Let’s make a nuclear deal with Iran

Alireza Nader writes: The November 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) agreement among Iran and the P5+1 (United States, UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany) commenced a six-month negotiation schedule designed to reach a final and hopefully lasting deal. Many of the trends since then have been positive: JPOA froze Iran’s nuclear activities for limited sanctions relief and negotiations have continued apace. Both the Obama administration and the newly elected government of President Hassan Rouhani genuinely want a deal. But recent reports also indicate major divisions between Iran and the P5+1. Simply put, Iran appears eager to maintain much of its nuclear infrastructure while offering greater “transparency,” while the United States wants a serious roll back of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program. While most observers expected bumps in the road, the latest disagreements could be the most significant disagreements that have arisen since JPOA was signed. But how serious are these disagreements? Is the Iranian government becoming more recalcitrant, or is it just driving a hard bargain?

If anyone could negotiate a way out of Iran’s nuclear impasse, it is Hassan Rouhani. While part and parcel of the political establishment, Rouhani is urbane, pragmatic and arguably Iran’s top expert on nuclear negotiations, having served as Tehran’s top nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005.

Rouhani’s goal of improving Iran’s economy converges with Obama’s desire to stop and roll back Iran’s nuclear program. While the two may want a real improvement in bilateral relations, they are realistic enough to know that domestic constraints (Congress, Iranian conservatives) and real world differences (Iran’s opposition to Israel and support for the Syrian regime, Israeli and Saudi suspicions of Iran) may preclude a major rapprochement between the two nations. A nuclear accord may be difficult to achieve, but it is the safest bet. [Continue reading...]

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How rising seas could sink nuclear plants on U.S. East Coast

Shane Shifflett and Kate Sheppard write: In 2011, a tsunami sent waves as high as 49 feet crashing over the seawalls surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, causing meltdowns at three of the plant’s reactors. After that incident, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) ordered nuclear facilities in the U.S. to review and update their plans for addressing extreme seismic activity and potential flooding from other events, such as sea level rise and storm surges. Those plans aren’t due until March 2015, which means that many plants have yet to even lay out their their potential vulnerabilities, let alone address them.

During the 1970s and 1980s, when many nuclear reactors were first built, most operators estimated that seas would rise at a slow, constant rate. That is, if the oceans rose a fraction of an inch one year, they could be expected to rise by the same amount the next year and every year in the future.

But the seas are now rising much faster than they did in the past, largely due to climate change, which accelerates thermal expansion and melts glaciers and ice caps. Sea levels rose an average of 8 inches between 1880 and 2009, or about 0.06 inches per year. But in the last 20 years, sea levels have risen an average of 0.13 inches per year — about twice as fast.

And it’s only getting worse. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has laid out four different projections for estimated sea level rise by 2100. Even the agency’s best-case scenario assumes that sea levels will rise at least 8.4 inches by the end of this century. NOAA’s worst-case scenario, meanwhile, predicts that the oceans will rise nearly 7 feet in the next 86 years.

But most nuclear power facilities were built well before scientists understood just how high sea levels might rise in the future. And for power plants, the most serious threat is likely to come from surges during storms. Higher sea levels mean that flooding will travel farther inland, creating potential hazards in areas that may have previously been considered safe. During Superstorm Sandy, for example, flooding threatened the water intake systems at the Oyster Creek and Salem nuclear power plants in New Jersey. As a safety precaution, both plants were powered down. But even when a plant is not operating, the spent fuel stored on-site, typically uranium, will continue to emit heat and must be cooled using equipment that relies on the plant’s own power. Flooding can cause a loss of power, and in serious conditions it can damage backup generators. Without a cooling system, reactors can overheat and damage the facility to the point of releasing radioactive material. [Continue reading...]

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U.S. nuclear-response drill begins in wake of Russian exercise

NTI: U.S. Strategic Command this week is conducting a massive nuclear arms drill designed to “deter and detect strategic attacks” on the United States and allies.

A Sunday press release announcing the May 12-16 “Global Lightning” exercise explicitly noted that the event’s timing is “unrelated to real-world events.” Observers of ongoing East-West tensions will note, however, that Russia on Thursday conducted its own large-scale nuclear response drill under the supervision of President Vladimir Putin. That exercise was widely promoted in Russian media and included the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile and submarine-fired ballistic missiles.

