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The Arms Control Association is an "exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size." 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
Daniel Horner

Questions on Syrian Chemical Arms Persist

This article is an ACT Web Extra. It was posted on July 23, 2014, and does not appear in the print or PDF version of the July/August 2014 Arms Control Today.

Daniel Horner

Efforts to resolve several issues arising from Syria’s chemical weapons program appear to be moving slowly, even as the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons material aboard a U.S. ship in the Mediterranean Sea began this month.

Officials from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and some of its key member states have highlighted the need for Syria to destroy its chemical weapons production facilities and resolve questions about its declaration of its arsenal last year.

For months, Robert Mikulak, the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, has been castigating Syria for its failure to destroy its 12 remaining former chemical weapons production facilities. Destruction of such facilities is a required step under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which Syria joined last fall. Under a timetable for chemical weapons destruction approved by the OPCW Executive Council last November, that task was to be completed by March 15.

According to statements by Mikulak and others, Syria wants to convert the 12 facilities—seven above-ground hangars and five underground facilities—to other uses rather than destroying them. The CWC allows countries to do so, with the approval of their fellow CWC parties.  

In his statement on the first day of the council’s July 8-11 meeting, Mikulak said the OPCW Technical Secretariat had presented a “compromise proposal” on Syrian facility destruction at a meeting in Moscow in late June attended by officials from Russia, the United States, the OPCW-UN joint mission, and the secretariat. Last September, following the threat of U.S. airstrikes on Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, the United States and Russia, which is a long-standing ally of Syria, crafted a framework agreement for the removal and destruction of the Syrian chemical arsenal. The OPCW Executive Council and the UN Security Council subsequently endorsed the approach outlined in the agreement.

A May 9 Bloomberg article quoted Sigrid Kaag, the head of the joint OPCW-UN mission overseeing the removal of chemical weapons material from Syria, as saying that the production facilities are in a system of tunnels that “are part of a whole complex network of military facilities.” Therefore, she said, “what you destroy, and to what extent you destroy, has [an] impact on the rest of the military installation—which [the Syrians] don’t have to destroy.”

Jean Pascal Zanders, an independent chemical weapons expert, has described the five underground structures as having the shape of a staple. In these structures, one of the “arms” is the production facility, with the rest of each structure having been declared by Syria as a chemical weapons storage facility, Zanders said in a May 26 posting on his blog The Trench. He noted that the CWC requires parties to declare but not necessarily destroy chemical weapons storage facilities. In the Syrian case, however, the United States and other Western countries have “argued that the storage areas form an integral part of the production site, and that therefore Syria’s circumscription of the [production facilities] is incomplete,” Zanders said.

A June 7 OPCW press release said Syria had “agreed to the methodology for destroying [the] hangars” but that “further work is needed regarding the underground structures.”

Russia, Syria, the United States, and other CWC parties, which have been discussing destruction procedures since last December, recognize that trying to preserve certain portions of these buried facilities could incur costs “well into the millions of dollars,” Paul Walker, director of environmental security and sustainability with Green Cross International, said in a July 22 e-mail to Arms Control Today. It is not clear who would cover those costs, said Walker, who is a former staff member of the House Armed Services Committee.

In his July 8 remarks, Mikulak said the proposed compromise “would involve acceptance by all parties of revised tunnel perimeters and would also entail more effective monitoring measures.”

In a recent e-mail exchange with Arms Control Today, a Russian official said Mikulak’s reference to revised tunnel perimeters deals with the Syrian argument to the OPCW that only the parts of the facilities that were used or designed to be used for producing chemical weapons should be considered as production facilities and therefore subject to the CWC requirement for destruction, with the other parts allowed to remain intact as long as they are used for purposes that the CWC does not ban. Although this “caused [an] uproar in certain circles,” the revised perimeters are part of the compromise proposal, the Russian official said.

With regard to the more effective monitoring measures cited in Mikulak’s statement, the Russian official noted that the CWC’s annex on verification says that once the OPCW has confirmed that a party has destroyed its production facilities, the organization “shall terminate the systematic verification of the chemical weapons production facility.” Nevertheless, as part of the compromise, Syria “voluntarily accepted certain confidence building measures relating to the destruction of its [production facilities], in addition to verification measures specified in the CWC,” the official said.

The official emphasized that the Syrian production facilities now are “empty shells” because the relevant equipment has been destroyed.

Walker, who is a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors, said that the OPCW has conducted occasional on-site inspections of production facilities that were converted to other uses.

In his July 8 statement to the OPCW Executive Council, Mikulak said the current proposal “requires serious compromises and is not entirely in keeping with the extraordinary decision [the Executive] Council took in September.” Nevertheless, he said, “the United States is prepared to support that compromise solution in the interests of reaching a Council decision this week, as long as Syria also accepts it.” If Syria rejects the compromise, “there must be consequences,” he said.

The OPCW did not issue a public statement at the end of the Executive Council meeting, and a U.S. State Department official confirmed in a July 14 e-mail to Arms Control Today that there was “nothing to announce.” The official declined to provide further details on the proposal or on the status of the discussions on it.

The Russian official described the situation as “very fluid,” saying that “[t]he deal may be approved very soon by the [Executive Council], and conversely it may dissipate if one loses touch with reality.”

