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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
Fissile Material

Act Now on Fissile Material Treaty

Daryl G. Kimball

International efforts to curb the spread and buildup of nuclear weapons arsenals greatly depend on controlling the production and stockpiles of the key ingredients for the bomb: highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium. Negotiating a global agreement to cut off the production of these fissile materials for weapons purposes has long been a goal of the United States. Now, however, the Bush administration may be reversing its support for this common sense proposal.

Since the early 1990s, states at the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD) have sought to begin formal talks on a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT). FMCT negotiations have been stymied by China since 1999 in an attempt to gain leverage on its priority issue: a treaty for the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS). Unwilling to constrain its ambitious plans for missile defense systems that could include space-based weapons, the United States has said there is no arms race in outer space and will only allow exploratory discussions on the subject.

Successive presidents of the CD and, more recently, a group of five ambassadors have tried to bridge the political differences by proposing to start negotiations on a FMCT in an ad hoc committee, as well as to simultaneously begin substantive discussions on PAROS and general discussions on nuclear disarmament.

Last August, China indicated it could agree to this formula. The United States has since balked. In November, the U.S. representative to the UN voted for a resolution supporting a FMCT but noted that the United States had, after nine years of support, initiated a “review” of the concept. In January, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Steve Rademaker told Arms Control Today, “We are looking at the threshold question, does a FMCT make sense?”

From the U.S. perspective, moving ahead on FMCT negotiations is a no-brainer. A universal measure, it would reinforce the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and voluntary nuclear export controls, as well as help contain the nuclear programs of the three NPT holdout states: India, Israel, and Pakistan.

The five major nuclear-weapon states—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—have all indicated they are no longer producing fissile material for weapons purposes. On the other hand, India and Pakistan have active production programs for both HEU and plutonium, and it is likely that their stocks of weapon-grade material are increasing. It is not clear whether Israel is continuing to produce fissile material for weapons purposes. Under the guise of civilian nuclear power research, other states, including Iran, have built facilities capable of producing fissile material for weapons.

A FMCT and its additional verification system would augment existing efforts to detect and deter clandestine nuclear bomb production and acquisition efforts. In addition, FMCT talks could also produce confidence-building declarations from all states with nuclear weapons and/or HEU or plutonium stockpiles, as well as associated fabrication, reprocessing, and storage facilities.

There is no practical reason for the White House not to support initiation of FMCT negotiations under the compromise formulation. So far, however, it has not. In his February 11 speech outlining steps to restrict access to nuclear bomb material and related technologies, President George W. Bush failed even to mention a FMCT.

Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) has called a FMCT “an essential supplement” to the president’s proposals. In recent weeks, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and key U.S. allies have also urged the United States to support FMCT negotiations. Though some states may not be enthusiastic, no other nation has registered its opposition.

The absence of continued strong support for a FMCT would doubtless undermine the legitimacy of other, vital U.S. nonproliferation objectives. Completion of a FMCT by 2005 and informal discussions on nuclear disarmament at the CD were two of 13 action steps to which all NPT states-parties committed themselves in May 2000. Yet, since taking office, the Bush administration has undermined almost every one of those measures and has sought to keep its nuclear weapons research, production, testing, and deployment options open.

In his speech about nuclear proliferation challenges, Bush cautioned that rising awareness and condemnation “means little unless it is translated into action.” The president would do well to heed his own advice and seize the opportunity to begin negotiations on a verifiable, global ban on the production of fissile materials for weapons.







U.S. Will Not Join Landmine Treaty; Position on Fissile Material Cutoff Pact Uncertain

Wade Boese

The Bush administration has no intention of joining an anti-landmine treaty and is reviewing past U.S. support for negotiating an agreement to end the production of key nuclear weapons materials, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Stephen Rademaker told Arms Control Today in a Jan. 21 interview.

Sworn into his post in August 2002, Rademaker serves as a chief deputy to the Department of State’s senior arms control official, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton. Like his boss and many other top Bush administration security officials, Rademaker, who worked for several years as a senior aide on the House Committee on International Relations, holds a skeptical view of multilateral arms control agreements.

