Will Iran Build A Bomb If The JCPOA Talks Fail?

The JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran nuclear agreement) talks have been staggering for over a year now. I haven’t followed them as closely as I did in 2015. Back then, I followed the technical aspects – how many centrifuges of what kind, what would be inspected to be sure that Iran was following the agreement. The JCPOA is remarkable in its technical detail and verifiability.

This time around, the discussions have been about sanctions and who is going to take action on what, when. Not much I can contribute there. The negotiators have kept things secret, too, another reason I haven’t had much to say. Even when some information leaks, I have to wonder what hasn’t leaked.

I would hate to see the JCPOA fail. It is a force for stability in the Middle East, and, until the US withdrawal by the Trump administration, Iran was complying with it. Israel seems to be itching for an incredibly destructive war if the talks fail, despite the statements of much of Israel’s security establishment that the JCPOA is good for Israel, war is not.

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Nukeporn

I’m finding it hard to write lately because there are so many shockingly bad takes. Twitter provides a continuing flutter of them, like this morning’s wet snowflakes, and points to worse op-eds. It’s mostly the war, but the decisions to declare the pandemic over contribute.

Dan Nexon tweeted last week that all discussions of whether NATO should have embiggened are discussions of priors. So are discussions of possible nuclear weapon use and many other things. Last week we had the no-fly zone. Yesterday got the week off to a masculine start with discussions of impotence and muscularity in US foreign policy. Mainly from old white men, and that’s consistent with my priors as well as theirs.

The question of nuclear weapons, on the battlefield or otherwise, keeps coming up. A number of disappointed (and poorly informed) people keep asking why Russia isn’t deterred from attacking Ukraine but the US is deterred from attacking Russia if nuclear weapons exist, which slides into the mistaken idea that Ukraine once had a full-up nuclear arsenal or (Russian propaganda warning) is building one now. I’ve dealt with that here.

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Could Ukraine Have Retained Soviet Nuclear Weapons?

This issue keeps coming up, now in the New York Times.

“If only Ukraine hadn’t give up its nuclear arsenal, Russia wouldn’t be able to bully it.” No.

There’s no way Ukraine could have kept the Soviet nuclear weapons stationed there when the Soviet Union ended. Some of us say it over and over and over again. I wrote a Twitter thread on it a few weeks ago, but I need a convenient piece to refer to, so here we go.

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The Biggest Bomb

Popular movements in the late 1950s pressed toward the Limited Test-Ban Treaty (LTBT), signed in 1963, which prohibited atmospheric testing. It was preceded by a voluntary test moratorium by the United States and the Soviet Union from 1958 through 1961. At the time, the development of nuclear weapons – and other things like a nuclear-powered airplane – was wild and woolly.

One of the points of competition was the size of explosion that a nuclear weapon could produce. This was a somewhat silly competition, because the amount of damage a bomb could wreak increases with the cube root of its energy. So ten 10-megaton (MT; that’s millions of tons of TNT equivalent) weapons would be much more damaging than one 100-MT weapon. But for some, size does matter.

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Trouble At The Pit Factory

The National Nuclear Security Administration, the part of the Department of Energy that designs and builds nuclear weapons, promised some time back that they would be able to build up to 80 new plutonium pits a year for nuclear weapons by 2030. In June, the administrator admitted that this won’t happen. Maybe by 2035.

The troubles that Los Alamos and Savannah River continue to have in dealing with plutonium suggest that it could be much longer than that, maybe never.

I wrote that up for Foreign Policy. Read the whole thing.

Photo source

Cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns & Money

Chinese Nuclear Silos

[Disclosure: Jeffrey Lewis has been a friend for years, and we have consulted each other on many things. Our political views are similar, but he has a punchier way of expressing them.]

There’s a lot that can be said about the discovery of 120 silos for nuclear missiles and the current state of relations with China, but I don’t have time right now, so a few highlights only.

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Kazakhstan Cleans Up

In the 1990s, the United States and other countries helped the newly independent states that had been part of the Soviet Union to deal with their nuclear weapons and materials. It’s a story that has been almost completely forgotten, but it contains a number of lessons that might be helpful today.

David Frum reminds us of that effort. I was involved in it. A few additional thoughts.

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Chain Of Command

Nancy Pelosi says that she “spoke to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley to discuss available precautions for preventing an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike.

I can tell her the available precautions, and I hope Milley did too: NONE

The President has sole authority to launch nuclear weapons. He is not required to consult anyone else, nor is there provision to force him to.

This situation came about because back in the Cold War, it seemed plausible that the President might not know about a nuclear attack until the missiles were on the way. That gave him a half-hour or less to decide. It was also assumed that we would elect only presidents capable of doing the job.

Nuclear strategists have pressed Congress to change the situation, but so far Representative Ted Lieu’s and Senator Ed Markey’s bill has gone nowhere. Maybe the next Congress will see fit to consider it.

No, there wasn’t a workaround when Nixon was wandering the corridors of the White House, drunk, talking to the portraits. We were lucky.

Nancy Pelosi can’t do a workaround with Mark Milley. That would be tantamount to a military coup, and I think that Milley is not interested in a military coup right now.

If this is a concern, Speaker Pelosi, and I think it is, then bring articles of impeachment to the floor of the House. NOW.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

Assassination Attempt On Iran’s “Father Of Nuclear Program”

There has just been an assassination attempt on Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s leading nuclear scientist. He is seen within Iran in a role much like that of Robert Oppenheimer in the United States.

Israel has assassinated other Iranian nuclear scientists and is thus the prime suspect. Bibi Netanyahu has mentioned Fakhrizadeh by name.

Israel, and the Trump administration, have been trying to break the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) so that it cannot be revived. The JCPOA froze and even pushed back Iran’s nuclear weapons program, putting it under greater international scrutiny than any nuclear program in the world.

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The Last Word On EMP

There is a small industry around a bizarre idea. Nuclear weapons are known to emit a powerful electromagnetic pulse when they explode. So grifters, cheap novel-writers, and proponents of moar defense spending push the idea that a random bad actor would detonate a nuclear weapon at high altitude over the United States and WIPE OUT ALL OUR ELECTRONICS!

This is a dumb idea, for many reasons. I have debunked it many times. The group referred to as “Nuclear Twitter” regularly mocks it.

Kelsey Atherton, a New Mexico friend, has written what should be the last word on EMP. The title says it all:

Electromagnetic Pulses Are the Last Thing You Need to Worry About in a Nuclear Explosion

But if you’d like more detail, Kelsey has it for you.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice