The Iran Deal: A Few Issues

The Iran Deal fueled an intense debate in the U.S. But whatever side you found yourself on (either “for” or “against”), the recent official ratification of the deal by all parties signified the termination of the original debate. Therefore, it is important to now focus on the future ramifications of the deal. To that end, this post seeks to highlight four core issues of the deal and the possible consequences they could bring about.

The first issue stems from the sanctions relief. According to “Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew…[Iran will conservatively receive] roughly $56 billion” (Rick Gladstone). The primary worry, which even President Obama acknowledges, is that the sanctions relief “will mean more money for terror groups” (Raf Sanchez) like “Hezbollah of Lebanon and Hamas of Gaza, regarded by the United States…as terrorist groups” (Rick Gladstone). Thus, the money Iran receives through this deal can (and probably will) exacerbate other problems in the region, not to mention the unsettling fact that the United States and the other members of the P5+1 will knowingly fund, in the words of the U.S. Department of State, a “State Sponso[r] of Terrorism” (U.S. Department of State).

The second issue with the deal is intelligence. As the Harvard Kennedy School’s The Iran Nuclear Deal: A Definitive Guide, states, “Intelligence is the key” (37). Without it, the deal unravels. So the question remains: Will the intelligence community of the P5+1 be able to effectively track Iran’s behavior and activity? Unfortunately, their track record isn’t reassuring. For instance, it wasn’t until “the Mujahedeen-e Khalq (the People’s Holy Warriors), a Marxist-Islamist Iranian dissident group now known as the National Council of Resistance, revealed the existence of the uranium-enrichment site at Natanz and the heavy-water reactor at Arak” (Reuel Marc Gerecht) did the United States or any other country have any idea they existed. So if Iranians lied before and did such a good job at it (or really, the international community did such a poor job at tracking the activity), what is stopping them from doing it again?

What should be stopping them is the willpower of international community, which stands as the third key issue. The Harvard Kennedy School’s The Iran Nuclear Deal: A Definitive Guide confirms that “[t]he JCPOA and Resolution 2231 establish a process for UN sanctions to automatically snap back in the event of a substantial violation” (62). The first flaw in this is noted a page later: “Whether or not the U.S. and EU would be able to once again capture and sustain broad-level support for cutting back Iranian energy imports is unclear” (63). This is especially “unclear” (63) now that “Russia…reach[ed] an understanding…with Iraq, Syria and Iran to share intelligence about the Islamic State” (Michael R. Gordon). This shows that moving forward, the interests of each country will change and could include the protection of the Iranian regime, thus diminishing the chances that the international community will be able to combat Iranian violations. However, many could still argue that in the case of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, these nations can put aside their differences. Recently, the international community had an opportunity to do just that, but unfortunately showcased its weak will: “On Sunday [Oct. 11, about two weeks ago] the [Iranian] regime tested a new long-range, guided ballistic missile code-named Emad (‘Pillar’) in violation of the nuclear deal. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231…prohibits Iran from conducting ballistic-missile work for eight years” (Editorial Board of The Wall Street Journal). To date, no snap-back sanctions have been installed. This reality certainly calls into question the reliability of the international community and their desire to enforce the deal. It will be very interesting to see the state of the world in 15 years.

Last, the most profound issue of the deal: Can it change the Iranian regime’s behavior? One can hope. But so far, no change has manifested. Not only did the Iranians, as mentioned earlier, just test an inter-continental ballistic missile (N.B. “such missiles have never been built to carry conventional warheads” (Reuel Marc Gerecht)), but their rhetoric has only intensified. For instance, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei posted on his Twitter page on Sept. 9, 2015 (a month and a half ago) this message: “Firstly, you [the Israelis] will not see next [sic] 25 years; God willing, there will be nothing as [sic] Zionist Regime by [sic] next 25 years. Secondly, until then, struggling, heroic and jihadi morale will leave no moment of serenity for Zionists” (Ayatollah Khamenei). Not only is this message is horrible and deeply troubling, but it also eerily speaks to what could happen beyond 15 years. And remember, after 15 years, the deal holds no more weight. — Michael

Balancing Risks: Nuclear Energy & Climate Change

In Balancing Risks: Nuclear Energy & Climate Change, Socolow and Glaser discuss the concept of stabilization wedges, which are defined as strategies motivated by climate change and designed to prevent its full impact by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. A major focus of the paper are energy efficiency wedges, of which approximately 8 would be required to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The authors look specifically at nuclear power as a potentially effective wedge that would, if used throughout the world by 2050 at a much higher rate than at the present, contribute 25% of total global electric power in a much more efficient manner than alternatives like coal. There are clearly advantages to nuclear power, namely that it is time-tested, has small physical flows, and minimal carbon emissions. However, there are also real and imagined disadvantages or risks.

