Op-Eds & Blogs
Op-Eds & Blogs
Jul 20, 2021
"Bill Gates' Fast Nuclear Reactor: Will It Bomb?" The National Interest
Last month, Wyoming became ground zero for the future of nuclear power. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and the state of Wyoming announced their intent to construct a commercial fast reactor demonstration plant, known as the Natrium project. Experts are already debating the project’s merits. Can it really be built for just four billion dollars? Are sodium fast reactors more or less safe than current thermal reactor designs? Why are two of the richest men in the world asking the Department of Energy for millions of dollars of subsidies in the project? Will the project ever be completed?
All of these questions are in play. One question that’s not – the project’s nuclear weapons proliferation implications – however, needs to be. As Victor Gilinsky and I note in the attached piece that The National Interest just ran, “Bill Gates’ Fast Nuclear Reactor: Will It Bomb?” Bill Gates’ nuclear firm, TerraPower, plans on exporting the Natrium reactor. What’s worrisome is the reactor can’t work without uranium enriched to 20% (something we don’t want Iran or other countries to do because it brings nations close to getting bomb-grade) or the recycling of nuclear explosive plutonium (another nonproliferation no-no).
India and China are also interested in fast reactors. New Delhi wants to use theirs to make bombs; Beijing may as well. That’s why the United States has historically opposed commercializing such reactors and their related fuel cycles.
Before our government pours more money into such fast, “advanced small reactors,” it should identify what the associated proliferation risks are of pushing these projects.
Jun 18, 2021
"Can Self-Government Survive the Next Convulsion?" American Purpose
When Washington worries about our government surviving against future military threats, it uses nuclear war as its benchmark. To skirt the worst, it maintains international nuclear hotlines; hardens our nation’s nuclear command, control, and warning systems; and games possible nuclear attacks, defenses, and counter strikes. More important, it maintains elaborate plans to uphold the “continuity of government” (think “Last Survivor” fortified with real nuclear bunkers, emergency communications systems, and legal lines of succession).
Developed during the Cold War, these continuity of government plans give Washington some confidence it might ride out a nuclear attack and continue to govern. We assume that less dramatic threats can be handled as “lesser included threats” to this "big one."
But can they?
In the attached American Purpose piece, “Can Self-Government Survive the Next Convulsion?” I argue no. With any bad luck, targeted civil disorders, pinpoint biological attacks, assassination drone strikes in Washington, as well as precision strikes against key U.S. financial, energy, and commercial nodes could unplug self-government in favor of martial rule without a “Day After” pulverizing of America’s major cities. Such pinpoint attacks could also do this without uprooting most Americans’ daily routines.
If this is at all likely, it recommends that we finally get serious about distributing our government by moving more of it out of Washington. It also recommends encouraging our nation’s largest commercial institutions and companies to locate their largest offices and plants away from the left and right coasts into the nation’s heartland.
How might this work operationally and politically? I take a stab below if only to assess if making such heroic changes would be worth the candle.
On July 12, 2021, Henry Sokolski gave a virtual presentation for American Purpose on this op-ed.
For the video recording, see below.
Jun 15, 2021
"Military micro-reactors: Waging yesterday's wars while losing the future's," Defense News
Earlier this month, the Secretary of Defense requested $60 million for further development of Project Pele, a micro-reactor concept the Army is working on to provide power for remote military bases. So far, the project has flown largely below the political radar screen.
It shouldn’t. In a Defense News piece, “Military Micro-reactors: Fighting Yesterday’s Wars While Losing the Future’s,” Bryan Clark, a former nuclear submariner at the Hudson Institute, and I make the case that the Pentagon should hit the brakes.
It isn’t that the project is technically infeasible: the United States demonstrated luggable military reactors a half-century ago. It’s that they’re geared to wage wars in ways that no longer make sense.
Early in the Afghanistan campaign, a key vulnerability of our forward bases was the extended lines of fuel trucks needed to transit fuel to our forward-deployed forces. These convoys were sitting ducks that locals could knockout with mere potshots. Hence, the Army’s interest in developing reactors that might reduce our military's need to deliver so much fuel to contested bases.
That was a decade or more ago. Today, forward bases’ key vulnerability is different. It’s not logistical convoys that are the key target, but the bases themselves. Chinese, Russian, Iranian, North Korean, Turkish, and European accurate missiles and drones have spread to the world’s hotspots and to proxy forces. These missiles can be used to knockout the bases themselves. This makes forward basing our forces much more risky.
