When the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention was first signed in the 1970s, it was hailed as a step forward in disarmament. There was no effective enforcement mechanism, but at least the major powers had agreed to outlaw germ warfare. In the years since, it has became clear that the lack of enforcement left gaping holes. The agreement failed to prevent the Soviet Union, aparthied-era South Africa and Saddam Hussein's Iraq from pursuing secret biological weapons programs. Jonathan B. Tucker, the author of Scourge and War of Nerves, and professor at Darmstadt University of Technology in Germany, says the treaty “lost a good deal of credibility."
Tucker has written a thorough and illuminating piece for Arms Control Today about the next review conference of the treaty, due this December. He points out that suspicions persist about noncompliance. The State Department's 2010 report to Congress noted that China and Russia have been less than full in disclosing past biological warfare programs, and suggesting that offensive programs may exist in Iran, North Korea, Russia and Syria. Also, the treaty has only 163 member states, compared to 189 for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and 188 for the Chemical Weapons Convention. Tucker also says that fewer than half of the members participate in the annual confidence-building declarations. These forms were supposed to help boost transparency, since there is still no mandatory inspections or effective verification. But the confidence-building forms haven't even been revised since they were first instituted in 1991.
In the late 1990s, there was an effort to stiffen the treaty with a more forceful, legally-binding inspection procedure. This fell apart in 2001 when the Bush administration rejected it and the talks collapsed. The Obama administration has also shied away from the legal approach, and instead offered a "strategy" document on biological threats. Tucker criticizes the measures as "conceptually flawed or too weak to make much of a difference."
But Tucker says there is a chance to improve the treaty and make a difference at the review conference. He urges the United States to take good advantage of it, and offers a useful list of ideas. The treaty entered into force 35 years ago, and looks dog-eared. Not only has it been repeatedly violated with impunity, but the rapid pace of change in biotechnology is making it seem less and less relevant. Can it be saved?
Getty Images/Dimas Ardian
The last few months have been busy ones for the nuclear express: trucks, trains and ships have been hauling giant protective casks containing highly-enriched uranium, plutonium, and spent nuclear fuel from vulnerable locations to safe harbors.
These delicate operations in the former Soviet bloc point to progress in President Obama’s promise to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials in four years. He may not make the goal, but step-by-step, more and more weapons-useable material is being cleaned out and locked up.
In November, the United States and Kazakhstan completed the transfer to a new storage site of some 300 metric tons of spent fuel, containing more than 10 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, enough to make 775 nuclear weapons. The material was moved from the BN-350 fast reactor on the Caspian Sea, originally built to breed plutonium for the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons program, to a new long-term storage site about 1,500 miles away in Kazakhstan. According to the National Nuclear Security Administration, which handled the move with Kazakhstan, the transfer required the construction of new roads and rails, five specially-designed cask rail cars, two guard cars, a fleet of security cars, and 61 protective fuel casks weighing 100 tons each. Mike Shuster of NPR did a good story on the operation.
In December, the NNSA announced the removal of 28 pounds of highly-enriched uranium from the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences in Serbia. The operation, coordinated by the International Atomic Energy Agency, also took out about 2.5 metric tons of low-enriched uranium spent fuel. The materials went by road and rail to a Slovenian seaport, then loaded on a vessel and shipped to Russia. Gregg Webb of the IAEA has an account here.
Also in December, the government of Belarus announced that it would give up its stock of highly-enriched uranium, which the United States has been seeking to remove for years. The Washington Post reported that two classified operations were carried out in the past two months to remove 187 pounds of weapons-grade uranium from a research facility, setting the stage for the agreement to remove the rest of the material, estimated to be about 500 pounds.
On Dec. 3, the IAEA’s 35-nation board approved plans for a new nuclear fuel repository. The idea is to encourage nations which want low-enriched fuel for civilian reactors to acquire it from the international fuel bank rather than build a domestic capability which can raise concerns about proliferation and making nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington and investor Warren Buffett together provided $50 million seed money for the new facility. Meanwhile, an earlier effort to create a low-enriched uranium reserve, in Russia, opened its doors in December, too.
