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Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
United States

National Missile Defense Set Back


July/August 2019
By Kingston Reif

The problem-plagued system designed to defend the U.S. homeland against a limited long-range ballistic missile attack has suffered another setback, throwing into doubt the Pentagon’s plans to improve the capability and expand the size of the system.

The United States tests a Ground-based Interceptor (GBI) on March 25 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The Missile Defense Agency has stopped all work on the Redesigned Kill Vehicle that was once to be launched toward targets by GBIs.  (Photo: Missile Defense Agency)On May 24, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) directed Boeing Co., the lead contractor for the $67 billion Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, to stop all work on a new kill vehicle for the system after spending about $700 million on the effort.

A Defense Department spokeswoman told Inside Defense on May 24 that the department “has determined that the current plan is not viable and has initiated an analysis of alternative courses of action.”

The department’s decision follows years of warnings from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) about the feasibility of MDA plans for the new kill vehicle, known as the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV).

The RKV joins several other high-profile missile defense efforts over the past decade that have been canceled while under development and after several billion dollars was spent on them. These include the precision tracking space system, the airborne laser, and the kinetic energy interceptor.

The RKV was intended to be more reliable and cost effective than the current generation of kill vehicles amid an evolving threat, particularly from North Korea.

The MDA planned to deploy the RKV beginning in 2021 atop 20 additional interceptors in Alaska to augment the existing fleet of 44 interceptors there and in California. The GMD system has an intercept success rate of just more than 50 percent in controlled testing.

The demise of the RKV raises several questions about MDA plans, including if and how it will expand the number of interceptors, how long the current kill vehicles can reliably remain in service, and whether additional intercept tests of those kill vehicles will take place.

Trouble From the Start

There have been serious concerns about the GMD system since it was rushed into service by the George W. Bush administration in 2004.

The system has never been tested against complex decoys and countermeasures that North Korea could develop. In addition, 20 of the 44 currently deployed interceptors are armed with an older prototype kill vehicle design known as the CE-I, which failed to intercept the target in its last test in 2013 and has not had a successful interception since 2008.

In recent years, the GMD system appeared to be making some progress. The three most recent intercept tests have been successful, including the first against an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)-class target, in May 2017, and the first simulating an attack against more than one target, in March 2019. (See ACT, May 2019.)

Then came the cancellation of the RKV. The MDA announced in March 2014 that it would build and deploy by 2020 a redesigned kill vehicle that would have better performance and be more easily producible, testable, and maintainable than the current versions. (See ACT, July/August 2014.) The program soon encountered trouble.

In May 2017, the GAO raised several red flags in an annual report assessing the MDA’s progress on developing, fielding, and maintaining the U.S. ballistic missile defense system. For example, the U.S. Northern Command and the U.S. Strategic Command questioned whether the seeker planned for the kill vehicle would be able “to detect and track threats in an ICBM-range environment,” according to the GAO.

The GAO recommended that the Defense Department conduct a comprehensive review of the RKV program, but the department did not perform such a review.

Despite the warnings, the MDA in late 2017 announced plans to accelerate development of the RKV while planning to increase the number of ground-based interceptors in Alaska from 40 to 60 between 2021 and 2023. The agency planned to begin deploying the new kill vehicle after a single flight intercept test.

The GAO said in May 2018 that the revised plan was “inconsistent with the acquisition best practice to ‘fly before you buy,’” as the MDA will begin production “based on the results of design reviews rather than flight testing.”

The agency’s revision of the RKV acquisition plan “is more likely to prolong the effort rather than accelerate it,” the GAO added.

Nearly two years later, the MDA announced in its fiscal year 2020 budget request plans that it would delay the fielding of the RKV, as well as the fielding of the additional 20 interceptors in Alaska, citing design issues. (See ACT, April 2019.)

Rear Adm. Jon Hill, the MDA deputy director, told reporters on March 12 that it would have been “the wrong step” to repeat the mistake the Bush administration made in 2004 in deploying the GMD system despite “reliability issues.”

The GAO noted in its June 2019 report that the RKV program “accepted too much risk and has since experienced development challenges that set the program back likely by over two years and increased the program’s cost by nearly $600 million.”

The Pentagon issued its stop work order for the RKV a few days before the GAO issued its report.

Next Steps Uncertain

The RKV was supposed to be the solution to the performance issues afflicting the existing GMD system kill vehicles and the path to expanding the system to address the advancing North Korean long-range missile threat. Instead, the MDA is back at square one.

“[T]he goal of the RKV program remains critical to ensuring that the nation’s only defense against rogue threats is reliable and effective,” a House committee staffer told Arms Control Today in a June 20 email. “As the U.S. is expanding the capacity of [ground-based interceptors] to 64, the need to deliver a reliable and effective kill vehicle becomes even more necessary,” the staffer said.

The need for a next-generation kill vehicle is especially acute for the 20 interceptors armed with the CE-I. The oldest kill vehicle in the fleet was fielded between 2004 and 2007. According to the GAO, ground-based interceptors “only have an initial service life of 20 years and [the] MDA previously decided not to make any upgrades to the CE-I because of initial plans to begin replacing them with RKVs in 2020.”

