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Key US official calls for new technologies to better verify nuclear pacts

Inspectors verifying compliance with arms reduction treaties are currently limited to rulers, pencils, and other primitive tools.

Continuous monitoring of the processes under way inside its nuclear facilities would increase global confidence that Iran, which is currently negotiating with the P5+1 nations restrictions on its nuclear program, won't illicitly produce bomb-usable material, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller said.

Addressing a gathering at the American Association for the Advancement of Science on 13 May, Gottemoeller said that advanced continuous monitoring processes are a key technological need to improve the detection of clandestine production of fissile materials in nuclear facilities. She said that continuous monitoring devices were employed during the recently concluded cooperative "megatons to megawatts" program through which Russia downblended 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low-enriched material for US commercial reactor fuel. The US wanted to be sure that Russia wasn't holding onto the HEU coming out of its dismantled weapons and shipping newly produced uranium to the US instead. And the US was limited to one inspection visit a year.

Getting Russia's agreement to allow continuous monitoring was "an enormous breakthrough," said Gottemoeller. Strongly opposed to having devices installed by the US on their processing lines, the Russians came to see that a continuous monitoring system would help them ensure that the US wasn't reincorporating the low-enriched material into its nuclear weapons program, she said. Gottemoeller added that the continuous monitoring concept could also be used to verify the removal of chemical weapons from Syria.

Another method of verification, ubiquitous sensing, needs technological advances too, according to Gottemoeller. Noting that the accelerometers built into tablet computers are capable of detecting ground motion, she said a network of tablets linked to a central system with analytical capabilities could discern whether the seismic event was naturally occurring or the result of an underground nuclear test. But she cautioned that such a system would need to protect the identities of the individuals owning the sensing platform—a key technical question with which the arms control community is currently grappling.

"Societal verification," the voluntary reporting of issues by ordinary citizens, has long been employed for environmental monitoring. But its use in monitoring compliance with arms control agreements raises legal and ethical issues, not least of which is the possibility of harm to the individual who reports a violation, she said. And whether information that is derived from such open sources can be considered legitimate and authoritative is the subject of a study that the State Department has requested from the JASON scientific advisory group.

US inspectors verifying compliance with New START arms reductions are currently limited to primitive tools such as rulers, pads, and pencils when they conduct time-limited onsite inspections of Russian facilities. "What if you could put an entire facility onto your laptop, with key sensors linked up from around the building?" she said. "It would help an inspector to know immediately where there are anomalies he needs to check." Whether use of those technologies could be negotiated into agreements "will be a challenge," she acknowledged.


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