May 27, 2009

From Pyongyang to Tehran, with nukes

Tue, 05/26/2009 - 12:41pm,

North Korea's tests are not the scary part. It's the country's collaboration with Iran.

By Siegfried S. Hecker

International condemnation of North Korea's underground nuclear test Monday resonated the world over -- just in time for Pyongyang to defiantly test two short-range missiles. After the U.N. Security Council condemned Pyongyang's long-range rocket launch on April 5, the country walked away from all previous nuclear agreements and threatened to restore normal operation of the Yongbyon nuclear plant, reprocess spent fuel rods to extract plutonium bomb fuel, pursue a light-water reactor, conduct nuclear tests, and launch intercontinental ballistic missiles. Kim Jong Il and company seem intent on pushing the limits of international patience, and raising the stakes with each provocation. But how worried should the world be? That is, what is North Korea actually capable of doing?

Concern over North Korea's tests is warranted. Pyongyang is on a well-planned trajectory to enhance its nuclear and missile capabilities -- something that officials made very clear when I visited the country in February. North Korea had slowed down the disablement of its nuclear facility, Yongbyon. It then launched a multistage rocket and walked away from the nuclear talks. Pyongyang is strengthening its "deterrent" threat by building more bombs, and possibly more-sophisticated ones at that.

But it is what North Korea did not threaten that should give us greatest concern: expanded nuclear and missile cooperation with Iran. The two countries' abilities and needs are highly complementary, and past collaboration tells us that the diplomatic channels may be as well.

North Korea shut down Yongbyon in July 2007, but began to restart the facility last month. The country has now restored the reprocessing facility and has begun extracting roughly 8 kilograms of plutonium from spent fuel. Although Yongbyon will not be able to complete reprocessing for four to six months, the anticipated increase in plutonium is what has allowed it to conduct this week's nuclear test. Without the additional plutonium, Pyongyang was limited to 26 to 50 kilograms, or roughly four to eight bombs' worth. Its small nuclear arsenal was likely also primitive; its first nuclear test in 2006 was only partially successful. Hours before the test, Pyongyang informed China that it would conduct a test at 4 kilotons, but it achieved less than 1 (by comparison, the bomb at Nagasaki yielded an explosion of 21 kilotons). It appears the North Koreans scaled back their original design to 4 kilotons to avoid a massive breach of the test tunnel.

The test this week, however, was more successful, producing a yield that I estimate at 2 to 4 kilotons based on currently available seismic measurements and estimates of the test site geology. This test will enhance Pyongyang's confidence in its arsenal and may be an important step toward miniaturizing warheads to fit on its missiles. Still, the size of North Korea's nuclear arsenal will remain restricted by its limited plutonium inventory. Fully capable nuclear-tipped missiles will require further tests, so the sequence of this week's provocative steps foreshadows more of the same.

For now, North Korea will remain somewhat trapped by its minimal plutonium supply. To make more, Pyongyang would have to restart its Yongbyon reactor. It will take approximately six months to prepare fuel for the reactor and to rebuild the cooling tower that the country destroyed last June as a symbolic gesture. Once fueled, the reactor will produce 6 kilograms of plutonium, roughly one bomb's worth, per year for the next decade or so. Pyongyang is not currently capable of ramping up plutonium production from there. The threat to develop its own light-water reactor is not a great concern for plutonium production, but it does likely signal that North Korea will now seriously explore uranium enrichment capabilities. But it would take many years for Pyongyang to develop the uranium route to the bomb.

Of course, there is a terrifying way that North Korea could overcome its limitation while simultaneously helping another nuclear aspirant: It could work with Iran. Pyongyang lacks uranium centrifuge materials, technology, and know-how; Tehran has mastered them. Pyongyang has practical uranium metallurgy capabilities; Tehran has little. Pyongyang has its own nuclear test data; Tehran does not. Pyongyang knows all facets of plutonium technology; Tehran has little more than a plutonium-producing reactor under construction. Pyongyang helped Tehran establish a missile capability; now, Tehran's crash missile-test program and Pyongyang's long-range rocket tests could prove mutually beneficial.

Preventing escalation of nuclear and missile cooperation is critical to avoid destabilizing Northeast Asia and the Middle East. The urgency of this threat is underscored by North Korea's recent covert construction of a nuclear reactor in Syria and its extensive ongoing cooperation in missile technology with Iran. At least in its nuclear reach, Pyongyang isn't quite as isolated as it seems.

Siegfried S. Hecker is codirector of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and director emeritus of Los Alamos National Laboratory.


Anonymous said...

