UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (with images) - Latest 1

Th Bad: Post #2 on the NNSA’s FY2018 Budget Request

On Tuesday, May 23, the Trump administration released its Fiscal Year 2018 (FY2018) budget request. I am doing a three-part analysis of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget. That agency, a part of the Department of Energy, is responsible for developing and maintaining US nuclear weapons. Yesterday we focused on The Good, today we have The Bad, and The Ugly is still to come.

The Bad Rising costs in warhead life extension programs

The NNSA’s most important task is to ensure that the weapons in the US nuclear arsenal are safe, secure and effective. As part of that work, the NNSA is simultaneously undertaking four different programs to extend the lives of four different warheads in the US stockpile: the W76 warhead deployed on submarines, the B61 bomb deployed on aircraft, the W88 warhead deployed on submarines and the W80 warhead for the proposed new air-launched cruise missile. The NNSA has not had such a confluence of work in decades.

That leads many observers to worry about how well the NNSA will manage such a heavy workload, especially when it is also trying to build one major new facility for uranium metal work and ramp up the new approach to dispose of excess plutonium.

Those concerns are only increased when a new president comes in talking about the need to “greatly strengthen and expand” the US nuclear capability. As described in The Good, this budget does not hint at any such effort.

Trump’s budget does, however, reveal rising costs for the existing warhead life extension programs initiated under the Obama administration. For the B61 and the W88, the Trump budget requests significantly more than what the Obama administration projected would be required for FY2018. For the B61, the Obama administration projected in the FY2017 budget that $728 million would be required in FY2018, an already large 15 percent increase above the FY2017 request. But the Trump administration’s request is $789 million, a 22 percent increase above FY2017. For the W88, a planned decrease of $30 million to $255 million (a 9 percent cut) became a $50 million–or 15 percent–increase, to $332 million.

The FY18 budget request offers relatively mundane explanations for these rising costs, including unexplained “increases.” They are particularly troubling, however, when considered in tandem with a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the life extension programs.

That report cites internal NNSA cost estimates showing the B61 will cost $10 billion, or $2.6 billion more than the NNSA currently predicts, and take an extra two years to produce the first new B61-12. Another internal NNSA estimate found that the W88 update could cost $1 billion more than previously expected. The GAO report also cites yet another internal NNSA estimate that the W80-4 warhead, being developed for the proposed new nuclear-armed cruise missile, may be underfunded by $1 billion, while a proposal to update the warhead’s secondary could add another $250-300 million to the total cost. That could bring the W88 program to over $10 billion as well.

Cost increases like that will mean increasing trouble for the NNSA. The “Weapons Activities” budget line, which funds all work on nuclear warheads, has already benefited from eight straight years of rising budgets averaging over 5% annually. The Trump budget seeks a 10% increase above the final level of funding Congress approved in the FY17 omnibus appropriations bill. If the numbers the GAO cites are correct, even larger increases will be needed in the future.

Another complicating factor is very tight timelines. The GAO notes the W80-4 is operating on an “accelerated, compressed schedule,” while officials have said the B61 may no longer meet certification requirements if there are any further delays producing new bombs. It looks more and more like the intersection of multiple warhead life extension programs, rising costs, and rushed production schedules could lead to a train wreck for NNSA.

And that is before the NNSA even starts work on its most far-reaching plan to develop a suite of new warheads to replace the existing ballistic missile warheads (but more on that in The Ugly).

Disappearing Dismantlement

In its final budget, the Obama administration proposed a modest increase in funding—from $52 million in FY2016 to $69 million in FY2017—for dismantling warheads that have been retired from the US nuclear stockpile. The result would be that the long line of weapons already in the queue for dismantlement would be taken apart more quickly, thus allowing the warheads retired under the New START agreement with Russia to be dismantled sooner as well.

Those in Congress who supported the Obama administration proposal pointed out that increasing dismantlement in the near term actually benefits life extension programs in the mid-term. Bringing on new employees and training them to dismantle warheads will help prepare them for the coming work on the B61 and the W88, which will entail dismantling the warheads, replacing aged components and reassembling them.

Led by the House Armed Services Committee, however, Congress ended up rejecting most of the increase, allowing only an additional $4 million in FY2017. For the House, anything proposed by the Obama administration that smacked of disarmament was too much, even if it was only taking apart weapons that have already been retired.

And now the Trump administration has dumped any thought of dismantling weapons sooner, noting in the FY18 budget that it is “eliminating the planned acceleration stated in the FY 2017 budget request.”

 

UCS in Science: The NRC Must Act to Reduce the Dangers of Spent Fuel Pool Fires at Nuclear Plants

In a Policy Forum article published in this week’s Science magazine, I argue, along with my co-authors Frank von Hippel and Michael Schoeppner, that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) needs to take prompt action to reduce the alarmingly high potential for fires in spent fuel pools at U.S. nuclear plants.

The NRC allows nuclear plant owners to pack spent fuel into cooling pools at much higher densities than they were originally designed to handle. This has greatly increased the risk to the public should a large earthquake or terrorist attack breach the liner of a spent fuel pool, causing the pool to rapidly lose its cooling water. In such a scenario the spent fuel could heat up and catch fire within hours, releasing a large fraction of its highly radioactive contents. Since spent fuel pools are not enclosed in high-strength, leak-tight containment buildings, unlike the reactors themselves, much of this radioactive material could be readily discharged into the environment.

The consequences of a fire could be truly disastrous at densely packed pools, which typically contains much more cesium-137—a long-lived, extremely hazardous radioactive isotope—than is present in reactor cores. My Princeton University co-authors have calculated, using sophisticated computer models, that a spent fuel pool fire at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Pennsylvania could heavily contaminate over 30,000 square miles with long-lived radioactivity and require the long-term relocation of nearly 20 million people, for average weather conditions. Depending on the wind direction and other factors, the plume could reach anywhere from Maine to Georgia. My co-authors estimate the financial impact on the American economy of such contamination could reach $2 trillion: ten times the estimated $200 billion in damages caused by the release of radioactivity from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The danger could be greatly reduced if plant owners thinned out the pools by transferring their older fuel to dry storage casks. But despite the relatively modest cost of this common-sense step—about $50 million per reactor—owners won’t do it voluntarily because they care more about their bottom line.

The NRC could require plant owners to expedite transfer of spent fuel to dry casks. But it refuses to do so, basing its decision on quantitative risk analyses that, as discussed in our Science article, underestimate the benefits of such a transfer by making numerous unrealistic and faulty assumptions. For example, its estimate of the economic damages of a fire in a densely packed spent fuel pool was $125 billion; nearly 20 times lower than the independent estimate of my Princeton co-authors.

In light of our findings, our article calls on the NRC to strengthen the technical basis of its risk analysis methodology by basing it on sound science and sensible policy judgments. We are confident that such an analysis will reveal that the substantial benefits of expedited transfer would more than justify the cost.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: NNSA’s FY18 Budget Request

On Tuesday, May 23, the Trump administration released its Fiscal Year 2018 (FY2018) budget request. In an overall federal budget where many, many programs faced severe budget cuts, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is on the receiving end of a proposed 11 percent budget increase (at least by the Trump administration’s accounting – more on that in a following post).

The NNSA is responsible for maintaining US nuclear weapons, controlling the spread of nuclear weapons, and producing, handling and disposing of fissile materials as needed.  Much of the agency’s increase is under “Weapons Activities” – the programs designed to maintain US nuclear weapons and related efforts – while funding for efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons face budget cuts. That continues a trend that began in the Obama administration: more funding for weapons, less funding for nonproliferation.

In this post and the following two (The Bad and The Ugly), I take a closer look at NNSA’s budget. Let’s start with the good news.

The Good Ending MOX (Or Trying To, Again)

Perhaps the best news concerns the fate of the problematic “MOX” program to dispose of excess US plutonium. The Trump administration is wisely proposing to “terminate the MOX project and pursue the dilute & dispose (D&D) option as an alternative.” Under this project, excess plutonium, mostly from dismantled US nuclear weapons, would be turned into MOX—or “mixed oxide” nuclear fuel and burned in commercial US nuclear reactors. UCS has long opposed the MOX program because of its high cost and security risks.  Under the dilute and dispose option, the plutonium would instead be diluted with non-radioactive materials and disposed of in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, which is a geologic repository for military materials, including plutonium.

The Battle between Congress and the Obama Administration

The MOX fuel fabrication facility is in South Carolina, and the program only survives because of the support of state politicians who benefit from the program’s spending excesses.

For many years, Congress has provided enough funding to keep the MOX program alive, but not enough for major progress to be made on completing the enormous facility required to produce the plutonium-laced nuclear fuel.  Frustrated with the lack of progress, the Obama administration proposed in FY2015 to put the program on “cold standby,” halting construction while other options were considered. Congress refused to allow it, insisting that construction continue.

But Congress also again refused to provide sufficient funding to allow substantial progress in construction of the MOX plant. An independent study of the MOX program, requested by NNSA, found that if the level of funding Congress had been supporting—around $375 million annually—was all that could be provided, the MOX plant would not start operating until fiscal year 2100 and the life-cycle cost to finish the project would amount to a whopping $110.4 billion.

That study was part of a series of studies that all found the MOX program would cost far more than initially estimated, and take decades to complete. As a result, in FY2016 the Obama administration decided to cancel the MOX program outright, and to pursue the dilute and dispose option to get rid of the excess plutonium.

Unfortunately, largely because of the strong support for MOX from Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and other members of the South Carolina delegation, Congress again refused to comply, and insisted on continued construction of the MOX plant to the tune of $340 million in FY2016.

The exact same pattern was repeated in FY2017, with Congress ultimately appropriating $335 million for construction of the MOX plant, rejecting the Obama administration’s decision to cancel the project.

Will Trump win the battle with Congress?

Now we will see if the Trump administration has better luck convincing Congress to do the right thing. The path it has chosen is identical to what the Obama administration proposed: cancel MOX and pursue dilute and dispose. It requested $270 million in the FY2018 budget to begin the process of shutting down the program.

A key factor will be the role of Sen. Graham, the most influential voice in support of the MOX program. He sits on the two committees – Appropriations and Armed Services – that have oversight of the program. Last year, according to sources, the Appropriations committee punted the issue to Armed Services, which agreed to cancel the program. That is, until Sen. Graham heard of the decision, and called his good friend Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chair of the Armed Services Committee. The decision was reversed, and MOX lived another year.

