Beyond the NPT

Jun 30, 2010

Doctors Roald Sagdeev and Frank von Hippel have collaborated for decades on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation between the U.S. and the USSR. They discuss their work and their insights for the future arms control agenda.

The Carnegie Council's U.S. Global Engagement program gratefully acknowledges the support for its work from the following: Alfred and Jane Ross Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, U.S. Army War College, Rockefeller Family & Associates, and Donald M. Kendall.

To download a copy of Dr. von Hippel's powerpoint presentation, please go to the bottom of the page.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Welcome everyone to this very important session at Carnegie Council. It's the second in a series that we have put together on the issues of arms control and nonproliferation.

After a hiatus of eight years or more, it really has come back onto the policy discussion table with, of course, the so-called New START Treaty [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] between the United States and Russia, after much wrangling and negotiation, and the Nuclear Security Summit, which followed shortly thereafter.

We are here in this series to discuss some of the implications going forward, the general state of arms control and nonproliferation. We are delighted to have here two individuals. It's a very special occasion because I consider them both old and dear friends.

I will not read their bios to you; just say that they both operate at the highest levels of both the policy and the expert level. They are both scientists and they are both thoroughly versed in the policy arena in the United States and Russia.

It is also a special occasion in that it is something of a reunion for these two gentlemen. I actually asked Frank in preparing for this a little bit about the history between the two. It really is quite remarkable.

First of all, they launched the Science and Global Security, which is still edited at Princeton and is having its 20th anniversary as we speak. That journal really brings together the international community of scientists interested in arms control policy.

They were pivotal in organizing through the Committee of Soviet Scientists Against Nuclear Threat (Dr. Sagdeev) and the Federation of American Scientists (Dr. von Hippel) this whole question of the technical basis for verifying warhead dismantlement that was perhaps considered arcane but, of course, in the context of the START and other negotiations, has become an important policy question.

Also, of high significance is that they launched a summer school for scientists interested in arms control. That to me is incredibly important, because I remember not too long ago being at the Kennedy School at Harvard and listening to a conference with two physicists interested in arms control, and not by any means young individuals, who looked at each other and said, "I think we were the last people to get tenure in this area of nuclear policy as physicists at a university." So this keeping a flow of people, a new generation of scientific experts who are genuinely interested in the policy questions, is absolutely indispensable.

With that, I welcome Frank von Hippel from Princeton University and Dr. Roald Sagdeev from the University of Maryland. We will ask both to speak for about 15-20 minutes.

Roald has just come back from Moscow. This is a very timely occasion for him to be with us, because certainly the view from Russia is critical for us.

So without, as they inevitably say, further ado, Frank, welcome to the Council.


FRANK VON HIPPEL: Thank you. It's great to be here and it's great to be with you all again.

I'm going to give you my perspective these days, which is looking at the world through the lens of nuclear materials, plutonium and highly enriched uranium, the common denominator of nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and the prevention of nuclear terrorism.

I co-chair the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM). That's what fissile materials are, these nuclear materials. I realized seven or eight years ago, when I was giving a talk at the UN, that we could solve all of these problems if we just got rid of 2,000 tons of stuff. So it's looking at it in that simple way that I have increasingly been doing.

[See slide two]

I am going to give you a little bit of background on where we are in the nuclear disarmament trajectory with this slide, which Hillary Clinton showed at the Nonproliferation Treaty Conference in May. For the first time, it declassified how many nuclear weapons the U.S. has in its active stockpile. I think it was 5,341, or something like that.

You also see the trajectory. She actually had some of these dots on her graph. One of the ones I added was the first Soviet test, in which you see the U.S. reaction was just to go crazy and to build huge numbers of nuclear warheads. It was McNamara who during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations asked, "Don't we have enough?" and we ended the buildup.

Then we sort of went along for a while until the Soviet Union disintegrated. Then Bush and Gorbachev had this unilateral reciprocal pair of initiatives, where they basically decided to de-nuclearize their armies, the surface navies, and get rid of a lot. In the case of the United States, it amounts to about half the stockpile.

Then we went back to a plateau. In the U.S. case, the last initiative really was by Congress saying, "Why are you keeping all these nuclear warheads around? Couldn't we save some money if we got rid of them?" That forced the George W. Bush Administration actually to eliminate about half of them.

Although it seems like we have gone down a lot, we still have a huge number of warheads. We don't know exactly how many Russia has—a comparable number presumably—and then the rest of the world has about 1,000 warheads.

These warheads are typically 20 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. So I show the next slide to remind you just what Hiroshima looked like after this small nuclear explosion.

[See slide three]

So we have a long way to go if we are to get rid of this danger.

Switching to my nuclear materials hat, I just wanted to tell you that there is a lot of nuclear material in the world. There is enough for on the order of 100,000 nuclear weapons. Some of this material is in weapons, some it is not in weapons, but I'll explain to you that it is potential weapons. I'll just briefly explain to you who has this material and what it is used for.

[See slide four]

This slide shows you, just by way of background, what we are talking about. Natural uranium is 99.3 percent Uranium-238, which is not chain-reacting, and 0.7 percent Uranium-235, which is chain-reacting.