Can anyone at LANL imagine our current Director, Mike Anastsio, ever having the same stature and prestige as Sig Hecker? Those were the days!

I miss having the likes of men like Sig running our lab. Things started to go rapidly downhill with the Nanos era and got much worse under LANS. Sig is forthright and bold in his words and told the Senate that LANL has become more like a prison than a world class research institute while under the direction of a for-profit LLC and a extremely risk adverse NNSA. As usual for Sig, his analysis of the condition of the NNSA labs was right on the mark.

Anonymous said...

Mikey couldn't carry Sig's lunch! Nor Browne's for that matter.

But, they give Mikey a car and pay him a whole lot more!

Anonymous said...

Oh great!

Now we have to read all of the hand wringers complain that we need more nukes, new nukes and upgraded nukes to thwart North Korea and Iran. These hand wringers are convinced that if we have them, that if we build more of them, if we refine and improve them, Korea and Iran will magically stop all weapons related research (even though there is not one shred of evidence to support that belief).

Okay, you may begin.

Anonymous said...

In light of the past few days' events, it is supremely ironic that the DNFSB thinks "LANL plutonium poses a fatal risk."

In the grand scheme of things... not so much!

Anonymous said...

Talk about moving back...I met the new "COMPA" folkes!!!I must admit I was not impressed, the women who introducted herself as the owner, did not have a clue what "Pit manufacturing was, almost all of our questions went without an answer, we were refered from one person to the next and still no clear answers.
Hopefully this is their "transition phase" and will have some real answers to our questions regarding the Contractors at LANL.. I am starting to have some real doubts about this outfit.

Anonymous said...

Bad news for the world. Great news for LANL. And after all, isn't that what is important?

Anonymous said...

It seems that North Korean plutonium poses a significant risk as compared to phony, contrived, DNFSB-collective-ego driven risk from TA-55 plutonium.

Another good article, Sig.

Anonymous said...

Some short remarks:

(1) Does Dr. Sig Hecker still believe in the Obama fairytale of zero nukes in the world, with the very recent North Korea´s underground nuclear test, Monday, Memorial Day, May 25, 2009, and Iran closer, and closer each day to become nuclear, and the risk of the Taliban, and/or AQ seizing the nukes in Pakistan? (The time for USAF, and/or IAF to act preemptively against Iran is running out like an empty gas tank.)

(2) "Of course, there is a terrifying way that North Korea could overcome its limitation while simultaneously helping another nuclear aspirant: It could work with Iran." (Sig Hecker.)

Why is Dr. Hecker naively helping North Korea, and Iran to boost their further nuclear ambitions?

(3) If Iran becomes nuclear, Israel´s sheer existence will be threatened 24/7/365.

PS: Pres. Obama and Congress should approve modernizing the US nuclear arsenal, and its delivery systems, and to adopt the US missile defense.

PPS: Frank thanks for posting, and thanks to Dr. Sig Hecker for providing the best analyze of the recent underground nuclear test, and launching of missiles in North Korea.

Anonymous said...

The unmentioned message here is that
past LANL directors such as Hecker and Browne have provided sage advice to the nation on important matters.

They are not being replaced. The smart people are leaving LANL leaving only the C-student slugs.

SO, the next generation is going to have to rely on incompetent assholes like Mikey for this kind of advice.

Anonymous said...

The c-student meme says more about the commenter than the target. Are you still in school? If not, no one cares what your grades are or were.

Anyway, what have you done since school? Have you become a director of a national lab? Who, indeed, is the c-student?

Anonymous said...

5/27/09 7:44 PM

Dr. Sig Hecker is born 1943, Dr. John Browne 1942, Dr. C. Paul Robinson 1941, and Dr. Mike Anastasio 1948, e.g. 7 years age difference between the youngest (Anastasio), and the oldest (Robinson), but I do believe that Robinson, Browne, and Hecker will outlive Anastasio in giving national security advice for the US government.

The real problem will be the next generation after Hecker et al, will they provide any national security advice for the US government, as every LANL director since Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer has been able to do.

Anonymous said...

As long as Anastasio signs the annual certification, his job is done so far as the US Government is concerned. If he doesnt', the NNSB find someone who will c-student or not. In short, Los Alamos has in short time become a place where the appearance of national security outpaces the actual national security. The only problem with that fact is that it might actually matter which is which. For whatever reasons, no other nuclear power on earth is willing to take that risk. We are breaking new ground! Wear shoes that grip!

Anonymous said...

Some interesting notes and comments on Wed over at ArmsControlWonk:

** Libby Turpen on NNSA's Future **

Wednesday May 27, 2009

The wolves are at the doorstep of the National Nuclear Security Administration. Several months into the Obama Administration, we still don’t have a new Administrator.

