In the news (10 to 17 September 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.

Questions:  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

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. 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.”

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.