Posts Tagged ‘Nuclear power’


Nuclear This, That, and “Them”

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

I've just returned to (broiling) DC from the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR, variously pronounced "shafe-er" or "shaffer"). Diplomatic historians are a sartorially conservative bunch — much more so than historians of science, who are still far, far more conservative than science studies people — so it highly amusing that the convention center was also host to a meeting of ministers wives and widows (almost entirely African-American, by contrast to the mostly-white SHAFR crowd) and an exhibition of body builders. So the line at the convention center Starbucks would be three fairly dull looking historians (full suit, etc.), two ministers' wives/widows (fantastic dresses, impressive hats, enormous broaches), and at least one leathery-skinned, overly-tanned, veins-bulging guy or gal wearing workout clothes. A fun mix. I should have taken a picture.

My talk was part of a two-panel series titled "After the Nuclear Revolution." (Revolutions were part of the conference theme.) The papers actually marched quite interestingly along chronologically. On the my panel were (in order of presentation) Mary McPartland, a grad student at GWU, myself, and Mara Drogan, a recent Ph.D. recipient from the University of Albany (SUNY), who was the one who organized the two panels.

Mary's paper was about Farm Hall, the English country house where ten German scientists were detained for six  months (July 1945 to early January 1946). In particular, Mary used Farm Hall as a way to explore the immediate postwar nuclear relationship between the US and the UK (problematic to the point of eventual collapse), and their lack of clear understanding as to what they were meant to do with German nuclear scientists in the postwar period.

Three of the Farm Hall heavies: Werner Heisenberg, Otto Hahn, and Kurt Diebner. The British Farm Hall report noted that Hahn was the "most friendly" of the group, that Heisenberg was "genuinely anxious to cooperate with British and American scientists," and that Diebner was "outwardly friendly but has an unpleasant personality and cannot be trusted."

The Americans didn't want to use (or, in their terminology, "exploit") the German physicists for their own programs (they didn't trust them, and they didn't think they knew that much, after all — compare this with their attitude towards the rocket scientists), but they didn't want them going over to the Soviet Union, either. They also didn't want the new German states to suddenly have access to nuclear technology, either. At one point someone apparently joked about just executing them, though it isn't clear that was ever really floated as a realistic option. The UK, on the other hand, had already promised the scientists they'd let them go fairly soon after the war had ended, and eventually that's what happened.

My paper picked up, chronologically, and looked at efforts to reform secrecy during the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission under David Lilienthal's chairmanship. There is an apparent paradox in the fact that Lilienthal saw himself an ardent foe of secrecy, yet some of the worst abuses of secrecy (e.g. hiding the plutonium injection experiments) took place under his watch and often with his explicit approval.

AEC Chief David Lilienthal (center) between a rock (Sen. Tom Conally, left) and a hard place (Sen. Brien McMahon, right). You can see the stress on Lilienthal's face: this is from an emergency AEC-JCAE meeting to discuss the recent arrest of Klaus Fuchs. From the Library of Congress.

The answer to this little riddle is that the early AEC, despite its far-reaching powers, was actually quite weak when it came to the DC political ecosystem — it had no natural political allies except, perhaps, the not-very-well-organized scientists, but they were such a contrarian (and otherwise disconnected) lot that they proved quite unreliable. In an effort to protect the AEC from scandal — and thus perhaps lead to its dissolution in favor of military control — Lilienthal was willing to use secrecy as a weapon for the "ultimate good." His very idealism (in favor of civilian control) became his worst enemy when it came to actually reducing secrecy (because it proved too tempting).

Mara's paper was about Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program. Specifically, Mara looked at the ways in which the desires to push "peaceful" atomic power by officials in the State Department and the White House were out of sync with the technical assessments by the Atomic Energy Commission, and the consequences of this difference. Exporting power reactors was a key feature of Eisenhower's proposal, but it wasn't seen as a good idea by the AEC — as one member of the National Security Council put it, "before the Council decides upon such a course, it should be aware that it is doing so for psychological reasons alone, and that there are risks, costs, and other problems (such as site selection) involved."

