The majority of all nuclear experts and diplomats, as well as aspiring nuclear and policy students, must have their eyes set on North Korea’s slowly but steadily expanding nuclear weapons program, as well as the recent updates on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. North Korea has disregarded all issued warnings to carry out nuclear tests and claims to have nuclear weapons capable of striking the United States. Other nations have considered North Korea’s actions as signs of hostility but still have shown willingness to restart nuclear talks. Iran under President Hassan Rouhani was able to come to terms with the P5+1 group that includes six world powers, namely, the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany. They successfully negotiated the JCPOA after almost a decade of conciliation efforts to limit Iran’s nuclear program to one with only peaceful purposes. The JCPOA is also significant because of the effect the deal will have on the Iranian economy; following its implementation, billions of dollars will be unfrozen. The deal promotes objectives central to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as well as promises to stimulate democracy, potentially bringing stability to the region. The deal with Iran and the companion JCPOA could open up opportunities for nations (like North Korea) to stabilize their regions in exchange for assistance in growing a peaceful nuclear program. In this article, key elements of the JCPOA are addressed, along with issues that demand attention for a deal with North Korea. Our hope is that the information provided will serve as a reference and stepping stone for the international nuclear community to resume discussions with North Korea.
The so-called “Iran Deal,” an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, was signed in Vienna on July 14, 2015 between Iran, the P5+1 group of nations, and the European Union. The deal helps to promote the three objectives of the NPT, to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, to promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament. Groundwork for the agreement was founded in the Joint Plan of Action – a temporary agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group that was signed in late 2013. The nuclear talks became most meaningful when Hassan Rouhani came to power in 2013 as President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It took almost twenty months for the negotiation parties to come to a final “Framework Agreement” in April 2015.
Iran was ensnared in a heavy load of sanctions beginning in 2006 that subsequently contributed to sinking its economy over the last decade. Yet by 2013, Iran had about 20,000 centrifuges that could be used to enrich uranium, an increase from a mere few hundred in 2002. (A uranium enrichment facility can either be used to make low-enriched uranium, typically 3 to 5 percent in the fissile isotope uranium-235, or highly-enriched uranium, greater than 20 percent U-235 and that could be useful for nuclear weapons.) Furthermore, Iran had developed a heavy water reactor in Arak that (once operational) could produce plutonium, a uranium conversion plant in Isfahan, a uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, a military site in Parchin, and an underground enrichment plant in Fordow. As Iran has latent capability to pursue either the uranium enrichment or plutonium (the most sought after nuclear material through which it is realistic to fabricate a nuclear weapon) routes to build a nuclear weapon, the agreement, which addresses both routes, has major significance in the global community that seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
Under the agreement, Iran has agreed to curtail its nuclear program in exchange for lifting imposed sanctions, which would help to revive its economy. These restrictions demand verification by which Iran would have to cooperate with inquiries and monitoring requirements. In addition, Iran’s past nuclear activities would be investigated (various sites could be inspected and environmental samples could be taken). Following these assessments, continuous monitoring would be required to maintain established knowledge that no clandestine activities are taking place. This will leverage the assistance of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to keep a lookout for any import or export of dual-use technology. In particular, the agreement calls for a so-called “white” procurement channel to be created to monitor Iran’s acquisition of technologies for its nuclear program.
Key elements of the Iran deal are: a. Reduction of centrifuges to only 6104 – while only 5060 are allowed to enrich uranium over the next 10 years; b. Centrifuges will only enrich uranium to 3.67 percent (useful for fueling the commercial nuclear power plant at Bushehr) for 15 years; c. No new uranium enrichment facilities will be built; d. Stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium will be either blended down or sold; e. Only 300 kg of low-enriched uranium will be stockpiled for 15 years; f. Extension of the breakout time to about a year from the current status of two to three months for 10 years; g. The Fordow facility, located about 200 feet underground, would stop enriching uranium for at least 15 years; h. Current facilities will be maintained but modified to ensure the breakout time of about one year (such as the heavy water reactor in Arak); i. the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the nuclear “watch-dog” for the United Nations, will gain access to all of Iran’s facilities, including the military site in Parchin, to conclude an absence of weapons related activities; and j. The sanctions will be lifted in phases as the listed requirements are met. However, if Iran is found violating any obligations, the sanctions will be reinstated immediately.
The requirements in the Iran deal have been placed to lessen its nuclear program to a peaceful one and to increase the breakout time to about one year for the next 10 years. This would not only help other nations (as the deal will keep Iran from producing a nuclear weapon and bring stability and security to the region) but also Iran, who seeks to revive its economy and continue its peaceful nuclear program while maintaining sovereignty of their nation.
On the other hand, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions started early in the 1950s, soon after the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. North Korea’s close rapport with the Soviet Union led to a nuclear cooperation agreement, signed in 1959. Under this agreement, the Soviet Union supplied the first research reactor, the IRT-2000. This became the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, North Korea’s major nuclear site, which has several facilities to support the North Korean nuclear program. In 1974, the IRT-2000 reactor was upgraded to a power level of 8 MWth (megawatt-thermal).1 2 A year later in 1975, North Korea installed the Isotope Production Laboratory (“Radiochemistry Laboratory”) to carry out small-scale reprocessing operations. Moreover, North Korea in the 1970s performed various activities such as: the indigenous construction of Yongbyon’s second research reactor, uranium mining operations at various locations near Sunchon and Pyongsan, and installation of ore-processing and fuel rod-fabrication plants in Yongbyon. They also began construction on their first electricity-producing reactor in 1985, which was based on the United Kingdom’s declassified information regarding the Calder Hall 50 MWe (megawatt-electric) reactor design.
North Korea was a part of the NPT for about two decades, from its ratification by the government in 1985 until its withdrawal in 2003. [North Korea had first begun to withdraw in 1993, but when the dialogue commenced directly with the United States, they later suspended this action (with only one day left on the intent to withdraw).] Due in part to diplomacy between former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, North Korea signed the Agreed Framework with the United States in 1994. However, the Agreed Framework dissolved in 2002 after President George W. Bush named the country as part of the “axis of evil.” Following its withdrawal, North Korea still showed readiness in freezing its nuclear program in exchange for various concessions. The nuclear talks between North Korea and world powers were recurring, as they never found a common ground, including the Six-Party talks in which South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, the United States, and North Korea were involved. In fact, the last time Six-Party talks were held was six years ago in 2009, despite numerous efforts to resume them.
“On October 9, 2006, North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test, despite warnings by the country’s principal economic benefactors, China and South Korea, not to proceed,” states Marcus Nolan, an economist at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. 3 According to Nolan, “the pre-test conventional wisdom was that a North Korean nuclear test would result in sanctions with dramatic economic consequences.” Five days later, the UN imposed economic sanctions on North Korea, with the passing of Resolution 1718. What is compelling to note, according to Nolan, is that “there is no statistical evidence that the nuclear test and subsequent sanctions had any impact on North Korean trade.” Nolan’s analysis of the trade data suggests that “for better or worse, North Korea correctly calculated that the penalties for nuclear action, at least in this primary sphere, would be trivial to the point of being undetectable – potentially establishing a very unwelcome precedent with respect both to the country’s future behavior and to the behavior of potential emulators.” Following the very first nuclear test in 2006, North Korea carried out two more tests in 2009 and 2013. “Sanctions won’t bring North Korea to its knees,” said Kim Keun-sik, a specialist on North Korea at Kyungnam University in Seoul. “The North knows this very well, from having lived with economic sanctions of one sort or another for the past 60 years.” 4 Does this mean the sanctions are not firm? The answer may be debatable, but the nuclear tests do demonstrate their failure. According to recent reports, activities at the Yongbyon reactor and Radiochemistry Laboratory are proceeding swiftly and it is assumed that the country is gearing up for a fourth nuclear test. This suggests that either sanctions needs to be more robust, which paves a pathway for serious nuclear talks, or North Korea is simply not interested in nuclear talks.
The Across-the-Board Treaty
The Iran Deal has been the hot topic in nonproliferation for various and obvious reasons, but two key questions remain: 1.) Is the deal apt to restrain Iran from advancing further in its nuclear weapons technology? 2.) And would the world see the deal through to successful implementation? The easy answer is that the world powers will know almost immediately whether restraints will take effect because of important milestones within the next six months, but the long-term implementation is more complicated. However, according to various experts, the JCPOA is the best that world powers can achieve given the competing interests among the negotiating parties. Moreover, we argue that this deal can act as a benchmark for many other countries like India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan that seek to expand or preserve their nuclear weapons capabilities. The challenge is how to craft deals with these other nuclear-armed states that will not lead to further proliferation or buildup of their nuclear arsenals.
One of the main reasons why North Korea has been able to operate in such a hostile manner in the past is the failure of sanctions. As part of the 1718 resolution of the UN Security Council, an embargo was imposed on exports of heavy weapons, dual-use items, and luxury goods to North Korea, as well as on the exportation of heavy weapons systems from North Korea, though the administration of the sanctions was left to each individual-sanctioning countries. “Russia, for example, defined luxury goods so narrowly (e.g., fur coats costing more than $9,637 and watches costing nearly $2,000) that the effect of the sanctions was questionable,” says Nolan. It is the sanctions themselves that can be the first step in bringing a country to the bargaining table; then, offering some concessions can lead to the meaningful and significant decisions. In this case, it appears North Korea was never cornered-off in yielding them. Most analysts, including Kim Keun-sik, suggest that the most effective measures are “those that target the lifestyle of North Korean leaders: financial sanctions aimed at ending all banking transactions related to North Korea’s weapons trade, and halting most grants and loans. This would effectively freeze many of the North’s overseas bank accounts, cutting off the funds that the North Korean leader has used to secure the cognac, Swiss watches, and other luxury items needed to buy the loyalty of his country’s elite.”
Another dimension to the issue of imposed sanctions is the support North Korea has received from China, who has been their primary trading partner and has provided them with food and energy. In fact, China supported the 1718 resolution only when the sanctions were reduced – less than severe, as they fear the regime collapse and subsequent, refugee invasion across their border. This is the key reason why China has played an important role in the Six-Party talks. However, following the third nuclear test in 2013, China’s patience with North Korea appeared to run out, as they imposed new sanctions and called for nuclear talks. In fact, a forum is planning to be held by a think-tank, the China Institute of International Studies, and backed by the Chinese government. 5 Academics and experts from the United States, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan, and North Korea (Six-Party) will be attending with the intent to restart the nuclear talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. According to a recent report, the United States and China have also discussed ways to boost the sanctions.
A deal with North Korea could potentially be realized once the sanctions are applied in an effective manner, such that loopholes that have previously allowed shortcutting of sanctions are henceforth closed off. Specifically, sanctions will only be effective if China is on board with the other major powers. China has been lenient in the past while dealing with North Korea, as they fear the ripple effects that could be triggered by the sanctions. China can be a part of the enforcement, provided additional world powers offers their support in terms of finance and manpower to maintain the law and order in China’s territory by the border, as they fear the refugee invasion. Furthermore, China has personal interest to reform North Korea. Thus, an assertion from other world powers that they will help to reestablish government in North Korea could strongly sway China.
Once these firm sanctions are enforced, the prime factors, which will be of utmost importance to address during the deal, are hereby listed for diplomats and nuclear experts for their perusal: a. The IRT-2000 reactor was upgraded to use a weapons-usable, highly-enriched uranium fuel containing 80% U-235 by weight (from the original that used only low-enriched uranium fuel, 10% U-235 by weight); b. The reactor modeled after the UK’s Calder Hall was a gas-graphite design that is of concern for proliferation – it uses natural uranium fuel, making it self-reliant on North Korea’s indigenous uranium and able to allow for production of weapons-grade plutonium; c. In the 1970s, the Radiochemistry Laboratory was used to separate 300-mg of plutonium from the irradiated IRT-2000 fuel. This information was not revealed until 1992 to the IAEA and requires significant attention; d. North Korea had initiated the construction of a second 50 MWe reactor, but the specific details were unclear as to its origin and therefore need to be examined; e. According to the IAEA, the activities at the Yongbyon site suggest that the country houses uranium enrichment centrifuges that could help create a uranium-based bomb; f. North Korea was constructing another light-water reactor in the vicinity of Yongbyon that may have become operational; and g. Recent reports indicate a large amount of activity being carried out at the Yongbyon and Pyongsan sites, possibly meaning they are preparing for another nuclear detonation test. 6 7
Presently, the Iran deal has been finalized and the hard task of implementation is underway; yet the activities carried out by North Korea demand valuable attention as well. The aforementioned issues will be vital points of discussion between the world powers during their negotiations with North Korea to curtail their nuclear activities. However, the sanctions need to be effective a priori in order for North Korea to be genuine during the bargaining process. Here, China plays an important role in the implementation of sanctions, as they have been so far submissive due to fear of potential hullabaloo effects. An assertion (moreover, an undertaking) from other world powers that their manpower and funds are accessible for mitigating any ripple effects of harsh sanctions will ensure China’s full backing to boost the efforts against North Korea.
