DoE on Verifiable Dismantlement of Nuclear Warheads

03.30.09 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

In anticipation of future nuclear arms control agreements that would require the dismantlement of nuclear warheads, the Department of Energy undertook a technical study during the Clinton Administration to determine how such dismantlement could be verifiably accomplished.  The resulting report, experts say, is still the best available treatment of the subject.

A copy of the unclassified report, marked “official use only,” was obtained by Secrecy News and posted online today.

The DOE authors identified ten types of activities that could be used in a warhead dismantlement regime, involving various forms of monitoring at successive stages of the process.  One or more of the ten could be employed, depending on the degree of confidence desired.

In principle, it should be fairly straightforward to dismantle a given nuclear warhead with confidence.  However, “determining that an item to be dismantled is actually a nuclear warhead is very difficult” without compromising classified information, the report states.  The use of x-rays or radiographs to confirm that an object is in fact a warhead “would be highly intrusive and would reveal highly classified nuclear warhead design information” to foreign inspectors, potentially exposing design vulnerabilities and other sensitive information.  Such concerns might be addressed by other forms of monitoring, the report says.

The study concluded that “transparency measures for monitoring warhead dismantlement can be applied… with up to a moderate level of confidence that dismantlement has taken place if implemented at the Unclassified to [Confidential] level.”  Verification that an actual weapon has been dismantled — which is a more demanding standard than mere “transparency” — can be achieved with an appropriate exchange of classified nuclear weapons design information.

The report provides a detailed description of the dismantlement process, a summary of previous dismantlement studies (including one by the Federation of American Scientists and another by the JASONs, but not the 1960s-era Project Cloud Gap study), and other valuable information that could serve to inform and accelerate current analyses of nuclear warhead dismantlement.

See “Transparency and Verification Options: An Initial Analysis of Approaches for Monitoring Warhead Dismantlement,” prepared by the Department of Energy Office of Arms Control and Nonproliferation, May 19, 1997.