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former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Fissile Material

The Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Is It Time for a Multilateral Approach?

Tariq Rauf and Fiona Simpson

The continuing spread of nuclear technology, along with the emergence of clandestine nuclear supply networks, has led to discussion on revisiting multinational approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle. The idea had been explored in the 1970s and 1980s but failed to win approval. However, it has gained a new relevance recently amid several new and serious challenges to the nuclear nonproliferation regime: the discovery of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, which is now subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards or verification; Libya’s December 2003 admission and renunciation of its clandestine nuclear-weapon development program; and the admission by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear weapon program, that he had organized a clandestine network to supply Iran and Libya, as well as North Korea, with uranium-enrichment technology.

These events have led to a rethinking of how the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the related nuclear nonproliferation regime might be reinforced. The NPT remains the world’s most adhered-to multilateral arms control treaty, currently with 189 states-parties, the only holdouts being India, Israel, and Pakistan.[1] It is based on an inherent, intricate, and interlinked three-part bargain: all states-parties that did not have nuclear weapons prior to January 1967 are required to renounce any ambitions for developing or possessing nuclear weapons. Furthermore, although these states-parties may use nuclear material and technology exclusively for peaceful purposes, they are required to subject their nuclear material and activities to IAEA verification, and nuclear-weapon states are required to pursue measures to achieve nuclear disarmament at an early date. In addition, several NPT states-parties that are the principal suppliers or transshippers of nuclear material and technology are administering export controls as required under the NPT regime (the Zangger Committee) or to supplement the regime (the Nuclear Suppliers Group).

Two basic approaches have been put forward; both seek to ensure that the nuclear nonproliferation regime maintains its authority and credibility in the face of these very real challenges. One calls for the further denial of technology to non-nuclear-weapon states and the reinterpretation of the NPT’s provisions governing the transfer of nuclear technologies. It is unlikely to succeed in light of lowered technical barriers to the development of sensitive technology and the increasing unwillingness of many non-nuclear-weapon states to accept additional restrictions to their right to peaceful nuclear technology under the NPT. The other approach would use multinational alternatives to national operations of uranium-enrichment and plutonium-separation technologies, and to storage of spent nuclear fuel.

The first to propose a fresh look at multilateral approaches was IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei. Addressing IAEA member states at the September 2003 General Conference, ElBaradei said that such approaches, based on improved nuclear technology control, greater operational transparency, and nuclear fuel and power plant supply assurances, could serve to strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime while not impeding the development of nuclear energy for states wishing to choose that option.

ElBaradei’s proposal put forward the possibility of supplementing and thereby strengthening the nonproliferation regime by re-examining the need for each state-party to control all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, particularly with respect to the uranium enrichment and plutonium separation and the storage and disposal of spent nuclear fuel. Thus, the regime could be strengthened by placing these technologies under some form of multilateral or multinational control.[2] To explore this idea, an independent expert group has been set up at the IAEA to consider possible multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle. This group will submit a report to ElBaradei in the spring of 2005.

Old Regime, New Challenges
When the NPT entered into force in 1970, sensitive nuclear technology was widely considered out of the reach of most countries. This is clearly no longer the case. Access to such technologies has increased particularly over the last few years. As many as 40 countries may now have the technical know-how required to produce nuclear weapons, and the legal regime has not kept pace with these technological developments.

In the absence of an enhanced legal regime, the sole remaining and somewhat fragile barrier to development of nuclear weapons may be a state-party’s assessment of its security situation and requirements. Such considerations are rarely fixed but alter over time. In the face of external events, a country that now has no interest in incorporating nuclear weapons into its security doctrine may one day decide otherwise. One of the fallacies of the so-called good guys/bad guys distinction is that occupants of these categories may move from one to the other. Betting on future nonproliferation solely on the basis of the current benign intentions of states-parties dangerously narrows the margin of security.

Can the NPT Be Altered?

One straightforward option for strengthening the nonproliferation regime involves altering the NPT itself, whether de facto or de jure. In particular, some have suggested reinterpreting existing NPT language that guarantees non-nuclear-weapon states the right to pursue nuclear technology exclusively for peaceful purposes if they forgo nuclear weapons (Article II) and submit to IAEA safeguards (Article III). Such an approach, however, is unrealistic.

Article IV of the NPT has two interconnected elements. The first reaffirms the inalienable right of all NPT parties “to develop research, production, and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.” The second is a reaffirmation that “[a]ll the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate and have the right to participate in the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy” and places an obligation on the parties to “cooperate in the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes,” especially in the territories of non-nuclear-weapon states-parties, with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world.

Article IV was specifically crafted to preclude any attempt to reinterpret the NPT so as to inhibit a country’s right to peaceful nuclear technologies as long as the technology is not used to produce nuclear weapons. Moreover, there is no formal mechanism for reinterpretation of the NPT. Any reinterpretation would probably have to occur through a consensually agreed decision at a review conference, which occurs every five years. This is how some past decisions and documents, which have not sought to alter any of the articles of the treaty but to provide benchmarks for implementation, were approved, such as at the 2000 Review Conference, where the states-parties agreed to take 13 practical steps to demonstrate their progress in implementing Article VI of the NPT.

Past experience, however, does not bode well for using such an approach. Some non-nuclear-weapon states have expressed frustration, for example, that some nuclear-weapon states such as the United States and Russia have backed away from the 13 steps. Given this history, it is unlikely that a reinterpretation of Article IV would hold or that an agreement on reinterpreting the NPT could be reached in the first place.

More broadly, the non-nuclear-weapon states would be disinclined to contribute to what many of them increasingly view as the growing imbalance in the NPT. They believe the nuclear-weapon states have backed away from their original guarantee that the non-nuclear-weapon states would enjoy “the right to participate in the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy,” as well as the right to receive assistance in this arena from “Parties to the Treaty in a position to do so.” The increasing concerns that the states-parties “in a position to do so” are not only no longer doing so but are placing still more restrictions on supply have fostered a belief among many non-nuclear-weapon states that the NPT bargain is being corroded.

The Limitations of a Denial Approach

Cognizant of these difficulties, a related but somewhat narrower approach has been advanced by President George W. Bush and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. In February, Bush told an audience at the National Defense University that “enrichment and reprocessing are not necessary for nations seeking to harness nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” In view of this, he proposed that the 44-nation NSG “should refuse to sell enrichment and reprocessing equipment and technologies to any state that does not already possess full-scale, functioning enrichment and reprocessing plants.”

This approach also found voice in a proposal the same month from Straw, who questioned whether states that fail to comply with their safeguards obligations “should not forfeit the right to develop the nuclear fuel cycle, particularly the enrichment and reprocessing capabilities which are of such proliferation sensitivity.” The Straw proposal went on to suggest that “this does not mean that they would be deprived of the possibility of constructing and running civil nuclear power stations. These could still operate with fuel supplied by countries honoring their safeguards obligations.” Even though the Straw proposal is closer to the multilateral approach suggested by ElBaradei, both the Straw and the Bush proposals proceed from the basis of a denial of certain nuclear technologies.

Yet at the same time, the demand for nuclear energy and related technologies has continued and even risen as countries seek to add nuclear power to their energy mix to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and in the future to meet their Kyoto Protocol carbon emission reduction quotas.

In this world, export controls, such as those of the NSG, serve as a useful but only temporary barrier to further proliferation. They are inadequate to address the most severe proliferation challenges as they rely on informal, nonbinding arrangements that are far from universal. Moreover, in recent years the spread of nuclear technology has been facilitated by clandestine nuclear supply networks ostensibly out of the control of governments.

These networks are easily established in response to the continuing and rising demand for nuclear technology. Current media attention has focused on A. Q. Khan and his international associates, but it should not be forgotten that similar networks also supplied Iraq prior to 1991. These networks appear to have encompassed companies and entities in more than 30 countries, ostensibly without the knowledge of their governments, including members of nuclear export control bodies such as the Zangger Committee and the NSG.

Indeed, the attempt to place ever more restrictions on supply may well have contributed indirectly to the emergence of clandestine nuclear supply networks. Iran, for example, has claimed that it was forced to turn to clandestine sources to meet its needs for civil nuclear technology when more open sources were shut off.

The concerns evoked by these clandestine networks, the availability of and increasing access to nuclear technology, and the possibility that some countries may be tempted to use such technology for nonpeaceful purposes cannot be ignored, particularly given past evidence of some countries not complying with their safeguards obligations. Consequently, it seems the time has come for new thinking or, to be more accurate, for a re-exploration of some old thinking in the light of new challenges.