In this article, Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs have been outlined, as well as the central factors of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Further, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and a summary of obstacles that will need to be overcome are detailed – a possible pathway to negotiate with North Korea has been presented with the caveat that it will be extremely challenging to implement effective controls on the North Korean nuclear program (given the hermetic and hostile behaviors of the North Korean government). In the near future, one can anticipate the implementation of the Iran deal, which will have a great impact in the global community and especially the greater Middle Eastern region. In return, the Iranian economy will have tens of billions of dollars unfrozen and ready to be spent, while promoting NPT objectives, as well as bringing stability to the region. In many ways, the Iran deal could act as a stepping stone in establishing a similar relationship with countries such as India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan, but given that these nations are already nuclear-armed, the challenges to creating agreements for them are much tougher than for Iran. Such agreements have the potential to further bolster the pillars of the NPT regime: safeguards and verification, safety and security, and science and technology.
Manit Shah is a Ph. D. Candidate in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Texas A&M University and is a part of the Nuclear Security Science and Policy Institute (NSSPI). His fields of interest are Nuclear Safeguards and Security, and Radiation Detectors. He plans to graduate by May 2016 and is on a job hunt.
Jose Trevino is a Ph. D. Student in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Texas A&M University and is also a part of the NSSPI. He has interests in Health Physics and Emergency Response. He plans to graduate by May 2016 and hoping to join Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Roadside bombs were devastating to American troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The press has categorized the moment prior to such an explosion as “left of boom,” and that following the explosion as “right of boom.” Defense Department analyst, Benjamin E. Schwartz, has chosen to title his book about nuclear terrorism, Right of Boom. While capturing the mystery of the weapon’s origin, the title does little to convey the enormity or complexity of the issue being addressed.
This obscure reference adds to a list of euphemisms that shield readers from the shock of confronting nuclear terrorism head on. Homeland Security refers to a nuclear bomb fabricated by a terrorist as an IND (Improvised nuclear device). President Obama has named a series of World Summits on nuclear terrorism, “Nuclear Security Summits.” International affairs analysts and commentators refer to potential perpetrators of nuclear terrorism as non-state actors. The “T-word” is too often hidden in obfuscation and awkward verbal constructs. It is difficult to come to grips with what is perhaps the world’s most serious threat, when a verbal veil shields us from apocalyptic implications.
For more than forty years, serious commentators have drawn public attention to the possibility that terrorists, a.k.a. non-state actors, might detonate a nuclear weapon in a major American metropolitan location, but few have grappled with the question of what action should be taken by America’s President in response to such an attack by a perpetrator whose identity may not be known. Schwartz shares his thoughts with us on the forces that might drive the President to take dramatic action, knowing that it is predicated on a web of conjectures and guesses, rather than on hard intelligence and evidence. He also explores possible unilateral and multilateral actions that might prevent future additional attacks, as well as new world government initiatives for the control of atomic materials. By introducing these hypothetical situations of extreme complexity, Schwartz has made a valuable contribution to civil discourse. He lifts the rock under which these issues have been addressed by security specialists and government agencies that are out of view of the general public. However, he only provides a peek under the rock, rather than a robust examination of the issues.
Schwartz does grapple with the implications of an existential threat to the nation coming from a non-state entity. The norms of international relations go out the window when it is impossible for a government to protect itself through government-to-government relations. Even when dealing with the drug cartels of Colombia and of Mexico, the United States coordinates its efforts through the governments of those countries; but given the extreme threat of a nuclear weapon, if rogue gangs of nuclear terrorists were operating in Mexico, it is likely that the U.S. government would not hesitate to take unilateral action across international borders, much like the drone attacks in the frontier areas of Pakistan or the military operation that captured and killed Osama bin Laden. Furthermore, alliances needed to confront nuclear terrorism might take the form of collaboration with militias that have only a loose affiliation with nation states. Such new forms of international security liaison are emerging as the United States increasingly relies on the efforts of Kurdish and Shiite militias in combat against ISIS.
Schwartz is strongest when he explores the logical non-traditional opportunities for action and weakest when he seeks to draw wisdom from nineteenth century accounts of dealing with the likes of Comanche warriors of the Great Plains and Pashtun tribes of the Khyber Pass. His efforts of gaining guidance in dealing with unprecedented terrorist groups by learning from experiences in historic guerrilla warfare encounters lack credibility.
Right of Boom makes a particularly valuable contribution to discourse about the threat of nuclear terrorism by reviewing a key section of the 2004 book1 by Graham Allison, entitled, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe. Dr. Allison was the founding Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government and a former assistant secretary of defense under President Clinton. Allison ably summarized the dangers and potential policy initiatives in 2004, when he wrote:
The centerpiece of a strategy to prevent nuclear terrorism must be to deny terrorists access to nuclear weapons or materials. To do this we must shape a new international security order according to a doctrine of “Three No’s”:
- No Loose Nukes;
- No New Nascent Nukes; and
- No New Nuclear Weapons States.
The first “No” refers to insecure weapons or materials that could be detonated in a weapon. The second refers to capacity to develop new nuclear weapons material such as enriched uranium or purified plutonium. The third goes beyond the development of fissile materials to the design and development of operational new weapons. Schwartz details how each of these three barriers has been breached within the past decade. This road to instability has been paved by North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran. Schwartz makes it resoundingly clear that the mechanisms for preventing the catastrophe described by Allison need to be reviewed and recast.
Schwartz frames his discussions in the hypothetical context of a Hiroshima-type bomb, known as Little Boy, being detonated on the ground by terrorists in Washington, D.C., but with the executive branch of government having been out of harm’s way. The President is, thus, in a position to deal with needed actions of response and restructuring. He argues that the President must take military action, even if he or she is ignorant of the origin of the nuclear attack. While not completely convincing, his exposition is engaging.
Schwartz speculates other anticipated outcomes following a nuclear terrorist attack that echo post-World War II ideas about international control, including the Acheson-Lilienthal Plan of 1946. While thought-provoking, those ideas, which did not gain traction back then, are still not compelling today.
In order for readers to take the threat of nuclear terrorism seriously, they need to understand how such a cataclysmic event could occur in the first place. For the vast majority of readers, nuclear realities are quite remote and unknown. Most individuals make an implicit assumption that the many layers of security that have evolved since 9/11 adequately protect society from the development of rogue nuclear weapons. Even if there is not full clarity on the issue, there is most likely a vague understanding in the minds of most that the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima required an enterprise, the Manhattan Project, and that it was perhaps the greatest scientific, militaristic, and industrial undertaking in human history. How then, could an equivalent of that Hiroshima bomb arrive in a truck at the corner of 18th and K Streets in Washington, DC, delivered by a team of perpetrators, perhaps no larger than the team of nineteen jihadists who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11?
Schwartz does a poor job of providing a clear description, for a layperson, regarding the plausibility of nuclear terrorism. He provides some history about the development of nuclear weapons, the subsequent declassification of the designs and knowledge needed for weapons production, and the 1966 case study of how three young scientists, without nuclear background, successfully designed a Nagasaki type weapon at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as an exercise to demonstrate national vulnerability.
His only reference to the Hiroshima bomb design, which would be the likely objective of a terrorist plot, is inserted as a passing phrase in the commentary about the Lawrence Livermore exercise. He states that the three young scientists “… quickly rejected designing a gun-type bomb like Little Boy, which would have used a sawed-off howitzer to crash two pieces of fissile material together, judging it to be too easy and unworthy of their time.” (P.42-43)
It is precisely the ease of both designing and building a Little Boy model that makes nuclear terrorism so feasible! The trio of young scientists succeeded in designing a Nagasaki bomb, known as Fat Man, but did not attempt to actually build one. Schwartz neglects to mention that the Little Boy design uses enriched uranium for its explosive power (which is only mildly radioactive and easy to fabricate into a weapon) while Fat Man uses plutonium (that is quite radioactive and difficult to fabricate into a weapon).
Schwartz identifies uranium 235 as a form of uranium that undergoes fission and he notes that uranium 238, which has three more neutrons in its nucleus, is a much more common form of the element. In the ore that is mined, there are ninety-nine atoms of uranium 238 for every one of uranium 235. Schwartz does not clearly state that bomb fabrication requires enrichment levels of uranium 235, which brings the composition of that component from 1% to 90%. Uranium composed of 90% uranium 235 atoms is known as “Highly Enriched Uranium” (HEU). One way of producing this bomb grade material is with the use of centrifuges. The quality and quantity of their centrifuges has been a key issue of negotiations with Iran.
Graham Allison, in Nuclear Terrorism, provides a clear and concise explanation of the Little Boy design:
If enough Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) is at hand (approximately 140 pounds), a gun-type design is simple to plan, build, and detonate. In its basic form, a “bullet” (about 56 pounds) of HEU is fired down a gun barrel into a hollowed HEU “target” (about 85 pounds) fastened to the other end of the barrel. Fused together, the two pieces of HEU form a supercritical mass and detonate. The gun in the Hiroshima bomb was a 76.2-millimeter antiaircraft barrel, 6.5 inches wide, 6 feet long, and weighing about 1,000 pounds. A smokeless powder called cordite, normally found in conventional artillery pieces, was used to propel the 56-pound HEU bullet into the 85-pound HEU target. The main attractions of the gun-type weapon are simplicity and reliability. Manhattan Project scientists were so confident about this design that they persuaded military authorities to drop the bomb, untested, on Hiroshima. South Africa also used this model in building its covert nuclear arsenal (in 1977) without even conducting a test. If terrorists develop an elementary nuclear weapon of their own, they will almost certainly use this design. (P85-86)
The general public also needs to understand that U235 is only mildly radioactive. It can be handled safely and is hard to detect. In 2002, ABC News smuggled bars of uranium into ports on both the West Coast and East Coast without being discovered. Furthermore, the amount needed for a weapon can be carried in a container no larger than a soccer ball. Uranium is one of the most dense elements (about 70% more dense than lead). Therefore, 140 pounds can easily be hidden in an automobile that is entering the country or in a shipment of plumbing supplies. While an improvised terrorist bomb could probably be smuggled into the country disguised as an electric generator or embedded in a shipment of granite or other building material stones, its weight of more than a thousand pounds presents challenges. It would be much easier to bring in said soccer ball volume, distributed into smaller packages, and then assemble the weapon in a nondescript machine shop. ABC News transported 15 pounds of depleted uranium in a 12-ounce soda can. Depleted uranium, by definition, contains less U-235 proportionally than natural uranium but has a similar radiation signature.
The largest hurdle for nuclear terrorists is obtaining enriched uranium. Graham Allison does an excellent job of detailing opportunities for terrorists to obtain highly enriched uranium. His book identifies the potential sources of highly-enriched uranium from the many research reactors around the world that were once promoted by President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace Program. Other sources include the inadequately guarded storage sites found throughout the former Soviet Union. These sites attracted agents from rogue states and terrorist organizations in the 1990s. How much of the material from unsecured facilities that has entered the black market at that time is unknown, however many examples of black market transactions have been discovered and pose as continued challenges for international inspectors today.
There is a colossal amount of HEU present in various forms around the world. At the end of 2012, an authoritative study2 estimated that there was as much as 1500 tons (3 million pounds). However, great uncertainty exists about the quantity located in Russia. That ambiguity translates directly into possible vulnerability for theft or diversion of HEU. The estimated total supply of HEU could provide fuel for twenty thousand Hiroshima-type gun nuclear weapons. If only a tenth of one percent of this material went missing, it could be used to fabricate 20 improvised nuclear weapons.
