The United States has just completed a big clean-out of highly-enriched uranium from nuclear research reactors in Poland, shipping more than 1,000 pounds of spent fuel to Russia. That’s approximately enough to make 18 nuclear bombs. The operation, run by the National Nuclear Security Administration of the Department of Energy, in cooperation with Poland, was one of the largest in recent years, and took five shipments over 12 months. (One of the very first such operations, back in 1994, known as Project Sapphire, removed about 1,330 pounds of HEU out of Kazakhstan.)
Here's the official statement from the NNSA. There is a good overview piece in Nature, which makes an important point that was also evident last spring at the nuclear security summit: the difficulty in such operations is not just hustling the nuclear material off to a safe harbor. Much of it is contained in research reactors, and those scientists working with the reactors think they have an important purpose. In the case of Poland, the United States is preparing to convert the reactors to low-enriched uranium and supply the new fuel at a cost of about $70 million. The removed HEU was first brought to Poland more than 30 years ago by the Soviet Union.
President Barack Obama has pledged to lock down all vulnerable nuclear materials in four years. It is going to be a tough deadline to meet. The best overall look at vulnerable nuclear materials continues to be the annual report, Securing the Bomb [pdf].
National Nuclear Security Administration
It is amazing how much misunderstanding was generated by Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, a missile defense plan he once proclaimed would make nuclear weapons obsolete.
We now have the complete text of a National Security Decision Directive 119, signed by Reagan on Jan. 6, 1984, the first presidential order launching the missile effort. An earlier version of NSDD-119 had been released only in part.
What's interesting about this document is the part that was redacted. The secret that had to be kept included this paragraph:
There is also growing concern over a potential Soviet breakout from the ABM Treaty. Evidence of Soviet efforts to develop a ballistic missile defense capability makes it incumbent on the U.S. to do its utmost to acquire its own strategic defense options as one possible response to a Soviet breakout.
Well, the Soviets were nowhere near a breakout of the ABM Treaty, and they were a lot closer to a breakdown. They had tried but largely failed to master the advanced technologies needed for an effective missile defense shield. The U.S. fears of a breakout were exaggerated.
Both sides share the blame for some deep Cold War misperceptions of each other on missile defense. There’s more here (in a piece for Arms Control Today.)
Thanks to Jason Saltoun-Ebin, author of The Reagan Files, for finding the full text of NSDD-119, and to the George C. Marshall Institute for posting the earlier version.
Jason Saltoun-Ebin; George C. Marshall Institute
Georgi Arkadyevich Arbatov, a lion of the Soviet establishment whose influence spanned the final decades of the Cold War, passed away Friday in Moscow. He was 87. An obituary was published today in the New York Times, capturing his role as the founder and director of the Institute for the Study of the United States and Canada, and a bridge between the superpowers at a time of mistrust and suspicion.
One of Arbatov’s most important contributions to the end of the Cold War was carried out behind the scenes in the 1980s.
When Mikhail Gorbachev was looking for advisors who could help him navigate toward radical change, both at home and abroad, Arbatov was among those who became part of his progressive brain trust. Among other things, Arbatov urged Gorbachev to withdraw from Afghanistan, to impose a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing, and pull back the large Soviet conventional forces in Europe. Gorbachev did them all.
We sometimes forget that a revolution like that unleashed by Gorbachev could not have been the work of one person. To bring it off, Gorbachev needed the small group of reform-minded thinkers around him; they faced immense inertia and resistance. Arbatov had witnessed the years of stagnation before Gorbachev, and could have simply stood back and waited, but instead he became one of those trying to change the system from within. Much more ambitious change was to follow, but Arbatov played an important role in those critical early years, when Gorbachev was just at the outset of “new thinking.”
Anatoly Chernyaev, who became Gorbachev’s chief foreign policy aide, recalled in his book My Six Years With Gorbachev that the Soviet leader ordered all calls from Arbatov be put through to him immediately. Chernyaev said Gorbachev treated Arbatov with respect “for his outstanding, practical mind, his clear and nondogmatic views, his adherence to principle on political issues, and his sincere desire to help the country.”
