UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only)

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.

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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.

Seriously?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Chinese Military Strategy: A Work in Progress

Chinese President Xi Jinping, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), presents the heads of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Military Science with the military flag in Beijing, capital of China, July 19, 2017. (Xinhua/Li Gang)

Several years ago UCS reported China could put its nuclear weapons on high alert so they could be launched on warning of an incoming attack. Last week I had the opportunity to speak with some of the authors of The Science of Military Strategy: the authoritative Chinese military publication that was the source of the information in our report.

In a lively discussion, most of which took place between the authors themselves, I was able to confirm our original report is accurate. But I also learned more about how and why The Science of Military Strategy was written and what that can tell US observers about the broader context of how military thinking is evolving in China.

What it means to say China “can” launch on warning.

As of today, China keeps its nuclear forces off alert. The warheads and the missiles are separated and controlled by different commands. The operators are trained to bring them together and prepare them for launch after being attacked first.

China’s nuclear arsenal is small. Reliable estimates of the amount of weapons-grade plutonium China produced and the amount of plutonium China uses in its warheads tell us China has, at most, several hundred nuclear warheads. It has even fewer long-range missiles that could deliver those warheads to targets in the United States.

Because China’s nuclear arsenal is small and kept off alert some Chinese military strategists worry it could be completely wiped out in a single attack. Their US counterparts have told them, in person, that the United States will not rule out attempting a preemptive strike at the beginning of a war. The question for Chinese strategists is whether or not they should do something to mitigate this vulnerability. Many believe the risk of a major war with the United States is low and the risk of a nuclear war is even lower.

For Chinese strategists who don’t share that optimism, there are two basic ways to address their vulnerability. The first would be to significantly increase the size of China’s forces. Chinese nuclear weapons experts told me that would require a lot of time and considerable effort. They would need to resume producing plutonium for weapons and may also need to resume nuclear testing. The economic costs would be considerable. The diplomatic costs would be even greater.

The second way to avoid the risk of allowing an adversary to think they can wipe out China’s nuclear force with a preemptive strike is for China to put its forces on alert and enable them to be launched on warning of an incoming attack. That would require the development of an early warning system. It may also require upgrading China’s nuclear-capable missiles. One Chinese missile engineer explained that China’s existing missiles are not designed to be kept on continuous alert.

Either option would significantly alter China’s nuclear posture. But the latter may also require a consequential change in China’s nuclear doctrine.

China’s political leaders promised the world they would never, under any circumstances, be the first to use nuclear weapons. Wouldn’t launching on warning of attack, before any damage is done, violate that promise? The answer is not as obvious to Chinese policy-makers as it probably seems to their American counterparts, who don’t believe in the efficacy or credibility of a no first use pledge in the first place.

What I learned in my conversation with the authors of The Science of Military Strategy is that when they wrote that China “can” launch on warning of an incoming attack they were not saying China has the technical capability to do so,  nor were they announcing the intention to implement a launch on warning policy. They were simply declaring that, in their view, China could launch on warning—before their missiles were destroyed—without violating China’s no first use pledge.

Shouldn’t they have made that more explicit?

The authors told me, in response to a direct question, that they did not consider the impact of what they were writing on external audiences. That does not mean they were unaware non-Chinese might read it, just that they weren’t writing for them. The Science of Military Strategy is  an institutional assessment of China’s current strategic situation prepared for the consideration of the rest of China’s defense establishment and its political leadership. Those two audiences wouldn’t need to be told what the “can” in an Academy of Military Science (AMS) statement on launch on warning was referencing. They would already understand the context. As the authors explained, AMS is not responsible for making technical assessments of China’s capabilities, nor does it make public announcements about Chinese military policies or the intentions of China’s political leadership.

It’s difficult for many US observers to imagine that Chinese open source publications like The Science of Military Strategy aren’t just another form of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda. That’s understandable given Chinese government controls on speech and publication. But even in a relatively closed and tightly controlled polity like China’s, professionals still need to engage in meaningful discussion, including military professionals. Understanding that internal discussion from abroad requires more than parsing the language in Chinese publications. It also requires a sufficient degree of familiarity with the social, institutional and sometimes even the personal factors that define the context within which Chinese discussions of controversial topics – like nuclear weapons policy – take place.

Regular interaction with Chinese counterparts is the only way to acquire this familiarity. Unfortunately, both governments make that much more difficult than it needs to be. And language is still a significant barrier, especially on the US side.

Pessimism on US-China Relations

Most of my Chinese colleagues believe the intergovernmental relationship between China and the United States is deteriorating. The cooperative relationship of the 1980s and 1990s gradually gave way to an increasingly competitive relationship over the past two US administrations. The new edition of The Science of Military Strategy, composed over an 18-month period prior to its publication in 2013, addresses new issues that might emerge if this trend continues, and the relationship moves from competition toward conflict.

There is no fixed schedule for putting out a new edition. According to a general who was also involved the production of two prior editions, the first addressed concerns related to China-USSR relations. The second responded to the so-called “revolution in military affairs” exemplified by the new technologies used in the 1991 Gulf War. The current edition had no equally specific point of origin. It was, in the Chinese general’s words, more “forward-looking.” And as the Chinese military looks forward, its relationship with the United States looms large on the horizon.

None of the authors felt China’s overall military capabilities were remotely comparable to those of the United States. One of the more interesting barometers they used was the average annual salary of an ordinary soldier. All of the authors agreed this gap is unlikely to be closed in the foreseeable future. China still needs to focus its military development in select areas. Having a clearer understanding of what China’s future military challenges might be—an understanding AMS is charged with articulating—can help Chinese decision-makers set priorities.