One option would be to reopen the production line for the latest configuration of the newer CE-II kill vehicle. The MDA does not appear to have any flight tests planned for this kill vehicle because it had planned to focus on testing and fielding the RKV.

The House committee staffer said that, with the RKV program delay, the Defense Department “should look for opportunities to test the existing fleet to address service life and obsolescence issues.”

Meanwhile, the future of another new kill vehicle development effort, the multiple object kill vehicle, is also uncertain. The MDA had planned to begin fielding that kill vehicle, which would allow a single GMD interceptor to destroy multiple targets, in 2025. But the fiscal year 2020 budget request would provide only $13.6 million for the program, which would significantly delay it. The request follows two years in which lawmakers provided $112 million, a reduction of $330 million below the MDA’s request.

 

The future of a major U.S. missile defense system has grown uncertain after the Pentagon canceled a long-planned upgrade.

U.S. Begins Final CW Destruction


July/August 2019
By Owen LeGrone

The United States has begun to eliminate its stockpile of more than 100,000 chemical munitions stored at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky. Workers destroyed the first weapon on June 7 following a May 29 ceremony to officially inaugurate the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant, which Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles Ball hailed as “the beginning of the last chapter of U.S. efforts to eradicate chemical weapons from the face of the earth.” The site is the last of nine U.S. chemical weapons storage facilities to begin destroying their stocks, and the elimination work is scheduled to be completed in 2023.

A worker at the Blue Grass Chemical-Agent Destruction Pilot Plant poses with non-contaminated projectiles in November 2018. The facility has begun to destroy more than 100,000 chemical munitions stored at the site. (Photo: U.S. Army)The site stored 524 tons of chemical weapons, about 1.8 percent of the 29,918 tons declared in 1997 when the United States ratified the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and committed to the destruction of all U.S. weapons and bulk agent. The munitions at Blue Grass include artillery shells and rockets filled with mustard, sarin, and VX agents, according to the Program Executive Office–Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, the organization responsible for eliminating the weapons.

The plant was built to destroy chemical agents through a two-stage procedure: neutralization, a “wet chemistry” process, followed by supercritical water oxidation, which converts the neutralized agents and the munition explosives into harmless water, salts, and carbon dioxide. Aging mustard munitions that cannot be easily neutralized by this process will be exploded under high temperatures in a static detonation chamber.

The United States amassed vast stocks of chemical weapons beginning in World War I, and for many years, it disposed of unwanted chemical weapons through crude methods such as burial, open pit burning, and ocean dumping. Political pressure during the Nixon administration led to experimentation with improved techniques, and incineration was eventually chosen as the most efficient and cost-effective practice.

In 1990, the United States and Soviet Union concluded the U.S.-Soviet Chemical Weapons Accord, obligating both parties to halt production and destroy all but 5,000 metric tons of their respective chemical arsenals by the end of 2002. This was followed by the multilateral CWC, which committed the United States to destroying its chemical arsenal by April 29, 2007, 10 years after the CWC’s entry into force.

The U.S. Defense Department began incinerating chemical weapons in 1990 at its storage facility on Johnston Atoll. After Congress banned the domestic transport of chemical weapons, plans to build three centrally located destruction facilities were replaced with a program to incinerate the chemical agents on site at all nine stockpiles.

Environmental and public health activists at Kentucky and other sites fiercely opposed this technique. “Many challenges were faced as citizens rejected incineration in favor of more contained treatment alternatives,” Craig Williams, director of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation Chemical Weapons Working Group and an early advocate of responsible chemical weapons disposal, told Arms Control Today. “Funding was cut on several occasions, and continuous changes in the top authorities at the Pentagon added to delays.”

The U.S. military eventually agreed to use alternative methods at four sites, and the CWC states-parties agreed to extend the U.S. destruction deadline to 2023. After numerous construction delays, the Blue Grass neutralization facility was completed in 2015 and has been systematizing its destruction process over the past four years.

In addition to the Blue Grass facility, the only remaining U.S. chemical weapons stocks are at the Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado, where a neutralization and biotreatment process for eliminating 2,611 tons of mustard agent began in 2016.

Chemical weapon destruction is starting at the last of nine sites that once held the massive U.S. arsenal.

Saudi Arms Sales Hit Hurdles in U.S., UK


July/August 2019
By Ethan Kessler and Jeff Abramson

U.S. and UK leaders received rare rebukes on the same day in June to their plans to sell conventional arms to Saudi Arabia, highlighting the challenges that Riyadh’s top two arms suppliers face in justifying their support for the kingdom and its allies.

Displaced Yemeni children carry water containers at a camp in the country's Hajjah province on June 23. The U.S. Senate voted June 20 to halt $8.1 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its partners in the conflict in Yemen. (Photo: Essa Ahmed/AFP/Getty Images)The Republican-led U.S. Senate voted June 20 to block issuing licenses for $8.1 billion in arms sales to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that had been previously promised by the Trump administration. Senators approved two resolutions, each by a 53-45 vote with seven Republican senators in support, and 20 resolutions en bloc by a 51–45 vote with five Republican senators voting in favor. The resolutions came in response to the administration’s use of emergency powers to bypass the normal congressional notification process on 22 arms sales agreements. The House is expected to pass similar resolutions of disapproval.

