Science Experiments Blocked Due to Safety Risks

The U.S. government blocked dozens of life science experiments over the past decade because they were deemed to pose undue risks to public health and safety.

Between 2006 and 2013, researchers submitted 618 potentially restricted experiment proposals for review by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Division of Select Agents and Toxins (DSAT), according to a new study published in the journal Health Security.

Fifteen percent of those (91) were found to meet the regulatory definition of a “restricted experiment.” 31 of those experiments were nevertheless approved because they included appropriate safety measures.

But “DSAT did not approve 60 restricted experiment requests due to potentially serious biosafety risks to public health and safety,” researchers found. “All 60 denied restricted experiments proposed inserting drug resistance traits into select agents that could compromise the control of disease.”

See Review of Restricted Experiment Requests, Division of Select Agents and Toxins, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006-2013 (abstract only) by Jacinta Smith, Denise Gangadharan, and Robbin Weyant, Health Security, Vol. 13, No. 5, September 2015: 307-316.

Regulatory restrictions on research can infringe on academic freedom and may have the unintended consequence of foreclosing important — and beneficial — avenues of scientific investigation.

But the risks involved in genetic manipulation of biological agents are so profound that almost everyone agrees that some limits are necessary and appropriate.

“A product resulting from a restricted experiment has the potential to be directly misapplied by others to pose a threat to public health and safety, agricultural crops and other plants, animals and/or the environment,” the authors wrote. “In addition, the accidental release of a product of a restricted experiment may compromise the control or treatment of the disease agent in humans, animals, and/or plants.”

There have been four reported cases involving violations of restricted experiment regulations in recent years, the authors noted. Two of the restricted experiment violations resulted in civil penalties ranging from $40,000 to $1 million.

Some say the existing regulatory regime does not go far enough to restrict hazardous research.

“In the current Wild West of otherwise completely unregulated, and otherwise nearly completely unmonitored, US pathogens research, the requirement for review of ‘restricted experiments’ under the select agent rule is the one small bright spot,” said Richard H. Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University.

He noted that current regulations specify only two categories of potentially restricted experiments, which leaves much research on pathogens beyond regulatory control or oversight.

“The most effective avenue for the [US government] to implement a requirement for review of other pathogen research projects–for example, to implement a requirement for review of pathogen research projects that create new potential pandemic pathogens–would be to add additional ‘restricted experiments’ to the select agent rule,” Dr. Ebright said.

Invention Secrecy Orders Reach a 20 Year High

On October 27, 1977, Dr. Gerald F. Ross filed a patent application for a new invention he had devised to defeat the jamming of electromagnetic transmissions at specified frequencies. But it was not until June 17, 2014 — nearly 37 years later — that his patent was finally granted (Anti-jam apparatus for baseband radar systems, patent number 8,754,801).

In the interim, Dr. Ross’s patent application had been subject to a secrecy order under the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951, which both prevented issuance of the patent and prohibited its public disclosure.

At the end of Fiscal Year 2014 (on September 30), there were 5,520 such invention secrecy orders in effect, according to statistics released by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office under the Freedom of Information Act.

That is the highest number of invention secrecy orders in effect since 1994. It is unclear whether this reflects growing innovation in sensitive technology areas, or a more restrictive approach to disclosure by government agencies.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of current secrecy orders were issued in prior years, but there were 97 new secrecy orders that were imposed in FY 2014. Meanwhile, there were 22 existing orders that were rescinded, including the order concerning Dr. Ross’s invention.

Under the Invention Secrecy Act, secrecy orders may be imposed whenever, in the judgment of an executive branch agency, the disclosure of a patent application would be “detrimental to the national security.” This is a lower, less demanding standard than that for national security classification (which applies to information that could “cause damage to national security”) and not all secret inventions are classified. Some may be unclassified but export controlled, or otherwise restricted.

