VERTIC releases report on Verifying Warhead Dismantlement

The report—Verifying Warhead Dismantlement: Past, present, future—is the Centre’s independent account of the so-called UK-Norway Initiative: a three-year project to investigate the verification of nuclear warhead dismantlement. The UK-Norway Initiative was the first time a non-nuclear-weapon state has partnered with a nuclear-weapon one to examine these issues. As such, the initiative broke important new ground, and set what may yet become a strong precedent for future work. VERTIC has been involved as an independent observer to the Initiative from the project’s earliest beginnings in 2007.

VERTIC’s report seeks to place the UK-Norway Initiative in the wider historical context of past dismantlement exercises and studies—and in so doing draw out the commonalities and differences between those and what the UK and Norway have achieved. ‘Remarkably,’ said Andreas Persbo, VERTIC’s Executive Director and one of the reports three co-authors, ‘the UK-Norway Initiative represents only the second time full-scale simulated dismantlement exercises of this kind have been held, the first being in 1960s America, and the only such undertaking of a bilateral nature.’

Nonetheless, after a close examination of past initiatives, VERTIC has found that a number of the conclusions reached following the UK-Norway Initiative’s two mock inspection visits last year mirror past findings in striking fashion. ‘All inspection exercises have one thing in common,’ says the report: ‘they all aim to find a balance between the inspector’s need for access and the inspected party’s need to maintain confidentiality.’ The trade-off between inspector confidence and the need for a host party to protect classified information represents a running theme throughout the report.

The Anglo-Norwegian effort was conducted firmly within the technical realm. The programme—which proceeded on two fronts: ‘information barrier’ technology and managed access methodologies—was ‘driven by the goal of finding verification solutions, not verification problems,’ said Mr Persbo. Indeed, one of the principal conclusions of the Initiative was that properly managed collaboration between a nuclear and a non-nuclear-weapon state in the field of dismantlement verification can be done without fear of compromising sensitive or proliferative information.

‘Scientific collaboration between nuclear and non-nuclear-weapon states in this regard is both an achievable and a sensible goal,’ says the report. ‘On the one hand, it allows those in the laboratory of the nuclear-weapon state to escape the intellectual confines of their classified environment. And on the other, it allows those among the non-nuclear-weapon states of the world to grasp the many intellectual and practical problems that face those in the weapons camp. On the outside, it allows the public to gain some idea of the many scientific, technical and procedural steps, and obstacles, that lie ahead.’

There will come a time when dismantlement processes will lack sufficient credibility unless signed off by one or a number of non-nuclear-weapon states. As Lord Browne, who wrote the preface to the report, said while UK secretary of defence in 2008, ‘it is of paramount importance that verification techniques are developed which enable us all—nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states—to have confidence that when a state says it has fully and irrevocably dismantled a nuclear warhead, we all can be assured it is telling the truth.’

Despite a number of outstanding technical issues highlighted by the Initiative over the course of the last three years, the UK and Norway have together taken a small but important step toward the realisation of the nuclear disarmament agenda, in addition to making a timely standalone contribution to the current state of knowledge. VERTIC has been a proud partner.

Download Verifying Warhead Dismantlement: Past, present, future (PDF, 502kb)