Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk

 

If the nuclear field is anything to go by (and it isn’t) then the national jobs picture really should be looking up!

After the spate of Stanton Nuclear Security Fellowships, Princeton’s Nuclear Futures Lab has a postdoc on offer. The lab is run by FoW Alex Glaser. If you have a technical PhD this is a wonderful opportunity. You get the chance to have an excellent boss in Alex, be associated with the prestigious International Panel on Fissile Materials and get to work along side the wonderful people in the Program on Science and Global Security.

 
 

Andalo. Not only a beautiful ski resort in the Italian Alps but home to the ISODARCO Winter School.

This year’s school is on ‘The Road to Nuclear Zero and Arms Control’. It’ll be an opportunity for an informal but in-depth examination of the practical path towards a world free of nuclear weapons.

Part of what makes Andalo different is that unlike other ‘schools’, faculty and participants mix freely. It’s a great opportunity to meet some of the big names in the field and, if we’re honest about it, that’s no bad thing from a career point of view. This year’s faculty is a virtual A to Z of non-proliferation and disarmament stars from Arbartov to Zanders.

Andalo is also a genuinely global event with like-minded participants from all over the world. So are you interested?

If so, you have until November 16 to apply.

There are funds to provide partial travel grants to a limited number of students. Say so on your application form if you would need one.

Both Jeffrey and I will be there. In fact, I’m sure Jeffrey will buy a grappa for every wonk reader who shows up.

 
 

Long time, no speak. Time for a spot of guest blogging at this busy time.

Interesting news from the meetings in Geneva today. Iran has agreed, “in principle”, to have some LEU from Natanz further enriched abroad and fabricated into fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. (You might remember President Ahmedinijad recently floated the idea of the US supplying fuel for this reactor which is apparently close to running on empty).

Apart from being an interesting confidence-building measure, it’s obvious why Iran might go for this—it needs the fuel. It’s also obvious why the E3+3 like the idea. Julian Borger reports that:

Western officials here say that to restock the TRR, Iran would have to send out up to 1200 kg of LEU. That’s about three-quarters of what they’ve got, and it would be out of the country for a year. When it came back it would be in the form of fuel rods, so it could not be turned into weapons grade material in a quick breakout scenario.

Let’s look at the practicalities of this, because it turns out there might be one potential sting in the tail.

According to NTI, the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) requires 115.8 kg of 20% enriched fuel. We don’t know the average enrichment of the LEU at Natanz (the maximum is known to be 4.4%), so let’s assume it’s 4% (nice round number and all that). Let’s also assume that the ratio between the product and tails assays is 10, roughly the same as for enrichment from natural uranium to LEU for power reactors. I don’t know for sure this assumption is valid but I believe it is.

If you crunch the numbers (very straightforwardly) then you find that 1040 kg of uranium from Natanz is needed to produce one load of fuel for the TRR. If you assume the average enrichment of the LEU at Natanz is 3.5% then 1390 kg is required. Very much in the right ball park.

My guess (and it is only a guess) is that the enrichment will take place in Russia—at Novouralsk (see page 85 of the 2007 GFMR). Based on what I know about how other states have enriched to 20% or more, Russia probably does not go directly from natural uranium to 20%. I would expect it to enrich first to 3—5% and then to go to 20% in a second stage. If so, using Iranian LEU as feedstock for this second stage should pose few problems beyond, perhaps, a bit of blending to fine tune the enrichment to whatever the Russians normally use, providing that the Iranian material is sufficiently pure.

And here’s the crunch.

Remember the whole molybdenum thing?

The problem gets worse at higher enrichment levels and can cause centrifuges to crash. Although many have assumed than Iran has solved the problem and can produce uncontaminated UF6, we don’t know for sure. But, you can bet that the Russians are going to check this before sticking Iranian LEU into their cascades.

Technical problems could yet derail this interesting initiative…

 
 

I can hear the sound of Jeffrey rushing to book a plane ticket. Or at least asking his programme assistant to do so. From the NYT:

A senior Chinese naval officer said that China would unveil its nuclear submarines to the public on Thursday as part of an international review of the country’s naval fleet “aimed at promoting understanding about China’s military development,” according to a report by Xinhua, the state news agency.