Other newly disclosed inventions formerly subject to a secrecy order that was rescinded by the government during the past year include these (according to data obtained from the Patent and Trademark Office):

Method of producing warheads containing explosives, patent number 8,689,669

Method of treating a net made from ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene, patent number 8,808,602

Ballistic modification and solventless double propellant, and method thereof, patent number 8,828,161

Ballistic modifier formulation for double base propellant, patent number 8,864,923

Synthetic aperture radar smearing, patent number 8,836,569

Wanted: Astronomer with Top Secret Clearance

NASA’s orbiting James Webb Space Telescope will be “the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide, and studying every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System.”

So why does its Director need to have a Top Secret/SCI security clearance, as specified in the job description posted last month on USA Jobs?

Clearly, the secrets of the universe do not lend themselves to, or require, national security classification controls, let alone non-disclosure agreements or polygraph testing.

But in practice, the civilian space program intersects the national security space program at multiple points, and former CIA analyst Allen Thomson suggested that the future Webb Director might need a Top Secret intelligence clearance in order to engage with the National Reconnaissance Office on space technology and operations, for example.

The Webb Space Telescope “will complement and extend the discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope, with longer wavelength coverage and greatly improved sensitivity,” according to NASA. “The longer wavelengths enable the Webb telescope to look much closer to the beginning of time and to hunt for the unobserved formation of the first galaxies, as well as to look inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today.”

The Webb Telescope has a projected launch date in 2018.

In Memoriam

Andrew Marienhoff Sessler

Editor’s Note: This article1)Article available online here: appeared in the August 2014 issue of Physics Today; it can also be accessed online. Dr. Sessler was involved with FAS for over four decades and served as Chairman of the Board from 1988 to 1992.


Andrew Marienhoff Sessler, visionary former director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), one of the most influential accelerator physicists in the field, and a human-rights activist, died on 17 April 2014 from cancer.


Born on 11 December 1928, Andy grew up in New York City. He was one of the first Westinghouse Talent Search finalists, for which he visited the White House as a high school senior in 1945. He enrolled at Harvard University just as World War II ended. He received a BA in mathematics, then went to Columbia University and earned a PhD in physics in 1953 under Henry Foley. After an NSF postdoc—in the first group ever awarded—at Cornell University with Hans Bethe and a stint on the faculty at the Ohio State University in 1954–59, Andy joined the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory—as LBNL was then called—in 1959; he spent the remainder of his career there.

Andy left his mark in several areas of physics, including nuclear structure theory, elementary-particle physics, and many-body problems. His 1960 paper with Victor Emery is generally acknowledged, along with a paper from a competing group led by Philip Anderson, as the first to predict the superfluid transition of helium-3.

His interest in accelerator physics began in the summer of 1955 when Andy was invited by Donald Kerst to join the Midwestern Universities Research Association (MURA) study group. MURA researchers were working to host a multi-GeV proton accelerator project in the Midwest based on a novel accelerator scheme called the fixed-field alternating gradient. Although the project did not materialize, their R&D achievements profoundly transformed accelerator design from an intuitive art to a rigorous scientific discipline centered around beam physics.

In collaboration with Keith Symon (another MURA member), Andy studied the RF acceleration process and for the first time in accelerator research employed the full power of Hamiltonian dynamics and computer simulation, using the most powerful computer at that time, ILLIAC. They discovered a method to produce intense circulating beams by “stacking,” repeatedly collecting the injected beam into a phase-space “bucket” and raising its energy. But if the intensity gets too high, beams in general become unstable, rendering them useless. In collaboration with several colleagues, Andy showed that high intensities can still be maintained by carefully controlling the beam environment.Those discoveries made high-luminosity proton colliders feasible; the most famous implementation, the Large Hadron Collider, recently discovered the Higgs particle.

After being at LBNL for several years, Andy became interested in the impact of science and technology on society. He helped usher in a new era of research on energy efficiency and sustainable energy technology and was instrumental in building the research agendas in those areas for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and later the Department of Energy.

