Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk

 

View of infrasound station array at infrasound station IS49, Tristan da Cunha, U.K.

Monitoring for nuclear tests: an IMS infrasound station array at infrasound station IS49, Tristan da Cunha, U.K. (Image Credit: CTBTO Preparatory Commission. Click to enlarge.)



Two weeks ago, I noticed that the conversation about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) seemed to be picking up the pace. This was among people on the Hill, so I set about interviewing several policy analysts, essentially non-governmental “onlookers,” who’d been around for the Senate debate — and failure — to approve the resolution of ratification in 1999. I talked to a range of people, from enthusiastic treaty proponents and people who think ratification won’t do any harm, to a treaty skeptic, whose opinion was that the treaty would endanger national security and that we need to retain the option of testing nuclear weapons.

The Mushroom Cloud On The Horizon: Talking About the CTBT Then and Now

There’s a lot that can be learned from these interviews. What’s interesting is that the United States has been trying — in various contexts, with various results — to ban nuclear tests since 1958. For example, President Eisenhower sent a letter to Chairman Nikita Krushchev referring to ongoing nuclear test ban negotiations in Geneva, saying:

The United States strongly seeks a lasting agreement for the discontinuance of nuclear weapons tests. We believe that this would be an important step toward reduction of international tensions and would open the way to further agreement on substantial measures of disarmament.

[...]

If you are prepared to change your present position on the veto, on procedures for on-site inspection, and on early discussion of concrete measures for high altitude detection, we can of course proceed promptly in the hope of concluding the negotiation of a comprehensive agreement for suspension of nuclear weapons tests.


This quote struck me, because it mirrors much of the committee and actual Senate CTBT floor debate in 1999 (click here for an example); it also should be noted that we’ve been talking about banning nuclear tests for over half a century. And it’s not hopeless: we got partway there with the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the Threshold Test Ban Treaty in 1974, and the Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty in 1976 (see Pierce Corden’s excellent summary here). But the skeptics still retain views from 1999, and would have us believe that it is hopeless; that the treaty is “weak”, that someone will cheat and we won’t be able to verify it, and that, despite all evidence to the contrary, our efforts to maintain a highly functional stockpile just aren’t enough, and we need to test one or two of those weapons periodically.

Well, when I interviewed Linton Brooks about current and past presidential administrations’ attitudes toward nuclear testing, he said:

I go back to my point that I frankly think that if the labs walked into the Oval Office and said “you know, we can change something that is already one of the safest devices ever made to be somewhat more safer, and all we’ll need is three tests,” they’d get laughed at. There’s no political will for that.



But what it really comes down to at this point is: what are the administration’s arms control gurus thinking, and what do they plan and predict for the future? It’s 2011, not 1999, and a lot of things have changed.

With those questions (and others) on my mind, I interviewed Rose Gottemoeller, the Assistant Secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. As a reminder, Assistant Secretary Gottemoeller was the chief negotiator of the New START treaty; previously, she was with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she was a senior associate in the Carnegie Russia and Eurasia Program. She was also Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. In the 1990s, Ms. Gottemoeller held several positions within the Department of Energy, including Deputy Undersecretary of Energy for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation. In other words, she’s more than familiar with the importance of the CTBT and the path it has taken over the years.

As with the previous interviews, my questions are in italic boldface; Assistant Secretary Gottemoeller’s replies follow. I have inserted hyperlinks as references wherever they might be needed.

I’d like to start with a question about education. There has been talk recently, specifically by Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher when she spoke at the Arms Control Association Meeting (and a few other people) that there’s going to be an education campaign to make sure the Senate knows exactly what’s going on with the CTBT: what it limits, how it works, all the specifics.

My question is, has the education effort begun yet or not?

Yes, it has, and I’ll just mention that I prefer to consider it like an information exchange rather than an education campaign. I know that term has been used by a number of folks, including by Ellen, but I tend to emphasize that this is a serious discussion, and an exchange of information, and that we are really working to get the facts out as we see them and to help people to absorb them and understand them.

So it’s really like an information campaign and a discussion. The reason I emphasize the discussion aspect of it is that clearly this is a debate, and it’s not like one side telling the other, and the other side is just in the “receive” mode. But it is more like a true discussion and debate, and I think that’s the way people are going to come to their decisions about the treaty, through that process of very serious discussion and debate, and seeing the facts, and coming to understand them.


That makes sense. So Senator X can say “well, I think it’s this,” and whoever is talking to them can “well, actually, no, in this Article, it says this…”

Well, it’s a very technical treaty, and the aspects associated with it are very technical, so it helps to really try to dig down deep on some of the technical issues, and discuss all aspects. So, as I said, I really think of it as a serious discussion and exchange.


So do you have tech people talking to the Senators?

At this point, we’re in early days, and we’ve just begun some discussions overall, and also, just so you know, we’re definitely talking about our broader arms control agenda at the same time. For example, you know the New START treaty implementation is going very, very well, and so, you know, I’m spending time on Capitol Hill talking about the broad agenda, and within that context, talking about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and as I said, bringing information to the attention of the people who are going to have to analyze it, and think it through, and make their decisions.


Speaking of people talking about it on the Hill, it hasn’t just been you and some other State Department people; there’s been more general chatter. I’m wondering if there’s something specific that triggered the chatter, like something in the upcoming National Academy of Science report or the new National Intelligence Estimate — are there surprises in any of these documents, or is this just part of a series of scheduled arms control talks that you and others were planning to do anyway?

No, I think the President has made no secret that ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is one of his priority goals for his arms control agenda. He mentioned that as part of the Prague speech way back in April of 2009. So, once the START treaty negotiations were concluded, and the ratification process was completed and the START treaty entered into force and began its implementation, naturally I think people turned their attention to “what’s next?” and of course CTBT is out there as a priority goal of the President.

The President said something very important about it, though, and that is, we’re not going to set any deadlines for ratification, and I’ve been trying to emphasize that as I’ve been talking to folks on Capitol Hill, to say, we’re not rushing into this. We’re playing this as a long game, and really want to have that serious discussion and debate, and to get all the fact in front of the responsible figures: the Senators, the members and their staffs who are going to have to absorb and understand what all the issues are.

So that’s how we’re thinking about it. But I think that, you know, it’s inevitable, once you finish a big project, you turn around and say “what’s next?” and I think that’s what’s happened here. We finished that big project of New START and people looked around and said “what’s next?”


That makes sense. And it’s already on the books, so to speak, [from 1999]. I asked Daryl Kimball the other day if they could just go directly into debate on the Senate floor, and he said no, it’s more complicated than that because of the information issue.

There’s one point I really should emphasize: that is, the last vote on this treaty was in 1999. It’s been over a decade. And really, in all that time, people haven’t had to wrestle with these issues. They haven’t had to think about the Comprehensive Test Ban, they haven’t had to think about all the issues involved in it, and so that’s another important reason why I do think it’s important to have a serious discussion and debate now so that the responsible people on Capitol Hill can do their due diligence, you know, they’re going to want to take some time and have a serious look at all the issues. And so that’s one of the reasons why I say, we’re playing a long game, because it’s been a long time, and a huge number of things have changed since 1999.

You know, back in 1999, the International Monitoring System — IMS — was hardly begun, and now it’s over 85% complete.

And [the IMS sensors have] already begun to serve an important purpose. They were really important in tracking both the radionuclides and also the seismic signals out of the Fukushima disaster. So that is something that’s proving the IMS system’s worth. But again, people don’t realize that if they last looked at this in 1999. They have to understand how much has changed on the verification side. Also, by the way, our own US capabilities, not just international capabilities, have improved. So they’re going to want to take a good look at that.

And the other issue, of course, is the big changes in attitude toward the Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship Program. You know, I was working in DOE back in ’99 — I was the Assistant Secretary there — and I realized at that time, Stockpile Stewardship was in its infancy. But now, you know, over a decade has gone by and our laboratories have seen the value of Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship proven, so that’s a huge, enormous change from 1999. And again, people are going to want to look at all the issues, and understand exactly what has happened, and that’s just going to take some time.


My next question stays in the present as well as looks to the future: as things move along in talking to the Senators, what do you think the hardest part for the skeptics will be to understand and swallow? Will it be verification? Will it be the scope issue? What do you think it’ll be?

Well, it’s very hard to foresee. You never know until you get into a debate exactly what the issues are going to be that come up. I was surprised during New START, for example, that the budget for the Stockpile Stewardship Program and infrastructure modernization came to the floor in quite the way they did. So you can never tell exactly what the items are going to be.

But I do think, judging on the debate that occurred back in 1999, that — and also, by the way, the report that General John Shalikashvili did following — if you haven’t looked at that, that’s a very important report that was done after the vote in 1999. He went around and talked to all the Senators and got their point of view as to why they didn’t want to vote in favor of the treaty. There were two core issues there: the one had to do with verification. The second had to do with peoples’ concerns that the Stockpile Stewardship Program wasn’t going to pay off.

So those are going to be very important core issues, and they get right to the heart of, is this treaty in the national security interest of the United States? Responsible Senators are definitely going to be paying a huge amount of attention to those issues.

[Gen. Shalikashvili's report] was an excellent snapshot, I would say, of views among the Senate members themselves as that episode came to a close. So it’s very valuable from that point of view. But I definitely agree — George Shultz has said, famously, that those Senators who voted against the treaty in 1999, should feel they have good reasons now to vote for the treaty. Or words to that effect. I’m paraphrasing what he said, but as he puts it, they were right to vote against it, perhaps, in 1999, but they should feel that they are right to vote for it now.