The appearance of the submarines, in the northeastern port city of Qingdao, would be the first time that China had publicly shown the vessels. They are among the most powerful ships in the Chinese Navy.

The officer, Vice Adm. Ding Yiping, deputy commander of the Chinese Navy, told Xinhua in an interview on Monday that “suspicions about China’s being a ‘threat’ to world security are mostly because of misunderstandings and lack of understandings about China.”

He added, “the suspicions would disappear if foreign counterparts could visit the Chinese Navy and know about the true situations.”

The Guardian article on this story has perahps the funniest erratum I have ever seen:

This article was amended on Friday 24 April 2009. Due to an editing error, the original version of this article said that Chinese nuclear submarines had gained prominence in recent battles with Somali pirates. This has been corrected.

But, all is forgiven because of their pics.

 
 

Reflecting on conferences after they are over rarely makes for interesting blogging. However, I didn’t have a chance to blog while the Carnegie Conference was on, and I can’t quite bring myself to tweet. So, I wanted to point those of you who weren’t there in the direction of what for me was the highlight of an excellent conference (not that I’m biased): the very first plenary panel with George Perkovich (chair), Amb. Linton Brooks, Morton Halperin, Brad Roberts and Achilles Zaluar.

The panel’s task was to discuss what the US can and should do in the way of disarmament and the challenges it faces. Given that President Obama had given his speech on disarmament just over 24 hours earlier in Prague, the discussion had a real sense of urgency and relevance that such discussions sometimes lack.

The discussion was very wide-ranging and well worth reading, listening or watching in full but perhaps the most interesting topic was extended deterrence and the effects of US nuclear policy on its allies. William Walker, among others, has frequently remarked about the extreme difficulty and importance of discussing deterrence in the context of disarmament. On this occasion though the discussion was remarkably frank.

I’m reluctant to single out particular speakers given the quality of the whole discussion but what Mort Halperin had to say really struck a chord with me:

I’ve been surprised at how much allied governments care about nuclear weapons now. Their position is not, you know, we didn’t know you guys still had nuclear weapons. Just do whatever you want. They are concerned. They’re following it very closely. They care a lot about it.

Some people in each of these countries are worried that we’re not doing enough to get rid of nuclear weapons. Some people in all of these countries are worried that we may do too much, although we’re not yet close to that line. I do not think the actual deployments make as much difference as the political relationship and the assurances that we should give.

That last sentence, I think, is crucial. For instance, the continued presence of US nuclear weapons in Europe is, as I see it, a way of reassuring allies about US security guarantees without having to have hard conversations about whether other forms of assurance and security cooperation could suffice. If the ally starts to doubt the US, the latter can just point to its nukes as a symbol of its commitment and avoid having a messy conversation about how deep that commitment actually runs.

However, if the US is to withdraw its nuclear weapons from Europe—a step that in my opinion is long overdue—it needs to have the hard conversation that few at the moment seem to want.

Although “disarmament skeptics” often invoke the concerns of allies, few of them show any interest in actually engaging in a serious dialogue with these allies to discuss how the US can continue to reassure them while reducing its reliance upon nuclear weapons. Invocations of extended deterrence are intended to stop debate and discussion—much as the continued existence of nuclear weapons in Europe is.

Conversely, many abolitionists tend to dismiss the concerns of allies and assert that there would be no political fallout from the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe or the withdrawal of the nuclear umbrella. It’s more convenient for them not to talk to US allies about extended deterrence.

So, if the new administration really wants to lay the foundation for disarmament then it should start talking to its allies about disarmament and deterrence. There is little the US could do to prove its disarmament credentials more than by removing nuclear weapons from Europe but as Mort Halperin also remarked, it is important that US allies “should not read in the newspaper about any changes in the American nuclear posture.”

 
 

The text of the Obama-Medvedev statement is now available. Actually, there are two of them: a long statement on life, the universe and everything and a short statement on strategic arms control.

The arms control statement is pretty vague; presumably it is intended to give the negotiators maximum flexibility (and fair enough). More interesting is the language on this point from the long statement:

As leaders of the two largest nuclear weapons states, we agreed to work together to fulfill our obligations under Article VI of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and demonstrate leadership in reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world. We committed our two countries to achieving a nuclear free world, while recognizing that this long-term goal will require a new emphasis on arms control and conflict resolution measures, and their full implementation by all concerned nations.