The tools for the bomb are either to separate out the U-235 and make highly enriched uranium, which was the basis for the Hiroshima bomb, or to use this natural uranium as a fuel in a nuclear reactor where then U-238 absorbs neutrons and is transmuted into plutonium, which could be chemically extracted and also used for bombs. In fact, the Nagasaki bomb was made that way.

[See slide five]

I will just briefly explain to you what the picture looks like now with regard to, first, highly enriched uranium [HEU]. There is about 1,600 tons of highly enriched uranium in the world, less than there used to be. You see the white bars. The majority of the highly enriched uranium is the legacy of the Cold War; basically all of it is the legacy of the Cold War.

In fact, with the downsizing of the nuclear arsenals, the United States and Russia have gotten rid of a lot of it. The United States actually bought, and is still buying over a period of about 20 years, 500 tons of Russia's highly enriched uranium after it is blended down from 90 percent—that chain-reacting isotope U-235—to about 5 percent. Then we buy it and we use it for nuclear fuel.

In fact, 10 percent of U.S. electricity is generated from material that was formerly in Soviet nuclear weapons. About half of U.S. nuclear power is fueled by former Soviet nuclear weapons. This will go on until 2013, when the deal is over. There's a lot more that could be bought, but Russia today is not interested in selling more.

Then there is the black material there, which is material in the weapons complex. We know the number in the case of the United States. The United States has actually made that information public. It's a guess in the case of Russia; you see the big uncertainty bar that I've attached to the Russian bar.

About half of the highly enriched uranium is not in nuclear weapons. Some of it is excess material which is still to be blended down. But some of it in the United States, and I'm sure in the Russian case as well, it is being saved to fuel the nuclear navies.

The U.S. Nuclear Navy runs on weapons-grade uranium. In fact, it used to be for Admiral Rickover, that weapons-grade uranium wasn't good enough for him; he had to have even more highly enriched uranium than weapons grade. Now they're settling for weapons grade because there's so much of it available.

The United States has set aside about 130 tons—128 tons is showing there—of weapons-grade uranium for future naval reactor use. It's good for about 60 years with the way I figure it.

I'm sure the Navy will want more as the weapons stockpile gets downsized, but the 128 tons is already enough for 5,000 warheads. So as we reduce the stockpiles of weapons material, people will start wondering about this big stockpile of potential weapons material we have.

This is why I have been lobbying in Washington—to not much avail so far—to try to get the U.S. Navy to switch to low-enriched uranium which is not directly weapons-usable.

I did get some language in a Senate committee report that the U.S. Navy should consider new enable reactor designs for the next generation of submarines, aircraft carriers with lower-enriched uranium.

I called up the director of Navy nuclear propulsion and I said, "Do you know about this?"

He said, "No."

"Do you want to know about it?"


So I haven't gotten very far yet.

Finally, there's also the civilian material. You see there, down in the right-hand corner, the non-nuclear weapons [NNW] states. There's about ten tons of highly enriched uranium in the non-weapons states.

It seems like a very small amount relative to the rest, but that would be enough for about 400 nuclear weapons. That has actually been a major focus of attention. To basically try to reduce that number to zero has been the major focus of attention for both the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration. That was basically behind the Nuclear Security Summit that President Obama had in March. But we have to pay attention to the rest of the material as well.

[See slide six]

I'll just move on to plutonium. It is different. About half of the plutonium, what's in black and gray there, is a legacy of the Cold War. What's in gray has been declared excess and will be used as nuclear fuel. It's more difficult, so none has been converted to nuclear fuel yet, but I'm confident that it will be.

The green material is a legacy of another effort, which is the effort to commercialize plutonium breeder reactors, which was basically the dream of the nuclear energy community in the 1970s.

In the 1960s, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was chaired by Glenn Seaborg, who was one of the co-discoverers of plutonium. He said, "Plutonium is the most wonderful element. It will replace gold as a measure of value. We'll have a plutonium economy." He said basically the future world energy system will run on plutonium.

So $100 billion has been spent on trying to commercialize reactors which are cooled by molten sodium so that they could breed plutonium. It turns out molten sodium is a much more difficult coolant to work with than water, so they never really have made it.

But this is a legacy. That green plutonium is a legacy of the program to get ready for plutonium breeder reactors. We have to get rid of that too and stop separating it.

I'm just briefly going to go to my final two slides, which is a starting point for what I consider to be an ethical and nondiscriminatory approach to nuclear disarmament.

[See slide seven]

In the first step, if we want to get other countries to get involved in the nuclear disarmament business, we have to get down to where we're within sight of the kinds of sizes of stockpiles that other countries have.

Other countries have about a few hundred warheads. We're in the thousands, 5,000 or so range now. So a reasonable next step would be to go down to 1,000, hopefully in exchange for—this is total warheads. The New START is limited just to deployed strategic warheads, 1,550. But if you count the non-deployed and the non-strategic warheads, it's 5,000 today.

Then other countries should commit not to build up, especially China, which is a concern for the United States, and also India and Pakistan, which are really building up.

[See slide eight]

The final slide comes back to the nuclear materials issues. I think we should abandon reprocessing, the separation of all our plutonium.

The civilian plutonium that has been separated is enough for 30,000 nuclear warheads, the civilian stockpiles in the world of plutonium by the IAEA's [International Atomic Energy Agency] count, equivalent of 8 kilograms per warhead. So we should end reprocessing.

Reprocessing is kept alive—this is the separation of plutonium from the spent nuclear power reactor fuel—and it keeps being an issue in this country, because there is no political solution for what to do with spent nuclear power reactor fuel.

In the end, countries—Japan especially, South Korea is talking about it now, France of course is doing it—in the end say, "Well, we can't get political agreement on a site even for interim storage of spent fuel off the reactor sites, so let's build a reprocessing plant and pretend we're doing something by chemically separating, even though it's really a storage site."

In the United States this is bubbling up again because the Obama Administration canceled Yucca Mountain. Therefore, now the argument is made, "Well, we should reprocess it."

Well, it's not a solution; it's just doing something with it. But we do need to move forward. There is the Blue-Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future that Obama has set up, which hopefully will do something.

Then, finally, there is the other route to the bomb, which is uranium enrichment. Uranium enrichment, unlike reprocessing, is essential to the current generation of reactors that are fueled by low-enriched uranium, which is enriched to 4-5 percent U-235 from the natural low of 0.7 percent.

But they could potentially be used to make weapons-grade uranium, and that is of course what the argument with Iran is about. But it is hard to argue with Iran about its right to have a national enrichment plant at the time when the United States is building three, or maybe four, national enrichment plants.

So the proposal would be that the countries which have enrichment plants put their enrichment plants under some kind of multinational control, the kinds of safeguards and transparency arrangements that we would like to see Iran have.

Of course, the U.S. position is to try to persuade Iran to shut down its enrichment operation, but that doesn't seem to be selling. So ultimately we are going to have to live with an Iran with some kind of enrichment program. The question is whether we should model the kind of enrichment program that we would be most comfortable with.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Thank you, Frank. That's a remarkably rich and concise survey of some of the truly alarming figures that lie behind the political headlines. We read about New START and think enormous achievements have been made, and yet as you say at the end there are the policy questions. So much is still to be done.

Roald, please.

First of all, thank you for inviting me. I see a lot of old-time friends here, veterans of disarmament since the Cold War.

Let me follow what Frank was talking about. I think as a leader of the non-reprocessing movement in the world, he described the whole situation. Where are the difficulties in that?

Different players in this game have completely different views. For example, Russians are not having to dismantle or to do something with plutonium. The predominant view inside Russia is that Seaborg's wonderful future, when plutonium would be the gold, maybe even the platinum of the future, still exists in Russia.

Russia is the only country which operates breeder reactors now and is actually building a bigger one. The bigger one would be 800 megawatts of electric power.

Each time you introduce a new breeder reactor, you will need several metric tons of plutonium to activate it. Then it will run and will produce replenished burned plutonium. This is why the majority in the Russian expert community and in the nuclear industry think that there is a future in nuclear power—not today, not tomorrow, maybe in 30 or 40 years. It's according to long-range ideas advertised by Russian experts, including Velikov—have you seen his recent book on the future of energy in general?

If you go to China, they have a somewhat different view about cutting the production of fissile materials. Several past American administrations, including the Bush Administration, tried to push through the United Nations, through a disarmament conference in Geneva, a special agenda, cutoff of fissile materials. China was establishing a taboo on bringing up this subject.

What was the reason that they were so stubborn? Because of the linkages. We heard about the linkages between the different components of the strategic equation in the past, like the linkage between offense and defense, ABM [anti-ballistic missile] and the nuclear rockets.

So China has suggested that they would agree to discuss the cutoff of nuclear materials with the condition that the United States would agree to negotiate on a no-weapons-in-space agreement. That was in a state of deadlock until quite recently.

Some time ago, I was writing an opinion piece for Nature magazine. I found that Obama on his electoral website has a few pages talking about weapons in space, which actually said that the moment he would become president he would immediately introduce a ban on weapons in space. It didn't happen yet.

Many things didn't happen, including even ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty [CTBT]. There are many problems which the administration is facing, and the relationships with the Senate and the Congress are not so simple. So maybe it will come.

But the interesting thing is that someone told me that this piece about banning space weapons disappeared from the website. I don't know what does it mean.

The linkage is very simple. The Chinese thought: Okay, if someone would develop weapons deployed in space, that might be used as some kind of SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative], which would decrease the deterrence capability of a potential opponent. This is why the Chinese thought they might need more fissile materials to expand their nuclear deterrence arsenal.

But in general I would say I agree with Frank completely, that China is very modest in its nuclear appetite.

I try to persuade my Russian colleagues each time I go there. I say, "Why don't you follow China? Why do you have to be so aggressive with the nuclear potential?"

The one particular issue on which Russia and the United States could not agree until now is what to do with the tactical nuclear weapons. Nobody knows how many tactical nuclear warheads Russia has in its possession. Presumably much more than the U.S. side.

