Pakistan: just the kind of stable, responsible country we'd like to see expanding its ability to produce nuclear weapons. The Institute for Science and International Security reports:
ISIS has obtained commercial satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe taken on September 3, 2008, May 18, 2008 and February 9, 2008 of the Khushab plutonium production reactor site in Pakistan. The imagery shows further construction of the second and third plutonium production reactors at Khushab (Figure 1), and that construction of the second reactor may be nearing completion. The images show a clearly visible row of cooling towers, typically built in the later phase of reactor construction (Figure 3). Given this state of construction, the second reactor could start in a year.
Once completed, these reactors will increase several-fold Pakistan’s ability to make weapon-grade plutonium for nuclear weapons. The wider implication of Pakistan increasing its plutonium production capacity must not be overlooked—there is a real risk that it will exacerbate an India-Pakistan nuclear arms race and increase tensions more broadly between the two.
Some straight talk from Moammar el-Qaddafi:
What Iran is doing stems simply from arrogance," Gaddafi said during a visit to Tunisia after Tehran ignored another western deadline to accept an incentives package in exchange for full transparency on its nuclear drive. [...]
"In the event of a decision against Iran, this country will suffer the same outcome as Iraq... Iran is not any stronger than Iraq and won't have the means to resist (a military attack) on its own... The challenges are greater and exceed Iran's ability to reply."
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lost or misplaced," but the Air Force later clarified that the codes in possession of the sleeping crewmembers had been superseded by a new set and were no longer usable.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.
I noted yesterday that Haaretz columnist Shmuel Rosner believes that Israel will attack Iran to force the international community to act. Now, maverick Israeli historian Benny Morris weighs in on the New York Times op-ed page, declaring flatly that "Israel will almost surely attack Iran's nuclear sites in the next four to seven months... an Israeli nuclear strike to prevent the Iranians from taking the final steps toward getting the bomb is probable." Say what? Earlier, this week, I questioned a story in The Times of London saying that Washington had given Tel Aviv an "amber light" to proceed with attack plans.
What's going on? I have a guess: Israel is playing bad cop to America's good cop. The Times story provides one clue: "[T]he Israelis have also been told that they can expect no help from American forces and will not be able to use U.S. military bases in Iraq for logistical support." It's hard to imagine the Israelis could or would pull off a strike without U.S. help, so this is probably disinformation intended to send the message that Israel could act alone (which is doubtful for geographic, technical, and diplomatic reasons).
So, when Undersecretary of State William Burns meets with Iranian officials this weekend, he can thus implicitly present himself as their protector from the big, bad Israelis. Look here, Mr. Jalili: The United States is the reasonable one, willing to negotiate and compromise -- and only George W. Bush can talk the Israelis out of launching Osirak II. All you need to do is freeze your uranium enrichment and we can start talking for real. I'm sure Iranian leaders are aware of what is going on, but there may be just enough doubt in their minds to make this an effective gambit.
Haaretz correspondent Shmuel Rosner, writing in the The New Republic, argues that Israel might attack Iran not to destroy its nuclear program -- which it probably can't do -- but to force the international community to act:
The main goal of a hit would not be to destroy the program completely, but rather to awaken the international community from its slumber and force it to finally engineer a solution to the crisis. As one former Israeli official put it, any attack on Iran's reactors--as long as it is not perceived as a military failure--can serve as a means of "stirring the pot" of international geopolitics. Israel, in other words, wouldn't be resorting to military action because it is convinced that diplomacy by the international community cannot stop Iran; it would be resorting to military action because only diplomacy by the international community can stop Iran.
I don't believe this is Israel's first option. More likely, Israel's threats are intended to ratchet up the pressure on Iran to compromise. But as Rosner notes, "The more Israel pledges to stop Iran, the more it becomes necessary to deliver." If you keep crying "wolf!" and nobody listens, the best way to get people's attention is to shoot the wolf.
