Focal Points Blog

Fear of Fukushima Radiation Only Led to More Radiation

Paranoia on the part of Japan’s power utility Tepco may have helped make the crisis worse. Phred Dvorak reports for the Wall Street Journal.

The operator of Japan’s stricken nuclear plant let pressure in one reactor climb far beyond the level the facility was designed to withstand. . . . Japanese nuclear-power companies are so leery of releasing radiation into the atmosphere that their rules call for waiting much longer . . . before venting the potentially dangerous steam that builds up as reactors overheat.

File this under Cutting Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face. On March 12

. . . an emergency was brewing inside the plant’s No. 1 reactor. By around 2:30 a.m., the pressure inside the vessel that forms a protective bulb around the reactor’s core reached twice the level it was designed to withstand. . . . About an hour later, the reactor building itself exploded—a blast that Japanese and U.S. regulators have since said spread highly radioactive debris beyond the plant. . . . Experts in the U.S. and Japan believe the venting delay may have helped create conditions that led to the blast.

Hind sight is 50/50, but how might it have better handled?

U.S. protocols on handling accidents at similar reactors call for venting before pressure exceeds the design level. The same protocol is followed by plant operators using similar types of reactors in Korea and Taiwan, industry experts in those countries say. The U.S. approach . . . accepts the radiation released as part of venting as the price of possibly preventing a larger release.

One last cliché, if you can stand it: penny wise, pound foolish.

Forces Opposed to Dangerous, Extravagant Nuke Project Get Day in Court

If you’re not a regular reader, you may be surprised to learn the federal government seeks to ram through a new nuclear facility that’s intolerable on a number of counts.

1. Its intended purpose is to build plutonium pits — the living, breathing heart of a nuclear weapons, where the chain reaction occurs. In other words, mad science at its most extreme.

2. Its projected cost is greater than all the work done on the Manhattan Project in New Mexico during World War II.

3. The land the building will occupy is seismically, uh, challenged.

Before proceeding, I’ll wait until you get over your spell of cognitive dissonance. Yes, this is what passes for disarmament in the Age of Obama. The Albuquerque Journal provided an overview about the Los Alamos National Lab project.

Federal officials want to push ahead with a proposed Los Alamos plutonium laboratory despite soaring cost estimates and questions about seismic safety, according to a new analysis released late Friday afternoon. But the study stops short of answering key questions about how best to build a structure capable of withstanding a major earthquake at the site.

The National Nuclear Security Administration [NNSA] study also brushes aside critics who argue that new understanding of earthquake dangers and . . . the resulting rising construction costs require a re-evaluation of whether the project as currently planned should go forward. . . . The most recent version of the replacement plan would cost an estimated $3.7 billion to $5.8 billion, according to a National Nuclear Security Administration report to Congress in December. That is a four- to sevenfold increase of the estimated price just four years ago.

“NNSA and Los Alamos Lab arrogantly think they can proceed with a blank check from the taxpayers for this gold-plated project,” [Jay Coghlan of Nuclear Watch New Mexico] said in a statement Friday evening.

Another New Mexico nuclear watchdog group, the Los Alamos Study Group, is about to present its long-gestating lawsuit against the NNSA and the Department of Energy. In his latest newsletter, executive Director Greg Mello explains.

At 9:00 am Wednesday April 27th, in the Brazos Courtroom . . . of the Federal Courthouse . . . Albuquerque, the Honorable Judge Judith Herrera will hear arguments from the Los Alamos Study Group and the federal defendants — the Department of Energy . . . and the [NNSA] over whether final design of the proposed huge plutonium facility in Los Alamos — called the “Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility” (CMRR-NF) — should be halted pending analysis of alternatives to the project.

The two opposing motions:

. . . whether a) to throw out the Study Group’s lawsuit, from the defendants; or b) temporarily pause the project, i.e. grant a “preliminary injunction,” in order to give the court the opportunity to hear evidence on the Study Group’s contention that the project cannot proceed without a valid, new environmental impact statement (EIS).

Mello continues.

Recently, Everet Beckner, NNSA’s Assistant Administrator for Defense Programs during the George W. Bush Administration . . . said that not pausing CMRR-NF to consider the implications of the Japanese nuclear crisis would be a mistake. He has particularly pointed out the dangers of a fire in the proposed . . . plutonium storage facility [in the event of an earthquake], a possibility which LANS, the Bechtel-led corporation that manages Los Alamos, has said it hopes to make impossible — and therefore need not be analyzed.

However, LANS has also

. . . admitted that the safety of the . . . plutonium facility [as it currently stands] is more problematic than understood to date due to structural deficiencies in the building. [The] need for . . . structural renovation raise new questions about the practicality of proceeding with everything at once.

It seems the NNSA may have bitten off more than it can chew. I’ll break down the relevant paragraph of the LASG newsletter into bullet points.

  • existing and planned new programs in the building, including new pit production and industrial-scale production of plutonium dioxide for mixed-oxide (MOX) reactor fuel
  • the production of additional kinds of plutonium pits and in much larger numbers than before
  • while also trying to fix the building in fundamental ways
  • while also undertaking a giant construction project immediately adjacent to the facility
  • not to mention several “smaller” projects (in the $50-$300 million range) that NNSA hopes to start nearby as well.

