On 9 October 2017, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) hosted a 72nd First Committee Side Event entitled, “Verified Declarations of Fissile Material Stocks.” The panel discussion was moderated by Jarmo Sareva, Director of UNIDIR, and panelists included Pavel Podvig, Senior Research Fellow at UNIDIR; Alexander Glaser, Assistant Professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International affairs and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton University; and Joseph Rodgers, Visiting Researcher at UNIDIR from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS).
Jarmo Sareva stated that the goal of the side event was to explore new approaches to transparency regarding stocks of fissile materials. While states might disagree on how to proceed with the reduction in these stocks, Sareva emphasized that all states agree that verification is an essential step of the process. He indicated that building a robust and reliable verification system will require a great deal of political will and technical know-how, but that such a system will ultimately serve as a confidence building measure between states. He concluded and thanked the government of Germany for its longstanding support of this UNIDIR project.
Pavel Podvig stated that there are roughly 2,000 metric tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and Plutonium 239 (Pu) in the world today, and that verified declarations of stocks of these materials should be an element of the nuclear disarmament process. He indicated that a discussion of the potential roles of existing stocks of fissile materials could take place in a Fissile Material (Cutoff) Treaty (FMCT) context, or in a larger disarmament context, and that these roles could include: serving as trust and confidence building measures (TCBMs) between states, serving as a measure of progress toward nuclear disarmament, forming the baseline for an FMCT verification system, or forming the baseline to assess the non-diversion of such materials. Podvig reiterated that there are two primary challenges to verification of fissile materials: first, that there is a limit on the accuracy of knowledge about holdings of the materials and past production, given the frequently lost or incomplete records, and second, that there is a lack of access to materials in active military use due to the classified nature of the domain.
Podvig’s answer to these two challenges, which forms the basis of a UNIDIR study, is what he calls “deferred verification.” In such a system, the two problems of accuracy and access are divided into distinct segments. All materials that cannot be verified due to lack of access would be moved into a “closed segment,” in which the only requirement is that the amount of material in the segment be known and declared with high accuracy. The closed segment would not include production facilities, no materials would be added to the segment after the declaration of the amount present, and all removals from the segment would be done in unclassified form and verified. In return, this closed segment would not be open to verification access until it was emptied of all materials, at which point verification of complete removal of fissile materials would take place, hence the name “deferred verification.” By contrast, all other fissile material would be placed in an “open segment,” wherein amounts of material do not have to be declared, but all material therein is subject to a physical inventory and a cooperative program of verification. Over time, this open segment would serve as a TCBM between states, and promote good will and further compliance. Podvig acknowledged that such a system of deferred verification could take decades to fully establish and implement, but argued that there are a number of concrete steps states can take in the meantime.
Joseph Rodgers presented the practical proposals for concrete steps that states can take to advance conditions for the implementation of deferred verification. Rodgers highlighted Plutonium (Pu) disposition in both the U.S. and Russia as a possible source of pilot projects for deferred verification, given the commitment to verifiably eliminate 34 metric tons of Pu each under the bilateral Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA)1. Rodgers proposed that the Mayak facility in Russia, which has about 25 metric tons of PMDA Pu, could precisely declare how much material is present and allow for inspection during removal, thus serving as a deferred verification pilot program. Likewise, the Savannah River site in the United States has 6 metric tons of Pu that the U.S. has committed to verifiably dispose of; in a similar fashion to the Mayak site, the U.S. could declare precisely how much material is stored at the Savannah River site, and allow international inspectors to verify its removal, especially since the U.S. has previously allowed international inspectors at this site. Rodgers concluded his remarks by noting that these small pilot projects could serve as TCBMs for the idea of deferred verification, and are politically viable today.
Alexander Glaser concluded the panelists’ remarks by emphasizing that verification is not a process of instant gratification, but rather about building confidence over time. Glaser praised the U.S. for having made baseline declarations about its fissile material stocks in the 1990s, but encouraged further declarations and suggested the creation of a standardized reporting form for a baseline declaration of fissile material. Glaser further expressed that while there is uncertainty regarding precisely how much fissile material exists worldwide today, public historic documents can help reconstruct production histories. Many countries also have estimates on the stockpiles of other countries, and the potential for data exchange and onsite inspections under a deferred verification arrangement means that greater certainty can be achieved over time. Glaser concluded by reaffirming that the 2010 NPT Review Conference Action Plan includes specific language on the importance of transparency and verification regarding fissile material (Actions 19 & 21), and thus progress toward verifying declarations of fissile material stocks directly supports and reinforces the NPT and thus the foundation of disarmament and nonproliferation.
1The PMDA was a bilateral agreement signed on 29 August 2000 between the United States and the Russian Federation, which committed each to verifiably removing 34 metric tons of Pu from their nuclear weapons programs, and converting it into forms unusable for weapons.
Text and photos by Margaret Rowland