Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, May 15, 2006

"Nuclear Context for negotiations with Iran," May 15, 2006.

Public discussion about nuclear weapons has been jammed with news about high-profile moves regarding Iran's nuclear program. The Security Council is deadlocked in its efforts to draft a resolution establishing sanctions. Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has written an 18 page letter to George Bush which the President and his appointees have decided to ignore.

Chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, Thomas Fingar, said on April 14 that the 16 intelligence agencies in the US still believe Iran is several years away from being able to produce enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon. Iran's announcement that it has mastered the ability to enrich uranium for a civilian nuclear reactor hasn't changed their minds. And the European Union has launched a new set of negotiations with Iran to resolve the crisis.

Meanwhile, the rich literature of study and debate about nuclear weapons has been growing around a number of important issues that may be related--but only tangentially--to Iran.

For example, Brazil has opened a new uranium enrichment facility to do exactly what the Iranians want to do--produce enriched uranium. Debate about the controversial India-US nuclear deal continues to heat up. A new study looks at China's nuclear stockpile.

[Freedom of Information requests have revealed new information about Nixon's response to Israel's nuclear program during the original negotiations leading to the Nonproliferation Treaty.] Serious doubts that the US is disarming as it obliged to do under the Nonproliferation Treaty come from two different sources: a study of FY2007 budget requests for nuclear weapons and a technical press briefing by the Arms Control Association on the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead.

It's been a busy month. Any one of these stories could easily be the focus of several whole Monday morning reports. Today, we consider the highlights.

Although Brazil's new uranium enrichment facility in Resende makes the same type of fuel that Iran wants to make, the United States has voiced no objections to Brazil's program. What makes Brazil different?

The Brazilian Constitution bans the military use of nuclear energy and Brazil already has a civilian program. The new facility is intended to make Brazil independent of enriched uranium imports that now cost the country US$16 million annually. By 2015, Resende is expected to supply 100 percent of Brazil's enriched uranium.

Today, Brazilian uranium is transported to Canada for conversion into hexafluoride gas, and then to the United Kingdom for enrichment before it returns to Brazil for fabrication into fuel elements. (ENS May 8 06)

The minister responsible, Sergio Rezende said that in time Brazil may even become a uranium exporter. He noted that in order to sell enriched uranium on the international market, it would be necessary to invest in technology, to raise production, and to alter the Constitution, which prohibits uranium exports (ENS May 8 06). That might be a good time to change the constitutional ban on the military use of nuclear technology too, but no one seems worried about it.

Approval of the US-India nuclear deal is the intent of legislation introduced on March 16 by the chairmen and ranking Democrats of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House International Relations Committee at the request of the Administration. Introduction of the bill doesn't mean the committee members endorse the bill. The legislation would waive sections of the Atomic Energy Act to make way for cooperation with India. Although the deal is far from done, the legislation tries to make it hard to refuse. It also introduces a procedure requiring a two-thirds vote in Congress to block the agreement.

In an article for Japan Focus, Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad points out that important voices in Pakistan such as ex-foreign minister Abdus Sattar have already started to demand that Pakistan match India bomb-for-bomb.

Hoodbhoy reasons that the US-India deal will produce an accelerating nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan. He believes that "A fissile-material cutoff is the easiest and most straightforward way to ease nuclear tensions."

But he also fears that the US-India nuclear deal quote "may destabilize South Asia.... wreck the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, take the heat off Iran and North Korea, open the door for Japan to convert its plutonium stocks into bombs, and bring about global nuclear anarchy" (Hoodbhoy ). endquote

According to an article in the May/June issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Chinese nuclear stockpile appears to be only half as big as previously thought. As many as 130 warheads may be deployed out of a total stockpile of some 200 warheads. Those figures put China alongside Britain as the smallest of the original five declared nuclear weapons states.

A California NGO called Tri-Valley CARE has released its analysis of the Bush Administration's Nuclear Weapons budget request for FY 2007. The report finds the budget requests $6.4 billion for Nuclear Weapons Activities -- $38 million more than the 2006 appropriation. The request continues the decade long upsurge in funding for nuclear weapons and is one-third higher than the average annual spending on nuclear weapons during the Cold War, even after accounting for inflation.

Late in April, the Arms Control Association sponsored a panel on what is known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead.

Today the United States has an arsenal of almost 10,000 nuclear warheads based on 60 years of research and development. The US conducted over 1,000 nuclear tests to design and certify these weapons, and essentially froze that stockpile after the last testing ended in September of 1992. The US currently maintains its nuclear arsenal through a $6.7 billion Stockpile Stewardship program. (Nelson ACA Apr 25 06)

However, concerns arise about the stockpile--concerns about the possible need for testing to make sure these weapons still work, concerns about warhead aging, the need for a special standby weapons manufacture capability, and ultimately the need for a reliable replacement warhead.

Dr. Rob Nelson, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, and a panelist at the Arms Control Association event believes that the Reliable Replacement Warhead or RRW is not necessary because as he puts it,
"...the current nuclear arsenal isn't broken. There is nothing unreliable about it. But the tremendous danger is that Congress, other policymakers, and the public will get the perception that there is something unreliable with our current stockpile [Nelson points out that "...the very name Reliable Replacement Warhead suggests that there is something *unreliable* about the current stockpile" (Nelson ACA Apr 25 06).] [Nelson says quote]... it will probably lead us to fiddle with the existing stockpile and lead us to the road to resume nuclear testing. The Stockpile Stewardship program that we have today was designed to maintain the US nuclear arsenal in an era without testing. It is working" (Nelson ACA Apr 25 06). endquote

Another of the panelists, Richard Garwin is an IBM fellow emeritus at the Watson Research Center who has decades of experience dealing with nuclear weapons design and nuclear policy issues.

He speaks directly from the heart, quote "My principle fear is that all the technical people, including me, will, at some time, five years from now, agree that the RRW design is sufficiently conservative that it can be put into the stockpile with a high reliability of working when it is called upon to work [even though it hasn't been tested]. But after we have a stockpile with [reliable replacement warheads] replacing a lot of the old tested weapons, how many in Congress does it take, or in the military, to say, "nobody has ever tested this design of nuclear weapon and I will not be responsible for managing the stockpile and assuring that it will work during wartime without at least one test."

"So I worry [Garwin says] *not* that it's necessary but that it's almost inevitable that a generation of replacement warheads that are not as identical as possible to the ones that we have in the inventory will sooner or later call forth a politically demanded nuclear test. And that will open the floodgates to the Russians testing and the Chinese testing. The Chinese can make real improvements in their nuclear weaponry with a few tests because they've had only 43 compared with our more than a thousand nuclear tests. [Garwin continues.] Planning ahead, these folks (the Chinese and the Russians) are not going to wait, they will make the same calculation I do; they will prepare to test. We will see them preparing to test. We will not allow them to test first, and so we will have, for absolutely no good reason and much to our security detriment, an outbreak of nuclear testing that will then legitimize the acquisition of nuclear weapons by those people who don't have any" (Garwin ACA Apr 25 06).

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