But now it is the Trump administration canceling the program. Sen. Graham has never had a particularly good relationship with President Trump, nor does Sen. McCain. Will politics trump sanity again, or will we finally see the end of MOX?

No News is Good News

The other “good news” in the Trump administration’s NNSA budget request is the lack of anything particularly “new.” Despite rhetoric from President Trump that the United States needs to “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” this budget request does not propose building additional warheads. It issues no call for new types of warheads, new military capabilities or new roles for nuclear weapons. And it makes no mention of resuming nuclear testing, something the United States wisely abandoned back in 1992, leading to an international moratorium on testing that only North Korea is violating. In most respects, this budget request simply continues the vision spelled out by the Obama administration in its final years in office (with some minor changes described in the upcoming piece, The Bad).

This does not mean, however, that significant changes are not possible in the future. The Trump administration is undertaking a comprehensive nuclear posture review, and military officials have testified that any major changes in US nuclear policy or posture—including a push for new weapons—will await the outcome of that study. Secretary of Defense Mattis ordered the effort to take no more than six months, which would allow any decisions to be incorporated into the Trump administration’s FY2019 request. That is where any new vision developed by President Trump and his team will come into play.

 

 

 

 

 

TVA’s Nuclear Allegators

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) receives reports about potential safety problems from plant workers, the public, members of the news media, and elected officials. The NRC calls these potential safety problems allegations, making the sources allegators. In the five years between 2012 and 2016, the NRC received 450 to 600 allegations each year. The majority of the allegations involve the nuclear power reactors licensed by the NRC.

Fig. 1 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

While the allegations received by the NRC about nuclear power reactors cover a wide range of issues, nearly half involve chilled work environments where workers don’t feel free to raise concerns and discrimination by management for having raised concerns.

Fig. 2 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

In 2016, the NRC received more allegations about conditions at the Watts Bar nuclear plant in Tennessee than about any other facility in America. Watts Bar’s 31 allegations exceeded the allegations from the second highest site (the Sequoyah nuclear plant, also in Tennessee, at 17) and third highest site (the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona, at 12) combined.  The Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama and the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Massachusetts tied for fourth place with 10 allegations each. In other words, Watts Bar tops the list with a very comfortable margin.

Fig. 3 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

In 2016, the NRC received double-digit numbers of allegations about five nuclear plants. Watts Bar, Sequoyah and Browns Ferry are owned and operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Why did three TVA nuclear plants place among the top five sources of allegations to the NRC?

Because TVA only operates three nuclear plants.

The NRC received zero allegations about ten nuclear plants during 2016. In the five year period between 2012 and 2016, the NRC only received a total of three allegations each about the Clinton nuclear plant in Illinois and the Three Mile Island Unit 1 reactor in Pennsylvania (the unit that didn’t melt down). By comparison, the NRC received 110 allegations about Watts Bar, 55 allegations about Sequoyah, and 58 allegations about Browns Ferry.

TVA President Bill Johnson told Chattanooga Time Free Press Business Editor Dave Flessner that TVA is working on its safety culture problems and “there should be no public concern about the safety of our nuclear plants.” The NRC received 30 of the 31 allegations last year from workers at Watts Bar, all 17 allegations last year from workers at Sequoyah, and all 10 allegations last year from workers at Browns Ferry.

So President Johnson is somewhat right— the public has no concerns about the safety of TVA’s nuclear plants. But when so many TVA nuclear plant workers have so many nuclear safety concerns, the public has every reason to be very, very concerned.

Nuclear plant workers are somewhat like canaries in coal mines. Each is likely to be the first to sense danger. And when nuclear canaries morph into nuclear allegators in such large numbers, that sense of ominous danger cannot be downplayed.

North Korea’s May 21 Missile Launch

A week after the test launch of an intermediate range Hwasong-12 missile, North Korea has tested a medium-range missile. From press reports, this appears to be a Pukguksong-2 missile, which is the land-based version of the submarine launched missile it is developing. This appears to be the second successful test of this version of the missile.

South Korean sources reported this test had a range of 500 km (300 miles) and reached altitude of 560 km (350 miles). If accurate, this trajectory is essentially the same as the previous test of the Pukguksong-2 in February (Fig. 1). Flown on a standard trajectory, this missile carrying the same payload would have a range of about 1,250 km (780 miles). If this test was conducted with a very light payload, as North Korea is believed to have done in past tests, the actual range with a warhead could be significantly shorter.

Fig. 1: The red curveis reportedly the trajectory followed on this test. The black curve (MET=minimum-energy trajectory) is the same missile on a maximum range trajectory.

The Pukgukgsong-2 uses solid fuel rather than liquid fuel like most of North Korea’s missiles. For military purposes, solid-fueled missiles have the advantage that they have the fuel loaded in them and can be launched quickly after moving them to the launch site. With large liquid-fuel  missiles you instead need to move them without fuel and then fuel them once they are in place at the launch site. That process can take an hour or so, and the truck carrying the missile must be accompanied by a number of trucks containing the fuel. So it is easier to spot a liquid missile before launch and there is more time available to attack it.

However, it is easier to build liquid missiles, so that is typically where countries begin. North Korea obtained liquid fuel technology from the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and built its program up from there. It is still in early stages of developing solid missiles.

Building large solid missiles is difficult. If you look at examples of other countries building long-range solid missiles, e.g., France and China, it took them several decades to get from the point of building a medium-range solid missile, like North Korea has, to building a solid ICBM. So this is not something that will happen soon, but with time North Korea will be able to do it.

Warhead Reentry: What Could North Korea Learn from its Recent Missile Test?

As North Korea continues its missile development, a key question is what it may have learned from its recent missile test that is relevant to building a reentry vehicle (RV) for a long-range missile.

The RV is a crucial part of a ballistic missile. A long-range missile accelerates its warhead to very high speed—16,000 mph—and sends it arcing through space high above the atmosphere. To reach the ground it must reenter the atmosphere. Atmospheric drag slows the RV and most of the kinetic energy it loses goes into heating the air around the RV, which then leads to intense heating of the surface of the RV. The RV absorbs some of the heat, which is conducted inside to where the warhead is sitting.

So the RV needs to be built to (1) withstand the intense heating at its outer surface, and (2) insulate the warhead from the absorbed heat that is conducted through the interior of the RV.

The first of these depends on the maximum heating rate at the surface and the length of time that significant heating takes place. Number (2) depends on the total amount of heat absorbed by the RV and the amount of time the heat has to travel from the surface of the RV to the warhead, which is roughly the time between when intense heating begins and when the warhead detonates.

I calculated these quantities for the two cases of interest here: the highly lofted trajectory that the recent North Korean missile followed and a 10,000 km missile on a normal (MET) trajectory. The table shows the results.

The maximum heating rate (q) is only about 10% higher for the 10,000 km range missile than the lofted missile. However, the total heat absorbed (Q) is nearly twice as large for the long-range missile and the duration of heating (τ) is more than two and a half times as long.

This shows that North Korea could get significant data from the recent test—assuming the RV was carrying appropriate sensors and sent that information back during flight, and/or that North Korea was able to recover the RV from the sea. But it also shows that this test does not give all the data you would like to have to understand how effective the heatshield might be before putting a nuclear warhead inside the RV and launching it on a long-range missile.

Some details

The rate of heat transfer per area (q) is roughly proportional to ρV3, where ρ is the atmospheric density and V is the velocity of the RV. Since longer range missiles reenter at higher speeds, the heating rate increases rapidly with missile range. The total heat absorbed (Q) is the integral of q over time during reentry.

This calculation assumes the ballistic coefficient (β) of the RV is 48 kN/m2 (1,000 lb/ft2). The heating values in the table roughly scale with β. A large value of β means less atmospheric drag so  the RV travels through the atmosphere at higher speed. That increases the accuracy of the missile but also increases the heating. The United States worked for many years to develop RVs with special coatings that allowed them to have high β and therefore high accuracy, but  could also withstand the heating under these conditions.

The results in the table can be understood by looking at how RVs on these two trajectories slow down as they reenter. Figs. 1 and 2 plot the speed of the RV versus time; the x and y axes of the two figures have the same scale. The maximum deceleration (slope of the curve) is roughly the same in the two cases, leading to roughly the same value of q. But the 10,000 km range missile loses more total energy—leading to a larger value of Q—and does so over a longer time than the lofted trajectory.

Ad Hoc Fire Protection at Nuclear Plants Not Good Enough

A fire at a nuclear reactor is serious business. There are many ways to trigger a nuclear accident leading to damage of the reactor core, which can result in the release of radiation. But according to a senior manager at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), for a typical nuclear reactor, roughly half the risk that the reactor core will be damaged is due to the risk of fire. In other words, the odds that a fire will cause an accident leading to core damage equals that from all other causes combined. And that risk estimate assumes the fire protection regulations are being met.

However, a dozen reactors are not in compliance with NRC fire regulations:

  • Prairie Island Units 1 and 2 in Minnesota
  • HB Robinson in South Carolina
  • Catawba Units 1 and 2 in South Carolina
  • McGuire Units 1 and 2 in North Carolina
  • Beaver Valley Units 1 and 2 in Pennsylvania
  • Davis-Besse in Ohio
  • Hatch Units 1 and 2 in Georgia

Instead, they are using “compensatory measures,” which are not defined or regulated by the NRC. While originally intended as interim measures while the reactor came into compliance with the regulations, some reactors have used these measures for decades rather than comply with the fire regulations.

The Union of Concerned Scientists and Beyond Nuclear petitioned the NRC on May 1, 2017, to amend its regulations to include requirements for compensatory measures used when fire protection regulations are violated.

Fire Risks

The dangers of fire at nuclear reactors were made obvious in March 1975 when a fire at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant disabled all the emergency core cooling systems on Unit 1 and most of those systems on Unit 2. Only heroic worker responses prevented one or both reactor cores from damage.

The NRC issued regulations in 1980 requiring electrical cables for a primary safety system to be separated from the cables for its backup, making it less likely that a single fire could disable multiple emergency systems.