Mello sums up:

We now know that this site is subject to seismic shocks twice as great as those experienced at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. The full implications of LANL’s challenging geographic situation are only slowly being assimilated by the federal bureaucracy and contractor community. Both DOE and NNSA operate with an almost unbelievable “culture of optimism,” as defendants themselves name the problem.

All too often, the better part of optimism is denial, in this case, on the part of the federal government about the dangers and the eye-popping cost of work proposed for Los Alamos.

In Death, Hetherington and Hondros Stand in Mute Witness to Mankind’s Latest Savagery

The bodies of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros—the award-winning journalists killed earlier this week in Libya—were blessed Friday in a small ceremony held at the Benghazi Medical Center in the country’s rebel-held east. The service offers the cold comfort of closure to millions around the world deeply affected by the pair’s death even as they were unknown to many before their untimely passing, and who are but two of the countless victims claimed thus far by Libya’s civil war.

Their death was recounted in a remarkable piece by the Washington Post’s Leila Fadel:

On Saturday evening, Tim Hetherington, the director of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Restrepo” and Chris Hondros, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated photographer, hitched a ride to this besieged city on the Ionian Spirit, where they prepared sandwiches for refugees and talked about their plans back home. On Wednesday evening, the ship ferried the bodies of the two renowned journalists back to Benghazi.

The two journalists were fatally wounded during an attack by Moammar Gaddafi’s forces against rebels in Misurata. Two other photojournalists suffered injuries, some critical, according to doctors at the hospital where they were treated…

Guy Martin, a British freelance photographer who was wounded in the attack that killed Hondros and Hetherington, was out of surgery Thursday, conscious and in stable condition. Michael Christopher Brown, another freelance photographer wounded in the attack, was also recovering.

The journalists had accompanied rebel fighters to Tripoli Street in the city center, which Gaddafi’s forces pounded with mortar fire in an attempt to retake the strategic road that divides Misurata. An ambulance took Hetherington and Martin, 28, who was working for the news agency Panos, from the battle to the triage tent next to the Hikma hospital about 5 p.m. Hetherington was bleeding heavily from his leg and looked very pale.

“Come with me. Come with me. Everybody is injured,” an American photographer who had seen the attack shouted to ambulance drivers, imploring them to return to the scene. Her bulletproof vest was splattered with blood. “I’ll come with you. I’ll show you where they are.”

As she sought help, doctors attended to Hetherington and Martin, who had suffered a stomach wound and underwent surgery Wednesday evening. About 15 minutes after the ambulance’s arrival, doctors in the tent pronounced Hetherington dead.

About 10 minutes later, another ambulance carried Hondros and Brown [the fourth journalist injured in the attack], who also suffered shrapnel wounds, to the triage unit. Doctors examining a scan of Hondros’s brain explained that shrapnel had hit the photographer in the forehead and passed through the back of his head. They asked a reporter at the hospital to look after his battered helmet. Brown’s medical condition was considered less dire…

Last week, Hondros and Hetherington joined other colleagues on the Ionian Spirit, dispatched to evacuate foreign workers from the embattled city. During the 20-hour voyage, Hetherington ate chips while Hondros told the colleagues about his recent engagement to a woman from New York. “I don’t want to be a really old dad,” he confided.

On Wednesday evening, that same vessel waited at port in Misurata for another cargo of migrant workers but was enlisted for a different mission. Before Hondros died at 10:45 p.m., Human Rights Watch reached out to the ship’s handlers and asked whether it could be used to transport him and Martin back to Benghazi for additional medical care. Instead, the bodies of Hetherington and Hondros were due to leave aboard the Ionian Spirit on Wednesday evening.

There’s little to add to what’s already been said of Hetherington and Hondros—of their artistic brilliance, of their fearless determination to bear witness to humanity’s savageries time and again, of their decency as men. So perhaps it’s best to simply arrange what has been printed by their friends, colleagues and loved ones into a small collage of affection, admiration, and respect.

From Sebastian Junger, collaborator and friend of Tim Hetherington:

I’ve never even heard of Misrata before, but for your whole life it was there on a map for you to find and ponder and finally go to. All of us in the profession—the war profession, for lack of a better name—know about that town. It’s there waiting for all of us. But you went to yours, and it claimed you. You went in by boat because the city was besieged by forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi (another name you probably never gave much thought to during your life) and you must have known this was a bad one. Boat trips are usually such nice affairs, but not this one. How strange to be out on the water off a beautiful coastline with the salt smell and the wind in your face—except this time you’re headed toward a place of violence and killing and destruction. You must have known that the unthinkable had to be considered. You must have known you might not ever get back on that boat alive.

You and I were always talking about risk because she was the beautiful woman we were both in love with, right? The one who made us feel the most special, the most alive? We were always trying to have one more dance with her without paying the price. All those quiet, huddled conversations we had in Afghanistan: where to walk on the patrols, what to do if the outpost gets overrun, what kind of body armor to wear. You were so smart about it, too—so smart about it that I would actually tease you about being scared. Of course you were scared—you were terrified. We both were. We were terrified and we were in love, and in the end, you were the one she chose.

