Tag Archives: nuclear proliferation

terrifying Putin quote

Vladimir Putin either made a very terrifying statement here, or it just didn’t translate well.

An AI arms race doesn’t necessarily have to be a winner-takes-all scenario, though. Putin noted that Russia did not want to see any one country “monopolize” the field, and said instead: “If we become leaders in this area, we will share this know-how with entire world, the same way we share our nuclear technologies today.”

What a generous guy.

nuclear proliferation and non-state actors

This post on Lawfare talks about three ways people and groups other than nation-states could get their hands on nuclear weapons.

That entails blocking the pathways to terrorist acquisition of a nuclear weapon. There are three possibilities for how a terrorist organization might acquire the bomb: transfer—the sale or handoff of a weapon from a nuclear-weapon state; leakage—the theft of a nuclear weapon or weapons-grade fissile material; and indigenous production—the construction of a nuclear device from illicitly obtained weapons-grade fissile material.

Each pathway to nuclear acquisition by a non-state terrorist group is contingent on an act of commission or negligence by a state. The “leakage” of a weapon to a terrorist group would originate from one of the nine nuclear-weapon states or the 22 states (at current count) with weapons-grade fissile material in their civilian stocks. Among this group, the countries of greatest concern regarding the nexus of proliferation and terrorism—North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia—are each continuing their development of nuclear weapons and risking broader proliferation, including to non-state actors.

North Korea is on the verge of a strategic breakout both quantitatively, by ramping up its number of warheads to possibly as many as 100 weapons by 2020, and qualitatively, by mastering warhead miniaturization. And it would have few qualms about selling nuclear materials for the right price. Pyongyang is known, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates put it, for its willingness to “sell anything they have to anybody who has the cash to buy it.” Pakistan continues to build up its nuclear arsenal (including the development of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons), employs terrorism as an instrument of state policy, and faces the internal security threat of radical Islamists attempting to infiltrate its nuclear establishment. And Russia, which inherited the Soviet Union’s vast nuclear arsenal and stocks of fissile material, terminated its nuclear-security cooperation with the United States under the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program put in place by the Nunn-Lugar Act in 1991.

the value of nuclear weapons

Moral considerations aside, Richard N. Haas gives a clear explanation of why nuclear weapons are attractive to countries.

Decades ago, Israel made such a calculation in the face of Arab threats to eliminate the Jewish state. More recently, Ukraine, Libya, and Iraq all gave up their nuclear weapons programs either voluntarily or under pressure. Subsequently, Ukraine was invaded by Russia, Iraq by the US, and Libya by the US and several of its European partners. Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya were ousted.

North Korea has avoided such a fate, and the third generation of the Kim family rules with an iron fist. It is doubtful that the lesson is lost on Kim Jong-un.

You could try to estimate what it would cost for a particular country to have a conventional military equal in deterrent power to a few nuclear weapons. And the answer is almost certainly that they couldn’t afford it, even if they had the people and technology and productive capacity necessary. So a nuclear deterrent seems very logical. Of course the problem is that when everybody has them, or even a substantial fraction of countries has them, the risk to everybody becomes much higher than if nobody had them.

Another thing I learned from this article is that the UN General Assembly in July created (I don’t know if that is the right legal word) a treaty designed to facilitate long-term disarmament and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. It may not be legally binding or backed by serious political power at the moment, but it shows leadership and could give serious, ethical leaders something to point to in future negotiations. Imagine for example if China, Russia, and the United States decided to throw their weight behind this.

small modular reactors

Even though there haven’t been a lot of commercial nuclear reactors built in the U.S., nuclear energy research and development has progressed since the plants we are most familiar with from the 1970s. Here is Forbes talking about a new type of small modular reactor.

This nuclear reactor is something that we’ve never seen before – a small modular reactor that is economic, factory built and shippable, flexible enough to desalinate seawater, refine oil, load-follow wind, produce hydrogen, modular to make the power plant any size, and that provides something we’ve all been waiting for – a reactor that cannot meltdown.

This last point is the really big deal with SMRs. The small size of each module changes the surface-area-to-volume ratio such that heat can be siphoned off easily so that the reactor can’t melt down…

Refueling of SMRs do not require the nuclear plant to shut down. The small size and large surface area-to-volume ratio of NuScale’s reactor core, that sits below ground in a super seismic-resistant heat sink, allows natural processes to cool it indefinitely in the case of complete power blackout, with no humans needed to intervene, no AC or DC power, no pumps, and no additional water for cooling.

