March 16, 2011

No one advocated halting the manufacture of methyl isocyanate or shutting down the chemical industry after the Bhopal tragedy of 1984 which killed thousands more than any nuclear accident. The Gulf oil spill also did not provoke howls to terminate oil production. And of course, you don’t hear calls for permanent evacuation of coastal communities because of the occasional tsunami that can wipe out these cities in a catastrophe much worse than a nuclear engineer’s worst nightmare.

I cannot add much to what’s being already said and I join millions in wishing the unfortunate citizens of Japan the very best. But even a serious accident like the one currently unfolding at the Japanese nuclear plant should not blind us to the bigger picture. Predictably, there have already been calls from alarmists to stop all nuclear building in the US. In keeping with the media’s appetite for sensationalism, the Washington Post put an adequately fear-invoking and alarmist photo on their cover page. As others have noted, we don’t regularly hear calls to halt oil and natural gas production after accidents that are much more damaging in terms of environmental destruction and human life compared to the one or two serious nuclear accidents we have witnessed. The only response after a crisis such as the present one should be to put together a review of reactor safety in other parts of the world and how it could possibly be improved to withstand such freak scenarios as the ones we are witnessing. But when presented with an unfortunate, unlikely case, human nature is to throw out the baby with the bath water.

Already people are comparing the current crisis to Chernobyl. This is a ridiculous comparison, partly because the current reactor and the contingency response have been much better than the ones during Chernobyl and partly because if you really want to cite the worst case scenario, you might as well hold up the Hindenberg as an argument against air travel. In case of Chernobyl the accident was of course the result of a combination of several factors, including a fundamentally flawed design and human inertia engendered by communist ideology that prevented rapid response. The number of deaths from Chernobyl cannot be known with certainty, but it’s certainly less than deaths from any number of other industry-related accidents. One can be almost sure that the effects of the present accident are going to be far less severe because of more open communication and prompt response. In fact it’s heartening that these reactors with 50-year old designs did relatively well in spite of being struck by one of the biggest earthquakes in recorded history. With modern designs where passive systems can cool the core in spite of loss of electrical power, one can be much more confident about containment of radiation (as an aside, I wonder why the seawater that was pumped into the Japanese reactor did not contain cadmium chloride for neutron absorption).

Here’s one of the things the US should do. Just like they did after Chernobyl, top scientists in this country should put together a committee after the facts of the Japanese disaster become known. They should undertake a review of all the nuclear reactors in the US and write a reportdetailing their safety features as well as possible measures that can be included in the unlikely case of natural disasters like the one in Japan. There should be two versions of this objective, apolitical report. One version should be more technical and comprehensive and can serve as a blueprint for future action. The other version should explain the committee’s conclusions in simple terms that can be understood by the public and by members of Congress. Finally, and this is key, this version should be publicized as widely as possible in an effort to educate the public about the true risks and benefits.

Ultimately the life and death of a technology is not decided by how harmful or beneficial its effects are but by simple economic tradeoffs. Automobiles and fossil fuels have killed hundreds of thousands, but nobody advocates their extinction simply because their benefits are perceived to greatly exceed their costs. A similar argument can be made for knives and guns. On the other hand, nuclear power which boasts an impeccable safety record compared to the chemical and fossil fuel industry still sets off alarm bells and brings forth calls for its demise. This is partly because of the irrational psychological gut reaction that people still associate with the words “radiation”, “nuclear” and “meltdown” (an unfortunate consequence of the fact that the world’s first exposure to nuclear energy was by way of nuclear weapons) but more importantly because of the simple fact that nuclear is not seen as an indispensable energy option even now.
What will it take for the situation to change? Perhaps when war in the Middle East decimates dependence on fossil fuels or when extreme climate change exacerbates our lifestyles to an unacceptable extent, we will finally accept nuclear energy as an energy-intensive, climate change-friendly power source whose risks must be evaluated and managed just like those of others. The only question is whether it would be too late then.

Louisa Gilder and Robert Oppenheimer

September 9, 2010

Louisa Gilder’s book “The Age of Entanglement” is a rather unique and thoroughly engrossing book which tells the story of quantum mechanics and especially the bizarre quantum phenomenon called entanglement through a unique device- recreations of conversations between famous physicists. Although Gilder does take considerable liberty in fictionalizing the conversations, they are based on real events and for the most part the device works.

Gilder’s research seems quite exhaustive and well-referenced, which was why the following observation jumped out of the pages and bothered me even more.

On pg. 189, Gilder describes a paragraph from a very controversial and largely discredited book by Jerrold and Leona Schecter. The book which created a furor extensively quotes a Soviet KGB agent named Pavel Sudoplatov who claimed that, among others, Niels Bohr and Robert Oppenheimer were working for the Soviet Union and that Oppenheimer knew that Klaus Fuchs was a Soviet spy (who knew!). No evidence for these fantastic allegations has ever turned up. In spite of this, Gilder refers to the book and essentially quotes a Soviet handler named Merkulov who says that a KGB agent in California named Grigory Kheifets thought that Oppenheimer was willing to transmit secret information to the Soviets. Gilder says nothing more after this and moves on to a different topic.

Now take a look at the footnotes on pg. 190-191 of Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s authoritative biography of Oppenheimer. B & S also quote exactly the same paragraph, but then emphatically add how there is not a shred of evidence to support what was said and how the whole thing was probably fabricated by Merkulov to save Kheifets’s life (since Kheifets had otherwise turned up empty-handed on potential recruits).