At Foreign Policy, Christina Larson remembers Chris Hondros, the photographer and the friend:

His long list of awards — from being nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for breaking-news photography (2004), to winning the Robert Capa Gold Medal (2005) for “best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise” — attest to Chris’s skill and legacy as a photographer. As one of the many journalists privileged to have known and worked with Chris personally, I wanted to add a few words honoring the qualities that lay behind his work: tenacity, humor, thoughtfulness, and deep loyalty to colleagues and friends.

I met Chris in the spring of 2007 in Washington, D.C., on the rooftop of the Beacon Hotel, at a reunion for alumni of the International Reporting Project (IRP) at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Chris, who had traveled to Nigeria in 2001 as an IRP fellow, had taken the train from New York to participate in a panel on reporters in war zones at the reunion. (I was a newbie, just back from China, as a spring 2007 IRP fellow.) Chris was a loyal alumnus to the IRP program—always willing to lend a hand, go out of his way, or offer advice to younger journalists—just as he was loyal to most any organization he was affiliated with, and most of all, to his friends.

Among journalists working on many continents, Chris was well-known and well-loved for being a careful listener. Despite all his many commitments, projects, ambitions, and dreams, Chris always made time. (Last night, quite last minute, I emailed Chris to ask whether he was in New York to meet up. He wrote back quickly, at 1:49 a.m. U.S. Eastern time, “I’m still in Misurata, alas…. Sorry to miss you. We could have had a nice lunch.”)

The magazine also ran a stunning retrospective collection of the photographer’s work, and the Atlantic Monthly assembled his final photographs from Libya in a collection no less moving.

The last word, however, goes to the New York Times’ CJ Chivers, who presided over Friday’s ceremony. In a shell-shocked blog entry posted just hours after the bodies of the slain reporters were evacuated from Misrata, Chivers reminds us that even in the darkest moments of cruelty and barbarism, the better angels of man’s nature offer, if not a counterweight, then a salve against the devastation and human wreckage of war.

We’re numb here as the clock nears 4:30 a.m., and we’re not quite sure what to do. The deaths of Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington on Tripoli Street still seem unreal. Bryan just walked off from the little space we’ve been huddled in, working. He’ll sleep soon, I hope. The work kept us busy enough to hold the worst of the feelings away. But now the work is almost done, and it will hit again with the same shock as the first word.

Before that happens, a few words should be typed.


Everyone who admires Chris and Tim, and everyone who loves them, has a debt of gratitude to Human Rights Watch and to the International Organization for Migration, who together, on extremely short notice, bent the world to get Chris’s and Tim’s remains on the Ionian Spirit, the evacuation vessel that by chance was briefly in Misurata port tonight. The vessel delayed its departure to take them aboard and begin their journeys out. Tim was brought down first, while Chris clung to life. When Chris died, there seemed no time to get him there. But HRW worked the phones, pleading by satellite call to the pier to have the ship held up again. They simultaneously urged one of Chris’s and Tim’s colleagues at the triage center to get Chris’s remains en route through the besieged city by ambulance, assessing — correctly as it turned out — that if they could honestly say that he was on his way that no captain would leave the pier.

They were right. Chris and Tim are at sea now, heading toward Benghazi, which means, in the indirect but solemn ways that the fallen travel from battlefields, that they are heading home.

One more thing must be said. None of this would have happened without Andre Liohn, the colleague in the triage tent mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Andre worked all afternoon and night to get word out about Chris and Tim, who are lost, and Mike and Guy, who are wounded. At the end, it was Andre who tended to the details at the hospital to put them in motion toward their families. Without Andre, Chris and Tim would still be in Misurata, in conditions I do not care to describe. Their friends and families would know little, and Chris and Tim would have been off-the-grid, and hard to reach, and the delays in their travel would have been painful for all who want them back. Andre was a savior tonight. He brought hope and humanity to a chaotic, devastating day.

If you want to know a little more of Andre, let me say this: When I spoke to him a short while ago, I asked if he has been wearing his flak jacket, which I had carried into Misurata for him last week. Tripoli Street is a hell of flying bullets and shrapnel, and he’s on it almost every day. No, he said, I am not wearing it. I asked why not. “I gave it to an ambulance driver,” he said.

These are the organizations and the people—HRW, IOM, Andre—who make it possible to imagine, on days like these, that we are people still, just as Chris and Tim did in the work that defined their lives.

Is the Nuclear Taboo More of a Deterrent Than Deterrence Itself?

Many believe that deterrence — once often known as Mutual Assured Destruction — deserves most or all of the credit for preventing the outbreak of nuclear war. In his new book How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III (Simon & Schuster), about which we’ve been posting, Ron Rosenbuam cites a book published in 2008, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (Cambridge University Press).*

Author Nina Tannenwald, he writes, who maintains that “the prevailing explanation — which she attributes to the realist school of foreign policy, which tends to see the behavior of nations as the pure product of self-interest — is wrong.”

