Posts Tagged ‘Proliferation’


Nixon and the bomb: “I just want you to think big, Henry!”

Friday, October 25th, 2013

Richard Nixon was a President so utterly fascinating that if he didn’t exist, historians would have had to invent him. He was both clever and odious, politically appealing but personally unpleasant. Flawed enough that he managed to pointlessly lose the Presidency because of his insecurities, his desire for even more of a landslide than he already had. Anti-semitic, homophobic, racist — but also canny, both with regards to foreign policy and American domestic politics. And what a gift for historians of the future, that he compulsively recorded himself saying awful things? It’s almost too much to be believed, the truth being much more stranger than any fictionalized President could be.

Nixon portrait cropped

We don’t talk much about Nixon and the bomb, which is perhaps a little odd. The Nixon years were those of détente, which has something to do with it, and there were no “close calls” or fiery public rhetoric about the bomb. Nixon only rarely shows up personally in my work; he didn’t appear to get involved with nuclear matters to the degree that Kennedy or Eisenhower did, for example, much less those like Reagan or Truman.

But this is an oversight. Nixon and the bomb is an immensely interesting subject, as I recently learned. Last week I was at a nuclear history/policy conference hosted by Francis Gavin, among a few others, that was itself immensely interesting and fruitful. Before going, I thought I should get around to reading Gavin’s latest book, Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age, since he had bothered to invite me and all.1

Gavin - Nuclear Statecraft - cover

It’s incredibly interesting as a book of history written with a mind towards those who care about policy. Each chapter tackles a major issue in nuclear history and gives a unique perspective or new findings on it. For example, the Kennedy and Johnston administrations get lots of credit for adopting a “flexible response” approach to nuclear targeting, but Gavin reports that while they gave speeches on this, in practice their war plans were little more flexible than Eisenhower’s, because privately they judged flexibility to be difficult and dangerous. That was new to me, and a nice point about the difference between public statements and official policy, and the trickiness of divining information about secret programs from the party line.

The chapter that really wowed me was on Nixon. Again, I hadn’t given Nixon and the bomb all that much thought. But Gavin points out that it deserves much more attention, because while on paper Nixon looked like an exemplary arms controller, but in private, he is revealed as a total maniac something much more complicated.

For his arms control cred, just consider that Nixon was the one who signed the SALT treaty, the ABM treaty, and the Biological Weapons Convention. He was also President when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was ratified, and when the SALT II talks began. Kind of a non-trivial list of treaties and agreements — an impressive record for any US President. But as Gavin puts it:

The documents, however, reveal that Kissinger and, especially, Nixon had a different notion of how nuclear weapons affected international relations. … Theirs was a realist view—they believed that world politics was driven, as it had been for centuries, by geopolitical competition between great powers. The “nuclear revolution” had not changed this core feature of the international system. In relations with the Soviets, the message to their opponents was clear: “Look, we’ll divide up the world, but by God you’re going to respect our side or we won’t respect your side.”2

As evidence of this, Gavin has lots of excerpts from conversations between Nixon and Kissinger about nukes and treaties. They are universally disdainful of arms control. While Nixon was beginning the bomb the hell out of Cambodia (one of his least popular policies), he remarked to Kissinger: “Looking back over the past year we have been praised for all the wrong things: Okinawa, SALT, germs, Nixon Doctrine. Now [we are] finally doing the right thing.” Which tells you a lot about Nixon’s worldview: what mattered to him, in the end, was winning in Vietnam. Full stop. Everything else was just a distraction.

Nixon contemplative

As for arms control, Nixon told Kissinger that “I don’t give a damn about SALT; I just couldn’t care less about it.” On the kinds of technical matters that concerned security wonks, like the number of radars or missile interceptors, Nixon privately explained that “I don’t think it makes a hell of a lot of difference,” and that he thought the arms controllers were real chumps about this kind of thing. He opposed an anti-ballistic missile site in the nation’s capital because:

I don’t want Washington. I don’t like the feel of Washington. I don’t like that goddamn command airplane or any of this. I don’t believe in all that crap. I think the idea of building a new system around Washington is stupid.

