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Fissile Material

CD Closes 1st Session, Establishes One

March 1998

Wade Boese

After more than a year of stalemate, during which the Conference on Disarmament (CD) did not establish any formal negotiating bodies, the Geneva-based forum on March 26 adopted a compromise work program establishing an ad hoc committee on negative security assurances. The 61 members failed, however, to address the most divisive issues facing the conference: nuclear disarmament and a fissile material production cutoff treaty.

The conference also agreed to appoint six, as-yet-unnamed special coordinators to seek members' views on the best ways to deal with the prevention of an arms race in outer space, anti-personnel landmines, transparency in armaments, the CD's agenda, expansion of CD membership, and improving the functioning of the conference. Between the end of its first session on March 27 and the beginning of the year's second session on May 11, the conference will determine who will fill the special coordinator positions and chair the ad hoc committee.

No negotiating committees or special coordinators were established to begin work on either nuclear disarmament or a fissile material cutoff treaty, though a provision calling for the conference president to pursue "intensive consultations" on cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament topped the work program. Egypt, India, Pakistan and Syria reiterated that nuclear disarmament would remain their priority in the CD, while U.S. Ambassador Robert Grey, addressing the conference on March 26, highlighted the disarmament and non-proliferation benefits of a fissile material production ban and called it "ripe for negotiation."

Within the negative security assurances ad hoc committee, CD members are to negotiate "effective international arrangements to assure non-nuclear-weapon states against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons." However, concluding a legally binding agreement will prove difficult as Canada and South Africa did not support the work program, but only chose not to oppose it. South Africa, which agreed not to exercise a veto for two years as a condition of joining the CD in June 1996, has stated that negative security assurances should be dealt with as part of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review process rather than at the CD.

At plenary meetings earlier this year, Canada and France voiced reservations with establishing an ad hoc committee on negative security assurances, questioning what could be accomplished. Also expressing skepticism, a U.S. official said, "[T]here exists no sufficient common view for the ad hoc committee to negotiate a treaty on negative security assurances."

While calling for unconditional negative security assurances, the Chinese CD ambassador, Li Changhe, on March 12 said that negative secrity assurances should "include the commitment by nuclear-weapon states to no-first-use of nuclear weapons against each other." Moreover, the foreign minister of Pakistan, Gohar Ayub Khan, in a March 19 statement to the CD said that within a negative security assurances ad hoc committee, members should seek a "disavowal of recently propounded doctrines of possible nuclear use against non-nuclear states." Neither commitment will likely be acceptable to the other nuclear-weapon states.

CD Closes 1st Session, Establishes One

CD Opens 1998 Session As Members Reiterate Competing Priorities

By Wade Boese

The UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) convened its first session of 1998 on January 20 after a paralyzed conference in 1997 failed to establish even a single ad hoc committee to begin negotiations, the only time in the conference's 19-year history that had happened. Progress within the 61-member CD this year will depend on whether a compromise can be found between the competing priorities of a time-bound framework for nuclear disarmament and a fissile material cutoff treaty, or whether the CD can bypass this central dispute and consider other agenda issues including a step-by-step ban on anti-personnel landmines.

The secretary-general of the CD, Vladimir Petrovsky, delivered an opening statement from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declaring that "nuclear disarmament must be pursued more vigorously, particularly by the nuclear weapon states." However, the new U.S. representative to the CD, Robert T. Grey (a counselor for political affairs of the U.S. mission to the UN, 1989-1994; and acting deputy director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, 1981-1983) read a statement from President Clinton declaring that "no issues are more important" than a fissile material cutoff for weapons purposes and an anti-personnel landmine ban, indicating that the U.S. position remained unchanged from last year.

Members quickly approved an agenda on the plenary's first day, whereas last year an identical agenda could not be adopted until February 14. Although the 1998 agenda lists seven topics for possible negotiations—cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament, prevention of nuclear war, prevention of an arms race in outer space, negative security assurances, new types of weapons of mass destruction, a comprehensive program of disarmament and transparency in armaments—the current president of the conference, Lars Norberg of Sweden, stated that "if there is a consensus in the conference to deal with any issues, they could be dealt with within this agenda." 

U.S. Supports Cutoff Regime

In addition to the United States, Russia, Australia, Austria and Belgium voiced their support for a cutoff regime as the next step toward nuclear disarmament following the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Supporters of a cutoff regime continue to argue that nuclear disarmament should be left to bilateral negotiations between the United States and Russia rather than multilateral negotiations within the CD, which according to Belgium's representative, Andre Mernier, would only halt progress through a multiplication of actors.