Pros and Cons of a Multilateral Approach
ElBaradei’s initiative in the fall of 2003 attempted to jump-start this debate.[3] He did not set out a detailed plan but suggested a few guidelines: He said that any such venture would require proper rules of transparency and, crucially, assurance that legitimate users could obtain access to nuclear fuel for peaceful uses.

The potential benefits of such an approach for the nonproliferation regime are symbolic and practical. As a confidence-building measure, multilateral approaches have the potential to provide enhanced assurance to the international community that the sensitive portions of the civilian nuclear fuel cycle are less vulnerable to weapons proliferation, without singling out “good” and “bad” countries. If implemented, these measures may also have the potential to facilitate the continued use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and enhance the prospects for the safe and environmentally sound storage and disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste.

The inherent proliferation risks of enrichment and reprocessing technologies could be reduced by having more than one country involved in their operation, because any country that sought to break out of its NPT commitments would not only be choosing to violate the will of the international community but potentially forcing a confrontation with another state or states that might not want to choose such a course.

In addition, such approaches could strengthen nonproliferation norms by requiring nuclear verification and security and safety measures that go beyond existing international agreements and conventions. The partners in such endeavors could conceivably allow IAEA inspectors “any time, anywhere” access rights, in addition to the use of any verification technologies deemed necessary by the agency, as well as other agreed confidence-building measures.

Multilateral approaches would provide benefits of cost-effectiveness and economies of scale for smaller countries or those with limited resources while providing the benefits of the products of nuclear technology, i.e., nuclear fuel for power plants and subsequent storage of spent fuel. Similar benefits have accrued in other high-technology and high-security sectors, such as aerospace and high-speed computing.

The argument, however, is not straightforward. Opponents of multilateral approaches point to loss or limitation of state sovereignty and independence of ownership or control over a key technology sector. Countries with differing levels of technology, institutionalization, political relationships, economic development, resources, or requirements might find multilateral approaches inconvenient, unfeasible, restrictive, or simply not beneficial. Other might argue that multilateral approaches could lead to further dissemination or loss of control over sensitive nuclear technologies and to weaker nuclear security and safety standards.

To be sure, if all sensitive technology is available to all participants in a multilateral arrangement, then there is no benefit to be gained. To guard against this, multilateral efforts must come with some restrictions in order to avoid the risks of sensitive technology transfer. Within a multilateral context, however, this can be done at a larger stage than unilateral denial policies, allowing countries greater access to truly peaceful nuclear technology while discouraging them from developing independent national programs either overtly or covertly that can lead to weapons development. To meet the twin objectives of nonproliferation and “multilateralization,” nuclear facilities can be provided to partners in a “black box” mode, i.e., the technology holders construct and operate facilities that are managed and operated multilaterally, without technical know-how being disseminated.

Any viable future multilateral approach will require states-parties with nuclear weapons to set an example by using their enrichment and reprocessing plants to provide nuclear fuel to other states that have eschewed these technologies. Assurances of supply will need to be devised in a manner that is commercially competitive, avoids monopolistic situations, and provides for back-up supply in the event that some suppliers might be unable to provide the required services for whatever reason.

Most observers agree that the new challenges to the nuclear nonproliferation regime require a fresh response. Any attempt to strengthen the regime by further denial of technology, however, holds little likelihood of success. A new look at multinational approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle is clearly in its infancy, and its progress dependent mainly on political will.

Still, despite the disappointments of past initiatives of this kind, such ideas merit serious consideration. It may be that new thinking on an old idea holds out the promise of a strengthened and relevant regime, one that is able to cope with contemporary and future challenges.


1. According to the February 12, 2003 Resolution adopted by the IAEA Board of Governors, North Korea’s nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) safeguards agreement remains in force and is binding. The 2003 and 2004 sessions of the Preparatory Committee for the 2005 NPT Review Conference remained silent on the matter of North Korea’s NPT withdrawal. Neither the UN Security Council nor the NPT depository states, as far as is known, have rendered any definitive opinion regarding North Korea’s withdrawal from the treaty.

2. The terms “multilateral” and “multinational” are used in a broad sense to refer to arrangements beyond solely national control.

3. For an outline of these proposals, see “Curbing Nuclear Proliferation: An Interview With Mohamed ElBaradei,” Arms Control Today, November 2003, pp. 3-6.

Not the First Time: The Long History of Multinational Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

The idea of a multilateral approach to the fuel cycle is not new. Soon after the nuclear age began, the United States unsuccessfully advanced a proposal for multinational control of the nuclear fuel cycle: the 1946 Baruch Plan. Named for U.S. diplomat Bernard Baruch, the plan called for states to transfer ownership and control over civil nuclear activities and materials to an international development agency. In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower unveiled his Atoms for Peace plan, which laid the groundwork for the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The real heyday for such explorations was the second half of the 1970s and the early 1980s. After India conducted a “peaceful” nuclear test in 1974, concerns grew that other countries could follow India’s example and use their civilian nuclear program and plutonium reprocessing technologies to build nuclear weapons. Yet at the same time, countries wished to solve this problem within the context of the newly minted nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which sought to assure all states that they would be permitted to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under IAEA safeguards.

Out of such concerns, the first feasibility study on multilateral approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle was undertaken. The Regional Nuclear Fuel Cycle Centres (RFCC) study of 1975-1977 was created to provide a forum for countries to examine the possibility of joining together to set up fuel cycle centers at selected sites. In keeping with contemporary concerns, the emphasis in this and other studies of the time was on the back end of the cycle, specifically reprocessing and plutonium containment. Although the RFCC study drew some favorable conclusions regarding the technical viability of such an endeavor, it also highlighted some potential problems, among them the risks of technology transfer and the interrelated difficulties of providing assurances of supply to all stakeholders, including making provisions for the possibility of host-country withdrawal or interference.

The International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE) study of 1977-1980, which among other things touched upon the possibility of regional fuel-cycle facilities and prospects for multilateral cooperation on plutonium storage, came to similarly positive technical conclusions. However, due in large part to diminishing concerns over the likelihood of a “plutonium economy,” the disinclination of some countries to give up national control over reprocessing, and the general lack of political will, neither the RFCC or INFCE studies resulted in any further pursuit of multilateral approaches.

The IAEA Expert Group on International Plutonium Storage (IPS), the next initiative in the field, moved away from the discussion of regional fuel-cycle centers to examine instead the prospects for IAEA-supervised management, storage, and disposition of spent nuclear fuel. Once again, no consensus was reached as states were unwilling to renounce sovereign control over nuclear technology and fuel. The same fate met the studies undertaken by the IAEA Committee on Assurances of Supply (CAS) in 1980. After seven years, 21 sessions, and little or no agreement among the participants, CAS went into formal abeyance, where it remains.

The efforts that began in the 1970s in the area of multilateral approaches finally ended with the UN Conference for the Promotion of International Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy (with the rather unwieldy acronym UNCPICPUNE) in 1987, but like its predecessors, it yielded little in the way of concrete results in this regard.

U.S. Nuclear Trade Restriction Initiatives Still on Hold

By Wade Boese

In a Feb. 11 speech setting out his agenda for checking nuclear proliferation, President George W. Bush called on a voluntary group of nuclear suppliers to implement two proposals to limit the spread of materials and technologies that could be used to make nuclear weapons. To date, neither has been adopted.

Bush urged the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), whose 44 members seek to coordinate their nuclear trade policies, to add two export guidelines. One proposed regulation would deny transfers of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to countries without functioning facilities for these activities. Such facilities can be used to produce fuel for civilian power reactors or key ingredients for nuclear weapons.

The other new restriction would block any nuclear-related trade unless a recipient had ratified an additional protocol to their safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Additional protocols grant the IAEA broader authority to verify that a recipient’s nuclear activities are confined to peaceful pursuits.

Putting a cap on the spread of enrichment and reprocessing technologies has generated “substantial concerns” among NSG members, according to a U.S. government official interviewed Nov. 19 by Arms Control Today. Several members question whether a blanket denial of specific technologies is consistent with the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) provision to allow non-nuclear-weapon states “the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”

Countries are particularly anxious to forestall what may well prove to be a divisive debate at this May’s NPT Review Conference (see page 6). In addition, some EU countries contend that such a rule might conflict with the general EU policy of free trade among EU members.

