UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only)

Reason for Optimism AND Concern in the Proposed US-North Korean Nuclear Summit

In the last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has continued to channel the good cop side of his personae, which started with his New Year’s Day offer to take part in the South Korean Olympics. Yesterday, the White House announced that it had received an offer from the North for President Trump to meet with Kim in the next two months to talk about security and nuclear weapons—a proposal the White House accepted.

This situation offers reasons for both optimism and concern.

On the one hand, Kim has offered to engage with the United States and talk about denuclearization, which the US has insisted on, and to suspend nuclear and missile tests during any talks. These steps help reduce the current tensions between the two countries that have led to fears that the Trump administration would attempt a preemptive military strike on North Korea—which could lead to devastating conflict in the region.

Moreover, having a high-level summit with Kim is likely the best way to make progress on these issues with a country that is built around top-down leadership. We have seen important progress in negotiations in the past when Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-Il were personally involved in discussions. Kim is the only one capable of making big decisions.

And Kim’s apparent willingness not to let the resumption of US-South Korean military exercises, which were delayed for the Olympics, get in the way of talks suggests he is willing to drop his long-standing opposition to the exercises to allow the summit to take place.

So, in principle, this offers an opening for the United States to understand what is possible in moving ahead to mitigate a serious security problem. And President Trump is in a much better position to gain congressional support for any deal he makes than President Clinton was following the 1994 Agreed Framework.

As one analyst has put it, talk of a summit offers an opportunity for “skillful American negotiators to convene an exploratory discussion” with North Korea.

However, it is not at all clear that the Trump administration has the skillful negotiators for this job or is in the mood to undertake a real “exploratory discussion.”

This comes at a time when the US State Department is severely under-staffed, and just a week after the department’s highest level official on North Korea, Joseph Yun, left. Moreover, Trump is likely surrounded by people, as was George W. Bush, who believe the United States should be doing everything it can to see the North Korean government fall, and therefore see negotiations and any US agreement with Kim as undermining that goal. Unless Trump rejects that view, it will be essentially impossible for the administration to develop a workable plan for the summit.

Similarly, even if the summit results in an agreement in principle for North Korea to denuclearize, clarifying what that means to both sides and what steps are necessary and acceptable to reach that point, will be a long and difficult process, and will require detailed negotiations no matter what is decided in principle at high levels. Since the North talks about “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” it is difficult to know exactly what it believes necessary to accompany any reductions in its own arsenal.

US frustrations at those negotiations, or a failure to make progress at the summit itself, could lead to a stronger call in the US for military actions, with people arguing that the diplomatic track has now been tried and failed.

High-level diplomacy is the process of trying to solve the hardest problems. It requires patience, flexibility, innovation, and some amount of holding one’s nose. We have yet to see if the administration is up to this task. That job is complicated by the fact that the US public has been told for many years that you can’t negotiate with North Korea—despite the fact that the US negotiating team in the late 2000 believed they were close to agreements to solve both the nuclear and missile problems. Those negotiations ended when the Bush administration took office in early 2001 and ended the process. Whether North Korea is as serious about negotiations now as they were then remains to be seen.

So, I am happy to see an easing of tensions between the US and North Korea, and am hoping that the Trump administration has understood the limitations of military action and has done more thinking about a diplomatic initiative than it has shown publicly. But I am not particularly optimistic, and remain concerned about the potential pitfalls of this process.

Why NRC Nuclear Safety Inspections are Necessary: Vogtle

This is the third in a series of commentaries about the vital role nuclear safety inspections conducted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) play in protecting the public. This commentary describes how NRC inspectors discovered inadequate flooding protection at the Vogtle nuclear plant near Waynesboro, Georgia despite a prior warning notice.

The first commentary described how NRC inspectors discovered that limits on the maximum allowable control room air temperature at the Columbia Generating Station in Washington had been improperly relaxed by the plant’s owner. The second commentary described how NRC inspectors uncovered an improper safety assessment of a leaking cooling water system pipe on the Unit 3 reactor at Indian Point outside New York City.

Turning Back the Clock

Last century, the NRC issued a warning to nuclear plant owners about the possible submergence of electrical cables located above the estimated flood levels. The NRC’s warning informed owners about a March 20, 1989, event in which the Clinton nuclear plant in Illinois inadvertently drained water into the drywell flooding it to a depth of four inches. Workers discovered that water got into electrical junction boxes located more than four inches above the drywell floor.

Electrical junction boxes house connections of electrical cables. Figure 1 shows water pouring from an electrical junction box at the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant in Nebraska during a flood in June 2011.

Fig. 1 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

The NRC’s 1989 warning pointed out that moisture could get into electrical junction boxes various ways—from condensation of steam released from a broken pipe, actuation of overhead fire sprinklers, etc. If the junction boxes lack drain holes, water could accumulate within the boxes to submerge and disable electrical cables.

Workers at Vogtle reviewed the NRC’s warning and determined it was applicable to their plant. A work order was written to require that all electrical junction boxes containing safety-related cables had drain holes.

Stopping the Clock

The work order was closed out on January 25, 1990. Typically, closing out a work order written to correct a safety problem means that work to solve the problem has been completed. But not this time.

Setting off the Clock Alarm

In late 2017, NRC inspectors examined junction box 2BTJB0486 at Vogtle. They observed that the junction box lacked a drain hole and later determined that the cables and connections inside the box were not qualified for submergence in water. The NRC issued a Green finding for the failure to properly protect electrical equipment from the environmental conditions it could experience.

UCS Perspective

The NRC’s inspectors did not examine every junction box at Vogtle. The NRC conducts audits of a few items to gain insights about the condition of the broader universe of items. During this inspection, the NRC examined a whopping total of seven components, only one being a junction box. So, the NRC looked at one junction box and found it deficient. What does that say about the rest of the junction boxes at Vogtle?

Nothing. Maybe other boxes have holes. Maybe they don’t. Maybe is maybe adequate protection of public health and safety. Maybe not.

Workers at Vogtle wrote a work order to check on other junction boxes. In other words, they repeated the same step taken following the NRC’s 1989 warning to respond to the NRC’s 2018 finding that the 1989 response was woefully deficient.

The bad news is that the electrical junction box at Vogtle did not have even a tiny hole in it.

The worse news is that the corrective action program at Vogtle has a big hole in it.

Hawaii’s False Missile Alert

I was using my home computer a few minutes after 8 AM on January 13 when the phone rang. My daughter called to tell me that she had received an alert message on her smart phone that a missile was headed toward Hawaii.

Screen capture of the text warning of the missile attack. (Source: Wikipedia)

I hadn’t heard any warning sirens so was inclined to think it was a hoax or a mistake. However, the alert had ended with an ominous “This is not a drill.” I tried to access the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) website but it was not responding. Shortly before 9 AM we learned that the alert had been a mistake.

After the false alert, a common question Hawaii residents asked each other is where they were and what they did.  Some called friends and family.  Some didn’t receive the alert and were blissfully unaware.  That would have been me if not for my daughter’s call.

My reaction was stunned disbelief and frustration at the inability to access the HI-EMA website.  My daughter has said that terrified seems like the best description of her reaction, except that she was so busy carrying food and water into a windowless bathroom of her Honolulu condominium that there wasn’t time to feel anything.  Some University of Hawaii students tried to find fallout shelters on the Manoa campus but found buildings locked.  (In his January 16 message, UH President David Lassner noted an effort to make improved plans to provide “crystal clear instructions in advance and during an event on where to shelter.”)  In sum, it was a bad morning with lots of unpleasant lessons.

There has been a lot of media coverage of this event both locally and nationally. Initial reports claimed that an HI-EMA person clicked the wrong box on his computer as part of a ballistic missile alert drill during a shift change. However, this person subsequently stated that he thought the message he heard indicated a real attack and thus clicked the box to send the alert. This is still a point of contention.

A January 29 preliminary report on this incident and other information about the warning system is posted on the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency website. A press conference about the preliminary report, as well as a February 19 press conference on the release of a more detailed examination of HI-EMA and Hawaii’s preparedness for a broad range of hazards, is at the Defense Department’s website for Hawaii. The February 18 report is titled “All-Hazards Preparedness Improvement Action Plan and Report.”


The January 29 report focuses on the false alarm and how to prevent a similar problem in the future. The report found that it was too easy for one person to send such a message, and called for requiring a second person to confirm such a message. It also found that the system had not been designed to rapidly cancel alerts and send out an All Clear message to members of the public who had received the original alert, and that this capability should be added.

In addition, the report found serious problems with management and personnel that required changes. In particular, it said that the employee who broadcast the false alarm had been “a source of concern” for staff at the warning center “for over 10 years” and the report noted that this person had “confused real life events and drills on at least two separate occasions.” This issue was part of a larger problem that “Supervisors do not consistently ensure employee performance levels meet expectations” and that documented poor performance evaluations have “created morale and competency issues.”

The broader February 18 report gives 12 observations and 44 recommendations concerning four major areas: HI-EMA management review; technology improvements; enforcement of current statutes and executive orders; and training and education programs for the public, government leaders, and employees.

The report recommends that HI-EMA produce a Strategic Plan ($800,000 estimated cost) and an annex to the state’s plan to address chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats. The Ballistic Missile Preparedness Campaign would be suspended except for monthly siren tests until this annex is complete. (The report notes that the public response to the January 13 alert showed that the public outreach campaign that started in March 2017 “was limited in its success.”)

The report also recommends training programs to improve performance of supervisors and employees.

Technology improvements would address why some cell phones and some areas did not receive the alert. Also, wireless networks were saturated on January 13 and service in Diamond Head Crater needs improvement. A static website is recommended because the HI-EMA servers crashed five minutes after they had received 40,000 hits within the first three minutes of the alert.

A public outreach campaign with missile threat-specific information is recommended after the CBRN annex to the state’s plan is completed. The outreach campaign has an estimated cost of $500,000 in addition to $875,000 to produce the CBRN annex.

The final recommendation deals with infrastructure improvements for multi-purpose shelters, harbors, airports, etc. with costs “to be determined.” The one item with an estimated cost of $135 million is for a Joint Emergency Management Center.

Coincidentally the false alert came while I was helping prepare an exhibit on the role of nuclear weapons since 1945 and connections to Hawaii. We hope that the exhibit will be a catalyst for informed dialogue about reducing the threat in the future.

Since January 13, Hawaii residents have personal reasons to take this seriously.

Nuclear Hawks Take the Reins in Tokyo

Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and Foreign Minister Taro Kono shake hands with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis before sitting down for U.S.-Japan security talks.

Donald Trump’s plan for a more muscular US nuclear posture got a ringing endorsement from the increasingly right-wing government of Japan. Not long after the Trump administration released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) in early February, Foreign Minister Taro Kono said he “highly appreciates” the new approach to US nuclear weapons policy, including the emphasis on low-yield nuclear options the United States and Japan can rely on to respond to non-nuclear threats. 

Kono’s endorsement of Trump’s NPR was a surprise to those who saw him as a moderate who could temper Prime Minister Abe’s geopolitical ambitions, which include amending Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow for an expansion of the size and role of Japan’s military forces.

Support within the conservative leadership of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for an increased US emphasis on the role of nuclear weapons is not new. Nine years ago, foreign ministry officials loyal to the LDP testified to a US congressional commission advising the Obama administration on US nuclear weapons policy. Their testimony reads like a blueprint for some of the most controversial sections of Trump’s NPR—especially its emphasis on low-yield nuclear weapons, which used to be called tactical nuclear weapons because they were options for fighting limited nuclear wars against nuclear and non-nuclear states, rather than strategically deterring the use of nuclear weapons by others.

Prime Minister Abe recently promoted one of the officials who testified to the commission in 2009, Takeo Akiba, to the top bureaucratic post in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Mr. Akiba and the rest of the LDP’s nuclear hawks may have had to wait a long time to get what they wanted, but their view of the role of US nuclear weapons in Asia is about to become official US government policy.

Then and Now

UCS obtained a copy of a statement Mr. Akiba submitted to the congressional commission on 25 February 2009, along with hand-written notes—taken by commission staff—of responses to questions. That statement, titled “Japan’s Perspective on the U.S.’s Extended Deterrence,” makes two primary requests:

  • A US presidential statement that places “nuclear deterrence as the core of Japan – US security arrangements.”
  • The maintenance of US nuclear weapons capabilities that are: “(a) flexible, (b) credible, (c) prompt, (d) discriminating and selective, (e) stealthy/demonstrable, and (f) sufficient to dissuade others from expanding or modernizing their nuclear capabilities.”

