Category Archives: nuclear weapons

Nuclear Terrorism: How to Crash a Drone into a Nuclear Plant

Greenpeace crashed a drone into the spent-fuel cooling building at the EDF-Bugey nuclear power plant site on July 3, 2018 to demonstrate gaps in the facility’s security. Officials  were lucky it was just Greenpeace demonstrating vulnerabilities at the facility, and not a terrorist group intent on attacking the site. This incident highlights why the 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review’s assessment that nuclear terrorism is “today’s most immediate and extreme danger” remains relevant: It underscores the importance of the sustained and persistent six-year effort from 2010 to 2016 to reduce the threat posed by nuclear terrorism, far from the headline nuclear issues of Iran, North Korea, and arms control with Russia…

The Nuclear Security Summits, initiated by President Barack Obama in 2009 and concluded in April 2016, significantly strengthened the global nuclear security architecture and brought high-level political attention to the risk posed by nuclear terrorism. ..According to a new report from the Arms Control Association and the Fissile Materials Working Group, The Nuclear Security Summits: And Overview of State Actions to Curb Nuclear Terrorism 2010-2016, countries made more than 935 distinct commitments to strengthen and improve nuclear security throughout the six-year process.

As a result, three entire geographic regions—South America, Southeast Asia, and Central and Eastern Europe—have entirely eliminated highly-enriched uranium from their soil, and only 22 countries possess weapons-usable nuclear material, down from more than 50.

Excerpts from Sara Z. Kutchesfahani, Kelsey Davenpor, Why countries still must prioritize action to curb nuclear terrorism, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Aug. 3, 2018

Japan’s weapon: the plutonium exception

A container of MOX fuel (plutonium and uranium) is unloaded at the Takahama nuclear power plant , 2013
Japan’s nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S. — the pillar of Tokyo’s nuclear energy policy — renewed automatically on July 15, 2018  after the current pact, which took effect in 1988, expire  The agreement allows Japan to be the sole non-nuclear-weapons state to use plutonium for peaceful purposes and underlies the country’s policy of recycling spent nuclear fuel.

But the renewal comes at a time when Japan’s “plutonium exception” is increasingly under scrutiny…Japan’s neighbors have cried foul over Japan’s plutonium exception. China has said it creates a path for Japan to obtain nuclear weapons. South Korea, which also has a nuclear cooperation agreement with the U.S., has pressed Washington hard to be granted similar freedom on fuel reprocessing.  Countries such as Saudi Arabia that are looking to develop their own nuclear programs have also protested….Resolving the inconsistent treatment afforded Japan’s plutonium stockpile would make it easier for the United States to convince Pyongyang to give up reprocessing capabilities as part of its denuclearization. On July 3, 2018, Japan’s cabinet approved a new basic energy plan that includes reducing plutonium holdings, aiming to assuage American concerns…

So far, the U.S. has not called on Japan to abandon its plutonium entirely, or to speed up its reduction. And there is little chance the U.S. will end the cooperation agreement, as “Japan’s nuclear technology is indispensable to the American nuclear industry,” according to a Japanese government source.

Excerpts from YUKIO TAJIMA, Japan’s ‘plutonium exception’ under fire as nuclear pact extended, NIkkei, July 14, 2018

Threshold Nuclear Weapon States

Knowledge Never Ends: the fate of SS-18 Satan

RS-20 (SS-18 “Satan”) decommissioned. Image from wikipedia

While Ukraine renounced its own possession of nuclear weapons in 1994, many scientists and design bureaus in the country still have the know-how required to manufacture important components of strategic weapons.

China has often been particularly keen of this knowledge, acquiring Ukrainian help in designing their first phased-array radar system.  Ukrainian aerospace, tank and naval engineers is also a common phenomenon in China, most notably Valerii Babich, designer of the Varyag aircraft carrier. There are even rumors of “Ukrainetowns” in some Chinese cities founded by the large number of expats hired by Chinese firms. Ukrainian and Russian businessmen even sold Kh-55 nuclear cruise missiles (without the warheads) from Ukrainian stockpiles to China in the 2000s. As China continues to modernize their ICBM fleet, it begs the question: how much help is Ukraine providing, willingly and unwillingly?