The legislative action echoes earlier congressional efforts to curb U.S. military support for Saudi combat activity in Yemen as lawmakers have expressed concern about the humanitarian consequences of the war in Yemen and the Trump administration’s muted response to the Saudi killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a commentator for The Washington Post. Congress approved a resolution in March under the War Powers Act to limit U.S. military action in Yemen, but it could not muster enough votes to overrule President Donald Trump’s veto of the resolution. Trump is expected to veto the June resolutions as well. (See ACT, June 2019.)

Aspects of the planned arms sales faced early opposition from Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who placed a hold in 2018 on precision-guided munition sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, acting during a customary informal period that precedes formal notification. (See ACT, September 2018.) On May 24, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo invoked a provision in the 1976 Arms Export Control Act (AECA) to allow the administration to conclude the sales, citing the need to “deter Iranian aggression and build partner self-defense capacity.” The declaration allowed the president to bypass Menendez's hold and a formal 30-day review process, using authority under the AECA to expedite arms sales to foreign governments if the president declares that “an emergency exists which requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States.”

That emergency authority has been used three times in the past, according to R. Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on June 12. He argued the sales sent a “loud and clear message to Iran that we stand by our regional partners.”

At that hearing, Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) flatly declared that “there is no emergency,” saying that “a real emergency would require weapons that can be delivered immediately...not months or even years from now, as these do.” Cooper agreed that some of the sales would take place over a longer time frame, but said that others are “happening now, and actually, it’s happened prior to this hearing.” It appears that precision-guided munitions would be among the first weapons to be delivered.

Menendez also sought to send a message to the region. “If the Senate wants to show the world that even if you are an ally you cannot kill with impunity, this is the moment,” he said before the June 20 vote. He urged his colleagues to “stand up for the proposition that we won’t let our bombs fall upon innocent civilians and have the moral responsibility which will be a blemish on our history for years to come.”

With Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Menendez and five other senators first introduced the 22 joint resolutions of disapproval on June 5. Such resolutions have been rarely introduced, and their passage by both chambers is exceedingly rare. None has survived a presidential veto.

The pushback against arms sales to Saudi Arabia also extended to the United Kingdom, Riyadh's second-largest arms supplier. The UK Court of Appeal determined on June 20 that the government had failed to sufficiently scrutinize the Saudi-led coalition’s adherence to international humanitarian law, in violation of UK and EU law. In a press summary of their ruling, the judges said the UK government “made no concluded assessments” of the Saudi-led coalition’s record in Yemen, nor did it try to do so. Instead, the government had assessed Saudi “attitude” and engaged Riyadh in an attempt to avoid breaches of law and civilian casualties. The court found that approach insufficient and directed the government to reassess past decisions and change this practice moving forward. The court did not ban any arms transfers, but the UK government said June 25 that while it was reviewing the decision it would “not grant any new licenses for exports to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners (UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Egypt) which might be used in the conflict in Yemen.”

U.S. and UK leaders face domestic hurdles to their efforts to sell Saudi Arabia conventional weapons.

U.S. to Host Disarmament Working Group


July/August 2019
By Daryl G. Kimball

Diplomats from nearly three dozen nations, including China and Russia, will gather in Washington on July 2–3 for the first plenary gathering of a new working group to discuss a U.S. initiative, “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” (CEND). The group will meet less than one year before the 2020 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, where the United States and other nuclear-weapon states are expected to hear criticism about the pace of nuclear disarmament.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford (left), shown here at his 2018 swearing-in ceremony with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has led the U.S. initiative “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament.” (Photo: Michael Gross/State Department)“The goal of the kick-off plenary is to identify a list of issues or questions relating to the international security environment affecting disarmament prospects and establish subgroups to examine and address some of these factors,” said a U.S. diplomatic note sent to government attendees ahead of the meeting.

U.S. officials floated the concept for the first time in a working paper circulated at the 2018 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting. It was originally billed as an effort to engage in a dialogue on the “discrete tasks” necessary “to create the conditions conducive to further nuclear disarmament.”

Since then, the concept has been refined somewhat and discussed at various forums. Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, promoted the idea at a conference outside London in December 2018, and the Netherlands hosted an academic colloquium on the idea April 15.

“The CEND initiative is intended to examine and address challenges to the global security environment,” said Robert Wood, U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, in a May 2 statement at the 2019 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting, adding that the United States seeks to engage “politically and geographically diverse participants” in the dialogue.

The new approach, Wood added, was needed because the “traditional, numerically focused ‘step-by-step’ approach to arms control has gone as far as it can under today’s conditions.”

A U.S. working paper circulated in May suggested the discussion should focus on three areas: “measures to modify the security environment to reduce incentives for states to retain, acquire, or increase their holdings of nuclear weapons; institutions and processes…states can put in place to bolster nonproliferation efforts and build confidence in nuclear disarmament; and interim measures to reduce the likelihood of war among nuclear-armed states.”

The CEND initiative has generated varied responses. Close U.S. allies, including Japan and the United Kingdom, have expressed support for the dialogue. Several non-nuclear-weapon states have voiced skepticism, and privately, many have also expressed concern that the initiative is part of an effort to try to walk back earlier nuclear-weapon state commitments on disarmament.

