Consider the split-second timing needed to hit a fastball from a major league pitcher, traveling something like 90 miles per hour. The batter must swing at precisely the right moment, within a few milliseconds. Too soon, or too late, and the ball may go foul, too far left or right.
Now consider the split-second timing needed to hit a ballistic missile warhead in space with an interceptor rocket. In order to stop the warhead, the interceptor's "kill vehicle" must be accurate within a few inches, while closing in on the moving target at some 6,710 miles per hour, according to a recent article in Survival by Dean A. Wilkening. If the kill vehicle misses, the warhead gets through. And if the warhead is nuclear, even a small number getting through could be a calamity.
Such daunting physics problems haunt missile defense. The difficulty is even greater if the interceptor must distinguish the real warhead from decoys.
The Cold War showed that building an effective missile defense is exceedingly hard. In 1972, both the United States and Soviet Union signed the ABM treaty to limit defenses. The United States built one system called Safeguard to defend a U.S. missile field in North Dakota.
Safeguard interceptors carried nuclear weapons that would explode in an attempt to block incoming warheads. But it was decommissioned in 1976 after studies showed that it could be simply overwhelmed if the Soviets added more missiles and warheads. The Soviet Union built a system around Moscow with interceptors that were also nuclear armed.
When President Reagan revived the idea of national missile defense in 1983, he appealed to the best scientific minds to solve the physics problems. Reagan's vision put a lot of faith on American superiority in technology, and since then, computing power has indeed taken great leaps forward. The Soviet Union, lacking the technology, responded by planning relatively cheap decoys and countermeasures that could have been used to fool a missile defense system.
At one point, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was told by his own specialists that Reagan's defensive shield could be easily overwhelmed by simply building more offensive missiles and warheads. Fortunately, Gorbachev didn't want another arms race and didn't go down that road.
Since Reagan's time, missile defense has seized the imagination of many conservatives in the United States. Reagan did not want to build a nuclear-armed missile defense, and today's systems are intended to collide directly with the warhead in order to stop it-- a kinetic "hit-to-kill" that is technically challenging. Congress has approved billions of dollars for missile defense, and President Obama is moving ahead with a limited system for protection of Europe. There's also a ground-based system in California and Alaska. The president's Ballistic Missile Defense Review in 2010 concluded that "the United States is currently protected against limited ICBM attacks." Rather, potential threats are regional, such as Iran and North Korea. Both nations have long-range missile ambitions, but it requires years of research, development and testing; failures like the one North Korea experienced recently are common.
At the same time, some fundamental problems remain unresolved with missile defenses. On April 21, the Associated Press carried a story about the latest difficulties, including questions about the adequacy of radars. The article and others have focused on a little-noticed report from the Defense Science Board last autumn which raised the issue of fake warheads and other distractions.
The DSB is a 50-year-old advisory body intended to give the Pentagon guidance about science and technology. In their report, the board said the success of missile defense systems outside the earth's atmosphere is "predicated on an ability to discriminate…the missile warhead(s) from other pieces of the offensive missile complex, such as rocket bodies, miscellaneous hardware, and intentional countermeasures." The importance of doing this reliably, the experts said, "cannot be overemphasized."
They added that detecting a warhead from decoys and junk "is still not a completely solved problem."
They also declared: "If the defense should find itself in a situation where it is shooting at missile junk or decoys, the impact on the regional interceptor inventory would be dramatic and devastating!" In other words, you might run out of interceptors and not stop the warhead. (The exclamation point is included in the original.)
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency responded to the report by saying it has "a program in place to incrementally introduce discrimination capabilities over time," including both radar and infrared color sensors.
So far, there has not been a successful missile defense test against realistic countermeasures.
Professor Ted Postol of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who in the past has cast a critical eye on many aspects of U.S. missile defense, described the problem this way:
The basic problem with discrimination is that the characteristics of objects that can be measured with radars and infrared sensors are not unique and can easily be modified. In order to recognize a warhead you not only need to know what it looks like, but it also needs to look uniquely different from other objects that are not warheads. Making matters yet more complicated, a warhead and other objects can and will look different to a radar or infrared sensor due to changes in orientation relative to the sensor. This results in an array of characteristics that do not result in mathematically unique characteristics that can be used to identify each object, but also results in different estimates which objects are warheads and which are not at different times. It is simply ridiculous to turn these facts of physics on their head to claim that discrimination might be possible at some future time."