This wouldn’t be the first time Ukraine’s ICBM knowhow was possibly exported. In the fall of 2017, Ukraine’s Yuzhnoye Design Bureau, based in Dnipro, was accused of providing rocket engines to North Korea. While Ukrainian media has denied this allegation, there was a definite case of Yushnoye employees who were caught selling the plans on the RS-20 (SS-18 “Satan”) to Chinese missile engineers. Although the Chinese engineers were caught by Ukrainian police, Chinese diplomatic influence resulted in the charges being cleared. This trend has continued, as recently as 2016 when a scientist at Dnipropetrovsk National University left for China with many materials regarding the use of composites and heat-shielding coatings on rocket launchers—which were considered Ukrainian state secrets…

Given all the different vectors through which rocket and missile technology are flowing from Ukraine to China, it’s reasonable to say that Ukraine has provided considerable aid to the Chinese ballistic missile program.

Excerpts, Charlie Gao, Do China’s Nuclear Missiles Have Ukrainian DNA?, The National Interest, June 23

Back in Fashion: Mini-Nukes from the Seas

A Polaris missile is fired from the submerged HMS Revenge off the coast of Florida in 1986. Image from wikipedia

The Pentagon has completed initial draft plans (June 2018) for several emerging low-yield sea-launched nuclear weapons…–a low-yield sea-launched nuclear cruise missile and long-range sub-launched low-yield warhead still in development… The US Navy Plans to add a nuclear weapon to Virginia-Class Attack Submarines….

There are currently over 1,000 nuclear warheads in the US arsenal that have low-yield options. A yield is considered low if it’s 20 kilotons or less,” an essay from the Federation of American Scientists states….A massively smaller 5-or-6 kt warhead on a Trident would still bring the advantage of long-range attack, yet afford smaller scope, and therefore less destructive, attack possibilities….The 130,000-pound Trident II D5 missile can travel 20,000-feet per second, according to Navy figures. The missiles cost $30 million each…

Also, the now-in-development Air Force Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) weapon, an air launched nuclear cruise missile, will bring additional airborne attack options – particularly when it comes to areas well-defended by advanced, high-tech air defense systems, where stealth aircraft might have more difficulty operating.  The LRSO, which could also be launched at farther stand-off ranges, is also designed for extremely high-risk areas armed with advanced air defense systems….

Excerpts from Pentagon completes draft plans for new low-yield sea-launched nuclear weapon, Fox News, June 5, 2018

A Nuclear Titanic? the First Floating Nuclear Plant

Akademik Lomonosov, image rosatom

A massive floating nuclear power plant is now making its way toward its final destination at an Arctic port (April 30, 2018)… It’s the first nuclear power plant of its kind, Russian officials say.  Called the Akademik Lomonosov, the floating power plant is being towed at a creeping pace out of St. Petersburg, where it was built over the last nine years. It will eventually be brought northward, to Murmansk – where its two nuclear reactors will be loaded with nuclear fuel and started up in the fall of 2018.

From there, the power plant will be pulled to a mooring berth in the Arctic port of Pevek, in far northeast Russia. There, it will be wired into the infrastructure so it can replace an existing nuclear power installment on land.  Critics of the plan include Greenpeace, which recently warned of a “Chernobyl on ice if Russia’s plans to create a fleet of floating nuclear power stations result in a catastrophe.

Russian officials say the mandate of the Akademik Lomonoso is to supply energy to remote industrial plants and port cities, and to offshore gas and oil platforms.  “The nuclear power plant has two KLT-40S reactor units that can generate up to 70 MW of electric energy and 50 Gcal/hr of heat energy during its normal operation,” Rosatom said. “This is enough to keep the activity of the town populated with 100,000 people.”

It will take more than a year for the power plant to reach its new home port. The original plan had called for fueling the floating plant before it began that journey, at the shipyard in central St. Petersburg – but that was scuttled in the summer of 2017, after concerns were raised both in Russia and in countries along the power plant’s route through the Baltic Sea and north to the Arctic. Rosatom says it hopes the floating nuclear power plant will be online in 2019.

Excerpts from Russia Launches Floating Nuclear Power Plant; It’s Headed To The Arctic, NPR, Apr. 30, 2018

Stopping the Unstoppable: undersea nuclear torpedoes

Loads sonar buoys into a P-3 Orion, 2006 image from wikipedia

On July 20th 1960, a missile popped out of an apparently empty Atlantic ocean. Its solid-fuel rocket fired just as it cleared the surface and it tore off into the sky. Hours later, a second missile followed. An officer on the ballistic-missile submarine USS George Washington sent a message to President Dwight Eisenhower: “POLARIS—FROM OUT OF THE DEEP TO TARGET. PERFECT.” America had just completed its first successful missile launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) from beneath the ocean. Less than two months later, Russia conducted a similar test in the White Sea, north of Archangel.