If you want to obtain even more authoritative information on this topic, I would recommend the recent book “Spies” by Haynes, Klehr and Vassiliev, widely regarded as the most complete account of Soviet espionage until now. The book has a detailed chapter which discusses the Merkulov and Kheifets letter procured by the Schecters and cited by Gilder. The chapter clearly says that absolutely no corroboration of the contents of this letter has been found in Kheifets’s own testimony after he returned to the Soviet Union or in the Venona transcripts. You would think that material of such importance would at the very least be corroborated by Kheifets himself. A source as valuable as Oppenheimer would also most certainly be mentioned in other communications. But no such evidence exists. The authors also point out other multiple glaring inconsistencies and fabrications in the documents cited in the Schecter volume. The book quite clearly says that as of 2008, there is absolutely no ambiguity or the slightest hint that Oppenheimer was willing to transmit secrets to the Soviets; the authors emphatically end the chapter saying that the case is closed.

What is troubling is that Gilder quotes the paragraph and simply ends it there, leaving the question of Oppenheimer’s loyalty dangling and tantalizingly open-ended. She does not quote the clear conclusion drawn by B & S that there is no evidence to support this insinuation. She also must surely be aware of several other works on Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, none of which give the slightest credence to such allegations.

You would expect more from an otherwise meticulous author like Gilder. I have no idea why she gives credence to the canard about Oppenheimer. But in an interview with her which I saw, she said that she was first fascinated by Oppenheimer (as most people were and still are) but was then repulsed by his treatment of his student David Bohm who dominates the second half of her book. Bohm was a great physicist and philosopher (his still-in-print textbook on quantum theory is unmatched for its logical and clear exposition), a dedicated left-wing thinker who was Oppenheimer’s student at Berkeley in the 1930s. After the War, he was suspected of being a communist and stripped of his faculty position at Princeton which was then very much an establishment institution. After this unfortunate incident, Bohm lived a peripatetic life in Brazil and Israel before settling down at Birkbeck College in England. Oppenheimer essentially distanced himself from Bohm after the war, had no trouble detailing Bohm’s left-wing associations to security agents and generally did not try to save Bohm from McCarthy’s onslaught.

This is well-known; Robert Oppenheimer was a complex and flawed character. But did Gilder’s personal dislike of Oppenheimer in the context of Bohm color her attitude toward him and cause her to casually toss out a tantalizing allegation which she must have known is not substantiated? I sure hope not.

Riding off into the twilight…

August 30, 2010

In “The Twilight of the Bombs”, the last volume of his breathtaking account of nuclear history, Richard Rhodes describes the post Cold War problems and hopes associated with nuclear weapons. The books bears many of Rhodes’s trademarks- it is extremely well-researched and contains sharp portraits of the major players as well as fast-paced accounts of key events that make you feel as if you were there. Rhodes’s abilities as a storyteller are still remarkable. This book is relatively slim and does not command the high-octane prose of Rhodes’s masterpiece “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” but as usual, Rhodes’s authoritative knowledge of nuclear matters provides many revelations and he has a novelist’s eye for detail which keeps the reader hooked.

The book can roughly be divided into four parts. The first part concerns the first Gulf War and the dismantling of Iraq’s nuclear infrastructure, the second part describes the race to secure nuclear material in the former Soviet republics after the fall of the Soviet Union, the third part briefly talks about South Africa’s nuclear ambitions and and then in more detail about attempts to contain nuclear efforts by North Korea and the last part concerns the run-up to the second Gulf War and some final thoughts on the future of nuclear weapons. One striking omission in the book is Iran, and I think readers would have appreciated Rhodes’s insightful thoughts on the Iranian nuclear problem.

The first part examines the troubling evidence in the 1980s that Saddam Hussein was trying to build a nuclear capability. Rogue Pakistani scientist A Q Khan had even tried to unsuccessfully sell Iraq a bomb design based on a Chinese weapon. At the same time that the US was providing aid and goodwill to Iraq to support it against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, it was also unearthing evidence in the form of dual-use equipment shipments and intelligence analysis that Iraq was pursuing enriched uranium. Interestingly, the technology that Iraq was using turned out to be electromagnetic separation, a primitive technology that the US did not initially believe would be used; for nations pursuing nuclear capability, separating uranium isotopes by using centrifuges is much more efficient. Yet electromagnetic separation is exactly the kind of technology that a relatively primitive and cash-strapped economy would pursue. This is a good example of how biases can lead to false conclusions in spite of supporting evidence. Later, Rhodes has pulse-racing accounts of searches for enrichment technology in Iraq conducted by the weapons inspectors of the IAEA and the UN. Even after the inspectors discovered evidence of enrichment in the form of equipment used for electromagnetic separation, this was not yet conclusive evidence of weapons building. Probably the most exciting moment was when, deep down in a small room in a basement, the inspectors discovered a report that did provide such evidence in the form of clear and detailed descriptions of materials and design for an implosion bomb.

