The U.S. and Russia — jogging in tandem on a nuclear treadmill

Jeffrey Lewis writes: A few years back, I gave [John] Harvey [former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs] — who is, to be fair, really a pretty decent guy and one of the few people genuinely willing to work on a nonpartisan basis for any administration — a hard time about one of the slides in a PowerPoint presentation he had developed to justify a replacement nuclear warhead. I removed all the words from it, leaving just the two images he had used as illustration — one representing “legacy” warheads in a burnt orange that faintly evoked rust, another representing a replacement warhead as nice and shiny. One might even say it looked tippy-top [as Donald Trump believes nuclear weapons should indeed look]. The words on the slide weren’t the real message.

Too often the question left unasked in our finely tuned analyses of nuclear quality and nuclear superiority is: So what? Why would deterrence require that weapons be tippy-top [as most so-called nuclear weapons experts seem to think they need to be]? Would it matter if you were incinerated with a new shiny warhead rather than an old rusty one? These comparisons are ultimately appeals to emotion, not logic. And those appeals work only if we accept the metaphor that the nuclear dilemma is a race and our only escape is to cross the finish line first. But what if [Paul] Warnke had it right [in “Apes on a Treadmill“]? What if there is no finish line other than nuclear catastrophe and that the United States and Russia are jogging in tandem on a treadmill? What do we do then?

Warnke had an answer to that. “We can be first off the treadmill,” he wrote. “That’s the only victory the arms race has to offer.” [But instead of actually pursuing that victory and in spite of his dreams for a nuclear weapons-free world, President Obama has authorized a trillion dollar upgrade.] [Continue reading…]

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Nuclear plants, despite safety concerns, gaining support among environmentalists

The New York Times reports: Just a few years ago, the United States seemed poised to say farewell to nuclear energy. No company had completed a new plant in decades, and the disaster in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 intensified public disenchantment with the technology, both here and abroad.

But as the Paris agreement on climate change has put pressure on the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, some state and federal officials have deemed nuclear energy part of the solution. They are now scrambling to save existing plants that can no longer compete economically in a market flooded with cheap natural gas.

“We’re supposed to be adding zero-carbon sources, not subtracting,” Ernest Moniz, the energy secretary, said recently at a symposium that the department convened to explore ways to improve the industry’s prospects.

As a result, there are efforts across the country to bail out nuclear plants at risk of closing, with important test cases in Illinois, Ohio and New York, as well as proposed legislation in Congress.

Exelon, one of the country’s largest nuclear operators, for example, is deciding whether to close two of its struggling plants in Illinois after efforts to push a bailout through its Legislature fell apart.

Nuclear power remains mired in longstanding questions over waste disposal, its safety record after the catastrophes at places like Fukushima and Chernobyl, and the potential for its plants to be converted into weapon-making factories. In spite of the lingering issues, policy makers, analysts and executives, along with a growing number of environmentalists, say that at stake is the future of the country’s largest source of clean energy.

“Nothing else comes close,” Mr. Moniz, a nuclear physicist, said at the symposium. [Continue reading…]

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Hope and hype of Hiroshima can’t conceal Obama’s dismal record on nuclear disarmament

Hiroshima: the original Ground Zero

Setsuko Thurlow, who as a 13-year-old girl survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, writes: In [President Obama’s] famous speech in Prague, in 2009, he said, “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.”

Why then has the U.S. government, under the Obama administration, pledged $1 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize its nuclear arsenal? Exactly where is the moral responsibility and leadership in that?

Regarding disarmament, Obama stated, “Our efforts to contain these dangers are centered on a global nonproliferation regime, but as more people and nations break the rules, we could reach the point where the center cannot hold.” Why then are the U.S. and other nuclear weapon states actively boycotting the latest international nuclear negotiations? [Continue reading…]

Tim Wright writes: Under the Obama presidency, contrary to perceptions, the pace of nuclear warhead dismantlement has slowed, not hastened. Indeed, the two presidents Bush and Bill Clinton each made greater gains in downsizing the colossal US nuclear stockpile amassed during the cold war.

