Recovering Radioactive Nuclear Sources

Over the past decade the Department of Energy/NNSA has recovered thousands of sealed radioactive isotope sources from around the world that were abandoned, unwanted or no longer needed.

Sealed nuclear sources are utilized for a variety of industrial, medical or military purposes. But at the end of their useful life they can still pose a safety or security hazard.

So the mission of the DOE/NNSA Off-Site Source Recovery Program is to take possession of “orphan” sources in the interest of public safety and security.

The Program says it has taken control of nearly 40,000 disused and unwanted nuclear sources — about 1.25 million Curies of radioactive material — from 1,400 sites in the US and 25 other countries.

The achievements of the Program were summarized last week in Strengthening Cradle-to-Grave Control of Radioactive Sources by Bill Stewart, Los Alamos National Laboratory, December 11, 2017.

The systematic recovery and control of nuclear materials became an explicit priority during the Obama Administration.

“We are leading a global effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials from terrorists,” the Administration’s 2010 National Security Strategy stated. “We are dramatically accelerating and intensifying efforts to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials. . . . We will seek to complete a focused international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world through enhanced protection and accounting practices, expanded cooperation with and through international institutions, and new partnerships to lock down these sensitive materials.”

The 2015 Obama National Security Strategy likewise affirmed that “Keeping nuclear materials from terrorists . . . remains a high priority.”

The 2017 National Security Strategy that was published by the White House this week also addressed control of nuclear materials, though in a comparatively terse and generic manner:

“Building on decades of initiatives, we will augment measures to secure, eliminate, and prevent the spread of WMD and related materials, their delivery systems, technologies, and knowledge to reduce the chance that they might fall into the hands of hostile actors. We will hold state and non-state actors accountable for the use of WMD.”

The new National Security Strategy included one reference to national security classification, citing it as a potential obstacle to information sharing:

“The U.S. Government will work with our critical infrastructure partners to assess their informational needs and to reduce the barriers to information sharing, such as speed and classification levels.”

Latest Nuclear Weapon Declassifications

The fact that a particular nuclear weapon has (or does not have) a “dial-a-yield capability” enabling the selection of a desired explosive yield was declassified earlier this year, in a joint decision of the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy.

Last year, the Department of Energy also declassified the thickness of the “getter nickel plating” used in tritium production. (A “getter” here means the reactive material that sustains a vacuum by capturing gas atoms.)

These and several other recent DOE declassification decisions were recorded in memoranda that were released last week under the Freedom of Information Act. Copies are available, along with the records of prior DOE declassification actions, here.

Updated Nuclear Stockpile Figures Declassified

The size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile as of September 30, 2015 — 4,571 weapons — and the number of U.S. nuclear weapons that were dismantled in FY 2015 — 109 of them — were declassified and disclosed last week.

The latest figures came as a disappointment to arms control and disarmament advocates who favor sharp reductions in global nuclear inventories.

The new numbers “show that the Obama administration has reduced the U.S. stockpile less than any other post-Cold War administration, and that the number of warheads dismantled in 2015 was lowest since President Obama took office,” wrote Hans M. Kristensen in the FAS Strategic Security blog.

But precisely because the new disclosure casts an unflattering light on the Obama Administration, it also represents a triumph of transparency. Since it is at odds with the Administration’s own declared agenda, the release enables the press and the public to exact a measure of accountability.

“The new figures […] underscored the striking gap between Mr. Obama’s soaring vision of a world without nuclear arms, which he laid out during the first months of his presidency, and the tough geopolitical and bureaucratic realities of actually getting rid of those weapons,” wrote William J. Broad in the New York Times on May 26.

“Obama calls for end to nuclear weapons, but U.S. disarmament is slowest since 1980,” as a Washington Post headline put it on May 27.

News stories credited the Department of Defense for the “annual public release” of the stockpile information. But it is a bit more complicated than that.

The nuclear stockpile size was classified as “Formerly Restricted Data” (FRD) under the Atomic Energy Act. As such, it had to be cooperatively declassified by both the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. And the declassification of FRD does not occur regularly or spontaneously.

“It is not the policy of the DoD/DOE to release such numbers automatically,” said Andrew Weston-Dawkes, the director of the DOE Office of Classification. Instead, consideration is given to declassification of specific information as it is requested. In this case, release of the 2015 stockpile figures was requested by the Federation of American Scientists in an October 2015 petition.

“The declassification of stockpile numbers was a direct result of your request for the information,” Dr. Weston-Dawkes wrote in an email. “Your request was reviewed by the DoD-FRD working group and in turn approved by the DoD and the DOE.”

Until the Obama Administration declassified it for the first time in 2010, the current size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal had never been officially made public. (Historical stockpile numbers up to 1961 were released in the 1990s.)

Columnists and commentators are in the habit of mocking President Obama’s promise that his would be the most transparent Administration in history. But when it comes to nuclear stockpile information, that promise has been fulfilled.

DOE Requests Increase in Nuclear Weapons Budget

The Department of Energy budget request for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) would again increase spending on nuclear weapons in Fiscal Year 2017.

