Category Archives: Israel

In the news (September 10 – September 17 2013)


Welcome back to all our readers! Another week, another digest. First, we return to one of last week’s more prominent stories; on Russia’s concerns that a US led air offensive could lead to the catastrophic destruction of the Miniature Neutron Source Reactor near Damascus. Well, the Anadolu Agency reports that the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has issued a statement calling such claims “unrealistic.” Associated Senior Research Fellow of SIPRI, Robert Kelley, refuted the claim that Syria even had anything that could accurately be termed a “nuclear program.”

“There is a little tiny nuclear reactor in Syria.  It is located in the desert at Deir al Hajar, 15 km from the Damascus city limit.  It is not in the suburbs as some would tell you,” said Kelley “As I noted, they are interested in medical isotopes… It would be a gross mischaracterization to call these hospitals ‘nuclear programs’ or ‘nuclear capabilities’. They are not military in any way and have zero contribution to military programs.”

Ian Anthony, another SIPRI research fellow, claimed that the reactor was too small to melt down at all, being “ten thousand times smaller than Fukushima” and that its location meant it could not be at risk of collateral damage. Tom Collina, an expert in Arms Control Association, said that Syria does not have materials needed to pursue a nuclear weapons program in the first place, and that “I do not think the US would target the research reactor. If it is destroyed by accident, yes there is a chance of contamination but not mass casualties.”

Questions: In 2007 Israeli destroyed a supposed nuclear reactor in Syria.  But from that day until now not a single other piece of the nuclear fuel cycle required to support a reactor has been found.  Since there are no other elements of a nuclear program in Syria other than the tiny reactor is there any threat of public damage from nuclear fuel cycle facilities being hit?  Is there a danger of public risk if hospital sources or food irradiators are hit?

Nuclear Arsenals – Israel’s numbers

Batsheva Sobelman points out in the Los Angeles Times that the new estimate on Israel’s nuclear arsenal by Hans Kirstensen and Robert Norris in their article Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, published in the September/October issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, agrees with the number given by SIPRI in their 2013 Yearbook, again by Kirstensen together with Philipp Schell. The two studies place Israel’s arsenal at the number 80 which is lower than previous estimates. Kirstensen and Norris further claim that Israel has nuclear material for 115 to 190 more warheads.

Question:  What is more important, the quantity or quality of Israel’s nuclear bombs? Is Israel’s nuclear weapon capability a motivating factor for Arab States to also seek nuclear weapons?  Do NGO’s estimating warhead numbers take thermonuclear weapons into account or do they assume that all the material goes into simple fission bombs?  That could explain the difference.

IAEA and the Middle East WMD-Free Zone

Dan Joyner points out on the blog Arms Control Law that in the 2013 report “Application of IAEA Safeguards in the Middle East” issued annually by the IAEA, a reference that has been included in every report since 2004 was absent this time. The reference in question was the listing by name of 24 countries whose territories would comprise a proposed WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East. Joyner believes that this definition had helped avoid some serious complications in an already complex situation and further surmises that the deletion was not coincidental…

Questions: Given the sensitivity of the Middle East issue, can the dropping of the definition of the zone be the result of an oversight? If not, then it would be really interesting to find out where this idea originated from and the reasoning behind it.

Nuclear Safety – Fukushima

Japan and the crew at the Fukushima NPP are bracing for the typhoon Man-Yi. Japan’s NHK reports from the site that the main worry would come from the rain overflowing the basement of turbine buildings and the underground tunnel where highly contaminated water has accumulated. Workers have tied down outdoor pumps and piping, used to inject water into the reactors, and have placed weights on the large cranes used for removing the debris to stop them toppling over.

