Archive | Nuclear Weapons

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Limiting Iran’s Nuclear Program

Posted on 15 December 2013 by admin

There is much controversy about the very limited deal that was struck between Iran the U.S. and other member states of the Security Council of the U.N. plus Germany.  The significance is this marks the first discussion between leaders of the U.S. and Iran since 1979.

The most important step in the agreement is for Iran to freeze its nuclear development program in place except for its nuclear material enrichment activities that it will roll back from a level of 20% enrichment to a level of 5%.  While this may not be seen as significant, the 5% level is the international norm for enriched uranium for power generation while anything over that serves efforts to develop a bomb.

While this agreement is only valid for a six month time period, it is meant to give the two sides enough time to reach a more definitive agreement that will bind both for many years.  In exchange for this short-term agreement, the U.N. will loosen a minor amount of the economic sanctions on Iran.  This will give Iran access to about $7 billion of its assets while retaining sanctions on the rest of the total of about $100 billion that is presently blocked.

Countries such as the U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China and Germany support the treaty.  Regional parties who still do not trust Iran are vehement in their rejection of the deal.  Most particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia oppose any agreement.

It is said that the sanctions imposed on Iran over the years have taken quite a toll on the Iranian economy.  Stretching from sanctions on anything related to nuclear materials, oil, arm sales, certain financial institutions, including the country’s central bank, these steps have made Iran an international pariah.  They have created plummeting oil revenues, the local currency has lost 80% of its value and there is spiraling inflation and layoffs.

Considering the severe impact of the sanctions on Iran, the minor concessions granted during the agreement appear to be well worth the risk. Any agreement would also call for the unlimited access of U.N. inspectors at any interval considered necessary, including daily.  This is a hard learned lesson from previous agreements.

Use the following links to obtain more information about the agreement or to access source documents:

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We Miss the Forest for the Trees on Nuclear Weapons

Posted on 21 May 2013 by Jerry

It is confusing for those of us who want to rid the world of nuclear weapons.  Where does each nation really stand on the issue?  They are not consistent and often do things that don’t match their rhetoric.  We are awash in detail listening to a cacophony of voices telling us all of the different things we should do.

Just think for a moment about how many people around the world derive livelihood and importance from the nuclear armaments; the diplomatic analysts, all branches of the military, strategists, manufacturers, professors, writers, politicians, etc., etc.  With all these different points of view and each special interest jockeying to be heard or get a piece of the action, it is any wonder it is confusing.  So hold this thought for we will come back to it.

Consider that the United States has consistently said it seeks to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons.  While other countries have, the U.S. has never said it will not be first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.  While they continue to negotiate reductions with Russia and are said to be in hard financial times, the U.S. government is seeking to increase its spending on its nuclear weapons development program to $7.9 billion.  This represents about 30% more than when President Obama first took office.

An article in the May 9, 2013 issue of Nature magazine observes that U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein in a budget meeting pointed out the 2014 funding request for $7.9 billion was in real terms the same as the U.S. was spending at the height of the cold war in 1985 when it had 25,000 nuclear weapons, was designing new families of weapons and was conducting underground tests.  One of the major recipients of these funds is the National Nuclear Security Administration (a semi-autonomous part of the Energy Department).  Their stated position is it would not necessarily be cheaper just to maintain existing weapons.  This is their justification for their development of new warheads and weapons systems.

So which is it?  Will the U.S. be first to use nuclear weapons or not?  Does it want to lessen the threat of nuclear weapons by reducing and eliminating them or does it want to modernize and replace them?  Maybe this new funding is a ploy to encourage others to keep negotiating the weapons away and the money will not be spent to develop new weapons systems.  Maybe the U.S. will wind up with new secret weapons.  Maybe the strategy is all of the above.

Also perplexing is China.  China largely sidestepped the arms build-up of the cold war instead letting the USSR and U.S. face off alone.  Estimates by the Arms Control Association place the size of China’s nuclear arsenal at about 240 warheads compared to the estimated size of the U.S. arsenal of 5,113 nuclear warheads including tactical, strategic and non-deployed warheads.