If you build micro-reactors on these bases, you have a prescription for even more mischief. If hit, the reactors would jeopardize the base, leaving a radiological stain that would be difficult to remove and diplomatically awkward to handle. At the very least, potential host nations — e.g., a Japan or a Germany — would be loath to allow such plants on their soil.
Bryan and I make these points and several others. Bottom line: The Pentagon should leave this project to NASA and DoE.
To determine how best to power forward based energy-directed weapons, electric military vehicles, and the like, the Defense Department should stop picking preferred “winners” without truly having an open contest. Towards this end, the Pentagon might employ DARPA’s proven technique of awarding prizes for winners of technical contests that allow a wide variety of possible solutions.
There currently is a rapid rate of innovation for renewables, battery storage, distributed energy systems, switching technologies, and the like. Having the Pentagon clarify its military energy requirements, set a competition deadline, and announce a large prize for the winner makes more sense than funding some faddish pick.
On June 24, 2021, Bryan Clark and Henry Sokolski gave a presentation on this op-ed. Their presentation, "Does Our Military Need Micro-Reactors?" examines the military case for Project Pele, a micro-reactor concept the Pentagon is funding to provide power for a variety of military missions.
For the Powerpoint slides, click here.
For the video recording, see below.
May 14, 2021
"Offer more for more to stop Iran from going nuclear," Al Jazeera
Given the shooting in the Middle East not only in Israel, but between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, reviving the nuclear deal is getting far more difficult than it was before. Compounding these difficulties is that the Iranian election June 18th is likely to produce more radical, militant rule. This suggests the talks may go nowhere.
But, as NPEC’s Wohlstetter Fellow John Spacapan and I wrote today in Al Jazeera, this is not the only possibility. As Israel, the Gulf states, and Iran continue to shoot at one another, it’s pretty clear that dialing in their concerns will be essential. As we note in our piece, they now have “more say in whether the bomb spreads throughout the Middle East than Germany, Britain or Russia.”
Operationally, what does this mean? Two things. First, if any truly sustainable deal with Iran is to be struck, it will only be credible if it addresses Israeli and Gulf Arab fears that Iran might get the bomb even after signing a deal, and Iranian concerns that Israel might continue to attack Iran even if Tehran agrees not to stockpile any more enriched uranium.
Second, the Biden Administration will have to drop its “less-for-less” approach of merely giving some sanctions relief for some Iranian nuclear restraint and instead offer more for more. What that “more” might be is unclear but it would likely have to include Iran dropping enrichment of uranium or reprocessing of spent reactor fuel and Israel and Saudi Arabia agreeing to additional nuclear restraints as well.
These, to be sure, are big asks. But shooting for anything less is unlikely to produce any lasting limits on the nuclear planning now in play in the region.
May 10, 2021
"Nuclear plants a big security risk," Taipei Times
If there is a topic both supporters of Biden and Trump agree about it is the need to bolster Taiwan’s security. For most this has meant selling it more advanced weaponry. But there’s another military danger Taiwan faces that Washington can help reduce — the vulnerability of its power reactors to precision PLA missile attacks.
In the attached Taipei Times piece, “Nuclear plants a big security risk,” I build on analysis Ian Easton of Project 2049 published earlier detailing Chinese instruction in targeting Taiwan’s reactors in their military guidebooks. Although China prefers to merely knock the plants out temporarily, the military is prepared to countenance radiological releases.
To shut down roughly 10 percent of Taiwan’s electrical generation, however, China needs only to fire a precise missile or drone near one of the reactors (say in their parking lot). Such strikes would also likely prompt local residents to flood the roads to escape possible follow-on attacks. If any of Taiwan’s active reactors were hit and suffered a loss of coolant, evacuation of many thousands to several million residents might be required.
This August, Taiwan will hold a referendum on whether or not to complete a fourth nuclear plant, which is located directly on one of China’s most preferred landing beaches. Technically and financially, completing the plant is a non-starter. Still, it is a political referendum on President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party’s rule, one that critically depends upon the support of environmentalists, who back President Tsai’s call to shut down all of Taiwan’s reactors by 2025.
It is unclear how realistic meeting that deadline might be. What isn’t is the nuclear security imperative for Taiwan to replace its reactors with nonnuclear alternatives as soon as possible. This is one nuclear security energy initiative that should enjoy broad political and technical support not only in the United States, but from much of Western Europe, as well as from Japan and South Korea.
