1:00 a.m. April 12, 2007
UNITED NATIONS – Independent arms control experts from 15 countries are drafting a treaty to ban production of uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons that could rival a U.S. text under consideration by the U.N.'s top disarmament body.
Frank von Hippel, a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton University, said Wednesday the International Panel on Fissile Materials is not only developing a draft treaty, “but more importantly, an in-depth analysis of the verification issues associated with the treaty.”
The Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty submitted by the U.S. last May omits verification measures, leaving it up to individual governments to detect and report violations by other nations.
The U.S. says it wants to improve the world's leverage against nuclear states such as Iran and North Korea while avoiding protracted negotiations over issues such as verification.
But von Hippel said verifying compliance with such a treaty shouldn't be much harder than doing so for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which came into force in 1970 and is aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
“And we think this can be done with reasonable cost,” he told diplomats, U.N. staff and disarmament activists who gathered Wednesday on the sidelines of the U.N. Disarmament Commission's three-week meeting.
The nuclear physicist served in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 1994-95 and is now the panel's co-chairman.
Stephen G. Rademaker, acting U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, urged the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament to conclude work on a new treaty by September. The U.S. proposal is still under review in the conference, the U.N.'s top arms control body.
During Wednesday's discussion, differences emerged on whether to consider a step-by-step or a wide-ranging treaty, with or without verification.
An Egyptian diplomat insisted that the nuclear powers should be subject to the same rule as non-nuclear states, and that the treaty's aim should be disarmament, not legalizing the retention of weapons by the nuclear powers.
Princeton research scientist Zia Mian, who works with the panel, said a key issue is the lack of information on the quantities of highly enriched uranium in some major countries – first and foremost Russia, but also France and China. The U.S. and Britain have declared their stockpiles, he said.
The five nuclear weapon states have all stopped producing highly-enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons, but have set aside large quantities for future military and civilian use, he said.
“We need to get a better handle on who has how much fissile material in the world,” he said.
The U.S., Britain and Russia all use highly enriched uranium for nuclear propulsion for submarines. The U.S. also uses it for aircraft carriers and Russia for ice-breakers.
If the U.S. and Russia reduced the number of nuclear warheads in their stockpiles to 1,000, a lot less highly enriched uranium would be needed, but Mian said the continued naval demands would create problems and probably require “extra conditions” in a treaty.
France has moved to fuel its submarines with low-enriched uranium, he said, suggesting that Russia, the U.S. and Britain could do the same.
As for plutonium, Mian said, there are about 150 tons in weapons today, “but there's about 100 tons that the U.S. and Russia have declared as excess to their military needs ... and there's a very large civilian stock in the world.”
A minimal treaty should subject all civilian nuclear activities by stages to international safeguards, put excess fissile material under safeguards, and ensure that highly enriched uranium for naval reactors is not diverted to weapon use, he said.
Von Hippel said a verification program would have to ensure that production facilities for highly enriched uranium and plutonium are shut down or converted to civilian use, that civilian nuclear material is not converted to weapons, that there is no clandestine or undeclared production or diversion, and that excess fissile material is not returned to weapons use, he said.
No verification is perfect, von Hippel said, but “in my view it's much better than nothing.”
The panel, founded in January 2006 and funded with a five-year grant to Princeton by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, includes nuclear experts from Brazil, Britain, China, Germany, India, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden and the United States.
On the Net: www.fissilematerials.org