The second part of the book deals with the fragmentation of the Soviet Union and the spirited and at times desperate race to acquire nuclear weapons from the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. There are many heroes in this story which stands as a model of bipartisan cooperation against a serious threat. Among these are David Kay, Hans Blix and Bob Gallucci who were nuclear inspectors and disarmament specialists. Probably the most prominent ones are the Democratic and Republican senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar who worked day and night to acquire funds from Congress to secure nuclear material and weapons from the three countries and have them transferred back to Russia. Concomitantly, Secretary of State James Baker hopped from one capital to another, urging the presidents of the new nations to sign the NPT and START using a combination of carrots (in the form of monetary rewards) and sticks (in the form of possible sanctions and threats from Russia). All three nations agreed that they were better off without nuclear weapons, and the result was a transfer of thousands of strategic and tactical weapons back to Russia. A third important and massive effort involved blending down the enriched uranium from Soviet weapons to reactor grade and shipping it back to the US for use in US nuclear reactors; Americans may be amused to know that about 10 percent of their current electricity derived from nuclear energy comes from nuclear weapons that their former foe had targeted against their cities. Curiously, the biggest reformer in this drama was President George H W Bush who orchestrated the largest arms reductions in history (he abolished entire classes of weapons, including missiles with multiple warheads and all ground-based weapons), and he needs to get much more credit for doing this than what has been given to him.

In the third part Rhodes first briefly talks about the dismantling of South Africa’s nuclear program, which is a fine lesson for nations wanting to eschew nuclear weapons. In case of South Africa, the same reasons- internal strife, border conflicts and international alienation because of the government’s apartheid policies- that provoked the country to acquire weapons also encouraged them to give them up. An uglier reason was their fear in the 80s that the weapons might fall into the hands of the black government.

Rhodes then describes in detail the difficult relationship between the US and North Korea in the context of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Along the way, Rhodes also provides perspective by noting that the US had mercilessly bombed the North during the Korean War; since then the North Koreans have constantly been in a kind of perpetual state of war, surrounded by giant powers like Russia and China. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the US had stationed hundreds of nuclear weapons in South Korea as a deterrent until about 1990. Although these actions by the US do not justify the North’s nuclear efforts, they do explain the paranoia and deep sense of insecurity that has fueled North Korea’s animosity towards the US. Again, there are heroes in this story, but one singled out by Rhodes is former President Jimmy Carter who went to North Korea of his own volition in 1994 and successfully mediated the Koreans’ proposal to stop reprocessing in return for light water reactors; the consequence of this diplomacy was the so-called “Agreed Framework” to regulate North Korea’s commercial nuclear program, which unfortunately broke down in 2003 in the face of North Korean non-compliance and disagreements. Since then, North Korea has always had to be kept on a tight leash and there have been several moments of tension between the two countries, but Rhodes’s accounts make it clear how diplomacy has averted another Korean War. Rhodes also has succinct discussions of efforts to develop and implement a framework for the CTBT, which was signed by Clinton but unfortunately not ratified by the Senate.

The last part of the book concerns the run-up to the second Gulf War. This story has been told before but Rhodes tells it succinctly and well. Meticulous weapons inspections in Iraq between 1992 and 1998 had unearthed no evidence of a WMD capability, although Iraq had also not furnished clear documentation of the dismantling of its WMD capability. As Rhodes tells it, regime change had already been on the table, especially pushed by neoconservatives like Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz but even contemplated by former Vice President Al Gore. But even after 9/11, it does not seem like Bush was thinking of attacking Iraq. However, as the record indicates, something changed in his thinking in the next two months, and invading Iraq became a concrete strategy in his mind. Rhodes thinks that a major reason for this shift in his thinking may have been the anthrax attacks which followed 9/11. It seems that these attacks really rammed the threat of terrorism home; at one point alarms even went off in the White House and Dick Cheney suspected that he himself may have been contaminated. Nonetheless, as is well-known now, Bush and his associates decided to invade Iraq fueled by the tried and tested strategy of threat-inflation and on evidence that was dubious at best. Rhodes clearly establishes the prevarications of the administration’s claims about WMDs in Iraq, based on discredited reports about uranium shipments from Niger to Saddam (reports discredited even by the CIA) as well as Chinese imports of supposed aluminum tubes for centrifuges, which turned out to be parts for short-range rockets. At best Iraq was years behind the difficult goal of building a nuclear weapon, a goal which would have needed extensive operations of enrichment and processing which would most likely have been detected. No matter how you cut it, there was no concrete justification for invading Iraq except one based on ideology and belief. Bush also seriously damaged arms reduction efforts by withdrawing from the ABM treaty, by his belligerent rhetoric against North Korea (which withdrew from the NPT and tested a nuclear weapon in 2006) and Iran, by lifting sanctions on Pakistan (a particularly recalcitrant and prolific proliferator) and by agreeing to supply India (which had not signed the NPT) with nuclear-related equipment. And yet in the midst of this tragedy it is easy to miss Bush’s one success in arms control in which he signed major arms reductions with Russia; these reductions brought down the number of warheads on US delivery vehicles from about 10,000 at the end of the Cold War to about 2600.

