Verifying Nuclear Disarmament: The Inspector's Agenda

By Persbo, Andreas; Bjørningstad, Marius | Arms Control Today, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Verifying Nuclear Disarmament: The Inspector's Agenda


Persbo, Andreas, Bjørningstad, Marius, Arms Control Today


In the past year, support for moving toward eventual nuclear disarmament has gathered force. In early 2007, an op-ed by four influential U.S. policy shapers, two Republicans and two Democrats, called on the nuclear-weapon states to "turn the goal of a world without nuclear weapons into a joint enterprise."1

Reaching this goal will require overcoming many political, diplomatic, and technical obstacles. In a June 2007 keynote address to the Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference, former British Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett embraced the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons and sought to help with this task by offering her country as a "disarmament laboratory."2 What this meant was clarified in a February 2008 speech by British Defense Minister Des Browne when he invited representatives of weapons laboratories from four other nuclear-weapon states (China, France, Russia, and the United States) to participate in a technical conference in the United Kingdom on disarmament verification.3 The challenge, Browne argued, "is in developing technologies which strike the right balance between protecting security and proliferation considerations and, at the same time, providing sufficient international access and verification." The proposed conference could contribute toward the development of these technologies and at the same time help build deeper technical relationships between the recognized nuclear-weapon states, hopefully generating additional confidence in the disarmament process.

In his speech, Browne confirmed his country's willingness to take the lead on disarmament research and also made reference to relevant joint British-Norwegian research cooperation. In March 2007, about 20 representatives from various institutes in Norway and the United Kingdom met in London to explore how in the future they might bring their respective expertise to bear on the challenge of verifying nuclear disarmament and agreed to explore a series of technical questions through sustained and cooperative research. Subsequently, technical experts from Norway and the United Kingdom, as well as nongovernmental researchers from the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre, met repeatedly to discuss verification requirements in nuclear disarmament. This article, which draws on some of these discussions, will focus on some of the key challenges related to verification, in particular, international inspections at nuclear dismantlement facilities. Moreover, it will mark out the course for future research and cooperation in disarmament verification.

Defining Verification and the Role of Inspections

Verification can be understood as the "process of gathering and analyzing information to make a judgement about parties' compliance or non-compliance with an agreement."4 However, it is difficult to say what verification will practically entail outside the context of a given treaty.5

One thing is relatively certain: the difficulties of verifying nuclear disarmament will correspond with the complexity of the disarmament commitment. For example, verifying that a state has complied with an obligation to dismantle one nuclear warhead will be relatively straightforward. Even in that case, several important questions would need to be answered: How can the inspector be sure that she is looking at a nuclear warhead and not a dummy? If the inspector cannot observe the dismantlement process, how will he be sure that disassembled parts come from the warhead and not some hidden stash of electronics components? How can the inspector be sure that the host state has accounted for all nuclear material if she cannot measure and weigh the "physics package" (the fissile material part of the warhead)?

Verifying complete disarmament is likely to be far more difficult and will involve addressing an even larger and more complex set of questions: How can the inspector be certain that the state has declared all its nuclear warheads? …

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