What disadvantages do you see to the widespread use of nuclear power as part of a solution to climate change? Are risks like plants being considered military targets or the problem of storing nuclear waste legitimate hazards?

The article mentions declining public opinion on nuclear power in the developed world. Does this pose an issue for widespread adoption? Is it reasonable?

Finally, the authors ask: “Can nuclear power be decoupled from nuclear weapons?” Given what you’ve read in the paper and learned in class, how would you answer this question? — Sebastian

Three Models for Nuclear Weapons Proliferation: Theory and Practice

In Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb, Sagan discusses the three theoretical models that affect a states’ decision to build a nuclear arsenal. Although the three “theoretical frameworks”/models share common features with the well-known international relations theories (i.e. realism, liberalism, institutionalism), it’s interesting to look at and analyze each of them individually.

  • The Security Model: the concept of balance of power is central. Sagan argues that states use nuclear weapons as a deterrent tool or as a coercive tool to force a change in the status quo. Sagan also suggests that “every time one state develops nuclear weapons to balance against its main rival, it also creates nuclear threat to another state in the region” (p.58) causing a domino effect. Is this always true or only when states feel directly threatened? Why didn’t Ukraine or the post-Soviet Union states develop a nuclear weapons arsenal?
  • The Domestic Model: like liberalism, argues that state behavior is dictated by state preferences, in this case by: 1) state’s nuclear establishment, 2) units in the military, 3) politicians. Nonetheless the author fails to identify under which conditions these three actors come together and produce the desired outcome. How do you think these actors come together? Of these three actors who do you think is more decisive?
  • The Norms Model: stresses the importance of “nuclear symbolism”. According to this model states build nuclear arsenals because “they are part of what modern states believe they have to possess to be legitimate, modern states” (p.74). Do you think the same principle could apply to terrorist groups (i.e. ISIS)?

Final questions: Do you think there could be other reasons affecting a state’s decision to build nuclear weapons? How would the international scenario change if every country had a nuclear arsenal? (Consider the Russian military intervention in Ukraine) — Marco

[Re]Considering Our Options

In “Climate Engineering Reconsidered”, Barrett et al. discuss the effectiveness and the political feasibility of geoengineering as either an emergency measure or a stop-gap. After considering various hypothetical applications, such as staving off an altered monsoon, the authors conclude: “when the use of geoengineering is politically feasible, the intervention may not be effective; and that, when the use of geoengineering might be effective, its deployment may not be politically feasible,” (527). In other words, it’s time to find Plan B.

What’s interesting about this article, though, is that the authors are quick to emphasize that geoengineering – which, used in this context, consists of injecting sun-scattering sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere (Solar Radiation Management, or SRM) – is Plan B, and that our best course of action is still Plan A: good old-fashioned adaptation. While not as technologically impressive as geoengineering, adaptation avoids many of the challenges posed by the more advanced option, namely dependency/addiction and the introduction of unknown side effects. Barrett et al. also mention the risk of politicization of geoengineering, in which countries could threaten economic or military action, or even the use of “counter-geoengineering”, in order to control how other nations employ the technology. In lieu of working together to fix a shared problem, we would be introducing a new source of conflict.

Not to trivialize the matter, but in my opinion, remedying climate change need not become this complicated. Although it is a complex issue, we have a fairly good understanding of what we’ve been doing wrong and what can be done to make it right – or, at least, better. Barrett et al. believe that “contemplation of geoengineering does little to diminish the need to address the root causes of climate change”, and that, if anything, it should strengthen our resolve to make less technologically-involved changes. Perhaps our insistence on finding “easier” ways to fix the problem of climate change is indicative of our inability to do the hard, day-to-day work of cutting energy consumption and reducing emissions. Usually we resort to Plan B when Plan A has failed us, but, in this case, it’s not clear that we’ve given Plan A its fair shot.