Fig. 1 Fire burning insulation off cables installed in metal trays passing through a wall. (Source: Tennessee Valley Authority)

After discovering in the late 1990s that most operating reactors did not meet the 1980 regulations, the NRC issued alternative regulations in 2004. These regulations would permit electrical cables to be in close proximity as long as analysis showed the fire could be put out before it damaged both sets of cables. Owners had the option of complying with either the 1980 or 2014 regulations. But the dozen reactors listed above are still not in compliance with either set of regulations.

The NRC issued the 1980 and 2004 fire protection regulations following formal rulemaking processes that allowed plant owners to contest proposed measures they felt were too onerous and the public to contest measures considered too lax. These final rules defined the appropriate level of protection against fire hazards.

Rules Needed for “Compensatory Measures”

UCS and Beyond Nuclear petitioned the NRC to initiate a rulemaking process that will define the compensatory measures that can be substituted for compliance with the fire protection regulations.

The rule we seek will reduce confusion about proper compensatory measures. The most common compensatory measure is “fire watches”—human fire detectors who monitor for fires and report any sightings to the control room operators who then call out the onsite fire brigades.

For example, the owner of the Waterford nuclear plant in Louisiana deployed “continuous fire watches.” The NRC later found that they had secretly and creatively redefined “continuous fire watch” to be someone wandering by every 15 to 20 minutes. The NRC was not pleased by this move, but could not sanction the owner because there are no requirements for fire protection compensatory measures. Our petition seeks to fill that void.

The rule we seek will also restore public participation in nuclear safety decisions. The public had opportunities to legally challenge elements of the 1980 and 2004 fire protection regulations it felt to be insufficient. But because fire protection compensatory measures are governed only by an informal, cozy relationship between the NRC and plant owners, the public has been locked out of the process. Our petition seeks to rectify that situation.

The NRC is currently reviewing our submittal to determine whether it satisfies the criteria to be accepted as a petition for rulemaking. When it does, the NRC will publish the proposed rule in the Federal Register for public comment. Stay tuned—we’ll post another commentary when the NRC opens the public comment period so you can register your vote (hopefully in favor of formal requirements for fire protection compensatory measures.)

North Korea’s Missile in New Test Would Have 4,500 km Range

North Korea launched a missile in a test early in the morning of May 14, North Korean time. If the information that has been reported about the test are correct, the missile has considerably longer range than its current missiles.

Reports from Japan say that the missile fell into the Sea of Japan after traveling about 700 km (430 miles), after flying for about 30 minutes.

A missile with a range of 1,000 km (620 miles), such as the extended-range Scud, or Scud-ER, would only have a flight time of about 12 minutes if flown on a slightly lofted trajectory that traveled 700 km.

A 30-minute flight time would instead require a missile that was highly lofted, reaching an apogee of about 2,000 km (1,240 miles) while splashing down at a range of 700 km. If that same missile was flown on a standard trajectory, it would have a maximum range of about 4,500 km (2,800 km).

New press reports are in fact giving a 2,000 km apogee for the test.

Fig. 1  The black curve is the lofted trajectory flown on the test. The red curve is the same missile flown on a normal (MET) trajectory.

This range is considerably longer than the estimated range of the Musudan missile, which showed a range of about 3,000 km in a test last year. Guam is 3,400 km from North Korea. Reaching the US West Coast would require a missile with a range of more than 8,000 km. Hawaii is roughly 7,000 km from North Korea.

This missile may have been the new mobile missile seen in North Korea’s April 15 parade (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 (Source: KCNA)

US-China Relations Set Up to Fail

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discusses US-China relations at a US Department of State assembly on 3 May 2017.

In June 1950 US President Harry Truman let North Korea set the course of US—China relations. Sixty-seven years later, with the Korean War still unresolved, President Trump is poised to make the same mistake.

The Road Not Taken

Just after North Korean forces invaded the south, Truman decided to protect the losing side in a Chinese civil war he believed was all but over. The defeated forces of the Republic of China (ROC) had abandoned their capital in Nanjing and fled to the island of Taiwan. The armies of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were massing for an attack. Truman unequivocally rejected pleas for help from ROC President Chiang Kai-shek and his supporters in the US Congress. But the North Korean invasion changed his mind, and with it the course of modern Asian history.

Had Truman not linked the conflict in Korea to the Chinese civil war by placing the US 7th fleet between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, the Chinese leadership may have felt less threatened by the US military intervention in Korea. Chinese forces may have continued to prepare to cross the Taiwan Straight instead of crossing the Yalu river. General McArthur might have defeated the north and unified the country. With no rival government in Taibei to occupy its seat at the United Nations, China may have been less inclined to lean towards Moscow or to develop nuclear weapons. And the rapprochement that began with President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 might have started decades earlier.

It is impossible to know what might have been. But it may be useful to imagine how events in Asia might have unfolded if Harry Truman had not let Kim Il Sung alter US policy on China. It’s a thought experiment that could be especially helpful to the Trump administration, which is planning to hand Kim’s grandson another North Korean veto over improved US—China relations.

Trump’s China Policy Review

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently told a departmental assembly that the new administration was “immediately confronted with a serious situation in North Korea.” A review of US policy, completed with the assistance and support of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, determined the United States should “lean hard” on China’s leaders and “test their willingness to use their influence” to resolve the situation. More importantly, Tillerson and Mattis concluded this was “a good place to start our engagement with China.”

But making the North Korean nuclear weapons program a test case for US engagement with China is unlikely to end well. The US and Chinese governments both want a denuclearized Korean peninsula, but they have irreconcilable differences on how to achieve it. Dialing up the pressure to see if China’s leaders will yield is more likely to diminish the already low level of strategic trust between Washington and Beijing.

Divergent Views of the Korean Woods

The United States wants China to strangle the North Korean economy. China’s leaders don’t believe that will stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. It’s a conviction born from personal experience. The United States employed the same strategy against China in the 1950s and it didn’t work. Isolation and intimidation only strengthened China’s resolve to develop nuclear weapons. Chinese officials believe the Koreans will respond the same way.

Instead of creating an economic crisis, which heightens tensions, encourages risk-taking and could lead to war, Chinese leaders believe that North Korean economic stability is more likely to contribute to a peaceful resolution of the situation. They’ve agreed to UN sanctions targeting imports directly related to the development of nuclear and missile technology. But at the same time China has increased bilateral trade and economic aid. China’s leaders may be willing to impose short-term economic costs to signal displeasure, but imposing long-term restrictions designed to cripple North Korea’s economy would be a dramatic departure from current Chinese policy.

A Road to Failure

The new US Secretary of State and his counterpart at the Pentagon do not seem to recognize that there is a principled disagreement between China and the United States on North Korean policy. Tillerson and Mattis appear to interpret Chinese choices that are at odds with their own as evidence of incapacity, unwillingness or bad faith. So they’ve decided to “lean hard into China” to try to push its leaders to adopt and implement US policy preferences instead of their own.

Given the stakes for China, its leaders are likely to keep their own counsel. There is little reason for the Chinese to believe that President Trump and his advisors understand the North Koreans better than they do.

Tillerson told the assembly at State he hopes to set up the next half century of US-China relations. Tying the long-term future of the US—China relationship to a dramatic shift in Chinese policy on North Korea is a prescription for disappointment. Attempting to affect that shift through intimidation and brinkmanship is almost certain to fail.

Truman’s decision to link North Korean behavior to the US relationship with China created decades of misunderstanding and mistrust. Though times have changed and the issues are different the risks of giving North Korea undue influence over the long-term future of US—China relations remain, and deserve more careful consideration.

 

Exelon Generation Company (a.k.a. Nuclear Whiners)

The Unit 3 reactor at the Dresden Nuclear Power Station near Morris, Illinois is a boiling water reactor with a Mark I containment design that began operating in 1971. On June 27, 2016, operators manually started the high pressure coolant injection (HPCI) system for a test run required every quarter by the reactor’s operating license. Soon after starting HPCI, alarms sounded in the main control room. The operators shut down the HPCI system and dispatched equipment operators to the HPCI room in the reactor building to investigate the problem.

The equipment operators opened the HPCI room door and saw flames around the HPCI system’s auxiliary oil pump motor and the room filling with smoke. They reported the fire to the control room operators and used a portable extinguisher to put out the fire within three minutes.

Fig. 1 (Source: NRC)

What Broke?

The HPCI system is part of the emergency core cooling systems (ECCS) on boiling water reactors like Dresden Unit 3. The HPCI system is normally in standby mode when the reactor is operating. The HPCI system’s primary purpose is to provide makeup water to the reactor vessel in event that a small-diameter pump connected to the vessel breaks. The rupture of a small-diameter pipe allows cooling water to escape, but maintains the pressure within the reactor vessel too high for the many low pressure ECCS pumps to deliver makeup flow. The HPCI system takes steam produced by the reactor core’s decay heat to spin a turbine connected to a pump. The steam-driven pump transfers water from a large storage tank outside the reactor building into the reactor vessel. The HPCI system can also be used during transients without broken pipes. The HPCI system’s operation can be used by operators to help control the pressure inside the reactor vessel by drawing off the steam being produced by decay heat.

The HPCI auxiliary oil pump is powered by an electric motor. The auxiliary oil pump runs to provide lubricating oil to the HPCI system as the system starts and begins operating. Once the HPCI system is up and running, the auxiliary oil pump is no longer needed. At other boiling water reactors, the auxiliary oil pump is automatically turned off once the HPCI system is up and running—at Dresden, the auxiliary oil pump continues running.

Why the Failure was Reported

On August 25, 2016, Exelon Generation Company (hereafter Exelon) reported the HPCI system problem to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Exelon reported the problem “under 10 CFR 50.73(a)(20(v)(D), ‘Any event or condition that could have prevented the fulfillment of the safety function of structures or systems that are needed to mitigate the consequences of an accident.’”

Why It Broke

Exelon additionally informed the NRC that the HPCI system auxiliary oil pump motor caught fire due to “inadequate control of critical parameters when installing a DC shunt wound motor.” The HPCI system auxiliary oil pump motor had failed in March 2015 during planned maintenance. The failure in 2015 was attributed by Exelon to “inadequate cleaning and inspection of the motor” which allowed carbon dust to accumulate inside the motor.