In 1964, immediately after the Chinese test of their first nuclear weapon, China declared they would never be the first to use nuclear weapons.  This explicit “no-first-use pledge” has been repeated in six successive government statements or white papers released over the last 50 or so years.

This year the Chinese white paper on defense, released in mid April, completely omits any reference to “no-first-use”.  The new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, elected this year, in his first speech to the Second Artillery Force, responsible for the China’s nuclear arsenal, again made no reference to the no-first-use policy.  Governments around the world assume this is not just a casual omission but signals a new aggressiveness from China.

Many would argue this is but another way for China to signal its significant concerns about the Obama 2011 decision to “pivot” and “rebalance” naval and marine resources towards the Pacific and Asia areas.  The stated U.S. objective is to change the 50:50 deployment of its resources between the Asian and European areas to a 60:40 split.  Or China’s reaction may represent an attempt to get more leverage in ongoing territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.  Or it has decided to just mimic the U.S. position.

There are many reasons the U.S. can give for its redeployment of resources.  Many would cite China’s annual 10% increase in its military spending (which includes new aircraft carriers), the existing U.S. relationships with South Korea and Japan, and threats emanating from North Korea as major factors.

The U.S. government would point out that two of its strongest allies in the Pacific region, Japan and South Korea, are both technologically advanced and could develop nuclear weapons of their own in very short order if the U.S. did not restrain them.  It is incumbent on the U.S. to reassure these two allies that it will protect them from attacks by their bellicose neighbor, North Korea.

In the meantime, the bellicose neighbor has conducted their third confirmed nuclear test.  Their first test in 2006 had a yield of about 1 kiloton.  In 2009, their second test was in the six kiloton range.  This most recent test was thought to be as large as 10 kilotons and of much smaller design.  This miniaturization signals an objective to carry their weapons on long-range missiles.

Repeated threats from North Korea followed this test, asserting they were close to a nuclear war with the U.S. or South Korea or other unspecified countries in the South China Sea.  While it is clear North Korea is now a nuclear power, the world discounts its ability to send a missile with a nuclear warhead very far or with any accuracy.  The world also believes that North Korea really does not want a nuclear showdown and that its statements are just more belligerent puffery similar to what it has said numerous times since the Korean War.  The West generally believes that North Korea is trying to blackmail them into giving it various concessions and forms of aid.

The U.S. has responded to North Korean threats by redeploying a warship and a sea-based radar platform closer to the Korean coast.  In addition, it beefed up the anti-ballistic missile defenses deployed in Japan.  These steps were meant to reassure South Korea and Japan that the U.S. remained their strategic partner.

In this post, we have only looked superficially at five countries; the U.S., China, North Korea, South Korea and Japan.  We have also examined only a small sampling of their many actions or interests.  Imagine how convoluted everything gets when everyone with any interest is included, when all of the nuclear powers are considered and when all the nuclear ‘wannabes’ are added.

The lesson to be drawn by people who want to eliminate nuclear weapons is that we cannot afford to be drawn into thinking about the issues by thrashing around in the detail and minutiae.  Without the minutiae how will everyone directly involved convince us they are necessary and productive?  It is they who create the minutiae. Without it they largely lose their importance and reason for being.

The lesson to be re-learned is an old one; we can’t afford to miss the forest by looking at the trees.  Those of us who want to eliminate nuclear weapons must keep our eye on the forest continuing to demand our politicians and governments redefine their role and value by finding a way to eliminate these weapons.  When enough of our voices are raised in this demand, simple as it is, they will pay attention and find a way.

Use the following links to obtain more information:

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Chernobyl 2012: the Disaster that Keeps Reminding

Posted on 15 July 2012 by Jerry

In you need a reminder of how bad nuclear fallout and contamination can be just think about how panicked the world was about the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown.  Of course the world’s worst nuclear accident with the largest area of contamination was the April 26, 1986 catastrophic accident at Chernobyl, in the Ukrainian SSR.  Fukushima, at least up to this point, pales by comparison (see ).  Let us check in on the aftermath of that 25+ year old disaster to remind ourselves of why we cannot allow the use of a single nuclear weapon, let alone the 3100 launch ready warheads allowed the United States and Russia by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed on April 8, 2010.

