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From: National Security Archive <[log in to unmask]>
Date: Wed, Jun 16, 2010 at 7:06 PM
Subject: Obama Revives Eisenhower Initiative for Cutoff of Nuclear Weapons Fuel Production
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National Security Archive Update, June 16, 2010

Obama Revives Eisenhower Initiative for
Cutoff of Nuclear Weapons Fuel Production

Declassified Documents Show Cold War Origins
of Global Cutoff Proposal and Why It Failed

Washington, DC, June 16, 2010 - U.S. presidents long before President Obama have sought an international fissile material cutoff treaty but the reasons they have failed remain with us today, according to declassified documents posted today by the National Security Archive. The proposed treaty would cut off the worldwide production of fissile material--plutonium and highly-enriched uranium--for nuclear weapons. According to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first president to propose a cutoff, "we have always said it is not technically feasible to ban the bomb now but we have actively urged the cutoff as a first step." President Obama echoed Eisenhower's argument in his speech in Prague at Hradcany Square on April 5, 2009, where he endorsed a cutoff treaty, along with a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons and as part of his long-term nuclear abolition commitment.

The documents published today provide a close look at how the cutoff proposal developed during the 1950s and 1960s, how policymakers debated and discussed it, and why it was dropped from the U.S. arms control agenda during the 1970s, only to return after the Cold War ended. Some of the highlights are:

* Eisenhower's early linkage of the cutoff to nuclear proliferation concerns and to short-term U.S. nuclear superiority: "we can't go on the way we are with the nuclear build-up and the spread of capabilities." Nevertheless, if a cutoff was implemented, it would leave the United States with a "very substantial nuclear capability."

* Washington's fissile material advantages informed the Soviet Union's objections to a cutoff (paralleling Pakistan's concerns about India today). According to Ambassador Semyon Tsarapkin, "why should [Washington] expect [the Soviets to] accept this since [the U.S.] had produced these materials for five years longer than they?"

* The controversy over the impact of a cutoff on the production of tritium, an important nuclear weapons fuel with a short half-life. During an NSC discussion, Eisenhower argued that even if the cutoff ended tritium production, the Soviets would also be affected and that would "cut down [their] ability to destroy the United States." While current U.S. government proposals exclude tritium from a cutoff treaty, this is a controversial issue, and some nuclear experts propose its inclusion.

* A 1960 report on verifying a cutoff acknowledged that detecting clandestine nuclear facilities would be a significant challenge and that the new centrifuge uranium enrichment technology, later at issue in controversies over Pakistan and Iran, would be "easier to conceal" than gaseous diffusion plants.

* A 1961 report on the cutoff, led by Cornell University President James Perkins, which argued that a "high degree of access" was essential to check diversions and "prove the existence of a clandestine plant." While that could compromise U.S. or Soviet technological advances, "access would improve the US intelligence position."

* The Joint Chiefs of Staff's changing assessment of a cutoff. Early in the 1960s, they saw a cutoff as "not disadvantageous," but near the end of the decade, they argued that uncertainties about future stockpile needs make it "impossible to rule out ... a potential for significant disadvantage to US interests."

Declassified documents suggest that the fissile material production cutoff was integral to Cold War propaganda and diplomatic campaigns, which helps explain why it failed during the 1960s. During the 1950s and 1960s, when superpower tensions, massive production of nuclear weapons, and atmospheric nuclear tests stoked fear of nuclear war worldwide, both U.S. and Soviet heads of state tried to reduce fears with disarmament proposals, but they never let diplomacy trump their military postures. Even the strength of U.S. support for the cutoff depended on shifting military perceptions of the U.S.-Soviet balance of fissile materials stockpiles. Under such circumstances, the nuclear disarmament proposals that Moscow and Washington offered were largely nonnegotiable, whatever their merits were.

After the Cold War ended, international support for a cutoff treaty emerged as a way to check nuclear proliferation, but talks at the United Nations Committee for Disarmament (CD) negotiations have stalled. Seeking to build its fissile material stockpile, Pakistan, with possible Chinese backing, is now one of the chief obstacles. Whether the Committee for Disarmament will be able to persuade Pakistan to support the negotiations is one of many challenges facing the Obama administration.

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THE NATIONAL SECURITY ARCHIVE is an independent non-governmental research institute and library located at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The Archive collects and publishes declassified documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). A tax-exempt public charity, the Archive receives no U.S. government funding; its budget is supported by publication royalties and donations from foundations and individuals.


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Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent, Science
Adjunct Professor of Journalism,
New York University

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