I think that’s the key. People are going to have to feel comfortable that enough has changed on those two key issues now, that it will make the difference.


In general, why is it so hard to get universal adherence to the big, general treaties like this, or the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty? What do we do about that over the long run and in the meantime?

Countries have to believe that treaties serve their security interest, and that is why we enter into them, because we do believe that they serve our national security interests, and we’ve made that calculation ourselves. Sometimes it takes countries a while to come to that conclusion, but when you look at the NPT, that is a treaty that has almost universal adherence around the world, with very few hold-outs on the NPT. It’s very interesting that that whole process took a while. You know, countries like France, for example, it was over a decade from the time that the treaty was open for signature before France came into the treaty.

So I’m very patient on these things. It may take a while for countries to decide that a treaty is in their national security interest. But we just have to continue to prove to them that the treaties are important in that way, that they are real stabilizing factors in the whole international security system.


Further Thoughts

Assistant Secretary Gottemoeller makes some important points. It may seem extremely obvious, but it’s also extremely important: the CTBT has been discussed since 1999, but not as part of a Senate committee or floor debate, and over the past twelve years, a lot of technological advances have been made, and a lot of geopolitical changes have occurred, such as North Korea’s nuclear tests, Iran’s advances with its nuclear program, and quite a few changes in Middle Eastern politics. All of these affect how we approach nuclear nonproliferation issues, and as General Shalikashvili said in his report (bold emphasis mine):

The Test Ban Treaty is not an isolated measure operating in a vacuum. Rather, it is an integral and inseparable part of our national non-proliferation strategy. An effective strategy must include the skillful use of a variety of political, diplomatic, economic, and military responses tailored for particular proliferation problems. This requires meticulous coordination among the relevant Executive Branch agencies, steady bipartisan support from Congress, and close cooperation with other countries. Only the United States has both a compelling reason and the necessary resources to lead global non-proliferation efforts. I believe that U.S. leadership is absolutely essential to success.


The argument over the “scope issue,” i.e. Article I of the CTBT, which forbids any state from carrying out a nuclear explosion, is a bit of a red herring — and it’s recently been mentioned by think tanks and individuals. I predict that we’ll see it again; you might want to refer to the following when someone mentions it.

Dr. Pierce Corden, in an extremely astute comment (scroll down) on my interview with Tom Scheber, a treaty skeptic, said (bold emphasis mine):

The agreed scope of the CTBT: that it bans all nuclear explosions of any yield, however small, is not a least common denominator among the negotiators in the CD. It is the demarcation between prohibited nuclear explosions, and “activities not prohibited,” which include hydrodynamic testing, inertial confinement fusion, fast critical reactors, and other experimental activities involving the release of nuclear energy that the U.S. successfully excluded from the scope of the Treaty. This required delegations that proposed their inclusion to agree to the demarcation. The text of the CTBT’s scope article was negotiated with the text of the LTBT as the basis, and extends the LTBT’s prohibitions on nuclear explosions to everywhere. Thus the agreed scope of the ban is in fact well defined.


Furthermore, if you read Gen. Shalikashvili’s report, or dig into any of the Senate debate, you’ll find that the biggest arguments were about whether or not the Stockpile Stewardship Program would work, and whether or not adequate monitoring and verification were possible, not about the scope issue. This is where that healthy debate and exchange of thoughts with Senators is going to be essential: they’ll need to understand how effective our stockpile stewardship is, our plans and new funding for the accompanying nuclear complex infrastructure, and how extensive the monitoring sensor network is, as well as the exact terms, time limits, etc. laid out in the treaty for verification and inspection.

It’s good to know that this dialogue has already started with our Senators, because it’s a complex subject, and very technical. The better the administration understands their issues with it, and the better the Senators understand the treaty (and are able to put partisan considerations aside), the sooner we can accomplish another historic national security initiative, and ratify the treaty.

 
 

VIP observers on Parry Island, watching an 81 kiloton test as part of Operation Greenhouse, on Enewetak Atoll, April 8, 1951. Credit: Brookings Institution/Defense Special Weapons Agency


At the end of my discussion of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty with Linton Brooks, he suggested that I interview someone who’s a “treaty skeptic”, who has doubts about the treaty and is able to explain them well. He referred me to Tom Scheber, who is Vice President of the National Institute for Public Policy. You can read Mr. Scheber’s biographical statement here, which includes a description of his academic and military background as well as what he did at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

I feel that listening to the arguments of rational CTBT skeptics is important whether or not you agree with them, because it will give you an idea of what we’ll see once the discussion gets going among Senators. As Daryl Kimball said about Senate prospects for approval of the resolution of ratification, “…in the Senate we’re at the beginning of a treaty engagement and education process that could take quite some time.”

As with the previous two interviews, my questions are in italic boldface; Mr. Scheber’s replies follow. I have inserted hyperlinks as references wherever they might be needed.

Mr. Scheber was quick to point out to me that although he was part of the technical staff at LANL from 1989 through 2000, he is not a weapons designer; his masters degree in operations research is why he joined the LANL staff, where he “worked in weapon studies and concepts doing operational effectiveness analyses…”.

Despite the fact that he’s a treaty skeptic, it’s important to remember that his opinion of the CTBT is based on some very solid experience in the nuclear weapons complex.

As much as you can without breaching any classification rules, can you tell me a little more about what you did when you worked at LANL and for the DoE, and your general experience in that environment?

… [It] was a very dynamic time, because ’90 to 2000, which was when I was in the nuclear weapons technology directorate spanned the time frame from continuing to develop a wide portfolio of weapons, test them in Nevada, nuclear-driven directed energy concepts, until the dissolution of the Soviet Union and our change in plans following that, the test moratorium and the plans for the CTBT, and then I was very actively involved in the planning for stockpile life extension programs, and the stockpile stewardship program. So, I was using my military background and my technical background, but not as a weapons physicist.

I worked in the nuclear weapons technology directorate and had a change to interface with a wide variety of technical people. My background gave me at least enough insight that I understood what they were doing, what they trying to accomplish, and some of the issues, and then I helped to roll those issue together into our program plans.


Many things have changed since 1999. There have been some recent State Department officials’ speeches about the CTBT, indicating that the Obama administration is clearly opening the doors to start discussing the treaty again, against the backdrop of a greatly expanded nuclear complex budget. Also, it has been well-established that data from JASON show the stockpile maintenance and LEP programs are working.

But you still have your doubts about the CTBT, even though many people are convinced the bombs will work and things will be fine for a long time.

So, I have three big questions that are a significant part of the picture when it comes to differences of opinions between CTBT skeptics and CTBT proponents:

  • How the treaty defines a nuclear test
  • How verifiable and enforceable the treaty is, and
  • The effect of US ratification of the treaty on our politics, agenda, and that of the rest of the world.

Let’s start by talking about Article I of the treaty, which states, in part:

Each State Party undertakes not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion, and to prohibit and prevent any such nuclear explosion at any place under its jurisdiction or control.



It’s my understanding that for treaty proponents, Article I is perfectly clear: “zero means zero”, i.e. that the treaty clearly bans all nuclear tests, period. It’s also my perception that treaty skeptics and opponents feel that Article I was not clear at all on what constituted a nuclear test, and left a lot open to interpretation. Since you have your doubts about the CTBT, perhaps you could go into some detail about your thoughts regarding Article I.

[The CTBT] was negotiated in the Conference on Disarmament, where every country — it’s a consensus group, and every country essentially has a veto vote, and so that is why the CTBT that we have looks like it does. It is the least common denominator that all of the countries could agree to, and so we do not have a definition for a nuclear test.

And when queried by the Senate, the State Department responded — it was questioned on whether there were any side agreements on the definition of a nuclear test. Our Ambassador Ledogar, who negotiated the treaty claimed there was at least a verbal understanding. The State Department said they have no record of any such side agreement or definition.

So it’s a key issue. That is the single most important issue associated with the CTBT, of what is it that is to be prevented or constrained. So, we certainly talked to several of our Russian colleagues through the years, who verified that Russia has a different way of interpreting the ‘no nuclear tests’ than we do, there’s nothing official that they’ve been willing to put in print, and so the lack of a definition becomes key.

[Additionally, the CTBT], with all its flaws, is of indefinite duration, and so this goes on without end, if it ever enters into force, and until it is either abrogated or we discontinue it.


I’d like to pursue the concept of “zero” further. Could you explain why you feel there is more nuance than simply “zero means zero”, and why you feel it is technically difficult to define “zero”?

Trying to decide and precisely define what “zero” means is very technically difficult. The United States has a working definition that as long as the weapon remains subcritical, and does not exceed criticality, in a test, that that is our definition of “zero”. And of course even with that, there is a very small energy release, but other nations, it’s not clear that they abide by the same kind of working definition. In fact I think if you look at the Strategic Posture Commission Report of two years ago, the consensus view was that Russia has apparently not abided by the same restrictive definition and their wording is, has apparently conducted nuclear tests. That’s the wording that they agree to use in the unclassified document, and the commissioners looked at the classified record to arrive at that finding.


Regardless of how one defines a nuclear test, the treaty must lay out a framework for detection and verification of nuclear tests, and subsequent enforcement of the treaty. Technology is very different from what it was when the treaty was defeated in the US Senate, eleven years ago. Based upon those technical improvements, do you the the treaty is verifiable? If so, how?

I think you’re getting at a key point, and I’m another person who likes to kind of dig down into the issues, and when you ask, is it verifiable, what does ‘verification’ mean, what would verification entail — in many of the discussions, there is a blurring of the definition that ‘something has happened’ that needs to be verified and needs to be investigated, and the term “verifiability”.