Part of the issue is that, in a few years, NNSA may no longer exist. The OMB “passback” raised the possibility of moving NNSA into DOD:

"DoD and DOE, to include the NNSA, are being requested in their respective passbacks to assess the costs and benefits of transferring budget and management of NNSA or its components to DoD and elsewhere, as appropriate, beginning in FY 2011."

The Strategic Posture Commission, on the other hand, proposed establishing NNSA as a separate agency reporting to the President through the Secretary of Energy…”

What to do?

To consider some of these questions, we’ve invited Libby Turpen to brief the study she recently directed, Leveraging Science for Security: A Strategy for the Nuclear Weapons Laboratories in the 21st Century:

"Who Should Own Our Nuclear Weapons?

Dr. Elizabeth Turpen
Co-director, Cooperative Nonproliferation Program, Stimson Center

Thursday, May 28, 2009
12:15 – 1:30 p.m.

New America Foundation
1899 L St NW, 4th Floor
Washington, DC 20036


Dr. Turpen, Task Force Project Director and Co-director of Stimson Center’s Cooperative Nonproliferation Program, will present the Task Force’s findings and discuss how a restructuring of the nuclear weapons complex will help to resolve the tension between President Obama’s commitment to the vision of a nuclear free world and his assurances of maintaining a robust deterrent until such a world is attainable."

----- Comments -----
As a long time employee at a NNSA national lab, I can say firmly that NNSA is a mess and needs to be done away with. Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore labs are dying under NNSA and the change from public “not for profit” University of California management to private “for profit” companies. These two labs need to be moved back to DOE under the Office of Science – at least Lawrence Livermore, which has a dramatically shrinking role in nuclear weapons design.

— Dave May 27, 10:22 AM

The National Labs are being slowly strangled by excessive DOE/NNSA oversight. DOE/NNSA regulatory oversight goes well beyond industry standards used to regulate refineries and other moderate risk activities that pose a far greater risk to the public. It’s interesting to note that while the contrator numbers at the NNSA labs has shrank 15% over the last 5 years the number of NNSA Feds have increased 7%.

— magisterdale May 27, 11:42 AM

Anonymous said...

I've been told more than once that Anastasio is very bright and articulate in a small group setting. Too bad we'll never witness that.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what grades Anastasio got in college, he might be a bright guy for all anyone knows. However, he certainly has been unimpressive as the LANL director at his best, and destructive to the Lab at his worst.

Anonymous said...

"PS: Pres. Obama and Congress should approve modernizing the US nuclear arsenal, and its delivery systems,"

So predictable...

Anonymous said...

Yes 6:45, but his job is to sign one letter per year. Everything else, including the health of the lab, is superfluous.

Anonymous said...

"I don't know what grades Anastasio got in college"

Being a good leader takes some smarts but it doesn't necessarily mean you had to have A+ grades while in college. One thing is painfully obvious about Anastasio, though. He is no leader.

His skills in this area are painfully lacking. Watching his body language and voice inflections during All-Hands meetings, I get the distinct feeling he knows this to be the case and perhaps it bothers him to reflect on it. However, having a big LANS executive salary and sweet sports car makes it a little easier for him to bear the heavy burdens of executive leadership.

Anonymous said...

does anyone know what they are talking about here? was there actual damage or no?

NNSA, LANL file tort claims against Los Alamos County

By Carol A. Clark

In separate documents Friday, the Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration and Los Alamos National Laboratory submitted notices of tort claims against Los Alamos County.

The notices pertain to a Feb. 21 incident that reportedly occurred while the Los Alamos Fire Department was conducting training at a LANL parking structure at TA-3.

The fire drill involved connecting a pumper truck to a stand pipe within the parking structure and then pressurizing the fire protection system with water.

Not long after starting this operation, a portion of the fire protection piping failed, causing damage to the parking structure, according to the claims. Los Alamos National Security, LLC, (LANS), conducted an investigation and determined that the failure of the fire protection piping was caused by the negligent “over pressurization” of the system by firefighters involved in the drill.

NNSA’s tort claim states, “It is our understanding that LANS is filing a claim for these damages against the county. In the event that LANS is unable to prevail on its claim, NNSA, as the landowner for LANL facilities, intends to pursue recoupment for the cost of the repairs to the parking structure and the fire protection system, the expenses incurred by LANS in evaluating the damages, and all other costs associated with the claim.”

Site Counsel Silas R. DeRoma, who signed the notice of claim for NNSA/DOE, referred media inquiries to NNSA local site office spokesman Don Ami.

