Deciphering the State of the Union on Nuclear Energy

In his State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama drew attention to nuclear energy, calling for “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants.” While the president did not go into more details in the address, a misconception on the White House blog about the role of nuclear power has prompted this post. In particular, that blog says in analyzing the president’s energy recommendations that Americans can “reduce our dependence on foreign oil” in part through “the renewal of our nation’s nuclear energy industry.”

However, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, oil generates less than 2 percent of U.S. electricity. Oil is mostly used for powering cars and trucks. Electric-powered vehicles would obtain some energy from nuclear power plants. Although President Obama supports these types of vehicles, it will take many years to decades before even a substantial portion of America’s cars and trucks are electric-powered.

Clearing up this misconception presents an opportunity to help inform the national dialogue about the present status and potential future for nuclear power in the United States. (Future postings will examine other aspects of U.S. energy policy.)

Nuclear energy provides approximately two-thirds of the non-fossil fuel electricity production in the United States. About 19 percent of U.S. electricity is generated by 104 nuclear reactors. While the United States has the largest nuclear fleet in the world, the nuclear industry has not had a new U.S. reactor ordered and carried to completion in more than 30 years.

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FAS in the News

This weekly digest provides links to headlines that feature FAS projects, staff, and important issues. Stay up-to-date with FAS IN THE NEWS.

Roundup For Week Ending January 29, 2010

Energy, safety and nuclear capabilities intertwined – ScienceNews – 30 January 2010:
On January 1, Charles D. Ferguson became president of the Federation of American Scientists, a nongovernmental organization founded in 1945 by Manhattan Project scientists to promote humanitarian uses of science and technology. Ferguson worked at FAS 10 years ago as director of its nuclear policy project, and he returns after working from 2004 to 2009 at the Council on Foreign Relations as part of the Independent Task Force on U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy. Science News assistant managing editor Kristina Bartlett Brody asked Ferguson to discuss nuclear energy and nonproliferation.

New Palestinian Charter Drops Mention of Zionism, Sparking Questions – Huffington Post: 28 January 2010:
Fatah, led by Palestinian National Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, met last year to revise its charter for the first time in decades and that revision has just been translated by the Director of National Intelligence’s Open Source Center, a copy of which was obtained by the Federation of American Scientists’ Secrecy News blog.

START-ing Without China – Disarmament talks between the United States and Russia should include Beijing
— Wall Street Journal: 27 January 2010:
How big is China’s arsenal? Beijing is not telling. Western analysts have been guessing, with wildly divergent assessments. The highly respected Federation of American Scientists believes the People’s Liberation Army now has 240 nuclear devices, of which 180 are strategic in nature.

Canadian Tamil Tiger Supporter Sentenced to 26 Years in Prison – Software engineer tried to buy guns, missiles for terrorist group – Ottawa Citizen: 23 January 2010:
Expert Matt Schroeder said the sentences sought by prosecutors were not out of line considering the grave threat posed by the illicit trafficking of missiles. “I think it’s perfectly reasonable to levy that kind of punishment.” “They’re highly sought after,” said Schroeder, manager of the arms sales monitoring project at the Federation of American Scientists. “Anybody who attempts to acquire missiles on U.S. soil really runs a risk of being nabbed in a sting operation,” he said.

Sarachandran jailed for 26 years for trying to aid Tamil Tigers Unlikely arms dealer – National Post: 23 January 2010:
Surface-to-air missiles are a hot commodity on the black market. Rebel groups want them to repel air strikes and terrorists want them to target commercial aviation, such as the 2002 Strela-2 missile attack on an Israeli airliner in Mombassa, Kenya. “They’re highly sought after,” said Mr. Schroeder, manager of the arms sales monitoring project at the Federation of American Scientists.

Report Backs End of Bombers’ Nuclear Role – Air Force Times: 18 January 2010: “If they retire the cruise missile, that marks the end of the B-52 in the nuclear bomber business,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. Despite the report, the Air Force wants a next-generation bomber capable of delivering nuclear weapons, according to recently retired Lt. Gen. Bob Elder.

Bomb Power and the Roots of Government Secrecy

In his provocative new book “Bomb Power” (Penguin Press, 2010) historian Garry Wills argues that the rise of the National Security State and the ongoing expansion of presidential authority, including the spread of government secrecy, are rooted in the development of the atomic bomb in World War II.

“At the bottom of it all has been the Bomb,” writes Prof. Wills.  “All this grew out of the Manhattan Project, out of its product, and even more out of its process.  The project’s secret work, secretly funded at the behest of the President, was a model for the covert activities and overt authority of the government we now experience.”