I’ve been in… briefings where the seismologists show charts, and they show different kinds of mine explosions, and nuclear explosions, and signatures [that go with them]. But at the very low level, the ability to take information that is provided by the International Monitoring System [IMS, see treaty protocol] and sort through and precisely determine what has happened and where it’s happened is — the lower the yield and the smaller the explosion, given all the Earth’s other background noise and events going on is very difficult.

And so I think where the International Monitoring System is very helpful is at detecting that an event has occurred somewhere and that needs to be verified, and I think that’s a good thing — the participation and the development of the IMF is helpful in instilling some level of confidence. At the same time, the treaty itself is so weak that I’m not very hopeful that the detection of an event would then yield to a timely and accurate inspection. First, the delay, and each country has to provide their own assessment of the convening of this executive commission to debate whether an inspection is required, the time required to assemble a team, and all that time, evidence is degrading that would help determine precisely what happened, and as well as the cooperation of a country who has to cooperate with the inspection, and they might refuse to be inspected or to let a particular area be inspected.

And as you know, the treaty allows for some small areas to be declared off-limits, and not inspected also.


Given the scenario in which treaty signatories all manage to agree that there has been a nuclear test, and then assemble an inspection team, do you think the politics behind the scenes could be as complex as it sounded, especially with some countries possibly backing the country that tested the weapon?

…[J]ust as in the UNGA or other commissions on the United Nations, that there will be bargaining and horse-trading behind the scenes… there’s very complex issues at work here which I think undermine some of the purported benefits that CTBT advocates would claim will happen if we ratify the treaty.


Going back to the subject of advanced technology and verification, could you go into a little more detail about the IMS? Are all countries deploying it equally well?

You know, I think on many of these issues, the US has gone the extra mile. I know other countries will criticize us because we haven’t ratified the CTBT, and for other actions, they’ll be critical of the US. But even on certain aspects of the CTBT, such as the placement of seismic sensors and stations around the world, we have gone the extra mile.

Russia, and China in particular, neither one of them has been willing to place an IMS station — within Russia, the nearest station is over a thousand kilometers from the test site at Novaya Zemlya. In China the nearest station is over 750 kilometers away [from their test site, Lop Nur]. However, in the US, we have three IMS stations within 500 kilometers — one is closest, 250 kilometers of our test site. Now, the seismologists have explained that there’s a rationale for that involving different kinds of soil, but it shows a lack of good faith at least by Russia and China. If you look at where all these stations are positioned, in particular it’s easiest to see on a map of China; there’s this big “hole” in the middle of China. And you ask, well, what’s in the middle of that hole? And that’s Lop Nur!

I think Russian has been more dependent on variant low yield nuclear tests and experience with them than we have. They have developed — and there’s a lot written about it — these triple containment vessels [Kolbas] to contain explosives and even very low-yield nuclear tests that would even contain any gases from escaping. They’re made to be resilient, to expand. Their literature says that they have been cemented in underground locations at their test site at Novaya Zemlya…

… [T]hey’re very innovative, and so it’s clear to me from seeing the kinds of money that the Russians have poured into revitalizing Novaya Zemlya that the experiments that are conducted up there are very valuable to them, that they really don’t want us to know much about what’s going on. If you’re going to go and conduct experiments above the Arctic Circle, [where] you can only work for parts of the year. It’s a very costly way of doing business, so this must provide something of significant value for the Russians and their nuclear weapons program.

[Scheber specifically mentioned the recent NIPP report on the CTBT, in which, the Kolbas are mentioned as a particular concern in the context of Russia conducting any “nuclear tests”, in the same context as such tests were discussed in the 2009 Strategic Posture Commission.]


My next question for you is literally a global question regarding the United States versus the rest of the world, with the CTBT as a backdrop. How do you feel about the treaty in the context of US global security and foreign policy?

Let me just quickly get to where I think the most serious issue is.

The outline is this. It is that for the US, either nuclear weapons remain important to the security of our country and its allies, or they don’t. I think some people will claim that yes, they’re important, but when you push them and really ask them what they believe about the subject, I find that they don’t really believe they’re of much importance. I think in the long term… all national security documents indicate that they’re still important, and you have to question the individuals to see if they believe that or not, but I tend to believe that they remain important for us, and they certainly are of importance to our allies.
So if they’re important for our security and allies’ security, then it is a national priority to ensure that those nuclear warheads and the weapons have high reliability. They seem to go together, and I don’t know how you can separate them.

Now, the question is, what does the test ban have to do with that?

One: the US did not prepare for a nuclear test ban environment. The moratorium on testing was thrust upon the nuclear weapons design community, there was a half-hearted effort to prepare, but we were not like other countries such as France, and I think the French probably, in retrospect, did it the right way. When there was a sustained effort to negotiate a test ban treaty — flawed as it was, the French continued testing, and they worked to design, test, validate, and collect data on computer codes for a couple of new warhead designs, which they have since built and fielded, and which they were specifically intended to be be able to be maintained, hopefully, without testing… the French went forward, they tested it, they got data on those designs; once that design and test series was complete — actually they had one more test if they needed they planned to do and they indicated that they did not need that. And then once it was complete [the series], they ratified the CTBT. I think the French took a prudent approach in their design.

The US, if you follow the historic record, it was the cutoff in appropriation funding at the end of September ’92, the end of FY92, and the reestablishment of funding was to be contingent on a presidentially submitted, three-year test program, which would focus on improved security and safety devices for nuclear warheads which could be sustained for the long term without testing. Well, that three-year test series was never conducted, President George H.W. Bush developed a plan [see Section 1.6 here], but when President William Clinton came in in January 1993, he indicated there would be no testing, and the CTBT and the US moratorium for that is history.


Here’s my final question: what do you think was the end result of that situation? Could the US be confident that it could rely upon its nuclear weapons to do the job, if it came to that? Was the stockpile prepared for a testing moratorium?

I do think the Stockpile Stewardship Program — and I was at Los Alamos when it was initially called the Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship — is doing some very good things, but at best it can provide a lesser standard than testing. I think the United States has probably the most technically sophisticated and complex warheads in the world, and it’s sort of like having a very sophisticated car in your driveway that you haven’t started for 20 years. Stockpile stewardship — if I can equate it to that — I would assert it is a lesser standard than that provided by testing, and I’ll explain that.

Stockpile stewardship is the calculations, and the experiments, that, at best, tell you there is an absence of evidence that the warheads will not work. They’ll say there’s no reason why these should not work. It’s like your car being in the driveway, and on on a cold morning, someone going out and having done a variety of checks, and saying ‘there’s no reason why this car shouldn’t start’.

Now, the question is, will it start? Testing provides evidence that warheads either do work or do not, or work partially. And so stockpile stewardship can tell you that there’s no evidence that the warheads will not work. That’s essentially what the current certification process performs. They look at the available data, assess whether there is any significant change or degradation which would interfere with the proper functioning of the warhead, and then the lab directors have a judgement to make whether they can certify that that warhead would work consistent with the specifications that have been provided.

It is a lesser standard than periodically conducting a nuclear test to provide evidence that, in fact, they do work.

And so, I am not of the community that says we should immediately conduct nuclear tests. But because [nuclear weapons] are of paramount importance to the United States and its allies, because we did not prepare for a test ban, and because the reliability is extremely important, that we should retain the option to test in the future, and therefore we should not lock ourselves in by ratifying the CTBT, which would then force us to go through the painful, legal processes of giving notification and withdrawing from the treaty if that ever is needed in the future.


I expect this interview will lead to a rather animated discussion. What do you think of Mr. Scheber’s points?

 
 

Part I in a multi-part series on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

In 1996, as soon as it was published, I read Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb, by Richard Rhodes. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in an example of how the invention of a weapon of extraordinary power can irreversibly change how the human race views itself, interacts with its different sub-groups, and most of all, how it uses intimidation as a tool of statecraft.

This intimidation was something we could capture on film, in fact, and in eyewitness accounts. I’m talking about nuclear weapons testing; for example, Rhodes quotes the following in his book:

Ivy Mike fireballIvy Mike mushroom cloud

"Ivy Mike" nuclear test. The fireball (top photo) was 3.25 miles wide; the mushroom cloud (bottom photo) was 100 miles across. Click photos to enlarge.*

I was stunned. I mean, it was big. I’d been trying to visualize what it was going to be like, and I’d worked out a way to calibrate the shot. The initial fireball I guess I calibrated by holding up a quarter. If the quarter would cover the fireball then the yield would be less than something; if the fireball were bigger than the quarter, then it would be more than something. The question was, looking through my dark glasses, could I cover the fireball with a quarter. And I couldn’t, so I knew it was big. As soon as I dared, I whipped off my dark glasses, and the thing was enormous, bigger than I’d ever imagined it would be. It looked as though it blotted out the whole horizon, and I was standing on the deck of the Estes, thirty miles away.

– Los Alamos radiochemist George Cowan, describing the first thermonuclear (hydrogen bomb) test “Ivy Mike”.

The test was also detailed decades earlier, in the April 26,1954 edition of Time magazine, describing to the public that the Ivy Mike test took place on Elugelab Island, Enewetak Atoll. It left behind a tremendous hole in the atoll, as well as a shower of radioactive fallout (see here for geographic distribution, and here for naval personnel exposure).