I support nuclear energy provided the risks of past designs can be mitigated, and it sounds like there is progress in that direction. Uranium still has to be mined, enriched, transported, and disposed of safely, of course, and safer reactors do not address that issue. There is also the proliferation issue, coupled with the fairness issue of who gets to decide which countries are allowed to have nuclear technology and which are not. But there are no zero-risk options. With the health and climate risks of continuing to burn fossil fuels on a massive scale becoming more obvious every day, we should be giving nuclear a cautious look.

the party platforms on nuclear weapons

Yesterday I suggested a realistic path to elimination of U.S. nuclear weapons – phasing out of everything but submarine-launched weapons as they become obsolete, renewed participation in global nonproliferation efforts, negotiations with other nuclear powers to give up their weapons in exchange for elimination of the submarine weapons, then finally robust inspections and verification. Let’s see what the U.S. political party platforms have to say.

The Republican Platform:

We must modernize nuclear weapons and their delivery platforms, end the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, and rebuild relationships with our allies, who understand that as long as the U.S. nuclear arsenal is their shield, they do not need to engage in nuclear proliferation.

The Democratic Platform:

Democrats are committed to preventing the spread of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and to eventually ridding the planet of these catastrophic weapons. We believe America will be safer in a world with fewer weapons of mass destruction. Donald Trump encourages the spread of nuclear weapons across Asia and the Middle East, which would weaken the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and he is unwilling to rule out using a nuclear weapon against ISIS.

Democrats want to reduce the number of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons around the world, as well as their means of delivery, while retaining a strong deterrent as long as others maintain nuclear strike capabilities. We will strengthen the NPT, push for the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and stop the spread of loose nuclear material. Democrats will be informed by a new Nuclear Posture Review in determining continued ways to appropriately shape our nuclear deterrent, with the aim of reducing our reliance on nuclear weapons while meeting our national security obligations. Democrats will also seek new opportunities for further arms control and avoid taking steps that create incentives for the expansion of existing nuclear weapons programs. To this end, we will work to reduce excessive spending on nuclear weapons-related programs that are projected to cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

The Green Platform:

Our government should establish a policy to abolish nuclear weapons. It should set the conditions and schedule for fulfilling that goal by taking the following steps:

  • Declare a no-first-strike policy.
  • Declare a no-pre-emptive strike policy.
  • Declare that the U.S. will never threaten or use a nuclear weapon, regardless of size, on a non-nuclear nation.
  • Sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Our pledge to end testing will open the way for non-nuclear states to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has been held up by our refusal to sign the CTBT. Honor the conditions set in the NPT for nuclear nations.
  • Reverse our withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and honor its stipulations.
  • End the research, testing and stockpiling of all nuclear weapons of any size.
  • Dismantle all nuclear warheads from their missiles.

The Libertarian Platform

No individual, group, or government may initiate force against any other individual, group, or government.

The protection of individual rights is the only proper purpose of government. Government is constitutionally limited so as to prevent the infringement of individual rights by the government itself. The principle of non-initiation of force should guide the relationships between governments.

We support the maintenance of a sufficient military to defend the United States against aggression. The United States should both avoid entangling alliances and abandon its attempts to act as policeman for the world.

I suppose I like the Green statement best, but I am enough of a realist to suggest we establish moral authority by eliminating most of our weapons, but could keep a small number of submarine-based weapons in place and use them as a bargaining chip to get concessions from others. I am also enough of a realist that unless and until we have some sort of runoff or ranking-based voting, I’ll vote for the best candidate with a reasonable chance of winning. That pretty much leaves me supporting the Democrats’ somewhat tepid but basically on-target message. Getting defense-industry money out of politics would make it more likely that a Democratic leader could actually make real progress toward implementing their rhetoric.

Bill Perry on today’s nuclear threat

Bill Perry, who was secretary of defense under Bill Clinton, has released a new book called My Journey at the Nuclear Brink – here’s an article at New York Review of Books. He was present at the front lines through a number of historic events, from Hiroshima to the Cuban missile crisis to development of submarine-launched missiles to efforts to secure weapons following the Soviet collapse. I’ll pick a short excerpt below but this whole article is really worth a read.

