As we’ve discussed previously on this blog and elsewhere, keeping these weapons on hair-trigger alert so they can be launched within minutes creates the risk of a mistaken launch in response to false warning of an incoming attack.
This practice dates to the Cold War, when US and Soviet military strategists feared a surprise first-strike nuclear attack that could destroy land-based missiles. By keeping missiles on hair-trigger alert, they could be launched before they could be destroyed on the ground. But as the letter notes, removing land-based missiles from hair-trigger alert “would still leave many hundreds of submarine-based warheads on alert—many more than necessary to maintain a reliable and credible deterrent.”
“Land-based nuclear missiles on high alert present the greatest risk of mistaken launch,” the letter states. “National leaders would have only a short amount of time—perhaps 10 minutes—to assess a warning and make a launch decision before these missiles could be destroyed by an incoming attack.”
Over the past few decades there have been numerous U.S. and Russian false alarms—due to technical failures, human errors and misinterpretations of data—that could have prompted a nuclear launch. The scientists’ letter points out that today’s heightened tension between the United States and Russia increases that risk.
The scientists’ letter reminds President Obama that he called for taking nuclear-armed missiles off hair-trigger alert after being elected president. During his 2008 presidential campaign, he also noted, “[K]eeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation.”
Other senior political and military officials have also called for an end to hair-trigger alert.
The scientists’ letter comes at an opportune time, since the White House is considering what steps the president could take in his remaining time in office to reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons.]]>
According to the president’s speech writer, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s remarks “will reaffirm America’s longstanding commitment — and the President’s personal commitment — to pursue the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. As the President has said, the United States has a special responsibility to continue to lead in pursuit of that objective as we are the only nation to have used a nuclear weapon.”
But the president must do more than give another beautiful speech about nuclear disarmament. The world needs—indeed, is desperate for—concrete action.
There are many meaningful steps that President Obama can take that will make every American safer—without the approval of Congress or agreement of Russia. As UCS and its faith partners—the National Association of Evangelicals, the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the National Latino Evangelical Coalition—noted in their May 4 statement Faith and Science Leaders Agree: Reduce the Threat of Nuclear Catastrophe Now, the president should:
In Prague in 2009, President Obama committed the United States to reducing the role of nuclear weapons and putting an end to Cold War thinking.
It’s time to walk the talk, Mr. President.]]>
Five years ago today, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan was hit first with a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and then with a 50-foot tsunami.
The reactors shut down as they were designed to do, but the nuclear core of a shut-down reactor remains hot and needs to be cooled to prevent a meltdown of the fuel. In addition, the radioactive spent fuel stored in pools of water needs to be cooled. Cooling requires electrical power—but the electric grid was destroyed and the backup diesel generators, located in the basements, were flooded and rendered useless.
In the following days, the three operating reactors suffered melt-downs and released radiation into the environment, significantly contaminating hundreds of square miles. Fortunately, Fukushima is located in a rural area, but some 100,000 evacuees remain unable to return to their homes.
Japan has been cleaning up the surrounding region by removing contaminated soil and placing it in large plastic bags, but has no long-term storage facility to accommodate the millions of waste-containing bags. The ultimate cost to Japanese taxpayers for the cleanup and compensation is estimated to be $100 billion.
But what has this got to do with nuclear power in the United States? A lot, it turns out.
There are many ways a reactor can lose offsite and backup electrical power—triggering a “station blackout” and disabling cooling equipment. Many U.S. reactors are more vulnerable to earthquake and flooding risks than was assumed when the reactors were built. For example, 34 reactors—one-third of the U.S. fleet—could face flooding hazards greater than they were designed to withstand if an upstream dam fails. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the agency that oversees the nuclear industry, has known about these risks for over 15 years and has failed to adequately address them.
Similarly, seismologists have determined that the earthquake risk in the central and eastern parts of the U.S. is greater than was understood when most reactors in those areas were built. The NRC now requires new reactors built in these areas to be designed with protection against the greater hazard—but has done nothing about existing reactors. The agency has identified 27 reactors that were not built to withstand the local earthquake risk based on current seismic information.
Following the Fukushima accident, the NRC understood that the United States needed to do a better job of preparing for natural disasters and other events that a reactor was not built to withstand. The NRC calls these “beyond design-basis” or “severe” events.
The agency appointed a task force of senior staff to determine how to make U.S. reactors safer if they were to confront an accident like that at Fukushima. In July 2011 the task force released a report with a dozen detailed multi-part recommendations.
