Monday, March 26, 2012

Nukes: Tip-Toeing toward Extinction

The US still leads the world in the number and types of deployed nuclear weapons. To touch on a single element in the triad of nuclear weapons, the US maintains ~10 ballistic missile submarines at sea, at all times (while Russia may have one or two subs at sea, and France and UK may each have one.) Each US submarine can launch ~20 ballistic missiles and each missile carries up to ~6 independently targetable thermonuclear warheads. Each warhead can level a city of ~30 square miles, with the zone of complete destruction extending out farther, by dint of ensuing firestorms. Spread out cities could be attacked by multiple warheads leading to the annihilation of entire urban populations. Assuming that a single exploding warhead might take the lives of ~1 million city-folk, then the ~1200 warheads currently deployed at sea by the US could, in a pinch, reduce the world's population by ~1 billion people. That, to me, seems like over-kill. And then there are the other two legs of the nuclear weapons triad to consider.

Clearly, the US is well-prepared for total war with several nuclear weapons armed states, simultaneously. But, why? Is this an example of ruthless war-planning, screaming paranoia, or profound political inertia? Maybe it's all three at the same time.

But, not to worry, because relief from this global predicament is on the way; albeit slowly and very tentatively.
Hence, the following, reprinted from USA Today  (3-26-12), reported from Seoul, South Korea, by Aamer Madhani:

President Obama says he wants to further reduce America's nuclear stockpile and will press the issue when he meets with Russia's President-elect Vladimir Putin at Camp David in May.

"Going forward, we'll continue to seek discussions with Russia on a step we have never taken before, reducing not only our strategic nuclear warheads, but also tactical weapons and warheads in reserve," Obama said in a speech today at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

In 2010, Obama and Russia's outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that will eventually limit the U.S. and Russia to no more than 1,500 deployed warheads.

But on Monday, Obama argued that both the U.S. and Russia have more nuclear weapons than they need, and it's time to work toward further cuts.

"I believe the United States has a unique responsibility to act -- indeed, we have a moral obligation," Obama
said. "I say this as president of the only nation ever to use nuclear weapons. I say it as a commander in chief who knows that our nuclear codes are never far from my side. Most of all, I say it as a father, who wants my two young daughters to grow up in a world where everything they know and love can't be instantly wiped out."

Obama and more than 50 other world leaders will kick off the second Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul later today. The summit is a follow up to the 2010 summit that Obama hosted in Washington, where he set the lofty goal of securing all loose nuclear material by 2014.

Neither the New York Times, the Washington Post, nor CNN reported this speech by US President Barack Obama, at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Nuclear Non-Proliferation New Mexico Style

It was reported in the Rio Grande Sun (on March 8, 2012) that "Lab Cuts Threaten Valley", and that "Española Mayor and Rio Arriba County commissioner head to D.C. to lobby against slashed funding." These local concerns are a product of LANL's projected budgetary shortfall of $300 million for FY 2013, and its planned "Voluntary Separation Program", encouraging the early retirement of 400-800 current LANL employees. Local government officials worry about this LANL budget reduction because it will probably have a negative effect on the economy of northern New Mexico. Also upsetting local officials is the planned delay by five  years in start-up of construction of the ~$6 billion CMRR-NF facility at LANL. Although not directly impacting current spending levels, this delay represents a reduction in the level of planned future spending, over the next five years.

As we know, the economy in northern New Mexico is tied to DOE spending at LANL, which now amounts to ~$2.3 billion, annually.  Recent studies have shown that this spending results in a boost of ~$3 billion, to the New Mexico economy, a significant part of the ~$80 billion New Mexico Gross Domestic Product. Other significant US government expenditures in NM occur at SNL, at the WIPP site, and at several US military bases located around the state. Add to this Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid payments, and NM leads the nation in federal monies received, relative to dollars paid in federal taxes; e.g., NM receives ~$2 in federal payments for every $1 paid out in federal taxes.

More than half of the DOE money spent at LANL goes for nuclear weapons activities, and the planned CMRR-NF facility will support such activities. Thus, the local economy is closely tied to the nuclear weapons industry.