This is an interesting new development:
In a break with past Bush administration policy, a top U.S. diplomat will for the first time join colleagues from other world powers at a weekend meeting with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator... William Burns, America's third highest-ranking diplomat, will attend talks with the Iranian envoy, Saeed Jalili, in Switzerland on Saturday aimed at persuading Iran to halt activities that could lead to the development of atomic weapons, a senior U.S. official told the AP on Tuesday.
I wouldn't get my hopes up just yet for this move. As the official told the AP, "This is a one-time event and [Burns] will be there to listen, not negotiate... [O]ur terms for negotiations remain the same: Iran must suspend its enrichment and reprocessing activities."
The diplomats will be looking to hear Iran's answer to the latest package of incentives offered by the P5+1 (the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany). Judging by the Islamic Republic's initial response (pdf), we're likely to hear a lot of bluster and claims that Iran is being treated unfairly. But who knows? Maybe Burns's presence could change the dynamic.
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.
Today, apparently, is International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is launching a new three-year campaign called "Do drugs control your life?"
But instead of releasing statements from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon or posting video clips in Serbian on YouTube, maybe the office should spend more time lobbying the Security Council and the IAEA.
The ongoing standoff with Tehran over its nuclear aims is threatening a rare cooperative venture between Iran and the West: Tehran's campaign to stem opium and other drug trafficking from Afghanistan through Iran to Europe. In a little-noticed provision in the incentives package offered to Tehran on June 14, Western countries threatened to cut off further aid to the anti-drug efforts unless Iran agrees to halt its uranium enrichment.
Such measures would harm anti-drug efforts in the Middle East and Europe, U.N. officials say. Iran caught approximately 900 tons of Afghan drugs in 2007, and UNDOC Director Antonio Maria Costa warned that a "heroin tsunami" could hit Europe if aid were cut. And it could be devastating for Iran as well. Despite devoting 30,000 troops (like the fellow in the photo above) to drug patrols in border areas, the Islamic Republic already contains the highest proportion of heroin and opium addicts in the world, experts believe.
You're going to hear a lot in the coming days, I expect, about how the "North Korea model" can be applied to negotiations with Iran. Forgive me for raining on the parade here, but there are some important differences that we need to keep in mind.
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.
Drudge is linking to this story with the dramatic headline, "SUMMER SHOWDOWN: Israeli minister says alternatives to attack on Iran running out..."
The article quotes Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz as issuing an unusually blunt warning to Iran: "If Iran continues its nuclear weapons programme, we will attack it."
The thing to remember about Israeli politics is that it's a parliamentary system. So, the ministers don't serve "at the pleasure of the president"; they're independent politicians with their own bases of support, even if they hail from the same political party as the prime minister.
So, this is not the same thing as U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters (who, incidentally, has a blog called "Fast Lane") issuing a press release. We can safely presume that Peters speaks for the Bush administration.
But the hawkish Mofaz, a former defense minister and military chief of staff, doesn't necessarily speak for the Israeli government. He's probably ramping things up now that he sees a chance to take Ehud Olmert's job, and angling to outmaneuver Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, his chief rival within the Kadima Party. Mofaz is playing politics here, not explaining policy. Still, I would advise the folks in Tehran not to take Mofaz's threat lightly.
UPDATE: Olmert's spokesman distances the prime minister from Mofaz's comments.
In an op-ed he coauthored in Monday's Wall Street Journal Asia, McCain placed himself to the right of President Bush's policies on North Korea:
We must use the leverage available from the U.N. Security Council resolution passed after Pyongyang's 2006 nuclear test to ensure the full and complete declaration, disablement and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear facilities, in a verifiable manner, which we agreed to with the other members of the six-party talks.
The key words here are "full and complete," since the Bush administration has shown flexibility on that front. And as Glenn Kessler notes, "leverage" in this instance is code for "threaten sanctions," an approach the Bush team abandoned in favor of direct diplomacy. Conservatives are increasingly critical of the current plan, under which Pyongyang would merely acknowledge U.S. concerns about uranium enrichment but admit to nothing.
In his speech in Denver Tuesday, McCain again took a hawkish line, saying, "It is a vital national interest for the North Korean nuclear program to be completely, verifiably and irreversibly ended."
Matt Yglesias thinks this illustrates that, "on national security policy, McCain is, if anything, more hard core than Bush." But I don't think he's so easy to pigeonhole. The candidate's speech is sprinkled with words like "multilateralism" and "allies" often enough to make Charlie Kupchan's heart flutter. He even spoke about working more closely with Russia to reduce nuclear stockpiles. That doesn't sound like Bush 2.0 to me.
Think your job sucks? Try walking a mile in the shoes of Christopher Hill, who has been the U.S. envoy to the six-party talks since February 2005. For more than three years, Hill has been trying to convince North Korea to shut down its nuclear program and come clean about its nuclear activities.
He's had some success at the former, with the North Koreans agreeing to the dismantling of their plutonium reactor at Yongbyon. But Kim Jong Il's irascible regime has been notoriously coy about acknowledging just what it's been up to on the uranium and proliferation fronts. So, Hill negotiated a delicate workaround: North Korea would acknowledge U.S. concerns but admit to nothing. Then, the United States would remove North Korea from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation that has all kinds of other legal and financial ramifications. On balance, it seemed like a good idea to at least mothball Yongbyon and learn as much as possible about the nuclear program. Why let the perfect become the enemy of the good? And on a factual level, North Korea hasn't actually sponsored terrorism since 1987.
But now, Hill's careful game of diplomatic Jenga may be coming apart. For months, North Korea has stalled, appearing to want to wait for a better deal from the next president. Last week's allegations about North Korea's nuclear cooperation with Syria appear to have only inflamed building congressional anger against the deal. And it's not just Republicans who were upset. Yesterday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted unanimously to require that the White House certify it has gotten a "complete and correct declaration" from Pyongyang. Hill's plan was, to be frank, to fudge it.
One congressional staffer told the Financial Times the White House would go "ballistic" over the committee's move, but the Bush administration still has a chance to convince the full House and the Senate to scuttle it. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has noticed, however, that the White House has let Chris Hill run point on these negotiations for a reason. If things fall apart -- as it seems they might -- he can be hung out to dry and blamed for the failure. That would be a shame, because Hill is a real star of the diplomatic corps and somebody America needs to keep around.
Many commentators have wondered why the Bush adminstration chose last Thursday, of all days, to disclose the intelligence community's findings on North Korea's nuclear collaboration with Syria. Well, Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright of the Washington Post have an answer:
Key lawmakers nonetheless made it clear that unless the intelligence about Syria was described to them in detail, they would block funding for the deal and oppose a key waiver of a law preventing U.S. aid to a country that detonates a nuclear weapon.
Officials said the timing of the administration's disclosure was also influenced by a provision of the U.S. law governing state sponsors of terrorism, a list that has long included North Korea. Under the proposed nuclear disarmament deal, Washington has agreed to remove North Korea from the list, but the law requires that it first demonstrate that North Korea has not assisted another country on the list for at least six months. The intelligence presented this week indicated that North Korea helped Syria in removing equipment from the site through early October, meaning the six-month window only recently closed.
Far more often than they get credit for, U.S. officials do things that seem mysterious to outsiders when in reality they're just following the law. In this case, the aim was ostensibly to move North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism so that a deal could go forward. The irony is that with this disclosure, Republican lawmakers may be much less inclined to give North Korea a pass, and even leading establishment figures want the Bush administration to teach Kim Jong Il a lesson. What seems especially damning is the intelligence showing that North Korea has been dealing with the Syrians all along while pretending to negotiate in good faith.
As an aside, I owe Kessler an apology for this post and this one questioning his early reporting on the Syrian nuclear site. It turns out Kessler's reporting was spot-on and appropriately caveated, and continues to be invaluable. His biography of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is excellent, too.
I was mildly amused to see FP contributor and respected nuclear expert Joe Cirincione labeled "Obama's radioactive potato" and "an apologist for Syria" this week on Commentary's "Connecting the Dots" blog and the Powerline blog, respectively.
