Joint US-UK research programme demonstrates feasibility of disarmament monitoring and verification

After fifteen years of study, the United States and the United Kingdom have concluded that the monitoring and verification of nuclear warhead disarmament is 'feasible' – removing a barrier on the path to a world without nuclear weapons.

A joint programme of US – UK research into the technical aspects of nuclear disarmament has developed technology and equipment needed to validate disarmament processes and pioneered methods for allowing inspections to take place at sensitive nuclear facilities, according to a report launched by the two nations at the 2015 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

The 28 page 'Joint U.S. – U.K. Report on Technical Co-operation for Arms Control'  documents work done by the two nations over the period 2000 – 2015 to investigate methods for confirming that nuclear warheads have been dismantled, and allow the monitoring and verification of future international agreements to control nuclear weapons.

The report describes the joint research programme as an “essential tool” for developing and evaluating approaches to verify that a state is complying with commitments to disarm its nuclear weapons, and a “unique and valuable platform” for developing technology to monitor reductions of nuclear warheads, fissile materials and production facilities.

The report concludes that although many difficult and complex challenges will need to be addressed to implement a warhead dismantlement verification regime, from a technical perspective the monitoring and verification of nuclear warheads, components and sensitive processes is feasible.

Under the research programme work took place to test and evaluate methodologies on actual nuclear warheads and warhead components, allowing deep investigation of “some of the most challenging aspects of warhead verification” and adding to the confidence which can be placed in the findings.

The research took place under the auspices of the 1958 US – UK Mutual Defense Agreement, which allows the two nations to exchange classified nuclear weapons information, and had its origins in the UK's 1998 Strategic Defence Review.  Following the 1998 review the UK Ministry of Defence directed the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) to establish a verification research programme to advise the government on nuclear arms control.  US-UK cooperation officially began in October 2000 with a joint meeting at AWE during which representatives of the two nations exchanged information on work that they were already doing and explored the feasibility of joint collaboration.

As part of the joint programme, three 'managed access' visits, designed to ensure that inspectors can visit nuclear sites without learning sensitive information, have taken place at AWE Burghfield.  One of these visits included an exercise designed to establish the chain of custody for the dismantlement of two warheads.  A further managed access visit took place at the Pantex warhead assembly / disassembly plant in the USA.

Work has also been done to investigate radiation measurement and data analysis necessary to validate whether a particular item is a warhead component, and to overcome shielding and radiation environment challenges.

In addition, a programme of experts’ workshops and meetings has focused on chain of custody exchanges, tamper indication, information barriers, and authentication techniques.  As part of this programme a  monitored storage visit and authentication visit have taken place at Sandia National Laboratories in the USA.

Since 2012 work has been underway on  modelling and measurement to establish a signature set for nuclear warheads and warhead components and develop a radiation portal monitor that is capable of detecting small quantities of fissile material.

The presentation and report published at the NPT Review Conference provide by far the most information on the joint research programme that has been released publicly to date, although the two nations have previously reported on the programme through private briefings to other nuclear weapon states recognised under the NPT as part of the 'P5 process' from 2009 onwards.

The joint programme of research is intended to continue and the UK and the USA say they are “committed to advancing this body of international research in support of future international initiatives”.

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