The Russian position is the following: the Russians say that the U.S. and NATO tactical nuclear weapons in Europe in proximity to the Russian border are actually nothing else but de facto strategic weapons. This is why Russians say that they cannot negotiate in a simple way on this issue. Hopefully in the future, maybe in the next round of START negotiations, it will be brought up.

However, I am rather pessimistic about future steps in a START agreement. If you follow what is happening now with ratification, there are a lot of problems in the Senate on the American side, not much on the Russian side.

Just when I took Amtrak to come here from Washington, I found an op-ed piece, written in Washington by a prominent Heritage Foundation guy, Carafano. You know this guy? At least the paper said he is prominent.

He said that someone in Heritage Foundation used the idea of the game theory, which was developed by Dr. Nash from A Beautiful Mind. The alleged application of game theory of this "beautiful mind" leads to the conclusion that the United States should never enter into the New START agreement because the Russians eventually would cheat them. I don't know where it is coming from, but there was a big piece. So you see that the Heritage Foundation guys are not sleeping.

VOICE: Nor are we.

The problem on the Russian side in the next step could be associated with antiballistic missiles. You see some discussions in the Senate today, including Senator McCain speaking that maybe there was some kind of deal behind the START agreement, that maybe the Obama Administration promised something in addition to Russia. But Hillary Clinton rejected it, saying that there was no such strange deal.

The United States is free to develop ballistic missile defenses in Europe. But the Russians insisted to insert inside the New START treaty a special paragraph about linkage, connection between offensive and defensive arms. That means that they will look carefully for what is going to happen with American ideas to continue development of ballistic missile defenses.

One particular sweetener might come in the idea which we heard once from President Reagan, who said that he would be ready to share with Russians technology of SDI. Russians did not believe that at the time, nor did Richard Perle.

But who knows? Maybe in a new format of cooperation—even George Bush used to say, "We are friends, and friends don't need treaties," except that for some reason they needed treaty organizations.

Another item which keeps me a little bit pessimistic about the future, for the next step, is related to the so-called 123 Agreement. Several years ago, Russians and Americans negotiated, and they finally drafted a comprehensive agreement to cooperate on peaceful uses of nuclear energy, of atomic energy. This agreement, called 123, was introduced by the former president two years ago to Congress. While it was sitting waiting for ratification, there was a war on Caucasus and Bush was cautious enough to take it back because he knew it would not pass the ratification in the Senate.

So a few weeks ago President Obama reintroduced the same agreement. The rule is the following: if during six months there would be no objection, it would be considered as automatically approved, ratified.

The next day after it was reintroduced, two congressmen in the House came with a draft resolution. One simple phrase two injected. One of them was Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican congressman. So it's a bipartisan resolution.

The chances for this agreement to pass are not very big in my view, considering that at least opponents of nuclear energy, like Ed Markey is known to be, might vote against it. So it is a very interesting, indirect way to close the door to nuclear energy.

There are people who probably still wouldn't like Russia. I am afraid mostly of the GOP Congress people. As we see now, they are working against anything which would come from the Obama Administration.

So what would be the outcome of this rejection of 123? I think the simple logic would tell the Russians: How could we cooperate on military nuclear issues, which would require ratification, comprehensive cooperation on further dismantlement, on a cutoff of military and non-military fissile materials—how can we cooperate on all of this when the American side is not ready even to cooperate on peaceful nuclear issues? That might create a lot of problems. So we will see how it would develop in the future.

A last piece of the story. I just came back from Moscow. A few days ago, I was watching a special ceremony on Russian TV. The Russian Navy got a new submarine of new generation. The name is Severodvinsk. It's the name of the town where the company which is building nuclear submarines is located, on the Arctic Ocean.

Medvedev went to that ceremony and he gave a speech. The major ideas were that this is a new generation, no one in the world has in their possession such a capable submarine which would carry a multiplicity of warheads. I felt a little bit uncomfortable with this rhetoric.

But I think the end was much more pessimistic. The military orchestra played "Yellow Submarine."

Thank you.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Thank you, Roald.

I must confess in planning this session I wanted to get to the notion that arms control and nonproliferation have come back into the fore in public attention to some extent, with New START, with the Nuclear Summit, the NPT Review Conference here in New York a couple of months ago. I was concerned about a complacency that might set in, that we have made enormous strides and we can stop thinking about this.

I think you two have done a remarkable job of cautioning us against that degree of complacency.

Specifically, you have both really underscored the fact that there is this interlocking or interwoven set of issues that only starts with START, so to speak, with NPT. The question of the antiballistic missile treaty that you mentioned, Roald; the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which even in the Senate is in for a much rockier time probably next year; the fissile material control cutoff treaty that you mentioned, Frank; and of course even weapons in space, which we hope will re-find its way into the president's thinking.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Thank you both for being here. To have such experts here is really wonderful.

On the issue of the disarmament and containing the fissile materials and the question of nuclear weapons, in theory, in spite of the Obama threats to use them against Iran preemptively and so on, they're supposed to be defensive. The core issue there is national security issues. With the United States refusing to support a space treaty, the new kinetic weapons, how do you evaluate the Russian perception that if they dismantle their nuclear weapons then the United States remains in an incredibly precarious strategic position with these what are sometimes called strategic non-nuclear weapons?

