Israel is an undeclared nuclear power with as many as 400 nuclear warheads; refuses to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT); bars international inspections; never ratified the Chemical Weapon Convention Treaty; used chemical weapons on Gaza; and holds an undeclared stockpile of chemical weapons larger than any other nation in the Middle East.
—  Pepe Escobar, ‘Netanyahu’s UN speech: Sounds like a sociopath?’, Russia Today

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine — Traversing old potholed roads past long-abandoned villages surrounding the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, you wouldn’t guess there’s a bustling construction site nearby.

The so-called exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was once home to some 120,000 people, who were evacuated following the reactor meltdown at in 1986. Trees that sprouted in living rooms are now pushing through rooftops inside this highly contaminated, sealed off area, while wild horses and wolves roam the woods.

However, there are also some 7,000 people working here, including almost 3,000 at the plant itself.

Chernobyl copes with nuclear fallout a quarter-century on

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

(Not) Waiting on the world to change

In Carl Sagan’s final chapter - In the Valley of the Shadow - of his final publication Billions and Billions, he wrote the following regarding his disease’s prognosis:

Briefly I thought about doing nothing and waiting for the advance in medical research to find a new cure.  But that was the slimmest of hopes.

Sagan understood that passive approaches to potentially dire situations need to be resolved proactively; that passive acceptance of demise, or willful ignorance of a problem is not a problem solving methodology.

The same holds true for our species’ ability to annihilate itself.  We have the nuclear weapons capability to do irreversible harm to the human species and perhaps even to our planet.  Though the United States does not wish to sit back in ignorance of nuclear proliferation in nations such as Iran and North Korea, the U.S. must remember that its own nuclear arsenal has a significantly more dangerous ability to cause harm.  

While it is important to proactively address the rising nuclear capabilities of Iran it is more important for the United States to proactively address its own nuclear capabilities through tougher non-proliferation treaties. 

Kazakhstan: On Plutonium Mountain

When the WikiLeaks cables were first published in 2011, I was sifting through them, using search engines to ferret out information about nonproliferation efforts in the former Soviet Union. When I searched on the name “Semipalatinsk,” the former Soviet nuclear weapons test site in Kazakhstan, I found more than 70 U.S. government cables. Most of them were routine advisories about U.S. government programs and policies concerning Kazakhstan.

But a single paragraph, buried deep in the cables, was a surprise.

It was a routine message written by the U.S. Embassy in Astana, Kazakhstan for Gen. David Petraeus, who was soon to arrive in Kazakhstan on a tour as the Centcom commander. The cable was transmitted on January 9, 2009.

Paragraph 25 looked like this:

¶25. (S/NOFORN) Of all of the projects funded by the CTR appropriation, the most critical is a classified project to secure weapons-grade materials at the former Soviet nuclear weapons test site in Semipalatinsk. The project is tri-lateral, between Russia, Kazakhstan, and the United States, with the Russians providing the necessary data regarding material location and the United States providing funding to repatriate the material to Russia or secure it in situ. Due to complexities in the trilateral relationship between the United States, Russia and Kazakhstan, and uncertainty about future trilateral commitments to this project, the USG is ready to reprogram up to $100 million to finish the work at the site within the next two years. DOD’s current goal is to see the Government of Kazakhstan increase its security presence at the site (Ministry of Internal Affairs or troops), and discussions are underway to identify technology that can be used to assist Kazakhstan monitor the site for trespassers.

What caught my eye was the classification—secret, no foreign distribution—and the idea that there was still “weapons-grade” material at Semipalatinsk. I had heard of the radiation legacy of Soviet nuclear testing, and I knew of some activities there to close off testing holes in the 1990s, but not about any cleanup effort involving weapons-grade material.

I made some phone calls in an attempt to learn more. U.S. government sources were not very helpful, and those who knew would not talk about it. But the paragraph in the cable was a hint that something very interesting was going on in Kazakhstan. I kept nosing about the story, and on May 22, 2011, Ellen Barry, a New York Times correspondent, described some of the activity in a page one story. She noted that there was weapons-grade material at the site, highly-enriched uranium and plutonium, but there were still many unanswered questions.

On March 27, 2012, President Obama, President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia and President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan announced at the nuclear security summit in Seoul that they had completed a joint operation at Semipalatinsk. The White House issued a fact sheet saying that “over a dozen weapons worth of nuclear material” may have remained at the site.

On the day of the announcement, the press didn’t pay much attention. This was the moment that Obama’s remarks to Medvedev were overheard on an open microphone. That was the day’s headline. But the twelve nuclear weapons? Those were ignored.