Which you have to admit is sort of a novel argument against anti-ballistic missiles, right? Because you don’t actually like the nation’s capital that you’re President of. He dismissed the Biological Weapons Convention as “the silly biological warfare thing, which doesn’t mean anything,” as opposed to what he considered the really important stuff — again, the war in Vietnam.3

For Dick and Henry, treaties were just pieces of paper that would probably be violated the moment they proved less than useful for a state. Realpolitik, plain and simple. But they were not just flying by the seat of their pants. Their approach to international politics was, Gavin argues, coherent. It just didn’t give a lot of credence to the idea that nuclear weapons had any special importance with regards to international order, since they really didn’t think that they were going to get into a genuine shooting war with the USSR anytime soon. Worse, they thought that arms control successes could lead towards the Soviets attempting to take concessions elsewhere — that if they were “good” in one arena they could then get away with being “bad” in another.

Dick and Henry

But my favorite quotes are from Nixon about Vietnam. During a spring offensive by the North Vietnamese in 1972, Nixon told Kissinger:

We’re going to do it. I’m going to destroy the goddamn country, believe me, I mean destroy it if necessary. And let me say, even the nuclear weapons if necessary. It isn’t necessary. But, you know, what I mean is, what shows you the extent to which I’m willing to go. By a nuclear weapon, I mean that we will bomb the living bejeezus out of North Vietnam and then if anybody interferes we will threaten the nuclear weapons.

A week later, he continued to a somewhat horrified Kissinger:

Nixon: I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that ready?
Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much.
Nixon: A nuclear bomb, does that bother you?… I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ’s sake! The only place where you and I disagree is with regard to the bombing. You’re so goddamned concerned about civilians, and I don’t give a damn. I don’t care.
Kissinger: I’m concerned about the civilians because I don’t want the world to be mobilized against you as a butcher.4

Yeesh. Which just goes to show, that Nixon’s realpolitik approach to nuclear weapons does seem to be slightly unhinged at times — that nukes were not necessarily off the table when he thought about the things he really cared about, at least when he was trying to get a rise out of Kissinger.

As for the NPT, Nixon opposed it during his election campaign, both because he felt treaties were by themselves unenforcible and because he thought there might be some American allies who could use their own nukes. (As a possible example of the kind of difficulty the NPT created, consider that Nixon was the one who helped formulate the pact with Golda Meir that involved Israel never admitting it possessed nuclear weapons so as to maintain good relations with the USA. The NPT put limitations on the US with regards to its Middle Eastern ally, which is not something Nixon would have been happy about.)

Nixon madman

Lastly, there is the “madman” approach that Nixon and Kissinger cooked up — that Kissinger should convince the Soviets that Nixon was unhinged enough to start nuking if things went too sour in Vietnam or elsewhere. This is perhaps Nixon’s most significant engagement with the nuclear question, and it was all psychological, all ploy. And, as Gavin points out, of questionable effectiveness.

Gavin doesn’t defend Nixon’s position on nukes and treaties; he just points out that Nixon actually had a position, and that it was actually deeply at odds with his (mostly positive) public record. The reason Nixon felt free to sign so many agreements is in part because he didn’t take them very seriously. How’s that for an ironic twist? If you don’t think arms control treaties actually matter, then what’s the harm in signing a few more of them?

  1. Francis Gavin, Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Cornell University Press, 2012). []
  2. Gavin, 108. []
  3. Gavin, 109-110. []
  4. Gavin, 116, with some of the rest of the quote filled out from elsewhere. []

Shurcliff on Secrecy

Friday, July 5th, 2013

William A. Shurcliff is one of my favorite Manhattan Project dramatis personaeI’ve written about him before on here, some time back. In a nutshell, Shurcliff was a physicist who worked as a technical advisor to Vannevar Bush in the Office of Scientific Research and Development, and was connected to the bomb project only peripherally. In fact, his value to Bush was that he wasn’t really steeped in the work to make the bomb: he was a trusted, technically-competent outsider. So he was the person they called, for example, when they needed a censor for atomic patents, because he could be “read in” on the secrets but wasn’t otherwise in a position to have conflicted interests. Among his other roles on the bomb project was to be the copyeditor of the Smyth Report, and he later was the “official historian” for Operation Crossroads.