It is then a question of some interest as to whether the nuclear weapons work performed at LANL, and at SNL in Albuquerque, contributes to the US goal of promoting the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons know-how and nuclear weapons technology, as well as reducing the numbers of stock-piled nuclear weapons, or whether these nuclear weapons activities are themselves a form of nuclear weapons proliferation. Being partly a matter of opinion, these questions are political in nature and must be answered largely at the national level. But, as they say, "all politics is local" or, "all politics begins at the local level."

Myself, being a local guy (20 years in Española, NM), and interested in local politics, I too have opinions about these nuclear non-proliferation questions, as they pertain to activities at LANL as well as at other US nuclear weapons R&D sites.

Which brings me to my real topic for today: the latest attempt by members of the nation-wide nuclear weapons (NW) community to resell the US Congress on the idea that the present, and the planned next generation, Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), in Livermore, CA, represent essential steps on the road to commercially viable ICF power generation; i.e., so-called Inertial Fusion Energy (IFE.)

In my view, this fantastic notion is being foisted on Congress as a means of obtaining its continued support for ICF, which is, in the absence of NW testing, a convenient tool for probing and refining current NW design calculations and a plausible means for helping to create new NW designs; i.e., as an essential element in the ongoing Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP). This seems to me to be a proliferation activity, since it advances the state of knowledge of NW design and may even result in the creation of new NW designs.

Currently, hundreds of LANL scientists, as well as LLNL scientists, are working in the ICF experimental program at LLNL, and expect to continue to do so into the foreseeable future.

The present incarnation of ICF is a large laser-based machine at LLNL dubbed the National Ignition Facility (NIF), which was constructed over the course of ~10 years at a cost of ~$3.5 billion. Construction was completed in 2009, and the NIF experimental program has been unfolding ever since. It now appears, however, that NIF may not attain its main design goal; viz., ignition, before the end of 2012. For critical comments by a DOE expert and senior manager see
But, never mind, because a bigger, and more expensive machine is on the drawing boards. (A 1997 NRC committee report recommended that DOE proceed with construction of the NIF. At the time, the DOE estimated that NIF would cost $1.1 billion and be completed in 2002.) For a compendium of sources on IFE, as well as on the more scientifically mature Magnetic Fusion Energy (MFE) concept see the internet site

In this context, the National Research Council (NRC) released (on March 7, 2012) a preliminary study of ICF and its possible usefulness for IFE. (Interim Report-Status of the Study "An Assessment of the Prospects for Inertial Fusion At least four other NRC assessments of the IFE concept, not counting the current one, have taken place, from 1978 to 2007. Each of them identified ignition as the required next milestone. The final NRC study report is expected to be out this summer, in both a classified and unclassified version.

The difference in the two versions may be confined to the manner in which the subject of ICF target design is treated; e.g., in the level of target detail. Indeed, the NRC points out, in its unclassified preliminary study, that it is in the details of ICF target design that one expects to find the most proliferation sensitive information. Although, in the final version, this information will be classified as SECRET and unavailable by any legitimate means to potential proliferators, the accumulation of this material by the US ICF community may itself have been a nuclear proliferation activity; i.e., an activity prohibited by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

LANL Voluntary Separation Program

Tuesday March 13, 2012 /  6:00 - 7:30 PM
Northern New Mexico College Auditorium

Los Alamos National Laboratory  Executive Director Richard Marquez explained to ~40 citizens gathered at NNMC the intention of LANS-LLC regarding 400-800 LANL employees whose early retirement is being solicited in a Voluntary Separation Program. He maintained that, depending upon their precise circumstances, targeted employees could find the VSP to be personally advantageous. Following a formal talk of ~15 minutes, questions from the audience were politely entertained.

In response to a question concerning precise motivations underlying the VSP, Mr. Marquez, a lawyer (J.D., UNM School of Law 1977) with experience gained in Albuquerque private practice as well as while defending the DOE against LANL employee-inspired lawsuits, volunteered that, although "we may not exactly be doing our workers a favor" by asking them to retire early, "we really love our employees" and have great concern for their well-being. He added that it was important to realize that "LANL employees also loved the Laboratory."

