An accidental nuclear detonation ‘will happen’

 

In a review of Command and Control, which starts showing in theaters on September 14, Michael Mechanic writes: The film—which opens on a scene in September 1980, as young maintenance guys suit up to work on a Titan 2 missile in Damascus, Arkansas—features great archival footage and reenactments shot in a decommissioned silo complex. Command and Control dutifully follows the book’s basic outline. The central narrative thread involves a technician’s mistake at a Titan 2 silo that ended with the explosion of a missile whose warhead was more powerful than all the bombs America dropped in WWII combined, the nukes included. (The warhead didn’t detonate, obviously, but at the time nobody knew that it wouldn’t.)

This part of the story is related onscreen by the same former airmen, commanders, journalists, and politicos who appear in the book—largely men who were there or otherwise involved. Among them is then-Senior Airman David Powell, who was a teenager on an Air Force maintenance team when he dropped a nine-pound socket head down the silo shaft, puncturing the missile’s fuel tank. (To get a taste, read the scene as it appears in Schlosser’s book.) What comes after serves as a potent illustration of the breakdown of the military’s command-and-control structure, designed to prevent such accidents and deal with them effectively should they happen. Spoiler alert: Bad decisions are made by know-nothings up the chain of command, and bad things result. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea will have the skills to make a nuclear warhead by 2020, experts say

The New York Times reports: North Korea’s fifth nuclear test is ominous not only because the country is slowly mastering atomic weaponry, but because it is making headway in developing missiles that could hurl nuclear warheads halfway around the globe, threatening Washington and New York City.

The reclusive, hostile nation has been rushing to perfect missiles that are small, fast, light and surprisingly advanced, according to analysts and military officials. This spring and summer, Pyongyang successfully tested some of these missiles, while earlier efforts had fizzled or failed.

“They’ve greatly increased the tempo of their testing — in a way, showing off their capabilities, showing us images of ground tests they could have kept hidden,” John Schilling, an aerospace engineer and expert on North Korea’s missile program, said in an interview on Friday. “This isn’t something that can be ignored anymore. It’s going to be a high priority for the next president.”

Military experts say that by 2020, Pyongyang will most likely have the skills to make a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile topped by a nuclear warhead. They also expect that by then North Korea may have accumulated enough nuclear material to build up to 100 warheads. [Continue reading…]

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Why Kim Jong Un tested a nuclear warhead now

Gordon G Change writes: North Korea is hailing a “successful” fifth nuclear test, which it carried out Friday morning local time.

The device tested, which created a 5.3-magnitude tremor at its Punggye-ri test site, was reportedly in the 20- to 30-kiloton range, much more powerful than the North’s previous detonations. The last test, in January, yielded only about seven to nine kilotons.

The North Koreans have been ready to test this device since May. So why did they wait until now? Some are suggesting the detonation celebrated North Korea’s Foundation Day, marking the 68th anniversary of the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. But from all indications, the Kim regime tested at this time because it realized China would not impose costs for the detonation.

The test took place three days after Pyongyang’s nuclear envoy traveled to Beijing. Choe Son Hui, deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry’s U.S. affairs bureau, arrived in the Chinese capital on Tuesday.

We don’t know what Choe — who was deputy chief envoy to the six-party denuclearization talks, which have been dormant since 2008 — and her interlocutors said this week. Nonetheless, it was evident that the North Koreans were confident of the Chinese reaction.

At the moment, Beijing is far more upset with Seoul than Pyongyang.

In July, South Korea and the United States announced they would deploy the American-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system on South Korean soil. Beijing is worried that THAAD’s high-powered radars will reach into China and could help the U.S. shoot down Chinese missiles. Washington denies that is the case and has been willing to share technical information, but Beijing has not been mollified. [Continue reading…]

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Iran deploys S-300 air defense around nuclear site

The Associated Press reports: Iran has deployed a Russian-made S-300 air defense system around its underground Fordo nuclear facility, state TV reported.

Video footage posted late Sunday on state TV’s website showed trucks arriving at the site and missile launchers being aimed skyward. It did not say whether the system was fully operational.

