"I actually have a pretty good collection of Arms Control Today, which I have read throughout my career. It's one of the few really serious publications on arms control issues."
– Gary Samore
Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
Terry Atlas

Trump, Kim Make Nuclear Crisis Personal

October 2017
By Terry Atlas and Kelsey Davenport

Tensions between the United States and North Korea moved into dangerous new territory last month, as two inexperienced national leaders engaged in name-calling backed up by threats of nuclear conflict.

It remains unclear whether the tension that has been increasing for months, as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un defied international pressure to halt his nuclear weapons program, will drive a serious effort for negotiations or trigger, intentionally or by accident, military action that could cause tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths on the Korean peninsula and perhaps beyond.

North Koreans in the capital, Pyongyang, on Sept. 22 (local time) watch a report on leader Kim Jong Un’s statement denouncing U.S. President Donald Trump as a “rogue and a gangster” who will “pay dearly” for his threats against their country. (Photo credit: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
Complicating matters is the fact that the two key decision-makers, Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump, are untested in such diplomatic crisis situations and have shown tendencies to provoke further confrontation.

Addressing the UN General Assembly on Sept. 19, Trump belittled Kim as “rocket man” and used the podium of the world’s pre-eminent peacemaking institution to threaten to “totally destroy” North Korea if the United States “is forced to defend itself or its allies.” In doing so, the Los Angeles Times reported, Trump ignored appeals from his national security team not to make the situation more dangerous and the path to negotiations more daunting by insulting the young dictator.

Kim quickly responded in kind and, for the first time, personally issued a statement directed at a U.S. president, saying that Trump barks like a “frightened dog” and is a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard,” which is a senile or weak-minded individual.

In a sign of further defiance, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho was quoted Sept. 21 as telling journalists in New York, where he was attending the UN session, that Kim is considering whether to test a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean, which would be the first atmospheric nuclear test explosion since China conducted one on Oct. 16, 1980.

Ri was likely referring to launching an intercontinental ballistic missile paired with a nuclear warhead into the Pacific Ocean to demonstrate North Korea’s capabilities. That would be a profoundly provocative action, with environmental and health implications from the radioactive fallout, and defy the norm against atmospheric nuclear tests established by the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty.

Trump fired back at Kim using his favored communications weapon, Twitter, writing that “Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who is obviously a madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people, will be tested like never before!” Less provocatively, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Sept. 22 on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that “we will continue our efforts in the diplomatic arena, but all our military options are on the table.”

Yet, any military option comes with significant risks, particularly with South Korea’s capital, Seoul, within range of North Korea artillery just north of the Demilitarized Zone, which may dismiss it as a viable solution.

Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, told The American Prospect in August, “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis subsequently said, without providing any details, that the United States has military options that would not put Seoul at risk.

The Trump administration has paired its threats with additional sanctions targeting North Korea. Trump issued an executive order Sept. 21 that targets banks and companies that continue to do business with North Korea. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that Washington has the tools to “cut off banks from the banking system in the United States.”

“For much too long, North Korea has been allowed to abuse the international financial system to facilitate funding for its nuclear weapons and missile program,” Trump said in announcing the measures.

Significantly, China’s central bank agreed to cooperate and directed financial institutions throughout China to curtail their loans and other business with North Korea and the North Korean government.

In his address to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 23, Ri said it was a “forlorn hope to consider any chance that [North Korea] would be shaken an inch or change its stance due to the harsher sanctions by the hostile forces.” Ri also called out Trump’s “reckless and violent” words and said that, by insulting North Korea, he made the “irreversible mistake of making our rockets’ visit to the entire U.S. mainland inevitable all the more.”

The Trump administration is seeking to use increasing pressure from tightening economic sanctions, influence from China, and the threat of military action to force North Korea to negotiate denuclearization. “It is time for North Korea to realize that the denuclearization is its only acceptable future,” Trump declared in his address to the UN General Assembly.

Tens of thousands of North Koreans participate in a state-organized, anti-U.S. rally in Pyongyang on Sept. 23.  (Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)In recent years, diplomacy has not gained traction. U.S. President Barack Obama tried to use UN Security Council demands and sanctions to increase pressure on North Korea while waiting for Kim Jong Un to take steps toward denuclearization, a policy called “strategic patience.” The Obama administration’s insistence on onerous preconditions and misreading of North Korean signals in favor of talks, however, failed to produce results. (See ACT, March 2015.)