Conference members had once agreed to negotiate a cutoff regime under the "Shanon mandate" in March 1995. This mandate gained consensus because it blurred whether a cutoff regime would apply solely to future production, as advocated by most nuclear-weapon states, or include stockpiles, which some conference members (particularly Egypt and Pakistan) desired. Currently, some members insist that convening an ad hoc committee based on a similar mandate should be acceptable.

However, Egypt, Myanmar and Brazil proclaimed that they would continue to attach the highest priority to nuclear disarmament. Members of the "Group of 21" (G-21) non-aligned states insist that non-nuclear-weapon states should be involved in nuclear disarmament negotiations because the weapons pose as much a threat to their security as to nuclear-weapon states. Pakistan, a member of the G-21, has expressed concern to the UN First Committee during the 52nd UN General Assembly and last year's conference that most of the nuclear-weapon states have "reaffirmed and reinforced their reliance" on nuclear weapons and that some nuclear-weapon states have said that they "will retain nuclear weapons indefinitely." At this year's CD, Egyptian representative Mounir Zahran further criticized the slow pace at which disarmament negotiations have proceeded.

South Africa, seeking common ground between nuclear disarmament and a fissile material cutoff regime, submitted a proposal to form an ad hoc committee with a mandate to "deliberate upon practical steps for systematic and progressive efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons." The initiative, designed to be vague enough not to exclude either objective, attracted support from a number of states including Canada and Japan. However, because the conference requires consensus for action, it will be necessary to win over the rigid proponents of both a cutoff regime (the United States and Russia) and a time-bound framework (India), none of which have endorsed the South African proposal.

Alternative Issues

Annan's opening statement also exhorted the conference that "it must be you, finally, to rid the world of the scourge of anti-personnel landmines." Both Russia and the United States have announced support for a progressive landmine ban starting with a prohibition on exports to complement the recently signed Ottawa Treaty. But critics question the intent, asking how the Ottawa Treaty, which bans the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of landmines, can be complemented and contend that the CD's efforts will merely be redundant and detract from other issues. Of the 123 signatories to the Ottawa Treaty, 35 are conference members.

Convening ad hoc committees on negative security assurances and the prevention of an arms race in outer space generated interest last year and received some early support from Russia this year. Canadian representative Mark Moher also called for preventing the militarization of outer space, noting that more than 30 countries are involved in space related activities. If ad hoc committees cannot be formed on these issues, special coordinators may be appointed as an alternative.

The conference is still deciding whether to reappoint last year's special coordinators on landmines, the CD's agenda, CD expansion and CD effectiveness. Conference President Norberg is conducting informal consultations with members to assess what issues hold the most promise for work during the first session, which concludes on March 27, and the later sessions scheduled from May 11 to June 26 and July 27 to September 9.

CD Opens 1998 Session As Members Reiterate Competing Priorities

U.S.-Russian HEU Deal Still on Track

In mid December, news sources inaccurately reported that Russia had decided to withdraw from the 1993 highly enriched uranium (HEU) purchase agreement, which requires the United States to buy over a period of 20 years Russian low enriched uranium (LEU) that has been blended down from 500 metric tons of HEU removed from dismantled former Soviet nuclear warheads. According to a December 12 statement issued by the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC), the U.S. government's executive agent for the purchase agreement, press reports had confused the U.S. Russian HEU deal with a separate 10 year agreement reached in August 1997 between Russia and three Western companies—CAMECO (Canada), COGEMA (France) and NUKEM (Germany)—involving the purchase of Russian natural uranium. It is this latter agreement that Russia has decided to terminate.

Implementation of the U.S. Russian HEU deal is moving forward. By the end of 1997, the USEC is scheduled to have received a total of 1,038 metric tons of LEU that has been blended down from 36 metric tons of HEU—the equivalent of more than 1,600 former Soviet nuclear warheads according to USEC estimates. The USEC is expected to receive the LEU equivalent of an additional 24 metric tons of HEU in 1998.