William Shurcliff, age 39, 1948, 29 x 22.5 inches, Oil.

A painting of William A. Shurcliff from 1948 by his father-in-law, the American artist Charles Hopkinson.

What I love about the Shurcliff one finds in the Manhattan Project files is that he shows up in the most unusual, unsought places, and he loved to write unsolicited memos. I imagine him sitting around, thinking about some core problem related to the social and political future of atomic energy, and writing his thoughts out in a methodical fashion and sending them to the top. Occasionally there is evidence that these memos were read and circulated, though none were ever obviously used as the basis of policy going forward. Still, what’s really wonderful about someone like Shurcliff is that he wasn’t being exposed to all of the other scientists on the project, so he had a relatively independent outlook. This makes him a nice “barometer” for what kinds of thoughts were thinkable at the time, outside of the standard range of positions that the scientists took on the issues in front of them.

One of the issues that Shurcliff chimed in on was the prospects of long-term scientific secrecy. Late in the project (i.e. late 1944 and early 1945), the scientists at the University of Chicago had largely finished up their portion of the work (helping getting the Hanford reactors designed and running), and had more extra time for contemplation of long-term issues than those who were at Los Alamos. So they did things like write the Franck Report and other studies into the long-term prospects of nuclear energy, secrecy, the use of the bomb, and so on. A repeating theme in all of these reports is that long-term, postwar nuclear secrecy would not work. It is a position you will be familiar with from discussions today: secrecy would not prevent foreign nations (or “enemies” more broadly) from getting the bomb,  it would inhibit and slow future American work, and the worst thing imaginable would be a “secret arms race” between nations.

Vannevar Bush and James Conant, despite being key people behind the secrecy procedures of the Manhattan Project (which started well before the Army got involved), thoroughly embraced the anti-secrecy line. As Bush put it to President Truman in September 1945: “A secret race on atomic bombs can lead to a very unhappy world.”  In fact, almost every discussion I’ve found of postwar secrecy made during the Manhattan Project takes more or less this sort of position.

Shurcliff, however, approached it differently. I’m not sure how he picked up that these thing were “in the air,” though he was in limited doses exposed to the Chicago scientists while doing his patent work. In December 1944, he wrote a seven-page memo to Richard Tolman, another OSRD scientist who worked as a personal technical advisor to General Groves (among other things), with the lengthy subject heading of: “Analysis of the theses: (A) Maintaining secrecy on the details of the present weapon will not insure security. (B) Secrecy will come from ‘keeping ahead.'”1

Click on the image to view the full document.

Click on the image above to view the full memo. Shurcliff’s memo was itself classified “Secret — Limited” which basically meant that only the very top-top level of administrators and advisors were allowed to read it. The “Top Secret” classification was only just starting to be used in this period, and probably only would have been used here if the memo had any insight onto when the United States would have a bomb ready to use.

Keeping to his form, Shurcliff’s memo is highly-structured and carefully argued. He starts it off with a statement of his motivations and his conclusions:

Explanation: Some analysis of these theses appears called for since they lie at the heart of the general secrecy policy which, in turn, is fundamental to the entire postwar policy. These theses have been endorsed by many persons heard by the [Interim] Committee.2 The writer knows of no one-who has disagreed with these theses.

Conclusions: While it can be said that the theses are “more true than false,” it is apparent that they are seriously inadequate and to an appreciable extent misleading, since:

With regard to Thesis A, maintaining secrecy will make for security for a good many years at least — especially with respect to the many smaller countries incapable of developing nucleonics weapons independently.3 To place one’s faith in secrecy may be rash, but appreciably to dispense with secrecy may be even more rash.

With regard to Thesis B, even “keeping ahead” may prove futile when even “obsolete” nucleonics weapons can be employed by an enemy to wipe out our major centers, including nucleonics centers, in a single hour before declaration of war.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re probably recoiling from Shurcliff’s pro-secrecy arguments. They are pretty far distant from the “there is no secret” mantra of the postwar atomic scientists, but they are not bad arguments. Shurcliff’s approach is eminently pragmatic, not ideological. His memo is one about  technology transfer between nations, with an eye beyond seeing things as just a competition between two powers. Of course, he says, you can’t maintain such secrets indefinitely. But if you can maintain them for a few decades, that’s not nothing — time is a valuable commodity. 