Allison describes a particularly egregious case from Kazakhstan where 1,278 pounds of highly enriched uranium were discovered in an abandoned warehouse that was secured only with a single padlock. That material had been collected for shipment to Russia as fuel for nuclear submarines. During the break-up of the Soviet Union, its existence was overlooked (or so it would appear). It is possible that some material was removed and sold to agents from Iraq, Iran, or elsewhere, but there is no public knowledge of that happening. Action was taken by the United States to purchase the material for use in power reactors. In 1994, removal was accomplished in a secret operation known as Project Sapphire, in which teams of U.S. experts packed and transported the materials to the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In 2014, the twentieth anniversary of Project Sapphire was celebrated, but the task of securing highly enriched uranium in the former Soviet Union has yet to be finalized.
Allison further writes that Pakistan (in 2004) was probably producing enough HEU to fuel five to ten new bombs each year. While Allison was concerned with the possibility that some of that material might be diverted, that possibility was exposed as a major U.S. concern in 2010. The Guardian reported on November 30th of that year that Wikileaks revealed that in early 2010, the American Ambassador in Islamabad, Anne Patterson, had cabled to Washington: “Our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in government of Pakistan facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon.”
Theft or diversion of HEU from production facilities is not unprecedented. Allison describes theft from a Russian enrichment plant in 1992, which was discovered in an unrelated police action. A famous case published in the March 9, 2014 issue of the New Yorker magazine and discussed in an excellent article by Eric Schlosser involved suspected diversion, in the 1960s, of hundreds of pounds of HEU from a commercial enrichment facility in Pennsylvania to Israel.
Given that large amounts of material that would fuel a Hiroshima-equivalent gun-type weapon are within reach of potential terrorists and successful acquisition of the material is quite plausible, the question remains as to whom might take such an action. Schwartz makes reference to al-Qaeda and to terrorists in general, but does not try to be specific regarding potential nuclear perpetrators.
Allison devotes a chapter of his book to the identification of potential nuclear terrorists, some of whom have actively explored acquisition of fissile material. Included in his overview are al-Qaeda, Chechen separatists, and Aum Shinrikyo. The Aum group, after failing in its attempts to purchase nuclear warheads, initiated a deadly sarin nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway on March 20, 1995.
Another excellent, comprehensive book3 dealing with nuclear terrorism is The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism (2005), by Charles D. Ferguson and William C. Potter with contributing authors Amy Sands, Leonard Spector, and Fred Wehling. Ferguson and Potter explore a number of these issues in great detail. Their discussion of potential perpetrators has a prescient section on apocalyptic groups. They refer to “…certain Jewish or Islamic extremists or factions of the Christian identity movement, whose faith entails a deep belief in the need to cleanse and purify the world via violent upheaval to eliminate non believers.” Given the success of ISIS in acquiring domination over large cities and vast financial resources, their potential for producing a gun-type Hiroshima bomb exceeds any prior threat from a terrorist organization. While attacks on Europe or the United States by ISIS do not appear to be imminent, the use of nuclear weapons to attack Shiites in Iran or Jews in Israel could easily become priorities on their agenda.
In recent years, scant attention has been paid to the possibility that apocalyptic groups or other potential terrorists based in the United States might engage in nuclear terrorism. The most horrific bombing by an American was the detonation of explosives by Timothy McVeigh at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 that killed 168 people. McVeigh was driven, not by religious belief, but by a passion to avenge actions by the federal government at Waco Texas and Ruby Ridge. These confrontations of armed citizens with federal agencies promoted the militia movement to which McVeigh adhered.
While predating McVeigh, nuclear weapons designer, Ted Taylor, became obsessed with the possibility of nuclear terrorism being initiated by an American terrorist. Taylor was the quintessential embodiment of an obsessed inventor-scientist. All those around him tolerated Taylor’s idiosyncrasies due to his exceptional brilliance. After receiving an undergraduate degree in physics from Cal Tech, he studied for a PhD at the University of California, Berkeley where J. Robert Oppenheimer had established the first American theoretical physics research group of international prominence. Taylor was unable to complete PhD studies there, because he refused to pursue course work in required fields of physics that did not interest him. However, Oppenheimer recognized his genius for creative thought and facilitated his appointment to the post-war theoretical physics staff at Los Alamos in 1948, where he became the leading designer of nuclear weapons. His accomplishments included the creation of the largest fission bomb that was ever assembled and tested, the 500 Kiloton Super Oralloy Bomb, which was thirty-five times more powerful than the Hiroshima Bomb.
The design area in which Taylor confounded the experts was in the conceptualization of small nuclear weapons. His ability to model very small nuclear weapons led to the production for use by the U.S. Army in 1961, of a tripod mounted recoilless rifle known as the Davy Crockett that fired a warhead with the explosive capacity of only 250 tons of TNT (equal to one sixtieth of the Hiroshima bomb). This weapon, which could be deployed and fired by two soldiers on foot, was produced for use against Soviet armored units, but had quite limited distribution.
A leading 20th Century theoretical physicist, Freeman Dyson, is quoted as saying, “Ted (Taylor) taught me everything I know about bombs. He was the man who had made bombs small and cheap.”
Taylor’s deep insights into the ease with which nuclear weapons could be assembled led him to resign from Los Alamos in 1956 and focus his energy on alerting society to the threat of nuclear terrorism. He became acutely aware of how the U.S. Government had contracted out the development, handling, and storage of highly-enriched uranium to commercial suppliers. He observed directly that the security and the procedures for handling and shipping at these facilities were extremely insecure. After trying to promote safeguards through efforts within the nuclear establishment, he decided, in the late 1960s, that he should alert the public to these dangers and promote public policy initiatives. In 1972, he obtained a grant from the Ford Foundation for a thorough study of existing materials that might be diverted into fabricating a clandestine nuclear bomb. Together with Mason Willrich, a social scientist, they published a book in 1974 entitled, Nuclear Theft: Risk and Safeguards (Ballinger). During this same period, he travelled throughout the United States speaking about the issue. Taylor’s efforts attracted the writer, John McPhee, who then asked to accompany him. In 1973, McPhee wrote a book4 about Taylor and his efforts to minimize the risks of nuclear terrorism entitled, The Curve of Binding Energy, from which Schwartz quotes a particularly startling prediction:
“’I think we have to live with the expectation,’ remarked a Los Alamos atomic engineer in 1973, “’that once every four or five years a nuclear explosion will take place and kill a lot of people.’ This statement is cited in John McPhee’s The Curve of Binding Energy, which detailed concerns about the proliferation of nuclear weapons to non-state actors over forty years ago.”
Schwartz then continues with: “While exaggeration may mislead the credulous and offend the perceptive, neither the absence of a precedent for nuclear terrorism nor the intelligence failure regarding Saddam Hussein’s WMD program changes the growing threat.”
While Schwartz gives lip service to the “growing threat” of nuclear terrorism, his book does little to assuage the credulous or to convince the perceptive of the seriousness of such a threat. The fact that he has engaged in this serious analysis of government policy for the aftermath of a nuclear terrorist attack is testimony to the fact that he is does not think that the issue is merely Chicken Little’s exaggerated concern. Certainly, his work as a Defense Department analyst lends gravitas to his posture on this subject.
It is worth reflecting how much traction the effort to call attention to nuclear terrorism has attained within the past 40+ years. The most immediate example of a serious concern for Schwartz’ scenario of a terrorist nuclear weapon being detonated in Washington, DC, is a 120 page report5 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Homeland Security entitled, Key Response Planning Factors for the Aftermath of Nuclear Terrorism – the National Capital Region. The report summarizes studies, implemented in 2011, by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and Applied Research Associates on civil defense response to the detonation of a terrorist nuclear device. Unlike the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that were detonated at about 1900 feet, the improvised nuclear weapons hypothesized in this study would explode at ground level. The consequence of a ground level explosion is that a crater would be forced from the ground carrying significant amounts of deadly radioactive debris that would then be dispersed over a range of perhaps 20 miles in length and a mile or two in width. Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not experience this characteristic “fallout” of radioactive debris.
The model that is discussed hypothesizes a 10-kiloton (Hiroshima was 15 kiloton) explosion at ground level at the intersection of K Street NW and 16th Street NW using the actual weather observed at that location on February 14, 2009. This in-depth analysis includes a summary of the effects of the explosion on the infrastructure of the city as well as on the population – including blast, fire, and radiation damage. There are detailed recommendations regarding how, where, and when to shelter from radiation, and assessments of evacuation scenarios. Public health issues are evaluated, including the anticipated post-explosion capacity of hospitals and health care workers to deal with needs of the population. Such a blast would produce nearly total death and destruction for an area about one mile in radius around ground zero and high levels of destruction out to about an area with a three-mile radius. Fallout with serious radiation consequences could impact regions as far as twenty miles from ground zero.
Homeland Security is engaged in studies of major metropolitan areas in the United States and shares these analyses and recommendations with police, firefighters, and other first responders, including emergency medical teams. In this literature, the word “terrorist” is rarely used and the amount of information and advice provided to the public is minimal. The weapon is almost always referred to as an “Improvised Nuclear Device” and its size seems to be standardized at 10 kiloton.
It appears that government agencies are concerned enough about nuclear terrorism to study their impact on physical environments and on human populations. However, the Right of Boom is unique in addressing the political impact and possible retaliatory action. But Schwarz is only addressing the simplest of potential scenarios. What if an explosion in Washington, DC, were accompanied by a blackmail threat that if certain actions were not taken by the United States, other bombs that were already in place would be detonated?
Another possibility would be that bombs were detonated simultaneously in several cities – possibly Washington, New York, and Los Angeles. The challenge of trying to anticipate such a catastrophe is mind boggling, yet, if one bomb were possible, three would be almost equally as feasible. It may be that such studies are taking place out of the public view. Even the Homeland Security studies, that are readily available on the Internet, are not proactively disseminated to the public.
During the height of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war led to Civil Defense exercises being held throughout the country. While these might not have been entirely realistic, they did prepare civilian populations for the possibility of nuclear conflict. Yet today, while nuclear terrorism may be just as likely, little is shared with the public – regarding either policy considerations or physical realities.
There is at least one instance of important advice that could potentially save many thousands of lives that is known to Homeland Security and FEMA, but is not distributed to the public: in the event of a terrorist nuclear event, the population affected should stay in whatever building they might be located in with positioning away from exterior windows, walls and ceilings. Homeland Security refers to this action as “Sheltering in Place.” The fact is that almost any building structure would shield against the type of radiation that most likely to be present, and that this radiation would dissipate significantly after a few days. By staying indoors for several days, chances of survival would be greatly increased. A practical consequence of this approach is that, following the first days after an attack, parents and children should not seek to be reunited if the children are in school and the parents are elsewhere. A strong concern for this issue was expressed in the 2004 report on terrorism planning after a “dirty bomb” attack issued by the New York Academy of Medicine6.
Lack of public dissemination of practical information, such as this, is partially attributed to the fear of alarming the general population, as well as a deep skepticism, among many, that such an event could even happen. Government policy sustains nuclear terrorism as an invisible topic, lying outside of conscious consideration.
While Homeland Security and FEMA are actively engaged in preparations for an act of nuclear terrorism, the scope of their planning is limited to responding to the physical, medical, and radiological impact of an IND. The Right of Boom comes close to exploring the larger social and political consequences but ultimately fails to do so. Questions that remain unexplored here and elsewhere are the impact on the nation’s economic, transportation, communications, and other fundamental systems that underpin the functioning of society. When one considers the ways in which 9/11, with the deaths of approximately 3,000 civilians, transformed society, it is difficult to image how the deaths of 30,000 or 300,000 civilians might alter the basic framework of civil order. It is difficult to even frame the questions. The enormity of this threat may be a significant contributing factor that keeps it out of public discourse. Examples of the issue being ducked are all too frequent.
Recently, both The Economist and Foreign Policy magazines featured cover stories focused on nuclear weapons (March 7th-13th, 2015 and March-April 2015, respectively). The Economist sums things up with, “But for now the best that can be achieved is to search for ways to restore effective deterrence, bear down on proliferation, and get back to the dogged grind of arms-control negotiations between the main nuclear powers.” Foreign Policy deals more with the active nuclear weapons refurbishing programs that are taking place in the United States, Russia, and China and how these activities might prompt countries that now adhere to the Non Proliferation Treaty to withdraw. Neither of these overview reports mentions the threat of nuclear terrorism by non-state actors.
Even a long-time analyst of nuclear weapons issues, Professor Paul Bracken of Yale, eschews reference to nuclear terrorism in his otherwise insightful book7, The Second Nuclear Era: Strategy, Danger and the New Power Politics (MacMillan, 2012). He bemoans the failure of U.S. strategists to reshape thinking that goes beyond a cold war framework, to grapple with a much more complex, multipolar world. Yet he limits his consideration of terrorists to that of agents for nuclear powers, rather than as independent non-state operatives.