I then learned that another journalist, Eben Harrell, was working on a story about Semipalatinsk. At the time, Eben was posted at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard, and had learned about the Semipalatinsk operation from Belfer colleague William Tobey, who oversaw some of the work at Semipalatinsk while on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush (Tobey would also publish a brief article on Semipalatinsk which can be found here). We decided to join forces to investigate further and find out what had really happened at Semipalatinsk. Thanks to a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center, we were able to connect with some important sources who were now more willing to talk. Eben went to Kazakhstan to see the site and interview Russian, American and Kazakh officials at a ceremony marking the conclusion of the project. I interviewed other sources, including Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University and Andy Weber of the Defense Department, both of whom played key roles in the project.

We were able to examine both U.S. and Russian documents and interview participants from all three countries. What we found was quite an extraordinary story. A large amount of plutonium left over from Soviet tests on various weapons projects remained buried for years at Semipalatinsk after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some of it was literally within meters of where metals scavengers were combing the site for old copper wire and steel from railroad tracks. They might easily have happened upon the plutonium, and it certainly would have been of interest to Iran at a time when it was searching for fissile material for a possible nuclear weapon.

The three-way effort by Russia, the United States and Kazakhstan to seal off the materials and secure the site took 17 years. The full story is in our report for the Belfer Center.

The story has important lessons for the future. To me, the most striking is the need to overcome mistrust and secrecy when it comes to securing loose nuclear material. In this case, a major hurdle to locking down the plutonium was simply finding it. Russia, successor to the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal, knew the where it was, but had been reluctant to reveal the details. The locations and information came out slowly, over more than a decade, largely because scientists and experts collaborated to ease suspicions. The $150 million price tag, paid by the United States, seems to have been a bargain.

Imagine the danger if the plutonium had been carted away by terrorists, or states seeking to build a bomb. In the end, there is no evidence that anyone actually walked off with any plutonium from Semipalatinsk. But it was a close call.

President Obama’s appeal in 2009 to “secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world in four years” had an impact; prime ministers and presidents took action. Many of the worst nuclear security gaps evident after the Cold War — sites with gaping holes in fences, no detectors to set off alarms and so on — have been closed. But there are places where security is still insufficient to protect against threats by terrorists and criminals. There are also many research reactors around the world with enough highly enriched uranium to fabricate at least one bomb with only minimal security in place.

There is still work to do. The cleanup at Semipalatinsk was a big story, but it won’t be the last.

— Pulitzer Center grantee David Hoffman, for the Pulitzer Center’s Untold Stories channel. Read his and Eben Harrell’s reporting on Semipalantinsk here.

Proliferation and Uranium

Labor’s 46th National Conference has just concluded. Conference is the policy-making body in the ALP. It is the most open, robust and transparent party conference in Australia. The proceedings were open to outside scrutiny. Issues were debated, including uranium sales to India. Having declined to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), India had been barred from receiving Australian uranium. The Prime Minister successfully introduced a proposal to lift the ban and sell uranium to India. Her thinking on this is clear: her immediate concerns are for jobs and economic expansion. These are important considerations, yet the sale of uranium to India, in my opinion, undermines Australia’s long standing moral position on the question of nuclear proliferation. While conservative governments have taken a lax approach to proliferation, Labor has always seen nuclear weapons for what they are: humanity’s single biggest existential threat. The Whitlam Government ratified the NPT in 1973.  It was a Labor Foreign Minister, Gareth Evens, who put the argument that nuclear weapons were illegal under international law. The sale of uranium to India appears at first glance to be a simple commercial agreement. India requires uranium for their nuclear power industry. Australia already sells uranium to nuclear weapons states including China and Russia. The sale of uranium to India has significant implications, including the continuing viability of the NPT and nuclear proliferation. The NPT may have faults but it is a potent symbol of global determination to remove nuclear weapons and an important part of the global non-proliferation architecture. India continues to enrich weapons grade plutonium and develop more sophisticated means of conveying nuclear payloads. Last month India test-fired the Agni IV, a long range ballistic missile capable of carrying a one tonne nuclear payload deep into China. In the coming months India will have completed the Agni V which can not only reach Beijing but most of China’s industrial and security centres. India and Pakistan continue to engage in nuclear brinkmanship. Relations between the two states could quickly deteriorate. Most significantly, Australia cannot put safeguards in place to ensure that its uranium will not be used for proliferation. India has given assurances that Australian uranium will not be used in such a way, uranium is fungible; using Australian uranium in the Indian power industry will allow other sources to be freed and used for proliferation. Once in the system it cannot be traced. There is no guarantee that Australian uranium will not end up in Indian missiles. Proliferation remains a concern for regional stability. Dr Philip Carver, former Pentagon nuclear disarmament expert speculates that China is developing a greater nuclear arsenal than is estimated. There will be strategic friction between China and India; no one will win a nuclear arms race. As one of the world’s biggest suppliers of uranium, Australia has a responsibility to ensure that its uranium is not used for proliferation. Nuclear disarmament continues to be one of our greatest challenges, and one which we will continue to grapple with for years to come.