Shurcliff also augments his analysis with the practical experience of technical espionage. Shurcliff’s main job at the OSRD was to be a liaison with other branches regarding information seized about enemy technology. So if the Allied soldiers found reports about, say, German tanks, they would send them to Shurcliff, and he’d figure out which of the OSRD divisions could make the most use of it. So unlike the scientists at Chicago, he actually knew a little bit about how difficult it was to construct technology based solely on knowledge alone:

Parenthetical note: The writer recalls many instances during 1943 and 1944 where, despite a wealth of fragmentary information from cooperative enemy prisoners, neutrals, and allied agents, the really significant technical engineering data on enemy devices remained wanting until uncomfortably late dates. Examples are: (a) technical characteristics of German infra-red search receivers and image tubes; (b) control frequencies for the German HS-293 glider bomb; (c) launching means, fuels, and radio control means of the German V-1 flying bomb. In-all these cases the serious gaps in our knowledge were not filled until reasonably intact specimens of the weapons in question had been captured. The abundance of such situations is believed to show that there is a good chance that appreciable amounts of highly-technical engineering data on secret devices may be kept out of enemy hands for years — perhaps decades.

Shurcliff’s estimates on the possibility of real espionage were, in the end, more optimistic than the reality. Neither he nor anyone else suspected that Los Alamos was full of a number of relatively high-level spies, and that direct design information on the bombs would be so immediately and thoroughly compromised. But it is worth noting that Shurcliff’s above discussion about the difficulty of reconstructing a physical technology from design information alone is, in fact, shown to be reasonably on the mark when we look at the history of the Soviet program. Even though the Soviets did have very detailed design information on the atomic bomb, it still took a tremendous effort to turn that into an actual bomb, and it has become much more clear over the years that information was not the primary determinant of when the Soviets developed their first nuclear weapons.

William Shurcliff, 50 years later.

William Shurcliff, 50 years later.

Lastly, Shurcliff’s views on “staying ahead” feel remarkably relevant to our modern day, as well. Nukes, he argues, are not weapons were there is such a significant difference between the “best” and the “second-best.” Getting hit with an “obsolete” weapon is still going to be a disastrous thing. Does it matter that the North Korean’s largest test was 10 kilotons, whereas the largest bomb in the US arsenal is megaton-range? To most people, probably not — 10 kilotons will still ruin your day.

Shurcliff ends his memo with a set of “Concluding Remarks”:

We are entering an age (starting, say, in 1960) in which even inferior arms (e.g., 1950 nucleonics bombs) any be used suddenly to cripple and perhaps conquer the most advanced country. The coming age may be further characterised (in the following over-simplified and over-dramatic terms:!) thus:

An age in which surprise aggression can laugh at military defense;
An age in which nucleonics is the grand currency of military negotiations;
An age in which our scientists will no longer be able to contribute to the defense of the country;
An age in which international physical compulsion is possible, but in which international physical conflict is impossible;
An age in which international conflicts can only be moral conflicts;
An age in which the line separating international disagreement between two countries from sudden devastation of one of them may become vanishingly thin;
An age in which “balance of power” and “threat” are merely historical terms.

If the last war was a chemists’ war and  the present war is a physicists’  war, the next war may be an “administrator’s war” — a war whose outcome may be determined by the mere formulation and concealment of the administrative decision as to whether and when to strike.

What a conclusion!

So what became of Shurcliff’s analysis? He sent it to Tolman, who forwarded it to Bush, and Bush in turn forwarded it to Harvey H. Bundy, an assistant to Secretary of War Stimson (and father of McGeorge Bundy), with the following note attached:

Here is the pessimistic viewpoint, and I think you ought to read it. I would add 1) while scientific interchange is inevitable, transmission of details of weapons is not. 2) A sudden strike will not prevent a riposte, if stores of weapons are well protected underground. The case as between two nations with hidden and ample supplies is of most interest, as it will be the case probably, and is not here treated.

