Broken Arrow News: Week of June 24

By Luisa Kenausis, Scoville Fellow
In U.S. military lingo, a “broken arrow” refers to a incident involving the loss of a nuclear weapon. Here, we’re bringing you the nuclear weapons news that’s been ‘lost’ in the last week.

China 

Amid military, economic tensions, Defense Secretary Mattis visits Beijing 

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis arrived in Beijing on Tuesday, June 26 for a nearly two-day visit in the Chinese capital. The trip was the first visit to China by a Pentagon chief since 2014, and marked the first face-to-face meeting between American and Chinese top military leadership since the United States declared China to be a primary challenge to U.S. security. 

Mattis’s visit comes at a tense moment between the United States and its primary Asian rival. The last few installments of Broken Arrow News have covered the unfolding showdown between China and the United States in the South China Sea. Tensions in the U.S.-China relationship have also been exacerbated by China’s recent behavior towards Taiwan. Most recently, on the same day as Mattis’s arrival in Beijing, Chinese state media announced that Chinese warships have been holding combat drills near Taiwan for more than a week, increasing fears in Taiwan of a potential Chinese invasion. The visit also comes in the midst of a potential trade war between the United States and China, driven by Trump’s isolationist trade policy. 

Mattis was scheduled to meet with a range of officials in China, including U.S. diplomats and senior Chinese military leadership. The purpose of the trip was to improve the military relationship and reduce tensions between the United States and China, as well as to discuss the effort to denuclearize North Korea. The Mattis visit comes one week after Kim Jong-un also traveled to Beijing and met with Chines President Xi Jinping for the second time. 

According to Chinese state media reports covered by Reuters, Xi told Mattis that China has only peaceful intentions, but that it cannot give up “even on inch” of territory that belonged to the country’s ancestors. The statement could be referring to Taiwan, which China has long viewed as a Chinese territory. Despite this dramatic statement, both Secretary Mattis and Chinese military officials were largely upbeat when speaking to reporters about the visit, with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe calling the visit “a new positive factor to the military-to-military and state-to-state relationship.” 

 

Japan 

With U.S.-Japan nuclear cooperation agreement expiring this month, Japan will face pressure to reduce plutonium stockpile 

A 1988 agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation between the United States and Japan is set to expire in July 2018. Although the agreement will initially stay in effect after its expiration, either party will then be able to cancel the agreement with six months’ notice, and the United States is likely to leverage its continued nuclear support in pressuring Japan to reduce its 50-ton plutonium stockpile 

Japan’s significant stockpile of plutonium has been produced via reprocessing spent fuel, with the intention of reusing the reprocessed plutonium in the form of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. This approach was preferred due to Japan’s lack of uranium resources and desire for energy independence. However, the facilities used to reprocess spent fuel are a weapons proliferation risk as they can be repurposed to produce nuclear weapons material. On top of that, most of Japan’s nuclear reactors are offline in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, meaning that few reactors will be available to use MOX fuel and thus reduce the plutonium stockpile. 

The matter is complicated by Japan’s continued efforts to build a new reprocessing plant in Aomori, which is scheduled to come on-line in 2021—reportedly 20 years late, and at three times the budgeted cost. If operational, the plant would produce over 8 tons of plutonium a year, with no clear plan for how the plutonium could be used or disposed.  

For a more comprehensive look at the history of the U.S.-Japan cooperation agreement and its potential future, see this recent piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  

 

India 

India oil ministry instructs refiners to dramatically reduce Iranian oil imports by November 

On June 28, it was reported that India’s oil ministry has asked refiners to prepare to reduce imports of Iranian oil down to zero by November 2018. India is the second-largest purchaser of Iranian oil after China, and has previously said that it does not recognize the unilateral trade restrictions imposed by the United States, so the reports last week mark a meaningful change. In the meeting with the oil ministry, Indian refiners were instructed to seek alternatives to Iranian oil as the trade situation evolves. 

 

United States and Russia 

Planning moves forward for July meeting between Trump and Putin 

Last week, the evolving plans for a summit between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin became more concrete. On Wednesday, Helsinki was confirmed as the planned location for the summit, after national security advisor Ambassador John Bolton finalized an agreement with Kremlin officials. The summit will likely take place around July 13 or 14 as President Trump wraps up a mid-July trip to the United Kingdom and Brussels. 

Reports on the planned summit emphasize low expectations among officials in both the United States and Russia. In a comment to the Financial Times, an unnamed senior Russian official noted that the summit taking place at all “will mean progress” and “finding even one point of agreement would be a victory,” but also acknowledged that “with Trump, it is best to stay cautious.” 

On the U.S. side, officials are understandably concerned about the optics of a Trump-Putin meeting amid the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and there is little expectation that President Trump will be able to achieve a “grand bargain” with Russia. Both American and Russian officials cited in Financial Times reports characterize the upcoming summit as being more of a showcase than a potential breakthrough. 