A generation ago, Reagan promised that missile defense could make nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete. It was a captivating idea, but did not happen then and is not happening today. In fact, an impasse with Russia over possible cooperation on European missile defense has become an unnecessary stumbling block to the next stage of negotiations to reduce our remaining nuclear arsenals. Certainly, the quest for workable missile defense will go on. But it is time to be realistic -- and not romantic -- about the technology and its limitations.
Getty Images/Chung Sung-Jun
We live in an age of breathtaking advances in the life sciences. Achievements in sequencing, or plotting the genetic blueprint of an organism, have been astounding, and may lead to great benefits in public health and medicine. But biological research can be dual-use: that which improves the lot of mankind can also be flipped around to create disease.
Mother nature does this through mutation. But how serious is the threat that a person would deliberately create a dangerous agent, and harm others with it? Do terrorists, or nations, harbor the intention, and can they summon the capability?
While some diseases occur easily in nature and are highly contagious, others require sophisticated work before they can be used as a weapon, and are probably too difficult for today's terrorist groups, although not for nation-states. The Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan tried to make a biological weapon but failed. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union clandestinely build a massive biological weapons research and production complex. In 2001, five letters carrying anthrax spores were put in the U.S. mail, at least 22 people were sickened and five died. According to the FBI, it was the act of a lone insider in a U.S. military biological defense laboratory. (For a look at bioweapons over the last century, see this article by Milton Leitenberg, senior research scholar at the Center for International Security Studies, University of Maryland.)
Two recent events have rekindled long-standing questions about how far we should go to prevent the deliberate creation and spread of biological agents for use in war and terrorism. There aren't easy answers.
The first event is the just-completed review conference in Geneva for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Signed in 1972 and put into force in 1975, the treaty bans the development, production, acquisition, retention, stockpiling and transfer of infectious disease agents and natural poisons (toxins) for hostile purposes, and the weapons or other delivery systems for them. Unfortunately, the agreement has never had a serious verification mechanism. The treaty failed to stop the Soviet Union, South Africa and Iraq from attempting to build illicit biological weapons programs.
Every five years, a treaty review conference is held in Geneva. On Dec. 7, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first U.S. Secretary of State to address a review conference. She declared that the risk of a bioweapons attack is "both a serious national security challenge and a foreign policy priority" for the United States. "A crude, but effective, terrorist weapon can be made by using a small sample of any number of widely available pathogens, inexpensive equipment, and college-level chemistry and biology," she declared.
But at the same time, the United States has abandoned efforts to put legally-binding verification measures into the treaty. The argument is that scientific research has advanced so swiftly that traditional arms control measures are obsolete. In 2001, the Bush administration scuttled a negotiation over the previous six and a half years aimed at creating a protocol for improved verification and transparency. President Obama has not changed this position. Clinton told the review conference "it is not possible, in our opinion, to create a verification regime that will achieve" the goal of bolstering confidence that all nations are complying with the treaty. Instead, she called for some "other steps" such as revising the annual reporting system in which countries are supposed to be transparent about potentially dangerous biological activities.
Judging by some preliminary reports from those who attended, the review conference made little or no progress in strengthening the treaty. Five countries -- Pakistan, Russia, India, Iran and China -- largely blocked any major progress. As a result, the conference outcome was to once again kick the can down the road to future meetings.
Consider this: a three-person staff, known as the "Implementation Support Unit," is assigned to work on treaty issues in between the review conferences. A proposal to expand the staff to five people failed to gain support in Geneva. In contrast, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which oversees the 1993 chemical weapons treaty, has a staff of about 500 people. That pact contains tough verification provisions.
How dysfunctional is the biological weapons treaty? There is a reporting system, created in 1987. Each year, nations are supposed to submit a report known as a Confidence Building Measure detailing research, disease outbreaks, legislation and past activities, among other things. In the last year, fewer than 40 percent of signatories to the treaty even bothered to submit the forms. If nations can't lift a finger to do the paperwork, how much effort are they going to put into watching out for abuses?
At the review conference, there was renewed discussion about focusing on the rapid changes in life sciences. Sounds good. But there seems to be little willpower, either in the United States or elsewhere, to do anything about the fact that the biological weapons convention is a toothless tiger.