“Exercise Global Lightning 14 has been planned for more than a year and is based on a notional scenario,” U.S. Strategic Command said. Roughly 10 B-52 heavy bombers and as many as six B-2 bombers are slated to take part in the nuclear deterrence exercise.

Mark Schneider, a former U.S. Defense Department nuclear strategy official, told the Washington Free Beacon that Russia’s drill last week seemed aimed at sending a message of “nuclear intimidation” to the United States and NATO over Ukraine. He noted that Moscow typically stages its atomic exercises in the fall. [Continue reading...]

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Report lists 13 times nuclear weapons were almost launched

The Guardian reports: A report recounting a litany of near-misses in which nuclear weapons came close to being launched by mistake concludes that the risk of potentially catastrophic accidents is higher than previously thought and appears to be rising.

Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy, published by Chatham House, says that “individual decision-making, often in disobedience of protocol and political guidance, has on several occasions saved the day”, preventing the launch of nuclear warheads.

The report lists 13 instances since 1962 when nuclear weapons were nearly used. In several cases the large-scale launch of nuclear weapons was nearly triggered by technical malfunctions or breakdowns in communication causing false alarms, in both the US and Russia. Disaster was averted only by cool-headed individuals gambling that the alert was caused by a glitch and not an actual attack. [Continue reading...]

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Israel’s Mordechai Vanunu is as much a hero as Edward Snowden

Duncan Campbell writes: Ten years ago today, a man emerged from prison to be greeted by a crowd of his supporters embracing him with carnations and a crowd of his enemies drawing their fingers across their throats. He had served 18 years in prison, 11 of them in solitary confinement.

The man was Mordechai Vanunu, the whistleblower who, in 1986, came to Britain to tell the Sunday Times the story of the then secret nuclear weapons facility at Dimona in Israel. Out alone in London and disillusioned with the length of time the story seemed to be taking to reach publication, he was lured by a woman from Mossad to Italy. There, he was kidnapped, drugged and smuggled out of the country to Israel, where he was convicted of espionage.

On his release from prison, he was led to believe that he would soon be free to leave the country where he is vilified and regarded as a traitor. When I interviewed him in Jerusalem six months later, back in 2004, he was still hopeful that, having served his time, he would be able to start a new life abroad. It has turned out to be an empty hope. Last December, he failed in the high court of justice in his latest bid to be allowed to leave. Does Edward Snowden, as he adjusts to life in Moscow, wonder whether he will still be haunted and hunted by the US government for decades to come?

No one seriously claims that the man who was exhaustively debriefed by the Sunday Times nearly 30 years ago has any secrets up his sleeve. The decision to restrict his movements seems to be based more on a desire to inflict punishment on an unrepentant man than for security concerns. A pacifist who has urged the Palestinians to pursue their aims by non-violent means, he was not a spy but was driven to his actions by a horror of Hiroshima and the possibility of a nuclear war in the Middle East. [Continue reading...]

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Iran cuts nuke weapons ability

The Associated Press reports: The United Nations will release a report this week certifying that Iran’s ability to make a nuclear bomb has been greatly reduced because it has diluted half of its material that can be turned most quickly into weapons-grade uranium, diplomats said Tuesday.

The move is part of Iran’s commitments under a deal with six world powers in effect since January that mandates some nuclear concessions on the part of Tehran in exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions crippling its economy.

A key concern for the six was Iran’s stockpile of 20-percent enriched uranium, which is only a technical step away from the 90-percent grade used to arm nuclear weapons. By late last year, Iran had already amassed almost enough of the 20-percent grade for one nuclear bomb, with further enrichment.

Under the agreement, Iran agreed to halt its 20-percent enrichment program and to turn half of its nearly 200-kilogram (440-pound) stockpile into oxide for reactor fuel. As well, it pledged to dilute the other half into low-enriched uranium. [Continue reading...]

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Russia’s apocalyptic nuclear Perimeter (aka ‘Dead Hand’)

“Russia is the only country in the world realistically capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash,” TV anchor Dmitry Kiselyov said on his weekly news show on state-controlled Rossiya 1 television on Sunday evening.