It seems that that's one of the major sticking points here, if the United States wants to have military superiority with non-nuclear. If the Russians don't have those comparable weapons, can they realistically expect a global disarmament program?

You can hear a lot of comments in Russia. I think probably the Russian leadership understands that they would need to perfect their capabilities in non-nuclear armaments. You see that sometimes the leaders of Russia are talking about it.

One particular episode I remember vividly. On the very first day of the second Iraqi campaign, Putin visited the headquarters of Russian space command, and spent the whole day. He was given a detailed overview of GPS-type capability for terminal guidance. You see that Russians are trying to cooperate their similar grouping of satellites, called GLONASS.

I think in general the pace of this process moving from nuclear to non-nuclear capabilities would be dictated largely by lateral or later by multilateral steps and negotiations. Russians are key players. They can choose such a path to be able to get finally capability in non-nuclear armaments.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: It's not Russia, of course. We have this huge debate in this country about nuclear disarmament. But for us it should be easiest because of our non-nuclear capabilities and those of our allies, accounting for most of the world's spending on conventional weapons.

DAVID SPEEDIE: More than the next ten countries combined.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: I think the United States is just about half the world, and then our allies are probably more than half of the rest of the world.

QUESTION: Both Roald and Frank referred, at least obliquely, to the connection between nuclear arms and nuclear power. I come from a long line of anti-nuclear power activists. It strikes me as ironic, if nothing more, that at the same time as our administration is talking more forcefully about nonproliferation it is also opening the door much more than they had visibly and formally to nuclear power in this country.

A question I have is if a country can make a power reactor, does that automatically put them a step further toward being able to make the bomb? Maybe it's just too simple a question, but maybe there is a simple answer.

There are multiple levels of capability. Of course one always has to remember that we started from zero in the Manhattan Project and had a nuclear weapon within three years. So you're never that far away from having a nuclear weapon.

The next level is having a nuclear reactor. Then there is within the spent fuel of the reactor about 1 percent plutonium typically. Every typical 1,000-megawatt reactor has in its spent fuel about 25 bombs' worth of plutonium. It is embedded in the reactor with a lot of radioactive fission products, so it takes a reprocessing plant to extract it. But people talk about quick-and-dirty reprocessing plants. That would be the next level.

The next level is when you already have a reprocessing plant, or even have separated plutonium. Then you're that much closer.

Similarly, if you have an enrichment plant, you're that much closer because you can make highly enriched uranium.

I have been focusing on the reprocessing because it produces directly weapons-usable material. It's not economic. Therefore, I've been trying to hold the world to a level which happens to be the most economic level for nuclear power, the so-called once-through fuel cycle, where you don't separate the plutonium.

You're right. Having nuclear power, having more countries with nuclear power, does put them on the first step of the ladder.

ROALD SAGDEEV: I think this is one of the most serious issues for those who want to open what's called nuclear renaissance, because more and more countries would be getting these nuclear power stations.

One of the progressive ideas would be to identify members of the nuclear club and assign them with responsibility to take care of the fuel. Like, for example, not to sell the nuclear fuel to the rest of the world but to use it temporarily and bring back the spent fuel. Actually, after a number of different attempts, Russia and Iran agreed about a similar procedure at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant.

A few years ago, I think in the middle of Bush's Administration, the United States developed the concept which is called Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. The international component of this concept was exactly like this, that they offered to the non-nuclear world to be recipients of technology but not to deal with the fuel or anything related to manipulation of the fuel.

Unfortunately, this was accompanied by a domestic program to start immediately reprocessing, building a not-yet-fully-proven demonstration plant, and so on. This is why the Obama Administration slowly glossed this particular approach.

But I think the international component will survive in the future.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: I think the Bush Administration which was proposing this knew that it would not be possible to take back spent fuel into the United States but was hoping that Russia would do it.

ROALD SAGDEEV: Russia was ready. They had open doors. I think if there would be no 123 Agreement, there is no hope that we will send spent fuel to Russia.

QUESTION: I noticed in your second or third slide of the nuclear programs that Israel is listed, but it doesn't seem to have any. Why is that?

FRANK VON HIPPEL: It's on the scale. This is just a question of the scale. It's there, but it's invisible on the scale that is set by the United States and Russia.

QUESTIONER: But you do recognize it?

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Yes. I forget how much—it's a few tons of plutonium. But it just doesn't show on that scale. Maybe enough for 100 weapons.

DAVID SPEEDIE: In the context of that discussion, somewhere during the Cold War, Frank, I think an American military guy said, "All I know is that their 50th weapon is going to be a lot more significant than our 5,000th."

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Yes, that's right.

DAVID SPEEDIE: A hundred weapons is small on the global scale but not insignificant.

That's right.

QUESTION: I just wanted to know. France uses a lot of nuclear energy. How do they deal with the waste and spent fuel?

France is the leading proponent of reprocessing, and in fact was very close to the Bush Administration trying to promote reprocessing in the United States, because they knew that they were the only country which could probably build a reprocessing plant for the United States. It would be something like a $40 billion plant.