Those tests began a new phase in the cold war. Having ICBMs on effectively invisible launchers meant that neither side could destroy the other’s nuclear arsenal in a single attack. So by keeping safe the capacity for retaliatory second strikes, the introduction of ballistic-missile submarines helped develop the concept of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD), thereby deterring any form of nuclear first strike. America, Britain, China, France and Russia all have nuclear-powered submarines on permanent or near permanent patrol, capable of launching nuclear missiles; India has one such submarine, too, and Israel is believed to have nuclear missiles on conventionally powered submarines.

As well as menacing the world at large, submarines pose a much more specific threat to other countries’ navies; most military subs are attack boats rather than missile platforms. This makes anti-submarine warfare (ASW) a high priority for anyone who wants to keep their surface ships on the surface. Because such warfare depends on interpreting lots of data from different sources—sonar arrays on ships, sonar buoys dropped from aircraft, passive listening systems on the sea-floor—technology which allows new types of sensor and new ways of communicating could greatly increase its possibilities. “There’s an unmanned-systems explosion,” says Jim Galambos of DARPA, the Pentagon’s future-technology arm. Up until now, he says, submariners could be fairly sure of their hiding place, operating “alone and unafraid”. That is changing.

Aircraft play a big role in today’s ASW, flying from ships or shore to drop “sonobuoys” in patterns calculated to have the best chance of spotting something. This is expensive. An aeroplane with 8-10 people in it throws buoys out and waits around to listen to them and process their data on board. “In future you can envision a pair of AUVs [autonomous underwater vehicles], one deploying and one loitering and listening,” says Fred Cotaras of Ultra Electronics, a sonobuoy maker. Cheaper deployment means more buoys.

But more data is not that helpful if you do not have ways of moving it around, or of knowing where exactly it comes from. That is why DARPA is working on a Positioning System for Deep Ocean Navigation (POSYDON) which aims to provide “omnipresent, robust positioning across ocean basins” just as GPS satellites do above water, says Lisa Zurk, who heads up the programme. The system will use a natural feature of the ocean known as the “deep sound channel”. The speed of sound in water depends on temperature, pressure and, to some extent, salinity. The deep sound channel is found at the depth where these factors provide the lowest speed of sound. Below it, higher pressure makes the sound faster; above it, warmer water has the same effect…

Even in heavily surveilled seas, spotting submarines will remain tricky. They are already quiet, and getting quieter; new “air-independent propulsion” systems mean that conventionally powered submarines can now turn off their diesel engines and run as quietly as nuclear ones, perhaps even more so, for extended periods of time. Greater autonomy, and thus fewer humans—or none at all—could make submarines quieter still.

A case in point is a Russian weapon called Status-6, also known as Kanyon, about which Vladimir Putin boasted in a speech on March 1st, 2018. America’s recent nuclear-posture review describes it as “a new intercontinental, nuclear-armed, nuclear-powered, undersea autonomous torpedo”. A Russian state television broadcast in 2015 appeared to show it as a long, thin AUV that can be launched from a modified submarine and travel thousands of kilometres to explode off the shore of a major city with a great deal more energy than the largest warheads on ICBMs, thus generating a radioactive tsunami. Such a system might be seen as preserving a second-strike capability even if the target had a missile-defence system capable of shooting ICBMs out of the sky…

One part of the ocean that has become particularly interesting in this regard is the Arctic. Tracking submarines under or near ice is difficult, because ice constantly shifts, crackles and groans loudly enough to mask the subtle sounds of a submarine. With ever less ice in the Arctic this is becoming less of a problem, meaning America should be better able to track Russian submarines through its Assured Arctic Awareness programme…

Greater numbers of better sensors, better networked, will not soon make submarines useless; but even without breakthroughs, they could erode the strategic norm that has guided nuclear thinking for over half a century—that of an unstoppable second strike.