In 1973 Andy was selected as LBNL’s third director. His first act was to establish the energy and environment division, with Jack Hollander as director, and the two men started more than 50 research projects in the first year. The division initiated many major research programs in such fields as air-pollution chemistry and physics, solar energy technology, energy economics and policy, and internationally prominent energy efficiency technology under the guidance of Arthur Rosenfeld. Andy supported the development of the nation’s largest geothermal research program, which led to the lab’s establishing one of the nation’s leading Earth-sciences research divisions.

Stepping down from his post as LBNL director in 1980, Andy returned to his first love—research. He began work in earnest on a new area of accelerator physics: the generation of coherent electromagnetic waves through the free-electron laser (FEL) interaction.

Together with Donald Prosnitz, Andy proposed in 1981 a high-gain FEL amplifier for high-power millimeter-wave generation. The group Andy assembled to perform and analyze the successful 1986 millimeter FEL experiment also explored FELs at x-ray wavelengths. The researchers found that the x-ray beam being amplified in a high-gain FEL does not diffract but stays close to the electron beam. That “optical guiding” phenomena presaged the success of x-ray FELs more than two decades later.

Andy noted that the high-power millimeter wave from an FEL can be used for high-gradient acceleration that could reduce the size, and hence the cost, of a multi-TeV electron linear collider. Thus he proposed in 1982 the concept of a two-beam accelerator in which a high-current, low energy accelerator runs parallel to and supplies millimeter power to a low-current, high-energy accelerator. The scheme is still very much alive as the Compact Linear Collider project at CERN.

At the American Physical Society (APS), Andy helped expand the organization’s focus to encompass many issues related to “physics and society,” including national funding, science education, and arms control. With a life-long interest in promoting human rights, Andy was instrumental in initiating the APS Committee on International Freedom of Scientists and raising funds to endow the APS Andrei Sakharov Prize. He and Moishe Pripstein cofounded Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov, and Sharansky; the group’s protests along with those of other groups led to the release of the three Soviet dissidents.

In 1998 Andy served as president of APS. He received many honors, including the AEC’s Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award in 19702), APS’s Dwight Nicholson Medal in 19943), and the Enrico Fermi Award from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2014.4)

An avid outdoorsman, Andy enjoyed physical activities—swimming, rowing, skiing, bike riding—especially when shared with family and friends. Even later in life, when maintaining his bodily balance took extra effort, he kept up his lunchtime jogging routine and shared jokes and some good physics with the entourage around him. He was a mentor to many younger colleagues and to many his own age who learned more from him than a lot of them realized at the time. Andy ever kept the physics community at the center of his life and work.


Dr. Robert J. Budnitz has been involved with nuclear-reactor safety and radioactive-waste safety for many years.  He is on the scientific staff at the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he works on nuclear power safety and security and radioactive-waste management.  From 2002 to 2007 he was at UC’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, during which period he worked on a two-year special assignment (late 2002 to late 2004) in Washington to assist the Director of DOE’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management to develop a new Science & Technology Program.  Prior to joining LLNL in 2002, he ran a one-person consulting practice in Berkeley CA for over two decades.  In 1978-1980, he was a senior officer on the staff of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, serving as Deputy Director and then Director of the NRC Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research.  He earned a Ph.D. in experimental physics from Harvard in 1968.

Kwang-Je Kim received B.S in Physics from Seoul National University (1966) and Ph.D. in Elementary Particle Physics from the University of Maryland (1970). Kwang-Je was originally trained as a theorist in elementary particle physics, but switched to accelerator physics in 1978 when he joined LBNL. He moved to Argonne National Laboratory in 1998, where he is currently Argonne Distinguished Fellow. He is also a part time professor at the University of Chicago. He performed groundbreaking research in the emerging area of generating highly bright photon beams via synchrotron radiation and free electron lasers.  He is a Fellow of APS since 1995, received International FEL Award in 1997, USPAS Award for Achievement in Accelerator Physics and Technology in 2013, and Robert R. Wilson Prize for Achievement in the Physics of Particle Accelerators in 2014.