IAEA Begins Monitoring of HEU Conversion from U.S. Nuclear Stockpile

THE INTERNATIONAL Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began monitoring the conversion of weapon usable uranium from the U.S. nuclear stockpile on December 1 at the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio. Although the international monitoring body is safeguarding the downblending of 600 kilograms of Soviet highly enriched uranium (HEU) brought in 1994 to the United States from Kazakhstan in "Operation Sapphire," it has never before overseen the demilitarization of fissile material produced for the U.S. nuclear stockpile. Using video cameras, sealed measurement devices, tamper resistant seals and isotopic scanning devices, as well as random inspections, the agency will verify the conversion of HEU to low enriched uranium (LEU), a form suitable for use in civilian power plants, but which cannot be used to produce a nuclear explosion.

Since 1995, DOE has been monitoring the downblending of Russian HEU that is being purchased for resale by the U.S. government owned (soon to be privatized) United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC) and has been adding verification measures to insure the Russian HEU actually comes from dismantled weapons. The new U.S. IAEA program—started at Washington's initiative—will provide a less intrusive method of verifying the elimination of a small portion of U.S. excess HEU on an international basis, but will not determine the origin of the material.

The HEU conversion at Portsmouth is carried out by blending highly enriched uranium hexaflouride gas with gas of lesser enrichment until a level of 3 to 5 percent uranium 235 is reached. The IAEA's role is first to verify the quantity of weapon grade material that goes into the process and then second to ensure the quality—in terms of enrichment—of what comes out. Once the blending process is completed, agency monitoring of the LEU output ends.

Energy Secretary Federico Peña announced the start of the agency's verification activities on December 1 at the National Press Club in Washington. The IAEA is already monitoring the material balance of 12 tons of excess U.S. weapon usable material at three DOE facilities, and the Clinton administration has declared its intention to eventually place all 226 tons of excess U.S. fissile material (HEU and plutonium) under agency safeguards.


Larger Goals

Energy and IAEA officials hope the program will accomplish more than just diluting a few tons of fissile material. At the program's announcement, Secretary Peña stated the IAEA monitoring will prove to other countries that the United States is adhering to President Clinton's pledge to make the elimination of excess fissile material irreversible, and will complement negotiations underway since September 1996, among Moscow, Washington and the IAEA on a trilateral accord to allow the agency to monitor U.S. and Russian stocks of excess nuclear weapons material.

According to Berhan Andemicael, the IAEA's chief liaison to the UN, the Portsmouth program will enable the agency to try out new techniques and procedures that may be applicable for use in its international safeguards activities, provide new experience in monitoring enrichment plant operations, and offer the agency a foothold in the field of monitoring disarmament in nuclear weapon states.

Some observers have noted that, unlike the U.S. Russian blending arrangement, the U.S. IAEA program provides no way of knowing whether the HEU being converted at Portsmouth comes from nuclear weapons, and cannot prevent the substitution of HEU from reserves or other sources. In response, DOE has argued that all the excess HEU being converted to LEU is from defense stocks and is suitable for use in nuclear weapons, even though not all of it actually comes from dismantled warheads.

Of the total 174 tons of U.S. excess HEU, 161 tons is in the form of metal, oxide or beryllium alloy, and will probably be downblended at commercial facilities other than Portsmouth, pending arrangement of contracts between commercial LEU dealers, USEC and DOE. The IAEA will be invited by Energy to monitor these additional operations, with DOE offering to pick up the agency's costs, as it is doing with the Portsmouth program.

'Canning,' Fuel Deliveries On Track in North Korea

PROGRESS IMPLEMENTING the 1994 U.S. North Korean denuclearization accord continued in the last months of 1997 with the Energy Department topping the 95 percent mark for the "canning" of the North's spent fuel and the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) meeting its commitment—after a two month delay—to supply Pyongyang with its annual shipment of 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil. The lag in completing the deliveries arose from both KEDO's continuing scarcity of resources and the poor facilities in North Korea for offloading and storing the fuel oil.

Although the last of the 1996 1997 fuel arrived in North Korea in early December the delivery cycle should have ended October 21), several weeks may be required to remove the oil from the supply ships. Perhaps due to its own role in delaying the completion of the deliveries, Pyongyang's public reaction to the missed October deadline has been limited to a stiff reminder to KEDO of its obligations.

KEDO was founded in 1995 by the United States, South Korea and Japan to implement the 1994 Agreed Framework, under which Pyongyang agreed to freeze operations at its 5 megawatt (electric) graphite moderated reactor and an accompanying spent fuel reprocessing plant at Yongbyon, and halt construction of two similar but larger reactors in exchange for annual shipments of heavy fuel oil and construction of two 1,000 megawatt (electric) proliferation resistant light water reactors (LWRs) as replacements.

KEDO's operations are funded by its 19 member states, but funding shortfalls have forced the consortium to borrow funds for more than one third of the total $120 million in oil purchases since 1995. In 1997, KEDO added a spot to its Executive Board for the European Union, which bolstered the oil purchasing budget with a contribution of $6 million that will be supplemented by five additional annual contributions of about $18 million. The United States has been the main financial supporter of the heavy fuel oil program, contributing $51 million since 1995, with an additional $30 million promised for 1998.

In August 1997, KEDO broke ground for the LWR project at the Kumho site near Sinpo City in North Korea, and has since continued preparing the site for the thousands of workers who will eventually be coming to complete the project. Preliminary work, which will cost $45 million, continued throughout the fall and early winter on construction infrastructure, delivery of equipment, and movement of one million cubic meters of dirt to level the site. KEDO has also been engaged in negotiations with the Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) over the terms of the prime, or "turn key" contract. KEDO hopes to conclude negotiations with KEPCO early in 1998 and to have site preparation finished by mid fall 1998.

'Canning,' Fuel Deliveries On Track in North Korea

Russian Officials Deny Claims Of Missing Nuclear Weapons

THE CONTINUING debate over Russia's command and control of its nuclear arsenal intensified on September 7 when retired General Alexander Lebed, former secretary of the Russian Security Council, told the CBS news program "60 Minutes" that he believes more than 100 "suitcase sized" nuclear weapons are unaccounted for. Lebed's charge elicited an immediate response from several senior Russian government officials, including Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who denied the existence of these weapons—known in the West as atomic demolition munitions (ADMs)—and argued that the Russian arsenal remains safe and secure. The State Department also reiterated its strong confidence in Russia's command and control system. Lebed's account is detailed in a new book, One Point Safe, by journalists Andrew and Leslie Cockburn.

Although lacking in many specific details, Lebed told "60 Minutes" that the 1 kiloton weapons, once assigned to the Spetsnaz special forces of the former Soviet Union, are especially dangerous because they can be transported and detonated by a single person. Made in the form of a suitcase, he said these devices are not protected by launch codes and could be prepared in approximately 30 minutes, potentially killing 50,000 to 100,000 people if detonated in a large city. Lebed said he attempted to make an inventory of the weapons while he was Security Council secretary but was unable to complete it before being fired by President Boris Yeltsin in October 1996.

In May 1997, Lebed informed six members of Congress about these missing weapons during their visit to Moscow. Lebed told the delegation, led by Representative Curt Weldon (R PA), that he could only locate 48 out of the 132 suitcase sized nuclear devices. However, during his "60 Minutes" appearance in September, Lebed asserted that more than 100 out of an estimated total of 250 weapons are unaccounted for. Although uncertain about their location, he speculated that they could be somewhere in Georgia, Ukraine or the Baltic states.

Subsequently, former Russian government officials elaborated on Lebed's account. In a September 13 interview with Interfax, Lebed's former deputy, Vladimir Denisov, said he led a special working group in July 1996 to explore whether the weapons had been deployed. According to Denisov, the working group concluded within two months that there were no such devices in the active Russian arsenal and that all the weapons were in "appropriate" storage facilities. However, he said the group could not rule out the possibility that similar weapons were located in Ukraine, Georgia or the Baltic states.

Then, in a September 22 interview with the Russian network NTV, Alexei Yablokov, a former environmental advisor to Yeltsin, maintained that suitcase sized nuclear weapons were developed for the Russian KGB in the 1970s. "I have spoken to the people who made these bombs, so I know that they exist," he said.

Lebed's claim has provoked a sharp response from several Russian government agencies responsible for safeguarding nuclear weapons¾the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM) and the Federal Security Service¾as well as key officials in the Yeltsin administration. While traveling in Lithuania just days before the "60 Minutes" episode, Chernomyrdin ridiculed Lebed's account as "absolute stupidity" and said that "all Russian nuclear weapons are under the total and absolutely reliable control of the Russian armed forces." Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, also challenged the credibility of Lebed's claim. "Lebed is looking for pretexts to remind the people about himself. I believe this is not the best way," he said September 10.