Still, there are problems ahead. Over the last two years, the Government Accountability Office has been working on a classified study of the effort to secure vulnerable nuclear materials. An unclassified version (report GAO-11-227) was made public in recent weeks. The GAO says that while the National Security Council has developed a classified seven-page government-wide strategy for meeting Obama's goal of securing all vulnerable materials in four years, the scope of all these nuclear materials creates some uncertainty about whether Obama's ambitious goal can be met. "Several hundred" sites around the world have "significant" amounts of nuclear material, and "a large number of sites were determined to be most vulnerable." The GAO quotes NSC officials as saying "there is a large universe of nuclear material sites around the world and there are many unknowns and uncertainties…"
Not surprisingly, the NSC officials said they do not consider Obama's promise to be "a hard and fast deadline."
Three other interesting findings in the report:
1.) At 37 Russian nuclear materials sites, the Materials Protection, Control and Accounting program has upgraded security at 195 out of a total 214 buildings. That’s real progress.
2.) But the scattered locations are still a problem. The Materials Consolidation and Conversion program was supposed to deal with this, reducing the number of buildings into fewer, more secure locations. When created in 1999, the program envisioned helping Russia remove materials from 50 buildings in five locations by this year; to date, it has achieved removal of all highly-enriched uranium from only 25 buildings at one site. Efforts to reach a necessary agreement with Russia on consolidation have stalled.
3.) Russia’s political leadership continues to question whether it needs further assistance. The GAO said that Russian officials told them that nuclear materials in the country are “fully secure” and “they saw little value to continuing to work with the United States” on the issue. We’ve seen this reluctance elsewhere, too, in Russia’s decision to pull out of hosting the International Science and Technology Center, founded to help counter the spread of know-how by former Soviet weapons scientists.
Update, Dec. 31: The NNSA has announced the removal of 111 pounds of highly-enriched uranium from Ukraine. Some of this was the uranium found in 1995 in Kharkiv, which I described in The Dead Hand.
To be a great journalist in confusing times, in moments of chaos and uncertainty, requires a steadfastness, a curiosity that can’t be easily quenched, and a deep well of passion. Saul Friedman, who passed away Dec. 24 at 81, was a paragon of these values, and taught them to many of us who knew him.
Saul was a newspaperman whose work spanned decades from the civil rights movement to the fall of the Berlin Wall. He was a familiar figure on the campaign bus, wearing a multi-pocketed safari jacket, smoking a cigar, his eyes twinkling at some new idea or political turn of events. He was a liberal, but more than that, he was filled with passion about the world around him, angry at injustice and disdainful of incompetence, and he shared this exuberance with his colleagues and his readers.
I remember an autumn evening on my first assignment on a national political story. It 1979, and I was the Washington correspondent for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News, a Knight-Ridder newspaper. Saul was the Knight-Ridder national political correspondent. I had been sent to Maine to cover the short-lived presidential bid of Jerry Brown. I met Saul for dinner in Portland, and at his suggestion we drove to Freeport, talking politics all the while, Saul mentoring the new kid. I think it must have been very late when we pulled up to the steps of a modest shop that Saul said was open 24 hours a day because they served hunters and fishermen. The sign said: “L. L. Bean.” I had never heard of it.
Every campaign reporter should have one of those sturdy L. L. Bean corduroy jackets, with the large pockets for notebooks and tape recorders, and I bought one. But mostly I remember Saul that night: gracious to a young journalist just starting out, always full of ideas, always full of passion.
Saul covered presidents and the powerful, fearlessly, and often demanding they not fall short of his ideals. He could be unrelenting in his questions, but he did so in service of his journalism, not ideology. He wrote for the Houston Chronicle and Detroit Free Press before coming to Washington, where he served in the bureaus of Knight-Ridder and Newsday.
At Knight-Ridder one day in the summer of 1979, Saul left an impression I could never forget. President Carter, in deep political trouble, had summoned a few power-brokers to Camp David for a summit to confront his deepening problems. Among the guests was the Democratic superlawyer and former defense secretary, Clark Clifford. Afterward, the lawyer confided to Saul how he was asked to go for a bike ride at the presidential retreat before the meeting. Clifford hadn’t been on a bike in a long time, and said they had been going downhill fast when he unceremoniously fell off, skinning his knee.
I watched how Saul wove this little emotional scoop into his story for the newspapers the next day. A great statesman falling from a bike, admitting his fallibility in a gentle aside, and Saul wrote it gracefully, a reminder, amid all the towering importance of public life, that we all are human.
Thank you Saul, and farewell.
In the most recent issue of Science, there’s an stimulating look at the “insights of the decade,” gathering up the big ideas and technologies of the past 10 years. Running through many of them has been an incredible leap in computing technology that transformed science, and “no field has benefitted more than genomics,” the magazine says.