May 02, 2021
"Dangerous Decisions about Advanced Nuclear Reactors Could Lead to New Threats," The National Interest
Last week, the U.S. State Department launched a $5.3-million program to promote the overseas deployment of U.S. “advanced” nuclear reactor technologies. The Department views these reactors as being cheaper and safer than the current generation of nuclear plants. It’s unclear, however, how these reactors might be fueled and what nuclear materials they might produce.
State and Congress need to find out. In the attached piece, posted by The National Interest, Victor Gilinsky and I spotlight the Department of Energy’s (DoE's) recently announced Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP). It just funded Bill Gates’ TerraPower Natrium fast breeder reactor. This plant’s original design included an onsite reprocessing plant to help fashion plutonium-based fuels for the reactor. Plutonium is a nuclear weapons explosive. The current plan is to run the Natrium design on 20 percent enriched uranium but it could revert to running on plutonium.
Congress needs to nail this down. TerraPower’s CEO recently testified that there was a significant overseas market for the Natrium design and that he “anticipated growing Natrium output” from 300 megawatts “back up to gigawatt scale.” If these plants were to be powered with plutonium-based fuels, they would require an inventory of many hundreds of bombs’ worth of the nuclear explosive. Once on line, a one-gigawatt reactor could make nearly 100 bombs’ worth of weapons-grade plutonium a year.
When asked about China’s fast reactor program, the head of U.S. Strategic Command voiced his concern that it would afford Beijing a “very large source of weapons-grade plutonium,” one that might push China’s future weapons arsenal to “the upper bounds.” When asked about this, the U.S. Energy Department (DoE) demuredthat the advanced fast reactors it was developing “incorporate nonproliferation considerations.” What this means is anybody’s guess. Before Congress funds DoE’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, it should make sure that DoE's fast reactors won't be using plutonium or require reprocessing.
Mar 17, 2021
"Dr. Strangelove's New Passion: Precision-Guided Mayhem," American Purpose
Monday, in what is becoming a weekly occurrence, Houthi drones again struck two Saudi airports. Coming after previous precision drone and missile attacks conducted against Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Syrian targets, this latest spat of attacks suggests the not so brave world we are moving into — a precision-missiled planet in which weak actors use advanced weaponry not to reduce possible harm to civilians, but to increase it.
What might this future look like? I take a peek in the attached American Purpose piece and video interview, “Dr. Strangelove’s New Passion: Precision-Guided Mayhem.” In it, I spotlight the increasing number of threats weaker states and non-state actors are making with precision missiles and drones against “sympathetic targets” (e.g., dams, petrochemical plants, ammo depots, nuclear plants, natural gas depots, etc.) that release far more harm once hit than the amount of energy initially used to strike them.
I also focus on the difficulty of defending against such threats that states face and the specter of launching massive preemptive wars as a response. In a world with nuclear-armed states in East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East, this could spell real trouble.
Mar 15, 2021
"For the NPT to work, plutonium has to go," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
When it comes to nuclear power, officials and the public tend to make projections untethered from the realities of economics or national security. Consider the current enthusiasm for “advanced” fast reactors. These make nuclear weapons-grade plutonium and reuse it as fuel. Never mind that electricity from such reactors costs a multiple of what’s produced from current reactors or that it’s impossible to keep close track of the weapons explosive plutonium they produce and consume. Congress and the Department of Energy fawn over commercializing them because they are viewed as being “advanced.” The press and public meanwhile, can’t resist celebrating the billionaire philanthropic backers of such reactors — Mr. Gates and Mr. Bezos — who now are seeking federal subsidies to support their “charitable” fast reactor dreams.
This is all exciting but if our government is serious about preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, we need to curb our enthusiasm. As Victor Gilinsky and I argue in the attached Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists piece, “For the NPT to work, plutonium has to go,” our current ardor over fast reactors is but a revival of an old faith in plutonium-fueled reactors that has repeatedly disappointed.
In 1945, scientists thought the world was running out of uranium and that nuclear power could only progress by transmuting the globe’s vast amount of uranium 238 into fissile plutonium fuel in fast reactors. Almost as soon as the U.S. Atomic Energy Agency completed its first fast reactor, though, cheap uranium was discovered nearly everywhere. Unwilling to take yes for an answer, nuclear engineers then argued that thousands of conventional nuclear power plants would “soon” be operating and would be so popular that the world would run out of — you guessed it — uranium. That also never happened.
