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Letters to the Editor
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Anti-Missile Testing Has Been Successful

Rick Lehner

Contrary to the views expressed by George N. Lewis and Theodore A. Postol (“A Flawed and Dangerous Missile Defense Plan,” May 2010), every Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) intercept test since 2002 which the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) reported as successful indeed was successful. In each test, the target was destroyed by the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense/SM-3 system due to the extreme kinetic energy resulting from the “hit-to-kill” intercept. In each instance, the mission objective of hit-to-kill of the unitary or separating target was achieved. The authors apparently based their assessment on unclassified, publicly released photos gleaned from a sensor mounted aboard the SM-3 and postulated what they perceived to be the interceptor’s impact point, although they had no access to classified telemetry data showing the complete destruction of the target missiles, or subsequent sensor views of the intercept that were not publicly released so as not to reveal to potential adversaries exactly where the target missile was struck.

Viewing unclassified video from all the SM-3 tests aptly demonstrates the violence of this collision; the video can be seen at www.mda.mil/news/gallery_aegis.html. Contrary to the author’s endnotes, these videos have always been on the MDALink Web site and were not removed.

The authors cited only tests involving unitary targets and chose not to cite the five successful intercepts in six attempts against separating targets, which, because of their increased speed and small size, pose a much more challenging target for the SM-3 than a much larger unitary target missile. They also did not mention the fact that the system is successfully intercepting targets much smaller than probable threat missiles on a routine basis and has attained test scores that many other Department of Defense programs aspire to attain.

The first three Aegis tests (FM-2, FM-3, FM-4), conducted in 2002, used prototype interceptors. The objective for each of these early tests was simply to determine if a ballistic missile target could be destroyed by a new interceptor, the SM-3, fired and guided by a ship at sea using hit-to-kill technology. Because they were the first tests using prototype interceptors complex, expensive mock warheads were not used in the tests. Specific lethality capability was not a test objective; the objective was to hit the target missile. Contrary to the assertions of the authors, all three tests resulted in successful target hits, with the unitary ballistic missile target destroyed. This provided empirical evidence that ballistic missile intercepts could in fact be accomplished at sea using interceptors launched from ships equipped with the Aegis system. (There was also a fourth test, in July 2009, in which the target did not have a warhead because lethality was not an objective.)

After successful completion of these early developmental tests, the test program progressed from just “hitting the target” to one of determining lethality and proving the operationally configured Aegis SM-3 Block I and SM-3 Block 1A system. These tests were the MDA’s most comprehensive and realistic test series, resulting in the Operational Test and Evaluation Force’s October 2008 Evaluation Report stating that the Aegis Block 04 3.6 system was operationally effective and suitable for transition to the Navy.

Since 2002, a total of 19 SM-3 missiles have been fired in 16 different test events resulting in 16 intercepts against threat-representative full-size and more challenging subscale unitary and full-size targets with separating warheads.  (In two of the tests, two interceptors were launched against two targets. In the first of those tests, the two SM-3 missiles destroyed both targets; in the second test, the SM-3s had one hit and one miss. In two tests, a single interceptor missed its target. There was also one test in which the SM-3 did not launch. In all the other SM-3 tests, a single interceptor was fired and hit its target. Further details are in the MDA fact sheet, “Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense Testing,” which also includes information on one satellite and three SM-2 launches.)

From 1991 through 2010, the MDA has conducted 66 full-scale hit-to-kill lethality sled tests and 138 subscale hit-to-kill light-gas-gun tests covering all MDA interceptor types against nuclear, unitary chemical, chemical submunitions, biological bomblets, and high-explosive submunition threats. Eighteen of these tests were specifically devoted to the current SM-3 kinetic warhead system. This extensive database of lethality testing has conclusively demonstrated that the MDA’s weapon systems are highly lethal against ballistic missile threats when they engage within their accuracy and velocity specifications. 

Rick Lehner is director of public affairs for the Department of Defense’s Missile Defense Agency. 


George N. Lewis and Theodore A. Postol Respond: 

We were pleased to see the letter to Arms Control Today from the Pentagon. It completely confirms that the Pentagon has no credible response to our article.

Essentially all expert analysis, including that of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), concludes that the kill vehicle must directly hit the warhead for the defense to reliably stop the warhead from continuing to the ground and exploding. However, the consistent failures to hit the warhead eight to nine times out of 10, and the misrepresentation of the tests as successful intercepts, is hardly the primary problem revealed by the MDA’s own data.

The overwhelmingly larger problem confirmed by the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) data is that both the SM-3 and the ground-based midcourse ballistic missile defense (GMD) kill vehicles have not demonstrated that either system will ever be able to reliably find the warhead.

We went to great lengths in our article to show and explain why the SM-3 and GMD kill vehicles will never be able to reliably find aimpoints when a warhead is attached to a rocket body or upper rocket stage. We also showed how this fundamental inability translated into an inability to select warheads when they are separated from the rocket body and surrounded by credible decoys. None of the tests of the SM-3 or GMD systems have demonstrated that a separated warhead can be reliably identified among credible decoys. If the warhead cannot be reliably identified, it can never be reliably intercepted.

The SM-3 experimental data therefore show that, in combat, both the SM-3 and GMD kill vehicles will never be able to select warheads except by chance. Even when warheads are selected, appendages could easily be attached to warheads and decoys that would make them indistinguishable to the kill vehicle. The appendages would also make it impossible to reliably find aimpoints even when warheads have been selected by pure chance. The only conclusion that can follow from the Pentagon’s test data, and the science behind it, is that the SM-3 and GMD systems are not, and will never be, “proven and reliable.”

South Korea’s Need For Pyroprocessing 

Hee-Seog Kwon

Having read Frank von Hippel’s recent article on South Korea’s nuclear program (“South Korean Reprocessing: An Unnecessary Threat to the Nonproliferation Regime,” March 2010), as well as the earlier article he co-authored on a similar subject (“Reprocessing Revisited: The International Dimensions of the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership,” April 2008), I sense that the complex situation facing South Korea and its rapidly expanding nuclear power program may not be fully appreciated in the United States.

Importing nearly 100 percent of its energy sources, South Korea has relied on the cheap electricity produced by nuclear reactors for its rapid socioeconomic development. Since the first nuclear power plant came online in 1978, the country has significantly expanded its nuclear generating capacity to be the world’s sixth-largest nuclear power generator, with 20 reactors in operation and eight more under construction.

 At the end of 2009, South Korea’s reactors had discharged a lifetime total of 10,761 metric tons of spent fuel, with 700 tons being generated annually. The material has been stored at South Korea’s four reactor sites. From 2016, spent fuel storage pools will be saturated one by one; if the pools were filled, the reactors would have to be shut down for safety reasons. The possibilities for enlarging storage capacity by reracking have been exhausted. Although not yet fully explored, the option of a permanent geological repository is unlikely to be available in South Korea, which is roughly the size of Indiana (36,420 square miles). For these reasons, it seems inevitable that South Korea will build additional interim dry-cask storage capacity by 2016 or so. However, local populations can be expected to mount considerable opposition to building more interim dry casks at the reactor sites. To be successful, the government should offer the host community a credible strategy and timetable for the longer-term management of the spent fuel so that the community could be convinced that it is accepting the spent fuel only for a temporary period.

To cope with the ever-increasing spent fuel problem, since 1997, the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) has been developing pyroprocessing technology, which will substantially reduce the volume, heat, and radiotoxicity of spent fuel. The final products of pyroprocessing will be burned, or transmuted, in the next-generation fast-neutron reactors that KAERI has been developing since 1992. This technology will greatly reduce the disposal burden for nuclear power states and, at the same time, provide a new energy source.

Nonproliferation advocates have rightly discouraged “reprocessing.” However, the term should be applied specifically to PUREX (plutonium-uranium extraction) technology, which is used today in France, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom. Now, the advocates tend to equate pyroprocessing with PUREX.

I do not support PUREX technology and its minor variants, such as UREX+ and COEX. Those technologies raise serious proliferation and terrorism concerns, and they have minimal benefits for nuclear waste disposal. However, pyroprocessing is essentially a spent fuel treatment and conditioning process with enhanced proliferation resistance; it produces as the final product the inseparable transuranic elements—a mixture of neptunium, plutonium, americium, and curium. The technology is indeed proliferation resistant since curium in the final product emits spontaneous neutrons continuously to neutralize the fissile plutonium-239. The product is still thermally and radioactively far too hot; producing suitable bomb material would require further purification of the product, which in turn would need a separate PUREX facility. At the same time, the entire process of the pyroprocessing development will remain under robust International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.

The current plan is to build an engineering-scale, mockup facility by 2016 to verify its technical and economic viability. A demonstration pyroprocessing plant with the capacity of handling 100 metric tons of heavy metal per year would be constructed by 2028. The associated development of the engineering-scale, sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactor is to be completed by 2030. The first module of a commercial pyroprocessing facility would be built subsequently.

Given the proliferation concern inherent in spent fuel treatment, Seoul should actively consider the facility’s multilateralization. In a multilateral pyroprocessing facility, the technology would be carefully guarded in black-box mode by the host country or countries, and other participating states would utilize the facility to solve their spent fuel problem. The pyroprocessing facility could be co-located at one of the reactor sites in South Korea’s southern region. By offering the first-ever multilateral facility, South Korea would make a landmark contribution to strengthening global nonproliferation principles and norms. 

To ensure the needed steady technological progress in pyroprocessing development, Korean scientists should have the opportunity to analyze spent fuel in the laboratory. The 1974 U.S.-South Korean nuclear cooperation agreement stipulates that the United States holds prior consent rights over the reprocessing or alteration in form and content of all U.S.-origin nuclear material in South Korea. The Korean nuclear community believes that these terms make the two countries jointly responsible for resolving South Korea’s growing spent fuel dilemma. As crucial security allies and indispensable partners in nonproliferation and peaceful nuclear use, South Korea and the United States should lead a candid and constructive dialogue in a mutually beneficial and complementary manner to reach an early agreement.  

Hee-Seog Kwon is a visiting fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He is a former director for nonproliferation and disarmament affairs at the South Korean Foreign Ministry. 


Arms Controllers Need To Accept Nuclear Power

Alex DeVolpi

Sadly, some arms control analysts continue to take an ostrich’s head-in-the-sand approach to nuclear energy and materials management.

Nuclear reactors are not going away; nuclear energy is expanding. Those pretending otherwise are not contributing to solutions for proliferation and oversized arsenals. We need realistic institutional mechanisms to manage the growth of nuclear power, especially with increased recognition of a shortfall in fossil energy reserves and the environmental costs of extraction and burning carbonaceous fuels.

The April 2010 Arms Control Today reflects some wayward policies. Leonard Spector (“The Coming Glut of Japanese Spent Fuel”)—citing and amplifying upon Frank von Hippel’s academic analysis of South Korean reprocessing plans (“South Korean Reprocessing: An Unnecessary Threat to the Nonproliferation Regime,” March 2010)—expresses concern over “spent” nuclear fuel accumulating in Japan. However, one reason Japan, the United States, and some other countries have a glut of unprocessed reactor fuel is that anti-nuclear-power activists, such as von Hippel, have raised immaterial, specious objections to reprocessing.

France, Russia, and some other nations are moving ahead with reprocessing in order to extract residual energy and reduce the possibility that incompletely consumed fuel would contribute to terrorism. Fast-spectrum nuclear reactors offer still another hundredfold recovery of already-mined resources. There is no looming shortage of usable nuclear energy.

The failure of the United States to complete the YuccaMountain repository could actually be a blessing if spent fuel were to be reprocessed and its residual energy salvaged.