Herman Winick is a Professor (research) emeritus at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the Applied Physics Department of Stanford University, where he has been since 1973. After receiving his AB (1953) and PhD (1957) in physics from Columbia University, he continued work in experimental high energy physics at the University of Rochester (1957-9) and then as a member of the scientific staff and Assistant Director of the Cambridge Electron Accelerator at Harvard University (1959-73). In the early 1960s his interests shifted to accelerator physics and then to synchrotron radiation. In 1973 he moved to Stanford University to take charge of the technical design of the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Project. Since then he has played a leadership role in the development of synchrotron radiation sources and research at Stanford and around the world.


George S. Stanford

Editor’s Note:  Dr. Stanford served as a member of FAS’s National Council from 1986 to 1990.


The far-ranging and versatile impact of George S. Stanford as a professional colleague includes many contributions to human betterment.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, George — a Canadian-born PhD physicist — became a contributor and spokesperson for universal, conscientious nuclear composure and restraint. His role was initially manifested throughGeorge Sanford opportune and enduring participation with the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) Chicago chapter, which had been transplanted from the University of Chicago to Argonne National Laboratory.

As a physicist at Argonne, George engaged in hands-on work with reactor and accelerator facilities. He gained a comprehensive understanding and appreciation not only of nuclear reactors, but also of the basic science underlying nuclear weapons and their potential risk to civilization. After retirement, he devoted much of his personal time to promoting the Integral Fast (Breeder) Reactor, having professionally been part of the large Argonne team that worked on power-reactor safety.

Born July 23, 1928, he graduated in 1949 from Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia with a BS in Physics/Math; Wesleyan University, in 1951 with an M.A. in Physics; and Yale University in 1956 with a PhD in Experimental Nuclear Physics. He passed away on 7 October 2013.

During much of his professional lifetime, the Cold War seemed to be spiraling out of control, with many hardline protagonists promoting armaments and strategies that could lurch the United States uncontrollably toward nuclear war and human devastation. Along with other nuclear scientists at Argonne and elsewhere, George tried to inject some sense of realism and perspective. He was one of those who frequently practiced public outreach, widely communicating the devastating potential of excessive nuclear armaments.

His outreach extended to then-raging complex and emotionalized issues such as excessive nuclear-armed missiles, needed arms-control initiatives, and improved nuclear-reactor safety. In this connection, George helped organize and became co-chair of the Concerned Argonne Scientists (CAS), an ad-hoc organization of laboratory employees which had separated itself from the local FAS chapter because of the war in Vietnam. The CAS persisted as the Argonne-based group that contributed systemic experience and advocacy about a broad range of public issues.

George served a stint on the FAS national council, and he frequently contributed his knowledge and experience to both the Argonne FAS Chapter and the national organization.

Professionally, he made significant contributions to Argonne analytical and experimental programs in nuclear-diagnostics for reactor safety, and later in arms control and treaty verification.

George’s perceptivity is reflected in several books of enduring relevance. He was a co-author of the two-volume, multi-authored Nuclear Shadowboxing: Contemporary Threats from Cold War Weaponry, which later was transitioned into the contemporary three-volume Nuclear Insights: The Cold War Legacy. The latter book was billed respectively as “an insider history” of U.S. and Soviet weaponry, an analysis of contemporary “nuclear threats and prospects,” and discussion of “nuclear reductions.”

With Gerry Marsh, he co-wrote The Phantom Defense: America’s Pursuit of the Star Wars Illusion. George not only participated in the troublesome, but widely publicized Progressive Case in the late 1970s that drew international attention to thermonuclear weaponry and government secrecy, but he was  a consummate and fastidious editor of the resulting narrative: Born Secret: The H-bomb, the Progressive Case, and National Security. [Editor’s note: The Progressive Case involved independent investigator Howard Morland, who was lured by the Progressive magazine to research using openly available resources how thermonuclear weapons worked.]

A sample of wide-ranging articles he wrote or co-wrote include, “Reprocessing method could allay weapons fear,”  “Smarter use of nuclear waste,”  “Reprocessing is the answer,”  “Integral Fast Reactors: Source of Safe, Abundant, Non-Polluting Power,”  “LWR Recycle: Necessity or Impediment?” and “The antiballistic missile: how would it be used?”

