Monday, November 08, 2010

New Nuke Narratives Needed

President Obama has proposed including India in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) and related groups that oversee and define trade in dual-use technology – that is, technology that can be used both for civilian nuclear power and for nuclear weapons.

So we have the usual reaction from the usual suspects. The problem is that this reaction comes directly from the 1990s or earlier.

The world is different than it was then. If we’re going to get serious about eliminating nuclear weapons, we have to look at the world we’ve got, not the world we’d like to have.

Four nations decided to be exceptions to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT): India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan. North Korea withdrew from the treaty; the other three never joined. All have nuclear weapons. Every other nation on Earth has signed on, although it was the 1990s before that happened. The only way those four nations could sign on to the treaty would be to give up their nuclear weapons. None has expressed a desire to do that.

The NPT Endgame
Endgames are different from mid-games are different from openings, and so it has been for the NPT. We are now in the endgame. Darryl Kimball and others in the arms control community are still playing mid-game.

President Bush recognized that we were in an endgame situation and changed strategy. Unfortunately, his strategy included the ideas that it’s okay for friends to have nukes and that treaties don’t matter. So he straightforwardly went ahead and gave India pretty much what it wanted in terms of nuclear trade without asking for much in return. And he strongarmed the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group into approving the deal. All bad messages to send on nonproliferation.

Endgame is to bring the four exceptions into a regime of inspections of nuclear facilities and control of nuclear material like what the rest of the world is subject to under the NPT. If Bush had approached the issue from that viewpoint, the results would have been more positive. But the agreement is in place, if somewhat hampered by internal Indian politics. The agreement includes some international inspection and control, although not as much as would be desirable. The NSG has already been bent, probably not broken, so the question is now whether India, as a part of international nuclear trade, is to be inside or outside that tent.

Generally, it’s better to have outliers where you can watch what they’re doing and perhaps even jawbone them. So including India in the various regimes as a pseudo-NPT nuclear weapon state now makes a certain amount of sense. The next steps should to bring India under the same restrictions as NPT nuclear weapon states.

Israel and Pakistan have said they’d like deals like India’s. Good. But let’s negotiate those deals toward nonproliferation goals as well as trade.

The arms control community took a hard stance against opening nuclear trade with India. Kimball’s blog post continues that hard stance, even after it lost badly during the Bush administration. It’s time for a change.

Israel’s Nuclear Ambiguity
Israel presents a special problem. The governments of Israel and the United States will not admit that Israel has nuclear weapons, although that status is clear to the entire world. Early in the NPT game, the ambiguity was genuine and probably more positive than negative because of Soviet support of the Arab nations, facing off US support of Israel in the region.

But, again, we’re a long way from then. We all know that Israel has nuclear weapons, probably between 100 and 200, built at the Dimona nuclear complex. Avner Cohen argues in a new book, The Worst-Kept Secret, that maintaining that secret damages Israel’s place in the world. Offering Israel a deal like India’s without acknowledging its nuclear weapon status would damage the nonproliferation regime even more than the deal with India or India’s getting a seat on the NSG. Israel’s nuclear ambiguity interferes with considerations of the strategic situation in the Middle East, particularly Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It’s time for a change in this narrative, too.

Nuclear Fear for Fun and Profit
Julian Borger reports some details on a recent nuclear material smuggling case. The amount of 89.4% enriched uranium involved was 18 grams. For Wikipedia’s critical mass for a sphere of U-235 (52 kilograms) 2,889 buys of this size would be necessary if the uranium for sale were pure U-235. In other words, what was traded in this sting was far from enough for a bomb.
What is not clear is how much nuclear material is in circulation and whether any has already been bought by extremist groups.
Indeed. It is entirely possible that the 18 grams was all these two fellows could put their hands on, motivated by the requests of the government agents posing as buyers. It is also possible that none has already been bought by extremist groups.
Altogether, there have been 21 seizures or attempted thefts of weapons grade material, uranium or plutonium, in the region since the Soviet Union collapsed.
Not nearly enough for a bomb; and most (all?) of those have involved government stings.

The Guardian gives Matthew Bunn of Harvard's Belfer Center a full article to expand on fantasies of nuclear terrorism.
The dark netherworlds of nuclear smuggling still pose a terrible danger to us all.
Bunn and his colleagues have never shown anything more terrible than those 21 seizures. They haven’t shown that terrorist groups are doing more than playing at nuclear designer, or that they have acquired nuclear material. He says that al-Qaeda was conducting explosive tests in Afghanistan, but he doesn’t say what kind of explosive tests, implying that they were serious design tests, but, given the “designs” found in Afghanistan, this seems unlikely. Nor does he give us a date for those tests, which must have been before 2001.

