[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.

Memo on the Potential Value of Stricter Limits on Iran’s Stockpile of Low-enriched UF6

In the negotiation over Iran’s nuclear program there currently appears to be an unbridgeable gap between Iran’s minimum requirement for enrichment capacity, the equivalent of the approximately 10,000 IR-1 centrifuges currently operating at Natanz, and the U.S. upper limit, which appears to be considerably lower. But there is another variable which also determines how quickly Iran could produce enough 90% enriched uranium for a nuclear explosive if it broke its commitment to stay below 5% enrichment. This variable is the size of Iran’s stockpile of up-to-5%-enriched uranium. Having a large stockpile of low-enriched uranium to feed into its centrifuge cascades shortens by a factor of three, e.g. from six to two months, the time that it would take to produce enough 90% enriched uranium for a bomb.

In this memo, first circulated in late September, Frank von Hippel and Alex Glaser show that it would be possible to reduce Iran’s current stockpile of 5,000 kg of low-enriched UF6 to about 200 kg made possible by using a smaller (12-inch) cylinder for enriched uranium. This would make it possible to recover the factor of three in breakout time and might make it possible for the P5+1 to raise their upper limit on Iran’s centrifuge capacity.

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.