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which limits the number of strategic nuclear weapons deployed by the United States and Russia, is set to expire in 2021, but can be extended for 5 years if the two parties agree to do so. President Trump and President Putin may use the upcoming summit to discuss arms control and strategic stability, and New START could be one of the issues on the agenda. Extension was recently raised by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who called for Trump and Putin to discuss New START and Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty when they meet. However, an unnamed Kremlin official quoted in the Financial Times was pessimistic about the possibility for progress on arms control in the short term, saying that the topic “would need too much trust…and we don’t have a shred of that trust.”  

 

United States 

U.S. military sets sights on $1 billion missile defense radar in Hawaii 

Last week, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has held public meetings in Oahu that revealed new details about the proposed $1 billion radar system to defend Hawaii from the ballistic missile threat, particularly from North Korea. According to the deputy director of the MDA, Hawaii is “adequately Defended today” by the ground-based homeland missile defense program based in Alaska and California, but that the new radar will allow the United States “to take on the advanced threat” regarding Hawaii.  

The sites being considered for the radar deployment include the Kuaokala Ridge, which borders the Air Force’s Kaena Point Satellite Tracking Station, and two sites at the Army’s Kahuku Training Area. $61 million has been appropriated for the planning of the new system, but funds have not yet been appropriated for its construction, although lawmakers have indicated that the follow-on funding will likely be secured. Construction is expected to start in 2021, and the radar is planned to have its operational start in late 2023. 

Man sentenced to 23 months in prison in MOX fraud case 

On Monday, June 25, a man who headed a conspiracy to steal millions from the mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel project in South Carolina was sentenced to 23 months in prison. Phillip Thompson was also ordered to pay over $4.5 million in restitution immediately, and will also serve three years of parole. Thompson and his co-defendant, Aaron Vennefron, were accused of submitting false invoices for goods, allowing them to steal about $4.4 million from the famously ill-managed MOX fuel project at the Savannah River Site. 

Pentagon spending bill could slow the arrival of low-yield submarine-launched weapons 

On Thursday, June 28, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a Pentagon spending bill with a provision that could delay the deployment of the low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile recommended in the Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. The amendment to the Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, would require a study on the risks of enemy misperception of a low-yield missile attack, as well as a report on the rationale for the weapon itself. If the provision is adopted in the final bill, the completed studies will be required prior to the deployment of the new low-yield weapons. 

However, there are a number of obstacles that could block the measure from becoming law. The provision would have to first survive Senate floor consideration, then make it through the conference process when the House and Senate versions are merged. The House version of the bill has no similar provision.  

Watchdog agency: U.S. plans to detect nuclear proliferation are lacking 

A new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says that the U.S. government’s plans to detect nuclear proliferation are insufficiently detailed, raising doubts about the government’s capability to effectively make such detections. The GAO report notes that the proliferation-detection plan failed to meet the reporting requirements required by law in the 2015 and 2017 National Defense Authorization Acts. Both those bills included provisions requiring the President to submit an “interagency plan and road map for verification and monitoring” of nuclear weapons, including plans to improve the inspections and monitoring processes. According to the new GAO report, both the 2015 plan produced under President Obama and the 2017 update lacked the mandated “specific engagement plan” to improve inspections and monitoring. 

 

Technology 

Reuters report highlights role of IAEA labs in verifying states’ nuclear declarations 

A short piece in Reuters on June 21 highlights one aspect of the vital lab work performed by experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, in support of global nuclear non-proliferation efforts. Scientists at the IAEA’s nuclear materials laboratories are responsible for performing tests on swatches of fabric that are rubbed on surfaces of nuclear facilities from countries all over the world. Even if the facility was thoroughly cleaned prior to the swatch being rubbed on a surface, the swatch will pick up tiny particles of telltale nuclear material that can provide detailed information about the nuclear activities conducted in that facility. 

In particular, traces of uranium or plutonium on the swatch can be tested to verify that the content and composition of the nuclear material is consistent with the source facility’s self-reported nuclear activities. For instance, uranium particles picked up on a fabric swatch are analyzed using a spectrometer to determine the precise level of uranium enrichment. This verification process can detect if an enrichment facility is secretly enriching uranium beyond the level declared to the IAEA. The swatches are transported to the IAEA labs without any indication of their country of origin, to reduce the risk of bias in the technical inspection process.  

New tool shows you if your investments are tied up in weapons manufacturing 

A new digital tool produced by CODEPINK and As You Sow allows users to see if their invested funds are tied up in the weapons industryWeapons Free Funds tracks investments and identifies funds that invest in military contractors and weapons manufacturers (including nuclear weapons manufacturers), and gun makers and retailers. The tool allows users to browse by the type of weapon (military weapons, civilian firearms, or both). Weapons Free Funds is the first investment-tracking tool to include manufacturers of both military and civilian weapons. A similar tool created by the Future of Life Institute tracks investments in the manufacture of cluster munitions, landmines, and nuclear weapons.