The Risk of Nuclear Winter

Since the early 1980s, the world has known that a large nuclear war could cause severe global environmental effects, including dramatic cooling of surface temperatures, declines in precipitation, and increased ultraviolet radiation. The term nuclear winter was coined specifically to refer to cooling that result in winter-like temperatures occurring year-round. Regardless of whether such temperatures are reached, there would be severe consequences for humanity. But how severe would those consequences be? And what should the world be doing about it?

To the first question, the short answer is nobody knows. The total human impacts of nuclear winter are both uncertain and under-studied. In light of the uncertainty, a risk perspective is warranted that considers the breadth of possible impacts, weighted by their probability. More research on the impacts would be very helpful, but we can meanwhile make some general conclusions. That is enough to start answering the second question, what we should do. In regards to what we should do, nuclear winter has some interesting and important policy implications.

Today, nuclear winter is not a hot topic but this was not always the case: it was international headline news in the 1980s. There were conferences, Congressional hearings, voluminous scientific research, television specials, and more. The story is expertly captured by Lawrence Badash in his book A Nuclear Winter’s Tale.1)Lawrence Badash, A Nuclear Winter’s Tale: Science and Politics in the 1980s (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).Much of the 1980s attention to nuclear winter was driven by the enthusiastic efforts of Carl Sagan, then at the height of his popularity. But underlying it all was the fear of nuclear war, stoked by some of the tensest moments of the Cold War.

When the Cold War ended, so too did attention to nuclear winter. That started to change in 2007, with a new line of nuclear winter research2)O.B. Toon, R.P. Turco, A. Robock, C. Bardeen, L. Oman and G. L. Stenchikov, “Atmospheric Effects and Societal Consequences of Regional Scale Nuclear Conflicts and Acts of Individual Nuclear Terrorism,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Vol. 7 (19 April 2007); Alan Robock, Luke Oman, Georgiy L. Stenchikov, “Nuclear Winter Revisited with a Modern Climate Model and Current Nuclear Arsenals: Still Catastrophic Consequences,” Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 112, No. D13107 (6 July 2007). that uses advanced climate models developed for the study of global warming. Relative to the 1980s research, the new research found that the smoke from nuclear firestorms would travel higher up in the atmosphere, causing nuclear winter to last longer. This research also found dangerous effects from smaller nuclear wars, such as an India-Pakistan nuclear war detonating “only” 100 total nuclear weapons. Two groups—one in the United States3)Ibid. and one in Switzerland4)A. Stenke, C. R. Hoyle, B. Luo, E. Rozanov, J. Gröbner, L. Maag, S. Brönnimann, and T. Peter, “Climate and Chemistry Effects of a Regional Scale Nuclear Conflict,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Vol. 13, No. 19 (2013), pp. 9713–29.—have found similar results using different climate models, lending further support to the validity of the research.

Some new research has also examined the human impacts of nuclear winter. Researchers simulated agricultural crop growth in the aftermath of a 100-weapon India-Pakistan nuclear war.5)Lili Xia and Alan Robock, “Impacts of a Nuclear War in South Asia on Rice Production in Mainland China,” Climatic Change, Vol. 116 (5 May 2012), pp. 357–72; Mutlu Özdoğan, Alan Robock, and Christopher Kucharik, “Impacts of a Nuclear War in South Asia on Soybean and Maize Production in the Midwest United States,” Climatic Change, Vol. 116 (22 June 2012), pp. 373–87.The results are startling- the scenario could cause agriculture productivity to decline by around 10 to 40 percent for several years after the war. The studies looked at major staple crops in China and the United States, two of the largest food producers. Other countries and other crops would likely face similar declines.

Following such crop declines, severe global famine could ensue. One study estimated the total extent of the famine by comparing crop declines to global malnourishment data.6)Ira Helfand, “Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk,” International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (November 2013), http://www.ippnw.org/pdf/nuclear-famine-two-billion-at-risk-2013.pdf. When food becomes scarce, the poor and malnourished are typically hit the hardest. This study estimated two billion people at risk of starvation. And this is from the 100-weapon India-Pakistan nuclear war scenario. Larger nuclear wars would have more severe impacts.

This is where the recent research stops. To the best of my knowledge there are no recent studies examining the secondary effects of famines, such as disease outbreaks and violent conflicts. There are no recent studies examining the human impacts of ultraviolet radiation. That would include an increased medical burden in skin cancer and other diseases. It would also include further loss of agriculture ecosystem services as the ultraviolet radiation harms plants and animals. At this time, we can only make educated guesses about what these impacts would be, informed in part by what research was published 30 years ago.

When analyzing the risk of nuclear winter, one question is of paramount importance: Would there be permanent harm to human civilization? Humanity could have a very bright future ahead; to dim that future is the worst thing nuclear winter could do. It is vastly worse than a few billion deaths from starvation. Not that a few billion deaths is trivial—obviously it isn’t—but it is tiny compared to the loss of future generations.

Carl Sagan was one of the first people to recognize this point in a commentary he wrote on nuclear winter for Foreign Affairs.7)Carl Sagan, “Nuclear War and Climatic Catastrophe: Some Policy Implications,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 62, No. 2 (Winter 1983), pp. 257–92. Sagan believed nuclear winter could cause human extinction, in which case all members of future generations would be lost. He argued that this made nuclear winter vastly more important than the direct effects of nuclear war, which could, in his words, “kill ‘only’ hundreds of millions of people.”

Sagan was however, right that human extinction would cause permanent harm to human civilization. It is debatable whether nuclear winter could cause human extinction. Alan Robock, a leader of the recent nuclear winter research, believes it is unlikely. He writes: “Especially in Australia and New Zealand, humans would have a better chance to survive.”8)Why Australia and New Zealand? A nuclear war would presumably occur mainly or entirely in the northern hemisphere. The southern hemisphere would still experience environmental disruption, but it would not be as severe. Australia and New Zealand further benefit from their adjacent waters, which further soften the effect. See Alan Robock, “Nuclear Winter,” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, Vol. 1, No. 3 (May/June 2010), pp. 418–27. Quote at p. 424. This is hardly a cheerful statement, and it leaves open the chance of human extinction. I think that’s the best way of looking at it. Given all the uncertainty and the limited available research, it is impossible to rule out the possibility of human extinction. I don’t have a good answer for how likely it is. But the possibility should not be dismissed.

Even if some humans survive, there could still be permanent harm to human civilization. Small patches of survivors would be extremely vulnerable to subsequent disasters. They also could not keep up the massively complex civilization we enjoy today. It would be a long and uncertain rebuilding process and survivors might never get civilization back to where it is now. More importantly, they might never get civilization to where we now stand poised to take it in the future. Our potentially bright future could be forever dimmed.9)Timothy M. Maher Jr. and Seth D. Baum, “Adaptation to and Recovery from Global Catastrophe,” Sustainability, Vol. 5, No. 4 (28 March 2013), pp. 1461–79. Nuclear winter is a very large and serious risk. But that on its own doesn’t mean much—just another thing to worry about. What’s really important are the implications of nuclear winter for public policy and private action.

In some ways, nuclear winter doesn’t change nuclear weapons policy all that much. Everyone already knew that nuclear war would be highly catastrophic. Nuclear winter means that nuclear war is even more catastrophic, but that only reinforces policies that have long been in place, from deterrence to disarmament. Indeed, military officials have sometimes reacted to nuclear winter by saying that it just makes their nuclear deterrence policies that much more effective.10)Paul Rubinson, “The Global Effects of Nuclear Winter: Science and Antinuclear Protest in the United States and the Soviet Union During the 1980s,” Cold War History, Vol. 14, No. 1 (February 2013), pp. 47–69. Disarmament advocates similarly cite nuclear winter as justifying their policy goals. But the basic structure of the policy debates is unchanged.

In other ways, nuclear winter changes nuclear weapons policy quite dramatically. Because of nuclear winter, noncombatant states may be severely harmed by nuclear war. Nuclear winter gives every country great incentive to reduce tensions and de-escalate conflicts between nuclear weapon states. Thankfully, this point has not gone unnoticed at recent international conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, such as the December 2014 conference in Vienna, which I spoke at.11)Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. http://www.bmeia.gv.at/en/european-foreign-policy/disarmament/weapons-of-mass-destruction/nuclear-weapons-and-nuclear-terrorism/vienna-conference-on-the-humanitarian-impact-of-nuclear-weapons/These conferences are led by, and largely aimed at, non-nuclear weapon states.

Nuclear weapon states should also take notice. Indeed, the biggest policy implication of nuclear winter could be that it puts the interests of nuclear weapon states in greater alignment. Because of nuclear winter, a nuclear war between any two major nuclear weapon states could severely harm each of the other six. (There are nine total nuclear-armed states, and North Korea’s arsenal is too small to cause any significant nuclear winter.) This multiplies the risk of being harmed by nuclear weapons, while only marginally increasing the benefits of nuclear deterrence. By shifting the balance of harms vs. benefits, nuclear winter can promote nuclear disarmament.

Additional policy implications come from the risk of permanent harm to human civilization. If society takes this risk seriously, then it should go to great lengths to reduce the risk. It could stockpile food to avoid nuclear famine, or develop new agricultural paradigms that can function during nuclear winter.12)David Denkenberger and Joshua M. Pearce, Feeding Everyone No Matter What: Managing Food Security After Global Catastrophe (Waltham, MA: Academic Press, 2014). It could abandon nuclear deterrence, or shift deterrence regimes to different mixes of weapons.13)Seth D. Baum, “Winter-Safe Deterrence: The Risk of Nuclear Winter and Its Challenge to Deterrence,” Contemporary Security Policy, Vol. 36, No. 1 (April 2015), pp. 123–48. See also “The Winter-Safe Deterrence Debate,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, http://thebulletin.org/winter-safe-deterrence-debate8094. And it could certainly ratchet up its efforts to improve relations between nuclear weapon states. These are things that we can do right now, even while we await more detailed research on nuclear winter risk.

 

Seth Baum is Executive Director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute (gcrinstitute.org), a nonprofit think tank that he co-founded in 2011. His research focuses on risk, ethics, and policy questions for major risks to human civilization including nuclear war, global warming, and emerging technologies. The aim of this research is to characterize the risks and develop practical, effective solutions for reducing them. Dr. Baum received a Ph.D. in geography from Pennsylvania State University with a dissertation on climate change policy. He then completed a post-doctoral fellowship with the Columbia University Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. Prior to that, he studied engineering, receiving an M.S. in electrical engineering from Northeastern University with a thesis on electromagnetic imaging simulations. He also writes a monthly column for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

His research has appeared in many journals including Ecological Economics, Science and Engineering Ethics, Science and Global Security, and Sustainability. He is currently co-editor of a special issue of the journal Futures titled “Confronting future catastrophic threats to humanity.” He is an active member of the Society for Risk Analysis and has spoken at venues including the United Nations, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Lawrence Badash, A Nuclear Winter’s Tale: Science and Politics in the 1980s (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).
2. O.B. Toon, R.P. Turco, A. Robock, C. Bardeen, L. Oman and G. L. Stenchikov, “Atmospheric Effects and Societal Consequences of Regional Scale Nuclear Conflicts and Acts of Individual Nuclear Terrorism,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Vol. 7 (19 April 2007); Alan Robock, Luke Oman, Georgiy L. Stenchikov, “Nuclear Winter Revisited with a Modern Climate Model and Current Nuclear Arsenals: Still Catastrophic Consequences,” Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 112, No. D13107 (6 July 2007).
3. Ibid.
4. A. Stenke, C. R. Hoyle, B. Luo, E. Rozanov, J. Gröbner, L. Maag, S. Brönnimann, and T. Peter, “Climate and Chemistry Effects of a Regional Scale Nuclear Conflict,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Vol. 13, No. 19 (2013), pp. 9713–29.
5. Lili Xia and Alan Robock, “Impacts of a Nuclear War in South Asia on Rice Production in Mainland China,” Climatic Change, Vol. 116 (5 May 2012), pp. 357–72; Mutlu Özdoğan, Alan Robock, and Christopher Kucharik, “Impacts of a Nuclear War in South Asia on Soybean and Maize Production in the Midwest United States,” Climatic Change, Vol. 116 (22 June 2012), pp. 373–87.
6. Ira Helfand, “Nuclear Famine: Two Billion People at Risk,” International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (November 2013), http://www.ippnw.org/pdf/nuclear-famine-two-billion-at-risk-2013.pdf.
7. Carl Sagan, “Nuclear War and Climatic Catastrophe: Some Policy Implications,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 62, No. 2 (Winter 1983), pp. 257–92.
8. Why Australia and New Zealand? A nuclear war would presumably occur mainly or entirely in the northern hemisphere. The southern hemisphere would still experience environmental disruption, but it would not be as severe. Australia and New Zealand further benefit from their adjacent waters, which further soften the effect. See Alan Robock, “Nuclear Winter,” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, Vol. 1, No. 3 (May/June 2010), pp. 418–27. Quote at p. 424.
9. Timothy M. Maher Jr. and Seth D. Baum, “Adaptation to and Recovery from Global Catastrophe,” Sustainability, Vol. 5, No. 4 (28 March 2013), pp. 1461–79.
10. Paul Rubinson, “The Global Effects of Nuclear Winter: Science and Antinuclear Protest in the United States and the Soviet Union During the 1980s,” Cold War History, Vol. 14, No. 1 (February 2013), pp. 47–69.
11. Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons. http://www.bmeia.gv.at/en/european-foreign-policy/disarmament/weapons-of-mass-destruction/nuclear-weapons-and-nuclear-terrorism/vienna-conference-on-the-humanitarian-impact-of-nuclear-weapons/
12. David Denkenberger and Joshua M. Pearce, Feeding Everyone No Matter What: Managing Food Security After Global Catastrophe (Waltham, MA: Academic Press, 2014).
13. Seth D. Baum, “Winter-Safe Deterrence: The Risk of Nuclear Winter and Its Challenge to Deterrence,” Contemporary Security Policy, Vol. 36, No. 1 (April 2015), pp. 123–48. See also “The Winter-Safe Deterrence Debate,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, http://thebulletin.org/winter-safe-deterrence-debate8094.

Mind the Empathy Gap

Here is some news from recent research in neuroscience that, I think, is relevant for FAS’s mission to prevent global catastrophes. Psychologists Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley, and Jonathan Haidt of New York University, have argued that feelings of awe can motivate people to work cooperatively to improve the collective good.1)D. Keltner, and J. Haidt, “Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion,” Cognition and Emotion, 17 (2003), 297-314.Awe can be induced through transcendent activities such as celebrations, dance, musical festivals, and religious gatherings. Prof. Keltner and Prof. Paul Piff of the University of California, Irvine, recently wrote in an opinion article for the New York Times that “awe might help shift our focus from our narrow self-interest to the interests of the group to which we belong.”2)Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, “Why Do We Experience Awe?” New York Times, May 22, 2015. They report that a forthcoming peer reviewed article of theirs in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “provides strong empirical evidence for this claim.”

Their research team did surveys and experiments to determine whether participants who said they experienced awe in their lives regularly would be more inclined to help others. For example, one study at UC, Berkeley, was conducted near a spectacular grove of beautiful, tall Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees. The researchers had participants either look at the trees or stare at the wall of the nearby science building for one minute. Then, the researchers arranged for “a minor accident” to occur in which someone walking by would drop a handful of pens. “Participants who had spent the minute looking up at the tall trees—not long, but long enough, we found, to be filled with awe—picked up more pens to help the other person.”

Piff and Keltner conclude their opinion piece by surmising that society is awe-deprived because people “have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others.” My take away is that this observation has ramifications for whether people will band together to tackle the really tough problems confronting humanity including: countering and adapting to climate change, alleviating global poverty, and preventing the use of nuclear weapons. I find it interesting that Professors Piff and Keltner have mentioned shifting individuals’ interest to the group to which those people belong.