Kiselyov isn’t a household name in the U.S. but to describe him as Russia’s Glenn Beck would be a major understatement. Having been appointed by President Putin as head of the official Russian government-owned international news agency Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) which has 2,300 employees, Kiselyov is now one of the most prominent figures in Russian state media.

Kiselyov said that the creation of the new media entity was necessary to redress what he called an unfair international perception of Russia.

“The creation of a fair attitude toward Russia as an important country with good intentions – this is the mission of the new structure that I will be heading up,” he said in December.

The Associated Press reported in December:

When Ukrainians flooded the streets last week to protest their president’s shelving of a treaty with the European Union, Kiselyov lambasted Sweden and Poland, accusing them of encouraging massive protests in Kiev to take revenge for military defeats by czarist Russia centuries ago.

Kiselyov, who earned his degree in Scandinavian literature, rolled a clip of a Swedish children’s program called “Poop and Pee,” designed to teach children about their bodily functions. After the clip finished rolling, Kiselyov turned to the camera to suggest that this was the kind of European decadence awaiting Ukraine, if it signed a deal with the EU.

In Sweden there is “the radical growth of child abortions, early sex — the norm is nine years old, and at age 12 there is already child impotency,” he said after the clip rolled.

That reportage gained him few friends in Ukraine, where one man bounded over to hand “an Oscar for the nonsense and lies” of Dmitry Kiselyov to the state television correspondent standing on Kiev’s main square. He was brusquely pushed out of the shot before finishing his speech.

Kiselyov has also proven an avid attack dog on the issue of homosexuality, as international criticism over a Russian law banning gay “propaganda” reached a fever pitch this summer. The TV anchor said that homosexuals’ hearts should be buried or burned, and that gays should be banned from donating blood or organs, which were “unsuitable for the prolongation of anyone’s life.”

In Kiselyov’s comments last night, he highlighted the existence of the Soviet-built system of nuclear retaliation known as Perimeter which still exists and if ever activated would launch a devastating nuclear attack on the United States through commands controlled by artificial intelligence.

(Before anyone here starts writing some inane comment about why Russia has a right to destroy the U.S. if it has already been destroyed by the U.S., pause for second and think about what it means to have computer-controlled nuclear weapons. That opens up whole new nightmarish vistas in the domains of cyberwarfare, faulty algorithms, and the inadequate maintenance of aging systems. Personally, I have little confidence in human-controlled nuclear arsenals and even less in those that can be unleashed automatically.)

The system was reported on by Nicholas Thompson in 2009:

Valery Yarynich glances nervously over his shoulder. Clad in a brown leather jacket, the 72-year-old former Soviet colonel is hunkered in the back of the dimly lit Iron Gate restaurant in Washington, DC. It’s March 2009 — the Berlin Wall came down two decades ago — but the lean and fit Yarynich is as jumpy as an informant dodging the KGB. He begins to whisper, quietly but firmly.

“The Perimeter system is very, very nice,” he says. “We remove unique responsibility from high politicians and the military.” He looks around again.

Yarynich is talking about Russia’s doomsday machine. That’s right, an actual doomsday device — a real, functioning version of the ultimate weapon, always presumed to exist only as a fantasy of apocalypse-obsessed science fiction writers and paranoid über-hawks. The thing that historian Lewis Mumford called “the central symbol of this scientifically organized nightmare of mass extermination.” Turns out Yarynich, a 30-year veteran of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces and Soviet General Staff, helped build one.

The point of the system, he explains, was to guarantee an automatic Soviet response to an American nuclear strike. Even if the US crippled the USSR with a surprise attack, the Soviets could still hit back. It wouldn’t matter if the US blew up the Kremlin, took out the defense ministry, severed the communications network, and killed everyone with stars on their shoulders. Ground-based sensors would detect that a devastating blow had been struck and a counterattack would be launched.

The technical name was Perimeter, but some called it Mertvaya Ruka, or Dead Hand. It was built 25 years ago and remained a closely guarded secret. With the demise of the USSR, word of the system did leak out, but few people seemed to notice. In fact, though Yarynich and a former Minuteman launch officer named Bruce Blair have been writing about Perimeter since 1993 in numerous books and newspaper articles, its existence has not penetrated the public mind or the corridors of power. The Russians still won’t discuss it, and Americans at the highest levels — including former top officials at the State Department and White House — say they’ve never heard of it. When I recently told former CIA director James Woolsey that the USSR had built a doomsday device, his eyes grew cold. “I hope to God the Soviets were more sensible than that.” They weren’t.