But more alarming than this failure to destroy old nuclear weapons has been the Obama administration’s aggressive pursuit of new, “smaller” ones, for which the threshold of use would be lower, according to former military commanders.

At great expense, the president has bolstered all three components of the nation’s “nuclear triad”: the strategic bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched missiles. This was the price paid for securing Republican support in 2010 for the ratification of a modest bilateral arms reduction treaty with Russia.

Obama’s much-publicised “nuclear security summits” largely ignored the greatest source of nuclear insecurity in the world today: 15,000 nuclear weapons, including 1,800 on hair-trigger alert. Instead, they focused on measures to keep “vulnerable nuclear material” out of terrorists’ hands – a vital endeavour, certainly, but for all the fanfare the results were small.

Now the United States is stridently resisting diplomatic moves by two-thirds of the world’s nations to declare nuclear weapons illegal. It boycotted UN talks in Geneva this month aimed at setting the stage for negotiations on a prohibition treaty. But it cannot veto this initiative, just as it could not veto the processes that led to bans on landmines in 1997 and cluster munitions in 2008.

While a prohibition on nuclear weapons will not result in disarmament overnight, it will powerfully challenge the notion that these weapons are acceptable for some nations. It will place them on the same legal footing as both other types of weapons of mass destruction – namely, chemical and biological weapons. [Continue reading…]

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Debates about Hiroshima reduce the victims of 1945 to the role of extras in their own murders

Jeffrey Lewis writes: It’s not clear to me Truman had carefully thought through the implications of using the bomb or really understood that it might be a dramatic escalation from the enormous bombing campaign already underway. It is hard to assign simple motives to any large group of people, like “the United States.” Why “the United States” does anything is always a complicated story involving people working both with and against one other. In the case of Hiroshima, if anything, there was no decision to use the bomb, just an enormous amount of institutional momentum that rolled over haphazardly raised objections and qualms. I have a lot of objections to strategic bombing, and what John Hersey called the “material and spiritual evil” of total war, to say nothing of the racist propaganda required to facilitate killing on such a scale. But to postulate a geopolitical rationale for using the atomic bomb elides the awful human cruelty that was on display in 1945 and not just in Hiroshima.

And the revisionists have something else wrong, too. World War II was over — but it had not ended. If you study war and violence, you know that people continue killing each other even after the original justifications for the killing are obsolete. Japan’s leaders knew the war was lost, but that wasn’t quite enough to convince them to surrender. And Japan’s war cabinet was focused less on an imminent U.S. invasion than the more immediate problem of domestic subversion from the left if the conflict continued and from the right if it did not. The Japanese materials now available to scholars seem to show that Soviet entry into the war was the event that produced the biggest shock. And what turned the tide in Tokyo, which was divided over the issue of surrender, was the diplomatic note issued by U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes that slightly softened the terms of Japan’s “unconditional” surrender. Even then, the story is a Japanese one. The historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa argues that Japanese leaders interpreted the Byrnes note in a certain way because the translation into Japanese from the Foreign Ministry had been deliberately phrased to emphasize the possibility that Emperor Hirohito would remain in power.

But that’s a funny interpretation of Japan’s surrender, emphasizing people, places, and, above all, chance. Truman had his friend Jimmy Byrnes send a vague note, and a pair of obscure bureaucrats put a little English on the translation, so to speak. And that’s why your granddad didn’t die on some god-forsaken beach code-named after a car. That kind of account doesn’t really satisfy us, does it? Grand decisions require equally grand reasons. We want the story of the bomb to match the stakes in our own debates about who started the Cold War or the role that nuclear weapons played in our security. That’s because our debates about Hiroshima aren’t about understanding Truman, or the Japanese Foreign Ministry, or even the people who died. They are about ourselves.

Over time, the debate about the meaning of Hiroshima has shifted from responsibility for the Cold War to the question of whether we should plan, indefinitely, to base our security on the threat of nuclear destruction. Ward Wilson, in particular, has argued that the account of Hiroshima plays a central role in our modern myths about deterrence and the bomb as the winning weapon. [Continue reading…]

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On nuclear weapons, nations must cooperate to avoid catastrophe

Sam Nunn writes: President Obama’s visit to Hiroshima comes almost 71 years after the conclusion of a world war that was fought and ended with tremendous sacrifice, huge casualties and immense devastation. Today, global nuclear arsenals are capable of destroying not only cities but also civilization itself. Albert Einstein’s prophesy bears repeating: “I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth — rocks!”

Since the end of World War II, the United States and our allies have relied on the ultimate threat of mutual assured destruction for our security, as the Soviet Union did and Russia does now. Today, with nine nations possessing nuclear arms and terrorists seeking them, this strategy has become increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.

Warren Buffett, a man who knows how to calculate risk, has reminded us that if the chance of an event occurring is 10 percent in a given year, and that same risk persists over 50 years, there is a 99.5 percent probability that it will happen during those 50 years. For more than 70 years, the United States and Russia have beaten the odds, avoiding a number of near-disasters. The recent deterioration in relations between the United States and Russia has greatly increased these risks.

The two nations still deploy thousands of nuclear weapons ready to fire on a moment’s notice, risking a catastrophic accident or miscalculation based on a false warning. Cold War dangers compelled dialogue between Washington and Moscow on nuclear security and strategic stability. This dialogue is dangerously absent now, even as our planes and ships have close encounters in Europe and the Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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The U.S. and Russia are fighting about missile defense when they should be settling differences

Fred Kaplan writes: The Standard Missile 3, or SM-3 as it’s called, is purely defensive; it works not by blowing up a missile in midair but by slamming into it with great force; in other words, it couldn’t be turned into an offensive weapon, even if some future Western leader wanted it to be.

But from Russia’s point of view, that’s not the issue. As one military adage has it, the only purely defensive weapon is a foxhole, and a battery of antimissile missiles doesn’t change this fact. In the odd world of nuclear strategy, a nation deters an attack by posing a credible threat of “retaliation in kind.” Side A attacks Side B; Side B strikes back against Side A; therefore, Side A doesn’t attack in the first place. But imagine that Side A has an effective missile-defense system. Side A attacks Side B; Side B strikes back, but most of its missiles get shot down before reaching their targets; therefore, Side B is unable to “retaliate in kind.” Both sides do the calculation and understand the strategic imbalance, and therefore (so goes the theory), Side A dominates Side B — intimidates it into doing certain things in A’s favor — without having to go to war.

This is why Russian officials see missile defense systems as a threat. It’s a concept they learned from the Americans. In the 1950s and early ’60s, many American nuclear strategists, notably Herman Kahn, author of the best-seller On Thermonuclear War, advocated anti-ballistic-missile systems as an explicit adjunct to an offensive first-strike strategy: The U.S. launches a nuclear attack on the USSR; the USSR strikes back with the few nuclear missiles that survived the first strike; the U.S. shoots them down with its antimissile missiles. Or, more to the point, the U.S. has the capability to do these things — which puts the U.S. in a dominant position in international confrontations.

In the mid-1960s, when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara proposed a treaty banning anti-ballistic missiles in the United States and Soviet Union, some Russian officials were puzzled: Why ban defensive weapons, they asked? McNamara schooled them on nuclear strategy; he essentially wanted to avoid the destabilizing situation that Herman Kahn wanted to foster and exploit. The Russians learned the lesson. [Continue reading…]

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The fallacy that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War II

Hiroshima: the original Ground Zero

Hiroshima: the original Ground Zero


Whenever questions are raised about the moral justification for destroying Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs in 1945, it’s generally assumed that President Truman’s decision to use these weapons was instrumental in ending World War II.

Given the staggering loss of life the war had already brought by that time, it’s hard to avoid imagining that almost any means possible — including the use of nuclear weapons — might have been justifiable if this would result in hastening the end of the war.

Hiroshima was bombed on August 6, 1945. Japan’s surrender was announced by Emperor Hirohito on August 15. For this reason, many Americans think that apologizing for the destruction of these two Japanese cities would make no more sense than wishing that the war had dragged on for longer with even more lives lost.