What about bringing together “in groups” with “out groups”? Can awe help or harm? Here’s where, I believe, the geopolitical and neuroscience news is mixed. First, let’s look at the bad news and then finish on a positive message of recent psychological research showing interventions that might alleviate the animosity between groups who are in conflict.

While awe can be inspiring, a negative connotation toward out groups is implicit in the phrase “shock and awe” in the context of massive demonstration of military force to try to influence the opponent to not resist the dominant group. Many readers will recall attempted use of this concept in the U.S.-led military campaign against Iraq in March and April 2003. U.S. and allied forces moved rapidly with a demonstration of impressive military might in order to demoralize Iraqi forces and thus result in a quick surrender. While Baghdad’s political power center crumbled quickly, many Iraqi troops dispersed and formed the nuclei of the insurgency that then opposed the occupation for many years to come.3)Richard Sanders, “The myth of ‘shock and awe’: Why the Iraqi invasion was a disaster,” Telegraph, UK, March 19, 2013. Thus, in effect, the frightening awe of the invasion induced numerous Iraqis to band together to resist U.S. forces rather than universally shower American troops with garlands.

Nuclear weapons are also meant to shock and awe an opponent. But the opponent does not have to be cowed into submission. To deter this coercive power, the leader of a nation under nuclear threat can either decide to acquire nuclear weapons or form an alliance with a friendly nation that already has these weapons. Other nations that do not feel directly threatened by another nation’s nuclear weapons can ignore these threats and tend to other priorities. This describes the world we live in today. Most of the world’s nations in Central Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia are in nuclear-weapon-free-zones and have opted out of nuclear confrontations. But in many countries in Europe, North America, East Asia, South Asia, and increasingly the Middle East, nuclear weapons have influenced decision makers to get their own weapons and increase reliance on them (for example, China, North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia), acquire a latent capability to make these weapons (for example, Iran), or request and receive protection from nuclear-armed allies (for example, non-nuclear countries of NATO, Japan and South Korea).

Is this part of the world destined to always figuratively sit on a powder keg with a short fuse? Perhaps if people in these countries can close the empathy gap, they might reduce the risk of nuclear war and eventually find cooperative security measures that do not require nuclear weapons. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Empathy is a natural human capacity especially when dealing with people who share many common bonds.

If we can truly understand someone we now perceive to be an enemy, would we be less likely to want to do harm to that person or other members of his or her group? Empathic understanding between groups is not a guarantee of conflict prevention, but it does appear to offer a promising method for conflict reduction. However, as psychological research has shown, failures of empathy often occur between groups that are socially or culturally different. People in one group can also feel pleasure in the suffering of those in the different group, especially if that other group is dominant. The German word schadenfreude captures this delight in others’ suffering. Competitive groups especially exhibit schadenfreude; for example, Boston Red Sox fans experience glee when the usually dominant New York Yankees lose to a weaker opponent.4)Mina Cikara, Emile G. Bruneau, and Rebecca R. Saxe, “Us and Them: Intergroup Failures of Empathy,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(3) 149-153, 2011.

Are there interventions that can disrupt this negative behavior and feelings? Cognitive scientists Mina Cikara, Emile Bruneau and Rebecca Saxe point out that “historical asymmetries of status and power between groups” is a key variable.5)Ibid, p. 151. If the same intervention method such as asking participants to take the perspective of the other into account is used for both groups, different effects are observed. For example, the dominant group tends to respond most positively to perspective taking in which members of that group would listen attentively to the perspective or views of the other group. A positive response means that people’s attitude toward the other group becomes favorable. In contrast, the non-dominant group’s members often experience a deepening of negative attitudes toward the dominant group if they engage in perspective taking. Rather, members of the non-dominant group show a favorable change in attitude when they perform perspective giving toward the dominant group. Importantly, they have to know that members of the dominant group are being attentive and really listening to the non-dominant group’s perspective. In other words, the group with less or no political power needs to be heard for positive change to occur. While these results seem to be common sense, Bruneau and Saxe point out that almost always perspective taking is used in interventions intended to bring asymmetric groups together and often this conflict resolution method fails. Their research underscores the importance of perspective giving, especially for non-dominant groups.6)Emile G. Bruneau and Rebecca Saxe, “The power of being heard: The benefits of ‘perspective-giving’ in the context of intergroup conflict,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48 (2012), 855-866.

This research shows promising results that could have implications for bridging the divide between Americans and Iranians on the different views on nuclear power, for example, or the gap between Americans and Chinese on the implications of the U.S. pivot toward East Asia and the Chinese rise in economic, military, and political power. I conclude this president’s message with encouragement to cognitive scientists in the United States and other nations to apply these and other research techniques to the grand social challenges such as how to get people across the globe to work together to mitigate the effects of climate change and to achieve nuclear disarmament through cooperative security.

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. D. Keltner, and J. Haidt, “Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion,” Cognition and Emotion, 17 (2003), 297-314.
2. Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner, “Why Do We Experience Awe?” New York Times, May 22, 2015.
3. Richard Sanders, “The myth of ‘shock and awe’: Why the Iraqi invasion was a disaster,” Telegraph, UK, March 19, 2013.
4. Mina Cikara, Emile G. Bruneau, and Rebecca R. Saxe, “Us and Them: Intergroup Failures of Empathy,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(3) 149-153, 2011.
5. Ibid, p. 151.
6. Emile G. Bruneau and Rebecca Saxe, “The power of being heard: The benefits of ‘perspective-giving’ in the context of intergroup conflict,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48 (2012), 855-866.

Dual Use Research: Is it Possible to Protect the Public Without Encroaching Rights?

For decades, scientists have had reasonable freedom and control over their research and experiments and able to publish and share their work without much inconvenience. The freedom of creativity in the field of science is much like that of an artist – often fueled by an inspiration from other sources, a passion for a unique realm of art (in this case, science), and a natural curiosity. Within reasonable limits, artists and scientists had the world at their fingertips; as long as they weren’t causing a societal disruption or engaging in illegal activity, their work was unregulated and not subject to state interference. With the continued growth of scientific knowledge and technological development, awareness of the risks associated with the misuse of scientific knowledge and new technology has continued to increase significantly – especially in microbiological research.

Microbiological research threats emerged on the public radar when anthrax strains used in the 2001 mailings to several United States government officials and citizens were found to have originated from the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. While senior biodefense researcher Dr. Bruce Ivins was the primary suspect for the anthrax mailings (mainly due to his unauthorized decontamination of several areas of USAMRIID), his involvement is still unresolved today. Since then, scientists have been scrutinized for working on certain research topics and published research literature labeled as “sensitive.” Ron Fouchier, a scientist at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands, completed research and wrote a research paper in 2011 on laboratory-created strains of H5N1 avian influenza.1)Herfst, S., Schrauwen, E. J., Linster, M., Chutinimitkul, S., de Wit, E., Munster, V. J., & Fouchier, R. A. (2012). “Airborne transmission of influenza A/H5N1 virus between ferrets.” Science336(6088), 1534-1541.During the course of his research he faced pressure from the Dutch government over the content of the paper that contained potentially dangerous information that might essentially teach someone how to create synthetic H5N1. In 2012 the U.S. magazine Science was to publish the paper until the U.S. government stepped in to block the paper from being published. Eventually Fouchier and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), an advisory committee for the United States government, came to a compromise about the publication –it could only be published if sensitive information were removed from the article. After that decision came proposals to create a system only accessible to “responsible scientists” where the removed sensitive information could be viewed. But who is responsible for deciding which scientists are responsible? And what makes one scientist more responsible than another? Which qualities would one use to measure how reliable a scientist is: Credentials? Previous research? Educational background?  Possession of a criminal record? While it is an interesting point to consider, society can’t make these decisions based on arbitrary methods of identification. There is no way to know if the Harvard educated, award-winning, highly skilled professor with a spotless criminal and driving record is going to be more trustworthy than the man who hasn’t published any major papers, committed a misdemeanor in his freshman year of college, and has not yet been able to contribute anything to the scientific community. In a radio interview for Science Friday, Dr. D.A. Henderson, a distinguished scientist and epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Center for Biosecurity, pondered what this would mean for the scientific community.2)Anand, N.S. (Producer). (2012, January 06). Debate persists over publishing bird flu studies [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/01/06/2012/debate-persists-over-publishing-bird-flu-studies.html Scientists might be turned down for grants or jobs arbitrarily, which would prove to be disruptive to the fundamental tenets of scientific inquiry as well as to the basic rights of those individuals who would not understand why they weren’t chosen for access to the exclusive system.

Upon realization of the possible dangers on publishing certain components of scientific research, the United States government assembled the NSABB, a panel of voting members with expertise in medicine, life sciences, national security, and other related fields. The NSABB previously assisted in addressing issues related to biosecurity and dual use research in 2004. Decisions made by the NSABB have no legal authority and their findings are strictly advisory. As the majority of scientific work in the United States is funded by a government entity, refusal to comply with NSABB’s advice could result in the reduction or loss of funding. An NSABB decision, while in the best interest of national security and the safety of our citizens, could have a chilling effect on research and advancement. Knowing that one’s research may be abridged to omit sensitive details, or blocked from publication, could discourage scientists from publishing – or even attempting – certain types of research. History has shown that general open access to scientific research publication contributes to many advancements and scientific breakthroughs. Science is a field in which breakthroughs are built upon past innovations and discoveries. Restricting the publication of research could negatively impact such scientific progress in the long run.

There is no question that sensitive scientific information needs to be watched closely, but there does not seem to be a plausible solution to the problem at this time. The new restrictions and regulations on scientific research are meant for national security, but at what point does national security encroach on the right of free speech? At what point do we allow national security concerns to impede the scientific process upon which so many societal advancements are based? This debate not only has technical implications, but is an ethical quandary as well.

As is the case with many ethical debates, there is no perfect solution. A sound strategy begins with the heavy involvement of the scientific community in the discussion; fortunately members of the community are engaging on this topic. A 2007 study analyzed literature centered around the ethics of biodefense and dual-use research of concern from the Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System (MEDLINE) database, which holds bibliographical information for academic science journals. Ten articles met their inclusion criteria, and the study concluded that self-regulation within the scientific community, international cooperation, and increased security were the top three suggestions for minimizing the risks presented by dual-use research.3)Dolgitser, M. (2007). “Minimization of the Risks Posed by Dual-Use Research: A Structured Literature Review.” Journal of the American Biological Safety Association12(3), 175. Retrieved from http://www.absa.org/abj/abj/071203dolgitser.pdf Conscientious self-regulation would allow scientists to oversee their own research and associated literature without concerns of compromising the quality of their publications. Additionally, international cooperation would unify a larger group of scientists who may possess similar concerns against the problem. Finally, better cooperation establishes stronger safety and security measures through focused peer review. Combined, these three measures can increase security and make the misuse of sensitive scientific information more difficult for people with access to it, and with increased safety education and clarity of dual use definitions, could further decrease the risks from misusing science.

 

Tosin Fadeyi is currently a graduate student at the University of Maryland University College, pursuing a Master of Science in Biotechnology and specializing in Biosecurity and Biodefense. She is a biosecurity intern at the Federation of American Scientists, overseeing the Virtual Biosecurity Center (VBC). She is also a peer review associate handling clinical trials and medical science journals for PLoS One, a peer-reviewed science publication.

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. Herfst, S., Schrauwen, E. J., Linster, M., Chutinimitkul, S., de Wit, E., Munster, V. J., & Fouchier, R. A. (2012). “Airborne transmission of influenza A/H5N1 virus between ferrets.” Science336(6088), 1534-1541.
2. Anand, N.S. (Producer). (2012, January 06). Debate persists over publishing bird flu studies [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/01/06/2012/debate-persists-over-publishing-bird-flu-studies.html
3. Dolgitser, M. (2007). “Minimization of the Risks Posed by Dual-Use Research: A Structured Literature Review.” Journal of the American Biological Safety Association12(3), 175. Retrieved from http://www.absa.org/abj/abj/071203dolgitser.pdf

Who was Willy Higinbotham?

Editor’s note: The following is a compilation of letters by Dr. William Higinbotham, a nuclear physicist who worked on the first nuclear bomb and served as the first chairman of FAS. His daughter, Julie Schletter, assembled these accounts of Higinbotham’s distinguished career.

 

Thank you for this opportunity to share with you my father’s firsthand accounts of the inception of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).  After my father died in November 1994, I inherited a truly intimidating treasure of letters, correspondence and most importantly a nearly complete manuscript (mostly on floppy disks) of his unpublished memoirs.  Over the last couple of decades, I have read widely and deeply, collected resources, transcribed and sorted through this material and am planning to publish a personal history of Willy in the near future.

William Higinbotham
William Higinbotham

Having studied this man from a more distant perspective, I am sure about certain things.  Willy was at his heart an optimist, a democrat, a child of liberal New England Protestants during the Great Depression, and a man who didn’t mind doing a lot of behind the scenes dirty work to make things happen.  He did this with self-deprecating humor, confidence in the humanity of others, a terrific sense of play, music, camaraderie, and most importantly a deep respect for the opinions of everyone.  He was humble, incredibly brilliant and could recall details from meetings many years in the past as well as lyrics to jazz standards and sea chanties not sung in a while.

Dad was a terrific story teller. This is his version of how he came to Washington, DC to serve as the first chairman of FAS. These are mostly his words with some additional anecdotes from colleagues and friends who knew him well during the war years and after.

 

In a letter to his daughter Julie in April 1994, Willy began his account with his parents, a beloved Presbyterian minister and wife: 

It is from them and their example that I have been inspired to do something for humanity.  In my case, the opportunity did not arise until I was 30 and the Second World War had started. As a graduate student at Cornell I was too poor to consider marriage and had no prospects for a reasonable job. As soon as Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, I knew that the US should prepare to go to war with our European allies. However, the vast majority of US citizens and Congressmen believed that we should have nothing to do with any European conflicts. It was only with difficulty that President Roosevelt was able to provide some assistance to the UK by “Lend Lease.” I was delighted to be invited to go to MIT in Jan. 1941, as Hitler’s Luftwaffe was bombing London and other British cities.

The US finally initiated the draft in March or April and (my brother) Robert was one of the first to be called up. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor that fall, we were in the war for good. (My brother) Freddy was the next to be drafted. By the summer of 1943 he was a navigator on a small C47 transport plane that dropped parachuters on Sicily, and then (my brother) Philip was drilling with the Army Engineers. I had strong reasons to develop technology that would speed defeat of Germany and Japan.

As you know, it was when I saw the first nuclear test on July 16, 1945, that I determined to do what I could to prevent a nuclear arms race.” 

Willy and his wife Julie
Willy and his wife Julie

 

From his unpublished memoirs, Willy described the Trinity test:

“Until the last moment, it was not clear if the implosion design [which used plutonium] would actually work. Everyone was confident that the gun design [which used highly enriched uranium] would work, but Hanford was producing plutonium at a good rate while Oak Ridge was producing highly enriched uranium with great difficulty. Consequently, the Trinity test was planned for early in 1945.

Almost everyone in Los Alamos was involved in constructing the implosion weapon or in designing and installing measurement instruments for the test. Most of my group was involved in the latter. Sometimes I drove, with others, to the site to install and test various devices. Many of the instruments were to be turned on minutes or seconds before the bomb was to be triggered. Joe McKibben, of the Van de Graff group, designed the alarm-clock and relay system which was to send out signals for the last ten minutes. I designed the electronic circuit which was to send out the signals during the last second and then to send the signal to the tower. Some of my scientists and many of my technicians spent many days at the site. By test day, we had done all that was requested and I was prepared to await the results of the test, at Los Alamos.

