A review of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) research programme on the verification of nuclear weapon disarmament conducted by independent experts from the British Pugwash Group has concluded that the programme is appropriately focused and has made useful achievements in defining warhead dismantlement processes and in familiarising personnel with verification technology, but has made disappointing progress in publishing research results and is working with “seriously insufficient” resources.
The review team’s report reveals that recent research on verification conducted by the Ministry of Defence and the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) has focused on the principles of “managed access‟ and information barriers to ensure that proliferation-sensitive material is not released. Considerable work has been done on verifying chains of custody and identifying possible “evasion scenarios” for a state attempting to cheat verification procedures, and devising effective counters to them. AWE personnel are now well acquainted with the verification technology that they have chosen, and there now needs to be further study of a wider range of detection technologies looking at more complex outputs.
However, given that the MoD’s verification research programme has been under way for over ten years, it was “perhaps disappointing that the list of published achievements is not greater”, with few technical reports on the programme’s findings published and the few that exist being too highly classified to be released to the peer reviewers. The rate of progress of research work “will need to be ramped up if it is to meet the challenge of a foreseeable acceleration of the international nuclear disarmament agenda”, according to Pugwash.
The verification research team at AWE currently has seven full-time members of staff, supported by part-time contributions from elsewhere in AWE, amounting to a budget of around £12 million per year. The Pugwash reviewers judged these resources to be “seriously insufficient”, and stated that the “relatively academic outlook” of the AWE verification team “could very usefully be reinforced by staff with more operational experience”. Contact with the external scientific community would help in keeping the team abreast of related work going on elsewhere and in “horizon scanning” for developments of interest.
The team from the British Pugwash Group – members of an international network of scientists and others concerned about the social impact of science – conducted a peer review of research into disarmament verification conducted by the MoD and the Atomic Weapons Establishment at the request of the MoD’s Head of Strategic Technologies. The review was based on information provided by MoD at a series of meetings, workshops, and briefings which took place between March 2011 and March 2012. Although the Pugwash team was given limited security clearance to consider classified material, they report that they had insufficient access to comment on the technical robustness of experimental work conducted at AWE.
The Pugwash report recommends that unclassified versions of research findings should be published wherever possible and that technical papers on verification research work should be prepared “with the level of academic rigour which is normal in government-funded academic R&D programmes”. MoD and AWE should also publish a programme of planned work on disarmament verification and should also set out a timetable for submitting papers to Non Proliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee and Review Conference meetings.
Pugwash also suggest that MoD and AWE should work with academia and non-government organisations to establish an international disarmament institute in the UK, and that
MoD should eventually consider developing a dedicated, single purpose warhead dismantling facility in the UK, based on experience from Project Mensa (the new warhead assembly / disassembly facility under construction at AWE Burghfield), to allow demonstration of intrusive verification of warhead dismantling to take place without revealing proliferation-sensitive information.
Declaration of interest: Dr Nick Ritchie, one of the authors of the British Pugwash Group report ‘Verification of Nuclear Weapon Disarmament: Peer Review of the UK MoD Programme’ is a member of the Nuclear Information Service Board of Directors.