Student-led warhead dismantlement exercise held in Norway

Jun 24 2011
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament

Kristiane Roe Hammer, London

Between 13-17 June 2011, students with backgrounds in the fields of nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear physics gathered in Norway to verify the dismantlement of a mock nuclear warhead.  

The exercise, officially titled ‘Developing Nuclear Warhead Dismantlement Verification Model for Civilian Education and Public Outreach Purposes’, was organized by the University of Oslo and Centre for Science & Securities in the department of War Studies at King’s College London, and hosted by the Norwegian Institute for Energy Technology. Based on the UK-Norway Initiative on nuclear warhead dismantlement, where the verification of dismantlement was done by a non-nuclear-weapon state, this was a student-run exercise, supervised by a control team composed of experts in the fields of dismantlement, disarmament, treaty negotiations and nuclear physics. I took on the role as team leader of the inspector team, and the pressure was on.          
Preparations and intelligence

The Kingdom of Wum invites an inspector team from the Republic of Kom to verify the dismantlement of one Zima-class gravity bomb.’ To make the experience as realistic and authentic as possible the 20 students that took part in the exercise were divided into host and inspector team right from the start. Names for the fictitious states and their national institutions involved in the dismantlement were given. The ‘Kingdom of Wum’ got a nuclear weapons laboratory called Los Ølamos Laboratories (abbreviated LOL) and the ‘Republic of Kom’ had their nuclear research centre situated in 32 Oppenheimer Boulevard. Both teams had also developed flags for their nations and letterheads to make all documents look authentic. All this happened three weeks before the teams were to gather in Oslo, and the competition was on for being the best-prepared team. Roles were divided amongst the team members. Each team needed a team leader, nuclear physicists with expertise on subjects such as information barrier technology, managed access, tags and seals and nuclear weapon design. There were also experts on negotiations and treaties and all of the personnel had to get ready for their tasks through reading and ‘training’.    

We were warned from the start that even though most of us were classmates and friends, talking about the exercise between two members of different teams should not be done. Intelligence-gathering would be on-going on both sides and it was important not to let anyone use their personal relations to get information on any team activity. On the inspector team we had a very eager intelligence officer, and right from the start a daily intelligence brief would be circulated as an internal memo within the team on topics ranging from satellite pictures of the dismantlement facility to human intelligence on the activities and progress of the host team. Intelligence-gathering quickly became an important endeavour for each team, and the elephant in the room loomed particularly large whenever you were around your close friends on the opposite team. This really was a challenge; all of a sudden no one could be trusted and you certainly did not want to be the one who gave away your nation’s negotiation strategy to the other team.
My paranoia came to an all-time high on a flight home from Vienna after the CTBT science and technology conference the week before the exercise was to officially start. I was sitting next to a classmate and a dear friend, but she was also indisputably part of the host team and loves playing games. On the fold-down table in front of me was a folder with important documents on the inspector team’s strategy and a book on nuclear warhead dismantlement. At one point I came to and realized that I had fallen asleep, possibly for some time, and that my friend was reading the book I had had on my table. The book was of little importance, but the thought that she might have looked in the folder was excruciating. As a ‘good’ friend I felt I couldn’t ask her straight out if she had looked in the folder. I chose another tactic. I let her exit the aircraft a bit before me and proceeded to ask the man who had been sitting beside us if he had seen her open the folder while I was asleep. I felt horrible but my relief was great when he with a puzzled look said she had only looked at the front of it and then concentrated on the book.
The exercise begins