Ireland, for example, said in a May 2 statement delivered at the NPT preparatory committee meeting that,

despite the grave existential threat posed by nuclear weapons, some states have argued that the present environment is not conducive to disarmament, and that pursuing the elimination of nuclear weapons is not realistic at this time. Ireland fully aligns with the [UN] Secretary-General’s view that disarmament is more essential in a deteriorated security environment. We equally believe that it is unrealistic to wait for, or expect, a perfect security environment to emerge; no such utopia exists, and if such conditions were necessary for progress, we would never be able to agree or achieve anything, including the treaty currently under consideration.

Several states which have accepted the invitation to participate in the July 2–3 working group meeting are expected to raise questions about how the uncertain status of U.S. support for existing nuclear arms control treaties, as well as the U.S. withdrawal from key multilateral undertakings, such as the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, may affect the environment for nuclear disarmament.

All five NPT nuclear-weapon states have agreed to attend the July 2–3 meeting, according to diplomatic sources who spoke with Arms Control Today. How Russia may try to shape the CEND dialogue is not yet clear, but Russian Foreign Ministry officials have been pressing the State Department and the White House to engage with them on a range of nuclear arms control and disarmament issues, including a structured dialogue on strategic stability and talks to facilitate an extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is due to expire in 2021.

Whether or when a second working group meeting will be scheduled is not clear, but U.S. officials said they “expect the activities of the [working group] to continue through this NPT review cycle and beyond, contributing to deliberations at the 2020 review conference.”

The United States moves forward with its “Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament” initiative.

Saudi Nuclear Permissions Granted After Murder

Two controversial authorizations for the transfer of nuclear information to Saudi Arabia were granted by the U.S. Department of Energy to private companies after the October 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and commentator for The Washington Post, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) revealed June 4. (See ACT, May 2019.)

A candlelight vigil is held for Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul on October 25, 2018. His murder in the Saudi consulate there has led some U.S. lawmakers to question U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s nuclear energy plans. (Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)Kaine received the information after more than two months of requests and a direct appeal from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-Idaho) to the Energy Department for the approval dates of seven so-called Part 810 authorizations, particularly inquiring as to whether any authorizations occurred after the Khashoggi murder.

“The alarming realization that the Trump Administration signed off on sharing our nuclear know-how with the Saudi regime after it brutally murdered an American resident adds to a disturbing pattern of behavior,” said Kaine.

Part 810 authorizations are routinely issued, especially when negotiations for a broader civil nuclear cooperation agreement with another country are ongoing, as is the case with Saudi Arabia.

The Trump administration’s lack of transparency regarding those negotiations, however, combined with restricting access to the authorizations, has caused growing concern in Congress. Many members of Congress and nonproliferation experts are also concerned about Saudi actions in the Middle East, including in the war in Yemen, and Saudi leaders’ statements about wanting nuclear weapons if Iran were ever to obtain them.—SHERVIN TAHERAN

Saudi Nuclear Permissions Granted After Murder

U.S. Confirms Saudi Ballistic Missile Production


U.S. intelligence agencies have told Congress that Saudi Arabia is developing a domestic ballistic missile production program with Chinese support, CNN reported June 5. The official confirmation followed open-source reporting in January that disturbed some members of Congress, who questioned if that information had been deliberately omitted from earlier Trump administration briefings. (See ACT, March 2019.)

Saudi Arabia has deployed Chinese-supplied ballistic missiles for decades, and Beijing has said that the missiles were modified to carry only non-nuclear explosives. In January, imagery analyses by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey indicated that Saudi Arabia had expanded its al-Watah missile base, where the Chinese missiles were stored, to include a rocket-engine production and test facility. U.S. officials have now confirmed to Congress that the expansion in missile infrastructure and technology was facilitated through recent purchases from China. Saudi production of ballistic missiles would run counter to long-established U.S. policy to limit missile proliferation in the Middle East. —SHERVIN TAHERAN

U.S. Confirms Saudi Ballistic Missile Production

Senate Confirms U.S. NPT Ambassador

The U.S. Senate has confirmed Jeffrey Eberhardt, a career government official who has served at the Pentagon and most recently at the State Department, to serve as special representative of the president for nuclear nonproliferation. The June 20 confirmation put Eberhardt in place to support administration policy going into the 2020 review conference for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which will mark the 50th anniversary of the treaty’s entry into force. His portfolio will cover many nonproliferation-related issues, including Iran and North Korea, as well as other treaty noncompliance allegations. Most recently, Eberhardt served as director of the State Department’s Office of Multilateral and Nuclear Affairs in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance.

Regarding Iran, Eberhardt said during his Senate nomination hearing that “Iran’s standing as a non-nuclear-weapon state-party to the NPT cannot be described as good.” Reacting to that statement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a June 3 interview that he “did not want to comment on that.” Andrea Thompson, the State Department’s top arms control diplomat, initially tried to dodge answering the question in Senate testimony on May 15 before acknowledging that Eberhardt’s statement was “correct” and “what we laid out in the [State Department arms control] compliance report.” The 2019 compliance report, issued in April, expressed concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but offered no evidence at that time of Iranian noncompliance with its NPT obligations or with its commitments to the 2015 multilateral deal that curbed its nuclear activities.—SHERVIN TAHERAN

Senate Confirms U.S. NPT Ambassador

U.S. and Iranian Actions Put Nuclear Deal in Jeopardy

Sections:

Body: 


Statement by Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy
and Daryl G. Kimball, executive director

For Immediate Release: June 27, 2019

Media Contacts: Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy, (202) 463-8270 ext. 102 (print/radio only); Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107

(Washington, DC)—Iran’s announcement that it may soon breach the 300-kilogram limit on low-enriched uranium set by the 2015 nuclear deal is an expected but troubling response to the Trump administration’s reckless and ill-conceived pressure campaign to kill the 2015 nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

It is critical that President Donald Trump does not overreact to this breach and further escalate tensions.