Russians I had spoken to a couple of months ago thought that Medvedev would not be willing to mention a nuclear-weapon-free world (or even the ubiquitous but odd “nuclear free world”) and would instead insist on talking solely and more vaguely about fulfilling article VI. So, the wording used in the statement is perhaps noteworthy. A product maybe of the geronto-diplomacy we have seen recently?

Of course, the START follow-on treaty is most probably only going to contain modest cuts. Nonetheless, look at it this way: If, say, three years ago, you had been told that a young, liberal, black US President and his Russian counterpart had publicly committed their nations to the abolition of nuclear weapons on 1 April, what would you have concluded?

 
 

From yesterday’s Global Security Newswire:

The United States and India removed an “albatross across our necks” by sealing a civilian nuclear trade deal and can now look forward to cooperation in other sectors, New Delhi’s departing envoy to Washington said yesterday.

The relationship “still has to reach a certain critical mass,” said Ambassador Ronen Sen, who spent 4 1/2 years as India’s top official in the United States. “But today I don’t see any major area where you have a difference in terms of long-term objectives — none.”

Given some of the concerns about the US-India deal—specifically, that it will allow India to free up domestic uranium for fissile material production—I think the ambassador could have found a better way to describe US-India relations than heading toward a “critical mass”.

 
 

It was with genuine and deep sadness that I learnt yesterday of the death of Sir Michael Quinlan, aged 78, on Thursday.

In a career within the UK civil service that spanned 40 years, Sir Michael served in a variety of roles and departments, including as Permanent Under-Secretary (the most senior civil servant) at the Ministries of Employment (1983—88) and Defence (1988—92). Indeed, defence was his primary interest and focus and he earned a reputation as one of the finest strategic thinkers in post War Britain, particularly on nuclear issues.

After “retiring”, Sir Michael became a more public voice on defence and security matters: first, as Director of the Ditchley Foundation (1992—99) and subsequently as a writer and academic. He wrote three books: European Defense Cooperation: Asset or Threat to NATO? (2001), Just War (with General Lord Guthrie, 2007) and Thinking About Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects (2009). The last of these was published just two weeks ago.

I got to know Sir Michael in late 2007, when he was a Senior Consulting Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and “thesis adviser” to George Perkovich and me for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons.

In fact, it was Sir Michael who first conceived of this project, in the spring of 2007. Although a firm believer in the importance of nuclear deterrence in today’s world, he also thought that if the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was to be “load-bearing” component of the broader non-proliferation regime, it was imperative for the nuclear weapon states to take their article VI commitment—to work in good faith towards disarmament—seriously. For him, this started with undertaking an intellectually rigorous exploration of the feasibility of disarmament, without any preconceptions. His essay in Survival is still, to my mind, the clearest and most brilliant explanation of why this is worth doing.

I always looked forward to going to an event at which I knew Sir Michael would be present. He was not only intellectually brilliant and witty, but also modest, approachable and thoroughly decent. I greatly appreciated his criticism of our work, which, although invariably direct and honest—in fact, precisely because it was so direct and honest—helped shaped it quite profoundly.

I asked Mark Fitzpatrick, Senior Fellow at IISS and a friend of Sir Michael’s, to add a few words:

Sir Michael was a role model beyond peer, a visionary who combined a pragmatic understanding of the need for deterrence with a Jesuitical sense of justice. His clear-thinking analysis, willingness to hear out every point of view and, not least of all, his exquisite use of the Queen’s English was inspirational. Notwithstanding the intellectual gifts and senior rank that give many former officials a sense of self-importance, Sir Michael remained always modest, and easily befriended every colleague, no matter position or age. At an office cultural outing to the English National Opera, one such befriended intern felt moved to want to clasp him around the shoulder. All who knew him will clasp his memory.

 
 

Last September, George Perkovich and I published an Adelphi Paper, Abolishing Nuclear Weapons, which attempted to identify the challenges of getting to zero and how they might be overcome. Most of all, however, it called for serious international debate on the subject.

We have made an effort to catalyze such debate with our new book Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate. This book reproduces the original Adelphi Paper, followed by 17 responses from officials, analysts and authors representing 13 countries (nuclear-armed states and non-nuclear-weapon states). The volume ends with a concluding essay by George and me. And, it’s all available free of charge from here!