It is striking that those who are worried about an improvised nuclear device exploding in an American city are noteworthy individuals who know the most about the subject: Theodore Taylor, the most capable of the post WWII nuclear weapons designers; Graham Allison, a former undersecretary of defense; Charles Ferguson, the current president of the Federation of American Scientists, and Benjamin Schwartz, an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. Following the knowledge trail to the deepest level of national intelligence, we find that the President of the United States is perhaps the most concerned individual of all. Michael Crowley wrote8 in Time Magazine on March 26, 2014, Yes, Obama Really is Worried About a Manhattan Nuke. He quotes the president saying, “I continue to be much more concerned, when it comes to our security, with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”
One might wonder if this statement by Obama is an isolated comment or a deeply ingrained belief that underlies his thinking and strategic approach to governance. By examining his record of policy statements and executive actions of the past six years, one sees that this is his core belief.
Obama most likely became educated about nuclear issues during his time in the Senate. He rubbed shoulders with Senator Sam Nunn, who has probably been the most influential publically-elected official concerned with nuclear issues (in general) and nuclear terrorism (in particular), prior to the emergence of Barack Obama. Less than three months after his first inauguration in 2009, he delivered a historic speech9 on nuclear weapons in Hradcany Square in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.
The speech was comprehensive in addressing issues of stockpiles of the major nuclear nations, the need to eliminate proliferation in additional states, and the need to curb developments in Iran and North Korea. However, it is noteworthy that he dealt at length with issues of nuclear terrorism. He stated, “…we must ensure that terrorists never acquire a nuclear weapon. This is the most immediate and extreme threat to global security. One terrorist with one nuclear weapon could unleash massive destruction. Al Qaeda has said it seeks a bomb and that it would have no problem with using it. And we know that there is unsecured nuclear material across the globe. To protect our people we must act with a sense of purpose without delay.”
President Obama renders the threat explicit: “One nuclear weapon exploded in one city – be it New York or Moscow, Islamabad or Mumbai, Tokyo or Tel Aviv, Paris or Prague – could kill hundreds of thousands of people. And no matter where it happens, there is no end to what the consequences might be — for our global safety, our security, our society, our economy, to our ultimate survival.”
He also does not minimize the chances of such an event-taking place: “Black market trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials abound. The technology to build a bomb has spread. Terrorists are determined to buy, build, or steal one.”
It is amazing that this Paul Revere-style alert and the call for action given by the President of the United States on the world stage could just as well have been an oration by Chicken Little. Perhaps if the President himself had failed to follow up, it might explain the lack of attention by commentators, think tanks, talking heads, and loquacious pundits. Certainly, the Right of Boom fails to build on the solid case made by President Obama.
But the President has not neglected this topic; far from it. While in Prague, he laid out an agenda and has assiduously adhered to it ever since. His Prague address called for efforts to expand cooperation with Russia and to seek new partnerships to lock down the fissile materials that enable nuclear weapons. He identified comprehensive areas of concern:
We must also build on our efforts to break up black markets, detect and intercept materials in transit, and use financial tools to disrupt this dangerous trade. Because this threat will be lasting, we should come together to turn efforts such as the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism into durable international institutions. And we should start by having a Global Summit on Nuclear Security that the United States will host within the next year.
President Obama organized a summit meeting in Washington, DC, in 2010 that was attended by 38 heads of state. This was the largest gathering of heads of state called by a U.S. president since the organizational meeting for the United Nations in 1945. He then held follow-up summits in 2012 in Seoul, Korea and in 2014 in The Hague, The Netherlands. A fourth summit will be held March 31- April 1, 2016, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC. These historic gatherings of large numbers of heads of state have taken place with remarkably little publicity or comment from politicians or the public. Typically, news media have reported during the time of the meetings, but there has been virtually no mention of the activities that these summits have generated. Since the programs were referred to as “Nuclear Security Summits,” they probably generated much less interest than if they had been headlined as “Nuclear Terrorism Summits,” (which, in fact, is a far more accurate title).
Stemming from these summit meetings have been numerous working groups that pursue targeted goals during the intervals between the meetings. These meetings have been conducted using an innovative approach to international diplomacy that seems to be grounded in a philosophy of achieving what is possible and not being stymied by the usual impediments to negotiated agreements. The working groups bring together countries that have mutual concerns and they work to create implementable policy statements – (but start with no predetermined format, structure, or reporting mechanism). In an attempt to stimulate creativity and new leadership, the participants are not assigned by their governments, specific titles, or rank, but by their relevant expertise. They are given the titles of “Sherpa” and “Sous-Sherpa.” The very title, which is associated with providing assistance to mountain climbers, sets a positive tone. Another innovative break with tradition and creative use of language is to refer to the statements that are produced as “gift baskets.” These gift baskets have resulted in many countries pledging to take further action and applying peer pressure on other countries to take action.
As of April 2015, there are 15 groups10 working to create these gift baskets. The number of countries that come together range from four in the group focused on reducing the use of HEU for the production of medical isotopes to thirty-five seeking to strengthen nuclear security implementation. The latter group has been working to integrate IAEA nuclear security policies into national rules and regulations.
Some of the other topics being addressed include the security of fissile material transportation, the security of radiological materials, forensics in nuclear security, and the promotion of countries becoming free of HEU. The elimination, since 2009, of all HEU from 12 countries has been a major accomplishment, particularly the removal of all HEU from the Ukraine, which was announced in March of 2012.
While Schwartz gives passing mention to the Nuclear Security Summits, he fails to recognize the innovative approach pursued by “gift basket” diplomacy or the successes that have resulted from that approach. Furthermore, the Nuclear Security Summit initiative has created a framework for approaching nuclear terrorism that would have applications following a terrorist nuclear detonation in an American city. Schwartz does not include that framework in his analysis of potential “right of boom” government actions.
More significant than the limited scope of Schwartz’ scenario’s vision regarding retaliation and new international security norms is his complete neglect of the horrific domestic situation that the President and his advisors would need to confront. Certainly the President would need to explain to the American public how he or she would respond to the perpetrators, but it could be argued that the American public’s main concern would be maintenance of civil society. Schwartz presents a hypothetical transcript of an address by the President to the American people in which he notes that he is speaking on his own authority that is enhanced by the advice of the cabinet and the consent of Congress. However, in that address, there is no mention of the deaths, devastation, interruption of commerce, breakdowns in communications, overwhelming strains on transportation systems, medical infrastructure, outbreaks of civil disorder, and general fear and hysteria that must be sweeping the country.
Perhaps it is asking too much for The Right of Boom to carry that load in addition to introducing the challenges of international actions, plans, and policy. Yet, its scenario – which may leave many readers incredulous regarding the actions that it does address, is rendered more unbelievable by its neglect of these obvious civil society considerations.
All of these issues were addressed in the article, “The Day After, Action Following a Nuclear Blast in a U.S. City,”11 by Ashton B. Carter, Michael M. May, and William J. Perry published in the Autumn 2007 issue of The Washington Quarterly (P. 19 This trio of authors had deep knowledge about how nuclear terrorism might manifest itself and what the resulting consequences would be. Aston B. Carter is currently the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Michael M. May was a long time director of the Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons development laboratory, and William J. Perry served as Secretary of Defense during the Clinton administration. These heavyweights wrote:
As grim a prospect as this scenario (a terrorist nuclear explosion in a U.S. city) is for policymakers to contemplate, a failure to develop a comprehensive contingency plan and inform the American public, where appropriate, about its particulars will only serve to amplify the devastating impact of a nuclear attack on a U.S. city…
In considering the actions that need to be taken on the “Day After”, they take more seriously than Schwartz the possibility of actual follow-on attacks, as well as the threat of follow-on attacks. Their short article refers to the physical impact of blast, radiation, problems regarding evacuation, medical care, civil unrest, etc. There is also a brief section dealing with retaliation and deterrence. It is surprising that Schwartz does not reference this precursor article that was written by such authoritative individuals.
A direct extension of the “Day After” article is an essay12 by Richard L. Garwin entitled, “A Nuclear Explosion in a City or an Attack on a Nuclear Reactor,” that was included in the Summer 2010 issue of The Bridge, a publication of the National Academy of Engineering, within a special installment, “Nuclear Dangers.” Garwin has been a senior advisor for many years to the highest levels of the U.S. government on nuclear weapons policy and other technologies that are relevant to U.S. military and security affairs. In 1950, when Garwin was 22 years old, he turned the concepts developed by Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam for the hydrogen bomb into engineering and assembly specifications that produced the first manmade thermonuclear explosion at Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific Ocean in 1952.
Garwin’s essay parallels that of Carter, May, and Perry, (in which he has a lengthy quote). Garwin is explicit that he is hypothesizing a terrorist-improvised nuclear device that uses highly-enriched uranium and the Hiroshima gun design. This IND, like all the other imagined weapons, has a yield of between 10 and 15 kilotons. It is worth noting that everyone who addresses the issue of a terrorist nuclear weapon and who has knowledge of the underlying technology chooses to focus on a device of about 10 KT. Garwin also notes that the scenario he addresses, “…was the focus of President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 12-13, 2010 (White House 2010).”
Garwin also emphasizes a point of great concern, made by the trio, with the following quote from the “Day After” article:
The federal government should stop pretending that state and local officials will be able to control the situation on the Day After. The pretense persists in Washington planning for the Day After that its role is to ‘support’ governors and mayors, who will retain authority and responsibility in the affected area. While this is a reasonable application of our federal system to small and medium-sized emergencies, it is not appropriate for large disasters like a nuclear detonation.
Since we witness the same pretense being operative in 2015, it is unfortunate that Schwartz did not bring this issue to the forefront. The current situation finds Homeland Security engaged in detailed Day After studies for different locations and in providing guidance and training for first responders in major cities, yet there is almost no information being shared, by either federal or local agencies, with the public.
The only exception, known to this reviewer at least, is the extensive efforts of the Ventura County California Department of Public Health. That office published13 the 243 page, “Ventura County Nuclear Explosion Response Plan,” on August 8, 2011 and has ongoing activities addressing this civil defense challenge. The premise of the Ventura County plan is that the terrorist 10KT explosion would take place in Los Angeles County, that being a more attractive target for terrorists. The population, economic, transportation, port, and other infrastructure targets of Los Angeles County are all more significant than in Ventura County. However, since it is contiguous to Los Angeles County, Ventura County would likely experience significant radioactive fallout. In addition uncontrolled mass evacuation would confront Ventura County. Throughout the region there would likely be hysteria, looting, and civil disorder. Additionally, the support resources of medical, police, and firefighter first responders would be called upon to aid in the response and recovery operations in Los Angeles County. The Ventura County plan examines short term, intermediate term, and long-term coordination issues for first responders, as well as guidelines for the civilian population. The plan calls for education and coordination efforts that are needed in anticipation of a nuclear disaster. It points out that many more lives will be lost and the impact of the attack will be much greater if society is not prepared and well- informed. In spite of this obvious reality, there is almost no attention to informing the American public about these matters.
The level of detail in the Ventura County Plan is impressive and somewhat shocking. For example, it includes guidelines on dealing with the large numbers of dead bodies that will need to be identified and disposed of. There are recommendations such as the creation of temporary burial sites in “trenches at least 5 feet deep and at least 50 yards from water sources.” They recommend that bodies be at least 2 feet apart and in “one layer only.”
The report also outlines the psychological impact of the disaster including anxiety, anger, depression, and lethargy. It notes that the fear, disorientation, and misleading notions will be introduced by the lack of understanding about the ongoing impact of radiation exposure. The report notes that Ventura County has elected to develop a Trauma Response Network to respond to large-scale emotional and psychological needs of the general public.
In its section on rage and hoarding, there is every indication that violence will erupt. The report notes that looting and other violent acts are more likely in settings where there are high crime rates and youth gangs. These conditions are met in Ventura County and among the evacuees arriving from Los Angeles County. While they note that, “The Federal government has a massive food shortage program of canned goods located in salt caves near Kansas City,” supplies will likely run out before federal authorities would be able to transport the stored food to where it would be needed. They also enunciate a likely need for “supervised looting” in which government authorities seize private warehouses and distribute food.