I doubt Shurcliff ever knew that his memo had been forwarded up the chain like this — the secrecy, ironically, meant that he rarely had any indication of what was going on other than his own little corner of things. And perhaps even more ironically, that never kept him from speculating and dreaming about the possibilities of the future.

I don’t think anything more came of his memo. But I do treasure it, not because I necessarily agree with it — though I do find it better rooted in the realities of technology and epistemology than many of the statements of the anti-secrecy scientists of the time — but because it is a little indication of the fact that there were some nuclear physicists in 1944 who could find ways to defend secrecy (a rare thing!), and also find ways to see, arguably with some clarity, the shape of things to come.

  1. William A. Shurcliff to Richard C. Tolman (8 December 1944), Harrison-Bundy Files Relating to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1108 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 6, Target 4, Folder 75, “Interim Committee — Publicity.” []
  2. The Interim Committee was the main administrative body planning for what to do once the bomb was a matter of public record, i.e. after it had been used on Japan. []
  3. “Nucleonics” was at this time being floated as a new name for the entire field of nuclear technology, in analogy to “electronics.” It didn’t take off. []

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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More on Centrifuge History

Monday, June 25th, 2012

I wrote about centrifuges a few weeks ago, and have learned some new, interesting things since then. John Krige, a professor at the History, Technology, and Society program at Georgia Tech, has two quite provocative articles  published about interactions between the US and the UK regarding centrifuges in the mid-to-late 1960s. They are worth your attention.

European centrifuges (URENCO)

Krige’s first article is “Hybrid knowledge: the transnational co-production of the gas centrifuge for uranium enrichment in the 1960s,” just published online (and forthcoming in print, I believe) in the British Journal for the History of Science (BJHS).1 As the title may tip you off, this is an article for a primarily history of science/science studies crowd, and speaks in that idiom. Don’t let the jargon scare you off, though: as far as the genre goes, it’s readable and the underlying point is an important one. It concerns the interchanges of centrifuge information between the US and the UK in the early 1960s, which were done under the 1955 US/UK Agreement for Co-operation on the Civil Uses of Atomic Energy, and their consequences when the UK, Netherlands, and Germany decided to go into a cooperative, profitable effort to produce a commercial centrifuge enrichment plant in 1967. (What eventually became URENCO, I believe.)

The US thought this was a somewhat dodgy enterprise — they really didn’t think centrifuges would be as profitable as gaseous diffusion, their chosen enrichment method, but the UK disagreed — but were happy to support it, so long as the UK didn’t give away any “restricted data” that had been produced by the US. And there’s the rub: the UK and US had been exchanging information for a long time, and the UK really thought that it had produced a completely indigenous design (taking off from Gernot Zippe’s unclassified contributions) without any significant US “data” in it. The US disagreed and threatened to cut off all future US-UK exchanges if the latter didn’t let them verify to their satisfaction that there wasn’t any US data in the design. The UK, for its part, thought that it had a really superior centrifuge design compared to the US, and were worried that if the US claimed parts of it were “theirs,” it would completely muddy up their attempts to get clear of the US monopoly on the enrichment of uranium.

In the end, the US decided the UK design was kosher enough, and all was well with them. But it’s a fascinating (and to me, totally unknown) episode in the US-UK “special (nuclear) relationship,” one which really highlights some fundamentally interesting aspects of both US and UK atomic policy, and the fundamentally transnational (as Krige puts it) nature of modern centrifuge development (an Austrian working in the USSR develops technology that he then further works on in the US and the UK which is then turned into a company with the UK, Germany, and Netherlands, etc.). It also gets into some good history of science questions about how one identifies the source of any given piece of design or machinery — and how difficult that can be.

US centrifuges (Piketon)

The second paper by John is “The Proliferation Risks of Gas Centrifuge Enrichment at the Dawn of the NPT: Shedding Light on the Negotiating History,” just published online (and imminently forthcoming in print) in The Nonproliferation Review.2 This essay was a winner of an annual prize by the journal (one of two) and John gave a presentation on it last Thursday at GWU (which you can watch online — John is the first of the two speakers/winners, after the introduction by Stephen Schwartz).