Doubts About Declaration

The “gaps, discrepancies, and inconsistencies,” as Mikulak put it, in Syria’s declaration of its chemical arsenal are another area that has been cited as a concern. According to a July 4 report to the Executive Council by OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü, the organization’s secretariat and the Syrian government are “undertaking technical discussions” that are “seeking clarifications with regard to the declaration.”

In his May 26 blog post, Zanders wrote that a key issue is the claim by Damascus that it destroyed approximately 200 metric tons of sulfur mustard in March 2013, about six months before it joined the CWC.

Syria’s declaration of its stockpile included roughly 20 metric tons of sulfur mustard, the only part of the declared stockpile that is in weapons-usable form. Chemical weapons precursors made up the rest.

According to Zanders’ blog post, the Syrians have given details to the OPCW on the March 2013 destruction activities, and the organization’s inspectors have to verify the information in view of the circumstances under which Syria acceded to the CWC.  “Inevitably, the episode has raised concerns among some OPCW members about possible undeclared ‘weaponised’ nerve agents,” he wrote.

In a June 26 e-mail, the Russian official appeared to confirm that the sulfur mustard destruction was at issue, but defended Syria’s actions. “[F]ormally speaking Syria does not have to account for” that destruction because it took place before Damascus became a party to the CWC, he wrote. Nevertheless, “in the interests of transparency and building confidence Damascus may find it appropriate to explain to the [OPCW] Technical Secretariat the circumstances relating to that,” he said. Walker noted that a country’s CWC declaration of its chemical weapons program is supposed to include a history dating back to 1946.

On the broader issue of the need to update the original Syrian declaration, the Russian official said, “Some technical hiccups may be present due to the fact that under the prevailing circumstances Syria simply had not had sufficient time to meticulously prepare its initial declaration. Damascus is cooperating with the OPCW in sorting out this technical stuff and such things should not be blown out of proportion.”

Under the expedited schedule of the OPCW-UN plan, Syria, which is in the fourth year of a civil war, had considerably less time to declare its chemical arsenal than countries normally do when they join the CWC.

At a July 10 conference at the State Department, Laura Holgate, senior director for weapons of mass destruction terrorism and threat reduction at the U.S. National Security Council, said there were “discrepancies between our knowledge of the Syrian [chemical weapons] program and the declaration submitted by the Syrian government.” Although some of the differences “could be explainable by the speed with which Syria was required to submit its declaration, compared to the years that most countries take to prepare their own CWC submissions,” there are “other, less benign explanations,” she said. “Our concerns include accountancy of materials, undeclared agents and munitions, undeclared sites, and programmatic inconsistencies.”

Claims of Chlorine Attacks

The OPCW also is investigating allegations of weapons use of chlorine in Syria earlier this year. The alleged attacks were “mainly…in a number of provinces that the Syrian Government does not consider to be under its effective control,” according to a June 16 summary report by the OPCW team that is investigating the claims. The Syrian government and the rebels fighting to topple it have charged each other with launching chemical attacks.

The OPCW traveled in late May to Kafr Zita, the Syrian town “that seemed most affected by incidents of use of chlorine and that was most likely to yield evidence that was fresh from the most recent reported attacks,” the report said. But the team’s convoy had to turn back after it came under attack. (See ACT, June 2014.) The report did not say who was responsible for the attacks.

The team’s “considered view” is that the available information “lends credence to the view that toxic chemicals, most likely pulmonary irritating agents such as chlorine, have been used in a systematic manner in a number of attacks,” the report said.

“[F]ield visits are not envisaged for the immediate future,” but “remain an option,” the report said.

Destruction Proceeds

After the last of Syria’s chemical weapons material was removed from the country June 23, an international convoy brought the highest priority material—the sulfur mustard and DF, a sarin precursor—to the Italian port of Gioia Tauro, where the material was transferred to a U.S. vessel, the MV Cape Ray on July 2. The Cape Ray then moved to international waters in the Mediterranean Sea and began neutralizing the chemicals July 7, using two mobile hydrolysis units it is carrying.

The Cape Ray has taken on about 600 metric tons of Syrian chemicals, according to the Defense Department. That figure is slightly higher than the 560 metric tons that the Pentagon and the OPCW had previously announced. In an e-mail exchange with Arms Control Today, a Defense Department official said the earlier figure was “an estimate [the Defense Department] was using for planning purposes.” The figure of 600 metric tons is a “more accurate and operational figure” that came from documenting the material as it was removed from Syria and loaded onto the Cape Ray, the official said.

In the e-mail exchange, the official said that if there is an accident during the neutralization process on the Cape Ray, the United States “intends to take responsibility for meritorious claims for damages that result from its negligent acts in accordance with its laws and regulations." The official cited a December 2013 OPCW Executive Council document that says the liability of countries assisting in the destruction of the Syrian chemical weapons would be “determined according to the circumstances, to the extent of their respective roles, and in light of the purposes” of the relevant UN Security Council and OPCW Executive Council actions.

The official emphasized the safety of the neutralization process, saying that it is “conducted with the utmost attention to personnel and environmental safety” and that “[n]othing from this process will be released into the air or marine environment.”

