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And as the windshield melts
My tears evaporate
Leaving only charcoal to defend.
Finally I understand the feelings of the few.
Ashes and diamonds
Foe and friend
We were all equal in the end.

– Pink Floyd, “Two Suns In The Sunset

Effects of a nuclear test, 1955, Nevada

Years ago, I swore that I'd never begin a blog post or an article with a quote from a song. Yet, here I am, quoting from the Pink Floyd song, "Two Suns in the Sunset". There's a reason I've been hooked on this song for several decades: it reminds me of the nightmares I used to have as a kid growing up during the Cold War. In my dreams, there'd be a sudden flash and a mushroom cloud on the horizon. then a horrifying silence in which I was gasping for breath.. and that was it. The world was gone, and I always woke up surprised to find that the world as I knew it was still there, and the men in power hadn't decided to complete the deadly game of chess that they'd started in the late 1940s.

If you haven't already guessed, this blog post is going to be partly personal, and partly about policy and history.

I'll start with the personal stuff.

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Over the past few years, as I've written about various aspects of nuclear weapons and nuclear non-proliferation issues, I've observed one particularly disturbing trend, which is the rather cavalier attitude people have toward "nukes". I'm not a sociologist, and I haven't conducted a formal study, but there's a tendency among people online and offline to say "just use a nuke". Or, "why can't they nuke 'em?", as if nuclear weapons were shotguns, and the use of one wouldn't have catastrophic global consequences.

Never has it been more apparent that there's a lot of misunderstanding (deliberate or otherwise) regarding nuclear weapons than recently. I'm talking about the appalling, misguided idea that we can "just nuke" the BP oil gusher and it will some how "be okay".

Here's the Global Security Newswire's "Quote of the Day" from June 3, 2010:

Drill a hole, drop a nuke in and seal up the well.

--CNN reporter John Roberts, discussing one suggestion for dealing with the underwater oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. The Obama administration has rejected the idea.

Then there was an NPR article from June 4, 2010 entitled:

Stopping A Spill? There's Always The Nuclear Option

Even Mother Jones mentioned it as a possibility, though it was more tongue-in-cheek than some of the other articles out there.

Okay, guys, I'm going to say it slowly, loudly, and clearly:

The use of a nuclear weapon to stop the BP oil gusher is not an option. It is, in fact, the worst possible thing we could do. Here's why.

Geopolitical Implications: Let's Cause An International Incident!

Way back in 1963, after almost two decades of nuclear testing, the United States and the former USSR were the first of a large number of countries who signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, also know as the Partial Test Ban Treaty:

The Test Ban Treaty of 1963 prohibits nuclear weapons tests "or any other nuclear explosion" in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water. While not banning tests underground, the Treaty does prohibit nuclear explosions in this environment if they cause "radioactive debris to be present outside the territorial limits of the State under whose jurisdiction or control" the explosions were conducted. In accepting limitations on testing, the nuclear powers accepted as a common goal "an end to the contamination of man's environment by radioactive substances."

With that in mind, last week, I contacted nuclear weapons testing verification expert, Dr. Thomas B. Cochran; he's worked in the area for decades, so I gave him a call and asked him what he thought of this "nuke the oil gusher" idea. He emphasized the obvious:

Well, first you should recognize that this would be in violation of two treaties, one of which we've signed and ratified, and the other which we've signed but not ratified: the Limited Test Ban Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Secondly, there are... national agreements about not putting radioactive waste in the oceans -- that might conceivably add [introduce] additional difficulties, although I don't put that in the same league with the violation of the treaties.

Thirdly, you would have to sink a shaft and place the weapon, and the weapon would have to be at a depth sufficient that you didn't breach the surface of the ocean bottom, similar to the way you would conduct an underground nuclear test on land, where, depending on the yield, you would estimate how deep you had to drill the shaft and place the weapon, so that it didn't release radioactivity out of the shaft.

Now, BP has two efforts underway to sink shafts -- they're in the process of sinking shafts to try to intersect the well that's not functioning. So, it makes no sense to me to launch a program to sink another shaft and place a nuclear warhead, when that's going to take longer than sinking the [relief well shafts].

The timing doesn't make any sense to me, irrespective of the fact that it's crazy to think about using nuclear weapons.

In other words, we have to recognize several key things. Using a nuclear weapon to somehow "stop the oil gusher" would:

  1. Be the political equivalent of resuming nuclear testing. (We declared a moratorium in 1992).
  2. Most likely introduce radioactive material into the area, though how much is anyone's guess.
  3. Be an impractical waste of time when they're already taking a more conventional approach.

If the international implications of such an action still aren't clear to you, Cochran bluntly told me:

[I]t would probably pretty much destroy efforts to get a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Just Because Someone Else Did It, Doesn't Mean It'll Work

As the New York Times pointed out, the whole idea came from something the Russians tried back in the 1960s to stop a natural gas fire. Historian and nuclear non-proliferation expert David E. Hoffman tears down the idea that "if it worked for them it'll work for us":

But didn’t the Soviet Union once use nukes for this? Not exactly. Both the United States and the Soviet Union did have a programs of using nuclear blasts for peace time purposes. In the Soviet case, it was primarily excavation. All told,the Soviet Union carried out 715 nuclear tests, of which 156 were labeled as"for peaceful purposes." (The U.S. total tests were 1,030 with 35 for Plowshare, the overall name for the program to use nukes for peaceful purposes. A pdf about the U.S. tests is here.)

According to a study published by the Russians in 1996, the first time they used a nuke to close a "gas plume bore hole" was the 30-kiloton explosion on September 30, 1966 in Uzbekistan.Several additional blasts were used for excavation. On September 26, 1969, they set off a 10 kiloton nuke in the Stavropol region for "oil recovery intensification." And in 1970, there was another blast in the Orenburg region for creating "reservoirs" for storage of natural gas.

As nuclear historian Robert S. Norris notes in the Times, all these Soviet were onland and did not involve oil. Eventually, both superpowers gave up trying touse nukes for peaceful purposes, and one of the reasons was the environmental hazards.

Environmental Contamination, Uncertainty, and More

Last week, Keith Olbermann invited physicist Michio Kaku on his program to discuss the use of a nuclear weapon to stop the oil gusher. Dr. Kaku did his best to explain how uncertain it was that such a device would work, and emphasized that it could cause tremendous environmental contamination if it wasn't detonated at a proper depth; the point is that no one really knows what would happen, though it's fairly certain there would be environmental damage from the blast. It would only make the situation worse, not better.

Learning Some History

When I worked as a radiochemist in a lab at the Hanford Nuclear Site, there were shelves and shelves of soil samples from the Marshall Islands, where the US did underwater and atmospheric nuclear tests back in the 1940s and 1950s. The soil samples contained all kinds of fission products, i.e. dangerous, radioactive elements resulting from a nuclear explosion.

That's what stays in my mind when I think of nuclear tests. But you don't need to work in a lab and see soil samples to "get it".

All you have to do is read a little. Understand that nuclear weapons aren't your average weapon. Testing one isn't like going out and shooting a gun at your neighbor's tree or setting off a firecracker that everyone in the neighborhood hears and smells.

Detonating a nuclear weapon has international consequences. Using one to somehow "fix" the oil gusher is simply crazy. It would do untold damage to nuclear arms control efforts as well as to the environment.

Please don't forget that.