Any violation of the deal is a serious concern but, in and of itself, an increase in Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile above the 300-kilogram limit of 3.67 percent enriched uranium does not pose a near-term proliferation risk.

Iran would need to produce roughly 1,050 kilograms of uranium enriched at that level, further enrich it to weapons grade (greater than 90 percent uranium-235), and then weaponize it. Intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections would provide early warning of any further moves by Iran to violate the deal.

Tehran is not racing toward the bomb but rather, Iran’s leaders are seeking leverage to counter the U.S. pressure campaign, which has systematically denied Iran any benefits of complying with the deal. Despite Iran’s understandable frustration with the U.S. reimposition of sanctions, it remains in Tehran’s interest to fully comply with the agreement’s limits and refrain from further actions that violate the accord.

If Iran follows through on its threat to resume higher levels of enrichment July 7, that would pose a more serious proliferation risk. Stockpiling uranium enriched to a higher level would shorten the time it would take Iran to produce enough nuclear material for a bomb–a timeline that currently stands at 12 months as a result of the nuclear deal’s restrictions.

The Trump administration’s failed Iran policy is on the brink of manufacturing a new nuclear crisis, but there is still a window to salvage the deal and deescalate tensions.

The Joint Commission, which is comprised of the parties to the deal (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Iran) and oversees implementation of JCPOA, will meet June 28. The meeting is a critical opportunity for the state parties to press Iran to fully comply with the nuclear deal and commit to redouble efforts to deliver on sanctions-relief obligations.

For its part, the White House needs to avoid steps that further escalate tensions with Iran. Trump must cease making vague military threats and refrain from taking actions such as revoking waivers for key nuclear cooperation projects that actually benefit U.S. nonproliferation priorities.

If Trump does not change course, he risks collapsing the nuclear deal and igniting a conflict in the region.

Description: 

An increase in Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile above the JCPOA-mandated limits does not in itself pose a near-term proliferation risk, and it is critical that the Trump administration does not overreact to this breach and further escalate tensions.

Country Resources:

U.S. Accuses Iran Prematurely of Violating Nuclear Deal | P4+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert, June 14, 2019

U.S. Accuses Iran Prematurely of Violating Nuclear Deal Tensions over the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran continue to rise after the Trump administration accused Tehran of violating one of its commitments under the agreement, but Iran’s decision to install additional advanced centrifuges appears to fall into a gray area not covered by the accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Despite the lack of clarity, the United States urged Iran to return to compliance even though U.S. President Donald Trump violated the deal by reimposing sanctions in May 2018 and...

Strengthening Nuclear Security With a Sustainable CPPNM Regime


June 2019
By Samantha Neakrase

In late 2015, investigators discovered chilling surveillance video in the possession of a suspected terrorist alleged to have been involved in the November 2015 attacks in Paris.1 The Islamic State took credit for those attacks, and the video footage suggested it had been watching a high-ranking Belgian nuclear official who had access to secure areas of a Belgian nuclear research facility.2

IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano (second from left) visits the Belgian Nuclear Research Facility SCK-CEN in 2018.  The site was one of those accessible to a Belgian official who was reportedly surveilled by terrorists in 2015. (Photo: SCK-CEN/IAEA)The video’s existence raised concerns that the group was seeking to acquire materials for a primitive nuclear device or a dirty bomb. Was there a plan to abduct the official and ransom him for nuclear or radioactive materials or to bribe or coerce the official to turn him into an unwilling insider?

Other evidence gathered in the same investigation pointed to additional terrorist plans to “do something involving one of [Belgium’s] four nuclear sites,” which include two nuclear power plants, a company that produces medical isotopes, and the nuclear research facility.3 Despite these concerns, authorities had not taken additional measures to protect the facility beyond cautioning employees to “increase their vigilance,” The New York Times reported.4

The intent of the terrorist surveillance remains unclear, but the discovery served as an important reminder that nuclear facilities and materials continue to be targets of interest to terrorists. There are many other incidents tracked by organizations such as Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Incident and Trafficking Database.5 The CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database, a tool launched in June 2013 to track incidents of theft or loss of nuclear and other radioactive materials, contains hundreds of incidents of loss, theft, and unauthorized possession of those materials in 2017 and 2018 alone. Three illicit trafficking incidents were reported in the database in 2017 involving nuclear materials, including one case involving the sale of plutonium-239 and plutonium-241.

More broadly, terrorist attacks continue across the globe, including by the Islamic State and others, and the threat is constantly evolving. New technologies, such as cyberweapons that could disrupt nuclear facility security systems, and access to greater financial resources enable terrorist groups to become more sophisticated.