The second recent event was caused by a laboratory experiment. Researchers led by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam modified the H5N1 virus, better known as avian influenza or bird flu. Up until now, the virus has been quite lethal in humans, with a fatality rate of about 60 percent in confirmed cases, but it has not been very transmissible among people. The researchers under Fouchier introduced a number of mutations into the virus that could make it highly transmissible through the air, and they demonstrated this in ferrets, which are considered a good stand-in model for humans in testing influenza strains. The experiment was carried out in a special, high-security laboratory, but it raised a terrifying prospect -- if the modified strain got out, or was created somehow by a person with malevolent intent, it could lead to a devastating pandemic. In announcing his results, Fouchier said he wanted to help prevent just such a deadly crisis: “We now know which mutations to watch for in the case of an outbreak and we can then stop the outbreak before it is too late. Furthermore, the finding will help in the timely development of vaccinations and medication.”
The research raised the question of whether the results should be published. (Another study along similar lines was also performed by scientists at the University of Wisconsin and University of Tokyo.) After a review by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, the U.S. government took the unprecedented step of recommending that two prominent journals, Science and Nature, withhold key details of the research, so that it would not fall into the wrong hands.
Understandably, this is a thorny problem. Scientists chafe at restrictions which could stifle discovery and innovation, potentially hurting society more than helping it. The results of the Fouchier research could be valuable to those combatting influenza, a virus that mutates rapidly and can pose a real threat to populations. Some experts suggested that it be distributed on a need-to-know basis. The secrecy is worrisome, but it might also be prudent in this case. Paul Keim, chairman of the science advisory board, told ScienceInsider, "I can't think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one." He added, "I don't think anthrax is scary at all compared to this."
Similar worries were touched upon last year by a U.S. presidential commission studying developments in synthetic biology, which involves using engineering techniques to create new biological parts or devices, or re-designing existing ones. More regulation is not necessary at this time, the panel said, but synthetic biology should be watched closely. Separately, efforts are being made in the United States to improve the monitoring of biological research by scientists, companies and government. Yet much of it remains voluntary. What happens if a real rogue actor comes along and breezes right past the voluntary roadblocks?
At the same time, it is impossible to put this remarkable and fast-moving science under lock and key. These are not nuclear warheads. Biological research can be carried out in small laboratories the size of a garage and agents carried in a test tube that fits in a shirt pocket. We need to encourage the science, without forsaking security. It will require new thinking. We're not there yet.
AFP/Getty Images/Kenzo Tribouillard
In remarks on Russian television today, President Dmitri Medvedev has turned up the heat in the long-simmering talks on missile defense. Medvedev voiced impatience with the United States, saying the negotiations are not making progress toward a common approach.
Why now? Medvedev has one eye on the calendar: the Russian parliamentary election is Dec. 4. The ruling United Russia party has been losing steam in the opinion polls and Vladimir Putin has already announced he intends to return to the presidency next year. Voters are yawning. Surely, Medvedev has made the calculation that a toughly-worded reprimand to the United States and NATO will play well.
President Obama has embarked on a phased, limited missile defense in Europe which the United States insists is not aimed at Russia, but rather at Iran. Medvedev said he doesn't believe it, and Russia fears that over the next decade the system could be used to undermine its own strategic nuclear deterrent. Russia has demanded legal guarantees from the United States, but the answer, so far, has been "no." Medvedev complained that Russia faces a "fait accompli" as the U.S. system is built. The Medvedev text is here.
Medvedev announced a series of potential counter-measures to a missile defense system, mostly things that have been floated before, such as new weapons which might penetrate any missile defense or disable it. Medvedev said "these measures will be adequate, effective and low cost." No doubt, they will be. The technical challenges to missile defense -- hitting a bullet with a bullet in outer space -- can be enormous, and have been daunting since the 1980s when President Reagan first dreamed up his Strategic Defense Initiative, the idea of a global shield that he promised would make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete."
Medvedev's latest message may be motivated by domestic politics and negotiating tactics, but it is also a reminder that even a small missile defense system is going to be a nettlesome sticking point with Moscow. Next year, one hopes, Russia and the United States will find a way to cooperate on missle defense, and move beyond it to deal with the large agenda of unfinished business in nuclear arms control. It is a lot more urgent and important.
Update: A good post on what it all means from Pavel Podvig.
Getty Images/Sasha Mordovets
When we think of nuclear warheads, we imagine those cone-shaped, threatening weapons perched atop missiles, ready to be launched, or bombs loaded aboard airplanes. These are known as operationally-deployed strategic weapons. But there are other strategic nuclear warheads that are not deployed, sitting in storage in both the United States and Russia. In fact, each country has several thousand of them. They are not covered by any treaty, and not checked by verification. There is no public accounting of the exact numbers.