At issue are some comments Cirincione made on Passport back in September, when early, sketchy media reports about the alleged Syrian nuclear site were just coming out. Like me, Cirincione was highly skeptical at the time, though subsequent disclosures have obviously caused him to revise his views.
Powerline's Paul Mirengoff seems to think Cirincione is biased against Israel -- even though the latter has family in Israel and describes himself as "strongly pro-Israel." Commentary's Gabriel Schoenfeld, meanwhile, is certain that Cirincione, despite his rather explicit denial, really is secretly the top nuclear advisor to the Obama campaign. I guess conspiracy theories aren't exclusive to the Middle East.
"I am one of over a hundred experts advising the campaign," Cirincione told me over e-mail, "and have never claimed to be a top advisor, nor have I been listed that way by the campaign." Denis McDonough -- who really is a top Obama advisor -- confirmed to me that "Joe Cirincione is one of hundreds of people advising the campaign. He is not Senator Obama's top advisor."
What about Syria? "No one bats 1.000," as Cirincione tried to explain to Schoenfeld, but his track record is far better than most. And if you compare his record on Iraq to Commentary's, well -- it's just laughable. Here's Frederick Kagan writing in December 2002:
THE INVASION of Iraq is an essential requirement of American and global security. That is not simply because Saddam Hussein possesses chemical and biological weapons, or even because he is actively working to acquire nuclear weapons. It is because he is a violent megalomaniac determined to recast the Middle East in his image and willing to use absolutely any means to do so, even if it results in his own destruction.
On March 23, 2003, Cirincione wrote:
Here are four likely consequences of America's first preemptive war: Instability in the Middle East will increase; Terrorism will increase; Alliances will weaken; and Proliferation may worsen.
If the United States had taken his advice and backed coercive inspections (pdf), a whole lot of American blood and treasure could have been saved -- and those consequences might have been avoided. That's a much bigger deal than some hasty comments on a blog post.
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,
The Reyes laptop is the gift that just keeps on giving. Within a few days of killing FARC commander Raúl Reyes and seizing a laptop allegedly belonging to him, Colombian authorities began referring repeatedly to FARC's desire to obtain up to 110 kilograms of uranium and perhaps even a past purchase of 50 kilograms for a "dirty bomb," citing information obtained from the laptop.
On Wednesday, the purchased uranium was apparently found, but it's spectacularly unclear how dangerous the material really is. Informants apparently tipped off investigators to the uranium's whereabouts, which happened to be a few feet off a road in southern Bogotá. There, investigators uncovered about 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of uranium buried in plastic bags.
But just what kind of uranium? It certainly wasn't enriched uranium, which is what they would need for a dirty bomb. Some outlets are reporting it to be "impoverished," i.e. "depleted" uranium, which is the byproduct of enrichment, and far less dangerous. Nuke analyst Charles Ferguson told Bloomberg:
You could stand next to this material for days and nothing would happen to you, unless you dropped it on your foot,'' said Ferguson.
So, what did FARC want with depleted uranium? A Colombian security analyst told Reuters it was likely a money-making scheme. Other uses, according to Ferguson:
Possible uses for the FARC might include making armor- piercing conventional weapons or an ingestible poison, Ferguson said. Less likely, the metal could be used as a shield while handling more potent radioactive materials that would be used to make a dirty bomb.
I asked Matthew Bunn, senior research associate with Harvard's Project on Managing the Atom, what the significance of the find is:
[D]epleted uranium is pretty useless for terrorists, and there aren't variants of uranium that are even more so.
30 kg of either natural or depleted uranium is not of much interest, either from the point of the security threat it poses (almost none -- uranium is only very weakly radioactive, and unenriched material is useless for making a nuclear bomb) or from the point of view of its value (something like $6000 for natural uranium, at current commercial market prices in the range of $200 per kilogram of uranium, much less for depleted uranium). Depleted uranium is the waste from a uranium enrichment plant, but is also used for things that require very dense material, such as armor-penetrating shells and ships ballast. How it ended up in Bogota is a bit unclear, but it's not controlled especially carefully, since it's not a material of much interest to anyone.
(The fact that in the original seized memo the quoted price was $2.5 million per kilogram suggests that the seller either was running a scam or was totally clueless about the value of what he had, and that the memo author was fairly clueless either about the nature of the material on offer or the value of it, or both.)
The only thing that IS potentially of interest in this whole story (in my view) is that a very professional terrorist organization like FARC, with a good deal of experience in smuggling, apparently was interested in getting involved in buying and selling nuclear material for money. That suggests that some one who had serious nuclear material (unlike this material) and needed to move it from one country to another might have been able to make use of the FARC's capabilities.
Watch this space.
The U.S. intelligence community has taken a beating in some quarters for its National Intelligence Estimate (pdf) on Iran's nuclear program, which was released to the public last December. CFR.org recently got a hold of Thomas Fingar, chairman of the National Intelligence Council, the body that produced the NIE in question.
Fingar says they would have framed the NIE differently had they known it was going to be made public:
There's been talk that the Iran NIE was narrowly written, excluding the civilian capabilities, excluding ballistic missile testing or capabilities, and I wonder if you can respond to those claims. And to follow, do you think it was poorly written? Would you have done it differently if you could?
No, we dealt at length with the centrifuge enrichment, and dealt with the missile program. It was not a narrowly crafted [document] — people are reacting to a two-and-a-half-page summary of a 140-page document with almost 1,500 source notes. And believe it or not, you can't fit the whole book on the book jacket. Was it badly written? The [still classified] estimate itself is very well written. The key judgments, knowing what we do now about the way in which they were spun, perceived, used by folks when released — if we thought for a minute they would be released, which we didn't, we would have framed them somewhat differently. The judgments would be the same. But we would have framed them somewhat differently that says: “Dear readers [not] following this: You can't have a bomb unless you have fissile material, [and] the Iranians continue to develop fissile material. A weapon is not much good if you can't deliver it—they have a missile-development program. But you don't have a bomb unless you can produce a device and weaponize it. That's what's stopped."
Nicolas Sarkozy has been raising quite a few eyebrows since he assumed the presidency, not least by leveraging French civilian nuclear expertise to gain diplomatic advantage in the Middle East. This week, the International Herald Tribune noted "unease" among nonproliferation experts "at the idea of exporting potentially nuclear-bomb usable technologies to proliferation-prone regions." The article also notes that, even putting proliferation concerns aside, obstacles to the large-scale spread of nuclear power exist -- some of which include high infrastructure costs, waste management issues, and personnel shortages.
France is not the only country seeking ways to surmount such obstacles, though. The U.S.-led Global Nuclear Energy Partnership is one of the best known of these initiatives. The core proposal behind GNEP is to employ advanced reprocessing technology to close the nuclear fuel cycle as much as possible. This entails recycling burnt nuclear fuel over and over until it is no longer useful for producing electricity or weapons. In so doing, GNEP aims to increase effective fuel supplies, decrease the amount of waste produced by nuclear power plants, and reduce the danger of nuclear proliferation. As initially conceived, existing nuclear exporters would (exclusively) perform enrichment and reprocessing services and provide them to any GNEP partner that agreed to refrain from enriching or reprocessing fuel on its own.
So far, it has signed on 21 nations as partners and has several others observing or interested. Most recently, the UK joined, praising GNEP for promoting "responsible nuclear development." In theory, this all sounds great, but GNEP has been attacked from several angles. Perhaps most crucially, the National Academies of Science and Engineering found that the required technologies are "too early in development" to justify large-scale implementation. Others (pdf) argue that reprocessing is economically unsound (at least for now); that waste issues won't be eased significantly; and that, using current technology, the initiative may actually be more proliferation-prone than the current nuclear fuel cycle.