This brings us to the final, eloquent part of Rhodes’s book where he talks about the possible abolishment of nuclear weapons. He describes the very serious problem of nuclear terrorism; in his view, while it may be very difficult for terrorists to use a sophisticated nuclear weapon, it may be much easier for them to acquire enough material for a crude explosive. Even state-owned nuclear weapons are susceptible to accident, miscalculation and misunderstanding. The bottom line is that as long as nuclear weapons are around, there is always a possibility that they may be used. The only, truly final solution for reducing the threat of nuclear weapons is to get rid of them. How do we achieve this? I would have appreciated more detail from Rhodes in this regard, but he describes promising developments. For one thing, simple laws of physics dictate that without nuclear material one cannot make nuclear weapons. So securing nuclear material is key and the Nunn-Lugar initiative has set a worthy bipartisan example for achieving this goal. Many recent initiatives to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons have also been refreshingly bipartisan. Efforts to ban nuclear testing have already been fine-honed for decades, and getting all nations on board the CTBT would mean a lot; in this context Rhodes singles out Australian diplomat Richard Butler and his Canberra Commission for special praise. The fact is that, in spite of nuclear proliferation, there have been hundreds of nations which have found it prudent not to develop nuclear weapons for various reasons (not the least of which is their expense; according to Rhodes it costs the US 50 billion dollars just to maintain its current stockpile of weapons), so there is hope.

In the end though, only political will, strong leadership and international cooperation can rid the world of these terrible weapons. At some point, owning a nuclear weapon needs to become a crime. It is absolutely necessary to stop regarding these weapons as partisan, parochial concerns which can be leveraged to score political points in elections. To underscore this point, Rhodes recounts a fascinating idea put forth by the Scottish writer Gil Elliot in his book “Twentieth Century Book of the Dead”. Elliot talks about the international efforts to prevent and cure infectious disease and believes that war should similarly be treated as an international anathema that is to be abolished. Efforts to eradicate disease through public health campaigns crossed boundaries and saw even countries who were otherwise very hostile towards each other mutually cooperating. This was because disease was not seen as some other country’s problem but as a common threat. Because of their sheer destructive power, nuclear weapons similarly pose a common threat to all of humanity. Rhodes says that only when nuclear weapons are similarly and completely depoliticized to the extent that infectious diseases are, only when the world sees them not as instruments of aggression and patriotism owned by specific nations but as a common scourge that threatens all of humanity irrespective of our political leanings and differences, only then will we all work together to abolish them.

Shattering the nuclear sword

August 15, 2010

“Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”- John F. Kennedy, speech to the UN, September 1961.

“Countdown to Zero” is one of the best accounts of the dangers of nuclear weapons for the layman that I have recently seen. The film which opened last week takes a comprehensive yet succinct look at the risks posed by nuclear weapons, and is set against the backdrop of John F. Kennedy’s speech to the United Nations in which he quoted the words cited above. JFK talked about a “Sword of Damocles” hanging on our head that is secured by a flimsy thread. As the film emphasizes, the most important operative words in Kennedy’s speech are “accident, miscalculation or madness” which can all cut the thread holding the sword. To illustrate how this could happen, the film showcases interviews with leading arms control experts and policy personnel, including former CIA agent Valerie Plame, Harvard professor Matthew Bunn, nuclear terrorism expert Graham Allison, WMD expert Joseph Cirincione and world leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev and Tony Blair.

The fact is that no matter how responsible the leaders of countries with nuclear weapons may be and how well-protected the weapons may seem, the extremely complex nature of the system always increases the chances of miscalculation, accident or madness. The film gives concerning examples. For instance, a few years ago, nuclear weapons instead of regular ones were loaded on a plane in North Dakota and flown almost halfway around the country without anyone noticing it. The Cuban Missile Crisis is of course well-known, lesser known are the Palomares incident and half a dozen others when nuclear weapons were accidentally dropped from mid air. Fortunately none detonated. But the danger is pervasive and the film also recounts some chilling events. The most heart-stopping is an incident in 1995 recounted by Cirincione, when the Russians mistook the flight of an experimental rocket from Norway for a nuclear launch. The codes were ready, everyone in the Russian hierarchy was convinced, and all that remained to launch a nuclear strike against the US was President Yeltsin’s approval. Thankfully for the world, Yeltsin was “not drunk” and he did not trust the officials’ judgment enough, leading to a narrow brush with catastrophe. The problem is that the complex protocols embedded in the use of nuclear weapons allow much opportunity for misunderstandings and accidents and very little time for response and corrective action. Even a President would have typically no more than a few minutes to make a decision, thus increasing the possibility of triggering armageddon. The simplest and most ludicrous of causes can set off false alarms; in one case, the setting off of a nuclear alert was the result of a malfunction in a single computer chip costing less than a dollar.

One of the most jaw-dropping instances I remember was from Richard Rhodes’s book. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, was woken up in the middle of the night and told that there were 1500 Soviet nuclear missiles headed for the US. As Brzezinski was contemplating what to do next, the caller called back and said that the number of missiles had been upgraded to 15000. Hearing this, Brzezinski just sat on his bed; there would be no point in alerting anyone. Of course, it turned out to be “computer malfunction”.

Apart from such misunderstandings, the other reason why nuclear weapons pose such a great danger is of course because they may fall into the hands of terrorists, and deterrence does not apply to such stateless actors. Al Qaeda has been trying to get their hands on nukes for years. What makes the situation worse is the relatively easy accessibility of enriched uranium in the former Soviet Union. After the Cold War ended, many nuclear facilities in the former Soviet republics found themselves orphaned, severed from central control, with their workers out of a job. While many of the facilities were later secured with US cooperation, many others were ludicrously insecure, with barely a padlock preventing access to nuclear material; in the words of a former Soviet official, “potatoes were guarded better”. Selling a few grams of uranium to potential buyers would allow impecunious laid-off workers from these facilities to make a lucrative buck. The film documents that there have been literally dozens of instances when former nuclear workers have been caught trying to smuggle a few grams of nuclear material across borders in Russia and Central Asia. In addition, countries like Iran, North Korea and Pakistan are happy to trade nuclear-related technology to wannabe buyers.