“The lab ran some extensive cost estimates on this so they would have a better idea of how much those costs might be,” Ami explained in a telephone conversation late Wednesday.

LANL spokesman Kevin Rourk said this morning that it won't amount to a "big number."

“After discussions with the NNSA Site Office, the Laboratory provided preliminary notice to Los Alamos County that it may be asked to pay for damages to the fire suppression system at the Laboratory’s main parking garage,” Roark said. “We hope that this matter can be reasonably resolved, but filing at this time was necessary to protect LANS’ rights under state law.”

County Attorney Mary McInerny confirmed that the law requires that notice of tort claims be filed within 90 days following an incident. These notices arrived on the final day of that time frame, she said.

“The notice is an administrative process to let the governmental entity know they may attempt to collect on a claim,” McInerny said. “It’s a legal requirement in the Tort Claim Act.”

The county intends to send the notices to its insurance carrier, she said.

“They’ll conduct an initial review to determine if we have any potential liability under the law,” McInerny said.

If the insurance carrier finds no liability, the county will notify the laboratory of that fact, she said. However, if responsibility is found then there will be some sort of normal claims adjuster review.

“The county doesn’t have to respond to a claim but it does have to respond to a law suit,” McInerny said, adding that several claims are filed against the county each week, ranging from alleged equipment damage from a power outage to property damage from a snow plow.

Anonymous said...

They blew out some pipes and part of a wall at the parking garage by the NISC.

Anonymous said...

NNSA and LANS (Bechtel) to Los Alamos County: Screw you! We'll see you in court! It's what we've all come to expect from these guys.

Anonymous said...

Umm...don't drink the water?


State may fine lab for faulty well

By ROGER SNODGRASS, Monitor Editor

The New Mexico Environment Department issued a notice to lab managers Friday afternoon for a violation of the comprehensive cleanup agreement.

NMED proposes a penalty of $1.87 million against the Department of Energy and Los Alamos National Security, LLC, for failing to plug and abandon a groundwater monitoring well in Mortandad Canyon.

In the announcement Friday, NMED said the well is known to have elevated levels of laboratory-related contaminants – chromium, perchlorate, nitrate and tritium – that threaten the water system.

“While local water supplies are regularly tested and are safe, I’m troubled with the lab’s failure to comply with the department’s directives,” said Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry in a prepared statement. “Those directives include protecting the regional aquifer from this leaking well.”

Fred DeSousa, a spokesperson for the laboratory’s environmental program said Friday that the lab’s top priority is to keep the drinking water safe.

“It's important to remember, and the state agrees, that the drinking water is safe,” he said. “Our data tells us the water is leaking from one pocket in the ground to another pocket, but it's still 400 feet above the water supply.”

There are three county drinking water wells located within a mile of the Mortandad Canyon well, according to a communiqué from the county.

Officials at the Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities said that local drinking water quality remains high.

“In 2007, LANL and NMED agreed that a Mortandad Canyon well (MCOBT-4.4) would be plugged and abandoned within the terms of LANL’s Consent Order. Because this work has not yet occurred, NMED announced their enforcement action yesterday involving a fine to LANL of $1.87 million,” said Utilities Manager John Arrowsmith. “There are three county drinking water wells located within a mile of the Mortandad Canyon well. These wells, which are tested regularly, continue to produce drinking water that meets all state and federal drinking water standards and is safe to drink.”

“We look forward to working together with LANL and NMED to continue to provide safe drinking water to our customers and to protect the regional aquifer,” Arrowsmith said.

Under the Consent Order, that governs the cleanup process, LANL submitted a work plan to plug and abandon well MCOBT-4.4 on Oct. 31, 2007 to prevent contaminated groundwater from leaking into the aquifer. NMED approved the work plan on Dec. 7, 2007, and required that the work be properly completed by June 30, 2008.

NMED said DOE and LANS blamed “resource limitations,” for not having finished the job.

“We’ve been very patient trying to get this well taken care of properly,” NMED Deputy Secretary Jon Goldstein said Friday. “It’s an improperly completed well. When you don’t complete a well properly it can act as a way for water that’s up in the alluvium to get down into the aquifer.”

The department said the action marked the fifth major violation of the order that has resulted in enforcement. The penalty could be as high as $7 million.

“We don't like missing our commitments to the state. We look forward to working with them on getting this resolved,” DeSousa said.

Goldstein said the fine would depend on the lab’s response. “They can simply comply, or if they would rather, they can enter into negotiations.”

Desousa said the work is scheduled for June. "As far as an appeal, it's too early to say if that's the route we'll take,” he said.