International Affairs Forum:
The Nuclear Threat Initiative says it is working to reduce the global threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. How are you doing this?
The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) was fortunate enough to be founded with significant resources, initially from Ted Turner, and subsequently supported by Warren Buffett and other generous donors, enabling us to go beyond the traditional scope of non-government organizations. We do carry out some of the traditional NGO activities, such as analysis around the greatest threats we face. That analysis informs our advocacy in terms of our public speaking and engaging quietly, and less quietly, with our colleagues in the U.S. government and other governments around the world to promote our views and judgments about how best to reduce these threats.
But we're also able to carry out direct action activities, for example, cooperating with others in moving dangerous materials from one destination to another for elimination, for creating new jobs for people in the Russian weapon systems who are losing their jobs and who may be susceptible to assisting terrorists to acquire nuclear materials - activities like that.
The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty has been a cornerstone of anti-proliferation efforts since it was signed in 1968. But earlier this year, NTI CEO Sam Nunn said it was in trouble. Why?
I think the whole system of the Nonproliferation Treaty is under some challenge, and I would say it comes in four forms. One form is what we might call the rogue state problem. North Korea, Iran - these are countries that have signed the treaty and committed to not develop nuclear weapons. And in the case of North Korea we found that they have, and they have admitted that they have. Iran hid a program that should have been declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency for 18 years. Even though they claim an economic motivation for developing these dual-use technologies, the fact that they hid it for so long, combined with other components of Iranian policy, give people many concerns about whether or not they are gearing up to follow the North Korean path of pursuing nuclear weapons capabilities under the guise of peaceful use, and then breaking out of the Treaty at the last minute.
Then there is the non-NPT state challenge, and this was brought to the fore with the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement, which raises the question of how do you take the three countries that did not sign the Treaty, and whose weapons development is therefore not illegal – India, Pakistan and Israel – how do you bring them into the nonproliferation community? How do you create a sense of expecting the same kind of responsible behavior as is expected from the permanent five weapons states under the Treaty, whether it has to do with testing moratoria, whether it has to do with ending fissile material production for weapons - both of which are being observed by the five official states - whether it has to do with transparency and cooperation as has been going on between the United States and Russia. So that's a big challenge – how can you weave those countries into this web of global expectation?
The third challenge is the terrorist nuclear challenge. Terrorists are obviously not bound by the Treaty. The Treaty is focused on state actors, so it doesn't offer much help in managing the terrorist threat.
The fourth concern is the anticipated growth of civilian nuclear power. It is not that that growth itself is inherently dangerous. But if the rise of nuclear power production and consumption involves the spread of dual-use technologies, that is going to lead to a significant increase in the requirement of the international community to monitor these facilities and create a network of fuel assurances and other multinational measures that increase the potential to stop the spread of dangerous technologies.
NTI has activities underway related to all four of these challenges, and one of the hallmarks of our efforts has been with the IAEA to improve its ability to help meet its requirements in implementing the NPT.
Is there a will among governments to improve the NPT, or even come up with a new Treaty?
I think some of the answers are easier than others. I'm extremely skeptical about creating a new Treaty. I think if you talk to people who negotiated the Treaty in the 1960s, they would tell you they knew it wasn't perfect, that there were gaps and holes. I think the challenge now is how do we create new, complementary structures, and mechanisms and global norms – all the tools that the international community has – that fill in some of those gaps.
One of our projects that looks at the spread of nuclear power and the dual-use technologies that come with that is to actually bring life to part of the IAEA charter and create an actual fuel bank – a small stockpile or “bank” of low enriched uranium that would be owned and operated by the IAEA, and which would be designed to preclude the kind of concern that Iran has expressed in pursuing its own enrichment capability. In the Iran case, they have a contract with Russia to provide fresh fuel and to take their spent fuel back, but they have said, “We don't trust Russia as our sole supplier.” So for countries that might have that similar concern, who have a commercial contract and therefore don't need to create a domestic supply except for energy security needs, they could instead rely on the IAEA bank which could fill any political disruption in their commercial agreement to supply fuel. This could reduce their motivation to create a domestic enrichment capability. It's not that this is necessarily a solution to the Iran problem, but it could help prevent a similar problem in other countries as nuclear power grows.
So what NTI has done essentially is to challenge the international community to bring life to this unexecuted component of the IAEA statute. We've put $50 million on the table and said we'll provide the IAEA with $50 million toward creating this bank if the rest of the world matches us on a 2 for 1 basis-- in other words, member states of the IAEA contribute a total $100 million to match our $50 million -- and if the IAEA votes to actually establish the bank. So we've been working closely with IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei and his staff at the IAEA, with colleagues in the U.S. government, the Russian government, and governments all over the world to try and raise the rest of the money and to get the political support for creating this in the IAEA.
