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Former IAEA Director-General
Kingston Reif

The Case for No-First-Use

This op-ed originally appeared in The Cipher Brief. The conditions under which a U.S. president might use nuclear weapons has in recent weeks become a topic of national conversation. Toward the end of the first presidential debate on September 27, moderator Lester Holt asked Republican nominee Donald Trump if he supported the adoption of declared policy that the United States will not be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict, a policy proposal reportedly under consideration by President Barack Obama. Trump’s response , as has been the case with most policy issues, was self-...

UN Weighs Nuclear Weapons Ban Talks

October 2016

By Kingston Reif

A resolution mandating the beginning of negotiations on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, slated to be debated in the UN General Assembly First Committee in October, is likely to be approved by a majority of UN member states, according to diplomats, despite pre-emptive efforts by the United States and other nuclear-armed countries to thwart action on such a measure.

The push to begin negotiations on a ban treaty has grown out of the frustration of many UN member states at the slow pace of nuclear disarmament by the world’s nine nuclear-armed countries. The non-nuclear-weapon states argue that the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use highlight the need to act with greater urgency to eliminate such weapons and to create new and alternative approaches and venues to spur progress toward that goal.

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, in his September 21 UN General Assembly address, announced plans for a resolution to convene negotiations on a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons. (Photo credit: Cia Pak/UN)In a Sept. 21 speech at the United Nations, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz announced that his country, together with a group of other states, would press for such talks since “experience shows that the first step to eliminate weapons of mass destruction is to prohibit them through legally binding norms.”

The draft resolution—sponsored by Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria, and South Africa—says the goal is “to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards [sic] their total elimination.” The draft circulated among UN diplomats calls for a one-day organizational meeting “as soon as possible” followed by two negotiating sessions totaling 20 working days in 2017.

The resolution does not set a deadline for the completion of talks or offer specifics on what the new instrument should contain. “We do not want to prejudice other countries’ views with regard to which aspects precisely should be dealt with in the negotiations,” Thomas Hajnoczi, Austria’s permanent representative to the UN Office at Geneva, said in a Sept. 22 email to Arms Control Today. “The exact scope will be part of the negotiation process.”

The resolution notes the groundwork laid by an open-ended working group that took place in Geneva this year, a forum that discussed ways to structure a nuclear-weapons ban and other steps to take for multilateral disarmament negotiations. On Aug. 19, by a vote of 68-22 with 13 abstentions, countries approved the final report of the open-ended working group, a forum in which all UN members can participate. (See ACT, September 2016.) The report noted that “a majority of states expressed support for the commencement of negotiations in the General Assembly…on a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons.”

The report said a new instrument “would establish general prohibitions and obligations,” which could include a number of elements, such as “prohibitions on the acquisition, possession, stockpiling, development, testing and production of nuclear weapons.” The report added that a ban treaty “would be an interim or partial step toward nuclear disarmament” because it would leave measures for actually eliminating nuclear weapons “for future negotiations.” 

States supporting a ban treaty argued it would be “the most viable option for immediate action as it would not need universal support for the commencement of negotiations or for its entry into force,” according to the report. Hajnoczi noted that given the strong support at the open-ended working group for convening negotiations to prohibit nuclear weapons, “it is generally assumed” that there will be similarly robust support for the UN resolution. 

Another European diplomat agreed, telling Arms Control Today that it would be “surprising if there is not a clear majority voting in favor of the resolution.”

The nuclear-armed countries have expressed strong opposition to commencing negotiations on a ban treaty, and none attended the open-ended working group in Geneva. Many U.S. allies such as Australia, South Korea, and many of the members of the NATO alliance, often labeled “umbrella states” because they rely on the U.S. nuclear arsenal to help protect them, have also expressed opposition to holding such negotiations.