Obama’s 2010 NPR undoubtedly disappointed the Japanese officials who submitted that statement. Obama emphasized the declining role of US nuclear weapons in regional security.:

When the Cold War ended, the United States withdrew its forward deployed nuclear weapons from the Pacific region, including removing nuclear weapons from naval surface vessels and general-purpose submarines. Since then, it has relied on its central strategic forces and the capacity to redeploy nuclear systems in East Asia in times of crisis.

Although nuclear weapons have proved to be a key component of U.S. assurances to allies and partners, the United States has relied increasingly on non-nuclear elements to strengthen regional security architectures, including a forward U.S. conventional presence and effective theater ballistic missile defenses. As the role of nuclear weapons is reduced in U.S. national security strategy, these non-nuclear elements will take on a greater share of the deterrence burden.

President Trump’s NPR discusses the future role of US nuclear options in Asia in a way that is much more in line with the preferences in the statement Mr. Akiba submitted to the congressional commission in 2009. Trump’s NPR states:

Expanding flexible U.S. nuclear options now, to include low-yield options, is important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression… In the 2010 NPR, the United States announced the retirement of its previous nuclear-armed SLCM [sea-launched cruise missile], which for decades had contributed to deterrence and the assurance of allies, particularly in Asia. We will immediately begin efforts to restore this capability…

Mr. Akiba’s testimony to the US congressional commission suggested a preference for retaining the SLCM President Obama retired, since it “provides the flexibility of options (namely, it is low-yield, sea-based (stealthy), stand-off (survivable) and can loiter).” That SLCM was the nuclear Tomahawk Land-Attack Missile, TLAM/N.

These types of “flexible” nuclear options figure prominently in Trump’s NPR. The Japanese statement defined nuclear flexibility as having weapons that, “could hold a wide variety of adversary threats at risk.” These threats included “deep and hardened underground facilities, movable targets, cyber attack, anti-satellite attack and anti-access/area denial capabilities.” In this case, the Japanese statement’s use of “anti-access/area denial” was a reference to China’s conventional military capabilities.

The Trump NPR gives Japan’s nuclear hawks all the “flexibility” they asked for in 2009, backed up by an unambiguous declaration that the United States will use nuclear weapons to respond to non-nuclear attacks, including “new forms of aggression” like cyber attacks. It also appears to endorse a strategy of offsetting China’s conventional military capabilities, including space and cyber capabilities, with new US nuclear weapons. The Trump administration’s intention to use nuclear weapons to counter non-nuclear Chinese military capabilities is repeated in the administration’s National Defense Strategy.

Making Okinawa Nuclear Again?

The handwritten notes on the 2009 Japanese statement indicate one of the commission co-chairs, former US Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, asked if Japan could adjust its domestic policies to prepare for the redeployment of US nuclear weapons in Okinawa. Mr. Akiba responded by warning Schlesinger there was still strong domestic support for the Japan’s Three Non-Nuclear Principles, which were first announced in 1967, and subsequently reaffirmed by various members of the Japanese government as well as a 1971 vote in the Japanese Diet. The principles declare that Japan would not possess, manufacture, or allow the introduction of nuclear weapons into Japan.

But despite these concerns about Japanese public opinion, Akiba told Schlesinger that preparing to return US nuclear weapons to the Japanese island of Okinawa “sounds persuasive to me.” Given the Trump NPR’s emphasis on new tactical nuclear weapons that can be redeployed in Asia, and the Abe government’s unequivocal support for Trump’s NPR, it is worth investigating the possibility both sides have agreed to upgrade US munitions storage facilities in Okinawa so they can store US nuclear weapons on the island.

There are several reasons why redeploying nuclear weapons in Okinawa may make sense to bureaucrats, like Mr. Akiba, who support an increased role for US nuclear weapons in the Asia.

The first is the existence of a secret agreement between Japan and the United States that allows the US military to redeploy US nuclear weapons in Okinawa.  The agreement was signed by US President Nixon and Japanese Prime Minister Sato in 1969 as part of the legal process that returned sovereign control of the island to the government of Japan. The United States had occupied Okinawa since the end of WWII and built an expansive set of US military bases that remain there today. Some of those bases housed US nuclear weapons, which were removed in 1972 at the request of the Japanese government.

The agreement was kept secret for decades and both sides still refuse to discuss it publicly. Many of the details were finally made public in an official investigation conducted by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs during a brief period when the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) controlled the government from September 2009 to December 2012.

Another reason redeploying US nuclear weapons in Okinawa might sound persuasive to Mr Akiba is that US and Japanese officials can use ambiguities in the language of the Nixon-Sato agreement, and tight controls on the dissemination of information about related bilateral discussions, to obscure the process that would be followed if the United States decided to make Okinawa nuclear again.

Schlesinger’s question and the Japanese answer suggest the United States would ask the Japanese government for permission. But that permission need not be explicit, or public. It may not even be necessary. The language of the Nixon-Sato agreement is intentionally vague and suggests simple notification at a relatively low level of the bureaucracy might be enough. This kind of low level agreement would give the prime minister and other LDP officials the same kind of plausible deniability they used to avoid discussing the Sato-Nixon agreement on redeploying nuclear weapons in Okinawa for more than 50 years.

The potential presence of US nuclear weapons in Okinawa would be further obscured from public view by the US government’s non-confirm, non-deny policy on military deployments. US silence on the question would make it a lot easier for the Japanese government to consent to redeployment. In the absence of an external inquiry, US nuclear weapons could be put back in Okinawa quietly, without public knowledge or debate.

The final reason Okinawa might sound persuasive to Mr. Akiba is that the United States is building a new military base in the Okinawan village of Henoko. The project includes significant upgrades to a munitions storage depot, adjacent to the new base, where US nuclear weapons were stored in the past. Henoko is specifically mentioned in the 1969 Nixon-Sato agreement as a mutually acceptable location for the possible redeployment of US nuclear weapons in Japan.

Birds of a Feather

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is one of Donald Trump’s most loyal international supporters. He was the first world leader to visit Trump Tower during the transition and he highlighted his close personal friendship with the US president during recent Japanese elections.

Mr. Akiba is Abe’s chief foreign policy advisor, especially on the question of extended nuclear deterrence. Akiba selected, organized and led the first several Japanese delegations to the US-Japan Extended Deterrence Dialogue (EDD) and has toured US nuclear weapons facilities. With the release of the new US nuclear posture review and the Abe government’s unapologetic endorsement, it seems clear that all three men agree on the need to increase the role of US nuclear weapons in Asia.

The LDP support for the Trump NPR may seem surprising to many members of Congress, whose last impression of Prime Minister Abe’s opinions on nuclear weapons is the image of him greeting President Obama in Hiroshima. At a recent meeting in Washington an exceptionally well-informed national security staffer of a veteran member of the House, when informed of Foreign Minister Kono’s statement of support for Trump’s NPR, asked if Abe had publicly corrected Kono’s misstatement.

US opponents of Trump’s NPR should take note. As the debate over the NPR unfolds in the coming days, weeks and months, the LDP officials voicing their support for Trump’s NPR do not represent the majority of the Japanese public and their elective representatives, who are opposed to a larger role for US nuclear weapons in the defense of Japan. But they do represent the views of Prime Minister Abe, who has lined up firmly behind the Trump NPR.

The “Versatile Fast Neutron Source”: A Misguided Nuclear Reactor Project

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) supports a moderate level of Department of Energy (DOE) research funding to make nuclear power safer and more secure—for example the agency’s program to develop accident tolerant fuels for nuclear reactors. Conversely, UCS does not support programs that not only would cost a lot of money, but also could make nuclear power more dangerous and less secure. That’s why the organization is troubled by a bill that was passed by the House of Representatives on February 13.

The bill in question, H.R. 4378, authorizes the secretary of energy to spend nearly $2 billion over the next seven years to build what’s called a “versatile reactor-based fast neutron source.” As its name indicates, the primary purpose of this facility would be to provide a source of high-energy neutrons to help researchers develop fuels and materials for a class of advanced nuclear reactors called fast reactors.

What is it?

What may not be clear from the name is that this facility itself would be an experimental fast reactor, likely fueled with weapon-usable plutonium. Compared to conventional light-water reactors, fast reactors are less safe, more expensive, and more difficult to operate and repair. But the biggest problem with this technology is that it typically requires the use of such weapon-usable fuels as plutonium, increasing the risk of nuclear terrorism. Regardless, the House passed the bill with scant consideration of the risks and benefits of building it. Hopefully, the Senate will conduct a due diligence review before taking up a companion bill. Caveat emptor.

Based on what little public information there is available about the plans for this facility, it would be a fast reactor of at least 300 thermal megawatts (or about 120 MW of electricity if it is also used for power generation). This power level is the minimum necessary to achieve the desired rate of neutron production. This would make the reactor about five times larger than the last experimental fast reactor operated in the United States, the EBR-II, which shut down in 1994. One proposed design, called FASTER, would have a peak power density three times higher than the EBR-II, making it much more challenging to remove heat from the core. This design would require about 2.6 metric tons of metallic fuel containing about 500 kilograms of plutonium per year. One third of the reactor fuel would be replaced every 100 days. (The DOE also is apparently considering a different fast reactor design that would use high-assay, low-enriched uranium fuel, but this material is in short supply and a new production source would have to be established. In any case, the DOE has not yet determined if it is feasible to use low-enriched uranium.)


The amount of funding authorized by H.R. 4378 for designing and constructing this fast reactor is less than 60 percent of its estimated cost of $3.36 billion, and the aggressive timeline mandated by the bill, which calls for full operation by the end of 2025, is significantly shorter than the optimistic 11- to 13-year schedule anticipated by its designers. By low-balling the initial authorization and construction time, H.R. 4378’s sponsors may have been trying to make it more palatable, but they are also undermining their project.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the estimated cost of $3.36 billion is just a fraction of the project’s total cost. It does not include a facility to fabricate the plutonium fuel, which could add billions to the final price tag. The current cost estimate for the DOE’s Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site, which is being built to convert 2 metric tons of plutonium annually into fuel for operating light-water reactors, is more than $17 billion. Then there’s the cost of managing and disposing of the several tons of plutonium-containing spent fuel that would accumulate each year at the fast reactor site.

We’ve been down this road before. As the Union of Concerned Scientists reported last year, the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory has been unable to deal effectively with the spent fuel legacy of the defunct EBR-II, which is similar to but less hazardous than the spent fuel that the FASTER test reactor would produce because it contains far less plutonium. (Only a small fraction of the fuel rods irradiated in the EBR-II were fabricated with plutonium.)

The project’s high cost and risks might be justified if there were a critical need for a new fast neutron source in the United States. That’s simply not the case.


The primary purpose of the facility would be to assist private companies that want to develop and sell fast reactors, but most of those companies aren’t sold on the idea. According to a report last year by the DOE’s Nuclear Energy Advisory Committee, “some of the industry representatives (e.g., AREVA, GE-Hitachi, TerraPower, Westinghouse, and Terrestrial Energy) who have an interest in pursuing advanced reactors … [are] of the view … that a test facility was not essential for the commercial advancement of their technology.” Moreover, the DOE hasn’t determined that there is an actual need for the project. On February 6, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Edward McGinnis told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that “a decision whether or not to deploy an advanced fast spectrum test reactor has not been made.…”

H.R. 4378’s mandate that the DOE to proceed with design and construction, therefore, is premature at best.

Finally, what agency will oversee the safety and security of this risky project? The DOE. By designating this reactor as a neutron source, and building it at a DOE site, it will be exempt from licensing and oversight by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. While NRC licensing is far from perfect, it would be far superior to DOE self-regulation.

To summarize, H.R. 4378 authorizes constructing a fast reactor without assessing the need or evaluating its costs and benefits. It compels the DOE to build an experimental fast reactor, using an experimental fuel, at a scale and power density that has never been demonstrated, on a rushed schedule, with insufficient funding.

This is simply the wrong way to pursue nuclear energy research and development. Instead, DOE should undertake projects only if they pass a rigorous peer review and make safety and security a priority.

NRC’s Project Aim: Off-target?

A handful of years ago, there was talk about nearly three dozen new reactors being ordered and built in the United States. During oversight hearings, Members of Congress queried the Members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on efforts underway and planned to ensure the agency would be ready to handle this anticipated flood of new reactor applications without impeding progress. Those efforts included creating the Office of New Reactors and hiring new staffers to review the applications and inspect the reactors under construction.

Receding Tide

The anticipated three dozen applications for new reactors morphed into four actual applications, two of which have since been cancelled. The tsunami of new reactor applications turned out to be a little ripple, at best.

The tide also turned for the existing fleet of reactors. Unfavorable economics led to the closures of several reactors and the announced closures of several other reactors in the near future.

The majority of the NRC’s annual budget is funded through fees collected from its licensees. For example, in fiscal year 2017 the owner of an operating reactor paid $4,308,000 for the NRC’s basic oversight efforts. For extra NRC attention (such as supplemental inspections when reactor performance dropped below par and for reviews of license renewal applications), the NRC charged $263 per hour.