At the last minute, I had a call from Oppie [Scientific Director J. Robert Oppenheimer], asking me to bring a radio to the test site for a number of special observers who were to be at 18 miles from the tower. We had an all-wave Halicrafters receiver which needed a storage battery for the filaments and a stack of big 45 volt B-batteries for the plates. We also had several cheap loud speakers. So, I grabbed several of the remaining technicians and had them check the equipment and pack it into a small truck. They drove the truck to the site. I went with some of the special guests by bus to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, whence a military bus took us to the place reserved for us, near where the road to the test site leaves the main highway north of it.

We arrived there in the evening. As has been reported often, the weather clouded over and there was some rain. So we waited. The radio worked although the sound was rather weak. The Halicrafter had less than a watt of output and the speakers were not very efficient. Eventually, the countdown began. We were issued slabs of very dark glass, used by welders. I couldn’t see the headlights on the truck through it. I only remember one of the others who was in our select group, Edward Teller. As the countdown approached the last 10 seconds, he began to rub sun screen on his face, which rather shook me. I had been assured that the bomb, if it worked, would not ignite the atmosphere or the desert. At 18 miles it seemed incredible to me that we might get scorched.

At T = 0, we saw a brilliant white flash of light through our dark glass filters, and the hills around us were suddenly brightly lit. Immediately, the point of light expanded to a white sphere and then to a redder inverted bowl shaped object which began to be surrounded with eddies and then rose up into the air and climbed rapidly to the sky, where a clear space suddenly opened in the high thin cloud layer and finally ended as an ugly white cap. All up and down the smoky column there were bluish sparks due to the radioactivity and electric discharges. It must have been more than a minute before the shock wave came through the ground, followed shortly by the sharp air-wave blast, which rumbled off the hills for another minute or so. It was clear that the bomb worked as predicted. I had hoped that the physicists might have been wrong and for many reasons I figured that this test would not be successful. Now I had to face the existence of nuclear weapons. It was a paralyzing realization.

As I recall, no one said anything. My boys packed up the radio equipment and headed home. I got into a bus with about fifteen others and we started for Albuquerque. I had saved one of the bottles of scotch, which my MIT friends had given me in 1943, and had it with me, in case. I pulled it out, opened it, and passed it around. The others on the bus, scientists and military types, quietly sipped it and passed it along until it was empty. No one said anything.

Several hours later we arrived at Kirtland and those of us from Los Alamos transferred to another bus to return there. I was paralyzed. I went back to the Lab and doodled there until closing time. I had supper and went to my room. I didn’t sleep. All I could think of was that the Soviet Union would surely develop nuclear weapons and might blow us off the map. I knew about radar and anti-aircraft and that a bomb, such as the one I had seen, would wipe out any city. The best defense against bombers in Europe had been to shoot down ten percent of the attackers. Ninety percent would not save us.

After agonizing for a day or more, I finally began to think about why Stalin might attempt to destroy the US. It was quite possible that Soviet aircraft could cross the oceans and attack the US. However, it would do them no good to just destroy cities. They would have to occupy us to gain any advantage. The more I thought about this, the more I came to believe that attacking the US with nuclear weapons would not make sense even to an evil man like Stalin. What might make more sense would be to use nuclear weapons to attack our allies in Europe. By then it was clear that Stalin intended to continue to occupy Poland, Hungary and other previously free countries that surrounded the Soviet Union. (In my mind) at least the US did not seem to be threatened. There would be time to see if the Soviet Union was going to threaten the other nations beyond those it now controlled. (Eventually) I got some sleep and went back to work on the new jobs which faced the Lab.

I had no intention of taking a major role in this effort. As soon as Japan surrendered, many of the scientists at Los Alamos began to discuss this subject. When General Groves said that we could keep the secret for 15 years, and Congressmen told scientists to design a defense, we held a big meeting and started to draft a statement for the public.”

 

In a letter Dad wrote to his mother from Los Alamos:1)Jungk, Robert. Brighter Than a Thousand Suns.  New York:  Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1958  p 223.

“I am not a bit proud of the job we have done . . . the only reason for doing it was to beat the rest of the world to a draw . . . perhaps this is so devastating that man will be forced to be peaceful. The alternative to peace is now unthinkable. But unfortunately there will always be some who don’t think. . . . I think I now know the meaning of “mixed emotions.” I am afraid that Gandhi is the only real disciple of Christ at present . . . anyway it is over for now and God give us strength in the future. Love, Will.”

 

From his memoirs, Willy described how he came to Washington, DC in the fall of 1945:

“Strangely, I don’t remember many discussions of the implications of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos before the end of the war. My friends and I had some scattered discussions about how Nazism had taken hold, and of what the world might face after Hitler was defeated. I was invited a few times to sit in Oppie’s living room as Niels Bohr discussed his thoughts about the future control of atomic energy. Bohr was almost impossible to understand because he had an accent and because he always spoke several decibels below the audible threshold. Much later I would understand how wise he was, but at the time the whole subject seemed confusing and not very important to me.

Then came Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Japanese surrender. We had a big party the night the surrender was announced. I sat on the hood of a jeep, playing my accordion, as we paraded around town. Immediately after that, the discussions began in earnest. A number of them were held in my office in the Tech area in the evenings. The public response to the development of atomic weapons was discouraging. General Groves asserted that it would take the Soviets fifteen years to develop an atomic weapon. Congressmen began talking about defenses. Scientists at Oak Ridge and Chicago were organizing and we began to hear from them.

The first large meeting was attended by about sixty people on August 20th. All agreed that we should form an organization and the question of whether it should consider scientists’ welfare as well as the social implications of nuclear energy, was discussed. A committee was appointed to make arrangements for a meeting for all of the scientists and engineers.

On August 23rd, a nine member committee issued an invitation to attend a meeting for all scientists and engineers on August 30th for the following purpose:

“Many people have expressed a desire to form an organization of progressive scientists which has as its primary object to see that the scientific and technological advancements for which they are responsible are used in the best interests of humanity.

Most scientists on this project feel strongly their responsibility for the proper use of scientific knowledge. At present, recommendations for the future of this project and of atomic power are being made. It would be the immediate purpose of this society to examine our own views on these questions and take suitable action. However, the future will hold more problems and scientists will feel the need of a more general organization to express their views.

Before the next meeting had been held it was clear to everyone that the international control of atomic energy was the vital issue and should be the only issue with which the organization was concerned.”

The meeting on August 30th was attended by about five hundred individuals. They overwhelmingly approved the following motion by Joe Keller:

  1. We hereby form an organization of scientists, called temporarily, the Association of Los Alamos Scientists (ALAS).
  2. The object of this organization is to promote the attainment and use of scientific and technological advances in the best interests of humanity. We recognize that scientists, by virtue of their special knowledge, have, in certain spheres, special social responsibilities beyond their obligations as individual citizens. The organization aims to carry out these responsibilities by keeping its members informed and by providing a forum through which their views can be publicly and authoritatively expressed.

We discussed what our statement should say to the President and to the public. Except for Edward Teller, we all agreed that the message was that (1) there is no secret (scientists anywhere could figure out how to make atomic weapons now that we had demonstrated that they are possible). In addition, (2) there is no defense that can prevent great devastation by atomic weapons, and (3) we must have “world control.”  Edward Teller would not agree with the latter because that was a political and not a technical conclusion. Leo Szilard’s counter to this, we later heard, was that you don’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater without telling people where the exits are. Anyway, the three phrases became our policy.

To my great surprise, I was elected the first chairman of the Association of Los Alamos Scientists. Later, I went to Washington and offered to spend a year managing the scientists’ office. Then I was elected the first chairman of the Federation of American Scientists in January, 1946. I was surprised and hoped that I would not let people down. I think that I understand this. I do not have strong beliefs as did Leo Szilard and many others. I was not a Nobel laureate. I was a team worker. I sought to unite people on positions that they could agree to. People trusted me.

The first executive committee was composed of David Frisch, Joseph Keller, David Lipkin, John Manley, Victor Weisskopf, Robert Wilson, William Woodward, and myself (chairman).

From the beginning, we were aware that the scientific and military success of our work would bring both new dangers and new possibilities of human benefits to the world.

We posed and answered five questions:

  1. What would the atomic bomb do in the event of another war?
  2. Use of such bombs would quickly and thoroughly annihilate the important cities in all countries involved. We must expect that bombs will be developed which will be many times more effective and which will be available in large numbers.
  3. What defense would be possible? One hundred percent interception should be considered impossible. Therefore, were there a possibility of attack we could not gamble on defenses alone and would have to make drastic changes such as abandoning cities and decentralizing communications.  How long would it take for any other country to produce as atomic bomb?  Within a few years.
  4. What would be the effect of an atomic arms race on science and technology? Emphasis on the development of more weapons would interfere with developments for peaceful applications.
  5. Assuming that international control of the bomb is agreed upon, is such control technically feasible? From a scientific point of view we assert that international control of the atomic bomb is feasible and that such control need not interfere with free and profitable peacetime research and development.

Like everyone else, I visited congressmen, talked to reporters, lectured to local organizations and answered phone calls. A large part of the public was interested in atomic energy. A number of the leaders of major national organizations visited us or asked us to meet with them.

When the Soviets fired their first nuclear test in 1949, the President and the Congress pushed for development of the H bomb, which stimulated the nuclear arms race. It was a sad story after that. Edward Teller was convinced that the Soviets would blow up the US if it ever had the opportunity to do so without suffering much retaliation. More rational people felt that the Soviets would have enough trouble keeping on top of their people and satellites, especially after Stalin died in 1970. I could go on. The US became paranoid about communists. Joseph McCarthy lied but many innocent people lost their jobs. Oppenheimer was publicly disgraced. The US continued to accelerate the nuclear arms race. By good luck, the US and USSR agreed to halt tests in the atmosphere in 1963 and the Cuban missile crisis did not lead to the Apocalypse, though that was close. I have spent a lot of my time and effort trying to influence US policy in this area. A lot of that was spent talking to the already converted. My friends and I have had some minor successes. But we never could convince our government that the nuclear arms race was unnecessary and that the Soviets would respond favorably if we were to suggest winding it down. It was the Soviet leaders, with Gorbachev, who realized that the arms race was a waste of effort and who were willing to take the risk of offering to reduce their deployed nuclear weapons and go further if the US agreed.

If we and others are to survive, we must understand the present situation and try to find new and better ways to deal with international problems. The development of nuclear weapons means that the traditional policies will probably fail. I have had a few opportunities to discuss this with some of the doubters. Most of the time, however, the people that I talked to were sympathetic to our attempts at developing a new approach.

So, the objective that I devoted so much time, effort, and thought to was finally attained by the Soviets. Most of the time I was discouraged but did not give up. A number of the scientists who were active at the start gave up. Some of the scientists that I have worked with thought that I was crazy — but they never took the trouble to find out what I knew about what was going on or what I was really doing. There were many distinguished scientists who thought as I did, and we encouraged each other. They have been a great help to me.”

These last few anecdotes come from the many letters that were sent to my father on the occasion of his 80th birthday.  I believe they speak to the qualities that made Dad so incredibly successful at ALAS, FAS, and then on to Brookhaven National Laboratory where he worked on an astounding number of projects and committees, and where he established the Technical Support Organization Library.  During his tenure at BNL he attended some of the Pugwash meetings, SALT talks and traveled extensively all over the world to communicate honestly with scientists and policy makers regarding atomic energy and nuclear safeguards.

He also built the prototype for Pong in the mid-fifties as a demonstration exhibit for the public and guests at the summer open lab events. He was “discovered” by computer gamers all over the world by around 1972.  Dad was mortified by this! He thought anyone with a simple understanding of electronics could have invented that sort of game just as easily as he did!  He bemoaned the idea that he would be remembered not for his life’s work on nuclear non-proliferation, but on a silly computer game.  And (regrettably) he was right about that.

 

Willy on Long Island with his beloved accordion around 1951
Willy on Long Island with his beloved accordion around 1951

Jim de Montmollin, colleague from the Manhattan Project:

“I think the most important thing to me is your sensitivity and selflessness. In an era when people seek to project an image of sophistication through a cynical and ‘me first’ attitude toward everything, I especially value knowing people like you. I think of myself also as a sort of pragmatic idealist, and I consider you to be the ultimate model. Far more than I, you have worked tirelessly toward unselfish objectives, always seeking practical and feasible steps toward getting there.

I also admire your tolerance. You don’t hesitate to call it like you see it, but neither are you ever hesitant to defend any cause or individual, however unpopular or unfashionable they may be. That is what has always made it such a pleasure to discuss anything with you:  it [is] rare to know people who think for themselves, who absorb new information and develop their thoughts from it, who are more than carriers of the conventional wisdom, and who are so well—informed on so many things as you. What I refer to as your tolerance is both an openness toward new facts and ideas and a lack of animosity toward those who differ in any way.

Your dedication and drive over at least the last 50 years toward objectives that are not self-seeking or necessarily fashionable is another aspect that makes you so outstanding to me. Long before I knew you, you did it at no small personal sacrifice. When you became too old to meet the bureaucratic rules for continued work, you have worked as hard as ever, taking advantage of the freedom to apply yourself wherever you could be the most effective. If you ever have any private doubts about what you may have sacrificed, let me assure you that I appreciate and admire you for it.

I remember you commenting on more than one occasion that you regarded George Weiss as a ‘real gentleman.’ I agree, but that also applies to you even more so. It is your sensitivity to others’ feelings, your tolerance of their shortcomings, and your efforts to point out their good qualities that mark you as a gentleman to me, in the finest sense of the word.”


From Freeman Dyson, English-born American theoretical physicist and mathematician:

“I am delighted to hear that the FAS headquarters building is to be named in your honor. In this way we shall celebrate the historic role that you played in the beginnings of FAS.  And we make sure that future generations did not forget who you were and what you did.

I remember vividly the day I joined FAS, soon after I arrived in the USA as a graduate student in 1947.  Gene Lochlin, who was a fellow student at Cornell, took me to an FAS meeting and I was immediately hooked.  One of the things that attracted me most strongly to FAS was the spontaneous and un-hierarchical way in which [it] should function. Coming fresh from England, I found it amazing that the leader of FAS was not Sir Somebody-Something, but this young fellow Willy Higinbotham who had grabbed the initiative in 1945 and organized the crucial dialogue between scientists and congressmen.

And [by] 1947 you were already a legendary figure, a symbol of the ordinary guy who changes history by doing the right thing at the right time.  To me you were also a symbol of the good side of America, the open society where everyone is free to make a contribution. You just happen to make one of the biggest contributions. I am proud now to join and honoring your achievement.”

The world has certainly changed since the atomic bomb first exploded over the white sands of New Mexico in July 1945, yet it is clear that in regard to nuclear non-proliferation and world peace we have a mighty long way to go.  William Higinbotham served as the first chairman of FAS in 1945; the mission and objectives were clear and imperative. The work he began now continues 70 years later.    On behalf of my father, thank you for your most noble efforts to make our world a safer and saner place for all of humanity.

 

Julie Schletter retired in 2013 after almost forty years working in education as a school counselor. Her recent project has been completing a book about her father, Accordion to Willy:  A Personal History of William Higinbotham the Man who Helped Build the Atom Bomb, Launched the Federation of American Scientists and Invented the First Video Game.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Jungk, Robert. Brighter Than a Thousand Suns.  New York:  Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1958  p 223.

The False Hope of Nuclear Forensics? Assessing the Timeliness of Forensics Intelligence

Nuclear forensics is playing an increasing role in the conceptualization of U.S. deterrence strategy, formally integrated into policy in the 2006 National Strategy on Combatting Terrorism (NSCT). This policy linked terrorist groups and state sponsors in terms of retaliation, and called for the development of “rapid identification of the source and perpetrator of an attack,” through the bolstering of attribution via forensics capabilities.1)National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, September 2006, pg. 5: Available at http://www.cfr.org/counterterrorism/national-strategy-combating-terrorism-2006/p11389 2)Ibid. pg. 15. This indirect deterrence between terrorist groups and state sponsors was strengthened during the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit when nuclear forensics expanded into the international realm and was included in the short list of priorities for bolstering state and international capacity. However, while governments and the international community have continued to invest in capabilities and databases for tracking and characterizing the elemental signatures of nuclear material, the question persists as to the ability of nuclear forensics to contribute actionable intelligence in a post-detonation situation quickly enough, as to be useful in the typical time frame for retaliation to terrorist acts.