Besides deterrence

. . . she argues for a second explanation for nuclear non-use, something from the realm of ideas and ideals that nonetheless acquired real-world power: the development of a “nuclear taboo” that evolved from an abstract ethical norm into something more than a norm. . . . Tannenwald finds instance after instance of American leaders thinking that first use of nuclear weapons, as in preventive or preemptive war, was . . . wrong morally and ethically, “inconsistent with American values,” which call for “discrimination and proportionality in use of force.”

Oh, just like we demonstrated in World War II with our attacks on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, Hamburg, Dresden . . . (you get the idea). We’ll let Rosenbaum continue.

But she also supports her explanation of nuclear non-use by citing an important study of the period by the nuclear historian and analyst George Quester [who] concluded that “the failure to even threaten [a nuclear attack] has to be explained more by moral absolutes than by the rational calculations of the American government.” It’s a daring argument [that] asks us to believe that abstractions, “values,” fear of moral opprobrium, “stigmatization,” “shaming” — the punishments for breaking taboos — became real-world factors as decisive as warhead throw-weight. It’s also an attractive argument, because it suggests that military and political leaders have a conscience that evolved in the face of a possible world holocaust.

An example of how this phenomenon might manifest itself in even a leader not noted for much in the way of character is provided in this vignette of Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev by David Hoffman in his instant classic, The Dead Hand (Anchor Books, 2009).

In 1972, the General Staff presented to the leadership [of the Soviet Union] results of a study of a possible nuclear war after a first strike by the United States. They reported . . . 80 million citizens were dead; 85 percent of Soviet industry was in ruins. Brezhnev and Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin were visibly terrified by what they heard, according to Adrian Danilevich, a general who took part. Next, three launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles with dummy warheads were planned. Brezhnev was provided a button in the exercise and he was to push it at the proper moment. Defense Minister Andrei Grechko was standing next to Brezhnev, and Danilevich next to Grechko. “When the time came to push the button,” Danielevich recalled, “Brezhnev was visibly shaken and pale and his hand trembled and he asked Grechko several times for assurances that the action would not have any real world consequences. Brezhnev turned to Grechko and asked, “‘Are you sure this is just an exercise?'”

About world leaders growing a conscience, Rosenbaum writes (emphasis added).

It would be nice to believe. But that certainly did not filter down to the missile crewmen I interviewed, who were mainly concerned . . . with making sure they could carry out the genocidal threat of deterrence. Instead, it was almost taboo . . . to talk about reasons for not committing retaliatory genocide, such as questioning the sanity of whoever gave the order.

Nor is a terrorist group that could conceivably get its hands on nuclear weapons, such as Pakistan’s Taliban or al Qaeda, likely to be susceptible to a nuclear taboo. Islamist extremists confine taboos to sexual mores and dietary laws (halal). In fact, paralleling the missile crewmen, refusal to use whatever weapons fall into their hands is what’s probably really taboo to them. Rosenbaum continues.

There are two further problems with Tannenwald’s taboo analysis. . . . Does the taboo extend down to even the smallest battlefield nuclear-tipped artillery, less powerful than many conventional weapons? [Also, Tannenwald] gives the impression that abstract ethical thinking alone was responsible for something as powerful as this taboo. [She] tends to neglect . . . culture [e.g] Hiroshima and the way it’s been portrayed and visually sacralized, and the power of popular culture.

Besides Life magazine photos showing Hiroshima’s living victims, Rosenbaum cites John Hersey’s New Yorker essay turned into a book Hiroshima.

. . . the power of Hersey’s spare but unsparing prose was the foundation stone, the rock on which the taboo was founded [and he deserves] credit for the geopolitical effect [of his book] on the dormant consciences of the world’s leaders.

Rosenbaum also cites films from On the Beach to Dr. Strangelove to The Day After. He concludes

Cumulatively culture has had a powerful effect in creating the norm and contributing to the taboo. I would even go so far as to say that popular culture more than politics was responsible for the peace movement becoming — in its nuclear freeze phase — a mass phenomenon.

But, he notes that the taboo itself “could undo the taboo.”

If there is no certainty of retaliatory response, because tabooed, a foe would be more likely to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons for a first strike regardless of the taboo since they would have reason to believe retaliation was taboo.

In other words, however unexpected a blessing the taboo has turned out to be, it’s foolhardy to rely on so fragile a phenomenon to protect us from a nuclear holocaust.

*In a more recent book, The Tradition of Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons (Stanford University Press, 2009), T.V. Paul also explores the nuclear taboo.

Obama and Gates Disagree to Agree on Military Spending

Obama GatesLast week Barack Obama announced that he wants to cut $400 billion in military spending and said he would work with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs on a “fundamental review” of U.S. “military missions, capabilities and our role in a changing world” before making a decision.

Spokesman Geoff Morrell responded by hinting that Gates was displeased with having to cut that much from his spending plan. Gates “has been clear that further significant defense cuts cannot be accomplished without future cuts in force structure and military capability,” said Morrell, who volunteered that the Secretary not been informed about the Obama decision until the day before.

But it is difficult to believe that open display of tension between Obama and Gates was not scripted. In the background of those moves is a larger political maneuver on which the two of them have been collaborating since last year in which they gave the Pentagon a huge increase in funding for the next decade and then started to take credit for small or nonexistent reductions from that increase.