How the NRC Assessed the Failure

The NRC issued an inspection report on December 5, 2016, with a preliminary white finding for the HPCI system problem. The NRC determined that the repair of HPCI system auxiliary oil pump motor following its failure in March 2015 resulted in the motor receiving higher electrical current than needed for the motor to run. Consequently, when the HPCI system was tested in June 2016, the high electrical current flowing to the auxiliary oil pump motor caused its windings to overheat and catch fire. The NRC determined that the inadequate repair in March 2015 caused the failure in June 2016. The NRC proposed a white finding in its green, white, yellow, and red string of increasing significant findings and gave Exelon ten days to contest that classification.

During a telephone call between the NRC staff and Exelon representatives on December 15, 2016, Exelon “did not contest the characterization of the risk significance of this finding” and declined the option “to discuss this issue in a Regulatory Conference or to provide a written response.” With the proposed white finding seemingly uncontested, the NRC issued the final white finding on February 27, 2017.

Why the NRC Reassessed the Failure

It took the NRC over two months to finalize an uncontested preliminary finding because Exelon essentially contested the preliminary finding, but not in the way used by the rest of the industry and consistent with the NRC’s longstanding procedures over the 17 years that the agency’s Reactor Oversight Process has been in place.

Instead, Exelon mailed a letter dated January 12, 2017, to the NRC requesting that the agency improve the computer models it uses to determine the significance of events.  Exelon whined that NRC’s computer model over-estimated the real risk because it considered only the failure of a standby component to start and the failure causing a running component to stop. Exelon pointed out that the auxiliary oil pump did permit the HPCI system to successfully start during the June 2016 test run and it later catching on fire did not disable the HPCI system. Exelon whined that the NRC’s modeling was “analogous to the situation where the starter motor of a car breaks down after the car is running and then concluding that ‘the car won’t run’ even though it is already running.”

The NRC carefully considered each of Exelon’s whines in its January 12 letter and still concluded that the failure warranted a white finding. So, the agency issued a white finding. With respect to Exelon’s whine that the auxiliary oil pump burned up after the HPCI system was up and running, the NRC reminded the company that the operators shut down the HPCI system in response to the alarms—had it been necessary to restart the HPCI system, the toasted auxiliary oil pump would have prevented it. It is not uncommon for the HPCI system to be automatically shut down (e.g., due to high water level in the reactor vessel) or to be manually shut down (e.g., due to operators restoring the vessel water level to within the prescribed band or responding to a fire alarm in the HPCI room) only to be restarted later during the transient. The NRC’s review determined that their computer model’s treatment of a “failure to restart” would yield results very similar to its treatment of a “failure to start.”

The auxiliary oil pump’s impairment reduced the HPCI system to one and done use. In an actual emergency, one and done might not have cut it—thus, NRC issued the white finding for Exelon’s poor performance that let the auxiliary oil pump literally go up in smoke.

The NRC conducted a public meeting on May 2, 2017, in response to Exelon’s letter. I called into the meeting to see if Exelon’s whines are as shallow and ill-conceived as they appear in print. I admit to being surprised—their whining came across even shallower live than in writing. And I would have bet it impossible after reading, and re-reading, their whiny letter.

What’s With the Whining?

Does Exelon hire whiners, or does the company train people to become whiners?

It’s a moot point because Exelon should stop whining and start performing.

Exelon whined that the NRC failed to recognize or appreciate that the auxiliary oil pump is only needed during startup of the HPCI system. During the June 2016 test run, the HPCI system successfully started and achieved steady-state running before the auxiliary oil pump caught fire. Workers put out the fire before it disabled the HPCI pump. But the NRC’s justification for the final white characterization of the “uncontested” finding explained why those considerations did not change their conclusion. While the auxiliary oil pump did not catch fire until after the HPCI system was successfully started during the June 2016 test run, its becoming toast would have prevented a second start.

Exelon expended considerable effort contesting and re-contesting the “uncontested” white finding. Had Exelon expended a fraction of that effort properly cleaning and inspection the auxiliary oil pump motor, the motor would not have failed in March 2015. Had Exelon expended a fraction of that effort properly setting control parameters when the failed motor was replaced in March 2015, it would not have caught on fire in June 2016. If the motor had not caught on fire in June 2016, the NRC would not even have reached for its box of crayons in December 2016. If the NRC had not reached for its box of crayons, Exelon would not have been whining in January and May 2017 that the green crayon instead of the white one should have been picked.

So, Exelon would be better off if it stopped whining and started performing. And the people living around Exelon’s nuclear plants would be better off, too.

US Needs More Options than Yucca Mountain for Nuclear Waste

On Wednesday, I testified at a hearing of the Environment Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The hearing focused on the discussion draft of a bill entitled “The Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 2017.”

Yucca Mountain (Source: White House)

The draft bill’s primary objective is to revive the program to build a geologic repository at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada for spent nuclear fuel and other high-level radioactive wastes. The Obama administration cancelled the program in 2009, calling it “unworkable,” and the state of Nevada is bitterly opposed to it, but Yucca Mountain still has devoted advocates in Congress, including the chairman of the subcommittee, John Shimkus (R-IL).

UCS supports the need for a geologic repository for nuclear waste in the United States but doesn’t have a position on the suitability of the Yucca Mountain site. We don’t have the scientific expertise needed to make that judgement.

However, in my testimony, I expressed several concerns about the draft bill, including its focus on locating a repository only at Yucca Mountain and its proposal to weaken the NRC’s review standards for changes to repository design.

UCS believes that rigorous science must underlie the choice of any geologic repository, and that the US needs options in addition to Yucca Mountain, which has many unresolved safety issues. In addition, we believe that any legislation that revises the Nuclear Waste Policy Act must be comprehensive and include measures to enhance the safety and security of spent fuel at reactor sites—where it will be for at least several more decades. For example, we think it is essential to speed up the transfer of spent fuel from pools to dry storage casks.

New Update of the UCS Satellite Database

A fresh version of the UCS Satellite Database has been posted. It includes launches through the end of 2016. Apologies for the delay this time; we will be back on schedule and have a new one shortly.

Here are some of the more interesting satellites new to the database:
Rendezvous and proximity operations
GSSAP 3 and 4, the new pair of Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness satellites (Fig. 1). The four GSSAP satellites, operated by the US Air Force, are built to surveil other GEO satellites using rendezvous and proximity operations (RPOs). Satellites that perform rendezvous and proximity operations get a lot of attention, as this technology can be used for surveillance and inspection, repair and refueling, but also for interfering with another satellite as an anti-satellite weapon. While the US appears to be significantly ahead in sophistication, Russia and China continue development of these capabilities.

Fig. 1 (Source: Air Force)

Position, navigation, and timing
The European Union augmented its Galileo position, navigation, and timing constellation with four new satellites, to bring the total on-orbit to 18, enough to move from a test system to one providing initial services (Fig. 2). This was the first time that the Galileo satellites were launched by a European rocket, the Ariane V, rather than a Soyuz. Full operational capability for the constellation is planned by 2020. The Galileo system is meant to provide a civilian and European alternative to the US Global Positioning System and Russian Glonass systems.

Fig. 2 (Source: European Space Agency)

Cutting-edge science and “unhackable” satellite communications
And China launched the Quantum Science Satellite, an experiment to test out quantum entanglement over long distances to better understand basic physics and to potentially develop quantum key distribution-based secure satellite communications (Fig. 3). If initial experiments are successful, the goal is to demonstrate this over long distances, between collaborating (and competing) labs in China and Austria.

Fig. 3 (Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature, Vol. 492, Issue 7427. Copyright 2012.)

Watts Bar Lacks a Proper Safety Culture

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a Chilled Work Environment Letter to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) on March 23, 2016, about safety culture problems at the Watts Bar nuclear plant. TVA promised to take steps to restore a proper safety culture at the plant.

Nearly 13 months later, has a proper safety culture been restored at Watts Bar?

No, according to a report issued April 19, 2017, by the TVA Office of the Inspector General (TVA OIG).

Fig. 1. (Source: D. Lochbaum)

The TVA OIG report paints a very disturbing picture of conditions at Watts Bar. I monitored safety culture problems at Millstone (1996-2000), Davis-Besse (2002-2004), and Salem/Hope Creek (2004-2005). The problems described in the TVA OIG report are comparable to the unacceptable conditions that existed at Millstone and Davis-Besse. A difference is that the NRC did not allow Millstone or Davis-Besse to operate until those safety culture problems were corrected to an acceptable level.

The TVA OIG report explains why TVA keeps reporting that the chilled work environment at Watts Bar was confined to the Operations Department and did not contaminate other work organizations at the site: The TVA Office of the General Counsel instructed the Employee Concerns Program and others within TVA not to use “chilled work environment” and to use “degraded work environment” instead. So, while TVA cannot find chilled work environments outside Operations, they find “degraded work environments” almost every place they look. But through an artifice of semantics conjured up by TVA’s attorneys, no chilled work environments are being found.

The TVA OIG didn’t buy the semantics: “Additionally, when 75 percent of a work group at a nuclear utility perceives that they are working in a chilled environment as is the case with ECP at TVA, it would seem reasonable to conclude that there is a chilled work environment in that group and unreasonable to pass it off as a ‘degraded work environment’.”

How bad is the chilled work environment at Watts Bar? The TVA OIG report indicates that 75% of the Employee Concerns Program (ECP) staff did not feel safe to raise concerns without fear of retaliation. ECP is supposed to be the organization that workers with safety concerns can go for help resolving them. When the helpers feel chilled, how can they truly help workers?

The ECP hired two individuals from outside TVA in February 2016 to conduct an independent investigation of the work environment at Watts Bar. According to the TVA OIG, this investigation was independent and forthright, but the ensuing report was anything but independent. The TVA OIG reviewed emails and interviewed the independent investigators and found that “the term ‘chilled work environment’ was edited out of the text of the report by ECP personnel.” In fact, the independent investigators did not write the six-page Executive Summary for “their” report—ECP wrote it. ECP wrote that a “degraded work environment” rather than a “chilled work environment” existed at Watts Bar. TVA OIG reported being unable to find “degraded work environment” being used within TVA or elsewhere prior to this “independent” report.

One of the two independent investigators told the TVA OIG that TVA management “did not like the fact that he stated that TVA management contributed to the poor SCWE [safety conscious work environment]” at Watts Bar. He was not invited back to participate in subsequent debriefing activities which “he attributed to management’s reaction to his report-out to them of the results from Phase I.” In other words, TVA shot the messenger.