The system remains so shrouded that Yarynich worries his continued openness puts him in danger. He might have a point: One Soviet official who spoke with Americans about the system died in a mysterious fall down a staircase. But Yarynich takes the risk. He believes the world needs to know about Dead Hand. Because, after all, it is still in place. [Continue reading...]

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Should Ukraine have given up its nuclear arsenal?

e13-iconThe Guardian reports: Ukraine’s prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has accused Russia of demonstrating unacceptable “military aggression” which has “no reason and no grounds”.

Moscow has deployed 10,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, deepening the crisis in Crimea ahead of a last desperate effort by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, to broker a deal with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in London on Friday.

Yatsenyuk told the UN security council on Thursday he is convinced Russians do not want war. He urged Russia’s leaders to heed the people’s wishes and return to dialogue with Ukraine. “If we start real talks with Russia, I believe we can be real partners,” Yatsenyuk said.

He said Ukraine gave up the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal in 1994 in exchange for guarantees of its independence and territorial integrity. After Russia’s recent actions, Yatsenyuk said, “it would be difficult to convince anyone on the globe not to have nuclear weapons”. [Continue reading...]

In an op-ed for the New York Times yesterday, John Mearsheimer wrote: The West has few options for inflicting pain on Russia, while Moscow has many cards to play against Ukraine and the West. It could invade eastern Ukraine or annex Crimea, because Ukraine regrettably relinquished the nuclear arsenal it inherited when the Soviet Union broke up and thus has no counter to Russia’s conventional superiority.

No doubt, if Israel’s leaders are ever pushed into a position where they need to defend retaining their own nuclear arsenal, they will surely be tempted to cite Professor Mearsheimer’s position — that giving up such weapons can turn out to be regrettable.

Let’s suppose, however, that Ukraine was still bristling with nuclear weapons — at its peak its arsenal was larger than those of Britain, France, and China combined — are we to imagine that its interim government would now be making veiled threats to incinerate Moscow? Are we to suppose that Russian forces would have stayed out of Crimea? After all, how many wars have Israel’s nuclear weapons prevented?

It seems just as likely that in the current situation, Putin would be arguing that Russia had no choice but take over the whole of Ukraine — not under the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians but in the name of defending global security, his argument being that in an unstable Ukraine, “loose nukes” pose a threat to everyone.

What seems regrettable is not that Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons but that the security guarantees it was given for doing so appear to have been worthless.

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Ukraine crisis: The impact on nuclear proliferation

o13-iconSteven Pifer writes: Russia’s military occupation of Ukrainian territory on the Crimean peninsula constitutes a blatant violation of the commitments that Moscow undertook in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances for Ukraine. The United States and United Kingdom, the other two signatories, now have an obligation to support Ukraine and penalize Russia.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine found itself holding the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal, including some 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads that had been designed to attack the United States. Working in a trilateral dialogue with Ukrainian and Russian negotiators, American diplomats helped to broker a deal —the January 1994 Trilateral Statement — under which Ukraine agreed to transfer all of the strategic nuclear warheads to Russia for elimination and to dismantle all of the strategic delivery systems on its territory.

Kiev did this on the condition that it receive security guarantees or assurances. The Budapest Memorandum, signed on December 5, 1994, by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom (the latter three being the depositary states of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, that is, the states that receive the accession documents of other countries that join the treaty) laid out a set of assurances for Ukraine. These included commitments to respect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and existing borders; to refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine’s territorial integrity and independence; and to refrain from economic coercion against Ukraine. [Continue reading...]

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A literary scholar’s fight against American complacency 
about nuclear arms

f13-iconElaine Scarry is professor of aesthetics and general theory of value at Harvard University. Nathan Schneider reviews her new 640-page book, Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom: The seed of the book lies in Scarry’s first and best-known work, The Body in Pain, a literary, philosophical, and political analysis that since its publication, in 1985, has been a favorite source for those seeking the prohibition of torture.