Limiting nuclear trade to countries that have ratified an additional protocol has met less NSG resistance, but the group operates by consensus, so the initiative remains stalled. Argentina and Brazil, neither of which has adopted an additional protocol, assert that this criterion should be voluntary. Russia and at least one additional country have argued against tying all nuclear trade to a recipient ratifying an additional protocol. Instead, they advocate that such a restriction be limited to enrichment and reprocessing transfers.

U.S. officials intend to continue to press Bush’s proposals at the NSG. The next decision-making meeting of the group is scheduled for June in Oslo.

Although Bush has seen his proposals stymied so far at the NSG, the president succeeded in getting the more select Group of Eight to agree to a one-year moratorium on new deals involving enrichment and reprocessing technologies. (See ACT, July/August 2004.) This group includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Tariq Rauf is Head of Verification and Security Policy Coordination, and Fiona Simpson is an External Relations and Policy Coordination Officer, at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the IAEA.

U.S. Fissile Material Ban Plan Fizzles

Wade Boese

A U.S. government effort to begin negotiations this summer on a treaty banning production of two key ingredients for nuclear weapons fizzled when Washington failed to fully explain its new position toward the agreement.

After a prolonged review, the United States declared at the end of July that it would seek negotiations at the 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would forbid the production of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium for weapon purposes. A nuclear weapon cannot be made without one of these two fissile materials. As part of the announcement, the Bush administration overturned past U.S. policy by declaring it did not believe a final agreement could adequately detect cheating. (See ACT, September 2004.)

An American team of experts traveled to Geneva Sept. 1-2 to explain the revised U.S. assessment to its fellow CD members. The talks yielded no breakthrough.

U.S. officials spoke positively about the briefings afterward, but foreign diplomats said the team made little headway in persuading others that an FMCT is not verifiable. They said the U.S. delegation skirted a crucial point: whether the United States supports negotiations on the basis of a previously agreed March 1995 FMCT mandate calling for an “effectively verifiable” treaty or whether it wants a new mandate. CD decisions require consensus, and negotiations cannot start if a single member opposes them.

Washington has kept silent on the 1995 mandate, known as the Shannon mandate after the Canadian ambassador who helped craft it, and U.S. officials refused to discuss the matter in Geneva. U.S. officials said that their September briefings were only intended to provide a technical explanation of why the treaty could not be “effectively verifiable.”

It is unclear why the United States has not taken a stand on the 1995 mandate. Some speculate that the U.S. government has not arrived at a final position. Others believe that the United States wants to avoid breaking with many of its allies during an election year. Australia, Canada, and Japan firmly back the Shannon mandate.

In August and September interviews with Arms Control Today, administration officials suggested the existing mandate would be a nonstarter because they did not believe an “effectively verifiable” treaty was attainable. But many delegations assert that trying to replace or modify the 1995 mandate would only further gridlock the conference, which has not negotiated a treaty since the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996.

Canadian Ambassador Paul Meyer said in a Sept. 15 ACT interview that starting FMCT negotiations is “crucial” and their beginning “should not be complicated by any effort to reopen the existing mandate.” Meyer added that the mandate does not prescribe a result and allows all countries to raise their concerns during negotiations.

In their briefings, U.S. officials outlined what they perceive as treaty weaknesses that cheaters could use to their advantage. A Department of State official told reporters in Washington Sept. 1 that the administration believes the treaty could not be constructed in a way to detect noncompliance in a “timely fashion.”

In particular, U.S. officials argued that it would be difficult to assess whether a specific quantity of fissile material was produced before or after the treaty took effect. They also argued that HEU and plutonium could be produced for weapons under the cover of permitted activities, such as making fuel for naval propulsion reactors. Given these potential loopholes, U.S. officials charged that negotiating a verification regime would simply instill a “false sense of security” and needlessly delay an agreement.

Other countries hold that a verifiable treaty is feasible and essentially requires extending safeguards, such as inspections and monitoring measures, that are currently applied to the nuclear facilities of countries declared as non-nuclear-weapon states under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to the nuclear-armed states—both those acknowledged as such under the NPT and those widely viewed as de facto nuclear powers. Four of the NPT’s declared nuclear-weapon states—France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—have publicly halted fissile material production for weapons. The fifth, China, has reportedly done the same. Of the three non-NPT states armed with nuclear weapons, Israel’s production status is unclear, while India and Pakistan are suspected of currently making more material for bombs.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei weighed in on the debate Sept. 20, recommending that the conference redouble its efforts to negotiate a “non-discriminatory and internationally verifiable” FMCT. The IAEA, which verifies that non-nuclear-weapon states are not covertly pursuing nuclear weapons, reported in a 1995 paper that “[i]t is the IAEA Secretariat’s assessment that verification of a treaty banning the production of fissile materials would be possible through a verification system quite similar to the one applied for the IAEA safeguards system.”

The start of FMCT negotiations do not hinge solely on the United States finding common ground with other members on an FMCT, but on other issues too. Most other countries favor holding less formal talks on nuclear disarmament and the prevention of an arms race in outer space in parallel with FMCT negotiations. Yet, U.S. Ambassador Jackie W. Sanders told the conference July 29 that FMCT negotiations “must have a clean mandate that is not linked to other unrelated proposals.”

One European CD ambassador said in a Sept. 14 ACT interview that beginning any work in the conference without talks on nuclear disarmament and outer space would “never be acceptable” to China, Russia, and tens of others.
With so much ambiguity surrounding key U.S. positions, the CD closed its doors for the year as previously scheduled on Sept. 10 without launching any negotiations. It will reconvene Jan. 24, 2005.

The Bush Administration and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty: Reversing Course on Verification

Trust, but Don't Verify

Daryl G. Kimball

The dangers posed by today’s non-conventional weapons necessitate prompt and vigorous action to dismantle arsenals and block the transfer, stockpiling, and production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium—the fissile material needed to build nuclear weapons. U.S. leaders have long recognized that such arms control efforts must be reinforced with effective means to monitor compliance. As President Ronald Reagan told the Soviets, “Trust, but verify.”

Fittingly, the negotiation of a global, verifiable fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) has been a major U.S. nonproliferation priority at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) for more than a decade. But not any more.

Following a lengthy policy review, the Bush administration has adopted a new and counterproductive “trust, but don’t verify” FMCT position. Although the administration says it supports negotiations for a treaty to end the production of fissile material for weapons purposes, it has indicated it will oppose negotiations on an “effectively verifiable” treaty.

The goal in past years has been to negotiate a global treaty with an effective verification regime focused on facilities that are capable of uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. This could provide high confidence that no country is secretly producing bomb-grade nuclear material for weapons.

The FMCT would reinforce the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and lock in the halt on production of fissile material for weapons currently observed by the five established nuclear-weapon states: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Perhaps more significantly, a verifiable FMCT would cap the supply of bomb material available to NPT holdouts India; its nuclear rival, Pakistan; and Israel.

The U.S. policy shift is a body blow to the long-delayed FMCT talks, however. The United States wants the 65 member states at the CD to reach consensus on a new mandate for negotiations, an exceedingly difficult task that will further postpone the start of FMCT talks. The new U.S. policy is yet another shameful rejection of key disarmament commitments made at the 1995 and 2000 Review Conferences of the NPT.

According to the Bush review, an FMCT inspection program would be “so extensive that it could compromise key signatories’ core national security interests and so costly that many countries will be hesitant to accept it.” No verification system is 100 percent effective, nor is it free. But as major U.S. allies still insist, verifying such a treaty is technically feasible and politically possible, and it is in everyone’s core interests to make the treaty more than a symbolic gesture.

The additional financial cost of expanding the scope of current nuclear inspections to cap the size of the world’s arsenals is well worth the price. As recent events in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea show, when international arms inspectors have the political and legal authority to visit relevant sites and investigate suspicious findings, they can detect and deter cheating and, if necessary, help mobilize international action against violators. In many cases, the IAEA can visit and take measurements at sites and facilities about which national intelligence agencies can only raise suspicions.

So, what is really behind the reluctance to negotiate an effectively verifiable FMCT? The policy is yet another symptom of this administration’s strong allergy to multilateral arms control. It also reflects the Bush administration’s insufficient regard for the effect of Israel’s and Pakistan’s unregulated nuclear weapons programs on regional security and nonproliferation objectives. Pressing forward with a verifiable FMCT would help bring those states, along with India, into the nonproliferation mainstream and enhance efforts to ensure that other states comply with their treaty obligations.

The Pentagon has resisted FMCT negotiations altogether. Officials there fret about protecting information related to Navy programs that supply enriched uranium fuel for nuclear-powered ships, despite the fact that the FMCT would not prohibit production for such purposes.