The TVA OIG report states that “both the independent investigation commissioned by TVA and the SRTR [Special Review Team Report] were inappropriately influenced by TVA management” and that “the independent investigators were told by TVA ECP what they could and could not put in their report and the Executive Summary of that report was written by ECP, not the independent investigators.”

As to whether the chilled work environment issues were confined to the Operations Department, “Through personnel interviews conducted by OIG investigators, it was learned that many instances of HIRD [harassment, intimidation, retaliation, and/or discrimination] have occurred or have been alleged to have occurred in Operations and in other departments at WBN [Watts Bar Nuclear].” More specifically, surveys conducted during 2016 after workers raised concerns that led to the NRC’s Chilled Work Environment Letter being issued reveal safety culture issues outside of the Operations Department at Watts Bar.

Maintenance Department: 36% of workers feel free to report problems and concerns. 55% of workers believe they could report problems and concerns without fear of retaliation. 91% of the workers witnessed behavior contrary to a healthy nuclear safety culture.

Chemistry Department: 50% of workers feel free to report problems and concerns. 50% of workers believe they could report problems and concerns without fear of retaliation. 50% of the workers witnessed behavior contrary to a healthy nuclear safety culture.

Security Department: 34% of workers believe they could report problems and concerns without fear of retaliation. 67% of the workers witnessed behavior contrary to a healthy nuclear safety culture.

Engineering Department: 67% of workers believe they could report problems and concerns without fear of retaliation. 66% of the workers witnessed behavior contrary to a healthy nuclear safety culture.

Radiation Protection Department: 78% of the workers witnessed behavior contrary to a healthy nuclear safety culture.

The TVA OIG explicitly states “TVA’s continuing denials have been found to be incorrect by the NRC and independent assessors: a chilled work environment exists in at least several departments at WBN and within the ECP program itself.”

The TVA OIG makes an interesting observation regarding the 51 actions that TVA identified as necessary to correct the problems expressed in the NRC’s Chilled Work Environment Letter—none of them pertain to TVA’s upper management. The TVA OIG states “It is certainly worth considering whether this might be at least a contributor, if not a root cause, of the failure of any of the CAPRs [corrective actions to prevent recurrence], remediation plans, and the like to correct the continuing recurrence of chilled work environments at TVA over the past decade.” Indeed!

Watts Bar Needs a Proper Safety Culture

The TVA OIG report makes it extremely clear that Watts Bar lacks a proper safety culture and that lack is broader than just within the Operations Department.

Watts Bar needs a proper safety culture because it is the fundamental foundation for nuclear safety overall. If workers do not raise safety concerns—either out of fear of retaliation or out of distrust that management will correct them—the inventory of unresolved safety concerns increases over time. Nuclear power plants are robust and require a large number of failures and malfunctions before an incident morphs into a disaster. The rising number of unresolved safety concerns reduces the number of failures needed to facilitate such transformations.

Proper safety cultures cannot be acquired from eBay or Amazon. Senior managers must make it happen. If TVA’s senior managers can’t or won’t make it happen, either TVA needs new senior managers or NRC needs to write TVA another letter—a stronger letter perhaps along the lines of a Show Cause Order compelling TVA’s lawyers to explain why Watts Bar can continue to operate safely with “degraded work environments” all over the site.

In the meantime, if Watts Bar experiences a disaster, it won’t be an accident. It’ll be an outcome of operating a nuclear power reactor with a safety culture documented to be woefully inadequate.

No President Should Be Able to Start a Nuclear War Single-Handedly

Among the general craziness of the 2016 presidential campaign, you can be forgiven if you missed one particular crazy piece of information: the president of the United States currently has the authority to order the launch of nuclear weapons without input from anyone. This has actually been the case for decades, but the campaign brought it to the attention of the general public, many of whom were hearing it for the first time and were understandably surprised, and even somewhat alarmed, at the idea.

Moreover, the president’s sole authority holds even if he is ordering a first strike—an attack that is not in response to a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies, but rather the first use of nuclear weapons, either in an ongoing conflict or to initiate a new one. This last case may be extremely unlikely, but there is currently no law that rules it out.

As former Vice President Dick Cheney said in a 2008 interview, the president “could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen. He doesn’t have to check with anybody, he doesn’t have to call Congress, he doesn’t have to check with the courts.”

The usual policy for working with nuclear weapons requires that two people be present and in agreement before undertaking any procedure. The president should not be exempt from this rule when deciding to launch a first strike. Photo: mako

If, like me, you think this situation makes no sense, then there is some good news—Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA) are trying to change it. They recently introduced the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017, which would prohibit the president from launching a first nuclear strike without a declaration of war by Congress. This common-sense step would prevent the president, the sole individual with the authority to launch U.S. nuclear weapons, from single-handedly starting a nuclear war.

While the 2016 campaign may have been the catalyst, the underlying problem is independent of who is in office. No single individual should have the authority to launch a nuclear war without extensive discussion, debate, and consideration of all the possible implications. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry has said, “a decision that momentous for all of civilization should have the kinds of checks and balances on Executive powers called for by our Constitution.”

Check out our fact sheet available on the Markey-Lieu bill, or read on for more information on why it is so important.

Current Situation

As it stands, the president could wake up tomorrow and simply notify the military that he had decided to order a nuclear strike. There is no requirement that he consult with anyone. He could choose to talk to advisers first, but whether or not he did, no one could stop him if he decided to go forward.

Once he made his decision, the president would use a card, often called the “biscuit,” that he or an aide carries at all times, to read a code to authenticate his identity to the senior officer on duty in the Pentagon’s “war room.” The war room would then prepare the order to send to launch crews on submarines and at command centers for land-based missiles. The time from when the president gives the launch order to when the crews receive it would be only minutes. Land-based missiles would be launched within about five minutes of the president’s order, while it might take about fifteen minutes for submarine-based missiles to launch. And once launched, these missiles cannot be recalled.

In 1974, President Richard Nixon—the last president to draw attention to the significant downsides of this system—noted, “I can go back into my office and pick up the telephone and in 25 minutes 70 million people will be dead.” Later that year in the thick of the Watergate scandal Nixon was emotionally unstable and drinking heavily, leading Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger to instruct the Joint Chiefs of Staff that “any emergency order coming from the president”—such as a nuclear launch order—should go through him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger first. Schlesinger had no real authority to do so, however, and it is not clear what might have happened if such an order had actually come. The same would be true today—there is still no military or civilian official or group with the authority to countermand a presidential order to launch nuclear weapons.

What Would the Bill Do?

The Markey-Lieu bill states that “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the President may not use the Armed Forces of the United States to conduct a first-use nuclear strike unless such strike is conducted pursuant to a declaration of war by Congress that expressly authorizes such strike.” The bill defines a first-use nuclear strike as “an attack using nuclear weapons against an enemy that is conducted without the President determining that the enemy has first launched a nuclear strike against the United States or an ally of the United States.”

Why Does the President Have Sole Authority?

The main reason the president has had sole authority to launch a nuclear strike is the perceived need to ensure a swift response to an incoming nuclear attack. During the Cold War, U.S. leaders feared a “bolt from the blue” attack by the Soviet Union, which could destroy US land-based missiles if they were not launched quickly. A decision about whether to launch a retaliatory strike would need to be made in the ten minutes or so between the time the incoming attack was detected, data analyzed and conveyed to the president, and when the missiles landed.

The nuclear command system was therefore designed for speed rather than deliberation. Its main purpose was to allow the president to launch U.S. nuclear weapons quickly, before they could be destroyed on the ground. This was always dangerous, and has long been unnecessary as well, since the U.S. has submarine-launched missiles that are invulnerable to such an attack and ensure that the U.S. can maintain a deterrent. UCS believes that the United States should end this risky practice by removing its land-based missiles from hair-trigger alert and eliminating rapid response options from its war plans.

However, until the president and the military agree to end these prompt launch options, the Markey-Lieu bill does not affect them. It also intentionally and specifically does not restrict the president’s ability to immediately order the use of U.S. nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack.

The situation the bill addresses is the decision to launch a first strike—when the United States is the first to use nuclear weapons against an adversary. In this case time constraints on decision making do not apply, so the streamlined decision process that might be needed in a retaliatory strike is not required. Regardless of whether the decision is to unleash a nuclear first strike as the first move in a conflict, or to use nuclear weapons first in escalating an ongoing conflict, the president would have time to consult with advisers and Congress before making such a potentially world-altering decision.

A Nuclear First Strike Is an Act of War

Make no mistake about it, as the bill states, “By any definition of war, a first-use nuclear strike from the United States would constitute a major act of war.” Nuclear weapons have unparalleled destructive power; their use would break a taboo of more than seventy years. The Constitution clearly establishes that the power to declare war belongs to the Congress alone. Therefore, this bill simply makes explicit an existing Constitutional requirement on the president.

Moreover, bringing Congress into the process would lessen the chance that such a decision could be made irrationally or impulsively. The decision to use nuclear weapons is potentially the most important decision this nation could make, with grave consequences for every citizen of the United States and the world. A decision to use them first should be undertaken only with the utmost caution and—especially in a democracy—should not be left up to any single individual.

Columbia Generating Station: NRC’s Special Inspection of Self-Inflicted Safety Woes

Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station near Richland, Washington has one General Electric boiling water reactor (BWR/5) with a Mark II containment design that began operating in 1984. In the late morning hours of Sunday, December 18, 2016, the station stopped generating electricity and began generating problems.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) dispatched a special inspection team to investigate the event after determining it could have increased the risk of reactor core damage by a factor of ten. The NRC team sought to understand the problems occurring during this near-miss as well as assess the breadth and effectiveness of the solutions proposed by the company for them.

Trouble Begins Offsite

The plant was operating at full power when the main generator output breakers opened at 11:24 am due to an electrical transient within the Ashe substation. The Ashe substation is owned and maintained by the Bonneville Power Authority and serves as the connection between electricity produced at the plant and the offsite power grid. At least three electrical breakers at the Ashe substation were supposed to have opened to de-energize the faulted transmission line(s). Had they done so, the loss of the transmission lines could have triggered protective devices at the Columbia Generating Station to automatically trip the main generator. But cold weather kept the breakers from functioning properly. Instead of the protective systems at the Columbia Generating Station responding on a system level (i.e., the de-energized transmission line(s) triggering a main generator trip), they responded at the component level (i.e., the main generator output breaker sensed the electrical transient and opened).

