The primary issue that is being negotiated with North Korea is its nuclear weapons and the missiles they might be mounted on for attacks on the United States and its allies, South Korea and Japan. A meaningful agreement will have to include many technical issues.
Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo are not nuclear or rocket scientists, nor can we expect most politicians to be. But the technical facts are no less difficult to learn than the economics. (Oops! They get that wrong, too. I will push forward anyway.) Pundits commenting on the negotiations and people who simply want to understand may find this list useful. Read More
The Department of Energy has been contemplating the future production of nuclear weapon pits – the fissile part of the weapon, usually plutonium. Rocky Flats, between Golden and Boulder, Colorado, used to do it, but it turned into an environmental disaster. All buildings have been removed from the site.
Los Alamos and Savannah River are the only two DOE sites that can work with plutonium. Both put themselves into the running for the task. Both have had some problems with safely handling the stuff, for example. The decision was announced today. Both were, in effect, selected. Read More
Nuclear weapons programs come with costs: financial, reputational, and the potential for being made a target by other nuclear powers. There is also an opportunity cost in diverting smart scientists, engineers, and managers from work that might produce improvement to people’s daily lives and the economy.
Leaders understand that there are costs. In starting his nuclear weapons program in the 1970s, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan declared “’We will eat grass, even go hungry, but we will get [a nuclear weapon] of our own.”
The Iranian documents presented by Benjamin Netanyahu yielded one new piece of information: That Iran planned an arsenal of only five rather small (10 kiloton yield) warheads. Likewise, Kim Jong Un has declared his arsenal complete after what seems a rather sketchy set of tests. Read More
Three similar op-eds about the unified expulsions of Russian diplomats, from Kadri Liik, Shashank Joshi, and Mark Galeotti. Bottom line: In the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Vladimir Putin has supplied the last straw so that other world leaders will not tolerate his attempts at deniability, which are no longer plausible.
Moreover, I find the elaborate scenarios that nuclear strategists dream up to justify new weapons to be both militarily and politically unrealistic. They tend to assume that complex military operations will go off without a hitch the very first time they are attempted (and in the crucible of a nuclear crisis), and they further assume that political leaders in the real world would be willing to order the slaughter of millions for something less than existential stakes. My main concern has been that some gullible politician would actually believe that one of these elaborate scenarios would actually work and might therefore be tempted to try it. Just as bad: An adversary might think the United States thought it could win such a war and might decide it had no choice but to try to hit it first.
I also find the obsession with matching capabilities at every rung of some hypothetical “escalation ladder” to be slightly absurd. Is it realistic to think that U.S. leaders defending vital interests against a possible Russian threat would be stymied because they didn’t have a capability that exactly mirrored whatever Russia had or was threatening to do? Would a top advisor really say to the president: “Oh dear, sir, Russia just threatened to attack with a nuclear weapon with a yield of 7.2 kilotons. We have lots of 5-kiloton bombs and lots of 11-kiloton bombs all ready to go, but if we use the little one, they’ll think we’re wimps, and if we use the big one, then the onus of escalation will be on us. I guess they’ve got us over the whing-whang, sir, and we’ll just have to do whatever Putin says. If only we had built more 7.2 kiloton bombs than they did!”
The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) mentions some variant of “deter” 279 times. Deterrence is supposedly what today’s nuclear arsenals are about. The idea is that we have enough nuclear weapons so that if an enemy attacked us, we could still destroy them. That standoff, established after the nearly world-ending Cuban Missile Crisis, seems to have worked. Or it’s possible that the reason for no nuclear war in the past 56 years is that nations recognize that destroying the world is in nobody’s interests. Read More
A couple of weeks ago, the administration released its Nuclear Posture Review. All administrations like to put their stamp on policy. The last review was in 2010.
There are lots of things in this one to talk about, and many articles out there about them. I’ve been trying lately to stand back from the trees and look at the forest. So, as a former project manager, some of the first questions I come up with have to do with budgets and timelines. Things like resource availability and scheduling. I wrote that up for Physics Today.
Short version: Looks to me like they can’t do what they want with the resources they’ve got. Plus it will take a decade or more to build the nukes they want, so maybe diplomacy can achieve our ends faster.