About forty years after the thermonuclear weapons tests were conducted in the Pacific Proving Grounds, I was working as a radiochemist in one of the Department of Energy’s oldest laboratories at the Hanford Site, in Washington State. One day, I looked up at a shelf in our lab and saw a set of Nalgene® bottles with soil in them. I reached up, grabbed one, and looked at the label. It said “ENEWETAK.” Another bottled was labeled “BIKINI.” Yet another bottle’s label said “RONGELAP,” and so on. They were all soil samples from atolls at the US Pacific Proving Grounds, meant for a fallout study of the 106 nuclear tests conducted between 1946 and 1962. I was holding a bit of history in my gloved hand — and more than the tank waste or spent fuel sludge I was working with, those bottles full of soil samples made pre-1963 Cold War nuclear testing something tangible and real to me.

All of this is to say that nuclear weapons testing has more than profound geopolitical effects: it had environmental effects as well, and this should be obvious. Yet renewed testing has been the subject of idle, theoretical discussion in recent years, regardless of any effects it may have.

In recent months, Obama administration officials have revived a topic that hasn’t been discussed in much depth for eleven years. They have begun discussing the US Senate’s debate, and the final vote on, the resolution to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Speeches have been given indicating that an educational process should be involved, not just for the Senate, but for the public at large. After all, nuclear testing is not a subject that comes up every day. And, as in the 1990s, lines are being drawn in the sand between the pro- and anti-ratificiation camps, with many reasons being given by each side why they feel the way they do about the treaty.

Thus, I have decided to write a series of pieces on the CTBT, presenting the treaty from the points of view of people who were around the last time it went through — and failed to pass — the Senate. The national security community is rich with distinguished personages who not only enjoy being interviewed, but are rationally, passionately, and calmly able to explain their points of view in a way that at least I have found educational, not just as the interviewer, but as a listener.

The following are excerpts from interviews I did with Ambassador Linton Brooks, former under-secretary of nuclear security, administrator of the NNSA, and chief negotiator on START I, and Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association. My questions are in italic boldface; their replies follow.

Part I: Linton Brooks weighs the costs of ratification

All of this recent focus on the CTBT reminded me of an article I saw two years ago, in a Utah paper, describing your changing views regarding the treaty. In 1999, you opposed treaty ratification. A decade later, you no longer oppose ratification. Could you go into some detail about that?

In the ’90s, I was very concerned about the maintenance of the stockpile without testing. And I think that the experience over the whole period since the end of testing, but particularly over the last year has suggested that stockpile stewardship has been effective in maintaining the stockpile. There have been external looks by JASON that suggest that our current approach is workable, and the 2002 NAS study basically says the same thing. I am part of the National Academy update that is allegedly going to be published maybe early Fall. I don’t want to comment on the details of that report because we don’t talk about it until it’s done.

But I think that stockpile stewardship has proven that it works. I also think that to some extent ratification is [cost] free, at least from the standpoint of maintaining the current stockpile.

And what I mean by that is the political bar against testing is so high right now that you would have to have a very, very major problem to get over that bar, and if you had a problem at that level, then you would have the “supreme national interests clause” and I think that it’s very hard to conceive of a problem that is big enough so that we would overcome the political bar against testing, but too small to overcome the bar against withdrawal.

Further, it’s not easy to postulate a problem in the stockpile for which testing is a necessary fix. In particular, you would have to have a problem in the stockpile essentially that affected the W76, the Trident warhead. With anything else, there’s enough of a backup. But the W76, if there were a problem, I think — and somebody thought testing was necessary — I think there would be the political support for it, and if there was, there’d be the support for withdrawal.

So it seems to me that from the standpoint of the stockpile, I think that there’s no risk to the United States from ratification. Now, I don’t know whether there are any benefits from ratification. The argument is two-fold:

One argument is that if we ratify, it enhances our non-proliferation credentials and then other states will be more willing to cooperate on things like the Additional Protocol. I think that assumes what lawyers would call “facts not in evidence”. It may be true, it sounds right, but we’re pretty short on evidence in terms of any way to verify that. It is certainly true that international non-proliferation bureaucrats often say they aren’t doing things because we aren’t meeting our Article VI Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations. But I think we lack a solid understanding of whether it’s right.

The other thing that people say is that a US ratification can lead to entry into force sooner or later. And you have to walk through country by country — I think most people I talk to believe that it’s just barely possible to see everybody but North Korea ratifying, and if only North Korea were left, I think people argue that it would be possible to do provisional implementation, although the treaty does not explicitly provide for that.

So you can see a path, but it’s very difficult path, and it’s complicated by the fact that nobody really knows what the new Egyptian government is going to be like. So I think that the people who say “US ratification won’t bring the treaty into force,” probably have a point, and my argument is, “but it won’t hurt, and it won’t hurt the United States, and the benefits may be small; they may either be non-existent, but ratification captures those.”

So I think technically it’s probably more accurate to characterize my change of heart not as huge enthusiasm for the benefits of US ratification, but a belief that the costs are essentially non-existent.

One of the main things on which people may have to be educated is the confusion regarding the purpose of nuclear weapon testing. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the only reason you test a weapon is when it is a brand new design, and you detonate it to gather data and to make sure it works. Is that correct?

I think that’s right. I mean, we did do so-called “stockpile confidence tests”, where we pulled a weapon from the stockpile and made it go “bang”, but we never did enough of them for any statistical validity, so all it proved was that that particular weapon worked.

And I think that’s a misunderstanding of the way we used testing. We used testing primarily as science experiments, to make sure the concepts worked, and the new weapons worked, and I think that since we’re not doing new weapons, the tools of stewardship are good enough to tieback. Now, there are people, Steve Younger, for example, has recently been quoted in a National Institute of Public Policy study, as saying that he no longer believes you can maintain the stockpile indefinitely without testing. Paul Robinson has always thought that. So there are two people who have real credibility in the weapons community. I think the current laboratory leadership tends to basically say, “wait a minute, we’ve been living under this for almost 20 years, and we have every expectation of living under it forever. What you guys do voting or not voting doesn’t look like it’s going to change,” and I think that at least the people I talk to tend to say that if the question were going back to the kind of test program we used to have, I think many people would see a benefit to that.

If the question is one or two tests, I think that’s less clear, and I think you have to look at a completely transformed world to believe that there would be the political support for resuming testing on a regular basis. I mean, it’s hard enough to convince yourself that you could do a test if you actually thought you had a problem.

One of the biggest things I am told by the computer scientists, is that the supercomputers at the labs are so much more advanced than they were, say, 10 years ago, at nuclear test simulations. What are your thoughts on that?

Oh yes. I mean, when they first started stockpile stewardship, and they talked [about computational power] increasing by a factor of a million, they’ve more than done that. And I think that — now, you’ve got to be a little careful. Computers manipulate data; they don’t create data, and that’s why if you say you’re going to stick to designs that are well-understood, I think that simulation is more than adequate to let us adjust things as we refurbish.

I think where you will get a legitimate technical debate, unfortunately, the details of which are not easily put into the public domain, there are safety and security improvements that you could conceive of, that some people think would depart from current designs enough to require testing. Thus far, we’re not pursuing anything that anybody thinks will require testing, but if you believe that we need in the future a fundamentally different kind of weapon, either because there’s a military need for something radically different, or because there are new safety or security features, if you believe that that’s the future, then you might have an argument to say, well, we will want to preserve the option to test that…

On the other hand, I go back to my point that I frankly think that if the labs walked into the Oval Office and said “you know, we can change something that is already one of the safest devices ever made to be somewhat more safer, and all we’ll need is three tests,” they’d get laughed at. There’s no political will for that.

So once again, you’re back to the question of: are you giving up anything in the US weapons area from ratification?

Part II: Daryl Kimball discusses the CTBT and the view from The Hill

Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher recently gave a talk at the Arms Control Association Annual Meeting. One of the things she emphasized when discussing the CTBT was that thanks to all the work on New START last year, people are now more familiar with nuclear weapons treaties, and we therefore have momentum for educating the public and educating Senators on the national security benefits of ratifying the CTBT.

The question is, how does one educate the public, and make sure that our lawmakers understand what the treaty means and how it works?

I think the process of dealing with the Test Ban Treaty will require similar efforts [comparable to New START education]. It’s going to take time; many people don’t really understand that we stopped nuclear testing nearly 20 years ago, and there’s a treaty that bans all nuclear test explosions but we haven’t yet ratified it. So the first portion of the exercise is going to be to go through those issues, address some of the myths and misconceptions that may still linger in the minds of the Congress and the public, including the fact that nuclear weapons testing is not needed, nor has it really ever been used, to confirm the reliability of previously proven warhead designs. This is not how, through the course of the nuclear age, we tested the reliability of the arsenal. So it’s a myth to think that, just because we can’t explode nuclear devices in the desert, we can’t maintain the existing arsenal.

Regarding parliamentary procedure, hearings, etcetera, is the CTBT ready to go? Is it on the books and ready to be debated in the Senate?

Well, yes and no. The treaty and all of the associated documentation — the article by article analysis, plus the five reports on the treaty, all that was transmitted to the Senate in September of 1997. Now, it was brought before the Senate by unanimous consent agreements, in October of 1999, and voted on rather quickly after a rushed round of hearings were held.

But then even after the the Senate refused to give its advice and consent to ratification, it remains on the executive calendar of the Senate. So the treaty does not have to be re-submitted technically, but for all practical purposes, there does have to be another round of hearings in all the relevant committees, and there has to be new information delivered to the Hill to answer their questions.