Gen. Farzad Esmaili, Iran’s head of air defense, declined to comment on the report in an interview with another website affiliated with state news. “Maybe if you go to Fordo now, the system is not there,” he was quoted as saying Monday. He added that the S-300 is a mobile system that should be relocated often.

Russia began delivering the S-300 system to Iran earlier this year under a contract signed in 2007. The delivery had been held up by international sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, which were lifted this year under an agreement with world powers. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Iran said on Sunday that a person close to the government team that negotiated its nuclear agreement with foreign powers had been arrested on accusations of espionage and released on bail.

The disclosure, reported in the state news media, appeared to be the latest sign of the Iranian leadership’s frustration over the agreement, which has failed so far to yield the significant economic benefits for the country that its advocates had promised. Iranian officials have blamed the United States for that problem.

Despite the relaxations of many sanctions under the accord, which took effect in January, Iran faces enormous obstacles in attracting new investments and moving its own money through the global financial system.

The Iranians are still blocked from using American banks, an important transit point for international capital, because of non-nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the United States. [Continue reading…]

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The common-sense fix that American nuclear policy needs

Jeffrey G. Lewis and Scott D. Sagan write: President Obama, in his final months in office, is considering major nuclear policy changes to move toward his oft-stated goal of a world without nuclear weapons. One option reportedly under consideration is a “no first use” pledge, a declaration that the United States would not be the first state to use nuclear weapons in any conflict. While we think that such a pledge would ultimately strengthen U.S. security, we believe it should be adopted only after detailed military planning and after close consultation with key allies, tasks that will fall to the next administration.

There is, however, a simpler change that Obama could make now that could have as important, or even greater, benefits for U.S. security. The president could declare, as a matter of law and policy, that the United States will not use nuclear weapons against any target that could be reliably destroyed by conventional means.

This might seem like common sense, but current U.S. doctrine allows the use of nuclear weapons against any “object” deemed to be a legitimate military target. In 2013, the Obama administration did issue a guidance directing the U.S. military to “apply the principles of distinction and proportionality and seek to minimize collateral damage to civilian populations and civilian objects” and pledged that “the United States will not intentionally target civilian populations or civilian objects.” [Continue reading…]

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Nuclear accident in New Mexico ranks among the costliest in U.S. history

The Los Angeles Times reports: When a drum containing radioactive waste blew up in an underground nuclear dump in New Mexico two years ago, the Energy Department rushed to quell concerns in the Carlsbad desert community and quickly reported progress on resuming operations.

The early federal statements gave no hint that the blast had caused massive long-term damage to the dump, a facility crucial to the nuclear weapons cleanup program that spans the nation, or that it would jeopardize the Energy Department’s credibility in dealing with the tricky problem of radioactive waste.

But the explosion ranks among the costliest nuclear accidents in U.S. history, according to a Times analysis. The long-term cost of the mishap could top $2 billion, an amount roughly in the range of the cleanup after the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania.

The Feb. 14, 2014, accident is also complicating cleanup programs at about a dozen current and former nuclear weapons sites across the U.S. Thousands of tons of radioactive waste that were headed for the dump are backed up in Idaho, Washington, New Mexico and elsewhere, state officials said in interviews. [Continue reading…]

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‘No first use’ nuclear policy proposal assailed by U.S. cabinet officials, allies

The Wall Street Journal reports: A proposal under consideration at the White House to reverse decades of U.S. nuclear policy by declaring a “No First Use” protocol for nuclear weapons has run into opposition from top cabinet officials and U.S. allies.

The opposition, from Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, as well as allies in Europe and Asia, leaves President Barack Obama with few ambitious options to enhance his nuclear disarmament agenda before leaving office, unless he wants to override the dissent.

The possibility of a “No First Use” declaration—which would see the U.S. explicitly rule out a first strike with a nuclear weapon in any conflict—met resistance at a National Security Council meeting in July, where the Obama administration reviewed possible nuclear disarmament initiatives it could roll out before the end of the president’s term.

During the discussions, Mr. Kerry cited concerns raised by U.S. allies that rely on the American nuclear triad for their security, according to people familiar with the talks. The U.K., France, Japan and South Korea have expressed reservations about a “No First Use” declaration, people familiar with their positions said. Germany has also raised concerns, one of the people said.