You can see and hear Bunn and colleagues repeating stuff like this in the movie “Countdown to Zero,” along with others making the point that maybe, possibly, terrorists might be able to make a nuclear bomb. The purpose of “Countdown to Zero” was ostensibly to build popular support for ratification of the New START treaty. But it looks like not many people saw it, and those that did were probably already convinced. Maybe fear doesn’t sell as well as some thought.

New START deserves support because it keeps us and the Russians aware of the status of our nuclear arsenals. It also helps control nuclear materials, although other treaties will address that more directly. New START moves toward the kinds of verification we will need for smaller nuclear arsenals, and it lays the groundwork for bringing in the other nuclear weapons states into arms reduction negotiations. Those are all good reasons for supporting it.

It’s been nineteen years since the Soviet Union collapsed. Things are better there now for workers at the nuclear plants. The chances of their collusion in stealing nuclear material for profit are going down, and their collusion would be necessary to make that material available on the black market.

The scare scenario, of nasty men getting nuclear materials and making a bomb in a garage, isn’t credible. If there were large quantities of nuclear material getting out of Russia, we would have seen something happen. It’s not easy to build a nuclear bomb.

We’ve got too much fear in national politics now. I’ve suggested some directions for a new narrative. Somehow I doubt that the Belfer Center will be able to change theirs.


J. said...

"The world is different than it was then. If we’re going to get serious about eliminating nuclear weapons, we have to look at the world we’ve got, not the world we’d like to have."

What a "progressive" thought. Seriously, this is a great post, I have never thought of nonproliferation activities in terms of beginning, mid-game and end-game. That's a great analogy.

Yes, fear doesn't sell, on either side.

Arnold Bogis said...

The type of explosion test he referred to were implosion tests. The type that will uniformly compress a mass of solid material.

Just a guess, but "Countdown to Zero" probably had greater ambitions than just promoting the New Start treaty. Perhaps it was the global zero idea...if not as successful, similar to the idea that Gore's documentary was not only aimed at passing a cap-and-trade bill.

"If there were large quantities of nuclear material getting out of Russia, we would have seen something happen. It’s not easy to build a nuclear bomb." No, it is not easy to build a nuclear bomb. But why is something conceptually accepted prior to the Manhattan Project and not tested until Hiroshima impossible for terrorists (if they have the necessary material)? And what information/ground truth do you have that assures you that large quantities of nuclear material are not indeed available? What seizure of material (yes, to this point too small to make one bomb) has been reported missing in the first place?

I would be very interested in your detailed counter arguments to the points I make here:

Arnold Bogis said...

Going back over the Bunn's material, it seems that the explosive comment comes via Tenet's book. So I think I may have been too quick to claim an implosion test instead of a gun-type-related experiment. Just to be intellectually honest (I was so sure before checking...).

But I do stand by the rest of my comments.

Arnold Bogis said...

Since I was certain I had read the implosion reference somewhere, David Albright came through for me:

While I cannot speak for what Mr. Bunn was referring to, according to Albright Al Qaeda did work on implosion explosive tests.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Arnold, your hanging on to the nuclear terrorist argument is exactly what I anticipated in the last sentence of my post.

The biggest problem with your (and other Belfer Center) arguments is that they depend on the Cheney "One Percent Doctrine." No proof that loose fissile material is available in amounts to build bombs. No proof that al-Qaeda in 2001 had any idea of how to build one. (I'll get to the Albright quote.) And ignoring the large amounts of evidence that such a thing is highly unlikely.

What you've got is the idea that a terrorist setting off a nuke in Manhattan would be terrible. I can't disagree with that, but, as one of your commenters said, "The practical problem seems to be not a simple debate over whether we should or shouldn’t consider the threat of nuclear terror, but the more complex and nuanced one about how best to deal with that among all the other hazards we face."

Hyping the nuclear terrorist threat builds fear and distorts public perceptions of the real hazards. Terrorists seek biggesst bang for their effort. That's usually ANFO in a truck. Or, now, PETN on an airplane. And they don't even do the latter particularly well, an argument that they don't have the technical expertise to build a nuclear bomb.

The Albright quote is "A senior al Qaeda operative told the CIA that Abdel al-Masri conducted experiments with explosives to test the effects of producing a nuclear yield. These experiments were likely rudimentary ones in using high explosives to implode an object." So the idea that they were implosion tests is Albright's, derived from a CIA transcript or something someone in the CIA told him. It's not an unreasonable surmise, but hardly proof. The preceding matter in Albright's article supports my statement that written material found in Afghanistan shows a serious lack of bomb design knowledge.