In the summer of 2001, the Bush administration initiated a review of U.S. landmine policy. A key element was a May 1998 pledge by President Bill Clinton to sign by 2006 the Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel landmines (APLs) if the United States was able to find effective alternatives to such weapons. Rademaker said future U.S. landmine policy “will certainly not include signature of the Ottawa Convention.”

Rademaker’s comments mark the first official confirmation that this administration would not fulfill Clinton’s pledge. The administration subsequently announced its new landmines policy Feb. 27.

A longtime champion of ending U.S. landmine use, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) expressed disappointment Feb. 20 about the administration’s intention. “It is unfortunate, but no surprise, that the Bush administration will not join the Ottawa Convention,” the senator said. He added, “Ten years ago the Pentagon pledged to aggressively develop alternatives to landmines, but that turned out to be an empty promise.”

Despite remaining outside the Ottawa Convention, the United States did not use APLs in its invasion of Iraq last March. (See ACT, July/August 2003.) It is also the largest funder of mine action work, such as destroying landmines and helping landmine victims.

The United States is party to the amended mines protocol of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which limits how landmines may be deployed, and is pushing for negotiations on a new CCW protocol to regulate the use of anti-vehicle mines.

Along with the landmine promise, the Bush administration inherited from the Clinton administration a policy calling for the negotiation of a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT) to end the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons purposes. During its first years in office, the Bush administration continued its predecessor’s promotion of the FMCT at the 66-member United Nations Conference on Disarmament, and administration officials repeatedly blasted their fellow members, particularly China, for failing to start formal talks on the agreement.

Over the past several years, China insisted that negotiations on a treaty preventing an arms race in outer space be conducted in parallel with the FMCT. That idea had been strongly rejected by Washington. As Rademaker explained, “It’s our view that there’s not an arms race in outer space so to negotiate a treaty prohibiting an arms race in outer space presumes a fact not in evidence.”

Near the close of the conference’s annual working session last fall, China offered to drop its insistence on parallel negotiations. (See ACT, October 2003.) Rather than seizing the apparent opportunity to start the long-awaited FMCT talks, however, Rademaker indicated the administration is now having second thoughts. “We are looking at the threshold question, does an FMCT make sense?” he said.

Rademaker contended that an earlier rationale for the treaty—to prevent a nuclear arms race from emerging in South Asia—is now outdated since both India and Pakistan are armed with nuclear weapons. Rademaker remarked, “This is a concept that’s been around for a long time and a concept that has not evolved while the context in which it exists has evolved.”

Rademaker said he did not know when the administration would come to a conclusion about the treaty. President George W. Bush made no reference to the FMCT in his Feb. 11 speech outlining seven U.S. nonproliferation initiatives.

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing with Secretary of State Colin Powell the day after the president’s speech, Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.) said that the FMCT would be “an essential supplement” to the president’s proposals. He described it as a “win-win proposition for the United States because we have more than enough fissile material ourselves, while countries of concern continue to seek it.” Powell replied that “some questions have been raised” about the proposed treaty and that the review was still ongoing.

Despite the administration’s uncertain FMCT position, Bush made clear that a top U.S. aim is to limit the spread of nuclear weapons-making capabilities. One of the president’s proposals held that countries not currently possessing working enrichment and reprocessing plants should not be allowed to get them. Enrichment and reprocessing facilities, which a government can legally possess under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) if they are open to international oversight, can enable countries to refine materials not suitable for nuclear weapons into key bomb-making ingredients.

Rademaker suggested that Iran, which claims to have suspended its recently exposed, illicit enrichment activities last November, must be denied the right to such capabilities even if done within the context of the treaty. “We certainly would want to make sure that Iran is out of the business of enriching uranium,” he declared.

Changing times and threats require revisiting past agreements and understandings, according to Rademaker. “I think there’s general recognition that we’ve got some problems with the existing arrangements and the desire in many quarters to reconsider some of these things,” he said.