That one of those priorities is addressing the vulnerability of China’s nuclear forces to a US preemptive attack is a troubling indicator of deteriorating relations.

 

North Korea’s Longest Missile Test Yet

After more than two months without a missile launch, North Korea did a middle-of-the-night test (3:17 am local time) today that appears to be its longest yet.

Reports are saying that the missile test was highly lofted and landed in the Sea of Japan some 960 km (600 miles) from the launch site. They are also saying the missile reached a maximum altitude of 4,500 km. This would mean that it flew for about 54 minutes, which is consistent with reports from Japan.

If these numbers are correct, then if flown on a standard trajectory rather than this lofted trajectory, this missile would have a range of more than 13,000 km (8,100 miles). This is significantly longer than North Korea’s previous long range tests, which flew on lofted trajectories for 37 minutes (July 4) and 47 minutes (July 28). Such a missile would have more than enough range to reach Washington, DC, and in fact any part of the continental United States.

We do not know how heavy a payload this missile carried, but given the increase in range it seems likely that it carried a very light mock warhead. If true, that means it would not be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to this long distance, since such a warhead would be much heavier.

Trump and Asia’s Strongmen

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe poses for the cameras with US President Donald Trump during his recent trip to Asia.

Earlier this month, from the gallery of the Diet building in Tokyo, I listened to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talk up his friendship with US President Donald Trump and their plans to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons. This was the centerpiece of his State of the Union address and the claim that convinced anxious Japanese voters to support Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) during the October 22nd election.

It is not unusual for the US-Japan relationship to take center stage in Japan’s domestic politics. No matter who is in the White House, most Japanese voters expect their prime minister to get on well the US president. The cold shoulder Barack Obama gave Abe’s predecessors from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) expedited the demise of the only non-LDP led Japanese government in the last fifty years.

Abe’s domestic policies are unpopular. He rammed through a divisive national security law that restricted press freedom, stifling inquiry and dissent. He continues to push nuclear power despite the public’s post-Fukushima reticence. Abenomics increased economic growth but exploded the deficit and shuffled the gains to Japan’s top 1%, increasing inequality and undermining Japan’s social safety net without addressing any of Japan’s long-term economic challenges. Had the opposition not split over national security concerns, the LDP would have had a tougher time convincing Japanese voters to support them at the polls.

Playing the Field

Unfortunately for Mr. Abe, Mr. Trump is also fond of Chinese President Xi Jinping. The lavish praise Trump awarded the Chinese leader could eventually undermine Abe’s reputation as an able steward of US-Japan relations. Japanese anxieties about China run deeper than their concerns about North Korea. Sporadic fears of US abandonment have plagued Japan ever since Nixon went to China in 1972. For the time being, the Japanese media tends to underreport Trump’s budding bromance with Xi. Should that change, Mr. Abe might start to look like the weaker suitor for the current US president’s attention.

Vladimir Putin also got his share of kind words from the US president on his first official trip to Asia. Most importantly, the ex-KGB officer received a US presidential vote of confidence in his denial of Kremlin meddling in American politics. Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea and his ongoing military intervention in Ukraine didn’t even make the news. Instead, the leader of the free world focused global attention on the Russian autocrat’s rough treatment at the hands of his Western critics.

Looking Forward

Sooner or later the Japanese public will start to wonder about the wisdom of Abe’s close personal relationship with Trump, especially if his US approval ratings stay in the basement and he begins to look like a one-term president. Japanese doubts may quickly turn to anger if the governing LDP spends money it doesn’t have on expensive military hardware it doesn’t need just to mollify Mr. Trump’s anger over a trade deficit that, because of the sheer size of the Japanese and US economies, could never be closed by US arms sales.

Unlike China and Russia, Japan is a democracy where its leaders are only as strong as the support of the people they govern, who eventually will hold them accountable at the polls. Mr. Abe’s tendency to stoke their fears and promise protection may win over a majority of Japanese voters for awhile, and some Japanese voters indefinitely. But the old adage attributed to Abraham Lincoln about the impossibility of successfully manipulating most voters most of the time probably still holds, even in the age of Facebook and Twitter.

Progressive opponents of authoritarian politicians can hasten their demise and prevent their return with better answers to the national security problems that often get them elected. Here in Japan, Yuriko Koike’s “Party of Hope” tried to out tough the LDP with nationalistic rhetoric on defense and trade. But the popular Tokyo governor’s party was crushed at the polls and she resigned from its leadership. Progressive Japanese legislators uncomfortable with Koike’s turn to the right reassembled as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDPJ), which fared much better in the recent election and is now the largest opposition party in the Diet.

Tsujimoto Kiyomi, who is leading the fight against Abe’s effort to limit the opposition’s ability to question him, recognizes the CDPJ needs to address the electorate’s concerns about North Korea and China if it wants to lead a progressive Japanese majority back to power. In an interview hours before Abe’s address to the Diet, she explained that Trump’s hard line on North Korea—and Abe’s willingness to parrot it—were not the source of their support in Japan. Japanese voters, like their counterparts in South Korea and the United States, are understandably nervous when they hear both men claim that the time for dialog with North Korea is over. That implies preparations for military actions that could drag Japan into a war and lead to attacks on Japanese cities.