After the accident at Chernobyl there was a race to bury the Unit 4 nuclear reactor and the remaining 95% of its radioactive inventory under steel pipes, steel panels, and concrete.  The structure that was created was officially called the Object Shelter, also known as the sarcophagus.  When constructed, workers faced extreme radiation and had little time in which to complete their work.  Put together as best they could, this structure has been steadily deteriorating in the last 25+ years.  This has forced the construction of a New Safe Confinement (NSC or New Shelter).

This new structure is being built in the sixteen mile exclusion zone around the facility that remains sealed because of the continuing severe radiation levels.  The NSC is scheduled to be completed in the 2014 – 2015 timeframe and is estimated to cost about $1.5 billion dollars.  Funded by a consortium of countries, the U.S. is the largest single contributor.  The NSC is designed to contain the radiation for at least 100 years while future generations decide how to handle the ongoing problem. A video animation at provides an excellent description of the NSC and demonstrates the significant scale of the project.

Also within the sixteen mile sealed exclusion zone is a pine forest which poses a unique problem.  Some of this forest is so badly contaminated that a forest fire could create a sizable smoke cloud that could carry radioactive particles across the European continent.  The problem is “these dying radioactive plantations are considered too dangerous and expensive to clear.” Fire fighters in Chernobyl maintain a watch on the surrounding forests and lumber forth in traditional soviet fire engines to put out a fire when one is spotted.  This is very dangerous work for the fire fighters who are the first, and possibly last, line of defense protecting an unsuspecting European continent from a radioactive smoke cloud.

It is difficult to compare the damage done at Chernobyl with that which would occur as a result of an explosion of a contemporary nuclear warhead.  We shouldn’t doubt that a comparison has been conducted, but it is undoubtedly classified.  Our last public use of a nuclear weapon was on the city of Nagasaki, Japan on the 9th of August 1945. 

It is safe to assume the power of today’s nuclear warhead dwarfs that of the Nagasaki weapon.  Even with the release of the radioactive cloud that Chernobyl created, a containment structure was quickly constructed that confined 95% of the nuclear material that was in that reactor.  An above ground detonation of a nuclear warhead would release all of its radioactive material into the atmosphere.  When the radioactive material from the two sources is compared, it is very different; different isotopes with different half lives and different types of contamination.  Most experts believe today’s nuclear warheads would be worse than Chernobyl by some orders of magnitude.

Seeing Chernobyl and the ongoing effort to prevent further damage, and recalling the worldwide concerns caused by the Fukushima meltdown should reinforce our commitment to seek the elimination of all nuclear weapons.  We need to stop minimizing our view of these horrible weapons by assuming they are just one more arrow in our diplomatic and negotiating quiver.  They are much more serious than just an instrument of foreign policy.  They have outlived their usefulness and could literally end life on our planet.  We must redouble our efforts to maintain constant pressure on the two nuclear super powers to disarm.

Use the following links to obtain more information on this topic:

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U.S. Secures, Reduces, and Manages World Nuclear Materials

Posted on 30 March 2012 by Jerry

There is much attention given to North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons (See blog post, “Iran’s Perilous Path”, 11-25-11) and strategic arms reduction agreements between the U. S. and Russia (See blog post “Reducing the Deficit: A Nuclear Benefit”, 10-16-11).  Unfortunately not enough attention is given to successful efforts of the U.S. to secure, reduce, and manage nuclear materials around the world.  While there are numerous efforts underway, this article will touch on cooperation between the U.S., Russia, and former Soviet Union block states of Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. This cooperation with Russia is what may contradict the leading Republican presidential candidate who recently declared Russia “our number one geopolitical foe”.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated on December 25, 1991, the world was thrown into turmoil. Governments questioned what was going to happen to all of the nuclear weapons and materials that had been based in the former Soviet Union but were now in independent countries. Who owned the weapons and how would they be secured so they would not be sold on the black market to terrorists or rogue countries, was an open question.  Who was going to be responsible for their safety?  How would the world keep former Soviet Union nuclear scientists from selling their capabilities to the highest bidders.