Upon arrival in Norway the intensive week we had in front got underway. Negotiating the verification procedures for the dismantlement seemed an incredible task. As inspectors, the pressure not to forget any small factor that could lead to an increased or decreased level of confidence in the actual dismantlement process taking place was immense. Even though our delegation had spent hours poring over plans for the chain-of-custody of the nuclear bomb, and had our detailed sketch of the dismantlement flow ready with tags and seals and CCTV points, the task ahead seemed overwhelming. Sleeping became a point of low priority, with four hours of sleep being a good night and two to three being the norm. The first day was spent in lectures that really made us aware of the task at hand and the difficulties that lay ahead. Dr. Nikolai Sokov from the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at Monterey Institute of International Studies, talked about the importance of verifiable treaties and shared with us his personal anecdotes from when he participated in the START I and START II negotiations. Andreas Persbo from VERTIC briefed and quizzed us on the legal standards of disarmament and made us realize just how much there was to negotiate and what to keep in mind. The afternoon was dedicated to each team preparing a national strategy, a negotiation position paper and a national statement. This session lasted well into the night back at the hotel.

The second day, as the rest of the week, was spent at Institute for Energy Technology at Kjeller where the seriousness of it all was stepped up as we were actually at a proper nuclear facility. We had to get a briefing on safety and security while at the facility before the negotiations could start. There was also some time for last-minute preparations in the teams; for the last time, the control team was at our disposition and being able to get tips from, for example, Dr. Keith Tolk, himself a former inspector who has worked for the IAEA and Sandia National Laboratory, was absolutely invaluable and exciting.
This was the big day when the proper negotiations were starting up. As we were about to enter the facility after lunch we got the first signs that the game was really on as the inspector team was all of a sudden denied access and told to wait. We waited and waited and were growing nervous about all our papers and computers with sensitive information that were left inside. In the end we were allowed to enter, irritated and dazed as we had to go through body searches and had to be escorted everywhere – even to the restrooms.
Upon opening the exercise the hosts welcomed us and we all listened solemnly to their national anthem. Each team leader presented their national statement, rosy words on cooperation, transparency and disarmament. But also from the inspectors side a muffled warning to the hosts on treating the inspectors as diplomats and their guests, emphasizing the fact that we had been invited, and the fact that it was in both of our interests to show the world that the verification of nuclear weapon dismantlement was feasible.

The first day of negotiations was tough. The hosts presented the inspectors with their draft for a verification procedure annex for the familiarization visit and the actual monitoring visit during the dismantlement. The inspector team realized that they should have probably done the same as this put pressure on them to come up with their changes. The negotiations went on for hours even though it was only the familiarization visit that was being negotiated. Lacking the basic necessities, such as a floor plan of the facility, it was very difficult for the inspector team to know what exactly they were dealing with. By the end of the day, there were attempts at fast-tracking the negotiations with both team leaders keen to reach an agreement... Eventually, a number of changes were agreed upon and the host team were tasked with rewriting the annex. The next day, the familiarization visit was scheduled to begin at 10.20 am, but the inspectors had by that time not yet received the updated annex and refused to conduct a visit without having seen what they had agreed upon. When the annex came the inspectors felt it was not as agreed upon and a stalemate developed – only broken when time ran out and the hosts promised a second familiarization visit if the inspectors were not satisfied after the initial one.

The inspector team was taken aback at the first round of negotiations being so heavy-going. Based on the invitation and the common goal of developing a model for warhead dismantlement verification they had assumed cooperation and partnership instead of stalemates and harsh treatment. At the same time, the hosts were perhaps surprised at how far the inspectors expected them to go in allowing inspector intrusiveness, and they had also apologized for the first day’s delays (blaming it on printing issues). The inspectors wanted to set a precedent for future dismantlement verification while it seemed to them that the hosts mostly wanted a show for the international audience. As the inspectors felt that they had been met with hostility right away it was hard to build confidence from then on.

Nonetheless, the familiarization visit was conducted to the satisfaction of both parties and, indeed, dressing up in heavy protective wear and inspecting the dismantlement facility made for an exciting experience. Six of the inspectors were allowed to spend 30 minutes inside the facility. It had been agreed upon that host personnel would take Polaroid photos on the instructions of the inspector team; these were to be used for planning the visit and were to be kept in the inspector work station and sealed along with the inspector notepads by the inspectors only to be jointly reviewed.