Do you think Plan A (adaptation) is simply a lost cause? Even though geoengineering does not present a feasible long-term solution, are the possible short-term benefits (specifically, in the stop-gap scenario) enough to continuing exploring the option? Finally, given what we know about today’s political climate, is either option politically feasible on an international level? — Tomi

Climate Change and National Security

In a report to the US Congress, the Department of Defense identifies climate change “as a present security threat, not strictly a long-term threat.” Climate change poses a very real threat to national and global security in its capacity to cause “natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.” Citing an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, DoD and its Geographic Combatant Commands state, “climate change will have the greatest impact on areas and environments already prone to instability.” I find this to be a critical report that hopefully will force US policy makers to recognize the immediate threat that climate change poses to US national security. DoD makes responding to climate change a top priority and therefore makes climate change a much more urgent issue.

DoD and its GCCs have certainly done a fair amount of research on the potential impact climate change will have on their own Areas of Responsibility, but how useful and effective do you think the steps DoD says it is taking to address climate change are? What must the rest of the US government and the international community do to respond to climate change?

Climate change is clearly an international problem. What plans can you find in this report that include international cooperation? Is there potential here for countries to free ride efforts made by the US and other countries with large security apparatuses, the same sort of free riding seen as a result of faulty international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol? DoD mentions situations where the US can and should to respond to climate change, but there is the possibility that these countries could come to rely too much on US support and so DoD could become overextended. — Mitch

Biological and Chemical Weapons – “A higher form of killing”

The use of biological weapons began after World War I as science and technology developed and military-minded scientists sought to find more efficient means of warfare. Jeanne Guillemin explains that biological and chemical weapons were seen as “a higher form of killing,” a more moral means of warfare.

“To their early advocates, chemical weapons and then bacteriological weapons, as they were called, were viewed as modern applications of advanced scientific knowledge that would cause mass casualties more efficiently than conventional arms, without tearing the enemy limb from limb or exposing the attacker to great harm,” Guillemin writes.

“In the history of both chemical and biological weapons, their vaunted modernity was used by advocates to appropriate moral considerations. During World War I, the German government and press argued that chemical weapons were advantageous because they did not destroy buildings or bridges and were a humane alternative to high explosives because they avoided battlefield blood and gore,” she continues.

A few questions to consider:

  1. What do you think of this view of biological and chemical weapons? Are they “a higher form of killing”?
  2. If you were a military planner, would you ever consider the use of biological and chemical weapons to be appropriate? Necessary?
  3. How should we approach biological and chemical weapons moving forward? Is there any situation where their use is justified? And, what can be done to militarily protect against the possibility of a biological or chemical attack?


Contagion: Nothing Spreads Like Fear

The film “Contagion” attempts to realistically display an epidemic that sweeps across the globe. Even though the act of spreading the disease began with a simple handshake in Hong Kong, within days it was international and affecting the lives of millions. While much of our recent lessons have been discussing nuclear weapons and how it affects the diplomacy between countries, we see in this case that the threat of an international epidemic encouraged many countries to work together for the protection of mankind.

I originally believed the epidemic to be a form of attack from an outside country. We later find out that the flu is caused by an animal interaction between a pig and a fly. However, I found this to be an important area to cover – if a country plots an epidemic to attack another country, can it truly be safe from the sickness returning to its homeland and hurting its own citizens? While the epidemic was the clear threat to American citizens, bigger cities eventually began to have rioting, murder and chaos in fear. This proved to be another problem that rooted from the epidemic.

Despite being a cinematic representation of the influence of serious epidemics, how realistic can we understand this movie to be? I questioned many aspects of the plot:

Do you think it is realistic that the government had the ability to track down social interactions to discover who originated the epidemic? Is it anywhere near possible to develop a new vaccine within months of the discovery of such a serious epidemic? — Taylor

The Other Side of the Story

The film “White Light, Black Rain” highlighted the immense difference in cultural attitudes towards the use of atomic weapons against Japan during WWII. The Americans in the video regarded the nuclear weapons as a catalyst to victory and extension of the function war. Some appeared almost prideful, having released the bomb with “no regrets”, especially when contrasted sharply with the death and destruction (45:40). As a natively educated student, it was startling to realize that I recognized the video of the mushroom cloud sprouting over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, but had never seen images of the death and destruction on the ground level. The survivors’ stories helped to piece together the entire picture by painting ground zero with personal tales of despair and loss.

