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Lack of qualified experts could hinder defensive readiness

The Cold War is fading like a twinkle in the eye of history, but the transition from recent memory to textbook lessons has gone largely unnoticed.  But every once in a while, we receive a reminder about exactly how much the world has changed.

I. A Farewell to Nuclear Arms?

Take the recent report by Thomas D’Agostino, the undersecretary for nuclear security and the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).  He said that the number of nuclear weapons experts at the U.S. Department of Defense with experience designing or testing nuclear weapons today numbers in the low teens.

Most of those experts come from the final period of sparing nuclear weapons testing in the early 1990s.  The undersecretary says that these experts could be completely gone within five years, leaving a sizeable knowledge gap.

Defense News quotes him as saying at a press breakfast, "Last year, it was in the 17 to 18 range, but I’ve got to believe it’s five fewer than that now.  Five years from now, they will no longer be active employees of our laboratories."

Nuclear testing
The U.S. in five years may have no active experts who have tested a live nuclear weapon.
[Image Source: NDEP]

The knowledge gap is being furthered by budget cuts to pioneering national laboratories, such as Las Alamos National Lab -- often regarded as the birthplace of the atomic bomb.  Los Alamos had 557 employees agree to buyouts as part of a Congressional decificit reduction plan.  That's nearly 10 percent of the lab's total research staff.

II. Shifting Politics

The last nuclear weapons test by the U.S. was conducted in 1992.  Linton Brooks, a former ambassador and administrator of the NNSA at the Energy Department, says that neither party is eager to restart testing, commenting, "As long as it is the policy of the United States — and it has been now for four successive administrations, two from each party — not to test, that is inevitable. So the question becomes: What do you do about it?"

Indeed, it is diffcult for either party to advocate such tests, given that there's a relative bipartisan consensus in terms of rhetoric condemning nuclear testing.  In recent years both Democrats and Republicans have admonished nations like Iran, Iraq (during the Saddam Hussein era), and North Korea for alleged weapons tests or nuclear aspirations.

The issue becomes whether the U.S. will have enough qualified personnel to keep the weapons stockpile healthy and to potentially deploy it, if the need should ever arise.

But some doubt that will be an issue at all.  In terms of tactics, the DOD's recent protocols point to a shift away from considering nuclear weapons a key part of defense strategy, as attention turns to cyber-defense and other more modern tools.

Obama w officers
President Obama has pushed for a "nuke-free" world.
[Image Source: Mandel Ngan/Getty Images]

Further movement in this direction could come if President Barack Obama can convince the Senate to pass the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty -- a bill that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996, but overturned by the Senate in 1999.  President Obama has been pushing Russia to commit to bilateral nuclear disarmanment, and has publicly stated that he wants the U.S. to be free of nuclear weapons in the future.

III. To Test or Not to Test

There's growing debate over whether lack of testing experience will lead to safety issues.  Most experts, including Mr. D'Agostino argue that testing is not necessarily a prerequisite of safety.  

He states, "If [nuclear weapons] were a car, [surveillance] would be the equivalent of checking to see if the batteries are good, the fan belt works.  I would say, based on the information that I review and the information that the laboratory directors review, that we have a much better understanding of what’s going on inside our stockpile now than we ever did during the days of underground testing. We can now explain phenomena that we never could back then."

Others are not so supremely confident that "surveillance" on the health of weapons stockpiles can be reliable without testing.  Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, comments, "If the [Obama] administration has said they want to abandon testing, then certainly they have no interest in nurturing the knowledge base that would support it."

But an expert report from the National Academy of Sciences disagrees with the Congressman.  It argues that surveillance quality is less a function of testing experience and more a function of how high the quality of individuals recruited to the program.  It suggested that in order to maintain interest in a time when nuclear weapons faced a shrinking role, experts should be encouraged to participate in the disarmanent proceedings and/or nuclear forensics (monitoring other nations' stockpiles) as a means of increasing enthusiasm for the occupation.