But in Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons published in 2013, Ward Wilson argues that it was Stalin’s decision to invade Japan — not the use of the bomb — that led to the Japanese surrender.

Wilson points out that while the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are typically viewed as extraordinary in the level of destruction they caused, during the U.S. air campaign at that time there was less reason than we imagine to draw a sharp distinction between conventional and nuclear bombing.

In the summer of 1945, the U.S. Army Air Force carried out one of the most intense campaigns of city destruction in the history of the world. Sixty-eight cities in Japan were attacked and all of them were either partially or completely destroyed. An estimated 1.7 million people were made homeless, 300,000 were killed, and 750,000 were wounded. Sixty-six of these raids were carried out with conventional bombs, two with atomic bombs. The destruction caused by conventional attacks was huge. Night after night, all summer long, cities would go up in smoke. In the midst of this cascade of destruction, it would not be surprising if this or that individual attack failed to make much of an impression — even if it was carried out with a remarkable new type of weapon.

Japan’s decision to surrender probably had less to do with the effect of nuclear weapons, than with Stalin’s decision to invade. Wilson writes:

The Japanese were in a relatively difficult strategic situation. They were nearing the end of a war they were losing. Conditions were bad. The Army, however, was still strong and well-supplied. Nearly 4 million men were under arms and 1.2 million of those were guarding Japan’s home islands.

Even the most hardline leaders in Japan’s government knew that the war could not go on. The question was not whether to continue, but how to bring the war to a close under the best terms possible. The Allies (the United States, Great Britain, and others — the Soviet Union, remember, was still neutral) were demanding “unconditional surrender.” Japan’s leaders hoped that they might be able to figure out a way to avoid war crimes trials, keep their form of government, and keep some of the territories they’d conquered: Korea, Vietnam, Burma, parts of Malaysia and Indonesia, a large portion of eastern China, and numerous islands in the Pacific.

They had two plans for getting better surrender terms; they had, in other words, two strategic options. The first was diplomatic. Japan had signed a five-year neutrality pact with the Soviets in April of 1941, which would expire in 1946. A group consisting mostly of civilian leaders and led by Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori hoped that Stalin might be convinced to mediate a settlement between the United States and its allies on the one hand, and Japan on the other. Even though this plan was a long shot, it reflected sound strategic thinking. After all, it would be in the Soviet Union’s interest to make sure that the terms of the settlement were not too favorable to the United States: any increase in U.S. influence and power in Asia would mean a decrease in Russian power and influence.

The second plan was military, and most of its proponents, led by the Army Minister Anami Korechika, were military men. They hoped to use Imperial Army ground troops to inflict high casualties on U.S. forces when they invaded. If they succeeded, they felt, they might be able to get the United States to offer better terms. This strategy was also a long shot. The United States seemed deeply committed to unconditional surrender. But since there was, in fact, concern in U.S. military circles that the casualties in an invasion would be prohibitive, the Japanese high command’s strategy was not entirely off the mark.

One way to gauge whether it was the bombing of Hiroshima or the invasion and declaration of war by the Soviet Union that caused Japan’s surrender is to compare the way in which these two events affected the strategic situation. After Hiroshima was bombed on August 8, both options were still alive. It would still have been possible to ask Stalin to mediate (and Takagi’s diary entries from August 8 show that at least some of Japan’s leaders were still thinking about the effort to get Stalin involved). It would also still have been possible to try to fight one last decisive battle and inflict heavy casualties. The destruction of Hiroshima had done nothing to reduce the preparedness of the troops dug in on the beaches of Japan’s home islands. There was now one fewer city behind them, but they were still dug in, they still had ammunition, and their military strength had not been diminished in any important way. Bombing Hiroshima did not foreclose either of Japan’s strategic options.