During his formal remarks, Mr. Marquez stated that the work of the Laboratory being essential for the national interest, he foresaw continued prosperity at LANL for the next ~50 years. However, a local citizen pointed out that, since the long-term prospects for the nuclear weapons industry were dim (the current President was continuing with the policy of past presidents by further reducing the numbers of deployed nuclear weapons in the US arsenal) how could the Laboratory expect to prosper into the future if its current emphasis on nuclear weapons R&D would persist? Mr. Marquez responded that the future was always difficult to predict and that the Laboratory would, in any event, always find an appropriate mix of essential tasks to perform. ¡Ojalá!

Having referred to the proposed delay in funding for the CMRR-NF construction project as an important  factor in the LANS-LLC decision to pursue a VSP for 400-800 LANL workers, and in response to a question concerning the specific effect of this delay, Mr. Marquez was unable or unwilling to predict the actual number of affected workers.

Mr. Marquez is a facile presenter, deploys a repertoire of conventional social skills, and is adept at deflecting probing questioners. He was brought on-board the LANL management team in ~2001 by the departing Joe Salgado (himself a superficial charmer) who had been hired in the wake of the 1995 RIF at LANL, in an attempt to quiet community discontent. But, Mr. Salgado somehow came a cropper of the Wen Ho Lee affair. So far, Mr. Marquez, a "local boy", seems to have had a more enduring success than his mentor.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Problems of Pollution Confound

The New York Times reported today that the future of nuclear power in Japan continues as a subject of great controversy. Prior to the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 which engulfed the reactors at Fukushima-Daiichi, and which lead to multiple reactor core melt-downs, at least one respected scientist had warned that a tsunami of up to 50 ft in height was possible for that region. But, his warnings were downplayed by authorities: it was decided instead that a tsunami of no more than 17 ft in height was at all likely for that part of the coastline, and that protections already in place could cope with such a threat. However, the actual tsunami that struck was 45 ft tall:; also, see prevented.html?scp=1&sq=fukushima&st=cse.

Needless to say, however, although ~20,000 lives were lost in the 9.0 Richter Scale earthquake and the tsunami that followed, not a single life has been lost yet due to the reactor core melt-downs. The zone of exclusion that has been set up around the devastated reactors (~8000 square miles of excluded area) may prove sufficient to mitigate future damage to surrounding populations by the ~3.5 million Ci of radioactive material released into the atmosphere.

In a previous blogpost, I pointed out that the National Research Council, in a recently released  report on an analysis of the National Nuclear Security Administration  and its three nuke labs had opined that oversight of the safety practices of these labs, by external agencies such as the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, was unnecessary and wasteful of scarce resources. I disagreed with that NRC opinion.

Interestingly, the DNFSB itself had warned earlier in the year, at a public meeting held in Santa Fe, NM, that a release of up to 100,000 Ci of plutonium from Los Alamos National Laboratory was possible during a future earthquake and wildfire on the Pajarito Plateau. In another blogpost, I estimated that such a release could require that a zone of exclusion of ~10 miles in radius (~300 square miles) be set up around LANL. (The size of the excluded area is proportional to the amount of radioactive material released.)

Thursday March 8, 2012 / US House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Energy and Power held a hearing entitled "The FY 2013 DOE Budget." DOE Secretary Stephen Chu testified. He was asked a variety of questions, some interesting, some not; most seemed to be inspired by strong political motives and, while some were no more than complementary commentary, many were overtly hostile. Each questioner was limited to 5 minutes and the entire meeting lasted 2 hr 17 min. (

Chairman Whitfield (R-KY) began the session by remarking that, in his opinion, US energy policy was being driven by the EPA and its concerns about the environment and was, therefore, not a policy aimed at lowering the price of energy for American consumers. This theme was continued by Rep. Upton (R-MI) who said that the Obama Administration's energy policy was not directed at increasing the energy supply, for example, by drilling more wells, but appeared to be an attempt to align US energy policy with that of Europe, emphasizing the development of alternate energy sources; a bad idea, in his estimation. Rep. Waxman (D-CA) took the opposite tack, opining that an increase in the oil supply in the US would not effect the price of energy, which was determined by the world market.