Excerpts from Mutually assured detection, Economist, Mar. 10, 2018

Breathing in Plutonium Dust: Hanford

Testing a sheep's thyroid for radiation. Image from wikipedia

The Energy Department project to tear down the Plutonium Finish Plant at the Hanford Site was halted in mid-December 2017 after radioactive dust was discovered far off the plant site. T As crews demolished a shuttered nuclear weapons plant during 2017 in central Washington, specks of plutonium were swept up in high gusts and blown miles across a desert plateau above the Columbia River.  The releases at the Department of Energy cleanup site spewed unknown amounts of plutonium dust into the environment, coated private automobiles with the toxic heavy metal and dispensed lifetime internal radioactive doses to 42 work

The contamination events went on for nearly 12 months, getting progressively worse before the project was halted in mid-December. Now, state health and environmental regulators, Energy Department officials and federal safety investigators are trying to figure out what went wrong and who is responsible.

The events at the Hanford Site, near the Tri-Cities area of Richland, Pasco and Kennewick, vividly demonstrate the consequences when a radioactive cleanup project spirals out of control.

The mishap occurred at one of the nation’s most radioactively contaminated buildings, known as the Plutonium Finishing Plant. The factory, which opened in 1949 a few miles from the Columbia River, supplied plutonium for thousands of U.S. nuclear weapons before it was shut down in 1989.
The exposures from the plutonium releases in 2017 were minuscule bestimated to be a small fraction of the background radiation that every human gets from nature. But unlike cosmic radiation or radon gas, plutonium can lodge itself inside the body and deliver tissue damaging alpha particles over a lifetime…. As workers removed equipment to prepare for walls to be torn down, air monitoring alarms sounded almost every day, he said. Workers were subjected to repeated nasal smears to determine if they had breathed plutonium dust, he said….Seven employee automobiles were contaminated at the plant site, according to a Jan. 9, 2018 letter from the state Department of Ecology to Doug Shoop, the federal site chief at Hanford… The demolition, costing $57 million, was being conducted by one of the nation’s largest engineering firms, CH2M, a unit of Texas-based Jacobs Engineering. CH2M is now under federal investigation for the releases, according to a letter sent by the Energy Department’s enforcement office in late March 2018…

In March 2018, the company released a preliminary analysis [pdf] of the contamination and blamed it on a half dozen factors, including a “fixative” that was supposed to bind the dust but was too diluted to work properly and a decision to accelerate demolition when the contamination seemed to be stable.  The Energy Department plan for the demolition originally required the contractor to remove debris as it accumulated. But in January 2017, just before the first releases, officials authorized CH2M to allow the debris to pile up, according to a monthly site report by an inspector for the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, an independent agency.  In fact, workers at the plant said the demolition site was ringed by 8-foot-tall piles of radioactive debris with little to prevent dust from blowing off

The problems at the Plutonium Finishing Plant were not an isolated event at Hanford, which has struggled with its cleanup for more than a decade.
Work was stopped five years ago on key parts of a $16.8-billion waste treatment plant that is supposed to turn 56 million gallons of radioactive sludge into glass. Technical deficiencies in its design are still being studied, while delays mount. Several years ago, the Energy Department pushed back the full startup by 17 years to 2039, though it hopes to begin treating some less radioactive waste by 2022….In 2017, a tunnel that stored railroad cars full of contaminated equipment collapsed. The Energy Department pumped the 358-foot long tunnel full of a concrete mixture. A decision is pending about what to do with a second storage tunnel 1,688 feet long.

The state attorney general, along with Hanford Challenge and a union, is suing the Energy Department for venting noxious gases from underground waste tanks over recent years, sickening workers.

Smith, the Ecology manager, said a lot of cleanup progress has been made at Hanford. Hundreds of buildings have been torn down. Much of the soil along the banks of the Columbia River has been cleaned up enough for any future use. And the site’s nine nuclear reactors have been put in stable condition…

One of those facilities, known as 324 Building,[Chemical Materials Engineering Laboratory] was used to extract plutonium from spent fuel, said Robert Alvarez, a former assistant secretary of Energy and a longtime critic of the cleanup. The facility has civilian waste from Germany, sent as part of a research project, as well as large amounts of radioactive waste that was placed in unlined burial pits, he said. Records of what lies in the pits were destroyed in 1988, he said.

Excerpts from RALPH VARTABEDIAN, Contamination from a nuclear cleanup forced a shutdown. Investigators want to know who is responsible, LA Times, Apr. 16, 2018