As a result, Congress slashed funding for GNEP in the FY2008 budget, but the Bush administration has requested a significant increase for FY09. In addition, the program does seem to have broad international appeal. Partners include countries as widely spread as Bulgaria, Ghana, Poland, Senegal, and South Korea. With so many other nations involved, GNEP seems likely to persist in some form despite congressional opposition. But given the state of reprocessing science today and the political restrictions under which it operates, GNEP will likely undergo some significant changes in the future.
Over at Democracy Arsenal, a blog about foreign policy from a Democratic perspective, Michael Cohen says he thinks all the excitement over the New York Philharmonic's trip to Pyongyang is a bit ridiculous:
Look, I don't mean to sound like a curmudgeon... but I really don't see how this event does anything to impact the terrible existence of the North Korean people. It seems instead to me as if the Philharmonic (well meaning as they certainly are) was played for a patsy.
That's certainly the tenor of comments you'll get from folks like Brian Meyers, the dean of international studies at Dongseo University in Pusan, who believes the trip was a propaganda boon to Kim Jong Il's regime.
I wonder, though, who was really making the claim that the trip would help the North Korean people? The question at hand is whether the Philharmonic's performance could somehow help move the nuclear negotiations along. For some answers on that front, check out FP's interview with Nam Sung-wook, a top "North Koreanologist" at Korea University in Seoul.
Late Wednesday night, the U.S.S. Lake Erie used its Aegis missile-defense system to shoot down an ailing reconnaissance satellite as it passed over the Pacific. Aegis is a key piece of the larger U.S. missile-defense system, combining extremely sophisticated ship-borne radars with heat-seeking interceptor missiles that can reach targets in low orbits (such as short- to mid-range ballistic missiles). After successfully using Aegis to knock out a target it was ostensibly never designed for, some may ask if this test of the system proves that the American missile-defense system works.
In a word, the answer is no. The mission is a qualified success for Aegis, since satellites and ballistic missiles share many characteristics at certain stages of flight. But taking out a crippled satellite and destroying an attacking ballistic missile are not the same thing. Most importantly, the satellite's trajectory was known in great detail and it could not maneuver under its own power. That's not the case for enemy ballistic missiles, which have unknown trajectories for large portions of their flights (though we can often guess where they're headed). Advanced missiles, moreover, are likely to be able to maneuver themselves midcourse and release decoys to confuse the missile-defense interceptors. Since
Finally, Navy personnel were able to choose the location and timing of the intercept. This allowed them to maximize visibility, to wait until the seas were calm enough for an ideal launch, and to keep as many radars and telescopes as necessary nearby to guide the interceptor and track the launch. The satellite was also several times larger than a ballistic missile would have been and was therefore easier to see.
That said, the fact that the Pentagon was able to reprogram missile-defense hardware for an anti-satellite shot in roughly a month is a geopolitically loaded development.
The gleeful spin from Tehran ahead of the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran's nuclear activities, due any day now, is that the IAEA will declare Iran "clean." In other words, the agency will say that Iran has answered all the tough questions and that, as per the controversial U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, the country has no secret weapons program. Such predictions can be fairly dismissed as Persian bluster coming from the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but no less a figure than powerful Iranian cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani seems confident the IAEA will exonerate his country.
There have been rumors of a dispute within the IAEA over the technical findings of the report, though the organization denies any serious internal disagreements. If anything, the dispute is likely to come from the United States and its European allies, who want to see a third round of U.N. sanctions imposed on Iran. A clean bill of health would obviously undermine that push. TFB, one anonymous IAEA offical told Reuters:
If the facts are at odds with the policy objectives of some people who are keen to impose further sanctions on Iran, that's too bad.
In all likelihood, the IAEA's forthcoming report will not clear up all the remaining issues, especially when it comes to weaponization. But that won't stop the Iranians from declaring victory.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about a U.S. spy satellite that had gone haywire and might need to be shot down. I noted how diplomatically sensitive it would be for the United States to do so after telling China that anti-satellite tests are a big no-no. Some commentators downplayed the possibility that the United States would really shoot the satellite down, but now comes word that it's gonna happen: The U.S. military will use its missile-defense system to blow the errant satellite to smithereens.