According to the Defense Department, about 88 of the 582 metric tons of the DF on the Cape Ray had been neutralized as of July 18.

Other chemical weapons material and the effluent resulting from the neutralization aboard the Cape Ray are being processed in facilities in Europe and the United States. Syria, which declared about 1,300 metric tons of chemical weapons material, destroyed about 120 metric tons domestically.

ATT Moves Closer to Entry Into Force

Jefferson Morley and Daniel Horner

Nine more states ratified the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in June, bringing the total number of ratifications to 41.

That leaves the treaty needing nine more for the 50 required for entry into force. Eight countries—Australia, Austria, Belgium, Burkina Faso, Jamaica, Luxembourg, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Samoa—deposited their instruments of ratification in a ceremony at the United Nations on June 3, the first anniversary of the ATT’s opening for signature. Sweden ratified the treaty on June 16.

The UN General Assembly approved the ATT on April 2, 2013, by a vote of 154-3, with Iran, North Korea, and Syria in opposition. The treaty regulates the cross-border trade in conventional arms ranging from small arms and light weapons to fighter aircraft and naval warships.

Secretary of State John Kerry signed the treaty on behalf of the United States last September. U.S. officials say the White House intends to submit the ATT to the Senate for approval, but no date has been set. Last October, 50 senators sent an open letter to President Barack Obama declaring they would never vote for the treaty.

In a June 10 interview, Angela Kane, the UN high representative for disarmament affairs, said, “We don’t really expect the U.S. to ratify any time soon.” Kerry’s signing of the treaty at the UN was “powerful,” she said.

The pact needs to include the major arms exporters and importers to be “fully effective,” she said. She noted that China, India, and Russia have not signed the treaty. Those three countries were among the two dozen that abstained during the April 2013 vote.

Nine more states ratified the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) in June, bringing the total number of ratifications to 41. 

Stage Set for 2015 NPT Review Conference

Tom Z. Collina, Lance Garrison, and Daniel Horner

Meeting for the final time before their review conference next spring, parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) gathered for two weeks at the United Nations, but were unable to adopt a common set of recommendations. This outcome could serve as a preview for the 2015 review conference, where disagreements are expected about the pace of nuclear disarmament efforts.

Enrique Román-Morey of Peru, who chaired the April 28-May 9 preparatory meeting, was unable to bridge differences and produce a consensus report on recommendations for the 2015 conference. At a May 9 press conference after the meeting ended, Román-Morey said agreement was not possible because there was not enough time to resolve key issues, such as the pace of disarmament by the nuclear-weapon states and the establishment of a Middle Eastern zone free of weapons of mass destruction.

The 2010 NPT Review Conference called for a meeting on a Middle Eastern zone by 2012. Although consultations are ongoing, the meeting has not taken place. In a report to the NPT preparatory meeting, the meeting facilitator, Finnish diplomat Jaakko Laajava, said that the participants demonstrated in the consultations their “readiness to engage, their desire to make progress and their open and constructive approach.” Nevertheless, “divergent views persist regarding important aspects” of the conference, he wrote.

Mootaz Ahmadein Khalil of Egypt said April 28 that if the meeting is not held, “no progress” on the zone “or on any other issue can be realized.” Egypt has been a primary supporter of the zone.

Román-Morey said too many nuclear weapons remain in the hands of the five countries that the treaty recognizes as nuclear-weapon states, and he urged those countries to “disarm in a more verifiable and transparent way than they are showing us.”

Those states—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—say that they are moving toward nuclear disarmament as fast as they can.

Rose Gottemoeller, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said April 29 at the UN that the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal was 4,804 as of September 2013, representing an 85 percent reduction in the U.S. nuclear stockpile since 1967. “It is indisputable that progress toward the NPT’s disarmament goals is being made,” she said.

“Is it enough? No, and the president said we want to get to zero,” Gottemoeller said May 9 to the Defense Writers Group. “It’s going to take time; it’s going to take hard work.”

No President Named

One action that NPT parties typically take at the last preparatory meeting before the review conference is the naming of the president for the review conference, but they did not do that at the recent meeting. Under the regional rotation used for such assignments, the president for next year’s review conference should be from Africa, but no African candidates have emerged, according to sources involved in the meeting.

Asked if the lack of candidates indicated pessimism about the review conference, a western European official acknowledged in a May 28 e-mail to Arms Control Today that some of the “obvious” candidates from Africa “are not exactly rushing forward.” That is partly “an indication [of] the expectation [of] how much glory could be gained in 2015,” the official said.

But he also said the lack of African candidates is an issue that has come up “in other similar processes.” He cautioned against “overinterpret[ing]” this result of the preparatory meeting.

Progress Reports

At the NPT review conferences, which take place every five years, the member states often have failed to achieve consensus on a final document. The main disagreements have occurred between states with nuclear weapons and those without them. Article VI of the treaty calls on all states to “pursue negotiations” on “effective measures” related to halting the nuclear arms race and to nuclear disarmament, but no time frame is specified. This ambiguity has created a growing divide between nuclear-weapon states, which say they are making good progress, and non-nuclear-weapon states, which say the pace is too slow.