Rep. Barton (R-TX) complained that Pres. Obama was pushing the US Senate toward stopping the Keystone Pipeline. Mr. Barton considered that the Keystone Pipeline was essential for the future health of the US energy industry. He also expressed concern about DOE's failed investment in Solyandra, and hoped that DOE was putting in place a better process for overseeing similar investments in the future.

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) asked about continuing DOE support for construction of the Facility For Rare Isotope Beams. Dingell, while not saying that this facility was being constructed in MI, his home state, (at Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI) said that this project would support 5000 construction jobs and 400 permanent staff jobs and have a $1 billion economic impact. Chu responded that $22 million was being allocated for the FRIB project in FY2013 (also not mentioning that it would be constructed in Dingell's home state.) Dingell then wanted further assurances about this project which Chu was unwilling or unable to provide. Dingell also criticized DOE's plan to provide significant funding for construction of the International Tokamak Experimental Reactor facility. He said that since this facility would not be constructed in the US, it would represent a DOE investment which would not result in the creation of US jobs, nor in a boost to the US economy; rather, it would result in such benefits accruing to other countries. Chu responded that support of ITER was of great importance since it could eventually lead to the development of a reliable fusion energy production source. Perhaps Dingell was suggesting to Chu that his ongoing support for DOE projects could only be expected if DOE would continue to provide quid pro quo benefits to his home state of MI.

Rep. Markey (D-MA) pointed out that the price of natural gas was low in the US; i.e., as compared to the price in Europe, where it was ~2X as high, and the price in China, where it was ~5X as high. He asked Sec. Chu to do what he could to stop increases in the export of liquified natural gas to other countries, so as to limit possible increases in the price of natural gas in the US.

Rep. Waxman (D-CA) continued by noting that the price of oil in Canada was at world market levels, even though Canada was a net exporter of oil.

Rep. Shimkus (R-IL) aggressively asked Sec. Chu whether DOE intended to support a restart of the NRC certification process for the opening of Yucca Mt for nuclear waste storage, now that the Board of Commissioners of Nye County, NV (in which Yucca Mt is located) had announced that they were willing and eager to have such waste stored at Yucca Mt. The member said that this development was important in light of a suggestion by the President's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future; to wit, that the agreement of local communities to accept nuclear waste was key to the planning of future nuclear waste facilities. However, as of today, there is no mention of any such announcement on the website of the Nye County commissioners. Rep. Amodei (R-NV), although not a member of this subcommittee, has adopted a similar point-of-view. Interested parties can consult his website to learn his views about the Future of Yucca Mountain.

Rep. Bilbray (R-CA) said that in his home district of San Diego, CA there were ~20 naval nuclear reactors being operated without problems by 20 yr old sailors, yet San Diego was still unable to power its street lights with energy generated by small nuclear reactors.

Rep. Doyle (D-PA) said that the Obama Administration is decreasing money for development of fossil fuel systems, particularly coal. He believed that it was unconscionable that this decrease was taking place while the EPA was tightening air pollution standards for fossil fuel power plants.

Rep. McKinley (R-WVA) complained that DOE was moving away from one of its most important founding principles; i.e., that DOE was to help to provide energy to the US at a reasonable cost. He said that DOE was abandoning its responsibility to maintain energy sources that are already here in the US. He said, in his opinion, that DOE and the EPA together were the worst nightmare of working men in coal in America.

Rep. Scalise (R-LA) noted that although overall US oil production may have increased, there has been an ~11% decrease in oil production on federal land and that the increase in oil production has taken place entirely on state and private land. He said that the federal government also seemed to be intent in cutting production on state and private land; e.g., by over-regulating the use of fracking technology.