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A nuclear Pandora's box
by Tim Jones
05 August 2003 04:16 UTC
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Somehow I left a little something out of my pontifications
introducing the article describing the plight of the oceans -
"Cod is Dead." <http://www.gristmagazine.com/books/books072403.asp?source=daily>
More or less on the order of the elephant standing in the living
room, "A nuclear Pandora's box" is about the fast track to oblivion.


a project of the <http://www.nationinstitute.org/>Nation Institute <http://www.nationinstitute.org/>

To send this to a friend, or to read more dispatches, go to <http://www.tomdispatch.com/>tomdispatch.com

A nuclear Pandora's box
Pssst, you want to build a dirty bomb?

Okay, we all know about North Korea -- and it only gets nastier all the time. Here's former Secretary of Defense William Perry on the subject (<http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A31893-2003Jul22?language=printer>It's Either Nukes or Negotiation, the Washington Post,): <http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A31893-2003Jul22?language=printer>

"If it keeps on its present course, North Korea will probably have six to eight nuclear weapons by the end of the year, will possibly have conducted a nuclear test and may have begun deployment of some of these weapons, targeted against Japan and South Korea. By next year, it could be in serial production of nuclear weapons, building perhaps five to 10 per year. This is a nightmare scenario, but it is a reasonable extrapolation from what we know and from what the North Koreans have announced."

As for Iran, the Los Angeles Times' Douglas Frantz reports today on a three-month-long investigation into the Iranian bomb (<http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/216/nation/Iran_is_seen_moving_close_to_producing_nuclear_bombP.shtml>Iran is seen moving close to producing nuclear bomb): <http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/216/nation/Iran_is_seen_moving_close_to_producing_nuclear_bombP.shtml>

"After more than a decade of working behind layers of front companies and in hidden laboratories, Iran appears to be in the late stages of developing the capacity to build a nuclear bomb... Technology and scientists from Russia, China, North Korea, and Pakistan have propelled Iran's nuclear program much closer to producing a bomb than Iraq ever was... North Korean military scientists recently were monitored entering Iranian nuclear facilities. They are assisting in the design of a nuclear warhead, according to people inside Iran and foreign intelligence officials. So many North Koreans are working on nuclear and missile projects in Iran that a resort on the Caspian coast is set aside for their exclusive use."

But never fear our leaders have an infallible plan in response: "Foreign intelligence officers told the Times that the CIA, which has long contended that Iran is building a bomb, has briefed them on a contingency plan for US air and missile attacks against Iranian nuclear installations." If, of course, they even know where they are.

And then there's the third (and former) member of the Axis of Evil, Iraq, which even without an active program to produce nuclear weapons, seems to have shed from its looted al-Tuwaitha nuclear site promising materials for someone else's "dirty bomb." As David Pratt and Felicia Arbuthnot of the Glasgow Sunday Herald report (Potentially lethal radioactive sources missing from Saddam's biggest N-plant), <http://www.sundayherald.com/35736> al-Tuwaitha was thoroughly looted in the aftermath to war when an administration riveted by Iraq's potential to produce weapons of mass destruction didn't think it worth the bother to get American soldiers to its major known nuclear facility. Pratt and Arbuthnot describe the results of this stroke of planning genius thusly:

"Pure uranium oxide which could be used in the making of a 'dirty nuclear bomb' capable of killing countless people is being offered for sale in a Basra souk for $250,000Š The Sunday Herald source, who cannot be named for fear of reprisals, was approached by black marketeers in Basra and asked if he would help sell the material. He said: 'The cylinders are about a foot long, grey in colour with a red band around the top. The skull and crossbones warning logo, and the label 'pure uranium oxide' are clearly marked in English.' He added that it is thought to have come from the al-Tuwaitha complex, which is 15 miles southeast of Baghdad.