Whaley-Eaton Service Atoms for Peace letterhead, from 1956.

One of the most interesting parts of Mara's paper related to the issue of proliferation. The US of course somewhat dodged the issue in the 1950s, despite the fact that it was sending reactors and expertise worldwide. Internally, the AEC recognized the issue, that "nearly all of the reactors which today appear economically promising for power generation will produce fissionable material in the course of their operation… in significant amounts." Publicly, they were required to be silent. In 1954, though, Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov confronted John Foster Dulles on the issue, asking, "What do you Americans think you’re doing proposing to spread stockpiles of bomb-grade material all over the world under the Atoms for Peace?" Dulles said he was sure that wasn't the case — but after checking back with his staff, found that Molotov had been better briefed on the issue than he had.

Our commentator, Princeton's Michael Gordin (whose work I have previously praised), poked at our papers in variously interesting ways. One thing he did ask was where the Soviets were in any of them — and suggested that their apparent absence was because they just didn't appear in the documents, which itself seems somewhat paradoxical given the Cold War context of all of this.

I noted that in the area of classification matters, for the early AEC, the Soviets were more of an abstract entity than a specific concern. Part of this is because until the detection of the first Soviet test, the US didn't really know much of anything about the Soviet atomic program. They were almost totally in the dark, lacking either human intelligence (e.g. defectors or spies) or technical intelligence (the fallout monitoring became the first real blow at this; there was also, of course, VENONA, but that was just getting under way, and not shared with the AEC).

The Soviets, when referred to, were often just mentioned as "the enemy," and sometimes, even more cryptically, as "them." Everyone knew who "them" was, of course — it was the leitmotif of their efforts — but they knew so little about "them" that it never got much more specific than that. After the detection of the first atomic test (September 1949), and the confessions of Klaus Fuchs (February 1950), there was some effort made to revise the classification system on the basis of what was apparently already known to the Soviets (e.g. plutonium implosion, which was something that not only was verifiable with the technical intelligence, but was explicitly something Fuchs told them about), but it didn't add up to much change. It's always easier to be conservative with secrecy policies than liberal with them — a fact which does not seem to have changed, as our own, current President, who rode in on a promise of greater transparency, seems to have fully embraced the "national security state" mentality that he inherited. (A depressing but, again, not surprising fact.)

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Zippe’s Centrifuges

Monday, May 28th, 2012

R. Scott Kemp, a friend of mine at Princeton's Science and Global Security program, has just informed me that the latest issue of Technology and Culture has come out with his new article: "The End of Manhattan: How the Gas Centrifuge Changed the Quest for Nuclear Weapons."1

It's a good read and I highly recommend tracking down a copy if you are interested in nuclear history, but especially if you're interested in the history of proliferation. Scott's article is the best account I've read about how the gas centrifuge went from being a more-or-less abandoned approach to uranium enrichment during World War II to being the proliferation concern of the late-20th and early-21st centuries.

Major components of a Zippe centrifuge, 1959

Gas centrifuges had been one of the many types of enrichment technology pursued during the Manhattan Project. Early on, they were heavily favored over the more technically daunting electromagnetic and the totally-untried gaseous diffusion method. Jesse W. Beams at the University of Virginia was the country's centrifuge expert and he had been looking into using them for isotopic separation as early as 1940. As a result, all of the Manhattan Project centrifuge work was concentrated with him at his laboratory, and in 1941, nearly four times more was allocated to the centrifuge project as was the more speculative gaseous diffusion method.

This is an interesting point to note — we give the Manhattan Project management a lot of credit for trying everything. They spent far more money than a more "optimized" project might have, because they investigated a lot of things that didn't work out. But despite this approach, they still centralized the work being done on any specific method, usually within a single laboratory, often under the direction of a single scientific luminiary. So Ernest Lawrence was the don of the electromagnetic method; Arthur Compton oversaw reactor research; Harold Urey ran diffusion; and so on. Which seems like a great idea on the face of it. But what if the person you chose just didn't take the research in the right directions? What if, within that short timescale, they just didn't hit upon the right answer?

