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WMD Panel Advises Dramatic Steps to Stem Nuclear Spread

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

(Dec. 2) -The WMD Commission released its report today. (Dec. 2) -The WMD Commission released its report today.

WASHINGTON -- The United States should strengthen the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency and take other steps to prevent non-nuclear states from acquiring atomic weapons, a bipartisan panel said in a report released today (see GSN, Dec. 1).

Excerpts of the 132-page report on preventing WMD proliferation and terrorism, leaked in draft form to the Washington Post over the weekend, focused on the study’s recommendations for bolstering defenses against biological terrorism.

However, some commissioners said this week that the group’s most substantial findings might be those pertaining to preventing the spread of nuclear technologies.

The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism echoed a recent U.S. intelligence projection that a biological weapons attack could be more likely in the years to come, but a nuclear detonation could prove even more catastrophic (see GSN, Nov. 21).

“Without greater urgency and decisive action by the world community, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013,” states the new report, titled World at Risk. Among the reforms backed by the panel is the creation of a new senior White House advisory post on proliferation and terrorism.

While the global financial crisis will almost certainly dominate the incoming president’s agenda, “the danger is the urgent crowding out the extremely important,” former Senator Jim Talent (R-Mo.), the commission’s vice chairman, said in an interview today with Global Security Newswire. “The consequences of not reducing this threat are almost literally -- I mean, it’s unthinkable -- a fundamental change in the character of American life.”

The group’s findings call attention to international concerns about nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea and Iran, but steer clear of advising the incoming U.S. president on how to handle these specific crises. Commissioners, drawn from the Democratic and Republican parties, could not agree on a unified recommendation on these two matters, according to one panel member who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Yet the WMD panel -- led by former Senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.) -- did issue a number of concrete recommendations that, if implemented, could make it harder for nations to clandestinely export nuclear technology or materials to non-nuclear states. It also advised how the United States might lead an international effort to prevent non-nuclear nations from diverting domestic atomic energy resources to weapons efforts.

Congress created the commission last spring and gave it six months to conduct the study. In its recommendations, the panel said the United States should work around the globe to combat nuclear proliferation by:

-- “Imposing a range of penalties for [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] violations and withdrawal from the NPT that shift the burden of proof to the state under review for noncompliance;

-- “Ensuring access to nuclear fuel, at market prices to the extent possible, for non-nuclear states that agree not to develop sensitive fuel cycle capabilities and are in full compliance with international obligations;

-- “Strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency, including identifying the limitations to its safeguarding capabilities, and providing the agency with the resources and authorities needed to meet its current and expanding mandate;

-- “Promoting the further development and effective implementation of counterproliferation initiatives such as the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism;

-- “Orchestrating consensus that there will be no new states, including Iran and North Korea, possessing uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing capability;

-- “Working in concert with others to do everything possible to promote and maintain a moratorium on nuclear testing;

-- “Working toward a global agreement on the definition of ‘appropriate’ and ‘effective’ nuclear security and accounting systems as legally obligated under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540 [requiring each nation to regulate its own nuclear material transfers]; and

-- “Discouraging, to the extent possible, the use of financial incentives in the promotion of civil nuclear power.”

The recommendations “show a thoughtful approach to the problems facing the international nonproliferation community and many could find favor under the next administration,” Sharon Squassoni, a senior associate in the Nonproliferation Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told GSN.

Announcing his national security team yesterday, President-elect Barack Obama underscored the danger that terrorists might acquire nuclear materials.

"The spread of nuclear weapons raises the peril that the world’s deadliest technology could fall into dangerous hands," the Illinois Democrat said at a press conference. “We must pursue a new strategy that skillfully uses, balances, and integrates all elements of American power: our military and diplomacy; our intelligence and law enforcement; our economy and the power of our moral example.”

Several specific proposals advocated by the WMD panel attempt to reduce the risk that civil nuclear power programs could contribute to illicit atomic weapons development efforts.

For example, by discouraging the use of financial subsidies for nuclear energy, the group hopes the market might push growing nations toward embracing alternative energy sources. The commission also urges Washington to agree with its international partners on a “date certain” for ending the civilian use and export of highly enriched uranium, and to declare a moratorium on commercial reprocessing.

“The report includes a number of groundbreaking recommendations to strengthen the global nonproliferation regime,” Stephen Rademaker, one of the commissioners, told GSN in e-mailed comments today.

“One of the most significant,” he said, “is our proposal to strengthen the Proliferation Security Initiative by requiring countries to disclose sensitive nuclear transfers to an international agency, and declaring any undisclosed transfers to be illegitimate and therefore subject to seizure by countries participating in the PSI.”

Rademaker is a former Bush administration policy official at the State Department who worked on the PSI effort, as well as on nonproliferation initiatives regarding Iran and North Korea.

The WMD panel additionally advised that the U.N. nuclear watchdog require the registration of any foreign visitors to IAEA-inspected sites, a step that might allow member states insight into any external support that could constitute illicit weapons-building assistance.