That same day, MINATOM and the Federal Security Service issued strong statements contradicting Lebed's story. MINATOM stated that the existing Russian nuclear command and control system "guarantees full control over the nuclear charges and seals off any channels of their unauthorized movements." The statement also noted that all former Soviet strategic and tactical nuclear weapons have been returned to Russia, refuting Lebed's point that the weapons may be located in Georgia, Ukraine or the Baltic states. Moreover, the Federal Security Service, whose primary function is to block the unauthorized use of Russian nuclear weapons, declared that "no serious decrease in the security, let alone loss or theft, of nuclear weapons and their components has been detected."

On September 5, Vladimir Utavenko, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, said "there are no nuclear bombs in Russia out of [the] control of the Russian armed forces." Utavenko also questioned the credibility of Lebed on this particular issue because "he never dealt with nuclear security questions and cannot know the situation."

Furthermore, Lieutenant General Igor Volynkin, head of the Defense Ministry's 12th Main Directorate (which controls the production, operation and storage of Russian nuclear weapons) said in a September 25 news briefing that such devices "were never produced and are not produced." Although admitting that the production of suitcase sized nuclear weapons is theoretically possible, Volynkin said it would be a "very expensive and ineffective undertaking" because they would only have a short life span and would require frequent maintenance.

In a September 5 State Department briefing, deputy spokesman James Foley said, "The government of Russia has assured us that it retains adequate command and control of its nuclear arsenal and that appropriate physical security arrangements exist for these weapons and facilities." Foley also said the United States is providing assistance to Russia under the Cooperative Threat Reduction ("Nunn Lugar") program to bolster the physical security of its nuclear storage facilities.

U.S., Russia Sign Agreements On Plutonium-Production Reactors

VICE PRESIDENT Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin met in Moscow September 22 23 for the ninth session of the U.S. Russian Joint Commission on Economic and Technological Cooperation, commonly known as the Gore Chernomyrdin Commission. During this session, the sides completed a set of agreements to convert Russia's three remaining plutonium producing reactors so that they no longer produce weapons grade plutonium. At a joint press conference in Moscow, Gore said the agreements make "a major contribution to the advancement of our non proliferation interests."

In June 1994, the United States and Russia signed an agreement under which Moscow would shut down the three reactors at Tomsk 7 and Krasnoyarsk 26, former secret nuclear cities now called Seversk and Zheleznogorsk, by the year 2000. (See ACT, July/August 1994.) Russia, however, would not allow the accord to enter into force until alternative sources of energy had been found, arguing that the "dual use" reactors provide most of the heat and electricity for the surrounding cities. After completing an alternative energy feasibility study in 1995, the United States and Russia determined that conversion of the reactor cores was the best way to meet civilian energy needs while also halting the production of weapons grade plutonium. Since then, the sides proceeded with the design and engineering phase of the core conversion project.

Under an agreement signed by Gore and Chernomyrdin on September 23, Russia is required to modify the three reactors by December 31, 2000. The modified reactors will continue to operate until they have reached the end of their normal lifetimes, taking into account safety considerations. In an effort to reduce Moscow's stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU), the sides agreed that fuel for the modified reactors will incorporate uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons.

Furthermore, the agreement prohibits the United States and Russia from restarting any plutonium producing reactors that have already been shut down. The United States shut down all 14 of its plutonium producing reactors by 1989, while Russia has ceased operating 10 of its 13 reactors. The agreement, which enters into force immediately, further stipulates that any plutonium produced between now and the completion of the core conversion (as well as any HEU recovered after conversion) cannot be used in nuclear weapons.

In order to help ensure compliance with its provisions, the agreement contains a detailed annex on verification measures. In plutonium producing reactors that have already been shut down, for example, the United States and Russia will be permitted to install seals and other agreed monitoring equipment to provide assurances that the reactors cannot resume operation without being detected.

In addition, the Department of Defense and the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM) signed a separate Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) implementing agreement to facilitate core conversion of the reactors. In fiscal year 1997, Congress appropriated $10 million in CTR assistance for this project.

In a side letter to the implementing agreement, the Department of Defense stated that it intends to provide up to an additional $70 million in CTR assistance for core conversion purposes. The total cost of the project, which will be divided between the United States and Russia, is expected to be about $150 million.

The United States and Russia also signed two other agreements related to the core conversion of the plutonium producing reactors. The Department of Energy and MINATOM signed a memorandum of understanding dealing with liability concerns, while the chairmen of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Nuclear and Radiation Safety Authority of Russia issued a joint statement emphasizing the importance of nuclear safety issues.

U.S., Russia Ammend HEU Deal, Accelerating Implementation Pace

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Excess Weapons Plutonium: How to Reduce a Clear and Present Danger


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