In this paper, John tackles the question of the apparent ambiguity in the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) about whether centrifuge-style enrichment activities (like that currently pursued by Iran) were considered a protected form of “peaceful use” to be allowed and encouraged. It has been speculated that at the time of the treaty’s writing, the risks posed by centrifuge enrichment — which is a lot smaller scale than gaseous diffusion plants, and thus easier to hide or protect — weren’t considered by the NPT drafters, and thus represent an unanticipated “loophole” in the treaty terms.

What John has found is that while centrifuges were not discussed in the official record, they were discussed extensively on the backchannel by the US and the UK. In particular, the UK was extremely worried about the proliferation potential for the gas centrifuge. They, after all, were pursuing the technology themselves, and knew it could be a potent game-changer in breaking the gaseous diffusion monopoly. They wondered if it would not be the angle pursued by a future proliferating state, and conveyed as much to the US.

The US was itself comparatively unworried. It thought that it (and its European allies) could control the spread of centrifuge technology through classification and export controls, and still were dubious that the centrifuge would play a bit role in world affairs anytime soon. I pushed John on this at the talk (you can hear me asking a rambling question about this at the 1:41:24 mark in the video linked above), and he elaborated in a way that I thought was more compelling: the US was weary about getting the treaty signed (they had finally gotten the Soviets on board, and the NPT treaty process was over a decade old at that point), and were worried that any attempt to modify the treaty at that point would bog it down for years to come. Furthermore, the UK was engaging in said partnership with the Dutch and the West Germans, and the US really wanted to make sure the Germans were still on board with the NPT.

(The West Germans were really not too pleased with the NPT and it was a huge hassle to get them to ratify it; like many nations, they appropriately saw it as an infringement on their national sovereignty and their future security options. Of course today the Germans are big supporters of the NPT — it’s interesting how these things switch around, depending on where you are sitting at the time.)

The UK didn’t push the matter, because it didn’t want to rankle the treaty process, either, and because it too wanted to profit off of the centrifuge. So both the US and UK let the matter slide. (I think John’s work highlights something that I’ve been thinking for a short while now: there’s a lot of potential for a “deep” history of the NPT, one that goes beyond the open record.)

Iranian centrifuges (Natanz)

Whether this affects one’s interpretations of the NPT today — John thinks that there is basically no real legal argument against Iran being able to develop centrifuges, and certainly no argument that the early NPT drafters had left an unanticipated “loophole” in place that anyone is taking advantage of — seems to me, someone not at all versed in international law, to be unclear. (Do off-the-record conversations between two parties count towards later interpretations of a treaty’s intent?) But either way, it’s a fascinating story. The apparent US lack of concern about specifically centrifuge proliferation has come back to haunt it, these decades later.

  1. John Krige, “Hybrid knowledge: the transnational co-production of the gas centrifuge for uranium enrichment in the 1960s,” BJHS (online May 2012). []
  2. John Krige, “The Proliferation Risks of Gas Centrifuge Enrichment at the Dawn of the NPT: Shedding Light on the Negotiating History,” The Nonproliferation Review 19, no. 2 (July 2012), 219-227. []

Elusive Centrifuges

Friday, June 1st, 2012

To round off this week of centrifuges, I thought we might actually look at a few of them. Photographs of real-life enrichment technologies are not too common. You can find quite a number of pictures floating around of Calutron (electromagnetic enrichment) technology from World War II, but that’s because the United States decided pretty early on that Calutrons weren’t too sensitive. (Rightly or wrongly; just because they are inefficient doesn’t mean they don’t work. Iraq famously pursued Calutron technology during its pre-1991 nuclear program; the major technical snag seemed to be that somebody bombed the facilities.)

But gaseous diffusion? Laser enrichment? Aerodynamic enrichment? Not so much, beyond photographs of BIG buildings or very schematic conceptual diagrams. With centrifuges, though, there are some images from a variety of time periods and sources. As I mentioned on Monday, you can find some pretty nifty Zippe-type centrifuge photographs in old research reports from the 1950s that the Department of Energy still hosts pretty accessibly. These are kind of amazing, given how they more or less disassemble the devices in what looks like a pretty helpful fashion.