This nuclear material is notoriously hard to detect. As the film says, smuggling a few kilograms of enriched uranium by shielding it in a lead pipe is child’s play. This is mainly because the relatively weak radiation from uranium can be almost completely shielded by lead, but also because this uranium could be hidden in any one of a whopping 100,000 shipping containers entering the US every single day. Finding a few kilos of U-235 in a heavily shielded lead casing in one of these countless containers is an unimaginably difficult problem to solve. Set the detectors on high and one would not detect the low-intensity radiation. Set it on low and one would detect almost everything else (including fruits, papers and wood) which emit comparable ambient levels of radiation.

If terrorists manage to get past the most difficult step of acquiring nuclear material, they can easily build a crude nuclear bomb. Plus, paraphrasing Churchill, terrorists don’t have to do their best, they just have to do enough. Exploding a crude bomb in the port itself would not be what they have in mind, but it would still be enough to bring about chaos and panic, possibly collapsing the financial and economic system of a country.

So what can be done to address this life-threatening problem? One of the biggest truisms about nuclear weapons which separates them from other WMDs is that if you don’t have uranium or plutonium, you cannot build these weapons, period. Thus in theory, you completely solve the problem if you secure the material. Programs for securing material from the former Soviet republics have been instituted for years, but funding has embarrassingly been a problem. Plus there is no accurate estimate of how much material may have been stolen after the Soviet Union collapses. Securing this material would be the first thing to do. Secondly, countries who want to peacefully pursue atomic energy must be provided nuclear material by an international body under the strictest of safeguards.

But most importantly, there is one almost perfect solution which there is no getting around: reduce the nuclear arsenals of the world to zero. Nada. Zilch. There is no doubt that the US and Russia which still stock the lion’s share of nukes should take the lead, a point which has been belabored often to scant effect. This should especially be ludicrously easy for the US which still has thousands of nukes on hair-trigger alert and which has conventional forces that could easily overwhelm any other country’s defenses and offenses. If there is one country that does not need any nuclear weapons, it’s the US, followed by Russia. The psychological impact of the US renouncing every single nuclear weapon would be hard to overestimate (Nixon did it with chemical and biological weapons in the 70s). It would be tremendous and would offer the US an unprecedented moral authority to ask others to do the same. While it may not be easy for countries like India and Israel which share extensive boundaries with unstable and dangerous regimes, such an act will signify huge potential. This was a dream that President Reagan often talked about. As idealistic as it sounds, it should be feasible at least for the US. Most refreshingly, amid all the partisan bickering that we keep hearing about, such an initiative has gained traction with a wide swathe of influential statesmen from both parties. In a compelling document last year, several former highly influential bipartisan officials like Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn called for the abolishment of nuclear weapons. President Obama has latched on to this dream. It remains to be seen what he actually does about it.

As JFK said in his speech, “the weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us”. In 1986, during the very promising Reykjavik meeting when Reagan and Gorbachev came within a hairsbreadth of getting rid of all nuclear weapons, Reagan told Gorbachev about a dream that seems straight out of a movie. He said that once the world has decided to get rid of all nuclear weapons, he and Gorbachev would meet again in Reykjavik, each holding the last nuclear missile in their hands. They would both be so old that they would hardly recognize each other. Gorbachev would squint at Reagan and say “Ron, is that you”?. And Reagan would say, “Mikhail?”. And then they would both destroy the last two nuclear bombs on the planet, and the whole world would have a giant party.

We will have the champagne ready.


Where’s Edward Teller when you need him?

June 3, 2010

This just caught my eye. I had thought of exactly the same thing a couple of days back:

The chatter began weeks ago as armchair engineers brainstormed for ways to stop the torrent of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico: What about nuking the well?

Decades ago, the Soviet Union reportedly used nuclear blasts to successfully seal off runaway gas wells, inserting a bomb deep underground and letting its fiery heat melt the surrounding rock to shut off the flow. Why not try it here?

The idea has gained fans with each failed attempt to stem the leak and each new setback — on Wednesday, the latest rescue effort stalled when a wire saw being used to slice through the riser pipe got stuck.

“Probably the only thing we can do is create a weapon system and send it down 18,000 feet and detonate it, hopefully encasing the oil,” Matt Simmons, a Houston energy expert and investment banker, told Bloomberg News on Friday, attributing the nuclear idea to “all the best scientists.”

Or as the CNN reporter John Roberts suggested last week, “Drill a hole, drop a nuke in and seal up the well.”

This week, with the failure of the “top kill” attempt, the buzz had grown loud enough that federal officials felt compelled to respond.

Stephanie Mueller, a spokeswoman for the Energy Department, said that neither Energy Secretary Steven Chu nor anyone else was thinking about a nuclear blast under the gulf. The nuclear option was not — and never had been — on the table, federal officials said.

“It’s crazy,” one senior official said.

Government and private nuclear experts agreed that using a nuclear bomb would be not only risky technically, with unknown and possibly disastrous consequences from radiation, but also unwise geopolitically — it would violate arms treaties that the United States has signed and championed over the decades and do so at a time when President Obama is pushing for global nuclear disarmament.

