Broken Arrow News: The United States

By Luisa Kenausis, Scoville Fellow

There’s a lot going on in nuclear weapons news, all around the world. It’s already a challenge to stay on top of the daily headlines about North Korea and Iran. To help you stay up-to-date on nuclear issues everywhere else, we at the Center are starting up Broken Arrow News: a weekly summary of all the news related to nuclear weapons and nuclear security—and not about North Korea or Iran. 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.

The first installment is a review of nuclear news from the entire month of May. There’s a lot to cover, so we’ll be posting this one in sections. After this, we’ll be posting a weekly summary. You can find all of these posts on our Nukes of Hazard blog.

May was an interesting month in U.S. international nuclear policy, even outside of President Trump’s decision to violate the Iran nuclear deal and the recent twists and turns in diplomacy with North Korea.


U.S. paper submitted to NPT review conference places conditions on disarmament

Haaretz reported that a working paper submitted by the United States to the 2020 review conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) indicates a change in the U.S. position on nuclear disarmament. Haaretz highlights new language in the papers that aligns more closely with Israeli positions on the security conditions that must be met in order to facilitate disarmament, notably including a call to all states to recognize Israel’s right to exist. The paper, entitled “Creating the Conditions for Nuclear Disarmament,” specifies a number of other criteria that must be met “if nuclear disarmament is to have a future,” including the denuclearization of North Korea and an end to Russian, Chinese, and North Korean efforts to expand and diversify their nuclear arsenals.

The working paper specifies that it is not ruling out the possibility of taking further steps towards disarmament prior to these conditions being met, but it nonetheless reflects a shift in the U.S. stance on nuclear disarmament. That said, the content of the paper is in line with the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, which frames nuclear disarmament as a long-term U.S. objective, but indicates that further reductions of the U.S. nuclear arsenal are not plausible in the current global security environment.


Days after Trump violates Iran deal, official in Iran Nuclear Implementation office resigns

 Foreign Policy reported on May 11 that Richard Johnson, acting assistant coordinator in State Department’s Office of Iran Nuclear Implementation, had resigned, a mere three days after Trump announced his decision to violate the Iran nuclear deal. Although Johnson did not give a reason for his decision, his farewell email to colleagues emphasized how proud he was to have worked on implementing the Iran deal, which “has clearly been successful in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.” Foreign Policy notes that Johnson’s office—the Office of Iran Nuclear Implementation—has been gutted in the last 18 months, going from seven full-time staffers at the time of President Trump’s inauguration to zero.


House Armed Services Committee marks up annual defense authorization bill, puts pressure on three treaties with Russia

 The House Armed Services Committee marked up the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on May 9. The current House bill, H.R.5515, includes several noteworthy provisions that focus on treaties between the United States and Russia. Time will tell if these provisions stay in the bill as it moves through the congressional process.

  • Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty: As reported in the Washington Post, the current House bill indicates that the United States will no longer consider itself legally bound by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty until the President certifies that Russia has returned to compliance. The terms of the INF Treaty prohibit the United States and Russia from possessing, producing, or flight-testing land-based medium and intermediate-range missiles, but the United States has formally asserted since 2014 that Russia is in violation of the treaty due to its production and flight-testing of an intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM). The United States has repeatedly indicated its desire to pressure Russia back into compliance with the INF Treaty, but this measure, if enacted, would likely face numerous legal and constitutional challenges.
  • Open Skies Treaty: The Open Skies Treaty is a 1992 treaty between the United States, Russia, and 32 other countries that allows for signatory states to fly unarmed surveillance aircraft over each other’s territory (along pre-negotiated routes). These surveillance flights allow for signatories to monitor one another’s military activities and verify compliance with various treaties. The Daily Beast reports that the current House NDAA bill rejects the Air Force’s $220 million request to replace the two OC-135 surveillance aircraft, which are the only aircraft used by the United States in the operation of the Open Skies Treaty. The OC-135s in use today were built in the 1950s, and suffer from mechanical problems and performance concerns due to their age. If Congress continues to deny funding to replace the OC-135s, the United States may eventually become unable to safely conduct its Open Skies flights over Russia, providing an incentive for the United States to withdraw from the treaty, the goal of hawks in Congress who pushed this provision in the bill.
  • New START: The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (often called New START) is a treaty between the United States and Russia that places mutual numerical limits on their deployed strategic nuclear weapons and deployed and non-deployed launchers of those weapons. It also allows for on-site inspections of each country’s nuclear facilities and has broad support from the defense and intelligence communities within the United States. The treaty is set to expire in 2021, but can be extended for 5 years if both parties agree to do so. If New START is not extended, as of February 2021 there will be no binding limitations on the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States for the first time since 1973. Putin’s March 1 announcement of Russia’s new nuclear weapons systems may prove to be a key issue for the future of New START. Under Article V of the treaty, if either party believes that the other is developing “a new kind of strategic offensive arm,” the party can raise the question of New START’s applicability to the new weapons via the Bilateral Consultative Commission. The current House version of the FY 2019 NDAA includes a provision that would restrict funding for the extension of New START unless Russia responds in writing as to whether the new weapons systems will be declared as Strategic Offensive Arms pursuant to New START.


Idaho State University lost 1g of weapons-grade plutonium, faces $8,500 NRC fine

Finally, in domestic nuclear security news, Idaho State University faces a potential $8,500 fine from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for losing about 1 gram of weapons-grade plutonium (about the size of a quarter). The university first reported the plutonium source missing in October, when an employee could only account for 13 of the university’s 14 small plutonium sources during a routine inventory. Dr. Cornelis Van der Schyf, ISU’s vice president for research, attributed their inability to account for the plutonium to incomplete paperwork. In 2003, university records indicated the source in question was slated for disposal, but the university does not have a record confirming that it went through the disposal process.