The Ventura County plan estimates that two million people will arrive from Los Angeles County bringing almost seven hundred thousand pet dogs and cats. The problems of radioactive contamination of pets and the fact that Red Cross shelters will not accept house pets are addressed. Burial of large numbers of dead animals is also included in the Ventura County plan. While the plan quantifies the number of pets likely to be carried by evacuees, there is no estimate for the number of pets that will become troublesome following the death of their owners.
One of the few examples of pets in a disaster zone is the experience in Rwanda, where more than 800,000 people were massacred during a 100-day period. When Paul Kagame led a military expedition into Rwanda from Uganda, he found packs of dogs eating the corpses that were everywhere and ordered his troops to shoot all of the dogs.
The level of detail in the Ventura County report reinforces the certainty that immediate Federal action will be needed following a nuclear terrorist attack. The problems of medical care, food availability, law enforcement, and general chaos will require federal resources and personnel. Clearly, the issues that will be faced by the President on the Day After will be far more diverse and complex than portrayed in the scenario presented in Right of Boom.
Commentary about nuclear terrorism includes issues of prevention and preparation on the “left of boom” and issues of response, retaliation, and prevention of a repeat attack on the “right of boom.” Schwartz has chosen to develop a case for the likelihood of nuclear terrorism and the retaliation aspect of post attack actions. In so doing, he has made a valuable contribution to public discourse on an issue that has received little attention. Since the post attack actions of the executive branch of government will be occupied, if not overwhelmed, by the excruciating challenges of coping with domestic challenges and needs, his bland scenario, with its transcript of the President’s first post attack address to the nation, is not plausible. His focus on international initiatives to prevent follow-on nuclear terrorism would have benefited from explicit recognition of President Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit diplomacy with the establishment of fifteen working groups that are attempting to deal with precisely these issues. By moving from a laissez faire, “gift basket” form of diplomacy to a more coercive approach of engagement, the outlines of a specific agenda for the “New Order,” that he imagines, might emerge.
While it is difficult to calculate the odds that there will be a nuclear terrorist attack on a U.S. city, the grim reality is that, if it were to happen, if would transform life as we know it. It appears that those who are best informed on the issue assess the probability as high. This is a threat that poses a serious concern to the President of the United States, former secretaries of defense, former undersecretaries and high-level advisors in the department of defense, and former lead designers and development managers of nuclear weapons. One wonders what conclusions the bookie, Jimmy the Greek, would have drawn from this consensus among experts.
In the 1950s and 60s the threat of nuclear war between the two superpowers stimulated intense discussion and debate. Many books were written, both fiction and non-fiction. Movies were produced, songs and poems were written, and civil defense drills were conducted. Some of this activity was profound and some of it was silly, but we are thankful that nothing happened to threaten our existence. Currently, nuclear terrorism receives little attention and is often viewed with skepticism. Right of Boom by Benjamin E. Schwartz is a welcome addition to the public airing of these issues.
Edward A. Friedman is Professor Emeritus of Technology Management at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. His undergraduate and graduate degrees in physics are from MIT and Columbia University, respectively. He teaches courses at Stevens on nuclear weapons issues. He holds an Honorary Doctor of Science degree in Mathematics from Sofia University in Bulgaria and he received a medal from King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan for his work in educational development at Kabul University in the 1970s.
General George C. Marshall and the Atomic Bomb (Praeger, 2016) provides the first full narrative describing General Marshall’s crucial role in the first decade of nuclear weapons that included the Manhattan Project, the use of the atomic bomb on Japan, and their management during the early years of the Cold War.
Marshall is best known today as the architect of the plan for Europe’s recovery in the aftermath of World War II—the Marshall Plan. He also earned acclaim as the master strategist of the Allied victory in World War II. Marshall mobilized and equipped the Army and Air Force under a single command, serving as the primary conduit for information between the Army and the Air Force, as well as the president and secretary of war. As Army Chief of Staff during World War II, he developed a close working relationship with Admiral Earnest King, Chief of Naval Operations; worked with Congress and leaders of industry on funding and producing resources for the war; and developed and implemented the successful strategy the Allies pursued in fighting the war. Last but not least of his responsibilities was the production of the atomic bomb.
An early morning phone call to General Marshall and a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt led to Marshall’s little known, nonetheless critical, role in the development and use of the atomic bomb. The call, received at 3:00 a.m. on September 1, 1939, informed Marshall that German dive bombers had attacked Warsaw. The letter signed by noted physicist Albert Einstein and delivered a month later, informed Roosevelt of the possibility of producing an enormously powerful bomb using a nuclear chain reaction in uranium.
As Marshall hung up the phone, he told his drowsy wife, “Well, it’s come.” He dressed quickly and went to his office. Later that day he would be sworn in as Army chief of staff while German troops marched into Poland in a blitzkrieg that launched World War II.
Nearly one year before, German scientists had observed that bombarding uranium atoms with neutrons caused them to split into smaller elements, releasing a tremendous amount of energy. This fission of a uranium atom also generates additional neutrons, which can then split other uranium atoms to produce a nuclear chain reaction. Physicists in many countries recognized this rapid chain reaction in uranium could produce a powerful atomic bomb. Among them was Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, who realized that the Germans in particular were in an excellent position to produce an atomic bomb. Szilard, like Albert Einstein, had immigrated to the United States to escape Nazi persecution. He believed the U.S. government should be alerted to this possibility. He reasoned that Einstein, a renowned scientist, would be in a position to gain the attention of the U.S. government. So, on July 12, 1939, he visited Einstein at his home on Long Island to discuss the prospect of a U.S. atomic bomb. Szilard’s explanation of a nuclear chain reaction in uranium surprised Einstein, who had not followed recent developments in nuclear physics. Einstein pondered this new revelation and then slowly remarked, “I haven’t thought about that at all.”1 He realized that nuclear fission was the conversion of mass to energy (a demonstration of his famous 1905 E=mc2 equation).
In the letter, which was delivered October 4, 1939, Einstein warned the president that the Germans might be developing a game-changing bomb, and he raised the prospect of the United States building a weapon of its own. Roosevelt immediately approved the establishment of a committee to investigate the feasibility of the United States producing such a weapon, and Marshall’s remarkable career took a significant turn.
Marshall’s direct involvement with nuclear weapons came two years after these initial communications of 1939, when the president appointed him to the Top Policy Group, established to provide Marshall with advice on atomic energy. Little did Marshall realize that the atomic bomb would hasten the end of the war, dramatically alter the future of warfare, and profoundly influence the post-war world. As a soldier who came of age in the era that saw both trench warfare and the implementation of new technologies on the battlefield, Marshall was skeptical, but open, to the possibilities this new weapon presented. Almost a decade later, as secretary of state and secretary of defense, he confronted profound issues related to nuclear weapons.
Expanding the size of the Army, training new draftees, reorganizing the command structure, and acquiring the necessary materials and equipment had required strong leadership within both the military and Congress. In guiding these efforts, Marshall had gained the confidence of the president, advisor Harry Hopkins, Stimson, and the Army officer corps. He also acquired the respect of congressmen during his numerous committee appearances in support of the funds requested for the mobilization. Thus, despite the demands of these critical assignments, it was not surprising the president appointed Marshall to the influential policy group for atomic power.
As a member of the Top Policy Group, General Marshall was privy to the reports and plans for expanding the project. In 1943, when research indicated that the United States could produce a bomb, the Army assumed responsibility for its production. That meant Marshall, as Army chief of staff, became responsible for the massive effort known as the Manhattan Project, (that built the atomic bombs dropped on Japan). His oversight of the Army’s budget allowed him to divert funds necessary to initiate the project. Later, his reputation and influence were instrumental in securing approval for additional funding from congressmen who were told only that the project was important for winning the war. When the bomb emerged as a weapon that might end the war in the Pacific, he advised Secretary of War Henry Stimson and President Harry Truman regarding its use on Japan. This decision shortened the war and unleashed the specter of nuclear holocaust on the world.2
The Manhattan Project
Marshall and Stimson oversaw the largest scientific project in history. From 1942 to 1946, an estimated 500,000 people were involved in producing the bombs, only a few of whom knew the objective of the project. According to one estimate, the Manhattan project cost $2.2 billion (approximately $30 billion in 2014 dollars) from 1942 to 1946.3
The project encompassed a nationwide system of production plants and laboratories. The Clinton Engineering Works at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, used sequence thermal diffusion, electromagnetic separation, and gaseous diffusion methods to enrich uranium in order to produce the concentrated, fissile uranium-235 required for the bomb. (Natural uranium has less than one percent uranium-235 and more than 99 percent non-fissile uranium-238, and nuclear explosives typically require a uranium mixture with 80 percent or more concentration in uranium-235.) Nuclear reactors at Hanford, Washington, produced small amounts of plutonium-239, which were separated from spent reactor fuel by chemical means. These fissile materials were then sent to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where they were transformed into the critical components of the first atomic bombs. In addition to these major installations, many other industries and laboratories throughout the U.S. contributed to the Project.
In early June 1945, the uranium and plutonium were fashioned into components for the atomic bombs nicknamed “Little Boy” (the uranium-235 bomb) and “Fat Man” (the plutonium-239 weapon). Because there was only enough enriched uranium for one “Little Boy” and its design was simpler than that of “Fat Man,” it was not tested. The weapons designers were confident in the simple gun type mechanism to trigger the bomb. One of the two available “Fat Man” weapons was used to test the more complicated implosion method of detonation on July 16 at Alamogordo, New Mexico.
In one key move, Marshall assigned Colonel Leslie Groves to manage the project and then provided him with the required resources to carry it through. The cooperation between the dynamic Groves and the reserved Marshall was critical in directing the largest scientific project in history, which produced the atomic bomb in less than two years.
Groves first met General Marshall when he reported with a group of officers for duty with the War Department General Staff in June 1939. Marshall appreciated Groves’ management skills and wanted to keep him at the War Department in Washington. Although Groves had little direct contact with Marshall, he appreciated the fact that Groves had turned down a transfer from Washington to engineering duty.
Groves was given full authority to create the organizational structure and lines of command for the project, which became an independent command, no longer held accountable to the Corps of Engineers. He reported directly to Marshall and Stimson. This structure worked well due to the relationship between Groves and his superiors during the three-year project. The relationship of mutual trust, support, and respect is reflected in a post-war interview where Groves stated:
One reason why we were so successful was non-interference from above. General Marshall never interfered with anything that was going on. He didn’t ask for regular reports; he saw me whenever I wanted to see him and his instructions were very clear. Never once did I have to talk about the approval for money appropriations. 4
Marshall’s directional genius included the ability to foster collaboration among groups with disparate interests. As Army chief of staff, he worked with Allied military leaders and heads of state to implement strategies for defeating the Axis. This talent was also critical to the success of the Manhattan Project. Marshall insured cooperation between the Army and the scientists, obtained funds from Congress while keeping their intended use a secret, and supported Groves’ forceful management style. Marshall and Stimson provided continuity for the atomic program during the transition of presidential leadership from Roosevelt to Truman.
Marshall’s influence on decisions leading to the use of the atomic bomb on Japan was as important as that of President Truman’s two top advisors, Stimson and Secretary of State James Byrnes. Marshall’s wise counsel influenced the views of Truman and his advisors as they weighed options for ending the war. Marshall provided valued advice on military issues, including the impact of the Soviet Union’s entry into the Pacific war, the pros and cons of an invasion of the Japanese homeland, and the conditions for a Japanese surrender.
As the war continued in the Pacific, Marshall and Stimson wrestled with the issues surrounding the use of the bomb on Japan and its implications for the post-war world. They often discussed the political and diplomatic issues associated with Japan’s surrender and Russia’s involvement in the Pacific theater. Stalin had agreed with Roosevelt and Churchill at the February 1945 Yalta Conference to enter the war against Japan within 90 days after Germany’s surrender. Marshall recognized the major role that the Soviet army could play in defeating Germany and believed it would also be valuable in the conquest of Japan. He thought Russian engagement of the Japanese on the Chinese mainland would keep Japan from moving troops to the home islands. He also noted that the Russians could invade Manchuria whenever they wished, thus allowing them to benefit from the surrender terms.
Still, Marshall kept his focus on military planning, leaving Stimson to manage the politics and diplomacy associated with the bomb. As the end of the war in the Pacific drew closer, allied military actions were dependent on Japan’s acceptance of the terms of surrender. Marshall understood that there was a choice between obtaining Japan’s unconditional surrender at a time when the nation’s morale was at a low point, and an invasion accompanied by Soviet intervention.5 He also considered the bomb as a possible means of “shocking the nation into surrender.”