The atomic option is perhaps the wildest among a flood of ideas proposed by bloggers, scientists and other creative types who have deluged government agencies and BP, the company that drilled the well, with phone calls and e-mail messages. The Unified Command overseeing the Deepwater Horizon disaster features a “suggestions” button on its official Web site and more than 7,800 people have already responded, according to the site.

Among the suggestions: lowering giant plastic pillows to the seafloor and filling them with oil, dropping a huge block of concrete to squeeze off the flow and using magnetic clamps to attach pipes that would siphon off the leaking oil.

Some have also suggested conventional explosives, claiming that oil prospectors on land have used such blasts to put out fires and seal boreholes. But oil engineers say that dynamite or other conventional explosives risk destroying the wellhead so that the flow could never be plugged from the top.

Along with the kibbitzers, the government has also brought in experts from around the world — including scores of scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and other government labs — to assist in the effort to cap the well.

In theory, the nuclear option seems attractive because the extreme heat might create a tough seal. An exploding atom bomb generates temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun and, detonated underground, can turn acres of porous rock into a glassy plug, much like a huge stopper in a leaky bottle.

Michael E. Webber, a mechanical engineer at the University of Texas, Austin, wrote to Dot Earth, a New York Times blog, in early May that he had surprised himself by considering what once seemed unthinkable. “Seafloor nuclear detonation,” he wrote, “is starting to sound surprisingly feasible and appropriate.”

Much of the enthusiasm for an atomic approach is based on reports that the Soviet Union succeeded in using nuclear blasts to seal off gas wells. Milo D. Nordyke, in a 2000 technical paper for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., described five Soviet blasts from 1966 to 1981.

All but the last blast were successful. The 1966 explosion put out a gas well fire that had raged uncontrolled for three years. But the last blast of the series, Mr. Nordyke wrote, “did not seal the well,” perhaps because the nuclear engineers had poor geological data on the exact location of the borehole.

Robert S. Norris, author of “Racing for the Bomb” and an atomic historian, noted that all the Soviet blasts were on land and never involved oil.

Whatever the technical merits of using nuclear explosions for constructive purposes, the end of the cold war brought wide agreement among nations to give up the conduct of all nuclear blasts, even for peaceful purposes. The United States, after conducting more than 1,000 nuclear test explosions, detonated the last one in 1992, shaking the ground at the Nevada test site.

In 1996, the United States championed the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, a global accord meant to end the development of new kinds of nuclear arms. President Obama is pushing for new global rules, treaties and alliances that he insists can go much further to produce a nuclear-free world. For his administration to seize on a nuclear solution for the gulf crisis, officials say, would abandon its international agenda and responsibilities and give rogue states an excuse to seek nuclear strides.

Kevin Roark, a spokesman for Los Alamos in New Mexico, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, said that despite rumors to the contrary, none of the laboratory’s thousands of experts was devising nuclear options for the gulf.

“Nothing of the sort is going on here,” he said in an interview. “In fact, we’re not working on any intervention ideas at all. We’re providing diagnostics and other support but nothing on the intervention side.”

A senior Los Alamos scientist, speaking on the condition of anonymity because his comments were unauthorized, ridiculed the idea of using a nuclear blast to solve the crisis in the gulf.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said. “Technically, it would be exploring new ground in the midst of a disaster — and you might make it worse.”

Not everyone on the Internet is calling for nuking the well. Some are making jokes. “What’s worse than an oil spill?” asked a blogger on Full Comment, a blog of The National Post in Toronto. “A radioactive oil spill.”

Obama should be much more like George H W Bush

April 8, 2010

Yes, the comparison would probably make him cringe, but Freeman Dyson makes an interesting and accurate observation in an interview. Obama just signed an encouraging pact with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that would reduce the number of strategic nukes from 2200 to 1550. Yet Dyson reminds us that this is a tiny step compared to the past. He notes that the two presidents most responsible for dramatic arms reductions were both Republican; Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush.

HW especially reduced nuclear weapons stockpiles by a greater percentage than any other president. He was responsible for negotiating the START treaty with the Soviet Union which remains the largest and most complex arms control treaty in history; its final implementation in late 2001 resulted in the removal of about 80 percent of all strategic nuclear weapons then in existence.

As Dyson notes, for all the enthusiasm on the left, Obama is actually doing much less than both Reagan and Bush and needs to do much more to reduce nukes. Maybe, as Dyson wryly says, one needs to be a right wing Republican to get rid of nuclear weapons.

“Dyson: Well he should be doing much more. I mean this is… I like Obama and I like what he is doing, but this is not at all impressive. George Bush, Sr., did far more. I mean George Bush, Sr., got rid more than half of our nuclear weapons just like that. He was the one who really got rid of nuclear weapons on a big scale, but George Bush, Sr., was careful because he was a Republican. He did it very quietly. He didn’t want to have his name associated with that, but he got it done. Of course with Obama it’s sort of the opposite that he would like to get the credit for it, but he is not really doing it, and so it’s, I think he should be doing far more and I hope he will, but he is in a much more difficult position. It helps to be a right-wing Republican if you want to disarm…”

A promising book falls apart

March 16, 2010

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were such horrific and singular historical events that any new retelling of them deserves to be read seriously. It was with such thoughts that I picked up Charles Pellegrino’s “The Last Train From Hiroshima”. The first few pages were enough to glue me to my chair. In an almost poetically clinical manner Mr. Pellegrino describes the effects of the bomb on human beings in the first few seconds after the detonation. His accounts of people evaporating and the “iron in their blood separating” while their friends who were protected in “shock bubbles” that were mere feet away were absolutely riveting.