The original Obama-Gates base military spending plan – spending excluding the costs of the current wars – for FY 2011 through 2020, called for spending $5.8 trillion, or $580 billion annually, as former Pentagon official Lawrence Korb noted last January. That would have represented a 25 percent real increase over the average annual level of military spending, excluding war costs, by the George W. Bush administration.

Even more dramatic, the Obama-Gates plan was 45 percent higher than the annual average of military spending level in the 1992-2001 decade, as reflected in official DOD data.

The Obama FY 2012 budget submission reduced the total increase only slightly – by $162 billion over the four years from 2017 to 2020, according to the careful research of the Project on Defense Alternatives (PDA). That left an annual average base military spending level of $564 billion – 23 percent higher than Bush’s annual average and 40 percent above the level of the 1990s.

Central to last week’s chapter in the larger game was Obama’s assertion that Gates had already saved $400 billion in his administration. “Over the last two years,” he said, “Secretary Gates has courageously taken on wasteful spending, saving $400 billion in current and future spending. I believe we can do that again.”

The $400 billion figure is based primarily on the $330 billion Gates claimed he had saved by stopping, reducing or otherwise changing plans for 31 weapons programs. But contrary to the impression left by Obama, that figure does not reflect any cut in projected DOD spending. All of it was used to increase spending on operations and investment in the military budget.

The figure was concocted, moreover, by using tricky accounting methods verging on chicanery. It was based on arbitrary assumptions about how much all 31 programs would have cost over their entire lifetimes stretching decades into the future, assuming they would all reach completion. That methodology offered endless possibilities for inflated claims of savings.

The PDA points out that yet another $100 billion that Gates announced in January as cost-cutting by the military services was also used to increase spending on operations and new weapons program that the services wanted. That leaves another $78 billion in cuts over five years also announced by Gates in January, but most of that may have been added to the military budget for “overseas contingency operations” rather than contributed to deficit reduction, according to the PDA.

Even if the $400 billion in ostensible cuts that Obama is seeking were genuine, the Pentagon would be still be sitting on total projected increase of 14 percent above the profligate level of military spending of the Bush administration. Last week’s White House fact sheet on deficit reduction acknowledged that Obama has the “goal of holding the growth in base security spending below inflation.”

The “fundamental review” that Obama says will be carried out with the Pentagon and military bureaucracies will be yet another chapter in this larger maneuver. It’s safe bet that, in the end, Gates will reach into his bag of accounting tricks again for most of the desired total.

Despite the inherently deceptive character of Obama’s call for the review, it has a positive side: it gives critics of the national security state an opportunity to point out that such a review should be carried out by a panel of independent military budget analysts who have no financial stake in the outcome – unlike the officials of the national security state.

Such an independent panel could come up with a list of all the military missions and capabilities that don’t make the American people more secure or even make them less secure, as well as those for which funding should be reduced substantially because of technological and other changes. It could also estimate how much overall projected military spending should be reduced, without regard to what would be acceptable to the Pentagon or a majority in Congress.

The panel would not require White House or Congressional approval. It could be convened by a private organization or, better yet, by a group of concerned Members of Congress. They could use its data and conclusions as the basis for creating a legislative alternative to existing U.S. national security policy, perhaps in the form of a joint resolution. That would give millions of Americans who now feel that nothing can be done about endless U.S. wars and the national security state’s grip on budgetary resources something to rally behind.

Three convergent political forces are contributing to the eventual weakening of the national security state: the growing popular opposition to a failed war, public support for shifting spending priorities from the national security sector to the domestic economy and pressure for deficit and debt reduction. But in the absence of concerted citizen action, it could take several years to see decisive results. Seizing the opportunity for an independent review of military missions and spending would certainly speed up that process.

Could “Virtual Deterrence” Actually Increase the Chances of Nuclear War?

Virtual deterrence, while not new, has gained some currency in recent years as a means to both avert nuclear war and expedite nuclear disarmament. “Virtual,” in this instance, means abolishing nuclear weapons, which the United States maintains primarily to deter, or prevent, other states from attacking us with theirs. Instead, only the know-how and production capacity (as well as the fuel) to reconstitute them would be retained in case of a perceived national security emergency.

In its inability to signal a true commitment to nuclear disarmament, virtual deterrence is hardly ideal. But it sounds like a step in the right direction, right? In fact, the sad irony is that divesting ourselves of the hardware and retaining only the knowledge might actually increase the risks of nuclear war. Worse, it might hasten it.

In a paper that the Hudson Institute published in November titled Nuclear Weapons Reconstitution and its Discontents: Challenges of “Weaponless Deterrence”, fellows Christopher Ford explains why as well as anybody. First, though, let’s deal with a questionable claim he makes first.

The logic of reconstitution would seem to presuppose what the disarmament community often takes as axiomatic, but what is in fact a highly contested issue — namely, that the only use of nuclear weapons is in fact for deterring the use of similar weapons by others.

He also alluded to this in a recent talk he gave on nuclear deterrence.