“I realized that nuclear war much more closely approximates the model of torture than the model of war because there’s zero consent from the many millions of people affected by it,” Scarry recalls, nearly repeating a sentence that appears in the 1985 text. She began working on Thermonuclear Monarchy in earnest the year after The Body in Pain came out — 28 years ago, with the Cold War still well under way.

The monarchy in her title denotes the assertion that “out-of-ratio” weapons such as nuclear warheads, like the perversions of torture, are inherently undemocratic. It is the nature of nuclear weapons to place the lives of billions of people in the hands of the minutely few individuals with access to the launch codes. Regarding U.S. presidents since 1945, she writes, “Louis XIV was powerless compared to each of these men”; future generations, as she put it in The Body in Pain, “may look back upon our present situation the way we now look back upon the slaves building the pyramids of Egypt.” The new book, published by W.W. Norton, implores its readers to undo this condition, to “reacquire our powers of self-government and dismantle the nuclear arsenal simultaneously.”

Those who have been following Scarry’s work the past few decades will find much that is familiar, even redundant. Several of Thermonuclear Monarchy’s arguments appeared in a 1991 University of Pennsylvania Law Review article, while other parts mirror her polemics against George W. Bush-era policies of torture and surveillance. A version of a chunk of it has already come out as a much shorter book with the same publisher. The fastidiousness of her research also resulted in a several-years-long detour more than a decade ago, expressed in a series of New York Review of Books articles, when she proposed electromagnetic interference from military vessels as a possible explanation for the crashes of several civilian airliners, including TWA Flight 800. Though investigators ultimately dismissed it, her theory prompted a federal study and was cited in a NASA report.

Scarry’s assault on the reigning complacency about nuclear weapons rests on her belief in the capacity of an interpretation to reconfigure the world.

To an unusual degree for an English professor, Scarry has gotten into the habit of seeking to have an impact beyond the realm of pure discourse. While [anti-nuclear protester] John Dear keeps his decade-long vigil and Megan Rice lives out the consequences of her [Oak Ridge] break-in, Scarry’s assault on the reigning complacency about nuclear weapons rests on her belief in the capacity of an interpretation to reconfigure the world. [Continue reading...]

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Nuclear deal heightens tension between Iran president and Guards

a13-iconReuters reports: The article on Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency appeared routine: the minister of roads and urban development said the ministry does not have a contract with construction firm Khatam al Anbia to complete a major highway heading north from Tehran.

Two things made it stand out: Khatam al Anbia is one of the biggest companies controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and company head Ebadollah Abdullahi had said just three days earlier that it did have the contract.

The December report was one of a series of signs that President Hassan Rouhani, who came into office last August, is using the political momentum from a thaw with the West over its nuclear program to roll back the Guard’s economic influence.

Existing government contracts with the Guards have been challenged by ministers and some, like the highway contract, that were left in limbo when Rouhani succeeded the more hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been rebuffed.

Senior commanders in the Guards, established 35 years ago this week to defend the clerical religious system that replaced the Western-backed Shah, have criticized the nuclear talks but been more muted over the curbs on their economic interests.

Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said in December that Ahmadinejad’s government had insisted the Guards get involved in the economy.

“But we have told Mr. Rouhani that if he feels the private sector can fulfill these projects, the Guards are ready to pull aside and even cancel its contracts,” he said, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency.

In the same speech, Jafari lashed out at the nuclear negotiations, saying Iran had lost much and gained little and took aim more directly at Rouhani. “The most important arena of threat against the Islamic revolution — and the Guards have a duty to protect the gains of the revolution — is in the political arena. And the Guards can’t remain silent in the face of that,” Fars quoted him as saying. [Continue reading...]

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American troops with nuclear weapons strapped to their backs

f13-iconAdam Rawnsley and David Brown write: As Capt. Tom Davis stands at the tailgate of the military cargo plane, the night air sweeps through the hold. His eyes search the black terrain 1,200 feet below. He grips the canvas of his reserve parachute and takes a deep breath.

Davis and the men who make up his Special Forces A-team are among the most highly trained soldiers in the U.S. Army. It’s 1972, and Davis isn’t far removed from a tour in Vietnam, where he operated along the Cambodian border. His communications sergeant served in Command and Control North, which was responsible for some of the most daring operations in the heart of North Vietnamese territory. But none of the men has ever been on a mission like this before.