Current international agreements such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the Humanitarian Initiative are steps towards preventing another Hiroshima or Nagasaki. However, the stark difference in each culture’s collective memory poses an interesting point of political discussion. My question is whether or not current framework has gone far enough, especially with the “new” threat of nuclear terrorism as highlighted by Zimmerman and Lewis. Does the American sense of victory in WWII taint policy makers’ assessment of the atomic bombs? The movie’s introduction shows that even in Japan the terrible memories of the nuclear attack are beginning to fade. Do these combined attitudes create a level of passivity in policy? — Amanda

Obtaining a Nuclear Weapon

A blog post in two parts.

I. Detecting the production of weapon-grade materials Gas centrifuges are currently the most common method of enriching Uranium. However, nations such as Iraq and the Soviet Union have tried other enrichment methods (such as EMIS or thermal diffusion).

Question: How much effort should the IAEA spend trying to detect non-centrifuge enrichment methods? In other words, given the relative complications of EMIS and thermal diffusion, do you think any nations would still try these methods?

II. Preventing weapon-grade material from falling into the wrong hands.
Preventing countries from enriching Uranium-238 is a key component in the limiting of nuclear proliferation. However, as mentioned in next week’s readings, one can circumvent complicated process of enriching Uranium/plutonium by purchasing or stealing materials– a plan of action that a terrorist group might take. Ensuring that a nation’s U-235 is kept in safe hands is just as important as preventing that nation from enriching Uranium in the first place. Nations have engaged in belligerent rhetoric against their neighbors, but nuclear war has been avoided (at times, narrowly avoided) through careful political maneuvering. A terrorist group, however, would be unlikely to bother with diplomacy or the threat of mutual annihilation. Therefore, it is important to identify which nations are most likely to have their nuclear arsenals stolen (or, alternatively, to sell Uranium/plutonium to terrorists). It is important to note: just because a nation has a less-secure nuclear arsenal does NOT mean that terrorists will definitely get their hands on that arsenal.

Question: Zimmerman and Lewis provide the example of a corrupt Sudanese official who sold fake nuclear materials to al-Qaeda. Which other nations do you think are at “risk” of having nuclear materials stolen or selling nuclear materials to terrorists? Is this risk high or low? — David

Blast, Heat, and Radiation

In Blast, Heat and Radiation, Tsipis summarizes some of the products of and effects of a nuclear weapon explosion. I thought the most interesting theme throughout his description of these products and these effects was the importance of the height of the explosion. It seems as if the effects of nuclear fallout and that of the air blast are both dependent on how high the explosion occurred. The development of a crater is also dependent on the explosion height. I think this is interesting because the user of the weapon can arguably control at what height they chose to explode their weapon, at least to the point choosing to explode it from an aircraft, or exploding it on the ground. So then, where the user explodes the weapon may speak a good deal about their intentions.

I also found the graph, Estimated Fallout Contours for the Bravo Test, on page ninety-five, to be rather interesting. It demonstrates that the fallout from the test traveled nearly 300 miles in just sixteen hours. This made me curious about the potential impacts of a “hostile” country (maybe Iran, North Korea or Pakistan) testing their weapons. If they hypothetically tested their weapons somewhere within 300 miles of the United States, nuclear fallout may arrive on our shores. So then, the logical question is, are countries limited to the amount of weapons they can test, and where they can test them? And if so, how is this enforced? — Anya

Global Catastrophic Risk Blackboard


Here is the snapshot of the blackboard. This is not really needed for the assignment, but perhaps still somewhat helpful: Likelihood is on the x-axis (from almost impossible to almost certain) and impact on the on the y-axis (from local, manageable to global, catastrophic). In addition to the six scenarios shown, we also had some others on the list, including: Nuclear terrorism, bioterrorism, and nuclear proliferation [followed by (nuclear) war]. You can really choose any global risk for discussion as long as it has a “science and technology” component.

Was There Any Chance that the Bomb Wouldn’t be Used?

As we begin the semester discussing nuclear weapons, we are first tasked with understanding how they work. In The Physics of a Nuclear Explosion, Tsipis explains that atoms like Uranium are less tightly bound around the nucleus and have more kinetic energy, so they can be fissioned by a colliding neutron, which sets off a chain reaction. The result is a fireball of superhot matter and energy, which, once cooled, becomes a shockwave of heat and pressure, and soon reaches the breakaway point. Tsipis highlights that the small size of a nucleus obscures the enormous power of its effects. I’d like to focus our discussion on these effects.