In the wake of a major terrorist attack resulting in significant casualties, the impetus for a country to respond quickly as a show of strength is critical.3)There are numerous anecdotal examples that come to mind here: Russian action in Chechnya following terror attacks; U.S. bombing of Libya following the discotheque bombing 10 days earlier; U.S. invasion of Afghanistan 3 weeks after 9/11. As Jeffrey Knopf pointed out in “Wrestling with Deterrence”: “On 13 September, for example, Bush told his National Security Council, ‘We’re going to hurt them [the Taliban] so bad that everyone in the world sees, don’t deal with bin Laden.’”(pg. 33) Because of this, a country is likely to retaliate based on other intelligence sources, as the data from a fully completed forensics characterization would be beyond the time frame necessary for a country’s show of force. To highlight the need for a quick response, a quantitative analysis of responses to major terrorist attacks will be presented in the following pages. This timeline will then be compared to a prospective timeline for forensics intelligence. Fundamentally, this analysis makes it clear that in the wake of a major nuclear terrorist attack, the need to respond quickly will trump the time required to adequately conduct nuclear forensics and characterize the origins of the nuclear material. As there have been no instances of nuclear terrorism, a scenario using chemical, biological, and radiological weapons will be used as a proxy for what would likely occur from a policy perspective in the event a nuclear device is used.

This article will examine existing literature, outline arguments, review technical attributes,4)As most post-detonation procedures are classified, pre-detonation documentation will be used to extrapolate an adequate narrative. examine the history of retaliation to terrorism, and discuss conclusions and policy recommendations. This analysis finds that the effective intelligence period for nuclear forensics is not immediate, optimistically producing results in ideal conditions between 21 and 90 days, if at all. The duration of 21 days is also based on pre-detonation conditions, and should be considered very, if not overly, optimistic. Further, empirical data collected and analyzed suggestions that the typical response to conventional terrorism was on average 22 days, with a median of 12 days, while terrorism that used chemical, biological, or radiological materials warranted quicker response – an average of 19 days and a median of 10 days. Policy and technical obstacles would restrict the effectiveness of nuclear forensics to successfully attribute the origin of a nuclear weapon following a terrorist attack before political demands would require assertive responses.

 

Literature

Discussions of nuclear forensics have increased in recent years. Non-technical scholarship has tended to focus on the ability of these processes to deter the use of nuclear weapons (in particular by terrorists), by eliminating the possibility of anonymity.5)Shaheen Dewji and Adam Stulberg, “Is Nuclear Forensics an Effective Deterrent Against Nuclear Smuggling and Terrorism?,” (Proceedings of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management Annual Conference, July 2010, Baltimore, Maryland); Michael Miller, “Nuclear Attribution as Deterrence,” The Nonproliferation Review, 14:1 (2007): 33-60; Graham Allison, “Nuclear Deterrence in the Age of Nuclear Terrorism,” Technology Review, (November/December 2008): 68-73. Here, the deterrence framework is an indirect strategy, by which states signal guaranteed retribution for those who support the actions of an attacking nation or non-state actor. This approach requires the ability to provide credible evidence both as to the origin of material and to the political decision to transfer material to a non-state actor. As a result of insufficient data available on the world’s plutonium and uranium supply, as well as the historical record of the transit of material, nuclear forensics may not be able to provide stand-alone intelligence or evidence against a supplying country. However, scholars have largely assumed that the ‘smoking gun’ would be identifiable via nuclear forensics. Michael Miller, for example, argues that attribution would deter both state actors and terrorists from using nuclear weapons as anyone responsible will be identified via nuclear forensics.6)Miller, “Nuclear Attribution as Deterrence” Keir Lieber and Daryl Press have echoed this position by arguing that attribution is fundamentally guaranteed due to the small number of possible suppliers of nuclear material and the high attribution rate for major terrorist attacks.7)Ibid. pgs. 100-102. There is an important oversight from both a technical and policy perspective in these types of arguments however.

First, the temporal component of nuclear forensics is largely ignored. The processes of forensics do not produce immediate results. While the length of time necessary to provide meaningful intelligence differs, it is unlikely that nuclear forensics will provide information as to the source of the device in the time frame required by policymakers, who in the wake of a terrorist attack will need to respond quickly and decisively. This is likely to decrease both the credibility of forensics information and its usefulness if the political demand requires a leader to act promptly.

Secondly, the existence and size of a black-market for nuclear and radiological material is generally dismissed as a non-factor as it is assumed that a complex weapon provided by a state with nuclear weapon capacity is necessary. While it is acknowledged that a full-scale nuclear device capable of being deployed on a delivery device certainly requires advanced technical capacity that a terrorist organization would likely not have, a very crude weapon is possible. Devices such as a radiological dispersal device or a low yield nuclear device, or even a failed (fizzle) nuclear weapon, would still create a desirable outcome for a terrorist group in that panic, death, and devastating economic and societal consequences would ensue. Further, black market material could the ideal method of weaponization, as its characterization and origin-tracing would prove nearly impossible due to decoupling, and thus confusion, between perpetrator and originator.

It is evident that there is a gap between a robust technical understanding and arguments as to the viability and speed of nuclear forensics in providing actionable intelligence. This gap could lead to unrealistic expectations in times of crisis.

 

Technical Perspective

This section will outline the technologies, processes, and limitations of forensics in order to better inform its potential for contributing meaningful data in a crisis involving nuclear material. It should be noted that most open-source literature on the processes and capabilities of nuclear forensics come from a pre-detonation position, as specifics on post-denotation procedures and timelines are classified.8)For example: Miller, “Nuclear Attribution as Deterrence”; Lieber and Press, “Why States Won’t Give Nuclear Weapons to Terrorists,”; Allison, “Nuclear Deterrence in the Age of Nuclear Terrorism;” Larry J. Arbuckle, “The Deterrence of Nuclear Terrorism Through an Attribution Capability,” Naval Postgraduate School, Graduate Thesis (June 2008). William J. Broad, ‘New Team Plans to Identify Nuclear Attackers,’ New York Times, 2 February 2006, p. A17. This has resulted in the technical difficulties and inherent uncertainties in the conduct of forensic operations in a post-detonation situation being ignored. The following will attempt to extrapolate the details of the pre-detonation procedures into the post-detonation context in order to posit a potential time frame for intelligence retrieval.

Fundamentally, nuclear forensics is the analysis of nuclear or radiological material for the purposes of documenting the material’s characteristics and process history. With this information, and a database of material to compare the sample to, attribution of the origin of the material is possible.9)This includes analysis of comparative signatures and predictive signatures. The former looks at direct comparisons of samples, the latter leverages representative data to draw conclusions. For more: Ian D. Hutcheon, Michael J. Kristo and Kim B. Knight, “Nonproliferation Nuclear Forensics,” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: https://seaborg.llnl.gov/docs/Nonproliferation_Nuclear_Forensics_final.pdf. Following usage or attempted usage of a nuclear or radiological device, nuclear forensics would examine the known relationships between material characteristics and process history, seeking to correlate characterized material with known production history. While forensics encompasses the processes of analysis on recovered material, nuclear attribution is the process of identifying the source of nuclear or radioactive material, to determine the point of origin and routes of transit involving such material, and ultimately to contribute to the prosecution of those responsible.

Following a nuclear detonation, panic would likely prevail among the general populace and some first responders charged with helping those injured. Those tasked with collecting data from the site for forensic analysis would take time to deploy.10)This has been a major push since 9/11 in major metropolitan areas to train first responders as to what to expect following a terrorist attack of this kind, how to use specialized tools like dosimetry, and the procedures for responding. These programs have been sponsored by the National Nuclear Security Administration, Department of Homeland Security, and others. However, while we have not had to respond to a nuclear event, and with the underlying fear that often persuades over nuclear material, fear and panic may still impact a significant portion of first responders. While National Guard troops are able to respond to aid the population, specialized units are more dispersed throughout the country.11)CBRNE Enhanced Response Force Packages are also units that would response to these events. They are located in 17 states spread around the country. However, these roughly 170 personnel are more focused on aiding the populace as they would specialize in medical aid, search and rescue, and decontamination. Nuclear Emergency Support Teams, which would respond in the wake of a nuclear terror attack, are stationed at several of the national laboratories spread around the country. Depending on the location of the attack, response times may vary greatly. The responders’ first step would be to secure the site, as information required for attribution comes from both traditional forensics techniques (pictures, locating material, measurements, etc.) and the elemental forensics analysis of trace particles released from the detonation. At the site, responders would be able to determine almost immediately if it was indeed a full-scale nuclear detonation, a fizzle, or a radiological dispersal device. This is possible by assessing the level of damage and from the levels of radiation present, which can be determined with non-destructive assay techniques and dosimetry. Responders (through the use of gamma ray spectrometry and neutron detection) will be able to classify the type of material used if it is a nuclear device (plutonium versus uranium). With these factors assessed, radiation detectors would need to be deployed to carefully examine the blast site or fallout area to catalogue and extricate radioactive material for analysis. These materials would then need to be delivered to a laboratory capable of handling them.

Once samples arrive at the laboratories, characterization of the material will be undertaken to provide the full elemental analysis (isotopic and phase) of the radioactive material, including major, minor and trace constituents, and a variety of tools that can help classify into bulk analysis, imaging techniques, and microanalysis. Bulk analysis would provide elemental and isotopic composition on the material as a whole, and would enable the identification of trace material that would need to be further analyzed. Imaging tools capture the spatial and textural heterogeneities that are vital to fully characterizing a sample. Finally, microanalysis examines more granularly the individual components of the bulk material.

The three-step process described above is critical to assessing the processes the material was exposed to and the origin of the material. The process, the tools used at each stage, and a rough sequencing of events is shown in Figure 1.12)International Atomic Energy Agency, Nuclear Forensics Support: Technical Guidance Reference Manual, IAEA Nuclear Security Series No. 2 (2006). This table, a working document produced by the IAEA, presents techniques and methods that would be used by forensics analysts as they proceed through the three-step process, from batch analysis to microanalysis. Each column represents a time frame in which a tool of nuclear forensics could be utilized by analysts. However, this is a pre-detonation scenario. While it does present a close representation of what would happen post-detonation, some of the techniques listed below would be expected to take longer. This is due to several factors such as the spread of the material, vaporization of key items, and safety requirements for handling radioactive material. These processes take time and deal with small amounts of material at a time which would require a multitude of microanalysis on a variety of elements.

 

Figure 1: IAEA Suggested Sequence for Laboratory Techniques and Methods
Figure 1: IAEA Suggested Sequence for Laboratory Techniques and Methods

It should also be noted that while nuclear forensics does employ developed best practices, it is not an exact science in that a process can be undertaken and definitive results. Rather, it is an iterative process, by which a deductive method of hypothesis building, testing, and retesting is used to guide analysis and extract conclusions. Analysts build hypotheses based on categorization of material, test these hypotheses against the available forensics data and initiate further investigation, and then interpret the results to include or remove actors from consideration. This can take several iterations. As such, while best practices and proven science drive analysis, the experience and quality of the analyst to develop well-informed hypotheses which can be used to focus more on the investigation is critical to success. A visual representation of the process is seen in Figure 2 below.13)Ibid. pg. 33.

 

Figure 2: IAEA forensic analysis process
Figure 2: IAEA forensic analysis process

A net assessment by the Joint Working Group of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science of the current status of nuclear forensics and the ability to successfully conduct attribution concluded that the technological expertise was progressing steadily, but greater cooperation and integration was necessary between agencies.14)Joint Working Group of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Nuclear Forensics: Role, State of the Art, and Program Needs,” (2013): 31-32. http://www.aaas.org/report/nuclear-forensics-role-state-art-program-needs They also provided a simplified timeline of events following a nuclear attack, which is seen in Figure 3.15)Ibid. pg. 12. Miller also provides a more nuanced breakdown of questions that would arise in a post-detonation situation; however, it is the opinion of the author that his table overstates technical capacity following a detonation and uses optimistic estimates for intelligence.16)Miller, “Nuclear Attribution as Deterrence,” 37-39.

Figure 3: Nuclear forensics activities following a detonation
Figure 3: Nuclear forensics activities following a detonation

Many of the processes that provide the most insight simply take time to configure, run, and rerun. Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, for instance, is able to detect and measure trace organic elements in a bulk sample, a very useful tool in attempting to identify potential origin via varying organics present.17)Hutcheon, et. al. Pg. 11. However, when the material is spread far (mostly vaporized or highly radioactive), it can take time to configure and run successfully. Thermal Ionization Mass Spectrometry (TIMS) allows for the measuring of multiple isotopes simultaneously, enabling ratios between isotope levels to be assessed.18)Ibid. Pg. 9-10. While critically important, this process takes time to prepare each sample, requiring purification in either a chemical or acid solution.

With this broad perspective in mind, how long would it take for actionable intelligence to be produced by a nuclear forensics laboratory following the detonation of a nuclear weapon? While Figure 1 puts output being produced in as little as one week, this would be high-level information and able to eliminate possible origins, but most likely not able to come to definitive conclusion. The estimates of Figure 3 (ranging from a week to months), are more likely as the iterative process of hypothesis testing and the obstacles leading up to the point at which the material arrives at the laboratory, would slow and hamper progress. Further, if the signatures of the material are not classified into a comprehensive database, though disperse efforts are underway, the difficulty in conclusively saying it is a particular actor increases.19)The IAEA’s Illicit Trafficking Database has been a base project for forensics data, as samples that are tested are catalogued. Other efforts in the cataloguing of nuclear forensics material include: Uranium Sourcing Database (NNSA/LLNL), Canada’s National Nuclear Forensics Library, Nuclear Forensics Library in Ukraine, National Nuclear Forensics Library at Japan Atomic Energy Agency, and so forth. As such, an estimate of weeks to months, as is highlighted in Figures 4 and 5, is an appropriate time frame by which actionable intelligence would be available from nuclear forensics. The graphics below show the likely production times for definitive findings by the forensics processes and outlines a zone of effective intelligence production. How does this align with the time frame of retribution?

 

Figure 4: Nuclear forensics timeline
Figure 4: Nuclear forensics timeline (author-created figure, compiled from above cited IAEA reports and AAAS report.)

 

 

Bax Fig 5
Figure 5: Effective Intelligence Zone (author-created figure, compiled from above cited IAEA reports and AAAS report.)

 

Retaliation Data

How quickly do policymakers act in the wake of a terrorist attack? This question is largely unexplored in the social science literature. However, it is critical to establishing a baseline period in which nuclear forensics would likely need to be able to provide actionable intelligence following an attack. As such, an examination of the retaliatory time to major terrorist attacks will be examined to understand the time frame likely available to forensics analysts to contribute conclusions on materials recovered.