Discussions of nuclear deterrence, in some quarters, tend to presuppose what the disarmament community often takes as axiomatic, but which is, in fact, a highly questionable claim — namely, that the only use of nuclear weapons is in fact for deterring the use of other nuclear weapons by others. This is a seductive idea [which seems] to offer a kind of “fast-track” to nuclear disarmament. . . . because nuclear deterrence is assumed not really to “touch” any of the other structures of our lives, it could simply be lifted up and tossed away. [But if] nuclear weapons turn out to be entangled in various ways with broader security or other issues . . . it is much harder to imagine them being surgically excised, and nuclear deterrence so cleanly disposed of.

Among the ways in which nuclear weapons are entangled in broader security is deterring the use of not only nuclear weapons, but a larger conventional army, a service nuclear weapons ostensibly performed during the Cold War in Europe versus the massive Red Army. Also, states seek to proliferate for reasons other than national security, such as prestige. Besides, like a national airline, it’s just what a state often thinks it should do to show it’s arrived on the international scene.

Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to assert that disarmament advocates believe that deterrence is the only use of nuclear weapons. More likely, they were originally inspired to take up the cause and, for the most part, still are by the fear that states will use nuclear weapons offensively. It’s hawks and realpolitik types who have homed in on deterrence.

In recent years replacement of the phrase “nuclear weapons” with “our nuclear deterrent” has become commonplace. It’s as if not only is deterrence the primary reason that nuclear weapons are maintained by the United States, but nukes have no actual use in fighting a war. This phenomenon can be seen in the title of the most recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by Schultz, Perry, Kissinger, and Nunn (the Four Horsemen of the Un-Apocalypse): How to Protect Our Nuclear Deterrent.

I’ve been unsuccessful in discovering who “re-branded” nuclear weapons thusly. But this kind of “messaging” is an attempt to convey the notion that instead of the principal threat to life on earth (along with global warming), nuclear weapons actually make us safe.

We’ll return now to how virtual deterrence can make us less safe. In his talk, Christopher Ford cites nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling, who expressed a concern that, if nuclear weapons are de-mobilized

. . . “every responsible government must consider that other responsible governments will mobilize their nuclear weapons base as soon as war erupts, or as soon as war appears likely.” As a result, “there will be at least covert frantic efforts . . . to acquire deliverable nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible.” Worse yet, there might be incentives for the country that acquired nuclear weapons first actually to use them preemptively. . . . employing a temporary monopoly upon nuclear weaponry. . . . in order to halt its opponent’s analogous rush toward nuclear armament.

In short, Schelling

. . . suggests that a world without nuclear weapons would become one in which many countries “would have hair-trigger mobilization plans to rebuild nuclear weapons. . . . The urge to preempt would dominate; whoever gets the first few weapons will coerce or preempt. It would be a nervous world.”

Hawks and realpolitikers both discount disarmament because the road to it is filled with potholes or, if it were a healthcare policy, gaps in coverage. But, even if one believes that proceeding down that path is more of a risk than retaining nuclear weapons, the balance of power that deterrence supposedly affords is an illusion. States that aspire to nuclear weapons aside, some that possess them, such as North Korea, Pakistan, and perhaps Israel, haven’t given up the notion that they’re just as essential for their offensive, first-strike capability than for deterrence.

Al Qaeda Has Its Own “Superusers” and “Badges”

Nothing if not web-savvy, al Qaeda has learned to exploit gimmicks devised by Western game and social network developers to expand and inspire its base. Jarret Brachman and Alix Levine explain in a Foreign Policy piece titled World of Holy Warcraft.

The counterterrorism community has spent years trying to determine why so many people are engaged in online jihadi communities in such a meaningful way. . . . Explanations from scholars have ranged from the inherently compulsive and violent quality of Islam to the psychology of terrorists.

But no one seems to have noticed that the fervor of online jihadists is actually quite similar to the fervor of any other online group. The online world of Islamic extremists, like all the other worlds of the Internet, operates on a subtly psychological level that does a brilliant job at keeping [its users] clicking and posting away — and amassing all the rankings, scores, badges, and levels to prove it. Like virtually every other popular online social space, the social space of online jihadists has become “gamified,” a term used to describe game-like attributes applied to non-game activities. It turns out that what drives online jihadists is pretty much exactly what drives Internet trolls, airline ticket consumers, and World of Warcraft players: competition. . . . Users can now earn status for the messages they post and the quality of the messages as judged by other members. In many of the forums, members can only receive points after they have posted a certain number of messages, enticing users to post more messages more quickly.

Are these techniques capable of producing actual terrorists? According to Brachman and Levine, they’re liberally used by the web designers for former imam turned regional al-Qaeda planner Anwar al-Awlaki, who inspired the Fort Hood shooter, the Times Square bomber, and the Christmas Day airline bomber.

Last year badges and levels popped up on Huffington Post in the form of “HuffPost Badges.” Still in beta, it encompasses various levels of “Networkers,” “Superusers” and “Moderators.”

It seems unlikely that progressives will take to such a juvenile system. But this author, for one, will be all too happy to stifle his condescension if badges and levels prove capable of generating Middle-East- or Wisconsin-style protests in the United States.

