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.

Book Review: “Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster”

First the ground shook violently, and then a succession of towering waves smashed the island of Honshu. As people sought shelter and braced themselves during a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami—the worst and deadliest experienced by Japan in a century—they had no idea what was yet in store for them. The rest of the world was transfixed as well by the unfolding events when on 11th March 2011, four years ago this week, multiple reactor cores at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had meltdowns and threatened millions with radiation exposure. Today, scientists continue to assess the effects on public health and ecological damage, while the nuclear industry still reels from the worst disaster since Chernobyl.


Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster, published last year by Dave Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, Susan Q. Stranahan, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) analyzes these events and their implications and consequences in detail. Japanese are still recovering from the disaster, and the rest of us are still coming to terms with it as well, making necessary a thorough accounting of it, Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) handling of it, and the nuclear industry’s response. This investigative and well-researched book manages to accomplish that. [Disclosure: I am a member of the UCS Science Network.]

Credit: International Nuclear Safety Center

Credit: International Nuclear Safety Center

Lochbaum and Lyman are both senior scientists and nuclear energy analysts for UCS, while Stranahan was the lead reporter of the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. They appear to have written the book for a US audience, as they include investigations of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the vulnerabilities of nuclear reactors in the US similar to Fukushima’s.

The authors describe the tumultuous week of 11th March 2011, as TEPCO workers with little information about what is happening inside Units 1-4 of the plant, scramble to contain the meltdown and prevent additional radiation spreading to a larger zone and getting into the air, water and land. (Residents who weren’t evacuated were told to stay indoors but remained in danger.) First flooding occurred throughout the plant, backup power generators available turned out to be inefficient, there was insufficient water to keep the reactors cool, workers couldn’t enter buildings as they had already exceeded their allowable radiation exposure, an explosion delayed recovery efforts and scattered more radioactive material, and spent fuel pools turned out to be as dangerous as the meltdowns themselves.

As they note in the first chapter and elaborate upon later in the book,

If a natural disaster could trigger a crisis like the one unfolding at Fukushima Daiichi, then, one might wonder, why aren’t even more safety features required to prevent such a catastrophic event from occurring? The short answer is that developers of nuclear power historically have regarded such severe events [“beyond design-basis” accidents] as so unlikely that they needn’t be factored into a nuclear plant’s design.

Lochbaum, Lyman, and Stranahan give a blow-by-blow of the worsening disaster, at times perhaps going into too much detail or giving more background than all but the most interested reader would want to follow. The writing style sometimes was a bit dry as well, though there were plenty of dramatic moments as well. For example, a particularly moving scene occurred when Katsunobu Sakurai, the mayor of Minamisoma, a devastated coastal community just outside the twelve-mile (twenty-kilometer) evacuation zone, took a video pleading for assistance from anyone. “With the scarce information we can gather from the government or TEPCO, we are left isolated,” Sakurai said. “I beg you to help us…Helping each other is what makes us human being[s].” He posted the recording on YouTube, which was viewed by more than two hundred thousand people, and then relief finally poured in.

The authors also describe debates and disagreements between TEPCO and NRC officials, such as about which of the four most damaged reactors and spent fuel pools were at risk of releasing more radiation and which presented the most pressing danger, as they could not focus on all four units at once. They also disagreed about an appropriate evacuation zone, as the NRC eventually recommended a larger zone, and about what officials should tell the public and US citizens in the area.

Following the disaster, antinuclear protesters resisted re-opening plants or continuing construction on new ones. As nearly three fourths of the Japanese public supported an energy policy that would eliminate nuclear power, on 6th May, Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced, “Japan should aim for a society that does not depend on nuclear energy.” The Japan Times stated in an editorial, nuclear power “worked for a while, until, of course, it no longer worked. Now is the time to begin the arduous process of moving towards safer, renewable and efficient energy resources.”

The NRC outlines four or five levels of nuclear power reactor “defense-in-depth,” where first an event occurs, then it could be followed by core damage, radiation release, and exposure to the public. Safety measures at each level are intended to prevent the accident from worsening to the next level, but each level has more and more uncertainty. More importantly, beyond design-basis accidents could exceed all levels of safety measures at once.

Credit: International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group (INSAG)

Credit: International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group (INSAG)

It turns out that in the US, there are numerous Mark I boiling water reactors similar to the ones in Japan. They have similar safety measures as well, as the international nuclear industry generally has the same regulations in both countries. Following Fukushima, some analysts argue that many nuclear reactors throughout the US could be vulnerable to floods, fires, and earthquakes, and people are not sufficiently prepared for such events. For example, 34 reactors at 20 sites around the US are located downstream from large dams, and “the threat posed by the failure of those dams was not taken into account when the plants were licensed.” The authors highlight a particular example: the three-unit Oconee Nuclear Station in South Carolina is especially at risk. The Prairie Island nuclear plant southeast of Minneapolis is another. People think that “it can’t happen here” in the US, but apparently it can, so that leads to the critical question, “how safe is safe enough?” This is a complicated question, and it remains unanswered.

The Japanese continue to recover from the real and figurative fallout at Fukushima. Four years after the disaster, while scientists assess the damage and recovery, sailors sue TEPCO after radiation exposure, the NRC can’t decide how to proceed, and scientists study possible contamination to food supplies and the ecological toll. The thorough analysis in Fukushima remains extremely relevant today, and those interested in the risks and challenges of the nuclear industry will do well to read it.

My Views

In my opinion, the authors could have included a little more discussion about nuclear energy in the context of energy policy and implications for it as we move to a carbon-limited economy. But this was beyond the scope of the analysis in their book. In the US, in spite of Three Mile Island, Browns Ferry, and other accidents or near-accidents, nuclear energy remains a primary energy source. Many countries oppose nuclear energy, while others such as France, Russia, China, and South Korea, have many plants and have more in construction.

Source: NRC, DOE/EIA

Source: NRC, DOE/EIA

At this point, it might not be possible to transition to a low-carbon economy in the US without including nuclear energy as part of the transition. In the long term, I believe that solar and wind power have the most potential with the least risk, and countries such as Germany have shown that it is possible to ramp up investment in wind and solar in a short period of time. Who knows–maybe fusion energy may be a possibility in the very long-term future, but as I’ve noted before, the ITER experiment is behind schedule, over budget, and has management problems. Finally, we must focus on energy demand, not just supply. We should work on making our cities, industries, transportation, and communities less energy intensive, and it will be worth the effort.

Californians and the Environment

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), a nonprofit, nonpartisan thinktank based in San Francisco, recently conducted a survey of Californians’ views of environmental issues. This is particularly important in light of the ongoing drought in the southwest and the upcoming elections in November. According to the report (available in PDF format), the results are based on the responses of 1,705 adult residents throughout California, interviewed in English and Spanish by landline or cell phone, and they’re estimated to have a sampling error of 4% (at the 95% confidence level). I’ll describe what I see as their most interesting results, and if you want more information, I encourage you to read the report.

Global warming: A strong majority say they are very concerned (40%) or somewhat concerned (34%) about global warming. Approximately two thirds of Californians (68%) support the state law, AB 32, which requires California to reduce its carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, but the partisan divide (Democrats at 81% vs Republicans at 39%) has grown on this issue. 80% of Californians say that global warming is a very serious or somewhat serious threat to the economy and quality of life for California’s future. Only 45% of people are aware at all about the state’s cap-and-trade system, which took effect in 2012, but after being read a brief description, Californians are more likely to favor (51%) than oppose (40%) the program. Under a recent agreement between the governor and legislature, 25% of the revenues generated by the cap-and-trade program will be spent on high-speed rail, 35% on other mass transit projects and affordable housing near transit, and the rest for other purposes.


Energy policies: overwhelming majorities of adults favor requiring automakers to significantly improve the fuel efficiency of cars sold in the U.S. (85%) and increasing federal funding to develop wind, solar, and hydrogen technology (78%). Strong majorities support the requirement that oil companies produce cleaner transportation fuels and the goal that a third of California’s electricity come from renewable energy sources. But residents’ support declines significantly if these two efforts lead to higher gas prices or electricity bills. (This is unfortunate, because gas and oil companies are heavily subsidized in the US, and maybe our gas and electricity bills are too low.) Most residents (64%) oppose building more nuclear power plants, as they have since the Fukushima disaster.

The survey includes other contentious issues: 54% of Californians oppose hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and natural gas extraction. But a majority (53%) support building the Keystone XL pipeline.

Water policies: Asked about some of the possible effects of global warming in California, majorities say they are very concerned about droughts (64%) or wildfires (61%) that are more severe. 35% say that water supply or drought is the most important environmental issue facing the state today (which is 27% higher than the fraction in a 2011 survey), and this is the first environmental survey in which air pollution was not the top issue. In another measure of concern about drought, strong majorities of residents (75%) say they favor their local water districts requiring residents to reduce water use. The CA legislature is discussing a $11.1 billion state bond for water projects that is currently on the November ballot, and a slim majority of likely voters would support it (51% yes, 26% no).

If you’re interested, the PPIC has useful information and publications on water policies and management of resources: see this page and this blog post series. Water policy analysts argue that in the Central Valley, where most agricultural water use occurs, the failure to manage groundwater sustainably limits its availability as a drought reserve. In urban areas, the greatest potential for further water savings lies in reducing landscaping irrigation—a shift requiring behavioral changes, not just the adoption of new technology. Finally, state and federal regulators must make tough decisions about how and when to allocate water during a drought: they must balance short-term economic impacts on urban and agricultural water users against long-term harm—even risk of extinction—of fish and wildlife.

People’s Climate March

This is a different topic and has nothing to do with the survey, but I want to use this opportunity to plug the People’s Climate March, which will be taking place on Sunday. (This website can direct you to events in your area.) One of the biggest marches and rallies will be in New York City, where the UN climate summit will soon be taking place. Even Ban Ki-moon will be participating! For San Diegans, you can find information about Sunday’s downtown events here. Californians also organized a “People’s Climate Train” to take activists and participants by train from the Bay Area through Denver and Chicago to New York, where they’ll be arriving tonight. Finally, I recommend reading this well written piece by Rebecca Solnit on Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax and the need to raise our voices on Sunday.

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.