“The budget request for FY2017 seeks $9,243.1 million for Weapons Activities within a total budget of $12,884 million for NNSA,” according to a new report from the Congressional Research Service. “This represents an increase of approximately 4.4% in the Weapons Activities Account over FY2016.”

“The Obama Administration has requested increased funding for the nuclear weapons complex in each of its annual budgets,” CRS noted. But the latest request still exceeds expectations.

In particular, “the FY2017 budget request and projections for subsequent years now exceed the amount predicted in [a] 2010 report [to Congress],” CRS said.

The details are presented in Energy and Water Development: FY2017 Appropriations for Nuclear Weapons Activities, April 1, 2016.

Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Supreme Court Vacancies: Frequently Asked Questions, March 31, 2016

Supreme Court Appointment Process: President’s Selection of a Nominee, updated April 1, 2016

Medicare Primer, updated March 31, 2016

Iran, Gulf Security, and U.S. Policy, updated March 30, 2016

Mexico: Background and U.S. Relations, updated March 30, 2016

China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities — Background and Issues for Congress, updated March 31, 2016

Cybersecurity: Legislation, Hearings, and Executive Branch Documents, updated March 30, 2016

New Rules on Classified Human Subject Research at the Dept of Energy

The Department of Energy last month issued new guidance on the conduct of classified scientific research involving human subjects.

While all human subject research is governed by federal regulations, the new DOE policy imposes several additional requirements whenever such research is to be performed on a classified basis.

For example, the proposed classified research must be reviewed and approved in advance by an Institutional Review Board, and the Board must include a non-scientist member and a member who is not a governmental employee (though he or she must hold a security clearance for this purpose). Also, the normal requirement for informed consent by the human subject cannot be waived.

See Protection of Human Subjects in Classified Research, DOE Notice N 443.1, approved January 21, 2016.

The nature of any such classified human subject research was not described. Speculatively, it might include certain types of research related to polygraph testing or other deception detection techniques. In the past, the Atomic Energy Commission notoriously carried out radiation experiments on unwitting human subjects, and the Central Intelligence Agency conducted behavior modification experiments involving drugs and other stimuli.

It seems that DOE today does little classified human subject research at its own initiative. Rather, “Almost all of the classified [DOE] human subjects research is done on behalf of other Federal sponsors under full cost recovery,” according to a related 2015 DOE memorandum.

The new DOE guidance was prepared after Department attorneys determined last year that a 1997 policy issued by President Bill Clinton was still in effect and applicable to DOE and its contractors. See Strengthened Protections for Human Subjects of Classified Research, March 27, 1997.

Department of Defense policy on classified research involving human subjects is set forth in Protection of Human Subjects and Adherence to Ethical Standards in DoD-Supported Research, DoD Instruction 3216.02, November 8, 2011.

Of possible related interest, the National Declassification Center announced today that 37 cubic feet of classified subject files from the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) had been declassified and made available to researchers.

Tolman Reports on Declassification Now Online

This week the Department of Energy posted the first declassification guidance for nuclear weapons-related information, known as the Tolman Committee reports, prepared in 1945-46. The Tolman reports were an early and influential effort to conceptualize the role of declassification of atomic energy information and the procedures for implementing it. Though the reports themselves were declassified in the 1970s, they have not been readily available online until now.

H-Bomb History Published Over Government Objections

Physicist Kenneth W. Ford, who participated in the design of the hydrogen bomb in the early 1950s, has published a memoir of his experiences despite the objections of Energy Department reviewers who requested substantial redactions in the text.

“Building the H Bomb: A Personal History” was released this month in softcopy by World Scientific Publishing Company. Hardcopy editions are to appear in May.

The dispute between the author and the government over the book’s publication was first reported by the New York Times in “Hydrogen Bomb Physicist’s Book Runs Afoul of Energy Department” by William J. Broad, March 23. The Times story immediately turned the book into something of a bestseller, and it ranks number one on in categories of Physics, Nuclear Physics, and Military Technology.

Significantly, Department of Energy reviewers did not attempt to compel the author to amend his text, nor did they seek to interfere with the book’s publication. So their response here is altogether different than in the 1979 Progressive case, when the government sought and received an injunction to block release of Howard Morland’s article “The H Bomb Secret.” Rather, they asked Dr. Ford to make extensive changes in his manuscript. Depending on one’s point of view, the requested changes may have been frivolous, unnecessary, or prudent. But there is no reason to suppose they were presented in bad faith. The Department had nothing to gain from its recommended changes.

For his part, Dr. Ford was not on a crusade to expose nuclear secrets. On the contrary, “I have bent every effort to avoid revealing any information that is still secret,” he wrote in prefatory remarks. As one of the original participants in the H-Bomb program, he has exceptional standing to render a judgment on what is and is not sensitive. “In my considered opinion, this book contains nothing whose dissemination could possibly harm the United States or help some other country seeking to design and build an H bomb.”

Still, while Dr. Ford’s scientific judgment is entitled to great weight, the question of what constitutes Restricted Data under the Atomic Energy Act is not a scientific issue. It is a legal matter which is delegated by statute to the Department of Energy. This means that DOE retains some legal authority over the information in the book which it has not yet used. One may still hope that the Department, in its wisdom, will decline to exercise that authority in this case.

“Building the H Bomb” is a rather charming and quite readable account of a young man finding his way in the midst of momentous scientific and political upheaval. It is not a history of the H-Bomb. For that, one still needs to turn to Richard Rhodes’ “Dark Sun” and other works. Dr. Ford does provide an introduction to the basic physics of nuclear weapons. But for those who don’t already know the names of John Wheeler (Ford’s mentor), Enrico Fermi, or Hans Bethe, and what made them great scientists and men of stature, this book will not enlighten them very much.

What the book does offer is an eyewitness account of several crucial episodes in the development of the hydrogen bomb. So, for example, Ford considers the contested origins of the Teller-Ulam idea that was the key conceptual breakthrough in the Bomb’s history. He cannot decisively resolve the disputed facts of the matter, but he knew Teller and he knew Ulam, as well as Richard Garwin, John Toll, Marshall Rosenbluth, David Bohm and many others, and he provides fresh perspectives on them and their activities. Any historian of the nuclear age will relish the book.

The National Security Archive has posted an informative commentary by Dr. Ford, along with several important declassified documents that were used by the author in preparing the book.

Classified and Public: B-53 Bomb Yield Declassified

The explosive yield of the B-53 thermonuclear bomb, once the highest-yield nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal, was 9 Megatons. “Effective 20 November, 2014, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy jointly declassified the fact that the yield of the B53/W53 Y1 was 9 megatons,” according to a notice posted on a DoD website last week.

This is less of a breakthrough in declassification policy than might be supposed, since the 9 Megaton yield for the B-53 bomb has been publicly reported for decades, including on this 1997 web page.

But it seems that this information had not been officially disclosed before. Now that it has been, it can be publicly acknowledged by government employees without penalty and it no longer need be painstakingly redacted from historical documents as they are processed for declassification.

The problem of nuclear weapons information that is both formally classified and readily available to the public has long been a challenge for the Department of Energy.

Last September, DOE updated its longstanding “GEN 16” policy which dictates a “no comment” response to classified information in public settings.

The newly revised no-comment policy “recognizes that it is possible to have incidental contact online” with a classified document and that “merely reading the document online does not constitute a comment.” See Classification Bulletin GEN-16, Revision 2, No Comment Policy on Classified Information in the Open Literature, September 23, 2014.

A DOE training package gives guidance on how to respond, and how not to respond, to public references to information that is classified, in accordance with the GEN-16 policy. The following exchange is offered as an example of what NOT to say:

Joe: “Can you believe there were weapons in X country?” [when that fact is classified]

DOE: “I thought everyone knew that”

Instead, suggested alternative DOE responses are: “I never really thought about it,” or “DOE doesn’t confirm or deny the presence of weapons in most countries.”

Another example of what NOT to say:

Joe: “Is it true you’re holding up publication of Jim’s book on his work in nuclear weapons development because of classification concerns?”

DOE: “It’s taking a long time to review, not just because there is a lot of classified information about thermonuclear weapons, but also because it’s boring.”

One should also not disconfirm the status or validity of published nuclear-related information, DOE advises. Thus, one should not say, “I hope terrorists read that article, because the [nuclear weapon] design was a joke.”

See DOE briefing on Classification Bulletin GEN-16, Revision 2, Classification Training Institute, October 2014.

Declassification of Nuclear Warhead Build Rate Sought

The Federation of American Scientists this week petitioned the Department of Energy to declassify the annual rate at which the United States built new nuclear weapons throughout the cold war.

“The proposed declassification would enrich public understanding of the historical development of the U.S. stockpile. Disclosure of the actual build rate per year would add a dimension to the cold war historical narrative and bolster transparency in nuclear policy,” the FAS request said.

Total annual build rates have previously been declassified for the years 1945 through 1961.

The last completely new nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal was assembled on July 31, 1990, according to Stephen I. Schwartz of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

Sen. Markey to DoE: What About the James Doyle Case?

Senator Edward J. Markey asked the Secretary of Energy this week to expedite the investigation of the firing of James Doyle from Los Alamos National Laboratory, which occurred after Doyle published an analysis critical of U.S. nuclear weapons policy.

“I write to urge you in the strongest possible terms to quickly conclude your investigation into the recent termination of Dr. James E. Doyle, a nuclear security and non-proliferation specialist who had been employed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) for 17 years,” Sen. Markey wrote.

“Dr. Doyle was terminated after an article he published crticizing the deterrence value of nuclear weapons was retroactively classified. At best, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) classification procedures are too vague to be uniformly applied. At worst, it appears that these classification procedures were used to silence and retaliate against those who express dissenting opinions,” he wrote.

The Doyle case generated significant controversy among his colleagues and others concerned with nuclear security policy.

In response to public concerns, the Department of Energy said it had initiated an Inspector General review of the case. But there has been no known follow-up to date.