Major terrorist attacks were identified using the Study for Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism Global Terrorism Database.20)National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). (2013). Global Terrorism Database [Data file]. Retrieved from http://www.start.umd.edu/gtd As such, the database was selected to return events that resulted in either 50 or more fatalities or over 100 injured. Also removed were cases occurring in Afghanistan or Iraq after 2001 and 2003 due to the indistinguishability of responses to terror attacks and normal operations of war within the data. This yielded 269 observations between 1990 and 2004. Cases that had immediate responses (same day) were excluded as this would indicate an ongoing armed conflict. Summary statistics for this data are as follows:

Table 1: Summary Statistics for GTD
Observations 263
Fatalities Average 68.6
Median 55
Range – low 0
Range – high 1382
Injuries Average 131.3
Median 27.5
Range – low 0
Range – high 5500
Attack Type Assault 138
Assassination 10
Bombing 77
Hijacking 2
Hostage 10
Unknown 26
Primary Target Government 87
Infrastructure 19
Civilian 146
Other/Unknown 11
Weapon Conventional 209
Unconventional 54

 

The identified terrorist events were then located in Gary King’s 10 Million Events data set21)Gary King and Will Lowe, “10 Million International Dyadic Events,” (2004) http://hdl.handle.net/1902.1/FYXLAWZRIA UNF:3:dSE0bsQK2o6xXlxeaDEhcg== IQSS Dataverse Network [Distributor] V5 [Version], which uses a proven data capture and classification method to catalogue events between 1990 and 2004. Government responses following the attack were then captured. Actions were restricted to only those where the government engaged the perpetrating group. This was done by capturing events classified as the following: missile attack, arrest, assassination, unconventional weapons, armed battle, bodily punishment, criminal arrests, human death, declare war, force used, artillery attack, hostage taking, torture, small arms attack, armed actions, suicide bombing, and vehicle bombing. This selection spans the spectrum of policy responses available to a country following a domestic terror attack that would demonstrate strength and resolve. Additionally, by utilizing a range of responses, it is possible to examine terrorism levied from domestic and international sources, thus enabling the consideration of both law enforcement and military actions. Speech acts, sanctions, and other policy actions that do not portray resolve and action were excluded, as they would typically occur within hours of an attack and would not be considered retaliation.

Undertaking this approached yielded retaliation dates for all observations. The summary statistics and basic outline of response time by tier of causalities are as follows:

 

Table 2: Summary Statistics                                 Table 3: Casualties by Retaliation Quartile

 

Average Respond Time 22 days   Quickest Retaliation Killed Injured Total
Median Respond Time 12 days 1st Quartile (Fastest 25%) 57.66 175 233
Min 1 day 2nd Quartile 67.91 77.98 146
Max 164 days 3rd Quartile 79.88 221.77 301
4th Quartile (Slowest 25%) 71.87 62.16 134

 

Immediately, questions arise as to the relationship between retaliation time and destruction inflicted, as well as the time frame available to nuclear forensics analysts to provide intelligence before a response is required. With an average retaliation time of 22 days, this would fall within the 1-2 month time frame for complete analysis. Further, a median retaliation time of 12 days would put most laboratory analysis outside the bounds of being able to provide meaningful data. Figure 6 further highlights this by illustrating that within 30 days of a terrorist attack, 80 percent of incidents will have been responded to with force.

 

Figure 6: Response Time
Figure 6: Response Time

One of the fundamental graphics presented in the Lieber and Press article shows that as the number of causalities in a terror attack increases, the likelihood of attribution increases correspondingly. This weakens their arguments for two reasons. First,  forensics following a conventional attack would have significantly more data available than in the case of a nuclear attack, due to the destructive nature of the attack and the inability of responders to access certain locales. Secondly, a country that is attacked via unconventional means could arguably require a more resolute and quicker response. In looking at the data, the overall time to retaliation is 21.66 days. This number is significantly smaller when limited to unconventional weapons  (19.04 days) and smaller still when the perpetrators are not clearly identified (18.8 days). This highlights the need for distinction between unconventional and conventional attacks, which Lieber and Press neglected in their quantitative section.

To further highlight the point that nuclear forensics may not meet the political demands put upon it in a post-detonation situation, Table 4 highlights the disconnect between conventional and unconventional attacks and existing threats. To reiterate, the term unconventional is used colloquially here as a substitute for CBRN weapons, and not unconventional tactics. In only 37 percent of the cases observed was the threat a known entity or attributed after the fact. This compares to 85 percent for conventional. In all of these attacks, retaliation did occur; allowing the conclusion that with the severity of an unconventional weapon and the unordinary fear that is likely to be produced that public outcry and a prompt response would be warranted regardless of attribution.

 

Table 4: Attribution in Unconventional vs. Conventional
Incidents with Known Attackers Number of Attacks Percent of Total
Unconventional 20 54 37%
Conventional 177 209 85%

 

As the use of a nuclear weapon would result in a large number of deaths, the question as to whether or not higher levels of casualties influence response time is also of importance. However, no significant correlation is present between retaliation time and any of the other variables examined. Here, retaliation time (in days) was compared with binary variables for whether or not the perpetrators were known, if the facility was a government building or not, if the device used was a bomb or not, and if an unconventional device was used or not. Scale variables used include number of fatalities, injured, and the total casualties from the attack. Of particular note here is the negative correlation between unconventional attacks and effective attribution at time of response; this reemphasizes the above point on attribution prior to retaliation as being unnecessary following an unconventional attack.

 

Assessment

From this review, the ability of nuclear forensics to provide rapid, actionable intelligence in unlikely. While it is acknowledged that the process would produce gains along the way, an effective zone of intelligence production can be assumed between 21-90 days optimistically. This is highlighted in Figure 5 above, which aligns the effective zone with the processes that would likely provide definitive details. However, this does not align with the average (22 days) and median (12 days) time of response for conventional attacks. More importantly, unconventional attack responses fall well before this effective zone, with an average of 19 days and a median of 10. While the effective intelligence zone is close to these averages of these data points, the author remains skeptical that the techniques to be performed would produce viable data in a shorter time frame presented given the likely condition of the site and the length of time necessary for each run of each technique.22)This point was further emphasized during a presentation by a scientist from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory presenting at the 2013 Public Policy and Nuclear Threats conference in San Diego. The scientist working in nuclear forensics stated that most of the processes necessary would take at least a month, if not months, to supply adequate data. This would seem to support an argument that the working timelines for actionable data being outside the boundary of average retaliatory time. More examination is necessary to further narrow down the process times, a task plagued with difficulties due to material classification.

A secondary argument that can be made when thinking about unattributed terror attacks is that even without complete attribution, a state will retaliate against a known terror, cult, or insurgent organization following a terror attack to show strength and deter further attacks. This was shown to be the case in 34 of 54 observations (63 percent unattributed). While this number is remarkably high, all states were observed taking decisive action against a group. This would tend to negate the perspective that forensics will matter following an attack, as a state will respond more decisively to unconventional attacks than conventional whether attribution has been established or not.

There are also strategic implications for indirect deterrent strategies as well. Indirect deterrence offers a bit more flexibility in the timing of results, but less so in the uncertainty of results, as it will critical in levying guilty claims against a third-party actor. Thus, nuclear forensics can be very useful, and perhaps even necessary, in indirect deterrent strategies if data is available to compare materials and a state is patient in waiting for the results; however, significant delays in intelligence or uncertainty in results may reduce the credibility of accusations and harm claims of guilt in the international context. From a strategic perspective, the emphasis in the United States policy regarding rapid identification that was discussed at the outset of the paper reflects optimism rather than reality.

 

Policy Recommendations

While nuclear forensics may not be able to contribute information quickly enough to guide policymakers in their retaliatory decision-making following terrorist attacks, nuclear forensics does have significant merit. Nuclear forensics will be able to rule people out. It will be able to guide decisions for addressing the environmental disaster. Forensics also has significant political importance, as it can be used in a post-hoc situation following retaliation to possibly justify any action taken. It will also continue to be important in pre-detonation interdiction situations, where it has been advanced and excelled to-date, providing valuable information on the trafficking of illicit materials.

However, realistic expectations are necessary and should be made known so that policymakers are able to plan accordingly. The public will demand quick action, requiring officials to produce tangible results. If delay is not possible, attribution may not be possible. To overcome this, ensuring policymakers are aware of the technical limitations and hurdles that are present in conducting forensics analysis of radioactive material would help to manage expectations.

To reduce analytical time and improve attribution success rates, further steps should be taken. Continuing to enlarge the IAEA database on nuclear material signatures is critical, as this will reduce analytical time and uncertainty, making more precise attribution possible. Additional resources for equipment, building up analytical capacity, and furthering cooperation among all states to ensure that signatures are catalogued and accessible is critical. The United States has taken great steps in improving the knowledge base on how nuclear forensics is conducted with fellowships and trainings available through the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). While funding constraints are tight, expansion of these programs and targeted recruitment of highly-qualified students and individuals is key. Perhaps, these trainings and opportunities could be expanded to cover individuals that are trained to do analytical work, but is not their primary tasking – like a National Guard for nuclear forensics. DOE and other agencies have similar programs for response capacity during emergencies; bolstering analytical capacity for rapid ramp-up in case of emergency would help to reduce analytical time. However, while these programs may reduce time, some of the delay is inherent in the science. Technological advances in analytics may help, but in the short-term are unavailable. In sum, further work in developing the personnel and technological infrastructure for nuclear forensics is needed; in the meantime, prudence is necessary.

 

Philip Baxter is currently a PhD Candidate in the International Affairs, Science, and Technology program in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech. He completed his BA in political science and history at Grove City College and a MA in public policy, focusing on national security policy, from George Mason University. Prior to joining the Sam Nunn School, Phil worked in international security related positions in the Washington, DC area, including serving as a researcher at the National Defense University and as a Nonproliferation Fellow at the National Nuclear Security Administration. His dissertation takes a network analysis approach in examining how scientific cooperation and tacit knowledge development impacts proliferation latency. More broadly, his research interests focus on international security issues, including deterrence theory, strategic stability, illicit trafficking, U.S.-China-Russia relations, and nuclear safeguards.

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, September 2006, pg. 5: Available at http://www.cfr.org/counterterrorism/national-strategy-combating-terrorism-2006/p11389
2. Ibid. pg. 15.
3. There are numerous anecdotal examples that come to mind here: Russian action in Chechnya following terror attacks; U.S. bombing of Libya following the discotheque bombing 10 days earlier; U.S. invasion of Afghanistan 3 weeks after 9/11. As Jeffrey Knopf pointed out in “Wrestling with Deterrence”: “On 13 September, for example, Bush told his National Security Council, ‘We’re going to hurt them [the Taliban] so bad that everyone in the world sees, don’t deal with bin Laden.’”(pg. 33)
4. As most post-detonation procedures are classified, pre-detonation documentation will be used to extrapolate an adequate narrative.
5. Shaheen Dewji and Adam Stulberg, “Is Nuclear Forensics an Effective Deterrent Against Nuclear Smuggling and Terrorism?,” (Proceedings of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management Annual Conference, July 2010, Baltimore, Maryland); Michael Miller, “Nuclear Attribution as Deterrence,” The Nonproliferation Review, 14:1 (2007): 33-60; Graham Allison, “Nuclear Deterrence in the Age of Nuclear Terrorism,” Technology Review, (November/December 2008): 68-73.
6. Miller, “Nuclear Attribution as Deterrence”
7. Ibid. pgs. 100-102.
8. For example: Miller, “Nuclear Attribution as Deterrence”; Lieber and Press, “Why States Won’t Give Nuclear Weapons to Terrorists,”; Allison, “Nuclear Deterrence in the Age of Nuclear Terrorism;” Larry J. Arbuckle, “The Deterrence of Nuclear Terrorism Through an Attribution Capability,” Naval Postgraduate School, Graduate Thesis (June 2008). William J. Broad, ‘New Team Plans to Identify Nuclear Attackers,’ New York Times, 2 February 2006, p. A17.
9. This includes analysis of comparative signatures and predictive signatures. The former looks at direct comparisons of samples, the latter leverages representative data to draw conclusions. For more: Ian D. Hutcheon, Michael J. Kristo and Kim B. Knight, “Nonproliferation Nuclear Forensics,” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: https://seaborg.llnl.gov/docs/Nonproliferation_Nuclear_Forensics_final.pdf.
10. This has been a major push since 9/11 in major metropolitan areas to train first responders as to what to expect following a terrorist attack of this kind, how to use specialized tools like dosimetry, and the procedures for responding. These programs have been sponsored by the National Nuclear Security Administration, Department of Homeland Security, and others. However, while we have not had to respond to a nuclear event, and with the underlying fear that often persuades over nuclear material, fear and panic may still impact a significant portion of first responders.
11. CBRNE Enhanced Response Force Packages are also units that would response to these events. They are located in 17 states spread around the country. However, these roughly 170 personnel are more focused on aiding the populace as they would specialize in medical aid, search and rescue, and decontamination.
12. International Atomic Energy Agency, Nuclear Forensics Support: Technical Guidance Reference Manual, IAEA Nuclear Security Series No. 2 (2006).
13. Ibid. pg. 33.
14. Joint Working Group of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Nuclear Forensics: Role, State of the Art, and Program Needs,” (2013): 31-32. http://www.aaas.org/report/nuclear-forensics-role-state-art-program-needs
15. Ibid. pg. 12.
16. Miller, “Nuclear Attribution as Deterrence,” 37-39.
17. Hutcheon, et. al. Pg. 11.
18. Ibid. Pg. 9-10.
19. The IAEA’s Illicit Trafficking Database has been a base project for forensics data, as samples that are tested are catalogued. Other efforts in the cataloguing of nuclear forensics material include: Uranium Sourcing Database (NNSA/LLNL), Canada’s National Nuclear Forensics Library, Nuclear Forensics Library in Ukraine, National Nuclear Forensics Library at Japan Atomic Energy Agency, and so forth.
20. National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). (2013). Global Terrorism Database [Data file]. Retrieved from http://www.start.umd.edu/gtd
21. Gary King and Will Lowe, “10 Million International Dyadic Events,” (2004) http://hdl.handle.net/1902.1/FYXLAWZRIA UNF:3:dSE0bsQK2o6xXlxeaDEhcg== IQSS Dataverse Network [Distributor] V5 [Version]
22. This point was further emphasized during a presentation by a scientist from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory presenting at the 2013 Public Policy and Nuclear Threats conference in San Diego. The scientist working in nuclear forensics stated that most of the processes necessary would take at least a month, if not months, to supply adequate data.

Seeking China-U.S. Strategic Nuclear Stability

“To destroy the other, you have to destroy part of yourself. To deter the other, you have to deter yourself,” according to a Chinese nuclear strategy expert. During the week of February 9th, I had the privilege to travel to China where I heard this statement during the Ninth China-U.S. Dialogue on Strategic Nuclear Dynamics in Beijing. The Dialogue was jointly convened by the China Foundation for International Strategic Studies (CFISS) and the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). While the statements by participants were not-for-attribution, I can state that the person quoted is a senior official with extensive experience in China’s strategic nuclear planning.

The main reason for my research travel was to work with Bruce MacDonald, FAS Adjunct Senior Fellow for National Security Technology, on a project examining the security implications of a possible Chinese deployment of strategic ballistic missile defense. We had discussions with more than a dozen Chinese nuclear strategists in Beijing and Shanghai; we will publish a full report on our findings and analysis this summer. FAS plans to continue further work on projects concerning China-U.S. strategic relations as well as understanding how our two countries can cooperate on the challenges of providing adequate healthy food, near-zero emission energy sources, and unpolluted air and water.

During the discussions, I was struck by the gap between American and Chinese perspectives. As indicated by the quote, Chinese strategic thinkers appear reluctant to want to use nuclear weapons and underscore the moral and psychological dimensions of nuclear strategy. Nonetheless, China’s leaders clearly perceive the need for such weapons for deterrence purposes. Perhaps the biggest gap in perception is that American nuclear strategists tend to remain skeptical about China’s policy of no-first-use (NFU) of nuclear weapons. By the NFU policy, China would not launch nuclear weapons first against the United States or any other state. Thus, China needs assurances that it would have enough nuclear weapons available to launch in a second retaliatory strike in the unlikely event of a nuclear attack by another state.