The impact of the Soviet declaration of war and invasion of Manchuria and Sakhalin Island was quite different, however. Once the Soviet Union had declared war, Stalin could no longer act as a mediator — he was now a belligerent. So the diplomatic option was wiped out by the Soviet move. The effect on the military situation was equally dramatic. Most of Japan’s best troops had been shifted to the southern part of the home islands. Japan’s military had correctly guessed that the likely first target of an American invasion would be the southernmost island of Kyushu. The once proud Kwangtung army in Manchuria, for example, was a shell of its former self because its best units had been shifted away to defend Japan itself. When the Russians invaded Manchuria, they sliced through what had once been an elite army and many Russian units only stopped when they ran out of gas. The Soviet 16th Army — 100,000 strong — launched an invasion of the southern half of Sakhalin Island. Their orders were to mop up Japanese resistance there, and then — within 10 to 14 days — be prepared to invade Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s home islands. The Japanese force tasked with defending Hokkaido, the 5th Area Army, was under strength at two divisions and two brigades, and was in fortified positions on the east side of the island. The Soviet plan of attack called for an invasion of Hokkaido from the west.

It didn’t take a military genius to see that, while it might be possible to fight a decisive battle against one great power invading from one direction, it would not be possible to fight off two great powers attacking from two different directions. The Soviet invasion invalidated the military’s decisive battle strategy, just as it invalidated the diplomatic strategy. At a single stroke, all of Japan’s options evaporated. The Soviet invasion was strategically decisive — it foreclosed both of Japan’s options — while the bombing of Hiroshima (which foreclosed neither) was not.

In this case, even if the nuclear attacks hastened the end of the war, it may have only been by a matter of a few days or weeks. The assumption that some greater good had been served is much harder to sustain.

At the same time, having already chosen to use these weapons twice and chosen to use them to wipe out civilian populations, the United States was thereafter in a much harder position to assert moral authority in saying that nuclear weapons must never be used again.

When Barack Obama visits Hiroshima later this month, he will make no apology for the destruction of this city. He will again call for global nuclear disarmament, but his appeal won’t carry much weight, given his decision to spend $348 billion on upgrading the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the next decade.

To many observers, Obama’s nuclear aspirations do more than highlight his nuclear hypocrisy:

That declaration rings hollow to critics who believe Obama’s plan to overhaul and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal is sparking a dangerous new arms race with China and Russia. The modernization program, including purchases of new bombers and ballistic missile submarines, could cost as much as $1 trillion over the next 30 years, said Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program.

“The plan to rebuild and refurbish every weapon that we have basically sort of throws the gauntlet down, and Russia and China feel like they have to match it,” Gronlund said in an interview. “He has said really great things but his actions have not really been consistent with his words.”

As the Daily Beast reports, the “post-Cold War nuclear holiday is over” — a new nuclear arms race has already begun.

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Russia’s new missile means the nuclear arms race is back on

French nuclear test "Licorne",  French Polynesia, July, 1970

David Axe reports: Russia has a new nuclear missile — one that Zvezda, a Russian government-owned T.V. network, claimed can wipe out an area “the size of Texas or France.”

Actually, no, a single SS-30 rocket with a standard payload of 12 independent warheads, most certainly could not destroy Texas or France. Not immediately. And not by itself.

Each of the SS-30’s multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle warheads, or MIRVs, could devastate a single city. But Texas alone has no fewer than 35 cities of 100,000 people or more.

Which is not to say the instantaneous destruction of a dozen cities and the deaths of millions of people in a single U.S. state wouldn’t mean the end of the world as we know it.

Nobody nukes just Texas. And if Russia is disintegrating Texan cities, that means Russia is also blasting cities all over the United States and allied countries — while America and its allies nuke Russia right back.

Moscow’s arsenal of roughly 7,000 atomic weapons — 1,800 of which are on high alert — and America’s own, slighly smaller arsenal — again, only 1,800 of which are ready to fire at any given time — plus the approximately 1,000 warheads that the rest of the world’s nuclear powers possess are, together, more than adequate to kill every human being on Earth as well as most other forms of life.

