Skip navigation

Category Archives: Uncategorized

Toby Dalton is the Deputy Director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He has made some very sensible comments, carried by Global Security Newswire, on Pakistan and nuclear weapons security, the most sensible that I have come across anywhere since that asshole was knocked out in Pakistan

“Fear-mongering” by various news outlets in recent months about the prospects for Pakistani-based terrorists to acquire or attack nuclear assets plays into the government’s longstanding paranoia about foreign nations plotting to seize the nation’s atomic arsenal, said Toby Dalton, deputy director of the Nuclear Policy Program for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Islamabad “fears that the outside world is going to get Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and that fear I think is likely to drive Pakistan for a time to want to disperse its nuclear weapons and to have higher alert postures for fear of some sort of disarming strike,” Dalton said during a panel discussion in Washington on the South Asian nuclear arms race…

Notice that these comments reflect precisely the same point that I had made in a very recent blog post. What really matters is the saliency that Pakistan places upon deterrence, because there exists a trade-off between deterrence and security/safety.

There is actually way more stuff in this pretty important article. I couldn’t help but notice this point that Dalton makes

Dalton also questioned the security of neighboring India’s nuclear arsenal.
“We don’t know how India goes about nuclear security. It’s not particularly transparent. There hasn’t been a lot of interaction with the outside world,” he said, though noting that India did take part in the 2011 Global Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.

The expert noted that as India moves to expand its civilian atomic energy, the risks of some nuclear material or technology being seized by extremists in mid shipment could also grow.

“It’s clear that there is a terrorism problem in India too,” Dalton said, adding, “It’s quite possible that there is just as much possibility of some sort of nuclear security, nuclear terrorism incident in India as there is in Pakistan.”…

That point is of course disputed, no less so than in India itself. But say it’s true. That means that the US-India deal, combined with a growing conventional military industry relationship between Delhi and Washington, not only has the effect of helping to stoke an arms race in South Asia, so quite possibly increasing the emphasis placed upon nuclear deterrence in Pakistan, but also could increase the risk of nuclear terrorism.

Dalton was the former head of safeguards at the DoE.

Now we should recall that the White House tells us that the risk of nuclear terrorism is “serious” and “increasing.” Should Dalton speak the truth that equates to Washington placing greater emphasis on the geopolitical and economic relationship with India than combatting nuclear terrorism. It could mean, by contrast, that the threat of nuclear terrorism is not as high as Washington makes out.

Take your pick which you think is more accurate (assuming Dalton is correct, of course). I would wager that it is the latter.

Speaking of India, Hillary Clinton has repeated US demands that India lower its regulatory standards that it places upon its nuclear industry, a story also carried today by GSN

“We need to resolve those issues that still remain so that we can reap the rewards of the extraordinary work that both of our governments have done,” Clinton said during a visit to India this week…

Clinton is demanding, post Fukushima and all, that India lowers its standards to that practised everywhere else.

Perhaps the world could follow India and increase its standards to match best practice in India?
This is a point not unrelated to one made by Sig Hecker in the latest issue of Physics Today

Constrained by sanctions, India developed most of its nuclear energy capabilities indigenously, especially its excellent nuclear R&D; the extent and functionality of its nuclear experimental facilities are matched only by those in Russia and are far ahead of what is left in the US. I believe India has the most technically ambitious and innovative nuclear energy program in the world. Our government has been concerned about leakage of US nuclear technologies to India, when we should instead be trying to learn from that country…

Clinton’s bombast looks to me like it proves that Hecker is right on the money.

New Scientist has today published a nice little article on the use of antineutrino detectors to measure the radioactivity of the Earth

…These particles, called antineutrinos, suggest that about half of Earth’s heat comes from the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium – and give clues to the location of geological stashes of these elements.

Heat is needed to drive the convection currents in Earth’s outer core that create its magnetic field. But exactly how much of this heat comes from radioactive decay wasn’t known until now…

…The researchers also had enough neutrinos to confirm that some must be coming from places other than the crust, something that wasn’t possible before. “The uncertainty is small enough that some contribution must be from the mantle,” says Giorgio Gratta, a physicist at Stanford University in California who is part of the KamLAND collaboration.