Yet in spite of this promising start I could not shake off the gnawing feeling that something was wrong. For instance I have read my fair share of atomic history and so I was astonished to not find absolutely any mention of William “Deke” Parsons in the book. Parsons was a physicist and naval captain who played a part in designing the ‘gun type’ Little Boy and was instrumental in arming the Hiroshima bomb on flight. Earlier his hands had almost bled from practicing the arming, which had to occur at a precise given time twenty five thousand feet up in the air on the ‘Enola Gay’. There is a superb account of him in Stephen Walker’s “Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima”. In response to a comment I made on Amazon, Mr. Pellegrino replied that he did not mention Parsons simply because he has already been part of so many accounts, which to me does not seem a good enough reason for the exclusion. Apart from this omission I also noted Mr. Pellegrino’s statement that Stanley Miller and his advisor Harold Urey won a Nobel Prize for their classic experiment pioneering origin of life research. Urey won a Nobel, but for his discovery of deuterium. Miller was nominated for the prize a few times, and in my opinion should have won it.

Alas, the riveting start of the book and the author’s accounts have now virtually fallen apart. In two New York Times articles it has been reported that the most egregious error in the book consists of the story of one Joseph Fuoco who was supposed to be on one of the planes. Mr. Fuoco makes several appearances in the book, and I had found myself scratching my head when I read his accounts, having never heard of him before. The New York Times and other resources discovered that Mr. Fuoco never took part in the bombing missions. Instead the relevant man is one Charles Corliss who has not been mentioned in the book. Astonishingly, Mr. Fuoco seems to have completely duped the author as Mr. Pellegrino himself admitted; he submitted several photographs and letters to Mr. Pellegrino as proof of his role in the mission, including a letter of commendation from President Truman. Clearly Mr. Fuoco proved to be a remarkably facile con man.

But sadly, this and many other errors have cast serious doubt on the validity of the book. This is a pity since Mr. Pellegrino is an interesting writer who has written books on diverse topics ranging from Jesus’s tomb to Atlantis . As of now the publisher (Henry Holt) has a blurb on the Amazon page saying that further printing and shipping of the book has been halted (which makes me cherish my first printing copy). Even Mr. Pellegrino’s PhD. from Victoria University in New Zealand is being questioned. As usual, an otherwise fine author seems to have sullied his name by sloppy writing on an important topic.

A sane Republican

February 28, 2010

“I have been to enough college campuses to know if you are 30 or younger this climate issue is not a debate. It’s a value. These young people grew up with recycling and a sensitivity to the environment — and the world will be better off for it. They are not brainwashed. … From a Republican point of view, we should buy into it and embrace it and not belittle them. You can have a genuine debate about the science of climate change, but when you say that those who believe it are buying a hoax and are wacky people you are putting at risk your party’s future with younger people. You can have a legitimate dispute about how to solve immigration, but when you start focusing on the last names of people the demographics will pass you by.”

– Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina

Book reviews: A hawk, a dove and the missile man of America

January 23, 2010

Two books on the Cold War

1. The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War – Nicholas Thompson

In this book, Nicholas Thompson provides a fascinating account of the life, times and work of probably the two most important American diplomats of the Cold War. George Kennan and Paul Nitze were starkly opposite in many respects, yet both provided immensely important direction to American geopolitics through their advice to many Presidents and shaped the Cold War more than any other two American policy makers.

Of the two Kennan is the more famous and is regarded by many as the most important American diplomat of the twentieth century (he passed away in 2005 at the ripe age of 101 and was known for the resplendent prose in his many books which I could strongly recommend). Kennan is mainly known for a famous 1946 telegram that he sent from the Soviet Union. At this time Americans were still trying to understand the looming Soviet menace and Kennan was probably the most knowledgeable Soviet expert in the country. He rightly understood Stalin’s bluster and sent a telegram describing the intentions and nature of the Soviet state. The telegram instantly catapulted him to recognition and set in place the official policy of “containment” which Kennan’s name became synonymous with. In the telegram Kennan indicated that the Soviets would respond to only strength and not reconciliation and weakness. In his book on the hydrogen bomb, Richard Rhodes says that it was this telegram along with Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech and Stalin’s rousing speech in Moscow that inaugurated the Cold War.

However Kennan did not advocate necessarily employing military strength. This was advocated by Paul Nitze, a man who may not be as famous as Kennan but who was no less important. Nitze is regarded by many as the “father of threat inflation”. As a measure of his influence as a hawk, it suffices to realize that many of the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration were either Nitze acolytes or acolytes of Nitze’s proteges. Just like Kennan Nitze also became famous for a secret 1950 document called NSC-68 that advocated the use of preemptive force against the Soviets and exaggerated their military might. This was a pattern that Nitze and his growing band of followers (among them in various ways were Albert Wohlstetter, Richard Pipes, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld) would consistently pursue; whenever they thought that liberals were trying to be too reconciliatory toward the Soviet Union, they would prepare documents and advocate polices exaggerating Soviet military potential and intentions. Their policies frequently worked and became especially influential during the Reagan administration (formerly they did a good job of portraying Carter as being weak on the Soviets). To some extent they were responsible for the dangerous arms race between the two nations.

