Iraqi Chemical Weapons Found…at the UN? Don’t Panic!

Hey, we found the Iraqi WMD’s. They were being stored at the UN! I am sure it will be all over the news by tonight, but it is astonishing how fast the press was all over what really amounts to an act of stupidity, and most certainly not a large public hazard. Sure, one can’t even begin to fathom how disorganized the UN must be to actually lose track of vials that contain chemical weapons (even small amounts), but do a few handful of containers with dangerous chemicals that have been stored in a cabinet for over a decade deserve to be a headline story?

The details are not completely clear yet, but it appears as if there were only a few containers of which, at least one contained liquid phosgene. The UN staff learned of the vials on Friday while they were cleaning out storage cabinets, but it took them until Wednesday to figure out what they were, report them and get them out of the building. These containers have been around since 1996 and are not an imminent threat to public safety because of the small amount of agent reported to be in question.

So we are left with the bizarre fact that someone thought it would be OK to store them in a cabinet at the UN and then somehow they lost track of them. It’s embarrassing to the UN, for sure. Fodder for the Tonight Show monologue? Absolutely. The point should be made that chemicals far more dangerous than a few vials of phosgene (or whatever other chemical weapon they contained) are trucked in and out of cities and stored in large quantities every day. It is the aura of their previous purpose that the press finds sexy, not the true threat. Perhaps it is the culture of fear and panic that we have cultivated in the US that I abhor, but I would much rather spend my time avoiding stories about Lindsey and Paris than another over-hyped story about terrorism or media-perceived danger to the citizenry.

Through the Indian Looking Glass

In an earlier blog (see below), I discussed how, during the Congressional debate about the US-India nuclear deal, even those members of Congress opposed to the deal bent over backwards to declare their support for closer ties between the world’s two largest democracies. And everyone agreed the deal is generous, opens long-closed doors, and sets minimal and perfectly reasonable expectations of India.

So what are we to make of the brouhaha in New Delhi? According to reports in both the Indian and western press, the US-Indian nuclear deal is being denounced, mostly by the communist and allied parties, as an unacceptable constraint on Indian sovereignty. (I want to thank Leonor Tomero for her extremely helpful India news summary.)
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Administration Increases Submarine Nuclear Warhead Production Plan

The slim Mk4A reentry body for the W76-1 warhead. The administration plans to produce 2,000 between 2007 and 2021.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The Bush administration has decided to more than double the number of nuclear warheads undergoing an expensive upgrade for potential future deployment on the Navy’s 14 ballistic missile submarines, according to answers provided by the National Nuclear Security Administration in response to questions from the Federation of American Scientists.

The decision preempts a debate in Congress about how the United States should size its future nuclear weapons arsenal.

The upgrade concerns the W76, the most numerous warhead in the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. The Clinton administration decided to upgrade 25 percent, but the Bush administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) in 2001 recommended that significantly more warheads had to be upgraded. An assessment completed by the Department of Defense in 2005 increased the plan to 63 percent of the W76 stockpile, corresponding to an estimated 2,000 warheads.

More than just a refurbished weapon, official sources indicate, the new weapon will have significantly increased military capabilities against hard targets.
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Uranium spill hidden from public because of NRC policy

A very disturbing report in yesterday’s Guardian details how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sealed records for two companies that manufacture and store highly enriched uranium in 2004. This was after some “protected information” regarding the Navy’s nuclear program were found on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s website. I am not sure what “protected information” is, but it apparently included “papers about the policy itself and more than 1,740 documents from the commission’s public archive.” This in effect hid from the public both information regarding their Navy work and records unrelated to the Navy’s work including the plant’s safety records.

YIKES! One incident hidden from the public was a rather disturbing spill of 9 gallons of uranium in 2006 at privately owned Nuclear Fuel Services Inc located in Erwin, Tennessee. While it is unclear how concentrated the liquid was, it is unlikely that it was enough to spontaneously detonate at the kiloton level, but certainly could have caused a nuclear chain reaction and explosion. It really depends upon how much uranium was in the liquid. To the NRC’s credit they later decided that this was a significant enough of an incident that they overrode the policy to make sure that Congress was made aware of it in their annual report, which included reference to three “abnormal occurrences.” In total there were nine violations or test failures that were hidden from the public since 2005 at the company, which has been supplying nuclear fuel to the Navy since the 1960’s.

From the Guardian:

“While reviewing the commission’s public Web page in 2004, the Department of Energy’s Office of Naval Reactors found what it considered protected information about Nuclear Fuel Service’s work for the Navy. The commission responded by sealing every document related to Nuclear Fuel Services and BWX Technologies in Lynchburg, Va., the only two companies licensed by the agency to manufacture, possess and store highly enriched uranium.”

Not really an open book: What I find astonishing is that even after the cat was out of the bag, neither the NRC nor the Department of Energy posted information relating to the incident or the policy on their websites. I certainly understand the principle of not making bad news a bigger story than it already is, but if history tells us anything we know that it is much better to come clean about these things before you get embarrassed by the press.

History of violations: Nuclear Fuel Services seems to have a history of problems that go back some time. On July 30 of this year a “confirmatory order” was published in the Federal Register that details some of this history and the fact that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had to go into arbitration with the company over the issues.

From the Federal Register:

“Given the number and repetitive nature of some of the apparent violations, the parties acknowledged that: (1) Past disposition of violations via the enforcement policy had not resulted in NFS’s development of corrective actions capable of preventing recurrence of violations; (2) a deficient safety culture at NFS appeared to be a contributor to the recurrence of violations; and (3) a comprehensive, third party review and assessment of the safety culture at NFS represented the best approach for the identification and development of focused, relevant and lasting corrective actions.”

The order was originally issued in February of this year, but was not released because of the NRC policy. For what it is worth, the company issued a public response to the order on their web page.