The ability to determine the location of the radioactive elements could permit better models of the Earth’s interior, says Gratta. Seismic waves tell us about elasticity of the crust and mantle: now we have a small window into their chemistry, which should allow their behaviour to be better modelled. The presence of radioactive elements in the mantle, for example, could affect its flow…

This work was done with a detector in Japan, but my understanding is that there are two such detectors looking out for antineutrinos in order to learn more about the geophysics of the Earth.

An interesting aspect to this is the use of antineutrino detectors to measure the geophysical distribution of uranium and thorium

Terrestrial antineutrino flux measurements are the only identified, feasible method to experimentally determine the distribution of uranium and thorium in the interior of the Earth. Measurements from two geologically distinct detection sites remote from nuclear reactors provide model-independent estimates of uranium and thorium concentrations in continental crust and mantle. This information is vital for understanding the Earth’s geophysical structure and dynamics. If, as expected, these elements are much less concentrated in the mantle than in the continental crust, the oceanic detector needs to be several times larger than the continental detector…

This is a point also made previously at Science News Online

“The ratio of radioactive heat production to other sources, the distribution [of radioactive elements] between mantle and crust, and the distribution of the different nuclides are presently not known with any certainty,” says geophysicist Raymond Jeanloz of the University of California, Berkeley…

…Chen says, however, that “it’s unlikely that any one detector or combination of two detectors would have the precision to pinpoint local concentrations of uranium or thorium.”

Having a third antineutrino detector might enable researchers to map the distribution of uranium and thorium inside Earth, Raghavan notes…

I do not have sufficient knowledge to discern whether the distribution of uranium and thorium refers to the distribution of these elements within the deep interior of the Earth only or whether it would also include more precise mapping of uranium and thorium within the continental crust. Should the latter be also the case then one can readily appreciate the potential implications for both uranium exploration and non-proliferation policy.

Antineutrino detectors have indeed been spoken of in the context of improving nuclear reactor safeguards, as the following Lawrence Livermore analysis outlines

Reactor fuel rods contain the isotopes uranium-238 and uranium-235 . Inside a reactor core, these isotopes absorb neutrons and undergo fission, producing antineutrinos with each decay. Some 238
U isotopes capture neutrons and decay into isotopes of plutonium-239, which also fission and emit antineutrinos. However, the decay of 239Pu produces substantially fewer antineutrinos than does the decay of 235U within the energy range required for detection. Over the course of a reactor’s fuel cycle, the antineutrino count rate drops as uranium content decreases and plutonium increases. In addition, the antineutrino count rate is proportional to the fission rate of the isotopes and thus is approximately proportional to the reactor’s power. By monitoring this count rate, scientists can track both the thermal power and the fissile inventory of the reactor over time. Any deviation from what is considered “normal” would identify a potential problem…

…Antineutrino detectors could provide a more precise method to confirm that reactors are operating according to IAEA standards and that fissile materials are not being diverted for use in an undeclared nuclear weapons program. The Livermore–Sandia team has developed autonomous detectors that continuously and accurately monitor antineutrinos in real time throughout the one- to two-year fuel cycle of a standard pressurized water reactor…

Although according to the following 2003 paper available on the ArXiv

Antineutrino monitoring of reactors can provide unique information on the burn-up in the core from outside the containment vessel. If accurate knowledge of the reactor power is known through an independent measurement, the variation of the number of detected antineutrino events reflects the build-up of plutonium. Thus, antineutrino monitoring could be used to detect gross deviations from the declared operational mode of a reactor. A measurement of the average anti-neutrino energy or of the shape of the spectrum would provide valuable additional information and would greatly reduce uncertainties in relating the antineutrino spectrum to core burn-up. However, the magnitude of the expected change in the antineutrino count rate of less than 1% in the case of the diversion of a critical mass of plutonium suggests that antineutrino monitoring is unlikely to be sensitive to this class of safeguards…

I find this aspect, related in the Science News Online article linked above, to be kinda cool

If such antineutrino data could be obtained, the resulting estimate of global radioactive heat production could shed light on what fraction of Earth’s energy output is simply heat left over from the massive impact early in its history that created the moon…

 

The Australian Defence Force has experienced an increase in the level of casualties in the Afghanistan theatre. This increase is the subject of an Op-Ed written by Hugh White, published today by the Fairfax press.

