Lisbeth Gronlund

About the author: Dr. Gronlund received her PhD in physics from Cornell University in 1989. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the MIT Defense and Arms Control Studies Program and an SSRC-MacArthur Foundation Fellow in International Peace and Security at the Center for International Security Studies at the University of Maryland. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society (APS), and was a recipient of the APS Joseph A. Burton Forum Award in 2001. She has been at UCS since 1992. Areas of expertise: U.S. nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons policy, nuclear terrorism and international fissile material control, ballistic missile defense. Lisbeth also blogs on the Equation.

U.S. Plays Word Games in Statement about Alert Level of Nuclear Weapons

On Tuesday, the U.S. delegation to the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York issued a statement on the alert level of U.S. nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, the statement is disingenuous and misleading, and relies on word games to obfuscate the real issues. It inappropriately seeks to dispel NPT delegates’ concerns about the U.S. practice of keeping nuclear missiles ready to be launched within minutes, giving the president the option of launching these missiles based on warning of an incoming attack. Read More

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Penny Wise & Pound Foolish: Cuts to Basic Science at the Weapons Labs

The U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories have a program that allows their scientists and other researchers to conduct independent research and development (R&D) on subjects unrelated to the primary missions of the labs. This program—the Laboratory-Directed Research and Development (LDRD) Program—allows the labs to set aside up to 8% of their budgets each year for such R&D. Grants are awarded competitively, and funded by overhead charged by each laboratory to both its DOE and non-DOE sponsors. Read More

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UCS Report on the Future of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex

complex report coverToday we released our report Making Smart Security Choices, which takes a broad look at the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and assesses what is going well and what needs improving, what there is too much and too little of, and how to make its work consistent with the U.S. commitment to further reducing its arsenal.

In part, the report looks at current plans for building new facilities and argues for cancelling or postponing some of them. Read More

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New U.S. Nuclear Weapons Guidance: Not Bold Enough

President Obama gave a speech in Berlin today that included a paragraph about nuclear weapons: Read More

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Time to Reduce Nuclear Dangers

Dick Garwin and I recently wrote an op-ed making the case that it’s time for the United States to take steps to reduce the dangers posed by large nuclear arsenals. We argue that President Obama should reduce the total U.S. arsenal—short-range and long-range, deployed and stored—to 1,000 weapons and eliminate the U.S. policy of launch-on-warning.

The op-ed has been published in a number of papers, including here.


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State of the Union Gives Short Shrift to U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy


After speculation that he would do more, President Obama ended up saying very little about U.S. nuclear weapons in his State of the Union speech: Read More

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UCS-AAAS Workshop on Nuclear Stockpile Management

Last November, UCS convened a day-long workshop on the future of DOE’s nuclear stockpile management program, in collaboration with the Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Hudson Institute Center for Political-Military Analysis.

We pulled together a group of twenty people with relevant backgrounds, including active and retired scientists and engineers from Los Alamos Lab, Lawrence Livermore Lab, and Y-12; representatives from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), DOD, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy; independent scientists who are members of the JASON panel that advises the government on nuclear weapons and other security issues; and experts from nongovernmental organizations and elsewhere.

The summary of the meeting is available here.

As one might expect from a group of this sort, there was agreement on some things and disagreement on others. Most notably, participants agreed that the Stockpile Stewardship Program, which the U.S. established after instituting its 1992 moratorium on nuclear explosive testing, has been a resounding success. We know far more now about the stockpile than we ever did while doing full-scale tests.

One interesting disagreement was about the wisdom and utility of modifying the core of the weapons—the so-called “physics package”—to add safety and security features (which guard against accidental detonation and unauthorized use, respectively). Some believed that making such modifications could compromise confidence in warhead reliability and others argued confidence could be maintained by making modifications based on previous designs and using computer simulations. The W76 life extension program (LEP) did not include modifications to the physics package, and neither will the B61 LEP. However, this is an open possibility for all future LEPs.

On a very sobering note, some believed that the current security threat posed by terrorist attackers (including insiders) was already too great to wait for the many decades it would take to modify the warheads themselves. Instead, they argued the U.S. needs to take steps now to improve security, and that it should consider the entire weapons system rather than just the warhead.

For example, it might make sense to employ additional security measures during transportation by DOE or while the weapons are under DOD control, or to make changes to the delivery systems. A piece of good news: last year the House required NNSA to conduct a study “to investigate the feasibility and costs of enhancing the safety of transporting nuclear weapons where possible.” The report, which will be classified, was due on June 1.

Of course, one wonders why the NNSA had to be prompted by Congress to do a study like this in the first place.

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US Nuclear Power Safety — One Year After Fukushima

Yesterday UCS released its report U.S. Nuclear Power Safety One Year After Fukushima, written by Dave Lochbaum and Ed Lyman. It assesses how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and US nuclear industry are responding to the nuclear accident that occurred in Japan on March 11 of last year.

The report points out that this is not an academic exercise since the designs of the Fukushima reactors are similar to many US reactors, and US reactors are also vulnerable to natural disasters or a terrorist attack. The Japanese accident exposed several safety shortcomings that could also affect US reactors.

To its credit, soon after the accident, the NRC set up a task force to review the accident and identify measures to reduce vulnerabilities at US reactors. The task force presented 12 recommendations in July 2011.

Its first recommendation was to clarify the current patchwork of regulatory requirements governing “beyond-design-basis” accidents—that is, accidents more severe than the reactor is designed to withstand. Currently, the NRC regulations governing such accidents are fragmented and uneven—there are some NRC requirements that apply to some types of beyond-design-basis events, but not others. The task force considered this the most important recommendation because it provides a necessary foundation for its other 11.