One new Russian rocket doesn’t significantly alter that terrible calculus.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be alarmed. The SS-30 is only the latest manifestation of a worrying trend. After decades of steady disarmament, the United States and Russia are pouring tens of billions of dollars into building new and more capable nuclear weaponry that experts agree neither country needs, nor can afford.

The SS-30 by itself is just slightly more destructive than older Russian missiles. It’s what the new weapon represents that’s frightening. The post-Cold War nuclear holiday is over. And apocalyptic weaponry such as Russia’s new SS-30 are back at work making the world a very, very scary place. [Continue reading…]

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The creatures that remember Chernobyl

Ron Broglio writes: Radioactive, wild boar are invading towns in southern Germany. They travel in packs scavenging for food. They break through fences and roam the roads shutting down highway traffic. They take down a man in a wheelchair. Police scramble to restore order in urban centers. The boar are armed with a post-apocalyptic payload: Radioactive fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which marks its thirtieth anniversary today. By foraging on radioactive plants, the animals embody the return of a disaster many seek to repress.

After the collapse and meltdown of a reactor at Chernobyl, over a hundred thousand people were evacuated from a 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone around the nuclear power plant. Residents exposed to the ensuing radiation suffered from leukemia, thyroid cancer, and other maladies. Some 4,000 people could die from illnesses related to the accident.

In the three decades since, a range of animals have taken up residence in the Exclusion Zone. They thrive in this occasionally mutant, non-human world where radiation remains 10 to 100 times higher than is safe for human occupancy. Rare species not seen in the region for hundreds of years have returned, including the Przewalski’s horse, the European bison, the lynx, and the Eurasian brown bear. Without fear of being hunted, the animals roam the forest and the ruins of cities in what has become an eerily post-human wildlife sanctuary. [Continue reading…]

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30 years after Chernobyl disaster, containment nears completion but authorities turn a blind eye to logging

The Washington Post reports: An international effort to seal the destroyed remains of the nuclear reactor that exploded in Ukraine 30 years ago is finally close to completion, and remarkably, considering the political revolution and armed conflict that have rocked the country since 2014, it’s close to being on schedule.

The completion of the New Safe Confinement, often called the “arch,” could contain the radiation from mankind’s worst nuclear catastrophe for a century, says the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which has led the project. But it will also mark a handover to Ukraine’s fractious and underfunded authorities, who are expected to tackle future waste management at their own expense.

That may not reassure Nadiya Makyrevych.

For three decades, she has been living with the consequences of Chernobyl explosion. She can recall that morning in late April 1986, and the small signs that something was wrong in the workers’ town where she lived: the tinny, metallic taste in her mouth. The way her 6-month-old daughter slept so deeply after breast-feeding. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: The road through the forest, abandoned, is at times barely discernible, covered with the debris of fallen tree limbs, vines, leaves and moss pushing up through cracks in the crumbling asphalt.

The moss is best avoided, says our guide, Artur N. Kalmykov, a young Ukrainian who has made a hobby of coming here to the exclusion zone surrounding the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, set aside in perpetuity after the catastrophe in 1986. It can be radioactive, having carried buried radiation to the surface as it grew.

Above all, he says, watch out for windblown dust, which could well be laced with deadly plutonium.

Despite the dangers — which are actually minimal these days, except when the wind is howling — and the risk of arrest, Mr. Kalmykov is at home here. “In Kiev my head is full,” he said. “Here I can relax. I could hang out in Kiev. But this is more interesting.”

What Mr. Kalmykov and fellow unofficial explorers of the Chernobyl zone, members of a peculiar subculture who are in their 20s and call themselves “the stalkers,” have found is more interesting still: vast tracts of clear-cutting in the ostensibly protected forest. [Continue reading…]

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Kerry encourages Obama to visit Hiroshima

The New York Times reports: Secretary of State John Kerry attended a memorial ceremony in Hiroshima on Monday for victims of the American atomic bombing 71 years ago, becoming the highest-ranking United States administration official to visit the site of one of the most destructive acts of World War II.

The visit is likely to intensify speculation about whether President Obama will go to Hiroshima during a planned trip to Japan next month. Mr. Obama would be the first sitting American president to visit the city, a decision that would resonate deeply in Japan but would be controversial at home.