Such was the case with Beams, in Kemp's assessment: Beams just didn't figure out how to get centrifuges to work sufficiently well enough. As a result, the Manhattan Project folks proclaimed centrifuges a dead end and dropped the approach in 1944. After the war, there was little US interest in centrifuges — it didn't seem like they were very workable, certainly not compared to gaseous diffusion. And since gaseous diffusion worked fine for them, they didn't look too far afield. The lesson of the war, as the US saw it, was that centrifuges weren't worth the effort.

Schematic of Zippe's short bowl "ultracentrifuge," 1958

But in Europe and the USSR, though, work on centrifuges continued. Scott's account goes into this in some wonderfully wonky technical detail. The end result is that Gernot Zippe, an Austrian physicist, who in the early 1950s figured out (with others) how to fix the problems that Beams had with his centrifuges. Amazingly, he did this while being a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union.

The Zippe centrifuges weren't anything magical. There was no "secret," per se, and they didn't involved any special materials. They just involved working out a few engineering details that made the devices reliable and stable. The major new features introduced by another Austrian POW, Max Steenbeck, and implemented by Zippe were:

  1. "a 'point' bearing that allowed the centrifuge rotor to spin on the tip of a needle (like a toy top) with almost no friction."
  2. "the application of loose bearings and weak damping, which allowed the centrifuge to adjust itself so that it spun quietly on its center-of-mass axis without vibration instead of trying to force the axis of rotation"
  3. "to drive the rotation using electromagnetic fields, just as the armature of an electric motor drives its internal rotating shaft"

That's it. In engineering terms, these are clever, but hardly revolutionary. These three relatively simply engineering changes "solved essentially all the mechanical problems that had plagued Manhattan Project centrifuges," Scott writes. In fact, he argues:

It wasn't that the centrifuge wasn't possible in the World War II period — it's just that Beams never figured it out. Scott notes:

The flawed centrifuge was made viable by the application of engineering solutions that were mostly invented around the turn of the twentieth century and all of which predated the Manhattan Project—evidence that the latter’s centrifuge program was frustrated not by the limitations of manufacturing or the technology of the day, but rather by a preliminary design that was never developed to its fullest possible extent.

So the gas centrifuge was really completely viable as early as World War II, but the Manhattan Project scientists just couldn't get it to work. I thought that was a pretty bold conclusion, one that goes in the face of the standard "superiority myth" that pervades the Manhattan Project work.

Things get really interesting, though, after Zippe et al. figure out how to make it work. Zippe and his colleagues actually convinced the Soviets to let him out early (and to pay him!) if he helped them commercialize centrifuges in Europe. (I think we can file this under "cool things that can happen once Stalin buys the farm.") Zippe and his colleagues were released from the USSR in 1956, and he went to East Germany. From there, though, he made his way west, and became a centrifuge evangelical — he wanted to commercialize them.

He went around Europe and the United States showing folks how to make efficient gas centrifuges. In 1958 and 1959 he spent time at the University of Virginia (Beams' home turf) showing them how it was done. Amazingly, this work seems to have been unclassified — you can find the progress reports, featuring the diagrams and photographs I've used in his article, on the Department of Energy's Information Bridge.2

In 1960, the US realized that the centrifuge was actually going to be a proliferation issue, and started trying to classify the technology again. The problem was, of course, that all of the key developments were produced by non-Americans not in the United States. So in effect the US was saying that nobody in the United States was going to be allowed to work on this without a security clearance, while scientists in Europe could pursue it with a freer hand.

The result of all of this Atoms-for-Peace (Atoms-for-Cash?) enthusiasm with regards to gas centrifuges is that the technology is pretty well dispersed.  Scott concludes that:

Today, at least twenty countries have built or acquired centrifuge technology, and the history lesson drawn here suggests that it is within the capability of nearly any state to do so.

As Scott (and Alex Glaser and Houston Wood) have argued elsewhere in another great article,3 all of this should put to rest any idea that technical solutions alone can limit future nuclear proliferation — we live in a definitely post-Manhattan Project world, and this stuff just isn't rocket science anymore.

  1. R. Scott Kemp, "The End of Manhattan: How the Gas Centrifuge Changed the Quest for Nuclear Weapons," Technology and Culture 53, no. 2 (June 2012), 272-305. []
  2. The photograph of the centrifuge is from Gernot Zippe, "A Progress Report: The Development of Short Bowl Ultracentrifuges," UVA/ORL-2400-59 (1 July 1959); the diagram is from Gernot Zippe, J.W. Beams, and A.R. Kuhlthau, "The Development of Short Bowl Ultracentrifuges," UVA/ORL-2400-58. Scott's article brought both of these reports to my awareness. []
  3. Houston G. Wood, Alexander Glaser, and R. Scott Kemp, "The gas centrifuge and nuclear weapons proliferation," Physics Today 61, no. 9 (September 2008), 40-45. []

Fukushima: Is it “Nuclear Secrecy” or Just Capture?

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Two very different stories have been setting off my "nuclear secrecy" Google Alert switchboard for the past two weeks.

The first is Iran and their alleged secretiveness as an indicator of their alleged bad intentions. I'm still wrapping my head around that one.1

The second is the Fukushima accident, which has hit its one-year anniversary. It's not something I've talked about on here before, and this post is something of an explanation of why.

Fukushima first-year dose estimate by the NNSA, via the US Department of Energy

There is little doubt that the Japanese government failed to disclose the severity of the accident as it was happening, or the potential outcomes that were within a realistic possibility. Tepco, the power utility that runs Fukushima, similarly has developed a strong reputation for non-disclosure or selective-disclosure.

All of which brings back some grim memories of the Soviet Union's lack of disclosure surrounding the early days of Chernobyl. By comparison with these two nuclear accidents, Three Mile Island, even with the cacophony of contradictory information that was released, seems like a comparatively open event in retrospect.

I don't lump any of these incidents, though, under the heading of "nuclear secrecy." Why not?

For me, what makes nuclear secrecy an entity worth discussing is not that it happens to be secrecy that applies to nuclear technology. Rather, it's the secrecy that surrounds the specific security implications associated with military and dual-use nuclear technologies: in the end, it's about the bomb, not just nuclear qua nuclear. The ability to concentrate "absolute" military power into a small package has changed the international order -- and various national orders -- since 1945. The locating of the source of that newfound political power in knowledge -- instead of, say, materials or industrial know-how, for example -- was the first step towards settling on information control (secrecy) as the form of its control. Why this was so, and whether it was a good idea, or even worked, is the subject of my overall research and the (someday) forthcoming book. But it's this Hobbesian use of the bomb as the ultimate argument for secrecy that makes nuclear secrecy an interesting thing, above and beyond the bureaucratic secrecy that clusters around all complicated organizations, or the somewhat more banal forms of generic military secrecy or diplomatic secrecy.

Nowhere is this "special" nature of the bomb more explicit than in the United States, where the restricted data legal concept (after which this blog is named) actually carves out a completely parallel classification system for information related to nuclear weapons, above and beyond "normal" defense secrets.

The bomb might seem like an overly specific case, focusing primarily on weapons production methods, designs, and stockpiles. But a tremendous amount of other information "devolves" into these three categories. Example: Nuclear reactors originally fell into all three categories, because they were used to produce plutonium, they gave you information about nuclear properties that were for awhile considered classified, and because knowledge of American reactor operations could help you estimate the size of the US plutonium inventory, and thus the stockpile. There are far more amusing examples, of course: the amount of toilet paper used by a secret site, for example, can help you get estimates as to the personnel levels there, which can then be traced back to the amount of material or work being produced, and so on.

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  1. How secret is "secretive"? Does the Qom facility count as secretive because it wasn't immediately disclosed? What's the IAEA requirement for when you disclose a facility — at what point in its construction/planning? Are the Iranians any more secretive about these things than anyone else? Does having another state assassinating your scientists justify additional security/secrecy? I'm still mulling. []

More from the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

A few weeks ago, I spent some time at the Legislative Archives in downtown Washington, DC, looking at the files of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE). It was my first time over there since I had moved to the area; I had been there a few other times over the years, but it's really quite different when you actually live in the same town as the archive. It's a less hurried, less harried, and less targeted experience: you can take the time to really look at things you might otherwise not have time for. Case in point: I actually got to spend some time talking with one of the archivists there, Bill Davis, who knows about the JCAE records. And last Thursday, Bill called me up to tell me that a new batch of newly-declassified JCAE Executive Hearings had arrived. How's that for helpful? Of course I couldn't resist, and swung by last Friday on my way to work.

JCAE members Sen. Vandenberg (l) and Sen. Hickenlooper (r) look over various documents at a 1949 hearing regarding the AEC.

The eight newly-declassified JCAE hearings are all from 1953, ranging from March to December. NARA isn't in charge of declassifying them -- these ones seem to have been declassified by someone at the CIA who is apparently just working his way through the decades-old queue.  I imagine some poor declassifier sitting there with a 100 foot pile of paper next to him. In reality, these appear to have been scanned and are redacted using what looks like Adobe Acrobat. But it is just a single fellow doing it, apparently -- his name (Alan Lipton) is on every one of them as the declassifier.

1953 was an important year. For one thing, the Cold War was pretty hot right about then. The Korean War was still going on for most of it; the US had tested a hydrogen bomb prototype, but not an actual usable weapon; the Soviets set off a "thermonuclear weapon" (not Teller-Ulam, but still not very nice) that August; McCarthyism was still going strong. Tough times.

So what are in these files? Here are a few notes from them -- they cover some interesting topics. Many of them deal with CIA in particular, which is of some inherent interest.

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Tick, Tock, 2012

Monday, January 9th, 2012

It's that time again. Tick, Tock.

One of Herblock's creepy anthropomorphic H-bombs, from 1962. From the Library of Congress.

Every year, the editors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists get together to discuss whether, and how much, they should adjust their famed Doomsday Clock, ticking down to atomic midnight.

One of the coolest things about my recent relocation to Washington, DC, was being invited to attend the symposium (just as an audience-member) for the clock-changing event. I'm eagerly looking forward to it.

The last time the BAS folks changed the clock, in 2010, they turned it back by 1 minute, because of "worldwide cooperation to reduce nuclear arsenals and limit effect of climate change." Ah, such optimistic times! Only six minutes to midnight, still.

I would be inclined to shave that gained minute back again, at the very least, putting us at five minutes to midnight. My reasons are:

  • Possible political instability in North Korea following the sudden death of Dear Leader and the replacement with his young and untested son.
  • Constant drum-beating in the West for war with Iran, despite not much evidence that their program has been doing anything urgent since 2003.
  • Iran's apparent continued push for latent nuclear weapons capability. (Which is problematic both for its own sake, and the possible effects it has with regards to Western intervention, sanctions, etc., which are ratcheting things up on all sides over there.)
  • The efforts towards mitigating climate change have been fickle at best and seem to be losing public interest as the attentions turn entirely to the economy. I don't actually see the United States, much less the rest of the world, actually getting their act together on this anytime soon.
  • Pakistan-US relations seem to be getting especially testy, which bodes ill.

Or to put it another way, I think things are at least as bad as they were in 2007; I think the 2010 change was too optimistic. None of the above is terribly clever analysis, I'd be the first to admit. But it's about the same level of "ripped from the headlines" analysis that seems to have affected past clock changes.

But that's just me, and I'm a natural cynic. My views on the future vacillate between the pessimistic and the middling.

I'll be eager to see what other people have to say on this, at the symposium. I'll even try to update the blog with the positions I find most interesting, if I get the chance to. So check back at the end of the day for a bit more.

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