September - October 2004

P.O. Box 190, Mount Holly, Virginia 2252
Volume 34, Number 5, Jerry Strope, Editor

"[There are] some activities taking place [in North Korea] . . . that we are watching carefully."

Secretary of State Colin Powell, September 10, 2004

In this issue:

Strange Doings in Korea

Back in mid-August, South Korea—yes, South,not North—informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that scientists at a South Korean government laboratory had performed experiments in early 2000 in which a tiny amount of uranium was enriched to near weapons-grade level. A public announcement was made on September 2 by a flustered South Korean government that alleged that the experiments had been conducted by a group of "rogue" scientists without government knowledge.

The next day, officials in Seoul tried to assure the world that South Korea had no nuclear arms program, saying government scientists had enriched a bit of uranium "smaller than a sesame seed to satisfy their curiosity." "Some misunderstood this experiment as a step to build nuclear weapons, but atomic energy experts would probably laugh at such claims," said Chang In Soon, director of the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute where the experiments took place. He acknowledged that his institute was not authorized to enrich uranium. He said the scientists performed the work using equipment that had been assembled for a different experiment.

South Korea signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and it signed the IAEA’s Additional Protocol last February, which gives the IAEA the right to conduct more intrusive, short-notice visits to nuclear sites than the main treaty allows. It should be noted that South Korea generates 40 percent of its electricity in nuclear power plants. One possible explanation for informing the IAEA of an experiment conducted four years ago may be worry about short-notice inspections. Another possible explanation may be a response to the US decision to move troops and reduce deployments in the South without demanding concessions from the North.

After all, South Korea is not a stranger to secret nuclear weapons programs, having engaged in one in the 1970s after the US withdrew from Viet Nam and President Carter decided to withdraw troops from South Korea. But one result seems likely: an adverse impact on further talks with North Korea.

"This will infuriate Pyongyang’s leadership," said C. Kenneth Quinones, former State Department official. "It is certain to greatly complicate, if not undermine, the six-party talks process." The next round of talks was scheduled for September 22 but that did not happen. Whether the South Korean an-nouncement played a role in the delay is not obvious.

China has repeatedly called for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, fearing that a nuclear North or South Korea would degenerate into a regional arms race. China responded to the South Korean disclosure by calling for more safeguards. "This incident also shows that the IAEA guarantee and supervision and the international nonproliferation system need to be further strengthened," a Foreign Ministry statement said.

North Korea had no immediate comment on the South Korean disclosure. Then, another strange thing happened. A South Korean news agency reported on September 9 that a mammoth explosion in North Korea produced a mushroom cloud more than 2 miles across. The first reaction was that North Korea had finally tested its claimed nuclear weapon. The New York Times reported that senior US intelligence officials had seen signs of activities that might indicate North Korea was preparing a nuclear test. The comment of Secretary of State Colin Powell is this issue’s "quotable quote." Further, September 9 was the anniversary of the founding of North Korea in 1948, sort of their Fourth of July, and a most appropriate date to conduct such an awesome test

However, by the weekend, negative results from "sniffers" caused both South Korea and the Bush Administration to announce that the explosion was not nuclear and the cause remained mysterious. China’s government, which has the closest relationship with the North Korean regime, remained close-lipped.

On Monday, September 13, North Korea was ready with its explanation. The big explosion was the planned demolition of a mountain for a hydroelectric project. It invited a British diplomat to visit the scene to confirm the story. The IAEA had been among the first to brand the explosion a non-nuclear one based on its monitoring devices but the IAEA was not invited to visit the explosion site.

The combination of a mysterious explosion and comments such as our quotable quote that indicated that North Korea might be preparing to conduct a nuclear test led to a heated exchange between John Kerry and the White House. Kerry said that just the idea that the United States was thinking North Korea might test a nuclear weapon highlights a national security failure by Bush. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan accused Kerry of wanting to return to "the failed Clinton administration policy" on North Korea.

What is interesting about all this is that nowhere can one find speculation that there was a nuclear test by North Korea—and it was a failure— or maybe a partial success a la Tom Clancy. Nor has there been any discussion of the National Missile Defense system, which is part of the Bush strategy for handling North Korea.

Mullahs 18, United Nations 0

For at least the past 18 years the cleric government of Iran has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the UN about whether it is conducting a secret nuclear weapons development program. The IAEA, the UN agency charged with preventing such programs, has over the years become increasingly dubious about the intentions of the government of Iran, which claims that it is only interested in producing electricity in a nuclear power plant.