In an attempt to hold the five nuclear-weapon states accountable to their commitments, the final document from the 2010 review conference called on these states to report on their progress in getting rid of nuclear weapons and preventing their use. At the preparatory meeting, each of the five states submitted a progress report, which they had shared with one another in Beijing in April. (See ACT, May 2014.)

Taken together, these reports highlight that one of the challenges ahead for disarmament efforts is that the nuclear-weapon states do not always agree on how to proceed.

The United States says in its report that its policy is “to achieve the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons, in line with our NPT commitments,” through a “step-by-step approach.” As a next step, Washington “is prepared to negotiate further nuclear reductions with Russia of up to one-third in the deployed strategic warhead levels” established in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), as President Barack Obama stated in Berlin last year. (See ACT, July/August 2013.)

The U.S. report also says that the United States “remains open to seeking negotiated reductions with Russia in all categories of nuclear weapons,” including strategic and nonstrategic weapons.

Russia rejects bilateral negotiations in its report, saying that U.S. and Russian efforts “are no longer sufficient for further progress towards nuclear disarmament,” suggesting that the other NPT nuclear-weapon states need to be involved. In addition, the Russian report says that “it would remain difficult” to eliminate nuclear weapons “if the process is confined to only” the five NPT nuclear-weapon states, meaning that India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan might need to be involved as well.

Russia’s report states that Moscow “stands ready to further pursue verifiable and irreversible limitation of nuclear weapons in compliance with its obligations under Article VI of the NPT.” At the same time, Russia “reserves the right” to use nuclear weapons in response to nuclear and other nonconventional weapons, as well as against conventional weapons, “when the very existence of the State is under threat.”

China, whose nuclear arsenal is a fraction of the size of the U.S. or Russian stockpile, says in its report that the countries “possessing the largest nuclear arsenals bear a special responsibility for nuclear disarmament and should take the lead in reducing their nuclear arsenals drastically,” meaning that the United States and Russia need to make further cuts in the size of their arsenals before asking China to join in. Beijing also says in its report that it supports a treaty on “mutual no-first-use of nuclear weapons,” the only NPT nuclear-weapon state to do so.

All five states support the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which China, the United States, and six other key countries have not ratified, thereby preventing the treaty from entering into force. The states also back conclusion of a fissile material cutoff treaty, the negotiation of which has been blocked by Pakistan at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.

‘Little Significant Progress’

Many non-nuclear-weapon states said they were unimpressed by the progress reports and rejected the step-by-step approach as too slow.

Alexander Kmentt of Austria said May 2 that the five reports reflect “little significant progress on nuclear disarmament” since the 2010 review conference reaffirmed commitments toward a world without nuclear weapons.

Countries pressing for progress on disarmament are supporting a series of conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons use. The first two conferences took place in Norway in March 2013 and Mexico in February of this year; a third is to be held December 8-9 in Austria.

The nuclear-weapon states have jointly boycotted the humanitarian conferences, with some of them expressing concern that the events could become a forum to build support for a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons outright. In a sign of growing support for such a ban, the UN’s disarmament committee in New York passed a resolution last November with the support of 129 states calling for the “urgent” start of multilateral negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons and designating Sept. 26 as the international day for their “total elimination.” (See ACT, December 2013.)

In her April 29 remarks, Gottemoeller said that “[t]he United States’ deep understanding of the consequences of nuclear weapons use, including the devastating health effects, has guided and motivated our efforts to reduce and ultimately eliminate these most hazardous weapons.”

In a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun, she said that Washington does “not support the notion of a nuclear ban treaty,” but continues to back the step-by-step process for the weapons’ elimination.

Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty members met in New York, but disagreed on disarmament steps and other issues, setting up a possible showdown at the treaty’s review conference one year from now.

Removal of Syrian Chemicals Stalls

Daniel Horner

The effort to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons program made little visible progress in May as none of the chemical weapons materials remaining in Syria were shipped out of the country for destruction.

Also last month, a team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) investigating allegations of chlorine attacks in Syria had to turn back from the site it was investigating and return to Damascus after it came under assault.

Under a schedule set last November by the OPCW Executive Council, the highest-priority chemicals among Syria’s declared stockpile of 1,300 metric tons were to be shipped out of the country by Dec. 31 for destruction elsewhere. Most lower-priority materials were to be out by Feb. 5, and Syria was to destroy the rest of the material domestically.

Syria, which is responsible for collecting the chemicals from sites across the country and bringing them to its Mediterranean port of Latakia, missed the Feb. 5 deadline and a new deadline of April 27. In the run-up to the latter date, Syria increased the flow of materials to Latakia, with the last shipment taking place April 24.

According to a May 23 report by OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü to the Executive Council, 92.0 percent of the declared chemicals to be destroyed outside Syria have left the country. That figure comprises more than 96.5 percent of the highest-priority chemicals and 81.1 percent of lower-priority chemicals, the report said. That leaves about 100 metric tons to be removed and destroyed.

Syria also possessed approximately 120 metric tons of isopropanol, which it was to destroy domestically. The UN-OPCW joint mission overseeing the Syrian chemical disarmament mission said in a May 20 press release that this part of the effort had been completed.