A decade ago, sequencing a human genome took years, hundreds of people, hundreds of machines, and endless hours of sample preparation to generate the pieces of DNA to be deciphered, one at a time… Today, a single machine can decipher three human genomes in little more than a week.
This example is just one of many signs that we are experiencing an age of discovery in biology and genetics. As I noted in a recent post, penetrating the deepest secrets of life could transform health, medicine, energy and the environment. But the knowledge of biology is dual-use: that which can make our lives better can also be used for ill. President Obama last May 20 asked his new Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to undertake a study of the emerging field of synthetic biology. The request was made in the aftermath of the announcement by the J. Craig Venter Institute that they had designed and created a synthetic chromosome which they had transplanted into a living cell.
Obama wanted to know about the potential benefits, as well as any risks in this fast-changing field, including the rise of amatuer or “Do-It-Yourself” bio labs.
The commission’s report says: keep an eye on it, but don’t regulate it now.
On the question of risks, the report says “that presently there appears to be no serious risk of completely novel organisms being constructed in non-institutional settings including in the DIY community.” The commission said there is no need to impose special limits on the DIY labs.
Overall, the panel’s report suggests that the authorities should be on the lookout for risks, but the state of the science does not warrant a moratorium or further government regulation. Indeed, the panel warned that too much oversight might strangle innovation. The commission called for a handful of new studies over the next year and a half to see how synthetic biology unfolds.
The report cautions that “sensationalist buzzwords and phases” such as “creating life” and “playing God” have confused people about what’s really at stake. Venter’s announcement, the panel recalled, “does not amount to creating life as either a scientific or moral matter.” The Venter experiment relied on an existing, natural host. Synthesizing a genome from its chemical parts was certainly a significant accomplishment, the panel said, but “does not constitute the creation of life, the likelihood of which still remains remote for the forseeable future.”
Now that the New Start treaty has been ratified by the Senate, is nuclear arms control exhausted? If it was so difficult for President Obama to win Senate approval of a modest reduction in strategic weapons, should we just forget about anything more ambitious?
Hardly. Look beyond the minute-by-minute political handicapping that dominates Washington, and the next steps, over a period of a few years, are evident.
The Russians have several thousand tactical or short-range nuclear weapons. The United States has only about 500, of which fewer than 200 are based in Europe. Meanwhile, the United States has several thousand inactive strategic nuclear weapons, in a "reserve" or hedge, which was created at the end of the Cold War.
Neither the Russian tactical nuclear weapons nor the U.S. inactive strategic warheads are covered in the New Start treaty. Both suffer from lack of transparency.
So, the next big step is a Grand Bargain, an idea that has been floated in the last year or two by some smart thinkers on nuclear policy. First, the United States and Russia combine all these nuclear weapons into one category, a single bucket, and stop separating them into strategic and tactical. Each is a nuclear bomb, and while some are bigger than others, experts have long suspected that the use of a lower-yield tactical nuke could easily trigger retaliation with something bigger and more devastating. So let's count them all as warheads to be negotiated.
Next, the United States and Russia hammer out a deal to cut the number in half, or go even deeper. The key is that each side could decide on its own how to get there. We would probably reach the goal by giving up some of those strategic nukes which are stored in our reserves; the Russians could get there by giving up the same amount of their tactical warheads.
What could make this work is that it would involve weapons that are largely "offline," and not part of the immediate, day-to-day deterrent. (The Russian tactical weapons are deployed to some extent, but the bulk of them are probably in storage.) Also, each side would actually be trading a cut for a cut. Naturally, there are some uncertainties. Would Russia would be willing to forego a chunk of its tactical nukes, which seem to have more value to them today in a period when their conventional forces are relatively weaker? Would the United States finally relinquish a big part of the strategic reserve?
The answers may not become apparent for a while, but it would be a mistake to abandon nuclear arms control now. The process is not exhausted.
One of the anti-Start campaign letters being circulated by Liberty Central against the treaty expresses alarm that the pact “limits the circumstances in which the United States is allowed to launch its weapons!”
Sounds terrible. You get the impression our missile officers might be in their silos, and upon receiving an order from the President to launch, would be frantically trying to find permission in Article 3, paragraph 2 or some such.
Actually, the missiles and their destructive warheads were invented to deter, to cause the other side not to take action, to be used only in the case of a last resort. They were never deployed in the Cold War for any other purpose, and they have no other purpose now. They are icons of strength, but as the years have gone by, they have actually lost much of their military utility. They are political weapons.
