September - October 2006

P.O. Box 190, Mount Holly, Virginia 2252
Volume 36, Number 5, Jerry Strope, Editor

"Itís only a very short time before weíll be seeking sanctions [against Iran] unless they suspend enrichment. There is not a single sign that theyíre prepared to give up the activity."

US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, October 3, 2006

In this Issue
The Mouse That Squeaked
Is Iran Next for Sanctions?
Global Threat Reduction

We mourn the passing of Stanley Martin on October 26, 2006. Stan was the president of ASDAís Carl Miller Chapter, based on the San Francisco Peninsula. Dr. Martin was a distinguished physicist recognized as arguably the most knowledgeable on nuclear attack fire effects.

The Mouse That Squeaked

Itís no secret that your editor has long been dubious about North Koreaís claim to have nuclear bombs or devices. Kim Jong Ilís dictatorship has a history of, shall we say, exaggeration of its accomplishments. Most recently, there was that big splash on the Fourth of July when seven missiles were fired. They all splashed and the long-range one that was to be the star of the show lasted only 42 seconds before splashing. It was not Kimís proudest moment.

Hence, we argued that until North Korea successfully tested its nuke, we would not believe they had one. Even a megalomaniac could understand that bit of caution, so on October 3 the North announced plans for a nuclear bomb test. A statement released by the state-run North Korean news agency declared that "the US extreme threat of a nuclear war and sanctions and pressure compel the country to conduct a nuclear test, an essential process for bolstering nuclear deterrent, as a corresponding measure for defense."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called North Koreaís announcement "a very provocative act." Japanís foreign minister, Taro Aso, called the Northís nuclear test plans "totally unforgivable" and said Japan would react "sternly" if the North conducted a test. Your editor was mystified at this reaction but a chorus of objections to the announced test spread to the UN Security Council. Even the Chinese warned North Korea not to conduct the nuclear test. But activity continued at the test site in the northeast part of the country and on October 7 Kim told Beijing the test would occur in two days. Beijing again warned Kim not to go through with the test but on the morning of October 9 (late night of October 8 in Washington), Kim told Beijing the test was minutes away. The Chinese gave Washington a heads up.

. The US Geological Survey said it detected a tremor of 4.2 magnitude on the Korean peninsula at about 9:36 p.m. on October 8. Other earthquake laboratories reported the same tremor. Almost immediately, the Russian defense minister confirmed that North Korea had conducted a nuclear test with a nuclear yield between 5 kilotons and 15 kilotons. Soon, however, the earthquake labs and UN monitoring stations began reporting estimated yields of less than one kiloton. Over the next several days, the estimates grew more accurate and lower. The lowest published was 0.2 kilotons; that is 200 tons of TNT equivalent.

The smallness of the test blast made it difficult to determine from seismograph data whether the tremor was caused by a nuclear explosion or by conventional explosives. This led to a guessing game in the major media with every proposed explanation except the obvious one verging on the unlikely or impossible. Some argued that maybe the North Koreans had designed a very small-yield device to use less plutonium. That is not impossible but very unlikely. Moreover, recall that the Russian official had mentioned 5 to 15 kilotons. Where did he get that? Not from the seismic data; very likely from the North Koreans. It was their expected yield, no doubt.

Others argued that it wasnít nuclear at all, just a lot of conventional high explosives. But the lowest yield estimate was 0.2 kilotons: 200 tons, not 200 pounds. That is an awful lot of blockbusters. Eventually, sniffer aircraft were able to find some nuclear debris near the test site. Another proposed explanation was that it was just the high explosives wrapped around the plutonium. But the yield was much too high and the sniffer data shot that guess down, too.

What was left was the strong likelihood that the test was a "fizzle." The implosion was off-center and only a small fraction of the core went critical before the whole thing was blown apart. Most of the plutonium ended up on a wall of the explosion cavity. In other words, the test was not successful. In the past several weeks, the experts have focused on this explanation for the smallness of the explosion. According to Dr. Siegfried Hecker, former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, "they tried to test a reasonably sophisticated device, and they had trouble imploding it properly."

The mouse tried to roar but only squeaked. Strangely, the rest of the world reacted as if the mouse had roared. The mainstream media was especially eager to welcome North Korea as a full-fledged member of the nuclear weapons club, even though its only qualification is a failed weapons test. The UN Security Council issued a resolution condemning the test and ordering the North to return to the six-nation negotiations in Beijing. The Security Council then met to consider sanctions against North Korea. Chinaís UN ambassador, Wang Guangya, said that "there has to be some punitive actions, but also I think that these actions have to be appropriate." This was a step beyond what China has been willing to take in the past. The US was pushing stringent sanctions, such as a trade ban on military and luxury items, inspection of all cargo entering and leaving North Korea, and freezing of assets connected with weapons programs. Japan, which held the presidency of the Security Council during October, demanded the toughest sanctions, including an air and naval blockade and a ban on travel abroad by senior officials.