These continuing threats and documented incidents show that nuclear terrorism is today’s problem. Addressing this threat is an urgent priority. Just as terrorists have not lost focus on their desire to acquire and use a nuclear or radiological bomb, neither can the international community, especially governments, lose focus on the need to prevent such a catastrophic event from happening. Protecting nuclear materials and nuclear facilities from the threats posed by terrorists and other nonstate actors is too important a mission to let slide into complacency and neglect.

The CPPNM Regime

One of the most important tools in the fight against nuclear terrorism is the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM). A 2005 amendment to the convention entered into force in 2016, making it the only legally binding treaty requiring countries to protect nuclear materials and facilities.6 Opened for signature in 1980, the CPPNM today has 155 states-parties, while only 102 have ratified the amendment.

This foundational international treaty is even more important now that the nuclear security summits, the biennial gatherings of more than 50 heads of government that were held between 2010 and 2016, have ended. The summits were convened to focus attention on nuclear terrorism, encourage action and commitments to prevent nuclear theft and sabotage, and strengthen the global nuclear security architecture. Unfortunately, high-level attention has waned since the summits, but 2021 provides an opportunity to reinvigorate global nuclear security efforts at the review conference for the amended CPPNM.

Article 16 of the amended CPPNM requires the IAEA, the treaty’s depositary, to convene a review conference five years after the amendment’s entry into force. States should use the review conference to create a forum for parties to engage in regular dialogue on how the treaty is being translated into on-the-ground nuclear security progress, monitor and identify gaps in implementation, review progress, promote continuous improvement, and discuss emerging nuclear threats. Parties can turn the amended CPPNM into a living, breathing tool for dialogue and progress and demonstrate their commitment to building a strong, effective, and sustainable CPPNM regime.

Perhaps the most important outcome of the 2021 review conference would be a decision to hold regular review conferences in the future with intervals of not less than five years, as allowed by Article 16. Because the terrorist threat will continue to evolve, the treaty must also be dynamic and evolve. This will require parties to meet regularly to discuss how the treaty’s implementation must change to reflect changes in the threat environment, advances in states’ ability to protect materials and facilities, development of best practices, and emerging technologies. The treaty’s own language, that the purpose of the review conference is to review the implementation of the treaty “in the light of the then prevailing situation,” acknowledges this reality. Continuity of the review process, particularly opportunities for regular dialogue on nuclear security, will enable the treaty to maintain its long-term relevance.

After the CPPNM entered into force in 1987, one review conference was held five years later, but the participants did not exercise their option to call for further review conferences. Repeating this history for the amended CPPNM would ignore the valuable opportunity the treaty offers to review this essential tool. Parties should instead agree at the 2021 review conference to hold review conferences regularly as a standing arrangement, instead of waiting for a request of the majority of parties to do so on an ad hoc basis. Without a decision at the 2021 review conference, there is a risk that it will be the last, as was the case with the original CPPNM.

Ideally, treaty parties would agree to hold review conferences every five years, as permitted by the treaty. It is difficult to imagine that a five-year review cycle would not be warranted given that significant changes in the threat environment, technology, and the tools to address threats are likely. In reality, allowing flexible frequency may be appropriate to account for other international conferences and events, such as the IAEA International Conference on Nuclear Security (ICONS), and to respond to developments in the global security environment. For instance, if ICONS is held every three years, it may make sense for a review conference on the amended CPPNM to be held every six years. Whether parties agree to a fixed period of five or six years, parties could agree that they would be able to adjust the date of the subsequent review conference to account for factors that would affect its timing. At a minimum, parties at the 2021 review conference should set the date for the following review conference and require that each successive review conference will set a future review conference date. In other words, states would agree to hold review conferences in perpetuity, but not on a predetermined schedule. To avoid review conferences being set too far into the future and to reflect the reality of fast-evolving threats, however, parties should agree that the time between review conferences will not exceed a set period, such as seven or eight years.

There is precedent for regularizing a treaty review process when regular review conferences are not required by the treaty. The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), for example, contains similar review conference language to the CPPNM and the amended version. At each of the early NPT review conferences, parties requested the convening of the next review conference in five years’ time. At the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, the parties agreed to continue holding such review conferences every five years.

A Unique Forum for Sustained Dialogue

Regular review conferences are an integral part of many treaty regimes to ensure the treaty’s viability in light of changing circumstances.7 This is even more important when the treaty’s purpose is to address a threat that will continue to evolve. Review conferences can strengthen a treaty regime by developing a common understanding of key provisions and help states set goals for implementation. Given that most major treaties have regular review conferences, it would be an odd omission for a treaty as vital to global security as the amended CPPNM not to be supported by regular review conferences. When it comes to addressing one of the most dangerous threats worldwide, why should the amended CPPNM be treated differently? To the contrary, a regular, substantive review conference for the amended CPPNM will provide unique benefits not available in any other forum. Regular review conferences will have a different character and purpose from other nuclear security forums, such as ICONS or the annual amended CPPNM points of contact meetings that are convened by the IAEA.

