Summer Quarterly 2018 (Updated June 21, 2018)
By Kelly Lundeen
Extreme fluctuations in relations between North Korea and the rest of the world in recent months have kept war hawks and peace doves at the edge of their seats. At one moment the United States and North Korea were lobbing nuclear threats at one another, sounding closer than ever in recent history to a potential military conflict. In the next moment, North and South Korea were signing a “Peace Declaration” to denuclearize the Korean peninsula at an unprecedented meeting in the Demilitarized Zone. A historic summit between the presidents of North Korea and the United States was announced, then cancelled by Mr. Trump, and, then went ahead. Finally the Singapore Summit brought a sigh of cautious relief with many hopeful signs that relations will continue in the direction of peace. The new approaches to these relations are in line with the agendas of changing leadership of the three countries and understanding those help explain the unfolding news.
What’s in it for the US?
As North Korea is now a nuclear weapons state, the official US government position was to demand “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea.” Skeptics of the motives behind US leadership allege that the summit was planned to fail; that is, the US projects an image of working toward reconciliation while never having disavowed bellicose intentions. A week after the Summit, those fears have yet to be affirmed.
Throwing a curveball into the decades-long US policy of military threats, diplomatic hostility, and harsh trade sanctions, is the US “dealmaker” seeking to fulfill his need for celebrity, and desires for economic expansion into new territories and cutting military costs related to defense of other nations.
“President Trump should win the Nobel Peace Prize,” suggested South Korean President Moon Jae-in. This absurd prospect may have strategically furthered the continued opening of diplomatic relations with North Korea. The tension between those supporting long-standing US policy and others embracing Trump’s chaotic treatment of North Korean President Kim Jong-un (calling him a “madman” one month and “honorable” the next) has led to roller coaster relations.
The North Korean Deterrent
North Koreans have a justified fear that the US is looking for regime change. Both John Bolton, the recently appointed National Security Advisor, and Vice President Mike Pence have promoted the “Libyan model” in relation to the North. In Libya, relief from sanctions was offered in exchange for international oversight as the country relinquished its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Despite Libya’s disarmament, it was bombarded by the US and NATO allies in 2011, and Col. Muammar Gaddafi was publicly assassinated by US-supported militias. Additionally, the North views the regular joint military exercises by the US and South Korea as rehearsals for invasion and regime change. On June 17 Trump announced a halt to the exercises which he even referred as “war games.” The North has long offered denuclearization in exchange for a halt to the exercises and a non-aggression pact.
Again in May, a statement from the South Korean president’s office said: “The North showed willingness on denuclearization…. If military threats to North Korea decrease and regime safety is guaranteed, the North showed that it has no reason to retain nukes.” And now, that was agreed to in the peace agreement in Singapore. North Korea agreed to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” while the United States “committed to provide security guarantees” to North Korea.
What Does North Korea Want?
In 2017 there was a New Year’s announcement that the North was close to completing its nuclear program, and at the end of the year the government declared that mission accomplished. Tim Shorrock, who writes for the Korea Center for Investigative Journalism and The Nation, who was raised in South Korea and Japan, remarked about the nuclear weapons program that, Kim “does have the weapons, though [the] interesting thing about his program last year was that they stopped short of actually getting a weapon onto a missile that can enter the atmosphere and hit a target. So, they do not have a nuclear-armed ICBM that can hit the United States at this time. They may be two or three years away from that.”
High on the North Korean priority list are a peace treaty, a non-aggression pact, an end to the military drills, but also energy and food to ameliorate chronic malnourishment. “The policy of the North Koreans has been something called the Byungjin Line and it has been a dual track. One has been the pursuit of its nuclear and missile program,” said Christine Ahn, of Women Cross DMZ. “The other track has been improving the economy of North Korea, and that is so critical to understanding what is the incentive also for North Korea to be willing to give up its nuclear weapons, because they want so much to advance their economy,” she said.
