Dr. Sig Hecker with Chapter Commander LTC Gregg Giesler. Courtesy/MOWW
Former LANL Director Dr. Sig Hecker, a noted authority on nuclear weapons states, spoke at the annual picnic of the Military Order of the World Wars July 16 at the Los Alamos County Sheriff’s Posse Lodge on North Mesa.
Dr. Hecker started by asking for questions. Hearing none, he read from a list of several questions giving short answers to each.
Are the U.S. and Russia in another Cold War? No, but relations between the two are the worst in years.
Will the trade war with China lead to war, possibly nuclear? No, the challenges are economic.
Will North Korea give up its nuclear weapons and program? Not sure.
What about other possible nuclear states? Iran – unclear, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and others – unlikely to develop weapons, India & Pakistan – many weapons.
What about nuclear terrorism? Not in 10 years but surprised there have been no dirty bombs.
Will nuclear power come back? He doesn’t know, but it can be an answer to climate change. Nuclear power must continue to address safety issues and waste handling. Biggest problem today is economics. Chernobyl was the result of terrible decision making and poor reactor design.
Regulators are making nuclear plants too expensive. Two of the three recent plants on the East Coast were cancelled because of construction delays and large cost increases. Meanwhile Russia, China, and South Korea are coming on strong. India needs nuclear power because of its pollution. Nuclear plants need new designs. Companies can’t build plants costing $6B – $10B. Small modular reactors in the 5MW to 150 MW range are being proposed. Also, micro reactors in the 5MW to 10 MW range. Nuclear reactors are good for base loads.
Today, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a great wildlife refuge. The wildlife is thriving. Yet, the accident had traumatic effects on the people. Similarly, is the Rocky Flats Site. Now people are building and moving in up to the site boundaries.
China is building many nuclear reactors. Some have questions about their safety. The Soviets had no independent regulators. The country was very autocratic. China is similar. However, China has brought in many U.S. and French safety experts for inspections and to train their experts. China is using the Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design.
What do his students think is the largest problem today?
Climate change, but they don’t have any easy solutions.
Following these questions and answers, Dr. Hecker opened the floor to more questions.
North Korea’s leader probably doesn’t know himself if he’ll give up the nuclear weapons. Dr. Hecker has been to North Korea seven times. The weapons are used to get attention and for national security especially for the regime. In the 1960’s to 1980’s, North Korea was in a strong recovery especially with help from Russia and the Eastern Block. It was doing better than South Korea which was going through a series of dictators. When South Korea went democratic, its economy skyrocketed. China then went to trade with South Korea. So North Korea looked to the U.S., and President Clinton made a deal to provide nuclear reactors to produce electricity. The North Korean reactors that they promised to give up were good for making plutonium and not as good for providing electricity.
John Bolton, under President George W. Bush said it was the worst deal ever made and killed the deal. Under President Trump, he said the same thing about the deal with Iran and killed it. In Dr. Hecker’s first visit to North Korea, they showed him that they have the bomb and showed him much respect. Dr. Hecker thinks North Korea has 20 to 30 nuclear bombs, and their missiles can’t yet reach the U.S. Their leaders know their people can’t eat nuclear weapons and their country has suffered over the years from drought and starvation. The country is still very poor. South Korea has offered to work with them on economic issues. North Korea still needs convincing that the U.S. is not out to get them. Koreans hate the Chinese and the Japanese. America shouldn’t push North Korea to China but should pull it toward South Korea.
U.S. versus Russia. They have many arms control treaties that are now threatened. John Bolton says don’t give in; U.S. should work unilaterally with America First. START and IMF treaties were a great deal for the U.S. In the 1990’s, Russia didn’t have the horsepower. In 2000, Putin said they got taken, and now Trump is walking away from the treaties. This makes it easy for Russia to violate them. President Obama did get a new START treaty limiting each side to 1550 warheads with monitoring. President Trump and John Bolton are not very interested in renewing this treaty in 2021. Russia needs to be concerned about China. China is people without land, and Russia is land without people. This will push Russia. Russia wants to be a great power again but no longer has the basis.
In the past, nuclear-powered pacemakers were powered by PU-238 from LANL. Pu-238 was used because it has an 87.74-year half life, so it would last longer than the patient. Now the PU-238 is used for batteries in space probes. Back then the regular batteries for pacemakers didn’t last very long. Now they are better.
Fracking has changed the world already. The U.S. is now energy self-sufficient. It will change other countries energy policies as well. Even so, it is still producing CO2. It will take the next thirty years to replace coal and later with other clean sources.
Russia has a different culture especially in relation to its government. It doesn’t have institutions for democracy or capitalism. Prior to Putin, the country was run by oligarchs. Having Russia as a great country was important. The sanctions make Putin able to blame the U.S. for its problems. The government is managing its many natural resources very badly.
What is the possibility that terrorists will get nuclear weapons? It is very hard to build them from scratch. They would have to build a reactor and get the fuel. They could deliver them by van or boat. More importantly, don’t let them get a hold of bomb fuel. It is possible to build a bomb with about 6 kg of plutonium or a few tens of kgs highly enriched uranium (HEU). Terrorists can’t make either but may be able to steal them. The Soviet Union had 14 Mkg of these materials. U.S. is working with Russia to help them adopt modern means of safeguarding the materials.
North Korea has 30-50 kg of Pu and 500-600 kg of HEU and most likely won’t sell them. China needs to improve security of nuclear materials. India and Pakistan are a big problem because they have terrorists in their country.
The forecast for Iran is not a good story. The problem is its leadership, not its people. The Iranian government is making trouble all around the area. The problems include Shia versus Sunni and Saudi Arabia and Israel. Then, superimpose nuclear over it. Iran has the infrastructure to build nuclear bombs but hasn’t decided to do it. In 2013, it was ready to step back. The deal would create more time until breakout. It put the weapons on the back burner. President Obama got the best deal he could with Russia and China in the agreement. However, Iran kept on in missile development.
In the last three to four months, Israel got into Iranian nuclear archives. They got over 50,000 pages of documents plus electronic media. Prime Minister Netanyahu broadcast it on television with the idea of getting President Trump to kill the deal. The archives showed Iran’s nuclear program was in much further advanced. In 1999, Iran decided to build five 10kt bombs. They had a timetable but paused in 2003. The deal moved them away from being able to make the nuclear bomb fuel. But the archives showed they would be prepared to not only build a bomb, but also a nuclear arsenal. By withdrawing from the deal, President Trump turned against our allies who are still working with Iran to save the deal. The U.S. and Iran should be talking.
After Dr. Hecker completed his presentation, the Chapter presented him with a Patrick Henry Silver Award and expressed its appreciation for his distinguished service.