Kingston Reif, director of nuclear nonproliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation agrees with this line of thinking.  He says that with national security being a much sought after field, putting experts to work in national security-related nuclear forensics would boost interest in what might otherwise be viewed as a dying profession.

For now the U.S. still has a lot of weapons to manage.  While President Obama has pushed a bilateral U.S.-Russia disarmament treaty called START, which would cut the U.S. stockpile down to 1,500 warheads, for now the U.S. still has 5,113 warheads, according to President Obama (2,200 of which are operational).

Nuclear warheads
A slightly outdated estimation of nuclear warhead counts.
[Image Source: Information is Beautiful]

Recent expert commentary argues that while mankind -- mostly the U.S. and Russia -- has enough warheads to wipe out most heavily populated areas, that it would take over a million warheads to destroy humanity -- two orders of magnitude more than existing stockpiles.

Source: Defense News



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RE: Great for HD
By TSS on 4/16/2012 3:27:24 PM , Rating: 2
Reason happened, and it's a good thing that it did too. Never forget how close to oblivion the world came because of these things.

Nuclear weapons will probably never dissapear, but i'll feel alot more comfertable when there's only hundreds, not thousands of the blasted things.

Even so i too feel kind of cheated. When you watch Trinity and Beyond, there is a certain beauty to all that destruction. IMO, we know enough now about the effect of nuclear weapons on the enviroment due to all the testing to know how much a paticular enviroment can take. Also there are plenty of islands still uninhabitable due to previous tests, if there is anything left of them at all.

So i say we detonate 1 last one, 1 big one. Something along the lines of 20 megatons (the russian 50 megaton bomb really was overkill, 20 will be plenty). Then we point hundreds of those japanese UHD cameras towards it, and record it from all possible angles in 8K. From suicide cams to aireal cams, put lots of stuff in the way of the blast, then point cams at that as well. We can downscale the footage to 1080p, recording it in 8K now means we won't have to set off another one for for decades.

Hopefully, it'll be enough to never set one off again. But for now, it would be nice to have footage recorded in the name of beauty, rather then war.


RE: Great for HD
By BZDTemp on 4/16/2012 7:25:23 PM , Rating: 1
quote:
So i say we detonate 1 last one, 1 big one.


Considering we are talking about a tool of death and destruction I say one more is one to many. I hope the world will never see anymore Nukes being set off - even when we talk testing the damn things kill people.

Nuclear testing is responsible for many thousands of deaths all over - the radioactive dust released into the atmosphere travels around the globe so while it may be more dangerous for people in the local area the cancer cases are all over.


RE: Great for HD
By Solandri on 4/17/2012 1:30:31 PM , Rating: 2
There's a widespread misbelief that any radiation is bad. If you cut off all sources of radiation to try to reduce your exposure to zero, you would die. A natural isotope of Potassium (K-40) is unavoidable and accounts for about 10% of your annual radiation dose. It is common enough that table salt can be used to set off geiger counters, and shipments of bananas and chocolate regularly set off the radiation detectors that US Customs uses. All of these contain large amounts of potassium. You need potassium to live - it's a vital element in the salt channel used to transmit nerve impulses. So exposure to radiation from K-40 is inevitable if you want to live.

The estimated annual radiation dose from all nuclear testing peaked in the 1950s at about the same amount as background radiation levels (4 mSv/yr). Cumulative doses over 50 years (1951-2000) averaged out over those years work out to about 10% that.
http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/radiation/fallout/
http://xkcd.com/radiation/

In other words, the average annual fallout radiation you received if you were alive 1951-200 was about 1/10th what you received naturally from the environment; and was about the same as you get from naturally occurring K-40 in your body. Yes the radioactivity traveled all around the globe, but the concentrations large enough to be linked to cancer cases were local to the tests, not all over as you state.

The concern is more for those closer to the test areas during the years of the tests (mostly the central US during the 1950s). A few counties received fallout 2-10x higher than natural background radiation levels during certain years. Equivalent to several medical x-rays, and approaching the legal limit for U.S. nuclear plant workers.


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