Under a timetable set last September by the OPCW Executive Council and the UN Security Council, the Syrian chemical stockpile is to be destroyed by June 30. Once out of Syria, most of the highest-priority chemicals are to be handed over to the MV Cape Ray, a U.S. vessel carrying two mobile units that will neutralize the chemicals while the ship is in international waters.

Under the agreed arrangements, the Cape Ray will not begin its work until all the chemicals are out of Syria. U.S. officials have indicated that the neutralization process is expected to take roughly two to three months.

Unofficial observers have said for months that the delays in removing the Syrian material are making the June 30 deadline increasingly unrealistic. In a May 23 letter delivering his monthly report on the Syrian chemical disarmament to the UN Security Council, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that “it is now evident” that “some activities” related to that effort will continue beyond June 30. That appears to be the most explicit official acknowledgment to date that the deadline will not be met.

Ban said he anticipated that the OPCW-UN joint mission would “continue its work for a finite period of time” beyond that date. During that period, “most” of the remaining weapons elimination activities should be completed, and “successor arrangements” can be put in place, he said.

According to Üzümcü’s report, the remaining Syrian chemical agents are at a single site near Damascus. Independent chemical weapons expert Jean Pascal Zanders, in a May 26 posting on his blog The Trench, identified the site as the Al Sin facility.

In his report, Ban said Syria “had long before informed the Joint Mission that it did not have full security control” at the remaining site because of the strong presence of the forces that have been battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the past three years. In late April, the Syrian authorities reported that the rebels had “expanded their presence in the area, rendering the remaining active storage facility inaccessible by road,” Ban said.

The joint mission provided funding for Syria to charter an aircraft to bring in supplies for completing the destruction of the isopropanol and “finaliz[ing] necessary preparations for the eventual transportation” of the other chemicals to Latakia, Ban said.

Meanwhile, a vehicle carrying an OPCW team to the Syrian town of Kafr Zita on May 27 to investigate allegations of chlorine use was struck by an improvised explosive device, the OPCW said in a May 28 press release adding details to its initial report the previous day. The people in that vehicle transferred to two other vehicles in the convoy, but those later were ambushed, the release said.

Ultimately, the team members were released following the “intervention of the main opposition group with whom the ceasefire and security arrangements had been negotiated,” the statement said. The team members, who are “safe and well,” returned to Damascus under Syrian government escort, the release said.

Kafr Zita is in rebel-held territory. The Syrian government and the rebels have charged each other with launching a chemical attack in the area in April.

The OPCW press release characterized the assault on its team as a “blatant attempt to prevent the facts [from] being brought to light,” but did not identify either side as the attacker.

More than a month after a revised deadline, Syria still has about 100 metric tons of chemical weapons material to be sent out of the country for destruction.

Vietnam Nuclear Pact Sent to Congress

Daniel Horner

The Obama administration submitted to Congress on May 8 an agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation with Vietnam, a pact that could feed a long-standing debate over how the United States pursues its nonproliferation policies through such agreements.

A key issue in the debate is how hard the United States should press its potential nuclear trade partners to forgo uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing, activities that are considered sensitive because they can be used to produce nuclear explosive material.

The preamble to the agreement expresses Vietnam’s intent “to rely on existing international markets for nuclear fuel services, rather than acquiring sensitive nuclear technologies.” The Obama administration had described this commitment after Vietnam and the United States initialed the agreement last October (see ACT, November 2013), but the text was not made public until last month.

The Obama administration submitted to Congress on May 8 an agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation with Vietnam, a pact that could feed a long-standing debate...

U.S. Reviewing, Not Halting, Russia Work

Daniel Horner

Although the U.S. Energy Department is conducting a review of all its “Russian-related activities” in response to Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine, it has not suspended nuclear cooperation with Russia, the U.S. embassy in Moscow said last month in a press release.

According to the release, the Energy Department and its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), whose responsibilities include nuclear security and nonproliferation work in Russia, “remain absolutely committed to their global nuclear security mission and responsibilities” and see “[c]ooperation with Russia [as] an essential element” of a worldwide effort to prevent nuclear terrorism.

The April 10 embassy release appeared to be in response to reports in Russian media a few days earlier saying the joint nuclear work had been suspended. Prior to the reports, the Energy Department had announced it was conducting the review.

The Defense Department also has been heavily involved in the two-decade-long effort to dismantle or destroy Russian nonconventional weapons and secure proliferation-sensitive materials. The effort originated in the Pentagon with the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, often known by the names of the two senators who sponsored the 1991 legislation creating it, Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).

In an April 18 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Pentagon spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said the Defense Department was “carefully evaluating” its CTR activities in the region.

Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and other actions indicating that Moscow may be poised to seize control of additional parts of Ukraine have spurred questions in the U.S. Congress about the wisdom of various forms of U.S. cooperation with Russia. But so far, it appears the only casualty from the nuclear security cooperation effort is the NNSA commitment to provide Russia with the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System.

That system, which some observers have described as resembling an advanced version of “laser tag,” is used in force-on-force drills. In Russia, it has been used to train the guard forces protecting civilian and military nuclear materials. But a group of 18 House Republicans, led by Reps. Jim Bridenstine (Okla.) and Michael Turner (Ohio), cited its military uses by the U.S. armed forces to argue that providing the system to Russia under the current circumstances is a “mistake.” Acting NNSA Administrator Bruce Held agreed that the United States should stop providing Russia with the laser system.