George had been a member of the American Nuclear Society and the American Physical Society. Long after formal retirement from Argonne, he was contributing time and intellect to a comparison of future reactors, favoring fast breeders. One of his contemporary memberships was the Science Council for Global Initiatives.

To his very, very last days, he was applying his intellect and experience in promoting nuclear-reactor development and in assessing improved radiation-diagnostic methods.

George Stanford was married twice, living in the Chicago western suburbs, first to Ann Lowell Warren, having several children together, and later to Janet Clarke — all of whom, along with his many friends and colleagues, dearly miss him.

Peace, humanity, and progress were always on George’s mind.


Dr. Alexander DeVolpi,  George Stanford’s colleague and friend since the 1950s, is a nuclear physicist long active in arms-control policy and treaty-verification technology. Retired from Argonne National Laboratory, he has authored or coauthored from first-hand experience several books about arms control. After earning an undergraduate degree in journalism from Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Va., Alex served with the U.S. Navy, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Commander, with numerous assignments to the Naval Research Laboratory and the Radiological Defense Laboratory. Later he received his Ph.D. in physics (and MS in nuclear engineering physics) from Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Blacksburg, Va. 

Alex was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society for contributions to arms-control verification and public enlightenment on the consequences of modern technology. As a citizen-scientist, he has long been involved in public-interest arms-control issues, including the Chicago/Argonne Chapter of the FAS.  He was cofounder of Concerned Argonne Scientists, and a member of activist organizations and executive committees in the Chicago area. Alex was a participant and technical consultant in the FAS/NRDC joint project with Soviet counterparts on nuclear-warhead dismantlement, as well as an elected member of the national FAS council in 1988-92.


Notes   [ + ]

1. Article available online here:

JASON Views Challenges of Electronic Health Data

The ongoing transition to electronic storage of individual health information was examined in a newly released study from the JASON scientific advisory panel.

“The two overarching goals of moving to the electronic exchange of health information are improved health care and lower health care costs. Whether either, or both, of these goals can be achieved remains to be seen, and the challenges are immense,” the JASON study says.

See A Robust Health Data Infrastructure, prepared for the Department of Health and Human Services, November 2013 (approved for release April 2014).

The JASON study addresses the tension between personal health information, which is “sensitive and therefore must be carefully safeguarded,” and aggregated population health data, which are “a highly valuable, and largely untapped, resource for basic and clinical research.”

“It is in the public interest to make such [aggregated population] information available for scientific, medical, and economic purposes.” Reconciling these competing imperatives of privacy and information sharing is one of the challenges to be overcome.

The JASONs, who normally deal with defense science and technology, strain to affirm a relationship between health and national security. (“From a national security perspective it is important to have an accurate assessment of the current health and potential health vulnerabilities of the population.”)

Interestingly, they suggest that because the United States is less ethnically homogenous than many other countries, it “has a special advantage” in conducting certain types of medical research.

The U.S. “is a genetic melting pot that can be a crucible for discoveries related to personalized medicine and the genetic basis of disease,” the JASONs said.


The Fermi Awards: A Celebration of Outstanding Science and Scientists

On February 3, two outstanding scientists, Dr. Allen Bard and Dr. Andrew Sessler, received the Enrico Fermi Award. Dr. Sessler has been a longstanding member of the Federation of American Scientists and served as the Chairman of FAS during part of the 1980s. In introductory remarks, Dr. Ernest Moniz, the Secretary of Energy, commented that earlier that day Dr. Bard and Dr. Sessler were at the White House, where President Obama said that it was great to be around rational people. According to Dr. Moniz, Dr. Sessler then urged President Obama to listen even more to scientists. In describing Dr. Sessler’s work on arms control and human rights, Dr. Moniz said that Dr. Sessler may have sacrificed a paper or two but it was worth it to serve society. Dr. Moniz called attention to Dr. Bard’s dedication to mentoring and collaborating with many scientists. According to the awards booklet, Dr. Bard has mentored or collaborated with “83 Ph.D. students, 18 M.S. students, 190 postdoctoral associates, and numerous visiting scientists.” These collaborations have resulted in more than 850 peer-reviewed research papers.