The Bush administration itself has not hesitated to break with the past. Rademaker noted that the administration “walked away” from a seven-year process to add a verification protocol to the treaty banning germ weapons because “we didn’t like what we saw” and “parted company” with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty prohibiting nationwide defenses against strategic ballistic missiles because it “no longer made sense.”

Still, Rademaker insisted that the Bush administration has “a very good record on arms control issues.” As evidence, he pointed to the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, which entered into force last June and commits the United States and Russia to reduce their deployed strategic arsenals to less than 2,200 warheads each by the end of 2012. Some outside experts have criticized the treaty for not requiring the destruction of a single warhead or delivery vehicle and for its warhead limit expiring the same day that it takes effect, but Rademaker dismissed these criticisms. “We’ll match our strategic arms control agreement up against that of any other administration,” he said.

For a full transcript of the interview, please click here








The Bush administration has no intention of joining an anti-landmine treaty and is reviewing past U.S. support for negotiating an agreement to end the production of key nuclear weapons materials...

Nuclear Material Removed From Bulgaria

Seventeen kilograms of Russian-origin highly enriched uranium (HEU) were returned from Bulgaria to the Russian Federation Dec. 23. The fresh HEU was airlifted from Gorna Oryahovista airport in Bulgaria to Dmitrovgrad, Russia, where Russian officials say it will be refabricated into low-enriched uranium (LEU).

The highly enriched nuclear fuel assemblies were originally supplied to Bulgaria by the Soviet Union for the Russian-designed two-megawatt research reactor, located in Sofia. The reactor was shut down in 1989 and is going to be reconstructed as a low-power, LEU research reactor.

The nuclear fuel was loaded into four transportation canisters provided by the Russian Federation. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards inspectors and technical experts from the U.S. Department of Energy monitored the process.

The shipment of HEU from Bulgaria is the second shipment conducted under a tripartite initiative, comprised of the United States, Russian Federation, and IAEA, to return Russian-supplied HEU research reactor fuel for long-term management and disposition. The first shipment of fresh Russian-origin HEU fuel, from Romania to the Russian Federation, was carried out Sept. 21, 2003. (See ACT, October 2003.)

U.S., Russia to Retrieve Reactor Fuel

Christine Kucia

U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham and Russian atomic energy minister Alexander Rumyantsev issued a joint statement Nov. 7 pledging to cooperate in retrieving Soviet- and Russian-supplied weapons-grade nuclear fuel from 20 research reactors in 17 countries.

According to Abraham, the agreement “reaffirms our common objective of reducing, and to the extent possible, ultimately eliminating the use of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) in civil nuclear activity.” U.S. and Russian authorities working with the International Atomic Energy Agency will return weapons-usable HEU from foreign research reactors to Russia. The initiative will also provide assistance to reactor operators to convert their facilities so they can be fueled with proliferation-resistant low-enriched uranium.

This bilateral program builds upon previous efforts to retrieve nuclear fuel from insecure sites. Authorities retrieved 48 kg of fuel from a reactor in Serbia in August 2002 and removed 14 kg of weapons-grade uranium from a defunct Romanian research reactor in September 2003. (See ACT, October 2003.)
A government-to-government agreement outlining the specific reactors and the timeline for action will be signed in late November or early December, Rumyantsev said Nov. 7.





U.S. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham and Russian atomic energy minister Alexander Rumyantsev...

U.S. Civilian Nuclear Reactor to Produce Weapons Material

In a break from decades-long U.S. policy, a civilian nuclear power reactor will generate power (for homes and businesses) while producing materials for nuclear weapons. The Watts Bar Nuclear Station, operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), returned to operation Oct. 20, equipped with rods that will allow TVA to produce tritium for the Department of Energy.