Much of the U.S.-Russian nuclear security work has restarted only recently, after a hiatus of nearly a year. The so-called CTR umbrella agreement, which provided the legal underpinnings for the work, expired last June and was replaced with an accord that scales back the cooperation in some areas. (See ACT, July/August 2013.)

Key elements of the transition to the new agreement, such as the renegotiation of contracts and arrangements for U.S. access to Russian facilities, took many months to resolve. In early April, Global Security Newswire quoted Anne Harrington, NNSA deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, as saying the work had just recently resumed.

That meant work restarted in the midst of the Ukraine crisis. By at least some measures, the crisis does not appear to have curtailed the effort. In an April 28 interview, Matthew Bunn, a nonproliferation official in the Clinton administration who is now with Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said NNSA delegations have made at least two major visits to Moscow in recent weeks to pursue work under existing contracts.

Bunn, who is a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors, noted that U.S.-Russian security cooperation continued during the Georgian-Russian war in 2008.

Similarly, the Ukraine crisis and the “poisonous” atmosphere it has created should not be allowed to disrupt nuclear security cooperation, he said. Although the security situation in Russia has improved greatly since the mid-1990s, the U.S. government needs to continue to “protect the large taxpayer investment” represented by those improvements and work to “fix the problems that still exist.” At the same time, the United States should be encouraging Russia to allocate funds and put regulations in place for those purposes, he said.

The U.S. government is reviewing its nuclear security cooperation work in Russia, but, contrary to some Russian media reports, has not suspended it.

Syria Misses Chemical Removal Deadline

Daniel Horner

Syria missed an April 27 deadline for removal of its chemical weapons materials, with about 8 percent of its declared arsenal of 1,300 metric tons reportedly remaining to be shipped out of the country or destroyed domestically.

Also in late April, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced it would investigate allegations of chlorine use in recent weeks in the area near the Syrian village of Kafr Zita.

On the shipment of materials out of the country, Sigrid Kaag, the special coordinator of the joint mission by the OPCW and the United Nations to oversee the removal and destruction effort, said it was the mission’s “hope and expectation” that Syria “will take the final step very soon,” according to the UN News Service.

The news service, reporting on an April 27 press briefing by Kaag in Damascus, cited a figure of 92.5 percent completion for the removal and destruction effort. In recent comments, U.S. officials have used similar figures. At an April 28 press briefing, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “With our international partners, we’re going to continue to press the regime to live up to its obligations, including by removing the remaining 8 percent.”

Syria is responsible for collecting the chemicals from sites across the country and bringing them to its Mediterranean port of Latakia. From there, an international convoy takes them away from Syria. Most of the highest-priority chemicals eventually will be transferred to the MV Cape Ray, a U.S. vessel carrying two mobile units that will neutralize the chemicals while the ship is in international waters.

Statements by OPCW and U.S. officials in late April suggested that the remaining chemical weapons material was located at a single site, but they did not name the site.

Under a schedule set last November by the OPCW Executive Council, the highest-priority materials were supposed to leave the country by Dec. 31. All other materials that are part of the overseas destruction program were to leave by Feb. 5. The rest of the chemical agents that Syria declared were to be destroyed within the country.

The removal dates were set with an eye to a June 30 deadline for destruction of the chemical agents. That timetable was established last September by the Executive Council and the UN Security Council. (See ACT, October 2013.) After Syria missed the December and February deadlines, officials from the OPCW, the UN, and key countries in late February and early March negotiated a revised schedule, setting April 27 as the deadline.

The Long View

In an April 28 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Jean Pascal Zanders, director of The Trench, a consultancy on disarmament issues, expressed some doubt that the June 30 deadline would be met. Nevertheless, he said, “[i]f this operation is completed successfully in the near future, and we look back upon the past months in a year or two, the missed deadlines will feature only as minor bumps along the road in the final narrative.”

Paul Walker, a former staff member of the House Armed Services Committee who is now director of environmental security and sustainability with Global Green USA, said considerations such as ensuring security, worker safety, and protection of the environment and public health are “much more important” than meeting a specific deadline.

In an April 28 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Walker, who is a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors, also said that once all the chemicals are removed from Syria, there should a “full release” of information identifying the chemicals and the amounts of each that are treated on the Cape Ray and elsewhere.

Probe Authorized

In its April 29 press release on the “fact-finding mission,” the OPCW did not give a time frame, saying only that its team would be heading to Syria “soon” to investigate the allegations of chlorine use. According to the release, “[T]he Syrian government, which has agreed to accept this mission, has undertaken to provide security in areas under its control.”

The Syrian government and the rebels fighting to topple it have charged each other with launching a chemical attack. The allegations of such an attack appear to be supported by videos posted on social media. Some observers have identified the agent as chlorine, but others have raised questions on that point.

In April 29 remarks to the OPCW Executive Council, Robert Mikulak, the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, referred to “public reports and videos indicating the use of a toxic chemical, probably chlorine.”