So far, so good. But what has happened since then?
My colleague Ed Lyman, a senior scientist here at UCS, has just released a report assessing what the NRC and industry have done to carry out these recommendations: Preventing an American Fukushima: Limited Progress Five Years after Japan’s Nuclear Power Plant Disaster.
The bottom line is that the NRC “has rejected or significantly weakened many of the commonsense recommendations made by the task force.” And while “the NRC and the nuclear industry have devoted several billion dollars and much time and labor to addressing [some] of the task force recommendations … it is difficult to assess to what extent that considerable effort will reduce the risk to the public from severe nuclear accidents.”
Perhaps most disturbing is that the NRC rejected the top recommendation made by the task force—to overhaul what it called a “patchwork” of NRC regulations and industry voluntary guidelines for “beyond-design-basis” events.
The main industry response to the Fukushima accident has been the FLEX program (short for “diverse and flexible coping capability”). The goal of this program is to stockpile extra emergency equipment, including diesel-powered pumps and backup power supplies, to allow cooling during a prolonged loss of alternating current power. But as Ed’s report details, the industry got out ahead of the NRC and began buying equipment before the NRC developed any requirements for the equipment. One result is that the industry bought commercially available equipment, which is cheaper but may not be able to survive a severe accident of the sort it would be needed for.
So, the more than 100 million people living within 50 miles of a U.S. reactor may—or may not—be safer than they were five years ago. They certainly aren’t as safe as they would be had the NRC followed more closely the recommendations of its own task force.
To improve the safety of U.S. reactors in the event of a severe accident, the NRC must revamp its regulatory framework for beyond design-basis events. UCS hopes that future NRC commissioners will revisit the decision not to do so.]]>
Producing MOX fuel would make it easier for terrorists to steal the plutonium, which they could then use to make their own nuclear weapon(s). Neither plutonium nor MOX fuel is highly radioactive, and it would be relatively easy for terrorists to extract the plutonium from MOX. The MOX production facility would handle plutonium in vast quantities, and it would be impossible to keep track of it with enough precision—down to a few kilograms out of many tons—to make sure the small amount needed for a bomb was not missing. And transporting the MOX fuel to reactors would provide another opportunity for terrorists to steal the material.
An alternative approach is to dilute the plutonium with an inert material and dispose of it by burying it deep underground, making it hard to steal. This “dilute and dispose” option would not only be safer, it would be cheaper.
Yet in 1999 the United States set off down the MOX path. It has now half-finished constructing a MOX production facility in South Carolina. But it has run into problems along the way. The facility is now behind schedule and way over budget: an initial estimated lifecycle cost of $5 billion (in 2015 dollars) has now ballooned to $30 billion or more.
But now there’s some good news. According to the Fiscal Year 2017 budget request to Congress released by the administration last week, “beginning in FY 2017 the MOX project will be terminated.” This is a big step, but Congress will also have its say. The South Carolina delegation will press hard to fund completion of the MOX plant, throwing good money after bad.
The budget request also states that the Department of Energy will instead pursue the dilute and dispose option. It is important to note that even though the MOX plant is half-built, it will still be cheaper to dilute and dispose of the plutonium.
UCS has been working for years to cancel the MOX project. Most recently, UCS Senior Scientist Edwin Lyman made the case against the MOX option and explored alternatives in his 2015 report, Excess Plutonium Disposition: The Failure of MOX and the Promise of Its Alternatives.
At the same time, UCS has also sought to make the MOX plant less susceptible to theft should the project proceed. For over a decade, Ed has been providing expert assistance to local citizens’ groups that legally challenged the MOX plant licensing by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). There have been some positive outcomes: the NRC licensing board required the plant owner to strengthen its plan for plutonium monitoring. However, the licensing board did not require the owner to have a NRC-approved cybersecurity plan in place to protect its computerized monitoring system from hackers. But this won’t matter if the United States truly lays the MOX plan to rest.
Of course, UCS will not let up on its efforts until it is clear the program will not be resurrected.
Featured photo: The MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility, under construction. (Source: Friends of the Earth)]]>
First, the forest:
The Iran nuclear deal is a good thing. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as it is officially titled, will make it more difficult for Iran to produce the fissile material needed to make a nuclear weapon, should it decide to do so.
And if Iran did decide to pursue a nuclear weapon, the deal will make it more likely that the world will have warning and the warning time will be longer than it would without a deal, providing more time for the international community to respond.