As a result, North Korea’s nuclear program raced ahead to produce additional nuclear material for warheads and increasingly powerful missiles. Now, under the Trump administration, North Korea is able for the first time to reach much of the U.S. mainland with its ballistic missiles, although the accuracy and reliability is questionable.

Since taking office, Trump has redoubled sanctions pressures and demanded China step up and said on Aug. 8 that the North would feel the “fire and fury” of the United States if the regime continued its threats and destabilized the Korean peninsula and East Asia. Kim responded with further missile tests and, on Sept. 3, North Korea claimed a hydrogen bomb test vastly more powerful than previous underground tests.

On the diplomatic front, Trump so far has been dismissive of the freeze-for-freeze proposal favored by China and Russia in which North Korea would suspend nuclear and ballistic missile tests and the United States would suspend more provocative elements of its large-scale joint military exercises with South Korea.

Trump may have narrowed his leverage further with his denunciations of the Iran nuclear deal, indicating that he may walk away from that accord and seek to impose new, tougher restrictions on Iran. That may signal to Kim that any deal, even if it is endorsed by the UN Security Council as the Iran deal is, may not be upheld by the United States, meaning that nuclear weapons are needed for regime security. James Clapper, former U.S. director of national intelligence, has said that he does not foresee a scenario in which North Korea relinquishes its nuclear weapons.

That would mean accepting negotiations focused on achieving some level of nuclear arms control and reduced tensions, coupled with U.S. nuclear deterrence policies. If so, Trump may have a choice between becoming the U.S. president who acquiesced to North Korea as a nuclear weapons power or as the U.S. president who went to war to prevent that outcome. Neither of the two U.S. defense treaty allies with the most at risk, South Korea and Japan, seem politically prepared for a serious military conflict with North Korea. —TERRY ATLAS AND KELSEY DAVENPORT

North Korea’s Sixth Test Its Largest Yet

The Sept. 3 nuclear test explosion at North Korea’s underground Punggye-ri test site produced a magnitude 6.1 seismic event, according to specialists at the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) International Data Centre (IDC) in Vienna.

The analysis was made on the basis of information from 41 primary and 90 auxiliary seismic stations that are part of the CTBTO International Monitoring System (IMS). Signals from the nuclear test were also detected by two hydroacoustic stations and one infrasound station. The IMS consists of 50 primary and 120 auxiliary seismic stations, of which 42 and 107 stations, respectively, are certified.

The IDC detected a second event that occurred 8.5 minutes after the initial blast, at approximately the same location, but two units of magnitude smaller. That event, along with a magnitude 3.4 seismic event detected on Sept. 23, have been assessed by the CTBTO and national authorities to have been caused by geologic disturbances created by the Sept. 3 nuclear test explosion.

At a magnitude of 6.1, the Sept. 3 nuclear test was by far North Korea’s largest. On Sept. 14, the CTBTO published a chart listing the range of body wave magnitudes and estimates of yield, which ranged from 140 to 450 kilotons TNT equivalent. Such a blast would be roughly 10 to 30 times the strength of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, which was about 15 kilotons. The largest previous North Korean nuclear test was in the 20-kiloton range.

Analysts Frank V. Pabian, Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., and Jack Liu estimated the yield of the test was roughly 250 kilotons, according to their analysis published in the blog 38 North.

North Korea claimed the device was a hydrogen bomb designed to be carried by a long-range missile. Whether such a North Korean device could be fitted into a warhead small enough and light enough for such a missile is not clear, according to Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

In a Sept. 7 interview in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Hecker said the explosive power of the Sept. 3 blast “was consistent with a hydrogen bomb—that is, a fusion-based bomb. However, it could also have been a large `boosted’ fission bomb, in which the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium were used to enhance the fission yield.” More testing, Hecker said, would make it possible for North Korea to arm a long-range missile with ahigh-yield warhead.—DARYL G. KIMBALL

Comparison of Seismic Signals From the Six North Korean Nuclear Tests

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization's International Data Centre estimates the seismic wave produced by the Sept. 3 explosive nuclear test was equivalent to a magnitude 6.1 earthquake. The seismic signals (shown to scale) of the six declared North Korean nuclear tests, as observed at the International Monitoring System station AS-59 in Aktyubinsk, Kazakhstan, show the latest explosion produced a much higher yield than the previous five tests


For now, it is a war of words. That could change. 