We made a real effort to have a broad spectrum of opinion with authors including Jonathan Schell, Sir Lawrence Freedman, Frank Miller, Scott Sagan and President Ernesto Zedillo.

As well as a lot of content, there are also some great pieces of writing. Let me share a couple of my favourites.

Sir Lawrence Freedman on the need for greater public engagement:

As things stand now, if governments start dragging their feet, it is hard to imagine vocal demands and public demonstration to get the process back on track. If nationalist politicians start to insist that their country is being duped into putting national security at risk, it is just as likely that demands to slow down would follow. As long as talk of abolition remains the diplomatic equivalent of easy-listening elevator music, and as political leaders remember to assert their belief in a world without war and weapons—and, while they’re at it, no more poverty and disease either—few will pay attention. Only as the talk becomes serious will public debate open up, and properly so. Depending on the political system, dissent from the official line may be vigorous and open or cryptic and furtive. In all cases, the course of the debate will be influenced by the interaction with whatever happens to be on the public agenda at the time and the passing concerns of the moment.

Zia Mian on the problem with framing the disarmament debate in terms of security:

Some arguments that policy makers may advance for abolition will certainly conflict with long-standing official narratives of national security that have served to justify a role for nuclear weapons. These arguments may trigger debates about what, if anything, could fill the nuclear-weapon shaped hole that would result from the abolition of nuclear weapons. The pursuit of disarmament may become tied to the search for reassurance through technological, strategic, and political substitutes for nuclear weapons. Other arguments for abolition may claim that eliminating nuclear weapons would not actually undermine the security calculation of a nuclear-armed state, but would in fact strengthen its position relative to rivals and in the international system. Such an argument could complicate efforts by some other states to make a case for disarming.

In addition, St. Anthony’s International Review has also joined the debate by publishing an excellent critique of our Adelphi Paper by Elbridge Colby and a response by us. Again, all available free of charge and worthwhile too because this exchange really helps crystalize an important aspect of the wider debate, in my opinion.

Enjoy.

 
 


Partial schematic of Iran’s planned fuel cycle, once facilities currently under construction have been completed.

I was travelling on Friday and got back to the internet to observe the aftermath of the s*!t storm over material accountancy in Iran.

The story that seems to be emerging is that Iran understated the quantity of low enriched UF6 it produced because of a genuine error in calculation, as reported by various sources including Mark Hibbs (in the comments to Jeffrey’s post and, I assume, elsewhere) and Global Security Newswire. Presumably, during its annual physical inventory verification (PIV), the IAEA found an anomaly and worked with Iran to discover it was an error rather than anything more suspicious.

What is the significance of the IAEA’s phrase about “measurement uncertainties normally associated with enrichment plants of a similar throughput”?
In its report the IAEA repeated its standard comment that the results of the PIV were “within the measurement uncertainties normally associated with enrichment plants of a similar throughput.” This raises an interesting question: What uncertainty would be expected in performing a physical inventory at the Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP)?

The typical measurement errors associated with weighing canisters, sampling UF6 and measuring enrichment levels are actually very small. They are all given in a favourite of mine—the gloriously wonkish International Target Values 2000.

I don’t have the time now to do a calculation to work out what measurement uncertainty would be expected for the FEP as it currently stands but, a couple of years ago, I did this calculation assuming the facility was fully fitted out with 50,000 centrifuges and producing 30 tU/yr of 3.5% enriched LEU. It’s in a study I did for VERTIC with the memorable title, The use of voluntary safeguards to build trust in states’ nuclear programmes: The case of Iran. Incidentally, in Appendix I, this paper contains a moderately technical summary of the principles of nuclear materials accountancy—if you’re interested.

Anyway, I calculated the measurement uncertainty for a PIV in the FEP when completed would probably be just a few kg of uranium (depending on the exact type of measurement techniques used). This is consistent with the expected values given by the IAEA in its Safeguards Glossary (table III, p. 53). So, the measurement error for the FEP today, which has just 4,000 centrifuges (or thereabouts), would be considerably smaller (no, it’s not a linear relationship).