Thus, the deal is an important step forward in curbing Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon.
Let’s take a step further back. At the core of this issue is a problem inherent to nuclear power: some types of civil nuclear facilities can also be used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. In particular, almost all power reactors worldwide use uranium fuel that has been “enriched” to increase the concentration of the isotope U-235 above that in uranium found in nature. Natural uranium ore contains less than 1% U-235, and reactor fuel typically contains 3 to 5% U-235. Nuclear weapons typically use uranium that has been enriched to 90% or greater, but enrichment facilities producing low-enriched uranium (LEU) for fuel can be operated to produce weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) instead.
Reactors fueled with uranium produce plutonium as they use the fuel. Some countries have reprocessing facilities that extract the plutonium from spent fuel, and this plutonium can be used to build nuclear weapons as well as to fuel reactors.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) gives its signatories the right to develop nuclear power, including enrichment and reprocessing facilities. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is charged with both facilitating nuclear power programs in these countries and carrying out inspections to verify that their facilities are not used to produce fissile material for weapons.
However, any country that possesses enrichment or reprocessing facilities will have the latent ability to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. In other words, a country could throw out the IAEA inspectors and use these facilities for weapons purposes. The time needed to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon—the “breakout time”—will depend on the type and size of the facilities. But ultimately, the real barrier to a weapons program is not technical, but political.
The United States provided Iran with its first research reactor in 1967 as part of its “Atoms for Peace” program. The Shah had plans to build some two dozen nuclear power plants, and a German company was building Iran’s first two reactors at Bushehr when construction was halted by the Iranian revolution in 1979. One of the reactors was later completed by a Russian contractor, and began operating in 2011. Russia has a contract to provide fuel for the Bushehr reactor, and Iran will return the spent fuel to Russia.
Iran signed the NPT on the day it opened for signature in 1968, obligating it to not produce or acquire nuclear weapons. Accordingly, the IAEA applies “safeguards” to Iran’s nuclear facilities to verify that they are not being used for nuclear weapons purposes.
In 1997, the IAEA developed an “Additional Protocol” that NPT signatories can voluntarily adopt. The protocol requires the signatory state to provide additional information about its nuclear activities to the IAEA and allows the agency to conduct inspections at any facilities or sites that it suspects may be engaged in undeclared nuclear activities. The majority of NPT states have adopted the Additional Protocol, but Iran has not.
In 2002, an Iranian dissident group publicly revealed that Iran had two nuclear facilities under construction that it had not informed the IAEA about: a uranium enrichment facility in Natanz and a heavy water production facility in Arak. The latter would provide heavy water for the planned research reactor in Arak. U.S. and other intelligence agencies almost certainly knew about these facilities before their existence was made public.
At the time Iran was only required to inform the IAEA about these facilities six months before nuclear material was introduced into them, which had not yet happened, so it was still in compliance with its safeguards obligations. Nonetheless, these revelations put into motion a series of negotiations between Iran, the IAEA, and various European nations. As a result, in 2003 Iran agreed to inform the IAEA of any nuclear facilities as soon as it decided to build them. Iran also signed the Additional Protocol. However, it did not ratify the agreement, and suspended it in 2006, although it has continued to allow the IAEA to conduct its regular safeguards inspections.
The IAEA found that Iran had failed to report numerous nuclear-related activities, and in 2006 reported to the UN Security Council that Iran was not in compliance with its safeguards agreement. Shortly thereafter, the Security Council demanded that Iran suspend all enrichment activities and then imposed sanctions on Iran after it refused to do so.
In 2011, the IAEA also reported that it had evidence that Iran had conducted non-nuclear experiments relevant to designing nuclear weapons until 2003. In particular, the agency believes that Iran had conducted research on the high explosives needed to kick off a nuclear explosion at its Parchin military base.
Now for the trees:
Under the terms of the nuclear deal, Iran will accept significant constraints on its nuclear program for the next 10 to 15 years (recall that the NPT places no restraints on the peaceful nuclear programs of its signatories). It will sign and implement the Additional Protocol, the provisions of which will extend indefinitely. It will also allow IAEA monitoring and inspections beyond those required by the protocol for the next 15 to 25 years.
There are several potential pathways for Iran to produce the fissile material needed for a bomb—it could enrich uranium using known facilities, produce plutonium using known facilities, or operate covert facilities. The deal constrains those pathways for the next 10 to 15 years.