So essentially that’s what Tauscher was alluding to, that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about the “new information” that has become available in the decade since the treaty was voted on, that the Senate needs to take another look at. Specifically, the new studies that have been done include a new National Intelligence Estimate on the verifiability of the test ban treaty, there is a new Joint Chiefs of Staff report relating to the treaty, there’s a new State Department assessment on the treaty, and then in addition to all that, there is the National Academy of Sciences report that was requested by the executive branch. It is done. It’s in a classified form. It is going through the declassification process, but the report is done.

So, there’s a lot of reading that Senators and their staff have before them that reevaluates the issues and that were at the core of the 1999 debate. We think that the evidence is very persuasive in favor of the treaty, and that the questions the Senators had back in 1999 have been addressed.

What are you hearing on the Hill, and what are the prospects for approval of the treaty resolution of ratification? When do you think the CTBT will come up for a formal vote in the Senate?

This question was asked at an ACA meeting, it was asked of Ellen Tauscher, it was asked of Senator Casey when he spoke about this.

The answer is difficult because there hasn’t been serious discussion, let alone debate, about the CTBT, in over a decade. There’s no one who can give you a firm head count because in the Senate we’re at the beginning of a treaty engagement and education process that could take quite some time. The New START treaty took two years from start to finish. Even as the treaty was being negotiated, the administration was talking to people on Capitol Hill, and it took almost a year from the time that the treaty was signed to the time that it formally entered into force. And that was just a bilateral treaty. So this process could take a similar amount of time, and if it takes a similar amount of time, that means that we’re looking at beyond the November 2012 election.

The beginning of the process, and what’s important is that Senators take a look at the new information on the International Monitoring System [map, historical information] on verification and monitoring, and the value of the treaty for US nonproliferation efforts before jumping to conclusions, because the worse thing would be for Democrats or Republicans to make a decision based upon politics and based upon 20th century [out-dated] information.

There’s new kinds of monitoring technologies, there are more civilian seismic stations in the the world than before, we have incredible new computational capacity at the weapons labs; we know more about plutonium than we ever did, and a lot of the concerns about its aging have been addressed. The Stockpile Stewardship Program [SSP] itself is 10 years beyond, and has proven itself capable of overcoming difficulties.

People need to make decisions based upon what they know now.

Taking both Brooks’ and Kimball’s answers and applying them to how the treaty will be discussed in Washington, I can guarantee that the arguments offered by at least some of the Senate treaty opponents in committee and on the Senate floor will be based upon information from ten years ago. It’s easy to get confused, and/or deliberately confuse one’s colleagues in the name of defeating something you don’t want. Hopefully the “education efforts” as well as Ambassador Brooks’ reasoning will prevail. We won’t know for a long time, obviously, but it’ll be a contentious discussion when they do get to that point on the Hill.

Part III is an interview with a CTBT skeptic. Click here to read it.

 
 

On 3 June 2011, my husband and I returned to Albuquerque after my visit to an advanced respiratory clinic in Denver (long story– that’s why I haven’t been writing here at ACW recently). We exited the airport only to be smothered by a wall of smoke. Our car was coated with ash, and we could see bits of it floating down in the dim light of the streetlights. It was from the Wallow Fire in Arizona, the biggest wildfire in Arizona history. We knew it was only a matter of time before the summer wildfires started here in New Mexico, and we weren’t mistaken. The Pachecho fire is raining ash on Santa Fe, and the Donaldson Fire is currently raging across at 96,745 acres in the southern part of the state.

Las Conchas Fire, viewed from Los Alamos National Bank

Las Conchas Fire, viewed from Los Alamos National Bank. Click for source.

But the worst fire — the biggest one in New Mexico history at 121,248 acres, the one that’s getting national media attention — is the Las Conchas fire, which is burning in the Santa Fe National Forest that surrounds Los Alamos, a.k.a. The Hill, the home of Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the Manhattan Project was born. It is spreading toward Santa Clara Pueblo, and has been described as “a very complex fire… hard to control”. The cause was a tree falling on a power line.

 

 

Past Experience Counts

and

If It Bleeds It Could Possibly Be Radioactive, It Leads

There are several reasons I wanted to write a piece about the fire. One has to do with how, despite the size of the fire, Los Alamos citizens handled the evacuation with remarkable efficiency (and are, in fact, returning home tomorrow, with LANL opening on Wednesday). Also, LANL itself was not damaged, partially because of previous experience with wildfires.

One of the other reasons I wrote this post was, to borrow from Stephen Colbert, to offer a “tip of the hat, wag of the finger” to the media, several bloggers, and their sources. Some either deliberately or unintentionally misunderstood how the labs handle wildfires, simply because they neglected to contact the right sources. Others preferred to turn to drama and half-truths in order to get their points across, when the real story was that climate change and the resulting catastrophic drought has made New Mexico a prime state for wildfires. We have seen the complete destruction of ecosystems, razing of forests, and deaths of countless wildlife living in the forest that is now a smoking wasteland. It was good to see that several journalists and bloggers definitely deserve a “tip of the hat” for asking the right questions and telling the story of the fire as it is, not as it could be.

 

Learning From The Past

The first reason I wanted to write this piece is that because of similar fires, e.g. the 48,000 acre Cerro Grande fire in the summer of 2000, the citizens of Los Alamos and nearby communities, are (unfortunately) used to the idea of evacuating their homes because of a wildfire. Not only that, but the fire destroyed or damaged over one hundred buildings at LANL itself, leading to extensive evaluation of firefighting, fireproofing, and overall fire prevention methods at LANL, with the hopes that were there to be a similar wildfire, the laboratory would remain safe.

Whether or not you already know this, it’s worth pointing out that as with any chemistry research facility, LANL laboratories contain any number of substances that may or may not be flammable; however, if they do catch on fire, there is the potential for the release of hazardous by-products. We owe a definite “tip of the hat” to local reporters who, instead of emphasizing the horrors of a fire in Technical Area 21 (a radioactive waste disposal area at LANL), asked what sort of fire protection the area has. Reporters Gadi Schwartz and Charlie Pabst discovered that during the remediation process, certain precautions have been taken:

The federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years cleaning up the low-level radioactive waste, demolishing buildings and digging up things like radiation suits that were buried in the dirt above Los Alamos Canyon.

Metal buildings protect dig sites, and now with the threat of fire, crews have gone in and covered any exposed materials inside.

De Sousa said, “Wherever there was any hazardous waste showing we covered that up with an additional two feet of dirt, so that even if a fire was able to get in there, it would stop at the dirt. Nothing would burn and nothing would be released in the atmosphere.”

In addition to dirt, the buildings are set up to spew a firefighting foam.

 

This story is solid piece of reporting, providing details on how the labs are prepared for a fire.

 

 

Alarm, Fear, and Panic

Imagine you’ve just been told that you must evacuate your home because a wildfire is burning out of control, and you are no longer safe there. Imagine that you live in a nearby community (or even one several hundred miles away), and haven’t had to evacuate, but are concerned about the general effects of the fire.

The very last thing you need to read in internet updates is a rumor that fires have started within the LANL boundaries, that flames are advancing toward a nuclear waste storage facility, and the possible consequences if such a facility were to catch on fire. Sure, it’s all speculation, but what if?

Speculation like this is interesting only in non-emergency situations. It’s irresponsible, unsympathetic, and possibly dangerous otherwise — well worth a wag of the finger.

What am I talking about? Well, several things.

First of all, here is a photo of Area G at LANL. Note the distance between the smoke from a smallish fire and Area G.

Area G

Area G & Las Conchas fire, LANL. Click to enlarge.

 

Area G is where low-level waste is stored. It is also where transuranic, or TRU waste is stored. I recommend that you read the more complex definitions of these types of waste in this CRS document when you have time.

Anyway, a few days after the fire had really gotten going, several articles appeared quoting members of government watchdog and activist groups. These groups play important roles in keeping various government departments on their toes, but quotes like the following about Area G were neither appropriate nor warranted when the danger to the area was minimal at most. From the Associated Press:

Nuclear watchdogs fear that it will reach as many as 30,000, 55-gallon drums.

“The concern is that these drums will get so hot that they’ll burst. That would put this toxic material into the plume. It’s a concern for everybody,” said Joni Arends, executive director of the Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety.

And from Time magazine, we have an interview with Peter Stockton from the Project on Government Oversight. Again, they play an important role as a watchdog organization, but the interview was badly timed, especially when Area G (within TA-54) has a series of fire-protection mechanisms. This was simply not the right time to discuss hypotheticals, as interesting as they may be:

There is concern about a radioactive smoke plume forming if the wildfire reacts with LANL’s hazardous materials. What is the risk of that happening?

TA-54 contains 20,000-30,000 drums of waste, but just because it’s low-level waste doesn’t mean anything. If that becomes airborne, and just a speck of plutonium gets into your lungs, you’re going to end up with cancer down the road. It’s the most toxic substance known to man. It would be very nasty if those drums blew apart, and the wind carried them downwind.

Note: the only part of LANL that caught on fire was Technical Area 49, or TA-49, and it was extinguished within an hour. Click here.

 

Panic, Fear Unwarranted

Here’s where I’m going to give a lot of hat tips to bloggers as well as journalists.

 

Regarding the barrels in Area G, former LANL chemist and Project Leader Cheryl Rofer asked around. Here‘s what she found out:

Yesterday I talked to someone who has actually repacked some of the drums and has dealt with the paperwork. I learned some things I didn’t know.

The drums are not just any old things from Joe’s junkyard, but are manufactured to a list of specifications, including the fit of the covers and closures. Each one has a hepa (high efficiency particulate air) filter so that air can move into and out of it with changes in temperature and atmospheric pressure without carrying waste materials out.