North Korea branded any sanction as "an act of war." Moreover, it refused to rejoin the six-nation talks unless the US removed the financial restrictions it put in place to counter the counterfeiting activities of the North. Kimís government again demanded one-on-one talks with Washington and characteristically threatened in the same message to launch a nuclear-tipped missile if the US didnít resolve the standoff.

UN Ambassador John Bolton characteristically said, "If they want to talk to us, all they have to do is buy a plane ticket to Beijing." The Security Council quickly passed a resolution containing most of the sanctions under discussion: prohibition of commerce with North Korea in luxury goods, heavy weapons, and nuclear materials and technology as well as inspections of its exports and imports. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice immediately took off for Asia to make sure the sanctions were put into force.

Secretary Rice also was concerned by satellite evidence that the North was working on both a second nuclear test and a second test of the Taepodong-2 missile. (The first T-2 had splashed in July.) In Beijing, she found that the Chinese were so angered by Kimís nuclear test, which China had publicly warned against, that it had sent top national-security official Tang Jinxuan to Pyongyang. Tang carried the threat that China would cut off fuel and food supplies if Kim did not cooperate. As a result, diplomatic sources say Kim told Tang that North Korea would not conduct a second nuclear test nor test the missile. Then, in a surprise move, North Korea on October 30 agreed to return to the six-nation talks. The White House cautiously welcomed the turnabout, which the Chinese had brokered. But Secretary Rice said, "No one wants North Korea to continue its nuclear weapons program, particularly after the North Koreans tested a nuclear device." She said the US wanted "concrete steps" toward denuclearizing the Korean peninsula. "It really doesnít make sense again for us just to go back and talk."

Is Iran Next for Sanctions?

There can be no doubt that the mullahs of Iran are watching quite intently the response of key players, especially China and Russia, to the North Korean nuclear test challenge. "This is larger than just North Korea," Mitchell Reiss said in an interview October 9, "The Iranians are watching carefully." Reiss was head of policy and planning in the State Department under Colin Powell. He pointed out that North Koreaís nuclear test challenges China to put some muscle behind its pronouncements that it would be unacceptable for North Korea to have nuclear weapons and Iran was watching whether China would impose a response strong enough to force North Korea back into nuclear nonproliferation negotiations. By monthís end China had done so and this may influence what happens next in the Iran confrontation.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Councilóthe US, Britain, France, Russia and Chinaóalong with Germany on June 1, five months ago, offered Iran a package of incentives if Iran suspended enrichment of uranium and asked for an answer by the end of July. When there was no answer, the Security Council passed a resolution threatening sanctions under Article 41 of Chapter 7 of the UN Charter (the tough chapter that permits the use of force if necessary) and gave Iran another deadline, August 31.

August 31 came and went with no answer but, according to the State Department, Iran began negotiating "seriously" with the Europeans in mid-September and the Bush administration decided to wait a bit longer. At a dinner in New York on September 18, Secretary of State Rice and her five counterparts agreed that the first week in October would be the absolutely final deadline for Iran to say yes or no.

Well, we know what happened the first week in October: North Korea announced plans to test its bomb and then did it. The Iran confrontation was put aside temporarily. Thus, it was October 24 when the US and its allies began negotiating a draft resolution on Iran. Proposed sanctions include a ban on selling missile and nuclear technology to Iran, ending of most UN help for its nuclear programs, and travel restrictions on Iranian officials involved in developing missiles or nuclear systems.

A Security Council resolution passed after North Koreaís test explosion imposed similar sanctions on that nation. In that instance, harsher sanctions were avoided at the insistence of China. In this instance, diplomats describe the proposed sanctions as moderate in impact, saying it is an attempt to win Russian and Chinese approval. As permanent members of the Security Council both have veto power.

Iran insists it wonít halt uranium enrichment under any circumstances and further negotiations are contingent on at least a temporary suspension of the effort. Near the end of October, it was reported that Iran had expanded the effort by starting a second cascade of centrifuges.


Global Threat Reduction

Back in August, 90 pounds of highly enriched uranium (HEU) were moved in a covert operation from a research facility in Poland to a secure storage facility in Russia. "We are in a race against time in preventing terrorists from getting their hands on this kind of material," said Bryan Wilkes of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA.) "There is more to be done and our people are working around the world to help secure this material."

Nuclear specialists from NNSA, the IAEA, and the Polish and Russian governments took part in the operation. The material was taken to a Polish airfield, where it was loaded on a Russian AN-12 cargo plane and taken to a secure facility in Russia where the HEU will be blended down to SEU (slightly enriched uranium) suitable to be used as nuclear power plant fuel. It was the largest amount of HEU removed under the Global Threat Reduction Initiative. The Cold War is really over!

Since the next issue will be in your hands in January, accept my best wishes for the Holiday Season and the coming year.