Across The Pond

Several years ago, we were in Schipol airport in Amsterdam, heading to the US for one of our yearly visits see my family. I needed something to read on the plane, so we browsed through one of the airport bookstores. I picked up a book called Fleshmarket Close, by Scottish writer Ian Rankin (or, Fleshmarket Alley, as it is sold in the United States). His name rang a bell, possibly because my mom had mentioned his books at one point. So, I got out my euros, bought the book, and started reading.

I've been a mystery fan ever since I was a little kid; you might call me a "mystery geek", and it's how I stay sane, because reading and writing about nuclear Armageddon all the time sure takes its toll. So, the day I discover a new author is kind of like Christmas... especially if it's Ian Rankin, who's easily one of the best mystery writers I've read.

Ian Rankin reads from Exit Music, 2007.
(Image Credit: Tim Duncan. Click to enlarge.)
His most famous character is Detective Inspector Rebus, who is the central figure of seventeen of Rankin's novels. If there was a gold standard for "avoidance of stereotypes and clichés", it would be the Rebus novels. They are vivid, complex, and not in the least formulaic, which is my main complaint about a lot of novels in this genre. Rebus himself is one of the most three-dimensional characters I've encountered in a book. As we discover in the first novel, (Knots And Crosses), John Rebus is former military (SAS, in fact, until he has a nervous breakdown), an experience which haunts him throughout his career as a detective. At times, even his friends find him hard to understand, but the reader always has the inside view of Rebus' mind. I remember my mom saying "Oh, Rebus is bad," with a twinkle in her eye, when I started reading the books. "He practically works out of a bar sometimes," referring to his battle with the bottle. "He doesn't really get along with other cops, but he cares about the victims. He's a good man if you get to know him."

One of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" episodes was in Edinburgh, where he spent some time with Ian Rankin. They hung out in Rebus' favorite bar, the Oxford Bar. Bourdain asked Rankin why he picked "the Ox" for Rebus to drink in. Rankin said:

I thought it's the kind of bar my guy would drink in, very unaffected, very unpretentious, basic, stripped back, almost like a private club. Everybody knows everybody else...

... the kind of Edinburgh I was writing about was the secret Edinburgh, that tourists never saw, the stuff that was happening just below the surface, and I thought this was a nice representation of that.

Daily Kos readers might wonder if there are any politics woven into Rankin's stories. He manages to do so, but not in any overt, in-your-face way. Fleshmarket Close deals with the murder of an asylum-seeker, and delves into racism and anti-immigrant sentiment in Scotland (click here to watch a short video about the book, narrated by Rankin). The Naming of the Dead has the 2005 G8 meeting as a backdrop, with all the accompanying protests, as well as the July 2005 bombings in London. Those are just a few examples; it's more that he works current events into his books than overt politics, which is probably why it's a nice break if you're buried in political reading all the time.

If you're a music fan, you'll enjoy the musical references that Rankin works into his books, if not even in the actual titles. To call the man a "music fan" wouldn't be doing justice to his obsession. You can get a feel for it on his website. It all makes me feel rather... musically inadequate. I end up doing Google searches on half the bands he mentions. Appropriately, the final Rebus novel is called Exit Music. (You've got to love a character who, upon retirement, says to his colleagues, "You really didn’t buy me anything, you miserable shower of bastards?")

I've been trying to avoid my own clichés here, but I can't help myself: the Rebus novels are as beautiful and complex as -- wait for it, here it comes -- some of the best whisky I've ever had. They're to be savored, not slammed in one shot and quickly forgotten. They're unlike anything else out there.

Closer To Home

Burn, by Nevada Barr, coming August 2010. (Click to enlarge.)
We no longer live in Amsterdam, but when we did, I'd get pretty homesick for New Mexico and the West, which is where I was born. It's also where Nevada Barr is from (Nevada, specifically, hence her name). I read and re-read her books many times over the years, especially when I was in Amsterdam. They don't just take place in the West; in fact, part of why they're so interesting is that they take place all over the country.

Ms. Barr's main character is Anna Pigeon, who's a Ranger with the US National Park Service (as Barr was herself, for a long time). I wanted to write about the Anna Pigeon books because they're absolutely unique, and quite a contrast to the Rebus novels. Where the Rebus novels are decidedly urban, Ranger Pigeon's "beat" as a law enforcement officer could be the back country of Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas (Track of the Cat), Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi (Deep South), or Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior, Michigan (Winter Study). Anna Pigeon claims she cares more for isolation and wildlife than she does for human companionship, though she mellows a bit with each successive book. By the time she has taken a temporary mental health break from the NPS, she's married and is visiting an old friend in post-Katrina New Orleans, which is the setting of Barr's next book, Burn, which will be published in August of this year.

New Orleans is where Nevada Barr is living now, and is the setting for 13 1/2, which is a departure in more ways than one from the Anna Pigeon novels. I won't spoil it, but if you're up for one hell of an edgy thriller, I'd recommend it. Some authors do "edgy" and end up with the Twilight series. Nevada Barr just scares the hell out of you and makes you want to check the locks on the doors all night.

What You're Missing Is Right Here In Albuquerque

Well, not literally right here in Albuquerque, but that's where novelist Andi Marquette's mysteries take place. Full disclosure: I've eaten with Marquette in many of the restaurants she mentions in her books; we're good friends, but all that aside, I'd promote her work even if I didn't know her.

When people think of New Mexico mystery writers, they usually think of Tony Hillerman. I'm suggesting that everyone branch out a little and check out Marquette's books, which are highly readable, to the point that I stayed up most of the night reading the first one... and the second one... and the third one.

Marquette has two main characters: sociologist K. C. Fontero who's the protagonist of her first and third novels, and Fontera's good friend, Detective Chris Gutierrez of the Albuquerque Police Department. Both fulfill my geeky criteria for a "good character in a mystery novel": they're believable, they're not perfect, and they're people I could imagine interviewing for an article.

Land of Entrapment, by Andi Marquette.
(Cover courtesy of Andi Marquette. Click to enlarge.)
Land of Entrapment manages to balance K.C.'s personal life and problems with her external issues, which involve helping an ex-girlfriend find her younger sister, who has made some unsavory friends (white supremacists) and has disappeared. I often complain about Albuquerque being a dull place, but Marquette's novels bring out the best and the most colorful aspects of the city, as well as the worst ("the North East Frights" is what she calls Albuquerque's "North East Heights").

State of Denial puts Detective Chris Gutierrez in the starring role. We got to know her a little in Land of Entrapment, but now we get to see her in full-blown investigation mode, where she's faced with determining if a young man found murdered at the Rio Grande Nature Center is part of a bigger pattern of anti-gay hate crimes. There's a lot of creepy stuff involving the pastor of an Albuquerque megachurch and "ex-gay" groups; I don't want to give too much away, so I'll stop there. Again, Marquette weaves Chris' personal life and problems into the story quite deftly, so that worlds mesh rather than collide.

The Ties That Bind is another K. C. Fontero mystery, and it's by far the most involved book of Marquette's mysteries so far; I think it's the best one, though they're all good. It was chosen as one of the top 5 general fiction reads of 2009 Lesbian Fiction Readers’ Choice Awards; you can read the first chapter here. It branches out from Albuquerque and explores a murder on the Navajo Reservation. It's a pretty tense book, but in a great way, like the others.

If I Could Show You My Library...

... you'd see a lot more authors that I couldn't possibly discuss just in one post: Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Patricia Cornwell, just to name a few. I'm sure you've got your favorites, and likely some I've never heard of. Pull up a chair, pour yourself a drink, and let's talk about mysteries.


