Nuclear Risk Reduction After the Iran Deal: Take Nukes Off Hair-Trigger Alert

By Ramin Skibba and Stephen Young

Following weeks of intense debate in the United States, the international agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, supported by all California Senators and Bay Area Representatives, will go forward. It is an historic arrangement that demonstrates the world’s resolve to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. However, it will not solve all the nuclear threats that face the world.

With the Iran agreement now entering its implementation phase, it’s important to ask what other steps can be made to reduce the still considerable risks posed by nuclear weapons. The place to start is with countries already possessing nuclear weapons, pressing them to reduce the threat that their massive stockpiles still represent. Removing nuclear weapons from “hair-trigger alert” would be an important first step.

A decommissioned Titan II missile in an Arizona silo. (Credit: Sam Howzit, Union of Concerned Scientists)

A decommissioned Titan II missile in an Arizona silo. (Credit: Sam Howzit, Union of Concerned Scientists)

Continue reading

Physics Diplomacy and the Iran Nuclear Deal

After much anticipation and cautious optimism, US, European, and Iranian negotiators managed to put together a nuclear framework in Lausanne, Switzerland earlier this month. It sets the stage for a final detailed agreement to be developed in June, which will transform Iran’s nuclear program and reduce sanctions against Iran that have weakened its economy. It appears that diplomats have nearly bridged a formidable foreign policy impasse that plagued their respective governments for over a decade.

Perhaps more importantly, a rapprochement with Iran could gradually end the country’s international isolation since 1979 following the revolution. In addition, from the perspective of Iran and some other Middle East countries, Iran’s improved relations with the US and its fair treatment under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would make the US appear less hypocritical and less a source of instability. As an historical aside, it’s also worth noting that Iran started its nuclear program in 1967 with US help as part of Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program, and unlike Iran, three countries in the region with nuclear programs (Israel, Pakistan, and India) have not signed and ratified the NPT.

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and US Secretary of State Kerry in Paris on 16 Jan. 2015. (Source: US State Department)

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and US Secretary of State Kerry in Paris on 16 Jan. 2015. (Source: US State Department)

Important Characters

Many interesting aspects of this agreement and situation are worth discussing. First, much credit for this historic achievement goes to Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif, US Secretary of State Kerry, and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, though of course all of the negotiating teams put in a lot of hard and stressful work to make it happen. Both Kerry and Zarif now face a difficult balancing act: staying true to the framework and focusing on delivering a final agreement while navigating domestic political concerns.

The latter may reflect the different messages and emphases in the statements made by Kerry and Zarif as they returned to their home countries. For example, Zarif and President Rouhani spoke more about relief from sanctions and freedom to enrich uranium while Kerry and President Obama spoke about the limits and restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. Furthermore, while some influential Iranian “hard-liners” like Hossein Shariatmadari criticized the deal, US senators in the Foreign Relations Committee led by Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) sought to pass a bill that would incorporate Congressional oversight but also had the potential to jeopardize diplomatic efforts.

US Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz and Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization also are important characters in this story. As pointed out in the New York Times and the Guardian, both had studied nuclear science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-1970s, and they became No. 2 negotiators and “atomic diplomats” during the nuclear talks. Perhaps having experienced physicists involved helped cooler heads to prevail? (I’m half-joking; remember the Manhattan Project?)

Technical Details

Let’s explore some of the technical elements of the nuclear framework. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and US intelligence, Iran ended any weapons research it may have had in 2003. However, because of its power plant in Bushehr, its enrichment facilities in Natanz and Fordo, and its heave water reactor under construction near Arak, Iran has the capability to enrich weapons-grade uranium.

Only 0.3% of natural uranium is in the form of the 235U isotope. For power reactors, 3.5% enrichment is needed, while 20% is considered a threshold for “weapons-usable” uranium, and 90% enrichment is weapons-grade. Moreover, when uranium is burned, the spent fuel can be processed to extract plutonium. (And as we know from Fukushima, those spent fuel pools can be dangerous.)

Iran currently has 19,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium, and they are operating only 9,000 of them. If Iran wanted to, analysts predict that they are 2-3 months away from acquiring enough fissile material for one weapon; the US and Europe seek to prevent a nuclear “breakout” by extending this to at least one year, for a duration of at least 10 years. In addition, the international community will set up strict inspection and transparency measures that would allow it to detect any Iranian efforts to violate the accord.

For more information, see the US State Department’s detailed fact sheet and these Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Science Insider articles. The UCS also recently held a webinar with directors and members of its Global Security Program: Drs. Lisbeth Gronlund, David Wright, and Edwin Lyman.

The agreement’s key provisions may be summarized as follows. The first one involves inspections and transparency: the IAEA will have access to Iran’s nuclear facilities, supply chain, uranium mines, centrifuge production, storage facilities, as well as any suspicious sites. Second, US and EU nuclear sanctions will be lifted after the IAEA verifies key steps, and they will “snap back” if necessary. Also, the UN Security Council will pass a new resolution and will set up a dispute resolution program. Third, for the enrichment, the number of centrifuges will be reduced to 6,104 IR-1s (1st-generation centrifuges), and Iran is not allowed to enrich uranium beyond 3.67% for at least 15 years or build new enrichment facilities during that time. Enrichment R&D will be limited as well, and there are plans to convert Fordo facility to an international research center. Fourth, Iran will modify the Arak research reactor to reduce plutonium production, ship spent fuel out of the country, and they are not allowed to engage in reprocessing or reprocessing R&D indefinitely.

The Fordo facility, built below a mountain, will be turned into a research lab. (Credit: IAEA Imagebank/Flickr)

The Fordo facility, built below a mountain, will be turned into a research lab. (Credit: IAEA Imagebank/Flickr)

According an interview with Seyed Hossein Mousavian, former ambassador and nuclear negotiator for Iran, the US and world powers got what they wanted: Iran has accepted the maximum level of transparency and verification, including confidence-building measures that would ensure there would be no breakout or diversion toward weaponization. For Iran, negotiators can say that their rights for peaceful nuclear technology under the NPT was accepted, and all unilateral and multi-lateral nuclear-related sanctions will be lifted.


This historic diplomatic achievement, assuming that it comes to fruition with a final detailed agreement in June, will satisfy many concerns on both sides. It likely will result in improved relations and more respect for Iran. Importantly, it will also aid scientists and scientific research in Iran. Over a history of thousands of years, Persians have contributed fundamental scientific discoveries, including for example, by 10th century luminaries, the physicist Alhazen and astronomer Biruni. Now Persian scientists can engage in more international collaboration, and the new physics laboratory in Fordo will be an excellent start. (For more, see these articles in Science, Nature, and NY Review of Books.)

Finally, this has implications for the region. If relations between Iran and world powers improve, Iran could play a much more important role in Middle Eastern affairs. I think this is as it should be, but those who see these relations as a zero-sum game, including some in Saudi Arabia and Israel, oppose the deal for that reason. Leaders of another regional power, Turkey, have not opposed it, however. Furthermore, the success of diplomacy helps to continue nonproliferation efforts under the NPT around the world. We should also acknowledge though, as long as people view nuclear power as the primary alternative to fossil fuels, many countries will invest in it, and the risk of nuclear breakout and proliferation will remain, in spite of IAEA efforts and the NPT.

Geoengineering and Climate Interventions: Too Risky or Needs More Research?

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in San Jose in February, scientists from the US National Research Council released two high-profile reports on climate interventions and geoengineering techniques. The most thorough evaluation of its kind, this pair of studies assesses proposed climate intervention approaches including their cost, technological capacities, uncertainties, impacts, challenges, and risks. As the Earth and its inhabitants experience a changing climate nothing like any in recorded human history, and as concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to rise, scientists are interested in considering all possible responses.

The research committee consists of an impressive array of experts from a variety of institutions and universities, including Ken Caldeira (Carnegie Inst. for Science), Lynn Russell (Scripps Inst. of Oceanography) and David Titley (Penn State), and it is chaired by Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science and former director of the US Geological Survey, and they are informed by numerous analysts and staff. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the US intelligence community, NASA, NOAA, and the Dept. of Energy sponsored the studies. One can access both full reports and a 4-page summary at the NAS website.

Photograph: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/Associated Press

Photograph: Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/Associated Press

The authors avoid the more commonly-used term “geoengineering,” which they also used in previous reports, because they consider the atmosphere and not just the Earth and because engineering “implies a greater degree of precision and control than might be possible.” Instead, they propose the term “intervention,” with its connotation of “an action intended to improve a situation.”

Through these reports, the committee makes three main recommendations and conclusions. First, the authors argue that there is no substitute for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Second, they recommend research and development investment to improve methods of carbon dioxide removal and disposal at scales that would have a significant global climate impact. Third, they oppose deployment of albedo-modification techniques but recommend further research.