The 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., was the last in the summit series. A regular review conference for the amended CPPNM could provide nations with a forum to discuss nuclear security issues. (Photo: Ben Solomon/U.S. State Department)First, the review conference is the only legally mandated forum for enduring nuclear security dialogue. ICONS, which is approved by IAEA member states in an annual nuclear security resolution, was first held in 2013 and is currently on a three- or four-year cycle. Although ICONS covers a range of nuclear security-related topics and informs the work of the IAEA in the area of nuclear security, it is not based on a concrete set of legal obligations. The point of contact meetings, while also useful technical meetings, are not specifically mandated under the treaty and have only been convened since 2016. The legal basis for the review conference provides a stronger mandate for sustained dialogue on nuclear security and greater durability than other conferences and meetings that rely on the continued interest and resources of IAEA member states.

Second, the amended CPPNM can offer a different level of interaction than ICONS and point of contact meetings. ICONS features a one-day ministerial session attended by relatively few actual ministers, and the bulk of ICONS is dedicated to technical sessions attended by diplomats, technical experts, academics, and representatives from nongovernmental organizations. The point of contact meetings are attended by technical experts, usually regulators. In contrast, the appropriate level of participation for the review conference would be senior officials who can go beyond technical discussions and discuss policies and priorities for nuclear security. They would be knowledgeable about nuclear security and empowered to make decisions.

Third, the purpose of the review conference and its agenda should be different from ICONS and point of contact meetings, neither of which provide for a high-level, multiday dialogue on forward-looking policies and priorities for nuclear security. At the ICONS ministerial, senior officials make national statements and issue high-level principles for nuclear security, but the meeting is quite limited in scope. At the technical sessions, experts give presentations on a range of nuclear and radiological topics. The point of contact meetings similarly are much more limited in scope. These one- or two-day meetings focus on the technical aspects of implementation of the amended CPPNM, but do not assess nuclear security progress or set priorities for the future and are not aimed at taking forward-looking action to strengthen the CPPNM regime. In contrast, the review conference provision is broad and flexible enough to provide for a multiday, substantive, policy-level discussion of a range of themes and topics relevant to the treaty, such as the threat environment, nuclear security progress, gaps and challenges to implementation, and priorities for future progress.

Finally, the review conference can be a forum for countries to commit to nuclear security progress and further strengthen implementation of their treaty obligations. Just as nuclear security is never finished and requires continuous improvement, implementation of the treaty requires constant attention and committed action. Parties could pledge to host peer reviews, participate in international workshops and trainings, implement IAEA nuclear security guidance, and share best practices and lessons learned. Commitments made at the review conference would be more specific and tailored to each country’s own circumstances than the broad commitments made in the ICONS ministerial declaration; the point of contact meetings have no decision-making or commitment-making component.

A Vision for the Review Conference

The amended CPPNM provides almost no guidance for the review conference, only stating that it will “review the implementation of this Convention and its adequacy as concerns the preamble, the whole of the operative part and the annexes in light of the then prevailing situation.” This minimal guidance allows parties to design a review conference with outcomes that are most likely to achieve the objectives of a strong, effective, and sustainable treaty regime. States should be ambitious and take advantage of this singular opportunity.

The review conference should have a robust, substantive agenda designed to allow for an in-depth dialogue on themes or topics derived from the treaty’s operative text and preamble, a more effective approach than taking a narrower provision-by-provision approach. These themes could be incorporated into a plenary agenda and supported by additional breakout sessions to facilitate in-depth discussions about topics relevant to subsets of countries or specific regions.

One theme could cover the IAEA’s role in nuclear security. Such a dialogue would be productive and appropriate given the agency’s role as the treaty depositary and convener of the review conference. The discussion could build awareness of and promote significant IAEA nuclear security resources, including its Integrated Nuclear Security Support Plans and its peer reviews such as the International Physical Protection Advisory Services, which support member states’ implementation of the treaty’s provisions. Promoting implementation of IAEA nuclear security guidance would also be a positive step toward building common, international nuclear security standards and would be consistent with the treaty’s reference to “internationally formulated recommendations” in the preamble and the fundamental principles in the operative text. Countries could also share success stories of IAEA assistance in implementing nuclear security, which could encourage additional financial and political support for the IAEA’s important nuclear security mission.

Emerging technology is ripe for discussion, including offensive use of technology that could lead to theft or sabotage and defensive use of new technology to protect materials and facilities. As technology evolves, so must the assessment of those technologies as potential security assets and risks. Cybertools, for example, can be used to enhance security as technology becomes more sophisticated and reliable, but they can also be used to defeat digital security systems designed to protect nuclear materials and facilities.8 Building awareness of cyber capabilities and the need to develop measures to prevent or mitigate cyber-mediated theft and sabotage would be a significant contribution to nuclear security.

In another thematic discussion, countries could consider whether physical protection includes protection against cyberattacks. There are strong arguments for doing so. Cyberweapons are just one of many types of weapons or tools, such as guns, bombs, or other traditional weapons, that could be deployed to defeat physical security measures, and efforts to defend against cybertools link directly to physical protection. A flexible definition of physical protection means the CPPNM regime will remain relevant as the threat evolves and as adversaries adapt their tools to defeat security.