There are no mysterious sludges and uncontrolled chemicals in the drums.

The fabric buildings have fire suppression systems. I realized, some time after yesterday’s conversation, that this must be the foam that was mentioned in a few accounts of the drums…

She also makes a very good point: that the lab needs to be more open if it doesn’t want paranoid rumors floating about:

I’m wondering why the Lab didn’t say all these things, perhaps issue a fact sheet, in response to media inquiries. Early Lab responses on the subject were a refusal to comment. But this has long been the way the Los Alamos National Laboratory has handled such things.

 

The blog at the journal Science also makes an excellent point: (bold emphasis mine)

While the edge of the fire is only a few dozen meters from the edge of the lab’s property, it is roughly 13 km from the most sensitive location, the so-called “Area G.” That site is a 63-acre storage facility where thousands of drums of nuclear waste sit, many of which are outdoors.

But between the fire and that site is the remnants of a forest that was largely burned during a horrific 2000 fire on lab property. That fire burned “90%” of the flammable material from the west side of the lab, says Los Alamos retiree Charles Mansfield, who worked as a physicist at the lab for 17 years and also as a forest firefighter, a so-called smokejumper, for 11 years. Mansfield says he’s “not very concerned” about the fire reaching spreading east to Area G.

And, as we see, the fire didn’t spread.

 

Finally, the ever-reliable John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal has been writing article after article; it’s worth checking them all out, but one of them said it all, to the people who insisted that we’d all have lungs full of plutonium by now:

Smoke Biggest Health Concern, Not Nukes


The smoke is bad news — take it from someone who’s been affected by it all the way down here in Albuquerque. But it’s not radioactive, at least; earlier tests were confirmed by more recent tests, in fact.

 

Caution Is The Name Of The Game, Not Drama

The fact that LANL didn’t suffer any damage and (thus far) the fire hasn’t caused any human deaths doesn’t mean everything is okay, and that everything will be just dandy in the future. In fact, the opposite is true; the Las Conchas fire continues to burn, and is endangering wildlife, watersheds, and destroying forests as we speak. The United States desert southwest has been in a catastrophic drought for a long time now (data and map here). John Fleck’s piece in today’s Albuquerque Journal gets right to the point:

The factors that set up trouble in the Southwest’s forests are complex – a warming climate and forest management practices over the 20th century that allowed a terrifying buildup of fuel. There was simply too much wood and plant material for the ecosystem to support, said Allen, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who has been studying the relationship between forest, fire and climate in the Jemez Mountains for 25 years. Something had to give.

That set the stage. Epic drought lit the match.

There are other fires burning around New Mexico; conditions were prime, and it’s never good when there are facilities that might be in the path of a fire and can add to the danger of the final product. LANL was lucky, as well as prepared.

But when we’re talking about risk, especially in the nuclear world, people still bring up the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ “Doomsday Clock”. In recent years, the Clock has been set to include climate change as part of the overall threat to our world. The conditions leading to the Las Conchas fire were undoubtedly influenced by our warming climate.

The fact that the fire got close enough to LANL, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, to make everyone nervous, plus the fact that this fire was partly caused by one of the Doomsday Clock factors, should not be lost on anyone. It’s a collision of events, and we should keep it at the forefront of our thoughts. Caution. Use caution with these things we build at LANL, and use caution when handling the Earth around it.

 

Caution, not panic or fear, are the operative words.

 
 
Click image to enlarge and for complete image credit.

Grains of salt (NaCl crystals). Image credit: NASA.

A couple of days ago, Wikileaks released several hundred more diplomatic cables from around the world. I was getting ready to dig through them for any interesting nuclear-related information, when the UK Daily Telegraph conveniently did it for us. Their “Nuclear Wikileaks Cables” page includes cables with CW and BW information as well, so you still have to do some filtering, but overall, it’s pretty clear.

Among these cables, the Daily Telegraph discovered a curious tale, which they highlighted in an article:

The London tip-off

In November 2007, the US embassy in London received a telephone call from a British deep-sea salvage merchant based in Sheffield, who claimed that his business associates in the Philippines had found six uranium “bricks” at the site of an underwater wreck. The uranium had formerly belonged the US. The merchant provided nine photographs of the bricks, which he said his associates wanted to sell for a profit. It is not clear whether diplomats agreed to the purchase.

That story, in addition to some of the other cables mentioned by the Daily Telegraph, was summarized by the Global Security Newswire, and has started to make the rounds via other news outlets and blogs.

Hold up, though! It turns out that the uranium bricks/Philippines story needs to be taken with a grain of salt or two. I talked to Stephen Schwartz, editor of The Nonproliferation Review, to find out why.

Schwartz told me the story rang a bell*:

“This particular part of the story resonated with me because some years ago I, too, received a communication from someone expressing an interest in selling uranium “bricks” said to be in the possession of someone in the Philippines. And like the incident described in the 2007 cable made available by Wikileaks, my correspondent included photographs of the merchandise. In my case, the offer came in the form of a letter or e-mail sometime between 2001 and 2004 from someone who claimed to have direct knowledge of the find or from someone acting on behalf of the person said to possess the uranium.

I found this odd on several levels. Why would someone seeking to sell uranium come to me, except for the fact that I was the executive director and publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists? The details were also vague. Where, specifically, had the supposed uranium come from, and how did the person writing know with certainty it was uranium?

Curious but cautious, I forwarded the information to an official at the Department of Energy, asking if he had any knowledge of or insight on this matter. As I recall, the official responded fairly quickly that he was aware of similar offers made to others in the past and that this was a hoax.

Schwartz made a critical point that echoes a lot of what I’ve been thinking regarding some of the general reactions to the Wikileaks cables. We can’t take them as positive proof of anything; rather, they could be anything from solid fact to chatter. Schwartz continued:

The cables released by Wikileaks and cited by the Daily Telegraph appear, for the most part, to contain chatter — information forwarded by US diplomats overseas or solicited by the United States from officials in other governments with any knowledge of actual or potential terrorist efforts to acquire nuclear materials. The cables don’t offer any judgment on the information and don’t say what, if anything, the State Department or other agencies did with the information. So one of the takeaways here is that just because something provocative appears in a State Department cable, or a newspaper, does not automatically make it important or true.

So, there are a couple of lessons to be learned here. They may or may not be obvious:

  1. The cables released by Wikileaks may or may not contain accurate information. In the case of the uranium bricks in the underwater wreck, we have at least two reliable sources who have determined that the story is more urban legend than something on which one can hang their reputation as a journalist — at this point, anyway.
  2. The cables, however, can be a good guide if you want to go digging for more information. Perhaps there’s something behind some of the chatter in the cables, but one should exercise caution and do more digging for independent information before one can say, with absolute certainty, that a certain cable contains incontrovertible fact. (A good example of this, in reverse, is Max Fisher’s great piece in the Atlantic about the delayed transfer of nuclear material from Libya; a few weeks later, Wikileaks released a cable that contained the same information.)

On that note, I have a feeling there may be a few of you out there who have also heard the “uranium bricks/underwater wreck” story long before Wikileaks released the cable. If so, let us know what you’ve heard — if anything — and what you think about the story in general.

And don’t forget those grains of salt.

UPDATE: Just to provide another point of reference, here’s a somewhat similar story, from 2009, about three Filipino men who scammed a woman with “fake uranium”:

Three men were arrested Wednesday for allegedly duping an American woman of P600,000 in exchange for a box of what they claimed to be a uranium sample lost during World War II.

[...]

Mirasol allegedly said the box was lost during World War II by the United States Air Force in a plane crash somewhere in Cagayan de Oro province.

The box did not contain uranium.

*Bold emphasis mine.

 
 

There’s not very much time left in the US Senate lame duck session, and there’s a lot of work yet to be done. Fortunately, as David Culp tweeted yesterday, that work will include Senate consideration of the New START treaty; according to the Senate calendar, at 2:15 PM today,”there will be a roll call vote on the motion to proceed to Executive Session to consider the START Treaty…”.

This will only be the beginning of what could turn into a bit of a circus. Despite the fact that there has been a trend toward support from some Republican Senators, others have vowed to make the process as difficult as possible; Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) has actually said that he “will work very hard” to make sure the treaty resolution does not get approved in the lame duck session. The track that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has chosen, i.e. consideration of New START on a dual track with consideration of the federal budget proposal, isn’t going over well with Republicans, so the outlook for the lame duck session is a bit cloudy at this point.

As Joshua Pollack predicted in his post last week, treaty opponents are likely to propose amendments to the treaty itself and to the resolution of ratification. Since Josh’s post, we have found out that a number of amendments will be offered, and that the Senate parliamentarian has ruled that the preamble to the treaty can be amended. A number of Republican Senators are happy about this, because the treaty preamble contains language on missile defense that they find unacceptable.

Given these recent developments, here is what you need to keep in mind as the Senate considers the treaty resolution of ratification.

How the Amendment Process Works

There are a few excellent resources regarding how a treaty resolution moves through the Senate. The White House has some information on its website, there’s an excellent CRS summary, and there’s a rather large 448 pg CRS report that goes into all the historical details. The best summary has been published by the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, so let’s stick with that for now.