So you think you're smart, huh? Maybe even sneaky? Could you easily build your own nuclear arsenal without anyone finding out? Test your cleverness with the Stimson Center's new online game, Cheater's Risk. The background is fascinating:

As part of Stimson's "Unblocking the Road to Zero" project, which seeks to advance the debate about negotiated nuclear disarmament as a viable and practical policy option, Alex Bollfrass and Barry Blechman have developed Cheater's Risk,  an online game that explores the dynamics of a world without nuclear weapons. Players take on the challenge of breaking out of a hypothetical disarmament regime without being detected by national intelligence services and international monitors. Depending on which country is selected, different pathways to the bomb are available. As the player navigates the pathways, the cumulative odds of detection are calculated.  At the end, famed weapons inspector Hans Blix determines if the player has gotten away with it or has been caught.  The game is founded upon empirical research, published in Elements of a Nuclear Disarmament Treaty, an edited volume showing how to overcome technical obstacles to disarmament.

When I played the game as the Netherlands, I managed to amass 1-5 nukes, but it was by sheer luck that I didn't get discovered while I acquired all the materials.

Watch the trailer:

Cheater's Risk Trailer from Henry L. Stimson Center on Vimeo.

Check out the game. Are you feeling lucky?


The Hanford Nuclear Site.
(Click to enlarge. I took this photo in Fall 1993)

When most people think of "the Cold War nuclear arms race", they think of Reagan and Gorbachev, Kennedy and Khrushchev, treaties and international summits, Presidents and Premiers. It all starts to seem rather abstract: something from the past, to be relegated to history books and news archives.

They probably don't think of the remote sites around the United States, consisting of laboratories and manufacturing facilities, the complex that made The Bomb possible. And unless you're very familiar with this complex, or you're a resident of the Pacific Northwest, you may not know about a remote part of Washington State known as the Hanford Site.

To make nuclear weapons, you need to actually make weapons-grade plutonium, or plutonium-239 (239Pu). The Hanford Site's role in the Cold War was to produce most of the plutonium for the US nuclear arsenal; at the peak of the Cold War, we were producing about 28 bombs a day, and had as many as 31,255 nuclear weapons. The facilities built at the 586 square mile Hanford Site included nine nuclear reactors, several spent nuclear fuel processing facilities, support laboratories, and of course, large underground tanks for waste storage, in an area of the site known as the "tank farms".

It's the rather complex issue of Hanford's tank waste that I'd like to address today.

When telling the story of the Cold War, the part that often gets neglected is that the extraction, processing, and purification of plutonium at the Hanford Site was anything but a neat, clean process; in fact, it resulted in a rather extraordinary amount of extremely radioactive and chemically dangerous waste. This waste is absolutely nothing like commercial nuclear waste, and its management has been one of the biggest challenges the US nuclear weapons complex, and consequentially, the Department of Energy, has ever had to deal with.

In a previous article, I introduced you to the Hanford Site, and explained that in the early 1990s, I'd worked as a radiochemist in one of the laboratories in what is known as the "300 Area" of the site. Among other things, I analyzed the plutonium content in spent fuel sludge, as well as in extremely dilute samples of tank waste. Since plutonium production had only stopped in 1988, and the Cold War had only ended a few years later, the site still had somewhat intricate security zones, and thus us students didn't have access to much more than the laboratory where we worked.

As a result, the tank waste and the tank farms took on a sort of legendary quality for us. That was the part of the site where our samples came from; it was one of the reasons the site was getting an increasing amount of negative attention due to media reports on the fact that the tanks were leaking, and the government had failed to report the leaks and the spreading contamination. In short, the tank waste represented not only fascinating chemistry, but an environmental crisis that had to be handled... and it was all underground, where we couldn't see it, on a part of the site we just knew about because it was on a map.

At the time, I remember thinking that, like many of the site's other problems, the tank waste problem was intractable. How could they possibly manage to safely transfer the waste from the leaking tanks to safer ones? Would it ever be possible to permanently store the waste in a way that it couldn't cause any more environmental damage? In the years since I worked at the site, I followed government reports and news media updates on the site, but was not satisfied with the answers I got.

I decided that it was time to visit the Hanford Site again, 17 years after I'd worked there, and ask all the technical, scientific, and logistical questions I'd had for so many years. For the sake of simplicity, I decided that, given the extent of the cleanup effort at the site, I'd focus only on tank waste management, and address other site issues on a separate visit/in a separate article.

First of all, I'd like to point out the biggest difference between the early 1990s and 2010: transparency and openness with the public. In fact, you can take a site-wide bus tour, and they'll answer as many questions as time allows. Changing security requirements have made this possible, among other things; I highly recommend the tour, in fact.

As media, and someone with a technical background, I was very pleased to be able to get a more detailed and extended tour of the site, and I'm very grateful to the people at the Office of River Protection, the tank farms, and the DOE for making it possible. My tour spanned two days, and gave me a pretty good idea of the progress they've made, the tools they use, the difficulties they're facing, and what they hope to achieve in the future.

Brief Background

Location of the tank farms, and an overview of plutonium processing

Here's a general overview of the Hanford site, showing the location of the (now-decomissioned) reactors, as well as the tanks, which are located in the "200 Area" of the Hanford Site:

Hanford Site map. Click to enlarge.

Plutonium production started at Hanford with the B reactor and one type of chemical extraction process in 1943. Over time, the site expanded to include nine reactors, and the chemists had settled on a plutonium purification process known as PUREX, after trying two previous methods of purification, with somewhat different chemistry. Here's the overall scheme, greatly simplified:

Plutonium production at Hanford. Click to enlarge.

The liquid waste from the extraction process was very caustic and highly radioactive, so it was stored in 177 underground tanks. 149 of these are single-shell tanks, with storage capacities between 55K and 1 million gallons. 28 of these are double-shell tanks, with storage capacities of 1 million to 1.25 million gallons; these were built later than the single-shell tanks, and are more stable. The total amount of waste in the tanks adds up to 53 million gallons.

Although the waste going into the tanks was originally a liquid, over time, chemical reactions have taken place causing solids to form as well as gases. Because multiple plutonium extraction processes were tried, the content of the tanks is anything but simple. The solids can be as hard as cement or as sticky as peanut butter. The degree of radioactivity is daunting as well; the waste cannot be handled without extensive shielding. In other words, you can't just suck the waste out of the tanks and put it someplace else without adequate planning, preparation, and care. It's really dangerous stuff.

Note: With the exception of the first image, credit for all images goes to the Department of Energy and the Office of River Protection.

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Ambassador Eric Danon, Permanent Representative of France to the Conference on Disarmament, speaks at the 2010 NPT Review Conference.
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe. Click to enlarge.

Forty years ago, one of the most important treaties in recent history went into effect: the The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or the NPT. This treaty has been ratified by 190 countries, with the main objective being to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon-related technology, while providing a framework for the peaceful, civilian use of nuclear energy.

Every five years, an international conference is held to review the treaty; the NPT Review Conference, or "RevCon", as it has been nicknamed, lasts for a month. All state parties of the NPT attend the conference, as well as a variety of non-governmental organizations. You can read more about it here, here, and here.