On the subject of natural disasters and the responsibility of corporate executives and government officials to deal with them, the Yomiuri Shimbun reports that the on Thursday, the Tokyo District Prosecutor’s Office announced there will be no indictment for 42 TEPCO executives and government officials on the charges of ‘professional negligence.’ The main reason being, according to Yomiuri’s report, that “to establish a case for professional negligence in such a situation, there must be evidence to prove failure to take necessary steps despite being aware of the potential danger of the tsunami, instead of merely a nebulous feeling that a crisis could occur,” and that “the extremely chaotic nature of the crisis made it very hard for prosecutors to charge a particular individual with criminal responsibility for the accident.”

Question: If the “chaotic nature of a crisis” as Yomiuri describes the reasoning of the prosecutors, helps the ones in charge get off the hook; wouldn’t it then be in their interest to keep things “chaotic” rather than “under control”?

Nuclear Energy – Japan

Japan’s power grid is now running 100 percent nuclear-free following the shutdown of the No. 4 reactor at Kansai Electric Power Co.’s Oi NPP for a routine maintenance checkup. For the 2nd time since the Fukushima disaster, every one of Japan’s 50 reactors is quiet. The Mainichi reports that it will take at least until the end of the year until any of them are restarted and Kanoko Matsuyama cautions that the country’s winter power needs may not be met solely by oil-burning power plants in this Bloomberg article. Phillip Inman of The Guardian talks about how the closures will affect Britain’s economy, saying “A survey and report published by the business lobby group the CBI found that around 95% of British business leaders are worried about the cost of energy and that more than three-quarters of them have little faith that matters will improve in the next five years.” Meanwhile, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard wrote a piece for The Telegraph skewering Shinzo Abe’s long-term intentions to reinvigorate the Japanese economy with affordable energy as the crux of his plan.

Questions: Is it by coincidence that governments in developed countries find it more and more difficult to support and sustain plans for long term development and reliance on nuclear energy? Is it the pressure from the public/constituencies, the confidence that they can rely on others sources of energy  or the less pressing needs and less dramatic energy needs projections for the next decades compared to those of the developing world? Is it fair to say that the ‘nuclear renaissance’ didn’t die out; it just emigrated ‘south’?

Nuclear Energy – Pakistan-China cooperation

Nuclear energy business-oriented news site World Nuclear News (WNN) reports that in late August Chinese companies and Pakistan inked a series of deals for the construction of two nuclear reactors in Pakistan. “The cost of the two 1100 MWe ACP1000 units – to be built at the coastal Karachi site near Paradise Point in Sindh province about 25 kilometres west of the capital – has been put at PKR959 billion ($9.6 billion),” reports WNN.

So far when asked about doing business with Pakistan even though China is a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Chinese brought forth the ‘grandfather’ argument: that they were refurbishing the 40 year old reactors at Chasma which they had built prior to their NSG membership. But this is an entirely new project and, as the report points out, it’s the ‘good ole’ item specific safeguards (INFCIRC 66) that will be applied again.

Question: How will this new deal sit with China’s partners in the Nuclear Suppliers Group? Can this play out in the near future as a fait accompli in getting Pakistan the same NSG exemption with India? And on a different note and beyond any implications for the nonproliferation and export control regimes, could this be good news when it comes to enhancing nuclear safety or in other words, how much safer will the new reactors be compared to the 40 year old ones currently operated in Pakistan?

Nuclear Literature

Eric Schlosser, perhaps most famous for authoring Fast Food Nation, has decided to tackle the subject of nuclear weapons protocol in his new book, Command and Control. Walter Russell Mead reviewed it for The New York Times, calling it “disquieting but riveting” while also acknowledging that “Schlosser is a better reporter than policy analyst, and his discussion of what we should do about the problem he so grippingly describes is disappointingly thin.” Schlosser’s book documents a number of accidents involving nuclear weapons and near-misses during the Cold War, a subject he returns to in an article he wrote for The Guardian last week. This piece focuses specifically on the status of Britain’s stockpile of trident missiles, but the author touches on the same base point: “Nuclear weapons are the most lethal machines ever invented, but the deterrence they provide is something intangible.”