Continue reading

JASON on Enhanced Geothermal Energy Systems

The potential for new technologies to harvest energy from the Earth’s crust was considered in a new report from the elite JASON science advisory board on “Enhanced Geothermal Systems” (EGS).

“EGS offers important opportunities for increasing the contribution of geothermal energy to U.S. power production: by a few-fold over the next few years, according to our estimation, and much more so if this initial success is appropriately leveraged over subsequent years,” the report concluded.

As described in the report, EGS entails drilling deep into the Earth’s crust — 1 to 5 kilometers or more — and forcing a fluid (water or brine) through hot, permeable rock. Energy from the heated fluid can then be extracted.

Of course, the technology is not without hazards. One is the potential for pollution of potable water acquifers. Another more ominous concern is “induced seismicity” — or artificially-generated earthquakes.

“Induced seismicity is a relatively well-documented phenomenon associated with changing fluid pressures at depth,” the report notes. The JASONs assert that “there is a basis for controlling the induced seismicity and therefore for minimizing this potential hazard attributable to EGS.”

The new JASON report is elegantly written and can be at least partially understood by non-specialist readers who may have forgotten their heat and mass transfer equations. A copy was obtained by Secrecy News.

Over the past year, the JASONs completed eight classified studies containing sensitive compartmented information (SCI) that have not been disclosed. Several other unclassified reports were also performed and their release is pending.

In 2012, the Central Intelligence Agency refused to release a JASON report entitled “Metamaterials.”

Update: For more background on enhanced geothermal systems, see this story in Scientific American.

Defense Science Board Urges Expanded Global Monitoring

While others speak of curbing intelligence surveillance activities, the Defense Science Board argues in a new report that the U.S. government should expand and accelerate global monitoring for purposes of detecting nuclear proliferation as “a top national security objective.”

Intelligence techniques and technologies that are used to combat terrorism should also be harnessed to address the threat of proliferation, said the new DSB report, entitled “Assessment of Nuclear Monitoring and Verification Technologies,” January 2014.

“The advances in persistent surveillance, automated tracking, rapid analyses of large and multi-source data sets, and open source analyses to support conventional warfighting and counterterrorism have not yet been exploited by the nuclear monitoring community…. New intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies, demonstrated in recent conflicts, offer significant promise for monitoring undesirable nuclear activity throughout the free world.”

The National Security Agency, among others, has pointed the way, the report suggested. A newly integrated global awareness system for counterproliferation should “build on lessons and experiences of successful national security capabilities, such as… NSA’s counterterrorism capabilities….”

“The ‘big data’ technologies for extracting meaning from vast quantities of data that are being developed commercially in the information technology (IT) industry, and for other purposes in DoD and the IC, need to be extended and applied to nuclear monitoring.”

In particular, “Exploiting the cyber domain should certainly be a big part of any nuclear monitoring effort. Both passive, depending on what is sent voluntarily, and active sources should be considered. Data gathered from the cyber domain establishes a rich and exploitable source for determining activities of individuals, groups and organizations needed to participate in either the procurement or development of a nuclear device…. Many of the new technology advances in data exfiltration, covert implantation, etc., hold promise for successful multi-INT collection and exploitation in non-permissive environments.”

“Monitoring for proliferation should be a top national security objective — and one that the nation is not yet organized or fully equipped to address.”

At the same time, the DSB report emphasized the need for increased openness and transparency, both to strengthen international confidence and stability and to simplify the challenge of global monitoring of proliferation. (As used by the DSB — and the USG — the term transparency in this context seems to mean the exchange of data among interested governments, and does not necessarily imply release of information to the public.)

The DSB authors recommend “a comprehensive, sustained, policy-based diplomatic approach coordinated across the U.S. Government and with other nations devoted expressly to advance the cause of openness and transparency writ large…. This situation should be addressed with the highest priority.”

