Since the early days of the atomic age, nuclear weapons have been surrounded in secrecy. Atom-splitting releases some of the most intense energy mankind has ever known, so the protective walls are not surprising. At the same time, as long as nuclear bombs and materials remain a danger, a certain amount of transparency is desirable -- it can help detect a breach.
Twenty years ago, there was genuine fear that a disintegrating Soviet Union would spread weapons or fissile material around the world. After 9/11, the specter of nuclear terrorism grew more intense. So far, we have been lucky--the worst-case scenarios have not happened.
But the nagging concern remains: where might there be a hole in the fence?
This question is behind a new project of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-governmental organization co-chaired by former Sen. Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, and Ted Turner, the television mogul, to combat nuclear, chemical and biological weapons threats. The new project, the Nuclear Materials Security Index, is a country-by-country ranking of conditions. It can't replace the work of government sleuths to discover and stop proliferation and smuggling. But it is a very open attempt to hold all countries up to the same yardstick, similar to the Transparency International index of corruption perceptions. The value of such an index is that it can serve as a public early warning system. The NTI project is explained here.
The Economist Intelligence Unit, assisting NTI, pulled together information from sources around the world, and ranked nations in five categories: quantities and sites, security and control measures, global norms, domestic commitments and capacity, and societal factors (such as corruption and political instability.) The ranking looks at all countries, but is particularly important for 32 nations with weapons-useable nuclear materials: highly enriched uranium and plutonium. These countries were judged on the basis of 18 indicators and 51 sub-indicators.
Without harming security, these nations ought to be more open about their nuclear materials, the NTI authors recommend. They point out:
"Today, there is no requirement for a state to publicly declare its weapons-useable nuclear materials holdings for either military or civilian applications, and for those states that have done so, there is no mechanism for verifying those declarations. Nine states, however, voluntarily declare their civilian plutonium holdings to the IAEA. In addition, the United States and United Kingdom have declared their nuclear weapons holdings; both also have released the production history for the HEU and plutonium in their military holdings. These examples show that governments can do more to report their inventories without compromising their national security interests. Such declarations are needed to confidently assess and track inventory trends and to monitor whether inventories are growing or declining."
Transparency is a good cause, but a tall order, and the NTI authors got a taste of this when they approached countries for information. Iran (rank: 30 of 32) and North Korea (rank: 32) were asked to verify what the researchers had found. They didn't answer.
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In the Oct. 17 edition of The New Yorker, there's an exceptionally good piece about the Fukushima nuclear accident by Evan Osnos. Among the many revelations are testimonials from workers who grappled with the crippled nuclear reactors after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Osnos describes their heroic efforts to open vents to exhaust the hydrogen that was building up inside the reactor vessels. One vent was partially opened before the workers had to retreat due to high radiation levels. The hydrogen, which had escaped into the reactor building, later exploded.
It's a nightmare to manage a crisis of such magnitude. Not only was there a nuclear disaster; the country suffered death and destruction from the tsunami. But I was struck by the surreal, reassuring statement made that first evening by the government spokesman: "Let me repeat that there is no radiation leak, nor will there be a leak." In fact, this was the second-worst nuclear accident in history, after the Chernobyl disaster of April-May 1986.
There are major differences between the accidents at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. But in all three cases, such misleading statements were issued at the outset, contributing to deep public mistrust later on. On the morning of the Three Mile Island accident March 28, 1979, the utility, Metropolitan Edison, put out a statement that the plant had been “shut down due to a mechanical malfunction,” saying “there have been no recordings of significant levels of radiation and none are expected outside the plant.” In fact, extremely high levels of radiation had been recorded inside the plant.
Chernobyl, in the closed Soviet system, was even worse. The authorities waited for two days and then issued a statement that revealed almost nothing: "An accident has occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, damaging one of the reactors. Measures are being taken to eliminate the consequences of the accident. The injured are receiving aid. A government commission has been set up." The Russian historian Dmitri Volkogonov said the Kremlin pronouncements on Chernobyl were "couched in terms that might have been used to announce an ordinary fire at a warehouse."
Not surprisingly, in Japan after Fukushima, government credibility plummeted. Osnos found distrust to be "astonishingly pervasive" and notes that a poll in late May showed that more than 80 percent of the population did not believe the government's information about the nuclear crisis. There are all kinds of implications of this mistrust; one of them is that some Japanese are debating whether to obey the government's evacuation plans. The country is still heavily reliant on nuclear energy, too, and public confidence will be sorely tested in the months ahead as decisions are made about whether to bring back on line those reactors idled for stress tests.
Osnos concludes that for all that went wrong before the meltdowns, "the fundamentals of Japan's open society served it well in the aftermath," with elected officials issuing evacuation and safety warnings, parliament launching investigations, and the Japanese press chronicling "a raging national debate about the future." One hopes there will be more thorough and detailed reporting like this article, too, helping document what went wrong, and spreading the word -- before the next nuclear crisis.
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Earlier this year, scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute reported in the journal Science that they had designed and created a synthetic chromosome which they transplanted into a living cell. The living cell created new cells which are controlled only by the synthetic chromosome. The experiment was another reminder of the possibilities of synthetic biology, and its complexities.
The revolution in the life sciences is filled with promise for improvements in health, medicine, energy, and the environment. Yet the field known as synthetic biology is relatively new, and many hurdles remain. Turns out it is a lot easier to synthesize some bits of genetic material than it is to make them work inside the body. For an interesting look at the difficulties, see this piece from Nature, in January.
The knowledge of biology is dual use: that which can make our lives better can also be used for ill. With this in mind, President Obama last May 20 asked his new Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to undertake a study of synthetic biology, looking at the “potential medical, environmental, security, and other benefits of this field of research, as well as any potential health, security or other risks.” He asked for the study to be complete in six months.
Last week, The Scientist published an interview with Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, who is the chairman of the 12-member commission.
Gutmann says the benefits of the new field could range from “better production of vaccines to environmentally friendly biofuels to developing, in the near term, semi-synthetic anti malarial drugs.” But there are risks, she added, all in the future. The primary risk “that needs to be overseen is introducing novel organisms into the environment, [and] how they will react with the environment.”
She says the panel will recommend some kind of middle ground between unfettered scientific discovery and stopping all scientific research until the risks are known.
Can biological science police itself? This is the question Amy E. Smithson has asked in a new article for the journal Survival. Smithson, a senior fellow at the James L. Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute, says recent experiments have sparked a debate over the need for increased oversight, whether by scientists themselves, or by the government, or others. The article gives a good overview of the options. Smithson concludes that we haven’t found the best answer yet, and both government and those outside it need to do more to find the right mix of oversight. While the government can’t leave it all to the private sector, Smithson says the biotech industry is not likely to tolerate those who would misuse biology for malevolent purposes. “Companies do not want to see products designed and produced for legitimate purposes hijacked for malign ones,” she writes, “if only because such misuse could cause a company’s fortunes to plummet.”
A related phenomenon is the rise of the do-it-yourself bio community. According to another recent piece in Nature, potential “bio-hackers” around the world “are setting up labs in their garages, closests and kitchens—from professional scientists keeping a side project at home to individuals who have never used a pipette before.” For now, they are weekend hobbyists, the article says, but there have been security concerns raised about dabbling in dangerous pathogens. The FBI has taken a sort of “neighborhood watch” approach to the hobbyists, relying on the biohackers to monitor their own community and report any behavior they find threatening, the article says.
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.