Chlorine is not one of the chemicals named by the Chemical Weapons Convention, but Zanders and Walker emphasized that its use as a weapon of war would nevertheless constitute a violation of the treaty. According to the OPCW website, “[A] toxic or precursor chemical may be defined as a chemical weapon depending on its intended purpose…. The definition thus includes any chemical intended for chemical weapons purposes, regardless of whether it is specifically listed in the Convention, its Annexes or the schedules of chemicals.”


The original version of this article misstated the date of the April 28 comment by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

 

Syria failed to meet a revised deadline for shipping all of its chemical weapons materials out of the country.

 

S. Korea, U.S. Extend Pact for 2 Years

Daniel Horner

South Korea and the United States have brought into force a two-year interim extension of the their agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation, the State Department said in a March 18 press release.

President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye announced last year that they had agreed on a two-year extension of the pact. (See ACT, May 2013.) The two sides are negotiating a longer-term agreement, but have not been able to resolve key issues, notably South Korea’s interest in treating spent fuel through a technique called pyroprocessing.

The United States has said it considers pyroprocessing to be a type of spent fuel reprocessing, and therefore a proliferation concern. But Seoul argues that pyroprocessing is more proliferation resistant than conventional reprocessing because in pyroprocessing, the plutonium separated from the spent fuel is mixed with other elements.

South Korea also says it needs to develop a domestic capacity to enrich uranium.

The 1974 U.S.-South Korean agreement was to expire last month. Congress cleared the way for the two-year extension in January.

The legislation approving the extension includes a number of findings. One of them states that “North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs, including uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technologies, undermine security on the Korean peninsula” and that South Korea and the United States “have a shared interest in preventing further proliferation.”

South Korea and the United States have brought into force a two-year interim extension of the their agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation, the State Department said in a March 18 press release.

MOX Fuel Plant to Be Mothballed

Daniel Horner

The Energy Department announced last month that it has decided to mothball the facility that has been the centerpiece of its effort to get rid of plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program as the department reviews other options for that task.

In public comments by department officials and in budget documents for fiscal year 2015, the department said it was putting the facility into “cold standby,” meaning that work on the structure will be scaled back to activities such as protecting the facility and its equipment from the elements and keeping the site secure. Those activities would preserve the facility for some potential future use.

The facility is under construction by an Energy Department contractor at the department’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina. It is designed to turn the plutonium into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel—so called because it is a mix of plutonium and uranium oxides—for use in nuclear power reactors.

Under an agreement that Russia and the United States signed in 2000, each country is required to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of surplus weapons plutonium. In the United States, that mission is the responsibility of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous unit of the Energy Department.

The NNSA budget request for fiscal year 2015 would provide $196 million for construction of the MOX fuel fabrication plant and another $25 million for other associated costs, down from $344 million and $40 million appropriated for the current fiscal year. Spending for Fissile Materials Disposition, the section of the NNSA budget that includes those expenditures, would drop from $526 million to $311 million.

During a March 4 conference call with reporters, Anne Harrington, NNSA deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, said the ongoing analysis of plutonium disposition options had not eliminated the current approach as an option. But keeping that approach would require the facility’s total life-cycle costs to decrease considerably, she said. Those costs are now estimated to be about $30 billion, according to the Energy Department.

Last year, the department said it was slowing down construction of the plant while it considered alternatives. (See ACT, May 2013.) The South Carolina congressional delegation, led by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R), argued for an approach that would focus on trimming the costs of the MOX fuel fabrication plant.

Graham harshly criticized the budget request for the MOX fuel program, calling it “irresponsible and reckless.”

In its budget justification document, the Energy Department said that “the MOX fuel approach is not viable within available resources.” Its analysis has determined that this approach “is significantly more expensive than anticipated, even with consideration of potential contract restructuring and other improvements that have been made” to the project, the department said.

The estimated construction costs of the project have drifted upward over its lifetime. Under the most recent revision, made about two years ago, the projection is $7.7 billion, an increase of more than 50 percent over the previous estimate.

Harrington said the analysis of the alternatives to the MOX fuel approach would likely take another 12 to 18 months. She said the team was looking at other options for irradiating the plutonium in a reactor and options involving direct disposal of the material without first irradiating it in a reactor.

Work in Russia

With regard to the Russian work on plutonium disposition, the NNSA budget document said there had been “significant progress.” The United States is to provide some money to the Russian effort, but the assistance is tied to the completion of negotiations on a document setting out milestones for the Russian work. The NNSA budget document said that a contract is expected to be awarded during the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

The money for that assistance would come from unspent funds from previous years, the document said. The NNSA did not request any new funds for Russian plutonium disposition for fiscal year 2015.

The Obama administration prepared the budget request before the current crisis over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which the United States and other countries have declared illegal. It is not clear what effect, if any, the crisis will have on cooperation on plutonium disposition.

In a March 30 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a former Russian official said his impression was that the events in Ukraine would not affect the process. But once the United States decides what method of plutonium disposition it will use, the two sides might need to modify the 2000 agreement, he said.

Energy Department officials have repeatedly said they are committed to fulfilling the agreement.

Overall Drop

Due to in large part to the drop in the budget request for Fissile Materials Disposition, overall NNSA spending would decline by almost $400 million from the fiscal year 2014 appropriation. The request for the coming fiscal year is $1.6 billion.

Funding for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) would drop from $442 million in fiscal year 2014 to $333 million. The GTRI focuses on reducing the threat posed by vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials by better protecting them or reducing their quantities. According to the NNSA budget document, a major reason for the requested reduction is that President Barack Obama’s four-year initiative to secure the most vulnerable nuclear material by the end of 2013 “was successfully completed.” NNSA officials have said that the funding for the four-year effort was “front-loaded” into its earlier years.

The GTRI encompasses most of the work closely associated with the nuclear security summits, a process that Obama launched in conjunction with the four-year effort.

Elsewhere in the NNSA nonproliferation budget, funding for International Material Protection and Cooperation would drop from a fiscal year 2014 appropriation of $420 million to $305 million for fiscal year 2015. Spending for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation R&D, which is responsible for research and development dealing with technologies used in tracking foreign nuclear weapons programs, illicit diversion of nuclear materials, and nuclear detonations, would fall to $361 million from its $399 million fiscal year 2014 appropriation.

The only part of the NNSA nonproliferation budget that would rise in fiscal year 2015 is Nonproliferation and International Security, whose portfolio includes nuclear safeguards and security. The request is $141 million, compared to the $129 million appropriation for the current fiscal year.

The Energy Department announced that it has decided to mothball the facility that has been the centerpiece of its effort to get rid of surplus U.S. weapons plutonium.

Syria Steps Up Removal of Chemicals

Daniel Horner

Syria has picked up the pace in removing its chemical weapons materials for overseas destruction and has sent about half of its stockpile out of the country, according to figures in a March 20 press release from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Syria had been under broad international pressure to speed up the effort. By the end of February, it had made four shipments, removing about 5 percent of its so-called Priority 1 chemicals and about 20 percent of the Priority 2 chemicals. Citing those figures, Robert Mikulak, the U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, had accused Syria of “continu[ing] to drag its feet.” (See ACT, March 2014.)

Under a schedule set last November by the OPCW Executive Council, the Priority 1 materials were supposed to leave the country by Dec. 31. All other materials that are part of the overseas destruction program were to leave by Feb. 5. The rest of the approximately 1,300 metric tons of chemical agents that Syria declared is to be destroyed within the country.

The removal dates were set with an eye to a June 30 deadline for destruction of the chemical agents, which was established last September by the Executive Council and the UN Security Council. (See ACT, October 2013.)

According to the OPCW press release, more than one-third of the Priority 1 chemicals and more than 80 percent of the Priority 2 chemicals have been removed. Among the removed Priority 1 chemicals was all of the sulfur mustard that Syria had declared. It accounted for only about 20 metric tons, but, as the OPCW press release noted, it was the only unitary chemical warfare agent in Syria’s declared arsenal. That means it was the only element of the arsenal that did not have to be combined with other chemical components to be weapons usable.

The quickened pace of chemical removal came as Syria agreed in early March to a timetable that would bring all of the chemicals out of the country by late April.

Commenting on the March series of shipments, Sigrid Kaag, the special coordinator of the joint mission of the OPCW and the United Nations to oversee the Syrian chemical removal and destruction effort, said in a March 20 statement that the joint mission “welcomes the momentum attained and encourages the Syrian Arab Republic to sustain the current pace.”

Thomas Countryman, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, also noted the removal of half of the Syrian chemicals, but said “that’s not good enough.” The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has all the equipment it needs and has run out of excuses,” Countryman told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 26.

Syria is responsible for collecting the chemicals from sites across the country and bringing them to its Mediterranean port of Latakia. From there, an international convoy takes them away from Syria. Most of the Priority 1 chemicals eventually will be transferred to the MV Cape Ray, a U.S. vessel carrying two mobile units that will neutralize the chemicals while the ship is in international waters.

The rest of the Priority 1 chemicals are to be incinerated at a facility in the United Kingdom. The Priority 2 chemicals are to be destroyed at facilities in Finland and the United States under contracts that the OPCW awarded in February.

With regard to the schedule for destruction, Countryman said, “The international community continues to work toward the June 30 target date for the complete elimination of the program. While Syrian delays have placed that timeline in some danger, we continue to believe that [it] remain[s] achievable.”

The developments in Syria have taken place against the backdrop of the crisis in Ukraine, which has pitted Russia against the United States and Europe. Because Russia, as a major ally of Syria, has a key role in the chemical disarmament effort, some observers have wondered about the effect of the Ukraine crisis on the removal and destruction operation in Syria.

In response to a question on that point at a March 20 briefing, a senior Obama administration official said that Russia is “deeply invested” in the Syria project because of “Russia’s own interest in seeing these weapons destroyed.”

A Russian official seemed to confirm that view in a March 31 e-mail to Arms Control Today. “As regards Russia’s position on elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons, it remains without change: we actively contribute in various forms towards its early conclusion,” the official said. Russia’s involvement “is not a bargaining chip” in the country’s relationship with the United States and NATO, “but a practical manifestation of [Russia’s] support for Syria and multilateral institutions such as the OPCW and the UN,” he said.

The plan for Syrian chemical disarmament is based on a framework agreement negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last September.

Syria has picked up the pace in removing its chemical weapons materials for overseas destruction and has sent about half of its stockpile out of the country, according to figures in a March 20 press release from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

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