Iran has uranium enrichment facilities at Fordow and Natanz, with a total of some 19,000 centrifuges. Under the deal, Iran will disassemble and store roughly 13,000 centrifuges. It will not enrich uranium at Fordow, but will maintain 1,000 centrifuges at that facility, some of which will be used to produce stable isotopes for research or commercial purposes with the remaining kept idle. It will continue to enrich uranium at Natanz, but only using about 5,000 of its first-generation IR-1 centrifuges, and only to an enrichment level of 3.67 percent.
But perhaps most significantly, Iran will reduce its current stockpile of about 10,000 kg of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to 300 kg of 3.67 percent LEU for 15 years. It is much easier to produce weapon-grade uranium if you start with 3.67 percent LEU rather than natural uranium—by about a factor of three. By essentially eliminating Iran’s stockpile of LEU, the deal extends the time it would take Iran to produce enough material for a weapon.
How long would it take for Iran to acquire enough HEU to build a bomb, if it decided to leave the NPT and threw the inspectors out?
There is no precise answer to this question, because it depends on a host of factors that are not precisely known—such as the amount of HEU required for Iran’s bomb design, the performance of its centrifuges, and how quickly Iran could reinstall the centrifuges that will be disassembled and in storage under the terms of the deal. The administration states that currently, it would take Iran 2-3 months, and that under the agreement the “breakout time” would increase to a year. A breakout time of roughly a year is consistent with the following reasonable assumptions: (1) a nuclear weapon would require roughly 28 kg of weapons-grade HEU (90% enriched), which is the standard IAEA assumption; (2) the average capacity of Iran’s IR-1 centrifuges is about 0.75 SWU/year, as indicated by the latest data from Iran’s May 2105 report to the IAEA; and (3) Iran would use all 6,000 installed IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz and Fordow, but could not reinstall the 13,000 disassembled centrifuges within a year.
While the breakout time would vary somewhat depending on the details, it will be significantly longer under the deal than it is today.
What if Iran decided to instead follow a plutonium route to a bomb? Iran could produce plutonium at its Arak research reactor, now under construction. While all reactors fueled with uranium produce plutonium, some types of reactors produce it at a higher rate than others. As initially configured, the Arak reactor would produce enough plutonium in its spent fuel for roughly one nuclear weapon each year. However, the spent fuel would need to be reprocessed to extract the plutonium, and Iran has no reprocessing facility.
Under the agreement, Iran will destroy the existing reactor core, and replace it with one of a new design, which would require ten years to produce enough plutonium for one nuclear weapon. Iran will ship all spent fuel out of the country for the lifetime of the reactor.
Moreover, under the deal Iran has agreed to not reprocess or engage in reprocessing R&D for 15 years, and states that it does not intend to do so after that.
Finally, what if Iran tried to build a covert enrichment or reprocessing facility? Under the agreement, the IAEA will monitor all uranium ore mined in Iran or imported, cutting off Iran’s ability to supply uranium to any covert enrichment facility. In addition, Iran would not be able to surreptitiously acquire spent fuel to reprocess since its reactors will be monitored.
Moreover, under the agreement, the IAEA has the right to inspect any site where it suspects Iran is engaged in prohibited activities. An inspection must take place within 24 days from the time of the request, and any work with fissile material would leave a detectable trace.
The agreement puts strong, verifiable restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, and the U.S. Congress should endorse it.
In addition, the United States and other countries can do more to widen the gap between nuclear power and nuclear weapons—in Iran and elsewhere.
The United States does not reprocess its spent fuel, and this policy has helped constrain reprocessing by other countries. The United States should continue to work to persuade other nations to forgo reprocessing.
As several researchers at Princeton—Alexander Glaser, Zia Mian and Frank von Hippel—advocate in an article in Science, the parties to the Iran agreement should invest in Iran’s enrichment facility so that it becomes multinational. And the United States should abandon its plan for a new national enrichment facility, instead continuing to rely on Urenco, a company owned by Britain, Germany and the Netherlands. A U.S. commitment to multinational enrichment would help create a regime in which all enrichment facilities were multinational and, as the Princeton group put it, “in which nuclear power rules apply equally to all states.”]]>
The bomb was later determined to have the explosive power of 21,000 tons of TNT. But in addition to a blast wave, and intense heat and light, this bomb produced something new: radioactivity. High levels of radiation spread as far as 90 miles from the test site, dropped by the mushroom cloud as it dispersed toward the northwest.