Still, the lack of upsizing from new reactors and abundance of downsizing from existing reactors meant that NRC would have fewer licensees from whom to collect funds.

Enter Project Aim

The NRC launched Project AIM in June 2014 with the intention of “right-sizing” the agency while retaining the skill sets necessary to perform its vital mission. Project Aim identified 150 items that could be eliminated or performed more cost-effectively. Collectively, these measures were estimated to save over $40 million.

Fig. 1 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Project Aim Targets

Item 59 was among the highest cost-saving measures identified by Project Aim. It terminated research activities on risk assessments of fire hazards for an estimated savings of $935,000. The NRC adopted risk-informed fire protection regulations in 2004 to complement the fire protection regulations adopted by the NRC in 1980 in response to the disastrous fire at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama. The fire research supported risk assessment improvements to better manage the fire hazards—or would have done so had it not been stopped.

Item 61 was also a high dollar cost-saving measure. It eliminated the development of new methods, models and tools needed to incorporate digital instrumentation and control (I&C) systems into probabilistic risk assessments (PRAs) with an estimated savings of $735,000. Nuclear power reactors were originally equipped with analog I&C systems (which significantly lessened the impact of the Y2K rollover problem). As analog I&C systems become more obsolete, plant owners are replacing them with new-fangled digital I&C systems. Digital I&C systems fail in different ways and at different rates than analog I&C systems and the research was intended to enable the PRAs to better model the emerging reality.

Item 62 eliminated development of methods, models, tools, and data needed to evaluate the transport of radioactive materials released during severe accidents into aquatic environments. For example, the 2011 severe accident at Fukushima involved radioactive releases to the Pacific Ocean via means not clearly understood. This cost-saving measure seems to preserve that secret.

Fig. 2 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Project Aim Off Target?

The need to reduce costs is genuine. Where oh where could savings of $935,000 come if not from killing the fire research efforts? Perhaps the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has the answer. On May 11, 2012, OMB issued Memorandum M-12-12 that capped the amount federal agencies spent on conferences at $500,000. This OMB action pre-dated Project Aim, but seems consistent with the project’s fiscal responsibility objectives.

But the NRC opts not to abide by the OMB directive. Instead, the NRC Chairman signs a waiver allowing the NRC to spend far more than the OMB limit on its annual Regulatory Information Conferences (RICs). How much does the RIC cost? In 2017, the RIC cost the NRC $932,315.39—nearly double the OMB limit and almost exactly equal to the amount fire research would have cost.

987 persons outside the NRC attended the RIC in 2017. So, the NRC spent roughly $944.60 per outsider at the RIC last year. But don’t fixate on that amount. Whether the NRC had spent $1,000,000 per person or $1 per person, the RIC did not make a single American safer or more secure. (It also did not make married Americans safer or more secure, either.)

Eliminating the RIC would save the NRC nearly a million dollars each year. That savings could fund the fire research this year, which really does make single and married Americans safer. And next year savings could fund the development of digital I&C risk assessment methods to better manage the deployment of these systems throughout the nuclear fleet. And the savings the following year could fund research into transport of radioactive materials during severe accidents.

Fig. 3 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

If the cliché “knowledge is power” holds any weight, then stopping fire research, development of digital I&C risk assessment methods, and many other activities leaves the NRC powerless to properly manage the associated risks.

RIC and risk? Nope, non-RIC and lower risk.

Clinton Power Station: Déjà vu Transformer Problems

The Clinton Power Station located 23 miles southeast of Bloomington, Illinois has one General Electric boiling water reactor with a Mark III containment that began operating in 1987.

On December 8, 2013, an electrical fault on a power transformer stopped the flow of electricity to some equipment with the reactor operating near full power. The de-energized equipment caused conditions within the plant to degrade. A few minutes later, the control room operators manually scrammed the reactor per procedures in response to the deteriorating conditions. The NRC dispatched a special inspection team to investigate the cause and its corrective actions.

On December 9, 2017, an electrical fault on a power transformer stopped the flow of electricity to some equipment with the reactor operating near full power. The de-energized equipment caused conditions within the plant to degrade. A few minutes later, the control room operators manually scrammed the reactor per procedures in response to the deteriorating conditions. The NRC dispatched a special inspection team to investigate the cause and its corrective actions. The NRC’s special inspection team issued its report on January 29, 2018.

Same reactor. Same month. Nearly the same day. Same transformer. Same problem. Same outcome. Same NRC response.

Coincidence? Nope. When one does nothing to solve a problem, one invites the problem back. And problems accept the invitations too often.

Setting the Stage(s)

The Clinton reactor was operating near full power on December 8, 2013, and on December 9, 2017. The electricity produced by the main generator (red circle labeled MAIN GEN in Figure 1) at 22 kilovolts (KV) flowed through the main transformers that upped the voltage to 345 KV (345,000 volts) for the transmission lines emanating from the switchyard to carry to residential and industrial customers. Some of the electricity also flowed through the Unit Auxiliary Transformers 1A and 1B that reduced the voltage to 6.9 and 4.16 KV (4,160 volts) for use by plant equipment.

The emergency equipment installed at Clinton to mitigate accidents is subdivided into three divisions. The emergency equipment was in standby mode before things happened. The Division 1 emergency equipment is supplied electrical power from 4,160-volt bus 1A1 (shown in red in Figure 1). This safety bus can be powered from the main generator when the unit is online, from the offsite power grid when the unit is offline, or from emergency diesel generator 1A (shown in green) if none of the other supplies is available. The Divisions 2 and 3 emergency equipment is similarly supplied power from 4,160-volt buses 1B1 and 1C1 respectively, each with three sources of power.

Fig.1 (Source: Clinton Individual Plant Examination Report (1992))

The three buses also provided power to transformers that reduced the voltage down to 480 volts for distribution via the 480-volt buses. For example, 4,160-volt bus 1A1 supplied 480-volt buses A and 1A.

Stage Struck (Twice)

On December 8, 2013, and again on December 9, 2017, an electrical fault on one of the 480-volt auxiliary transformers caused the supply breaker (shown in purple in Figure 2) from 4,160-volt bus 1A1 to open per design. This breaker is normally manually opened and closed by workers to control in-plant power distribution. But this breaker will automatically open to prevent an electrical transient from rippling through the lines to corrupt other equipment.

When the breaker opened, the flow of electricity to 480-volt buses A and 1A stopped, as did the supply of electricity from these 480-volt buses to emergency equipment. It didn’t matter whether electricity from the offsite power grid, the main generator, or emergency diesel generator 1A was supplied to 4,160-volt bus 1A1; no electricity flowed to the 480-volt buses with this electrical breaker open.

Fig. 2 (Source: Clinton Individual Plant Examination Report (1992))

The loss of 480-volt buses A and 1A interrupted the flow of electricity to emergency equipment but did not affect power to non-safety equipment. Consequently, the reactor continued operating near full power.

The emergency equipment powered from 480-volt buses A and 1A included the containment isolation valve on the pipe supplying compressed air to equipment inside the containment building. This valve is designed to fail-safe in the closed position; thus, in response to the loss of power, it closed.

Among the equipment inside containment needing compressed air were the hydraulic control units for the control rod drive (CRD) system (shown in orange in Figure 3). The control rods are positioned using water pistons. Supply water to one side of the piston while venting water from the other side creates a differential pressure causing the control rod to move. Reversing the sides that get water and get vented causes the control rod to move in the opposite direction. Compressed air keeps two scram valves for each control rod closed against coiled springs. Without the compressed air pressure, the springs force the scram valves to open. When the scram valves open, high pressure water is supplied below the pistons while water from above the pistons is vented. As a result, the control rods fully insert into the reactor core within a handful of seconds to stop the nuclear chain reaction.

Fig. 3 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Ten minutes after the electrical breaker opened on December 8, 2013, an alarm in the control room sounded to alert the operators about low pressure in the compressed air system. The operators followed procedures and responded to the alarm by manually scramming the reactor.

Four minutes after the electrical breaker opened on December 9, 2017, an alarm in the control room sounded to alert the operators about low pressure in the compressed air system. Two minutes later, other alarms sounded to inform the operators that some of the control rods were moving into the reactor core. They manually scrammed the reactor. (The timing difference between the two events is explained by the amounts of air leaking from piping inside containment and by the operation of pneumatically controlled components inside containment that depleted air from the isolated piping.)

The event had additional complications. The loss of power disabled: (1) the low pressure core spray system, (2) one of the two residual heat removal trains, the reactor core isolation cooling system, and the normal ventilation system for the fuel handling building (the structure on the left side of Figure 3). These losses were to be expected – subdividing the emergency equipment into three divisions and then losing all the power to that division de-energizes about one-third of the emergency equipment.

Fortunately, the loss of some emergency equipment in this case was tolerable because there was no emergency for the equipment to mitigate. The operators used non-safety equipment powered from the offsite grid and some of the emergency equipment from Divisions 2 and 3 to safely shut down the reactor. The operators anticipated that the loss of compressed air to equipment inside containment would eventually cause the main steam isolation valves to close, taking away the normal means of removing decay heat from the reactor core. The operators opened other valves before the main steam isolation valves close to provide an alternate means of sustaining this heat removal path. About 30 hours after the event began, the operators placed the reactor into a cold shut down mode, within the time frame established by the plant’s safety studies.

Staging a Repeat Performance

Workers replaced the failed Division 1 transformer following the December 2013 event. Clinton has five safety-related and 24 non-safety-related 4,160-volt to 480-volt transformers, including the one that failed in 2013. Following the 2013 failure, a plan was developed to install windows in the transformer cabinets to allow the temperature of the windings inside to be monitored using infrared detectors. Rising temperatures would indicate winding degradation which could lead to failure of the transformer.

But the planned installation of the infrared detection systems was canceled because the transformers were already equipped with thermocouples that could be used to detect degradation. Then the owner stopped monitoring the transformer thermocouples in 2015.

Plan B (or C?) involved developing a procedure for Doble testing of these 29 transformers that would trend performance and detect degradation. The Doble testing was identified in October 2016 as a Corrective Action to Prevent Recurrence (CAPR) from the 2013 transformer failure event. The Doble testing procedure was issued on November 18, 2016.

Clinton was shut down on May 8, 2017, for a refueling outage. The activities scheduled during the refueling outage included performing the Doble testing on the Division 2 4,160-volt to 480-volt transformers. But that work was canceled because it was estimated to extend the length of the refueling outage by three whole days. So, Clinton restarted on May 29, 2017, without the Doble testing being conducted. As noted by the NRC special inspection team dispatched to Clinton following the repeat event in 2017: “…the inspectors determined that revising the model work orders [i.e., the Doble test procedure] alone was not a CAPR. In order for the CAPR to be considered implemented, the licensee needed to complete actual Doble testing of the transformers.”

The NRC’s special inspection team also identified a glitch with how some of the non-safety-related transformers were handled within the preventative maintenance program. A company procedure required components whose failure would result in a reactor scram to be included in the preventative maintenance program to lessen the likelihood of failures (and more importantly, costly scrams). In response to NRC’s questions, workers stated that three of the non-safety-related transformers could fail and cause a reactor scram, but that these transformers were not covered by the preventative maintenance program.

Plan C (or D?) now calls for replacing all five safety-related transformers: the two Division 2 transformers in 2018 and the single Division 3 transformer in 2021. The two Division 1 transformers have already been replaced following their failures. A decision whether to replace the 24 non-safety-related transformers awaits a determination about seeking a 20-year extension to the reactor’s operating license.

NRC Sanctions

The NRC’s special inspection team identified two findings both characterized as Green in the agency’s green, white, yellow and red classification system.

One finding was the violation of 10 CFR Part 50, Appendix B, Criterion XVI, “Corrective Actions,” for failing to implement measures to preclude repetition of a significant condition adverse to quality. Specifically, the fixes identified by the owner following the December 2013 transformer failure were not implemented, enabling the December 2017 transformer to fail.

The other finding was the failure to follow procedures for placing equipment within the preventative maintenance program. Per procedure, three of the non-safety-related transformers should have been covered by the preventative maintenance program but were not.

UCS Perspective

Glass half-full: Clinton started operating in 1987 and didn’t experience a 4,160-volt to 480-volt transformer failure until late 2013. Apparently, transformer failures are exceedingly rare events such that lightning won’t strike twice.

Glass half-empty: All the aging transformers at Clinton were over 25 years old and heading towards, if not already in, the wear out region of the bathtub curve. Lightning may not strike twice, but an aging jackhammer strikes lots of times (until it breaks).

Could another untested, unreplaced aging transformer fail at Clinton? You bet your glass.