Much drama has come about because the proposed amendments to the treaty resolution and the treaty itself (including that to the treaty preamble) have been called “treaty killer” amendments. However, the most important thing to remember is the math. The bold emphasis in the following excerpt is mine:

  • The Senate has never added an amendment to the text of an arms control treaty because the amendment would have to be approved by the other party(ies) to the treaty. Any amendment to the text of the treaty requires 51 votes, not a two-thirds vote, to be adopted (which means that a simple majority of the Senate can defeat any of the amendments).
  • After debate on the treaty itself, the next step is for the Senate to consider this resolution. The Senate is not to begin considering the resolution of ratification on the same day it completes debate on the treaty itself and disposes of any amendments to it, unless the Senate by unanimous consent determines otherwise.
  • The resolution of ratification can be changed on the Senate floor through conditions, reservations, understandings and declarations. A simple majority vote, not a two-thirds vote, is required to approve any of these additions (which means that a simple majority of the Senate can defeat any of the additions).
  • Once the Senate has begun consideration of the treaty, cloture can be filed at any time. Two days must pass for that cloture vote to occur. If cloture is successful then there is a 30 hour limits on debate on both the treaty and the resolution of ratification. At the end of the 30 hours there is a vote on any pending amendment(s) to the resolution of ratification and then immediately on passage of the resolution which will need the two thirds vote.

So, you see, it’s far more difficult to amend treaty text than you might think. Rounding up 51 votes in a situation where the Democrats are not likely to break ranks (which is the case with New START) would be quite a chore. In other words, yes, the Republicans won this round; the parliamentarian said they could amend the treaty. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

The Treaty Preamble

Now, let’s look at the preamble. The Republicans have been objecting to the missile defense-strategic nuclear weapons language for a long time. The preamble specifically says:

“Recognizing the existence of the interrelationship between strategic offensive arms and strategic defensive arms, that this interrelationship will become more important as strategic nuclear arms are reduced, and that current strategic defensive arms do not undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms of the Parties.”

But, as Kingston Reif says, “A link [between strategic arms and missile defense] is of course not a limit. But it has been longstanding U.S. policy to note the link between offensive and defensive forces. And it’s still our policy.”

Keep that in mind as things move forward in the Senate.

What’s Really Going On?

The reason the proposed amendments are being called “treaty killers” is because the Russians would object to any amendments we make, would probably propose their own amendments, and this could ultimately kill the treaty.

However, what I think is going on right now, with the lame duck session, is that the Republicans want to run out the clock. Each amendment must be voted on, and precious time would be lost on the Senate floor. The more time spent arguing over amendments, and the time needed to consider the amendments, the less time there is to finish things up and get to a final vote on the treaty resolution.

We’ll have a lot more to say about treaty amendments and New START in general in the coming weeks. This post (and your comments) will hopefully provide a good point of reference as we watch the debate unfold.

UPDATE: I mentioned this in the comments, but the Senate voted 66-32 on the Motion to Proceed to Executive Session to Consider Treaty Doc. 111-5 Between the U.S.A. and the Russian Federation (New START). The roll call vote is here. Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN) did not vote, but will very likely vote “yes” on the resolution itself.

 
 

As anyone who follows foreign policy and national security issues knows, officials from past presidential administrations have a way of somehow remaining relevant, regardless of their area of expertise — or, in some cases, their total lack of expertise. No matter how wrong they’ve been on national security issues, they never seem to go away.

John Bolton is one of those people. For the past year or so, he’s made himself comfortable on the op-ed pages and the airwaves. He even appeared on The Daily Show, summing up his world view as:

There is not that much difference between me and the people who want a world where no government has nuclear weapons. I only want one government to have nuclear weapons.

He was, of course, referring to the United States. Keep in mind that this is the man who helped orchestrate US withdrawal from the ABM, personally impeded strengthening the BWC, and was instrumental in cooking the Bush administration’s intelligence about Iraq’s non-existent WMDs. The only interest Bolton has in arms control is to dismantle it.

Now that the US Senate’s lame duck session has begun, and the push for approval of the Senate’s resolution of advice and consent to ratification of the New START treaty is foremost on the administration’s agenda, John Bolton has decided, yet again, to insert himself into the discussion. He and infamous torture memo author John Yoo co-authored an op-ed that was published in the New York Times/International Herald Tribune today. To put it politely, the op-ed is so bizarre that it’s difficult to imagine the authors are living on the same planet as the rest of us.

To call this piece “reality-challenged” would be an understatement. It goes through all the tired, predictable (and repeatedly debunked) Heritage Foundation-style talking points about missile defense, verification, “modernization”, and the preposterous claim that the modest cuts defined by the treaty will somehow leave us defenseless. Been there, done that; we’ve seen this movie before.

But where Bolton and Yoo really go off the rails is when they try to convince the reader that the New START resolution is basically a meaningless document:

The Obama administration hopes to sell this dangerous bargain with a package of paper promises. The Foreign Relations Committee’s resolution contains various “conditions,” “understandings” and “declarations” holding that New Start doesn’t “impose any limitations on the deployment of missile defenses” or dilute Congress’s aspiration to defend the nation from missile attack. A second understanding exempts conventional weapons systems with a global reach. A third affirms Congress’s commitment to the safety and reliability of the nation’s nuclear arsenal.

…They are mere policy statements that attempt to influence future treaty interpretation. They do not have the force of law; they do not bind the president or future Congresses. The Constitution’s supremacy clause makes the treaty’s text the “law of the land.”

As Jeffrey quipped this morning, “Yoo seems to like torturing logic as well as people”. The convoluted dismissal of the New START resolution of advice and consent to ratification seems to be Yoo and Bolton’s way of setting up their next big idea, which is — you guessed it — reject the treaty altogether:

To prevent New Start from gravely impairing America’s nuclear capacity, the Senate must ignore the resolution of ratification and demand changes to the treaty itself. These should include deleting the preamble’s language linking nuclear arsenals to defense systems, and inserting new language distinguishing conventional strike capacities from nuclear launching systems or deleting limits on launchers entirely. Congress should pass a new law financing the testing and development of new warhead designs before approving New Start.

(Emphasis mine.)

In other words, kill the treaty by delaying it indefinitely, so we can come up with something completely new that includes developing and testing new nuclear warheads.

I shouldn’t have to point out the sheer insanity of that suggestion, and the global repercussions it would have. It should be obvious.

It’s also obvious that opposition to New START has become entirely political, as Kelsey Hartigan has described here. Conservative opposition essentially has nothing to do with the treaty itself as much as “if the President wants it, we’re going to block it, delay it, and try to kill it,” an altogether dangerous and toxic situation.

Finally, it’s important to note that those arguing in favor of treaty ratification far outweigh those arguing against it, and have considerably greater experience in national security issues. The worrying part is that though the opposition voices are loud, inexpert, and coming from a far-off fantasy land, there’s a chance they may be influencing the opinion of Senators whose votes are needed to pass the resolution.

Update: Fred Kaplan has thoroughly dissected the op-ed. It’s well worth your time to read the whole thing. Click here.

 
 

Noah Shachtman at Wired and Marc Ambinder at The Atlantic are both reporting a doozy of a story regarding an event at F.E. Warren AFB this weekend, when a power failure resulted in 50 nuclear ICBMs going into “launch facility down” (LF down) status for approximately 45 minutes.

As Ambinder describes it:

On Saturday morning, according to people briefed on what happened, a squadron of ICBMs suddenly dropped down into what’s known as “LF Down” status, meaning that the missileers in their bunkers no longer could communicate with the missiles themselves. LF Down status also means that various security protocols built into the missile delivery system, like intrusion alarms and warhead separation alarms, were offline.

In LF Down status, the missiles are still technically launch-able, but they could only be controlled by an airborne command and control platform like the Boeing E-6 NAOC “Kneecap” aircraft, or perhaps the TACAMO fleet, which is primarily used to communicate with nuclear submarines. “At no time did the president’s ability decrease,” an administration official said. Still, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, was immediately notified, and he, in turned, briefed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

He also quotes an anonymous military officer who states that “we’ve never lost complete command and control and functionality of 50 ICBMs.” The official Warren AFB response was one of reassurance, that there was no threat to the public, and that “redundant, safety, security and command and control features” were all in place. The cause of the power failure is unknown at this point, but no “malicious” activity is thought to have caused it.

Ambinder also quotes an administration official, who dismisses the situation somewhat, and says that “to make too much out of this would be to sensationalize it. It’s not that big of a deal. Everything worked as planned.”

Talk about sticking your foot in your mouth. Although this event wasn’t quite comparable to the infamous “nukes on a plane” SNAFU in 2007, an LF down event shouldn’t be dismissed as “not that big of a deal”, especially when viewed as part of the bigger picture of nuke-related screw-ups over the past few years.

Before I invite any commentary from missileers and others in the know, I’d like to mention one thing: this event comes at a critical time in terms of New START politics. There’s plenty of speculation regarding the Senate calculus after the midterm elections, and regardless of the fact that what happens with the ICBMs isn’t necessarily dependent upon the New START treaty, there will be a number of Senators who will try to gain as many concessions from the Obama administration as possible regarding “the M word“, as Jeffrey puts it (stockpile maintenance and upgrades). This weekend’s event at Warren AFB will undoubtedly be used to justify delaying a vote on the New START resolution, and will definitely result in some fireworks on the Senate floor.

I’m sure we’ll learn more about what happened at Warren AFB in the coming days and weeks, but share your thoughts and speculation. The floor is yours.

 
 

Sen. John Kerry, chairman, SFRC listens to New START testimony, 5/18/10. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist Chad J. McNeeley/Released).