Botching the Bomb: Why Nuclear Weapons Programs Often Fail on Their Own — and Why Iran’s Might, Too

(From the new issue, out next week.)

Nuclear weapons are hard to build for managerial reasons, not technical ones. This is why so few authoritarian regimes have succeeded: they don’t have the right culture or institutions. When it comes to Iran’s program, then, the United States and its allies should get out of the way and let Iran’s worst enemies — its own leaders — gum up the process on their own. Read the full article.


New on

Negotiating with Iran: Lessons from America’s Failed Nuclear Accord with North Korea

By Dr. Alon Levkowitz

The latest round of Nuclear Talks with Iran

October 21, 2014, commemorates the 20 year anniversary of the signing of the Agreed Framework between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). In 1994, concerns about the development of a military nuclear program by North Korea, which had the potential to lead to the destabilization of the Korean Peninsula, led the US government, under President Bill Clinton, to offer Pyongyang a deal that would freeze the North Korean nuclear program at its first stage and would subsequently lead to the program’s termination. In return, North Korea would receive extensive economic assistance from the United States and its allies, as well as long-term diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang. The agreement was perceived as a groundbreaking model for dealing with the new nuclear states – offering them economic benefits that would persuade them to relinquish their nuclear capabilities, without requiring the use of military force. Pyongyang signed the agreement and promised to implement its part of the agreement.

Did the agreement achieve its most important goal, the denuclearization of the DPRK?

Over the 20 years that have passed since the agreement was signed, North Korea has held several nuclear tests and according to intelligence reports, it has enough fissile material to build at least 8-12 nuclear bombs. The Agreed Framework failed to implement its main purpose – prevent the nuclearization of the DPRK.

The original advocates of the agreement stated that the full implementation of the agreement would have prevented the development of North Korea’s nuclear program. The critics said that the agreement allowed Pyongyang to receive economic benefits without the need to make any critical concessions in its nuclear program. Others have criticized the lengthy period that North Korea was given to continue developing its nuclear program without any harsh sanctions imposed. All have agreed that the control and monitoring mechanisms to supervise the North Korean nuclear program were not efficient enough and could not detect whether North Korea was breaching the agreement or not.

iHLS Israel Homeland Security

Pyongyang, however, has insisted that it implemented its end of the agreement, appraising the United States for failing to meet its commitments. Although George W. Bush’s administration criticized the agreement, calling it an “appeasement policy,” they were not able to find an alternative mechanism that would halt or terminate the North Korean nuclear program.

Throughout the years, Pyongyang learned that breaching the agreement might lead to sanctions by the United Nations Security Council, but these sanctions were not harsh enough to deter North Korea’s nuclear program. Over the last 20 years, North Korea has been shrewd enough to manipulate the international arena, particularly its special relations with China, to prevent the exacerbation of the UNSC sanctions. One should remember that Beijing did not agree with every policy that Pyongyang implemented, but it was willing to use its veto power in the UNSC to prevent any harsh sanctions.

Was Pyongyang willing to freeze and later on eliminate its nuclear program as it committed to in the agreement, or did Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il never intend to give up their nuclear capabilities, exploiting the agreement with the United Sates as a tactical mechanism to gain economic assistance? While the supporters of the agreement state that Pyongyang would have given up its nuclear program, those opposed to the agreement reject this assumption. Once North Korea developed its nuclear capabilities, including the 2006, 2009, and 2013 nuclear tests and the development of the centrifuge enriched uranium program, the 1994 Agreed Framework became irrelevant.

Could the failure of the Agreed Framework between the DPRK and the United States assist us in analyzing the effectiveness and success of the new agreement between Washington and Tehran? Optimists in the US government would say that the administration has learned from the pitfalls and failures of the 1994 agreement and will do its best to reach a treaty that will prevent Iran from following this same pattern. The pessimists are concerned that Tehran learned its lessons from the North Korea-US negotiations, including how to successfully manipulate Washington and its allies. Another cause for concern is the nuclear cooperation between Iran and North Korea. This cooperation will allow Iran to use North Korea as a “back door” plan to continue the development of its nuclear program without breaching any sanctions.

Dr. Alon Levkowitz, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is an expert on East Asian security, the Korean Peninsula, and Asian international organizations.

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 274

Click here to read the full article (in PDF format)

N. Korea urges foreigners in South to evacuate | AFP

By Park Chan-Kyong 

Last week’s warning to embassies in Pyongyang was also largely dismissed as rhetoric, with most governments making it clear they had no plans to withdraw personnel.

"It’s almost comic," said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert with the International Crisis Group.

"They want to rattle the investment market, create pressure and make people nervous.

"But it’s just not working. It’s as if they didn’t get a rise out of the embassies in Pyongyang, so they’re just moving on to the next target," Pinkston said.


Photo: Devid Andriyano/Flickr