Posts from October, 2010

Iran Fuel Negotiations: Moving Muddled Goalposts

Moving Goalposts

by Ivanka Barzashka and Ivan Oelrich

A year ago, France, Russia and the U.S.—called the Vienna Group—proposed a deal in which Iran would ship out some of its worrying low-enriched uranium (LEU) in exchange for fuel for its medical isotope reactor, called the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). These narrow technical discussions about the TRR were meant to serve as a confidence-building effort. The negotiations fell apart because of differences about timing of the exchange of material, but they may be about to restart. A year later, the facts on the ground have changed. These new circumstances may call for new negotiating terms, but changes have to make some sense. Calculations show that numbers recently floated by the State Department seem ad hoc and arbitrary and will not have the touted threat-reduction benefits.

On October 27, The New York Times reported that a senior U.S. official believed that the Vienna Group were “very close to having an agreement” on how the original fuel swap offer, made in October 2009, should be changed. One of the new terms would be an increase in the amount of LEU provided from 1,200 kg to 2,000 kg. The State Department explained a day later that “the proposal would have to be updated reflecting ongoing enrichment activity by Iran over the ensuing year.” Iran’s larger LEU stockpile changes Washington’s threat-reduction calculus, which ultimately undermines the confidence-building aspect of the deal.

Another new circumstance is Iran’s production of 20 percent enriched uranium, ostensibly to produce TRR fuel domestically.  This is a worrying development because, compared to LEU, a stockpile of 20 percent material would cut by half Iran’s time to a bomb.

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Nonsense about New START and ICBMs

Because of what appears to have been a computer glitch, a group of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) was temporarily off-line last week and not ready to launch on a moment’s notice. According to an article in The Atlantic, some Republicans have suggested that this means that New START, the nuclear arms control treaty awaiting Senate ratification, is unwise and should be rejected. This assertion is nonsense but is a useful illustration of how much of current nuclear “thinking” is just a holdover from now irrelevant Cold War doctrine. Continue Reading →

Scrapping the Unsafe Nuke

The author next to a B53 shape outside the Atomic Museum in Albuquerque, NM. This open-air display is located at these coordinates: 35° 3’54.78″N, 106°32’7.09″W.

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By Hans M. Kristensen

The National Nuclear Surety Administration (NNSA) has announced that it has authorized the Pantex Plant in Texas to begin dismantlement of the B53 nuclear bomb.

Everything about the B53 is big: it weighs as much as a minivan and has an explosive yield of nine megatons, equivalent to 600 Hiroshima bombs.

Initially designed to annihilate Soviet cities, the large yield later earned the B53 one of the longest careers in the U.S. nuclear arsenal as a nuclear shovel; literally to dig up Soviet underground command bunkers. The mission was seen as so important that the B53 was even saved from an earlier retirement and allowed to serve for another decade until 1997 even though the Pentagon knew it had serious safety and security flaws. Continue Reading →

Nuclear De-Alerting Panel at the United Nations

Panelists from left: Hans M. Kristensen (FAS), John Hallam (Nuclear Flashpoint), Dell Higgie (New Zealand Ambassador for Disarmament), Christian Schoenenberger (Swiss UN Mission), Col Valery Yarynich (Institute of the United States and Canada, Russian Academy of Sciences), Stephen Starr (Physicians for Social Responsibility)

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By Hans M. Kristensen

On Wednesday, October 13th, I gave a briefing at the United Nations on the status of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces in the context of the interesting article Safe and Smaller recently published in Foreign Affairs.

One of the co-authors, Valery Yarynich, a retired colonel who served at the Center for Operational and Strategic Studies of the Russian General Staff, spoke about the main conclusion of the article: that is possible to significantly reduce the alert-level of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons without creating risks of crisis instability.

That conclusion directly contradicts the Obama administration’s recently completed Nuclear Posture Review, which rejected a reduction of the alert rates for land- and sea-based ballistic missiles because, “such steps could reduce crisis stability by giving an adversary the incentive to attack before ‘re-alerting’ was complete.”

The panel coincided with the meeting of the First Committee of the General Assembly, during which New Zealand submitted a resolution on decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

Scrapping the Safe Nuke?

The compact W84 warhead (left) was designed to be delivered by the ground-launched cruise missile. Some 380 W84s are awaiting dismantlement – or reuse.

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By Hans M. Kristensen

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) recently announced that disassembly of the W84 warhead has begun at the Pantex Plant in Texas.

This marks the final phase for a group of 400 warheads that were at the center of the Cold War in Europe as part of NATO’s Double Track Decision in 1979 to deploy intermediate-range weapons in response to Soviet deployments. The W84 armed the Ground-Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) that was eliminated by the 1987 INF Treaty. Continue Reading →