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Irreversibility, the Cut-off Treaty and Fissile Material Stocks

by Professor William Walker

April 27, 1998

Presentation given at a Workshop sponsored by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), Palais des Nations,
Geneva, 27 April 1998
Professor William Walker
Department of International Relations

University of St Andrews Scotland
During the ISIS Workshop held here in Geneva in February 1997, I opened my remarks by observing that "these are not the easiest of times for making progress on nuclear arms control, as this audience will be very aware". In the subsequent year and a bit, the times seem to have become even less easy, and the audience will be even more aware of the troubles facing the international community in this field. My task is to speak about fissile materials, and about the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty in particular. But I wish to open my remarks with some comments on the broad outlook for nuclear arms control. Given the current situation, and current trends, what should the arms controller's objective be? I ask this question because I believe that its answer places the FMCT in a new light, and gives it an importance that has not be sufficiently recognized. I wish to begin with an uncomfortable, but I believe valid, observation. It is that the political and military utility ascribed to nuclear weapons by key states has been on a rising trend in the past two to three years. If this seems too strong a claim, it is certainly true that nuclear weapons have not been delegitimised to the degree that had been hoped. This worrying development has followed a decade, stretching from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, when their perceived utility was on a sharply declining trend, making possible the extraordinary advances in nuclear arms reduction and in non-proliferation policies. Although nuclear weapons have not regained the position they held in the Cold War, their value to national and international security is being reasserted in a number of capitals. Thus in Moscow, Russian political leaders, from whichever party, have come to regard nuclear weapons as compensating for political and military weakness, as instruments for discouraging the further eastward march of NATO, as a guarantor that Russia will continue to be regarded as a great power. In the United States, the rightward shift in Congress, the calls for nuclear deterrence against chemical and biological weapons, and concerns about Russia and China have all raised the profile of nuclear weapons in American strategic thinking. In Israel, the retreat from the peace process, and anxieties about CBW attacks, have again strengthened attachment to the nuclear deterrent. In India, the lack of any resolution to the conflict with Pakistan, concerns about China, and now the arrival of a BJP-led government, have likewise tended to raise the profile of nuclear weapons in political and security policies. Even in France, the UK and China, I see no real sign of reduced attachment to nuclear weapons. In part, this revival of nuclear weapons is coincidental - the outcome of particular national developments and preoccupations. However, I'd suggest that there are three common causes: firstly, the rise of nationalism (not excluding the United States), and in Israel and India, the increasing influence of parties with religious agendas; secondly, the response to newly perceived threats and the power imbalances they may create; and thirdly, a certain uneasiness about the stability of regional and global orders, not least in the face of great economic changes and worries about financial collapse. If I am correct, and I suspect that most in this room will recognize these trends, what should now be the primary objective of nuclear arms control? It cannot be the early enunciation of a programme of complete nuclear disarmament, since the states that hold and value nuclear weapons are simply not going to agree to it in these circumstances. At a time when nuclear weapons are being increasingly valued rather than devalued, a primary objective - and arguably the primary objective - must be to build as much irreversibility as possible into the system. We have to make sure that there is no backsliding: existing commitments have to be honoured. And we have to make sure that the measures and processes that are on the agenda but have not been completed - I am thinking particularly of treaties that have not been concluded or ratified - remain on the agenda and are brought to completion. So this is not just an exercise in ensuring compliance. We have to build further irreversibility, partly to ensure that we don't slide back into the mud, and partly to ensure that there is solid ground from which move further towards nuclear disarmament when circumstances are more favourable. As we are all aware, the quality of irreversibility is deeply embedded in the non-proliferation regime. The normative obligations placed on states which have renounced nuclear weapons under the NPT, the submission of all of their activities to IAEA safeguards, and the great pressures to comply with the Treaty - these features have resulted in a very solid structure within which non-nuclear weapon States Parties have little freedom or incentive to reverse their positions. Confidence in the irreversibility of acts of renunciation has recently been increased by the reform of the safeguard system under the IAEA's 93+2 programme. However, irreversibility is much less deeply embedded in the nuclear weapon states and in the three other states with weapon programmes. Of course, the nuclear weapons states too are bound by a range of treaties and commitments. Nevertheless, they