Interview by Rose Gottemoeller
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance
November 2, 2011
QUESTION: The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) highlighted that the greatest nuclear threat is not a large-scale nuclear exchange, but the danger that terrorists could acquire nuclear materials or a nuclear weapon. What are the tangible plans here, both for the United States and internationally?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: President Obama focused on this problem by organizing an international conference that took place in Washington in May of 2010, the Nuclear Security Conference. He gained high-level commitments from leaders around the world to put fissile material that could be used for weapons purposes under better lock and key over the next four years. This effort has been extraordinarily successful, in my view. Some of the fissile material caches around the world – since the time I was at the Department of Energy in the 1990s – we had been having trouble getting governments to move on them. The results have been good. The previous administration started on a lot of good initiatives on counterterrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and those are continuing. Indeed, some of them have their roots back in the Clinton administration with the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. All in all, this administration has bolstered existing activities but also set in train new activities to enhance physical protection and control, to try to get at the roots of the nuclear terrorism threat.
QUESTION: Fukushima, of course, has raised a lot of concerns about safety at nuclear plants around the world – but also security at those plants. In proliferation terms, should countries eliminate all reprocessing?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: This is an interesting question and it has many technical aspects to it. To be honest, I’m not a technical expert so I don’t want to grapple with it. All I can say is the United States continues to place an emphasis on not reprocessing fissile materials or spent fuel for the production of plutonium.
QUESTION: If Iran satisfies all the outstanding requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany), should it be allowed to enrich for civil purposes only?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: We continue to believe, as we have stated before, that Iran has a right to a peaceful nuclear power program, but only when it is in full and transparent compliance with its international nuclear obligations.
QUESTION: Speaking of Iran, is laser enrichment likely to make the complex footprint of an enrichment facility easier to hide in the future?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: This is a highly technical matter and it’s again not in my bailiwick. I do remember wrestling with this issue – we’ve been wrestling with it for many years. This was one of the core issues that we had with the Russian Federation back in the 1990s, with our concern about provision of laser isotope technologies to Iran. That was a goodnews story in that the Russian Federation, at that time, stepped back from those technology programs with Iran and has since turned into a very good partner with us, trying to work on the Iran nuclear program and its accompanying issues for the international community. So it’s been a longstanding problem out there. The United States has been concerned about it for many, many years.
QUESTION: Why is the fuel bank idea proceeding at such a glacial pace?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: I actually think it’s a great idea, and I have been impressed because the fuel bank idea broke into new territory. It is a very sound public – private partnership. The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) has been the creator of this effort, and establishing that kind of partnership involving a major nongovernmental organization, an international organization like the IAEA, and then interested governments, such as the U.S. government – this is a remarkable innovation. I think that they’ve been doing very well in terms of moving the fuel bank along, and it doesn’t surprise me that it’s taking a while to work out the relationship among these very different actors. But I really take my hat off to all those involved, starting with NTI, for launching this significant innovation. I think it will bear fruit; it’s just going to take time to work through the details.
QUESTION: In December 2010, the Senate passed New START. Where are we now, nearly one year later? In Moscow and Washington, what does treaty implementation look like behind the scenes?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: The implementation is going great, not to put too fine a point on it. The first comprehensive exchange of the database took place within two months of entry into force of the treaty. What I always like to say about the New START treaty database is that it is a living document: We have six-month comprehensive updates, but practically every single day there are notifications passed between Washington and Moscow to update the exact real-time status of weapons in our forces. So if an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] moves from operational deployment to a maintenance facility, that is notified on a given day; if a bomber moves again for maintenance purposes or exercise purposes – that’s notified. There are regular notifications occurring every day, and well over 1,500 notifications have been exchanged now under the treaty. We are keeping pace with each other on inspections; we’re up to 12 inspections each at this point. Under the New START treaty, we are each allowed 18 inspections a year so we’re coming up to about the half-way point for the year.
QUESTION: And what about the concerns expressed leading up to ratification?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: There were some major issues that were raised during the ratification debate about the treaty and whether it would answer questions or solve issues. Actually, it is providing us with some really sound information on what’s going on inside the Russian nuclear forces. And the Russians can say the same: They are learning what’s going on in the U.S.
QUESTION: What have been the most enlightening answers so far?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: Under the terms of the treaty, the Russians exhibited to us their new RS-24 mobile missile, so we have gotten a good opportunity to see it with boots on the ground.