In Russia and the Idea of the West, Robert English reported that three weeks after Gorbachev took office, Arbatov produced a 40-page memo that outlined a new approach to Soviet foreign policy, including an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, and conciliatory steps toward Western Europe and China.
Eduard Shevardnadze told English that when he took over as Foreign Minister in 1985, he listened carefully to Arbatov's briefings on arms control negotiations, which debunked the inflated threats provided by other Soviet officials, and provided a calmer, more realistic assessment of the military balance. “I knew that we had to go forward, but I had no real data or numbers,” Shevardnadze recalled. He found the answers from Arbatov and his institute.
Like many, Arbatov later became disenchanted with Gorbachev’s endless tactical maneuvers, which at times seemed to undercut his own reform principles. But Arbatov wrote in his own memoirs, The System: An Insider's Life in Soviet Politics, published in 1992 in English, that he was slow to notice this because “I was so fascinated and enchanted by Gorbachev” in the early years.
If a missile came hurtling at the United States or Canada, an early-warning system is ready to detect it as early as possible. A missile could threaten a whole city. But what if a virus threatened the same city, perhaps carried by migratory bird, or an airplane passenger?
The virus might have a better chance of arriving undetected. Look no further than last year’s swine flu pandemic for an example of how a novel pathogen spread rapidly around the world. The virus was a unique combination of genes which had apparently mixed in pigs somewhere in Mexico.
When a dangerous new virus strikes, the public health system reacts with vaccines or therapeutic drugs. But these measures usually begin only after people start to get sick, and can take months or years to create.
What if there was a way to predict how a virus is going to evolve? What if technology could help peer into the future and see the next steps in mutation? What if there was a missile warning system for incoming viral threats?
Impossible? Perhaps. But in the next few years, pay attention to the something called Prophecy.
The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has just published broad plans for an ambitious, three-year effort which seeks to "achieve the ability to successfully predict the natural evolution of any virus." The project, called Prophecy, hopes to leverage existing knowledge about viral genomes -- the genetic code -- to figure out which direction viruses are evolving. Some viruses like influenza are relatively simple in their genetic structure, but they evolve at hyper-speed, leading to new strains that can evade detection or are resistant to existing drug therapies. Prophecy will attempt to spot the direction of change before it happens. Such a warning could pay huge dividends in preparing for, or even avoiding, a pandemic.
The Prophecy program seeks “to transform today’s vaccine and drug development enterprise from observational and reactive to predictive and preemptive.”
One goal of Prophecy is to develop a “platform” that can accurately reproduce and analyze the genetic events in a virus -- how it evolves in response to certain pressures. Another goal is to develop an algorithm capable of predicting these genetic events. It is a tall order, but today’s technology can crunch through the genetic code of a virus relatively quickly. The changes in a genome may be explored by examining shifts or trends in a large cache of data. Computers can sift and analyze mountains of that data. The results might point to the way a virus is mutating, and, if caught early enough, lead to a response that would save lives.
Such futuristic goals are the trademark of DARPA, which was established by President Eisenhower after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite on Oct. 4, 1957. The agency undertakes high-risk research aimed at cutting-edge solutions to problems. While its primary mission is for the military, the results have sometimes tumbled into civilian life. For example, its early research gave rise to what we know today as the Internet.
Joe Raedle/GETTY IMAGES
After all the memoirs and diaries are published, after the myths are created and exploded, there is something quite bracing about the transcripts and official minutes of once-secret White House meetings. People often have imperfect memories of what was said at a meeting, which makes it all the more important and interesting to read the official record of a dialogue as it actually unfolded.
A fresh cache of declassified and original materials on President Reagan and the Cold War is coming to light with the publication of The Reagan Files: The Untold Story of Reagan’s Top-Secret Efforts to Win the Cold War, edited by Jason Saltoun-Ebin. The documents contained in the volume are raw, genuine and illuminating.