Their plan: drop into Eastern Europe, make their way undetected through forested mountains, and destroy a heavy-water plant used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons.

Leading up to the operation, during four days of preparation, Army regional experts briefed them on routes of infiltration and anticipated enemy patrols. The team pored over aerial photographs and an elaborate mock-up of the target — a large, slightly U-shaped building. It’s situated in a wide, open area with a roving guard, but at least the team won’t have to sneak inside.

Hanging awkwardly from the parachute harness of Davis’s intelligence sergeant is a 58-pound nuclear bomb. With a weapon this powerful, they can just lay it against a wall, crank the timers, and let fission do its work.

Davis had planned to follow in the footsteps of his family’s prominent jurists — his father was a lawyer; his grandfather a federal court judge — until a notice from the draft board arrived during his first year of law school. Rather than be drafted, Davis signed up for officer candidate school and volunteered for Special Forces, graduating from the demanding “Q course” as a second lieutenant. From there, it was on to Vietnamese language school and off to the war in Southeast Asia, where he served as a civil affairs/psychological operations officer.

As a first lieutenant, Davis got his own A-team. His team sergeant suggested they volunteer for training with what the Army called Special Atomic Demolition Munitions — tactical nukes designed to be used on the battlefield in a war with the Soviets. “What the hell. Why not?” he responded. Their company commander forwarded their names and the team was accepted for training.

As the plane approaches the drop zone, the jump commands come quickly, shouted over the frigid, deafening wind. “Check static lines!” The men sound off for equipment check from the back of the chalk forward. “Stand by!” The light turns green, and each man is tapped out: “Go!” the soldiers, each carrying something on the order of 70 pounds of gear in addition to 30 pounds of parachute rigging, don’t so much jump from the plane as waddle off the back of it and fall to the ground at about 20 feet per second.

At half-second intervals, their silhouettes emerge from the rear of the plane, their deflated parachutes streaming behind like comets’ tails. Canopies catch air and expand, and the team speeds downward, fast enough to avoid being spotted (or shot at) but just slow enough not to be killed when the men collide with the ground. Once the team has landed and released and cached their parachutes, they skulk to a predetermined rally point hidden in trees and shadows, where they unseal the special jump container and assess its contents for damage, making sure their payload is intact and not leaking radiation. Then they slip the bomb into a rucksack, bury the container, and set out through the mountains, moving only at night so as not to be seen.

It takes them about two days to make their way to the target. On D-day, they set the device at the plant — and run.

Capt. Davis’s “mission” was, of course, an exercise. In reality, he and his men parachuted not into Eastern Europe, but near the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. The heavy-water plant was actually a shuttered paper mill in the nearby town of Lincoln, and the bomb was a training dummy.

The mission wasn’t real, but the job was. [Continue reading...]

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Almost everything in Dr. Strangelove was true

AnalysisEric Schlosser writes: This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy about nuclear weapons, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Released on January 29, 1964, the film caused a good deal of controversy. Its plot suggested that a mentally deranged American general could order a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, without consulting the President. One reviewer described the film as “dangerous … an evil thing about an evil thing.” Another compared it to Soviet propaganda. Although “Strangelove” was clearly a farce, with the comedian Peter Sellers playing three roles, it was criticized for being implausible. An expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies called the events in the film “impossible on a dozen counts.” A former Deputy Secretary of Defense dismissed the idea that someone could authorize the use of a nuclear weapon without the President’s approval: “Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth.” (See a compendium of clips from the film.) When “Fail-Safe” — a Hollywood thriller with a similar plot, directed by Sidney Lumet — opened, later that year, it was criticized in much the same way. “The incidents in ‘Fail-Safe’ are deliberate lies!” General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, said. “Nothing like that could happen.” The first casualty of every war is the truth — and the Cold War was no exception to that dictum. Half a century after Kubrick’s mad general, Jack D. Ripper, launched a nuclear strike on the Soviets to defend the purity of “our precious bodily fluids” from Communist subversion, we now know that American officers did indeed have the ability to start a Third World War on their own. And despite the introduction of rigorous safeguards in the years since then, the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation hasn’t been completely eliminated.