Fig. 4 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review: Top Take-Aways

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), to be released today, lays out a policy that will make the use of nuclear weapons more likely and undercut US security. (The final version is reportedly little changed from the draft version that was leaked two weeks ago.)

It includes a wide range of changes to US nuclear weapons policy and calls for deploying additional types of nuclear weapons. Some of these changes can take place relatively quickly—within the time remaining in President Trump’s term—and others will take years to realize. In the latter case, however, political repercussions could occur well before completion of the effort.

This post looks at some of the near-term changes and consequences. In a future blog, I’ll talk about some of the longer-term implications of the NPR.

  1. Preparing for nuclear war-fighting

One of the most significant changes to US policy outlined in the NPR is the tighter integration of US nuclear and conventional forces, including training and exercising with these integrated forces, so US forces can operate “in the face of adversary nuclear threats and attacks [emphasis added].” The NPR states (line numbers refer to the draft NPR text):

US forces will strengthen their ability to integrate nuclear and non-nuclear military planning and operations. Combatant Commands and Service components will be organized and resourced for this mission, and will plan, train, and exercise to integrate U.S. nuclear and non-nuclear forces and operate in the face of adversary nuclear threats and attacks. (lines 906-910)

The document asserts the new US policy “is not intended to enable, nor does it enable, ‘nuclear war-fighting.’” For a regional conflict, “nuclear war-fighting” refers to using nuclear weapons in an ongoing way once a conventional conflict has expanded to include nuclear weapons.

And if training to use nuclear and conventional forces in an integrated way isn’t preparing for nuclear war-fighting, what is? Russia and China will certainly view it that way, and the exercises themselves will be provocative. The new policy deliberately blurs the line between nuclear and conventional forces and eliminates a clear nuclear fire break. Doing so is not in US security interests.

Low-yield, accurate nuclear weapons are often described as “suited for war-fighting,” and would be an important component of the integrated nuclear and conventional force that the administration is planning for. As discussed below, the administration plans to deploy a new lower yield weapon on submarines. But the United States already has two types of low-yield weapons that it could use as part of an integrated force.

The United States currently deploys 100 B61 bombs in the United States for delivery by long-range bombers, and 150 B61 bombs at US airbases in five NATO countries—Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey—that would be delivered by pilots from those countries using their short-range aircraft. (Hundreds more are in storage.) These bombs allow the user to choose the yield of the weapon; depending on the variant, the yield ranges from 0.3 to 170 kilotons. The lowest yield of 0.3 kilotons is 50 times smaller than the yield of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki—which certainly qualifies as a warfighting weapon.

The United States also deploys 200 nuclear air-launched cruise missiles in the United States for delivery by long range bombers. These have variable yields ranging from 5 to 150 kilotons.

With these weapons the US military can begin planning, training and exercising with an integrated force of conventional and nuclear weapons—including low-yield weapons—within a year or two.

  1. Broadening scenarios for using nuclear weapons first

The new policy described in the NPR broadens the scenarios under which the United States would use nuclear weapons first, thus lowering the threshold for first use. The document explicitly lists a wide array of non-nuclear attacks that could constitute grounds for a US nuclear response. These “include, but are not limited to, attacks on the U.S. allied or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.” (918-920)

Ironically, the Trump NPR makes a very strong case for a no-first-use policy. It states:

Russia must … understand that nuclear first-use, however limited, will fail to achieve its objectives, fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict, and trigger incalculable and intolerable costs for Moscow. Our strategy will ensure Russia understands that any use of nuclear weapons, however limited, is unacceptable. (1055-1059)

Surely, the same is true for the first use of nuclear weapons by the United States. However limited, US nuclear first-use will “fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict, and trigger incalculable and intolerable costs.” Any such use is “unacceptable.”

  1. Deploying new lower-yield submarine-launched weapons

The NPR states that the United States will replace some of the warheads on its submarine-launched Trident ballistic missiles with “low-yield” versions. These warheads would have a yield of roughly five kilotons; for comparison, the W76 and W88 warheads currently deployed on submarines have yields of 100 and 455 kilotons, respectively. Such a low-yield warhead can be produced by modifying an existing two-stage W76 or W88 warhead so that just the first stage explodes, which can be done relatively quickly. These weapons can—and likely will—be deployed during this presidential term.

As noted above, the United States already deploys low-yield bombs and air-launched cruise missiles with yield options that range from 0.3 to 150 kilotons. But the NPR argues that the new weapon will offer several advantages: it will not require “host nation support,” it will provide additional diversity, and it will be able to penetrate defenses. These arguments are spurious. The United States can deliver its bombs and air-launched cruise missiles using long-range bombers based in the United States—these require no host nation support. It is a truism that adding new types of weapons increases diversity, but it is irrelevant. It is also true that a ballistic missile will be able to penetrate defenses (especially since none exist), but this does not give it an advantage over the existing systems. The B-2 stealth bomber is designed to evade sophisticated air defenses, and the air-launched cruise missile can penetrate air defenses.

But the ultimate rationale the NPR gives for the low-yield Trident warhead is that it “will help counter any mistaken perception of an exploitable ‘gap’ in U.S. regional deterrence capabilities.” (392-393) Regardless of what the military thinks US nuclear weapons are deterring other countries from doing, to argue that the current arsenal is inadequate but will become adequate if we throw in a few low-yield Trident warheads is just silly.

  1. Undermining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

The NPR describes the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as the cornerstone of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. However, the new US policy undercuts the treaty in several ways:

Ignores NPT obligation to take measures toward nuclear disarmament

While claiming that the United States “continues to abide by its obligations” under the NPT, the NPR ignores the US obligation to take effective measures toward nuclear disarmament. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has made progress—albeit slow progress—in reducing the number, types, and role of US nuclear weapons. The new policy reverses that progress. The non-nuclear weapon states are already fed up with the slow progress of the United States and Russia, and in response last year they negotiated a treaty banning nuclear weapons. The Trump NPR is a giant slap in their face.

Walks back from negative security guarantees.

Negative security guarantees—in which the nuclear weapon states assure countries without nuclear weapons that they will not be subject to a nuclear attack—are vital to the NPT.  Such guarantees reduce the incentive for countries to acquire their own nuclear weapons to counter threats from the nuclear weapon states. They were also key to the 1995 decision by the non-nuclear weapon states to extend the treaty indefinitely.

Current US policy is:

The United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations.

The Trump NPR reiterates this policy but follows it with a disclaimer:

Given the potential of significant non-nuclear strategic attacks, the United States reserves the right to make any adjustments in the assurance that may be warranted by the evolution and proliferation of non-nuclear strategic attack technologies and U.S. capabilities to counter that threat. (924-927)

In other words, don’t count on it.

Rejects CTBT Ratification

For 50 years now, the NPT non-nuclear weapon states have made it clear that they place high importance on achieving a treaty prohibiting nuclear explosive testing. The 1968 preamble to the NPT discusses the imperative of negotiating such a treaty, and when the non-nuclear weapons states agreed to indefinitely extend the NPT in 1995, it was predicated on their understanding that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was near completion. The CTBT was opened for signature in 1996. The United States has signed, but not ratified the treaty. Over 20 years later, the treaty has still not entered into force, in part because the United States has not ratified it.

In another slap in the face of the non-nuclear weapon states, the NPR explicitly states, “the United States does not support ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.” (529)

Stay tuned for future blogs on the new US policy!

China and Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review

Chinese Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Qian Qichen signs the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) on September 24, 1996.

The Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) repeats one of the most pervasive misconceptions about the current state of the US nuclear arsenal: that it does not compare well with the nuclear arsenals of Russia and China, which are supposedly engaged in nuclear modernization efforts the United States is neglecting.

China is making steady incremental improvements to its nuclear arsenal. But the gap between China and the United States is too wide to argue the United States is lagging behind in any meaningful way. We’ve laid out the details in a new white paper.

A Quick Comparison

China’s nuclear force is much smaller and far less capable than the nuclear force of the United States. Consider the following:

  • China’s nuclear arsenal is smaller than the US nuclear arsenal was in 1950.
  • China has a few hundred nuclear warheads and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make only several hundred more. The United States has 4,480 nuclear warheads (active and reserve) and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make approximately 5,000 more.
  • China conducted 45 nuclear weapons tests to develop and certify the nuclear warheads it has in its arsenal today. The United States conducted 1,056 nuclear weapons tests.
  • China can deliver 75 to 100 nuclear warheads to targets in the United States via ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).  The United States currently deploys 400 ICBMs and has another 400 nuclear warheads it could put on those ICBMs.
  • China does not currently deploy any nuclear weapons aboard ballistic missile submarines, although it could possibly deliver 60 nuclear warheads to targets in the United States aboard the five submarines it will have when the fifth one, currently under construction, is completed. The United States currently deploys about 900 nuclear warheads on ballistic missile submarines and its 248 missiles could carry as many as 2,976.

A Limited Force for a Limited Purpose

Despite the enormous disparity between Chinese and US nuclear forces, the leaked NPR about to be released by the Trump administration claims the United States needs new nuclear weapons because “China is expanding and modernizing its considerable nuclear forces” and because China “pursues entirely new nuclear capabilities tailored to achieve particular national security objectives.” The new NPR also expresses concern about the “increasing prominence” of nuclear weapons in Chinese defense policy, including possible Chinese first use of nuclear weapons.

There is little evidence China is pursuing “entirely new” nuclear capabilities.

The NPR implies China’s ability to put multiple warheads on its silo-based ICBM, its ability to deploy ballistic missile submarines and its ability to deliver nuclear weapons by aircraft are new. That needs to be considered in context.

China has had the ability to put multiple warheads on its largest silo-based ICBM for decades. It only did so recently with some of its ICBMs, adding a total of 20 warheads. Adding warheads to the rest of these ICBMs would add only another 20 total warheads. So the decision to utilize the capability to add multiple warheads does allow for a modest increase in the number of warheads China can deliver to the United States. But it is a small increase and it is misleading to characterize it as an “entirely new” capability. The United States deployed its first ICBM with multiple warheads in 1970.

The same is true for China’s ballistic missile submarines and bombers. China has had the capability to put nuclear-armed ballistic missiles on submarines for quite a while. It commissioned its first ballistic missile submarine in 1981. It began conducting sea trials of the submarine class it is building today in 2006. It has still not actively deployed them.

China does have a new nuclear capable air-launched cruise missile but US intelligence sources state it does not currently have a nuclear mission.

There is little compellng evidence that nuclear weapons are more prominent in China’s military strategy or that China intends to use nuclear weapons first.

Authoritative Chinese military sources state that the only national security objective China aims to achieve with its small nuclear force is to maintain an ability to retaliate if another state launches a nuclear attack against China first. Those same sources also confirm China remains committed to its longstanding policy of not using nuclear weapons first.

The limited size and capabilities of China’s nuclear force lends credibility to Chinese statements about the limited role of nuclear weapons in its military strategy.

Of course, China has been incrementally improving the quality and increasing the quantity of its nuclear forces since its first test of a nuclear-armed missile in 1966. The pace of these improvements has been steady but slow, especially when compared with the growth of China’s economy. As noted above, after a half-century of continuous incremental “modernization,” China’s nuclear arsenal remains smaller than the US nuclear arsenal was in 1950.

How to Keep China’s Nuclear Force Small and Limited

President Trump and many members of Congress from both parties seem to believe the United States is in a new nuclear arms race with China. There is no evidence China is engaged in a substantive build-up of its nuclear forces. But even so, for those who are concerned, the best thing the United States can do to win this hypothetical nuclear arms race with China is to limit China’s ability to build new warheads.

China cannot dramatically enlarge its nuclear force without producing more weapons-grade plutonium. And China cannot develop new lighter, variable-yield or low-yield nuclear warheads—like the United States already possesses—without resuming nuclear testing.  It stands to reason, therefore, that US and allied officials concerned about the future size and capabilities of China’s nuclear arsenal should take every measure possible to prevent China from producing more fissile material for nuclear weapons and from testing new nuclear warheads.

For the moment, China says it is still willing to negotiate a fissile material control treaty (FMCT) that would verifiably ban new production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.

In addition, China stopped nuclear testing in 1996 and signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Chinese nuclear arms control experts say their government is still willing to permanently end nuclear testing and ratify the CTBT as soon as the United States does. Entry into force of the CTBT would verifiably ban China from testing new nuclear warheads.

The Trump administration’s plan to develop and deploy new nuclear weapons does nothing to prevent China from expanding its nuclear forces. However, ratifying the CTBT and beginning negotiations on the FMCT would cap the size of China’s nuclear arsenal at its current level. Working towards the entry into force of these two arms control treaties, then, should be the top two priorities for anyone genuinely concerned about the future size and capability of China’s nuclear forces.