This is not the first time the Bush administration has torpedoed verification provisions designed to improve compliance with arms control treaties. In 2001 the Bush administration blocked approval of a verification regime for the Biological Weapons Convention. In 2002 it declined to seek additional monitoring and inspection measures as part of its Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty with Russia. Absent better verification, illicit national bioweapons programs may continue, and our knowledge about the size and security of Russia’s nuclear arsenal will be far less certain.

President George W. Bush said in February that he is committed to stopping weapons of mass destruction “at the source.” The United States cannot achieve this objective by itself or without more new and verifiable initiatives such as the FMCT. Tragically, the Bush approach on the FMCT and other nonproliferation agreements denies our nation and the international community the chance to more effectively monitor and enforce compliance with the global nonproliferation standards essential to our security.

Bush Shifts Fissile Material Ban Policy

September 2004

By Wade Boese

Following an internal policy review lasting well over a year, the Bush administration has reaffirmed past U.S. policy to negotiate a treaty ending the production of two key materials for nuclear arms. But it has added a new twist: it does not believe the agreement can be crafted to protect against cheating. The change in tack puts Washington at odds with some of its closest allies and raises questions about whether the new U.S. approach will jump-start or further bog down the long-stalled treaty talks.

Speaking July 29 to the 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD), Ambassador Jackie W. Sanders announced the United States would pursue negotiations on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would outlaw production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons purposes. A nuclear weapon cannot be made without one or the other.

Sanders said the administration’s recently concluded FMCT policy review “raised serious concerns that realistic, effective verification of an FMCT is not achievable.” Since 1995 the United States and others had been urging the CD to begin negotiations on an FMCT that would be “effectively verifiable”—this phrase was part of a broader negotiating mandate for the treaty brokered by Ambassador Gerald Shannon, who served as the Canadian representative to the conference at that time.

A verifiable treaty is typically understood to have mechanisms and procedures, such as on-site inspections, to detect violations.

At a January 1999 conference in Washington, D.C., Michael Guhin, a U.S. arms control official, outlined the then-U.S. government position on verifying an FMCT. “We think that a strong regime of routine monitoring of all [fissile] production facilities and all newly produced material and a regime for nonroutine or so-called challenge inspections would give us enough building blocks to build an effective verification regime,” he said. Guhin is now the Department of State’s point man on fissile material issues.

An administration official interviewed Aug. 13 by Arms Control Today said the United States “does not have a draft treaty in its pocket” and is not ruling out verification provisions as a possibility. The U.S. position, the official explained, is that, regardless of the verification measures agreed to, an FMCT is not able to be “effectively verifiable.” Hence, the United States wants to remove that language from the 1995 Shannon mandate.

The official declined to comment on what would constitute “effectively verifiable” or why the U.S. government assessment about the proposed pact’s verifiability has changed.

Another administration official interviewed Aug. 20 emphasized that the U.S. approach is motivated by wanting to establish a prohibition against the production of fissile material for weapons sooner rather than later. The concern is that negotiating a verification regime would prolong the talks by years, allowing countries currently producing fissile material without any restraints to continue to do so until a final agreement is reached.

India and Pakistan are believed still to be churning out fissile material for arms, while the status of Israel’s production activities is unclear. France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have all declared that they no longer produce fissile material for weapons purposes. China has reportedly ceased as well. In her speech, Sanders encouraged all states to pledge publicly not to make any more fissile material for bombs.

A July 29 statement released by the Bush administration also shed some light on the thinking behind the policy shift. “Effective verification of an FMCT would require an inspection regime so extensive that it could compromise key signatories’ core national security interests and so costly that many countries will be hesitant to accept it,” the statement noted.

For instance, the United States and other countries are opposed to providing access to facilities involved in providing nuclear fuel for their naval propulsion reactors.

Israel, which shrouds its nuclear activities in secrecy, made well known its concerns about an FMCT in 1998 when it decided not to block the conference from initiating negotiations on the accord. The talks disbanded after a few weeks without any progress. (See ACT, August/September 1998.)

Intrusive or expensive verification measures also are understood to be of concern to China, France, and Pakistan, although all have previously endorsed the goal of a verifiable FMCT.

This is not the first time the Bush administration has shied away from verification provisions. It elected not to seek a verification regime for its May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty with Russia and sank international efforts to add one to the Biological Weapons Convention the year before.

Some conference members, including key U.S. allies, swiftly made clear they do not share the U.S. perspective. Canada and Japan reiterated their long-standing support for the Shannon mandate and Australian Ambassador Michael Smith argued Aug. 12 that, “to be credible and effective, the FMCT should include appropriate verification arrangements.” British officials also have indicated that they favor verification measures.

Washington expects other capitals to try and persuade it that the agreement can be verified. A team of U.S. experts is traveling to the conference Sept. 1-2 to present the opposite case.

Although Sanders also spoke of the U.S. desire to ban exports of landmines lacking self-destruct and self-deactivation mechanisms (see below), the near-term priority is getting the CD to focus on an FMCT, according to U.S. officials.

The U.S. position runs counter to CD efforts extending back to last year to formulate a compromise package of issues, including an FMCT, the prevention of an arms race in outer space, and nuclear disarmament, to all be dealt with at the same time. China and Russia submitted Aug. 26 two informal working papers on the outer space issue and made clear that they opposed the conference working solely on an FMCT. Russia described the outer space issue as its “clear priority,” while China called for adopting a “comprehensive program of work.”

However, time is short for any CD negotiations to begin this year. The conference concludes its current session Sept. 10 and will not reconvene until January 2005. CD rules hold that talks started one year do not automatically carry over to the next.

This practice, coupled with the requirement that no work can begin if a single CD member objects, has helped deadlock the conference since 1996 when it wrapped up the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In May 2000, the then-187 states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) called upon the CD to complete an FMCT within five years. The NPT states-parties are gathering again this coming May, and the lack of progress on an FMCT is likely to be cited by many non-nuclear-weapon states as evidence that nuclear-armed countries are not living up to their NPT commitment to work toward disarmament.

U.S. Pushes Landmine Initiatives

Wade Boese

A U.S. landmine initiative announced July 29 received a cool reception from other countries. The proposal, put forward by U.S. Ambassador Jackie W. Sanders at the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD), calls for an international ban on the sale or transfer of all landmines without self-destruct and self-deactivation devices.

Canada and some of the other 142 states-parties to the Ottawa Convention, which bans anti-personnel landmines (APLs), including those with self-destruct and self-deactivation devices, rejected the initiative out of hand. Canadian Ambassador Paul Meyer explained, “Clearly and simply put, [Ottawa Convention] states will not be in a position to enter negotiations on a lesser ban aimed at arresting trade in one category of [APLs] alone but implying the acceptability of trade in other categories of these weapons.” Because the CD requires consensus for starting negotiations and 42 of the conference’s 65 members are Ottawa Convention states-parties, the U.S. proposal’s prospects are bleak.

The United States announced in February that it would cease using any type of landmine lacking self-destruct and self-deactivation measures. Washington also declared it would not join the Ottawa Convention, an option it suggested in 1998. (See ACT, March 2004.)

The United States is having better luck with another international landmine initiative. Support is growing for a U.S. proposal to restrict the use of anti-vehicle mines, which are not prohibited by the Ottawa Convention.

At a July 5-16 meeting in Geneva, states-parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) inched closer toward adopting an anti-vehicle mines measure, which has been debated for years. A U.S. government official said Washington is aiming to complete the negotiation early next year so that it does not drag on indefinitely.

Now endorsed by 29 other countries, the proposal would require that any anti-vehicle mines deployed in the future be detectable. In addition, it would obligate countries to equip anti-vehicle mines delivered by aircraft or artillery systems with self-destruct and self-deactivation devices. The CCW already mandates that APLs have such mechanisms.

The 30 co-sponsors are now weighing whether to amend their proposal to demand that any anti-vehicle mines lacking features to neutralize themselves after a short period be restricted to deployment in marked areas.

A CCW measure can only be approved by consensus, and China, Russia, and Pakistan currently oppose adopting the proposal. Their objections vary from assertions that nondetectable mines are needed for border protection to the costs of altering mines to comply with the proposal.

Proponents say they are making headway, however, in arguing that the proposal will not be as costly as some fear because it will apply only to mines deployed in the future, not to those already in the ground or that remain stockpiled. The U.S. official voiced confidence that it is only a matter of time until the proposal prevails.