Turkey Snubs NATO with Russian Arms Deal

A Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile launcher is displayed Aug. 22 at a military conference near Moscow. (Photo credit: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)NATO member Turkey turned to Russia to buy an advanced anti-aircraft missile system, a deal estimated to be worth $2.5 billion that has caused unease among its alliance partners. Turkish newspapers on Sept. 12 quoted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as saying that Ankara has paid a deposit for the Russian S-400 air defense system. The purchase denies a major deal for Western contractors and will put in place a system that is not compatible with NATO air defenses. Russian media presented the deal, which would also provide Turkey with the technology to produce its own advanced air defenses, as a rebuke to Western governments.

The purchase comes at a time of growing strains between Washington and Ankara as Erdogan cracks down on political opponents and the United States sends arms to Kurdish militias in Syria that Turkey considers terrorists. Complicating matters, the deal may run afoul of U.S. sanctions against Russia. Politico reported on Sept. 14 that Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) wrote to President Donald Trump that the deal would trigger mandatory U.S. sanctions against Turkey under legislation signed into law in August.—TERRY ATLAS

Turkey Snubs NATO with Russian Arms Deal

FARC Surrenders Weapons

Colombia’s largest rebel group completed its disarmament on June 27, giving up weapons under last year’s peace agreement ending its half-century guerrilla war. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC, surrendered its remaining weapons to UN monitors. The handover of some 7,000 rebel weapons, as well as identification of FARC weapons caches, was a key element in the agreement ending a war in which 220,000 people were killed. As the peace process moves into its next phases, the United Nations will establish a verification mission to support the reintegration of about 10,000 former FARC fighters and the implementation of security guarantees, UN Special Representative Jean Arnault, head of the UN Mission in Colombia, told the Security Council on June 30.—TERRY ATLAS

FARC Surrenders Weapons

CIA Warns on Indian-Pakistani Tensions

Relations between India and Pakistan may “deteriorate further in 2017” given Islamabad’s “failure to curb support to anti-India militants,” Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 23 in discussing the U.S. intelligence community’s worldwide threat assessment. “Increasing numbers of firefights along the Line of Control, including the use of artillery and mortars, might exacerbate the risk of unintended escalation between these nuclear-armed neighbors,” he said. Easing of tensions, including negotiations to renew official dialogue, “will probably hinge in 2017 on a sharp and sustained reduction of cross-border attacks by terrorist groups based in Pakistan” and progress in Pakistan’s investigation of the January 2016 cross-border attack on India’s Pathankot air base.—TERRY ATLAS

CIA Warns on Indian-Pakistani Tensions


Russia Advances Banned Cruise Missile

March 2017

By Terry Atlas and Maggie Tennis

The U.S.-Russian dispute over compliance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is growing, with a report that Russia has deployed a new ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) banned by the 1987 accord. 

The United States and Russia now are in disputes over alleged violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed in the East Room of the White House on December 8, 1987. (Photo credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)The Russian action, disclosed by unnamed U.S. officials cited in The New York Times on Feb. 14, casts a pall over the future of the landmark Cold War-era agreement by the two countries credited with eliminating an entire category of nuclear weapons. 

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement that the deployment presents “a significant military threat to U.S. forces in Europe and our NATO allies” and requires that the United States “take immediate action to enhance our deterrent posture in Europe and protect our allies.” But no European nation has publicly cited the development as changing the military balance in Europe or requiring military countermeasures that could fuel an arms race in Europe.

The development presents a major challenge for President Donald Trump, who has frequently said he will seek to lower tensions with Russia, which has set out its own complaints that the United States is violating the treaty with some missile defense activities. In response to the new report, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Feb. 15 that Russia remains committed to its international obligations, including those under the INF Treaty, according to the state-owned Russian news agency TASS.

Beyond the immediate implications for the INF Treaty, the new Russian cruise missile deployment comes at a time of nervousness over U.S. security commitments in the aftermath of Russia’s seizure of Crimea, its ongoing intervention in Ukraine, and threats to other borders in Europe. In one sign of allies’ anxieties, a senior Polish political leader last month floated the idea that the European Union develop its own nuclear deterrent, a move he acknowledged is unlikely given the costs and other factors. 

The United States and Russia have been shadowboxing over alleged INF Treaty violations for several years, during which positions on both sides seem to have hardened. In July 2014, after months of press reports, the Obama administration notified Congress of its finding that Russia had been testing a new cruise missile and was “in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty not to possess, produce, or flight-test … [GLCMs] with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.” Russia had called the allegation “groundless,” and a rare meeting of the dispute resolution body known as the Special Verification Commission, called by the United States in November 2016, failed to resolve the issues.

Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for Non-Proliferation and Arms Control, called the prospect of resuming dialogue with the United States on the INF Treaty a “thankless task,” according to an interview with state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, published Feb. 8. Ulyanov said that the Kremlin is waiting to see how the Trump administration will follow up on the Obama administration’s allegations against Russia as well as how it will respond to Russian allegations against the United States. Russia contends that the United States is violating the INF Treaty by placing a missile defense launch system in Europe that also can be used to fire cruise missiles, using targets for missile defense tests with similar characteristics to treaty-prohibited intermediate-range missiles, and making armed drones that are equivalent to GLCMs.

Ulyanov condemned U.S. efforts to expand its missile defense capabilities in Europe and the Pacific. “We believe that the unilateral deployment of such systems without considering other countries’ interests—in the first place, the Russian Federation—is not only unconstructive, but also harmful and dangerous,” he said. 

At the same time, Ulyanov dismissed predictions that the United States and Russia are headed toward an arms race. Russia will use diplomacy or a “military-technical response” to respond to what it perceives as a destabilizing initiative by the United States to build up its global missile defense system, he said. 

What has been a persistent U.S. concern during the alleged development of a new Russian cruise missile has escalated with news of apparent limited deployment. The administration will now have to weigh whether to respond with military capabilities as well as how it will affect the prospects for any possible new nuclear arms control initiatives.

Under the INF Treaty, the two sides eliminated 2,692 short-, medium-, and intermediate-range nuclear-armed missiles by 1991. Those missiles were seen to be particularly destabilizing because, with their very short flight time, they allow a leader only minutes after a possibly false attack warning to decide whether to launch a nuclear second strike. 

Russia has two battalions of the new cruise missile, which U.S. officials called the SSC-X-8 during the development phase, according to the Feb. 14 New York Times article. One of those battalions was shifted to an operational base in December, the newspaper reported, citing U.S. officials.

Russia is waiting to see what develops out of the new administration’s review of U.S. nuclear policy. Ulyanov said that the Russians remain focused on finding common ground with the Trump administration and that Russia and the United States are likely to cooperate regarding the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The Obama administration chose to try quietly to sway the Russians to halt the missile development. With the report of the system’s deployment, it may be more difficult for Trump to do the same, if so inclined.

U.S. officials say Russia has deployed a new missile type prohibited by the INF Treaty.

November 2016 Books of Note

November 2016

Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons
Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer, Cornell University Press, September 2016, 288 pp. 

Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer examines why dictators in Iraq and Libya pursued the development of nuclear weapons and the factors that contributed to the failure of both programs. Braut-Hegghammer argues that Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi weakened state institutions to consolidate power in their respective countries, and as a result, neither leader had the capacity to manage and monitor progress on his nuclear weapons program. The destruction of formal institutions created limitations in auditing and processing the progress made on nuclear weapons programs, making it difficult for the authoritarian leaders to check how the programs were advancing. Drawing on primary source materials and interviews in the region, she concludes that both leaders were inconsistent in paying attention to their nuclear programs and created conditions that hindered technical advancement when they feared military attacks. Libya was even less successful than Iraq because of the extent of the erosion of state institutions during the Gaddafi era. Braut-Hegghammer concludes by discussing the wider implications of her argument that state capacity is an important variable in the performance of nuclear weapons programs in states governed by leader-centric authoritarian regimes. To test her argument, she briefly examines Syria’s illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons and its dependence on foreign assistance to address domestic deficits created by weak state capacity. Overall, Braut-Hegghammer’s findings offer useful insights into how personalist regimes make decisions about nuclear weapons that could have implications for future nonproliferation policies.—KELSEY DAVENPORT

Deterring Nuclear Terrorism
Robert S. Litwak, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, October 2016, 149 pp.

Nuclear terrorism has defied the bad- and worst-case scenarios since the 1990s, even as groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State have aspired to conduct spectacular attacks. Although the threat comes from such nonstate actors, Robert Litwak, director for international security studies at the Wilson Center, writes that nonproliferation and deterrence strategies directed at states remain key because the nuclear weapons and materials that terrorist groups seek to acquire exist in states. “Each pathway to nuclear acquisition by a non-state terrorist group is contingent on an act of commission or negligence by a state,” he writes. The “leakage” of a weapon would come from one of nine states, although the list of states with weapons-grade fissile material is longer, currently 26, he says. He cites three nuclear-weapon states of particular concern: North Korea, Pakistan, and Russia, noting that the issues involving a fourth, Iran, have been mitigated by its recent nuclear accord. Litwak highlights the importance of nonproliferation and deterrence policies on states that, unlike nonstate actors, can be influenced through those means. Given the hurdles to buying or stealing a weapon, nuclear terrorism is “mostly likely to take the form of a so-called dirty bomb,” which uses conventional explosives to disperse radiological materials, he warns. With such an attack “more likely than not” because of the widespread use of radiological isotopes, he recommends that governments educate their publics about how a dirty bomb differs from a nuclear weapon in order to “stave off mass panic” in the event of such an attack.TERRY ATLAS

Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya Failed to Build Nuclear Weapons and Deterring Nuclear Terrorism

Dealing With Russia and North Korea: An Interview With Siegfried Hecker

November 2016

Interviewed by Terry Atlas

Siegfried Hecker, one of the nation’s top nuclear weapons experts, served as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1986 to 1997. He organized U.S.-Russian lab-to-lab cooperation on nuclear weapons safety and security issues at the end of the Cold War era, which is the subject of the recent book he edited, Doomed to Cooperate (2016), about that remarkable period of scientific collaboration. He is an authority on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, having visited that country seven times between 2004 and 2010. Hecker currently is a research professor in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. 

He was interviewed by Arms Control Today Editor-in-Chief Terry Atlas at the Arms Control Association office. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

ACT: What led you to produce Doomed to Cooperate, a history of the cooperation between U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons labs?

Hecker: The idea came from the Russian side. In 2002, on the 10th anniversary of our cooperation, which dates back to 1992 when we had a weapons-lab-directors exchange between the new Russian Federation and the United States, Vladimir Belugin, the former Russian laboratory director at the Institute of Experimental Physics [the Russian Los Alamos] suggested that we capture the history of this cooperation because, in the ‘90s, it was just remarkable. We began to work on it, and then unfortunately, he passed away. So as we were coming closer to the 20th anniversary, I had a discussion with the then-director of the institute. I reminded him that I had intended to write an article with his predecessor. He said, “Oh, there’s much too much for an article. We should write a book.” This was 2010. So that was the origin.

ACT: The lab-to-lab cooperation is quite an unheralded success story, right? 

Hecker: I think so. As the Soviet Union was falling apart, the United States was concerned about four loose-nuclear dangers: loose nukes, the weapons; loose fissile materials, plutonium and highly enriched uranium; loose people, the scientific experts; and loose exports, concerns about illicit nuclear sales. My greatest concern was the security of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials. We quickly began working on these problems with the Russian laboratories. President George H.W. Bush’s primary concern was what he called the “brain drain” problem, namely the fate of the nuclear experts. We worked on all these issues. As we now look back 25 years later, there were no loose nukes, very little nuclear material leakage, essentially no brain drain, and on exports, after a few initial problems in the ‘90s, Russia is a pretty responsible exporter of nuclear technologies today. So it’s remarkable. I think the laboratories, the nuclear scientists, contributed enormously to avoiding a nuclear catastrophe. 

ACT: How is it that Cold War adversaries, particularly the folks in the nuclear complex who were steeped in secrecy and national security, managed to cooperate on these very sensitive issues. Was there a top-down mandate, or was it a bottom-up effort?

Hecker: Absolutely not top down. We were not being told to go do these things in Russia. It was essentially the initiative of the scientists. The primary reason we began to work together is that the nuclear weapons laboratories and institutes were grounded in superb fundamental science. Los Alamos scientists had connections with Soviet scientists during Soviet times, not on nuclear weapons but on fundamental science. What really triggered our ability to work together, however, was the Reagan-Gorbachev Reykjavík summit in October 1986, which led to what was called the “Joint Verification Experiment” [JVE], that is, participating in nuclear tests at each other’s test sites for the purpose of verifying a test ban treaty. At that point, it was actually the Russian nuclear weapons scientists that reached across and said, “Hey look, we want to work together. We have these scientific ideas. We’d like to pursue cooperation.” So, we pushed for cooperation from the bottom up after the governments allowed us to meet for the JVE. The Soviet scientists pushed us. I pushed Washington. Then eventually, because of President George H.W. Bush’s brain drain concern, we were finally allowed to visit each other’s laboratories. When I went to Russia in 1992 with John Nuckolls, then-director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, we toured through their laboratories. What they showed us was remarkable. We looked at these guys, and it was like looking in a mirror.

ACT: Now we fast forward to today, and that kind of cooperation is an increasingly distant memory. What’s the consequence of the current strained relationships in terms of nuclear security issues?