Benny Hill Explains the NRC Approach to Nuclear Safety

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s safety regulations require that nuclear reactors be designed to protect the public from postulated accidents, such as the rupture of pipes that would limit the flow of cooling water to the reactor. These regulations include General Design Criteria 34 and 35 in Appendix A to 10 CFR Part 50.

Emergency diesel generators (EDGs) are important safety systems since they provide electricity to emergency equipment if outside power is cut off to the plant—another postulated accident. This electricity, for example, would allow pumps to continue to send cooling water to the reactor vessel to prevent overheating damage to the core. So the NRC has requirements that limit how long a reactor can continue operating without one of its two EDGs under different conditions. The shortest period is 3 days while the longest period is 14 days.

An All Things Nuclear commentary in July 2017 described how the NRC allowed the Unit 3 reactor at the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona to operate for up to 62 days with one of its EDGs broken, but had denied the Unit 1 reactor at the DC Cook nuclear plant in Michigan permission to operate for up to 65 days with one of its two EDGs broken. It was easy to understand why the NRC denied the request for DC Cook Unit 1 (i.e., 65 days is more than the 14-day safety limit). It was not easy to understand why the NRC granted the request for Palo Verde Unit 3 (i.e., 62 days is also more than the 14-day safety limit).

The NRC also granted a request on November 26, 2017, for the Unit 1 and 2 reactors at the Brunswick nuclear plant in North Carolina to operate for up to 30 days with one EDG broken.

NRC Inspection Findings and Sanctions 2001-2016

UCS examined times between 2001 and 2016 when NRC inspectors identified violations of federal safety regulations and the sanctions imposed by the agency for these safety violations. The purpose of this exercise was to understand the NRC’s position on EDGs and the safety implications of an EDG being inoperable.

As shown in Figure 1, NRC inspectors recorded 12,610 findings over this 16-year period, an average of 788 findings each year. The NRC characterized the safety significance of its findings using a green, white, yellow and red color-code with green representing findings having low safety significance and red assigned to findings with high safety significance. The NRC determined that fewer than 2% of its findings (242 in all) warranted a white, yellow, or red finding (“greater-than-green”).

Fig. 1 (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

NRC Greater-than-Green Inspection Findings and Sanctions 2001-2016

UCS reviewed ALL the greater-than-green findings issued by the NRC between 2001 and 2016 to determine what safety problems most concerned the agency over those years. Figure 2 shows the greater-than-green findings issued by the NRC binned by the applicable safety system or process. Emergency planning violations accounted for 22% of the greater-than-green findings over this period—the greatest single category. Other categories are shown in increasing percentages clockwise around the pie chart.

The 32 EDG greater-than-green findings between 2001 and 2016 constituted the second highest tally of such findings over this 16-year period—an average of two greater-than-green EDG findings per year. The NRC issued one Yellow and 31 White findings for EDG violations.

Fig. 2 (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

NRC Greater-than-Green EDG Inspection Findings and Sanctions 2001-2016

UCS reviewed all enforcement letters issued by the NRC for all 32 EDG greater-than-green findings to determine what parameters—particularly the length of time the EDG was unavailable—factored into the NRC concluding the findings had elevated safety implications. Several of the greater-than-green findings issued by the NRC involved EDGs being unavailable for less than the 62 days that the NRC permitted Palo Verde Unit 3 to continue operating with an EDG broken. For example:

  • The NRC issued a Yellow finding on August 3. 2007, because Kewuanee (WI) operated for 50 days with one EDG impaired by a fuel oil leak.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on September 19, 2013, because HB Robinson (SC) operated for 36 days with inadequate engine cooling for an EDG.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on June 2, 2004, because Brunswick (NC) operated for 30 days with an impaired jacket water cooling system for one EDG.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on April 15, 2005, because Fort Calhoun (NE) operated for 29 days for approximately 29 days with an inoperable EDG.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on December 7, 2010, because HB Robinson (SC) operated for 26 days with an impaired output breaker on one EDG.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on March 28, 2014, because Waterford (LA) operated for 25 days with inadequate ventilation for one EDG.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on December 18, 2013, because Duane Arnold (IA) operated for 22 days with inadequate lubricating oil cooling for one EDG.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on February 29, 2008, because Comanche Peak (TX) operated for 20 days with one EDG inoperable.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on December 7, 2007, because Fort Calhoun (NE) operated for 14 days with one EDG inoperable.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on April 20, 2007, because Brunswick (NC) operated for 9 days with an impaired lubricating oil system for one EDG.
  • The NRC issued a White finding on August 17, 2007, because Cooper (NE) operated for 5 days with a defective circuit card in the control system for one EDG.

NRC’s Cognitive Dissonance

The NRC issued 32 greater-than-green findings between 2001 and 2016 because inoperable or impaired EDGs increased the chances that an accident could endanger the public and the environment. As the list above illustrates, many of the NRC’s findings involved EDGs being disabled for 29 days or less.

Yet in 2017, the NRC intentionally permitted Palo Verde and Brunswick to continue operating for up to 62 and 30 days respectively.

If operating a nuclear reactor for 5, 9, 14, 20, 22, 26, or 29 days with an impaired EDG constitutes a violation of federal safety regulations warranting a rare greater-than-green finding based on the associated elevated risk to public health and safety, how can operating a reactor for 30 or 62 days NOT expose the public to elevated, and undue, risk?

Benny Hill to the Rescue

Fig. 3 (Source: www.alchetron.com)

Benny Hill was a British comedian who hosted a long-running television show between 1969 and 1989. On one of his shows, Benny observed that: “The odds against there being a bomb on a plane are a million to one, and against two bombs a million times a million to one.” Hence, Benny suggested that to be protected against being blown out of the sky: “Next time you fly, cut the odds and take a bomb” with you.

NRC’s allowing Palo Verde and Brunswick to operate for over 29 days with a broken EDG essentially takes Benny’s advice to take a bomb on board an airplane. Deliberately taking a risk significantly reduces the random risk.

But Benny’s suggestion was intended as a joke, not as prudent (or even imprudent) public policy.

So, while I’ll posthumously (him, not me) thank Benny Hill for much amusing entertainment, I’ll thank the NRC not to follow his advice and to refrain from exposing more communities to undue, elevated risk from nuclear power reactors operating for extended periods with broken EDGs.

Lost in Space? The Zuma Satellite

Many people awaited last Sunday’s Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral of a highly classified US payload. The launch had been delayed for weeks, speculation as to the satellite’s purpose was rampant, and successfully delivering national security satellites to orbit is an important part of SpaceX’s business.

The launch, however, remains shrouded in mystery.

Shortly after the launch, Bloomberg reported that the satellite was lost, due to US Strategic Command saying they were not tracking any objects. The Wall Street Journal suggested that Congress was being briefed on a failure, and that it was due to a failure of the satellite to separate from the final stage, and so both were deorbited together.

A Verge story notes that neither SpaceX (the launcher) nor Northrup Grumman (the contractor who built the satellite) declared that the mission was a success after launch. SpaceX’s president said that the Falcon 9 “did everything correctly” and that they did not have a failure that requires investigation. Northrup Grumman stated that it does not comment on classified missions. Northrup Grumman provided the equipment that connects the satellite to the final rocket stage and that is eventually meant to separate them. So SpaceX’s claim that nothing went wrong with its end could be still be consistent with an overall failed mission.

What could the Zuma satellite be?

The Zuma satellite (USA280) is curious. It’s a classified satellite and so there’s no public description of its purpose. Satellite watchers usually pick up some clues about the purpose of a classified satellite by who made it and what orbit it is put in. For example, spy satellites that are imaging the ground in visible light often use sun synchronous orbits (close to a polar orbit) so that they can see the earth at a constant sun angle, which is helpful in detecting changes. Signals intelligence satellites tend to be at around 63 degrees inclination (the angle the orbit makes with respect to the equator).

Because there was no pre-launch announcement of orbital parameters, nor does the Space Track catalog provide them (it never does for such classified missions), we don’t know what orbit it was meant to go in exactly, but you can tell the approximate inclination by where the hazard zones are from its launch.

Marco Langbroek created this image of the Zuma launch hazard zone (in red in Fig. 1) for his blog:

Fig. 1 (Source: Marco Langbroek

This indicates that the satellite was launched in an orbit that was inclined around 50 degrees to the equator, similar to the International Space Station. Not many satellites use low earth orbits with 50 degree inclinations, except for satellites that were launched from the space station and so end up there. (See for yourself by sorting the satellites in the UCS Satellite Database.)

One other recent classified satellite, USA 276, was launched in that type of orbit, and it was launched in a similar direction as Zuma. That satellite was launched not only in the same orbital inclination as the ISS but also the same orbital plane. It was subsequently observed by the amateur observing community as having made a close approach to the ISS when it was performing docking maneuvers. Marco has a fascinating analysis in The Space Review about it.

What happened to it?

Zuma (USA 280) is still listed as a payload on orbit by the US space surveillance system (Fig. 2), as of this writing (January 12). So something made it into orbit and went around at least once. The object is listed as a payload and not as launch debris, indicating it is the satellite.

Fig. 2 (Source: Screen capture from Space Track)

Marco’s blog also reports sighting of the re-entry of an object that seems to square with the predicted time for the (intentional) de-orbit of the Falcon 9’s final stage, so that appears to no longer be in space. This is consistent with the successful placing into orbit of the satellite and the disposal of the last stage. (That’s good space “hygiene.”)

So there are a few possibilities:

  1. The Zuma satellite failed to separate from the final stage, and returned to earth along with the final stage and no satellite is in orbit. If this is the case, eventually the Space Track catalog will be updated and USA 280 will be removed. But this seems unlikely, since the satellite is still catalogued as being in orbit four days after launch.
  2. The satellite is in orbit. Indications this is the case would be that it remains in the catalog, and that amateur observers on the ground get a view of it. These observers use binoculars and telescopes to see satellites in reflected sunlight, and they are quite skilled at hunting satellites. However, they won’t get a chance to weigh in for a couple of weeks as the satellite won’t be optically visible in the regions of the northern hemisphere where most of them are. It’s possible that in the interim, the satellite will maneuver to another orbit, so finding it after a couple of weeks will be difficult.

Whether the satellite is functioning as intended would be difficult to tell, at least at first. If satellite watchers manage to see it and determine its orbital parameters over a period of time, they may be able to see whether it performs any maneuvers. An on-orbit maneuver is a positive sign that the satellite is at least alive, although doesn’t say whether it’s performing as designed. The lack of such maneuvers, especially if the satellite is in a relatively low orbit and would ordinarily need to compensate for atmospheric drag, can indicate that it is not functioning. Radars should be able to track the satellite, so presumably countries with space surveillance-capable radars, such as China and Russia, know quite a bit more about this already.

  1. While there is some precedent for using a launch failure as a cover story for a stealthy satellite (Misty), it’s hard to keep a satellite reliably hidden. (Note that the US has much more invested in space surveillance than other actors, so this would be even more difficult for countries other than the US.)

There are things that you can do to make it harder to see a satellite. You can minimize its radar reflectivity so that Russian and Chinese radars would have a harder time seeing it. You can minimize how reflective it is in the sunlight so that ground-based optical observers would have a hard time seeing it, too. Or you might make the satellite’s orbit unpredictable by maneuvering, so trackers must perform a time-consuming search for it each time they want to see it.

You’d probably need to do all these things at the same time to have hope of being stealthy for a significant period of time, and these techniques put a lot of constraints on the satellite itself. And one cannot credibly hope to stay stealthy indefinitely.

What’s curious about Zuma is that the bits of information don’t yet add up to a coherent story. There’s more information to come which may help—stay tuned!

The Trump’s Adminstration’s Dangerous New Nuclear Policy

Last night the Huffington Post released a draft version of the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, a deeply dangerous document that makes nuclear war more likely. UCS has a press statement on the draft, and below is a compilation of some additional quick thoughts on the draft, with more to come.

+ + + + +

The Trident II D5 missile

The Trump NPR calls for a new, low-yield warhead for the Trident submarine-launched missile. The NPR premises the need for that warhead on the idea that the following systems will not be able to penetrate enemy air defenses to attack enemy targets:

  1. US dual-capable aircraft—including the new F35A stealthy fighter aircraft—armed with gravity bombs, including the new, high precision, low-yield B61-12;
  2. The dual-capable aircraft of allied countries in Europe that currently host US nuclear weapons;
  3. US B-2 stealth bombers armed gravity bombs, including the new B61-12;
  4. US B-52 bombers armed with air-launch cruise missiles and the future long-range standoff (LRSO) cruise missile, and
  5. the future B-21 “Raider” stealth bomber armed with gravity bombs and cruise missiles.