Both Tsipis (in chapter 4) and Sartori discuss the fatal effects of nuclear weapons, including nuclear radiation, airblast overpressure and dynamic pressure, and fallout from ground-level explosions. When discussing the effect of ozone layer depletion, Tsipis writes, “[it] places an upper limit to the number of weapons that can be used in a nuclear war before the ecosystem of the earth collapses” (93) – that the world could not survive sustained nuclear war. How do you think policymakers weigh this concern in times of war? How would it “rank” among more tangible wartime goals like defeating the enemy and/or demonstrating power?

Lastly, we see in Sartori’s writing greater attention to the problems that surface immediately after a nuclear explosion. He mentions that the care of burn victims would be “one of the most taxing medical problems” (33) and that “supplies of food, water, and medicine might not be adequate” (58). Most of the articles/videos this week have implied that a nuclear attack is inevitable, and if that is the case, should policymakers shift some of their resources from preventing a nuclear attack to developing better response measures if one occurs? Does your answer depend on how you judge the inevitability of a nuclear war?

I would like to frame that question with a poignant quote from Fetter-Vorm’s Trinity: “Once a workable bomb was built, was there really any chance that it wouldn’t be used?” (53). — Melissa

First Experimental Zero-knowledge

Already back in July, at the 2015 INMM Annual Conference, we reported initial results from the first zero-knowledge differential neutron radiographic measurements. To our knowledge, this was the first demonstration of a physical zero-knowledge proof of physical properties. This proof-of-concept constitutes a small but important first step toward an efficient zero-knowledge protocol for nuclear warhead authentication where sensitive information is never measured.

For this first demonstration, we tried to implemented all key steps of a zero-knowledge inspection using 14-MeV DT neutron radiography with test items represented by patterns of steel and aluminum cubes. We were able to preload the bubble detectors with the complement of the radiograph of a reference item and, by subsequent irradiation, verify whether items presented for inspection were identical to the reference item or not. We confirmed that the results yielded “zero information” when valid items were tested and successfully identified tampered items for four different diversion scenarios.

Watch this space for updates as we evaluate new measurements and write up the journal version of the paper.

After the Iran Nuclear Deal: Multinational Uranium Enrichment

In April 2015, Iran and the E3+3 nations negotiated a framework for a “comprehensive solution that will ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program.” The final settlement, expected by July 2015 or soon after, would constrain Iran’s activities for various extended periods in return for the lifting of sanctions and affirm Iran’s right to pursue its nuclear program free of the limits on its uranium enrichment capacity a decade or more from now. What happens when these restrictions begin to phase out?

In our recent Science Perspective piece, we outline one approach to limit the long-term risk by using the next 10 years to convert Iran’s national enrichment plant into a multinational one, possibly including as partners some of Iran’s neighbors and one or more of the E3+3 countries.

The full article (PDF) is available here.

WANTED: PhD Students, 2014-2015

NOTE: Deadlines are December 15, 2014 (MAE) and December 1, 2014 (WWS)

The Nuclearfutures Laboratory has openings for graduate students interested in studying interdisciplinary problems related to nuclear energy, nuclear nonproliferation, and nuclear disarmament verification. Students interested in pursuing a doctoral degree through the Nuclearfutures Laboratory can either apply for a PhD program in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) or for a PhD program in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (WWS/STEP).

Here is a summary of our current areas of research:

Nuclear Disarmament Verification. Our research focuses on new concepts and technologies that can help support verification approaches for nuclear disarmament in two main areas: the treatment of fissile materials in future arms-control regimes and the verification of nuclear warheads slated for dismantlement. We are also part of the new Consortium for Verification Technology and PhD projects could involve internships at a U.S. National Laboratory.

Research on disarmament verification places a strong emphasis on warhead counting and on verified nuclear warhead dismantlement, which might become necessary for deep-cuts arms control regimes. We pursue several technical approaches in this area. Our work combines neutron physics, computer modeling, and experimental work at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).

Nuclear Power. Our research explores the shapes of alternative nuclear futures looking in particular at emerging technologies, many still in the R&D stage, that may be potential game changers for nuclear power. The main emphasis is currently on analyzing and assessing proposed small modular reactor (SMR) designs, which are potentially better suited for a modern electric grid with more distributed power generation and could also offer increased safety and security through underground siting. Some designs also envision much longer core-lives and promise lower proliferation risks.

Please write to Alexander Glaser if you have questions about admission procedures, the Laboratory’s activities and possible topics for a thesis.