According to Ms. Kiyomi, and other CDPJ legislators I spoke with this month, Japanese voters were responding to Trump’s camaraderie with their prime minister. They understand Japan’s national defense depends on help from the United States. Specific policies matter less than the personal relationships Japanese voters find reassuring.

Unfortunately, because the LDP has been the majority party for all but three of the past 50 years, Japan’s progressive opposition hasn’t had much of chance to develop mature relationships with US government officials. Even when progressives were in charge of the government, the career LDP officials in the bureaucracy continued to dominate US-Japan relations. Moreover, these LDP bureaucrats sought to undermine their political opponents by telling US officials, and the Japanese public, that the new progressive Japanese leadership was anti-American. It’s an unfair accusation that stuck, creating a false impression that the new leadership of the CDPJ intends to work hard to correct.

Support from leading progressive politicians in the United States would help, a lot. Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, is a political hero in Japan. His campaign for the US presidency was well-received by Japanese voters who share many of the same economic anxieties Sanders spoke to during the 2016 election. Visible friendly relations with progressive US leaders like Sanders would give the LDP’s progressive opponents the same political shot in the arm that Abe got from his relationship with Trump.

More importantly, US progressives could learn a great deal about America’s most important Asian ally if they expanded their brief beyond the old school US Japan hands who steered President Obama away from progressive politicians in Japan. That’s especially true when it comes to defense and foreign policy. Progressive politicians in both countries have a hard-time convincing their respective voters that they can be effective international leaders. They might be able to change that by working together on tough problems like North Korea, rather than continuing to work separately.

 

UCS to Nuclear Regulatory Commission: Big THANKS!

This spring, I ran into Mike Weber, Director of the Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), at a break during a Commission briefing. The Office of Research hosts a series of seminars which sometimes include presentations by external stakeholders. I asked Mike if it would be possible for me to make a presentation as part of that series.

I explained that I’d made presentations during annual inspector conferences in NRC’s Regions I, II, and III in recent years and would appreciate the opportunity to reach out to the seminars’ audience. Mike commented that he’d heard positive feedback from my regional presentations and would welcome my presentation as part of their seminars. Mike tasked Mark Henry Salley and Felix Gonzalez from the Research staff to work out arrangements with me. The seminar was scheduled for September 19, 2017, in the auditorium of the Two White Flint North offices at NRC headquarters. I appreciate Mike, Mark, and Felix providing me the opportunity I sought to convey a message I truly wanted to deliver.

Fig. 1 (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

The title of my presentation at the seminar was “The Other Sides of the Coins.” The NRC subsequently made my presentation slides publicly available in ADAMS, their online digital library.

As I pointed out during my opening remarks, the NRC staff most often hears or reads my statements critical of how the agency did this or didn’t do that. My presentation that day focused on representative positive outcomes achieved by the NRC. For that presentation that day, my whine list was blank by design. Instead, I talked about the other sides of my usual two cents’ worth.

Fig. 2 (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

I summarized eight positive outcomes achieved by the NRC and listed five other positive outcomes. I emphasized that these were representative positive outcomes and far from an unabridged accounting. I told the audience members that I fully expected they would be reminded of other positive outcomes they were involved in as I covered the few during my presentation. Rather than feeling slighted, I hoped they would feel acknowledged and appreciated by extension.

One of the eight positive outcomes I summarized was the inadequate flooding protection identified by NRC inspectors at the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant in Nebraska. The NRC issued a preliminary Yellow finding—the second highest severity in its Green, White, Yellow, and Red classification system—in July 2010 for the flood protection deficiencies. To help put that Yellow finding in context, the NRC issued 827 findings during 2010: 816 Green, 9 White, and 2 Yellow. It was hardly a routine, run of the mill issuance.

The plant’s owner formally contested the preliminary Yellow finding, contending among other things that Fort Calhoun had operated for nearly 30 years with its flood protective measures, so they must be sufficient. The owner admitted that some upgrades might be appropriate, but contended that the finding should be Green, not Yellow.

The NRC seriously considered the owner’s appeal and revisited its finding and its severity determination. The NRC reached the same conclusion and issued the final Yellow finding in October 2010. The NRC then monitored the owner’s efforts to remedy the flood protection deficiencies.

The NRC’s findings and, more importantly, the owner’s fixes certainly came in handy when Fort Calhoun (the sandbagged dry spot in the lower right corner of Figure 3) literally became an island in the Missouri River in June 2011.

Recall that the NRC inspectors identified flood protection deficiencies nearly 8 months before the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan experienced three reactor meltdowns due to flooding. Rather than waiting for the horses to trot away before closing the barn door, the NRC acted to close an open door to protect the horses before they faced harm. Kudos!

Fig. 3 (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

The real reason for my presentation in September and my commentary now is to acknowledge the efforts of the NRC staff. My concluding slide pointed out that tens of millions of Americans live within 50 miles of operating nuclear power plants and tens of thousands of Americans work at these operating plants. The efforts of the NRC staff make these Americans safer and more secure. I observed that the NRC staff deserved big thanks for their efforts and my final slide attempted to symbolically convey our appreciation. (The thanks were way bigger on the large projection screen in the auditorium. To replicate that experience, lean forward until your face is mere inches away from your screen.)

Fig. 4 (Source: Union of Concerned Scientists)

Whose Finger Is on the Button? Nuclear Launch Authority in the United States and Other Nations

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, and perhaps even more since Trump’s election, the media discovered a newfound interest in the minutiae of US nuclear policy. One question in particular has been asked over and over—can the president, with no one else to concur or even advise, order the use of US nuclear weapons? Most people have been shocked and somewhat horrified to find that there is a simple answer—yes.

