Saturday, July 23, 2011

What's Sig Hecker Up To?

Appearing in the latest issue of Physics Today /July 2011 / is an article entitled “Adventures in scientific nuclear diplomacy’’, by past director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sigfried Hecker .

This may be nothing more than a straight-forward exercise in self-promotion. Or it may be a sincere attempt to  encourage scientists and engineers, who might have an interest in public policy, to become more involved in the creation of that policy. Alternately, it may be part of an ongoing effort to cast doubt on the advisability of the United States federal government’s proceeding further along a road toward nuclear disarmament.

Headings in Hecker's Physics Today article include:

“From competition to collaboration”
“Lab-to-lab contact”
“Securing Kazakhstan
“Collaboration with China
South Asia’s nuclear risks”
“The most difficult countries in the world”
“Scientists’ important role”

Under this last heading Hecker asserts that:

Twenty years after I started lab-to-lab contacts, I believe more firmly than ever that scientists can be an important part of international security diplomacy. Scientists look through different lenses than politicians and build different relationships – often deeply personal friendships. They speak a common language and usually respect each other, which makes it easier to build trust. Communications are more less formal, with email instead of diplomatic cables, and scientists can explore a broader spectrum of solutions than government officials can.

Fair enough; however, Hecker also includes a figure from his much earlier article  entitled “A tale of two diagrams”, in Los Alamos Science  26, 244 (2000) (an issue devoted to plutonium metallurgy and chemistry, Hecker’s area of technical expertise.) The point of that article was to show that, prior to 2000, American understanding of plutonium metallurgy and chemistry was incomplete. An implication of this, although not stated explicitly, was that conclusions being drawn about the continued and long-term reliability of the American nuclear weapons stockpile should be regarded with some skepticism.  

As I have remarked before in this blog (blogpost entitled “Nuke Enthusiasts Fight New Start Treaty”, November 21, 2010), Hecker was a signatory to a letter admonishing theObama administration that the latest Nuclear Posture Review unduly constrained the R&D of nuclear weapons at the nuclear weapons laboratories and, therefore, placed the US nuclear deterrent in jeopardy.  I reprise these remarks below:

The New York Times today is running a William J Broad story about the New Start Treaty, and its relation to controversy over upgrading of the US nuclear deterrent, with corresponding costly nuke building programs at the DOE/NNSA's nuke labs, especially LANL and ORNL, but also the Kansas City Plant. In order to entice a few Republican Treaty ratification votes, Pres. Obama is offering more money for nuke program upgrades, but the Republican point man on this issue, Sen. Jon Kyl, still says no.

The Los Angeles Times contains a more comprehensive story about Hecker's trip to N Korea, pointing out that he traveled with Jack Pritchard, a former US ambassador to S Korea, and a current publicist for S Korean interests. According to the LAT, both Hecker and Pritchard will shortly give a talk about their trip to the Korean Economic Institute, Pritchard's organization. They had both also just finished briefing the Institute for Science and International Security, a group focused on world-wide nuclear proliferation matters.

Hecker, a past director of LANL and a strong proponent of continuing the American nuclear weapons program, was a signatory to a May 2010 letter by 10 former nuke lab directors criticizing the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. The former directors asserted that the NPR restricts the creative freedom of scientists and engineers who work at the nuke labs, thus denying the nation the full benefit of its nuclear weapons designers' expertise, and placing the nation at unnecessary risk of a possible future nuclear attack. 

One wonders about the timing of the release of information about Hecker's latest visit to
N Korea, and the effect that this information might have on the New Start Treaty ratification process.

Perhaps it’s time for Dr. Hecker to give us all a clearer view of his true intentions. If these are benign, then a good next step might be to publicly renounce his support for the May 2010 letter criticizing the Nuclear Posture Review.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

National Park Status for Nuke Labs?

Since 2004, parts of the Department of Energy nuclear weapons R&D centers at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Hanford Nuclear Reservation have been under consideration by the National Park Service, as candidates for NPS sites commemorating the creation of nuclear weapons. 