The third day of the visit entailed negotiations on the actual monitoring visit. Here too the discussions were heated and frustrations ran high on both sides. The inspector team felt that the hosts lacked technical competence as they flat out refused the dismantlement room to be swept for radioactive material before and after the dismantlement. Because the actual dismantlement of the warhead is so sensitive, inspectors are not allowed to be in the room as this happens. They can only control what goes into the room and what comes out, mostly in closed containers, but without sweeping the room to secure that it does not already contain any nuclear material that could be a bomb it is very difficult to verify that material has not been hidden in the room. A warhead can be quite small and typically inside a dismantlement room there will be tools and equipment for the dismantlement that are sensitive and therefore covered up – making hiding anything in the room fairly easy.
Let’s see the warhead!

When the negotiations again stalemated, the inspectors refused to budge on wanting to both sweep the room and to see the nuclear warhead (or the bomb casing, as this was a gravity bomb). This had all along been our goal and what would give us confidence in the actual dismantlement, but sweeping was our red line and not negotiable. The hosts were quick in linking the sweeping and seeing the bomb casing in saying that it would have to be the one or the other. The inspectors felt pushed to accept this but as a last resort stressed the fact that because the hosts in their opinion were being very little forthcoming through the whole process they would have to write in the final report that they could guarantee that an actual dismantlement had taken place with only a ‘low level of confidence’. It was our hope that they would start caring about what the international society would think, and the fact that this would not reflect well on the host nation. This made the negotiations much more interesting; now it felt as though the host nation realized just what was at stake also for them.

The hosts blamed their reluctance in letting the inspectors see the warhead on the fact that the Article I of the NPT binds nuclear weapon states to not disclose any information that could help a non-nuclear state in developing nuclear weapons. The inspection team, on the other hand, stressed the fact that the type of bomb under mock dismantlement was purported to be an antiquated weapon and argued against accepting that the warhead casing represented classified information. We presented the hosts with a slideshow of close to a hundred photos of warheads from different nations quickly assembled from open sources. Still, this seemed to make little impression on the hosts and because of a lack of time before the scheduled monitoring visit we had to agree to disagree if the visit was to take place at all. As a result, the final report was to state that we had only verified the dismantlement with ‘low confidence’. A disappointment for us (and the world), but at least the hosts felt safe. The monitoring visit was subsequently conducted, using the ‘Odin’ weapon developed during the actual UK-Norway Initiative as well as their information barrier – both of which added to the authenticity of the whole process.  

Verified dismantlement?

After the exercise came to an end I think we all felt great relief and on the train back to Oslo people were tired but smiling. I do not think that I have ever learned so much (or slept so little) in just five days! There were so many interesting points of reflection that came from the exercise. Even after studying non-proliferation and dismantlement exclusively for close to a year, the exercise put a lot of things into perspective and showed how difficult verification can actually be. In this field it is easy to become very detached from practicalities. We strive for nuclear disarmament and global zero, but exercises like this shows how crucial both trust and science are to actually getting there. During this exercise, physicists and policy people met and tried to look into all sides of the dismantlement process. If there is anything that is politically impossible, ‘science diplomacy’ will have to be adopted; this is how the information barrier came into being. If inspectors are not allowed to see the warhead or the physics package from a bomb, measuring the content of a container to verify that it actually contains the parts can be a way to work around that.

As a final thought, if a class full of students eager to show that nuclear disarmament is possible turned hawkish, what does this imply for real-life negotiations where the parts represent actual states and not just made-up ones? We spent five days and came up with a seven-page agreement. Knowing that some of treaties, like START I for example, span hundreds of pages is mind-blowing. Within the very limited timeframe that we had, the experience at times felt as much like a social and a psychological experiment as a dismantlement exercise. But as we heard from those on the control team that have been inspectors themselves – people such as Keith Tolk, Nikolai Sokov and Wyn Bowen – this apparently is part of the real-life experience too. 

Last changed: Jun 24 2011 at 4:23 PM