Starting a nuclear war shouldn’t be easy

The president has the sole authority to order a nuclear strike—either a first strike or one in response to an attack. Although there are people involved in the process of transmitting and executing this order who could physically delay or refuse to carry it out, they have no legal basis for doing so, and it is far from clear what would happen if they tried.

This belated realization (the system has been in place since the early Cold War) has prompted some ideas for ways to change things, including legislation restricting the president’s ability to order a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress. But more often it has prompted concern—and sometimes outrage—without a clear idea of how to fix the problem.

It may be useful to ask how other nuclear-armed states approach the problem of making a decision about the use of their nuclear weapons. How does the US compare to Russia, China, and other nuclear-armed states? Are there existing systems that rely on multiple people to order the use of nuclear weapons that the US might learn from?

To try to answer these questions, our new issue brief compiles information on the systems that other nuclear-armed states have in place to order the use of their weapons. While information is necessarily limited, and some of these systems may not completely correspond to what would happen in a true crisis, they still provide useful information about what these countries think is important when making a decision about the use of nuclear weapons. And, in most cases, that includes some form of check on the power of any single individual to order the use of these weapons by him or herself.

The current US process for deciding to use nuclear weapons is unnecessarily risky in its reliance on the judgment of a single individual. There are viable alternatives to sole presidential authority, and it is past time for the US to establish a new process that requires the involvement of multiple decision-makers to authorize the use of nuclear weapons. An investigation of how this decision works in other nuclear-armed states provides a good place to start.

 

Grand Gulf: Three Nuclear Safety Miscues in Mississippi Warranting NRC’s Attention

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reacted to a trio of miscues at the Grand Gulf nuclear plant in Mississippi by sending a special inspection team to investigate. While none of the events had adverse nuclear safety consequences, the NRC team identified significantly poor performance by the operators in all three. The recurring performance shortfalls instill little confidence that the operators would perform successfully in event of a design basis or beyond design basis accident.

The Events

Three events prompted the NRC to dispatch a special inspection team to Grand Gulf:

(1) failure to recognize that reactor power fluctuating up and down by more than 10% during troubleshooting of a control system malfunction in June 2016 exceeded a longstanding safety criterion calling for immediate shutdown,

(2) failure to recognize in September 2016 that the backup reactor cooling system relied upon when the primary cooling system broke was unable to function if needed, and

(3) failure to understand how a control system worked on September 27, 2016, resulting in the uncontrolled and undesired addition of nearly 24,000 gallons of water to the reactor vessel.

(1) June 2016 Reactor Power Oscillation Miscue

Figure 1 shows the main steam system for a typical boiling water reactor like Grand Gulf. The reactor vessel is not shown but is located off its left side. Heat produced by the reactor core boils water. Four pipes transport the steam from the reactor vessel to the turbine. The steam spins the turbine which is connected to a generator (off the right side of Figure 1) to make electricity.

Fig. 1 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Periodically, operators reduce the reactor power level to about 65% power and test the turbine stop valves (labeled SV in Figure 1). The stop valves are fully open when the turbine is in service, but are designed to rapidly close automatically if a turbine problem is detected. When the reactor is operating above about 30 percent power, closure of the stop valves triggers the automatic shutdown of the reactor. Below about 30 percent power, the main steam bypass valves (shown in the lower left of Figure 1) open to allow the steam flow to the main condenser should the stop valves close.

Downstream of the turbine stop valves are the turbine control valves (labeled CV in Figure 1.) The control valves are partially open when the turbine is in service. The control valves are automatically re-positioned by the electro-hydraulic control (labeled EHC) system as the operators increase or decrease the reactor power level. Additionally, the EHC system automatically opens the three control valves in the other steam pipes more fully when the stop valve in one steam pipe closes. The EHC system and the control valve response time is designed to minimize the pressure transient experienced in the reactor vessel when the steam flow pathways change.

The test involves the operators closing each stop valve to verify these safety features function properly. During testing on June 17, 2016, however, unexpected outcomes were encountered. The EHC system failed to properly reposition the control valves in the other lines when a stop valve was closed, and later when it was re-opened. The control system glitch caused the reactor power level to increase and decrease between 63% and 76%.

Water flowing through the core of a boiling water reactor is heated to the boiling point. By design, the formation of steam bubbles during boiling acts like a brake on the reactor’s power level. Atoms splitting within the reactor core release heat. The splitting atoms also release neutrons, subcomponents of the atoms. The neutrons can interact with other atoms to cause them to split in what is termed a nuclear chain reaction. The neutrons emitted by splitting atoms have high energy and high speed. The neutrons get slowed down by colliding with water molecules. While fast neutrons can cause atoms to split, slower neutrons perform this role significantly better.

The EHC system problems caused the turbine control valves to open wider and close more than was necessary to handle the steam flow. Turbine control valves opened wider than necessary lowered the pressure inside the reactor vessel, allowing more steam bubbles to form. With fewer water molecules around to slow down the fast neutrons, more neutrons went places other than interacting with atoms to cause more fissions. The reactor power level dropped as the neutron chain reaction rate slowed.

When turbine control valves closed more than necessary, the pressure inside the reactor vessel increased. The higher pressure collapsed steam bubbles and made it harder for new bubbles to form. With more water molecules around, more neutrons interacted with atoms to cause more fissions. The reactor power level increased as the neutron chain reaction rate quickened.