The French actually have succeeded, and I think they're the only country which has really succeeded in operating a reprocessing plant. They recycle plutonium into new fuel. It costs more not doing it, than what we do. In fact, there were very difficult negotiations between AREVA, which does the reprocessing in France, and Électricité de France, which is the government utility, which is about 80 percent nuclear. Électricité de France didn't want to pay that much. AREVA said they needed it. Finally, since of course they were both government-owned, the government decided that they weren't going to shut down reprocessing, that there would be too much disruption, and they forced an agreement.

Half of the reprocessing in France used to be for other countries, for Germany, Japan, and other countries in Europe. None of those countries are renewing their contracts. Japan built its own reprocessing plant. The European countries just decided that the advantage of having a contract in the first place—that the world is right on anti-reprocessing—you set off an anti-reprocessing tirade.

The advantage of sending spent fuel to France, and also to the United Kingdom and Russia also, to be reprocessed was you could get rid of the political problem with spent fuel. But it was only temporary, because the contract said that the high-level radioactive waste from reprocessing has to come back.

When it started coming back, countries said, "Why are we spending all this money? It's no longer buying us anything." So they didn't renew their contracts. So the French now are basically only reprocessing their own fuel.

ROALD SAGDEEV: But I think the French understand very well that this is a temporary measure. I think they even decided that by 2020 they will come up with some kind of radical scenario for what to do with the spent fuel.

The major issue of the spent fuel is that there are two different components in spent fuel. One is fragments of fission reactions, lighter elements, lighter nuclei. There is a lot of radioactive stuff among these components, but this radioactivity would not last beyond several hundred years.

But the second part of this spent material is a very heavy nuclei, heavier than uranium, so trans-uraniums. Sometimes they are called actinides. Plutonium is one of the examples. But there are fewer of them that are even more dangerous, because nobody knows what to do with them, like americium, curium. They can stay radioactive for geological times, several hundreds of thousand years. No country would be able to keep piling all this stuff for that long period.

So there are a number of ideas what to do with that. They would obviously require new technology. Until the moment it would be decided which of these technologies is safe, reasonable, and economical, I don't think the nuclear power future will be bright until that moment.

Here we might differ with Frank. He thinks that we can still keep piling in dry casks next to the power stations, at least for 50 more years. But I personally would be interested to know if there would be technology which would work for sure even after these 50 years. In order to ensure that we will get this technology, it is important to invest some money in research in this area.

People talk about putting plutonium underground creates a plutonium mine, very long-lived and so on. Then the other side of the argument, of course, is if you reprocess, you create a plutonium river, which is very dangerous in the short term.

An interesting new idea that I've been trying to learn about is something called borehole disposal. The repositories for spent fuel that people have been talking about are very deep, about 500 meters down, 1,500 feet down. But you could go even deeper with the oil-drilling technology that we've been seeing recently. You could actually drill basically for oil—hopefully you won't hit oil—and put the spent fuel down some kilometers where the water is salt, and therefore would be heavy and not rise and mix with the fresh water up above, and then have a very long seal on it.

You know, we put an awful lot of stuff into the environment, like lead and so on, which has an infinite half-life. So I think the danger of putting plutonium underground is exaggerated.

I once gave a talk at Chelyabinsk to local people who were demonstrating against the Russian reprocessing plant. I said I would much rather have 6 kilograms of plutonium in the water supply than have somebody run away with it and make a Nagasaki bomb. I calculated for them that you would only maybe have less than one cancer result from people drinking the water. But they didn't like it.

ROALD SAGDEEV: I think that it would be very difficult for [inaudible] every state to accept such a deep hole in their state. I think it is unmanageable.

There is an alternative approach, which would require a new technological breakthrough, which is called transmutation. Under the intensive bombardment by energetic neutrons, these nuclei can be disintegrated. The question is whether we can do it in a reasonable way. But then it would not require such a deep mine. So we will see.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: I used to debate this with one of my Japanese colleagues, a breeder advocate. I'd say, "Okay, why don't we get together again in 50 years and discuss this?"

He said, "Okay." Because at the moment the problem is we don't have anything, the machines that you're talking about to do anything with this stuff. To have this stuff all separated and available for weapons is crazy. We should be talking about the solutions before we create this additional problem.

ROALD SAGDEEV: I think we should not waste these 50 years and wait for what is going to happen in 50 years. We should invest actively in trying to find a technological way out.

QUESTION: There was a lot of discussion about the security of the material when the former Soviet Union came apart. I'd be curious about your perceptions of the security issues surrounding the existing material in Russia, but obviously you can generalize the answer to other areas where there is concern.

Secondly, if it were to be stolen or sold to a terrorist group, what is the likely way that they would use this? What are the technical obstacles that they would face in setting one of these things off?

DAVID SPEEDIE: Big and serious questions.

I think that was a major concern in circles of the experts and among strategic thinkers since the early 1990s, especially when Russia seemed to be in freefall. I think then it was a time when the United States adopted what is called now the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. The Russians accepted the help. I think now the opinion is that the Russians are doing a fairly good job in securing their nuclear material arsenals.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: This was the subject of the Nuclear Security Summit that Obama convened in March. It wasn't so much specific to Russia now; it was globally. Obama had this mantra of saying that we should secure all insecure nuclear materials within four years.