The command and control of nuclear weapons has long been plagued by an “always/never” dilemma. The administrative and technological systems that are necessary to insure that nuclear weapons are always available for use in wartime may be quite different from those necessary to guarantee that such weapons can never be used, without proper authorization, in peacetime. During the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the “always” in American war planning was given far greater precedence than the “never.” Through two terms in office, beginning in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower struggled with this dilemma. He wanted to retain Presidential control of nuclear weapons while defending America and its allies from attack. But, in a crisis, those two goals might prove contradictory, raising all sorts of difficult questions. What if Soviet bombers were en route to the United States but the President somehow couldn’t be reached? What if Soviet tanks were rolling into West Germany but a communications breakdown prevented NATO officers from contacting the White House? What if the President were killed during a surprise attack on Washington, D.C., along with the rest of the nation’s civilian leadership? Who would order a nuclear retaliation then?

With great reluctance, Eisenhower agreed to let American officers use their nuclear weapons, in an emergency, if there were no time or no means to contact the President. Air Force pilots were allowed to fire their nuclear anti-aircraft rockets to shoot down Soviet bombers heading toward the United States. And about half a dozen high-level American commanders were allowed to use far more powerful nuclear weapons, without contacting the White House first, when their forces were under attack and “the urgency of time and circumstances clearly does not permit a specific decision by the President, or other person empowered to act in his stead.” Eisenhower worried that providing that sort of authorization in advance could make it possible for someone to do “something foolish down the chain of command” and start an all-out nuclear war. [Continue reading...]

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The truth about Israel’s secret nuclear arsenal

Julian Borger reports: Deep beneath desert sands, an embattled Middle Eastern state has built a covert nuclear bomb, using technology and materials provided by friendly powers or stolen by a clandestine network of agents. It is the stuff of pulp thrillers and the sort of narrative often used to characterise the worst fears about the Iranian nuclear programme. In reality, though, neither US nor British intelligence believe Tehran has decided to build a bomb, and Iran’s atomic projects are under constant international monitoring.

The exotic tale of the bomb hidden in the desert is a true story, though. It’s just one that applies to another country. In an extraordinary feat of subterfuge, Israel managed to assemble an entire underground nuclear arsenal – now estimated at 80 warheads, on a par with India and Pakistan – and even tested a bomb nearly half a century ago, with a minimum of international outcry or even much public awareness of what it was doing.

Despite the fact that the Israel’s nuclear programme has been an open secret since a disgruntled technician, Mordechai Vanunu, blew the whistle on it in 1986, the official Israeli position is still never to confirm or deny its existence.

When the former speaker of the Knesset, Avraham Burg, broke the taboo last month, declaring Israeli possession of both nuclear and chemical weapons and describing the official non-disclosure policy as “outdated and childish” a rightwing group formally called for a police investigation for treason.

Meanwhile, western governments have played along with the policy of “opacity” by avoiding all mention of the issue. In 2009, when a veteran Washington reporter, Helen Thomas, asked Barack Obama in the first month of his presidency if he knew of any country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons, he dodged the trapdoor by saying only that he did not wish to “speculate”. [Continue reading...]

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Nuclear weapons and the illusion of ‘safe hands’

At the beginning of 2004, Graham Allison wrote:

The Bush administration has yet to develop a coherent strategy for combating the threat of nuclear terror. Although it has made progress on some fronts, Washington has failed to take scores of specific actions that would measurably reduce the risk to the country. Unless it changes course — and fast — a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States will be more likely than not in the decade ahead.

A decade later hardly anyone seems to be pushing that particular panic button and yet the world still bristles with an estimated 17,300 nuclear weapons.

Apart from the fewer than 10 weapons North Korea is estimated to possess, the rest of the world’s nuclear arsenal is supposedly protected by ‘safe hands.’ How safe those might be in Pakistan is highly debatable and likewise there is little reason to have complete confidence in nuclear security in India, Russia, or Israel. But most Americans are probably confident that the nuclear arsenal in this country is the most carefully protected in the world, and maybe it is — on paper.

But it turns out — and this should come as no surprise — that the real nuclear peril here and everywhere else derives not from the designs of madmen, but rather from human frailty. Or to put it in words every American understands: because shit happens.