Here’s a chance for President Barack Obama to take a lasting step toward his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. It’s time for both countries to get rid of these excess warheads.
The U.S. warheads were put in a reserve, or “hedge,” in 1994. This was only about three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and not long after Boris Yeltsin had prevailed in a violent confrontation with hardliners in parliament. William Perry, then the defense secretary, said on Sept. 20, 1994 the hedge was necessary because of a “small but real danger that reform in Russia might fail.”
Well, we are 17 years beyond that. While reform in Russia has been very rough and incomplete, it certainly did not turn into the worst-case scenario that Perry worried about.
The nuclear hedge is still around. Why?
Getty Images/Alex Wong
One of the most remarkable advances against disease and death was the invention of antibiotics, which led to a massive and immediate decline in death from infections. In a paper published last fall in a workshop report of the Institute of Medicine, Brad Spellberg, an associate professor of medicine at UCLA, noted that antibiotics led U.S. deaths to decline by about 220 per 100,000 population over 15 years, from the late 1930s to the early 150s. This period includes the introduction of penicillin.
By contrast, he reported, subsequent medical advances over the next 45 years resulted in only minor further reductions in deaths by infections—about an additional 20 per 100,000 people.
Antibiotics caused a revolution in medicine, and gave hope to millions of people who might otherwise have died from infections. They allowed the conduct of complicated and deeply invasive surgery, and organ transplants, which would not have been possible without effective antibacterial agents to deal with infections.
Spellberg recalls the words of Dr. Lewis Thomas, one of the most prominent physicians of the 20th century, on the arrival of the first antibiotics. In a memoir of his internship, Thomas wrote:
For most of the infectious diseases on the wards of Boston City Hospital in 1937, there was nothing that could be done beyond bed rest and good nursing care. Then came the explosive news of sulfanilamide, and the start of the real evolution in medicine. I remember the astonishment when the first cases of pneumococcal and streptococcal septicemia were treated in Boston in 1937. The phenomenon was almost beyond belief. Here were moribund patients, who would surely have died without treatment, improving ... within a matter of hours ... and feeling entirely well within the next day ... we became convinced, overnight, that nothing lay beyond reach for the future. Medicine was off and running.
But the antibiotic revolution seems to be running out of steam. The number of new antibiotic drugs has dwindled. Meanwhile, microbes continue to evolve, developing resistance to existing drugs. Some of these bacteria, like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, are lethal.
There are economic reasons why the drug pipeline has been drying up. Among them: pharmaceutical companies don’t get as high a return on investment for products taken for just a few weeks, compared to those for chronic disease, so there are not strong incentives to invest the millions of dollars in developing new antibiotics.
Now comes a report of a promising new approach. In a paper just published by Nature Chemistry, [abstract] a team of researchers has developed biodegradable nanoparticles, super-small particles which attack the microbe’s cell membrane “selectively and efficiently,” in effect poking holes in the membrane. They destroy the infection, without hurting healthy cells. In an article in the Wall Street Journal today describing the technology, James L. Hedrick of International Business Machines Corp., one of the researchers, said the destruction of the bacteria renders it unable to develop resistance to the nanoparticles. The paper says the technology can work against many different infections, including MRSA, which is responsible for some 19,000 hospital-stay related deaths per year in the United States. It hasn’t been tested yet in humans, but if further trials and research show it works, nanoparticles could eventually open a new avenue to fight a real and ongoing threat.
Remember that computer outage last October at a nuclear missile launch control center? Now, according to the Air Force Times, an investigation has pinpointed the cause.
It was a loose circuit card.
The newspaper reports the card had not been properly locked into place after maintenance work, and was knocked out of place by heat and vibration.
The outage affected 50 nuclear-armed Minuteman III missiles at Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming, last Oct. 23. The disruption lasted 59 minutes. The newspaper quotes Lt. Col. John Thomas, a spokesman for the Global Strike Command at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, as saying that the outage was in the 319th Missile Squadron of the 90th Missile Wing.
Each launch control center has primary responsibility for 10 missiles, but redundancies built into the system allow each center to electronically maintain the status and command and control over all 50 missiles in a group, he said.
Thomas compared the communication to a BlackBerry constantly connected to its server to check for e-mails. The launch control centers are continuously checking and updating data including temperature, alert status and security situation for each missile.
About 1:35 a.m. Oct. 23, the disruption caused the communication to get garbled.
“The system was still up, there were still queries pinging and occurring, but what was happening was like if your cell phone was breaking up; it was not ideal,” Thomas said shortly after the incident occurred. “The suspect launch control center was apparently trying to communicate on top of the other launch control centers trying to communicate.”
During the incident, the crew on duty used cameras to check the 50 missiles and sent crews out to inspect the missiles. There was no evidence of tampering, intrusion or damage at any of the 50 sites.
The investigation recommended improvements in hardware and procedures, the newspaper added.
No doubt, there will be breakdowns in any complex machinery like this. It is inevitable. As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, the failure of a simple computer chip once triggered a false alarm when Jimmy Carter was president. Another time, the insertion of a training tape into a slot set off a mistaken alarm.
But why in these times are missiles still on launch-ready alert, ready to go within four minutes of an order from the president? This is a legacy of the Cold War, and no longer makes sense. The United States and Russia should build in a delay, say a few hours or a day, before missiles could be launched. This “de-alerting” would have to be done by both sides, and would have to be verifiable. But it would give us an extra margin of safety the next time a simple computer card decides to come loose.
In the most recent issue of Science, there’s an stimulating look at the “insights of the decade,” gathering up the big ideas and technologies of the past 10 years. Running through many of them has been an incredible leap in computing technology that transformed science, and “no field has benefitted more than genomics,” the magazine says.
A decade ago, sequencing a human genome took years, hundreds of people, hundreds of machines, and endless hours of sample preparation to generate the pieces of DNA to be deciphered, one at a time… Today, a single machine can decipher three human genomes in little more than a week.
This example is just one of many signs that we are experiencing an age of discovery in biology and genetics. As I noted in a recent post, penetrating the deepest secrets of life could transform health, medicine, energy and the environment. But the knowledge of biology is dual-use: that which can make our lives better can also be used for ill. President Obama last May 20 asked his new Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to undertake a study of the emerging field of synthetic biology. The request was made in the aftermath of the announcement by the J. Craig Venter Institute that they had designed and created a synthetic chromosome which they had transplanted into a living cell.
Obama wanted to know about the potential benefits, as well as any risks in this fast-changing field, including the rise of amatuer or “Do-It-Yourself” bio labs.
The commission’s report says: keep an eye on it, but don’t regulate it now.
On the question of risks, the report says “that presently there appears to be no serious risk of completely novel organisms being constructed in non-institutional settings including in the DIY community.” The commission said there is no need to impose special limits on the DIY labs.
Overall, the panel’s report suggests that the authorities should be on the lookout for risks, but the state of the science does not warrant a moratorium or further government regulation. Indeed, the panel warned that too much oversight might strangle innovation. The commission called for a handful of new studies over the next year and a half to see how synthetic biology unfolds.
The report cautions that “sensationalist buzzwords and phases” such as “creating life” and “playing God” have confused people about what’s really at stake. Venter’s announcement, the panel recalled, “does not amount to creating life as either a scientific or moral matter.” The Venter experiment relied on an existing, natural host. Synthesizing a genome from its chemical parts was certainly a significant accomplishment, the panel said, but “does not constitute the creation of life, the likelihood of which still remains remote for the forseeable future.”
The new WikiLeaks documents show that Iran has been hunting for missile technology all over the world, seeking to buy gyroscopes, jet vanes and metals, and perhaps whole missiles from North Korea. But Iran also has experienced great difficulty building longer range missiles. Why? Some clues can be found in one of the most interesting documents just released, a briefing that Russian officials gave their American counterparts on Iran's progress, or lack of it.
A summary of the Dec. 22, 2009 meeting was marked "secret" but tumbled out on Sunday in the reams of memos released by WikiLeaks and major news organizations. Fourteen Russian and 15 U.S. government officials compared notes that day about missile threats from Iran and North Korea.
Judging by the summary, it was a lively back and forth, during which the Russians claimed the threat from Iran's missiles is not as great as some have predicted in the United States. The size and nature of the threat is important because it undergirds the U.S. plans for a multi-billion dollar ballistic missile defense system.
The Russians were prepared to talk "seriously" with the U.S. group, the summary says. Their message was Iran is struggling to lengthen the range of missiles that could carry heavy loads, such as a one-ton nuclear warhead, that might threaten the region or beyond. The Russians said their basic conclusion is that "Iran's ballistic missile program continues to be directed toward developing combat ready missiles to address regional concerns," not targets like the United States.
This was also the assessment made in May by the International Institute of Strategic Studies.