Put aside the frightful negative economics of playing with highly toxic plutonium fuel and the construction complexities of fast reactors, there is a profound nuclear proliferation problem with playing with plutonium that we ignore at our own peril. Plutonium can be inspected but, unlike low enriched uranium, not ever enough to prevent incremental or abrupt diversions to make bombs. That’s why Presidents Ford and Carter suspended commercial use of plutonium-based fuels as a matter of US policy and urged other states to do the same. The UK, Germany, France, and Japan all terminated their fast reactor programs. Russia, China, and India are the only countries building them. None are yet willing to place their commercial plutonium activities under International Atomic Energy Agency inspections. India admits it will use its reactor to make bombs.
This August, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will undergo its 10th five-year review. The aim of the conference is to strengthen the barriers to further nuclear weapons proliferation. If the United States and like-minded nations are serious about supporting the NPT, Victor and I argue they need to support ending the commercial use of plutonium, which is unnecessary, uneconomic, and clearly proliferation-prone.
Feb 19, 2021
"Biden Should End U.S. Hypocrisy on Israeli Nukes," Foreign Policy
Wednesday, President Biden phoned Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the official read out of the call, no mention was made of Israel’s nuclear program. As a result, it is unclear if Biden committed to pledging not to press Israel to give up its nuclear weapons or to confirm their existence as long as Israel feels threatened. Israel has demanded every American president since Bill Clinton make this pledge in writing.
In the attached Foreign Policy piece, “Biden Should End U.S. Hypocrisy on Israeli Nukes,” Victor Gilinsky and I argue Biden shouldn’t. Israel has a triad of nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers and was recently rated the world’s eighth most powerful state, just behind Japan. After the Abraham Accords, Israel is unlikely to be pushed into the sea.
On the other hand, pressure is mounting on Washington to uphold its Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) promise to limit its nuclear forces. Last fall, the United States called on China to abide by this NPT pledge and after extending New START, the Biden Administration announced its desire for China to join in follow-on nuclear reduction talks.
The Administration is currently attempting to engage Iran to renew and fortify the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Yet, it will be difficult to do so credibly without acknowledging Israel’s nuclear arsenal — something currently forbidden by Executive order of anyone holding a US security clearance.
The same also is true of dealing with Egyptian threats to hold the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference hostage if Washington refuses to participate in talks to establish a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Israel is expanding its nuclear activities at Dimona. All of this suggests its time the Biden Administration break with the past and stop indulging Israel’s nuclear demands. Washington pretend Israel has no bombs.
All of this suggests it's time the Biden Administration break with the past and stop indulging Israel’s nuclear demands.
Feb 19, 2021
"Turkey's Nuclear Reactor: A Tempting Target?" The National Interest
As the controversy between Washington and Ankara over Turkey’s deployment of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft and missile systems continues to simmer, there is a different air defense concern that both the US and Turkey should discuss – the vulnerability of nuclear reactors to accurate missiles and drone attacks. In Turkey’s case, this problem was highlighted last month by a large explosion at the construction site of its first commercial nuclear power plant.
In the attached piece in The National Interest, “Turkey’s Nuclear Reactor: A Tempting Target,” Wohlstetter Fellow John Spacapan and I explain how the construction site explosion set Turkish locals at Akkuyu on edge. According to the building contractor, the explosion, which caused serious damage to surrounding homes and injured two people, was “planned.” Those living near the plant, though, had a different take. They’re concerned that this explosion was no mishap and that it presages a more catastrophic accident in the future. The plant, they point out, sits on a seismic fault.
What no one has paid enough attention to, however, is that future disasters could be planned by local terrorists. Recently, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party terrorist organization used drones to attack a military base. It could, if it chose, attack the nuclear plant at Akkuyu with its armed drones, which are capable of travelling 60 miles and fast enough to outwit Turkey’s military jamming technology. The possible knock-on effects of such a strike include inducing public panic to igniting a spent fuel fire that could mimic Chernobyl.
What should we do? John and I recommend that the Biden Administration quietly encourage Ankara to drop its controversial nuclear power plans. Turkish critics of the Akkuyu project, including the Republican People’s Party, Turkey’s largest opposition Party, argue it would be far cheaper and safer to kill the reactor project and invest instead in renewables and natural gas. Washington and others should help Turkey with those alternatives.