…Perry concluded that there could be no acceptable defense against a mass nuclear attack, an opinion from which he has never deviated. Many political leaders, including several presidents, have disagreed with Perry and have sponsored various types of anti-missile defense systems, the latest being the ballistic missile defense system now being installed in Eastern Europe.

Then as now, Perry writes, he believed that America would possess all the deterrence it needs with just one leg of the so-called triad: the Trident submarine. It is very difficult for armies to track and destroy it, and it contains more than enough firepower to act as a deterrent. The bombers provide only an insurance policy for the unlikely contingency of a temporary problem with the Trident force, and also have a dual role in strengthening our conventional forces. Our ICBM force is in his mind redundant. Indeed the danger of starting an accidental nuclear war as a result of a false alarm outweighs its deterrent value.

…nuclear weapons can’t actually be used—the risk of uncontrollable and catastrophic escalation is too high. They are only good for threatening the enemy with nuclear retaliation. Our submarine force, equipped with nuclear weapons, is virtually invulnerable and can perform that deterrent function well. (It should be noted that the doctrine of deterrence is severely criticized by those who worry about the implications of threatening mass slaughter.)

He talks about how there was a brief period of good will and cooperation between the U.S. and Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet empire, when the former adversaries cooperated on weapons reductions, securing of loose weapons, and the conflict in the Balkans. That all ended when the U.S. insisted on expanding NATO “right up to the Russian border”, which Perry considers a huge mistake. He also talks about the catastrophic fallout from an India-Pakistan nuclear exchange, and the risk of nuclear terrorism in a U.S. city like Washington D.C.

This article suggests a couple clear policies. One is that the U.S. could unilaterally eliminate all its nuclear weapons right away except for the submarine force. This would actually reduce risk for our country and the entire world. If our leaders don’t have the courage to do this tomorrow, they could at least cancel “modernization” plans for all but the submarine force, and phase weapons out as they become obsolete. This would give us the moral high ground when we insist somewhat hypocritically on nuclear nonproliferation for everyone else. The final step would be to negotiate with other nuclear powers to eliminate their weapons in exchange for elimination of the U.S. submarine weapons, with a robust worldwide inspection and verification program.

This would save tens of billions of dollars every year, some of which could be invested in homeland security and intelligence to counter the terrorist threat, and some of which could be invested in infrastructure or education or tax cuts. I see no logical argument against any of this.

Russian nuclear materials

I thought we were told the Soviet nuclear materials were “secured” in the 1990s. I think what that meant is that most of them were moved from surrounding countries to Russia and placed under guard. But first of all, there may have been some unaccounted for. And second of all, it doesn’t much matter if they are under guard in Russia if there are corrupt Russian authorities stealing and trying to sell them, which apparently is what is happening:

Criminal organizations, some with ties to the Russian KGB’s successor agency, are driving a thriving black market in nuclear materials in the tiny and impoverished Eastern European country of Moldova, investigators say. The successful busts, however, were undercut by striking shortcomings: Kingpins got away, and those arrested evaded long prison sentences, sometimes quickly returning to nuclear smuggling, AP found.

Moldovan police and judicial authorities shared investigative case files with the AP in an effort to spotlight how dangerous the nuclear black market has become. They say the breakdown in cooperation between Russia and the West means that it has become much harder to know whether smugglers are finding ways to move parts of Russia’s vast store of radioactive materials — an unknown quantity of which has leached into the black market…

The most serious case began in the spring of 2011, with the investigation of a group led by a shadowy Russian named Alexandr Agheenco, “the colonel” to his cohorts, whom Moldovan authorities believe to be an officer with the Russian FSB, previously known as the KGB. A middle man working for the colonel was recorded arranging the sale of bomb-grade uranium, U-235, and blueprints for a dirty bomb to a man from Sudan, according to several officials. The blueprints were discovered in a raid of the middleman’s home, according to police and court documents.

I always find it depressing to think that after all the heroic efforts and relative success fighting nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism over the decades, it would only take one incident to bring it all crashing down.

There is a slightly comical side to this otherwise terrifying story. All the U.S. headlines are predictably about Islamic State. But in this story, the bad guys are the sellers – Russian and Moldovan gangsters. The buyers were not actual Islamic State, but FBI agents posing as Islamic State.