In the December meeting, there was a sharp disagreement about the U.S. claim that North Korea sold to Iran a batch of 19 missiles, known as the BM-25. The transfer was first reported publicly in 2006; the BM-25 missile is supposedly based on a Soviet naval ballistic missile design, the R-27, known in the West as the SS-N-6. This missile was first developed in the 1960s and later modernized; it was in service in the Soviet Union until 1988. Iran has not tested any of the missiles it imported. The U.S. officials speculated that Iran may have purchased it to reverse-engineer the technology (although North Korea has been known to ship parts, expertise and manufacturing facilities as well as the missiles themselves.) The U.S. officials said photos of the Iranian space launch rocket, the Safir, show an engine which looks like the one on the R-27, as well as fuel tanks and welds that resemble it. The U.S. officials said they had received "direct evidence" of the missile transfer from North Korea to Iran.
But the Russians strongly dismissed the BM-25 as a mirage, according to the summary. They said Iran would not have purchased an untested missile, and they doubted whether it even existed. "For Russia, the BM-25 is a mysterious missile," the summary says. "Russia does not think the BM-25 exists." They asked why North Korea would sell an untested missile; the Americans responded: for cash.
Both the Russians and Americans acknowledged the limitations of Iran's older, liquid-fueled missiles, based on the Soviet Scud and its modifications, including the Shahab-1, Shahab-2 and Shahab-3. Both sides also seemed to agree that the Safir is not a military threat because of the small size of the payload.
The key issue is Iran's pursuit of more modern and powerful solid-fuel missiles that could hit medium-range targets, such as those in the Middle East or Europe. Iran has been working on such a missile, called the Sajjil-2, which it has flight tested. (See my earlier post about it.) In the meeting, U.S. officials were more worried about this than the Russians, who said Iran continues to stumble with solid fuel technology. "In Russia's view, Iran appears to be having very serious problems with engine development," the summary says. U.S. officials countered that Iran has a decade of experience with short-range missiles using solid fuel, importing equipment from China, and could now extend it to larger missiles.
The Russians said Iran was a long way from building intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit the United States. "Russia said its bottom line is that Iran lacks appropriate structural materials for long-range systems, such as high quality aluminum," the summary says. "Iran can build prototypes, but in order to be a threat to the U.S. or Russia, Iran needs to produce missiles in mass quantities, and it lacks materials sufficient for the type of mass production needed to be a security threat. Russia further noted that the technology for longer-range missiles is sophisticated and difficult to master."
At another point, the Russians said they think the North Koreans are working on a new, 100-ton capacity rocket engine using older technology, clustering the motors or stacking them. But Russia said the technology hasn't been actually spotted.
AFP/Getty Images; from Iran's ISNA agency, the two-stage solid-fuel missile, Dec. 16, 2009
Stanford University professor Siegfried Hecker has posted online his report (pdf) from a recent visit to North Korea in which he was shown a new uranium enrichment facility. This is an important development. North Korea previously had taken the plutonium route to building a bomb. Now, it appears they have turned to uranium. Is the new facility really intended to make low-enriched uranium, fuel for a reactor to provide badly-needed electricity, as the North claims, or are they pursuing highly-enriched uranium, which can be used in nuclear weapons? There's no conclusive answer, but Hecker's report is worth reading. He's a skilled expert who has made previous trips to North Korea and knows the technology. He describes a tour in which he saw a modern facility with centrifuges needed to enrich uranium to higher levels. Hecker says there are a host of new questions, but one thing is certain, "these revelations will cause a political firestorm."
The first look through the windows of the observation deck into the two long high-bay areas was stunning. Instead of seeing a few small cascades of centrifuges, which I believed to exist in North Korea, we saw a modern clean centrifuge plant of more than a thousand centrifuges all neatly aligned and plumbed below us.... The control room was astonishingly modern. Unlike the reprocessing facility and reactor control room, which looked like 1950s or 1980s Soviet instrumentation, this control room would fit into any modern American processing facility.... I expressed surprise that they were apparently able to get cascades of 2,000 centrifuges working so quickly, and asked again if the facility is actually operating now--we were given an emphatic, yes. We were not able to independently verify this, although it was not inconsistent with what we saw.... A North Korean uranium enrichment program has long been suspected. I believe they started early, perhaps in the 1970s or 1980s, but then did not try to accelerate the effort until their dealings with A. Q. Khan in the 1990s. However, the 2,000-centrifuge capability significantly exceeds my estimates and those of most other analysts.
Update: The Institute for Science and International Security has some interesting satellite photos here.
David E. Hoffman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy.