Unmaking the Bomb. The Book.

ceip-launchOur book is finally out, and we had the opportunity to present it yesterday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. Our argument is based on a very simple premise: Banning nuclear weapons will not end the threat of nuclear war and nuclear explosions if countries continue to make, stockpile, and use the fissile materials that make nuclear weapons possible. International efforts to abolish nuclear weapons and to prevent proliferation and nuclear terrorism so far have been acting largely in parallel with no comprehensive underlying strategy. With now enough fissile material around for about 200,000 nuclear weapons, we propose a new framework that puts these materials front and center. We propose a set of policies to drastically reduce fissile material inventories worldwide with a view to their total elimination as irreversibly as possible. Put simply, no material, no problem.

The slides of the briefing are available here.

Radical Reactors, Part 1

NFL-mask-msre Molten salt reactors (MSRs) are often advocated as a radical but worthwhile alternative to traditional reactor concepts based on solid fuels. In a paper published in the Annals of Nuclear Energy in January 2015, Ali Ahmad, Edward McClamrock and Alexander Glaser study the resource requirements and proliferation-risk attributes of denatured molten salt reactors.

The analysis presented in the paper confirms that MSRs could offer significant advantages with regard to resource efficiency compared to conventional thermal reactors based on light-water reactor technology. Depending on specific design choices, even fully denatured reactors could reduce uranium and enrichment requirements by approximately a factor of 3–4, even when operated on an open fuel cycle. As for the implications associated with proliferation risk, fully denatured single-fluid reactors using low-enriched make-up fuel appear as the most promising candidate technology minimizing overall proliferation risks and should, in our view, therefore receive particular attention despite being less attractive from the perspective of resource utilization.

Nature Article on Nuclear Warhead Verification

We have put together a webpage summarizing the main challenges of nuclear disarmament verification and the concept of the template approach for warhead authentication, which is the basis for the Nature article from June 2014. The page also provides a brief overview of other verification projects currently underway and includes a list of useful readings.

Note also the story on the article in Science.

Nuclear Transparency Scorecard

Zia Mian and Alex Glaser presented at the 2014 NPT Prepcom in New York on behalf of the International Panel on Fissile Materials on next steps the nuclear weapons states can take to increase transparency of their nuclear weapon and fissile material stockpiles as part of meeting their obligations under the NPT 2010 “Action Plan on Nuclear Disarmament.”

The presentation (PDF) was co-sponsored by the Missions of the Netherlands and of Japan, represented by Ambassador Henk Cor van der Kwast of the Netherlands and Ambassador Toshio Sano of Japan.

Iran 2014: Aiming for the Best of Imperfect Outcomes

Throughout Robert Einhorn’s report, “Preventing a Nuclear-Armed Iran,” Einhorn consistently reminds us about of the necessity of compromise and trade-offs during the ongoing 2014 negotiations toward a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.

Einhorn begins by outlining the components of an ideal comprehensive agreement, highlighting three goals: (1) Ensuring and enabling early detection of breakout (2) Lengthening the breakout timeline (by reducing Iran’s capability—its enrichment levels and centrifuge numbers—such that it does not have enough time to produce sufficient fissile material before outside intervention) (3) Outlining a strong international response to breakout, which would provide effective deterrence.

Einhorn then goes on to discuss the feasibility of such an ideal agreement being reached. He admits several reasons to be skeptical about the success of these talks. First, he clarifies that the possibility of Iran breaking out is a real danger, pointing out that the debate about preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon versus developing the capability to develop a weapon is a myth; in fact, Iran already has the capability. Due to Iran’s persistent claims of a peaceful, scientific purpose, Supreme Leader Khamenei’s 2005 fatwa against nuclear weapon possession, and a lack of complete inspection information, Einhorn admits that we likely cannot ever expect to eliminate Iran’s capability or dismantle its enrichment facilities—the ideal U.S. outcome. He also recognizes that the U.S. will likely have to take a more conciliatory stance during talks, compromising on some of its goals and easing sanctions in exchange for reductions in Iran’s nuclear program. Inevitably, the negotiations will also be stalled and bombarded by strong and conflicting opinions from parties vying for different demands; some parties, like Israel, will likely only be appeased by unrealistically substantial concessions by Iran. Thus, negative press and backlash to the final agreement seems inevitable.

However, there are also reasons to be hopeful. Beginning with the negotiations for the Nov. 2013 Joint Plan of Action, Iran has been the most willing it has been in many years to come to the negotiating table. Unlike its previous non-compliance with IAEA regulations and inspections, the IAEA confirmed that Iran has indeed complied with the JPA’s reduction requirements, which lengthen the breakout timeline by a few months, and monitoring requirements. Iran’s newfound willingness to join talks was perhaps ushered in by the more moderate leadership of President Rouhani. Rouhani belongs to the camp of Iranian politicians who believe that the U.S. and Iran do have some overlapping interests, and has prioritized Iran’s economic improvement (starting with the lifting of sanctions). The JPA, while a temporary and incomplete solution, demonstrates an unprecedented level of diplomacy between Iran and the P5+1. Examining the progress through the JPA, Einhorn seems to suggest that appealing to Iran’s domestic priorities (such as its emphasis on developing a civil program, for which they would only need a portion of their current capacity, and its economy) may be an effective diplomatic strategy.

Given these factors, I pose to you a few questions:

  1. What are your predictions for the outcome of these 2014 talks? i.e. length of the talks, an extension of the JPA vs. a comprehensive agreement, which parties are dissenters or compromisers, public opinion/reaction
  2. Which of the three goals listed above (in the second paragraph) do you think the U.S. and P5+1 should prioritize and refuse to yield on for the final, comprehensive agreement? Which element is most important in preventing a nuclear-armed Iran? The most feasible to accomplish?
  3. Do you consider recent developments in negotiations with Iran, specifically the 2013 JPA, a success or failure?
  4. How should the U.S. and P5+1 go about appealing to Iran’s domestic agenda? What are Iran’s largest domestic considerations?


Credible Commitment: in Iran and in the NPT

One of the largest problems in attempts to work towards international non-proliferation is the lack of credible commitment, spurring the concern that other nations will be acting outside of agreements and skirting verification. This fear tends to undermine efforts of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and it certainly surfaces when discussing Iran’s nuclear research and enrichment programs.

When we examined the IAEA report on Iran for one of our problem sets, we saw that Iran was operating an underground enrichment plant that had previously gone unnoticed. Given the fact that this plant was producing up to 20% HEU, it caused a significant ripple of concern at the time of the report. Could this present an obstacle to future agreements concerning nuclear enrichment in Iran? As Einhorn writes in his report, Iran already has the technological know-how and hands-on experience to produce weapons grade uranium, and theoretically produce nuclear weapons. At this time, the United States Intelligence Community, or IC as Einhorn calls it, is uncertain whether Iran intends to pursue nuclear weapons as part of their nuclear program. This could present a problem when examining the practical needs of Iran from multiple nations’ perspectives. A nation like Israel likely does not believe that Iran needs a nuclear weapon (as they strongly oppose Iran’s possession of a weapon), and thus might limit its view of Iran’s practical needs to nuclear power, or even less nuclear activity. Conversely, Iran might include eventual potential development of a nuclear weapon in its practical needs. Even if an agreement were to be reached preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon at the moment, would credible commitment problems arise due to Iran’s past operation of an unknown nuclear facility? What kinds of verification techniques would the European Union and the P5+1 states require of Iran, and what would Iran consent to?

