The 2020 Commission Report – Review

If you want to know what the next nuclear war will be like, read Jeffrey Lewis’s The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States.

Nuclear weapons have been used only once in war, by the United States against Japan at the end of World War II. Nuclear war was imagined many times, however, through the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. As the two countries’ nuclear arsenals grew, the common understanding became that in a nuclear war, hundreds of multi-megaton nuclear weapons would be exploded, and the direct damage would destroy the countries involved. Most of us would die immediately, more in the aftermath. It looked like the end of civilization.

We don’t know exactly how many nuclear weapons North Korea has, but it’s in the tens, rather than the thousands of the Cold War. That changes the leaders’ calculations. If they face a war in which using those weapons is a serious possibility, they must use them before they are destroyed. So they must be alert to signals from their enemies that an attack might be coming.

Unless the United States responded with nuclear weapons and somehow Russia and China also sent their missiles flying, the result would look more like what Lewis describes than the Cold War imaginings.

The 2020 Commission Report reads not quite convincingly as a government report. It too many emotional words. But the format allows a view into how decisions are likely to be made in such a war.

When people write serious articles in serious journals about deterrence or nuclear war, they assume rational, fully-informed decision-making. After a war starts, emotions come into play. Communications are broken. Erroneous impressions or understandings of what the other side may do have been there all along. Read more

The Moon-Kim Summit

South Korea’s President Moon Jae In met yesterday with North Korea’s President Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. They participated in a parade and discussed the future of the Korean Peninsula.

It’s best to rely on the official English translation of their joint statement, rather than statements for the news media or by third parties. The Korean version is more reliable, but I don’t understand Korean. Here’s the part about North Korea’s nuclear program.

  1. The two sides shared the view that the Korean Peninsula must be turned into a land of peace free from nuclear weapons and nuclear threats, and that substantial progress toward this end must be made in a prompt manner.
  • First, the North will permanently dismantle the Dongchang-ri missile engine test site and launch platform under the observation of experts from relevant countries.
  • The North expressed its willingness to continue to take additional measures, such as the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities in Yeongbyeon, as the United States takes corresponding measures in accordance with the spirit of the June 12 US-DPRK Joint Statement.
  • The two sides agreed to cooperate closely in the process of pursuing complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The bottom line is that much more negotiation that includes the United States is necessary. Specifically,

the North will permanently dismantle the Dongchang-ri missile engine test site and launch platform – This is a positive step, but North Korea has developed mobile launchers for its missiles, including the intercontinental missiles that can reach the United States. Building a new test site would not be difficult.

under the observation of experts from relevant countries – Again, a positive step to include experts. North Korea explicitly excluded experts from observing the tunnel closures at its nuclear test site. But “experts” and “relevant countries” remain undefined. Defining them will require more negotiation.

The North expressed its willingness to continue to take additional measures – Willingness is not action, which is fine as long as we understand that.

as the United States takes corresponding measures – The North has insisted on an action-for-action program in which they take a step, and then the United States takes a step. This is not unusual in building confidence between adversarial nations. So far, the United States has insisted on large measures from the North with no promise of specific action from the United States. Look for statements from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on this subject. If he insists on complete denuclearization or a list of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, things are going nowhere. What constitute “corresponding measures” will require more negotiation.

the permanent dismantlement of the nuclear facilities in Yeongbyeon – North Korea has promised this before. Since it depends on the United States taking “corresponding measures,” it’s unlikely to happen any time soon. The common spelling in the United States is Yongbyon. It’s the obvious central nuclear facility for North Korea. Are there others? We don’t know.

in accordance with the spirit of the June 12 US-DPRK Joint Statement – Donald Trump talks about a handshake and personal understandings. North Korea talks about the Joint Statement. The DPRK is doing what is normally done in diplomacy. Secret personal agreements are no part of it.

The two sides agreed to cooperate closely in the process of pursuing complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula – “Complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” is a standard formula describing an ideal situation in the far future. It’s good to have this kind of long-term goal stated. So far, the United States has taken that phrase to mean unlateral disarmament by North Korea. Again, look for Secretary Pompeo’s statement on this.

Trump’s statements so far have been relatively moderate. Moon is playing a skillful game to try to involve Trump, which will be necessary as talks proceed. Kim is playing a skillful game to keep his nuclear weapons and his power.


Photo credit


Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner.

A Russian Nuclear Cruise Missile?

Back in March, Vladimir Putin unveiled a number of new nuclear weapons. But they’re not operational, and, in my opinion, are unlikely ever to be.

One was the Poiseidon (Status-6) underwater drone, supposedly designed to hit the east coast of the United States with a radioactive tsunami. Oh, and did I say that it’s undetectable?

Another was a cruise missile powered by a nuclear reactor.

Except for the first few seconds, the videos are animations. This does not suggest a high degree of development. Read more

Doctor Atomic

For the first time, the opera Doctor Atomic is being performed at the Santa Fe Opera, just down the road from the events at Los Alamos that it depicts.  I attended the premiere and wrote a review of it for Physics Today, the magazine of the American Institute of Physics.

Open thread.

That Plutonium In San Antonio And Live Stream Putin-Trump Press Conference

A couple of reporters who take their job to be spreading maximum fear about nuclear radiation have found a story in San Antonio, Texas.

Staff from Idaho National Laboratory were picking up cesium and plutonium sources from a laboratory and left them in their rental car overnight. The car was broken into and the sources and other equipment stolen.

That was carelessness and should be looked at in the light of other careless incidents in the DOE system. When I’m traveling, I always bring in anything from the car that looks like it might be worth stealing. Even the stuff that is worth stealing but doesn’t look that way.

But the sources probably contain a few milligrams of cesium and plutonium. I haven’t done the calculations, but it probably would take a couple hundred years to accumulate enough plutonium for a fission bomb and cesium for a “dirty bomb” at that rate.

But the article goes on at length about bombs and such, as these reporters often do. It’s a strategy of fear for clicks, or perhaps these two really are terrified of anything to do with radiation. They also hyperventilate at the thought of terrorists taking the long view and waiting a couple of hundred years to get that TERROR BOMB.



There’s not enough happening today, so here is the live stream of the two-president press conference.

Live-Tweeting The Weather Log For The Trinity Test (1945)


The opera “Dr. Atomic” premieres at the Santa Fe Opera on Saturday, July 14. This will be its first performance so close to Los Alamos.

To commemorate the events of the opera, Nuclear Diner will live-tweet the weather reports for the Trinity test of the first nuclear device to be exploded. The weather reports were significant, because this time of year is monsoon season, and thunderstorms surrounded the test site.

The Twitter account is @NuclearDiner. The live-tweet starts at 12:30 am Mountain Daylight Time July 16. You don’t need to be registered on Twitter to see the tweets, and you can read them later.

The photo is from the Santa Fe Opera’s tweet stream, which contains a great many from their dress rehearsal.

How Long Would It Take To *Cough* End North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program?

Observe how gracefully I avoided the unclear word denuclearization by saying what I mean. Another area of disagreement is in how long it would take to remove North Korea’s nuclear weapons and eliminate or repurpose the facilities that develop and build them. And we don’t know what North Korea thinks about that.

John Bolton estimated that it would take a year. The Institute for Science and International Security estimates 30 months. A study by Siegfried Hecker, Robert Carlin, and Elliot Serbin at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation estimates as long as 15 years.

Why the big differences? Read more