We already know that in 1961 two hydrogen bombs with a combined power of more than 500 Hiroshimas were accidentally dropped over North Carolina. Subsequently, a “secret investigation concluded that in the case of one of the devices only a single low-voltage switch stood between the US and catastrophe.”

The New York Times now reports that 34 of the U.S. Air Force officers who are directly in control of launching nuclear weapons have been suspended because they were found to be cheating on “proficiency tests that assess their knowledge of how to operate the warheads.”

This comes just weeks after an Air Force general was fired because of his drunken antics.

The officer, Maj. Gen. Michael J. Carey, was removed as commander of the 20th Air Force, which maintains and operates intercontinental ballistic missiles, after being accused of drinking heavily, insulting his guests, consorting with someone identified as the “cigar shop lady,” and slurring his speech while weaving in Red Square, “pouting and stumbling.”

Last May the Air Force disclosed that it removed 17 officers assigned to stand watch over nuclear-tipped Minuteman missiles after finding safety violations, potential violations in protecting codes and attitude problems.

And last November, The Associated Press reported that Air Force officers with nuclear launch authority had twice been caught napping with the blast door open. That is a violation of security regulations meant to prevent a terrorist or intruder from entering the underground command post and compromising secret launch codes.

When these are the vulnerabilities of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, there’s little reason to assume that these weapons are being guarded any more carefully elsewhere.

Posit a threat as external and no effort or expense will be spared to erect every imaginable barrier whose claimed effect will be to enhance everyone’s safety.

But when a much larger threat comes from within and comes from the simple fact that people make mistakes — that no system is absolutely unbreakable — and the only rational solution is one that hardly any politician has the guts to advocate: global nuclear disarmament.

It isn’t a question of whether this can be accomplished; it’s simply a question of whether this will happen before or after a catastrophic nuclear accident.

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Surveillance network built to spot secret nuclear tests yields surprise scientific boon

The Washington Post reports: It records sounds that no human ear can hear, like the low roar of a meteor slicing through the upper atmosphere, or the hum an iceberg makes when smacked by an ocean wave.

It has picked up threats invisible to the human eye, such as the haze of radioactive particles that circled the planet after the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan in 2011.

The engineers who designed the world’s first truly planetary surveillance network two decades ago envisioned it as a way to detect illegal nuclear weapons tests. Today, the nearly completed International Monitoring System is proving adept at tasks its inventors never imagined. The system’s scores of listening stations continuously eavesdrop on Earth itself, offering clues about man-made and natural disasters as well as a window into some of nature’s most mysterious processes.

The Obama administration hopes the network’s capabilities will persuade a reluctant Senate to approve a nuclear test-ban treaty that stalled in Congress more than a decade ago. Meanwhile, without the treaty and wholly without fanfare, new stations come on line almost every month.

“We can pick up whale sounds, and ice sheets cracking,” said Thomas Muetzelburg, a spokesman for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), the Vienna-based group that operates the network. More importantly, he said, “we can reliably detect nuclear tests.”

The monitoring system is a latticework of sensors — including radiation detectors and machines that measure seismic activity or low-frequency sound waves — spread out across 89 countries as well as the oceans and polar regions. Like a giant stethoscope, it listens for irregularities in Earth’s natural rhythms, collecting and transmitting terabytes of data to a small office in the Austrian capital.

The network was designed to help enforce the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, which outlawed explosive testing of nuclear weapons. But while the treaty has never entered into force — the United States and seven other countries have declined to ratify it, in part because of concerns over verification — the monitoring network has steadily grown over the years, from a handful of stations in 2003 to more than 270.

The network has emerged as one of the most compelling arguments for the treaty, advocates say. Arms-control officials in the Obama administration have cited the network’s advances in arguing for a new push for Senate ratification of the nuclear test ban, despite opposition from prominent Republicans who argue that the pact undermines U.S. interests.

“There has been a growing realization, especially after Fukushima, that the International Monitoring System has improved to an impressive level,” Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department’s assistant secretary for arms control, verification and compliance, said in an interview. “It became clear that the time is right to go out and talk about these accomplishments and what the treaty can do for U.S. national security.” [Continue reading...]

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