Carbon dioxide removal and sequestration

NAS report: "Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration"

NAS report: “Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration”

Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) strategies involve capturing carbon in the terrestrial biosphere or the ocean after it’s been emitted. These approaches are intended to mimic or accelerate processes that are already occurring as part of the natural carbon cycle. The authors consider five types of CDR techniques: land-management approaches such as forest restoration; accelerated weathering techniques (allowing the oceans to absorb more CO2 than normal); ocean iron fertilization (so that more microorganisms such as plankton consume CO2, like a “biological pump”); bioenergy (using biomass) followed by CO2 capture and sequestration; and direct air capture of carbon.

The authors describe ocean fertilization and direct air capture as “immature technologies,” while land management and weathering processes have only been carried out on a limited scale, and bioenergy is limited by the availability of land for biomass and by the need to transport it to processing facilities. The barriers to CDR deployment involve slow implementation, limited capacity, policy considerations, and high costs of currently available technologies. The committee concludes the report with the following recommendation:

Recommendation 2: The Committee recommends research and development investment to improve methods of carbon dioxide removal and disposal at scales that would have a global impact on reducing greenhouse warming, in particular to minimize energy and materials consumption, identify and quantify risks, lower costs, and develop reliable sequestration and monitoring.

Albedo-modification research

NAS report: "Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth"

NAS report: “Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth”

Albedo-modification techniques ignore the greenhouse gases and instead seek to avoid global warming by blocking the sun to prevent light from reaching the Earth’s surface. Such methods could lower average global temperatures in a couple years, like the effects of volcano eruptions, such as Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991. The authors mainly consider two methods for scattering sunlight: injecting millions of tons of aerosol-forming gases into the stratosphere; or marine cloud brightening, increasing the efficiency with which the ocean clouds reflect sunlight. They also briefly consider other techniques including: space-based methods, placing scatterers or reflectors in the atmosphere; and cirrus cloud modification, such that more long-wave radiation can flow up into space.

The authors acknowledge that albedo-modification techniques only temporarily mask the warming effect of greenhouse gases and would be needed to be sustained indefinitely. In addition, there could be unanticipated and unmanageable risks and consequences, “including political, social, legal, economic, and ethical dimensions.” Therefore, the committee comes to the following simple conclusion:

Recommendation 3: Albedo modification at scales sufficient to alter climate should not be deployed at this time.

Media Response

It’s interesting that with the same pair of reports, journalists at different media outlets present the study’s results in a variety of ways, demonstrating the many perspectives with which people approach these issues. For example, journalists and editors at the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Science, and National Geographic point to the need for more research, primarily on carbon dioxide removal techniques. On the other hand, Suzanne Goldenberg at The Guardian writes that the consideration of planetary-scale interventions shows how concerned scientists have become about advancing climate change, while Alexandra Witze at Nature writes about how these reports legitimize geoengineering, though many of the climate intervention approaches are deemed too risky.

I would argue that most of these journalists describe the study correctly, but since the study has multiple recommendations that are somewhat at odds with each other and since the committee includes people with different views and backgrounds, it’s inevitable that some people would be more responsive to some aspects of the report over others. You may also be interested in critical responses by people blogging with the Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Association of Science Writers.

Moving Ahead

Finally, I’ll end with my view of this study and of climate interventions. I’m not sure that the term “climate interventions” itself is an improvement over “geoengineering”: I think that the former amounts to re-branding the issue and that it sounds less serious. Make no mistake, what scientists consider in these reports are serious stuff indeed. And as some have mentioned before, such a scheme has been imagined before—by “The Simpsons” villain Mr. Burns.

The study’s authors state that there is no substitute for climate mitigation and that we should focus on the root cause of climate change, which is the carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. However, the carbon emissions are themselves caused by human society’s growing energy demand and the widespread use of fossil fuels: coal, oil, and gas.

The authors point out that most geoengineering schemes are too risky, involve immature technologies, have high costs, and could have unknown consequences on a planet-wide scale. Is it really worthwhile to invest in more research of them? The only exception is forest restoration and other land management methods, which would help when combined with reduced carbon emissions, and I wouldn’t group them with these other carbon-capture climate interventions.

I worry that this report would pave the way for wasting large investments of funding and effort researching these schemes, rather than focusing on the goal of slowing and eventually stopping climate change by transitioning to a low-carbon economy. Moreover, if people believe that a technological solution is possible in the distant future, they will not strive so hard to reduce carbon emissions today and will continue with business-as-usual. Above all, we should be focusing on expanding climate mitigation efforts. We should also work on climate adaptation, since the carbon already in the atmosphere will cause some warming in the coming decades no matter what.