Workers performed troubleshooting of the EHC system problems for 40 minutes. The reactor power level fluctuated between 63% and 76% as the turbine control valves closed too much and then opened too much. Finally, a monitoring system detected the undesired power fluctuations and automatically tripped the reactor, causing all the control rods to rapidly insert into the reactor core and stop the nuclear chain reaction.

The NRC’s special inspection team reported that the control room operators failed to realize that the 10% power swings exceeded a safety criterion that called for the immediate shut down of the reactor. Following a reactor power level instability event at the LaSalle nuclear plant in Illinois in March 1988, Grand Gulf and other boiling water reactors revised operating procedures in response to an NRC mandate to require reactors to be promptly shut down when the reactor power level oscillated by 10% or more.

EHC system problems causing unwanted and uncontrolled turbine control valve movements had been experienced eight times in the prior three years. Operators wrote condition reports about the problems, but no steps had been taken to identify the cause and correct it.

Consequences

Due to the intervention by the system triggering the automatic reactor scram, this event did not result in fuel damage or release of radioactive materials exceeding normal, routine releases. But that outcome was achieved despite the operators’ efforts but because of them. The operators’ training and procedures should have caused them to manually shut down the reactor when its power level swung up and down by more than 10%. Fortunately, the plant’s protective features intervened to remedy their poor judgement.

(2) September 2016 Backup Reactor Cooling System Miscue

On September 4, 2016, the operators declared residual heat removal (RHR) pump A (circled in red in the lower middle portion of Figure 2) to be inoperable after it failed a periodic test. The pump was one of three RHR pumps that can provide makeup cooling water to the reactor vessel in case of an accident. RHR pumps A and B can also be used to cool the water within the reactor vessel during non-accident conditions. Grand Gulf’s operating license only permitted the unit to continue running for a handful of days with RHR pump A inoperable. So, the operators shut down the reactor on September 8 to repair the pump.

Fig. 2 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

The operating license required two methods of cooling the water within the reactor vessel during shut down conditions. RHR pump B functioned as one of the methods. The operators took credit for the alternate decay heat removal (ADHR) system as the second method. The ADHR system is shown towards the upper right of Figure 2. It features two pumps that can take water from the reactor vessel, route it through heat exchangers, and return the cooled water to the reactor vessel. The ADHR system’s heat exchangers are supplied with cooling water from the plant service water (PSW) system. Warmed water from the reactor vessel flows through hundreds of metal tubes within the ADHR heat exchangers. Heat conducted through the tube walls gets carried away by the PSW system.

By September 22, workers had replaced RHR pump A and successfully tested the replacement. The following day, operators attempted to place the ADHR system in service prior to removing RHR pump B from service. They discovered that all the PSW valves (circle in red in the upper right portion of Figure 2) to the ADHR heat exchangers were closed. With these valves closed, the ADHR pumps would only take warm water from the reactor vessel, route it through the ADHR heat exchangers, and return the warm water back to the reactor vessel without being cooled.

The operating license required workers to check each day that both reactor water cooling systems were available during shut down. Each day between September 9 and 22, workers performed this check via a paperwork exercise. No one ever walked out into the plant to verify that the ADHR pumps were still there and that the PSW valves were still open.

The NRC team determined that workers closed the PSW valves to the ADHR heat exchangers on August 10 to perform maintenance on the ADHR system. The maintenance work was completed on August 15, but the valves were mistakenly not re-opened until September 23 after being belatedly discovered to be mis-positioned.

Consequences

Improperly relying on the ADHR system in this event had no adverse nuclear safety consequences. It was relied upon was a backup to the primary reactor cooling system which successfully performed that safety function. Had the primary system failed, the ADHR system would not have been able to take over that function as quickly as intended. Fortunately, the ADHR system’s vulnerability was not exploited.

(3) September 2016 Reactor Vessel Overfilling Miscue

On September 24, Grand Gulf was in what is called long cycle cleanup mode. Water within the condenser hotwell (upper right portion of Figure 3) was being sent by the condensate pumps through filter demineralizers and downstream feedwater heaters before recycling back to the condenser via the startup recirculation line. A closed valve prevented this water from flowing into the reactor vessel. Long cycle cleanup mode allows the filter demineralizers to remove particles and dissolved ions from the water. Water purity is important in boiling water reactors because any impurities tend to collect within the reactor vessel rather than being carried away with the steam leaving the vessel. The water in the condenser hotwell is the water used over and over again in boiling water reactors to make the steam that spins the turbine-generator.

Fig. 3 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Workers were restoring RHR pump B to its standby alignment following testing. The procedure they used directed them to open the closed feedwater valve. This valve was controlled by three pushbuttons in the control room: OPEN, CLOSE, and STOP. As soon as this valve began opening, water started flowing into the reactor vessel rather than being returned to the condenser.

The operator twice depressed the CLOSE pushbutton wanting very much for the valve to re-close. But this valve was designed to travel to the fully opened position after the OPEN pushbutton was depressed and travel to the fully closed position after the CLOSE pushbutton was depressed. By design, the valve would not change direction until after it had completed its full travel.

Unless the STOP pushbutton was depressed. The STOP pushbutton, as implied by its label, caused the valve’s movement to stop. Once stopped, depressing the CLOSE pushbutton would close the valve and depressing the OPEN pushbutton would open it.