What this means is that the IAEA’s comment that the results of the PIV were “within the measurement uncertainties normally associated with enrichment plants of a similar throughput” almost certainly refers to situation after the error in Iran’s calculations was spotted. The 209 kg discrepancy that sparked the controversy is way, way outside the typical measurement uncertainty.

Why did Iran not spot the error itself?
This is a question that I have been asking myself. I would have expected Iran to have checked its calculations by actually measuring UF6 masses and enrichment levels. I mean you’d do that if you ran an enrichment plant, wouldn’t you?

Certainly, this is standard practice in the one enrichment facility I have seen up close and personal. All UF6 cylinders were continually weighed. After each one was full it was heated (to “homogenize” the material) and a sample taken so its enrichment level could be ascertained by mass spectrometry. With these practices an error of 1 kg—let alone 209 kg—would be spotted pretty quickly.

The fact that Iran failed to spot its own error suggests that it isn’t doing any of this standard housekeeping. And, I think, this gives us a glimpse into a programme that in its rush to get started and churn out LEU has forsaken normal operating practices.

It ties in with the fact that Iran has stated its maximum enrichment level is higher than the IAEA measured, and also with a story I heard from one of the first inspectors to go to the conversion facility at Esfahan once it had started operating. This person said that the Iranian technicians were very keen to learn basic safety techniques from the inspectors, including how to deal with UF6 leaks. Health and safety has not been a major concern for the Iranian nuclear programme either.

To be clear: none of this sloppiness is illegal—it’s just bad practice. And, it makes the IAEA’s job harder.

Tightening safeguards?
The measurement uncertainty discussed above matters because it sets the size of a diversion that the IAEA could confidently detect. In my paper I calculated that, with 95% probability, the IAEA could detect a diversion of about 5 kg from the FEP when it is fully kitted out. This is 15 times smaller than the 75 kg target value for LEU. Bear in mind that IAEA safeguards are designed for much larger facilities than Natanz so it’s not surprising the IAEA could detect such a small diversion. So, I am very confident in the IAEA’s ability to detect the diversion of one significant quantity of LEU from Natanz.

However, I am much less confident in the IAEA’s ability to detect a diversion in a timely manner (or to detect a clandestine facility—but that’s a different story). Specifically, the IAEA aims to detect the diversion of LEU within one year.

Currently a PIV at Natanz (when the IAEA measures a pre-determined fraction of all the nuclear material at the facility so it can accurately estimate the total inventory) is conducted once a year—the standard practice in most (if not all) facilities under IAEA safeguards. Given the time taken to process the results of this inspection, it means that a diversion occurring just after a PIV might not be detected for 13 or 14 months.

I say “might” because containment and surveillance is in place and that might detect a diversion even before the PIV comes around. Similarly, the IAEA conducts interim inspections in many facilities, normally to verify material flows into or out of the facility but sometimes to conduct interim inventories (albeit in a less rigorous manner than during a PIV). If such inspections occur at Natanz they would increase the probability of detecting a diversion within a year. (Note: These are different from the short-notice randomly-occurring inspections in the cascade hall that are definitely happening and occur about once a month).

In any event, given what we know (or rather don’t know) about the safeguards approach for Natanz, I think there are legitimate questions about whether detection in Iran would be timely. Others have made this point too—including David Albright. But, to be fair, this is not just an Iranian problem. It is true in bulk handling facilities in other states as well.

It would not be hard to fix, if funds were available. Performing a PIV twice a year or increasing the frequency of interim inspections would be useful in helping the Agency meets its current timeliness detection goal or even a more ambitious one. And, in an ideal world, I argued in my paper that this is exactly what the IAEA should do.

But, here’s the rub. Any change to the IAEA’s verification approach could only be effected with Iran’s permission. The safeguards approach for Natanz (contained in the co-called facility attachment) took about a year to negotiate. And, reading between the lines of the IAEA’s reports, it was a painful process. I find it almost impossible to imagine Iran agreeing to the IAEA performing a PIV more often or conducting more frequent interim inspections.

And, again, to be fair, this is not just an Iranian issue. At a fundamental level, the main problem with IAEA safeguards is not the accuracy of measuring techniques or the frequency of inspections—but severe limits on the Agency’s legal authority. I have no doubt that intransigence on negotiating or renegotiating a facility attachment is an issue in many other states too. The situation in Iran just throws this problem into sharper relief.