Bush Shifts Fissile Material Ban Policy

ElBaradei Appoints Fuel Cycle Group

Miles A. Pomper

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei has tapped a Swiss arms control expert to lead a 23-member expert panel that will examine alternative ways to provide and dispose of key civilian nuclear materials in order to prevent nuclear proliferation.

The appointment of Bruno Pellaud, a former IAEA deputy director-general, to chair the experts group comes in the wake of alleged efforts by Iran and North Korea to use civilian nuclear plants as a cover for producing the highly enriched uranium and plutonium needed to fuel nuclear weapons.

To limit the possibility of such diversion, ElBaradei has been encouraging states voluntarily to cede their rights under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to certain technologies that can have both civilian and military applications. (See ACT, November 2003.)

In particular, ElBaradei has suggested that spent fuel repositories as well as facilities for enriching uranium or reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium might be placed under international control. He is now also suggesting that countries agree to abide by a five-year moratorium on the construction of facilities of this kind.

At the request of ElBaradei, key IAEA member states named other members of the panel, who include both technical and policy specialists. In addition to Pellaud, ElBaradei appointed two outside advisers: Lawrence Scheinman, who served as assistant director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the Clinton administration, and former Euratom safeguards director Wilhelm Gmelin.

The panel, whose formation ElBaradei announced in June (see ACT, July/August 2004), is set to meet four times before March 2005, when it is expected to provide a report to the IAEA’s Board of Governors.

The board could then decide to forward its recommendations to the 2005 NPT Review Conference, which meets once every five years and brings together representatives of the treaty’s 189 states-parties.

Abraham Announces Nuclear Initiative

Wade Boese

The Department of Energy is making organizational changes and boosting funding to better keep global nuclear materials from falling into hostile hands, but two key projects with Russia remain stalled.

On May 26, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced a $450 million initiative to accelerate existing programs intended to end the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) as fuel for research reactors and to retrieve all U.S.- and Russian-exported HEU, which is one of two fissile materials that can be used to build nuclear weapons (plutonium is the other).

Formally dubbed the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, the new effort also urges stepped-up action to secure other nuclear and radiological materials that could be used to make a so-called dirty bomb, a conventional explosive mixed with radioactive material.

While extolling the administration’s record on reducing the threat posed by nuclear materials worldwide, Abraham said, “[W]e would be fooling ourselves and endangering our citizens to think that these past efforts are enough.”

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has charged the Bush administration with being too lax in its approach (see page 34).

The Global Threat Reduction Initiative

In 1978 the United States launched a program to convert research reactors to operate with low-enriched uranium (LEU), which is not suitable for making nuclear weapons, instead of HEU. But budget constraints, the technical complexity of the conversion work, and reluctance by some governments to switch types of fuel have hampered the program. Only about a third of the 105 research reactors slated for conversion have been modified.

The new initiative aims essentially to convert a similar number within the next five years. It leaves open the question of when the last third of the reactors might be converted because an appropriate substitute LEU fuel is not yet available for them.

Abraham suggested June 14 that the administration’s initiative represents the most that can be done. “I know some have implied that this work can be done quicker. But the people who make those assertions are simply ignoring the realities of science,” he stated. Abraham added, “Changing a reactor core is not like changing the battery in your car.”

The initiative further calls for picking up the pace of a 1996 program to retrieve about 20,000 kilograms of U.S.-origin enriched uranium, including roughly 5,000 kilograms of HEU, that have been exported to 41 countries. About 1,100 kilograms of HEU have been retrieved to date.

Acknowledging that the program “has had a long history of not performing as well as it should,” Abraham said that would now change. “I made it clear…that I want this job done as soon as possible,” he declared. The secretary pledged to complete the work in a decade.

As another part of the initiative, the United States finalized a May 27 agreement with Russia to assist Moscow in retrieving some 4,000 kilograms of HEU it exported to 17 countries. The goal is to finish this work by 2010.

The United States and Russia first explored repatriating Soviet and Russian HEU in the late 1990s. Operations during the Bush administration have recovered HEU from sites in Bulgaria, Libya, Romania, and Serbia. Prior to that, the United States helped remove HEU from Kazakhstan and Georgia. A research reactor in Uzbekistan is next in line.

Not all U.S.- and Russian-origin HEU is located in countries ready to return it. Iran and Pakistan are two notable examples. The United States, Russia, and the International Atomic Energy Agency are hosting an international conference this fall to discuss how to handle these more intractable situations.

In addition, the initiative commits the Energy Department to seek out any nuclear and radiological materials not covered by existing programs. “Once identified, we will secure, remove, relocate, or dispose of these materials and equipment in the quickest, safest manner possible,” the secretary stated. The Energy Department intends to pre-position equipment around the world to facilitate such missions.

A new office within the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration will manage the initiative.

Plutonium Projects Stuck in Neutral

Although seeking to speed up its efforts to reduce HEU threats, the United States is spinning its wheels when it comes to mitigating plutonium dangers. This inaction has upset some U.S. lawmakers.

At a June 15 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) questioned whether Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton was trying hard enough to overcome obstacles holding up a U.S.-Russian agreement for both countries to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium.

Urging that the program be jump-started, Domenici, who oversees funding for the Energy Department as chairman of the relevant subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, argued, “If he can’t do it, somebody ought to…be put in his place that will do it.” Agreed to in principle in September 1998 and sealed two years later, the plutonium deal has been hampered by disagreement over accountability for any accidents.

“The issue that divides Russia and the United States at this point is whether we’re going to get liability protection equivalent to that which we’ve operated under for the past 12 years or whether we’re prepared to accept a lesser liability protection,” Bolton explained at the hearing.

Bolton’s testimony failed to satisfy Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). “You’ve certainly illuminated the problems…but not really the solution,” Lugar remarked. Describing the situation as “very, very serious,” Lugar ventured that he and other senators might need to meet with the president to discuss the matter.

Lugar’s fellow Republican, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas, also had concerns with another languishing plutonium program with Russia and asked the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, to look into it. GAO reported in June that the program to shut down Russia’s final three plutonium production reactors is troubled.

Although Russia pledged in 1994 to cease operating the three reactors by 2000, it still has not done so. The deadline passed unfulfilled due to differences between Washington and Moscow over who should pay to provide nearby towns with the heat and energy that would be lost when the reactors shutdown. The Bush administration agreed in March 2003 to build one fossil-fuel facility and refurbish another to address Russian concerns.

However, GAO found widespread confusion between U.S. and Russian entities—17 total—over managing work on the replacement facilities and Russian fears about finding future employment for displaced reactor workers. GAO further noted that Energy Department officials are worried about Russia’s ultimate intentions because it has refused to reduce the amount of plutonium the three reactors produce and to add safety features in the meantime.

The projected date for when the last of the three reactors will be shut down has slipped from 2006 to 2011.





Does the United States Need a New Plutonium-Pit Facility?

Steve Fetter and Frank von Hippel

Each nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal contains a “pit,” a hollow shell of plutonium clad in a corrosion-resistant metal, which is surrounded by chemical explosives. When the weapon is detonated, the explosives compress the pit into a supercritical mass and a fission chain reaction is triggered. All the pits in the current U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile were manufactured at the Department of Energy’s Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, which was shut down in 1989 because of flagrant violations of safety and environmental regulations.[1]

During the Cold War, warheads were replaced by new designs well before the end of their design lifetimes. With the end of the Soviet-U.S. arms race, however, the need for new weapon designs also ended, and the longevity of the pits has become an issue. The pits in current U.S. warheads are expected to deteriorate over time, and, at some point, will have to be replaced if the warheads are to remain in the stockpile.

To manufacture new pits, the Bush administration has proposed building a Modern Pit Facility (MPF) with a single-shift production capacity of 125, 250, or 450 pits per year, which would begin operation around 2020.[2] The total cost for design and construction is estimated at $2-4 billion, with an annual operating cost of $200-300 million. Leading the charge has been Linton Brooks, administrator of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).[3] Brooks has been supported by key lawmakers, particularly Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee and hopes to add the MPF to the other Energy Department nuclear facilities, which bring billions of federal dollars per year into New Mexico.[4]

The need for such a massive and expensive new facility is highly dubious, however, unless the United States wants to maintain a Cold War-sized nuclear arsenal or launch a misguided effort to develop a new class of nuclear weapons. Otherwise, any need for replacement pits can be easily handled by adapting an existing facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Building an expensive new facility would be a waste of taxpayer’s money. It would also risk broader harm to U.S. interests, encouraging the United States to maintain a larger stockpile than is needed to protect our national security interests and to introduce new types of warheads, signaling to other countries that the United States believes nuclear weapons are more useful than they actually are.

The Clinton administration faced the same question about how to maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal but came to a different conclusion. In 1996, the Energy Department decided to establish a capacity to fabricate pits in the PF-4 plutonium facility in Technical Area 55 (TA-55) of Los Alamos, with a maximum capacity of 80 pits per year. It judged such a capacity adequate to support the proposed START II force of 3,500 deployed strategic warheads.[5] This is more than the limit of 2,200 deployed strategic warheads agreed to by Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in the U.S.-Russia Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT).

The urgency of building the MPF has been challenged by congressional leaders as well as members of the arms control community. In July 2003, the House Appropriations Committee questioned the urgency of committing to the MPF and suggested that the rationale for the facility might disappear if the United States downsized its stockpile to a level appropriate to the post-Cold War security situation. The panel called the NNSA’s rush to build the facility “premature” and called on the NNSA “to plan and execute a program to support defense requirements based on what is needed rather than the continuation of a nuclear stockpile and weapons complex built to fight the now defunct Soviet Union.”[6] In January, Brooks delayed issuing the final environmental impact statement on the MPF because of the need “to respond to concerns that some [congressional] committees have raised about its scope and timing.”[7]

In order to determine if this expensive and problematic new facility is necessary, two questions need to be answered:

· How large a stockpile will the United States have in the future?
· How soon and how fast will the pits currently in the stockpile need to be replaced?

The Future Size of the U.S. Stockpile

The required plutonium pit production capacity depends upon the number of warheads that will need to be replaced, but the Bush administration has yet to decide whether or by how much to reduce the estimated 10,000 nuclear warheads (and 5,000 reserve pits) in the U.S. stockpile.[8]

If we were to use the 2002 SORT as a basis for decision-making, a stockpile of 3,000 pits should be more than sufficient. Such a stockpile would allow the United States to maintain a deployed force of 2,200 strategic warheads (the maximum number permitted under the accord in 2012), a reserve of several hundred strategic warheads, and a like number of nonstrategic warheads. A facility producing 100 pits per year could replace this entire arsenal over a 30-year period. That would be well within the capabilities of the Los Alamos TA-55 facility, which, according to NNSA, could be expanded to produce 80-150 pits per year operating only eight hours a day, five days a week.[9] Therefore, if the United States determines that it needs a pit production capacity of 150 per year or less, the MPF may not be needed at all.

A stockpile of 3,000 warheads would still be very large. The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) requires reductions in the nuclear forces of the weapon states with the ultimate goal being zero. With others, we have argued that the United States and Russia should bilaterally agree to reduce their stockpiles to 1,000 warheads each.[10] An average production rate of only about 25 pits per year starting in 2010 would be required if the U.S. stockpile were programmed to decrease to 1,000 warheads by 2050.

An arsenal that small could be handled by the production line currently being built at Los Alamos. Since the Clinton administration’s 1996 decision, the New Mexico weapons laboratory has been developing an improved pit-production process at its TA-55 plutonium facility and, in April 2003, succeeded in producing a “stockpile certifiable” pit.[11] As of early March 2004, five such pits had been produced. The production line currently under construction in the TA-55 facility is to produce pits for the stockpile at a rate of up to 20 pits per year by 2007.[12]

On the other hand, if the goal is to maintain the entire current U.S. stockpile of pits for the indefinite future, then a larger pit-production facility would be needed. Indeed, it appears that, in the absence of a decision by the Bush administration to reduce the size of the U.S. stockpile, NNSA set the maximum production capacity of the MPF at a level sufficient to replace all of its current stockpile. At a single-shift manufacturing rate of 450 pits per year, the MPF could replace the 15,000 existing U.S. pits in 33 years.
Such calculations are simple enough, but two other factors complicate the analysis: additional potential production requirements and the short period over which the pits currently in the U.S. stockpile were produced.

NNSA argues that a “minimum capacity requirement of 125 pits per year” is required to support even a 1,000-warhead stockpile.

The capacity of an MPF needs to support both scheduled stockpile pit replacement at end of life and any “unexpected” short-term production…to address, for example, a design, production, or unexpected aging flaw identified in surveillance, or for stockpile augmentation (such as the production of new weapons, if required by national security needs) [13]

Surge Capacity

The need for surge capacity to deal with unexpected problems, however, is substantially reduced by the fact that the United States plans to maintain a diversity of warhead types and considerable stockpiles of spare and inactive warheads. If a warhead type develops a problem, there will in all cases be a substitute in the stockpile.[14] (See Table 1.)

Even after the scheduled retirement of the W62 warhead in 2009, the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles could still use two warhead types: the W78 and the W87. The Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles also could use two warhead types: the W76 and the W88. Furthermore, with modifications, it is likely that the Minuteman III warheads could be mounted on Trident II, or vice versa. Los Alamos has even suggested that the W80 and W84 cruise-missile warheads and the B61-10 nuclear bomb might be converted to backup warheads for the Trident II missile.[15]

The strategic bombers can use the W80-1 warhead for the air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) and two types of gravity bombs, the B61 and the B83. If needed, the W84 warhead recovered from the ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) eliminated by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty could replace the W80-1.

New Types of Pits

NNSA also asserts a need for extra capacity for “the production of new weapons, if required by national security needs.” Warheads with newly designed pits would require renewed nuclear testing, however, which would end the current worldwide testing moratorium, violate U.S. legal commitments as a signatory to the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and profoundly undermine the NPT.

In any case, the only specific new weapon advocated by the Bush administration is the “robust nuclear earth penetrator,” which under the current plan would use an existing “physics package” inside a heavy penetrating shell and would therefore require no new pits. Any desire to deploy warheads with lower yields presumably could be similarly accommodated by adapting existing physics packages or by deploying simple and robust gun-type warheads that do not require either a plutonium pit or nuclear testing.[16]

Even if a new-type pit design were developed for a small number of special targets, it is difficult to imagine an argument for production of more than a few dozen devices. Any effort to justify the MPF with the possible production of new types of pits should therefore be subject to the most serious scrutiny and debate.

If pits were produced and retired at a constant rate, the required pit production capacity would be equal to the stockpile size divided by the pit lifetime. But nearly all of the warheads in the current stockpile (except the W62, which is programmed for retirement by the end of fiscal year 2009) were produced at the Rocky Flats plant in Colorado between 1978 and 1989 when it was shut down. A high production capacity would therefore be required to replace the entire stockpile over a similarly short 12-year period as these pits reach the end of their useful lives.

It is not necessary, however, to wait until a pit reaches a particular age to replace it. In order to level the production rate, some pits could be replaced earlier and some later than average. For example, if pits produced in 1978 were replaced starting in 2018 when they are 40 years old and those produced in 1989 were replaced in 2049 when they are 60 years old, the rebuilding period would be increased from 12 years to 32 years. Including interim production at TA-55 (20 pits per year beginning in 2007), it would be possible to replace a stockpile of nearly 3,000 warheads with a production rate of 80 pits per year beginning in 2015, assuming a maximum pit lifetime of 60 years. Figure 1 shows the relationship between pit lifetime, production capacity, and the maximum stockpile size when today’s youngest pits reach the maximum pit lifetime.

When Will Pits Have To Be Replaced?

The minimum expected lifetime of the pits is currently estimated by NNSA at 45-60 years.[17] This is a broad range, however. In order to plan effectively, the range needs to be narrowed. NNSA has based its planning on the most conservative estimate. The MPF is slated to go into full production in 2020, when the oldest pits currently in the U.S. stockpile will be about 42 years old (see Table 1).[18]

By 2006, however, NNSA will be able to determine with much greater confidence whether the expected minimum lifetime of the pits would be 60 years (see sidebar). In that case, the oldest pit would not need to be replaced until 2038. A study done by Los Alamos for NNSA found that, for an expenditure of $500-700 million, it would be possible by 2014-2016 to have a production line in TA-55 that could produce all pit types in the U.S. “enduring stockpile,” except for that in the B83 bomb, at a rate of 50-80 pits per year, operating 40 hours a week.[19] Including earlier production, TA-55 could produce a total of 1,200-2,100 pits by 2038; adding production during the following 12 years until the oldest pit reached age 60, the facility could replace a stockpile of 1,800-3,000 warheads.

The same study also found that, for an expenditure of an additional $700 million, a wing could be added to TA-55 and its production capacity increased so that it could produce by 2020 all the pit types in the enduring stockpile at a rate of 150 pits per year, including the capability of simultaneously producing two different types of pits. With a production capacity of 150 pits per year, TA-55 could replace a stockpile of more than 5,000 warheads, assuming a minimum pit lifetime of 60 years.

The report of the TA-55 upgrade study warned that the highest-capacity option was subject to “high execution risk…due to the possibility of an unforeseen event during the construction of new floor space that could disrupt both the upgrade and on-going TA-55 manufacturing and certification activities.”[20] If there is a need for such a high production capacity, the significance of this risk and possible strategies for its mitigation should be reviewed by an independent research organization such as the National Academy of Sciences or JASON group.[21] This risk should also be compared with the risk of design failures and likely cost overruns at a new pit-production facility.


In 1999, when the Energy Department completed its previous comparison of the alternatives of expanding the capacity of TA-55 or constructing a new pit-production facility, it concluded that “the time required to build and start up such a [new] facility is extensive. There are no programmatic, environmental, or other advantages.”[22]

These findings are more consistent with our analysis than the opposite conclusions of the 2003 NNSA study. At the very least, Congress should insist on waiting for the administration to provide lawmakers with better information on the expected lifetime of current U.S. pits in 2006.

What has changed since 1999 that would indicate the need to build more or different pits? At first blush, it would seem that the need for warheads—and pits—has only decreased with the 2002 signing of the SORT between the United States and Russia. That treaty limits to 2,200 the number of deployed U.S. strategic nuclear warheads vs. the START II limit of 3,500 assumed in the Clinton administration’s analysis.

Unlike the proposed START III, however, SORT did not set limits on the number of nondeployed warheads Russia and the United States could keep in their stockpiles. Beyond the retirement of the MX missile and four Trident submarines, the Bush administration plans to achieve the SORT-mandated reductions by readily reversible “downloading” of warheads from missiles and removal of nuclear bombs and cruise missiles from operational strategic bomber bases.

The requirement for a large pit-production capacity, therefore, may be due in part to a desire to maintain large stocks of nondeployed warheads for possible redeployment. Indeed, the classified version of the Bush administration’s 2001 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) states that, “in the event that U.S. relations with Russia significantly worsen in the future, the U.S. may need to revise its nuclear force levels and posture.”[23] The NPR also raised the possibility of the United States creating new classes of weapons.

Keeping excessive warhead stockpiles and proposals for the development of “more usable” nuclear weapons would make the United States less rather than more secure. At best, the proposed MPF is a potential white elephant. At worst, it may facilitate a misguided nuclear strategy.

TABLE 1 Approximate production period and total estimated inventory (active plus inactive) of warheads by type in the current stockpile

Tactical Bomb
Strategic Bomb
Tactical Bomb
1983-86; 1990-91e
Strategic Bomb
1985-90; 1997f
Minuteman III
Trident II
Minuteman III
Strategic Bomb
Minuteman III
Trident II

aLANL = Los Alamos National Laboratory; LLNL = Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; b Dates of warhead assembly. It is unlikely that the pits were produced much earlier than the first warhead. c Natural Resources Defense Council. d The B61-7, produced during 1985-90, is a modified B61-1 and probably contains an older pit. e The B61-10 was assembled using the physics package from the W85, which was produced during 1983-86. f The B61-11, produced in 1997, is a modified version of the B61-7.

Determining Plutonium-Pit Life Expectancy

How long will a plutonium pit be usable? The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has developed an elaborate research program to find out. Its Enhanced Surveillance Campaign monitors pits for any deterioration due to aging and attempts to understand the processes that cause them to age. This effort has thus far led to the conclusion that U.S. pits will not have to be replaced until they are at least 45 years old. An NNSA-commissioned review explains the basis for this conclusion:
[P]its have remained remarkably pristine and free of corrosion, especially since the adoption of modern cleaning and sealing methods.…[1]

Evaluation of the oldest samples of plutonium metal, both metal of oldest absolute age (40 years) as well as the oldest samples most directly comparable to the enduring stockpile (25 years), have shown predictably stable behavior. The many properties that have been measured to date, such as density and mechanical properties, have shown only small changes, and detailed microstructural studies have been correlated to these changes in properties. The response of each system to potential changes is specific to each particular design. Based on this assessment, current estimates of the minimum age for replacement of pits is between 45 and 60 years.[2]

To improve these estimates, a number of theoretical calculations and experiments, most notably an “accelerated-aging” experiment, are currently underway that will be used as a basis for joint laboratory assessment, due in 2006. The primary purpose of this work is to establish whether a minimum lifetime of 60 years can be attributed to some or all pit types. NNSA experts describe the “accelerated-aging” experiment as follows:

An alloy of normal weapon-grade plutonium mixed with 7.5 percent of the Pu-238 isotope will accumulate radiation damage at a rate 16 times faster than weapon-grade material alone. This is a useful tool to evaluate extended-aged plutonium (up to 60-years equivalent and possibly beyond) within a few years. Critically, acceleration of the input or radiation damage must be matched by acceleration of the subsequent annealing and diffusion of that damage. We accomplish this subsequent acceleration by raising the temperature at which the samples are stored. These processes are thermal in nature, and the activation energy (a term which describes the energy required to activate a process) is different for each specific mechanism. Unfortunately, there is no single temperature at which the thermal diffusion of this damage will be equivalently and perfectly matched to the initial acceleration of the damage input. As a result, the accelerated aging experiments are carried out at three different temperatures.…

By early 2006, these samples will have reached an equivalent age of 60 years, and measurements of their properties (and comparison to aging models) [will] form a key milestone in our estimate of pit lifetimes.[3]

It is critical that adequate funding be provided so that this full program of experiments and analysis can be carried through. If they are, we will know much more in two years about the timing of the need for additional pit-production capacity than we do today.


1. DOE EIS, p. G-63 (“Plutonium Aging: Implications for Pit Lifetimes”).

2. Ibid., p. G-64.

3. Ibid., pp. G-62, G-65.


1. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), “Draft Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on Stockpile Stewardship and Management for a Modern Pit Facility,” DOE/EIS-236-S2, May 2003, p. S-1 (hereafter DOE EIS).

2. Ibid., p. 2-6.

3. See “The Bush Administration’s Views on the Future of Nuclear Weapons: Interview with NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks,” Arms Control Today, January/February 2004, pp. 3-8.

4. Office of Sen. Pete Domenici, “DOE Secretary Responds to Domenici Endorsement of Carlsbad as Site for Pit Production Facility,” July 31, 2003 (press release).

5. DOE Office of Technical and Environmental Support, “Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Stockpile Stewardship and Management,” DOE/EIS-0236, September 1996, ch.,

6. U.S. House Committee on Appropriations, Report on the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, 2004, 108th Cong., 1st sess., 2004, H. Doc. 212.

7. NNSA Press Release, “NNSA Delays Modern Pit Facility Environmental Impact Statement and Selection of a Preferred Location,” January 28, 2004.

8. According to nongovernmental estimates, the United States has approximately 10,000 nuclear warheads. In addition, 5,000 pits stored at NNSA’s Pantex warhead assembly/disassembly plant near Amarillo, Texas, reportedly have been designated as a strategic reserve. See “NRDC Nuclear Notebook: Dismantling U.S. Nuclear Warheads,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 60, no.1 (January/February 2004), pp. 72-74.

9. S. T. Boertigter, D. E. Kornreich, and W. Barkmen, “Summary of TA-55/PF-4 Upgrade Evaluation for Long-Term Pit Manufacturing Capacity,” in DOE EIS, p. G-54. More detail on the current use of space in the TA-55 facility and an earlier analysis for the expansion of its single-shift production capacity to 50 pits per year (80 pits per year with multiple shifts) may be found in the “Site-Wide Environmental Impact Statement for Continued Operation of the Los Alamos National Laboratory,” DOE/EIS-0238, 1999 (vol. II, pt. II, “Enhancement of Plutonium Pit Manufacturing”).

10. National Academy of Sciences, The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1997); Harold Feiveson, ed., The Nuclear Turning Point (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1999). One hundred survivable warheads would represent a formidable deterrent to first use of nuclear weapons.

11. Christine Kucia, “U.S. Produces First Plutonium Pit Since 1989,” Arms Control Today, May 2003, p. 35.

12. Nuclear Warhead “Pit” Production: Background and Issues for Congress, by Jonathan Medalia, Congressional Research Service Report #RL31993, March 2004.

13. DOE EIS, pp. 3-17, S-15.

14. Although the United States might also stockpile several hundred nonstrategic warheads and many thousands of reserve warheads and pits, there would be little or no need to replace these on an emergency basis should reliability problems be discovered.