American experts are doubtful about NFU statements because during the Cold War the Soviet Union repeatedly stated that it had a NFU policy, but once the Cold War ended and access was obtained to the Soviets’ plans, the United States found out that the Soviets had lied. They had plans to use nuclear weapons first under certain circumstances. Today, given Russia’s relative conventional military inferiority compared to the United States, Moscow has openly declared that it has a first-use policy to deter massive conventional attack.

Can NFU be demonstrated? Some analysts have argued that China in its practice of keeping warheads de-mated or unattached from the missile delivery systems has in effect placed itself in a second strike posture. But the worry from the American side is that such a posture could change quickly and that as China has been modernizing its missile force from slow firing liquid-fueled rockets to quick firing solid-fueled rockets, it will be capable of shifting to a first-use policy if the security conditions dictate such a change.

The more I talked with Chinese experts in Beijing and Shanghai the more I felt that they are sincere about China’s NFU policy. A clearer and fuller exposition came from a leading expert in Shanghai who said that China has a two-pillar strategy. First, China believes in realism in that it has to take appropriate steps in a semi-anarchic geopolitical system to defend itself. It cannot rely on others for outside assistance or deterrence. Indeed, one of the major differences between China and the United States is that China is not part of a formal defense alliance pact such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the alliance the United States has with Japan and South Korea. Although in the 1950s, Chairman Mao Zedong decried nuclear weapons as “paper tigers,” he decided that the People’s Republic of China must acquire them given the threats China faced when U.S. General Douglas MacArthur suggested possible use of nuclear weapons against China during the Korean War. In October 1964, China detonated its first nuclear explosive device and at the same time declared its NFU policy.

The second pillar is based on morality. Chinese strategists understand the moral dilemma of nuclear deterrence. On the one hand, a nuclear-armed state has to show a credible willingness to launch nuclear weapons to deter the other’s launch.  But on the other hand, if deterrence fails, actually carrying out the threat condemns millions to die.  According to the Chinese nuclear expert, China would not retaliate immediately and instead would offer a peace deal to avert further escalation to more massive destruction. As long as China has an assured second strike, which might consist of only a handful of nuclear weapons that could hit the nuclear attacker’s territory, Beijing could wait hours to days before retaliating or not striking back in order to give adequate time for cooling off and stopping of hostilities.

Because China has not promised to provide extended nuclear deterrence to other states, Chinese leaders would also not feel compelled to strike back quickly to defend such states. In contrast, because of U.S. deterrence commitments to NATO, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, Washington would feel pressure to respond quickly if it or its allies are under nuclear attack. Indeed, at the Dialogue, Chinese experts often brought up the U.S. alliances and especially pointed to Japan as a concern, as Japan could use its relatively large stockpile of about nine metric tons of reactor-grade plutonium (which is still weapons-usable) to make nuclear explosives. Moreover, last July, the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a “reinterpretation” of the Article 9 restriction in the Japanese Constitution, which prohibits Japan from having an offensive military. (The United States imposed this restriction after the Second World War.)  The reinterpretation allows Japanese Self-Defense Forces to serve alongside allies during military actions. Beijing is opposed because then Japan is just one step away from further changing to a more aggressive policy that could permit Japan to act alone in taking military actions. Before and during the Second World War, Japanese military forces committed numerous atrocities against Chinese civilians. Chinese strategists fear that Japan is seeking to further break out of its restraints.

Thus, Chinese strategists want clarity about Japan’s intentions and want to know how the evolving U.S.-Japan alliance could affect Chinese interests. Japan and the United States have strong concerns about China’s growing assertive actions near the disputed Diaoyu Islands (Chinese name) or Senkaku Islands (Japanese name) between China and Japan, and competing claims for territory in the South China Sea. Regarding nuclear forces, some Chinese experts speculate about the conditions that could lead to Japan’s development of nuclear weapons. The need is clear for continuing dialogue on the triangular relationship among China, Japan, and the United States.

Several Chinese strategists perceive a disparity in U.S. nuclear policy toward China. They want to know if the United States will treat China as a major nuclear power to be deterred or as a big “rogue” state with nuclear weapons. U.S. experts have tried to assure their Chinese counterparts that the strategic reality is the former. The Chinese experts also see that the United States has more than ten times the number of deliverable nuclear weapons than China. But they hear from some conservative American experts that the United States fears that China might “sprint for parity” to match the U.S. nuclear arsenal if the United States further reduces down to 1,000 or somewhat fewer weapons.1)Henry Sokolski, Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future (Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, January 2015). According to the FAS Nuclear Information Project, China is estimated to have about 250 warheads in its stockpile for delivery.2)Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2013,” Nuclear Notebook, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 2013, http://thebulletin.org/2013/november/chinese-nuclear-forces-2013 Chinese experts also hear from the Obama administration that it wants to someday achieve a nuclear-weapon-free world. The transition from where the world is today to that future is fraught with challenges: one of them being the mathematical fact that to get to zero or close to zero, nuclear-armed states will have to reach parity with each other eventually.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Henry Sokolski, Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future (Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, January 2015).
2. Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Chinese Nuclear Forces, 2013,” Nuclear Notebook, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 2013, http://thebulletin.org/2013/november/chinese-nuclear-forces-2013

Look to Texas Rather Than Nevada for a Site Selection Process on Nuclear Waste Disposal

Republican gains in the 2014 midterm elections have refocused attention on a number of policy areas–including nuclear waste storage. Although President Obama has consistently championed nuclear power by providing federal loan guarantees for new reactors and placing nuclear power among the “clean energy” sources targeted for an 80 percent share of the nation’s electricity production by 2035, he has also placed the viability of nuclear power in doubt by thwarting efforts to build a high level radioactive waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Several newspapers around the country have run editorials arguing that the Yucca Mountain ought to be revived or even, as the Chicago Tribune suggested, “fast-tracked.” Arguments like these emphasize the risks associated with our current interim storage of spent fuel at more than one hundred power plants in close proximity to population centers throughout the country, commitments for disposal capacity the federal government owes utilities and contaminated legacy sites like those in South Carolina and Washington State, and the amount of research and spending that has already been devoted to investigating the suitability of the Yucca Mountain site.

However, it is unlikely that Yucca Mountain will ever receive shipments of nuclear waste. Nevada’s persistent and successful efforts to thwart the Yucca Mountain project and the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 are likely to continue as they demonstrate the futility of a policy that forces disposal on an unwilling host state. Three years ago the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future said as much, recommending instead a “consent-based” approach to siting nuclear waste storage and disposal facilities. How would such an approach work?

For the past three years, Texas has been accepting what so many other states and localities have rejected in past decades- radioactive waste from the nation’s nuclear power plants. A newly opened private facility operated by Waste Control Specialists in Andrews County, Texas has been receiving shipments of low-level radioactive waste from multiple states. This year, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has amended the license for the Andrews County site to more than triple its capacity and it can begin accepting “Greater Than Class C Waste”- the most highly radioactive materials in the low-level radioactive waste stream, as well as depleted uranium. Residents and elected officials in Andrews County are now considering whether or not to support a proposal for a high-level radioactive waste disposal facility.

We should take a closer look at past developments in Nevada and more recent decisions in Texas to guide our future nuclear waste policy. These two states are engaging with different aspects of the nuclear waste stream, governed by very different policy approaches. Nevada’s efforts to thwart the Yucca Mountain project are rooted in the coercive approach codified in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. In contrast, the willingness of Texas to establish new disposal capacity stems from the Low-level Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980—a law that expanded the authority of states hosting disposal sites in an effort to overcome state opposition to waste sites in the midst of an urgent shortage of disposal capacity.

First, let’s consider the troublesome politics that has infused the Nevada case. The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 established a scientific site selection process for an eastern and western waste repository. However, President Reagan abandoned this process in 1986 by halting the search for an eastern site amid fears of midterm election losses in potential host states of Wisconsin, Georgia and North Carolina. In 1987, Congress abandoned the search for a western site when House Speaker Jim Wright (D-TX), and House Majority Leader Tom Foley (D-WA), amended the law to remove Texas and Washington from consideration. The amended law became known as the “Screw Nevada” plan because it designated Yucca Mountain as the sole site for the waste repository.

While politics effectively trumped science in the selection of Yucca Mountain, opponents- led by Senator Harry Reid of Nevada- have employed politics to effectively thwart the project. In 2005, Reid placed 175 holds on President Bush’s nominations for various executive appointments until Bush finally nominated Reid’s own science advisor, Gregory Jaczko, to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).  In 2006 Reid persuaded the Democratic National Committee to move the Nevada caucuses to the front of the 2008 presidential primary calendar, prompting each candidate to oppose Yucca Mountain.  President Obama fulfilled his campaign promise by tapping Jaczko to chair the NRC and dismantling Yucca Mountain. Each year the President’s budget proposals zeroed out funding for the facility, the NRC defunded the license review process and the Department of Energy has continued to mothball the project.  Although court decisions have forced the administration to begin reviewing the project, progress has been slow and in the meantime the Yucca facility offices have been shuttered, workforce eliminated, and computers, equipment and vehicles have been surplused.  Jaczko was forced to resign amidst concern from other NRC members that his management style thwarted decision making processes. However, Jaczko’s chief counsel, Stephen Burns was sworn in as the commissioner of the NRC on November 5, 2014.

We should expect, accept, and plan for such political maneuvering. Our system of locally accountable representatives empowers individual office holders with a wealth of substantive and procedural tools that make all nuclear politics local. Any decision making on this issue will be a political contest to locate or avoid the waste. Consequently, if there is to be a politically feasible nuclear waste repository, it will require a willing host. Money and the promise of jobs alone have not proven alluring enough for acceptance of such a project. We would do better to embrace our decentralized politics and offer the host significant authority over the waste stream.

This is the current situation that Texas enjoys: Congress gave states responsibility for establishing low-level radioactive waste sites and, as an incentive, enabled states to join interstate compacts.  Once approved by Congress, a compact has the authority to accept or decline waste imports from other states, which is a power that is normally not extended to states because it violates the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution. Texas is in a compact with Vermont, and as host state, Texas shapes the waste market by determining disposal availability for other states. Texas also has authority to set fees, taxes, and regulations for disposal in collaboration with federal agencies. Compacts can dissolve and host states can cease accepting waste altogether at a future date. While even under these provisions most states will refuse to host radioactive waste, the extension of state authority at least courts the possibility (as in Texas) of the rare case that combines an enthusiastic local host community in a relatively suitable location, a supportive state government, and a lack of opposition from neighboring communities and states. This approach better meets our democratic expectations because it confronts the local, state and national politics openly and directly, courting agreement at each level and extending authority over the waste stream to the unit of government bearing responsibility for long term disposal within its borders.

What if we adopt this approach and there is no willing host for spent fuel at a technically suitable site? What if a site is established, but at some future date the host state and compact exercise authority refuse importation or dissolve altogether? We would be left with interim onsite storage- the same result our current predictably failed policy approach has left us in. If there is no willing host, or if long term disposal is less certain due to the host’s authority over the waste stream, we also gain authentic and valuable feedback on societal support for nuclear energy. That is, our willingness to provide for waste disposal in a process compatible with our democratic norms and decentralized political system should influence our decisions on nuclear energy production and waste generation.

Reflections on the 70th Anniversary of the Manhattan Project: Questions and Answers

I began my professional life by obtaining degrees in physics and entering a conventional academic career in teaching and astronomical research, but I had always been curious about the physics of the Manhattan Project and its role in ending World War II. With grants, publications and tenure established, I began to indulge this interest as a legitimate part of my work and about 20 years ago, to explore it in depth.

As anybody that comes to this topic in more than a casual way will attest, it can grow into an obsession. I have now published two books on the Project, well over two dozen articles and book reviews in technical, historical, and semi-popular journals, and have made a number of presentations at professional conferences. Over this time I must have looked at thousands of archived documents and held hundreds of real and electronic conversations with other scientists, historians, and writers whose interest in this pivotal event parallels my own. While my knowledge of the Project is certainly not and never will be complete, I have learned much about it over the last 20 years.

To my surprise (and pleasure) I am frequently asked questions about the Project by students, family members, guests at dinner parties, colleagues at American Physical Society meetings, and even casual acquaintances at my favorite coffee shop. Typical queries are:

“Why did we drop the bombs? Were they necessary to end the war?”

“Did President Truman and his advisors really understand the power of the bombs and the destruction they could cause?”

“Have nuclear weapons helped deter subsequent large-scale wars, and do we still need a deterrent?”

“What about the ethical aspects?”

“In studying the Manhattan Project, what most surprised you? Do you think it or something similar could be done now?”

At first I was awkward in trying to answer these questions but with passing years, increased knowledge, and much reflection I now feel more comfortable addressing them. With accumulating experience in a scientific career, you often learn that the questions you and others initially thought to be important may not be the ones that the facts address and that there may be much more interesting issues behind the obvious ones. In this spirit, I offer in this essay some very personal reflections on the Project and the legacies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, framed as responses to questions like those above. In some cases a “yes” or “no” along with an explanation will do, but for many issues the nuances involved obviate a simple response.

I begin with the issue of the “decision” to use the bomb and the state of President Truman’s knowledge. In the spring of 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson assembled a committee to consider and advise upon immediate and long-term aspects of atomic energy. This “Interim Committee” comprised eight civilians, including three scientists intimately familiar with the Manhattan Project: Vannevar Bush, James Conant, and Karl Compton. In a meeting on May 31 which was attended by Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, Stimson opened with a statement as to how he viewed the significance of the Project1)Minutes of Interim Committee meetings can be found at https://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/history/pre-cold-war/interim-committee/interim-committee-informal-notes_1945-05-31.htm:

The Secretary expressed the view, a view shared by General Marshall, that this project should not be considered simply in terms of military weapons, but as a new relationship of man to the universe. This discovery might be compared to the discoveries of the Copernican theory and of the laws of gravity, but far more important than these in its effect on the lives of men. While the advances in the field to date had been fostered by the needs of war, it was important to realize that the implications of the project went far beyond the needs of the present war. It must be controlled if possible to make it an assurance of future peace rather than a menace to civilization.

For his part, President Truman had been thoroughly briefed on the project by Stimson and General Leslie Groves, director of the Project, soon after he became President in late April. In late July, Truman recorded his reaction to the Trinity test in his diary2)R.H. Ferrell, Harry S. Truman and the Bomb. High Plains Publishing Co., Worland, WY (1996), p. 31:

We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. … Anyway we think we have found the way to cause a disintegration of the atom. An experiment in the New Mexico desert was startling – to put it mildly. Thirteen pounds of the explosive caused the complete disintegration of a steel tower 60 feet high, created a crater 6 feet deep and 1,200 feet in diameter, knocked over a steel tower 1/2 mile away and knocked men down 10,000 yards away. The explosion was visible for more than 200 miles and audible for 40 miles and more. … The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance. It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful…

I have no doubt that Stimson, Marshall and Truman were well aware of the revolutionary nature of the bomb and the possibility (indeed, likelihood) that a postwar nuclear arms race would ensue. Any notion that Truman was a disengaged observer carried along by the momentum of events is hard to believe in view of the above comments. These men were making decisions of grave responsibility and were fully briefed as to both the immediate situation of the war and possible long-term geopolitical consequences: the “mature consideration” that Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill agreed in 1943 would have to be carried out before use of the bombs was authorized. Perhaps Truman did not so much make a positive decision to use the bombs so much as he opted not to halt operations that were already moving along when he became President, but I have no doubt that he realized that atomic bombs would be a profoundly new type of weapon. Further, let us not forget that it was Truman who personally intervened after Nagasaki to order a halt to further atomic bombings when the Japanese began to signal a willingness to consider surrender negotiations.