“The Task Force envisions a multi-year effort, which can pay large dividends in terms of a universal transparency that would improve strategic and tactical stability against nuclear war among all nuclear weapons states, as well as achieve enhanced confidence building for nonproliferation efforts.”

“All parties would benefit from the national security stability that would ensue from having transparent knowledge of the numbers/types of other nations’ nuclear arsenals, while each nation in turn makes the knowledge of their own SNM [special nuclear material] and/or nuclear weapons inventories available to the others.”

(The report does not mention the case of Israel, whose policy of nuclear opacity — not transparency — is supported at least tacitly by the U.S. government.)

“The Task Force does believe that the times are now propitious to move forward on a path to develop universal transparency regimes that can simultaneously fulfill these goals and requirements through an international process for achieving universal knowledge of nuclear weapon inventories and SNM inventories, and that the U.S. should lead in such an effort.”

“Indeed, the U.S. has already declassified the size of its current nuclear arsenal.”

Unfortunately, that last assertion is not correct.  In May 2010, the U.S. government did declassify the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal as of September 2009.  (At that time, there were 5,113 warheads.) But if you ask how big the arsenal is today, it turns out that the answer is once again classified. The Federation of American Scientists has petitioned the Department of Energy to revise that judgment in favor of public disclosure.

The new DSB report contains several other incidental observations of interest.

*    To date, the U.S. has entered into roughly 25 agreements on nuclear cooperation with other countries (known as 123 Agreements).

*    Of the nearly 1,000 active satellites in earth orbit, there are 200 engaged in earth observation.

*    Some non-governmental analysis of commercial satellite imagery is of poor quality and “may introduce additional noise into U.S. and international monitoring systems. Some experts are concerned that bad data and bad analysis could increasingly tarnish or mask more reliable data…. There have already been major analytical errors made by untrained imagery analysts who have published openly.”

*    The efficient analysis of big data can be undermined by the “transmission latency” (or delayed transfer) of data stored in a cloud-based architecture. Therefore, the DSB says that when it comes to nuclear monitoring, “the analytics need to stay near the data.” Similar concerns concerning prompt access are said to arise in the context of NSA analysis of telephony metadata.

Nuclear Weapons Scientists Are Sad

Scientists in the nuclear weapons program at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) are feeling blue, according to a recent internal report.

“We heard that there is a sense of increased stress and reduced morale among LLNL technical employees in the weapons program, stemming from a (perceived, at least) combination of reduced resources and increased work requirements,” the report said.

Of course, many people are sad, for many reasons. The Shekhinah is in exile. But low morale among weapons scientists can have negative programmatic and national security consequences.

Therefore, “We recommend attention to the potential danger that activities that are important for long-term stockpile stewardship may be dropped in favor of seemingly urgent near-term requirements,” the report said. See “Predictive Science Panel: Unclassified Report,” LLNL Meeting, August 20-22, 2013.

A new study of the future of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal proposes “a framework for evaluating future reductions or modifications of the U.S. nuclear force.”  The study, performed for the Department of Energy, warns against irreversible changes in the arsenal (which it calls “roach motels of reduction”), reversible but undesirable changes (“box canyons in the Valley of Disarmament”), and other types of unfavorable actions (“wrong turns on the road to the future”). See “Reductions Without Regret” by John A. Swegle and Douglas J. Tincher, Savannah River National Laboratory, September 2013. The report does not necessarily represent the views of DoE or the US Government (or FAS).

A new report from the CATO Institute calls for the elimination of two legs of the nuclear triad (missiles and bombers) in favor of an entirely submarine-based nuclear force.  See “The End of Overkill?” by Benjamin Friedman, Christopher Preble, and Matt Fay, September 24, 2013.

Meanwhile, Hans Kristensen of FAS discovers a surprising fact: “The latest data from the New START Treaty shows that Russia has reduced its deployed strategic nuclear forces while the United States has increased its force over the past six months.” This is an anomalous result of the counting process, not a new arms buildup, but it is noteworthy nonetheless. See “New START Data Shows Russia Reducing, US Increasing Nuclear Forces,” FAS Strategic Security Blog, October 2.