If that is the case, why are we spending hundreds of billions of dollars to deploy new stealthy nuclear-capable fighter aircraft and bombers, new gravity bombs, and new cruise missiles? The NPR calls for an unrealistic spending spree that is not justified by security needs.

+ + + + +

The Trump NPR significantly reduces the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons by explicitly listing a wide array of non-nuclear attacks on the United States that could constitute grounds for a US nuclear response, including attacks on civilians, infrastructure, nuclear forces, command and control, and early warning systems.

This is a dramatic change from the Obama administration’s nuclear policy, which explicitly sought to limit the roles and purposes of US nuclear weapons. It also reverses the trend of every administration since the end of the Cold War, Republican and Democratic alike. The Obama NPR set as a goal declaring that the sole purpose of US nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on the United States, its military forces, and its allies. It wanted to make nuclear war less likely. This document explicitly rejects that goal and in doing so makes nuclear use more likely.

The NPR also calls for tighter integration of nuclear and conventional forces. That deliberately blurs the line between the two and eliminates a clear nuclear fire break.

+ + + + +

The Trump NPR reverses the plan to retire the B83, a gravity bomb with a massive 1.2 megaton yield—by far the largest in the current US stockpile. Because the military had little use for this Cold War behemoth, the Obama administration had pledged to retire the B83 as soon as confidence was gained in the new B61-12 bomb, as a way to build support in Congress the for new B61. This document says it will keep the B83 “until a suitable replacement is identified.” That could be the B61-12, but there is no commitment to it.

+ + + + +

This document returns to the tired and inaccurate concept of “gaps” in US capabilities that ostensibly require new weapons systems to fill. President Kennedy campaigned on the idea of a “missile gap” when in fact it was the United States that had many more missiles than the Soviet Union. The document points to the “gap” in low-yield options that drive the need for new systems. But there is no “gap.” The US has multiple systems on multiple platforms able to deliver low-yield weapons.

+ + + + +

The document argues that Russia and China are modernizing their nuclear arsenals, and the United States is not. That is utter hogwash. The United States has been modernizing its forces consistently for the last several decades, but it has done so without building new systems. It has upgraded and improved the systems it already has. For example, a decade ago the United States still had submarines armed with Trident C4 missiles, which were not very accurate. Now, not only does every submarine carry the D5 missile, accurate enough to attack hardened targets, but those missiles are being updated, with newly built motors and improved guidance systems making them even more accurate. The W76-1 warheads on those missiles have also been improved, further increasing the ability to hold hardened targets at risk. And that system comprises the bulk of the US nuclear stockpile.

It’s also important to recognize that China’s nuclear arsenal remains tiny in comparison to the US arsenal. The United States has more than 1500 strategic warheads on three types of delivery systems. China has well fewer than 100 warheads on missiles capable of reaching the United States, and the warheads are not even mated to the missiles. They are fully de-alerted. There is zero comparison to US forces.

Japan’s Role in the North Korea Nuclear Crisis

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama (second from left) consults with US President Barack Obama during a 2010 summit on nuclear security.

During a recent trip to Japan I had the opportunity to discuss Japan’s role in the current North Korean nuclear crisis with Yukio Hatoyama, a former prime minister. He led the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to victory in September 2009, becoming the only Japanese politician to defeat the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) at the polls since end of the Second World War. 

The DPJ campaigned on wresting political and economic power away from an unelected bureaucracy and returning it to Japan’s elected representatives. Mr. Hatoyama’s perceived inability to deliver on that promise led to a loss of public support and his resignation as the leader of the DPJ in June of 2010. His party held on to power until they were defeated in September 2012 by a chastened LDP led by the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

Hatoyama is concerned about Abe’s approach to the North Korea nuclear crisis. He believes the current Japanese prime minister is providing unwise and provocative encouragement to US President Donald Trump’s threats to launch a pre-emptive military attack. Hatoyama is not alone in that assessment. Most of the Japanese I spoke with during my stay in Japan feel their government should be encouraging dialogue rather than cheerleading for pre-emptive US strikes that could ignite a wider war and invite North Korean retaliation against US military bases in Japan.

Yukio Hatoyama comes from a storied political family, and one of the wealthiest in the country. His father, Ichirō, served as foreign minister from 1976-77 under Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda. His grandfather, also named Ichirō, served three terms as prime minister from December 1954 through December 1956.

Although he retired from electoral politics in 2010, Mr. Hatoyama continues to promote what he believes may be his most important political legacy: the creation of an East Asian regional institution comparable to the European Union. His controversial efforts to advance the idea during his term in office troubled US Japan hands, who worried an Asian version of the EU would undermine the US-Japan relationship, especially since Hatoyama believes greater Japanese cooperation with China is an essential prerequisite for success.

UCS came to know Mr. Hatoyama through colleagues in the Japanese nuclear disarmament community. They were encouraged by his strong support for President Obama’s effort to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in US national security policy, including US security policy in Asia. Together with our non-governmental counterparts in Japan, UCS continues to work with Japanese legislators, the broad majority of whom, from all political parties, support responsible nuclear reductions.

We hope to bring more of their voices to the US debate about US nuclear weapons policy as President Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review unfolds later this year.

Our interview with Mr. Hatoyama was conducted in his Tokyo office on November 21, 2017. An audio file of the interview is available upon request.


UCS: Today we have the honor of speaking with Yukio Hatoyama, the former Prime Minister of Japan and the current Director of the East Asia Community Institute. Mr. Prime Minister thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

I suppose we should start with the question of North Korea. How do you think about the way the United States and Japan are responding to what North Korea is doing?

Hatoyama: In regards to the North Korean development of nuclear missiles of course it is a reality that this is indeed a threat and in that sense countries around the world should be cooperating together and it may be necessary also to impose sanctions as is being done now. However, the final purpose for these sanctions should always be how to bring North Korea to the dialogue table.

Unfortunately, in Japan Prime Minister Abe has said that the time now for dialogue has finished, but I believe this is incorrect.

And, of course, when we consider why it is that North Korea has gone ahead to develop its missiles and nuclear weapons as well we need to recognize that fact that while there is a ceasefire agreement in place between the United States and North Korea, the war is not yet over, it’s still just in a state of ceasefire.

When we think about how North Korea is looking to create its own situation as well, it also sees the United States’ nuclear weapons and missiles – that are being maintained – being possessed – as well. And this is also leading it to seek its own nuclear and missile development program.

If we consider that North Korea is looking at its possession of these weapons as a tool for dialogue I think this really shows even more how the fact that dialogue now is more necessary than ever.

UCS: So, you think they are using it to start a dialogue with the United States?

Hatoyama: Yes, I do think so. And I believe it is necessary for us to recognize the fact that while North Korea knows that if they were to launch a nuclear weapon or missile towards the United States their own country, in turn, would be obliterated. They are aware of this. And, therefore, I don’t believe it’s likely they would actually make such an attack.

Therefore, I think instead we should understand their actions as looking at a way to try and seek negotiations with the United States which would allow them to have a more equal position between the two countries.

UCS: One of the things that members of Congress and the critics of the Trump administration’s policy towards North Korea have been discussing is the possibility of an accidental war… because of the rhetoric about the time for dialog being over… sending a signal to North Korea that military action is what happens when the time for dialogue is over.

Do you think Prime Minister Abe’s repeating that phrase about dialogue – the time for dialogue being over – is increasing the risk of an accidental miscalculation that could lead to a war with North Korea?

Hatoyama: Of course, from the part of President Trump, looking at how he mentioned having to consider all possibilities, including attacking through use of force. That is something which perhaps as a president should be considered.

However, this use of force cannot be the first option. That cannot be what is first gone to, whether it includes accidental use or not. Of course, if there were to be an accidental use of weapons by the United States on North Korea, North Korea would retaliate, in turn, against Seoul, against South Korea and against Japan. Of course, this would not be in the interest… not be good for Japan.

Now that Prime Minister Abe is repeatedly saying that the time for dialogue is over, the more he says this – the more he repeats this – the more the risk is increased as well. And this is also not in the interest of Japan.

UCS: A related issue in the United States is China’s role in this whole problem. A lot of American officials and the American media are highly critical of China because they don’t think they’re doing enough. What do you think about that?

Hatoyama: I believe that rather than looking at…criticizing China in terms of its role … or what role it is or is not playing … the fundamental issue at stake here is an issue between the United States and North Korea. China, Japan and South Korea are therefore not central players in this but have the role of looking at how they can cooperate together between these countries to create the conditions and space for negotiations between the United States and North Korea as the two key players in this issue.

Of course, China and these other countries they themselves do not desire a war to break out. While some may be criticizing China for being too generous or too kind towards North Korea, rather we should be looking at how to have more cooperation between China, Japan and South Korea in order to bring the United States and North Korea to the negotiations table.

UCS: Well the main issue is that people in the United States want them to cut off oil and food. Do you think that’s a good idea?

Hatoyama: I believe that cooperation in the direction of sanctions is to an extent necessary. However, we also need to recognize that if North Korea is pushed too far into a corner then it’s unclear what actions they might take, and what means they might take to do this.

When we also consider Japan’s history as having been on the receiving side of economic sanctions – which actually contributed to Japan’s path towards waging the wrong war in the past century as well, this is something that we need to learn from history and recognize that strict sanctions can… well, do not necessarily always lead to positive results. They can actually lead to such negative results as well.

China is saying it will to an extent cooperate as part of the international community on the increase or strengthening of sanctions. We also need to make sure that this is not done in order to, well, let the people of North Korea completely starve. On the contrary, we need to look at what the purpose of this is.

UCS: Well I know our time here today is limited so I have just one final related question, and we’ll just keep the focus on North Korea. And that is the domestic political aspects of the North Korea question in Japan. I was invited to listen from the gallery to Prime Minister Abe’s speech to the Diet last week. North Korea seemed to be a prominent part of the speech. He conveyed the idea that this was an important issue in the last election. Was it? And do you think there is anything that the opposition, in Japan, can do to sort of change the Japanese view of the North Korea question.

Hatoyama: Unfortunately, in the recent election Prime Minister Abe was re-elected by bringing this idea of the threat of North Korea to the fore, and saying this is why we need a stable government in place. This was used to convince the people to vote in favor for him in this past election.

I believe that whether it’s President Trump or any American president, the policy of Japan, which is now being put forward by Prime Minister Abe, following the United States administration fully in its policies is not going to be the way to resolve any kind of issue including the issue of North Korea as well.

When we look at the policy…or Prime Minister Abe stating that the time for dialogue is over.. we’re merely following US policy in regard to North Korea. This is not the way to be able to resolve this issue. Rather, Japan needs to be looking at how it can play a role in bringing the United States and North Korea to the negotiations table, and aim in this direction. This is the direction in which the government should be aiming and the opposition parties should also be pushing the government towards this and encouraging this as well.

An Ounce of Prevention…is Worth a Kiloton of Cure

As part of its ongoing online training system, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has scheduled a webinar later this month titled “Public Health Response to a Nuclear Detonation.”

The description of the webinar on the CDC website says: “While a nuclear detonation is unlikely, it would have devastating results and there would be limited time to take critical protection steps. Despite the fear surrounding such an event, planning and preparation can lessen deaths and illness.”

(Source: CTBTO)

On the one hand

This makes some sense. With global stockpiles of more than 15,000 nuclear weapons in the hands of nine countries around the world, thinking through the consequences of their use is the responsible thing for the CDC to do instead of pretending the world will make it through another few decades without someone detonating a nuclear weapon.

Nuclear use is a particular concern now given the flare-up of tension between North Korea and the United States and the bombastic threats by Kim Jong-un and President Trump (not to mention their recent boasts about their “nuclear buttons”).

Perhaps even more likely is a nuclear war by accident. The United States keeps hundreds of missile-based nuclear warheads on hair-trigger alert with the option of launching them very quickly if early warning sensors report a Russian attack. Russia is believed to do the same. But technical and human mistakes over the past decades have led to a surprising number of cases in which one or the other country thought an attack was underway and started the process to launch a nuclear retaliation. How long until one of those mistakes doesn’t get caught in time?

The use of nuclear weapons could have horrific results. Many US and Russian warheads have explosive yields 20 to 40 times  larger than those of the warheads that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Because North Korean missiles are not very accurate, it would need to aim its nuclear weapons at large targets, namely big cities. While the United States does not intentionally target cities, many of its warheads are aimed at military or industrial targets that are in or near major population centers. The same is true for Russian targets in the United States.

In addition, a nuclear detonation could have world-wide consequences. Studies have shown that even a relatively limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan for example, could eject so much soot into the atmosphere that there would be significant global cooling for a decade. This “limited” nuclear winter could lead to widespread starvation and disease.

So, on the other hand…

A key message of the CDC briefing will hopefully be that the role public health professionals can play following a nuclear attack is relatively small, and the only real option is to prevent the use of nuclear weapons in the first place. This is a case where an ounce of prevention is worth much more than a kiloton of cure.

Given that reality, there are several steps the United States should take to reduce the risk of nuclear use, including:

  1. Pursuing diplomacy with North Korea, with the immediate goal of reducing tensions and the risk of military attacks, and a longer term goal of reducing Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has made clear repeatedly that he would like to do this. President Trump should get out of his way and let him.
  2. Eliminating the option of launching nuclear weapons on warning of an attack and taking all missiles off hair-trigger alert.
  3. Changing US policy so that the only purpose of US nuclear weapons is to deter, and if necessary respond to, the use of nuclear weapons by other countries. Under this policy, the United States would pledge to not use nuclear weapons first.
  4. Scaling back the $1.2 trillion plan to rebuild the entire US nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years.
  5. Starting negotiations on deeper nuclear cuts with Russia and taking steps toward a verifiable agreement among nuclear-armed states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

New Update of the UCS Satellite Database

A newly updated version of the UCS satellite database was released this fall, including launches through the end of the summer. The total number of operating satellites is now 1,738.

The changes to this version of the database include: the addition of 321satellites, the deletion of 35 satellites, and, as always, the addition of and corrections to some satellite data.

The number of active satellites has historically grown modestly over time, since the newly-launched satellites are balanced by those that are de-orbited or have become inactive. But this quarter, 321 new satellites were added to the database, a record by far. While sheer numbers are growing, it’s also important to keep in perspective that much of this growth is in small satellites. For example, nearly half of the new satellites were Planet Labs’ Doves, part of a constellation of small satellites designed to provide constant, timely imagery of the earth’s surface. Dozens of others were Spire’s Lemur small satellites, providing commercial weather and ship-tracking services. Also launched were 20 new Iridium NEXT low earth orbit communications satellites. These satellites, at 860 kg launch mass, weigh as much as 86 Lemur satellites or 215 Doves.

In any case, it seems clear that the growth in numbers of satellites won’t be as slow as it used to be, and may accelerate quite a bit in the future. In 2016, commercial companies filed for a U.S. Federal Communications Commission license for 8,731 non-geostationary communications satellites, including 4,425 for SpaceX, nearly 3,000 for Boeing, and 720 for OneWeb.

China in Focus #20: A Chinese Communist Christmas


There is no war on Christmas here. The word—all nine letters of it—is everywhere. Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping may be reprising classic communist iconography in bookshops and on the telly, but in the shopping malls, where an awful lot of Chinese people seem to spend an awful lot of their time, the signs of the season are everywhere.

It is hard to be afraid of a country and a culture that has so wholeheartedly embraced one of my favorite holidays. Its religious roots are probably a mystery to most. Nothing is harder to explain to Chinese family and friends than Christianity, especially after I tell them I was raised a Catholic, which is considered an entirely different religion here. Nevertheless, the general sense that Christmas is a celebration of unity, peace, family, friends and charity seems well understood. “It’s like Chinese New Year for Westerners.” Amen comrade.

It wasn’t always this way. When I first came to China in 1984 the toughest emotional moment of entire experience was making the mistake of trying to sing “I’ll be Home for Christmas” to the foreign student assembly. We did our best to make a day of it, but there was not a Christmas creature stirring anywhere outside our dorm. Decades of anti-Western Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda had wiped almost every vestige of the holy day from “mainland” China’s collective memory.

It is interesting how quickly Christmas came back and how pervasive it has become. US China pundit Bill Bishop recently published a cynical missive championing the proposition that Americans should finally surrender the “fantasy” that China could ever become “more like us.” I read it while listening to Nat King Cole’s rendition of “O Holy Night” playing in a Shanghai Starbucks. After all the time I’ve spent here I’ve come to wonder whether Chinese and Americans were ever really all that different to begin with. Cultural differences are very real, but so are the universal human values – like love and family – that cultures embody. Christmas, if left undisturbed by political authority, seems to appeal to everyone.

To be sure, the mass marketing of global corporations plays a major role, larger than that of any organized church (Sorry @Pontifex). But that does not make the phenomenon any less real. Commerce has always been the carrier of culture. Governments can respond to global commercial and cultural trends in a variety of ways. Given Chairman Xi’s exceptional attempt to micromanage the evolution of modern Chinese culture, especially his unrelenting efforts to mediate its contact with the outside world, the ubiquity of Christmas in Xi’s China is a welcome sign.

It doesn’t prove anything, of course. But it does suggest that left to our own devices us ordinary people, enjoying the same coffee, cakes and carols this holiday season, whether we’re in, or from, Baltimore or Beijing, may not be as different as our pundits and politicians tell us we are.

Defending what we imagine to be “our” cultures from the supposed predations of “other” cultures seems to be a hallmark of what might be called post-globalization politics. The late US political theorist Samuel Huntington described it as a “clash of civilizations.” The idea that the United States is losing a global battle for cultural supremacy seems to be what animates political figures like Steve Bannon, Mike Flynn, President Trump and many of the voters who’ve rallied to their warnings about the rise of China and the decline of Western civilization.

The Chinese communist embrace of Christmas is an interesting refutation of Huntington’s “us” or “them” depiction of how culture operates in the interconnected world wrought by global commerce and its technologies. Christmas is no longer “ours.” It’s “theirs” too. Perhaps that’s because the essential cultural content is universal.

I had a related experience with Mozart in Vienna this summer. My wife, who is Chinese, was chatting with a hawker selling tickets to a concert in the Musikverein, or the 金色大厅, as the Chinese call it. The young man, a violinist, made his pitch in respectable Chinese. He also noted that Chinese attendance at performances of western classical music was underwriting the lives of a lot of young musicians in the city. Sure enough, the 金色大厅was chock full of Chinese tourists, whose enthusiasm for the music lifted the spirits of everyone else in the room, performers included. Is Mozart a product of “Western” culture that needs to be protected from a rising China? Or has a rising China’s embrace given new life to old art that belongs to us all?

Globalization has its problems. Rising economic inequality is the most pressing. Our political leaders should focus on that, rather than fretting about the future of human culture, which, if Christmas in communist China is any indication, we can sort out better by ourselves.

Pressuring China on North Korea Could Be a Mistake

The Trump administration is intentionally putting China in very tough spot. It is attempting to make the Chinese leadership believe it must choose between a preemptive US attack on North Korea or agreeing to US requests to strangle North Korea’s economy with even tougher sanctions, including cutting off North Korea’s oil supply at the beginning of winter. That may seem like clever diplomacy to some. But it’s a high stakes game of poker that the United States could lose.

The problem with the Trump administration’s strategy – if it is a strategy – is that from China’s point of view both choices lead to war.

China’s Bad Hand

Chinese arms control analysts do not believe North Korea is willing to give up its nuclear weapons program. Moreover, they think the uptick in threatening US language and military posturing have led the North Koreans to accelerate their efforts to develop a credible nuclear deterrent. In their view, the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure” is pushing North Korea farther away from the negotiating table, not towards it.

Chinese scholars do not believe the Chinese leadership can influence North Korean decisions about security. One of the most often repeated laments I’ve heard from Chinese colleagues during this visit is that Americans don’t understand that China is not North Korea’s ally. North Korea does not trust China. It never has. Chinese historians are quick to point out that even during the Korean War in the 1950s the North Korean leadership resisted Chinese military intervention. And because North Korea does not trust China, the Hermit Kingdom’s nuclear weapons program is the only credible security guarantee it’s got. It is also the only bargaining chip the North Koreans can use to encourage the United States to negotiate, and then honor, a permanent peace treaty.

Chinese military experts do not believe US preemption will succeed. They think the North Korean leadership, and the nuclear weapons program, will survive a surgical strike. In their view, only a massive US attack, accompanied by a ground invasion, has a chance of permanently disarming the North Koreans. Moreover, Chinese military analysts believe that any US attack, no matter how limited, will precipitate North Korean retaliation. That will invite additional US attacks and begin a downward spiral of military activity that will be very hard to stop once it starts.

What does China believe? The Chinese government has stated, on multiple occasions, that severe sanctions, like cutting off oil and food supplies, will “destabilize” the peninsula. That’s the diplomatic way of saying it will lead to war. Chinese analysts do not rule out the possibility that North Korea might decide to punish China for capitulating to the United States. A Chinese military response to any North Korean attack against China risks inviting unwanted US military involvement. Alternatively, a North Korean military attack against South Korea or Japan would compel US military action. Either way, Chinese experts believe the same pattern of escalating attacks and retaliation will ensue.

So, if the Trump administration isn’t bluffing about preemption, and the Chinese leadership believes preemption and sanctions both lead to war, the only real choice China faces is how it should respond to this no-win situation.

Possible Chinese Responses

Like most people faced with impossible choices, China’s leaders will probably try to put things off as long as they can. They will try to give the Trump administration a little more on sanctions and hope that’s enough to keep things quiet a bit longer. At some point, however, when sanctions begin to have a meaningful effect on North Korea, China’s leaders will likely conclude they cannot apply additional pressure without triggering a North Korean military provocation.

Some of the Chinese experts advising President Xi think that time has already come. They are the ones behind the Global Times editorial that threatened Chinese military intervention if the United States fires the first shot. These Chinese hard-liners are now trying to bring Russia on board with discussions about a joint statement warning the Trump administration against a preemptive attack on North Korea. They do not believe the United States is willing to risk a war with China and Russia to attempt a preemptive strike against North Korea that has a low probability of success.

Other Chinese experts don’t want the leadership to take such a huge step backwards and revert to a Cold War-style relationship with the United States. They agree there is no reason to expect North Korea to freeze or dismantle its nuclear weapons program, and that tightened sanctions and increased pressure only strengthen North Korean resolve. Nevertheless, they would rather work with the United States than against it. A tiny minority of those experts would even like the Chinese leadership to consider cooperating with the United States on military action against North Korea.

Likely Outcomes

The chance of that happening is probably quite small. Chinese cooperation in US military action against North Korea would invite North Korean retaliation against China. And China’s leaders have good reason to doubt whether there will be any meaningful reciprocation from the Trump administration in exchange for taking such a huge risk. Chinese military and foreign policy analysts presume the United States will still see China as a rising economic and military threat. Moreover, the Trump administration’s notorious unpredictability would make any US promise unreliable.

Because the choice the United States is presenting to China is so unpalatable, the most likely Chinese response will be to wait out the storm and hope Trump is bluffing. US efforts to ratchet up inflammatory rhetoric and military exercises are unlikely to alter Chinese thinking. Chinese leaders have been confronting US threats and enduring US military posturing for decades. Moreover, there is a tendency in traditional Chinese military culture to believe that preparations for actual military moves are concealed, while advertised preparations, like anchoring a nuclear submarine in South Korea, or practicing air strikes, are for show. Mainstream Chinese interpretations of post-1949 US-China relations reinforce that tendency. From China’s point of view, the Trump administration’s threat to start a war with North Korea looks like a bluff.

If the Trump administration is bluffing, and the Chinese government manages to keep its cool, what happens then? Will China look like the wiser party? Will Japan and South Korea lose faith in Trump’s judgment? It is possible that instead of backing China into a corner, President Trump may find himself trapped in a situation where he feels he has to attack North Korea just to preserve his credibility in Asia.

It would not be the first time a US president fell into this trap. President Eisenhower got stuck in the same conundrum during the Taiwan Straights Crisis of 1954-55. The Joint Chiefs argued the United States had to attack China, and risk nuclear war with the Soviet Union, to preserve US credibility in the region. But Ike was a general too, understood the nature of war, and chose to subordinate concerns about credibility to caution and wait. He chose wisely. How President Trump would respond is a question worth pondering before pushing the strategy of “maximum pressure” to the breaking point.


Reentry of North Korea’s Hwasong-15 Missile

Photos of the Hwasong-15 missile North Korea launched on its November 29 test suggest it is considerably more capable than the long-range missiles it tested in July. This missile’s length and diameter appear to be larger by about 10 percent than July’s Hwasong-14. It has a significantly larger second stage and a new engine in the first stage that appears to be much more powerful.

While we are still working through the details, this strongly implies that North Korea could use this missile to carry a nuclear warhead to cities throughout the United States. A final possible barrier people are discussing is whether Pyongyang has been able to develop a reentry vehicle that can successfully carry a warhead through the atmosphere to its target, while protecting the warhead from the very high stresses and heat of reentry.

Here are my general conclusions, which I discuss below:

  1. North Korea has not yet demonstrated a working reentry vehicle (RV) on a trajectory that its missiles would fly if used against the United States.
  2. However, there doesn’t appear to be a technical barrier to building a working RV, and doing so is not likely to be a significant challenge compared to what North Korea has already accomplished in its missile program.
  3. From its lofted tests, North Korea can learn significant information needed for this development, if it is able to collect this information.
  4. While the United States put very significant resources into developing sophisticated RVs and heatshields, as well as extensive monitoring equipment to test them, that effort was to develop highly accurate missiles, and is not indicative of the effort required by North Korea to develop an adequate RV to deliver a nuclear weapon to a city.

The Hwasong-15 RV

When the photos appeared after North Korea’s November 29 missile launch, I was particularly interested to see the reentry vehicle (RV) on the top of this missile. The RV contains the warhead and protects it on its way to the ground. It is significant that the Hwasong-15 RV is considerably wider and blunter than that on the Hwasong-14 (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. The RVs for the Hwasong-14 (left) and Hwasong-15 (right), roughly to scale. (Source: KCNA)

This fact has several implications. The new RV can clearly accommodate a larger diameter warhead, and the warhead can sit farther forward toward the nose of the RV. This moves the center of mass forward and makes the RV more stable during reentry. (This drawing shows how the cylindrical nuclear weapon in the US Trident II RV, which was roughly the same size and shape, although much heavier, than the Hwasong-15 RV.)

But the blunter nose on the Hwasong-15 RV also helps protect it from high atmospheric forces and heating during reentry. Here’s why:

As the RV enters the atmosphere, drag due to the air acts as a braking force to slow it down, and that braking force puts stress on the warhead. At the same time, much of the kinetic energy the RV loses as it slows down shows up as heating of the air around the RV. Some of that heat is transferred from the air to the RV, and therefore heats up the warhead. If the stress and/or heating are too great they can damage the RV and the warhead inside it.

A blunter RV has higher drag and slows down in the thin upper parts of the atmosphere more than does a slender RV, which continues at high speed into the thick lower parts of the atmosphere. This results in significantly less intense stress and heating on the blunter RV. In addition to that, a blunt nose creates a broad shock wave in front of the RV that also helps keep the hot air from transferring its heat to the RV.

Fig. 2. This shows two low-drag RVs being placed on a Minuteman III missile, which can carry three RVs. (Source: US Air Force).

A rough estimate shows that if the RVs had the same mass and flew on the same trajectory, the peak atmospheric forces and heating experienced by the Hwasong-14 RV in Fig. 1 would be roughly four or more times as great as that experienced by the Hwasong-15 RV; those on a modern US RV, like that on the Minuteman III missile (Fig. 2), might be 20 times as large as on the Hwasong-15 RV.

The tradeoff of having a blunt warhead is that when the RV travels more slowly through the atmosphere it reduces its accuracy. In order to get very high accuracy with its missiles, the United States spent a tremendous amount of effort developing highly sophisticated heatshields that could withstand the heating experienced by a slender, low-drag RV.

For North Korea, the decrease in accuracy due to a blunt RV is not particularly important. The accuracy of its long-range missiles will likely be tens of kilometers. That means that it would not use its missiles to strike small military targets, but would instead strike large targets like cities. For a large target like that, the reduction in accuracy due to a blunt RV is not significant.

What could North Korea learn from its recent test?

Press stories report US officials as saying that the reentry vehicle on North Korea’s November 29 test “had problems” and “likely broke up” during reentry. If true, this implies that the RV used on this flight could not withstand the strong drag forces as the RV reached low altitudes.

It’s worth noting that the drag forces on the RV during reentry on the lofted trajectory would be more than twice as great as they would be on a standard trajectory of 13,000 km range flown by the same missile (Fig. 3). This is because on the flatter trajectory, the RV flies through a longer path of thin air and therefore slows down more gently than on the lofted trajectory. It is therefore possible the RV might survive if flown on a standard trajectory, but North Korea has not yet demonstrated that it would.

However, given the estimated capability of the Hwasong-15 missile, North Korea appears to have the option of strengthening the RV, which would increase its mass somewhat, and still be able to deliver a warhead to long distances.

Fig. 3. This figure shows the atmospheric forces on the RV with altitude as it reenters, for the highly lofted test on November 29 (black curve) compared to the same missile flying a 13,000 km standard  trajectory (a minimum-energy trajectory, MET). The horizontal axis plots the product of the atmospheric density and square of the RV speed along its trajectory, which is proportional to the drag force on the RV. The calculations in all these figures assume a ballistic coefficient of the RV of 100 lb/ft2 (5 kN/m2). Increasing the ballistic coefficient will increase the magnitude of the forces and move the peaks to somewhat lower altitudes, but the comparative size of the curves will remain similar.

The situation is similar with heating of the RV. The last three columns of Fig. 4 compare several measures of the heating experienced by the RV on the lofted November 29 test to what would be experienced by the same RV on a 13,000 km-range missile on a standard trajectory (MET).

Fig. 4. A comparison of RV forces and heating on the November 29 test and on a 13,000 km-range trajectory, assuming both missiles have the same RV and payload. A discussion of these quantities is given in the “Details” section below.

These estimates show that the maximum heating experienced on the lofted trajectory would be about twice that on a standard trajectory, but that total heat absorbed by the RV on the two trajectories would be roughly the same. Because the heating occurs earlier on the RV on the standard trajectory than on the lofted trajectory, that heat has about 130 seconds to diffuse through the insulation of the RV to the warhead, while the heat on the lofted trajectory diffuses for about 80 seconds (Fig. 5). This somewhat longer time for “heat soak” can increase the amount of heat reaching the warhead, but North Korea would put insulation around the warhead inside the RV, and the heat transfer through insulators that North Korea should have access to is low enough that this time difference is probably not significant.

Fig. 5: This figure shows how the heating rate of the RV surface varies with time before impact on the lofted and standard trajectory. The areas under the curves are proportional to the total heat absorbed by the RV, and is only about 20% larger for the MET. The vertical axis plots the product of the atmospheric density and the cube of the RV speed along its trajectory, which is proportional to the heating rate on the RV.

Fig. 6 shows heating on the two trajectories with altitude.

Fig. 6. This figure shows the heating of the RV with altitude as it reenters.

These results show that if North Korea were able to demonstrate that its RV could survive the peak drag forces and heating on a lofted trajectory, it should also be able to survive those on a standard trajectory. As noted above, the estimated capability of the Hwasong-15 missile suggests North Korea would be able to increase the structural strength of the RV and its heat shielding and still be able to deliver a warhead to long distances.

There is still some question about what information North Korea may actually be getting from its tests. One advantage of testing on highly lofted trajectories that fall in the Sea of Japan is that the RV can presumably radio back data to antennae in North Korea for most of the flight. However, because of the curvature of the Earth, an antenna on the ground in North Korea would not be able to receive signals once the RV dropped below about 80 km altitude at a distance of 1000 km. To be able to track the missile down to low altitudes it would likely need a boat or plane in the vicinity of the reentry point.

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 through the atmosphere. 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. Similarly, forces due to atmospheric drag are proportional to ρV2, and also increase rapidly with missile range.

The calculations above assume a ballistic coefficient of the RV equal to 100 lb/ft2 (5 kN/m2). The ballistic coefficient β = W/CdA (where W is the weight of the RV, Cd is its drag coefficient, and A is its cross-sectional area perpendicular to the air flow) is the combination of parameters that determines how atmospheric drag reduces the RV’s speed during reentry. The drag and heating values in the tables 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.

Based on the shape of the Hwasong-15 RV, I estimate that its drag coefficient Cd is 0.35-0.4. That value gives β in the range of 100-150 lb/ft2 (5-7 kN/m2) for an RV mass of 500-750 kg. The drag coefficient of the Hwasong-14 RV is roughly 0.15.

Did Pilots See North Korea’s Missile Fail during Reentry?

News reports say that a Cathay Airlines flight crew on November 29 reported seeing North Korea’s missile “blow up and fall apart” during its recent flight test. Since reports also refer to this as happening during “reentry,” they have suggested problems with North Korea’s reentry technology.

But the details suggest the crew instead saw the missile early in flight, and probably did not see an explosion.

One report of the sighting by the Cathay CX893 crew gives the time as about 2:18 am Hong Kong time, which is 3:18 am Japan time (18:18 UTC). According to the Pentagon, the launch occurred at 3:17 am Japanese time (18:17 UTC), which would put the Cathay sighting shortly after the launch of the missile from a location near Pyongyang, North Korea.

Since the missile flew for more than 50 minutes, it would not have reentered until after 4 am Japanese time. Given the timing, it seems likely the crew might have seen the first stage burn out and separate from the rest of the missile. This would have happened a few minutes after launch, so is roughly consistent with the 3:18 time.

The New York Times posted a map that shows the track of flight CX893. It shows that the flight was over northern Japan at 6:18 pm UTC (Fig. 1) and the pilots would have had a good view of the launch. By the time reentry occurred around 7:11 pm UTC, the plane would have been over mid-Japan and reentry would have occurred somewhat behind them (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Maps showing the location of flight CX893 shortly after launch of North Korea’s missile near the red dot on the left map, and at the time of reentry of North Korea’s missile, which took place near the red dot on the right map. (Source: NYT with UCS addition)

Burnout of the first stage would have taken place at an altitude about 100 km higher than the plane, but at a lateral distance of some 1,600 km from the plane. As a result, it would have only been about 4 degrees above horizontal to their view—so it would not have appeared particularly high to them. Ignition of the second stage rocket engine and separation of the first stage may have looked like an explosion that caused the missile to fall apart.

There are also reports of two Korean pilots apparently seeing a “flash” about an hour after the missile’s launch, which would be consistent with the warhead heating up during reentry, since the missile flew for 53-54 minutes. Neither reported seeing an explosion, according to the stories.

Like Bonnie Tyler, NRC is Holding Out for a HERO

In Nuclear Energy Activist Toolkit #47, I summarized the regulations and practices developed to handle emergencies at nuclear power plants. While that commentary primarily focused on the response at the stricken plant site, it did mention that nuclear workers are required to notify the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) promptly following any declaration of an emergency condition. The NRC staffs its Operations Center 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to receive and process emergency notifications.

In late September 2017, I was made aware that the NRC was not staffing its Operations Center with the number of qualified individuals as mandated by its procedures. Specifically, NRC Management Directive 8.2, “Incident Response Program,” dictates that the Operations Center be staffed with at least two individuals: one qualified as a Headquarters Operations Officer (HOO) and one qualified as a Headquarters Emergency Response Officer (HERO). The HOO is primarily responsible for responding to a nuclear plant emergency while the HERO provides administrative support such as interagency communications.

I learned that the NRC Operations Center was instead often being staffed with only one person qualified as a HOO and a second person tasked with a “life support” role. In other words, the “life support” person would summon help in case the HOO keeled over from a heart attack or spilt hot coffee on sensitive body parts.

Fig. 1 (Source: Joe Haupt Flickr photo)

I wrote to Bernard Stapleton, who heads the NRC’s incident response effort, on October 3, 2017, inquiring about the Operations Center staffing levels. The NRC’s response was both rapid and thorough.

A conference call was conducted on October 12, 2017, between me and Steve West, Acting Director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response, and members of his staff, Bern Stapleton and Bo Pham. They informed me that it had been a challenge for the agency to staff the Operations Center in summer and fall 2017 with qualified HEROs due to several watch standers taking other positions within the NRC and a temporary hiring freeze imposed after the unanticipated termination of the construction of two new reactors at the Summer nuclear plant in South Carolina.

The former reason made sense as individuals with these skills seek promotions. The latter reason made sense as the NRC sought to find new positions for its staff members formerly assigned to the Summer project. The one-two punch of qualified persons leaving and the replacement pipeline being temporary shut off prevented the Operations Center from always being staffed with an individual HERO qualified. The Operations Center always had a HOO; it sometimes lacked a HERO.

They told me that two persons had recently been hired to fill the empty positions on the Operations Center staffing chart and those new hires would be undergoing training to achieve HERO qualifications. In addition, they told me about initiatives to qualify NRC staff outside of the Operations Center section to provide a larger cushion against future staffing challenges. The larger pool of qualified watch standers would have the collateral benefit of expanding the skill sets of individuals not assigned full-time to the Operations Center.

The NRC followed up on the conference call by sending me a letter dated November 16, 2017, documenting our conversation.

UCS Perspective

It would be better for everyone if the NRC had always been able to staff its Operations Center with individuals qualified as HOOs and HEROs. But the downside from problem-free conditions is the challenge in determining whether they are due more to luck than skill. How an organization responds to problems often provides more meaningful insights than a period of problem-free performance. On the other hand, an organization really, really good at responding to problems might reflect way too much experience having problems.

In this case, the NRC did not attempt to downplay or excuse the Operations Center staffing problems. Instead, they explained how the problems came about, what measures were being taken in the interim period, and what steps were planned to resolve the matter in the long term.

In other words, the NRC skillfully responded to the bad luck that had left the Operations Center short-handed for a while.