Additionally, if this credible commitment problem indeed exists regarding Iran, how would this affect the state and stability of the NPT? It was mentioned in class that, after North Korea’s exit from the NPT, a stable agreement in Iran would contribute to the strength of the NPT’s agreement. Would a failure to complete an agreement in Iran before the JPA expires signal a shift downward in the power of the NPT? Might other states decide to leave the NPT and pursue nuclear programs? What kind of commitment problem exists with the NPT, and how might it be fixed? – Nicole

On the Iran Nuclear Crisis (II)

The Brookings Institute’s recent paper in the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Series covers many of the current concerns involved with Iran’s nuclear programs, as well as relevant history. Of the many elements recommended for a comprehensive and effective agreement, some aspects of the recommendation seem unfortunately hard to realize.

One aspect is the need for strong international response, particularly the timing elements associated with the non-military actions. While I can see how the initial diplomatic and non-military approaches tend to take a lot of time (many months) and how this would be a factor in Iran’s possible breakout decision, it seems impossible to find and implement a concrete answer to this element. It seems difficult logistically to go through those current structures and authorities to try to build an official commitment of what actions it would take, and within what amount of time, at this international level since this would be just for one country. Actually defining and putting into place such a timeline could be problematic; on one hand, while this process will bring forth a more defined articulation and public commitment for how the diplomatic and non-military approaches would work towards preventing the breakout, it would also be clarifying for Iran, and not just those wishing to prevent Iran’s breakout possibilities. In as much as the international level policies and decisions are transparent, it may be impossible and even problematic to articulate and specify these possible approaches. In the end, this aspect does seem quite difficult to resolve, in terms of the more “key” goal of making it unclear for Iran to calculate how long the non-military actions may take.

A second aspect is the idea for the international community (or specifically, the PS5+1 and even Russia were named) to help Iran in its civil nuclear plans. It seems like an idea that has potential to work– if the PS5+1 could assist Iran in designing, constructing, and fabricating the fuel for the light water reactors, and help with designing an indigenous power reactor and if Russia could train Iranians in fabricating fuel to eventually enable them to produce the fuel themselves. These proposed actions seem cooperative and likely to overcome the stalemate, since this idea seems to offer some concrete and specific “helpful” guidance towards the peaceful purposes claimed by Iran. While of course there is always the question of whether Iran’s intentions will stay peaceful or not, another question brought to mind is whether Russia would be cooperative. If Russia has thus far sold some material to Iran for questionable aims, the question of Russia’s willingness to cooperate and future possible actions is something that must be considered more thoroughly, in context of this idea. Otherwise, it seems that this idea has potential to help facilitate the cooperation from Iran needed to come to an ideal agreement. – M.

On the Iran Nuclear Crisis

Robert Einhorn’s report “Preventing a Nuclear Armed Iran” is particularly interesting not because its recommendations are that revolutionary, but because it suggests what the broad outlines are of the Obama administration’s negotiating strategy. Einhorn served until recently as the Department of State’s Special Advisor on Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, he maintains close ties with the negotiating team and his perspective is likely as close to official government policy as anything.

Einhorn acknowledges that the Iranians will insist on retaining uranium enrichment capacity and the ability to create nuclear arms if they deem it necessary. However, he believes US concerns can still be dealt with as long as the agreement makes any Iranian attempt at nuclear breakout a “detectable, lengthy and risky process that would not only fail but would inevitably result in Iran paying a very high price in terms of its national interests.”

Einhorn proposes several technical solutions to the problem, suggesting that the Fordow plant be turned into a research facility, that the Arak reactor’s ability to produce plutonium be greatly reduced, and that the Iranian program be subject to stringent monitoring by the IAEA.

Given that just last Saturday Iran’s Vice President announced plans to redesign the Arak plant to limit the plutonium it can make, it would seem that Einhorn’s proposal is already bearing fruit. By most media accounts, the negotiations between the West and Iran have proceeded very well to date. Iran has complied with the interim agreement, and is already ahead of schedule in diluting it’s enriched uranium as stipulated by the 6 month agreement. Representatives have even announced that they plan to Meet in New York in early May to start drafting the final text.

The greatest challenge to successful negotiations may come from hardliners within both countries. Republicans in the US and Netanyahu in Israel have been furious over the prospect of any deal that might permit Iran to continue enriching Uranium, and may attempt to scuttle it.

Rouhani’s administration recently admitted to reshuffling leadership positions in Iran’s atomic energy agency as a way of sidelining the hardliners, holdouts from the Ahmadinejad administration, who had opposed any deal. Ultimately the decision to proceed with the deal depends on Ayatollah Khamenei. Western media reports that he has been cautiously open to the possibility of a deal, but as long as his intentions remain uncertain so is the future of an accord between Iran and the US. – E. S.

Indirect Effects of Low Natural Gas Prices on Nuclear, Renewable and Coal-Fired Electricity Generation

Abundant natural gas resources and prevailing low prices are frequently credited with reducing coal-fired electricity generation and reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. However, the same characteristics are putting similar stresses on future renewable and nuclear power generation, both low carbon sources of energy. The February 2013 Credit Suisse presentation cites low electricity prices as squeezing profit margins for nuclear plants. Credit Suisse concludes by suggesting that low prices could lead to a decrease in nuclear’s market share, which has traditionally stood at about 20% of US generation.

suisse2(c) Credit Suisse

Assuming that Credit Suisse is correct and nuclear begins to lose market share in the near term, the question is: “What fuel source will replace the lost nuclear capacity?” Three options exist, renewables, natural gas and coal. Two of those options, gas and coal, will cause a net increase in GHG emission from power plants when compared to existing nuclear reactors. Since nuclear is a base-load fuel, coal and gas are better suited than renewables to serve as direct replacements. Given EPA’s new and upcoming rules on coal plants, it is likely that much of the slack will be comprised of natural gas. However, increased demand and marginally higher gas prices may also cause old coal plants to stay online longer than they would otherwise.

In summation, natural gas has replaced some coal-fired generation and reduced emissions in the short-term; however, the indirect effects of low prices on nuclear and renewables could have a partially offsetting effect on emissions in future years. Given the Obama administration’s interest in reducing carbon pollution and moving away from coal, the nuclear industry should further investigate this effect to argue for license extensions, new plant approvals and increased R&D investment. – N. R.

On the Nuclear Middle Age Dilemma

Credit Suisse highlights a couple main themes in their presentation. First, the current nuclear fleet is operating under capacity. Second, costs for nuclear operation have been rising. And third, the current fleet of nuclear power plants is aging and replacement construction is not keeping pace.

The graphs I found the most interesting were on slides 12 and 17. Slide 12 shows cash margins for regulated utilities, and nearly a third of them operate at a loss for at least some power prices. The least cost effective, Monticello and San Onofre, operate at a loss for every power price, and this loss can be over $15/MWh at certain times. (In comparison, the most profitable can make up to $17/MWh and has a positive cash margin at any price, so there are still some profits to be made). With financial situations such as this, it is not surprising that plants are being powered off at times or permanently closed, and it seems unlikely that many new plants will come into operation. I was wondering what the trend is with newer plants. Do most face regulated markets, or are the new ones mostly merchant operations?

Slide 17 shows the age and capacity of the US nuclear plant fleet. The majority were built in the 1960s-80s, and only one was constructed after 1990 (note the graph ends in 2000). As the slide points out, most of the oldest plants are the smallest and standalone. I would be interested to hear more detail as to what the implications of this are, and how the economics of small standalone plants compares to that of larger and/or grouped plants. – A. D.

It’s Official: $3.5M for Nuclear Disarmament Research at Princeton

CVT We are happy to announce that we are part of the consortium that has been awarded the $25 million five-year grant to improve nuclear arms control verification technology (see NNSA press release from March 31, 2014). The consortium will be led by the University of Michigan, and also involves MIT, Columbia, North Carolina State, University of Hawaii, Pennsylvania State, Duke, University of Wisconsin, University of Florida, Oregon State, Yale, and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

Princeton leads a key research thrust of the consortium focused on the relevant policy dimensions: “Treaty Verification: Characterizing Existing Gaps and Emerging Challenges.” Together with PPPL, we will also be able to expand our technical work on zero-knowledge approach to nuclear warhead verification and will be developing a virtual environment to support development, testing, and demonstration of verification approaches for these treaties. We will report regularly at nuclearfutures.princeton.edu on the progress of this exciting opportunity. Watch this space.

Offensive Use of Cyberweapons — Yes, No?

We love victimizing ourselves in our discussions of cyberwarfare. The Chinese are attacking us. The North Koreans are attacking us. The Russians are attacking us. And we had better shore up our defenses.

But in Farwell and Rohozinski’s “The New Reality of Cyber War,” we get a different story. It was the United States that preemptively launched an offensive operation in 2010 known as the “Olympic Games,” shelling Iran with “weaponized computer codes.” These codes, which included the infamous Stuxnet cyberworm, actually succeeded in crippling Iran’s nuclear development capacity and significantly stalled the progress of the Iranian nuclear program. In short, this virtual ‘bombarding’ of Iran with computer viruses proved we would no longer need to send drones and detonate real bombs over Iranian skies to successfully undermine the capacity of Iran’s nuclear institutions.

But that’s only the beginning. Farwell tells us that in September 2011 and in May 2012, additional cyberattacks were launched against Iran presumably by the US. One particular worm, known as Flame, infected computers in Lebanon, UAE, West Bank and Iran, and gathered intelligence by recording conversations, taking screen shots, erasing information on hard discs, logging keyboard strokes, and more.

These preemptive US cyberattacks raise a few important questions.

  1. How do you feel about using cyber weapons offensively against another country with which we may not even be at war?
  2. Does a cyberattack constitute an “act of war?” — Factors to consider: 1. The UN Charter prohibits the “threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or independence of any state.” 2. You might argue that the virtual world is clearly separate from real life and no one actually dies from a cyberattack, but what if Iran, in response to a cyberattack, had responded “kinetically” and perhaps even rightfully by declaring (real) war in retaliation?
  3. On a related note, what do you think is the difference between dropping an actual bomb over Iran—which would be a clear act of war under UN definitions—and bombarding Iran with virtual “bombs” (i.e. in a cyberattack) that would induce physical damage of the machines?
  4. Did you know about American involvement in offensive cyberattacks against foreign nations? Do you think that the media’s portrayal of “cyberwarfare” and “cyberattacks” in the US is fair?


A Win-Win Solution for Iran’s Arak Reactor

We have recently published an article on Iran’s Arak reactor in the April 2014 issue of Arms Control Today, proposing technical steps that would provide assurance that Iran could not quickly make sufficient plutonium for a nuclear weapon with the Arak reactor (A Win-Win Solution for Iran’s Arak Reactor, by Ali Ahmad, Frank von Hippel, Alexander Glaser, and Zia Mian). The suggested redesign of the Arak reactor would reduce plutonium production to less than one kilogram per year, comparable to the reduction that would be accomplished by replacing the Arak reactor with a light-water research reactor. At the same time, the proposed changes would not reduce the usefulness of the reactor for making radioisotopes and conducting research. We believe, this approach would meet Iran’s needs and would address the concerns of the international community as reflected by the P5+1.

The story has been picked up quite widely beginning on April 2, 2014, with a Reuters article.

Is Cyberwar Really Inevitable?

In Gary McGraw’s work “Cyber War is Inevitable (Unless We Build Security In)”, he uses a few examples of how relatively simple it was for malware attacks to be successful and then extends that idea to conclude that our whole cyber infrastructure is vulnerable and thus we must have software security programmed in at the base level. McGraw believes that every new piece of hardware after construction must then have a software package installed that focuses on securing the hardware from external attacks.

However, his viewpoint is not one I find myself agreeing with. The Stuxnet example that McGraw seems fond of using was a targeted attack on Iran’s nuclear centrifuges by exploiting multiple zero-day bugs. McGraw also picked up on the zero-day bugs idea and presented McQueens’ et. al. conclusion that on average there are about 2500 zero-day vulnerabilities in existence on any given day. This includes those that the company has found in their own software, so this number does not mean that all of these vulnerabilities are found by malicious programmers. Considering the idea that targets for these programmers would have a sort of defense in depth scenario, some vulnerabilities that are found may not be enough to gain access for the programmer in question.

One point that I have to contest in McGraw’s work is his quote “What sometimes passes for cyber defense today – actively watching for intrusions, blocking attacks with network technologies such as firewalls, law enforcement activities, and protecting against malicious software with anti-virus technology – is little more than a cardboard shield”. I will admit that the defenses that he lists out are able to be maneuvered around: with the correct vulnerabilities, one could maneuver around firewalls and code that restricts entry to the system; law enforcement is extremely difficult due to the ability of spoofing one’s origin when sending the program; and finally most anti-virus technology is comprised of signature matching of the virus to a database, which can be prevented by using the rootkit tools available online to change the signature and prevent detection. However, these are not the only ways that are available for protection. One company called FireEye sells specialized protection hardware and software that can integrate into large company servers to scan through the whole system and detect malware, isolate it and, if needed, delete it. This is done by the FireEye system taking the program to be scanned, placing it on a virtual machine and allowing it to run while looking for malicious actions, completely different from what McGraw was mentioning in his fatalistic view of cyber defense. I believe that we are already developing the cyber defense that McGraw was mentioning in his work, but not nearly as specialized as what he demands.

Some questions I would like to pose to you:

  1. Do you believe that what we consider software security in the US is sufficient already for any foreign national attacks, i.e. cyber war?
  2. Which do you believe to be more effective in the short and long term for security: the software tailored to both functionality and security as McGraw mentioned, or the development of other methods to use security software to protect ourselves as FireEye does?
  3. Do you agree with McGraw’s idea that if cyber warfare is inevitable that the best offense would be a good defense?
  4. Considering that the Iranian’s alleged response to Stuxnet was reported to be taking control of a drone, is tracing the origin of a program as certain as McGraw claims when discounting the possibility of a first strike being effective in cyberspace?


Are Floating Nuclear Reactors the Next Innovation in Electricity Generation?

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about Russia’s plan to build floating nuclear reactors. I am a sucker for new and innovative technologies especially those involving the ocean so I thought I would explore the topic a bit more.

Apparently, the idea emerged in the 1970s among U.S. utility companies who wanted to go around challenges they faced while looking for potential nuclear power plant sites. Other challenges arose ranging from lack of funding to objections from coastal communities who felt uneasy with that possibility. Last year, Russia revived the idea with plans to build the Akademik Lomonosov, an offshore nuclear power plant with the potential to supply electricity to roughly 200,000 people.

The reactor would be built in a shipyard and then towed offshore several miles away from the coast where it would be anchored. There, it could supply electricity to coastal communities using submerged electric transmission lines. There are even potential applications in water desalination, which requires substantial amounts of energy.

What seems really cool about the idea, however, is the fact that the cold ocean water surrounding the reactor would prevent the internal rods from ever overheating. As discussed in class, the accidental melting of the core of a nuclear reactor poses a major safety issue. For instance, the March 2011 tsunami and the resulting Tōhoku earthquake in Japan, caused three of the six Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant’s reactors to melt and release substantial amounts of radioactive materials.

Equally thought-provoking is the potential negative impact that could result from the unlikely meltdown of such a power plant at sea. On the one hand, the plant could vent radioactive gasses underwater rather than releasing them in the atmosphere, which could again cause the tragedies we have witnessed at Fukushima and elsewhere. On the other hand, we would have to contend with the damage that would occur to marine ecosystems, which support several important ecological functions both inside and outside ocean waters.

The idea is exciting and merits continued consideration especially as we attempt to diversify our energy sources. We just have to leave very little room for mistakes as we delve into it further. Once that work is done, we would also need to work through objections from potential NIMBY’iers who, let’s face it, would have a fair axe to grind on this subject! – H. T.