Hecker: I think today the primary problem is isolation. First of all, you can’t do science in isolation, and the Russian scientists know that. So they’re not happy being isolated. However, the [Russian] government and the security services at this point want to restrict access to the Russian nuclear facilities. We had good access for over 20 years, and they also had good access to our facilities. They were in Los Alamos. They were at Lawrence Livermore and at Sandia labs. We knew all along it had to be reciprocal—if we wanted them to accept some of the ways that we do security, we had to show them how we do it in our places. We did that, and now, for the most part, that cooperation is cut off. But quite frankly, part of the cooperation was cut off by the American government. After Crimea and eastern Ukraine, the American government’s approach was, “[I]t can’t be business as usual.” That filtered down to the scientific interactions. Now, interactions between the nuclear scientists on both sides are being held hostage to political differences. 

ACT: You’ve had 20-plus years in which you were able to work on those nuclear safety and security issues. So at this point, is a danger still there? 

Hecker: In terms of loose nukes, first of all, they’ve always had it under quite good control, but they were in a demanding environment. Now they are, let’s say, in as good as shape as we are. As for loose nuclear material, they made enormous improvements by joint cooperation with the United States. They’re in quite good shape as far as that goes. As for the brain drain, there is no real concern. It’s not any worse than for the United States. However, with nuclear safety, nuclear security, you’re never done. So now, the danger is if they go back and they isolate the Russian scientists again, we won’t be there to compare the best practices, compare the lessons learned from each other. That’s the danger.

ACT: There’s now talk about a new arms race as the United States and Russia modernize their systems. 

Hecker: There’s no question, on the Russian side, that they have emphasized the role of nuclear weapons in their security. If you look back at President Vladimir Putin’s statements over the past number of years and as you look at their actions, they are building new nuclear weapons. They are designing new nuclear weapons. Exactly what good that’s going to do them from a deterrence standpoint, quite frankly, is beyond me. I don’t see it as doing much good. On the American side, I know there’s much criticism on the modernization of the American complex. I personally happen to believe our nuclear complex needs to be modernized. We don’t need new weapons, in my opinion, we just need to make sure that we’re actually able to do our job within the nuclear complex. Then we’ll have a deterrent. We don’t need to enter a new arms race.

ACT: What do you make of the latest North Korean nuclear test?

Hecker: By 2010 it became clear that they’re going all out to build a nuclear weapons program and a threatening nuclear arsenal, and that’s what they’re doing. After the latest test, one has to conclude that now they must have the capability to mount those weapons on missiles that can reach Japan and South Korea and then eventually the United States. That’s not what I worry about the most. I worry that when a country builds that sort of capability, it changes the strategic dynamics with its neighbors.

ACT: What’s your best estimate of how many weapons they could have now, and what’s the growth trajectory?

Hecker: It looks like they can produce about one bomb’s worth of plutonium a year and perhaps six per year of highly enriched uranium. They may have the capacity to make approximately six to eight bombs per year. By the end of this year, they have enough material, we believe, for 20 to 25 nuclear weapons.

ACT: What is the implication for proliferation concerns, particularly providing either state or nonstate actors with technology or materials? 

Siegfried Hecker (third from right) with officials and technicians at the plutonium laboratory at the Yongbyon nuclear complex in August 2007. (Photo credit: Siegfried S. Hecker)Hecker: From 2004 to 2007, my greatest concern about North Korea was the possibility of export. At that time, we had reason for concern because the North Koreans were known to have exported uranium hexafluoride to Libya and they had built a plutonium-production reactor in Syria. So it was not beyond them to actually do that. Today, I’m less concerned because, quite frankly, their customer base has sort of dried up, that is, it has fewer potential customers. Now one is concerned about export to [the Islamic State] or [other] terrorists. I don’t believe that North Koreans would sell a nuclear weapon. I don’t think they would sell the plutonium. I am not as concerned today about the proliferation or the export of their technologies, unless they become totally desperate. I’m much more concerned about how it affects their relationships with South Korea and the United States and having an overconfidence in their overall capabilities because they have this nuclear overhang. Also, what if there is real turmoil in the country? When they had a handful of bombs and 30 kilograms of plutonium only, you could see as to how one might be able to take care of that. You’re now talking about 20 bombs and hundreds of kilograms of highly enriched uranium, and you don’t know where it is. That’s what I worry about. I don’t worry anywhere near as much about missiles reaching the U.S. mainland at this time. That’s what all the talk is about right now, and of course, our military has to pay attention to that. But what’s much more dangerous is what’s going to happen in the immediate vicinity.

ACT: What about the administration’s strategy of strategic patience?

