Trust and nuclear warhead dismantlement verification

David Cliff (VERTIC)




Nuclear warhead dismantlement—that is, the separation of the fissile material contained in a warhead from its high explosives and other components—is a technically complex (and dangerous) exercise that verification adds whole new layers of complexity to. In a verified dismantlement scenario, such as might arise between two nuclear weapon states (or between a NWS and a NNWS), a balance needs to be struck between inspectors’ need for access and an inspected party’s need for confidentiality. While a host must be careful not to give away more information than is necessary, a scant declaration and a minimalist, inflexible attitude to negotiations over what an inspection team can and can’t do will result in a judgement of low confidence from inspectors and a correspondingly low degree of acceptance from those not involved in the verification process. On the part of inspectors, their aim should be to get as much information as is necessary to judge with good confidence that a declared item has been fully and properly dismantled—and that the declared item matches the item presented for verified dismantlement—but not to go further. However, regardless of the kind of managed access procedures agreed and the degree of goodwill between parties, attaining a 100 per cent level of confidence in the verification of warhead dismantlement is impossible—as it is in all verification regimes.  At a certain point, verification has to fall back on whatever level of trust exists between the parties involved. In warhead dismantlement, the objective needs to be to gain as much confidence through agreed verification measures as possible, thereby minimising the extent to which trust will need to become a factor. Trust, though, entails a kind of paradox in the realm of warhead dismantlement. The extent to which trust needs to become a factor should be minimised during the inspection process, but verified dismantlement also serves a larger purpose of building trust between states more generally. In fact, as a means of building trust and confidence between states, dismantlement is of limited value unless it occurs in a transparent and verifiable manner.

Mr. David Cliff

David Cliff works as a Researcher at the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (VERTIC) in London. At VERTIC, his work covers a wide range of nuclear arms control and disarmament-related issues, including the implementation of IAEA safeguards, the verification of warhead dismantlement, the impact of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty on international security, and concerns over nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Since joining VERTIC in May 2010, David has co-authored reports on the verification of nuclear warhead dismantlement (‘Verifying Warhead Dismantlement: Past, present, future’, September 2010) and the concept of ‘irreversibility’ in nuclear disarmament (‘Irreversibility in Nuclear Disarmament: Practical steps against nuclear rearmament’, September 2011). He also contributes regularly to VERTIC publications and the VERTIC blog. David holds an MA in International Affairs and a BA in Geography, both from the University of Exeter