So the explosive tests could have been anything, including a showy bang to impress followers. You've jumped from Albright's "were likely" to your "according to Albright Al Qaeda did work on implosion explosive tests," as too much of the nuclear terrorism argument too often does.

And that was 2001. Almost ten years ago. Sweden was working more competently on nuclear weapons in the 1960s. Should we fear them? What is the criterion?

Your post makes some points that may be worth debating, but this comments thread is not the place for that. I challenge your contention that not enough attention is being placed on nuclear terrorism. Matthew Bunn has a full "fear this" article in the Guardian. I didn't see a rebuttal there.

There's no reason for me to make "detailed counter arguments" to your post. You have hypothesized a number of things. Now you need to show that they are possible or probable before they are worth refuting.

When you've got some data that shows there is a real threat, let me know, and we can debate that.

Schenck said...

"If Bush had approached the issue from that viewpoint, the results would have been more positive. "
Why? Who even cares if India undergoes inspections? Is India going to sell nukes to bin Laden? Besides, any agreement with India has to occur with Pakistan, India won't give in to inspection if Pakistan doesn't have the same inspections, and Pakistan would never agree to inspections without getting things to advance their nuclear tech, and its the Pakistani nuclear tech that does out to the black market. Any nation that would conceivably allow inspections probably isn't a nation that needs them. So what difference does it make, respectfully, if things had gone so differently?

" The next steps should to bring India under the same restrictions as NPT nuclear weapon states. "
Of course this should be the goal, but is there REALLY much of concern that India will create worldwide nuclear instability? I mean, maybe I can see them selling nuke tech and material to states in Africa and South America, so of course we want to get them to agree to prevent that. Maybe now that we've agreed to help them with their nuke tech, they'll agree to not proliferate. Bush's move was bold, and the Indians probably would've never agreed to restrict their right to potentially sell, but they'll probably agree not to sell in many specific instances.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Once again, it's not an all-or-nothing issue of whether India is going to "create worldwide nuclear instability," but rather the more nuanced question of how to bring India into the same relationship to nuclear inspections as most of the rest of the world is subject to.

The reason for treaties and international agreements is that nations' perceptions of their interests change, not always for the better. International agreements are a means of pressure toward a desired goal. We shift India a bit closer to international norms, and that exerts pressure on Pakistan to come along. So - "would never agree"? That's the same sort of hypothetical absolute that Arnold presents, although on a different subject. And there are more of those in Schenk's comment.

We're not frozen into a present of a benign India and a recalcitrant Pakistan. (One might argue the accuracy of those characterizations, too.) The world is a shifting mixture of interests. We need to bend those interests as far as possible toward peace.

Schenck said...

I don't mean to say that its 'all good' or 'total chaos' or that India can't be anything other than benign in relation to the US, just that, realistically, India is pretty well aligned with us, we're not likely to go to war with india, and its only likely to go to war with our enemies. I just don't know if the nuclear agreement was an overall bad move on the part of the Bush administration, or really that its so bad that we allow allies to have nukes and enemies not to. We can't really persuade our enemies to not have nukes, so why not boost our allies? Besides, India already has nukes, and the NPT was all about giving civilian nuclear power to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. So really, why shouldn't the US and India cooperate now? Our interests, in terms of peace and spread of nuclear weapons are aligned, if anything India has more of an interest, or less to gain, from war in Asia, and certainly less to gain from nuclear proliferation than us too, no? Seems like the civilian nuclear deal was the right way to go.

Rod Adams said...

Arnold Bogis wrote:

"No, it is not easy to build a nuclear bomb. But why is something conceptually accepted prior to the Manhattan Project and not tested until Hiroshima impossible for terrorists (if they have the necessary material)?"

Have you ever read any of the excellent histories of the Manhattan Project and realized just how many incredibly technically skilled, well educated, and incredibly gifted people were involved in the effort that took four years with access to resources of the most wealthy nation on earth?

Do you really think that a group of terrorists has access to even one Nobel prize caliber scientist or the engineering resources of a single multinational corporation?

Even with all of the skill and experience applied to the Manhattan Project, even though material was available, and even though they did extensive laboratory testing, the best the team could do was a bomb that strained the lifting capacity of the largest bomber in the US fleet.

Manufacturing a compact nuclear bomb that can be transported and placed inside a city is more than just difficult. It is so close to impossible for any organization less than a nation that it is not a concern worth losing any sleep over.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights

Arnold Bogis said...