Of course securing is a matter of degree. For me the only secure nuclear material is material that has been eliminated. There is legitimately a focus on things like research reactors, even though they have a very small minority of the material. They are typically at places like universities and so on, which are not that secure.

The fear is, of course, that somebody would make a bomb. If you are talking about highly enriched uranium, which the U.S. and the Soviet Atoms for Peace program propagated to 50 countries around the world, that competed in giving them research reactors and then pretty soon converted those research reactors to weapons-grade uranium.

On the eve of the Gulf War in 1991, Iraq already had enough highly enriched uranium from Russia and from France to make a bomb, and they initiated a crash program that was fortunately too late to build a bomb. And Libya similarly from the Soviet Union had enough material for a bomb.

The focus is primarily on highly enriched uranium because we spread it around in so many places, and also because it's so easy to make into a bomb. The effort in the Manhattan Project, the bomb design effort, was focused not on highly enriched uranium. They had already designed that. A graduate student and an assistant professor had designed the Hiroshima bomb before people went to Los Alamos. It was a plutonium bomb, which is a more difficult bomb.

But even there it is still debated.

We certainly should assume that a country if it steals plutonium can make a bomb out of it, but we shouldn't assume that a non-state group could not do so. Things have gotten a lot easier since the Manhattan Project.

Take Al-Qaeda. It would be relatively easy for them to turn it into a bomb that could be delivered to Europe or the United States. Do they float it on a boat, or how do they deliver this thing?

The assumption is that the hardest part is getting the material, and so you should prevent them from getting the material. And then the question is, how do you deliver it? By a truck or a boat or something like that would be a plausible way.

There was an interesting joke a few years ago. I think it was during a few years at the end of the Clinton Administration, when ideas about using limited ballistic missiles were circulating. The joke was that we were discussing building limited defenses against rockets coming from these unidentified groups. The joke was: Who would be interested in building these rockets against us? Those who would be unable to afford suitcases.

DAVID SPEEDIE: An alarming thought.

QUESTION: I wonder if you would address, both of you, particularly the countries of Iran and North Korea. On Dr. von Hippel's charts I noticed you don't specifically cite Iran. Maybe they're one of non-weapons.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Yes, they're included in the non-weapons.

QUESTIONER: I see. Maybe just talk briefly about where you think their technology is in the capability of developing a weapon. I'm interested in understanding what you think are the possibilities for abating the danger in each case.

In the case of North Korea, we recently heard Ian Bremmer speak at the Council. He is the head of the Eurasia Group, who has recently written a book. He made a very sharp point, saying that North Korea in his view was the biggest state nuclear danger in the world at this point, I think in part because of the political unrest or uncertainty there, disequilibrium in that country now. But what is your sense in each country?

Of course North Korea has nuclear weapons, a small number of them, but they have demonstrated, and they made the plutonium with something which is basically a research reactor. The concern is, would they sell it? They sell everything else.

I've always found it incredible that they would sell that. But maybe it's not incredible given what they did with Syria, to try to get Syria in that business. And of course it is unstable, and that's the only thing that they have in a very impoverished country.

In my mind, Pakistan is sort of up there as a worry as well.

I used to say that Iran wants a nuclear weapons option but it hasn't decided whether it wants a nuclear weapon. Whether that still holds or not—they used to have a very broad political input into the regime. Whether it's narrowing down to the point where they might go for a nuclear weapon is a big question. They certainly are developing the option in this enrichment.

The problem right now is their program is transparent in the sense of the facilities we know about. But after Ahmadinejad came into power they have not been willing to continue the license to the IAEA to look wherever they wanted to, wherever they suspected or were afraid that there might be some other activities going on. To think of it, we don't know where the centrifuges have been going, whether they have been installing centrifuges in someplace we don't know about.

We know that they haven't been making weapons materials in the places we do know about. But as time goes on with this uncertainty, the situation is getting more unsatisfactory. That's why it's so important to reach some kind of agreement with Iran where they feel comfortable making their program more transparent.

I think the fact that these enrichment facilities can be distributed, because each component would be the size of a washing machine. So say they have about 10,000 components, maybe eventually they will have even more, they could disseminate them, which would make it very difficult to target them, just like the Israelis targeted a nuclear reactor in Iraq 20-plus years ago. This is why it is so important to reach some kind of reasonable agreement without using military brute force.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Frank, if I may follow up on that just briefly before we have to stop, your last slide mentions that there is a certain hypocrisy involved and we are pressuring others not to build while we are building up enrichment plants of our own. Also, you mentioned the case of South Korea claiming the same reprocessing rights essentially as Japan, which of course is way up there with the reprocessing countries.

Isn't it true that a couple of years ago, South Korea was found to be enriching almost to the military level and reporting to IAEA but it was not reporting to the UN Security Council? So therefore does it not then become a highly politicized environment as to who is seen engaging in questionable activities? If you're sitting in Tehran, you may feel that there's a double standard at work here.

I was in Japan when the Iranian foreign minister came to Japan and said, "All we want to do is the same thing that Japan is doing."