According to the NRC’s special inspection team, “operations personnel did not understand the full function of the operating modes of [the] valve.” No operating procedure directed the operators to use the STOP button. Training in the control room simulator never covered the role of the STOP button because it was not mentioned in any operating procedures.

Not able to use the installed control system to its advantage, the operator waited until the valve traveled fully open before getting it to fully re-close. But the valve is among the largest and slowest valves in the plant—more like an elephant than a cheetah in its speed.

During the time the valve was open, an estimated 24,000 gallons of water overfilled the reactor vessel. As shown in Figure 4, the vessel’s normal level is about 33 inches above instrument zero, or about 201 inches above the top of the reactor core. The 24,000 gallons filled the reactor vessel to 151 inches above instrument zero.

Fig. 4 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Consequences

The overfilling event had no adverse nuclear safety consequences (unless revealing procedure inadequacies, insufficient training, and performance shortcomings count.)

NRC Sanctions

The NRC’s special inspection team identified three violations of regulatory requirements. One violation involved inadequate procedures for the condensate and feedwater systems that resulted in the reactor vessel overfilling event on September 24.

Another violation involved crediting the ADHR system for complying with an operating license requirement between September 9 and 22 despite its being unable to perform the necessary reactor water cooling role due to closed valves in the plant service water supply to the ADHR heat exchangers.

The third violation involved inadequate verification of the ADHR system availability between September 9 and 22. Workers failed to properly verify the system’s availability and had merely assumed it was a ready backup.

UCS Perspective

Th trilogy of miscues, goofs, and mistakes that prompted the NRC to dispatch a special inspection team have a common thread. Okay, two common threads since all three happened at Grand Gulf. All three miscues reflected very badly on the operations department.

During the June power fluctuations miscue, the operators should have manually scrammed the reactor, but failed to do so. In addition, operators had experienced turbine control system problems eight times in the prior three years and initiated reports intended to identify the causes of the problems and remedy them. The maintenance department could have, and should have, reacted to these reports earlier. But the operations department could have, and should have, insisted on the recurring problems getting fixed rather than meekly adding to the list of unresolved problem reports.

During the September backup cooling system miscue, many operators over nearly two weeks had many opportunities to notice that the ADHR system would not perform as needed due to mispositioned valves. The maintenance department could have, and should have, not set a trap for the operators by leaving the valves closed when maintenance work was completed. But the operators are the only workers at the plant licensed by the NRC to ensure regulatory requirements intended to protect the public are met. They failed that legal obligation again and again between September 9 and 22.

During the September reactor vessel overfilling event, the operators failed to recognize that opening the feedwater valve while in long cycle cleanup mode would send water into the reactor vessel. That’s a fundamental mistake that’s nearly impossible to justify. The operators then compounded that mistake by failing to properly use the installed control system to mitigate the event. They simply did not understand how the three pushbutton controls worked and thus were unable to use them properly.

The poor operator performance that is the common thread among the trio of problems examined by the NRC’s special inspection team inspire little to no confidence that their performance will be any better during a design basis or beyond design basis event.

Scientists to Congress: The Iran Deal is a Keeper

The July 2015 Iran Deal, which places strict, verified restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities, is again under attack by President Trump. This time he’s kicked responsibility over to Congress to “fix” the agreement and promised that if Congress fails to do so, he will withdraw from it.

As the New York Times reported, in response to this development over 90 prominent scientists sent a letter to leading members of Congress yesterday urging them to support the Iran Deal—making the case that continued US participation will enhance US security.

Many of these scientists also signed a letter strongly supporting the Iran Deal to President Obama in August 2015, as well as a letter to President-elect Trump in January. In all three cases, the first signatory is Richard L. Garwin, a long-standing UCS board member who helped develop the H-bomb as a young man and has since advised the government on all matters of security issues. Last year, he was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

What’s the Deal?

Diplomats announcing the framework of the JCPOA in 2015 (Source: US Dept. of State)

If President Trump did pull out of the agreement, what would that mean? First, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) (as it is formally named) is not an agreement between just Iran and the US—but also includes China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the European Union. So the agreement will continue—unless Iran responds by quitting as well. (More on that later.)

The Iran Deal is not a treaty, and did not require Senate ratification. Instead, the United States participates in the JCPoA by presidential action. However, Congress wanted to get into the act and passed The Iran Agreement Review Act of 2015, which requires the president to certify every 90 days that Iran remains in compliance.

President Trump has done so twice, but declined to do so this month and instead called for Congress—and US allies—to work with the administration “to address the deal’s many serious flaws.” Among those supposed flaws is that the deal covering Iran’s nuclear activities does not also cover its missile activities!

According to President Trump’s October 13 remarks:

Key House and Senate leaders are drafting legislation that would amend the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act to strengthen enforcement, prevent Iran from developing an inter– —this is so totally important—an intercontinental ballistic missile, and make all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity permanent under US law.

The Reality

First, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which verifies the agreement, Iran remains in compliance. This was echoed by Norman Roule, who retired this month after working at the CIA for three decades. He served as the point person for US intelligence on Iran under multiple administrations. He told an NPR interviewer, “I believe we can have confidence in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s efforts.”

Second, the Iran Deal was the product of several years of negotiations. Not surprisingly, recent statements by the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the European Union, and Iran make clear that they will not agree to renegotiate the agreement. It just won’t happen. US allies are highly supportive of the Iran Deal.

Third, Congress can change US law by amending the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, but this will have no effect on the terms of the Iran Deal. This may be a face-saving way for President Trump to stay with the agreement—for now. However, such amendments will lay the groundwork for a future withdrawal and give credence to President Trump’s claims that the agreement is a “bad deal.” That’s why the scientists urged Congress to support the Iran Deal as it is.