“Scoop assembly for handling gas inside the rotor and parts of rotor.” (1959)

“Molecular pump and rotor.” (1959)

…and so on with the “powdered magnetic core, completed stator, and driven end of rotor showing steel plate and supporting needle,” and “upper magnetic bearing, rotor, and top of scoop assembly,” and even a nice little one of the rotors mounted up for stress testing. Interesting that these things are out there — especially when the CIA apparently decided, in 2003, that showing rotors of pre-1991 Iraqi centrifuges was too sensitive to put up on the web (after they had already put them up for awhile).

There are a few photos of URENCO centrifuge plants from Europe, but not as many as you’d think from a venture whose corporate slogan is “enriching the future.” I’m partial to this gold-tinted one that’s been floating around the web for awhile; it looks like Scrooge McDuck was the contractor (but I’m pretty sure it’s just the lighting — other images I’ve seen show them to be silvery):

It’s hard to get a sense of scale from cascade photos like this, though.

In the early 1980s, the United States’ DOE built a prototype centrifuge plant at Piketon, Ohio, but abandoned it by 1985. Much more recently (the 2000s) the private United States Enrichment Corporation took over the site and has been building a demonstration plant on it. What’s interesting about these centrifuges is that they are of a different model than the previous ones; the “American centrifuge” is a colossally large design. (The fact that they have to label them as “American” is a nice reflection of the fact mentioned on Monday that the US lost its initiative in developing centrifuges. We don’t have the “American” gaseous diffusion method or the “American” electromagnetic method.)

The 1980s Piketon photos are pretty impressive. These are from the DOE Digital Archive:

The last one really gives you the sense of scale with those suckers — they are huge!

The current Piketon plant looks pretty similar. USEC has a few photos on their own website:

I find these less inspiring, photographically, than the ones from the 1980s, but they look like the same centrifuges. The length here — some 12 meters long — is functional, and not just an example of the Supersize-Me American culture.  The “American centrifuge” is much more efficient than the other models currently being used, apparently.

Now, all of the above is sort of interesting, but is just something of a prelude for the next batch of photos. In April 2008, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made an official visit to the Natanz site, one of Iran’s controversial centrifuge facilities. Surprisingly, his office took several dozen photos of the visit and posted them on the official Presidential website. These have been a goldmine for wonky types wanting to understand Iran’s centrifuge developments, and have, of course, served as the illustrations for half a million articles about Iran and the bomb since then. A few of my favorites:

The last one I like because of a small, easy-to-miss detail: you can see one of the blue IAEA safeguard cameras above Ahmadinejad’s head. The blue box is a sealed case inside which the video camera is locked, and the closed-circuit camera feed is beamed back to IAEA headquarters in real-time (so I gather). (A correspondent e-mailed to say that at the plant in question, a pilot plant, the cameras aren’t real-time — they just stored the footage for the IAEA to pick up, which is every other week or so. I thought I had heard somewhere that they were real-time, but I can’t remember where. They do have real-time monitoring in their plants that can do up to 20% enrichment, though.)

Given how relatively few photos there are of centrifuges floating around, why did Iran post so many on its Presidential website? I think the message is pretty clear, personally: they are trying to demonstrate a lack of anything to hide. If the centrifuge program isn’t “secret,” then it isn’t scary, right?

Of course, the obvious rejoinder to this is that they are of course being selective about what they show. Such is the nature of any kind of publicity like this. You show a little, to show that you aren’t secretive, but of course, you do hold things back. Whether that holding back violates the NPT or the Additional Protocol and so forth is a question for another day. But I’m always fascinated by the theatre of “transparency,” which has — since the early days of the bomb — been part of maintaining nuclear secrecy. Secrecy has never just been about holding things back: it has always been a game of simultaneously withholding and releasing, of giving a little so you can hold back a lot.

How do we distinguish between genuine transparency and transparency in the name of secrecy? That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? Because when you get it wrong, you get a situation like Iraq: trying to prove a negative (that they didn’t have active WMD programs hidden away) turned out to be an impossible job (not because it is inherently impossible, but because of the various political and organizational forces stacked against the attempt). One can distinguish between the two in retrospect — once you’ve actually dismantled the country and its programs and whatnot — but that’s disturbingly too late.