What has been the response to this proposal so far?
We've been very pleased that the U.S. government has committed $50 million toward the $100 million, and then early this year the Norwegian government committed $5 million. And in both those cases, as well, there has been support to help promote political and financial support for this concept. Our proposal is not the only one of this character. There are probably about a dozen or so proposals for this similar kinds of fuel assurances - some of them from governments, some from groups of government, some from private industry. And ours, we believe, is compatible and complementary to all of these proposals. Unfortunately, some of these proposals were made in a way that made the nuclear “have nots,” if you will, feel as if there was yet another attempt to create a have/have not distinction within the NPT of nuclear technology states and everybody else. This has created some opposition to the whole concept of nuclear fuel assurances which is, I think, problematic. We have carefully designed our proposal to try and avoid some of the pitfalls of the others by making ours purely voluntary, by emphasizing sovereign choice. But the conversation is a touchy one.
You've mentioned the possibility of terrorists getting hold of nuclear materials. One of the places often cited as a possible source has been Russia's stockpiles. How likely is it that terrorists could acquire these materials?
I'm not one that would say it is likely that terrorists would be able to get nuclear materials, but it's too easy now, and it's easy for us to make it harder for them. This is the good news and the bad news of nuclear materials - that they are very difficult and expensive to make, so the terrorists can't make them themselves, and they have to steal them or be provided the material in some clandestine way. So we have institutionally focused on that terrorist-materials nexus as the best place to defuse nuclear terrorism.
We can protect the materials that exist in the world with enough will and enough resources, but once a terrorist gets the materials, it is very difficult to find that material in transit and to disrupt the other steps that they would need to take to develop a device that could do the kind of damage that we saw in Hiroshima. This is not a trivial threat. The impacts are so huge that even though I might classify it as not necessarily likely, there is so much that we can do and ought to be doing to make it less likely .
It's not that nothing has been done. The U.S. and Russia have been working on what's known as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program since the early 1990s. I used to run part of that program when I was at the Pentagon. So there has been cooperation to secure the vast quantities of materials in Russia. But there are holes in that cooperation. It's been slow; we don't know what might already have been stolen. And there's an ongoing concern about what is referred to as nuclear security culture. When you look at the levels of corruption on Russia, when you look at the challenges even in the U.S. of providing the long-term, almost perfect security that is required, that is something that requires a complete commitment at the psychological level as well as the resource level. We do have concerns about that in Russia. One easy way to make this problem more manageable is to eliminate material that needs guarding. That is something that we have worked on in Kazakhstan. In a very direct way, we were involved in a project that eliminated dozens of bombs worth of highly enriched uranium. In Russia, we're doing an analysis that would support significant increases in Russia's elimination of excess weapons materials and have been working to promote accelerated blend-down of enriched uranium. We look at 'secure, consolidate and reduce' as the key messages on nuclear material.
What did you make of the civil nuclear pact signed by the U.S. and Russia earlier this month?
I do believe that the U.S. - Russia 123 agreement, or what's called the Agreement for Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation, is a step forward in U.S.-Russian relations. This is an agreement that the U.S. has with more than 40 countries around the world, including every other P5 nuclear power. So this is a normal way of doing business, in a sense. It will create a platform for deeper U.S.-Russia cooperation on new fuel cycle technologies, on new reactor technologies, and on new technologies to detect dangerous materials in transit. It creates the basis for a much deeper engagement on the issue between the U.S. and Russia.
Officially it's a framework, and each individual activity is going to have to be negotiated separately, so this doesn't commit the U.S. and Russia to do anything in particular. But it sets the ground rules by which that cooperation will occur, and it really puts the U.S.-Russia civil nuclear relationship on a solid legal footing. That is an important step, especially in Russia where cooperation with the U.S. can be politically controversial. If there is a legal basis for that cooperation, it gives Russia more space to cooperate with us.
This agreement has some opposition in Congress, which has perhaps overinterpreted the way it can to be used as leverage with the Russians. Certainly there are things Russia might do more or better in connection with U.S. priorities, especially in looking at the Iran file, but they've been quite supportive and helpful on the Iran issue as well. Russia has zero interest in Iran becoming a nuclear power, or Iran becoming independent in its own nuclear electricity program, so Russia's interests are strongly aligned with ours in Iran.
So Congress has, I think, overestimated the degree to which withholding approval of this agreement can somehow change Russia's behavior. I think it is a very weak lever, and that if Congress blocks this agreement, it would be very damaging for U.S.-Russia relations, because this is such a standard, basic way we interact with the rest of the world.
Laura S. H. Holgate is vice president for Russia/New Independent States Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. She joined NTI after serving in a number of senior positions in the federal government. She managed the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program at the U.S. Department of Defense and also served as Director of the Office of Fissile Materials Disposition at the U.S. Department of Energy.
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