The test, code-named “Trinity,” was of a plutonium bomb. During the Manhattan Project, the United States built two types of atomic weapons—one using uranium, and one using plutonium. The uranium bomb had a design that was almost assured of working. And the United States had only been able to produce enough uranium for one bomb—the one that destroyed Hiroshima, Japan on Aug 6, 1945.
But the plutonium bomb needed a more complicated design. It was an implosion-type weapon, which required a spherical shell of conventional high explosives to detonate symmetrically around a plutonium core to compress it enough to create a critical mass, thus allowing the plutonium to fission. And the United States had produced enough plutonium for several bombs—so one could be used up in a test.
Some of the scientists had worried that the test might ignite the atmosphere, but decided that this was a low enough probability to proceed with the test.
Others believed the bomb would not work at all. They were proved wrong, and another such weapon was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9.
Another milestone of the nuclear age was the 1952 “Ivy Mike” test by the United States of the first “hydrogen” or “thermonuclear” weapon. Such weapons can be much more powerful than the atomic bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They have two stages, the first of which is essentially a plutonium-based atomic bomb. Because these weapons are complex, to confirm that a new design will work, it needs to be explosively tested.
Following the Trinity Test, the United States, Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China conducted some 500 nuclear tests above ground, leaving a detectable layer of radioactive elements in sediment worldwide. The tests also resulted in strontium-laced milk from cows that had eaten grass contaminated by fallout. In response to growing public concern about the effects of radioactivity, an international treaty banned above ground testing went into effect in 1963 and these nations switched to underground testing, which largely eliminated fallout. (However, some underground tests have “leaked” and vented radioactivity into the atmosphere.)
Since 1963, another 1,500 tests have been conducted worldwide, and India, Pakistan and North Korea have joined in. (There is lingering disagreement about whether Israel, which has nuclear weapons, conducted an atmospheric test in 1979 off Antarctica.)
An international treaty banning all nuclear testing—the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)—was negotiated in 1996. Only India, Pakistan and North Korea—which have not signed the treaty—have tested since then. The United States was not just the first to test—it has conducted the most tests: 1,054. It produced 65 different types of nuclear weapons.
The main motivation for negotiating the CTBT was that it would both prevent existing weapon states from developing new types of nuclear weapons and prevent other nations from going nuclear. The 185 non-nuclear parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) have made the CTBT a priority for the five nuclear states to fulfill their obligations under the NPT.
But now the United States has called into question the efficacy of the CTBT. Scientists at the U.S. weapons laboratories now believe that their computer simulations are sophisticated enough that the United States can forgo nuclear testing of new designs. Despite President Obama’s pledge to “not develop new nuclear warheads” the United States is planning to do just that. The alternative is for the United States to refurbish existing weapons, which it has done to date.
This plan to develop, produce and deploy new types of nuclear weapons undermines the CTBT, and hence the NPT. Yet it is in U.S. security interests to strengthen these two international regimes.
Moreover, while U.S. weapons designers may be confident that these new weapons will work as intended even if they do not undergo nuclear testing, future U.S. policy makers may not share this confidence and push for a resumption of U.S. nuclear testing. This would likely unleash a spate of nuclear testing by other nations.
For these reasons, the United States should abandon its plan to develop and produce new weapons. It could finally end the continuous development of new weapons that it began 70 years ago.]]>
The 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or “NPT”, divides the world into nuclear weapons haves and have-nots, with the five nuclear weapon states—the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, and France—committed to nuclear disarmament in exchange for which the other 186 parties have pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons. The treaty includes inspections to make sure that countries with nuclear power programs don’t use the technology to produce nuclear weapons materials.
All but five countries are party to the treaty—India, Israel, and Pakistan have nuclear arsenals and have never signed; North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003 and now has nuclear weapons; and South Sudan, which came into existence in 2011, has yet to sign.
So what will happen at this Review Conference? The five nuclear weapon states will try to convince the rest of the world that they are making progress on disarmament, and the other nations will push for concrete steps to match the rhetoric.
Does this dialogue matter? You bet it does. The non-nuclear weapon states are increasingly frustrated that the weapon states are making slow progress toward fulfilling their half of the bargain. If this continues, the NPT could eventually unravel, and more countries may decide to get nuclear weapons.
The U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and policies will be a subject of particular concern, and for good reason. With some 4,500 weapons each, the two nations account for over 90% of the world’s weapons. And both countries keep large numbers of their nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert to allow their launch on warning of an incoming attack.
