Posts from May, 2008

Homeland Security used wrong study for Foot and Mouth research plan

Today in a hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce it was revealed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that the Department of Homeland Security’s plan to move foot and mouth disease research to the mainland United States is based on faulty assumptions.

Foot and mouth disease is caused by the most infectious virus known to man. Nearly 100% of exposed animals become infected. Currently, the only place where foot and mouth disease (FMD) research can be done in the US is the Plum Island animal disease research facility, located off the tip of Long Island.

DHS had been planning to move that research to the mainland for sometime now, but that seems doubtful. The testimony given today by Nancy Kingsbury, the managing director of Applied Research and Methods at GAO indicates that DHS based its decision to move FMD research on a 2002 USDA study that simply addressed whether it was technically feasible to do so, ignoring the potential for human error.

We found that DHS has neither conducted nor commissioned any study to determine whether FMD work can be done safely on the U.S. mainland. Instead, DHS relied on a study that USDA commissioned and a contractor conducted in May 2002 that examined a different question: whether it is technically feasible to conduct exotic disease research and diagnostics, including FMD and rinderpest, on the U.S. mainland with adequate biosafety and biosecurity to protect U.S. agriculture. This approach fails to recognize the distinction between what is technically feasible and what is possible, given the potential for human error. DHS told us that this study has allowed it to conclude that it is safe to conduct FMD work on the U.S. mainland.

In addition to a number of other methodological problems with the study, we found that it was selective in what it considered in order to reach its findings. In particular, the study
1. did not assess the history of releases of FMD virus or other dangerous pathogens,
2. did not address in detail the issues related to large animal work in BSL-3 Ag facilities, and
3. was inaccurate in comparing other countries’ FMD work experience with that of the United States.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) was particularly critical of DHS in his opening statement, noting the trend to move infectious animal disease research to islands, not off them.
“Equally troubling, it appears that DHS is out of step with the rest of the world. GAO investigators visited major labs across Europe and found that in other developed countries, the trend is to do just the opposite of what DHS has proposed: Germany built its new lab on an island; Denmark built its new lab on an island; and the U.K. Parliament is debating the relocation of its lab to an island.” Dingle continued, “Why then would DHS propose to move live virus of foot-and-mouth from Plum Island to the American heartland? GAO was unable to find a scientific reason for the move. They found apparent agreement that the current Plum Island lab needs substantial renovation, but they found no justification for moving the lab to the mainland.”

You can read the highlights of the GAO testimony here and read more press coverage of the plan here

Another Nuclear Trade Deal, This Time with Russia

Compared to all the excitement created by the US-Indian nuclear trade deal, the Russian equivalent, submitted last week, created barely a ripple [caution: big file to download]. While FAS strongly opposes the US-Indian nuclear trade agreement, the Russian case is much more complex.

There are reasons to oppose the Russian deal and reasons to support it. The calculation is further complicated because some of the reasons, in my opinion the primary reason, for opposing the deal are not because of specific problems with the deal, per se, but because the deal is a surrogate for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which is itself a breathtakingly bad idea.

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Extensive Nuclear Missile Deployment Area Discovered in Central China

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More than 50 launch pads for nuclear ballistic missiles have been identified scattered across a 2,000 square kilometer (772 square miles) area of central China, according to analysis of satellite images. Click image for full size. Also download GoogleEarth KMZ file.

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By Hans M. Kristensen

Analysis of new commercial satellite photos has identified an extensive deployment area with nearly 60 launch pads for medium-range nuclear ballistic missiles in Central China near Delingha and Da Qaidam.

The region has long been rumored to house nuclear missiles and I have previously described some of the facilities in a report and a blog. But the new analysis reveals a significantly larger deployment area than previously known, different types of launch pads, command and control facilities, and missile deployment equipment at a large facility in downtown Delingha.

The U.S. government often highlights China’s deployment of new mobile missiles as a concern but keeps the details secret, so the discovery of the deployment area provides the first opportunity for the public to better understand how China operates its mobile ballistic missiles.
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NBACC director says they will not create threats at lab

The laboratory director of the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC), Dr. Patrick Fitch, said yesterday that research at the laboratory will not “create threats in order to study them”. This statement is a welcome change from previous presentations about the lab’s mission.