Marshall was not certain that the strategic use of the bomb on a Japanese city would end the war and he believed an invasion was a real possibility. If necessary, he believed that additional atomic bombs could be used as tactical weapons to support the invasion. The low estimates of the explosive power of the bomb that Marshall received from Groves, as well as the wide range of estimates from the Project’s scientists, led him to doubt its strategic value6 Given this uncertainty, Marshall maintained his conviction that in the absence of a diplomatic solution, allied troops would have to occupy the Japanese home islands to insure the nation’s complete capitulation. If an invasion became necessary, he believed Soviet entry into the war with Japan would be most helpful.
With the future of the bomb still uncertain, Marshall, as operative head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, heard proposals from the Army Air Forces and Navy for forcing Japan to surrender. Naval planners felt that a tight blockade would force the Japanese into capitulation, while the Air Force leaders favored bombing them into submission. Marshall maintained that invasion of the home islands would be necessary, given the resistance encountered on Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Moreover, the resilience of the Japanese to the intense bombing of their cities reinforced his position. He remained a conventional soldier who felt an invasion would be necessary to conquer an enemy. Nevertheless, he viewed the atomic bomb as a possible means of ending the war to avoid an invasion.
Marshall supported a strategy to apply increasing pressure on Japan. It included an immediate increase in conventional bombing and a tightened naval blockade, followed by Russian entry into the war in August and use of the atomic bomb when it became available. If these actions failed to produce surrender, Kyushu would be invaded on November 1, followed by Honshu in March 1946. Marshall left the decision to use the bomb to the president. He told Assistant Secretary of War, John McCloy “whether we should drop the bomb on Japan was a matter for the president to decide, not the chief of staff, since it was not a military question.7 He maintained his position of civilian control of nuclear weapons after the war.
By the end of July 1945, leaders in the United States and Japan remained deadlocked on the means of ending the war. The options for the United States were either a costly invasion to force a quick surrender or the continuation of the bombing and blockade, which came with the risk of losing the American peoples’ support for the war. Japan’s choices were to seek terms of surrender that left the emperor on the throne or to offer fierce resistance, in the hopes that the American public would become weary of the war and accept surrender terms favorable to Japan. The atomic bomb changed the game for both nations.
As a result of the successful Trinity test on July 16 at Alamogordo, New Mexico, U.S. leaders activated plans for dropping the two existing atomic bombs on Japanese cities. At the Potsdam Conference, Groves informed Marshall about preparations for the bombing missions. MAGIC intercepts of Japanese diplomatic and military communications indicated to the allies that the Japanese leaders remained divided on the means of ending the war. On July 25, Marshall approved the missions for the atomic bombing of Japan.
While at dinner with his family at the Army-Navy Club on August 6, Groves received the first report that the mission to Hiroshima had left on schedule. He immediately returned to his office to await further developments. Around 11:15 pm, Colonel Frank McCarthy, Marshall’s aide, called Groves to say that the general wanted to know if there was any news on the strike. Groves responded that there was none. Shortly after McCarthy’s call, Groves received the coded strike message from General Farrell on Tinian. The mission’s crew reported:
Results clear cut, successful in all respects. Visible effects greater than New Mexico tests. Conditions normal in airplane following the delivery.8
As soon as the message was decoded, an excited Groves phoned McCarthy, who then gave Marshall the news and received Marshall’s tempered response, “Thank you very much for calling me.”
Japan announced its surrender on August 15, 1945, six days after a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.
Marshall’s Nuclear Legacy
After the war, Truman’s selection of Marshall first as secretary of state and then as secretary of defense reflected his confidence in Marshall’s judgment and leadership. In these positions, Marshall continued to confront issues involving nuclear weapons, including the Berlin crisis, the Korean War, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He believed that these weapons did not alleviate the need for a large conventional army and, while defending their use to end the war with Japan, he did not favor utilizing them in future wars. In an address to the United Nations assembly on September 17, 1948, he stated:
For the achievement of international security, and the well-being of the peoples of the world, it is necessary that the United Nations press forward on many fronts. Among these are the control of atomic and other weapons of mass destruction and has perhaps the highest priority if we are to remove the specter of a war of annihilation.9
As a conventional warrior, Marshall was skeptical of revolutionary technology in waging war. His view changed with the successful deployment of the atomic bomb on Japan. Inherently distrustful of wonder weapons, he nevertheless supported the Manhattan Project. Unsure that the atomic bomb would negate the need for invading Japan, he was surprised when it shocked the Japanese into surrendering. He believed the use of the atomic bomb ended the war, but realized that it posed a threat to the future of the world.
Dr. Frank A. Settle, professor emeritus of chemistry, Washington and Lee University and director of the ALSOS Digital Library for Nuclear Issues, was professor of chemistry at the Virginia Military Institute from 1964 to 1992. Before coming to W&L in 1998, he was a visiting professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, a consultant at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and a program officer at the National Science Foundation. He is a co-author of Instrumental Methods of Analysis and the editor of The Handbook of Instrumental Analytical Techniques. He has published extensively in scientific, educational, and trade journals. At W&L he developed and taught courses on nuclear history, nuclear power, and weapons of mass destruction for liberal arts majors. This article contains excerpts from his new book, researched at the Marshall Library, General George C. Marshall and the Atomic Bomb to be published by Prager in spring 2016.
Professor Rob Goldston teaches in the areas of nuclear energy and non-proliferation at Princeton University. Rob is a leading researcher in plasma physics and fusion energy. He was director of the DOE Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), 1997 – 2009. Since then he has published on the tradeoff between climate change mitigation by nuclear energy, fission and fusion, and nuclear proliferation risks. Recently he has collaborated with Professors Alexander Glaser of Princeton and Boaz Barak of Harvard on a Zero-Knowledge Protocol for warhead verification, for which the three were named “Leading Global Thinkers of 2014” by Foreign Policy magazine. He was acting director of the Princeton University Woodrow Wilson School Program on Science and Global Security during the Spring semester of 2015.
What inspired you to become a scientist? Was there a particular person or an event that put you on this path?
As far back as I can remember I was interested in physics, but one incident does stand out. The father of a fellow high school student was a laser physicist – back when those were rare – and he was invited to teach our 8:30 am physics class. We were so enthralled with what he could tell us about modern physics that we made him keep answering our questions until lunchtime. We cut all of the intervening classes.
What are the potential benefits of fusion energy?
Fusion has a number of potential benefits. Its fuel is abundant. It cannot melt down or run away. And its proliferation risks are small – if it is safeguarded.
What are the proliferation risks, if any, from fusion energy? What can and should be done to minimize those risks?
Proliferation risks are conventionally divided into use of clandestine facilities to produce fissile material, covert misuse of declared facilities for this purpose, and breakout. A DT [deuterium-tritium] fusion device capable of producing enough neutrons to transmute uranium or thorium to make 1 SQ [significant quantity1 worth of weapons material per year, while much smaller than a fusion power plant, is still quite large and would have very clear environmental signatures. So the risk of a clandestine facility making bomb material is small.
One could imagine, however, placing uranium or thorium targets in the vicinity of a neutron and power producing fusion plasma (the cloud of hot, ionized gas that is the fusion fuel). You would need to have safeguards to assure that no such material was present, but these would be relatively easy to implement, because the baseline amount is zero – so detection of any uranium, thorium or fission products would be a clear signature of misuse of the plant.
Finally, you could worry about breakout. The advantage of fusion is that even an unannounced breakout would be easily detected (again due to the presence of improper materials) and at the time of breakout there would be no fissile material yet produced. It would be relatively easy to disable a fusion power plant without risk of spreading radiation. I have written about these issues2 and others associated specifically with inertial confinement fusion3, and worked in an IAEA Consultative Group to suggest ways in which safeguards could best be deployed for fusion systems.
What more needs to be done to deploy the first commercially viable fusion energy power plant? How far away approximately is the world from achieving that breakthrough?
I think we know how to make commercial amounts of power from fusion, and this will be demonstrated by the ITER [Latin for “the way”] experiment now being built in France. ITER is slated to produce up to 500 MW of fusion power in pulses lasting between 400 seconds and an hour. The next challenge – which is my current area of research – is learning how the heat of the plasma escapes from the edge of the plasma45 and how to capture it most effectively. A parallel challenge is developing materials that can withstand the flux of 14 MeV neutrons from the DT reaction. In a sense our next challenges are set by our successes so far in making fusion power.
It is hard to say when all of this will come together. ITER should demonstrate major power production in the 2030s. We should bring along in parallel the other science and technology so that the device after ITER can put electricity on the grid. This is the structure of the plan that has been articulated in China, Europe, Japan and South Korea. In the U.S. we have been more reticent about articulating such a plan.
In particular, what advice would you give (or have you given) to the U.S. government (both the executive and legislative branches) to further advance the prospects for a commercial breakthrough in fusion energy?
I think that the U.S. needs to commit to being a commercial competitor in fusion energy, which means that we need a focused program with a set of specific goals and milestones. In particular, I think the winner in fusion will be the country that addresses the heat and neutron flux issues most effectively. We should be doing that in the U.S. while supporting the international ITER project, so that we can build a competitive pilot fusion power plant as soon as ITER succeeds.
Please describe in layperson’s terms what the “Zero Knowledge Protocol” is and how it can help address verification problems in nuclear arms control. Please describe the Consortium for Verification Technology.
A key issue for future arms control agreements will be for multi-national inspection teams to be able to verify that a nuclear warhead slated for dismantlement is truly a warhead, and one of the type specified. The problem is that this must be done without revealing anything about the design or composition of the warhead. (In other words, nuclear arms control should not facilitate nuclear proliferation!) Alex Glaser, Boaz Barak, and I have proposed a new interactive “Zero-Knowledge” technique6 to get around this apparent paradox. We propose that the inspectors would first select one or more warheads, randomly, from actively deployed missiles. At least one of these warheads, we assume, is a live one. If the inspectors are uncomfortable about this, they can select more. Then, say, 50 warheads are pulled out from storage. Now if the inspectors can prove to their satisfaction that these 50+ objects are identical, without learning anything about them, the problem is solved.
Our approach to this next step is a form of differential neutron radiography, and we are just now starting experiments on this at PPPL – using unclassified test objects. If we just were to take a neutron radiograph of a warhead, the resulting image would be highly classified. So our concept is that the owner of the warhead preloads the complement of this image onto an array of neutron detectors of a special type that record neutron fluence by producing small bubbles. Of course, the inspectors do not get to see these preloads either. However, when they irradiate a true warhead with neutrons that ultimately fall onto the preloaded array, the total signal at each detector should add up to a pre-agreed number of bubbles – the number that would have been produced with nothing there. So if we get an image of nothing – we have a real warhead! And we convey no information. The nice trick that made me fall in love with this idea is that if the preload is given a random Poisson distribution, there isn’t even information in the noisy speckle pattern on the image, since Poisson(n) + Poisson(m) = Poisson(n+m).
The astute reader, however, may have noticed a problem. Why can’t the owner of the warheads pull out a bag of rocks from storage, and give the inspectors a detector array preloaded with the complement of the bag of rocks? The answer – and this is where the interactive Zero-Knowledge feature comes in – is that the inspectors get to choose which preloaded array of detectors goes with which putative warhead. So the preload that is complementary to the bag of rocks could well end up behind a real warhead pulled off a missile. If we do this a few times, the odds that the warhead owner can get away with cheating are infinitesimal.
The Consortium on Verification Technology is a multi-institutional activity funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration of the Department of Energy. It provides funding for universities to collaborate with National Labs to work on a number of kinds of verification technology, not just associated with warheads. Princeton University and PPPL are members of this Consortium, working together on Zero-Knowledge warhead verification.
In early August, you joined 29 leading scientists in a letter7 to President Obama in support of the nuclear deal with Iran. Why did you sign the letter?
When I read the JCPOA, I was amazed at how strong it was. Viewed in the frame of other non-proliferation agreements, it is extremely innovative, very restrictive, and very well verified. I thought it was important for non-technical people to understand that this is indeed a very good deal – indeed the best that has ever been negotiated –and in absolute terms, able to get the job done. After 15 – 25 years of “good behavior” Iran will be constrained only as any other member in good standing of the NPT and signatory to its Additional Protocol is constrained, but this was inevitable after some period of time. As we said in the letter, and I have written separately, we need to strengthen the non-proliferation regime for the long run – and this deal gives us the time to do that.