In the case of the South Koreans, the activities that they were conducting were really at a laboratory scale. It was a very small scale. In the 1970s there was actually, when President Nixon announced that countries should defend themselves—the South Koreans all of a sudden just got rid of the need for a nuclear weapons program. They launched one. Then the United States came back and said, "Okay, we won't leave." But there has always been an interest there.

In Japan, of course, they have had a nuclear weapons option now for decades. They haven't implemented it. But some of them feel more comfortable that they have it just in case. I think there is that stream of interest in South Korea as well.

A similar process was going on in Taiwan.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: Yes, that's right.

ROALD SAGDEEV: And then finally we told them, "What are you doing?" But it was understandable why they wanted to have their own nuclear weapons, because of China.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: David, can I ask one question of Roald? Do we have time?

DAVID SPEEDIE: Of course. A final question.

FRANK VON HIPPEL: During Roald's opening statement he said something about the tactical nuclear weapons and that to Russia they looked like strategic nuclear weapons, and therefore as long as they are in Europe we really can't talk about tactical nuclear weapons.

There is also the opposite argument, that it's a bargaining chip, that we can't remove tactical nuclear weapons from Europe because we'll lose our bargaining chip with Russia, because Russia will then say, "Well, we have NATO here, we have China there. You have Mexico and you have Canada. We really need tactical nuclear weapons in our neighborhood more than you do in yours."

I just wondered how you would advise the U.S. government about whether to withdraw tactical nuclear weapons from Europe. They finally said, "This is going to be a NATO decision" and they turned it back there.

I think there's a newly released disclosure by the U.S. government about the total number of the warheads. This is very important, because until that period the Russians could argue, "You have also an unlimited number of tactical weapons."

But still the Russian argument is that while no Russian tactical nuclear warheads can in principle target U.S. targets, American and NATO tactical weapons could target Russia. So that remains still open. I don't know what to do in that. I think maybe the next step would be to at least agree with the Russians about disclosure of what is happening on the Russian side with tactical weapons.

But the issue of a threat from China is science fiction. You can find a lot of articles in the Russian press, mass media. Obviously it is developing like a paranoia, because if you consider this huge territory, several thousand kilometers, with a common border between Russia and China, and there are very few population centers on the Russian side and tremendous pressure for the Chinese to finally penetrate, migrate to the Russian Far East, I think it is in the minds of every Russian politician.

If I can just clarify a little bit on the issue of Iran, because now it is the cutting-edge, most immediate question, Hans Blix had indicated that he thinks it's effectively impossible to hide a cluster of 30,000 centrifuges that would be necessary to enrich to a bomb. I wasn't sure if you were suggesting they could put one centrifuge diffused in 30,000 locations across Iran and actually do anything. Is that what you're suggesting?

More generally, what do you think about the realistic prospects of verifying two issues on Iran: (1) at what level they are enriching; and (2) whether the enriched uranium is being diffused and sent out to secret locations for further enrichment? Blix has indicated he thinks that it is possible to verify both these issues. What's your opinion?

ROALD SAGDEEV: I don't think they have to disseminate, to distribute in 30,000 different locations. Maybe half a dozen would be sufficient, especially if nobody would know where are these locations.

What concerns the international atomic energy agencies is capability. If the Iranians would promise to open for inspections, there is always a way to cheat, but eventually any cheating can be discovered, because you see what was happening with Iran during the last ten or 15 years. There were some dissidents or opposition guys who were coming out of closets. So the very fact that at least Iranians would declare and would open some of the facilities would be a good sign, and then we will see how it would develop.

QUESTIONER: Is verification possible?

ROALD SAGDEEV: I think to some degree it's possible, yes.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Frank, last word?

FRANK VON HIPPEL: I think where the IAEA is, they could verify. If you give the numbers, you are talking about the capability of making one weapon a year. So you are talking about the current-generation centrifuges maybe a couple of thousand, with the more advanced centrifuges you're talking about maybe 500 or so. You could probably put 100 or 150 centrifuges into this room. Unfortunately, the centrifuge technology doesn't lend itself to discovery.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Thank you both. It has been a wonderful session.

I'd like to take away at least one idea from each. The term "plutonium economy" has entered the lexicon of really alarming concepts. Gold never looked so good.

Please join me in thanking both of our speakers, and thank you for coming.

You may also like

Uruguay signs the Artemis Accords, February 15, 2024, Washington, DC. CREDIT: NASA HQ Photo.

MAR 6, 2024 Article

Empowering the Artemis Accords Coalition for Peace and Stability

As missions ramp up, Zhanna Malekos Smith writes that the U.S. should lead an effort with the Artemis Accords for space sustainability and security.

Launch of OSIRIS-REx, September 2016, Florida. CREDIT: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

NOV 29, 2023 Article

A Human-Centric Epic for NATO Space Domain Awareness

In this report on NATO's annual space policy summit, Visiting Fellow Zhanna Malekos Smith analyzes the challenges the institution faces in the final frontier.

Detail from book cover.

JUN 15, 2021 Podcast

Rethinking American Grand Strategy, with Christopher McKnight Nichols

What is grand strategy? What differentiates it from normal strategic thought? What, in other words, makes it "grand"? In answering these questions, most scholars have ...

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation