Thirty years ago, I was asked to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on nuclear proliferation. Like many people asked to testify, I was blindsided by the honor of the thing; and when I came to write my testimony, like others before and since, I was limited to a litany of the woes of proliferation. There were no good answers. Now, there are technological possibilities for intruding into a proliferator’s workplace.
I did emphasize to the Senate the difficult moral argument involved: I told the senators that our posture was to ask the world’s lesser countries to trust us because we did not trust them. A ticklish point that–made all the more so by the inevitable appeal of a nuclear arsenal to non-entity countries.
But when it comes to proliferation, the nuclear club has a larger obligation: to keep itself small.
Every new proliferator is a threat to the world, and most likely a threat to itself. The fact is that a primitive nuclear weapon is a danger to its makers as well as to the world at large.
Throughout the Cold War, the United States handed safety technology to the Soviet Union, including failsafe switching and insensitive TNT. Both sides realized that an accidental detonation could lead to a hostile exchange in the confusion. It would have been world annihilation by mistake.
So dangerous were the earliest U.S. nuclear weapons that Fat Man and Little Boy were assembled on their flights to Japan. One has to wonder, and to worry, about the safety of North Korea’s bombs and even of Pakistan’s.
Thirty years ago, there was no answer to proliferation except hand-wringing and sanctions, which historically have not worked. The Iranian sanctions have been broken by Russia, China and many European countries; and the North Korean sanctions have been broken by China, which provides food and fuel to control the flood of refugees from North Korea into China.
So the stealthy technological option becomes imperative.
That possibility involves a secret, anonymous attack on the proliferator that can be confused with an earthquake or with the failure guidance systems of the proliferator’s rockets. These would appear to be design malfunctions not secret attacks. Particularly with North Korea, rocket failure will undermine its fragile sense of worth, and cause the military to think it is very vulnerable.
It is believed that North Korea set out to build a plutonium weapon from plutonium bred in a Russian-supplied research reactor. But North Korea apparently switched from a planned plutonium weapon to a highly enriched uranium weapon. If so, good. It is easier to disrupt uranium enrichment than the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium.
This is also our advantage with Iran. There are many ways to enrich uranium, but three stand out: gaseous diffusion of the kind used by the United States during World War II, gas centrifuges, and the South African nozzle method. All have the same objective: to separate and concentrate uranium 235 from the more plentiful uranium 238.
Gas centrifuge is the most favored. It is what the Iranians are pursuing, and probably what the North Koreans are using. It is efficient, but it requires incredible engineering.
Think of a centrifuge as a great cream churn, except this one spins at 1,500
revolutions per second. One report says that a centrifuge can fail as a result of the imbalance produced by a single fingerprint. In order to stop a proliferator using enriched uranium, you would need either to create a huge vibration that would cause the centrifuges to fly apart or cut the electricity supply.
The electricity option is tempting. It is difficult to conceal a power plant and easier to disrupt its output if it is computer-controlled, as most are. If North Korea’s plants are so primitive that they are not vulnerable through computers, other vulnerabilities need exploiting.
Some commentators have called for war against North Korea and for the Israelis to bomb the Iranian installations. The former would bring all-out war back to the Korean Peninsula and the latter would unite the Arabs with the Iranians, incite war and starve the world of oil.
A better way is to surreptitiously throw science at the miscreants, disrupt the flow of electricity in Iran and the flight of rockets in North Korea.
Thirty years ago, we were babes in the woods about arresting nuclear proliferation. Today, we can look to the countermeasures of stealthy cyber-invasion. No bombs, please. Send in the electrons.