Taking R2P to the Next Level

On Monday, April 18, Citizens for Global Solutions ran a full page advertisement in the New York Times that calls for three essential actions for the U.N. to take in Libya. We are reaching out to Americans because we now live in a new age where the international community has accepted its responsibility to protect. But you can’t protect babies from 30,000 feet nor should this be the job of the U.S. and its allies alone. The United Nations must have the support and tools that it needs to get these jobs done:

  1. Deployment of U.N. Peacekeepers On the Ground to Protect Libyan Civilians;
  2. Provision of Food, Water, Medicine and Shelter for Displaced People in Libya;
  3. U.N. Sponsored Elections to Bring Democracy and a Legitimate Government.

Take action now – sign the petition.

These goals are in line with the Opinion Editorial written by President Obama, UK Prime Minister Cameron, and French President Sarkozy. In a joint editorial published in the Times, they declared:

The United Nations and its members should help the Libyan people as they rebuild where Qaddafi has destroyed — to repair homes and hospitals, to restore basic utilities, and to assist Libyans as they develop the institutions to underpin a prosperous and open society.

U.N. Peacekeeping

Today 64% of Americans supports a standing peacekeeping force led by the United Nations. Such a force would have the strength and legitimacy to halt the fighting in Libya without having to rely on NATO ground forces. While a standing U.N. peacekeeping force does not yet exist, this is the moment for the international community to establish it. This force could integrate within its ranks all those Libyans who desire peace, the protections of civilians and a legitimate government within their nation.

Sixteen U.N. peacekeeping operations are currently deployed worldwide, involving nearly 100,000 troops and police from about 120 countries. Peacekeeping has proven to be one of the most effective tools available to the U.N. to assist countries navigating the difficult path from conflict to peace. U.N. peacekeepers provide security and the political and peace building support to help countries make the difficult, early transition from conflict to peace.

Historically, peacekeeping missions have done vital work in helping countries torn by conflict create conditions for lasting peace. For example, the U.N. mission to East Timor in the early 2000s helped the country recover from a bloody Civil War and transition successfully to a relatively stable democracy. In Côte D’Ivoire, the U.N. peacekeeping mission has done similar work, helping to remove the brutal dictator, Laurent Gbagbo, put an end to the 2nd Ivorian Civil War in the past decade, and facilitate the peaceful transition to democracy.

In Haiti, U.N. peacekeepers helped in the recovery following the 2010 earthquake by restoring a secure and stable environment and by facilitating a legitimate election, the results of which are soon to be officially released. Now U.N. peacekeepers are looking to continue aiding people as Haiti looks to rebuild its economy and transition to democracy.

In Sudan, U.N. peacekeepers have worked to enforce the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed by the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army. U.N. peacekeepers there have provided much needed humanitarian aid to the Sudanese people and helped oversee the election on the referendum to make Southern Sudan an independent state.

Humanitarian Assistance

The United Nations refugee agency has warned that a lack of funding could undermine its ongoing efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to tens of thousands of people displaced by the unrest in Libya, saying it has so far received slightly over half of the funding it requested for the operation.

On April 1, U.N. High Commissioner António Guterres said it was “essential that humanitarian access is provided to all people in need throughout Libya.” Speaking specifically on the coastal city of the coastal city Misrata, Guterres said, “This is a situation where life-saving humanitarian access should be guaranteed.” According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), since mid-February more than 320,000 Libyans have fled to neighboring countries to escape the violence in Libya.

The UNHCR, along with the World Food Programme, UNICEF and other U.N. entities, have been able to supply some aid to the Libyan people, but the work is difficult. In late March a World Food Programme convoy delivered 5,000 blankets and 5,000 sleeping mats to the people of Benghazi, the Libyan opposition’s stronghold. However, the UNHCR reported “shortages of medical supplies and basic commodities” in the city.

In the cities of Tobruk and Benghazi in eastern Libya local authorities have identified at least 35,000 displaced people, mostly from Ajdabiyya and Brega. U.N. sources believe the actual number is likely to be around 100,000, since the population of Ajdabiyya is 120,000 and most people are thought to have left. While a few thousand have crossed into Egypt, the majority are displaced in Benghazi and Tobruk.

The U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released a fact sheet on April 15 reporting that at least 250 people including 20 children have been killed since hostilities began in Misrata. The report also stated that “Humanitarian needs are increasing amidst the ongoing heavy fighting inside the city of Misurata [Misrata]”; “There are reports of shortages of medical supplies, food and water”; and “the water supply to Misrata City has been cut off.” International medical organizations including the World Health Organization and Doctors without Borders have provided some medical assistance to the people of Misrata, as have other U.N. entities such as the World Food Programme and UNICEF. However, additional aid is desperately needed. A more concerted effort by the U.N. in coordination with individual nations and NGOs is essential to adequately address the humanitarian needs in Libya.


In their editorial, Obama, Cameron, and Sarkozy stated, “it will be the people of Libya, not the U.N., who choose their new constitution, elect their new leaders, and write the next chapter in their history.” They are exactly right, but without the United Nations the people of Libya will never get the chance. The end result in Libya, as demanded by the Libyan people, must be a democracy with free and fair elections, government accountability, and rule of law. We ask the U.N. to take it upon itself to call for such elections and oversee the election process when fighting lessens and Muammar Gaddafi has been dethroned.