The 2010 NPT RevCon started on May 3, and will end on May 28. As President Obama said:

Over the coming weeks, each of our nations will have the opportunity to show where we stand.  Will we meet our responsibilities or shirk them?  Will we ensure the rights of nations or undermine them?  In short, do we seek a 21st century of more nuclear weapons or a world without them?

It's important to recognize that the atmosphere of global cooperation has changed significantly since the last NPT RevCon, in 2005. It's also important to recognize that the conference is essentially a month of carefully orchestrated negotiations, a dance of diplomacy between allies and opponents, with the outcome yet to be seen.

In this spirit of international communication, I had the opportunity to interview Ambassador Eric Danon, who is the Permanent Representative of France to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. This interview took place via email, over the past two weeks. My questions are in bold, and his replies follow. I've inserted links where appropriate.

Could you very briefly introduce yourself, and explain your role at the NPT Review Conference?

I am a career diplomat, ambassador in Geneva in charge of multilateral negotiations on disarmament. I have worked on security issues for many years. I originally studied physics, specializing in nuclear physics. I am here in New York to lead the French delegation at the NPT Review Conference. My role is to promote French positions and work hard with other countries to find a successful outcome to the Conference.

We believe that the NPT faces unprecedented challenges which require a collective response from the international community. We must work equally on all three pillars of the Treaty : promoting disarmament, pushing for stronger non-proliferation policies and develop the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

In general, how would you characterize the overall atmosphere of the NPT Review Conference, compared to 2005? Do you predict a more constructive, positive outcome, or not? Why or why not?

So far the atmosphere has been good. Compared to the last RevCon in 2005 which ended with no final outcome, we are more likely to succeed. Why is that? Many things have happened in the last five years. There has been some political impetus on the disarmament front, two non-proliferation crises today are clearly identified, and we are witness to a new momentum - indeed a "renaissance" - in the field of civil nuclear energy. So we hope we can reach a balanced outcome for the conference.

Some of the biggest news coming out of the conference so far concerns the proposal for a Middle East Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone. This is a very complicated issue, especially since one of the main proliferation concerns are Iran's uranium enrichment activities, as well as Israel's undeclared nuclear program. Given all of these issues, can you explain (briefly) how this new proposal might work?

This is the most sensitive issue of the conference. We hope to find avenues for the implementation of the resolution that was adopted at the 1995 review Conference calling for a WMD-free zone -- not just nuclear weapons-free -- in the Middle East. Israel is not party to the NPT. Iran violates the NPT, its commitments towards the IAEA and Security Council resolutions. A new proposal was put forward over a year ago, which consists in setting up a conference that would discuss the objective of the 1995 resolution. Now we have on-going discussions on such a conference: how many meetings, what sort of decision process, what participation, etc. These are preliminary discussions, and the atmosphere has been positive.

I understand that Middle East Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone is a sensitive issue, but I'm sure our readers are going to have more questions about it. How can you work toward a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone when one of the countries (Israel) in that zone has nuclear weapons? Just because they are not a party to the NPT shouldn't exempt them from scrutiny and discussion, should it?

France is fully committed to the implementation of the 1995 resolution which calls for the establishment of a Zone free of Weapons of mass destruction – not just nuclear – in the Middle East. We hope that a process can be started to that effect, in which all countries in the region should participate. This is what we’re striving to achieve in this conference, an agreement by all countries in the region to sit around the table in the near future and discuss the matter.

Another interesting piece of news was the US revelation of the exact number of warheads in our arsenal. I've been watching comments on Twitter, and I saw this one, from The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation: "Lots of states calling for transparency and reporting on nuclear arsenals."

In your opinion, how likely is it that other countries will follow the US example and increase transparency regarding their nuclear arsenals?

We are delighted that the US has given a precise figure on part of their arsenal. We’re not in a beauty contest here, but may I remind you that two years ago France made public the total number (less than 300) of all its nuclear weapons, not just the active warheads. In any case we’re happy that the US has decided to follow France’s lead! Transparency is a critical aspect of confidence, and hence a critical aspect of disarmament.

Regarding France's arsenal, I have the same question that I'd ask of the UK, as the other EU country with strategic nuclear weapons. The supposed reason for maintaining these arsenals is deterrence. My question is simple but direct: who is being deterred?

France does not have enemies. As a result deterrence is not targeted at any particular country. It conveys a message for all: if our vital interests are not threatened by an attack, we shall not use the atomic bomb. We have not defined what "vital interests" entail, and it is left for the President of the Republic to decide. This is how deterrence can work. If we define our vital interests, a country would know where the threshold of our vital interests lies and could attack accordingly. Ambiguity on the definition is a critical component of deterrence.

What sort of discussions have taken place (if any) regarding NATO and Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons? Has there been a call for transparency (reporting of numbers, etc.) with respect to those weapons?

We haven’t had in-depth discussions on this precise topic in the framework of the NPT. This is dealt with by NATO and Russia. Having said that, generally speaking, all countries call for continuing disarmament between Russia and the United States. There hasn’t been a specific call for transparency on tactical nuclear weapons but a general call for transparency on all nuclear weapons, a transparency which we fully support. As for France, we do not have any tactical weapons any more, ever since we did away with the Pluton and Hadès missiles at the end of the Cold War.

What would you like to see come out of the NPT Review Conference? In other words, in your opinion, what would constitute "success", when everything comes to a close at the end of May?

We would like the Conference to adopt a final document containing a political chapeau recalling the commitments of the State parties, three action plans dealing with the three pillars of the NPT - disarmament, non proliferation and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy -, and elements on the Middle East with concrete actions to implement the resolution of 1995.

We would also like some legal aspects to be addressed, the so-called "institutional aspects" of the Treaty, particularly regarding the question of withdrawal from the Treaty. After North Korea expressed its willingness to withdraw in 2003, it appeared to State parties that it was necessary to work on the consequences of a country’s withdrawal. We cannot allow a country that decides to withdraw from the Treaty to dodge its responsibilities regarding nuclear non proliferation.

If we could have all this in the final document, it would offer a balanced package which could boost the NPT and move on after the failure of the 2005 RevCon.

Let's talk about the emphasis on peaceful pursuit of nuclear power. You said one of the goals of RevCon involves "pushing for stronger non-proliferation policies and develop the peaceful use of nuclear energy". What, specifically, is being discussed (or will be discussed) regarding the assurance that civilian nuclear energy programs do not have the potential to be dual use? For example, there are uranium enrichment methods employing the use of lasers that have been cause for concern, because they're potentially much easier to conceal than more traditional uranium enrichment methods, etc.

France is one of the very few countries that have mastered the full cycle of civilian nuclear energy. Our know-how reinforces our conviction that it is essential to have the highest standards in terms of safety, security and non-proliferation. There are risks linked to civilian nuclear "renaissance" that must be addressed: how to make sure terrorists won’t get hold of fissile material, how to control the transfer of sensitive technology, how to manage waste... We hope that the conference will recognize these risks and reaffirm that while the right of all countries to peaceful uses of nuclear energy is inalienable, it must be exercised responsibly, i.e. it must respect the highest standards in terms of safety, security and sustainable development.

What impact will the new UN Security Council Iran sanctions have on the NPT Review Conference?

Nobody can tell what will happen in the coming days. The sanctions currently being discussed at the Security Council are the direct result of Iran’s non-compliance with the Non Proliferation Treaty. This non-compliance is extremely worrisome for the international community. At this stage, the Review Conference has not been affected by the work of the Security Council.

The front face of the B Reactor gives visitors a sense of the scale of this engineering achievment.