Mr. Carter raised objections to the “No First Use” declaration on the grounds that it risked provoking insecurity about the U.S. deterrent among allies, some of which then could pursue their own nuclear programs in response, according to the people familiar with the discussions. North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and Russia’s actions in Europe have also complicated any change to the U.S. nuclear posture for the Pentagon.

Mr. Moniz, who weighs in on nuclear issues for the Department of Energy, also expressed opposition to a “No First Use” posture, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

Mr. Obama ultimately didn’t issue a decision on the “No First Use” proposal at the National Security Council meeting, but people familiar with the White House deliberations say opposition from the critical cabinet members and U.S. allies reduces the likelihood of the change. They say a decision by Mr. Obama to press ahead with the declaration appears unlikely in his remaining months, given the controversy it would stir in the midst of a presidential election, but it isn’t impossible. [Continue reading…]

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End the first-use policy for nuclear weapons

James E. Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former commander of the United States Strategic Command, and Bruce G. Blair, a former Minuteman launch officer, write: Throughout the nuclear age, presidents have allowed their senior commanders to plan for the first use of nuclear weapons. Contingency plans were drawn to initiate first strikes to repel an invasion of Europe by the Soviet Union, defeat China and North Korea, take out chemical and biological weapons and conduct other missions.

After the end of the Cold War, which coincided with revolutionary advances in our nonnuclear military capacities, the range of these missions steadily narrowed to the point where nuclear weapons today no longer serve any purpose beyond deterring the first use of such weapons by our adversaries. Our nonnuclear strength, including economic and diplomatic power, our alliances, our conventional and cyber weaponry and our technological advantages, constitute a global military juggernaut unmatched in history. The United States simply does not need nuclear weapons to defend its own and its allies’ vital interests, as long as our adversaries refrain from their use.

Using nuclear weapons first against Russia and China would endanger our and our allies’ very survival by encouraging full-scale retaliation. Any first use against lesser threats, such as countries or terrorist groups with chemical and biological weapons, would be gratuitous; there are alternative means of countering those threats. Such use against North Korea would be likely to result in the blanketing of Japan and possibly South Korea with deadly radioactive fallout.

But beyond reducing those dangers, ruling out first use would also bring myriad benefits. To start, it would reduce the risk of a first strike against us during global crises. Leaders of other countries would be calmed by the knowledge that the United States viewed its own weapons as deterrents to nuclear warfare, not as tools of aggression. [Continue reading…]

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Why ‘launch under attack’ should not be a mainstay of U.S. nuclear policy

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

Jeffrey Lewis writes: Once a president gives the order to use nuclear weapons, there is no turning back. The system is designed to very quickly render the president’s will into death and destruction on the other side of the world. So maybe don’t elect the guy who melts down on Twitter every other day.

Trump’s temperament is pretty different from, say, that of Brzezinski, who tells the story about the 3 a.m. phone call as kind of a dark gag. I suppose Zbig got used to it. There was a series of false alarms in June 1980, usually described as having occurred because of the failure of a 46 cent computer chip. A few years later, the Center for Defense Information — the forerunner, in a roundabout way, to Global Zero — learned that between 1977 and 1984, there were 1,152 “moderately serious” false alarms. False alarms are so common that I actually suspect the system would fail to respond to a real Russian launch. I just can’t imagine Bushes, Clintons, or Barack Obama retaliating while there’s even a glimmer of doubt about an attack. My guess is that they would all decide to risk waiting to be sure an attack was underway, that it wasn’t a false alarm or cyberattack, instead of hastily opting for certain nuclear holocaust. Given what we know about human beings and confirmation bias, launch under attack is probably less dangerous than just pointless.

The problem, though, is what happens in a crisis. What happens when confirmation bias is pushing in the other direction? If we think Russia might launch such an attack, then it is easier to imagine a president making a hasty decision.