Hecker: It’s been a total failure. This isn’t just an Obama failure. There was an enormous failure during the George W. Bush administration. That was, in essence, when we sort of let the cat out of the bag with the altercation in October 2002, accusing [North Korea] of having enriched uranium and then essentially walking away from the Agreed Framework negotiated during the Clinton administration. North Korea then went ahead and proceeded with the first nuclear test [in October 2006]. It didn’t work so well, but that changed everything. When President Barack Obama came in, I think the initial intent was to work with the North Koreans, but they conducted a missile test and then another nuclear test. After that, there was great reluctance by the administration to work with the North Koreans. The policy was dubbed strategic patience, but it was essentially not doing much in diplomacy. During that time then, North Korea went from a handful of bombs to having a nuclear arsenal.

ACT: So your advice for the next president?

Hecker: You have to go back to diplomacy. As difficult as that might be to stomach for the United States, you just have to go back to diplomacy. The United States has been trying to get North Korea to do one big “no”—that is, no nuclear weapons—but that’s just not going to happen right now. So the three “no’s” I have proposed are no more bombs, no better bombs, no exporting. Negotiate that with North Korea, and agree to work with them on their security concerns, energy, and the economy. At least for the time being, don’t let it get worse. Now they’ve got the nuclear arsenal, so it’s going to be much more difficult. You have to roll it back through diplomacy.

ACT: For the first step, a freeze is the best that can be done.

Hecker: Yes. I don’t use the term “freeze,” but “halt.” What’s most important to halt has changed over the years. It was really important to halt nuclear tests five years ago when they only had two under their belt. That was important because there’s no way they could miniaturize a nuclear warhead to put on a missile without additional tests. Now they have conducted these additional nuclear tests. So, halting additional missile launches becomes very important—the solid-fueled missiles, the submarine-launched missiles, and of course, the long-range ones—and no more nuclear tests is still important. You also need to at least halt the production of the fissile materials. Then you work your way diplomatically toward rolling back the nuclear weapons program and eventually eliminating it. 

Hecker discusses his experiences cooperating with his Russian counterparts in the aftermath of the Cold War,  his concerns about the breakdown in relations with Russia, and North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal.

New Price Tag for Los Alamos Cleanup

October 2016

By Terry Atlas

The Energy Department said it will cost $2.9-3.8 billion over the next two decades to clean up hazardous waste at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a legacy of the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

Although the report made public on Sept. 15 said that funding would complete the cleanup at the 40-square-mile site, Nuclear Watch New Mexico said the government is underestimating the cost to deal fully with the lab’s accumulated waste.

Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Waste Disposal Area G is seen from a helicopter June 29, 2011. (Photo credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory)Nuclear Watch, a research and advocacy group, criticized the estimate as being based on what the report calls “realistic expectations of annual funding” and as failing to adequately deal with the lab’s largest waste site. The group said that 150,000 cubic meters of “poorly characterized radioactive and toxic wastes” at the Area G site are to be capped and covered rather than treated and removed. That would create a permanent nuclear waste dump above the regional groundwater aquifer and three miles uphill from the Rio Grande river, the group said in a statement Sept. 21.

The report by the Energy Department’s environmental management office is the most comprehensive view of the cleanup work remaining after 26 years of efforts to deal with the waste at the lab, a hub of nuclear weapons research and development since the Manhattan Project in 1943. 

So far, 1,168 potential release sites have been “investigated and cleaned up where required,” while 955 potential release sites are covered by the new cost estimate, the report said. In contrast to the figure used by Nuclear Watch, the Energy Department said that “an estimated 5,000 cubic meters of legacy waste remains, of which approximately 2,400 [cubic meters] is retrievably stored below ground.”

The Energy Department committed to expediting the cleanup under a June 2016 consent order with the New Mexico Environment Department, which supersedes a 2005 consent order, under which many deadlines were missed. The new accord reflects concerns expressed by state officials and Nuclear Watch that cleanup funding has declined from a high of $225 million in fiscal 2014 to $189 million for the current fiscal year, even as funding for the lab’s nuclear weapons programs has increased.

The Energy Department said it will cost $2.9-3.8 billion over the next two decades to clean up hazardous waste at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a legacy of the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

In Memoriam: Jeremiah D. Sullivan (1938-2016)

September 2016

By Terry Atlas

Professor Jeremiah D. Sullivan, 77, a physicist whose research helped establish the technical basis for banning nuclear weapons testing, died on July 7 at his home in Urbana, Illinois. Until retirement in 2006, Sullivan was the head of the physics department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where, in addition to his physics research, he helped develop the university’s Program in Arms Control & Domestic and International Security.