15. Los Alamos National Laboratory, “The U.S. Nuclear Stockpile: Looking Ahead,” March 1999 (declassified briefing charts).

16. In an existing physics package, one could, for example, remove the secondary or the deuterium-tritium fusion boost gas, so that the weapon would give only the primary or unboosted primary yield. Alternatively, one could design and deploy a gun-type device using highly enriched uranium in which one could be highly confident without nuclear testing. The Hiroshima weapon was a gun-type device, as were South Africa’s nuclear weapons. None of these were tested.

17. DOE EIS, p. S-12.

18. Ibid., fig. 2.1.3-1.

19. TA-55/PF-4 Upgrade Evaluation, p. G-54.

20. Ibid.

21. JASON is a group of academic experts that conduct studies of this type for the Departments of Defense and Energy.

22. LANL Site-wide EIS, vol. 2. pt. 2, January 1999, p. 16.

23. GlobalSecurity.org, “Nuclear Posture Review [Excerpts],” January 8, 2002.

Steve Fetter is a professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland, College Park. Frank von Hippel is a professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.





Energy Dept. Reshuffles Nonproliferation Program

Wade Boese

The Department of Energy announced April 14 that it is shifting control of its program aimed at retrieving tons of previously exported, U.S.-origin nuclear fuel that could be used to build nuclear weapons. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said the move would “refocus and strengthen our international campaign to deny terrorists opportunities to seize nuclear materials.”

Abraham reassigned responsibility for the nuclear materials retrieval program from the Energy Department’s environmental management office to its National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Department sources said that the reorganization took place because the environmental management office, which is primarily tasked with cleaning up U.S. nuclear sites, was not viewed as giving the international effort sufficient priority. Following much debate, Energy Department officials settled on moving the program to NNSA after initially placing it with another office.

Established in 1996, the Foreign Research Reactor Spent Nuclear Fuel Acceptance Program is designed to return to the United States nearly 20,000 kilograms of enriched uranium, including roughly 5,000 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) previously exported to 41 countries. The program was launched amid growing concerns that terrorists or “rogue regimes” might buy or steal the material to build weapons.

In the early Cold War years, Washington had required all countries importing U.S. nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes to return it to the United States, but that policy lapsed in 1964.

The Clinton administration intended to limit the program to a 10-year time frame. U.S. officials wanted to pressure other governments to devise their own solutions for dealing with their nuclear waste so the United States did not become everyone’s “garbage can,” according to an Energy Department official interviewed April 23.

In addition, the retrieval program was seen as a necessary complement to another U.S. nonproliferation program to persuade states to convert their research reactors from using HEU fuel, which can be used directly to make nuclear weapons, to less bomb-ready low-enriched uranium fuel. To help convince states to make the switch, the United States needed to provide them with a viable HEU disposal option.

Under the retrieval program, states judged by the World Bank as being economically well-off pay for shipping the nuclear materials back to the United States, while Washington subsidizes the costs for poorer states. The U.S. government charges richer states for the retrieval process because, in part, it alone shoulders the long-term storage expenses.

Since the program’s inception, 1,100 kilograms of HEU have been shipped back to the United States. Depending on the bomb design, this amount could be used to build as many as 30 nuclear weapons.

However, a February 2004 program audit by the Energy Department’s inspector general (IG) reported that current projections indicate that the retrieval program is set to recover only about half of the eligible 5,000 kilograms of HEU by the program’s scheduled end.

A dozen states have declined to participate fully in the program for economic or political reasons. For instance, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands have their own programs either to store or reprocess the material. Yet, the IG audit assessed that at least 56 kilograms of U.S.-origin HEU is currently located in four “sensitive” states not involved in the program. The audit did not identify the four; but Iran, Israel, Pakistan, and South Africa are among current nonparticipants.

Abraham said NNSA’s new responsibilities for the program would include increasing the number of countries participating, expediting shipments, and extending the program’s life. He also called on NNSA to prioritize retrieving materials posing the greatest proliferation threat.

Abraham did not indicate whether the program might broaden its current scope. The IG report found that more than 12,000 kilograms of U.S.-origin HEU, nearly 80 percent of which is in Germany and France, does not currently fall under the rubric of the program. The program’s original mandate applied to enriched uranium shipped to foreign research reactors, but not to fast or special purpose reactors.

President George W. Bush’s Feb. 11 speech urging greater control of weapons-usable materials appeared to influence the reorganization. (See ACT, March 2004.)

Earlier this year, Energy Department officials testified that the retrieval program would be reassigned to the civilian radioactive waste management office. Reportedly, Undersecretary of Energy, Science, and Environment Robert Card, who resigned from his post April 18 for personal reasons, supported this approach. Many program officials, however, favored realignment with NNSA, which also helps Russia retrieve its exported nuclear fuel.

NNSA will ultimately share program duties with the civilian radioactive waste management office. Although a precise division of labor is still in the works, it is generally understood that NNSA will take the lead on policy and the waste management office will transport and store the retrieved nuclear materials.

Corrected online August 29, 2008. See explanation.





The Department of Energy announced April 14 that it is shifting control of its program aimed at retrieving tons of previously exported, U.S.-origin nuclear fuel that could be used to build nuclear weapons.

Brazil Denies IAEA Full Access to Enrichment Sites

Dan Koik

The Brazilian government continues to refuse to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to eyeball equipment at its uranium enrichment plant, citing the need to protect its industrial secrets.

IAEA inspectors who have recently visited enrichment facilities at Resende have arrived to find portions of the site and its equipment concealed. Brazilian officials acknowledged that portions of the plant had been hidden, arguing that Brazil was not required to disclose every detail of the process. They said that inspectors would be allowed to conduct tests on uranium entering and leaving the facility as well as on the surrounding area.

Brazil claims that their enrichment equipment is up to 30 percent more efficient than previously possible and that allowing visual inspections of the equipment will allow competitors to steal its trade secrets. Brazil, which has the world’s sixth-largest natural uranium reserve, hopes that a domestic enrichment facility will allow it to save between $10 and $12 million every year on fuel for its own nuclear reactors and, eventually, to export surplus fuel.

Brazil’s actions have annoyed IAEA officials and other diplomats, who say that, although Brazil is not suspected of developing nuclear weapons, its refusal to allow unfettered access sets a bad precedent at a time when the international community is trying to compel Iran and North Korea to accept similar inspections.

The controversy comes after statements by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and former Minister of Science and Technology Roberto Amaral raised doubts about Brazil’s commitment to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In a speech last year, Amaral said that Brazil needed to maintain scientific research capabilities in all fields, including the knowledge necessary to produce nuclear weapons. Lula quickly distanced himself from the remarks and Amaral was among the first to resign during a reorganization of the government this year. But Lula’s own nonproliferation credentials had been tarnished when he criticized the NPT as a discriminatory treaty during his campaign for the presidency in 2002. (See ACT, November 2003)

Indeed, Brazilian diplomats have echoed Lula’s earlier remarks in the controversy over inspections of the enrichment facilities. They have taken particular umbrage at President George W. Bush’s February proposal that countries which did not already possess such enrichment technology be prevented from acquiring it. (See ACT, February 2003)

A Brazilian diplomat told The Washington Post, “We don’t like treaties that are discriminatory in their intent.” He said that Bush’s proposal was “unacceptable to Brazil, precisely because we see ourselves as so strictly committed to nonproliferation, to disarmament, to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”

In addition to the impasse over inspections, Brazil has refused calls by the IAEA, the United States and others to sign an Additional Protocol to its safeguards agreement with the IAEA under the NPT. An additional protocol expand the IAEA’s authority to detect clandestine nuclear programs and increase the number of nuclear-related activities that a signatory must declare to the agency.

The United States has avoided intervening in the dispute, beyond expressing a desire that Brazil should agree to inspections and sign the Additional Protocol. “It’s a very sensitive subject but I believe our government has a terrific amount of confidence in Brazil,” said Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, “We believe they (Brazil) are committed to meeting their international obligations and this is a matter that is best handled by the IAEA in a multilateral way. We do not want to make this a bilateral issue, because quite frankly the U.S. has confidence that Brazil is a responsible actor.”

The United States also said that it would support Brazilian diplomat Sergio Duarte to chair the 2005 NPT review conference, although Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton used the opportunity to call on Brazil to resolve its differences with the IAEA so that “it doesn’t cast a pall over the review conference next year.”





The Brazilian government continues to refuse to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to eyeball equipment at its uranium enrichment plant, citing the need to protect its industrial secrets.


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