Well, folks, it’s that time of year again: the Silly Season is drawing to a close, and the US Senate will be back in session next week. When it came to arms control issues, “Silly Season” was celebrated on the op-ed pages; during the time between the last Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on New START and this week, there were literally dozens of “ratify New START/don’t ratify New START” op-eds published, ranging from extremely well-informed to dazed and confused. Whether you’re a national security pundit or an arms control geek, you’ll have something substantial to discuss pretty soon, because New START will finally be up for a committee vote on September 16. There’s actually some tasty, wonky goodness available ahead of the vote; Josh Rogin of The Cable over at Foreign Policy has gotten hold of the discussion draft of the New START Resolution of Advice and Consent to Ratification, which was circulated by Senator Kerry (D-MA) to SFRC members on September 3.

Procedural Stuff: The Resolution of Ratification

Back at the end of March 2010, John Isaacs published a good piece on the Senate’s role in New START ratification. Even though some time has elapsed, most of his commentary is still relevant, and is a good, general guide to how things might unfold in the ratification process. Isaacs also gives a solid, brief description of the parliamentary procedure involved, for anyone not familiar with it. Specifically:

[The Senate Foreign Relations Committee] will propose what’s called a “resolution of ratification”–the document that the Senate actually votes on. The committee can add to the resolution of ratification conditions, reservations, understandings, and declarations on subjects related to the treaty, such as missile defense, nuclear weapons spending, and future arms control negotiations with the Russians. The Armed Services and Intelligence Committees might also decide to hold hearings on START follow-on, but only the Foreign Relations Committee will vote on approving the resolution of ratification.

Now, what Kerry has circulated is a “discussion draft”; according to Rogin’s piece, Kerry’s office has stressed that the discussion draft is just that: a starting point for discussion. In fact, the letter that accompanied the draft says:

[T]his draft, which is based on the Senate resolutions of advice and consent to ratification of the START I and, in particular, START II Treaties, should give members a sense of how issues are considered in such a resolution and, to a degree, how specific issues that have been raised regarding the New START Treaty might be addressed. Chairman Kerry indicated in his letter of [September 3] that all members of the Committee are invited to convey their suggestions or proposals to the Committee staff directors, or to Tom Moore and me. We understand that this process is under way, and we welcome more input. The deadline for submitting amendments to the draft resolution of advice and consent is Tuesday, September 14.

So, it’s pretty clear that this draft resolution is a starting point, and is not the final product on which the committee will vote.

Politics, Paranoia, and Posturing

Rogin has also found out that Senator Lugar will be submitting a substitute draft resolution on September 16, with some changes in language that he hopes will make the whole thing more palatable to the Republican New START skeptics on the committee, who (according to Rogin) are having problems with everything from missile defense to the language on tactical nuclear weapons in Kerry’s discussion draft. If you’ve been following the GOP take on New START from the beginning, none of this should surprise you. There’s absolutely nothing new here; I fully expect GOP Senators to complain about missile defense until the bitter end, and to even be paranoid about the involvement of the Bilateral Consultative Commission (see Jeffrey’s “Black Helicopters” post). In fact, according to Rogin, someone’s already mentioning it:

Some GOP offices are calling for more aggressive language, such as a pledge not to include missile defense as part of the agenda of the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC) being set up between the United States and Russia to discuss details of treaty implementation.

If you read through Rogin’s piece, and the GSN Newswire write-up, the tone is that there’s potential drama and deep divisions on the committee. I disagree. There’s no reason to believe that there is much daylight (if any at all, at this point) between Kerry and Lugar on New START. Lugar’s goal right now is to get as many GOP votes as he can, and we already know that there are some fence-sitters, like Sen. Corker (R-TN). Not even Senator Kyl has said he’s going to vote “nay” in committee when the vote is up on the Senate floor. The only confirmed “nays” in committee, in fact, are Senators DeMint (R-SC) and Inhofe (R-OK). Lugar has said recently that he expects that a solid majority of the Republican Senators will eventually back the treaty, but that the big vote won’t happen until after the November midterm elections. In other words, expect a lot of GOP hand-wringing over all the usual issues for many months to come.

By the way, it’s worth pointing out that even though Lugar has been guiding things along on his side of the political fence, there has been some speculation that a lot of GOP Senators look to Sen. Kyl for guidance, since he’s an old hand at arms control as well (even though he isn’t on the SFRC). However, a recent comment by Kyl regarding verification makes me wonder if their faith in his ability to understand New START is, um, misplaced:

“I thought we were just going to continue doing business as usual” as the replacement treaty was debated, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said when a reporter noted the inspection cutoff.

I’ll be writing about verification at some point, and I’m sure the other Arms Control Wonk contributors will as well, but let’s just say that Kyl not knowing that we haven’t been able to inspect Russian strategic nuclear facilities since December 2009 does not inspire confidence.

The Discussion (Draft) Resolution

I’ve gone over the draft resolution, of course taking into account that it’s supposed to be a starting point and not the final word. I’ve given it a cursory comparison to the New START treaty text (please click here for all relevant treaty documents). As far as I can tell, there’s nothing controversial or contradictory there, as one would hope there wouldn’t be. I was initially wondering about the first part of Section 3, which says:

The advice and consent of the Senate to ratification of the New START Treaty is subject to the following understanding, which shall be included in the instrument of ratification:

(1) STRATEGIC RANGE NON-NUCLEAR WEAPON SYSTEMS.—It is the understanding of the United States that—

(A) The United States will not consider future, strategic range non-nuclear weapon systems that do not otherwise meet the definitions of this Treaty to be “new kinds of strategic offensive arms” subject to the New START Treaty.

This is an aspect of the treaty that apparently raised Russian eyebrows during the negotiating process, but was eventually resolved; please see pages 17-18 of Amy Woolf’s excellent analysis for more details. The text of the draft resolution doesn’t appear to contradict what was agreed upon during negotiations.

As always, I’d like to invite your comments and analysis as well. In terms of politics, I’d like to echo Jeffrey’s sentiment from a year ago: let’s hope everyone can stay mature and serious, and stay focused on the important issues. There’s no reason to delay ratification. Time to get it done.

 
 

B61 computer simulation. Image credit: Sandia National Laboratory

Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico during the Cold War meant that I had a lot of friends whose parents worked at Sandia National Labs (SNL) doing “nuclear bomb things”, or whatever vague description they’d get out of their parents about what was paying the bills. Things are somewhat more transparent these days, of course. For example, without revealing anything classified, the lab and the NNSA regularly provide updates on various LEPs; this year, SNL revealed some specifics regarding their refurbishment work on the B61 mod 7 and 11.

Over the past year or so, the B61 has been a topic of interest for several reasons. For one thing, the B61 was a prominent star in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which mentioned plans for “a full-scope B61 LEP study and follow-on activities”, as well as the intention to make the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter capable of carrying it.

The B61 also features significantly in the NNSA’s FY 2011 budget, as Kingston Reif explains over at the Nukes of Hazard blog. Reif draws a number of conclusions, particularly that the proposed LEP study will be “major”, and will be designed to streamline the different B61 mods into the B61 mod 12; if you want to get down in the weeds about the B61 mod 12 LEP and some of the background involved, check out Jeffrey’s post from 2008.

Regarding SNL’s role in B61 refurbishment, we can always count on John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal to get some good tidbits. Recently, he interviewed Dr. Paul Hommert, the director of SNL. The interview itself doesn’t reveal all that much; it’s Fleck’s follow-up on his blog that should get some good wonk discussion going.

Fleck points out that in his July 15, 2010 testimony before the Senate Armed Services committee, Hommert said:

[W]e find ourselves in a state of urgency, with a demanding schedule and expansive product requirements. The primary driver for the schedule of the B61 LEP is the fact that critical nonnuclear components are exhibiting age-related performance degradation. For example, the radar in the B61, which includes the now infamous vacuum tubes, must be replaced. In addition, both the neutron generator and a battery component are fast approaching obsolescence and must be replaced. A secondary driver for the schedule is the deployment of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter, which requires a new digital interface for the B61. Replacing the three aging components and adding the new digital interface represent the absolute minimum approach to this LEP. However, it is my judgment that we need to approach this LEP with a resolute commitment to replace old nonnuclear components and field a nuclear weapon system that employs modern technologies to improve safety and security and to extend service life.

(Bold emphasis mine.)

Fleck then shares with us what SNL’s former Vice President of Technical Support,Bob Peurifoy, told him via email, on the record:

Regarding radars: The B61 Mod 7 used to use a vacuum tube radar. As of my last interaction with Sandia, that vacuum tube radar was showing no aging problems. Something must have changed. During the Mod 7 production run, vacuum tubes became scarce, and I believe the B61 Mod 7 adapted the B83 solid state radar. As I recall, the solid state radar was not age-stable, and at least one retrofit was necessary.

Neutron generators contain tritium. Tritium undergoes radioactive decay, with a half-life of about 12.5 years. It has been necessary, therefore, to replace neutron generators periodically during scheduled maintenance. This is not something new and used to be planned for. No sense of urgency there.

Regarding a ‘battery component’: when I left Sandia, thermal batteries, by all accelerated aging tests, had an infinite life. Hommert’s use of the term “battery component” may refer to an RTG used in the B61 Mod 3 and 4. The RTG used plutonium-238 as a heat source. Its anticipated life was about 25 years. This has been known since 1979. Again, I don’t understand the use of “sense of urgency.”

Being skeptical of the design labs’ management integrity, I’m suspicious that the real reason for the “urgency” is budget-related.

So, this all leads to the question: how “urgent” are the problems that Hommert lists? Obviously, Peurifoy thinks that Hommert is overstating the case as part of a bid for, shall we say, “nuclear pork”. Were these problems there all along and weren’t remedied, so they actually are urgent, or is Peurifoy on the right track here?

Let’s do some brainstorming. What do you think?