But warning systems are not perfect, creating the risk of a mistaken launch based on false or misinterpreted warning. And this is not a theoretical concern: the U.S. and Soviet/Russian systems have suffered false warnings of an incoming attack.
Another problem with launch-on-warning is that the decision time is so short. It would take only 25 minutes for a land-based missile to reach the other country (and even less for a missile launched from a submarine). It would take roughly 10 minutes for satellite- and ground-based sensors to detect the launch, leaving less than 15 minutes for the U.S. or Russian president to decide whether the warning is accurate and whether to launch in response.
Yet another problem is that keeping missiles primed to be launched quickly increases the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch.
At the last Review Conference, in 2010, one of the recommendations adopted by consensus was to: “Consider the legitimate interest of non-nuclear-weapon states in further reducing the operational status of nuclear weapons systems in ways that promote international stability and security.” (“Reducing the operational status” is code for taking weapons off hair-trigger alert.)
And last year at the United Nations, 166 countries voted in support of a resolution to “decrease the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems, with a view to ensuring that all nuclear weapons are removed from high alert status.” Four countries—guess which ones—opposed it (the U.S., Russia, Britain, and France).
The topic will come up again at this Review Conference. The Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI), a coalition including Japan, Canada and Germany, will bring to the meeting a working paper that calls on all nuclear weapons states to take “concrete and meaningful steps, whether unilaterally, bilaterally or regionally, to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons.”
What does the United States have to say for itself? The State Department has just put out a fact sheet—Myths and Facts Regarding the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Regime—that tries to make the case that the U.S. is already doing its part to fulfill the requirements of the NPT. It includes a discussion of the U.S. hair-trigger posture.
First, the United States objects to the term “hair-trigger” (the U.S. military uses the terms “prompt launch” or “ready alert” instead). Second, the fact sheet notes that the United States “employs multiple, rigorous and redundant technical and procedural safeguards to protect against accidental or unauthorized launch.” Presumably true, but things can still go wrong. And note that the fact sheet doesn’t say anything about a mistaken launch based on wrong information about an incoming attack, because all the safeguards are irrelevant if the president decides to launch.
Finally, the fact sheet states that “we are taking further steps to maximize decision time for the president in a crisis.” That’s not very comforting when the U.S. maintains a launch-on-warning posture, since the upper limit of the time the president will have to make a decision is 25 minutes—the time it would take for a Russian land-based missile to reach the U.S.
The only way to give the president a reasonable amount of time to make the momentous decision to launch U.S. nuclear weapons is to remove the launch-on-warning option. And if the U.S. does not plan to launch on warning, there is no reason to keep its weapons on hair-trigger alert.
It’s worth noting that high-level military and political leaders continue to call for an end to launch-on warning and for taking missiles off hair-trigger alert, and that this can be done quickly.
Instead of being defensive, the administration should use the occasion of the NPT Review Conference to announce an end to the Cold War practice of keeping U.S. ground-based nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert to allow launch-on-warning. This is something President Obama can do without Congressional action. Hopefully, Russia would follow suit. But the world will be safer even if the United States goes it alone.]]>
The current situation, in which the United States and Russia keep their nuclear-armed missiles on hair-trigger alert so they can be launched within a matter of minutes, makes everything worse. System failures could lead to the accidental, unauthorized, or erroneous launch of these weapons.
As we’ve discussed in previous posts, UCS is urging President Obama to take U.S. land-based nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert, since that would essentially eliminate the risk of accidental, erroneous, or unauthorized launch. High-level U.S. officials support the idea.
UCS recently interviewed Eric about his book, and the continuing risks posed by nuclear weapons:
UCS: You spent six years researching Command and Control. Given what you uncovered, how worried should we be about the possibility of a nuclear accident or inadvertent nuclear launch?
ES: I think the danger posed by the world’s nuclear arsenals is the single greatest national security threat we face. I’m not apocalyptic. I’m not predicting there’ll be a nuclear detonation tomorrow at 3pm. But there’s been remarkably little public discussion and attention paid to this issue considering what’s at stake.
Today I’m more worried about an unauthorized launch than an accidental detonation —something going wrong in the system itself so that a launch either happens by mistake or someone who shouldn’t have access to things gets access. It takes constant vigilance to make sure that doesn’t happen. And, while the nuclear weapons we have today are much safer than the ones we had in the 1970s and 1980s, our nuclear infrastructure is also aging and a lot of the equipment is outdated. So accidents absolutely are possible. The probability is greater than zero. There’s no question about that.