In remarks at a conference in Kazakhstan on Aug. 29, Anita Friedt, U.S. principal deputy assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance, called “on all states to reject unrealistic efforts to ban nuclear weapons.” Such a treaty would be “polarizing and unverifiable” and “could actually end up harming the proven, practical, and inclusive efforts that have achieved tangible results on disarmament and will continue to do so,” she said.

The United States and its allies instead back a “building blocks” approach to advancing nuclear disarmament. This approach calls for such measures as achieving entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and commencing negotiations on further U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons reductions below the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty levels.

Ban supporters also favor these steps, but argue they have been on the international agenda for years and are no closer to being realized.

The push to begin negotiations reflects the frustration of many countries at the slow pace of nuclear disarmament.

Price Tag Rising for Planned ICBMs

October 2016

By Kingston Reif

The projected $85 billion cost to design and build a replacement for the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system, the figure set by the Defense Department’s top acquisition official in advancing the program, is at the low end of an independent Pentagon estimate that found the price tag could exceed $100 billion, an informed source told Arms Control Today.

The Air Force last year published an initial cost estimate of $62.3 billion for the replacement program. (See ACT, July/August 2015.)

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during a test at Vandenberg Air Force Base California on May 21, 2013. (Photo credit: Senior Airman Lael Huss/U.S. Air Force)The growing price of the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program, as it is known, comes as the Obama administration continues to grapple with how to pay for current plans to modernize U.S. nuclear forces and has raised questions about whether there are cheaper alternatives to sustain the ICBM leg of the nuclear triad. 

The estimate of $85 billion to more than $100 billion was prepared by the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) in support of the program’s milestone A decision, a key early benchmark in the acquisition process for the weapons system. Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, approved the milestone A decision on Aug. 23, the Air Force announced in a Sept. 1 press release.

CAPE provides the Defense Department with detailed analysis of the costs of major acquisition programs. The estimate, in then-year dollars, includes inflationary increases expected over the life of the program.

The approved $85 billion program cost baseline is contained in a document written by Kendall known as an acquisition decision memorandum and includes the cost to purchase 666 new missiles and rebuild the existing missile infrastructure, the source said. The higher $100 billion-plus CAPE figure is not included in the memo, the source added.

The projected cost to operate and sustain the weapons system over its expected 50-year service life is roughly $150 billion, putting the total cost of the GBSD program at $238 billion, according to the source. 

Bloomberg News was the first to report on the $85 billion estimate set by Kendall. 

Cost Estimates Uncertain

Kendall’s approval of the milestone A decision was reportedly delayed due to the large gap between the cost estimate prepared by the Air Force and the more recent independent estimate prepared by CAPE. (See ACT, September 2016.)

According to the Bloomberg report, Kendall wrote in the acquisition memo that “there is significant uncertainty about program costs” because “the historical data is limited and there has been a long gap since the last” time the U.S. government built an ICBM. 

In remarks at an event on Capitol Hill on Sept. 22, Jamie Morin, the director of CAPE, said that there were “nontrivial” differences in how the CAPE and Air Force cost estimates were built, including contrasting inputs on the missile portion of the replacement program and assessments of the program’s overall “complexity.” 

According to Morin, CAPE based its cost calculations on historical data that could be culled from previous ICBM procurement efforts, such as the Minuteman and Peacekeeper programs, as well as data from the Missile Defense Agency and the Navy’s Trident missile program. 

Like Kendall, Morin emphasized the uncertainty of the cost estimate at this early stage of the acquisition process and noted that it is rare for CAPE to publish low- and high-end estimates for a major program. 

Questions Raised 

The projected cost of the GBSD program could add to worries about the affordability challenges posed by U.S. nuclear weapons spending plans. (See ACT, May 2016.)

In remarks June 6 at the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting in Washington, Benjamin Rhodes, assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said President Barack Obama would continue to evaluate plans that envision ramping up spending in the coming years to maintain and modernize U.S. nuclear weapons and would decide whether to “leave the next administration” with recommendations on how to “move forward.” (See ACT, June 2016.)