The controversy about the research goals of the NBACC emerged after Lt. Colonel George Korch, Jr., PhD, gave a powerpoint presentation about the facility in February 2004. According to this talk (the slides are available here), part of the NBACC threat assessment mission would include acquiring, growing, modifying, storing, stabilizing, packaging, and dispersing biological threat agents to determine various properties and capabilities. The presentation also states that the facility will “characterize classical, emerging, and genetically engineered pathogens for their biological threat agent potential” through “computational modeling of feasibility, methods, and scale of production.” These statements, if true, meant that portions of the research planned for the facility could be interpreted to be in violation of Article I of the Biological Weapons Convention, which says that signatory states are not “to develop, produce, stockpile, or otherwise acquire or retain microbial or biological agents, or toxins, that have no justification for prophylactic, protective, or other peaceful purposes.” From Dr. Fitch’s statements today it appears that the research priorities of NBACC have changed since 2004 to minimize the perception that the U.S. will conduct illegal research at this facility.

Dr. Fitch also said that a majority of the research that will occur at the lab will be unclassified, and he is working to develop a policy that will publicly list all of the projects going on at the NBACC, even if some of the research results remain classified. We’ll have to wait and see if these statements actually come true, but for the time being this seems like a positive development.

Monday’s talk was sponsored by the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The Federation of American Scientists has more information about the debate surrounding the NBACC on their website, available here.

Nukes in the Taiwan Crisis

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Nuclear bombs in Asia at the time of the Taiwan Strait crisis are listed (red box) in this Strategic Air Command document obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Click on image above to download PDF copy of list.

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By Hans M. Kristensen

Thanks to the efforts of Bill Burr at the National Security Archive, some of the veil covering U.S. nuclear war planning against China in the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis now has been lifted by a declassified military study.

It shows that on the day after the Chinese began shelling the Quemoy islands on August 23, 1958, U.S. Air Force Headquarters apparently assured Pacific Air Forces “that, assuming presidential approval, any Communist assault upon the offshore islands would trigger immediate nuclear retaliation.” Yet President Dwight D. Eisenhower fortunately rejected the use of nuclear weapons immediately, even if China invaded the islands, and emphasized that under no circumstances would these weapons be used without his approval.

Caution against nuclear use didn’t mean not planning for it, however, and in the years after the Taiwan Strait crisis an enormous nuclear build-up occurred in the Far East. The numbers started to decline in the 1970s, and for a period during the 1980s and first half of the 1990s, nuclear planning against China was reduced to reserve force contingencies. In the past decade, however, China has again become a focus for U.S. nuclear strike planning.

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Thinking Big on Uranium and Iran

Iran continues to enrich uranium. Enrichment is the process that makes natural uranium useable in a nuclear reactor or, if carried further, a nuclear bomb. Iran claims that the motivation for its enrichment program is entirely peaceful but almost no one outside of Iran believes this. With the United States shouting from the sidelines, the Europeans are continuing the hard diplomatic work of persuading Iran to suspend its enrichment program, with little success.

The Iranians claim that they have just as much right as anyone to enrich uranium for their civilian nuclear reactors. This is not true but it is not entirely wrong. Part of the reason for on-going sanctions is that they lied to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for years. Iran could, in theory, make amends and satisfy the IAEA and then legally enrich uranium. Any country could. Enrichment, the process of preparing uranium for a nuclear reactor or, potentially, a nuclear weapon, is today a legitimate industrial enterprise. That is a problem.

The administration looks at the situation through the lens of an Iranian threat, but the problem is long-term, global, and fundamental. It is time to make a bold proposal that will apply to the Iranians but includes everyone else, even the United States. Continue Reading →

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act is Good Policy 30 Years On

It is impossible to entirely separate a civilian nuclear power program from a potential nuclear weapons program. President Bush knows this, which is why he is so concerned about Iran’s nuclear energy program. And this is why our country should not undercut nonproliferation goals by restarting a domestic reprocessing program, now called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). After putting the effort aside three decades ago, GNEP would reprocess plutonium from civilian nuclear power reactors. Reprocessing is dangerous — creating more fissile material that can be sabotaged or stolen by terrorists from storage or during transportation. But most importantly, a renewed U.S. reprocessing effort will set precisely the wrong example for the rest of the world. Continue Reading →