Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Post-nuke Detective Work

Courtesy of the The Reg, I learn that fallout from a nuclear blast can be IDed even decades later: read their Nevada nuke test fallout turns up in Hertfordshire

You might recall The Sum of All Fears. I haven't read the Tom Clancy novel, and wasn't too impressed with Ben Affleck in the movie version, but it did make me think: Can one determine the provenance of A-bomb fuel after the fact? The movie has Affleck racing against time to prevent the wrong retaliation. Does the physics and chemistry permit such rapid determination? Well, perhaps it does, if you know enough about the material itself.

Hence at least one unsummed fear in nuclear fuels processing when practiced outside the NPT regime: if Iranians or Koreans are refining bomb-grade uranium or plutonium, we won't know its composition unless they open up for full inspections. So if it gets passed to terrorists, we have a problem: with two or more nations refining the stuff, even a full accounting of known materials doesn't permit one to deduce the source by a process of elimination.

For a while, I've been strongly of the opinion - an unpopular one, perhaps, but what else is new with me? - that we should junk the Nonproliferation Treaty. After all, the terms require that cosignatories that already are nuclear-armed reduce their arsenals, yet during much of the term of the NPT, most superpowers only increased those arsenals.

The NPT is a treaty to gradually ban nuclear weapons, not just to establish an oligopoly for the U.N. Security Council. And it hasn't worked, has it? Israel, India and Pakistan haven't signed. States that didn't have nuclear weapons programs of any significance are tarred as violators:
There have been challenges to the NPT. Iraq was found to be in violation of the NPT in 1991. Its nuclear program was neutralized through action by coalition military forces in the spring of 2003 following 12 years of Iraqi noncompliance.
Remember that bit about how Iraq's noncompliance with inpections "proved" that Iraq had a program? Somehow, an alternative hypothesis never bubbled up very high - that Iraq was in such disarray as to make it possible for some people high to think it did have a program, while the ostensible program funding was being diverted to other purposes.

We're facing a very weird danger, here: states near the edge of collapse might have elements with motivations to pretend they have nuclear programs when they don't. And for all we know, Blix and ElBaradei knew of this state of affairs in Iraq not long after renewing inspections, and decided that playing for time was the most humane approach - a drawn-out inspection process might give Iraqi weapons scientists and their families a way to exit the situation other than through Saddam's torture chambers. For, certainly, Saddam would have been very angry indeed to discover that they weren't really working on nuclear weapons.

And how do we know that we aren't facing a very similar situation in North Korea? An unofficial delegation visited North Korea during the time when it was practically boasting of having capability, and were shown what was described to them as an ingot of plutonium. However, nobody was allowed to hold the sample. (Yes, this is safe to do.) A heftable but noncritical sample would have felt warm to the touch. It could have been bluffing to this delegation, but also a show of credibility for a non-existent program for the sake of saving their own skins from their own leadership. Perhaps Kim Jong Il only thinks he has a nuclear program. Or perhaps, under the circumstances, he likes the ambiguity that the Iraq situation created for him: policymakers now have to contend with even more possibilities.

(1) North Korean has bombs
(2) North Korean leadership thinks it has bombs, but doesn't
(3) North Korea is trying to fool everybody into thinking (1)

And you have to make that those propositions rows in a table with columns labeled as follows: The North Korean leadership is

(1) crazy, but wants to be seen as sane
(2) sane, and just doesn't communicate very well
(3) sane, and wants to be seen as crazy
(4) crazy, but also has sane reasons to be seen as even crazier

And at that point, you still haven't summed up the complexities and ambiguities inherent in the current picture. After all, "North Korean leadership" may be an oversimplification - perhaps we just see the iceberg tip of deeper intrigue and a mix of motivations.

How about a treaty that permits proliferation but with monitoring? How about finally ditching the notion that nuclear weapons are somehow inherently immoral? (Or become immoral when in the hands of nations that nobody should like?) What would a likely North Korea response be under those conditions? The answers may still be too ambiguous for comfort.


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