Fortunately, the former Soviet Republics of Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan decided to be non nuclear countries and agreed to return all weapons to Russia and/or allow other countries to be responsible for security of materials on their sites. The United States provided security to many, if not all, of these sites including a nuclear testing site near Kurchatov, Kazakhstan.

The governments of Russia and the United States had to find a way to secure, reduce, and manage these excess nuclear materials.  To this end in 1993, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin negotiated and signed the U.S.-Russia Highly Enriched Uranium Agreement. Both countries set up government owned corporations, the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC) and Tekhsnabeksport (Tenex) to execute the deal. The plan was to take surplus nuclear materials and weapons, decommission them, and down-blend their highly enriched uranium (HEU, weapons grade uranium is enriched to 90%) and reduce its enrichment to that needed for nuclear power reactors, or turning it into low-enriched uranium (LEU) which is enriched to only 4-5% U235.  Generally under this agreement, Tenex down-blends the HEU to LEU which is then sold and delivered to USEC for resale to companies or countries running nuclear power reactors.  The arrangement called for shipments over the 20 year lifetime of the agreement which ends in 2013.  This 2013 termination of the program raises questions of whether a new agreement will be agreed to and ratified or whether the two countries will continue to provide the functions they now perform for each other but on the broader stage of the rest of the world without a formal agreement between them.

As of March 1, 2012 the U.S. has monitored the elimination of 442 metric tons of Russian weapons-origin HEU, the equivalent of approximately 17,680 nuclear warheads.  This same down-blending process has been used to eliminate U.S. surplus HEU (some 127 metric tons by 2012) as a result of our own retirement of nuclear warheads. As of now, the Russian down-blending sites obtain excess HEU from around the world and convert it to LEU.  This LEU is returned to the country of origin as a part of the U.S. Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI).

In addition, because the U.S. feared the former scientists of the Soviet Union might begin selling their capabilities around the world, the U.S. State Department manages the International Science and Technology Centers in Moscow and Kiev.  These centers provide research grants to Russian scientists and engineers so that they will not sell their knowledge to other nations or terrorist groups.  The U.S. Department of Energy funds programs that seek to provide these scientists and engineers with help to find employment in commercial enterprises around the world.

This kind of cooperation between Russia and the United States is all the more rare because the two countries have been constructively cooperating for almost two decades.  The two countries working closely together for so long would indicate a constructive partnership to limit the spread of nuclear weapons and would contradict some Republican presidential candidate perceptions of rivalry between the two countries.

Use the following links for more information about these topics:


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Iran’s Perilous Path

Posted on 25 November 2011 by Jerry

It has been widely reported that since 2009 North Korea has had a missile capable of threatening Alaska.  In 2011 they tested an aircraft-to-surface-ship missile which poses a direct threat to the South Korean Navy.  In the mind of many, having a nuclear weapon is not very valuable unless you can deliver it to a distant enemy.  For this reason, the UN’s International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) investigates the enhancement of missile capabilities to get an early warning of nuclear weapons development.  The IAEA has numerous sources of information; reports from other UN member states, copies of various seized documents, and informants of various types.  It is exactly this type of information that has prompted the IAEA to issue a report that in part warns of continued Iranian pursuit of weapons grade nuclear material and a missile capability to deliver bombs elsewhere.

The Annex section at the back of a report entitled Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement and relevant provisions of Security Council resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran provides just such warning signs of Iranian progress toward having nuclear weapons and a missile delivery capability.  The Annex provides a more or less chronological description of information that has come to the IAEA from a variety of sources.  This information shows what appears to be a long term Iranian commitment to obtaining the technology, materials and delivery capabilities for nuclear weapons.  Sections of the report speak to the history of nuclear development in Iran, procurement activity related to components and nuclear material, development of detonator technology and detailed engineering design studies to stress test a prototype payload and its storage chamber to see how well they would stand up in practice to simulated launch and flight stresses.

This information was the basis of calls for imposition of even stricter sanctions on the state of Iran and many of its individual leaders.  I have included a link to the actual U.N. document so you can read the Annex and judge for yourself how serious the situation is.

Use the following link for more information on the Iranian nuclear weapons development program:

November 25, 2011 – San Francisco

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