Workers began inserting tritium-producing burnable absorber rods at Watts Bar in early September. The rods will be removed in 18 months at the end of the reactor’s normal fuel cycle. The Energy Department will then send these bars to a tritium-extraction facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Tritium is a short-lived isotope of hydrogen used to boost the yield of nuclear weapons. Its half-life of 12 years requires that the material be replenished and regularly replaced in nuclear weapons. Renewed production at Watts Bar will allow the Energy Department to avoid tapping into its five-year tritium reserve, which it would otherwise be expected to do sometime in 2005. The U.S. government has not made tritium since 1988, when it stopped production at its Savannah River Site due to operational and safety problems. Since then, the United States has recycled tritium from dismantled nuclear weapons to meet its stockpile requirements.

The Energy Department chose to produce tritium in a commercial reactor despite criticism that such action would blur the distinction between nuclear technology used for civilian and military purposes and undermine the credibility of U.S. nonproliferation policies. However, the Energy Department determined that using commercial reactors would be more flexible and cost-effective than the alternative construction of a new reactor dedicated to tritium production. Last year, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved requests to allow tritium production at TVA’s Watts Bar and Sequoyah nuclear power facilities. (See ACT, November 2002.)

However, John Moulton, a TVA spokesman, said that there were “no plans at this time” to begin tritium production at the Sequoyah facility, although he acknowledged that the Sequoyah reactors remain in “standby phase” for future production of the material.

U.S. Requests License for Plutonium Shipment to France

The Department of Energy has filed an application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission seeking permission to ship up to 140 kg (308 lbs) of weapons-grade plutonium oxide to France next year to advance U.S. efforts to convert excess U.S. plutonium stocks into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. MOX is a combination of plutonium oxide and uranium oxide that can be used in nuclear reactors.

According to the license request submitted by the Energy Department Oct. 1, the program is “necessary to obtain…approval for large-scale use of weapon[s]-grade MOX fuel in commercial reactors.” The Bush administration decided in January 2002 to convert U.S. stocks of excess weapon-grade plutonium to MOX fuel as the primary means of eliminating 34 tons of plutonium no longer necessary for military use in compliance with a 2000 agreement with Russia. (See ACT, March 2002.) Under the plan, the Energy Department would ship plutonium from Los Alamos National Laboratory to France’s Cadarache MOX facility.

The plutonium would be converted into MOX fuel, returned to the United States, and tested in the Catawba nuclear power plant in South Carolina to “confirm fuel performance and to demonstrate the United States’ capability to receive, inspect, [and] store the fuel assemblies at commercial reactors.” The Energy Department requested that the application review be completed by June 15, 2004, with an eye toward shipping the material in August 2004.

The United States currently is developing its own MOX fabrication facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. According to Energy Department officials, the United States must process the test fuel in France because it is unable to manufacture MOX fuel at this time. The U.S. facility is slated to start up in 2007.

In an attempt to head off concerns about possible proliferation and safety risks in transferring the weapons-grade material, the Energy Department application outlined security measures that would be taken. The Energy Department’s Safe Secure Transport system would provide guarded transportation of the material on the U.S. side, and the fissile material would be safeguarded in accordance with the U.S.-EURATOM peaceful nuclear agreement in France and while in transit overseas. The French government assured U.S. officials that material safeguards would be implemented in compliance with international regulations and that France would take security measures “comparable to those used” in the United States.

Contracts Awarded to Replace Russian Reactors With Fossil-Fuel Plants

In another step toward shutting down Russia’s three remaining reactors that produce weapons-grade plutonium, the U.S. Department of Energy Sept. 29 announced that the Russian company Rosatomstroi inked agreements with Washington Group International and Raytheon Technical Services to replace the existing facilities with plants that use fossil fuel. Plans for the U.S.-Russian cooperative project were announced in March 2003. (See ACT, April 2003.)

Under the agreement, worth $466 million, the companies will refurbish one existing plant to become a coal-fired heat and electricity facility and construct another one to replace the three reactors that provide heat and electricity to the closed cities of Seversk and Zheleznogorsk in Siberia. After the fossil-fuel plants are successfully brought online, the existing reactors will be shut down. According to plans outlined in May, the Seversk plant will be refurbished by Washington International Group and activated in 2008. Raytheon Technical Services is tasked with constructing the new plant in Zheleznogorsk. Officials are eyeing 2011 as the year the last of the three targeted Russian nuclear reactors will cease operation.