The thesis of the book is not always clear or consistent.  Most often, the author refers to the secret creation of the bomb as a “model” or a precedent that would later be exploited in other contexts.  But sometimes the bomb project is seen as an integral part of other seemingly unrelated expressions of presidential authority and “the seed of all the growing powers that followed.”  And sometimes, for Prof. Wills, there is nothing else besides the bomb:  “Executive power has basically been, since World II, Bomb Power” (p. 4).

The failure to clearly distinguish or demonstrate the bomb’s asserted role — whether it is the model, the origin or the driving influence behind the growth of executive power — limits the force of the book’s argument.  If the bomb project was merely a model for organizing government activity (“the Manhattan Project showed modern Presidents the way”), then it should in principle be subject to replacement by other models.  But if it is now inextricably intertwined with the whole machinery of government, then government might be beyond the possibility of reform unless and until the bomb itself can be eliminated.

Prof. Wills, the author of many award-winning books, writes fluently and engagingly on a wide range of topics.  But in “Bomb Power,” his history is occasionally garbled.

In a chronology of the development of the National Security State, he says that covert action was authorized and defined in 1947 in the National Security Act, “despite misgivings expressed by Dean Acheson and others,” and that the 1947 Act also required regular notification to congressional intelligence committees (pp. 82-84).  But the original National Security Act was famously silent on covert action, only assigning to CIA “such other functions and duties… as the President… may direct.”  The statutory definition of covert action that Prof. Wills quotes was not enacted into law until 1991.  Likewise, notification to Congress of intelligence operations abroad was not required by law until the Hughes-Ryan Act in 1974.

But what is most disturbing of all is the author’s casual, world-weary dismissal of the possibility of change, and especially of efforts to rein in government secrecy.  “The hope of decreasing the mountains of secrecy is vanishing or gone,” he declares flatly (p. 138).  “Consider all of the classified material [now in existence],” he told National Public Radio earlier this week.  “To declassify that is immensely time consuming and expensive.  So, it’s not going to happen.”

This is a lazy and destructive message and, I think, a false one.

Though it is hard to reconcile with Prof. Wills’ theory of inexorably expanding executive power, the President of the United States last month issued an order imposing significant new limits on national security secrecy.  Stating that “No information may remain classified indefinitely,” President Obama set maximum classification lifetimes for all records, including intelligence records.  He directed that a backlog of 400 million pages of records awaiting declassification will not only be declassified but will also be made publicly available within four years.  He established a new internal review process, with public reporting requirements, to eliminate obsolete classification practices in every classifying agency at the front end of the process.  Perhaps these and numerous other related steps will all fail. But nothing in Prof. Wills’ argument dictates that outcome, and “Bomb Power” does no one any favors by fostering public cynicism and declaring defeat before the battle is over.

Physics and Secrecy

The American Physical Society will feature a session of “physics and secrecy” at its annual meeting in Washington DC on February 13.  I will be one of the three presenters.

In one sense, the whole enterprise of physics is a contest with secrecy and an attempt to discern the order that is hidden in natural phenomena.  But next month’s session is devoted to the more mundane form of national security secrecy and its impact on physicists and other scientists.

Interstellar Archaeology

The search for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe should not only focus on detection of electromagnetic signals, but should also seek evidence of the physical artifacts that an intelligence life form might produce, a scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory suggested in a paper (pdf) last month.

“Searching for signatures of cosmic-scale archaeological artifacts such as Dyson spheres or Kardashev civilizations is an interesting alternative to conventional SETI [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, which searches for radio waves]. Uncovering such an artifact does not require the intentional transmission of a signal on the part of the original civilization. This type of search is called interstellar archaeology or sometimes cosmic archaeology.”

All of this of course is quite speculative, not to say whimsical.  “With few exceptions interstellar archaeological signatures are clouded and beyond current technological capabilities,” the author notes.

But the concept and the logic behind it are explained with pleasant clarity in “Starry Messages: Searching for Signatures of Interstellar Archaeology” by Richard A. Carrigan, Jr., Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, December 1, 2009.

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OSC Translates the 2009 Fatah Charter

Last year, the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah in the Arabic acronym) led by Palestinian National Authority president Mahmoud Abbas gathered in Bethlehem and approved a revision of its charter for the first time since the 1960s.  That revised charter (pdf) has recently been translated into English by the DNI Open Source Center.

The document is not particularly conciliatory in tone or content.  It is a call to revolution, confrontation with the enemy, and the liberation of Palestine, “free and Arab.”  Interestingly, it stresses the role of women in the movement.  “The leading bodies will work to arrive at 20 percent participation for women, provided this does not conflict with organizational standards or the Internal Charter.”  And it insists repeatedly on the need to safeguard the movement’s “secrets.”

But what is perhaps most significant is what is not in the document.  The original Fatah charter (or constitution) from the 1960s embraced “the world-wide struggle against Zionism,” denied Jewish historical or religious ties to the land, and called for the “eradication of Zionist economic, political, military and cultural existence.”  None of that language is carried over into the new charter, which manages not to mention Israel, Zionism, or Jews at all.

The English translation of the new Charter, which does not seem to be available elsewhere, has not been approved for public release by the DNI Open Source Center.  A copy was obtained by Secrecy News.

Project Bioshield, Honey Bees, and More from CRS

Noteworthy new reports from the Congressional Research Service that have not been made readily available to the public include the following (all pdf).

“Terrorist Attacks on Commercial Airlines: Federal Criminal Prohibitions,” January 22, 2010.

“Project BioShield: Authorities, Appropriations, Acquisitions, and Issues for Congress,” January 22, 2010.

“Charitable Contributions for Haiti’s Earthquake Victims,” January 22, 2010.

“U.S. and South Korean Cooperation in the World Nuclear Energy Market: Major Policy Considerations,” January 21, 2010.

“Argentina’s Defaulted Sovereign Debt: Dealing with the ‘Holdouts’,” January 21, 2010.

“Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder,” updated January 7, 2010.

FAS Spotlight: Ivanka Barzashka Puzzles Over Iran’s Nuclear Program

Ivanka Barzashka is intrigued by the puzzle that is Iran’s nuclear program. Unlike North Korea’s public pursuit of nuclear weapons, Iran has been steadfast in its denial of developing a nuclear bomb, stating time and time again that it is pursuing a self-sustaining nuclear energy program. The dual-use nature of nuclear technology, specifically uranium enrichment, is at the heart of the uncertainty concerning the Iranian situation.

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Commission of Inquiry on Torture: A Road Not Taken

Last year the Senate Judiciary Committee considered a proposal by Senator Patrick Leahy to establish a formal “commission of inquiry” that would investigate the conduct of the post-9/11 war on terrorism, including detention, rendition and interrogation policies.  The record of a Senate hearing on the proposal was published earlier this month, but that seems to be all that remains of it.

“It is not enough to say that America is discontinuing the policies and practices of the recent past,” said Amb. Thomas Pickering, one of the witnesses who testified in favor of the idea at the March 2009 hearing.  “We must, as a country, take stock of where we have been and determine what was and is not acceptable, what should not have been done, and what we will never do again. It is my sincere hope that the commission will confront and reject the notion, still powerful in our midst, that these policies were and are a proper choice and that they could be implemented again in the future.”

While commissions are rarely effective in advancing policy changes, they often serve to produce a detailed public accounting and an expanded documentary record, even when the subject matter is otherwise generally classified.  From the Church Committee to the 9/11 Commission, such investigations have provided permanently valuable bodies of knowledge.  And from that point of view, the failure to pursue a commission of inquiry to ventilate the persistent controversies of the recent past seems regrettable.

Opponents argued that the commission would inevitably turn into a partisan witch hunt;  that it was unnecessary, since the Obama Administration had already pledged to chart a different course;  that the Justice Department was responsible for ascertaining if any crimes had been committed, and prosecuting them;  and that anyway, it was time to move onward.

“We really ought to follow regular order here,” argued Senator Arlen Specter. “You have a Department of Justice which is fully capable of doing an investigation. They are not going to pull any punches on the prior administration.”

Senator Patrick Leahy, who sponsored the proposal and convened the hearing, said he would only move the idea forward if there was a bipartisan consensus behind it.

“This idea for a commission of inquiry is not something to be imposed,” Sen. Leahy said. “Its potential is lost if we do not join together. Today is another opportunity to come forward to find the facts and join, all of us, Republicans and Democrats, in developing a process to reach a mutual understanding of what went wrong and then to learn from it. If one party remains absent or resistant, the opportunity can be lost, and calls for accountability through more traditional means will then become more insistent and compelling.”

No such consensus could be achieved, and the proposal was abandoned.

See “Getting to the Truth Through a Nonpartisan Commission of Inquiry,” Senate Judiciary Committee, March 4, 2009.