Nuclear (non)proliferation and the Security of Earth

We all want global security, since at least for now, the Earth is the only planet we’ve got. In the words of The Tick (in the 1990s cartoon), “You can’t blow up the world…That’s where I keep all my stuff!”


In my previous post, I ended by raising the issue of the political scientist James Doyle, who was apparently fired from the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico after publishing a scholarly article questioning US nuclear weapons doctrine and defending President Obama’s goal of a nuclear weapons-free future. James Doyle’s article was titled “Why Eliminate Nuclear Weapons?,” and I’ll give you an extended quote from its conclusions, as it’s written rather well:

The marginal contribution that nuclear deterrence now makes to the absence of major aggression between great powers is being purchased at too high a price. That price is the constant risk that a complex, tightly coupled and largely automated system subject to normal, systemic and human error will, as science tells us, inevitably fail, and fail catastrophically, with unprecedented and unjustified loss of civilian life…Nuclear weapons are useless for confronting and resolving the most likely future international security challenges, but steady progress towards the elimination of such weapons can help nations confront these transnational problems…[E]limination of nuclear weapons will allow creative, intellectual, technical and financial resources now devoted to nuclear threats to be focused toward the resolution of transnational crises faced by all nations. As nuclear weapons are drawn down those resources can be re-focused toward developing clean energy, carbon-capture technologies, clean water management and low-impact, high-productivity agriculture.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) is calling on Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to get involved in the case. According to Science journal, the lab recently made the following statement: “James Doyle’s separation from Los Alamos National Laboratory was a layoff due to the lack of available or anticipated funding in his area of expertise. The separation was unrelated to his publications or professional writings.” Many external arms control specialists are skeptical and believe Doyle’s downfall is the result of his airing of views that are unpopular among those opposing disarmament, including some of the Armed Services Committee’s Republican leaders and staff. And if you’re curious about how many resources LANL spends on weapons activity versus nonproliferation, take a look at the following graph (reported by the Center for Public Integrity).


Although nuclear weapons (and “mutually assured destruction”) seem like a Cold War issue and a thing of the past, they’re as relevant as ever today. In and near the Middle East, where Israel, Pakistan, and India have nuclear weapons, proliferation is a real concern. In addition, according to Newsweek, countries in Russia’s neighborhood are now considering nuclear deterrence. Altogether, the US possesses 2,104 (active) nuclear warheads, Russia has a similar number, and numerous other countries have hundreds either mounted on planes or on submarines. Germany will not continue its nuclear-hosting duties beyond the 2020s, and a Central European official was recently quoted as saying, “If the Germans don’t want [the bombs], we’ll take them.”

According to Scientific American, the FAS begin with the “scientists’ movement” in the mid-1940s when many scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project recognized that they had a special responsibility to educate policymakers and the public about the implications of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. (Carl Sagan, who is one of my heroes, had served on FAS’s advisory council and was a leading scientist devoted to reversing the nuclear arms race.) The FAS’s Nuclear Weapons Database is one of the most reliable sources on global nuclear arsenals, and the numbers in the previous paragraph were obtained from it. As far as we know, the US is not developing new nuclear weapons, but unfortunately it’s improving the weapon delivery systems (see this report from the Union of Concerned Scientists). This does not aid the goals of nonproliferation and reducing nuclear weapons, nor does the US’s nearly 500 land-based missiles on “hair-trigger” alert.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, nuclear weapons are also relevant to space security and to the risk of a space arms race. Although deploying nuclear weapons in space may be prohibitively expensive and are a violation of the Outer Space Treaty, certain nuclear missiles could have trajectories outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, and anti-satellite missiles are another concern. In any case, space weapons—nuclear or otherwise—increase tensions between countries and increase the risk of conflict.

Another related issue is the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (which, by the way, has never been signed by India, Israel, and Pakistan). In the 21st century era of worsening climate change, we need alternatives to fossil fuel-based energy, but nuclear energy surely is not ideal. It’s not clear how much, if it all, nuclear energy should play a role in our transition to a fossil fuel-free economy. Even in Iran, where there is an apparent abundance of oil, people are trying to prepare for the transition, and as in other places, they have turned to nuclear energy. An additional concern is that developing nuclear energy technologies produces a pathway for countries to develop nuclear weaponry as well; unfortunately, we’ve seen other countries follow this path already. In the case of Iran, as usual, what is required is a diplomatic and political settlement. As argued in a report by the FAS and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, by offering Iran cutting-edge alternative energy technologies, especially to take advantage of the country’s solar energy potential, a positive precedent could be set for other nuclear-hopefuls.