White is a former senior defence department official and currently heads the strategic studies centre at the Australian National University. When he speaks on Australian defence matters and international relations one should listen, no matter one’s own ideological or theoretical positions. On the latter two points I can say that I don’t agree with him at all.

In the Op-Ed White develops an important thesis in explanation for the rise in Australian casualties; it is a thesis that frames his analysis

Perhaps they are facing stiffer opposition? But not if you believe what the government and the Australian Defence Force keep telling us. They say that the Taliban have been mauled and are on the back foot.

So the most likely explanation is that our soldiers are undertaking more hazardous operations. In other words, they are being asked, or ordered, to take more risks. And one has to ask why that should be so…

White’s thesis is that the conventional wisdom in Australia on this issue is wrong. Australian forces are experiencing higher casualty rates not because of an increase in the tempo of Taliban operations in Oruzgan province, but because, White seems to be suggesting, the ADF has changed its rules of engagement.

White, naturally, asks; that being so, why so?

It could well be, given his connections, that the underlying assumption that White adopts here is based on the ADF’s own internal statistical breakdown and analysis. So let us assume that White’s assumption is correct and let’s try and answer the question he raises, which he really doesn’t answer in the Op-Ed (even though he probably knows why).

Australia, like many other US-led coalition partners in Afghanistan, has received periodic requests from Washington for a military beef up in Afghanistan. The public debate has focused on the size of the Australian military footprint in Afghanistan. Even the Labor Government had agreed to US requests, as White states here, for more forces but Canberra has been loath to increase the ADF presence in Afghanistan in recent times. It didn’t increase the size of the Australian deployment following the Obama surge.

Could it be, therefore, that one way that Canberra has sought to address and accommodate US concerns is through the development of more permissive rules of engagement for Australian forces? From a political perspective one could see how this would be rational, for it would be a low-profile way of boosting Australia’s military commitment to the US-led coalition. To be sure, as White points out, this leads to an increase in casualties but that could be, one surmises, managed so long as the public does not develop the correct flow between cause and effect.

This issue could be, and should be, the subject of an investigation by a Senate estimates committee or some such.

White asks in his article

So here are the big questions for the men and women who order Australian soldiers into action in Afghanistan. Are the risks to those troops from the operations we are now conducting justified by any real prospect that Afghanistan will be any better off when we leave in 3½ years? If not, how can such operations be justified?…

We in Australia are schizophrenic about the alliance with the US. Polls indicate that public support for the alliance with the US in Australia is high. On the other hand Iraq, and now Afghanistan, demonstrates that, at times, support for paying the price to maintain the alliance with the US, which does not have the same terms as the NATO alliance, is not nearly as high.

That is an asymmetry that frames a lot of the politics in Australia on the alliance.

Indeed both cases now demonstrate that majorities are loath to pay that price; we want to have it both ways. We’ll take the alliance but won’t be too fussy about the commitments. New Zealand demonstrated that you can’t have the alliance without paying the price required to keep it.

For Canberra that’s a problem. It is also a problem for those who unquestionably would like to go all the way with the USA. If Washington doesn’t guarantee our security like it does Japan’s or Germany’s why pay an uncapped insurance premium? That would be irrational.

For those who don’t support the alliance, precisely because of the costs that need to be paid, that isn’t a problem, of course. But having basically no role for deterrence in defence policy whilst rejecting the alliance is also, I think, irrational. If you don’t want the alliance you need to be mindful that a robust conventional deterrent would need to replace it. Countries like Sweden and Switzerland are quite militarised, believe it or not.

My reading of White, as Australia’s most astute and nuanced realist, is this; White understands that this is all about the alliance. White understands that the alliance requires Australia to pay an insurance premium to Washington. White is comfortable with that. White also understands, however, that Washington’s insurance policy does not provide comprehensive coverage, unlike its NATO policy, and so that places limits on how high a premium we in Australia should pay for the policy that we are offered. If that price edges too high, like in Afghanistan, then Australia needs to delever to restore balance to the relationship.

White’s position is quite rational and understandable.