The Question:  The issue of accidents does not adequately reflect the sudden drop in the number of NW accidents in the period after the one Schlosser describes.  Is it true that taking NW off airborne alert drastically reduced the risk of accident and made nuclear weapons storage and handling as safe as any other military munitions?

Tuesday Bonus

Iran’s ex-Foreign Minister and current head of the country’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, answered questions yesterday in Vienna after delivering his speech to the IAEA’s general conference. “The president, the foreign minister and myself are a group that is like-minded,” he said, adding that they have “a more full-fledged desire” to resolve the standoff.

Salehi Photo

In the news (August 28 – September 2 2013)

Nuclear Energy

We begin this week in Bangladesh, where Aminur Rahman Rasel writes in the Dhaka Tribune that groundwork on the 2,000 MW Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant will begin in October. The low-lying nation of 150 million people has historically had difficulties making durable concrete and is paying Russia’s Atomstroyexport $45.9 million to supervise construction.

Vietnam is accelerating the use of $143 million budgeted to train nuclear professionals, Xinhua News reported. The country, set to begin constructing its first plant next year, wants to annually enroll 250 students in the nuclear disciplines by 2015.

While Paladin CEO John Borshoff lamented uranium prices in The Australian, over at EnergyBiz, Ken Silverstein wrote that “nuclear-energy plants are sweating over the loss of Russian uranium” as the two-decade-long Megatons to Megawatts program comes to an end. World Nuclear News reported that the program down blended 500 tonnes of highly-enriched uranium, enough material to build 20,000 nuclear weapons. Russia could receive $17 billion from the project, Interfax reported.

Questions:   Does not the end of “Megatons-to-Megawatts” portend new business for uranium-enrichment companies more than it does for prospectors? After all, the 24-tons of Russian LEU annually used to down-blend its HEU were covered by U.S. exports. What’s missing is a vast concentration of saved separative work units

Fukushima & Nuclear Safety

The steady drumbeat of bad news continues to pace coverage of Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi disasters: Bloomberg News reported that the Nuclear Regulatory Authority has begun preparing the public for what insiders have long known: that the Fukushima’s tainted water must be dumped into the ocean. The acknowledgement followed weekend news that radiation spikes around the plant have triggered fresh safety concerns. Whiles Reuters reports that Japan’s government will abandon the “hands-off approach to Fukushima, ” there’s little indication on what it is prepared to do beyond engaging in a “debate (to) redraw the line” with Tepco over clean-up budgets. Andrew Dewit and Christopher Hobson plead in The Japan Times for the government to assume control on “national security” grounds.’

New research from the halls of academia (abstract) show how Fukushima’s Cesium-137 discharge will spread across the world’s oceans in the decades ahead. Predictably, media coverage focused on when the radionuclides will be detected off U.S. waters in 2014. Jeremy Hsu at LiveScience wrote that the Pacific’s “energetic and turbulent” currents help the dilution process. Lindsay Abrams at Salon wrote that the Fukushima plume “should be harmless” to human health.  

Bill Sweet at IEEE Spectrum wrote a belated review of M.V. Ramana’s “The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Power in India” and remains concerned that Indian atomic regulators lack independence

Behnam Taebi at the Jerusalem Post revisits the Elephant in the Room: “As politicians, energy experts and the general public weigh the pros and cons, one key element in harnessing energy from the atom is being neglected…The technical choices we make today will determine the extent of the burden humanity will face in containing contaminated by-products than can remain radioactive for thousands of years.”

Questions:  How has the IAEA’s parroting of Tepco’s shoddy information affected its reputation? Has the agency sufficiently lowered public expectations around its role in nuclear safety? How much longer before the nuclear industry begs to have a more muscular and assertive international regulator to save its reputation?

Nuclear Security

NRC Handelsblad’s Marcel Haenen reported that the person appointed by the Netherlands to oversee next year’s nuclear-security summit, was dismissed after failing a background check. The Dutch police union has called for an investigation into the dismissal.

Hans Kristensen wrote that the U.S. and Dutch governments are in a dispute over who bears liability in an accident stemming from a potential security or safety breech at Volkel Air Base. The news was first reported by the Brandpunt Reporter and sourced from Wikileaks documents.

The Greenville News’s Eric Connor reports that nuclear engineer Larry Criscione is concerned that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will press felony charges against him for asserting records were withheld from the public. The information concerns the security of nuclear plants in the event of dam failures. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers admitted in May that hackers breached a database outlining the vulnerabilities of U.S. dams.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial board wrote its concern about vulnerabilities exposed at First Energy Corp.’s Beaver Valley nuclear plant. Even as the operator has spent $132 million on security since 2001, a drill conducted in April revealed “one security shortcoming, five examples of performance below industry norms and six findings of low-security significance.”

Canada’s National Post reported that an unemployed technician tried to get a job by sending nuclear-security experts on a “wild goose chase” by claiming floorplans of the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station had been posted on a jihadist website.

Smithsonian Magazine reports that the Malmstrom Air Force Base has been fighting to secure it’s 150 nuclear-tipped Minuteman III ICBM’s from an army of squirrels that have dug an extensive network of tunnels around the silos.

Questions:  While nuclear security exercises are intended to expose shortcomings, the Post-Gazette editorial shows continued public misunderstanding around the point of these drills. That’s because the public doesn’t have a baseline to judge security effectiveness. How can regulators and industry improve communication about nuclear security without compromising their efforts? How can the press and broader public hold regulators and industry accountable without access to the people and places that could enhance understanding? How can these accountability flaws be addressed? How do organizations like the IAEA vet their nuclear-security experts?

Iran & Nuclear Safeguards

The NY Times William Broad reported that “Iran Slows Its Gathering of Uranium” after the IAEA released its quarterly safeguards report. Other media reports wrote about “The Dog that Didn’t Bark” and focused on Iran’s installation of 40percent more advanced centrifgures. Since Iran already told IAEA in January that it would install 3,000 IR-2 machines, we question the news judgement of leading on the fact that the country has accomplished only a third of its mission.

The Beltway chorus has inevitably tied the U.S. administration’s “weak” decision to delay military action against Syria to Israeli Worries of Iran Implications.”

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris look at global nuclear weapon inventories and calculate 97 percent of the 125,000 devices produced since 1945 were made by the U.S., Soviet Union and Russia.

Finally, Robert S. Rochlin, the nuclear physicist who worked for the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) for more than three decades, died Aug. 25. He was 91. Rochlin co-authored “Radioisotopes for Industry” and “The Technical Problems of Arms Control” among numerous articles.

A loyal reader writes: “The ACDA was created by Kennedy after the Cuban fiasco to provide direct independent advice to the president. It was sacrificed by Clinton in return for Senate ratification of the Chemical Weapons Conventions and the agency was abolished in 1999 and merged into State. ACDA was non-partisan and did a lot of good work and provided independent advise to U.S. presidents. Its abolition by Clinton ranks as one of his greatest mistakes in office.”

 Questions: How has ACDA’s demise affected decision-making in the White House? Do the intelligence agencies and State Department possess sufficient competencies? Are they sufficiently independent?

Tuesday Bonus

This is a picture of a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC), a ship capable of transporting up to 550,000 tons of liquid across oceans. A VLCC could carry all of Fukushima’s 338,000 tons of liquid waste and still have excess capacity! Given the fact that many marine species breed in the relatively shallow waters of littoral zones, would it not make sense for Japan to treat its waste the best it can and then pump the tritium-laced leftovers into the abyssal zone 6,000 meters down? Could it not, ideally, treat the waste on a deep-sea platform? Of course, this would constitute banned dumping in the ocean but would it not be a better choice than releases in the littoral zone which is also just uncontrolled dumping?

When does the world get to have a grown-up debate about real-world-crisis response to manmade disasters?