Disarmament verification research at AWE: what it is, why it’s there, and what next

Simulation of the early stages of dismantling a nuclear weapon as part of Exercise Letterpress, RAF Honington (credit: MoD)

To what extent is the UK delivering on its commitment to be a ‘responsible nuclear weapons state’? The UK positions itself as a nuclear weapons state which actively seeks to reduce the risks of nuclear weapons, working towards the goal of the global elimination of nuclear weapons. However, its options for achieving this seem limited, as successive governments have reiterated their commitment to the country’s nuclear weapons, whilst having already unilaterally reduced the arsenal to a perceived minimum level. One way that the government can prepare for future reductions and signal a continued commitment to disarmament, consistent with its international treaty obligations, is through investigating possible disarmament options. In keeping with this, the UK’s nuclear weapons laboratory (AWE Aldermaston) has a small team focused on the technical aspects of disarmament, working within what is now known as the Arms Control Verification Research (ACVR) programme.

Overviews

AWE’s disarmament verification research was established by the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR), with the aim of ‘ensuring that, when the time comes for the inclusion of British nuclear weapons in multilateral [disarmament] negotiations, we will have a significant national capability to contribute to the verification process.’ Subsequently, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) has built on and expanded this work, and, although it remains a small proportion of AWE’s overall workforce, budget and mission, it is seen as important within global efforts to devise acceptable disarmament and verification systems.

A major focus of the unit has been on developing systems capable of confirming that a warhead has been dismantled, without revealing any information on the warhead design. This specification is set by both a judgement that future verification systems will include observers from non-nuclear weapons states, and the knowledge that disclosing any weapons-design information to these states would represent a proliferation risk and a violation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The disarmament verification research has prioritised investigating:

  • techniques for authenticating that a declared warhead is in fact what has been declared;

  • procedures to ensure that, once authenticated, a declared warhead cannot be surreptitiously switched with a decoy; and

  • measures for managing international inspections which balance the need to allow inspectors sufficient access to verify that a confirmed warhead has been dismantled, against the need to protect the proliferation-sensitive areas of an inspected facility or specific technologies.

Earlier work also included investigating methods for disposing of fissile material so that it does not present a proliferation risk, and was presented to NPT meetings in the early 2000s.

The most prominent part of AWE’s disarmament verification work involves international collaborations. The ongoing UK-Norway Initiative started in 2007, and was followed first by work between the UK and Sweden, and then the four-way collaboration known as the Quad comprising Norway, Sweden, the UK and the US. Starting in 2014, and involving 25 countries, the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament and Verification is the largest collaboration that AWE’s ACVR team participates in. The results of these projects are made public at NPT meetings, through occasional MoD press releases and through the web pages set up and maintained by the individual collaborations.

By contrast, AWE’s bilateral collaborations with the US are less well publicised, because they directly address proliferation-sensitive information and because the US has been more reluctant to share research results more widely. Apart from international collaborations, the AWE’s disarmament verification research has occasionally been conducted with a few non-governmental groups; London-based non-governmental organisation VERTIC served as an observer to the UK-Norway initiative, and later King’s College London contributed to the work.

Rationale and Evaluations

The case for cultivating national technical expertise in nuclear disarmament and verification is clear. Primarily, it can contribute to national and international security by exploring ways of managing the risks associated with nuclear weapons, including through developing and evaluating disarmament options that are safe, secure, and irreversible. Weapons labs can have a useful role in these efforts. Detailed understanding of the engineering that goes into creating weapons is extremely useful in achieving robust disarmament and verification procedures.

Published analyses of the AWE’s ACVR programme (see below) are positive about the work, as far as it goes. They note that the research has achieved goals set for it by MoD, and that its work is valued by its partners. These assessments are borne out by my informal interactions with international verification experts, some of which suggest that there has been a general move towards looking at verification systems holistically, indicating that progress has been made in meeting earlier challenges associated with devising specific technologies.

More than this, discussions especially note the calibre of the individuals from the ACVR team. In keeping with a wider tradition of UK experts offering technical advice to political processes, AWE ACVR staff are regarded as reliable participants in international partnerships – effective in understanding technical challenges and finding pragmatic solutions that are widely acceptable. Alumni from the team have reinforced this in their subsequent roles, including in government positions and research-led non-governmental organisations.

But while it is right to recognise the positive aspects of AWE’s disarmament verification research, there are opportunities for the MoD to enhance its ambitions and funding for the ACVR unit, and in doing so, enable the work to better achieve its potential to contribute to the global regulation of nuclear weapons. The prime challenge AWE’s ACVR programme has most visibly been tasked with – that of verifying warhead dismantlement without revealing any design information – speaks to a very specific future disarmament scenario, i.e., one in which disarmament takes place under the auspices of a multilateral group including non-nuclear weapons states. For sceptics, this exclusive focus seems an arbitrarily tough challenge – given that nuclear disarmament to date has been uni- or bi-lateral, wouldn’t it be useful also to look at the verification requirements for these conditions?

Relatedly, technological and political developments mean that verification options have expanded since AWE disarmament verification research was established, and it would be useful to explore the extent to which this makes a difference to the potential for international verification systems. For example, non-governmental groups around the world are increasingly using open source investigative techniques to track signs of proliferation, potentially transforming the need for complex arrangements to access different sites, which dominated the negotiation of previous verification systems.

Moreover, unlike comparable work in the US, AWE has not managed to systematically involve non-governmental groups and university partnerships in its ACVR work, and has failed to publish non-classified findings widely, for instance in popular, academic and industry publications. It is significant that, at the time of writing (July 2020), information about AWE’s disarmament verification research is not easily visible from the organisation’s website. This differs to the profile of AWE Blacknest – the unit dedicated to detecting nuclear tests through forensic seismology – which is more immediately identifiable from the AWE website.

Conclusion

AWE’s ACVR programme is a small fraction of the UK’s nuclear weapons lab, and its work is constrained by its contracts with MoD, but it generates highly regarded outputs and could be usefully extended and publicised more widely. To maximise its utility in meeting the UK’s security needs, as well as fulfilling the initial mandate stated by the SDR, the MoD would do well to broaden the brief of the work, to encompass consideration of a range of disarmament scenarios, and the technologies that will be needed for these. If the UK government is serious about its stated commitments to being a ‘responsible nuclear weapons state’, and the need to ‘create the conditions for future disarmament’, it should make sure that its disarmament and verification research clearly connects to solving the challenges implicit in these. Without this, no matter how good the AWE’s ACVR work, there could be suspicions that MoD is avoiding other meaningful steps towards global disarmament.

 

 

Detailed information on AWE’s disarmament verification research can be found in Tom Plant’s 2019 monograph outlining and evaluating the history and current focus of the unit, which extended his 2016 overview of the work. Before this, MoD invited the British Pugwash Group to ‘undertake an independent peer review’ of the technical aspects of the non-collaborative work in 2012, and VERTIC published ‘Verifying Warhead Dismantlement: Past, present, future’ in 2010. The case for AWE conducting disarmament verification research was presented as evidence to the 1998 SDR.

Henrietta Wilson conducts policy-relevant research on armaments and arms regulations on a freelance and employed basis, and teaches undergraduate modules on politics and international relations at the UK’s University of Bristol. More information at uk.linkedin.com/in/henriettawilson