I wonder if ACT readers are aware that half the nuclear electricity produced in the United States is derived from fissile materials used or once destined for weapons. Burning fissile materials in civilian nuclear reactors is the most straightforward, practical, effective, and profitable way of irreversibly ridding ourselves of nuclear arsenals. Already-embedded value can be extracted to produce eco-friendly energy by using safeguarded nuclear recycling facilities.

The arms control community should be focusing on institutional mechanisms for managing the ongoing expansion of nuclear energy. Rather than conceding Rüdiger Lüdeking’s dismal nonproliferation forecast (in the April ACT), international safeguards need to be reinforced and enhanced so countries can reduce the risk of nuclear materials falling into illegal channels, while expanding beneficial uses of nuclear energy and vastly reducing nuclear weaponry.

Incidentally, hyping “global zero” for nuclear weapons diverts attention from organized steps required to manage, reduce, and demilitarize existing inventories of indispensable ingredients, i.e., weapons-grade fissile materials.

Also in the April ACT, Li Hong, representing a nongovernmental organization in China, reminds us that “nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy” are three equal “pillars” of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, mutually complementary and inseparable. News articles in the same issue address Iran’s forthcoming power reactor operation, Israel’s “strong interest” in nuclear energy, and Pakistan’s desire for a civilian nuclear trade agreement. All this speaks for official U.S. acceptance of energy supply realities and opportunities.

Those of us sharing arms control goals should support practical and thoughtful measures to manage nuclear materials. 

 Alex DeVolpi, a nuclear physicist and arms control analyst, retired in 1999 after 41 years at Argonne National Laboratory. He is author of the trilogy Nuclear Insights: The Cold War Legacy.


Frank N. von Hippel Responds:

Alex DeVolpi and Hee-Seog Kwon dream of fast-neutron reactors cooled by molten sodium that could either breed more plutonium then they burn (DeVolpi) or burn more plutonium than they breed (Kwon). For me, the issue is the proliferation implications of promoting the separation and recycling of plutonium. Commercialization of fast-neutron reactors also faces another challenge, however. Several industrialized countries have collectively spent $100 billion on research, development, and demonstration projects and found sodium-cooled reactors to be much more costly and unreliable than current-generation water-cooled reactors.

Nevertheless, the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute has managed to push the issue of reprocessing to the top of the U.S.-South Korean diplomatic agenda on the premise that someday South Korea will be able to commercialize fast-neutron reactors. This is an old story. In the 1970s, fast-neutron-reactor advocates also convinced the governments of France, India, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom to reprocess spent fuel to obtain start-up plutonium for breeder reactors that never came.

Kwon says that pyroprocessing is proliferation resistant. My own view is captured nicely in the U.S. national laboratory review quoted in my article. It found “only a modest improvement in reducing proliferation risk over existing PUREX technologies and these modest improvements apply primarily for non-state actors.”

Kwon argues that reprocessing would give communities confidence that interim on-site storage of spent fuel is only temporary because a reprocessing plant would provide a destination to which the spent fuel could be shipped. But the reprocessing plant then becomes the interim storage facility. The United Kingdom has learned how costly this can be after its reprocessing company went bankrupt, leaving behind a $100 billion cleanup challenge.

Although Kwon argues that South Korea is not big enough to accommodate a deep-underground spent fuel repository, reprocessing does not eliminate the need for a radioactive-waste repository. In any case, the surface area required by a spent fuel repository is very small. The estimated surface area required for Finland’s repository is 0.2 square kilometers, less than 10 percent of the area covered by one of South Korea’s nuclear power plant sites. The area underlain by the underground disposal tunnels required to hold the 100,000 tons of spent fuel projected to be discharged by South Korea’s reactors by 2100 might translate into five such repositories, each underlying an area the size of New York City’s Central Park. But there is not much demand for real estate 500 meters down. Indeed, much of the area could be located under the seabed offshore.

South Korea might also want to consider borehole disposal, which could, in theory, accommodate all of its current spent fuel inventory in 10 holes, each measuring just 45 centimeters in diameter and five kilometers in depth.


Posted: June 4, 2010