The turbine control valves automatically closed because the main generator was no longer fully loaded with its output breakers opened. The closure of the turbine control valves automatically tripped the reactor. The control rods fully inserted within seconds to stop the nuclear chain reaction. The output breakers, turbine control valves, and control rods all functioned per the plant’s design (see Figure 1).

Fig. 1 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission annotated by UCS)

Before the trip, the main generator was producing electricity at 25,000 volts. The main transformer increased the voltage up to 500,000 volts for transmission out to the offsite power grid. The auxiliary transformers reduced the voltage to 4,160 volts and 6,900 volts for supply to equipment in the plant. The output breakers that opened to start this event are represented by the square box in the upper left corner of Figure 2.

Fig. 2 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission annotated by UCS)

Trouble Begins Onsite – Loss of Heat Sink and Normal Makeup

The main generator was disconnected from the offsite power grid but continued to supply electricity through the auxiliary transformers to plant equipment. Because steam was no longer flowing to the turbine, the voltage and frequency of the electricity dropped. The voltages flowing to in-plant equipment dropped low enough to cause electrical breakers to automatically open at 11:25 am to protect motors and other electrical equipment from damage caused by under-voltage. For example, an electric motor requires an electrical current of a certain voltage in order to operate. Electrical current of lower voltage may not be enough to enable the motor to run, but that current flowing through the motor may be enough to heat it up and damage it. One of the de-energized loads caused the Main Steam Isolation Valves (MSIVs) to close. Their closure meant that steam produced by the reactor’s decay heat no longer flowed to the condenser where it got cooled by water from the plant’s cooling towers. Instead, the steam bottled up in the reactor vessel and piping until it increased the pressure to the point where the safety/relief valves opened to discharge steam to the suppression pool (see Figure 3).

The closure of the MSIVs also stopped the normal flow of makeup cooling water to the reactor vessel. The feedwater system uses steam-driven turbines connected to pumps to supply makeup cooling water to the reactor vessel. But the steam supply for the feedwater pumps is downstream of the now-closed MSIVs. The condensate and condensate booster pumps upstream of the feedwater pumps have electric motors and continued to be available. But collectively they only pump water at about two-thirds of the pressure inside the reactor vessel, meaning they could not supply makeup water unless the pressure inside the reactor vessel decreased by nearly one-third its normal pressure.

Fig. 3 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission annotated by UCS)

Troubles Onsite Grow – Loss of Normal Power for Safety Buses

At 11:28 am, the safety buses SM7 and SM8 tripped on low voltage, causing their respective emergency diesel generators to start and provide power to these vital buses. This was not supposed to happen during this event. By procedure, the operators were directed to manually trip the turbine and generator following the automatic trip of the reactor. They tripped the turbine at 11:27 am, but never tripped the main generator. Tripping the main generator as specified in the procedures would have immediately caused electrical breakers to close and other electrical breakers to open to swap the supply of electricity to plant equipment from the auxiliary transformers to the startup transformers as shown in Figure 4. The startup transformers reduce 230,000 volt electricity from the offsite power grid to 4,160 volts and 6,900 volts for use by plant equipment when the main generator is unavailable. With electricity to plant equipment from the startup transformers, the MSIVs would have remained open and makeup cooling water supplied by the feedwater pumps as normally provided.

Fig. 4 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission annotated by UCS)

Even More Trouble Onsite – Loss of Backup Makeup

The operators manually started the Reactor Core Isolation Cooling (RCIC) system (not shown on the Figure 3, but a smaller version of the High Pressure Coolant System) at 11:32 am to provide makeup cooling water because the feedwater system was unavailable. The RCIC systems’ primary function is to supply makeup cooling water when the feedwater system cannot do so. Like the feedwater pumps, the RCIC pump is connected to a steam-driven turbine. Unlike the feedwater pumps, the RCIC pump’s turbine is supplied with steam from the reactor vessel through a connection upstream of the closed MSIVs. The RCIC pump transfers water from a large storage tank to the reactor vessel.

The operators failed to follow the procedure when starting the RCIC system. The procedure called for them to close the steam admission valve (V-45) and then open the trip valve (V-1) as soon as V-45 was fully closed (see Figure 5). But they did not open V-1. The failure to open V-1 disabled the control system designed to bring the RCIC turbine up to desired speed in 12 seconds. Instead, the RCIC turbine tried to obtain the desired speed instantly. Too much steam too soon caused the RCIC turbine to automatically trip on high speed. This trip guards against the spinning turbine blades coming apart due to excessive forces.

It took about 13 minutes for workers to go down into the RCIC room in the reactor building’s basement and reset the mis-positioned valves to allow the system to be properly started. In that time, the water level inside the reactor vessel dropped about a foot as it boiled away. That still left 162 inches (13.5 feet) of water above the top of fuel in the reactor core. The operators had several hours to restore makeup cooling water flow before the reactor core started uncovering and overheating.

Fig. 5 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission annotated by UCS)

The operators manually started the High Pressure Core Spray (HPCS) system at 12:09 pm to provide makeup cooling water with the feedwater and RCIC systems both unavailable. The main HPCS pump (HPCS-P-1) has an electric motor. The pump transfer water from the large storage tank to the reactor vessel. While RCIC is designed to supply makeup water to compensate for inventory boiled off after the reactor shuts down, the HPCS system is designed to also compensate for water being lost through a small-diameter (about 2 inches) pipe that drains cooling water from the reactor vessel. Consequently, the HPCS system flow rate is about ten times greater than the RCIC system flow rate. And whereas the RCIC system flow rate can be throttled to match the makeup need, the HPCS system makeup flow is either full or zero.

The HPCS system refilled the reactor vessel soon after it was started. The operators closed the HPCS system injection valve (V-4) after about a minute. The minimum flow valve (V-12) automatically opened to direct the pump flow to the suppression pool instead of to the reactor vessel (see Figure 6). The HCPS system ran in “idle” mode for the next 3 hours and 42 minutes.

Fig. 6 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission annotated by UCS)

Yet More Trouble Onsite – Water Leaking into Reactor Building

On December 18, workers discovered that the restricting orifice (RO) downstream of V-12 had leaked an estimated 4.7 gallons per minute into the reactor building while the HPCS system had operated. The NRC team learned that the gasket material used in this restricting orifice had been the subject of an industry operating experience report in 2007. A condition report was written at Columbia Generating Station in 2008 to have engineering assess the operating experience report and gasket materials used at the plant. In early 2010, the condition report was closed out based on engineering’s evaluation to use the gasket material recommended in the industry report. But the “bad” gaskets were not replaced.

Operating experience cited in the 2007 industry report revealed that the original gasket material was vulnerable to erosion. The report described two adverse consequences from the material’s erosion. First, pieces of the gasket could be carried by the water into the reactor vessel where the material impacting the fuel rods could damage their cladding. Second, gasket erosion could allow leakage. The 2007 industry report thus forecast the problem experienced at Columbia Generating Station in December 2016. The solution recommended by the 2007 report was not implemented until after the forecast problem has occurred.

NRC Sanctions

The NRC’s special inspection team identified three safety violations at the Columbia Generating Station. Two violations involved the operators failing to follow written procedures: (1) the failure to trip the main generator which resulted in the unnecessary closure of the MSIVs, and (2) the failure to properly start the RCIC system which resulted in the unnecessary trip of its turbine. The third violation was associated with the continued use of gasket material determined nearly a decade earlier to be improper for this application.

UCS Perspective

Self-inflicted problems turned a fairly routine incident into a near-miss. Luck stopped it from progressing further.

The problem started offsite due to causes outside the control of the plant’s owner. Those uncontrollable causes resulted in the main generator output breakers opening as designed.

By procedure, the operators were supposed to trip the main generator. Failing to do so resulted in the unnecessary closure of the MSIVs and the loss of the normal makeup cooling flow to the reactor vessel.

By procedure, the operators were supposed to manually start the RCIC system to provide backup cooling water flow to the reactor vessel. But they failed to properly start the system and it immediately tripped.

Procedures are like recipes—positive outcomes are achieved only when they are followed.

The operators resorted to using the HPCS system. It took about a minute for the HPCS system to recover the reactor vessel water level—the operators left it running in “idle” for the next three hours and 42 minutes during which time about 5 gallons per minute leaked into the reactor building. The leak was through eroded gasket material that had been identified as improper for this application nearly a decade earlier, but never replaced.

Defense-in-depth is a nuclear safety hallmark. That hallmark works best when operators don’t bypass barriers and when workers patch known holes in barriers. Luckily, other barriers remained effective to thwart this near-miss from becoming a disaster. But luck is a fickle factor that needs to be minimized whenever possible.

Managing Nuclear Worker Fatigue

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a policy statement on February 18, 1982, seeking to protect nuclear plant personnel against impairment by fatigue from working too many hours. The NRC backed up this policy statement by issuing Generic Letter 82-12, “Nuclear Power Plant Staff Working Hours,” on June 15, 1982. The Generic Letter outlined guidelines such as limiting individuals to 16-hour shifts and providing for a break of at least 8 hours between shifts. But policy statements and guidelines are not enforceable regulatory requirements.

Fig. 1 (Source: GDJ’s Clipart)

UCS issued a report titled “Overtime and Staffing Problems in the Commercial Nuclear Power Industry” in March 1999 describing how the NRC’s regulations failed to adequately protect against human impairment caused by fatigue. Our report revealed that workers at one nuclear plant in the Midwest logged more than 50,000 overtime hours in one year.

Barry Quigley, then a worker at a nuclear plant in the Midwest, submitted a petition for rulemaking to the NRC on September 28, 1999. The NRC issued regulations in the 1980s intended to protect against human impairment caused by drugs and alcohol. Nuclear plant workers were subject to initial, random follow-up, and for-cause drug and alcohol testing. Quiqley’s petition sought to extend the fitness-for-duty requirements to include limits on working hours. The NRC revised its regulations on March 31, 2008, to require that owners implement fatigue management measures. The revised regulations permit individuals to exceed the working hour limits, but only under certain conditions. Owners are required to submit annual reports to the NRC on the number of working hour limit waivers granted.