U.S. Reviewing FMCT Policy

The United States has long pushed for a treaty to end the production of the two key building blocks of nuclear weapons, but the Bush administration may change that policy.

Even as the U.S. commitment to other arms control agreements has lagged in recent years, U.S. officials have continued to champion a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), which would prohibit the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons purposes. Yet, J. Sherwood McGinnis, deputy representative of the U.S. delegation to the Conference on Disarmament (CD), said Oct. 27 that Washington is “reviewing specific elements” of its policy toward such a treaty. Speaking at the United Nations, McGinnis further added that U.S. support for a resolution that day urging the start of FMCT negotiations by the 66-member CD “is without prejudice to the outcome of that review.” The diplomatic language means that Washington is reserving the right to change its position, although it does not suggest that the United States will necessarily do so.

McGinnis provided no details about the review. Department of State officials in Washington withheld any comment pending the review’s conclusion.

An FMCT has topped Washington’s negotiating priorities at the CD for a half-dozen years, but formal talks had been blocked by other countries’ insistence that the treaty be negotiated in parallel with other agreements on nuclear disarmament or outer space. In August, however, China dropped its demand or U.S.-opposed outer space negotiations, removing what had been seen as the central obstacle to opening talks. (See ACT, October 2003.)

Completion of an FMCT by 2005 was one of 13 steps to which nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty states-parties, including the United States, committed themselves in May 2000. Yet, since taking office, the Bush administration has acted contrary to several of those steps, such as refusing to support the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty’s entry into force and withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which barred Moscow and Washington from building nationwide defenses against strategic ballistic missiles.

The United States, as well as France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, have declared that they no longer produce fissile materials for weapons purposes. China is also understood to have stopped. In addition to codifying these actions, an FMCT would be aimed at blocking India, Israel, and Pakistan from any future production of plutonium or HEU for weapons.

Nuclear Cities Program Ends

The Nuclear Cities Initiative, a U.S. sponsored program established in 1998 to provide nonmilitary work to the scientists and engineers of Russia’s closed nuclear cities, lapsed on Sept. 22 because Washington and Moscow were unable to negotiate a mutually acceptable liability agreement. Prior to the program’s expiration, the United States agreed on Sept. 19 to fund construction of a $9 million medical imaging facility in Snezhinsk to help cancer patients. The Department of Energy said all other existing nuclear cities projects will continue under a protocol signed by U.S. and Russian energy ministers Sept. 19, but no new projects will move forward.

Concerns about liability provisions—intended to protect the U.S. government and its representatives from lawsuits over problems that arise as threat reduction projects are carried out in Russia—also led to the termination of the Plutonium Disposition Scientific and Technical Cooperation Agreement in July. (See ACT, September 2003.)

Russia Takes Back HEU from Romania

Stepping up efforts to secure materials usable in weapons of mass destruction, about 14 kg (31 lbs.) of weapons-usable highly enriched uranium (HEU) reactor fuel was airlifted from Romania to Russia on Sept. 21. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the fuel removal cost $400,000 and was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy under a cooperative U.S.-Russia-IAEA program called the Tripartite Initiative that facilitates the return of fresh and spent fuel from Russian-designed research reactors abroad. (See ACT, July/August 2002.) Russia has agreed to refabricate the fuel into low-enriched uranium (LEU).

The fresh fuel was flown from the Institute for Nuclear Research in Pitesti, Romania, to Russia’s Chemical Concentrates Plant in Novosibirsk. The fuel was originally procured for a Russian-designed two-megawatt research reactor near Romania’s capital, Bucharest. The reactor stopped operating in December 1997, and the fresh fuel was sent to Pitesti for storage. The fuel removal is part of a three-year project to convert the U.S.-designed Pitesti reactor to LEU. The United States contributed $4 million to the IAEA for the conversion.

There are currently some 80 research reactors around the world that still have weapons-usable HEU.


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