PONI Debates the Issues Blog

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Losing the Nuclear Edge

Photo courtesy of US Air Force: http://www.af.mil/News/Photos.aspx?igphoto=2000776419

The need to recruit and retain scientists and engineers remains a common theme among U.S. government agencies. The nuclear enterprise is no exception. Throughout the Department of Energy and Department of Defense, the colloquially named "gray beards" provide the technical expertise. The average age of engineers involved in all aspects of the nuclear enterprise from stockpile stewardship to nuclear monitoring and forensics is increasing as it becomes more difficult to recruit young scientists into the field.

While all fields in government agencies face challenges recruiting young scientists, the field of nuclear engineering has a unique problem: it is based on tests and developments completed decades ago. We live in a fast-paced age of constantly changing and upgrading technology but use nuclear weapons designs that have not changed in decades. Young scientists want to be at the leading edge of technology, but it can be difficult to understand where that…

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Nuclear Semantics

Hot off the heels of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, the international community is once again abuzz with plans to secure nuclear materials and thwart the efforts of terrorists to acquire these materials. Chief among these efforts is securing nuclear and radiological materials. Are these efforts the same, though? The answer is a resounding “No.” Those in the nonproliferation and nuclear security fields understand the radiological “disruption” versus nuclear “destruction” paradigm and are familiar with the ubiquity of radiological materials versus the relative rarity of fissile materials. For most, however, this distinction may not be as clear.

One need look no further than October 2015 when the media reported a thwarted smuggling attempt in Moldova. Smugglers tried to sell a…

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The DPRK and Dual-use Policy

The last few weeks have featured three unsuccessful North Korean missile launches: two intermediate-range ballistic missiles that failed to launch on April 28, and a third that exploded a few seconds after takeoff on April 15. On April 24, however, the regime claimed to successfully test a submarine-launched ballistic missile that flew the desired distance and maintained mechanical integrity. Though unconfirmed, this test is yet another milestone for a regime persistently seeking a deterrent…

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photo courtesy of http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/duck-and-cover-drill.jpg If you ask young children around elementary schools in southern California what to do during an earthquake, they will enthusiastically demonstrate how to hide under their desk (as an adult this may be much more difficult than it sounds) and how to get outside quickly to their teacher’s meeting point once the shaking has stopped. In Kansas, students start drilling for tornados a minimum of three times per school year and know where to find safe rooms or shelters. However, if you were to ask residents from these communities what their plan would be if a radiological hazard occurred, such as a radioactive accident on the interstate or a terrorist attack using a radiological dispersal device, their answer would likely be more along the lines of…

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Right now, the world’s attention is focused firmly on the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. But there is another country that deserves at least as much attention, if not more: North Korea. The hermit kingdom’s nuclear weapons program is looking more and more dangerous these days; in April, Admiral William Gortney announced that it is now the United States’ official assessment that North Korea is capable of mounting a miniaturized nuclear warhead atop an intercontinental ballistic missile. This is a significant and extremely threatening development, because it means that North Korea may actually have the capability to target the United States with a nuclear weapon. In spite of this…

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President Zuma’s refusal to “give up the nuclear ghost” of South Africa’s Apartheid-era nuclear weapons should come as no surprise.

In a recent piece of nuclear news easily overshadowed by the Iran deal, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) highlighted new information about South Africa’s refusal to give up six bombs worth of weapons-grade uranium. In 2011 and again in 2013, President Obama wrote letters to South African President Jacob Zuma asking him to relinquish the country’s highly-enriched uranium, to blend it down to low-enriched uranium (LEU), or to transfer it to the United States in exchange for $5 million worth of LEU. President Zuma…

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By Graham Flaspoehler

After sixteen months of negotiations, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reached April 2, 2015 is an exceptional milestone in the thirty-six years of fraught relations between the West and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The JCPOA is an understanding that outlines a framework for an eventual deal between the P5+1 and Iran over the most proliferation-sensitive aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. It shuts down both Iran’s plutonium and uranium pathways to a nuclear weapon for at least the next decade by dismantling and replacing the core of the Arak heavy-water reactor; reducing Iran’s currently installed centrifuges by two-thirds; curtailing Iran’s future uranium enrichment capacity; allowing Iran to retain a mere 3% of its current stockpiles of enriched uranium; and subjecting Iran to the most intrusive and comprehensive verification and inspections…

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By Aaron Richards

In September the 58th annual session of the IAEA General Conference concluded in Vienna. Delegates and representatives from around the world met to strengthen the effectiveness and efficiency of the Agency’s safeguards, provide new states with IAEA membership, and improve activities involving nuclear security and technical cooperation. Although the conference was productive, it once again demonstrated the difficulty of getting universal commitment from those in the Middle East to establish a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (NWFZ) in the region.

There are currently five NWFZs, which have been bound by international treaties signed by all states in those respective regions. According to the General Assembly resolution 3472 B (1975), a Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone is any zone that has established a treaty…

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The triad of nuclear weapon delivery systems – consisting of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), strategic bombers, and nuclear-armed submarines – is the holy trinity of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. However, all three legs of the triad are aging and will need large-scale, expensive modernization in the coming decades if they are to be maintained. This has prompted a discussion about the continued necessity of the nuclear triad in the post-Cold War era. Is maintaining the triad worth the money? Or would the U.S. be better served by a different configuration of nuclear forces?