The NRC’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research recently analyzed the first five years of the working hour limits regulation. The analysis reported that in 2000, the year when the NRC initiated the rulemaking process, more than 7,500 waivers of the working hour limits suggested by Generic Letter 82-12 were being issued at some plants while about one-third of the plants granted over 1,000 waivers annually. In 2010, the first year the revised regulations were in effect, a total of 3,800 waivers were granted for the entire fleet of operating reactors. By 2015, the number of waivers for all nuclear plants had dropped to 338. The Grand Gulf nuclear plant near Port Gibson, Mississippi topped the 2015 list with 69 waivers. But 54 (78%) of the waivers were associated with the force-on-force security exercise.

The analysis indicates that owners have learned how to manage worker shifts within the NRC’s revised regulations. Zero waivers are unattainable due to unforeseen events like workers calling in sick and tasks unexpectedly taking longer to complete. The analysis suggests that the revised regulations enable owners to handle such unforeseen needs without the associated controls and reporting being an undue burden.

The regulatory requirements adopted by the NRC to protect against sleepy nuclear plant workers should let people living near nuclear plants sleep a little better.

North Korea’s 5 April 2017 Missile Launch

North Korea launched a missile from its east coast into the Sea of Japan at 6:12 am local time on March 5 (5:42 pm on April 4 US eastern time).

US Pacific Command initially identified it as a KN-15 missile, called Pukguksong-2 in North Korea, which is a two stage solid-fueled missile with an estimated range of 1,200 km based on its previous test in February.

Subsequently, however, Pacific Command said it believed the missile was instead an older Scud, and that it may have tumbled, or “pinwheeled,” during flight.

South Korean sources reported the missile flew only about 60 km before splashing down, and reached a maximum altitude of 189 km. And based on Pacific Command’s statement, the flight time was eight to nine minutes.

I used those numbers to investigate the trajectory with a computer model I have of several missiles.

Short-range Scud missile

I found that a Scud missile, with a nominal range of 300 km, could roughly match these numbers if the warhead was lightened somewhat (from 1,000 kg to about 700 kg) and if it was launched on a very lofted trajectory, with a burnout angle only about 5 degrees from vertical. On a 300-km range trajectory, this angle would be roughly 45 degrees (see Fig. 1).

If the missile did not tumble during reentry, I calculate the flight time would be about 7.5 minutes. However, taking account of the additional atmospheric drag due to the tumbling body can increase the flight to about 9 minutes.

Fig. 1

Other possibilities

In the calculation above, the Scud burns to completion and then begins to pinwheel (the short-range Scud does not separate the warhead from the missile body at burnout).

Longer range missiles could also follow this trajectory if the engines failed partway through powered flight, as long as the missile was on a highly lofted trajectory (5 degrees from vertical) and stopped accelerating after reaching a speed of 1.7-1.8 km/s. It may have been an engine failure that caused the missile to tumble. If the engines did not burn to completion, the warhead may have remained attached to the missile body even for a longer range missile that would separate the warhead under normal operation.

The fact that the missile flew on a nearly vertical trajectory suggests there may have been a problem with the guidance system. If the missile was liquid fueled, North Korea may have shut down the engine when it realized there was a problem. A solid fueled engine could not be shut down in the same way.

Is the missile had been a KN-15, the engine would have had to fail about halfway through the burn of the second stage engine. It seems surprising that initial reports identified the missile as a KN-15, since I would have expected sensors could tell whether or not the missile had undergone staging. In addition, the plumes from liquid and solid missiles are different in appearance, so depending on what sensors viewed the launch they should have been able to differentiate a liquid from solid missile. Analyzing these issues may have been what led Pacific Command to change its mind about what type of missile was launched.

Why fire a Scud?

If Pyongyang decided to launch a missile to attract attention in advance of the Trump-Xi summit that starts tomorrow, it may have decided to launch some type of Scud because these are well tested and it could be relatively assured the launch would be successful. The missile may have been a Scud-ER like the four it launched simultaneously in early March.

That fact that it appears to have failed illustrates how uncertain the missile business can be.

Leak at the Creek: Davis-Besse-like Cooling Leak Shuts Down Wolf Creek

The Wolf Creek Generating Station near Burlington, Kansas has one Westinghouse four-loop pressurized water reactor that began operating in 1985. In the early morning hours of Friday, September 2, 2016, the reactor was operating at full power. A test completed at 4:08 am indicated that leakage into the containment from unidentified sources was 1.358 gallons per minute (gpm). The maximum regulatory limit for was such leakage was 1.0 gpm. If the test results were valid, the reactor had to be shut down within hours. Workers began running the test again to either confirm the excessive leak or determine whether it may have been a bad test. The computer collects data over a two-hour period and averages it to avoid false indications caused by momentary instrumentation spikes and other glitches. (It is standard industry practice to question test results suggesting problems but accept without question “good” test results.)

The retest results came in at 6:52 am and showed the unidentified leakage rate to be 0.521 gpm, within the legal limit. Nevertheless, management took the conservative step of entering the response procedure for excessive leakage. At 10 am, the operators began shutting down the reactor. They completed the shutdown by tripping the reactor from 30 percent power at 11:58 am.

Wolf Creek has three limits on reactor cooling water leakage. There’s a limit of 10 gpm from known sources, such as a tank that collects water seeping through valve gaskets. The source of such leakage is known and being monitored for protection against further degradation. There’s a stricter limit of 1 gpm from unknown sources. While such leakage is usually found to be from fairly benign sources, not knowing it to be so imposes a tighter limitation. Finally, there’s the strictest limit of zero leakage, not even an occasional drop or two, from the reactor coolant pressure boundary (i.e., leaks through a cracked pipe or reactor vessel weld. Reactor coolant pressure boundary leaks can propagate very quickly into very undesirable dimensions; hence, there’s no tolerance for them. Figure shows that the unknown leakage rate at Wolf Creek held steady around one-tenth (0.10) gallon per minute during July and August 2016 but significantly increase in early September.

Fig. 1 (Source: Freedom of Information Act response to Greenpeace)

The reactor core at Wolf Creek sits inside the reactor vessel made of metal six or more inches thick (see Figure 2). The reactor vessel sits inside the steel-reinforced concrete containment structure several feet thick. The dome-shaped top, or head, of the reactor vessel is bolted to its lower portion. Dozens of penetrations through the head permit connections between the control rods within the reactor core and their motors housed within a platform mounted on the head. Other penetrations allow temperature instruments inside the reactor vessel to send readings to gauges and computers outside it.

Fig. 2 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Wolf Creek has 78 penetrations through its reactor vessel head, including a small handful of spares. Workers entered containment after the reactor shut down looking for the source(s) of the leakage. They found cooling water spraying from penetration 77 atop the reactor vessel head. The leak sprayed water towards several other penetrations as shown in Figure 3. Penetration 77 allowed a thermocouple within the vessel to send its measurements to instrumentation.

Fig. 3 (Source: Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corporation)

The spray slowed and then stopped as the operators cooled the reactor water temperature below the boiling point. Workers performed a closer examination of the leakage source (see Figure 4) and its consequences. The reactor cooling water at Wolf Creek is borated. Boric acid is dissolved in the water to help control the nuclear chain reaction in the core as uranium fuel is consumed. Once water leaked from the vessel evaporated, boric acid crystals remained behind, looking somewhat like frost accumulation.

Fig. 4 (Source: Freedom of Information Act response to Greenpeace)

The spray from leaking Penetration 77 blanketed many neighbors with boric acid as shown in Figure 5. The vertical tubes are made from metal that resists corrosion by boric acid. The reactor vessel (the grayish dome-shaped object on the left side of the picture) is made from metal that is considerably less resistant to boric acid corrosion. The inner surface of the reactor vessel is coated with a thin layer of stainless steel for protection against boric acid. The outer surface is only protected when borated water doesn’t leak onto it.

Fig. 5 (Source: Freedom of Information Act response to Greenpeace)

The white-as-frost blankets coating the penetrations indicated little to no corrosion damage. But rust-colored residue in the Figure 6 pictures is a clear sign of corrosion degradation to the reactor vessel head by the boric acid. It may not be déjà vu all over again, but it’s too much Davis-Besse all over again. Boric acid corroded the Davis-Besse reactor head all the way down to the thin stainless steel liner. The NRC determined Davis-Besse to have come closer to an accident than any other US reactor since the March 1979 meltdown at Three Mile Island.

Fig. 6 (Source: Freedom of Information Act response to Greenpeace)

Fortunately, the degradation appears much worse in the pictures than it actually was. Actually, fortune had an ally at Wolf Creek that was missing at Davis-Besse. Both reactors exhibited signs that reactor cooling water was leaking into containment. The indicated leak rates at both reactors were below regulatory limits, except for one anomalous indication at Wolf Creek. Managers at Davis-Besse opted to dismiss the warning signs and keep the reactor operating. Managers at Wolf Creek heeded the danger signs and shut down the reactor. It’s not that they erred on the side of caution—putting nuclear safety first must never be considered an error. It’s that they avoided making the Davis-Besse mistake of putting production ahead of safety.

Wolf Creek restarted on November 21, 2016, after repairing Penetration 77, removing the boric acid, and verifying no significant damage to other penetrations and the reactor vessel head. But they also conducted refueling activities—already planned to require 55 days—during that 80-day period. The NRC closely monitored the response to the leakage and its repair and found no violations.

Davis-Besse chose production over safety but got neither. The reactor was shut down for over two years, generating no revenue but lots of costly repair bills. The reactor vessel head and other components inside the containment extensively damaged by boric acid corrosion were replaced. Many senior managers at the plant and in the corporate officers were also replaced. And the NRC fined the owner a record $5,450.000 fine for numerous safety violations.

Nuclear Safety Snapshot

Figure 7 shows the reactor vessel head at Wolf Creek without any boric acid blankets and corrosion. But the image I’ll remember about this event is neither this picture, nor the picture of the hole in Penetration 77, nor the picture of the boric acid blankets on adjacent penetrations, and nor the picture of rust-colored residue. It’s the mental picture of operators and managers at Wolf Creek who, when faced with Davis-Besse-like cooling water leak indications, responded unlike their counterparts by shutting the reactor down and fixing the problem rather than rationalizing it away. It’s an easy decision when viewed in hindsight but a tough one at the time it was made.