Needless to say, such hawkish views radically differed from those of Kennan the dove whose more measured opinions fell somewhat out of favor in later years. Yet the book does an outstanding job of showing that the agendas of both men were more subtle and complicated. Occasionally when it was necessary Nitze would take a softer approach, and during the later Reagan years he joined the President in pressing for open disarmament and reconciliation when many of his followers continued to take a hard line. In his later life Nitze mellowed down, and in 1999 went so far as to write a New York Times op-ed recommending unilateral nuclear disarmament for the US. Although Nitze rightly perceived the work that he had done to be very important in dictating Cold War policy, it is tragic that unlike him, others did not have the sense to see the shortcomings and detrimental effects of these policies in a post Cold War world (Nitze and the accompanying rise of the neo-cons are very well-documented in J. Peter Scoblic’s
“Us vs Them: How a Half-Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America’s Security”).

With such differing perspectives one would think that Nitze and Kennan would have been mortal enemies. But remarkably, through several decades of acute differences and disagreements, the two men remained close personal friends. As Thompson who is Nitze’s grandson shows, it is a mark of the character of both men that they managed to rise above their political differences no matter how severe these were. Thompson shows in this highly readable volume, the tremendous impact on US foreign policy that the work of Nitze and Kennan had. He bring both of them to life and sensitively and wisely dissects their personalities, thoughts and lives. Very strongly recommended for foreign policy/Cold War enthusiasts.

2. A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon- Neil Sheehan

Neil Sheehan apparently spent 15 years writing this account of a little known Air Force General, Bernard Schriever, and the time he spent on the man shows in this comprehensive account. He has performed a very valuable service in bringing this rather obscure character to life and driving home the importance of his accomplishments. Schriever was one of the individuals most responsible for jump starting the US’s missile program, especially shepherding the development of the ICBM. Sheehan does a great job bringing to life all the characters that Schriever was associated with, from his mentors in flight school (including General “Hap” Arnold) to his bete noir, the notorious Curtis LeMay, to his contact with brilliant scientists John von Neumann and Edward Teller whose contributions were critical for America’s missile and atomic bomb programs.

Sheehan provides ample background and little known tidbits of Schriever’s life and times. For instance I was not aware that the US Air Force was a rather inefficient backwater organization till the mid-1930s, easily outclassed by its European counterparts. Apparently at one point, pilots were asked to deliver the mail in the wake of a post office scandal. Their inexperience in flying and the loss of life that resulted galvanized FDR and others to issue directives for a modern Air Force that would become among the best in the world.

The main problem I have is that while Sheehan’s digressions (for instance on the atomic bomb project and Soviet espionage) are fascinating and reflect the most up-to-date information, they are too many and too frequent. An editor who could have shaved off a few pages and encouraged a tighter narrative would have definitely helped. The digressions draw your attention from direct information about General Schriever. To be fair the book is not supposed to be just about him, but a little less meandering would have been a boon.

In spite of this deficiency, the book will be fascinating for Cold War enthusiasts who want to know about the development of the US Air Force and its atomic and missile arsenals during the early Cold War. There is also a fair amount of technical detail about missiles explained in relatively plain and accurate language. After JFK came to power Schriever’s influence waned and the latter part of the book is not as interesting. Nevertheless, Sheehan has done a valuable and outstanding job in bringing a little known individual to life and telling us about his enormous contributions during a critical period of American history.

Particle or nuclear?

January 13, 2010

This is interesting. A Tehran University physics professor has been killed by a bomb planted outside his home. There is speculation whether this could be the work of outsiders, especially from Israel or the US.

To me the accusation that this was an Israeli operation seems anything but far fetched. After all there has been ample talk of the Israelis bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities the way they did with Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1980. But any such action would likely cause immense international outrage and political problems for Israel, not to mention added Arab animosity. Thus from their perspective the next best option would be to do something like this, assassinate someone who was playing a key role in the nuclear program with the hope that it would at least slow down Iran’s plans and intimidate them.

The trouble is that until now the specialty and role of the assassinated professor is not known. As the NYT reports,

There was some dispute about his field of scientific specialization.

The English-language Press TV said he taught neutron physics at Tehran University, although it was not clear whether he was part of Iran’s contentious nuclear enrichment program.

The broadcaster called the professor a ?staunch supporter of the Islamic Revolution? of 1979 that overthrew the Shah and initiated three decades of theocratic rule.

But two Iranian academics, who spoke in return for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said in telephone interviews that he was not a nuclear physicist and had specialized in particle and theoretical physics. The Web site of Tehran University lists him as a professor of elementary particle physics.

Now that’s silly. A professor who teaches neutron physics would likely know a lot about nuclear reactors and bombs; in 1939, the greatest expert in neutron physics in the world was Enrico Fermi, probably the most important physicist working on nuclear energy. Everyone should know that it does not matter much whether the dead professor’s field of specialty is “nuclear” or “theoretical and particle” physics since it is quite easy for a particle physicist to learn nuclear physics and vice versa (even the movies seem to have understood this; in the George Clooney-Nicole Kidman blockbuster “The Peacemaker”, the scientist working for the bad guys is an astrophysics PhD.)

Thus the unfortunate man’s specialty by itself does not at all preclude him from working on the nuclear program. Only time will tell what his exact role was.