Month: March 2009

The Washington Post’s distorted take on Yucca Mountain

The Washington Post’s distorted take on Yucca Mountain

Newspapers maintain a distinction between news stories, which are supposed to be balanced and factually accurate, and editorial pages, which afford more license for point of view and factual cherry-picking. But there is still a line between responsible and irresponsible editorials. Wherever that line is, a recent Washington Post editorial on Yucca Mountain in Nevada is on the wrong side of it.

Is the Energy Department ready to reboot the country?

Is the Energy Department ready to reboot the country?

The Energy Department figures prominently in the recently enacted $789 billion economic stimulus package meant to help the ailing U.S. economy. Specifically, Congress has provided Energy with $38.3 billion for the next two years adding about 75 percent to Energy’s annual budgets. It has also increased the agency’s authority to grant or guarantee $132 billion in energy loans from the federal government. Energy’s “modest” goals, as laid out in its recent strategic plan for the stimulus package: “Create millions of new green jobs and lay the foundation for the future” of the country.

Examining North Korea’s satellite launch vehicle

Examining North Korea’s satellite launch vehicle

North Korea’s announcement that it will attempt to launch a satellite into orbit in early April begs the obvious questions of what launcher it will use and what capability that launcher could give if used as a ballistic missile. The easy answer is that no one in the West knows.
But we can examine North Korea’s past missile efforts and the path that other countries such as China have taken to develop satellite launchers and ballistic missiles to understand the range of possibilities for the upcoming launch.1

Biotechnology’s crossroads

Biotechnology’s crossroads

Starting in the early part of this millennium, scientists and analysts forecast that advances in biotechnology and the rush to develop biodefenses were likely to lead to the development of a range of new biological weapons that defenses wouldn’t be able to keep up with. Nearly 10 years later, the likelihood of these trends has not diminished, yet it is not too late to discourage the hostile exploitation of biotechnology.

Thirty years after TMI: Five continuing vulnerabilities

Thirty years after TMI: Five continuing vulnerabilities

To its credit, in the 30 years since the accident at Three Mile Island, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has taken many steps to improve the safety and security of U.S. nuclear reactors. But despite these efforts and the fact that a Three Mile Island-scale accident hasn’t occurred in the United States since 1979, safety and security vulnerabilities remain at the country’s nuclear plants. And what is more relevant than the absence of large-scale accidents is the alarming frequency of serious near misses.

Behind the scenes of Three Mile Island

Behind the scenes of Three Mile Island

Shortly after I arrived at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, March 28, 1979, I got a call from the commission’s emergency center in Bethesda, Maryland. The number two reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania had declared a general emergency. There weren’t supposed to be serious accidents at nuclear power plants and having to deal with one led to some, let us say, out-of-the-ordinary, and even absurd, behavior.

Documenting Three Mile Island

Documenting Three Mile Island

When the Three Mile Island accident occurred on Wednesday, March 28, 1979, I was an interested but distant observer. I had been informally offered a job as the associate historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) but was still waiting for the final paperwork to be processed. I read all that I could about the accident in newspapers and magazines to try to understand, with mixed success at best, what had happened on the morning of the accident and the five days of tense uncertainty that followed.

Congress and President Obama’s national security agenda

Congress and President Obama’s national security agenda

A key bellwether vote in the new Congress came on February 13 when only three Senate Republicans broke ranks from their party and voted with Democrats for President Barack Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill.
If support from three Senate Republicans seems sparse, try comparing it to the House of Representatives, where not a single Republican voted in favor of the stimulus. This opening salvo was followed by subsequent unified Republican opposition to an expansion of health care for children, an employment discrimination measure, and a housing foreclosure bill.

Obama’s first budget test

Obama’s first budget test

During his campaign, President Barack Obama promised to end funding national security programs, including the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, through emergency budget requests. He was especially critical of supplemental requests for programs and activities unrelated to Iraq or Afghanistan or that clearly belonged in the regular defense and foreign affairs budgets.

The world’s debt to Bikini

The world’s debt to Bikini

Bikini Atoll, a small necklace of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is a miraculous place. Unfortunately, the only people who can truly understand how beautiful it is are those who have been there. In January, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Bikini Atoll local government submitted an 83-page application to UNESCO to make Bikini a world heritage site. The application seeks to ensure that humanity will remember for all time the devastation unleashed by the most powerful weapons ever produced and the sacrifice of the Bikinians who once lived there.

Supporting science at the nuclear weapons labs

Supporting science at the nuclear weapons labs

During the 1970s and 1980s, the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons budget allowed for a healthy amount of high-risk, long-term basic research to be conducted at the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories. Much of this research grew out of, but diverged from, the labs’ core weapons-related capabilities. Importantly, the wide-ranging capabilities at these laboratories allowed other national security agencies to tap into that expertise on an “as needed” basis without making the long-term investments necessary to build and sustain it.

Grassroot efforts to impede bioterrorism

Grassroot efforts to impede bioterrorism

Governments trying to prevent the misuse of biological research face considerable challenges. The technologies needed to create biological weapons are freely available at academic laboratories and biotech companies around the world, and researchers are constantly trading information through a complex web of open science networks and markets. Trying to identify, much less monitor or control these activities seems hopeless. How then should society keep biological information and technologies out of the hands of terrorists?