PONI Debates the Issues Blog

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Photo courtesy of UK Ministry of Defence, https://www.flickr.com/photos/defenceimages/8950656444/ In the aftermath of the British vote to leave the European Union, it has become apparent that extricating the United Kingdom from decades of EU membership will be no simple task. Nowhere is this reality clearer than in the realm of nuclear security. With Scotland having voted to remain in the EU by a significant margin, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of Scotland has stated that a second referendum on Scottish independence from the UK is highly likely. Among the many economic and policy questions that a Scottish move towards independence would bring about, perhaps the most important involves the fate of Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system.

At present, Trident missiles are delivered by the four Vanguard-class submarines based out of the Faslane naval base in Scotland. Many Scots find the presence of nuclear weapons morally objectionable and would prefer a policy that expressly prohibits the presence of nuclear weapons on Scottish soil, similar to that of NATO…

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Last week (June 20-23), the UN Security Council held open consultations on the comprehensive review of Resolution 1540, which mandates that all 193 UN members must adopt and enforce effective laws to keep WMDs out of the hands of terrorists. UN member states, along with representatives from international, regional and sub-regional organizations, and non-governmental organizations, engaged in an open dialogue to reflect on the resolution’s achievements and to develop new ideas for improving domestic implementation of 1540 obligations.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urgently asked the international community to step up its efforts on disarmament and nonproliferation of all kinds of WMDs. Mr. Ban Ki-moon urged that the UN should “redouble our efforts to create a safer and more secure world.” The first draft of the comprehensive review outlining next steps for 1540’s implementation is due by August 31. Furthermore, one of the Action Plans of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS)…

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In the coming weeks, the U.N. Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) will announce its long-awaited decision on Chinese and Philippine rival claims to territory in the South China Sea. China views the arbitration as illegitimate and holds fast to its maritime claims while strengthening its naval forces. In response, the U.S. Pacific fleet conducted freedom of navigation exercises and recently deployed aircraft carriers near the South China Sea to reassure its allies. These developments exacerbate tensions between the United States and China, which could…

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On July 30th, 2015, a 5.2 earthquake shook the city of Mersin and was felt all the way to Turkey’s eastern border. Ten days earlier, a devastating wildfire in the Gulnar district caused damage to more than 60 acres. Why does this matter? Turkey is in the pursuit of acquiring its first nuclear power plant in the Gulnar district, Akkuyu, only 50 miles from Mersin.

In addition to environmental concerns, the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant poses broader security risks as well. Under the Build-Own-Operate model, the Russian state-owned nuclear energy corporation Rosatom will provide 100% financing, manage the reactors, and take care of the nuclear waste. The model, tailored for developing countries desiring to pursue nuclear energy fast and at a minimal financial cost, does not come with clear guidelines on shared responsibilities between the host country and Rosatom. States pursuing nuclear energy through the Build-Own-Operate model must develop their own domestic nuclear…

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It has been nearly a year since the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a historic agreement that after years of negotiation was meant to walk Iran back from the brink of “going nuclear” and reintegrate it into the global economy. Although Iran has abided by the terms of the agreement, the country has yet to feel the economic relief that it was promised in exchange for constraints on its nuclear program. Iranian optimism surrounding the prospect of economic relief is turning to impatience. Given Iran’s upcoming 2017 presidential elections, advocates of the JCPOA better hope that impatience does not turn to resentment, which could cost President Hassan Rouhani the election and jeopardize the fate of the JCPOA.

While it is often difficult to parse reasonable criticisms from Iran’s standard litany of anti-U.S. rhetoric, complaints that the United States is not upholding its end of the deal are not entirely unfounded. It has long been understood that the…

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If We Were Them, Would We Be Deterred?

When I began my career, I remember hearing senior leaders talk about the success of deterrence during the Cold War and it was summed up best by Ambassador Paul Nitze when he said he wanted the Soviets to conclude every day when they examined the situation, "Not Today Comrade." The answer was known then why their conclusion was "not today." The reward was not worth the risk. Looking at the present situation, do our adversaries all reach the same conclusion? Are they being deterred or just delayed? 

The success of deterrence has become increasingly difficult to measure. While nuclear weapons are still successfully used every day to deter some adversaries the question remains are all adversaries deterred by our nuclear forces? It is time to flip the microscope and look back at our own deterrence from the adversary's perspective: Would we be deterred by similar actions? That answer may help shape future deterrence efforts. 

Would UN sanctions and stern, official…

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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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