome to nukesonablog!

We are pleased to launch this new discussion of nuclear nonproliferation, international law, and all kinds of security issues with some great news: the Bush Administration’s nefarious plot to sneak a new nuclear weapon into the arsenal suffered a major setback yesterday as the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee zeroed out all FY 2008 funding for the so-called “Reliable Replacement Warhead.” Subcommittee Chairman Representative Peter Visclosky (D-IN) and ranking member Representative David Hobson (R-OH) demonstrated outstanding bipartisan leadership in the public interest by realizing the Cold War is over and we don’t need a brand new weapon to fight ancient history.

The Reliable Replacement Warhead is especially dangerous because the United States still plans indefinitely to keep thousands of totally extra nuclear weapons we have already pledged Russia we would dismantle under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, because through the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons we have agreed with all but four countries (India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea) to seek nuclear disarmament, and most of all because it leads the world in the wrong direction – backwards, toward a time when we thought threatening millions of civilians would somehow protect us.

The President’s budget request had included $88.8 million for the Department of Energy and $30 million for the Navy for developing a new nuclear warhead (see summary of President’s budget request as it relates to nuclear weapons and non-proliferation programs).

This won’t be the end for new nuclear weapons – maybe not even for this year – the bill still has to get through full House Appropriations Committee, then the House floor, then get through conference with the Senate version of the bill, so there will be several opportunities to sneak taxpayer dollars back into this nostalgic nonsense this year. But it is good news, and let’s us know that there are still some national leaders with the sense to place tomorrow’s security needs ahead of yesterday’s.

While the Subcommittee was at it, they eliminated funding for the Administration’s proposal to build a new facility to make pits (nuclear explosive cores) for new nuclear bombs.

More good news included nearly $1 billion added to the President’s funding request for FY2008 for programs that secure or remove vulnerable nuclear weapon-grade material that could be diverted by terrorists seeking material for a nuclear bomb. The exact increase was $878 million. As nuclear terrorism is one of the gravest threats to US security, and progress on most effectively using our window of opportunity to secure vulnerable fissile material (most of which is in countries of the former Soviet Union and but also in dozens of countries that have research reactors using weapon-usable material) has been slow, this funding is exactly what the doctor prescribed to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism (assuming the United States can gain access to the sites where this material is stored or produced). In February, Andrew Bieniawski, Associate Deputy Administrator of the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration said in an NPR interview that so far, only 48 out of the 129 research reactors worldwide targeted for conversion have been replaced with non-weapon-usable fuel.

And last, but certainly not least, the Subcommittee under Chairman Visclosky leadership cut almost 75% of the President’s request for $405 million, down to $120 million for the dangerous plan to reprocess commercial spent fuel (separating out weapons-usable plutonium) and to theoretically re-use in a new generation reactors (fast reactors which present more safety risks, are more expensive and are more proliferation-prone than the current nuclear power plants in the United States which are light-water reactors).

Hats off to Chairman Visclosky and Ranking Member Hobson for their leadership and for reigning in the Bush Administration’s dangerous plans that directly threatened US security by undercutting much-needed US efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and materials to terrorists and countries and bringing US policy in line with its international commitments.

See the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation’s press release
See Physicians for Social Responsibility’s press release