Photo Credit: US Department of Energy. Click to enlarge.

Last week, while most of my friends in the nuclear weapons analyst community traveled to New York City to assess the future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, I headed to a remote corner of south-eastern Washington State to explore the origins of the US side of the Cold War nuclear arms race.

For years, I've had a goal of visiting as many of the Manhattan Project sites as I could; I've been to the Trinity Site, and I've visited the Bradbury Museum in Los Alamos. As I've mentioned before, many years ago, I'd worked at the Hanford Site as a chemist, but had never gotten to tour the historic B Reactor. It was finally opened for official public tours only in recent years, as part of the ongoing effort to promote preservation of the reactor as a designated National Historic Landmark.

There has been some controversy associated with preserving the B Reactor and turning it into a museum. The controversy stems from the fact that it was used to produce the plutonium that for the atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki in August 1945, as well as plutonium used in some of our earliest Cold War nuclear weapons. As Jeffrey Lewis said at, some people fear "that the exhibits will be one-sided hagiography of the nuclear weapons enterprise...".

Though that potential exists, I am happy to say that the B Reactor exhibit and tour was absolutely accurate, straightforward, and simply presented the facts, emphasizing the engineering feat that the reactor represents rather than taking one side or the other regarding the ultimate use of the plutonium that it produced.

The building itself is quite a ways out in the desert (in what is called the 100 Area), and very stark in appearance, as you might imagine. Upon entering the building, we heard a short presentation, and were then taken on a guided tour. We were allowed to wander around after that. I'm still trying to find words for how the place affected me. To be sure, it's rather amazing to think that it eventually worked so well, and was crafted so carefully in a relatively short period of time; construction was started in June 1943, and completed slightly over a year later. All of this was done without the benefit of computers or any of the other technology we take for granted in the nuclear industry today.

What the place impressed upon me the most, however, was that it completely changed the course of history. It represents the only wartime use of a nuclear weapon; it also represents the beginning of the buildup of nuclear weapons during the Cold War (including the huge environmental consequences) and the potential that humankind has for either planned or actual destruction. It represents one of the primary reasons for worldwide tensions that really didn't end with the Cold War.

Whatever your opinion about nuclear weapons, it's absolutely impossible to deny that the B Reactor has historical significance.

Back in 2004, on the sixtieth anniversary of the B Reactor's completion, Pulitzer Prize-winner and nuclear weapons historian Richard Rhodes gave a speech that is worth reading in its entirety. Of particular note is the following:

The B Reactor went on after the war to produce plutonium to fuel the burgeoning U.S. nuclear arsenal. Now we’re attempting to arrange its preservation as a historic site and a museum. Bills have passed both the House and the Senate funding a review by the National Park Service of preserving Manhattan Project sites in Tennessee, New Mexico and here in Washington as a distributed national park. Why should they be preserved? Should we be proud of the work of the Manhattan Project in the years of the Second World War? Should we be ashamed? Should we look the other way, or should we remember? Or are such questions inappropriate where the physical preservation of our common past is concerned?


I hope you’ll consider my analysis of the influence of the nuclear discovery on the world. If I’m even partly right, then you have, here in your midst, one of the world’s most significant historical sites, a place where work was done that changed the human world forever and for the better, that has already contributed to a vast reduction in human suffering — in manmade death.

In the fullness of time, that change may well lead to the prevention not only of world war but of all war. When science demonstrated that matter, properly arranged, is all energy, it revealed a natural limit to national sovereignty that made unlimited war suicidal. No one had conceived of such a limit before. War had seemed to be, and had grown to be, unlimited. We have been forced by a new knowledge of the natural world to find less destructive processes to settle disputes, and if less destructive processes can be substituted, by necessity, for world war, there is no reason why such processes can’t substitute for limited war as well. We have every reason to hope and to expect that alternatives to even limited war — negotiations, regional communities, international law — will continue to emerge in the shelter the natural limitation has created. In the long run, Robert Oppenheimer may turn out to have been right with both his predictions. The B Reactor embodies the social reality of that millennial transformation. We should save it while we still can.

(Bold emphasis mine.)

Before I made my trip, I was leaning toward agreeing with Gov. Gregroire and others that the B Reactor should be more firmly preserved as part of the National Park System. After visiting the reactor, I'm completely convinced.

It is a part of our history that everyone should see; it's something that should absolutely not be neglected, mothballed, or torn down.

The B Reactor has something to teach us about human nature, human ingenuity, and certainly about a war -- the Cold War -- that never got "hot". As Rhodes pointed out, there's a reason to remember why.

Whatever your feelings on nuclear weapons, the tour is worth taking. They're all full for this year, but keep it in mind for next year.


Remember John Bolton? He was the guy President George W. Bush appointed as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, and later as Ambassador to the United Nations. He was famous for a number of things, not the least of which was his complicity in lies that the US used to justify the war in Iraq. This is John Bolton in a nutshell:

As [John Bolton] settled into his office on the sixth floor of the State Department in the spring of 2001, Bolton placed on his coffee table a memento from his days in the conservative revolution: a hand grenade mounted on a small wooden base with a plaque that read "Truest Reaganaut". He quickly went to work dismantling the structure of international arms control...

-- From Us vs. Them: How A Half Century of Conservativism Has Undermined America's Security, by Peter Scoblic.

After his resignation in 2006, and after the Bush administration ended, you'd think that John Bolton and his compatriots would have faded into obscurity, with their diatribes known only to members of conservative think tanks and crowds of tipsy neocons on cruise ships.

Sadly, that has not been the case. John Bolton, Frank Gaffney, Richard Perle, and others have all taken up residence on the op-ed pages of the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, and a variety of conservative magazines, where they have been railing against President Obama's policies ever since he took office.

I suppose it's understandable; after all, those are fairly conservative publications, and have to fill their opinion pages with something.

So, you'd think that Politico might be different, given that their official mission statement includes this:

There is more need than ever for reporting that presents the news fairly, not through an ideological prism.

Somewhere along the way, they apparentely got lost. It's really quite disingenuous, and very lazy "journalism", to gather up quotes by right-wing pundits, including John Bolton, with very little credibility in the realm of arms control and international relations, and present them as credible experts.

I'm looking at you, Politico, specifically yesterday's article:

Right rips Obama on defense

While much of the nation’s political attention has been focused on health care and the economy, a familiar group of conservative intellectuals is seizing on the latest Obama administration national security initiatives to develop a perennial and often effective political narrative: that Democrats are weak on defense and that the country is in danger.

The critique expands on the somewhat older issue of the handling of terror suspects, including the Fort Hood attack, and now weaves in the Nuclear Posture Review unveiled earlier this month, the proposed Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, President Barack Obama’s nuclear proliferation summit in Washington, defense spending and the latest twists in the Middle East to create a portrait of Obama similar to that deployed during the presidential race: of a naive dreamer, a utopian who caters to America’s most dangerous adversaries while slighting America’s friends.

And, in an added strand, it manages to connect all of this with Obama’s domestic agenda.

Any selection of recent opinion in The Weekly Standard and the National Review Online is illustrative.

It goes on to quote John Bolton on Obama's Nuclear Posture Review, saying that the administration's road map for our nuclear weapons will somehow lead North Korea and Iran to attack us. It quotes another writer in the National Review, saying that all of the Obama administration's nuclear weapons and security policies are expressed in "Orwellian" language, and will result in us being vulnerable to attack from (you guessed it) North Korea and Iran.