UCS: The Union of Concerned Scientists is now calling for the United States to take its land-based nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert. How helpful do you think this step would be for our safety here at home?
ES: I support the idea of taking our land-based missiles off of hair-trigger alert. Our land-based missiles are really only useful for attacking Russia. And to take them off of hair-trigger alert is to signal to Russia that we’re not going to have a first strike with our land- based missiles. It would be great to see a similar effort on Russia’s part because there’s much more we can do in a partnership to reduce the danger. But I believe we need to do everything we can to prevent accidents with our nuclear arsenal and this seems like a sensible and important first step.
UCS: Back in the 1980s, a million people gathered in Central Park to call for a nuclear freeze. Why do you think the public seems to be paying such comparatively little attention to the subject now?
The prospect of a nuclear war was a source of tremendous anxiety during the Cold War. And the collapse of the Soviet Union was so sudden and unexpected that I think everyone just breathed a sigh of relief. People started to believe that the danger ended with the end of the Cold War. And of course, the risk of nuclear war was greatly reduced. The nuclear arsenals in the U.S. and in Russia have declined in size by about eighty or ninety percent. That’s terrific. But the danger never fully went away. The danger is still with us. And, unfortunately, I think people are pretty much in denial about it.
UCS: By explaining in detail how close we’ve come on a number of occasions to an accidental nuclear cataclysm, your book is a terrifying read. What has the reception been like since it was published?
ES: My aim with this book has been to provoke discussion about this issue. And I’m very gratified that there seems to have been a significant uptick in attention to the issue since the book was published. This the first book I’ve written that seems to have been read by people in power—people in the Air Force, people at the weapons labs. And, to some extent, I think it is encouraging a discussion about the safety of our nuclear infrastructure and I’m very glad about that. I’m also happy to be speaking about this with the Union of Concerned Scientists—an organization that has played an important leadership role on this issue for the past 40 years.
UCS: Your book highlights a number of accidents and near misses since the development of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Do you think there more accidents and near misses that haven’t been publicly disclosed?
ES: I think there were a great many incidents we don’t know about. The really big accidents are hard to conceal. When there’s a serious incident, like when we lost a hydrogen bomb off the coast of Spain, it’s likely to become widely known. But there are many kinds of accidents that are more mundane and banal—like someone pulling the wrong wire and inadvertently arming a nuclear weapon. That kind of accident could also potentially lead to a catastrophic outcome but may not be as likely to come to light.
At a book talk I gave in New Mexico, someone in the audience came up to me afterwards and complained that I was very tough on the Air Force in the book—but kind of let the Army off the hook. He had worked at Sandia and done a command and control study of the Army’s tactical weapons in Germany in the early 1970s. He was terrified by what he’d seen there. Of course, I asked him to enlighten me, but he said ‘no, no, no. He couldn’t do that.’ The study remains classified.
I did the best I could while researching the book. But there is much more out there that I was unable to uncover. Still, the incidents I did include point to how lucky we’ve been so far. And we don’t want a national security policy based on luck.
UCS: At UCS, we’re encouraging our members to get more involved and take action on the issue of the safety of our nuclear arsenal. What would you say to encourage them?
Well, first of all, in the coming years, Congress will be discussing the modernization of our nuclear arsenal and infrastructure. Much of this debate will take place in secret with very little public input. There will be some people proposing to spend about $1 trillion to upgrade our nuclear weapon capabilities. So I think it is vital to learn about these issues. People need to get involved, and this country needs a vigorous, informed public debate about this spending and its goals.
Today we are witnessing the beginning of an international discussion—a serious discussion—about the abolition of nuclear weapons. From a humanitarian perspective, these weapons do not discriminate between civilians and military targets. And there are many who are making the argument that nuclear weapons should be abolished on those grounds alone. You know, we banned landmines and chemical weapons and cluster munitions. A growing number of people are working toward the abolition of nuclear weapons as well.
The key point I want to make is that we can reduce the threat posed by our existing nuclear arsenals. There are all kinds of things we can do. Taking our land-based missiles off of hair-trigger alert is certainly one such thing. But, in order to meaningfully reduce the threat, we absolutely need to start talking about it—and stop living in denial.]]>
On the technical side, the military may have less confidence in the performance of these new warheads than those they replace.