The NRC later placed all but the first recommendation into three categories of priority:

  • Tier 1 items, which are expected to be handled largely by means of orders issued to plant owners before the first anniversary of the accident, although the plants would not have to fully implement the changes for nearly five years;
  • Tier 2 items, to be addressed through rulemaking within five years of the accident; and
  • Tier 3 items, to be dealt with through means and a schedule to be outlined by September 2012.

However, the NRC decided to move the task force’s top recommendation to the bottom of its priority list—below even Tier 3. Dave and Ed note that this decision “will likely only add more patches to the existing patchwork” and make it harder to implement the other recommendations consistently across all U.S. reactors.

The nuclear industry is responding to Fukushima by proposing the Diverse and Flexible Coping Capability program, or FLEX, under which plant owners are beginning to buy new emergency equipment, ostensibly to better respond to severe natural disasters. Plant owners are dispersing it in numerous locations on and near reactor sites, but are not planning to harden it against natural disasters. The industry is banking on there being enough equipment available so that at least some of it would be usable in the event of an emergency.

But since there are no NRC guidelines yet for what equipment is needed or how it should be protected, this may not ultimately be an effective response if there is an emergency. This may be a case of the industry tail wagging the NRC dog—hopefully the NRC will not be deterred from requiring hardened equipment if that is what its analysis shows is needed to provide adequate protection.

UCS released its own recommendations for improving reactor safety and protecting the public last July. Three of them—enlargement of emergency evacuation zones, expansion of potassium iodide distribution, and accelerated transfer of spent fuel from pools to dry casks—were later chosen by the NRC staff for further evaluation. However, the NRC placed these recommendations into the Tier 3 category, deferring action for an as-yet-unspecified period of time.

Dave and Ed also have an op-ed on

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CMRR-NF: Delay Makes Sense

On Monday, when the Obama administration releases its FY13 budget request, it will announce a delay in the construction of a proposed new facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)—the so-called Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF). As we discuss in a new UCS working paper, we think a delay is good.There are three possible reasons to build the CMRR-NF:

1. To allow an increase in pit production capacity. Pits are produced at LANL’s Plutonium Facility-4 (PF-4), which currently can produce 10 to 20 pits annually. But that rate could be increased to 50 annually without building the CMRR-NF. Building the CMRR-NF would allow PF-4 to up production to 50 to 80 pits a year by moving some of the work now done in PF-4 into the CMRR-NF.

2. To provide replacement laboratory space for activities now undertaken elsewhere.

3. To provide additional storage space for plutonium and other nuclear materials.

Our paper shows that the only plausible need to increase pit production capacity above the current level of 10-20 annually is to support a life extension program (LEP) for the W78 and W88 warheads—if they use new pits. However, even in this case, an annual production capacity of 40-45 pits would be adequate, and this could be accomplished without building CMRR-NF. If the United States reduced its arsenal below 3,500 weapons over the next few decades, an even lower annual production capacity would be required.

In any event, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) hasn’t yet made a decision to use new pits for the W78 and W88 LEPs, and the studies and engineering phase for the W78 will not be complete until FY21. Thus, there is as yet no identified need for an increase in pit production capacity beyond even the 10 to 20 pits per year. (There would also be concerns about such a “mix and match” approach to maintaining the stockpile. Such an ambitious LEP will face not only steep technical challenges but deep skepticism from Congress.)

The CMRR-NF would provide additional laboratory and storage space for handling plutonium and other radioactive materials, but there are other, likely less expensive, approaches. Delaying construction will allow these other options to be assessed. Given today’s budget climate, that makes sense.

It’s important to keep in mind that plans for the CMRR-NF were made long before the New START agreement was negotiated and Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review was completed. And, following a lengthy Pentagon-led review of options, the President will soon make decisions about the size, structure and mission of U.S. nuclear forces, which will likely result in a smaller U.S. arsenal. Thus, delaying construction of the CMRR-NF will also provide time for the administration to take these nuclear weapons policy changes into account.

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Congress, the NRC, and Nuclear Power Safety

The now-public accusations and recriminations between members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and its chair are a sideshow that obscures the real—and longstanding—problem with the NRC. Simply put, it has not been doing its job when it comes to making sure U.S. nuclear power is as safe as it should—and can—be. This problem existed long before Mr. Jaczko was NRC chair, and Congress should not be sidetracked into thinking he is the source of the problem and his removal will be the solution.

Congress will be holding two hearings this week with the five NRC commissioners, one before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday and the other before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Thursday. These hearings should focus on the safety issues facing the U.S. reactor fleet rather than on NRC’s internal squabbling.

For example, Congress should make sure the NRC moves expeditiously to reduce the vulnerabilities of reactors to catastrophic natural events, and to require reactor owners to improve their plans and equipment to cope with station blackouts, where no AC power is available for plant cooling. The NRC shouldn’t allow five years to pass before post-Fukushima reforms are enacted.

Congress should also be asking questions about the four dozen reactors that are not in compliance with fire safety regulations. Because a fire would threaten back-up safety systems, the risk of fire comprises fifty percent of the risk of a reactor meltdown—as much as all other potential causes combined.

It should also be pushing the NRC to require reactor owners to take common sense steps to improve the safety of spent fuel storage. Today spent fuel is stored in overfilled pools at reactor sites, which increases both the risk and potential consequences of an accident. Reactor owners should instead transfer spent fuel to safer dry casks after a period of five years, when they are cool enough to do so.

Members of Congress should also use these hearings to push for strengthened emergency planning requirements. Current evacuation and mitigation plans cover only the area within ten miles of the reactor—which in many cases may not adequate. For example, in Japan, high contamination levels were recorded well beyond 10 miles from the Fukushima plant. The NRC should require reactor owners to develop emergency plans for a larger area, based on a scientific assessment of the populations at risk for each reactor site.

Categories: Nuclear Power Safety  


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