Nuclear Follies: How Not To Stem the BP Oil Gusher

Also published here.

Over the past few years, as I've written about various aspects of nuclear weapons and nuclear non-proliferation issues, I've observed one particularly disturbing trend, which is the rather cavalier attitude people have toward “nukes”. I'm not a sociologist, and I haven't conducted a formal study, but there's a tendency among people online and offline to say “just use a nuke”. Or, “why can't they nuke 'em?”, as if nuclear weapons were shotguns, and the use of one wouldn't have catastrophic global consequences.

Never has it been more apparent that there's a lot of misunderstanding (deliberate or otherwise) regarding nuclear weapons than recently. I'm talking about the appalling, misguided idea that we can “just nuke” the BP oil gusher and it will some how “be okay”.

Here's the Global Security Newswire's “Quote of the Day” from June 3, 2010:

Drill a hole, drop a nuke in and seal up the well.

–CNN reporter John Roberts, discussing one suggestion for dealing with the underwater oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. The Obama administration has rejected the idea.

Then there was an NPR article from June 4, 2010 entitled:

Stopping A Spill? There's Always The Nuclear Option

Even Mother Jones mentioned it as a possibility, though it was more tongue-in-cheek than some of the other articles out there.

Okay, guys, I'm going to say it slowly, loudly, and clearly:

The use of a nuclear weapon to stop the BP oil gusher is not an option. It is, in fact, the worst possible thing we could do. Here's why.

Geopolitical Implications: Let's Cause An International Incident!

Way back in 1963, after almost two decades of nuclear testing, the United States and the former USSR were the first of a large number of countries who signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, also know as the Partial Test Ban Treaty:

The Test Ban Treaty of 1963 prohibits nuclear weapons tests “or any other nuclear explosion” in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water. While not banning tests underground, the Treaty does prohibit nuclear explosions in this environment if they cause “radioactive debris to be present outside the territorial limits of the State under whose jurisdiction or control” the explosions were conducted. In accepting limitations on testing, the nuclear powers accepted as a common goal “an end to the contamination of man's environment by radioactive substances.”

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Going Rogue: Can You Build Your Own Nuclear Arsenal?

So you think you're smart, huh? Maybe even sneaky? Could you easily build your own nuclear arsenal without anyone finding out? Test your cleverness with the Stimson Center's new online game, Cheater's Risk. The background is fascinating:

As part of Stimson's “Unblocking the Road to Zero” project, which seeks to advance the debate about negotiated nuclear disarmament as a viable and practical policy option, Alex Bollfrass and Barry Blechman have developed Cheater's Risk,  an online game that explores the dynamics of a world without nuclear weapons. Players take on the challenge of breaking out of a hypothetical disarmament regime without being detected by national intelligence services and international monitors. Depending on which country is selected, different pathways to the bomb are available. As the player navigates the pathways, the cumulative odds of detection are calculated.  At the end, famed weapons inspector Hans Blix determines if the player has gotten away with it or has been caught.  The game is founded upon empirical research, published in Elements of a Nuclear Disarmament Treaty, an edited volume showing how to overcome technical obstacles to disarmament.

When I played the game as the Netherlands, I managed to amass 1-5 nukes, but it was by sheer luck that I didn't get discovered while I acquired all the materials.

Watch the trailer:

Cheater's Risk Trailer from Henry L. Stimson Center on Vimeo.

Check out the game. Are you feeling lucky?

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Cleaning Up After The Cold War: Hanford’s Tank Waste

Also published here.

The Hanford Nuclear Site. (Click to enlarge. I took this photo in Fall 1993)

When most people think of “the Cold War nuclear arms race”, they think of Reagan and Gorbachev, Kennedy and Khrushchev, treaties and international summits, Presidents and Premiers. It all starts to seem rather abstract: something from the past, to be relegated to history books and news archives.

They probably don’t think of the remote sites around the United States, consisting of laboratories and manufacturing facilities, the complex that made The Bomb possible. And unless you’re very familiar with this complex, or you’re a resident of the Pacific Northwest, you may not know about a remote part of Washington State known as the Hanford Site.

To make nuclear weapons, you need to actually make weapons-grade plutonium, or plutonium-239 (239Pu). The Hanford Site’s role in the Cold War was to produce most of the plutonium for the US nuclear arsenal; at the peak of the Cold War, we were producing about 28 bombs a day, and had as many as 31,255 nuclear weapons. The facilities built at the 586 square mile Hanford Site included nine nuclear reactors, several spent nuclear fuel processing facilities, support laboratories, and of course, large underground tanks for waste storage, in an area of the site known as the “tank farms”.

It’s the rather complex issue of Hanford’s tank waste that I’d like to address today.

When telling the story of the Cold War, the part that often gets neglected is that the extraction, processing, and purification of plutonium at the Hanford Site was anything but a neat, clean process; in fact, it resulted in a rather extraordinary amount of extremely radioactive and chemically dangerous waste. This waste is absolutely nothing like commercial nuclear waste, and its management has been one of the biggest challenges the US nuclear weapons complex, and consequentially, the Department of Energy, has ever had to deal with.

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Posted in Cold War History, Hanford Site, Nuclear Weapons | Tagged , | 3 Comments