Mr. Adams,

If you have read those same histories, you will realize that the concept for a gun-type design for a weapon was already understood before the Manhattan Project got underway. What was difficult (and cost most of the money) was making fissile material. It was soon understood that Pu was easier to make than HEU, but a bomb with HEU was much easier to make than one with Pu. Those great minds were involved with a lot of implosion-centered research (required for Pu but not necessarily for HEU).

The ideas about the design of either weapon are not secret. Detailed engineering specifics are. But never mind the fact that the Hiroshima bomb was never tested (because they assumed it would work once they were in possession of enough HEU), you can add the fact that the implosion bomb design provided to Libya is considered by the IAEA to exist in remnants of the AQ Khan network. Does that make you feel secure? Not me.

Ms. Rofer, you look at the seizure and say not enough for a bomb, no problem. But you don't address the fact that it was never reported missing. I'm not saying that the seizure suggests there is absolutely enough for a bomb in circulation. But I am suggesting that it is a reason to be concerned about what we do not know. A few stings and surreptitious seizures don't prove the positive, but they also in no way prove the negative.

A couple of smaller points:

--an implosion test would not impress anyone except people who realize what exact operation it is intended for. Symmetrical implosion of a solid is useful in a small number of things, and what might be so impressive about it to recruits who do not understand that fact?

--When you hypothesize more than a negative based on data that proves that it just hasn't happened yet or that it is hard, that would be a worthy debate. You have yet to present an argument that it is impossible or so hard that it is not worthy of any concern. Instead you focus on that it is hard and nothing proves that it is likely.

In other words, are you willing to say let's not bother securing nuclear material? Including weapons-usable material in research reactors? If it is too hard for terrorists to make a bomb, why even bother? Correct?

Cheryl Rofer said...

Arnold, you're missing some fundamental points of argumentation. If you want to posit that something is likely to happen (terrorists get a nuke), you have to show that it there are paths to it, and that the paths are likely.

You keep getting it backward: you say oh, something terrible might happen: prove to me it can't. You have to present an argument, based on fact, that that something is possible, probable, or likely. There are many things that might happen, and not all are worth spending a lot of time on. I am arguing that nuclear terrorism is a concern, but only one of many, and others have a higher probability. Adding in fear, as Matthew Bunn does in that article I linked, and as you do relative to the unknowns, doesn't make for a rational discussion.

It's you who are hypothesizing, not me. It's not up to me to prove that something can't happen, just that nuclear terrorism is not equivalent in probablity to getting hit by a bus as something New Yorkers have to fear.

I'm merely pointing out, for example, that the only people who have been found to be trafficking in nuclear materials are the ones trying to sell tiny bits of it to government sting agents. You haven't addressed that little hole in your hypothesis. Show me some buyers, and you might start to have an argument that there is a danger in nuclear trafficking.

Your fears about the unknown are insufficient to justify public policy. That was the approach of the Cheney One Percent Doctrine, which I suppose some still espouse, but the end of which is all security, no freedom, and no end to expenditures.

I suggest that you get a bit more disciplined in your argumentation. Marshall facts to support your assertions. Don't go beyond the evidence you've got. Don't misrepresent the people you're arguing with.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Okay. One last comment to go back to my original point, which was that your narrative determines how you understand things.

I don't know Arnold's narrative, but it has to do with nuclear terrorism as a very large threat and a response of fear to it. I'll use one of his paragraphs to show how narrative can distort. Here's the paragraph:

--an implosion test would not impress anyone except people who realize what exact operation it is intended for. Symmetrical implosion of a solid is useful in a small number of things, and what might be so impressive about it to recruits who do not understand that fact?

Because Arnold hasn't disclosed his narrative, I'll have to simply pull out a number of erroneous assumptions embedded in this paragraph. They most likely got there from Arnold's narrative.

a) Assumption: The al-Qaeda explosive tests in Afghanistan in 2001 and before were implosion tests. Response: I've shown upthread that Arnold's source on this, David Albright, surmised that this was a possibility.

b) Assumption: The only impressive thing about an explosive test would be working toward implosion. Response: The BOOM can be quite impressive. It's possible that it was only the BOOM that was used to impress, or that it was the BOOM plus some justification, or perhaps the al-Qaeda recruits were as intellectual as Arnold and were indeed impressed by the detailed physics.

c) Assumption: The al-Qaeda recruits think like Arnold. Response: Probably one of the most dangerous assumptions one can make in analyzing an adversary.

d) Assumption: The people designing the explosions had some idea of implosion. Response: As I showed upthread, the Albright link suggests otherwise.

The rest of Arnold's arguments are shot through with assumptions just as bad as these. Arnold has a blog of his own. I will wait to see if he can post a credible scenario that also incorporates the facts that are available.

Until then, I'm closing down the comments on this post.