The End of a Good Deal?

If President Trump pulls out of the Iran Deal and reimposes sanctions against Iran, our allies will urge Iran to stay with the deal. But Iran has its own hardliners who want to leave the deal—and a US withdrawal is exactly what they are hoping for.

If Iran leaves the agreement, President Trump will have a lot to answer for. Here is an agreement that significantly extends the time it would take for Iran to produce enough material for a nuclear weapon, and that would give the world an alarm if they started to do so. For the United States to throw that out the window would be deeply irresponsible. It would not just undermine its own security, but that of Iran’s neighbors and the rest of the world.

Congress should do all it can to prevent this outcome. The scientists sent their letter to Senators Corker and Cardin, who are the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and to Representatives Royce and Engel, who are the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, because these men have a special responsibility on issues like these.

Let’s hope these four men will do what’s needed to prevent the end of a good deal—a very good deal.

Grand Gulf: Emergency Pump’s Broken Record and Missing Record

The Grand Gulf Nuclear Station located about 20 miles south of Vicksburg, Mississippi is a boiling water reactor with a Mark III containment that was licensed to operate by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in November 1984. It recently set a dubious record.

The Mark III containment is a pressure-suppression containment type. It features a large amount of water in its pressure suppression pool and upper containment pool. In case of an accident, energy released into containment gets absorbed by this water, thus lessening the pressurization of the atmosphere within containment. The “energy sponge” role allows the Mark III containment to be smaller, and less expensive, than the non-pressure suppression containment structure that would be needed to handle an accident.

Fig. 1 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

The emergency core cooling systems (ECCS) reside in a structure adjacent to the containment building. The ECCS for Grand Gulf consist of the high pressure core spray (HPCS) pump, the low pressure core spray (LPCS) pump, and three residual heat removal (RHR). The preferred source of water for the HPCS pump is the condensate storage tank (CST), although it can also draw water from the suppression pool within containment. The other ECCS pumps get their water from the suppression pool.

One of the RHR pumps (RHR Pump C) serves a single function, albeit an important one called the low pressure coolant injection (LPCI) function. When a large pipe connected to the reactor vessel breaks and drains cooling water rapidly from the vessel, RHR Pump C quickly provides a lot of water to replace the lost water and cool the reactor core.

The other two RHR pumps (RHR Pumps A and B) can perform safety functions in addition to the LPCI role. Each of these RHR pumps can be aligned to route water through a pair of heat exchangers. When in use, the heat exchangers cool down the RHR water.

RHR Pumps A and B can be used to cool the water within the reactor vessel. In what is called the shutdown cooling (SDC) mode, RHR Pump A or B takes water from the reactor vessel, routes this water through the pair of heat exchangers, and returns the cooled water to the reactor vessel.

Similarly, RHR Pumps A and B can use used to cool the water within the suppression pool. RHR Pump A or B draws water from the suppression pool, routes this water through the heat exchangers, and returns the cooled water to the suppression pool.

Finally, RHR Pumps A and B can be used to cool the atmosphere within the containment structure. RHR Pump A or B can take water from the suppression pool and discharge it through carwash styled sprinkler nozzles mounted to the inside surfaces of the containment’s upper walls and roof.

Fig. 2 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Given the varied safety roles played by RHR Pumps A and B, the operating license for Grand Gulf only permits the reactor to continue running for up to 7 days when either pump is unavailable. Workers started the 7-day shutdown clock on August 22, 2017, after declaring RHR Pump A to be inoperable. The ECCS pumps are tested periodically to demonstrate their capabilities. RHR Pump A failed to operate within its design band during testing. The pump was supposed to be able to deliver at least a flow rate of 7,756 gallon per minute for a differential pressure of at least 131 pounds per square inch differential across the pump. The differential pressure was too low when the pump delivered the specified flow rate. A higher differential pressure was required to demonstrate that the pump could also supply the necessary flow rate under more challenging accident conditions.

Before the clock ran out, workers shut down the Grand Gulf reactor on August 29. Workers replaced RHR Pump A and restarted the reactor on October 1, 2017.

It is rare that a boiling water reactor has to shut down for a month or longer to replace a broken RHR pump. The last time it happened in the United States was a year ago. Workers shut down the reactor on September 8, 2016, after an RHR pump failed testing on September 4. The RHR pump was unable to achieve the specified differential pressure and flow rate at the same time. Workers could throttle valves to satisfy the differential pressure criterion, but the flow rate was too low. Or, workers could reposition the throttle valves to obtain the specified flow rate, but the differential pressure was too low. The RHR pump was replaced and the reactor restarted on January 29, 2017.

The reactor—Grand Gulf.

The failed pump—RHR Pump A.

The “solution”—replace the failed pump.

UCS Perspective

Grand Gulf has experienced two failures and subsequent replacements of RHR Pump since the summer of 2016. That’s two more RHR pump replacements than the rest of the U.S. boiling water reactor fleet tallied during the same period. Call Guinness—Grand Gulf may have broken the world record for most RHR pump broken in a year!

Records are made to be broken, not RHR pumps.

The company’s report to the NRC about the most recent RHR Pump A failure dutifully noted that the same pump had failed and been replaced a year earlier, but claimed that corrective action could not have prevented this year’s failure of the pump. Maybe the same RHR pump broken twice within a year for two entirely unrelated reasons. The Easter bunny, the tooth fairy, and Santa Claus all agree that it’s at least possible.