The review conference should devote time to discuss the risk environment. Review conferences should not occur in a vacuum but in light of current, evolving, and predicted future threats. Consistent with Article 16’s reference to reviewing implementation “in light of the then prevailing situation,” a discussion of the risk environment would be an opportunity to assess how implementation and interpretation of the treaty need to adapt to reflect contemporary and emerging threats and to maintain the treaty’s relevance as a long-term tool for nuclear security.

Another item to be addressed at the review conference could be Article 14, which requires states to submit information to the IAEA on “the laws and regulations which give effect to” the convention. An important outcome for the 2021 review conference would be for all states to submit their reports at or before the meeting and to discuss best practices in reporting, including a possible reporting template. States could go beyond their Article 14 obligation by making nonsensitive portions of their reports public, as some countries have done already. They also voluntarily could provide broader information on their nuclear security programs and the steps they are taking to continuously improve security.9 In fact, Article 5 encourages information sharing among parties for the purpose of “obtaining guidance on the design, maintenance, and improvement of its national system of physical protection of nuclear material.” Sharing information on nuclear security practices, while protecting sensitive information, provides valuable opportunities for states to learn from one another and build confidence in the security of their nuclear materials. Releasing information to the public also helps to build confidence in nuclear security, which “may contribute to the positive perception, at a national level, of peaceful nuclear activities, globally,” according to the resolution on nuclear security adopted by the 2018 IAEA General Conference.10

2021 and a Unique Opportunity

The amended CPPNM invites states to be ambitious by providing a broad, flexible basis on which to design a robust agenda for nuclear security dialogue. This is vital for building on significant nuclear security achievements and preventing international complacency over nuclear terrorism. This can be achieved with a robust and meaningful, outcome-oriented review conference in 2021. The 2021 review conference will be an important, and perhaps the only, opportunity to establish the building blocks for a strong, effective, and sustainable CPPNM regime for combating nuclear threats, now and in the future. Seizing this opportunity requires vision, ambition, and strong leadership. This is too great a chance to squander when the collective mission to prevent nuclear terrorism is so consequential.

 

ENDNOTES

1. Alissa J. Rubin and Milan Schreuer, “Belgium Fears Nuclear Plants Are Vulnerable,” The New York Times, March 26, 2016, p. A1; Milan Schreuer and Alissa J. Rubin, “Video Found in Belgium of Nuclear Official May Point to Bigger Plot,” The New York Times, February 18, 2016.

2. Milan Schreuer and Alissa J. Rubin, “Video Found in Belgium May Point to Bigger Plot,” The New York Times, February 19, 2016, p. A4.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. For a list of other incidents, see Matthew Bunn, Nickolas Roth, and William H. Tobey, “Combating Complacency About Nuclear Terrorism,” Project on Managing the Atom Policy Brief, March 2019, https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/2019-03/NuclearSecurityPolicyBrief_2.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3OcJ37tRb4y-Qpk1PCtFChMXE8lWrzrhLTT9VA1_3-IWh1Sg6ZK8EvEj8. For the database, see “CNS Global Incidents and Trafficking Database,” April 25, 2019, https://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/cns-global-incidents-and-trafficking-database/.

6. The CPPNM covers only physical protection of nuclear materials in international transport, but the 2005 amendment significantly expands the treaty’s scope to require protection of all nuclear materials against theft and of nuclear facilities against sabotage. See Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM), October 26, 1979, 1456 U.N.T.S. 24631, art. 2. Compare this to article 2A of the 2005 amendment to the CPPNM. See International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “Nuclear Security - Measures to Protect Against Nuclear Terrorism: Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material,” GOV/INF/2005/10-GC(49)/INF/6, September 6, 2005. There are two other international legal instruments relevant to fighting nuclear terrorism: the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, which requires states to criminalize and cooperate in the prosecution of acts of terrorism, and UN Security Council Resolution 1540.

7. Jonathan Herbach and Samantha Pitts-Kiefer, “More Work to Do: A Pathway for Future Progress on Strengthening Nuclear Security,” October 2015, Arms Control Today.

8. Another example is drones, which have the potential to enhance security by providing additional eyes and ears to supplement guard force capabilities at facilities and in transport convoys. They can also be used by bad actors to carry out surveillance or attacks.

9. For states that already feel a heavy reporting burden, the Consolidated National Nuclear Security Report offered as a template by the Dutch government at the 2016 nuclear security summit can be a useful tool. See “Consolidated National Nuclear Security Report,” n.d., https://static1.squarespace.com/static/568be36505f8e2af8023adf7/t/570511498259b5e516e16689/1459949897436/Joint+Statement+on+Consolidated+Reporting+Appendix.pdf; Nuclear Security Summit, “Joint Statement on Consolidated Reporting,” April 5, 2016, http://www.nss2016.org/document-center-docs/2016/4/1/joint-statement-on-consolidated-reporting.

10. IAEA General Conference, “Nuclear Security: Resolution Adopted on 20 September 2018 During the Seventh Plenary Meeting,” GC(62)/RES/7, September 2018.

 


Samantha Neakrase (formerly Pitts-Kiefer) is senior director for materials risk management at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. She has been writing and presenting on the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material regime for several years, including for the 2016 International Atomic Energy Agency International Conference on Nuclear Security.

 

Holding regular review conferences for the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials would serve to keep nuclear security in the spotlight.

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