Let The Nukes Die

I have a new article in Foreign Policy. I write about the reasons that Russia and the United States might go back to nuclear explosive testing and suggest that we might let nuclear weapons decay out of existence.

That suggestion has some historical precedent. In 1989, Carson Mark, at that time the director of weapons design at Los Alamos and earlier a designer himself, proposed with others that a way to decrease the nuclear arsenal could be to stop producing tritium. Tritium is a component of nuclear weapons that boosts their yield and whose 12-year half-life requires its regular replacement. The dissolution of the Soviet Union overtook the arms control negotiations to which Mark contributed his suggestion.

Now there are concerns about the plutonium parts in nuclear weapons. Modernization efforts will include plutonium replacement. Other parts of the weapons, like the conventional explosives, age as well.

The US is trying to restart production of plutonium parts with great difficulty, and Russia will be strapped for funds after the Ukraine war ends. It’s not possible to negotiate an arms control agreement with Russia now, but an agreement that lessens the need for modernization may be attractive to a poorer Russia.

Last night’s takedown of six of Russia’s “unstoppable” Kinzhal missiles should also help to change Russian thinking. Cold War concepts of deterrence and nuclear warfighting are obsolete. We all need to rethink them.

Image is the header on the Foreign Policy article. It’s a French atmospheric test from 1971.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

If Ukraine Had Kept Soviet Nuclear Missiles

Bill Clinton has joined the chorus of “If Ukraine had kept its nuclear weapons, Russia would never have invaded.” Bill never was good at foreign policy. He was right in 1994, and he’s wrong now.

What people mean when they make that claim is “If Ukraine in January 2022 (or January 2014) had nuclear weapons that could be used against Russia, then Russia would never have invaded.” This claim is based on two big assumptions: that a Ukraine that retained the nuclear weapons on its territory in 1994 would have followed the same path as the Ukraine that signed the Budapest Memorandum, and that Ukraine could have repurposed those weapons into a defensive stand against Russia. I’ve written about this in the past.

For a history of what actually happened, check out Mariana Budjeryn’s “Inheriting the Bomb: The Collapse of the USSR and the Nuclear Disarmament of Ukraine.” It’s the most complete history of these events. Let’s consider how Ukraine might have developed if it had kept those nuclear weapons.

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I’m going to Trinity Site today. It’s one of the two days in the year that you can visit the site of the first atomic bomb detonation. So here are some nuclear pictures and videos for your amusement.

The National Security Archive has obtained several nuclear-related videos.

A U.S. B-52 bomber flies in low over “Soviet” territory in a declassified dramatization of a U.S. nuclear strike.

Kim Jong Un showed off his nuclear arsenal – or part of it; we don’t know – last week. NK News has lots of photos.

I’ll try to get some photos at Trinity Site. They won’t be like either of these.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Putin’s Continuing Accusations of Ukrainian WMD

Vladimir Putin is throwing it all against the wall today. Today’s statement includes that Ukraine has become an instrument of US foreign policy, has practically lost its sovereignty, its territory has been turned into a testing ground for biological experiments, and now it is being pumped up with weapons. I think that included nuclear weapons. Moar:

Putin has used nuclear fear since the beginning of his war. He started with threats when he declared war on February 24.

No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.

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Putin’s Nuclear Threats In His Own Words

Update 10/25/2022: I’ve added an April 20 quote at the suggestion of François Heisbourg and September 30 from  Gene Dannen. Thanks to both.

As we try to decipher Sergey Shoigu’s phonecalls to the Defense Ministers of the US, UK, and France, I decided to look at the threats Vladimir Putin has made since February 24. I combed through all his speeches on the President of Russia website, and this is what I found. Let me know if I’ve missed something. I have left out threats by others like Dmitri Medvedev and the Russian tv brigade.

I’ve included context with each quote, and you can link back to the speeches to find further context.

February 24, 2022: Address by the President of the Russian Federation

I would now like to say something very important for those who may be tempted to interfere in these developments from the outside. No matter who tries to stand in our way or all the more so create threats for our country and our people, they must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history. No matter how the events unfold, we are ready. All the necessary decisions in this regard have been taken. I hope that my words will be heard.

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A Podcast And More

The Globe and Mail’s “The Decibel” podcast interviewed me on nuclear weapons. I think it’s a pretty good primer on nuclear weapons effects.


I will not link to William Arkin’s article in Newsweek based on his interviews with STRATCOM personnel. It is in honor of this article that I chose the header photo. I am engaging with the article only because people I respect have retweeted it.