retain scope: -for retargeting and relocating deployed weapons, and for bringing those held in reserve back into operation; - for resuscitating development programmes; - for resuscitating production programmes; - and for reinterpreting normative commitments, as may or may not have happened in regard to Security Assurances. I should stress that this comparative lack of irreversibility has not arisen because states with nuclear weapons are intrinsically less virtuous than nonnuclear weapon states. It has largely arisen because of the histories and characters of weapon programmes and of nuclear deterrence, and of the incompleteness of the project of disarmament in their cases. However, it also has to be recognized that the structural pressures on nuclear weapon states to institutionalise irreversibility - pressures exerted through the regime and through power politics - are weaker than in the case of non-nuclear weapon states. They can therefore get away with more. This said, it also has to be recognized that they themselves have powerful interests in irreversibility, for without it there could be no confidence,in the good behaviour and intentions of other states. It may be considered that talk of irreversibility is appropriate for nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states at this time, but inappropriate for the three so-called threshold states - India, Israel and Pakistan. In their cases, achieving reversibility is usually seen as the priority. I wonder if this should still dominate our thinking, especially at this time. What is surely important is to ensure the irreversibility of restraint. These three countries have shown considerable restraint in their nuclear weapon policies, for which they should be commended. The problem is that this restraint is not tethered in formal international obligations. In the past decade and more, the international community has focused attention on achieving progress, short of disarmament, in three fields in particular: bringing about arms reductions; bringing an end to explosive testing; and reducing the risks posed by fissile materials. In the first two fields, we now have a framework of agreements, and reasonably coherent plans and processes for developing and implementing those agreements. In short, there are established processes for building further irreversibility. I refer in particular to the START and ABM processes, and to the processes relating to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Of course, they all have their problems, and the START and ABM treaties only embrace the United States and former Soviet Union as yet. But the processes are well established, they retain strong intergovernmental support, and those engaged in them know, by and large, what needs to be done and by which means. Unhappily, the same cannot be said of fissile materials. Except in relation to safeguards in the non-nuclear weapon States Parties to the NPT (reinforced by the 93+2 Program), there is no coherent framework, plan or process for upholding, let alone building, irreversibility. What exists is a patchwork of measures ranging from plutonium disposition to the trilateral IAEA-US Russian talks on the verification of excess weapon material, from the Nunn-Lugar measures to increase security at nuclear sites to transparency in civil plutonium. These initiatives have been very important and should not be belittled. But there is no treaty framework that binds these initiatives together and that can give them coherence and momentum. There is therefore far too little built-in irreversibility. Herein lies the principal worth, in my view, of the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. It should be seen as a policy driver, and as the foundation stone for a coherent and irreversible fissile material regime that would embrace all states. Unfortunately, the FMCT has too often been depicted as having the limited, although very important, aim of establishing a new international norm - that of ending the production of plutonium and enriched uranium for weapons purposes. This evaluation has both ignored an essential benefit that would come from the Treaty's negotiation and implementation, and invited its politicization. It has laid the Treaty open to the charge that it is discriminatory (because the norm would affect the three more than the five) and ineffectual (because it would formalise a fait accompli in the NWS). In addition to establishing this norm, the FMCT should be proclaimed as the driver of regulatory innovations in states with nuclear weapon programmes (the five and the three), and of innovations in their relations with the main organs of the non-proliferation regime. It has the capacity to become the central provider of coordination and momentum, and thus irreversibility, in the whole field of fissile material controls. In my experience, this quality of the FMCT is well recognized by experts in governments and safeguards agencies that have studied its potential. It is regrettable that they have not, mainly for political reasons, felt able to advertise these benefits. Even when stocks are left outside the purview of the FMCT, these experts have come to recognize, in my experience, that the FMCT would require attention to be given - and solutions found - to a range of issues. Those solutions would together result in major changes in the ways in which fissile materials and associated activities are regulated in the nuclear weapon states. One important consequence would be that practices in nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states would tend to converge, removing some of the grievances about special privileges. Let me list some of the issues that will need to be addressed: The status and content of safeguards agreements. Should voluntary offer agreements between the IAEA and individual NWS be retained, and if so should they be recast and harmonised? The scope of international verification. Which materials and facilities should be brought under mandatory international safeguards and other forms of verification? Rights of withdrawal from safeguards. Should those rights be removed, or their scope substantially narrowed? How would the provision of fuels for naval reactors be handled under an FMCT? Transfers. Should transfers of fissile material between NWS be allowed under an FMCT? Material accounting systems. How could accounting systems be improved and extended, and brought up to the best international standards? Safeguardability of production facilities. How can adequate verification be applied to enrichment, reprocessing and fabrication facilities which were not designed to be safeguarded, and which may be unable to meet standard IAEA safeguards criteria even after reengineering? Safeguards culture. Which steps (including training) are required to develop an international safeguards culture in countries where little or none has been established to date? Detection of undeclared facilities and activities. Which of the measures being adopted following the '93+2 Program' should be applied in order to increase confidence in compliance with the FMCT? Most of these issues and questions are also pertinent to Pakistan, Israel and India. Another potential benefit should be noted in their regard: this is that adherence to an FMCT might become the condition for trade in nuclear power technologies and materials rather than full-scope safeguards, as is the current position. Thus it might bring important gains for economic development, energy supplies and environmental protection if it means that they become less reliant on fossil fuels. I wish now to turn to the vexed issue of stocks of weapon materials amassed through past production programmes. This issue cannot be evaded. In our estimation, over 1500 tonnes of weapon-grade plutonium and uranium will be excess to military requirements in Russia and the USA alone when the START II reductions are completed (less than 700 tonnes have been declared as excess). If unattended to, these stocks will remain a reservoir that could be drawn upon to construct new warheads. Their very existence, especially when outside international safeguards, implies reversibility. We also have to remember that it takes a very small quantity of fissile material - a few kilograms - to make a nuclear explosive device. The theft or diversion of 0.001 per cent of this inventory would have very serious consequences for international security. And this is all weapon-grade material. So extraordinary vigilance is required. In considering how to address these stocks, it is important to recognize three realities: 1. Changes in nuclear weapon policies, and in nuclear arsenals, cannot be driven by pressing for reductions in stocks that are already assigned to weapon programmes. Such changes in policies and capabilities can only begin at the political and strategic levels. One can, however, usefully seek to place constraints on stocks in order to inhibit the future expansion or reconstruction of nuclear arsenals. 2. Stocks take many different forms, some more accessible and workable than others. This variety greatly complicates material accounting, safeguarding and disposition. Coping with it adds to the costs and time required to deal with stocks. 3. There are great asymmetries in the scales, forms and allocations of inventories of plutonium and HEU held by the eight states with nuclear weapon programmes (and one should not overlook the even greater asymmetry between those states and non-nuclear weapon states). This implies unequal capabilities and burdens, and unequal sensitivities, and it is the source of much political complexity. It implies that a common approach involving all eight states taking equivalent steps may be both unwise and impracticable. 4. Several steps are necessary if the removal of stocks from military usage is to be rendered irreversible. Prominent among them are the identification and characterization of stocks; their placement in secure storage; the declaration of excesses; their submission to international verification; and their physical disposition. Thus a programme to eliminate the risks posed by stocks of weapon material has to be multi-faceted, and may have to be tailored to deal with the situation in a given country. Given these sensitivities, asymmetries and complexities, it would be exceedingly difficult to negotiate multilateral agreements on stocks that bind states to certain courses of action. But this does not remove the political and practical need for a serious response to the problems posed by stocks. How can one proceed? In my view, there is probably only one viable approach, which has two parts. One is that we should encourage the very practical steps, technical and diplomatic, that are being taken - and could be taken - by governments on their own initiative. This should not involve attempts to establish a multilateral treaty framework or coordinating mechanism. Instead, efforts in multilateral fora should be focused on establishing certain guiding principles which would inform the development of states' policies. Let me expand briefly, taking these two aspects in turn. We should begin by noting that important policies and processes have already been established by the Russian Federation and the United States. Great efforts have been made over several years to address the challenges posed by their huge stocks of weapon material. They include, for instance, the construction of secure storage facilities, improvements in