Despite all the turmoil in Congress these days, a bill authorizing the U.S.-India nuclear deal has been quietly moving forward, and yesterday it passed the Senate 86-13. This is one of the last steps in the approval process -- it follows what I and many others thought were almost insurmountable obstacles to the deal in the Indian Parliament and the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
The summary of the bill, released yesterday, lists several notable provisions that I want to highlight briefly. It notes explicitly that approval of the deal is based on U.S. interpretations of the terms. This means that, contrary to a declaration by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the agreement would not mitigate any penalties incurred by future Indian nuclear tests. For instance, the United States views fuel supply assurances as a political, not a legal, commitment that would almost certainly be suspended in the event of further nuclear tests.
In addition, before any licenses can be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under this agreement, India's safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency must enter fully into force. At the same time, India's declaration of civilian nuclear facilities must be consistent with the one issued by New Delhi in 2006.
This and several other provisions seem to be designed to allow the United States opportunities to prevent or halt technology transfer if circumstances call for it. Such potential loopholes also highlight one particularly important fact: The deal's approval does not necessarily mean the United States will actually sell much civilian nuclear technology to India. It is now legal to do so in most cases, but political, bureaucratic, economic, or diplomatic barriers may nonetheless end up being too problematic to overcome. Indeed, the Bush administration secretly told Congress it would not sell "sensitive" nuclear technologies to India in a letter earlier this month. For those unhappy with this deal, the details of the bill leave America with plenty of wiggle room.
Minot Air Force Base is not having a good news year. Last year, cruise missiles armed with nuclear weapons left the base by accident; this March, the Air Force discovered it had inadvertently shipped fuse components for nuclear weapons to Taiwan in 2006; and in May, Minot's 5th Bomb Wing failed a security test. Now we have news of another mishap, this time involving classified material at Minot.
In a story that more properly belongs in the beginning of a bad made-for-TV drama, a missile crew in possession of a nuclear launch code "component," while waiting for transport in a crew rest area, fell asleep.
An initial report simply said that "a nuclear launch code was lost or misplaced," but the Air Force later clarified that the codes in possession of the sleeping crewmembers had been superseded by a new set and were no longer usable. In addition, according to the press release, the codes were locked up with a combination known only to the crew and the entire facility was secured throughout the incident by Air Force Security Forces.
Now, it is true that the codes were probably never in danger of being compromised. It would also be understandable in almost any other circumstance that the crew would fall asleep while waiting for transport; generally, missile crews consist of three people who rotate watches over a three-day period. These rotations are likely tiring, and indeed the crews have been complaining about the length of the new rotations (for more about life as a "missileer," check out this fascinating article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists). And the punishment for the people at fault looks to be swift.
More worrisome, though, is the pattern incidents like these are beginning to reveal. The "loose nukes" incident last year resulted from a whole cascade of minor security slip-ups just like this one, and where one such incident is reported many more are likely present. The prestige of working with U.S. nuclear forces continues to drop -- how do we make sure the ultimate weapons stay secure if things continue to get worse?
The Rolls-Royce brand is most firmly associated with ultra-luxury cars, but its engineering wing, Rolls-Royce plc, is also actually the second-largest maker of airplane engines in the world. Now, the company is diversifying even further, with plans to set up a full-fledged nuclear division to "manufacture equipment and provide advice to governments on their atomic energy programs."
Rolls-Royce has been supplying safety instrumentation and control technology to France's nuclear reactors for some time now, and it also has nuclear clients in the United States, China, and the Czech Republic -- creating a separate nuclear division is likely part marketing and part expansion. Since the company projects an almost 70 percent increase in the value of the civil nuclear industry by 2023, it's no surprise that it would try to leverage its unique skills and experience to cash in on the purported "nuclear renaissance."
It is surprising that the article explicitly mentions decommissioning (of aging nuclear plants) and cleanup (of plants and other nuclear sites) as potential moneymakers. Companies that deal in nuclear reactors and related products usually focus on the potential for profit in new nuclear plants and a large expansion in the use of nuclear power. Decommissioning and cleanup will become increasingly prominent issues as the world's current nuclear fleet ages, and often responsibility for such problems is laid at the government's doorstep.
Hopefully, more private entities will see fit to focus on concerns like these in the future -- and if we must have new nuclear power plants, we might as well make them Rolls-Royces.
Yesterday, Pyongyang submitted a long-overdue declaration of its nuclear programs to China, in accordance with agreements made during the six-party talks. U.S. President George W. Bush welcomed the move as "one step in the multi-step process laid out by the six-party talks," immediately lifted the application of the Trading with the Enemy Act, and notified Congress of his intent to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
What does all this mean in practice? The Bush administration's moves are highly symbolic, and unlikely to have any immediate, practical impact. Most U.S. sanctions based on the Trading with the Enemy Act (pdf) were already lifted in 2000, and most of those still in place are authorized by an overlapping hodgepodge of other laws and regulations. Minor changes will go into effect -- for instance, some imports from North Korea will no longer require licenses -- but for the most part trade policies will remain unchanged.
Bush's intention to remove North Korea from the state sponsors of terror list is a similarly symbolic gambit; the actual removal cannot go into effect for 45 days after the notification to Congress, and in any case it is probably contingent on verifying North Korea's nuclear declaration. Countries on the terror list cannot receive, among other things, U.S. economic aid or loans from the World Bank and other financial institutions. Removing North Korea from the list may allow more money to flow in, but, as a U.S. Treasury spokesman noted yesterday, sanctions aimed at preventing money laundering, illicit finance, and weapons proliferation will remain firmly in place.