What scientific opportunities do you think American scientists can pursue in collaboration with Iranian scientists?
JCPOA indicates that Iran is interested in fusion, and in particular in ITER. I would be very glad to welcome Iranian scientists to work on these.
What advice would you give fellow scientists who are considering applying their knowledge and skills to societal issues?
First of all, science is great fun. There is no thrill greater than understanding something deeply for the first time. If you are the first person in the world to understand it – that makes it a hundred times better. And if you can be solving societally important problems at the same time, what could be better?
In May 2015, only a month after key figures in the U.S. military publicly acknowledged the possibility that North Korea has perfected the miniaturization of a nuclear warhead for long-range delivery, the secretive country seems to have confirmed these claims with a series of announcements, including a “successful” submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test at sea. 1, 2 While many experts question the authenticity of these claims, the latest announcements do warrant closer scrutiny, given their implications for regional stability and order. 4 We will begin our discussion with a technical analysis of the latest available evidence about North Korea’s missile technology. Note that we will not consider the claims related to miniaturization, given that there is little open source information to confirm or disprove these claims. Instead, we provide an assessment of the so-called “KN-11” based on official photographs and a video released by the North Korean KCNA. The results of our finding are inconclusive – meaning there is not enough evidence supporting (or refuting) the existence of a functional ICBM or SLBM in North Korea. In the second part of our discussion, we will explore North Korea’s intentions by considering the broader political context within which this latest set of announcements has been made. We argue that these moves correspond to past patterns of North Korean behavior and are likely to be driven by the leadership’s desire to seek attention and possibly draw the United States to the bargaining table whereby North Korea can win important concessions.
The Chain of Events
In early April of this year, Admiral William Gortney, the head of Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense, stated that the North Koreans “have the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the homeland. We assess that it’s operational today….” 4 During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing one week later, both Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of Pacific Command, and General Curtis Scapparotti, the commander of USFK, corroborated Admiral Gortney’s statement. 5 This is not the first time that these officials have made claims to these effects, 6but it is interesting to note that they come in succession while the debate over missile defense (i.e. THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense]) has been gaining momentum in Seoul. 7 Even more importantly, they are followed by a new set of announcements from North Korea about its nuclear program.
To be more precise, the North Korean Defense Commission announced on May 20th that they “have had the capability of miniaturizing nuclear warheads… for some time.”8 This claim was preceded by another announcement on May 9th whereby the North Korean state news agency KCNA claimed that “there took place an underwater test-fire of Korean-style powerful strategic submarine ballistic missile.”9 Putting aside for the moment the motives behind these announcements and the context surrounding these events, we consider the validity of this latest claim using the photographs and video released by the North Korean media which will provide some reliable assessments about North Korea’s delivery capability (see Figure 1).
A Picture is (Not) Worth a Thousand Words
As the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Thankfully, the North Korean media has released more than a single photograph of the SLBM launch, which means we can piece together quite an interesting story about the North Korean missile capability using this set of pictures. The video, which was released in early June – more than three weeks after the photos, in what appeared to be a response to early Western analyses – confirms this story.
At first glance, the photos showing the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un observing the test appear to verify the official statement about an underwater missile launch. However, a closer scrutiny reveals that many of these photos were strongly modified. Therefore, technical details of this “missile” and its operational status have to remain unclear; what is clear, however, is that this event was not a full-scale launch of an operational SLBM.
To date, six different launch photos have been identified from the set of photos that were officially released by North Korean media. 10 Although there may be more, these six are already sufficient for an analysis. The photos are hereby arbitrarily numbered, in this case according to the most likely chronological sequence (Figure 2).
Missile Characteristics at First Glance
The missile, by now designated the “KN-11” by Western analysts, looks quite similar to the Soviet R-27/SS-N-6 submarine missile that was developed in the 1960s. For more than 10 years now, North Korea is attributed with having access to the SS-N-6 technology, and even having developed a road-mobile version of this missile termed “Musudan”. However, no test of the Musudan has been observed as of yet, and there is no clear evidence that North Korea actually has access to this special kind of technology.
The presented SLBM seems to be a one-stage design with a length-to-diameter ratio of 6. This would mean a length of around 9 m for a diameter of roughly 1.5 m, which is consistent with the original SS-N-6 missile. With comparable size and technology, this missile could offer a performance of perhaps 2,400 km or more with a 650 kg warhead.
Nonetheless, it is important not to make too much out of this resemblance. Comparisons with the geometrical shape of the Chinese JL-1 missile, for example, also yield close similarities, but do not necessarily mean anything.
The early trajectory of missiles the size of an SS-N-6 has to be relatively steep for energetic reasons. SLBMs of this size might tilt at quite an angle just after clearing the water surface post submarine ejection, but they quickly readjust their angle to recover the steep trajectory once the engine is ignited. The photographs, however, reveal a different story. In this case, the missile’s trajectory already starts with a noteworthy angle instead of a vertical alignment, and this angle quickly continues to decline instead of recovering. This angled launch is typical for unguided missiles. It could also mean that this specific missile has low thrust or low acceleration.
The photographs also reveal some inconsistent information regarding the propellants used by this missile. The lack of a white smoke trail indicates that the missile does not use composite solid propellants. The lack of brownish-red nitric gases at ignition essentially rules out double-base solid propellants, as well as any liquid-propellant combinations with nitric acid or nitrogen tetroxide (NTO) as an oxidizer (for example, the combination of inhibited red fuming nitric acid (IRFNA) and kerosene). A blackish-grey cloud appears when the missile breaks the water surface and the cloud rapidly turns white; this is very unusual for any rocket launch, be it underwater or land launched. The shining exhaust flame also rules out unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine (UDMH)-based propellant combinations, which are normally characterized by a transparent flame. In photograph #4, the shining flame seems to be detached from the nozzle by some distance, which in turn would actually indicate a double-base solid propellant. These inconsistencies suggest that there is something wrong with the photographs.
A detailed look at the available photographs reveals considerable irregularities and poor Photoshop edits.
1. Photograph #2 is not part of the main photo sequence (Figure 3).
- The missile angle is lower than that of photographs #3 and #4; only at photograph #5, the missile starts to show a lower angle.
- If the pictures were not altered and we can assume that they are the same missile, the different angles can only be explained by a different camera position. Careful analysis shows that the red letters on the missile would have to be in a very different position due to the different perspective; however, they appear at the same position as in the other photos (Figure 4).
- The smoke cloud looks distinctly different from the other photos and also lacks the flat white spray water cloud.
- The smoke cloud touches down at the photo’s horizon line.
2. Photo 6 is also not part of the main photo sequence. The smoke cloud touches down at the photo’s horizon line, as well (Figure 3).
3. The dark smoke cloud dissipates rapidly from photographs #4 to #5 (Figure 3).
4. The reflection of the shiny exhaust flame in photographs #4, #5, and #6 are inconsistent (Figure 5).
- The reflection looks reddish. The flame itself is yellowish.
- The position of the flame reflection is of differing width, and also misplaced, shifting its relative position to the exhaust flame at each of the photos.
5. There is a white line along parts of the missile in photograph #2 (Figure 6). This is most likely due to heavy photo editing.
6. A closer look at photograph #4 reveals very low-quality Photoshop work at the back end of the missile (Figure 7). Rectangular graphic blocks appear to have been inserted. The detached flame could be a result of this editing. Thus, any conclusions about the propellants derived from the exhaust flame are ambiguous.
The brief video (of only 1:05 minutes) further shows Kim observing the test, including a total of 3 very short sequences showing a missile in flight (Figure 8). Sequences #A and #C actually consist of two sequences each, first showing the missile breaking through the ocean’s surface, and then quickly cutting to the missile in flight, while sequence #B only shows what looks like the missile in flight.
Again, the video is not very convincing, and it appears that its intent is to create a different impression than what was actually shown.
1. The camera work is extremely shaky at sequences #A and #C, perhaps to make an analysis more difficult.
2. There is always a cut between the missile pushing through the surface of the water and the missile flying, thus disclosing the possibility that the in-flight sequences are not connected to the ejection sequences.
3. The dark smoke cloud at sequences #A and #C appears virtually out of nothing and starts disappearing just as quickly, within a few frames of the video (meaning within fractions of a second).
4. A blackish smoke cloud at ignition typically hints toward kerosene as a fuel, with a kerosene-rich ignition sequence. This was demonstrated by the Saturn V Moon rocket, for example, but no missile has yet been identified showing such a characteristic ignition cloud.
5. There is no way to ascertain the size of the missile depicted in the in-flight sequences, and if this is the same missile that was launched out of the water.
6. The length of the flame in the in-flight sequences is too long, more than two times the length of the missile body. Assuming a missile length of 9 m, the flame would be approximately 20 m. Comparable flame-missile length ratios are only known from small artillery rockets.
7. A later sequence just after #A, #B, and #C displays Kim in front of what appears to be the underwater launch site at the right half of the frame, marked by white water with traces of vapor or smoke still hanging in the air. Strangely, there is another area of white water a short distance to the left of the first area (Figure 9). Combining the size of this white water area, the distance of this area to the supposed launch site, and the trajectory of the ejected missile from the available photographs (Figure 3), it is possible that the ejected missile fell back into the ocean at this site.
All this, along with some other inconsistencies, suggests that the released imagery and video footage was heavily edited by North Korean authorities.
The published photos apparently imply some aspects that fail to be validated with careful analysis.
1. In several photographs, a submarine is clearly visible, surfaced in some photos and partially submerged in others. This would suggest that the missile was launched by this very submarine. But as was already pointed out on armscontrolwonk.com,11 a photo with a surface ship in close proximity to the launch site, as well as several other indications, point toward a submerged barge being used at this event as opposed to a submarine (Figure 10).
2. Another photo publicized on North Korean TV displays a thick white smoke trail high up in the sky, implying that a successful missile launch took place, and also indicating the use of composite solid propellants. However, there is no trace of a white smoke trail in any of the other available launch photographs (Figure 11) or the video.
As our discussion has revealed, the photographs and video both prove inadequate in providing a sufficient basis for concluding that North Korea has mastered the technology to enable long range delivery of a miniaturized nuclear warhead. If anything, they do not reveal any new information about the progress of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. What then might we conclude was the motive behind these announcements? Given the lack of adequate information, we can only speculate.
One possibility is that North Korea possesses a fully functional SLBM but does not want to put “all of their cards on the table”. That is, they may have modified their image productions to keep their true accomplishments clandestine. Of all conceivable scenarios, this is the least likely, given that the authorities could have accomplished the same objective by simply making an announcement without having released any photographs or video. In fact, we would argue that a simple announcement would have been superior to actually releasing any photographs or video footage, given that the poor editing work on these images only raises more questions and causes North Korea to look less credible in the eyes of many outside observers. In this sense, one could argue that these images have had the opposite of the intended effect.
Of course, there is also the possibility that North Korea is releasing bad signals to conceal its capabilities and has every intention of engaging in an armed conflict with the United States and its allies. We would argue that this scenario is only likely if the North Korean authorities truly believe that they can prevail against superior adversaries (i.e. the United States and its allies) in an all-out war. Given the number of instances where the United States has displayed its military prowess in recent years (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya), it is difficult to see how the North Korean leadership could conceivably reach this kind of conclusion. Nonetheless, the possibility that the leadership is engaged in this type of thinking cannot be discounted altogether given the stakes of an armed conflict with North Korea.12 We think that this partially explains the cautionary words from a number of officials within U.S. military circles who have openly acknowledged the existence of a “functional ICBM” in North Korea.
But one could also argue that this was North Korea’s intention from the outset. Assuming that North Korea does not possess long-range strike capability, the “next best” option is to make its adversaries believe that it does. By being deliberately opaque and deceptive, North Korea could be trying to make the United States and its allies unable to choose between an option that involves the use of military force and one that does not. The goal in this scenario is to forestall an imminent attack by keeping its adversaries guessing. Given the recent set of announcements by the U.S. military, one could argue that North Korea is succeeding with this strategy.
There is another scenario where North Korea does not possess long-range strike capability but is instead using these announcements to signal that it intends to develop this technology and subsequently demonstrate how far along it may be in this process. On the one hand, this achieves some of the objectives laid out above, but it also impels the United States and its allies to weigh the possibility of a diplomatic solution to North Korea’s nuclear program. The thinking would run along the following lines: “Given that North Korea has not fully perfected its nuclear capability, could it be possible to negotiate a deal with them in order to halt or delay this process?” This appears to be the guiding principle behind past deals with North Korea and even the current deal with Iran.