The threat environment that the United States faces today is radically different from that of the Cold War. The possibility of a massive “bolt from the blue” attack, which the triad was designed to prevent, is no longer a realistic concern. The budgetary environment has also changed dramatically. Defense budgets are declining,…

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Today, the residents of Scotland are voting to decide whether or not their country will become independent from the United Kingdom. Washington has been abuzz about the potential ramifications of the vote, and the nuclear policy community is no exception. In case you’ve missed the discussion recently, here is a rundown of what a “yes” vote could mean for the U.K.’s nuclear weapons.

The U.K.’s nuclear weapons – four Vanguard submarines and accompanying Trident ballistic missiles loaned from the United States – are located exclusively in Scotland, at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde. Scottish public opinion is virulently anti-nuclear and the leaders of the “yes” campaign have made it clear that an independent Scotland would also be a nuclear weapons-free Scotland. If the Scots vote for independence, the U.K. Trident program would have to be moved – but where? As Emma Ashford writes in Foreign Policy, “there are no obvious…

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PONI Debates the Issues: U.S. No First Use

Resolved: The United States should adopt a no first use nuclear policy

By Kaitlyn Duffy

On September 10, 2014, PONI continued its live debate series with a discussion on whether or not the United States should adopt a no first use (NFU) nuclear policy. The debate featured two renowned experts, with Mr. Jack Mendelsohn, former Deputy Director of the Arms Control Association, arguing in the Affirmative, and Mr. Walt Slocombe, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, arguing in the Negative.

Currently, China and India are the only nuclear weapons states to have a declared NFU policy, although the permanence and validity of each claim is contentious. China has consistently maintained a policy of NFU since its first nuclear explosion in 1964. However, doubt over China’s policy exists, most prominently in the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2013 Annual Report to…

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On Thursday, September 11, the Stimson Center hosted an event entitled “Nuclear Dynamics and Crisis Management in South Asia,” which previewed the content of two chapters of their upcoming publication, Deterrence Stability and Escalation Control in South Asia Vol. II. The event was moderated by Michael Krepon, director of Stimson’s South Asia program, and featured Shashank Joshi from the Royal United Services Institute and Dr. Moeed Yusuf from the U.S. Institute of Peace.

As Michael Krepon mentioned in his introduction, this event was particularly timely given the increasing likelihood that another nuclear-tinged crisis will occur on the subcontinent in the…

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The Future of Homeland Missile Defense

The annual Space and Missile Defense conference held August 11-14 in Huntsville, Alabama covered a wide range of programs, but among the more prominent was the future of Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD). The most significant remarks for GMD were those given by Missile Defense Agency Director, Vice Admiral James Syring. Buoyed by a successful June 22 intercept, the program's future now seems less uncertain, with some significant improvements on track for the end of this decade—including new sensors, a new booster, and a redesigned kill vehicle.
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by Kaitlyn Duffy

In the aftermath of the Russian accession of Crimea in March 2014, the G8 has receded back into the G7 with the suspension of Russia from the club of industrialized economies. Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian territory violates a number of international laws, including Article 2(4) of the Charter of the United Nations (UN) and the Helsinki Final Act, a Soviet-era declaration ensuring the territorial integrity of states applied to Ukraine through the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. In return for its sovereign territorial security, Ukraine voluntarily surrendered its arsenal of nuclear…

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Over the course of 30 years, from 1981 to 2011, NASA’s Space Shuttle program carried out 135 missions, completing 21,152 Earth orbits and traveling 542,398,878 miles during 1,334 days of flight time. But when the Atlantis returned to Earth on July 21, 2011 the program came to an end. Three years later, the consequences of NASA’s decision to end the Space Shuttle program are appearing in the U.S. and UK submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) program.

Because both the space shuttles and the U.S. Trident D5 SLBMs rely on solid propellant fuels, NASA’s decisions about its space programs have repercussions in the defense industry. In 2017, NASA plans to launch the first mission of the new Space Launch System (SLS). In 2016, NASA will decide how exactly the SLS will be propelled. If major changes to the rocket propellant system are made, there could be severe…

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by Kaitlyn Duffy

Last week, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott met with President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. to discuss and reaffirm the U.S.-Australia alliance with respect to force posture and defense cooperation. One result of the talks is that Abbott confirmed Australia’s previous commitments to supporting expanded U.S. missile defense plans to counter North Korea’s nuclear threat, a policy that has been around since 2003 but has yet to be acted on. The statement, which was not widely broadcast by the media, is timely; it coincides with news that North Korea has apparently acquired a…

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In mid-May India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by hard-liner Narendra Modi, won an unprecedented majority in the Lok Sabha. The BJP’s election manifesto promised to “[s]tudy in detail India’s nuclear doctrine, and revise and update it, to make it relevant to challenges of current times.” India’s 1999 nuclear doctrine contains the following four themes concerning nuclear policy: 1) no first use (NFU) of nuclear weapons (or “retaliation only”); 2) credibility; 3) survivability; and 4) effective command and control procedures. 

To develop the strongest possible nuclear deterrent, the Modi administration should maintain the NFU, and continue previous administrations’ efforts with regards to survivability. Policy changes to address credibility and command and control problems could also help…

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by Kaitlyn Duffy

“In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up." – President Barack Obama

Since the beginning of his first term, President Barack Obama has emphasized that nuclear terrorism poses one of the most critical threats to the world today. This was clearly stated in his 2009 Prague speech, where President Obama noted the vast proliferation of nuclear technology and nuclear material since the end of the Cold War. This belief led to the convening of the first Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) hosted by the United States in 2010. The Summit brought together world leaders to advance a new level of commitment to nuclear security in an effort to prevent nuclear materials trafficking and nuclear terrorism. It turned out to be largely successful,…

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