Recently, in July, 2011, and after much study by the NPS, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar recommended to the US Congress that they proceed with the writing of legislation bestowing National Park Service status on these three sites. Materials relating to this NPS recommendation may be found at

A spokesperson for the NPS points out that there are many precedents for the incorporation of sites commemorating war related events into the NPS. Such sites have been in the form of National Monuments, National Memorials, and National Military Parks.

What is unusual is that the new NPS recommendation is for the creation of a National Park to commemorate the Manhattan Project. But, past national parks have been designated to protect and preserve, for the enjoyment of future generations, areas of surpassing natural beauty, not areas associated with the massacre of 100,000's of noncombatants, in the nuclear heat of past battles.

It seems to be true, however, that some advances in military science and/or practice may always be deemed by some military enthusiasts to be worthy of some public recognition in perpetuity.

And, this may be a problem for President Barack Obama, who strives to limit the rate of spread of nuclear weapons technology, and promotes the goal of abolishing nuclear weapons, but also must placate the most militaristic members of the US Senate.

After all, how better to move toward the abolition of nuclear weapons than to try to marginalize ideas of their military usefulness while also attempting to stigmatize the role that they play in the formation of national policy? But it is difficult to imagine stigmatizing the holding and R&D of nuclear weapons, while at the same time celebrating their creation. That is, it is difficult to imagine celebrating the creation of nuclear weapons without also celebrating their continued existence. Difficult but, I suppose, not impossible. So, good luck with that Mr. President!

Finally, as a contribution to the general bemusement, I recapitulate here remarks made during the finale of the US Senate debate on the New Start Treaty (recorded in the US Senate on 12-22-10). These remarks were in the nature of heartfelt objections to the Treaty by Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. According to the cherubic Sen. Sessions: 

 1) The Treaty is a step on the road toward President Obama's goal of ridding the world of nuclear weapons, which is a leftist goal and a dangerous fantasy.

 2) The notion that the Treaty will make Russia more cooperative in its relations with the US is false. Russia has shown itself to be uninterested in cooperation with the US since it blocked United Nations Security Council attempts to condemn North Korea and, in 2008, attacked its neighbor Georgia.

 3) The Obama Administration has unilaterally given away US missile defense bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, thus, showing itself to be insufficiently committed to missile defense.

 4) The US Senate should state clearly that the goal of zero nuclear weapons is undesirable and even impossible.

 5) The goal of zero nuclear weapons is a cock-a-mammy and dangerous idea.

 6) The idea of a world without nuclear weapons is ominous and chilling.

 7) In the Nuclear Posture Review of this past spring, Pres. Obama made clear that his goal is a world without nuclear weapons. However, ex-Sec. of Defense Schlesinger has said that he believes that a world without nuclear weapons is a utopian idea.

 8) The maintenance of a large US arsenal of nuclear weapons is the best way to encourage the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. If the US continues to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons in its arsenal, this will lead other nations, which don't now have nuclear weapons, to develop their own.

 9) The Obama Administration has made it clear that the New Start Treaty is a step on the road toward its goal of a world without nuclear weapons. But, to me this is not a dream, it's a nightmare!

 10) By reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons in its arsenal, the US is relinquishing its leadership role in the world.

More recently, and also from Alabama, the following story has emerged, as reprinted by The Tennessean and The Tuscaloosa News from an Associated Press report, dated July 20, 2011, and datelined Mountain Creek, Alabama:

"The last of the more than 60,000 Confederate veterans who came home to Alabama after the Civil War died generations ago, yet residents are still paying a tax that supported the neediest among them."

"Despite fire-and-brimstone opposition to taxes among many in a state that still has 'Heart of Dixie' on its license plates, officials never stopped collecting a property tax that once funded the Alabama Confederate Soldiers' Home, which closed 72 years ago. The tax now pays for Confederate Memorial Park [Park Director Bill Rambo], which sits on the same 102-acre tract where elderly veterans used to stroll."