Prospects and Progress
Whatever may happen between the United States and North Korea, there are high expectations for realization of parts of the Declaration of Peace between South and North Korea. That is what drove the South Korean grassroots movement that led the candlelight revolution when, according to Ahn, “almost for half a year where one in three South Koreans, 16 million people took to the streets to call for the impeachment of [President] Park Geun-hye” and in turn elected Moon Jae-in. Within two months of being elected Moon Jae-in reached out to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to meet. On Jan 1, 2018 Kim accepted the offer, followed by a slew of diplomatic moves fostering new levels of trust and common ground among the US, South Korea and North Korea. On April 27 the two Korean leaders met in Panmunjeom. Kim Jong-un was the first North Korean leader to ever set foot inside South Korea.
Some of the points in the Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace can be pursued independently between the Koreas. In the Declaration Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un pledged “there will be no more war on the Korean Peninsula and thus a new era of peace has begun.” In the brief document they agreed to three points to improve relations between the Koreas, alleviate military tension and establish a peace regime, determining the future of the “Korean nation on their own accord.”
Some of the specific points of the Declaration have begun to be fulfilled. The week after it was signed, South Korea ended their loudspeaker broadcast into North Korea. South Korean police even prevented activists from unloading a truck with 5,000 anti-North Korean leaflets. North Korea shifted its clocks by 30 minutes to be in sync with South Korea. A direct telephone link between the two leaders has been set up.
Other gestures indicating openness to reconciliation have been made. In addition to freezing nuclear weapons testing, North Korea has unilaterally destroyed its underground nuclear testing facility, and on May 9 released three United States prisoners. In the Singapore Summit North Korea also committed to returning remains of US veterans of the Korean War.
Even the United States has made concessions. According to the New York Times on May 3, Trump ordered the Pentagon to find ways to reduce the number of troops in South Korea. Later in May Trump abandoned further sanctions that he had been seeking.
The South Korean movement that nonviolently overthrew Park Geun-hye lit the fire for peace in Korea. The momentum for peace has been built and shot down over and over. Today it is moving in a direction that lets the doves be optimistic about one thing for the first time in a long time, even if for a brief moment.
—Sources: “Joint Statement of President Donald J. Trump of the United States of America and Chairman Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at the Singapore Summit”, June 12, 2018; Wall Street Journal, May 28; Agence France Presse, May 6; New York Times, May 3; The Intercept, May 2; Democracy Now!, April 30; “Panmunjeom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula,” April 27, 2018
Summer Quarterly 2018
By John LaForge
Last February, the Genoa La Crosse Boiling Water Reactor, on the Mississippi River near Genoa, Wisconsin, was found to be leaking radioactive tritium into the groundwater.
The La Crosse Tribune reported March 14 that the firm LaCrosseSolutions, Inc. reported a reading of 24,200 picocuries-per-liter* in water taken from a monitoring well on Feb. 1. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows tritium in drinking water up to 20,000 picocuries-per-liter. This allowable contamination is ten times higher than what the European Union allows.
The tritium in the groundwater from La Crosse’s reactor is a danger to everyone drinking it, but the Tribune reported that the monitoring well water is “not used for human consumption.” This assurance did not come as a relief to people in the area using well water that’s not been tested. Tritium stays in the environment for 123 years, about ten of its radioactive “half-lives” of 12.3 years. This time scale gives the it a lot of time to move through the water and enter the food chain. As an emitter of beta particle radiation it isn’t a great danger outside the body, but can do damage inside the body if inhaled or ingested.
The EPA estimates that seven out of 200,000 people who drink water with 20,000 picocuries-per-liter of tritium for decades would develop cancer. However, because tumors or other cancers may not appear for decades, victims or their survivors are generally unable to be compensated.
LaCrosseSolutions is working an $85 million contract to deconstruct or “decommission” the long-shuttered and partly dismembered La Crosse boiling water reactor. The small unit was shut down in 1987, 31 years ago, after operating for 20 years. Yet it’s still poisoning the environment with radioactive leaks. Unlike other heavy industries, nuclear power’s machinery can keep on poisoning its surroundings even three decades after its profitable public service has ended.
Operating reactors release tritium from vent stacks in the form of tritiated water vapor. This can produce radioactive rainfall, “which can contaminate surface water bodies as well as groundwater,” according to Annie and Arjun Makhijani, of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. But since the La Crosse reactor has ceased operations, the tritium is no long released into the air but now its legacy is poisoned ground, contaminated and corroded pipes and duct work, and tritium leaking into the ground.