Practicalities aside, this development has rightly been hailed as a diplomatic success; the New York Times today declared it a "triumph." The path to a denuclearized North Korea is still long and the process could easily be derailed at any point, but it is nice to finally have some reason, however slight, for optimism.
Last Saturday, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei sat for an Arabic-language interview on the al-Arabiya network. During a discussion about Iran, ElBaradei was asked how much time the country would need to "produce" a nuclear weapon. "It would need at least six months to one year," he replied.
Even though this estimate has been tossed around for years (particularly by Israel), given some caveats it is still within a generally accepted range of possible timelines for an Iranian bomb. ElBaradei's statement is surprising, though, because previously he has "consistently said that it would take Iran from three to eight years to make a weapon."
This sharp rhetorical shift could be the result of new findings about Iran that have not yet been released. Perhaps ElBaradei knows something we don't and he just slipped. It is possible, for example, that large numbers of Iran's third-generation centrifuges (the IR-3) are installed in secret locations. The IR-3 can probably enrich uranium significantly faster than Iran's current models and could reduce the time needed to produce enough material for a bomb. Tehran has only installed a handful of these centrifuges as far as we know, though, and is apparently still having trouble with them.
It seems far more likely that this was a signal to Iran that patience is running out. ElBaradei trained as a diplomat, and gaffe-prone individuals almost never rise to his level. He was also careful to emphasize that the threat is not imminent, noting specifically that making a weapon so quickly would require Iran to expel inspectors and withdraw from the Nonproliferation Treaty. In a further sign that the IAEA is willing to increase pressure, its most recent report (pdf) on Tehran's nuclear program expressed -- in unusually blunt fashion -- growing frustration within the agency at Iran’s "persistent stonewalling" and accused Tehran of withholding important information on alleged nuclear weapons programs.
So far, Iran has judged that fostering uncertainty about its nuclear weapons program would divide the international community and defuse pressure for stronger punitive actions. Hopefully, the IAEA's shift signals that Tehran has failed to divide and conquer.
Earlier this week, intelligence officials released new evidence confirming that the "Box on the Euphrates" near al-Kibar in Syria was in fact a nuclear reactor. They also released photographs that they used to argue that North Korea was providing significant levels of assistance to the reactor project in Syria.
The Syrian facility apparently contained a gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor (a derivation from the Calder Hall design) extremely similar to the reactor at Yongbyon. It's a relatively simple design, extensively described in the public domain, and one that's capable of producing plutonium useable in nuclear weapons. Despite the surfeit of publicly available information on the reactor, the intelligence community firmly asserts that, in this case, the design information came from North Korea.
Noting that the Syrian reactor seemed ill-suited to electricity production (not least because there were no detectable power lines leading away from the site), intelligence analysts also concluded that it would have few uses other than for producing plutonium for an illicit nuclear weapons program. Israel came to a similar conclusion and, judging this to be a potentially existential threat, bombed the reactor as a result.
These revelations raise more questions than they answer. For instance, why release this evidence now? The analysts said it was hoped that, among other things, releasing this information would prod the North Koreans to be more forthcoming in the six-party talks. It seems just as likely that they may just be infuriated and walk away from negotiations (there is no public sign of such a reaction yet, though).
Perhaps most notable in the briefing on Thursday was how coy the analysts were being about the possibility that Syria has a covert nuclear weapons program. They noted very specifically that "there is no reprocessing facility in the region of al Kibar," but refused to elaborate when asked whether the Syrians might be building such a facility elsewhere. They also refused to comment on how Syria might have been planning to acquire the natural uranium required to fuel the reactor and they dodged a question about how North Korean diplomats have so far reacted to this disclosure.
These omissions could be designed to minimize diplomatic blowback -- perhaps the administration simply hoped to nudge the North Koreans gently, rather than shove them -- or perhaps the spooks simply don’t have much more information. Hopefully the North Korean and Syrian reactions over the next week or so will provide more insight. Watch this space.
Even undeniably "puerile" debates can sometimes cough up interesting tidbits, and, on Wednesday, Hillary Clinton proposed an interesting way to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions: Extend nuclear deterrence to "those countries [in the region] that are willing to go under the security umbrella and forswear their own nuclear [weapons] ambitions." Unfortunately, moderator George Stephanopolous did not ask any follow-up questions, even though Sen. Clinton’s idea certainly merits a closer look.
The concept of a "nuclear umbrella" has been around almost since the Cold War and the nuclear arms race began. At the most basic level, it involves a nuclear- weapons state promising to use its nukes to respond if non-nuclear ally is attacked with nuclear weapons. Cold War strategists hoped that "extending" nuclear deterrence like this would cement important alliances and, crucially, eliminate the need for those countries to develop their own nukes. A nuclear umbrella is thus a tool of both diplomacy and of nonproliferation.
The key question here is credibility. How, for instance, would you convince the
Unfortunately, even in Gulf regimes that are friendly to America
However, the idea is still worth exploring as a contingency plan, and new ways of establishing credibility and commitment might be possible -- for instance, extending a missile-defense "umbrella," even one that doesn't work very well yet. But although technical measures like these may be part of the solution to
Coupled with missile tests and diplomatic maneuvers, these comments are worrisome but not necessarily out of the ordinary for Pyongyang. Nevertheless,
If "everything" means all of
Very little reliable information exists, but based on aggregated seismic data from North Korea's 2006 nuclear test, Harvard analyst Hui Zhang estimates (pdf) that the yield of that explosion was between 0.5 and 2 kilotons (for comparison, the yield of the weapon used at Hiroshima was about 15 kilotons, while other countries' first nuclear tests generally yielded 9 kilotons or above). For simplicity’s sake, let's assume
As for the number of weapons,
If, on the other hand,
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