Davis-Besse made headlines, lots and lots of headlines, for exercising very poor judgment. Wolf Creek may not warrant headlines for using good judgment, but they at least deserve to be on the front page somewhere below the banner headline and feature article about today’s bad guys.

Fig. 7 (Source: Freedom of Information Act —response to Greenpeace)

Nuclear Safety Video

Unfortunately, the picture of Wolf Creek responding well to a safety challenge is a snapshot in time that does not assure success in facing tomorrow’s challenges.

Fortunately, the picture of Davis-Besse responding poorly to a safety challenge is also a snapshot in time that does not assure failure in facing future challenges.

Nuclear safety is dynamic, more like a video than a snapshot. That video is more likely to have a happy ending when the lessons of what worked well along with lessons from what didn’t work factor into decision-making. Being pulled away from bad choices is helpful. Being pushed towards good choices is helpful, too. Nuclear safety works best when both forces are applied.

The NRC and the nuclear industry made quite the hullabaloo about Davis-Besse. Why have they been so silent about Wolf Creek? It’s a swell snapshot that could help the video turn out swell, too.

Why Freezing North Korea’s Weapons Programs Would Make Us Safer

Last week, China proposed a way to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula: Pyongyang would freeze its missile and nuclear programs in exchange for Washington and Seoul halting their current round of military exercises. China also sees this as a way of starting talks between the US and North Korea, which it believes is necessary to resolve hostilities on the peninsula.

In comments in South Korea on Friday, Secretary of State Tillerson said “we do not believe the conditions are right to engage in any talks at this time. … [C]onditions must change before there is any scope for talks to resume, whether they be five-party or six-party.” Whether the last phrase means the US is consciously rejecting the idea of one-on-one talks with the North is not clear.

Tillerson also said he believes it is “premature” to talk about a freeze since a freeze would leave North Korea with significant military capabilities. His choice of words appears to leave the possibility of a freeze on the table.

A North Korean freeze on nuclear tests and missile flight tests would be highly beneficial—and readily verifiable. It would prevent Pyongyang from developing a long-range missile capable of hitting the US.

It is important, of course, to work to eliminate the capabilities North Korea currently has, but a sensible first step is to keep it from increasing its capabilities.

Musudan test launch (Source: KCNA)

Freezing North Korean Development Would Be Valuable

Over the last two decades, Pyongyang has developed technologies beyond what many thought it was capable of doing. It has developed nuclear weapons, an array of short- and medium-range missiles that could pose a significant threat to its neighbors, and a large satellite launcher that has placed two objects in orbit (although neither appears to have been operational once in orbit).

These weapon systems are not particularly sophisticated and in some cases are highly unreliable but, as Secretary Tillerson noted, they represent significant military capabilities.

And if these development programs continue, things will get considerably worse. The past shows North Korea’s ability to make slow but steady progress, and that will continue. After all, it is developing weapons systems that the US, Soviets, and others developed 50 years ago.

What could a freeze do?

A Freeze on Nuclear Tests

North Korea has now conducted five nuclear tests, the last of which indicated it has developed a nuclear device that can produce a yield similar to that of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

Getting a nuclear device to explode under test conditions, however, is not the same as having a usable nuclear warhead. A deliverable warhead needs to be small enough, both in terms of physical size and mass, to be carried by North Korea’s ballistic missiles. It needs to work in a realistic environment, rather than just in a static test environment.  In particular, it must withstand the considerable forces of missile delivery, including acceleration, vibrations, and buffeting during launch and reentry.

If the North does not yet have a weapon that is small and rugged enough for delivery by ballistic missile, stopping additional nuclear tests could keep it from developing one. Even if it does have such a weapon, stopping testing would limit its ability to improve its design.

A testing freeze could be verified by the global network of seismic and other types of sensors that make up the International Monitoring System. This network is sensitive enough to have detected North Korea’s previous tests—including the 2006 test with an estimated yield of only about one kiloton.

A Freeze on Missile Tests

A freeze on missile flight testing would limit North Korea’s ability to build more capable and longer range missiles, and to determine the reliability of existing missiles or gain operational practice in firing them.

Today, North Korea’s longest range operational missile is the Nodong, with a range of about 1,300 km—much shorter than the roughly 9,000 km to the US west coast. It does not currently have a ballistic missile that could carry a nuclear warhead to long distances.

However, it is developing a number of the components it needs to produce such a missile.

For example:

  • North Korea appears to have had one successful flight test, with five or more failures, of its Musudan (Hwasong-10) missile, which uses a more advanced fuel than the North’s previous missiles. Developing a working missile would require additional tests. Besides giving Pyongyang a considerably longer range missile than it currently has, successfully developing this missile would open the way to modifying it for use as an upper stage of longer range missiles.
  • In the last year, Pyongyang has conducted ground tests of several new engines (April 2016, Sept. 2016, and March 2017). Some of these appear to use advanced fuels and have higher thrust than its current missile engines.
  • The North has paraded a prototype of a two-stage missile on a mobile launcher that could have a long range if it used the technology being tested in the Musudan missile. One of the engine ground tests mentioned above may be of an engine intended for the first stage of this missile.
  • Pyongyang is in early stages of testing a solid-fueled missile that could be launched from a mobile launcher on the ground or from a submarine. While the range appears to be similar to the Nodong, it would have a much shorter launch-preparation time if fired from mobile launchers on the ground, and could reach more distant targets if fired from a submarine at sea.
  • North Korea has not yet flight tested a reentry heat shield for a long-range missile, which is critical for successfully delivering a nuclear warhead. Over-designing the heat shield adds weight to the reentry vehicle, which reduces the range of the missile; under-designing it can cause overheating of the warhead that can damage it. Moreover, North Korea is likely to design a blunt reentry vehicle that reenters slowly to reduce the intensity of heating, and this can lead to very large inaccuracies—tens of kilometers or more.

Transforming these pieces into working missiles would require a series of flight tests. A freeze on missile testing would keep it from developing that capability.

A flight test ban would be completely verifiable. The US has a satellite network of infrared sensors that can detect launches essentially anywhere in the world. This system, for example, even detected the short-range Scud missiles launched at Israel during the first Gulf War. And the US is currently deploying a new generation of even more capable satellites for this job.

Would North Korea Be Willing to Freeze?  

No one knows.

It is worth remembering that North Korea observed a flight test moratorium from September 1999 through July 2006, which it began when its talks with the Clinton administration about missile and nuclear issues seemed to be moving ahead. It announced it was no longer bound by the moratorium in March 2005, in response to the Bush administration’s lack of diplomatic engagement on missile issues, and resumed testing the next year.

Things are different now, of course, and it’s not at all clear that Pyongyang would agree to a freeze. Kim Jong Un may be unwilling to stop until he has developed a credible long-range threat.

However, Kim clearly sees the US-South Korean military exercises as threatening, and offering to scale back those exercises may give the US significant leverage. Agreeing to talks once a freeze is in place could add leverage.

But whether or not North Korea would ultimately agree to a freeze, the US should not be the one to take this option off the table. A freeze would be an effective, meaningful step in limiting further development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs—and the US should be doing what it can to put a freeze in place.

New START is a Winner

U.S. military leaders continue to strongly support New START, the arms control treaty between the United States and Russia that limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed, long-range nuclear weapons by 2018.

Gen. Hyten, Gen. Selva testify in support of New START before the House Armed Services Committee, March 8, 2017

The problem is that President Donald Trump is apparently unwilling to listen to their sage advice.

Back on January 28, in his first phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Trump reportedly attacked New START, calling it a “bad deal.” It seems any agreement this president did not personally negotiate is a loser.

And that is unfortunate, because according to the Reuters report that broke the story, Putin had raised the possibility of the two countries using New START’s built-in option to extend the treaty’s life by five years. Such an extension is definitely in the US national security interest: From boots-on-the-ground inspections to detailed data exchanges, the treaty provides verification and predictability that US military leaders consistently desire.

Strategic Commander is “Big Supporter”

Just last week, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, who as commander of the U.S. Strategic Command is responsible for all U.S. nuclear forces, was asked about New START in a Congressional hearing. He testified:

I’ve stated for the record in the past, and I’ll state again, that I’m a — a big supporter [of the treaty]. … when it comes to nuclear weapons and nuclear capabilities, that bilateral, verifiable arms control agreements are essential to our ability to provide an effective deterrent.

In the same hearing, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that when New START was considered by the Senate:

the Joint Chiefs reviewed the components of the treaty and — and endorsed it. It is a bilateral, verifiable agreement that gives us some degree of predictability on what our potential adversaries look like.

While it seems he doesn’t listen to military leaders like these, it not clear just who President Trump does listen to. Reuters reported the president stopped his call with Putin to ask someone unknown what the treaty was before telling the Russian leader that it was a bad deal.

And it doesn’t stop there. More recently, on February 23, the president repeated his criticism of New START, this time in an interview where he declared that the treaty is “a one-sided deal like all other deals we make. It’s a one-sided deal. It gave them things that we should have never allowed. … Just another bad deal that the country made.”

New START passed a high bar for Senate ratification

Before they can become the law of the land, treaties must pass a high bar: approval by two-thirds of U.S. Senate. The threshold was set to ensure that “bad deals” don’t happen. In the case of New START, 71 senators voted in favor of the treaty, including 13 Republicans. It became the first major arms control treaty negotiated by a Democratic president and endorsed by the Senate. Perhaps this, more than any other reason, is why President Trump dislikes the treaty.

But it took compelling reasons to get those 71 Senate votes, and then just as now, military leaders gave strong support to the treaty. Perhaps most compelling, seven former heads of U.S. Strategic Command wrote a letter to the Senate endorsing the treaty. After detailing several reasons why the treaty was in U.S. national security interests, the letter concluded,

The New START Treaty will contribute to a more stable U.S.-Russian relationship. We strongly endorse its early ratification and entry into force.

While overall the U.S.-Russian relationship has deteriorated, the New START agreement has been one bedrock of constancy. That is what military leaders sought when the treaty was first negotiated, and why they still support it now. President Trump should start listening to their advice, and stop attacking New START. Instead, he should respond to Putin’s suggestion and extend the treaty by five years.

Pages