As much as I am convinced that Truman took his duties with the greatest sense of responsibility, I cannot answer “yes” or “no” as to the necessity of the bombings: the question is always loaded with so many unstated perspectives. If the Japanese could not be convinced to surrender, then Truman, Stimson, and Marshall faced the prospect of committing hundreds of thousands of men to a horrific invasion followed by a likely even more horrific slog through the Japanese home islands. After 70 years it is easy to forget the context of the war in the summer of 1945. Historians know that the Japanese were seeking a path to honorable surrender and might have given up within a few weeks, but the very bloody fact on the ground was that they had not yet surrendered; thousands of Allied and Japanese servicemen were dying each week in the Pacific. Military historian Dennis Giangreco has studied Army and War Department manpower projections for the two-part invasion of Japan scheduled for late 1945 and the spring of 19463)D. M. Giangreco, “Casualty Projections for the U. S. Invasion of Japan, 1945-1946: Planning and Policy Implications.” Journal of Military History 61, 521-582 (1997).. Planning was based on having to sustain an average of 100,000 casualties per month from November 1945 through the fall of 1946. The invasion of Kyushu was scheduled to begin on November 1, 1945. Had this occurred, the number of casualties might well have exceeded the number of deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, let alone those which would have occurred in the meantime. From the perspective of preventing casualties, perhaps it was unfortunate that the bombs were not ready at the time of the battle for Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest protracted battles from February 19 to March 26, 1945, during which more than 25,000 were killed on both sides.

Even if they believe that the Soviet Union’s declaration of war on the night of August 8, 1945, against Japan was the most significant factor in the Japanese decision to surrender, most historians allow that the bombs had at least some effect on that decision. The Soviet invasion came between the two atomic bombings on August 6 (Hiroshima) and August 9 (Nagasaki). These two bombings would convince the Japanese that Hiroshima was not a one-shot deal: America could manufacture atomic bombs in quantity. The impact of the bombings was alluded to by Emperor Hirohito in his message to his people on August 15, 1945, in which he stated that “ … the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb,” which was one of the motivations for his government’s decision to accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. But there are certainly political aspects that muddy this story, namely justifying the immense resources poured into the Project and sending a message to the Soviets that at least for a while America was the ascendant postwar power in the world. I give a qualified “yes” to the question of necessity.

The necessity debate often overlooks a corollary issue which I have come to think of as “nuclear inoculation.” Had the bombs not been used in 1945 and world leaders made aware of their frightening power, what far more awful circumstances might have unfolded in a later war when there were more nuclear powers armed with more powerful weapons? I am absolutely convinced that the bombings have had a significant deterrent effect and that they may well have prevented the outbreak of further major wars since 1945. Indeed, we know that there were occasions such as the Cuban missile crisis when national leaders looked into the maw of a possible large-scale war and backed away.

The “inoculation” issue leads to the question of whether or not America continues to need a nuclear deterrent. To this I say: “Yes, but for not entirely rational reasons.” Even very conservative military planners estimate that a few hundred warheads would be enough for any conceivable nuclear-mission scenario and that the thousands still stockpiled are a waste of resources and budgets. But the deterrent issue seems to me to be more psychological than mission-driven. With potentially unstable or irrationally-led states pursuing weapons and possibly encouraging proliferation, what “established” nuclear power would consider unilaterally disarming itself?  If America and Russia engage in further rounds of treaties and draw down their numbers of deployed and reserved weapons from thousands of warheads, a time may come when these numbers will get down to those held by powers such as Britain, France, China, India and Pakistan4)Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Worldwide deployments of nuclear weapons, 2014,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 70(5),96-108 September 2014.. How then will negotiations proceed? Even if rigorous inspection regimes are agreed to, it seems to me that it will take decades until we might get to a level of trust where we won’t feel compelled to rationalize: “They could be slipping a few weapons into their arsenal under the table; we had better keep some in reserve.” In the meantime, I encourage students and acquaintances to question their elected representatives regarding the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and a possible Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty.

What about the ethics of the bombings? To my mind the answer is: “The war had rendered this issue irrelevant.” Even against the “standards” of present-day terrorist acts, the ferocity of World War II seems almost incomprehensible. Deliberate atrocities against civilians and prisoners by the Axis powers were beyond the ethical pale, but how does one classify the Allied fire-bombings of Coventry, Dresden, and Tokyo even if there were arguable military objectives? The vast majority of victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki succumbed not to radiation poisoning but to blast and burn effects just like the victims of these other attacks. I do not see that the bombs crossed an ethical threshold that had not already been breached many times before.

What have I learned about the Manhattan Project that especially surprised me? Well, practically everything. I approached the Project as a physicist, and it was a revelation for me that much of the physics involved is entirely accessible to a good undergraduate student. Computing critical mass involves separating a spherical-coordinates differential equation and applying a boundary condition: advanced calculus. Estimating the energy released by an exploding bomb core is a nice example of using the Newtonian work-energy theorem of freshman-level physics in combination with some pressure/energy thermodynamics. Appreciating how a calutron separates isotopes is a beautiful example of using the Lorentz force law of sophomore-level electromagnetism. Estimating the chance that a bomb might detonate prematurely due to a spontaneous fission invokes basic probability theory. These are exotic circumstances which require wickedly difficult engineering to realize, but the physics is really quite fundamental.

Everybody knows that the Manhattan Project was a big undertaking, but I now realize just how truly vast it was. At first, one’s attention is drawn to the outstanding personalities and dramatic events and locales associated the Project: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Groves, Los Alamos, Trinity, Tinian, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then the  appreciation of the complexity of the production factories at Oak Ridge and Hanford, facilities designed by unappreciated and now largely-forgotten engineers of outstanding talent. Hundreds of contractors and university and government laboratories were involved, staffed by hundreds of thousands of dedicated employees. Also, bombs are not transported by magic to their targets; bombers had to be modified to carry them, and training of crews to fly the missions was initiated well before the final designs of the bombs and choice of targets were settled. The magnitude of the feed materials program to source and process uranium ores is rarely mentioned, but without this there would never have been any bombs (or any later Cold War).

While physics, chemistry, and engineering were front-and-center, I have also come to appreciate that the organization and administration of the Project was equally important. This is a hard thing for an academic scientist to admit! The Project was incredibly well-administered, and there is a lesson here for current times. Yes, the Project had its share of oversight and consultative committees, but they were run by scientists, engineers, government officials and military officers of superb competence and selfless dedication to the national good. These people knew what they were doing and knew how to get things done through the bureaucratic channels involved. An existential threat is always good for getting attention focused on a problem, but somebody has to actually do something. Of course there were security leaks and some inefficiencies, but what else would you expect in an undertaking so large and novel?

Could a Manhattan-type project be done now? I do not doubt for a moment that American scientists, technicians, engineers, and workers still possess the education, brains, dedication, and creativity that characterized Manhattan. But I do not think that such success could be repeated. Rather, headlines and breathless breaking news reports would trumpet waste, inefficiency, disorganization, technically clueless managers, and publicity-seeking politicians. The result would likely be a flawed product which ran far over-budget and delivered late if at all, no matter how intense the motivation. Do the words “Yucca Mountain” require further elaboration?

General Groves’ official history of the Project, the Manhattan District History, can be downloaded from a Department of Energy website, and I encourage readers to look at it5)The Manhattan District History can be found at https://www.osti.gov/opennet/manhattan_district.jsp. It is literally thousands of pages, and is simply overwhelming; I doubt that anybody has read it from end-to-end. Click on any page and you will find some gem of information. Beyond the MDH lie thousands of secondary sources: books, popular and technical articles, websites and videos. But I have not one iota of regret that I plunged in. The Project was vast: many aspects of it have yet to be mined, and there are lessons to be had for scientists, engineers, biographers, historians, administrators, sociologists, and policy experts alike.

My research on the Project has made me much more aware of the world nuclear situation. Belief in deterrence aside, I am astonished that there has not been an accidental or intentional aggressive nuclear detonation over the last seventy years. We now know that on many occasions we came very close and that we have been very lucky indeed. While I see the chance of a deliberate nuclear-power-against-nuclear-power exchange as remote, the prospect of a terrorist-sponsored nuclear event does cause me no small amount of concern.

Nuclear energy is the quintessential double-edged sword, and those of us who have some understanding of the history, technicalities and current status of nuclear issues have a responsibility to share our knowledge with our fellow citizens in a thoughtful, responsible way. The stakes are no less existential now than they were seventy years ago.

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. Minutes of Interim Committee meetings can be found at https://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/history/pre-cold-war/interim-committee/interim-committee-informal-notes_1945-05-31.htm
2. R.H. Ferrell, Harry S. Truman and the Bomb. High Plains Publishing Co., Worland, WY (1996), p. 31
3. D. M. Giangreco, “Casualty Projections for the U. S. Invasion of Japan, 1945-1946: Planning and Policy Implications.” Journal of Military History 61, 521-582 (1997).
4. Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Worldwide deployments of nuclear weapons, 2014,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 70(5),96-108 September 2014.
5. The Manhattan District History can be found at https://www.osti.gov/opennet/manhattan_district.jsp

Nuclear Power and Nanomaterials: Big Potential for Small Particles

Nuclear power plants are large, complex, and expensive facilities. They provide approximately 19 percent of U.S. electricity power supply,1)DOE U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review, 2011. and in the process consume enormous quantities of water. However, a class of very small particles may be gearing up to lend a helping hand in making power plants more efficient and less costly to operate. This article will briefly introduce nanomaterials and discuss ways in which some of these particles may make nuclear power plants more efficient.

The race to synthesize, engineer, test, and apply new nanoscale materials for solving difficult problems in energy and defense is in full swing. The past twenty five years have ushered in an era of nanomaterials and nanoparticles – objects with at least one dimension between 1 and 100 nanometers2)G.L. Hornyak, Fundamentals of Nanotechnology, 2009. – and researchers are now implementing these materials in areas as disparate as neuroscience and environmental remediation. To provide a sense of scale, most viruses are a few hundred nanometers in size, most bacteria are a few thousand nanometers in size, and a period at the end of a sentence is about a million nanometers. This new category of materials has ignited the imaginations of scientists and engineers who envision nanomaterials capable of tackling difficult problems in energy, healthcare, and electronics.

Nanomaterials are not new, and indeed occur naturally all over Earth. This includes viruses, the coatings of a lotus leaf, the bottom of a gecko’s foot, and some finely powdered clays. These objects represent natural materials with significant, and often highly functional, nanoscale features. Some researchers have even discovered signs of nanoscale materials in space.3)D.A. Garcia-Hernandez, S. Iglesias-Groth, J.A. Acosta-Pulido, A. Manchado, P. Garcia-Lario, L. Stanghellini, E. Villaver, R.A. Shaw, and F. Cataldo, Astrophys. J. 737, L30, 2011. One of the oldest documented applications of nanomaterials dates back to the Lycurgus Cup, a 4th century Roman glass which was made out of a glass containing gold and silver particles. The result is a glass that appears green when lit from the outside, but red when lit from the inside.4)I. Freestone, N. Meeks, M. Sax, and C. Higgitt, Gold Bulletin 40, 270-277, 2007. The effect results from the glass filtering various wavelengths of light differently depending on the various lighting conditions. Of course, the Romans did not know they were using nanoparticles in the process of making this glass.

But what makes nanoparticles interesting or unique? The answer to this question depends on the specific material and application, but a few themes persist. Because of their small size, the physical principles governing how particles behave and interact with their environments change. Some of these changes are due to how basic properties such as volume and surface area change as an object becomes smaller. As a sphere shrinks, the ratio of the surface area to the volume grows. This has far reaching implications for how particles interact with light, heat, and other particles. Visionary researchers are now looking into ways in which these interesting properties may make nuclear power plants more efficient.

One important implication for our discussion is the flow of thermal energy. Consider the process of transferring the thermal energy of your body from your hands to an ice cube. Clearly, you are (hopefully!) warmer than the ice cube. If you place the ice cube on a chilled dish and touch the ice cube with one finger, the cube will melt, but probably fairly slowly. Placing your entire hand over the top half of the ice cube increases the melting rate, and placing the ice cube in your hand and closing your fist further increases the melting rate. This is an example of thermal energy transfer via conduction. Conductive heat transfer from one object to another depends on the area over which the thermal transfer takes place. A larger contact surface area leads to faster conduction. But how does this relate to nanoparticles? As a particle becomes very small, the ratio of the particle’s surface area to its volume increases very rapidly. Since thermal conduction through volume is a function of surface area, particles with large ratios of surface area to volume are able to change temperature very quickly. If you place a large quantity of small cold particles in a warm body of water, the particles will heat quickly. If you take the same volume of particles, but instead compress it into one large particle, then that large particle will warm slowly. As this surface area to volume ratio increases with decreasing size, a general trend is for smaller particles to transfer heat more effectively than larger particles.

FAS-Nano-SurfaceAreaVolumeFigure

 

So how does this relate to nuclear power plants? Nuclear power plants are water-intense operations and rely on conductive heat transfer to convert nuclear energy to grid-ready electricity. The most common Western reactors are pressurized water reactors (PWRs) in which water is heated by pumping it through the reactor core, then pumping the hot water to a steam generator. This water flows through piping called the primary system and is kept in the liquid state by applying very high pressure through a device called a pressurizer. In the steam generator this primary system water transfers much of its heat to water in a secondary system. High-strength piping, which is a very effective heat conductor, keeps the water in the two systems from directly contacting each other. The secondary system’s water turns to steam when it absorbs the heat from the primary system. The steam is then directed via piping to drive a turbine, which turns an electric generator, thus completing the cycle of converting nuclear energy to readily usable electricity for the grid. After passing through the turbines, the steam is captured and condensed for recycling. This reclaimed water can then be sent back through the steam generator. However, a significant amount of the energy of this steam is lost to the atmosphere via a third system of cooling water that is used to condense the steam. Large amounts of water (in the form of water vapor) are released to the environment in this process. Think of the water vapor plume at the top of the iconic cooling towers seen in the cartoon TV show The Simpsons. (Not all nuclear power plants use these types of cooling towers, but all must emit heat to the environment through some means of cooling.)

A new class of nanomaterials called core-shell phase change nanoparticles may help in reducing the water loss. First, let’s parse the name of the nanoparticle. The core-shell nomenclature refers to the fact that the particle has a center made out of one material, and an outer skin made out of another material. The phase change component of the name refers to the fact that the particle center changes from a liquid to a solid under certain conditions. These particles may be mixed into the water used for transporting the thermal energy generated within the reactor. Once mixed into the reactor water, the particle cores melt as the water picks up thermal energy from the reactor. The melted material in the particle core is contained by a shell, which remains solid at reactor temperatures. Thus, as the water leaves the reactor it carries with it tiny particles containing bundles of liquid thermal energy wrapped in a solid core. The notion is that as these particles travel to the cooling tower, they solidify and dissipate their heat into the surrounding water, thus decreasing the amount of water needed to convert the thermal energy created by the reactor to steam for turning turbines. Additionally, since these particles do not vaporize, they are much more easily retained for recycling. The Electric Power Research Institute is currently working with scientists at Argonne National Laboratory to commercialize these particles and has suggested that this technology could decrease power plant water requirements by as much as 20 percent.5)“Multifunctional Particles for Reducing Cooling Tower Water Consumption,” Electric Power Research Institute, 2012.

Another nanoparticle-based approach for increasing reactor efficiency seeks to tackle a different problem. Pressurized water reactors place the water in direct contact with the fuel rods of the nuclear reactor. However, bubbles that form on the surfaces of the fuel rods can significantly decrease efficiency by insulating the rods from the water. When this happens, heat transfer efficiency suffers. One lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has implemented alumina nanoparticles that coat the fuel rods and prevent the buildup of bubbles on the heating elements. Alumina, a compound of aluminum and oxygen, is stable and has a high melting temperature. Testing these particles in the MIT reactor, the group found that the alumina nanoparticles coated the fuel rods. The result was an increase in the efficacy of the reactor. The engineers explain the findings by suggesting that the alumina nanoparticles allow for quick removal of the bubbles forming on fuel rod surfaces, thus minimizing the insulating layer of bubbles and maximizing heat transfer efficiency.6)S.J. Kim, I.C. Bang, J. Buongiorno, and L.W. Hu, Int. J. Heat Mass Transf., 50, 2007. To validate this, the researchers heated identical thin, steel wires a fraction of a millimeter in diameter. One wire was submerged in water, the other in a nanofluid containing alumina particles. The wires were heated to the point of boiling the surrounding fluid. After boiling the wires were examined using a powerful electron microscope. The experimenters observed that the wire heated in the nanofluid was indeed coated with nanoparticles, while the other wire maintained its original smooth surface.