On April 14, the U.N. called on Somalia’s transitional government to hold democratic elections before the end of its term in August. A U.N. sponsored conference of Somali officials, the European Union, and the African Union has agreed that elections must take place within the next four months. Somalia has not had a legitimate, stable government in over 20 years. Thanks to the efforts of the U.N., E.U., and A.U., upcoming elections could help with Somalia’s transition to peaceful, stable democracy. And this is just one of many examples of successful U.N. sponsored elections.

Once democratic elections are held in Libya, the nation can finally move forward and look to a future where leaders are accountable to the people and human rights atrocities, like those committed by the Gaddafi regime, no longer have a place in Libyan society.

Citizens for Global Solutions believes that these three actions are necessary to ensure that we are living up to our ideals as Americans, as citizens of the world, and as human beings. The world has already shown the commitment to the responsibility to protect — the responsibility the global community has to step in when the government of a nation cannot or will not protect its people. If the three actions outlined above are taken, we believe that Libyan lives will be saved and the future of the country hopeful.

Take action now – sign the petition.

Don Kraus is the chief executive officer of Citizens for Global Solutions.

Enhanced Drone-Strike Accuracy Makes Accidents Look That Much More Suspicious

Pakistan drone strike(Pictured: Site of a drone attack in Pakistan.)

“When the US began drone strikes in Pakistan in 2006, drone attacks were notoriously inaccurate,” wrote retired Pakistani military officer Shaukat Qadir at Counterpunch in an article about the release of CIA contractor Raymond Davis.

Their kill ratio was approximately 2 militants to 8-10 ‘collateral damage’. . . . However, from about March/April 2008, they became increasingly accurate, probably due to more accurate HUMINT [intelligence on the ground]. In recent times, the kill ratio swung dramatically; 8-10 militants to 2 in collateral damage.

Then Qadir explained

About a month ago, some helicopter-borne snipers killed nine children in Afghanistan who were out gathering firewood. An ex-marine turned journalist accused the snipers of deliberate murder. He argued that, with the technology available, it was impossible not to be able to differentiate between children aged nine to thirteen, carrying sticks, and armed militants.

But another reason beyond improved technology led Qadir to conclude that a subsequent drone attack, on March 17, in which 41 individuals, including women and children, were killed, was deliberate.

. . . the CIA was furious over the deal negotiated between the two militaries [Pakistan and the U.S.] to oust them from Pakistan. Given their record of pretty consistent accuracy for over two years, during which, never more than a total of twenty people have been killed, the majority being militants, and the manner of the attack, no other credible conclusion comes to mind.

In other words, Qadir maintains that the March 17 attack was a petty vendetta. Meanwhile, at Wired’s Danger Room Richard Wheeler wrote last week of U.S. Air Force attempts to improve targeting:

The Air Force has problems distinguishing men from women and adults from children. Which means pilots sometimes target — and kill — the wrong people. The air service’s solution: a nationwide contest, to help the military pick out kid from grown-up.

With the “Remote Human Demographic Characterization” challenge, the Air Force is looking for descriptions of a system “that can determine approximate age (adult, teen, child) and gender of small groups of people at a distance.” The challenge “requires a written proposal only.” So if your idea works and you can get the technical details right, you could walk away with $20,000.

Along with manned aircraft attacks, this system is intended for use in drone attacks. But the military better file it under Watch Out What You Wish For. Once designed and implemented, accidents will look even more deliberate. Whatever remains of the U.S. relationship with Pakistan will go the way of the wind.

New Nuclear Project Distracts From Existing Safety (Read: Seismic) Issues

“The vastly ambitious CMRR project has greatly detracted from the attention needed to solve existing nuclear safety problems at LANL,” writes Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) in its latest newsletter. LANL, of course, is the Los Alamos National Laoratory, one of the United States’ two nuclear weapons-design laboratories. The CMRR, about which I’ve often written about in conjunction with LASG’s attempts to retard its progress, is the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility, intended to expand production of plutonium pits (where the chain reaction occurs in a nuclear weapons).

In a cruel joke at a time of supposed disarmament, the CMRR promises to be the most expensive construction project in the history of Los Alamos. As for those safety problems, Mello writes, “LANL harbors many buildings which do not meet even the optimistic seismic hazard assessment of 1995.”

In a press release, the LANL admits as much, announcing

. . . that it has self-reported to the National Nuclear Security Administration a new preliminary analysis of structural load capacities at [PF-4 plutonium processing facility]. That analysis, which incorporated new geological data and sophisticated computer modeling, showed that a large earthquake that might occur in north-central New Mexico every 2,500 years could cause significant damage to some parts of the facility.

In response, LANL’s associate director for nuclear and high hazard operations, Bob McQuinn said, “While the latest calculations revealed some new areas to improve, we will quickly incorporate those into our ongoing facility improvement activities.”

But Greg Mello says:

On 3/25/11 I spoke with a senior NNSA official in DC who offered the opinion that PF-4 would “never” meet modern seismic and safety requirements. It is not clear to me that any large-scale plutonium processing facility can be built at LANL, for any reasonable price, which does meet those standards.

Hey, look at the bright side. At least there’s no danger that Los Alamos, on a plateau in the middle of desert country, will be overcome by a tsunami.

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