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)

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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.

Implications

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.

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!”

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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).

chart

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.

An introduction to “space security”

I’m curious about what people refer to as “space security”, as well as space policy and sustainability, and if you’re interested, you can learn with me. This post will just be an introduction to some of the issues involved. Note that I’m not an expert on many of these issues, so take my comments and thoughts with a grain of salt.

images

The idea of “space security” might conjure images of invading aliens, but as much fun as that is, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m also not planning on talking about killer asteroids and dangerous radiation, though these are much less far-fetched. For example, the Pan-STARRS survey (of which I was briefly a member a few years ago) received funding from NASA to assess the threat to the planet from Near Earth Objects, some of which pass closer to us than the moon. (A limitation of Pan-STARRS, however, was that images that happened to contain passing satellites had software applied to black out or blur the pixels in the region.) On the other hand, solar flares can produce “coronal mass ejections” and intense cosmic rays that could be hazardous to spacecraft but on Earth we’re somewhat protected by our atmosphere and magnetosphere. This and other forms of “space weather” could be the subject of another post later.

I’d like to talk about the issue of satellites, as well as weapons and reactors, in space. More than 5,000 satellites have been launched into orbit and about 1,000 are in operation today. The act of destroying a satellite or of colliding satellites can damage the space environment by creating dangerous amounts of debris. (If you’ve seen the Oscar-winning Gravity, then you know that debris from satellites can be a serious problem.) For example, in a demonstration of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, China destroyed one of its own satellites; the resulting “space junk” then struck and destroyed a small Russian satellite last year. The following computer-generated images of the growing number of objects in low-earth orbit (courtesy of the NASA Orbital Debris Office) illustrates the problem. Only 5% of the objects are satellites; the rest are debris. Currently more than 21,000 pieces of debris larger than 10cm are being tracked, and there are as many as 500,000 additional untracted pieces larger than 1cm.

Satellites and orbital debris_500x350

In addition, the loss of an important satellite could create or escalate a conflict, especially during a time of tension between states. The US and other countries possess “anti-satellite” weapons (ASATs) and have or are considering space-based missile defense systems. Attacks on satellites are a very real possibility, and it is important to beware of the destabilizing effects and potential for proliferation with such weapons. Moreover, since the Cold War, the US and other governments have considered deploying nuclear reactors on spacecraft, which have proven to be controversial (such as the dubiously named Project Prometheus, which was cancelled in 2006); an intentionally or unintentionally damaged nuclear reactor in space could have major consequences.

Considering that we are increasingly dependent on satellites and that there are military, commercial, and civil interests in space, how can we attempt to ensure space security and sustainability in the future? In the US, the Obama administration has a National Space Policy, which was released in June 2010. The policy mainly consists of: (1) limit further pollution of the space environment; (2) limit objects from colliding with each other and/or exploding; (3) actively removing high-risk space debris. The policy a good start, but much more could be done. An emphasis on international cooperation rather than unilateral action would help; space debris are clearly a global problem requiring global solutions. It is also important to negotiate on the control of space weapons. The US and other space powers should declare that they will not intentionally damage or disable satellites operating in accordance with the Outer Space Treaty and that they will not be the first to station weapons in space. Moreover, “space situational awareness” (SSA), which allows for the coordination of space traffic, can be improved in collaboration with other countries, and satellites can be made less vulnerable to collision or attack. Finally, the US should play an active role in negotiations with the international community on space security and sustainability. The United Nations has the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), with 76 member states, has been working on a variety of programs to improve the long-term sustainability of space activities, and in particular, to develop and adopt international standards to minimize space debris.