Until 1992, the United States conducted nuclear explosive “proof” tests to verify that its new warhead designs would work as intended. Since then, the United States has observed an international moratorium on nuclear explosive testing and in 1996 signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) banning such tests. The CTBT is an important barrier to nuclear weapons development by more nations.
In the past two decades, the United States has not produced or deployed any new warheads. Instead it has refurbished existing warheads by replacing aging components with new ones.
But the administration now plans a change in course. It will develop new warheads by using components from existing warheads, but in combinations that have never been proof tested. Confidence in the performance of these weapons will instead be based on experimental data from other types of tests and computer simulations. This approach could raise serious questions about the reliability of the U.S. arsenal—and lead to calls for resumed nuclear explosive testing. And a future administration might decide to do just that. If the United States resumed testing, other nuclear nations would likely follow suite and the CTBT would unravel.
On the political side, this new approach flies in the face of President Obama’s promise not to develop new types of warheads. His 2010 Nuclear Posture Review flatly states that “The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads,” noting that the United States “can ensure a safe, secure, and effective deterrent without the development of new nuclear warheads or further nuclear testing.”
Some argue that current plans do not violate this promise. They say that these new warheads are not truly new because they will use components from existing warheads, but this is semantic shenanigans. A warhead that has never existed before is new.
Why did Obama make this pledge? To demonstrate that the United States intends to make good on its commitment as a nuclear weapons state under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to move toward eliminating nuclear weapons, and hence strengthen the NPT regime. The 178 NPT signatories that have forsworn nuclear weapons in return for this commitment from the nuclear weapons states undoubtedly take this pledge seriously.
If the United States proceeds to build new nuclear weapons, it will undermine the NPT regime and make a mockery of the CTBT, which was intended to prevent the development of new nuclear weapons. The United States is one of the greatest beneficiaries of these treaties, which help keep other states from building nuclear weapons.
Rather than going down this path, the United States should simply refurbish (or, in some cases, retire) existing warheads as needed, continuing past practice. This will preclude concerns about the reliability of new types of warheads, and be consistent with President Obama’s pledge not to develop new nuclear warheads.]]>
Apparently some folks at Los Alamos National Laboratory—one of the two labs that design and help maintain U.S. nuclear weapons—missed that day in class.
Last year, Jim Doyle, then a nuclear security and non-proliferation specialist who had been at the Lab for 17 years, published an article in the journal Survival titled Why Eliminate Nuclear Weapons? Doyle included the requisite disclaimer: “The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not represent those of the Los Alamos National Laboratory or the US government.” So far, so good.
But soon Los Alamos officials claimed the article contained classified information. Then they docked Doyle’s pay, took away his security clearance, and ultimately fired him. Not subtle.
The shameful tale of Los Alamos and Jim Doyle is thoroughly detailed in an article by Douglas Birch, an investigative journalist who works at the Center for Public Integrity. Among other things, Birch interviews several experts with security clearances who say that Doyle’s article contains nothing classified.
So what does Doyle’s article say that so upset Los Alamos officials? His call for eliminating nuclear weapons is consistent with long-standing official U.S. policy: as a nuclear weapon state signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United States is obligated to work for nuclear disarmament. His call is also consistent with President Obama’s April 2009 speech in Prague, where he stated that the United States would “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
But Doyle’s article is more than a call for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons—it is a critique of nuclear deterrence itself. He writes: “The international community must reject the myths and expose the risks of the ideology of nuclear deterrence if it is to successfully meet the mutual global challenges of the twenty-first century.”
He writes that the price of deterrence outweighs its value, and that the price “is the constant risk that a complex, tightly coupled and largely automated system subject to normal, systemic and human error will, as science tells us, inevitably fail, and fail catastrophically, with unprecedented and unjustified loss of civilian life. Mistakes with conventional weapons can have limited physical impact. Small mistakes are not possible with nuclear weapons.”
Doyle is right. All systems are fallible, and when it comes to nuclear weapons a system failure could be catastrophic. For example, as I have written about previously, the United States keeps almost all its 450 land-based nuclear missiles on high alert ready to be launched within a few minutes. This policy increases the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch or one in response to a false warning of an incoming attack. These risks outweigh any potential benefits, and President Obama should remove these missiles from hair-trigger alert.
An informed public debate about U.S. nuclear weapons policies is essential. That Los Alamos Lab officials went out of their way to stifle such debate is especially disturbing. Ironically, their actions have now brought Doyle’s article to the attention of a much larger group of people.
Frontpage photo courtesy of Paul Shambroom.]]>