The quotes go on and on, and only in the last couple of paragraphs does the author interview a retired military official who has the national security chops to refute any of the claims.

The article is a veritable love letter to people who have zero credibility in the area of arms control. These are the very last people on Earth who should be considered "experts" on anything. They're pundits at best. Why is Politico giving them a platform?

President Obama's nuclear weapons and nuclear security policies have the backing of people who actually count. The good folks over at the Nukes of Hazard blog have rounded up quite a few quotes (click here and here). I'll leave you with two of them.

From Secretary of Defense Robert Gates:

"We have more robust deterrents today, because we've added to the nuclear deterrent missile defense. And...with the phased adaptive approach that the president has approved, we will have significantly greater capability to deter the Iranians, because we will have a significantly greater missile defense. We're also developing this conventional prompt global strike, which really hadn't gone anywhere in the -- in the Bush administration, but has been embraced by the new administration. That allows us to use long range missiles with conventional warheads. So we have -- we have more tools if you will in the deterrents kit bag than -- than we used to."

From General Kevin Chilton, Commander of the United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM, from this pdf) :

Based on [STRATCOM’s] analysis and through continued discussions with DoD leadership, my view is that [the NPR and New START] and associated budgetary investments continue to support these deterrence requirements, and that the New START agreement warhead and platform numbers provide appropriate military flexibility.


I am confident that the NPR and New START outline an approach that continues to enable the men and women of U.S. Strategic Command to deliver global security for America today and in the future.

Politico is clearly not looking for the opinion of those whose jobs are directly influenced by the President's nuclear weapons policies. If they'd asked, they obviously wouldn't have gotten an answer they'd like.

Gen. Roger Brady, USAFE Commander, is shown B61 nuclear weapon disarming procedures on a “dummy” in an underground Weapons Security and Storage System (WS3) vault at Volkel Air Base, Netherlands in June 2008.

(Photo credit: US Air Force, via FAS. Click to enlarge.)

When the average American thinks of "US nuclear weapons", they probably have a vague idea of large missiles ready to launch from silos at various locations in our country. Given the recent news coverage of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, they might even have a more specific idea of how these weapons are controlled, and who controls them.

What most people don't realize is that US nuclear weapons aren't all at the tips of ICBMs, and they aren't all in America. Not only that, but not all of our weapons are even covered by a formal treaty.

I'm talking about "the little nukes that got away", also known as tactical, or nonstrategic nuclear weapons. During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union amassed thousands of these smaller, more portable "battlefield" weapons. They ranged in size from artillery shells to B61 gravity bombs. Over the years, the numbers of US and Russian forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons have declined, but even though the Cold War has been over for 20 years, there are still plenty of these weapons out there. The US currently maintains about 200 of them in five different European countries, in fact. The Russians maintain many more.

Discussion of these weapons, and their security role, has enjoyed a resurgence over the past year or so, most recently at the NATO foreign ministers meeting last week in Estonia. Given President Obama's interest in nuclear disarmament, many arms control advocates, as well as a number of European leaders, hoped that the US would commit to reducing these weapons in Europe, and therefore signal a welcome change from a rather outdated Cold War mindset.

Unfortunately, that didn't happen. Statements from Secretary of State Clinton, and NATO's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, were quite to the contrary, and better suited for the 1980s instead of 2010:

"As long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance," Clinton said in remarks prepared for delivery to NATO foreign ministers.

"As a nuclear alliance, sharing nuclear risks and responsibilities is fundamental,"


NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that while the Western security alliance must debate the matter, he personally believed "the presence of American nuclear weapons in Europe is an essential part of a credible deterrent."

The problem isn't just that NATO wants to hang onto Cold War relics; the problem is that the US is equating our tactical nuclear weapons in Europe with assurance of security.

Via a telephone interview, Dr. William Potter, Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, explained it to me:

What's most unfortunate in terms of the statements by [Secretary Clinton] as well as by Rasmussen is that it reinforces, I think, the very dubious notion that the nuclear weapons that we retain in Europe have anything to do with the US commitment to come to Europe's defense. I see this, really, as creating a potential self-fulfilling prophecy. We keep talking about the need to keep these weapons in Europe to demonstrate our commitment, when in fact our more general policy of extended deterrence, whether you like it or not, serves that same purpose, and I think the commitment by the US to Europe's defense has really little, if anything, to do with the nuclear weapons that we deploy in some country's territory.

So we tend to reinforce the arguments of those who favor retention, in capitals in Europe, rather than acknowledge that the foreign ministries in many of these capitals would like nothing better than to get rid of the weapons. So I think it's a most unfortunate statement.

He also emphasized that the issue is not one-sided:

What is little noted, but what I think is tremendously important, is regression on the Russian side in that they (that is, the Russian government) will no longer acknowledge that they have any obligations under the 1991-1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives. These were the unilateral, voluntary, parallel declarations that were made by the United States and the Soviet Union in '91, and reiterated by President Yeltsin in a slightly modified form in '92, to greatly reduce the numbers of tactical nuclear weapons and to deploy the remaining numbers in central storage.

To the best of my knowledge, and I've had direct discussions with Russian officials on this point, they simply refuse to acknowledge that those Presidential Nuclear Initiatives are active, or remain in force. That is, I think, regression and needs to be highlighted.

Taking a step back and looking at the big picture, I feel like I've seen this movie before, from Russia's backsliding and lack of transparency, to the US saying "you go first", and proposing linking our withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons from Europe to reductions on the Russian side. As Daryl Kimball, the Executive Director of the Arms Control Association said:

Linking NATO action on its residual tactical nuclear stockpile to Russian action on tactical nuclear weapons is a recipe for delay and inaction.

I would go as far as to say that although we've made some progress toward better relations with Russia when it comes to strategic nuclear weapons, we've hardly "hit the reset button" when it comes to tactical nuclear weapons.

In fact, given the statements coming out of the NATO meeting, I think we've hit the "pause" button.

There is a unique window of opportunity in the current political atmosphere, but it won't stay open forever. Sadly, I think we're looking back at the past instead of thinking about the future.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

The photo above was taken in December 2009. It's a White House Situation Room meeting between President Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Special Assistant to the President (Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD) Gary Samore, Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. They're discussing nuclear arms control and non-proliferation, which is a subject of constant interest to them, but only rarely makes it into the media spotlight...

... until this month. "Nuclear Spring" is what one analyst called it. We saw tremendous news coverage of the signing of a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), release of the Nuclear Posture Review, and President Obama's historic Nuclear Security Summit.

Now that all the meetings are over, the fancy pens put away, and everyone is back in Washington, DC, press coverage has died down, but the Senate consideration of the New START treaty is starting to gain steam. Lugar has said that he hopes they can "work quickly to achieve ratification of the new treaty."

Senator Lugar is in for a frustrating battle against fellow Senate Republicans who are already spinning and distorting the facts of the treaty. Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) is the most vocal so far; in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, and at a seminar at the National Defense University Foundation, he repeated the myth that the New START treaty limits missile defense, and fretted over his favorite topic, nuclear warhead modernization:

Mr. Kyl said he believed the restrictions on replacement parts and what he viewed as inadequate funding for refurbishing weapons were signs that the administration wouldn't produce a modernization plan for the U.S.'s nuclear arsenal that he could accept. "I am not going to be a party to getting a treaty ratified if I'm not sure that there's commitment on the other side to an adequate plan."