The report further suggests that the International Atomic Energy Agency consider imposing a user fee on any facilities it inspects, as one way of bolstering its budget for a desired expansion in safeguards.

A host of additional recommendations focus on strengthening the agency’s ability to prevent new nuclear weapons capabilities around the world.

The international community “should routinely (at least every two years) assess whether or not the IAEA can meet its own inspections goals,” the report states.

Even if the agency were fully funded and staffed to carry out the number of inspections it requires, the United States and its partners should consider whether this safeguards regime is sufficient to achieve “timely warning” of new nuclear weapons capabilities, according to the panel.

Any changes required for achieving IAEA safeguards goals should be considered, the report advises. Toward that end, the international agency should be given the funding, technology and authority to conduct near-real-time surveillance at inspected sites and wide-area surveillance, where necessary, the document states.

Though these recommendations could represent significant nonproliferation initiatives, one commission member said he felt the issues should have figured more prominently in the final report. The bulk of the document is dedicated to preventing WMD terrorism rather than stanching the growing spread of nuclear materials to nation-states, commissioner Henry Sokolski said.

In an “additional view” published online alongside the full report, Sokolski said he sees an “imbalance” between the panel’s work on WMD terrorism versus its treatment of WMD proliferation involving “states of concern,” both of which were included in its congressional mandate.

For instance, the panel chose to issue a host of recommendations on biological terrorism, nuclear terrorism, policy toward Pakistan, relations with Russia, reforming the U.S. government national security apparatus and encouraging the role of U.S. citizens in these matters. While the nuclear recommendations are numerous and detailed, Sokolski said he feels they became lost amid the dozens of report pages dedicated to other, less critical issues.

“Our commission has, in my view, muddled the security priorities on dealing with the spread of weapons of mass destruction,” he wrote. “Despite the considerable attention the commission devoted to the headline-catching threats of nuclear and biological terrorism, the biggest security danger remains the increasing spread of nuclear weapons capabilities to new states and the growing nuclear capabilities of a number of existing nuclear weapon states.”

Despite his misgivings, Sokolski said he ultimately agreed to sign onto the report because it contains “many sound recommendations.”

“The committee deserves two cheers for taking on these nuclear recommendations,” he told GSN. “We don’t get three cheers, though, because we could have done more.”

A former Capitol Hill aide to Republican lawmakers and a Defense Department policy official under President George H.W. Bush, Sokolski is now executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. He was the only commissioner to offer a separate view, and the panel opted to publish it separately rather than as part of its main report.

Talent, the commission’s vice chairman, said the statement was published separately because the rest of the group believes the report accurately ties the risks of proliferation and terrorism together.

“I think the report reflects a great deal of concern about proliferation to nation-states,” said the former senator. “I don’t really want to get into sort of how many sentences were devoted to proliferation and how many were devoted to terrorism. … One of the points we’re making is that the two are very closely connected. That’s why we do endorse the idea of a coordinator within the White House to manage the nexus between terrorism and proliferation, because the two are so closely related.”

He added: “A huge reason why proliferation in nation-states is a danger is that it increases the possibility that the terrorists will get the weapon.”

The Bush administration thwarted the commission’s access to classified intelligence on nuclear proliferation, according to Sokolski.

“The administration was decidedly unhelpful by denying access,” he wrote. Commission requests to review classified studies performed for the State Department and the Defense Intelligence Agency on nuclear issues regarding Russia and Iran were refused, Sokolski stated.

While the congressional mandate included an assessment of the U.S. and international potential to “significantly” counter the spread of nuclear weapons technologies to “states of concern,” the panel spent relatively little time studying the matter, Sokolski said in the report.

“When it came to North Korea, a single classified intelligence brief was given to less than half of the commissioners,” he wrote. “The same was the case with Iran.”

Sokolski described the group as hurrying to finish the study by the 180-day deadline.

“In the rush to file a report, the commission also followed the conventional wisdom on nuclear energy, much of which is now outdated,” he stated. “The commission report suggests that sharing nuclear reactor technology with countries that pledge not themselves to make nuclear fuel would be safe. But the U.S. and most other countries continue to make the mistaken, self-defeating argument that states have an inalienable right recognized by the NPT to make nuclear fuel.”

Sokolski instead advised imposing additional limits on the transfer of nuclear materials and technologies worldwide, even if ostensibly for peaceful uses.

As it stands, “any country that chooses not to exercise this ‘inalienable’ right can just as easily change their minds and legally get to the very brink of making bombs,” he wrote in another version of his additional view published on his organization’s Web site. Sokolski said the WMD commission mistakenly posted an earlier draft of his statement online today.

The nuclear nonproliferation recommendations that the panel did offer were “path-breaking,” he said, but they “deserved to be showcased more than they were and should have been bolder in the recommendations that we finally made.”

NTI Analysis