Most importantly, there are also potential safety applications of having nanofluids capable of quickly transporting large quantities of thermal energy. One proposal calls for the use of nanofluids in standby coolant stored in Emergency Core Cooling Systems (ECCS). The ECCS are independent, standby systems designed to safely shut down a reactor in the case of an accident or malfunction. One ECCS component is a set of pumps and backup coolant to be sprayed directly onto reactor rods. Such systems are critical in preventing a loss of coolant accident (LOCA) from spiraling out of control. Because ECCS have backup reservoirs of coolant, technologies that make this backup coolant more effective at removing heat from the reactor could improve the safety of reactors. Because nanofluids can increase the heat transfer efficacy of water by 50 percent or more, some researchers have suggested that they may also be useful in emergency scenarios.7)R. Taylor, S. Coulomb, T. Otanicar, P. Phelan, A. Gunawan, W. Lv, G. Rosengarten, R. Prasher, and H. Tyagi, J. Appl. Phys. 113, 011301, 2013.

Steam generators at both nuclear and coal power plants accounts for approximately 3 percent of overall freshwater consumption in the United States. Generally speaking, nuclear power plants consume about 400 gallons of water per megawatt-hour (MWh). Their coal and natural gas counterparts consume approximately 300 and 100 gallons per MWh, respectively.8)“Water Use and Nuclear Power Plants,” Nuclear Energy Institute, 2013. Thus, nuclear power plants stand to gain considerably by becoming more water-efficient.

However, there are many hurdles to tackle before nanoparticles can be safely and effectively used in operating power plants. Scaling up particle production to the large volumes of particles necessary for implementation in a power plant is expensive and labor intensive. New synthesis infrastructures may be necessary for large-scale production of these tiny particles. Additionally, broad adoption of this technology will not occur until significant cost savings are proven effective at a functioning plant. As a result, particles must be made available at a cost reasonable for adoption by power plant operators. A rough cost estimate can be made using commercially available alumina nanoparticles, as these particles have been tested extensively in the heat transfer literature. A typical nuclear power plant in the United States supplies enough electricity to power 740,000 homes. To do this, the plant requires between 13 and 23 gallons of water per home per day.8 Thus, water usages for the plant may range from 10 to 17 million gallons per day. Current vendors of aluminum oxide nanoparticles sell 1kg of nanopowder for around $200. With an expectation that economies of scale would bring that price down to $100/kg and that the particles could be easily recovered and recycled, loading a nuclear power plant with a 0.1% volume fraction of alumina nanoparticles would cost about $14.7 to $25 million per power plant. This is a substantial initial investment. Naturally, if nanoparticles were to cost $10/kg, then particle outfitting costs of $1.5 to $2.5 million per nuclear plant could be achieved. If 100 percent recovery of the particles could be achieved, then this initial cost would be recovered over time by the expected 2 to 4 percent increase in plant efficiency.

In addition to cost-benefit analysis, extensive testing must be performed to ensure long-term application of these particles does not threaten the operational safety of the plant. To accomplish this, smaller scale reactors (like those housed at research facilities and universities) may test these particles over the course of years to track the impacts of long-term use. Potential pitfalls include increased corrosion, system clogging, and nanoparticle leakage into wastewater. Corrosion engineers will be needed to validate the degree to which nanoparticles contribute to the overall aging of reactors in which they are used. Nanoparticle designers and hydrodynamicists will be needed to ensure that system clogging is manageable. Additionally, filtration experts and the Environmental Protection Agency will be needed to establish best practices for minimizing the amount of nanomaterial that exits the facility, as well as understanding and quantifying the environmental impacts of that emitted material. None of these potential roadblocks are trivial. However, while the challenges seem large, it is encouraging to see potential applications of nanotechnology in power plants.

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. DOE U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Review, 2011.
2. G.L. Hornyak, Fundamentals of Nanotechnology, 2009.
3. D.A. Garcia-Hernandez, S. Iglesias-Groth, J.A. Acosta-Pulido, A. Manchado, P. Garcia-Lario, L. Stanghellini, E. Villaver, R.A. Shaw, and F. Cataldo, Astrophys. J. 737, L30, 2011.
4. I. Freestone, N. Meeks, M. Sax, and C. Higgitt, Gold Bulletin 40, 270-277, 2007.
5. “Multifunctional Particles for Reducing Cooling Tower Water Consumption,” Electric Power Research Institute, 2012.
6. S.J. Kim, I.C. Bang, J. Buongiorno, and L.W. Hu, Int. J. Heat Mass Transf., 50, 2007.
7. R. Taylor, S. Coulomb, T. Otanicar, P. Phelan, A. Gunawan, W. Lv, G. Rosengarten, R. Prasher, and H. Tyagi, J. Appl. Phys. 113, 011301, 2013.
8. “Water Use and Nuclear Power Plants,” Nuclear Energy Institute, 2013.

The Making of the Manhattan Project Park

The making of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park took more than five times as long as the making of the atomic bomb itself (1942 to 1945). Fifteen years after the first efforts to preserve some of the Manhattan Project properties at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1999, Congress enacted the Manhattan Project National Historical Park Act, signed by President Obama on December 19, 2014. The following provides the story of how the park was created and a preview of coming attractions.

 

Mandate for a Clean Sweep

After the end of the Cold War in 1989, Congress directed the Department of Energy (DOE) to clean up decades of contamination at its nuclear production facilities. At Los Alamos, the V Site (where the atomic bombs were assembled), was a cluster of garage-like wooden structures left over from the Manhattan Project, far from public view. The main property had high-bay doors to accommodate the “Gadget,” the world’s first atomic device tested at the Trinity Site on July 16, 1945. Along with dozens of other Manhattan Project properties, the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) slated the V Site buildings for demolition.

LANL officials estimated that the costs just to stabilize the buildings would be $3 million. “Preservation would be a waste of taxpayers’ money1)Associated Press, June 21, 1997.,” declared LANL’s Richard Berwick. When the State of New Mexico concurred in the demolition, the buildings were doomed.

 

Rescuing the V Site Properties

The legacy of the Manhattan Project was in the crosshairs. Were any of the original Manhattan Project properties at Los Alamos going to be saved? Working for the Department of Energy, I called the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) for advice. The Council agreed to add a day to its Santa Fe meeting that fall to visit the V Site.

On November 5, 1998, the Advisory Council members were astonished by the contrast between the simplicity of V Site properties and the complexity of what took place inside them. The group concluded that the V Site would not only qualify as a National Historic Landmark but as a World Heritage Site similar to the Acropolis in Athens or the ancient city of Petra in Jordan. Somewhat chastened, the Los Alamos National Laboratory agreed to take the cluster of V Site buildings off the demolition list. However, funds to restore them would have to come from elsewhere.

 

Save America’s Treasures

In 1998 Congress and First Lady Hillary Clinton decided to commemorate the millennium by awarding Save America’s Treasures grants to preserve historic federal properties in danger of being lost. In a competitive process run by the National Park Service, the Department of Energy (DOE) was awarded $700,000 to restore the V Site properties.

However, there was a catch-22: the grant had to be matched by non-federal funds, but federal employees cannot solicit funds and DOE has no foundation authorized to do so. Rather than have DOE forfeit the grant, I decided to leave a 25-year career with the federal government in January 2000 to raise the funds and segue to my next “real” job.

 

Restored V Site at Los Alamos
Restored V Site at Los Alamos

Gaining Traction

The fund-raising project quickly evolved into a much bigger effort. To galvanize public and political attention, in March 2001 I enlisted the Los Alamos Historical Society to collaborate on a weekend of events called “Remembering the Manhattan Project.” The centerpiece was the “Louis Slotin Sonata,” a new play by Paul Mullin about a Manhattan Project scientist who died in a criticality experiment at Los Alamos in early 1946. The play and a heated discussion afterwards was covered by the New York Times and other press, bringing the Manhattan Project to national attention.

In February 2002, I founded the Atomic Heritage Foundation (AHF), a nonprofit in Washington, DC dedicated to preserving and interpreting the Manhattan Project. Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, helped open doors to Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), and Pete Domenici (R-NM). To increase interest in preserving the Manhattan Project, in April 2002 we convened a symposium in Washington, DC that was covered by C-SPAN worldwide.

On September 30, 2003, Senators Bingaman, Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and Patty Murray (D-WA), introduced legislation to study the potential for including the Manhattan Project in the National Park System. On the same day, Congressman Doc Hastings (R-WA), introduced similar legislation in the House. Congress passed the study bill in the fall of 2004 and President George W. Bush signed it despite the administration’s opposition to any new parks.

For more than a decade, the Congressional delegations from New Mexico, Washington and Tennessee were a very strong, bipartisan team. Their commitment to the park was critical at every juncture over the next decade but especially in the final weeks of the Congress. The last major public lands omnibus legislation was in 2009; since then very few park bills had been passed. The Senate had a long list of bills that it wanted to attach to the NDAA along with the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. However, efforts to create a small “package” of other bills failed in 2013. Finally, in December 2014, the House passed the legislation as part of the “must pass” 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.

Attaching a large public lands “package” was risky as there was strong opposition in the Senate to expanding public lands and creating new parks. With several close calls in the days before its passage, this time the strategy succeeded. Congress passed the NDAA with a robust “package” of six new national park units, nine park expansions and dozens of other public lands provisions. On December 19, 2014, the President signed the legislation into law.

The new Manhattan Project National Historical Park has units at Los Alamos, NM, Oak Ridge, TN, and Hanford, WA. During World War II, these “secret cities” were not on any map even though some 130,000 people lived in them.

The park will be officially established in late 2015 when the Departments of Energy and Interior enter into an agreement concerning their respective roles, public access and other issues.

 

Preview of the Park

The new park will focus on three major sites: Los Alamos, NM, where the first atomic bombs were designed; Oak Ridge, TN, where enormous facilities produced enriched uranium; and Hanford, WA, where plutonium was produced. There are over 40 properties that are officially designated as part of the park with provision for adding others later.

 

Los Alamos, NM

The new park includes 13 properties in the Los Alamos community, many of them originally built by the Los Alamos Ranch School in the 1920s. The government took over the school’s properties in 1943 for the Manhattan Project. The seven former Masters’ cottages became the homes of the top-echelon scientists and military leaders. Because these cottages were the only housing with bathtubs, the street became known as Bathtub Row.

The cottage where J. Robert Oppenheimer and his family lived could be the “jewel in the crown” of the visitors’ experience. Visitors are also welcome at the Guest House, now the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum, and the Fuller Lodge, a handsome ponderosa pine structure that was a social center for the Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer House, Los Alamos
Oppenheimer House, Los Alamos

More than a dozen other properties are owned by the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Public access to these properties could be limited for the first few years to address security issues. The V-Site buildings, saved from demolition in 1998 and restored in 2006, are humble garage-like structures were where the “Gadget” was assembled. The “Gadget” was the initial plutonium-based bomb that was tested at the Trinity Site on July 16, 1945.

A companion facility to the V Site is the Gun Site used to develop and test the “Little Boy” or uranium-based bomb. The gun-type design fired a small projectile of uranium into a greater mass to create an explosion. The Gun Site is undergoing reconstruction but will eventually have a concrete bunker, periscope tower, canons and a firing range.

 

Oak Ridge, TN

The mission of the Clinton Engineer Works was to produce enriched uranium, one the core ingredients of an atomic bomb. Mammoth plants at Y-12 and K-25 used different techniques to produce enriched uranium. While security is an issue now, visitors will eventually be able to tour the remaining “Calutron” building at Y-12. While the mile-long K-25 building was demolished last year, plans are to recreate a portion of it for visitors.

A third site at Oak Ridge is the X-10 Graphite Reactor, a pilot-scale reactor and prototype for the Hanford plutonium production reactors. Visitors will be able to see the former Guest House (later named the Alexander Inn) built to accommodate distinguished visitors such as General Leslie Groves, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest O. Lawrence. Recently restored as a residence for seniors, the lobby will have Manhattan Project photographs and other memorabilia.

X-10 Site, Oak Ridge
X-10 Site, Oak Ridge

Hanford, WA

There are two iconic Manhattan Project properties at Hanford. The B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale plutonium production reactor, has been welcoming visitors for several years. There many interpretive displays and models that the Atomic Heritage and B Reactor Museum Association have developed. For example, there is an interactive model of the B reactor and the dozens of support buildings that once surrounded it. There is also a cutaway model of the reactor core showing the lattice of uranium fuel rods, graphite blocks, control rods and other features.

The second property is the T Plant, a mammoth “Queen Mary” of the desert used to chemically separate plutonium from irradiated fuel rods. It was one of the first remotely controlled industrial operations.  Prospects are that the public will be able to visit a portion of the plant over time.

In addition, four pre-World War II properties located along the Columbia River will be preserved: the Hanford high school, White Bluffs bank, an agricultural warehouse owned by the Bruggemann family, and an irrigation pump house. Here visitors will hear the stories of the pioneering agricultural families as well as the Native Americans who lived, hunted and fished and camped near the Columbia River.

B Reactor, Hanford
B Reactor, Hanford

At each site, visitors will be able to experience where people lived—in tents, huts, trailers, barracks, and dormitories or for the lucky ones, houses. In the communities of Richland, WA and Oak Ridge, TN, hundreds of “Alphabet” houses built from the same blueprints have been home for families for over seven decades.

For the Atomic Heritage Foundation2)For more information visit www.atomicheritage.org, the creation of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park is the culmination of 15 years of effort.  Like the Manhattan Project itself, creating a national historical park has been a great collaborative effort.

Perhaps the greatest source of inspiration has been the Manhattan Project veterans themselves. To Stephane Groueff, a Bulgarian journalist who wrote the first comprehensive account of the Manhattan Project3)Groueff, Stephane. “Manhattan Project: The Untold Story of the Making of the Atomic Bomb.” iUniverse, May 2000.  the participants illustrated “the American way of the time…problem solving, ingenuity, readiness for risk-taking, courage for unorthodox approaches, serendipity, and dogged determination4)Kelly, Cynthia (editor). Remembering the Manhattan Project: Perspectives on the Making of the Atomic Bomb and its Legacy, January 2005..” There are many lessons that we can learn from the Manhattan Project.

Please join us for a symposium to mark the 70th anniversary of the Manhattan Project on June 2 and 3, 2015 in Washington, DC. Also, please visit our “Voices of the Manhattan Project5)Available at http://manhattanprojectvoices.org/”  website with hundreds of oral histories including of principals such as General Leslie Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Our “Ranger in Your Pocket6)Available at http://www.atomicheritage.org/tours” website has a series of audio/visual tours of the Manhattan Project sites that visitors can access on their smartphones and tablets. Most of all, plan on visiting the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Coming soon!

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. Associated Press, June 21, 1997.
2. For more information visit www.atomicheritage.org
3. Groueff, Stephane. “Manhattan Project: The Untold Story of the Making of the Atomic Bomb.” iUniverse, May 2000.
4. Kelly, Cynthia (editor). Remembering the Manhattan Project: Perspectives on the Making of the Atomic Bomb and its Legacy, January 2005.
5. Available at http://manhattanprojectvoices.org/
6. Available at http://www.atomicheritage.org/tours