Mind you, a missile-defense system is not supposed to be a dual-use satellite killer. U.S. officials have pledged compliance with space and weapons treaties by giving other countries advance notice before shooting off space missiles. They also insist the move is necessary to prevent contamination from toxic substances and is not a showcase of U.S. weapons capability. Still, in the wake of the Chinese satellite missile hoopla, it smacks of "Anything you can do, I can do better."
What's more, shooting the satellite down could create orbital debris, which was a major point of criticism after the Chinese experiment. U.S. officials insist the Chinese test was different in nature as it was higher in altitude and the resulting debris poses a much longer-term threat. They estimate the mess from the U.S. operation will fall to the Earth within a few weeks, whereas debris from the Chinese test will be a danger for decades.
Meanwhile, Russia and
Back in September, the experts surveyed for FP's Terrorism Index ranked Pakistan as the country "most likely to transfer nuclear technology to terrorists." With 74 percent of the vote, this clearly wasn't a tough call. But according to two Pakistani military officers, it's the United States that has the problem with nuke security. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reports on a press conference in Islamabad from a few days back:
... Pakistani Brig. Gen. Atta M. Iqhman expressed concern about U.S. procedures for handling nuclear weapons. Iqhman, who oversees the safety and security of the Pakistani nuclear force, said that U.S. protocols for storing and handling nuclear weapons are inadequate. "In Pakistan, we store nuclear warheads separately from their delivery systems, and a nuclear warhead can only be activated if three separate officers agree," Iqhman said. "In the United States, almost 20 years after the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons still sit atop missiles, on hair-trigger alert, and it only takes two launch-control officers to activate a nuclear weapon. The U.S. government has persistently ignored arms control experts around the world who have said they should at least de-alert their weapons."
Iqhman also said the Pakistani government would be willing to provide assistance and advice on nuclear handling and security. U.S. officials, unsurprisingly, had no comment. While there may be legitimate concerns about the hair-trigger launching procedure for American nukes, it's doubtful U.S. military officials have much to learn from A.Q. Khan's homeland on this issue. Or do they? Iqhman's deputy, Colonel Bom Zhalot, added this twist:
We also worry that the U.S. commander-in-chief has confessed to having been an alcoholic. Here in Pakistan, alcohol is 'haram,' so this isn't a problem for us. Studies have also found that one-fifth of U.S. military personnel are heavy drinkers. How many of those have responsibility for nuclear weapons?"
Definitely read the whole article for Col. Zhalot's thoughts on religion, Hiroshima, and the sanctity of life. It only gets better.
Update: Looks like I was taken by those pranksters at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The article turns out to be a satire, and a brilliant one at that. In retrospect, the MSNBC reporter named "Jay Keuse" probably should have tipped me off. In my defense, this sort of pushback seems totally plausible coming from the Pakistani military, which has been adamant that its nukes are secure.
Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov seems mighty pleased with himself for negotiating a mutibillion-dollar nuclear energy deal with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh:
Got your own suggested caption for this photo? Send us your one-liners and we'll print the best one below.
Recent reports from European diplomats have revealed a worrisome development: Iran is testing a new, more sophisticated type of centrifuge for enriching uranium. On a technical level, this demonstrates the skills of Iran's engineers, who appear to have applied "considerable technical creativity" to solve problems caused by manufacturing limitations along with export controls and sanctions. Politically, it demonstrates that Iran has, for now, no intention of bowing to U.N. Security Council demands and ceasing its enrichment activities.
Dubbed the IR-2, Iran's new centrifuge model is an Iranian-designed variant of the P-2 centrifuge used in Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. The original P-2 design, obtained by
Even though the IR-2 appears to be easier for
While not proof that
That said, relatively little concrete information on this development is in the public domain. Watch this space for more detailed commentary when the IAEA releases its next report, hopefully at the end of the month.
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