I'm not going to go into detail regarding missile defense and New START, since I've explained it before. The treaty does not limit missile defense; if you still aren't convinced, read National Security Advisor General James L. Jones' letter, published in the Wall Street Journal last week.

What Kyl means by "modernization" is somewhat vague, and a bit confused, since the US has a modernization program in place already. A very detailed Arms Control Association fact sheet explains it well, introducing the subject as:

The U.S. military is in the process of rebuilding, or modernizing, most of its existing strategic delivery systems and the warheads they carry to last for the next 20-30 years or more.  These systems are in many cases being completely rebuilt with essentially all new parts, although they are not technically "new" systems.  This distinction between "rebuilt" and "new" has led some to reach the mistaken conclusion that the U.S. strategic weapon systems are not being "modernized."


As this fact sheet demonstrates, the United States currently has "a significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent."  A robust program to refurbish U.S. nuclear warheads and modernize strategic delivery systems is well underway...

But regardless of definitions, and Kyl's complaints, "modernization" is not connected to the New START ratification process.

Nuclear Warhead Modernization Is Separate From New START Ratification

What I would like to put to rest today is the Republicans' spin that warhead modernization goes hand-in-hand with New START approval. No matter how many times the media prints that inaccuracy, it simply isn't true.

I talked to Kingston Reif, the Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. I asked him about the modernization argument, and he emphasized that it's separate from the treaty:

The point I want to make is that the issue of modernization, and the issue of the treaty are separate issues... we should want our weapons to be safe, secure, and effective whether we have one or thousands. We should want them to be safe, secure, and effective whether we have the treaty or not. The required reliability for our weapons depends first and foremost on the roles and missions we give them, not how many we have. I think the same goes for our intellectual infrastructure at the nuclear laboratories. We should want capable people no matter how many weapons we have. So, the two issues are separate.

I think it's also worth pointing out that on the issue of arms control and weapons reductions, the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, which released its final report in May of 2009, and which Kyl and the Republicans often like to cite as requiring a modernization plan for the US nuclear deterrent, nowhere in the report is there any attempt to make the modest reductions called for in New START contingent upon the design and production of new warheads, for example.

So, I think these should be seen as two separate issues. Unfortunately, the Republicans are going to try to link the two.

It's All Being Funded Anyway

Reif reminded me that the Republicans had sent a letter (pdf) to President Obama in December 2009, requesting:

... full and timely life extension programs for the B-61 and W-76 warheads. It also called for funding for what the letter defines as a "modern warhead", that includes new approaches to the life extension, which could involve, potentially, replacement. They called for full funding for stockpile surveillance work as well as science and engineering campaigns at the labs. Then they called for full funding and replacement of the plutonium facility at Los Alamos, and the uranium facilities at Y-12 at Oak Ridge.

Although what they mean by a "modern warhead" is somewhat vague, everything else they requested was fully funded. As Reif pointed out:

I would just like to re-emphasize one thing. The budget that the administration released this year, the FY2011 budget, and the funding that it calls for, there's no doubt that it provides more than enough resources to maintain the safety, security, and reliability of the stockpile going forward. The Secretary of Defense has attested to that fact, the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, STRATCOM commander, the head of NNSA, they've all said that the budget and the NPR provide a strong plan moving forward to ensure and enhance the safety, security, and effectiveness of the arsenal.

Reif also pointed out that we'll get a better idea of what the Republicans arguments are once the 10-year Report on the Plan for the Nuclear Weapons Stockpile, Nuclear Weapons Complex, and Delivery Platforms is submitted with the New START treaty, as required by the FY2010 Defense Authorization Act.

As Usual, Stay Tuned

According to recent media reports, "formal ratification efforts" are supposed to start in the US Senate and the Russian parliament next month. However, as we know, it's possible there will be delays. Although Obama wants the treaty ratified this year, it may not happen until next year.

It's going to be one hell of a fight. Kingston Reif told me that he thinks "it's going to secure overwhelming support", but he's not sure when it will happen.

The treaty, and Obama's overall "nuclear roadmap" has very, very strong backing from everyone, from the Secretary of Defense to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, STRATCOM, and other military agencies.

The Republicans are going to look pretty silly opposing it, but that won't stop them.


Since the beginning of April, there has been quite a rush of headline-making nuclear weapons news. The Obama Administration released its Nuclear Posture Review, which laid out significant changes from past such roadmaps; Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev signed a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which will keep both of our countries on track to further arms reductions in the future; and finally, President Obama held a very successful, and rather unprecedented, Nuclear Security Summit, that yielded not only good discussions, but solid national and international goals.

John Isaacs, the Executive Director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, is not given to hyperbole, so you know it's a big deal when he says:

The last two weeks have arguably been the two most eventful weeks on reducing the dangers posed by nuclear weapons since the advent of the nuclear age.

There really was quite a lot going on, and you can read my series of posts on the events here.

A Timely Pulitzer Prize

All of the big stories I mentioned ultimately have their origins in the Cold War and the frightening arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The problems of nuclear weapons, and even biological weapons, didn't just disappear when the Soviet Union collapsed. Twenty years later, we are still dealing with international security issues that started with the escalation of Cold War tensions and the resulting arsenals.

No one does a better job of pointing that out than author and Washington Post contributing editor, David E. Hoffman, who was just awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in the "General Nonfiction" category. His book, The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy, is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the Cold War, its key players, and the decisions they made -- or in some cases, the decisions they didn't make. It's a must-read for policy wonks, lawmakers, and anyone interested in weapons of mass destruction and their role in past as well as present US relations with the rest of the world.

It's also a must-read for anyone who's had a general eye on the news and wants to know the bigger picture of US-Russian relations, and why it is absolutely essential that both countries ratify the New START treaty as soon as possible.

Nuclear Arsenals and "Star Wars"

The beauty of Hoffman's book is that it's absolutely packed with information, but the narrative is so clear and engaging that it's like reading an interesting story rather than a dry historical account. He doesn't just fill in the gaps of what we didn't know about the Soviet side of the Cold War; he introduces us to a cast of characters as real and as vivid as someone sitting next to you. He takes us through the records and notes of Soviet Communist Party Central Committee staffer Vitaly Katayev, and shows us for the first time that Mikhail Gorbachev had the option to respond to Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) by starting a "Star Wars" program of his own, as well as a massive asymmetrical response involving a huge expansion of the Soviet nuclear weapons program. In fact, Gorbachev did neither; instead, he opted to try to convince Reagan to give up SDI at the Reykjavik summit.

One of the best aspects of The Dead Hand is that it takes a clear-eyed view of both Reagan and Gorbachev: their agreements, their disagreements, and their ultimate successes and failures. While it is absolutely true that Reagan did want to abolish nuclear weapons, he didn't want to give them up in a vacuum and not replace them with anything. On the contrary, he only wanted to give them up if he could have his "Star Wars" space-based missile defense system. His inflexibility on this was essentially what sunk the Reykjavik summit. If he had been more flexible, he and Gorbachev could have made huge strides toward eliminating part of their respective nuclear arsenals. But he was not. It's important to remember that, especially these days, when everyone seems bent on recasting Reagan as some kind of pure nuclear abolitionist, a dove in disguise, if you will.

"Launch-Ready Alert"

Last December, when I interviewed David Hoffman, one of the questions I asked him was: if President Obama had 15 minutes to spare, which part of the book should he read? Hoffman told me:

Hands down, the answer is, I want him to read about Stanislav Petrov and the false alarm. [See "Night Watch For Nuclear War", in the Prologue, which you can read here.]