For more than three decades, Sullivan was a member of JASON, the elite group of academic scientists who meet each summer to advise the U.S. government on often-classified issues related to technology and national security, including nuclear weapons. In 1995 the panel issued a report that provided scientific backing for completely ending nuclear weapons detonation tests as unnecessary to ensure the safety and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons. 

[Photo credit: Department of Physics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]Stanford University Professor (Emeritus) Sidney Drell, a long-time friend who was chairman of the 1995 JASON study group, said that Sullivan made a number of significant contributions over his career, “most notably the case for negotiating a verifiable Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.”

Sullivan served on the board of directors of the Arms Control Association from March 1994 to February 2015. Association Executive Director Daryl Kimball said his “quiet but important and principled work helped to shape policy on nuclear matters in ways that have helped make us all safer.”

Born November 15, 1938, in Norwood, Massachusetts, Sullivan received his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University in 1964, following a B.S. in physics in 1960 from Carnegie Institute of Technology, now Carnegie Mellon University. He spent his postdoctoral years as a research associate in the theoretical physics group at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) before moving to Illinois. In the early years of his career, he made significant contributions to particle physics.

In addition to his work as a member of JASON, he contributed to other studies and reviews that influenced U.S. defense policy. “He contributed to a number of studies with a primary focus on our nuclear weapons program, including its safety and security, as well as its quality,” said Drell. “This enabled the U.S. to enter into arms control negotiations, particularly with the Soviet Union, with confidence.”

In 2000 he received the American Physical Society’s Leo Szilard Lectureship Award, which recognizes outstanding accomplishments in promoting the use of physics for the benefit of society. The award’s citation said, “For leadership in addressing technically complex and often controversial national security issues, such as anti-ballistic missiles, stockpile stewardship, and a comprehensive test ban; and for setting a high standard for applying the rigorous methods of physics to the challenging problems of integrating advanced technology with sound policy in a democratic society.”

Sullivan is survived by his wife of 54 years, Sheila (Bonar) Sullivan; his daughter Maureen E. Sullivan; son Jeremiah J. Sullivan; and granddaughter Lily S. Sullivan. The family plans to hold an event celebrating his life September 24 at the University of Illinois Alumni Center.

Professor Jeremiah D. Sullivan, 77, a physicist whose research helped establish the technical basis for banning nuclear weapons testing, died on July 7 at his home in Urbana, Illinois.

Terry Atlas, Veteran Journalist, Joins Arms Control Association as New Editor-in-Chief



For Immediate Release: August 8, 2016

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 ext. 107; Terry Atlas, editor, Arms Control Today, (202) 463-8270 ext. 108

(Washington, D.C.)—The Arms Control Association today announced the appointment of veteran Washington journalist Terry Atlas as editor of Arms Control Today (ACT), the association’s respected monthly publication.

Atlas, who starts this month, has extensive experience as a reporter and editor covering U.S. foreign policy and national security issues, including arms control negotiations from the Reykjavik summit to the recent Iran nuclear accord.

“I am very pleased that Terry will bring his experience and skills to Arms Control Today, which is widely considered a top publication in its field, and will contribute in other ways as part of the senior staff,” said Executive Director Daryl G. Kimball. “I look forward to seeing ACT continue its role as a vital forum for analysis of weapons-related security issues as it has been since it began in 1974. With the introduction of our new mobile app, the content is now more readily available to anyone interested in arms control topics.”

The Arms Control Association, founded in 1971, is a national nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to prompting public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies. Arms Control Today serves as an authoritative source of news and analysis and as a forum for original ideas in the field of arms control and nonproliferation.

Most recently, Atlas was an editor and senior writer on the national security team at Bloomberg News in Washington, and he traveled with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during the Iran nuclear negotiations. Previously, he was foreign editor at U.S. News and World Report, where he directed and edited the newsweekly’s coverage of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars as well as other international developments. Subsequently as managing editor at U.S. News, he was responsible for news content and was involved with the publication’s print-to-digital transition.

Atlas has reported from more than 100 countries, including from Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, and he covered many arms control negotiations as the Chicago Tribune’s chief diplomatic correspondent before joining U.S. News & World Report. He lives in Arlington, Virginia, with his wife, who is a Fairfax Public Schools teacher. He succeeds Daniel Horner, who has edited ACT since 2009, and nonresident senior fellow Jeff Abramson, who has been interim editor.

Atlas's email address is [email protected].


The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.


The Arms Control Association today announced the appointment of veteran Washington journalist Terry Atlas as editor of Arms Control Today (ACT), the association’s respected monthly publication.

Subject Resources:


Subscribe to RSS - Terry Atlas