Arms Control Today, News in Brief, June 2020
The publication of the News in Brief section of Arms Control Today magazine is a joint project of the Center for International Security and Policy and The Arms Control Association.
Russia, China Skip Syrian Chemical Weapons Meeting
Russia and China boycotted a May 12 meeting of UN Security Council members and high-ranking officials of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) held to discuss the findings of the OPCW’s April 2020 report that blamed the Syrian Air Force for three incidents of chemical weapons use in a rebel-held Syrian town in March 2017. (See ACT, May 2020.)
The meeting was originally intended to be held as a formal session to examine the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2118, which calls for the verified destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons and preceded the international effort to destroy Syria’s declared stockpile. Instead, council president Estonia opted to hold the meeting in a closed setting using teleconference communications. Syria, although not a council member, was invited to participate in the discussion.
Russia did not join the dialogue and criticized the private setting of the meeting. Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, said holding a meeting to discuss Resolution 2118 and the OPCW report behind closed doors contradicted “the slogans of openness and transparency of the Security Council” and “undermine[d] the prerogatives of states-parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention.” China abstained from the meeting without comment.
The United Kingdom criticized Russia’s absence, saying Moscow was politicizing the discussion of chemical weapons use in Syria and seeking to undermine the OPCW’s work. – JULIA MASTERSON
Panel Vets U.S. Plutonium Disposal Plan
The U.S. plan to dilute and dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium at the deep-underground Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico is technically viable so long as the Energy Department addresses certain concerns, according to a top-level scientific review released April 30.
The dilute-and-dispose process replaced the controversial mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel program, which was designed to turn the surplus material into fuel for civilian power reactors but ran into major cost increases and schedule delays. Since 2014, the Energy Department has sought to end the MOX fuel program in favor of the cheaper process of dilution and disposal, which blends down the plutonium with an inert material for direct disposal at WIPP.
The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine determined that the dilute-and-dispose process provided “a technically viable disposition alternative to the MOX [fuel] plan, provided that implementation challenges and system vulnerabilities that currently exist within the plan are resolved.” The determination was based on the success of earlier demonstrations of the individual steps of the dilute-and-dispose process through other Energy Department programs.
In 2018, the National Nuclear Security Administration estimated that the process would cost $19.9 billion, or 40 percent of the $49.4 billion cost of continuing the MOX fuel program.
For fiscal year 2020, Congress appropriated $220 million for the Energy Department to close down the program. (See ACT, May 2019.) The Trump administration has requested $149 million for fiscal year 2021 to continue the dilute-and-dispose program. – SHANNON BUGOS
Lawmakers Press Esper on Landmine Policy
More than 100 members of Congress expressed their “disappointment” over a new U.S. landmine policy in a May 6 letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper. The message noted that reductions in landmine use and casualties could be put in jeopardy.
Rather than geographically restricting landmine use and setting a notional goal of one day joining the Mine Ban Treaty, the new Trump administration policy announced at the end of January allows for using landmines outside the Korean peninsula. The updated policy also allows combatant commanders to authorize landmine emplacements, a power that was previously held only by the president. (See ACT, March 2020.) Thirty-four senators, led by Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and including Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, signed the congressional oversight letter. In addition, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) joined 105 Democrats on the message, led in the House by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).
The letter asks Esper a list of 27 questions, grouped into sections. The initial six questions on “specific policy issues” are particularly pointed about whether circumstances have recently changed in terms of threats, weapons technology, and the decision-making process to use landmines. Other questions focus on Pentagon reports that might explain the rationale for the new policy, where landmines might be used, alternatives to the weapons, production, transfer, and stockpiling.
Former Vice President and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has indicated he would reverse the Trump policy, Vox reported in February. – JEFF ABRAMSON