The reason is this. The hair-trigger alert, which drove so much of the absurdities and the madness of the Cold War, has not gone away. It's part of the "Dead Hand" legacy. Today, according to the best estimates that I've seen, we -- meaning the United States and Russia, the two major nuclear superpowers -- have maybe 1,500 or more nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert, or what the specialists call launch-ready alert. This could mean launched from land or sea in just minutes. I say in the book it would take just one or two minutes to launch and fire the land-based missiles, and maybe 12 minutes for the submarines. The only reason  we have this is that we're frightening each other, but we're no longer enemies, or adversaries, really, not in a strategic nuclear sense. To me, one of the things that I want Obama to realize is to not be afraid of de-alerting, because de-alerting is something we could do with our own hands. It's not that difficult to create a delay of an hour, of a week, or a month before you can put a warhead on a missile, but to take down this alert structure that's a relic of the Cold War. The Petrov thing dramatizes it.

I think that de-alerting deeply worries the American military, and they're resistant to it. No question there are verification and other problems. But political leaders need to say, "As a civilian political leader, we need to stop this kind of alert because there's no use for it anymore." Certainly, it should be done by both sides, and if both sides said "we will introduce procedures so that we have at least twelve hours before any launch decision could be made," that would make the world concretely safer.

But I don't even think people today understand that we still have missiles on alert like this.

One thing that nuclear treaties do is create trust, which is why that example is particularly vivid in light of the fact that the US and Russia just signed a New START Treaty.

Another Legacy: "Loose Nukes", Secret Germs

You can't have a nuclear program without making lots and lots of plutonium and uranium. Hoffman writes about Project Sapphire, which was the US-led effort to secure 1,278 pounds of highly enriched uranium from an almost unsecured location in Kazakhstan. It is but one example of poorly secured bomb-grade nuclear material in the former Soviet republics, and he explains this in some detail in his book. As we saw from the news about the Nuclear Security Summit last week, the problem is ongoing.

Another really frightening part of Hoffman's book is his description of the rather extensive Soviet biological weapons program, which was still operating (to some extent) even after the end of the Cold War. Although there is no need for secrecy, the Russians are still less than forthcoming about some of their military biological laboratories, even today. Hoffman also emphasizes the attractiveness of former Soviet bioweapons scientists' knowledge to states with dubious intentions, like Iran and North Korea; in our interview, he emphasized that he's not alone in worrying about this.

The point is, that although the Cold War is long over, its legacy affects global security and will extend far beyond today, well into the future.

Further Reading

To save you a few Google searches, I'll just point you to where David Hoffman is writing now. He's been writing about nukes over at; definitely check out his piece on tactical nuclear weapons, and his pieces on the Nuclear Posture Review and the New START Treaty, among others. You can also read something he published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists last year on how the Soviet biological weapons program was revealed.

All of these, plus the excerpt from his book that you can read at his website, will give you a taste of the breadth of knowledge he has. It's worth picking up his book. We're going to be hearing about these issues for many, many years to come.

President Barack Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine, during the Nuclear Security Summit at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., April 12, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama participates in a bilateral meeting with President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine, during the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., April 12, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

For the past eight years or so, the Nuclear Threat Initiative has commissioned a series of reports called "Securing The Bomb". The lead author of these reports is Harvard professor Matthew Bunn, who is an expert in nuclear security and proliferation. The reports deal with the ongoing problem of poorly secured weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, and the possibility of their acquisition and use by terrorists.

Regarding this global nuclear security issue, Dr. Bunn has this to say:

“The challenge is large and complex, but it is a finite task; it is doable... Our biggest obstacle is not complexity; it’s complacency.”

"Securing the Bomb 2010" emphasizes the problem of complacency over and over again.

The Obama administration's Nuclear Security Summit was a refreshing move away from the relative complacency of the previous presidential administration. For the first time, the rhetoric is backed up by action. The Nuclear Security Summit won't magically solve the problem over night, but it did achieve some concrete goals, as well as setting more for the future.

The Nuclear Security Summit: An Overview

I posted an overview of President Obama's Nuclear Security Summit a few days ago; in that overview, I went into the nature of the threat as well as what the Summit hoped to achieve. To summarize: there is a lot of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium out there, and not all of it is safe and secure from theft, smuggling, and eventual use in a weapon. The Obama administration has set forth the general goal of securing all of the world's weapons-usable nuclear material in the next four years. The Obama administration hoped that the Nuclear Security Summit would set in motion at the very least, an increased awareness of the problem of "loose nukes", and even better, some commitments from the world leaders attending.

They achieved quite a lot, as it turns out.

The Nuclear Security Summit: Achievements

Real-World Examples

Doubtless these arrangements were months in the making, but the announcement of them at the Nuclear Security Summit is important. It sets an example of the spirit of cooperation that was part of the reason for holding the summit.

At the Summit, it was announced that:

  • Ukraine will give up all 68kg of its highly-enriched uranium (HEU) so it can be stored safely elsewhere (read more about it here);
  • Russia will shut down its last weapons-grade plutonium-producting reactor (more here);
  • The US and Russia have signed an update to their plutonium disposition agreement, committing to safely dispose of/secure "no less than 34 metric tons" of weapons-grade plutonium in each country by 2018;
  • Canada will return spent HEU to the US for safe storage (more here); and
  • The US, Canada, and Mexico have reached a trilateral agreement to work with the IAEA to convert the fuel in Mexico's research reactor from HEU to LEU.
  • China will join UN talks on possible sanctions against Iran.

Three Days of Meetings, Distilled On Paper

The Summit produced several high-level documents. The Summit Communiqué (pdf) is a pledge agreed upon by the 47 Summit attendees. It is summarized in a Key Facts document (pdf). The Communiqué:

  • Endorses President Obama’s call to secure all vulnerable nuclear material in four years, and pledges to work together toward this end;
  • Calls for focused national efforts to improve security and accounting of nuclear materials and strengthen regulations – with a special focus on plutonium and highly enriched uranium;
  • Seeks consolidation of stocks of highly enriched uranium and plutonium and reduction in the use of highly enriched uranium;
  • Promotes universality of key international treaties on nuclear security and nuclear terrorism;
  • Notes the positive contributions of mechanisms like the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, to build capacity among law enforcement, industry, and technical personnel;
  • Calls for the International Atomic Energy Agency to receive the resources it needs to develop nuclear security guidelines and provide advice to its members on how to implement them;
  • Seeks to ensure that bilateral and multilateral security assistance would be applied where it can do the most good; and
  • Encourages nuclear industry to share best practices for nuclear security, at the same time making sure that security measures do not prevent countries from enjoying the benefits of peaceful nuclear energy.

The Summit also produced a Work Plan (pdf) that describes specific ways that the goals in the Communiqué can be achieved.

Finally, many of the Summit's participants came up with specific national statements indicating how they will work domestically and multilaterally to achieve their specific nuclear security goals. I think the United States National Statement (pdf) will be of particular interest to a number of watchdog groups and critics. Among many things, it pledges to:

The Nuclear Security Summit definitely had its limitations, but overall it is being hailed as a successful shift from simply talking about the threat of nuclear terrorism to taking action, and making that critical step toward cooperation on securing dangerous nuclear materials world-wide.

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