Archive for August 2010

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.