On October 31, 2016, the NRC announced it was sending a special inspection team to Grand Gulf to investigate the failure of RHR Pump A and other problems.  The NRC’s press release concluded with this sentence: “An inspection report documenting the team’s findings will be publicly available within 45 days of the end of the inspection.”

As of October 24, 2017, no such inspection report has been made publicly available. Call Guinness—the NRC may have broken the world record for the longest special inspection ever!

Grand Gulf was restarted on January 29, 2017, 90 days after the NRC announced it was sending a special inspection team to investigate a series of safety problems. The inspection report should have been publicly available as promised to allay public concerns that the numerous safety problems that caused Grand Gulf to remain shut down for four months had been fixed.

On June 29, 2017—241 days after the NRC announced the special inspection report—I emailed the NRC’s Executive Director for Operations inquiring about the status of this overdue report.

On October 2, 2017—95 days after my inquiry—the NRC’s Executive Director for Operations emailed me a response. He indicated that the onsite portion of the special inspection was completed on November 4, 2016, and that the inspection report “should be issued within the next few weeks.”

The NRC promised to issue the special inspection report around December 19, 2016, when the inspection ended.

The NRC promises to value transparency.

The NRC should either stop making promises or start delivering results. Promises aren’t made to be broken, either. That’s what RHR pumps are for, at least in Mississippi.

Fig. 3 (Source: Kaja Bilek Flickr photo)

 

Update: Turkey Point Fire and Explosion

An earlier commentary described how workers installing a fire retardant wrap around electrical cables inside Switchgear Room 3A at the Turkey Point nuclear plant in Florida inadvertently triggered an explosion and fire that blew open the fire door between the room and adjacent Switchgear Room 3B.

I submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for all pictures and videos obtained by the special inspection team dispatched by the NRC to Turkey Point to investigate this event. The NRC provide me 70 color pictures in response to my request. This post updates the earlier commentary with some of those pictures.

The workers installing the fire retardant wrap cut the material in the hallway outside the switchgear rooms, but trimmed the material to fit as they put it in place. The trimming process created small carbon pieces. Ventilation fans blowing air within the switchgear room carried the carbon fiber debris around. The picture taken inside Switchgear Room 3A after the event show some of the carbon fiber debris on the floor along with debris caused by the fire and explosion (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Some of the carbon fiber debris found its way inside metal panels containing energized electrical equipment. The debris created a pathway for electrical current to arc to nearby metal bolts. The bolts had been installed backwards, resulting in their ends being a little closer to energized electrical lines than intended. The electrical current was 4,160 volts, so it was quite a powerful spark as it arced to an undesired location (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Law enforcement officers sometimes use Tasers to subdue a suspect. Taser guns fire two dart-like electrodes into the body to deliver an electric shock that momentarily incapacitates a person. The nuclear Taser at Turkey Point triggered an explosion and fire. The picture shows damage to a metal panel from the High Energy Arc Fault (HEAF) (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

Fortunately, there was not much combustible material within the switchgear room to sustain a fire for long. Fig. 4 shows some of the fire and smoke damage inside the switchgear room.

Fig 4 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

The primary consequence from the explosion and fire in Switchgear Room 3A was damage to Fire Door 070-3 to adjacent Switchgear Room 3B. The Unit 3 reactor at Turkey Point has two switchgear rooms containing power supplies and controls for plant equipment. The fire door’s function is to prevent a fire in either room from affecting equipment in the adjacent room to minimize the loss of equipment (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

The metal fire door had a three-hour rating, meaning it was designed to remain intact even when exposed to the heat from a fire lasting up to three hours. The plant’s design assumed that a fire would be extinguished within that time. The plant’s design had also considered the forces caused by a HEAF event, but only looked at components within three feet of the arc. The fire door was more than 14 feet from the arc, but apparently was not aware of the 3-feet assumption (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

The force of the explosion pressed so hard against the fire door that it broke the latch and popped the door wide open. The fire door was more than 14 feet from the arc (even farther away after the explosion), but apparently was not aware of the 3-feet assumption (Fig. 7).

Fig 7 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

I don’t have a picture of the fire door and its latch pre-explosion, but this closeup of the door’s latching mechanism suggests the magnitude of the force applied to popping it open. This picture also suggests the need to go back and revisit the 3-feet rule (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

The explosion and fire triggered the automatic shutdown of the Unit 3 reactor. The Shift Manager declared an Alert, the least serious of the NRC’s four emergency classifications, due to the explosion and fire affecting equipment within Switchgear Room 3A. Workers called the local fire department for assistance with the fire and a worker injured by the explosion. This picture of the operations log noted some of the major events during the first 90 minutes of the event (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9 (Source: Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

UCS Perspective

The earlier commentary explained that two minor events occurred the month before the explosion and fire. In each of those events, carbon fiber debris from workers trimming material inside the switchgear room landed on electrical breakers and caused them to open unexpectedly and unwanted. But those warnings were ignored and the practice continued until a more serious event occurred.

This HEAF event is also a warning. It failed a barrier installed to prevent an event in one switchgear room from affecting equipment in the adjacent room. It had been assumed that a HEAF event could only affect components within 3 feet, yet the damaged door was more than 14 feet away. If the assumption now shown to be patently false does not lead to re-evaluations and necessary upgrades, shame on the nuclear industry and the NRC for not heeding this very clear, unambiguous warning.

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