QUESTION: Where are the United States and Russia on tactical nuclear weapons talks right now?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: The president made it clear the day he signed the treaty on April 8, 2010, that we would be ready to turn next to further reductions in strategic and non-strategic (or tactical) nuclear weapons, as well as deployed and non-deployed nuclear weapons. Those two categories -non-strategic nuclear weapons and non-deployed nuclear weapons – are categories we’ve never tried to wrestle with in arms reduction negotiations, so there is considerable homework that has to be done. First, with our NATO allies: The Deterrence and Defense Posture Review will prepare a NATO-wide position on a number of issues, but one of them has to do with non-strategic nuclear weapons and the Alliance position with regard to them. And second, in Washington: Pursuant to the Nuclear Posture Review, we are pursuing further analysis on what reductions we can take. All that, however, has not prevented us from saying to the Russians, we need to start talking now about preparations for the next negotiations. What kinds of concepts are we going to need to wrestle with this time? They identify non-strategic nuclear weapons differently than we do, so there are some definitional and terminology issues we have to talk to them about. There are also issues with regard to transparency. We’re saying: Why wait for the next negotiation? There should be transparency activities we can agree upon between Moscow and Washington, so there’s a real push to try to get the Russians to start talking and having a serious discussion on some conceptual, technical, and definitional issues. We hope that we’ll be able to get down to that soon, but it’s a very active homework period right now.
QUESTION: Leading up to New START, a number of policy makers found it vital to retain no fewer than around 1,500 strategic weapons. But arms reduction is not necessarily the same as de-legitimization. With this in mind, how can newer nuclear weapons countries be persuaded that they should discard their own stocks?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: The United States gives substance to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) commitments by leading by example, which should in turn lend credence to our efforts to strengthen the international nonproliferation regime and to isolate and pressure countries like Iran and North Korea who are not complying with their NPT obligations. A prime example is the New START treaty, which will result in a 30 percent reduction in deployed nuclear weapons over the previous treaty ceiling. Also, President Obama has clearly stated his intent to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US national security strategy. Since then, the United States revised its long-standing negative security assurance by declaring that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are a party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations. This revised assurance is intended to underscore the security benefits of adhering to and fully complying with the NPT. We are also working very hard to promote commencement of negotiations on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. Conclusion of such a treaty would certainly be an important, concrete step in limiting production of fissile material for nuclear weapons purposes, and thus a further step toward the president’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons.
QUESTION: And what about the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty? In the past, the United States has stated a preference to negotiate the treaty within the Conference on Disarmament (CD). As you are well aware, the CD remains blocked. Is the CD even a viable option for the treaty anymore?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: The United States would prefer – would highly prefer – for the Conference on Disarmament to be the venue for negotiations on a verifiable Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty because the CD has been such a successful institution in the past; a number of treaties, including the Chemical Weapons Convention and the CTBT, have been negotiated in the CD or in its predecessor organization, so we see it as the best international venue to negotiate a treaty. But as Secretary Clinton said last February, “Patience can’t last forever,” and it is pretty clear that patience is definitely wearing thin. The P5 is resolved to wrestle this problem to the ground, I’ll put it that way. The P5 has definitely started to gather among ourselves some solid coordination, to try to break the back of this problem. Our priority is to get this thing going in the CD, and we’re just going to have to work it.
QUESTION: What are the possible reforms, if any?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: Well, we don’t think it’s necessary to tinker with the machinery of the CD. There are always changes you can make, but the key, in my view, is not a machinery issue or a structure-of the- CD issue. The particular rules of procedure, like the consensus rule, for example, are to everyone’s advantage. You have the opportunity as a country to ensure national security interests are firmly supported by having a consensus rule in place, so we don’t see tinkering with the machinery as the way to go. We really want to get to the substance and to be able to make the case to concerned countries that this negotiation can and will be in their national security interest.
QUESTION: This year marked the 20th anniversary of the closure of the Soviet Semipalatinsk nuclear site in Kazakhstan, where 456 out of 715 nuclear tests were carried out during the Cold War. What can we learn from this anniversary?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: When the Soviet Union dissolved, the Republic of Kazakhstan declared itself a non-nuclear weapons state under the Non- Proliferation Treaty and closed the Semipalatinsk Test Site. Since then Kazakhstan has been a strong voice on behalf of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament, while engaging in efforts to mitigate the effects of past Soviet testing practices for their people and territory. As important as this anniversary is, it reminds us that the way to finally preclude nuclear weapon test explosions or any other nuclear explosions is through universal signature and ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and its entry into force.
QUESTION: The site has served as a realtime training ground for inspectors. Are there more projects and drills planned there?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: Indeed, Kazakhstan has offered on several occasions the use of sections of the former Semipalatinsk Test Site for the purpose of conducting training for on-site inspection surrogate inspectors and for testing of equipment that might be used during the conduct of an on-site inspection once the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty enters into force. The most recent major exercise of this type was the 2008 integrated field exercise. Such training and testing exercises are carried out by the Provisional Technical Secretariat (PTS) of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization in coordination with the host country.