The likelihood that North Korea’s strategic logic may follow this line of reasoning is backed by several contextual factors surrounding the recent set of events, as well as a pattern of past practices that corroborates this type of behavior. First and foremost, we must recognize that the targeted recipient of this signal is the United States. Undeniably, North Korea having possession of a nuclear-tipped ICBM sends a strong message to the world, but the intended target of this capability must be none other than the United States, (the greatest threat for North Korea presently). If the United States perceives these images as serious threats to homeland security, U.S. leaders are likely to act. North Korea is staking that the reaction will not involve the use of military force, since the cost of an armed conflict would be too high for the allies, so this leaves open the possibility of diplomatic engagement. Recent moves by the Obama administration to normalize relations with Cuba and finalize a nuclear deal with Iran may have caught Pyongyang’s attention. While the comparison is hardly apropos, the latest SLBM announcement would be one way for Pyongyang to test the allies’ resolve to “stay the course” or revive the Six Party Talks.
An increase in the number of meetings between officials in China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States over the past several months suggests that this “bet” may be paying off. Aside from the fact that South Korean President Park Geun-hye expressed her desire to resume talks with North Korea on several occasions – (the latest being January of this year), there has been a significant upswing in the number of meetings among chief negotiators in the United States, South Korea, and Japan in recent months. But what of China and Russia? As early as March of this year, both countries expressed a willingness to reopen talks, and the chief negotiators appear to be reaching out to their counterparts in these countries.13 While it is unclear how long this consensus may last given the continuing evolution of North Korea’s nuclear program, the latest SLBM test seems to have created some sense of urgency and momentum on the diplomatic side.
Finally, North Korea’s relation with its closest ally in China is deteriorating with each additional test, inviting further rebuke and concern.14 Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul last year marked the first time in history that a Chinese leader visited Seoul without having first visited Pyongyang.15 This change explains North Korea’s interest in improving relations with Russia. It is unclear, however, whether Russia will serve as a more reliable surrogate, as it currently appears to be mired in an economic crisis of its own. Given all this, the conditions are ripe for North Korea to turn instead towards gaining back the attention of its old adversaries. What better way to achieve this than by test launching a SLBM in its development phase?
What of the possibility that North Korea is reacting to the recent military exercises in the region by the US-ROK forces? One could argue that the latest test was a reaction to Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, which took place in March. Indeed, Pyongyang sees these annual U.S. and South Korean military exercises as more than irritable saber-rattling, but that they also warrant vitriolic complaints. Nonetheless they have responded with drills of their own, including firing rounds of mortars on the open sea. And two months is much too long of a delay for a response in the form of a poorly-staged mock SLBM launch.
Perhaps one can formulate a better argument that accounts for North Korea’s broader security dilemma. We cannot lose sight of the fact that North Korea’s desire to build a nuclear arsenal is largely based on its perception of the threat that the United States and U.S. allies pose for North Korea’s national security. Hence, we should not ignore the possibility that North Korea’s nuclear ambition is set on an irreversible course. If this were the case, North Korea would continue the development of its nuclear program with or without diplomatic overtures, which has been the case in the past. In this scenario, negotiations are not going to be effective in halting or delaying North Korea’s nuclear program.
So the question remains: why the announcements? It is important to note that these announcements come on the heels of public statements by high-ranking officers within the U.S. military, which confirms (if not overestimates) North Korea’s nuclear capability. If the goal was to impress, there was no need for North Korea to release these photographs because the U.S. military was already doing it for them. Perhaps the North Korean authorities thought that these images and announcements would reinforce these assessments. But if this was their primary objective, our analysis has shown that they have failed. Even if they were successful in convincing the world that they possess a fully functional SLBM, what then? Is this their way of taunting their enemies into war? Undoubtedly, instigating a military response is not in the North Korean regime’s interest unless it is about to implode on its own.
Perhaps these images were never meant for consideration outside of North Korea. That is, the circulation of these images may have been a way to raise domestic support and national pride for the Kim Jong-un regime’s accomplishments. There is something to be said about the effect that these images have on the domestic audience in North Korea. But it is difficult to believe that the regime would need to go through all this trouble simply to raise public support when it has other means to maintain and manage its own legitimacy. Domestic appeal is most likely just a part of a broader agenda for a staged event such as this.
This brings us back to the hypothesis that North Korea may be signaling a readiness to talk. As we have discussed, these images achieve two objectives. First, they assist North Korea in further reinforcing the perception that it is developing the ability to deter its foes from exercising the military option. Second, they push the United States and its allies to consider a diplomatic response to North Korea’s nuclear problem. Already, some pundits are suggesting that the Obama administration should consider a different approach.16 However, the success of the diplomatic approach would depend on North Korea’s willingness to negotiate over the U.S. demand for verifiable denuclearization, which is a rather difficult proposition. Should North Korea be unwilling to accept these terms, the next question would be whether the United States and its allies would accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state—which would be an equally difficult proposition that would depend on the likelihood of installing a sophisticated combination of conventional offensive and defensive capabilities based in South Korea or Japan. However, it is clear that until this impasse is somehow resolved, North Korea will continue its slow but defiant march towards attaining an arsenal of long-range missiles tipped with miniaturized nuclear warheads. Which begs the question: what would the United States and its allies do then?
North Korea’s latest announcement regarding its nuclear capability should not be taken lightly. It has revealed the Kim Jong-un regime’s desire and intention to continue the development of its nuclear weapons program. The silver lining, of course, is that there is no verifiable proof that North Korea possesses a functional SLBM or ICBM tipped with a miniaturized nuclear warhead just yet. The latest revelation of the KN-11 corresponds with the broader pattern of claiming significant advances in missile technology while trying to substantiate them with contradictory proof. Poor mock-ups of the KN-08 missile that were paraded through Pyongyang in 2012 and 2013 are just one of many examples.17 We have considered several explanations for why North Korea may be engaged in this kind of enterprise. While we think that diplomatic engagement is the most plausible motive behind the latest announcements, there are significant hurdles that the negotiators must overcome if this approach is to bear fruit.
It is also important to bear in mind that there may be other factors motivating the display of these mock-ups. For instance, we should not rule out the possibility that the North Korean leadership may be made to believe that its own missile program is more advanced than it really is, simply out of fear of not meeting given objectives – the fate of the late North Korean Defense Minister, Hyong Yong Chol, who was reportedly executed by antiaircraft fire for falling asleep at military events, indicates what the consequences might be if the Supreme Leader is not pleased. Whatever the case, it is resoundingly clear that North Korea wants to possess this capability. The recent rise in the number of missile tests suggests that they are redoubling their effort18 – meaning that we have not seen the last of these types of announcements in looking ahead.
Until there is some break in this trend, the best that we can do is continued observation and study. To gain insights on the reasons for North Korea’s announcements about its missile program, it is essential to closely follow any missile related developments in the future, but also to frequently revisit past developments and events to gain a better and more comprehensive sense of North Korea’s missile story.19
Markus Schiller holds degrees in mechanical and aerospace engineering from TU Munich. He was employed at Schmucker Technologie since 2006, except for a one-year Fellowship at the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, California, in 2011. In 2015, he started his own consulting firm ST Analytics, focusing on space technology, security and threat, and – of course – rockets and missiles.
Robert Schmucker has more than five decades of experience researching rocketry, missiles, and astronautics. In the 1990s, he was a weapons inspector for UNSCOM in Iraq. His consulting firm, Schmucker Technologie, provided threat and security analyses for national and international organizations about activities of developing countries and proliferation for more than 20 years.
James Kim is a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and an adjunct lecturer in the Executive Master of Public Policy and Administration program at Columbia University. He has held positions at the California State Polytechnic University (Pomona), the RAND Corporation, and the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Planning at the School of International and Public Affairs in Columbia University.
While it is impossible to precisely predict all the human impacts that would result from a nuclear winter, it is relatively simple to predict those which would be most profound. That is, a nuclear winter would cause most humans and large animals to die from nuclear famine in a mass extinction event similar to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.
Following the detonation (in conflict) of US and/or Russian launch-ready strategic nuclear weapons, nuclear firestorms would burn simultaneously over a total land surface area of many thousands or tens of thousands of square miles. These mass fires, many of which would rage over large cities and industrial areas, would release many tens of millions of tons of black carbon soot and smoke (up to 180 million tons, according to peer-reviewed studies), which would rise rapidly above cloud level and into the stratosphere. [For an explanation of the calculation of smoke emissions, see Atmospheric effects & societal consequences of regional scale nuclear conflicts.]
The scientists who completed the most recent peer-reviewed studies on nuclear winter discovered that the sunlight would heat the smoke, producing a self-lofting effect that would not only aid the rise of the smoke into the stratosphere (above cloud level, where it could not be rained out), but act to keep the smoke in the stratosphere for 10 years or more. The longevity of the smoke layer would act to greatly increase the severity of its effects upon the biosphere.
Once in the stratosphere, the smoke (predicted to be produced by a range of strategic nuclear wars) would rapidly engulf the Earth and form a dense stratospheric smoke layer. The smoke from a war fought with strategic nuclear weapons would quickly prevent up to 70% of sunlight from reaching the surface of the Northern Hemisphere and 35% of sunlight from reaching the surface of the Southern Hemisphere. Such an enormous loss of warming sunlight would produce Ice Age weather conditions on Earth in a matter of weeks. For a period of 1-3 years following the war, temperatures would fall below freezing every day in the central agricultural zones of North America and Eurasia. [For an explanation of nuclear winter, see Nuclear winter revisited with a modern climate model and current nuclear arsenals: Still catastrophic consequences.]
Nuclear winter would cause average global surface temperatures to become colder than they were at the height of the last Ice Age. Such extreme cold would eliminate growing seasons for many years, probably for a decade or longer. Can you imagine a winter that lasts for ten years?
The results of such a scenario are obvious. Temperatures would be much too cold to grow food, and they would remain this way long enough to cause most humans and animals to starve to death.
Global nuclear famine would ensue in a setting in which the infrastructure of the combatant nations has been totally destroyed, resulting in massive amounts of chemical and radioactive toxins being released into the biosphere. We don’t need a sophisticated study to tell us that no food and Ice Age temperatures for a decade would kill most people and animals on the planet. Would the few remaining survivors be able to survive in a radioactive, toxic environment?
It is, of course, debatable whether or not nuclear winter could cause human extinction. There is essentially no way to truly “know” without fighting a strategic nuclear war. Yet while it is crucial that we all understand the mortal peril that we face, it is not necessary to engage in an unwinnable academic debate as to whether any humans will survive.
What is of the utmost importance is that this entire subject –the catastrophic environmental consequences of nuclear war – has been effectively dropped from the global discussion of nuclear weaponry. The focus is instead upon “nuclear terrorism”, a subject that fits official narratives and centers upon the danger of one nuclear weapon being detonated – yet the scientifically predicted consequences of nuclear war are never publically acknowledged or discussed.
Why has the existential threat of nuclear war been effectively omitted from public debate? Perhaps the leaders of the nuclear weapon states do not want the public to understand that their nuclear arsenals represent a self-destruct mechanism for the human race? Such an understanding could lead to a demand that nuclear weapons be banned and abolished.
Consequently, the nuclear weapon states continue to maintain and modernize their nuclear arsenals, as their leaders remain silent about the ultimate threat that nuclear war poses to the human species.
Steven Starr is the director of the University of Missouri’s Clinical Laboratory Science Program, as well as a senior scientist at the Physicians for Social Responsibility. He has been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the Strategic Arms Reduction (STAR) website of the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology; he also maintains the website Nuclear Darkness. Starr also teaches a class on the Environmental, Health and Social Effects of nuclear weapons at the University of Missouri.
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.
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.”
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:[ref]Jungk, Robert. Brighter Than a Thousand Suns. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1958 p 223.[/ref]
“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:
- We hereby form an organization of scientists, called temporarily, the Association of Los Alamos Scientists (ALAS).
- 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:
- What would the atomic bomb do in the event of another war?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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:
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:
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. 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. 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. 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.
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,” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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 the participants illustrated “the American way of the time…problem solving, ingenuity, readiness for risk-taking, courage for unorthodox approaches, serendipity, and dogged determination4.” 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” website with hundreds of oral histories including of principals such as General Leslie Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Our “Ranger in Your Pocket6” 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!