Here’s a gem: a White House meeting Sept. 8, 1987, Reagan and his cabinet members were debating negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Reagan confides, cheerfully:
I have a friend who tells me that in the Soviet Union their right-wingers are starting to call Gorbachev 'Mr. Yes' because he agrees with everything that I propose."
CARLOS SCHIEBECK/AFP/Getty Images
Lots to read this fall. Here are three new books:
The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia's Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB (PublicAffairs)
By Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan
The authors bring hard-digging, fact-based journalism to an aspect of Russia that has been hard to document and understand. The New Nobility shows how Vladimir Putin expanded the reach and resources of the successors to the Soviet KGB, and examines their performance as a new elite. The book raises plenty of questions about why the services have not been more successful at security in an age of terrorism, given their favored status, with revealing chapters on the Nord Ost theatre siege, and the Beslan school massacre. They also document the use of the security services to pursue scientists and opposition political figures. A surprising chapter is the story of the hidden underground subway system, which has its own security service. Borogan recalls going down through a ventilator shaft -- a good metaphor for their deep dive into this murky world. They come back to the surface with a book that is sober and probing. (Full disclosure: I gave the authors some editing advice.)
The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons (Knopf)
By Richard Rhodes
Rhodes set the gold standard for nuclear history with The Making of the Atomic Bomb almost 25 years ago. In his latest volume, he examines what happened to nuclear weapons after the Cold War by looking not so much at Russia, but elsewhere around the globe. There is a strong focus on Iraq, where Rhodes chronicles the efforts to dismantle Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program in the 1990s, and then explains how the intelligence about WMD was so badly exaggerated leading up to the war in 2003. It is an important story that's been told before, but Rhodes injects a fresh sense of outrage. He also offers intriguing and contrasting accounts of nuclear decision-making in South Africa and North Korea, chapters relevant to today's proliferation conundrums. At the start of the book, Rhodes says he set out to understand "how the dangerous post-Cold War nuclear transition was managed, who its heroes were, what we learned from it, and where it carried us." While the title suggests dusk of the atomic age, the book is actually a reminder that we have not come close to the twilight of the bombs.
Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of The Cold War in Europe (Central European University Press; another in the Cold War reader series of The National Security Archive.)
Svetlana Savranskaya, Thomas Blanton, and Vladislav Zubok, eds.
This book is the kind that you can open at any page for an instant immersion in one of the most critical years of the last century, 1989, when the Cold War ended in Europe. The "masterpieces" of the title are 122 original documents which tell the story in words as they were actually spoken and written. The documents make great reading, especially the transcripts of Mikhail Gorbachev's conversations with European leaders. The volume also contains key diplomatic cables, including Ambassador Jack Matlock's perceptive three-part cable from Moscow on the future of the Soviet Union in February; Soviet Politburo transcripts; CIA estimates; and diary entries. All are accompanied by explanatory introductions. The book offers astute and enlightening essays by the editors, and the transcript of the 1998 Musgrove conference, a retrospective on the end of the Cold War. On any reference shelf, this one will be pulled down often, again and again.
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has signed a decree which could end of one of the most successful of the programs that helped Russia cope with the legacy of the Cold War arms race.
This is the International Science and Technology Center in Moscow, which was formed by Western countries in 1992 to assist scientists, engineers and others redirect their talents from weapons work to civilian projects.
On August 11, Medvedev signed a decree to pull Russia out of the program. Without Russia's participation as a partner and host -- it was a founding member-- the ISTC may not survive. Medvedev's decree will take effect in six months, according to a report by the RIA-Novosti news agency.
The State Department's new arms-control compliance report is out, the first since 2005, and the unclassified version shows that uncertainty about biological weapons still casts a shadow over the globe. Iran, North Korea, and Syria may have germ-warfare programs, and neither China nor Russia have come completely clean about their past.
Doubts exist not only about which states may possess biological weapons programs, but also the weakness of the main international treaty outlawing them, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. This treaty has never lived up to its original promise, and is badly in need of an overhaul. At the same time, beyond the diplomacy, there's also plenty of uncertainty -- and precious little information --about whether terrorists or crazed individuals could mess with germ weapons.
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.