There’s a great deal wrong with it, but I’ll stick with three points for now.

  1. In this country, the military reports ultimately to the President. It’s not up to them to argue with him publicly. Further, STRATCOM is not “the military,” as the article implies, but a specialized part of it. It’s not even clear that the people Arkin quotes are representative of STRATCOM.
  2. It’s more than irresponsible to imply that Jake Sullivan has threatened Vladimir Putin with “a decapitation strike to kill Putin in the heart of the Kremlin.” It’s inconsistent with US policy and everything Joe Biden has said on the subject.
  3. The business about an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack hovers on the edge of fanaticism. It’s true that a general nuclear attack might begin with an EMP blast, but EMP alone is not the devastating killer that Newt Gingrich made it out to be.

Arkin is talking to a few people in a very narrow part of “the military,” who have blinkered viewpoints.


Putin’s speech this morning did less to rattle his nukes than some of his previous speeches. It’s not at all clear that he would use nukes to defend his new “People’s Republics.” Yes, he used those words. I’ll have more to say later, but for now here’s my Twitter thread and one observation from this morning.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Would Vladimir Putin Use Nuclear Weapons?

As Russia’s situation deteriorates on the battlefield, concerns grow about the possibility that Vladimir Putin might try to change the situation with a battlefield nuclear weapon. The war is so far confined to Ukraine, which makes it highly unlikely that Putin would reach out with strategic nuclear weapons to begin World War III. That’s all I’ll say about that.

Early on in Russia’s war, Putin was quick to remind the world that Russia possesses nuclear weapons. That brought on a spate of commentary about a nuclear umbrella for war and the circumstances in which Russia might use those weapons. The conclusion was that Russia might use battlefield nuclear weapons to stave off a defeat, but not before.

General mobilization of the Russian population would allow Putin to increase military numbers. But it would be an admission that the war is going badly. In the same way, the use of a nuclear weapon would be an admission that the war is going badly. Putin seems to be firmly resisting the first. The admission of failure might be enough to prevent the second.

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Nuclear Information at Mar-a-Lago

Ah, here’s some of the “nuclear information” found at Mar-a-Lago that some of us have been speculating about.

A document describing a foreign government’s military defenses, including its nuclear capabilities, was found by FBI agents who searched former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residenceand private club last month, according to people familiar with the matter

[The reporter’s sources] did not identify the foreign government in question, say where at Mar-a-Lago the document was found or offer additional details 

Because the subpoena did not specify documents under the RD system of classification (with one exception below), speculation has been that the “nuclear information” had to do with another government’s nuclear capabilities. There are two possibilities as to the government: friendly or not. Or we might include some governments, like Israel, as balanced somewhere in between.

In any of these cases, it’s possible that human sources were involved, and revealing them would pose the greatest danger.

Most nuclear countries’ capabilities are reasonably well known, so that is not a gigantic liability. Still if the country in question is friendly, it may not want full details shared indiscriminately or may not even want the United States to know everything. Presumably, as part of the damage repair, the friendly country has been notified.

The possibilities are Britain, France, Russia, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea, if the defenses are active. If they are hypothesized, Iran might be on the list.

And there might be more.

The subpoena, issued to Trump’s custodian of records, then listed more than two dozen sub-classifications of documents, including “S/FRD,” an acronym for “Formerly Restricted Data,” which is reserved for information that relates primarily to the military use of nuclear weapons. Despite the “formerly” in the title, the term does not mean the information is no longer classified.

S/FRD would most likely apply to US nuclear weapons. I still think Trump took the “biscuit,” the card with the nuclear codes, because it is such a cool souvenir.

Alex Wellerstein explains S/FRD in this thread.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

Time For Some Debunking

From South China Morning Post, attributed to Twitter

Looks like nuclear misinformation is flaring up again in the news stream. I can’t debunk it all – much of it contains too little fact for that. But I can say why I think some of these things are improbable.

The big story is in the South China Morning Post: Chinese scientists plan ‘disposable’ nuclear reactor for long-range torpedo.

Let me say that the idea of a disposable nuclear reactor, even with quote marks, strikes me as improbable.

The Chinese researchers are proposing a mini version of the Russian Poseidon unmanned submarine – the world’s first known underwater drone powered by nuclear energy.

Ah, okay! Vaporware!

We have not yet seen a prototype of the fearsome Poseidon, touted by Vladimir Putin as being able to cause a radioactive tidal wave along the entire US East Coast. Nor any signs of its development. I have long been dubious of this and the nuclear-powered Burevestnik cruise missile, which was at least tested and killed a number of its developers.

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