“Everyone should visit Hiroshima, and everyone means everyone,” Mr. Kerry said at a news conference on Monday in response to a question about whether Mr. Obama would go. He said that the president had been invited by Japanese officials and that he would like to visit someday, but Mr. Kerry added: “Whether or not he can come as president, I don’t know.”

Mr. Kerry spoke after he and other leading diplomats from the Group of 7 industrialized countries toured Hiroshima’s atomic bomb museum, laid flowers at a cenotaph in its Peace Memorial Park and examined the former exhibition hall that stood directly under the atomic blast and has been preserved as a skeletal monument. He called the experience “stunning” and “gut-wrenching.”

Mr. Kerry and the other officials were in the city for talks ahead of the annual Group of 7 summit meeting next month, to be hosted by Japan.

The question of how to acknowledge the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, and another on the city of Nagasaki three days later, has long troubled American diplomats. The bombings ultimately killed more than 200,000 people, most of them civilians, in a country that after the war was transformed from an enemy of the United States into one of its closest allies.

But a majority of Americans have long believed that the bombings were necessary to force Japan’s surrender and to spare American lives. [Continue reading…]

An article by Ward Wilson, published in Foreign Policy in 2013, argues, however, that Japan’s decision to surrender probably had much less to do with the effect of nuclear weapons, than with Stalin’s decision to invade.

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What is a dirty bomb and how dangerous is it?

By Robert J Downes, King’s College London

The worrying news that individuals affiliated with the so-called Islamic State have undertaken hostile surveillance at a Belgian nuclear research facility has created growing speculation about the group’s nuclear ambitions.

Nuclear weapons and dirty bombs are frequently mentioned in the same breath. However, they are two distinct technologies. Understanding the differences between these weapons and the damage they can cause can ground speculation in reality – and help us work out the most likely route a terrorist organisation such as Islamic State may take in the future.

There are two types of actual nuclear weapon – fission and thermonuclear devices. Fission bombs are fuelled with fissile material such as uranium and plutonium. When detonated, the atoms in the weapon’s core split and release huge amounts of energy – producing a nuclear explosion. Thermonuclear weapons use a fission bomb to ignite special fuel, consisting of light hydrogen isotopes. These nuclei are forced together – undergoing nuclear fusion – releasing an even larger explosion.

There are no indications that a terrorist group has obtained any fissile material to date. If they could it would be possible for them to build a fission device, although this does pose a huge technical challenge. While highly engineered weapons need only a few kilograms of fissile material, a crude terrorist-built design would require far more. Thermonuclear weapons, on the other hand, are too complex for terrorist groups to develop.

An easier option for a terrorist group would be to build a dirty bomb or, technically, a radiological dispersal device. These do not rely on complex nuclear reactions. Instead, conventional explosives are used to disperse radioactive material, contaminating an area with elements such as radioactive isotopes of cobalt, caesium or americium.

[Read more…]

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Dilip Hiro: Flashpoint for the planet

Once upon a time, if a war was going to destroy your world, it had to take place in your world. The soldiers had to land, the planes had to fly overhead, the ships had to be off the coast. No longer. Nuclear war changed that equation forever and not just because nuclear weapons could be delivered from a great distance by missile. To use a term that has become commonplace in our world when discussing commerce, the prospect of nuclear conflict has globalized war and it’s a nightmare of the first order.

In the post-Cold War world, Exhibit A in that process would certainly be the unnerving potential for a nuclear war to break out between India and Pakistan. As TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro, author most recently of The Age of Aspiration: Money, Power, and Conflict in Globalizing India, makes clear today, there is no place on the planet where a nuclear war is more imaginable. After all, those two South Asian countries have been to war with each other or on the verge of it again and again since they were split apart in 1947.