They had a certain ominous meaning in the Cold War. It was a time of intense, unremitting pressure between two huge systems, rival ways of thinking. But those days have been gone as long as today’s college students have been alive.
Yes, today’s Russia remains frisky, petulent, and assertive. That’s precisely the underlying logic for the treaty: to lock in lower, equal levels of fast-firing, dangerous weapons, and thus reduce uncertainty. Any deterrent value we get today from the weapons will be more effective with rules and verification than without them.
What kind of Russia will exist in five or ten years? No one knows, but we should see the country for what it has become today. It is not the Soviet Union.
There’s a fascinating article in today’s Wall Street Journal, page C8. The article points out that Russia still desperately needs foreign capital to modernize. Seventy-five percent of the country’s equity free float, as well as 70 percent of the Eurobond market and almost all of the syndicated loan market, is taken up by foreign investors. Like it or not, Russia depends on foreign capital. I suspect we are not going to target our missiles on those stock markets in Moscow which we built and where we trade. The Senate should realize that this is not a treaty with Leonid Brezhnev and his Politburo. Whatever happens with Russia, we are better off with a contract, than without it.
A new WikiLeaks cable plunges us right back into that mysterious calculus of warhead counting: how many nuclear weapons do we really need to remain secure in today's world?
The New START treaty would limit the United States and Russia each to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads, operationally deployed. The treaty doesn't include thousands more strategic warheads in a U.S. reserve, and thousands more on top of that, the smaller tactical nukes, most of which are in Russia. One strong argument for ratification is that it will pave the way for a follow-on treaty that could reduce both these outlying stockpiles.
In a recent posting, I pointed to a couple of new studies which suggest that we would be secure at far lower levels of deployed strategic nuclear weapons, perhaps down into the hundreds on each side. The just-published cable indicates that some in the Pentagon are thinking along similar lines, if not quite as radical. Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller briefed NATO allies about the Nuclear Posture Review on July 16, 2009, and the cable describes his remarks. (The posture review was being drafted then, and has since been issued; the New START treaty was being negotiated then, and has since been signed.) Miller told the allies that a range of 1,500-1,700 strategic warheads on each side was "militarily sufficient."
But he added that risks to "military sufficiency and to robustness" would come only if the level went below 1,300 warheads.
That's 250 warheads lower than the current treaty. Miller added that "future warhead reductions by the Russians would allow the U.S. to consider going lower."
There's a truth lying in plain sight here: The only reason we stick by these higher levels is because the Russians stick by these higher levels. Neither the United States nor Russia faces the kind of confrontation for which the weapons were built. There's no military purpose, no security gain to the higher levels. President Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review, issued earlier this year, admitted as much: "each still retains more nuclear weapons than necessary for stable deterrence."
The Cold War is long over. But our mindset is somehow locked in the past. We are still thinking "arms race" instead of looking squarely at today's threats and true needs.
It's time for some new thinking. If a top Pentagon official could tell the NATO allies more than a year ago that 1,300 warheads would be sufficient militarily, there ought to be no hesitation about New START -- and moving beyond it.
In the first years after the Soviet Union fell apart, Kenneth J. Fairfax sent back to the State Department a string of cables that caused people to sit up and notice. Fairfax, an officer in the environment, science and technology section of the United States Embassy in Moscow, reported in 1993 and 1994 that the Russian nuclear establishment was falling apart. Some of the worst conditions were at facilities that Russia considered civilian, but which held large quantities of weapons-usable uranium and plutonium. The materials were so poorly protected as to be up for grabs.
Quoting a Russian official in March, 1994, Fairfax wrote that under the old Soviet system, control of nuclear materials was essentially an administrative task, with "no physical control measures as are used in the U.S." Nor was there any commercial value to the material in Soviet times, and thus little danger of theft. But when the country imploded, so did this old system. "Now there are increasingly frequent reports of theft and diversion of material and a real need for a modern system of control," Fairfax warned.
As I described in The Dead Hand, alarm bells went off in Washington. The Fairfax cables were more than just good reporting. They helped policymakers in Washington spot a coming crisis -- the potentially dangerous leakage of nuclear materials from Russia -- and react to it. Eventually, the United States spent millions of dollars to help upgrade security across the former Soviet nuclear archipelago. For his work, Fairfax received the State Department's 1994 award for excellence in reporting on environment, science and technology issues by the Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science.
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.