“Our administration has already made plain our concerns about how the modernization budget will force difficult trade-offs in the coming decades,” Rhodes added. 

Rhodes did not specify a timeline for when the president would make a decision on whether to adjust the modernization plans and, if so, when he would announce it.

Meanwhile, some analysts are questioning whether the GBSD program is the most cost-effective way to maintain the ICBM leg of the triad.

Prior to the cost analysis conducted by CAPE, the Air Force had been arguing that the price to build a new missile system would be roughly the same as the cost to sustain the Minuteman III over the next 50 years and would not provide desired capability upgrades. (See ACT, April 2016.

But a 2014 report by the RAND Corp. on the future of the ICBM force found that “any new ICBM alternative will very likely cost almost two times—and perhaps even three times—more than incremental modernization of the current Minuteman III system.”

The report said continuing to maintain the Minuteman III through life-extension programs and “gradual upgrades is a relatively inexpensive way to retain current ICBM capabilities.”

In a Sept. 22 interview with Arms Control Today, Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he did not see a technical reason why the life of the Minuteman III could not be extended for a period of time beyond 2030 if the missile’s solid fuel propellant was replaced and the Pentagon forwent capability upgrades.

Another life extension of the Minuteman III would allow the Air Force to defer a decision on whether to build a replacement system, thereby easing some of the pressure current nuclear and conventional weapons spending plans will put on the defense budget over the next 15 years, Harrison added.

The growing cost for the Minuteman III replacements comes as the Obama administration grapples with how to pay modernizing for U.S. nuclear forces. 

NNSA Eyes Shift in Naval Nuclear Fuel

October 2016

By Kingston Reif

The U.S. Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has identified “an advanced naval nuclear fuel system technology” that could power a U.S. aircraft carrier using low-enriched uranium (LEU) instead of highly enriched uranium (HEU), according to a July 2016 department report. 

The report presents a conceptual research and development plan to assess the viability of the fuel system that would take 15 years and cost at least $1 billion in fiscal year 2016 constant dollars. Deploying the new fuel system is projected to cost an additional “several billion dollars,” assuming the development program is successful.  

The label from casks of LEU sitting aboard a C-17 is pictured in this photo from February 14, 2012. (Photo credit: National Nuclear Security Administration)The report added that a successful development effort “might enable an aircraft-carrier reactor fueled with LEU in the 2040’s.” The conversion of current submarine reactors to run on LEU would be “a larger challenge,” according to the report produced by the Office of Naval Reactors, the NNSA division tasked with overseeing U.S. naval nuclear propulsion matters.

The outlined development plan follows a January 2014 naval reactors report, which concluded that using LEU in place of HEU “would negatively impact reactor endurance, reactor sizes, and ship costs,” although an advanced fuel system might mitigate these impacts. 

Roughly 290 metric tons of weapons-grade HEU, enough for more than 11,000 nuclear weapons, are in global naval inventories to power submarines, aircraft carriers, and icebreakers, according to a March 2016 report published by the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Weapons-grade HEU is enriched to 90 percent uranium-235.

The United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, and India use HEU for naval propulsion. France uses and China is believed to use LEU to power their naval reactors. LEU is enriched to less than 20 percent and cannot be used in nuclear weapons.

The NNSA report said pursuing naval fuel that uses LEU would “demonstrate United States leadership toward reducing HEU and achieving nuclear non-proliferation goals” and sustain the nation’s reactor fuel technical expertise. The report warned that the success of developing and deploying an LEU fuel system is not assured and that the use of LEU instead of HEU would “result in a reactor design that is inherently less capable and more expensive.”

In the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress required the NNSA to submit a conceptual plan for a research and development program on an LEU-based naval fuel system. The bill also required the energy secretary and the secretary of the Navy to determine whether the United States should continue to pursue research and development on an LEU system. The secretaries have yet to submit this determination.

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