QUESTION: In 1999, the US Senate had little confidence in the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, questioning whether the treaty could be verified. That feeling has changed in the past decade with the implementation of the International Monitoring System – which isn’t fully complete, but mostly. Is there a chance now that the CTBT could be sent to the Senate?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: The president has made it clear that he has as a high priority the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; he has also said that he’s not going to place any deadlines on exactly when it will go before the Senate. It has been 12 years since the vote about ratification of the CTBT went down in flames, so the Senate really has to look at this whole issue again. As George Shultz has said, those senators who voted against the treaty in 1999 need to have the information available to them so that they can make the decision to vote for the treaty now they need to know that it’s right to vote for the treaty. I’m paraphrasing Secretary Shultz’s words, but that’s the gist of it, and that’s the effort we have underway now. Not only is the International Monitoring System (IMS) more than 85 percent deployed at this point and that’s a big change since 1999, when the IMS construction hadn’t even started – it’s already paying dividends for natural disasters like Fukushima; both the seismic and radiological information is really responsive. So I think the IMS system is proving its worth already. But, in addition, the U.S. has its own verification capabilities that have been developed over the past 12 years, so all of that information needs to get before the senators. They need to have a chance to absorb it, ask questions, discuss, and debate it.
QUESTION: And the stockpile stewardship program?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: That’s the other major issue, of course. In 1999, again, I was working in the Department of Energy. In those days we had only a couple years’ experience with science based stockpile stewardship and now we have a decade-plus experience. I know our national labs, like Livermore, Sandia, and Los Alamos, feel very positive about the productivity of the science-based stockpile stewardship program, what it does for science at the labs, and what it does for understanding the safety and effectiveness of US weapons systems. The president said, “As long as nuclear weapons exist, US weapons must be safe, secure, and effective,” so we have a good story to tell with regard to science-based stockpile stewardship and we think the labs will join us in telling that story.
QUESTION: After New START, will the CTBT be an easier sell or a more challenging one?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: I think they are both challenging. New START was challenging and I think the CTBT is going to be challenging. It’s going to be a serious debate, there’s no question about it, but the good thing about the New START debate is that it really brought people up to date on these issues. It had been a long time since any senator or staff members had had to grapple with nuclear security and nuclear policy issues. In some cases, there was a new generation of staff members coming in who had never had to work on a treaty before, so it was really an opportunity for all of us to absorb the substance and really think through some of these issues. I think that’s going to serve us very well when we get down to the debate and discussion over the CTBT. There’s already a base of knowledge among the senators and their staffs.
QUESTION: In 1985, Donnie Radcliffe interviewed White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan, who said that women are not “going to understand throwweights.” In 2011, you and your female colleagues – of whom there are several – hold nuclear policy in your hands. How has this gender shift influenced arms control?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: It hasn’t.
QUESTION: You are known in the nuclear community for your unbeatable and unshakable skills as a negotiator. One Russian editor wrote that it would “be difficult, almost impossible to outplay her.” You clearly are the master of your craft. But have there been negotiations in which you just couldn’t get the handle that you wanted?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: No.
QUESTION: Your colleagues describe you as someone who doesn’t take credit for her work. Humility in DC? What is this all about?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: You can get a lot done in this town if you don’t care who gets the credit – somebody said that once – was it President Truman? No, he was the one who said if you want a friend in this town, get a dog. Now I don’t have a dog, but I do agree you can get a lot done in this town if you don’t care who gets the credit.
QUESTION: Knowing what you know, what keeps you awake at night?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY GOTTEMOELLER: I’ll circle back to the question you asked at the outset – it has to do with terrorism involving fissile materials and weapons of mass destruction overall. I really do agree with the theme that was laid down so clearly in the Nuclear Posture Review that the greatest threats today in this realm do not have to do with a massive strike from the Russian Federation. It’s just not the Cold War anymore. We have to deal with the hangover from the Cold War, the thousands of nuclear weapons that are still out there in deployed or non-deployed status. The president is quite intent on continuing a step-by-step approach in that regard. The Russians, too, signed up for it. And we have started to work with the P5, so it’s not just the Russian Federation and the United States – but it’s a P5 activity that we’ve begun to talk about verification and transparency and reporting. All of this is something that’s pursuant to the NPT Review Conference of May 2010 and the action plan that came out of it. What really causes me nightmares is what the NPR pointed to as the biggest threat, which is terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction. So that’s where, I think, we really have to put a lot of energy and attention in years to come.