Of course, a major nuclear war between them would result in an unimaginable catastrophe in South Asia itself, with casualties estimated at up to 20 million dead from bomb blasts, fire, and the effects of radiation on the human body. And that, unfortunately, would only be the beginning. As Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon wrote in Scientific American back in 2009, when the Indian and Pakistani arsenals were significantly smaller than they are today, any major nuclear conflagration in the region could hardly be confined to South Asia. The smoke and particulates thrown into the atmosphere from those weapons would undoubtedly bring on some version of a global “nuclear winter,” whose effects could last for at least 10 years, causing crop shortfalls and failures across the planet. The cooling and diminished sunlight (along with a loss of rainfall) would shorten growing seasons in planetary breadbaskets and produce “killing frosts in summer,” triggering declines in crop yields across the planet. Robock and Toon estimate that “around one billion people worldwide who now live on marginal food supplies would be directly threatened with starvation by a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.”

To say the least, it’s a daunting prospect at the very moment when the Obama White House has just ended the president’s final Nuclear Security Summit with fears rising that Pakistan’s new generation of small, front-line tactical nuclear weapons are “highly vulnerable to theft or misuse.” Hiro, an expert on the South Asian region, suggests just why a nuclear war is all too conceivable there and would be a catastrophe for us all. Tom Engelhardt

The most dangerous place on Earth
A nuclear Armageddon in the making in South Asia
By Dilip Hiro

Undoubtedly, for nearly two decades, the most dangerous place on Earth has been the Indian-Pakistani border in Kashmir. It’s possible that a small spark from artillery and rocket exchanges across that border might — given the known military doctrines of the two nuclear-armed neighbors — lead inexorably to an all-out nuclear conflagration.  In that case the result would be catastrophic. Besides causing the deaths of millions of Indians and Pakistanis, such a war might bring on “nuclear winter” on a planetary scale, leading to levels of suffering and death that would be beyond our comprehension.

Alarmingly, the nuclear competition between India and Pakistan has now entered a spine-chilling phase. That danger stems from Islamabad’s decision to deploy low-yield tactical nuclear arms at its forward operating military bases along its entire frontier with India to deter possible aggression by tank-led invading forces. Most ominously, the decision to fire such a nuclear-armed missile with a range of 35 to 60 miles is to rest with local commanders. This is a perilous departure from the universal practice of investing such authority in the highest official of the nation. Such a situation has no parallel in the Washington-Moscow nuclear arms race of the Cold War era.

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Obama’s nuclear security summit neglected 98 percent of the world’s bomb-ready uranium

The Intercept reports: At President Obama’s fourth and final nuclear security summit which took place last week, world leaders confronted the danger posed by nuclear terrorism — specifically, by reducing the ways that terrorists could get their hands on the uranium they would need to build a nuclear bomb.

But critics have pointed out that the summits have only focused on highly enriched uranium in civilian possession, which, according to the Department of Energy, only accounts for 2 to 3 percent of the world’s supply. That small percentage is used mostly by academics for research and medical isotope production.

The remaining 97 to 98 percent is held in military stockpiles, which the security summits have largely ignored. Countries keep the safeguards on these stockpiles secret, and military material falls outside the scope of international security agreements. [Continue reading…]

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Is Belgium’s nuclear security up to scratch?

By Robert J Downes, King’s College London and Daniel Salisbury, King’s College London

Belgium’s counter-terrorism efforts are once again being called into question following the recent tragedies in Brussels. The attacks were carried out against soft targets – the public check-in area of Brussels Airport and Maelbeek metro station – but a series of unusual and suspicious occurrences were also reported at nuclear facilities in the country.

Occurring a week before a major international summit on nuclear security, these events highlight the very real threat to nuclear facilities. For Belgium, this recent episode is one item on a long list of security concerns.

The US repeatedly has voiced concerns about Belgium’s nuclear security arrangements since 2003. That year, Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian national and former professional footballer, planned to bomb the Belgian Kleine-Brogel airbase under the aegis of Al-Qaeda.

The airbase, which holds US nuclear weapons, has seen multiple incursions by anti-nuclear activists who have gained access to the site’s “protected area”, which surrounds hardened weapons storage bunkers.

Yet, Belgium only started using armed guards at its nuclear facilities weeks before the March 2016 attacks.

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