material accounting and physical security, the search for appropriate disposition strategies, and the development, with the IAEA, of new approaches to the verification of materials arising from dismantled weapons. Both governments deserve credit for these efforts, even if they are far from sufficient. Through the continued pursuit of these measures, and through the energy and innovation that will, one hopes, eventually come from the START III and FMCT processes, one can envisage Russia and the United States moving a long way towards meeting the principles outlined above over the next decade. Where Britain, France and China are concerned, there has been no commitment as yet to a policy on excess stocks, nor public admittance that such stocks exist. However, there are also some grounds for optimism here. There are signs that the British government may soon announce the size of both its arsenal of warheads and of its stocks of weapons material. This could mark the beginning of a process by which these three states address issues concerning stocks individually and collectively with Russia and the United States. This process would, in my view, be bound to take root if the FMCT and START III negotiations are successfully launched. Israel, India and Pakistan seem to present the greatest difficulty of all. Comparing the situations in all eight countries with nuclear weapon programmes, it is evident that we are faced with a paradox: the smaller the stocks, the greater their political sensitivity. To make matters worse, one finds two kinds of imperatives being enunciated on these stocks, especially regarding those held by Israel, India and Pakistan: they must be addressed, or they must not be addressed, before progress can be made on the FMCT and other fronts. As we all know, this is a recipe for stalemate. In my view, the only solution to this problem is not to seek a solution, at least for the time being, but to create conditions in which a solution can emerge. The negotiation of an Cutoff Treaty would certainly help. However narrow the interpretation that is placed upon the Shannon Mandate, the FMCT will inevitably draw states, and state bureaucracies, towards a consideration of stocks. Furthermore, the FMCT will provide a range of instruments and regulatory innovations that will make it easier to sort out the various problems that need to be addressed. My main proposal is that the international community should concentrate at this stage on trying to formulate, by whichever means and in whichever fora, a set of universal guiding principles relating to stocks of weapon material. These principles would act as 'normative arrows', as pointers towards the conditions, policies and practices that should eventually be set in place. They would provide a common framework and language which would bring some clarity and unity to approaches that are bound to remain disparate. May I propose seven principles that might be considered as candidates. Some are already implicit or explicit in policies that are already being proposed, developed or implemented: No production. Plutonium and uranium should no longer be produced for weapons purposes (a reiteration of the cutoff undertakings). 2. Precise inventories. Detailed inventories should be established by states, for their own purposes, which would provide them with comprehensive knowledge of the scale, location and forms of all of the weapon-grade materials under their jurisdiction. 3. Transparency. Aggregate figures on the stocks of plutonium and highly enriched uranium held by a given state, and on those stocks that are excess to military requirements, should be made available on a regular basis. 4. Proportionality. The stocks retained for military purposes should be proportionate to genuine military requirements. Reserve stocks would be minimized. 5, International safeguards or verification. Excess stocks of weapons material should be placed under IAEA safeguards or verification. 6. Physical security. All stocks of weapon material would be held under conditions that would meet the highest standards of physical security. 7. Disposition. Programmes should be established to render excess materials physically inaccessible for weapons purposes. I can see no reason why states should not seek agreement upon these principles, without being bound to realising them. They would, however, be submitting themselves to a normative pressure to give the principles substance, and would thereby join in the creation of certain behavioural expectations. This seems entirely reasonable and desirable. To conclude. In the late 1990s, when nuclear weapons appear to be gaining a fresh lease of life, we must devote particular energies to building irreversibility The negotiation and implementation of a Cutoff Treaty would make a very important contribution to that endeavour both by establishing a valuable norm, and by driving regulatory and other innovations in partially disarmed or partially armed states. The issue of stocks cannot be evaded, but can only be addressed through processes outwith the Cutoff negotiations. Every encouragement needs to be given to practical steps being taken by various states, and by safeguards agencies, to reduce the security risks posed by stocks of weapon material. Above all, we need to identify a set of principles that should guide states in their thinking and their actions on these stocks. Finally, nothing that I have said should be interpreted as suggesting that complete nuclear disarmament should not be our common ambition. Indeed, my fear is that if we do not build more irreversibility into our institutions and policies, disarmament will no longer be conceivable let alone achievable.

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