Here’s a recap of the problem. Uranium oxide ore, the "yellow cake" you have seen in the news, is mostly U238, which is not fissionable under most circumstances. However, a small amount (less than one percent) is U235, which readily supports a chain reaction. If the amount of U235 were increased to perhaps 3.5 percent, the resulting mixture can be used to power a nuclear reactor. The proportion of U235 needed to make a nuclear bomb is higher—much higher. Iran, as a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is permitted to enrich uranium ore to 3.5 percent but the process, which uses the fact that U238 is slightly heavier than U235 to modify the proportion in a centrifuge, can easily be extended to weapon-grade proportions. The IAEA is supposed to prevent this. Since Iran has been caught cheating several times now, the IAEA Board of Governors, which consists of representatives from 35 nations, has finally passed a resolution that orders Iran to suspend all uranium enrichment activities that could contribute to producing a nuclear bomb. The response from the mullahs was not long in coming.

On September 19, Iran denounced the IAEA action as illegal and threatened to limit cooperation with the IAEA if it moves toward a report to the UN Security Council where sanctions could be imposed. The US has been urging sanctions for some time now. Hassan Rohani, Iran’s lead negotiator, was the mullahs’ spokesman. As usual, he stopped short of outright rejection of the IAEA’s demands. "Thus demand is illegal," he said. The IAEA board of governors has no right to make such a suspension obligatory for any country."

Several days later, Gholamresa Aghaza deh, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency, told reporters in Vienna that Iran had begun converting tons of yellow cake into a gas (uranium hexafluoride). The gas is to be used in gas centrifuges, where it is whirled around and the lighter mixture skimmed off the top. Since uranium is heavier than lead even as a gas, you can imagine this no simple operation. "Some of the amount of 37 tons has been used," he said. "The tests have been successful," Aghazadeh continued, "but these tests have to be continued using the rest of the material." This was an "in-your-face" response to the IAEA demand to suspend all enrichment activities.

On October 6, Hossein Mousavian, Iran’s chief delegate to the IAEA, told the Associated Press in an interview that a few tons of yellow cake had been converted into gas. "We are not in a hurry to do it," he said. "The amount is for an experimental process, not indust-rial production." The US is certain to use Iran’s failure to abide by the IAEA’s edict to push for Security Council referral at the next board meeting.

Radiation Hormesis, Anyone?

An article by Matthew Wald in the September 27 New York Times draws attention to the fact that the Department of Homeland Security is preparing to publish advice to State and local governments on how to react if terrorists set off a "dirty bomb," including how much radiation exposure from such an attack is acceptable for the public: that is, when activity in a contaminated area could return to normal.

"There’s a lot of consternation over what the cleanup levels should be," said Brooke Buddemeier, a DHS radiation specialist who made a presentation to a National Academy of Sciences group in mid-September. The federal government already has guides for use by local officials in case of accidental release of radioactive material from a nuclear power plant. But a "dirty bomb" attack would probably occur in a far more prominent location than a power plant and the need to resume using the site would be higher. When balancing the risk of radiation exposure against the benefit of returning to normal activity, the government safety recommendations will weigh the importance of the contaminated location to economic or political life so that a major port might be reoccupied before a suburban shopping mall.

One reason for drafting advice on radiological bombs now, reports Wald, is to reinforce the idea that a dirty bomb is primarily a psychological weapon that distributes radioactive material in quantities too small to make any measurable difference to health. That is a difficult problem because the effect of small radiation doses has been distorted by opponents of nuclear power who argue that even tiny doses of radiation raise long-term risks of cancer and birth defects and are not worth the benefits of power generation. This is the no-threshold linear hypothesis that was adopted when there was no data available and is still believed by the EPA. But back in 1993, Professor Bernard Cohen compared lung cancer data from 1,729 US counties with the EPA data on average radon levels in the homes in those counties and found that the incidence of lung cancer was highest in the counties with lowest radon levels and the incidence was lowest in the high-radon counties. In other words, a little radiation was good for you. This work can be found in Health Physics Vol. 65, No. 5, pp. 529-531. This and other evidence of the therapeutic value of low radiation exposures is called hormesis.

It is time for the Health Physics Society, led by ASDAites John Auxier, Al Brodsky and Marlow Stangler and aided by Art Robinson and Jane Orient, to use the case for radiation hormesis to halt the use of the no-threshold linear hypothesis to exaggerate the consequences of terrorist threats.

We have been informed that Frank Holt, former civil defense director of San Jose, California, has passed away. Frank was a strong supporter of ASDA and a Life Member.