"There is no way of sorting this all out because the Americans now have closed down access to the site to IAEA officials. 'Ever since, atomic agency officials have pressed for access to the site, but American officials have resisted. They say that the mandate of the agency in Iraq has expired and that allied forces are in charge.'"

Martin Schwartz at the Foreign Policy in Focus website (Nuclear Weapons Threats Abroad: Bush's Football in Dirty Game) <http://www.foreignpolicy-infocus.org/outside/commentary/2003/0307nuclear.html> adds that, while putting forward a series of fantasy "nuclear-threat confabulations, the U.S. government has at the same time rendered the IAEA clueless as to the disappearance of radioactive material that could eventually be used in clandestine bomb-making. In June the IAEA inspected the looted Al-Tuwaitha nuclear facility in Iraq and has now presented its findings: 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of low-grade uranium have been dispersed, but of more importance, the IAEA team was not allowed by the U.S. authorities to inspect other locations in Al-Tuwaitha, where highly radioactive cesium-137 and cobalt-60 may have been looted."

And in the proliferating world out there, that's just the tip of the iceberg (if you can use such an image about weapons that threaten to turn our world into a sea of fire). In that world, what you don't know can hurt you. Nuclear arsenals are a growth industry and, as James Sterngold of the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Beyond North Korea), <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2003/08/03/MN293524.DTL> Third World proliferators are now making use of each other:

"The concerns have been made scarier by the fact that North Korea itself may be not just a bombmaker, but also a technology supplier. So may be Pakistan and Iran, both believed to have traded various weapons technologies to North Korea."

A nuclear Pandora's box:

The frightening thing is the next jump in proliferation may be back to the more developed world. After all, if Iran is heading for one nuclear weapon, Israel may already have hit 200. And we don't know what preparations are being made elsewhere in the as yet unproliferated world. What of Japan? What of South Korea? What of Taiwan? What of, gulp, PakistanŠ or IndiaŠ leaping ever forward (or backward) with their already sizable nuclear arsenals? The Bush administration only worries about declared enemies -- as if declared allies couldn't possibly have their own secret programs aborning in a world where nuclear weapons are the hip-hop music of power. It's what you dance to if you plan to be anyone at all.

Whatever we don't know about nuclear proliferation there are a couple of things we do know, though until recently they haven't been much noted. First of all, the cold war never actually ended when it came to weapons of mass destruction. It went into a kind of decade-plus long abeyance, but now, like one of those irradiated monsters of 1950s sci fi movies or a morphing terminator, it's back! (And, by the way, to judge by our movies, where worlds continue to explode and nuclear weapons go off with frightening regularity -- as in Terminator 3 which ends as the missiles are leaving their silos -- the weaponry never actually left our imaginations either.)

Of course, most of the weapons of mass destruction (or the knowledge needed to make them) more or less fell through the cracks of the cold war superpower confrontation as each side aided its erstwhile allies (never imagining they might one day be putative enemies). As Sterngold points out, for instance,

"[T]he spread of [nuclear] reactors around the world by the United States and the Soviet Union turned into a new realm of Cold War competition. Each side rewarded its friends with research reactors -- often easily adapted to bomb-making purposes -- or commercial power reactors. In hindsight, states determined to develop weapons programs secretly transformed the reactors into bomb factories or training grounds.

"Countries as disparate as the Congo, Ghana, Jamaica, Peru, Syria, Turkey, Bangladesh, Algeria and Colombia all got reactors. A university in Tehran received a research reactor from the United States. South Vietnam got an American reactor during the Vietnam War. A special military team was sent at the end of the war to spirit out the highly enriched uranium fuel, but the team grabbed the wrong containers."

And far more important, the Bush administration has decided to unsheathe our nuclear arsenal, after a decade or so more or less in its silos, and enter "the second nuclear age" with a vengeance as a piece by William Broad in Sunday's New York Times indicates (see below). At the simplest level, the Bush men are determined to go in search of "mini-nukes" and "small" bunker busters (though the definition of "small," as Broad makes clear, includes weapons up to three times the size of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima). At the same time, as Julian Borger of the Guardian reported the other day (US scraps nuclear weapons watchdog),

"A US department of energy panel of experts which provided independent oversight of the development of the US nuclear arsenal has been quietly disbanded by the Bush administration, it emerged yesterday.

"The decision to close down the national nuclear security administration advisory committee - required by law to hold public hearings and issue public reports on nuclear weapons issues - has come just days before a closed-door meeting at a US air force base in Nebraska to discuss the development of a new generation of tactical 'mini nukes' and 'bunker buster' bombs, as well as an eventual resumption of nuclear testingŠ.

"'The Bush administration is considering policy changes that will alter the role of nuclear weapons in national defence,' [Democratic congressman and co-chairman of a congressional taskforce on non-proliferation] Markey said. 'Given the importance and sheer complexity of the issues raised ... why was the only independent contemplative body studying nuclear weapons disbanded - and disbanded in such a surreptitious fashion?'"

In fact, the Bush nuclear policy has consisted of taking the lid off nuclear weapons domestically and abroad, while promising to take out by force, possibly someday with those very bunker-busting nukes, any proliferator we don't care for. This is a Pandora's box nuclear policy based on a great illusion (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, a grand self-delusion) -- that the United States is so militarily powerful it can control the spread of nuclear weapons, and do so by force. It's based on the bizarre thought that, with all domestic and nuclear oversight groups defanged or brought to heel, we are in control. As at the al-Tuwaitha site, it will invariably turn out that we are not.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we had, as the title of a much ignored but prescient book by Jonathan Schell put it, "the gift of time." But no one bothered to use it. Our nuclear forces sat there -- part of a vast, globe-spanning, secret landscape of silos, test sites, waste dumps, weapons labs and bases -- with no assigned mission whatever. In these years, the weapons in a sense gained their full value in the world -- the value they had always had. They were utterly useless. And yet, unemployed weapons though they may have been, they were there and there they remained.

Now, we are entering the second nuclear age without, as a fine piece by Paul Webster in the latest Bulletin of Atomic Scientists indicates (see below), ever quite leaving the first -- or rather various threatening, unilateral policies of the Bush administration have given new life not just to Third World proliferators, or to our own proliferation policies, but to the near defunct nuclear cold warriors of the Soviet Union. They, too, now have their second wind (or second wmd) and are pushing ahead in "modernizing" their own nuclear arsenal.

One of the great illusions of the second nuclear age is that the small-scale proliferators out there in the Third World are unconnected to us, except in the dangers they threaten us with; that they are operating on their own. But the world is actually a single, bizarrely interlocked nuclear system. If the Koreans go nuclear, then the Japanese go nuclear, then the Chinese upgrade their arsenal, then the Indians respond, which leads the threatened Pakistanis to do more of the same, and then the knowledge -- and possibly weaponry or crucial material -- floating out there descends on some other would-be-nuclear power. We thought in the previous "age" that we were in a MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) world. Little did we know. If you start from Russian rearmament, you can create a similar set of linkages via perhaps China, and so on. It's that old knee-bone-connected-to-the syndrome. This interconnectedness of proliferators is the deepest truth of the second nuclear age, and there is no way the Bush administration can blast it into nonexistence, no matter the power of its weapons.

The Nth country:

What a temptation it is for an administration aiming at global rule, the conquest of space, military dominance everywhere, preventive war as peace, and force as the language of diplomacy to turn to quite literally the most forceful weapons on earth. And what a shame for us all that the only language our mullahs speak -- this might literally be true of our president, who otherwise speaks in tongues -- is the language of force.

But here's the strangest thing about these weapons, no matter how our weapons labs "modernize" and streamline and "miniaturize" them, they will still be quite useless as policy-makers (which doesn't mean they won't be used). What they are good for is vengeance and nothing more. When you try, for instance, to imagine either Iran or Israel using such weapons as policy, or for that matter India and Pakistan, not to speak of the U.S. and Russia, you descend into madness. What policy is there, after all, post-obliteration. What could Pakistan's foreign policy be, after Karachi was gone? You tell me.

But this doesn't mean that the mad, the driven, the vengence-seeking won't use them. And, given proliferation policies, the chances that they could are bound to rise. And to make matters more worse, every decade the materials for such weapons get cheaper and the knowledge of how to use them becomes more widespread. For this to end, we would have to take steps to end it. There's a logic to this. It began with us and only actual deproliferation policies, ones that would not just pressure the world to deproliferate but commit us to do the same, hold any hope -- and of course at the moment (though not perhaps forever) anyone who took such a tack would be considered quite nutty In the corridors of power.

With this in mind I leave you with a fascinating piece by Oliver Burkeman from a June issue of the Guardian on two young men, hired by the US government in 1964 (we're talking four decades ago) to see if they could design an atomic bomb that would work from only what was publicly known at the time. And guess what, they succeeded. This "Nth country project" was designed to test the limits of proliferation. It's turned out, though they only had a hint of this then, that there are none. Instead of de-proliferating, of course, we simply classified this experiment top secret and conveniently put it out of our minds. We are, in a sense, the first and Nth country of all nuclear ages. Tom

Facing a Second Nuclear Age
By William J. Broad
The New York Times
August 3, 2003

This week, ten minutes by car south of Omaha, Neb., the United States Strategic Command is holding a little-advertised meeting at which the Bush administration is to solidify its plans for acquiring a new generation of nuclear arms. Topping the wish list are weapons meant to penetrate deep into the earth to destroy enemy bunkers. The Pentagon believes that more than 70 nations, big and small, now have some 1,400 underground command posts and sites for ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

Determined to fight fire with fire, the Defense Department wants bomb makers to develop a class of relatively small nuclear arms - ranging from a fraction the size of the Hiroshima bomb to several times as large - that could pierce rock and reinforced concrete and turn strongholds into radioactive dust.

To read more Broad click here
Go to the website <http://www.nationinstitute.org/tomdispatch/> and scroll.

Just like old times
By Paul Webster
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
August, 2003

Moscow, May 24, 2002: It was the kind of event news editors love: The presidents of the two greatest nuclear powers-mortal enemies for decades, but now sworn to peace-were meeting to lay down their weapons. Amidst the gilt-splashed splendor of the Kremlin Palace, peace was breaking out, all on a fine spring day. Then, as the ink dried on the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (also known as "SORT," but usually referred to as the Moscow Treaty), President George W. Bush gave reporters the headline: "This treaty liquidates the Cold War legacy of nuclear hostility between our countries," delivering on a promise he had made two weeks earlier to "put behind us the Cold War once and for all." Moments later, Bush's statement was being typed into teleprompters and printers around the world.

Paul Webster, a journalist who has reported on nuclear issues in Canada, France, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States, is currently based in Moscow.

To read more Webster click here
Go to the website <http://www.nationinstitute.org/tomdispatch/>

How two students built an A-bomb
By Oliver Burkeman
The Guardian
June 24, 2003

Dave Dobson's past is not a secret. Not technically, anyway - not since the relevant US government intelligence documents were declassified and placed in the vaults of the National Security Archive, in Washington DC. But Dobson, now 65, is a modest man, and once he had discovered his vocation - teaching physics at Beloit College, in Wisconsin - he felt no need to drop dark hints about his earlier life. You could have taken any number of classes at Beloit with Professor Dobson, until his recent retirement, without having any reason to know that in his mid-20s, working entirely as an amateur and equipped with little more than a notebook and a library card, he designed a nuclear bomb.

To read more Burkeman click here
Go to the website <http://www.nationinstitute.org/tomdispatch/>


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