My advice to any future president would be to drop launch under attack as a mainstay of U.S. nuclear policy. Some systems might still be capable of launching quickly, but I would design the nuclear force around the assumption that the president plans to “ride out” a nuclear attack. This means having enough weapons at sea to do the job and relegating any land-based nuclear weapons to the role of warhead “sink,” drawing fire away from cities. The Obama administration has made some steps in this direction, instructing the military to plan for more realistic contingencies — but it has still elected to retain launch under attack as an option.

I am not much of a fan of launch under attack, and have said as much to policymakers in Washington, but I’ve long been resigned to no one listening to me. Defense experts have a fetish about giving the president options, and they are simply loath to abandon this one, no matter how unrealistic. It is U.S. policy now and for the foreseeable future. In fact, Washington has gone to great lengths to design its nuclear forces, as well as its command and control system, around the ability of the president to determine the fate of hundreds of millions of people in a matter of minutes. The upcoming deliberations about nuclear modernization, which will probably cost a trillion dollars over the next 30 years or so, will proceed on the same assumption. If we’re going to design the entire system in this way, to emphasize the speed and decisiveness of a single person, we should probably also pick that person carefully. [Continue reading…]

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Iran says it executed nuclear scientist for spying

The Washington Post reports: Iran has executed a nuclear scientist who mysteriously turned up in the United States six years ago and returned to Tehran a few months later, authorities said Sunday, in the first official confirmation of the researcher’s fate since he arrived back in his homeland.

Iranian officials offered no details about the charges against Shahram Amiri, whose case has left unanswered questions about whether he voluntarily defected to the United States or — as he claimed — was abducted by agents while on a religious pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia in 2009.

Amiri surfaced in 2010 in videos posted online from an undisclosed location in the United States. Later that year, he arrived unannounced at the Iranian interests section at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington and demanded to be sent home. [Continue reading…]

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Nuclear power is losing money at an astonishing rate

Joe Romm writes: Half of existing nuclear power plants are no longer profitable. The New York Times and others have tried to blame renewable energy for this, but the admittedly astounding price drops of renewables aren’t the primary cause of the industry’s woes — cheap fracked gas is.

The point of blaming renewables, which currently receive significant government subsidies, is apparently to argue that existing nukes deserve some sort of additional subsidy to keep running — beyond the staggering $100+ billion in subsidies the nuclear industry has received over the decades. But a major reason solar and wind energy receive federal subsidies — which are being phased out over the next few years — is because they are emerging technologies whose prices are still rapidly coming down the learning curve, whereas nuclear is an incumbent technology with a negative learning curve.

The renewable red herring aside, existing nukes can make a reasonable case for a modest subsidy on the basis of climate change — though only because they are often replaced by carbon-spewing gas plants. That said, the “$7.6 billion bailout” New York state just decided to give its nuclear plants appears to be way too large, as we’ll see. [Continue reading…]

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Trump on nuclear weapons: If we have them, why can’t we use them?

trump-chump (1)

CNBC News reports: Donald Trump asked a foreign policy expert advising him why the U.S. can’t use nuclear weapons, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said on the air Wednesday, citing an unnamed source who claimed he had spoken with the GOP presidential nominee.

“Several months ago, a foreign policy expert on the international level went to advise Donald Trump. And three times [Trump] asked about the use of nuclear weapons. Three times he asked at one point if we had them why can’t we use them,” Scarborough said on his “Morning Joe” program.

Scarborough made the Trump comments 52 seconds into an interview with former Director of Central Intelligence and ex-National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden. [Continue reading…]

NBC News reports: Key Republicans close to Donald Trump’s orbit are plotting an intervention with the candidate after a disastrous 48 hours led some influential voices in the party to question whether Trump can stay at the top of the Republican ticket without catastrophic consequences for his campaign and the GOP at large.

Republican National Committee head Reince Priebus, former Republican New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are among the Trump endorsers hoping to talk the real estate mogul into a dramatic reset of his campaign in the coming days, sources tell NBC News.

The group of GOP heavyweights hopes to enlist the help of Trump’s children – who comprise much of his innermost circle of influential advisers – to aid in the attempt to rescue his candidacy. Trump’s family is considered to have by far the most influence over the candidate’s thinking at what could be a make-or-break moment for his campaign. [Continue reading…]

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