What Would It Take For Turkey To Build A Nuclear Bomb?

That was how David Sanger teased his and William Broad’s article on Twitter.

Unfortunately that is not how the article is written. If you want to read it, write it, they say, so here goes.

In September, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said “Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads,” but the West insists “we can’t have them. This, I cannot accept.”

This is concerning because Turkey is one of the nations that could be capable of building a nuclear weapon and may have taken steps in that direction in the past. Iran’s past work on nuclear weapons and Saudi Arabia’s inordinate interest in acquiring the nuclear fuel cycle could motivate Turkey in that direction again.

But this is one statement, and there is no evidence that Turkey is taking steps toward a nuclear weapon.

Step 1. The decision. The Turkish government would have to decide to withdraw from or violate the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which they joined in 1980. Building nuclear weapons would also damage, and possibly violate, their treaty obligations under NATO. The cost of a nuclear weapons program would have to be considered as well. Turkey probably could support such a program, but at great cost to the rest of Turkey’s economy. No such decision has been taken.

Step 2. Mining and milling uranium. Sanger and Broad refer ominously to Turkey’s uranium deposits as one of the “makings of a bomb program.” But increased activity at mines is easy to see on overhead photos, and none has been reported. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of the open-source intelligence organizations prepare a report in the next few weeks.

Step 3. Building centrifuges and/or a reactor. Turkey may have some of the information necessary; Sanger and Broad note that information from A.Q. Khan may have reached Turkey, although they do not say what or if it is being used to build centrifuges. Russia is building four commercial reactors at Akkuyu on the Mediterranean  coast. Other projects have been proposed but are still on paper.* Russia’s reactor contracts always include taking back the spent nuclear fuel.

Step 4. Fabricating reactor fuel. Sanger and Broad note that Turkey has done some of this at pilot scale.

Step 5. Recovering plutonium. Spent nuclear fuel, if Turkey retained it from the reactors not yet built rather than contractually sending it back to Russia, can be reprocessed to separate plutonium; Sanger and Broad say that Turkey has done some work in this area, but do not specify at what scale. Bench-scale experiments seem most likely.

Step 6. Fabricating enriched uranium or plutonium into a bomb. There is no evidence that Turkey has looked into this, in terms of materials processing or design.

Bottom line: A lot would have to happen before we need to worry about Turkey getting a nuclear bomb. The alternative would be to take the American bombs at the Incirlik Air Base, but once again, the decision to do that seems far from the current position of the Turkish government.

Here’s one of the reports referenced by Sanger and BroadThe author also posted a Twitter thread, saying clearly that there is no reason to believe that Turkey would pursue a nuclear weapon any time soon.

And, if the Times article had followed the plan that Sanger’s tweet teased, it would have had to conclude that too.


*Thanks to Dan Yurman for information on reactor projects. If you want to know more about the business side of nuclear energy, follow him on Twitter and read his blog.


On the Trail of a Fourth Soviet Spy at Los Alamos

Three Soviet spies in the Manhattan Project are well known – Klaus Fuchs, David Greenglass, and Ted Hall. Fuchs and Greenglass were known publicly in the 1950s, but Hall’s story came out only in the 1990s.

Now more documents have been declassified, and Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, who have done much to illuminate Soviet spying during that time, have found a fourth Soviet spy. They have found his path from the United States to East Germany and then Russia in 1952, escaping from possible arrest. Their article in the CIA’s “Studies in Intelligence” lays out what is known about him.

The spy’s name is Oscar Seborer. His story intersects with the FBI’s Project SOLO, in which they turned two members of the Communist Party in the USA. Their communications with Moscow seem to indicate that Seborer furnished information on the atomic bomb project, where he was a technician.

Seborer seems to have operated separately from the other spies, and his reporting seems to have been more to the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) than the civilian KGB. The two intelligence agencies have historically competed.

Klehr and Haynes have uncovered a fair bit of information about Seborer’s family, but not much about what he did at Los Alamos or what information he gave to Moscow. Maybe someone reading this knows something about the Seborer family or, as they called themselves in Russia, the Smiths.


Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner.

There Are 50 American Nuclear Weapons At The Incirlik Air Base

There’s been some discussion on the threads about this, but I figured that a post might be helpful.

The United States has maintained 50 nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey for some time. Since the attempted coup of 2016, when Incirlik was inaccessible for some time, there have been calls to remove those weapons. Having those weapons based so close to Russia is also a sore point in Russian relations. I won’t go into the full back and forth about Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons; just that there is a reasonable argument that these weapons aren’t that useful to the US.

Hans Kristensen, who keeps track of nuclear weapons around the world for the Federation of American Scientists, has summarized what we know about those nuclear weapons and what might be done to remove them.

Today President Trump essentially confirmed that nuclear weapons are stored at Incirlik. It wasn’t a clearcut statement, but how he answered a reporter’s question.

There’s a reasonable caution to that –

Here’s a thread on some of the issues surrounding removing the nukes. Hint: conferring with NATO is required, but lots of things like that are going by the board these days.

Leto linked to the Wikipedia article that describes the vaults in which they are stored (top photo; caption: Weapons Storage and Security System vault in raised position holding a B61 nuclear bomb. ). Turkey would have to get the vaults open and then figure out the permissive action links (which require a code or somesuch to allow the weapon to work) in order to use the weapons. This is not impossible but would take some time.

Questions? Open thread

Nyonoksa/Burevestnik Update

The two barges involved in the August radiation accident in the White Sea are being towed to a radioactive waste storage site on the Kola Peninsula. It is not known whether they hold the reactor responsible for the explosion and short burst of radiation measured in Severodvinsk.

The United States government has concluded that the incident was pretty much as has been speculated, a nuclear accident of some sort as a nuclear-powered missile was being recovered. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas G. DiNanno told a United Nations committee on October 10 that this was the US conclusion, but it was only two sentences.

The United States has determined that the explosion near Nenoksa, Russia, was the result of a nuclear reaction that occurred during the recovery of a Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile. The missile remained on the bed of the White Sea since its failed test early last year, in close proximity to a major population center.

Nothing to indicate what kind of nuclear reaction or how the United States knows this. The news is that they believe the failed test was in early 2018. The nuclear reaction was most likely a criticality incident, but we still don’t know enough about the reactor to speculate much about that. It’s possible that the government has overhead photos of the test or the recovery, perhaps alerted by someone in Russia who knew the schedules.

Background on the story.

Photo: Submarine reactors stored in canisters at the Saida Bay facility, where the barges are being taken. (Thomas Nilsen)


Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner

Evening Open Thread

I got nothing. Or rather, too much to easily put in a post at this time of night.

Here’s a Montezuma sunflower from my yard. They grow to a meter and a half, with multiple blooms on a stem. They’re also perennials, a big plus for me.


There’s a series of articles out in Foreign Policy on the South Atlantic flash of September 22, 1979. Enough material has now been declassified that people are concluding that yes, it was a nuclear test by Israel with the help of South Africa. I may write something on it later, but here’s a Twitter thread I did earlier this evening.