Dairyland Power Co-op, which operated the reactor from 1967 to 1987, but transferred its license to LaCrosseSolutions in 2016, isn’t alone in its contamination of groundwater. In June 2011, part two of the Associated Press’s comprehensive four-part investigation of US nuclear power, found that tritium leaks were underway at 48 of 64 US reactor sites, three-quarters of all the country’s commercial reactor operations, “often into groundwater from corroded, buried piping.”
LaCrosseSolutions’s Dirty Clean-up
In addition to the poisoning of groundwater with leaking tritium, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced on March 26 that LaCrosseSolutions had spilled 400 gallons of radioactively contaminated water directly into the Mississippi River in February 2017.
The NRC determined that the spill of waste water containing the deadly isotope cesium-137 was a violation of federal regulations—one of three low-level violations identified in its annual inspection of decommissioning being done by LacrosseSolutions—and that the cesium-137 in water samples was at concentrations exceeding federal limits. The NRC did not issue a citation but found LaCrosseSolutions had violated NRC policy.
* A picocurie is one/trillionth of a curie, or 2.2 atomic disintegration per minute. A curie is a very large amount of radioactivity, about 2.2 trillion atomic disintegrations per minute, or 37 billion disintegrations per second.
Summer Quarterly 2018
By John LaForge
Joke: Did you hear the one about the Exxon Valdez-Fukushima-Chernobyl-Gulf-Oil-Titanic? Yeah: Russia towed a floating double reactor barge 3,000 miles in the Arctic Ocean to power off-shore oil rigs and nothing went wrong!
Announced with sarcastic headlines around the world, Russian engineers launched a giant ocean-going nuclear power barge, carrying two reactors, on a lengthy voyage over the Arctic Ocean from Russia’s far northwest to its far northeastern reaches.
Sailing from St. Petersburg April 28, the one-of-a kind Akademik Lomonosov presents such an obvious and appalling risk to sea life and seacoasts that even Newsweek magazine said in an April 30th headline, “Russia’s ‘Nuclear Titanic’ Raising Fears of ‘Chernobyl On Ice.’”
The barge has no propulsion of its own and must be tugged and towed for a year-long journey of over 3,000 miles. Its manufacturer, the Russian corporation Rosatom, said at the send-off celebration that it has built in “a great margin of safety” that is “invincible for tsunamis and natural disaster.” Chortles of “Titanic!” couldn’t be resisted since it’s been reported that when White Star Line Vice President P.A.S. Franklin was informed that Titanic was in trouble, he announced “We place absolute confidence in the Titanic. We believe the boat is unsinkable.”
The teetering, 12-story-tall Akademik Lomonosov has travelled through the Baltic Sea and the North Sea—having so far avoided collisions with icebergs, shoals, or oil tankers—and docked May 17 at the far-northernwestern city of Murmansk, where planners intend to load its two reactors with uranium fuel and conduct startup tests. The government initially intended to load and test the reactors in downtown St. Petersburg, a city of 5.3 million. But Greenpeace activists and others successfully petitioned to have the dangerous operation done far away from the metropolis. The fueling and startup will still be done close to Murmansk, a city of 300,000 in Russia’s far northwest. Greenpeace reported: “Only a petition by 12,000 St. Petersburg citizens, questions in the city’s legislative assembly, and major concerns from Baltic Sea countries about transporting two reactors filled with irradiated fuel, without its own propulsion, along their rocky coasts, caused Rosatom to use some common sense and shift loading plans to a less densely populated area.
If the fission reactor tests go as planned, the barge is to be towed some 3,000 miles through the Arctic Ocean to the far northeastern Siberian city of Pevek and go online sometime in 2019.
In what could be called a Faustian Rube Goldberg scheme, the “floating Chernobyl” is supposed to provide electric power to oil drilling platforms. The breath-taking self-destructive carbon footprint of this fossil fuel-consuming, pollution-spewing sea monster can hardly be exaggerated. The mining, milling, processing and reactor fissioning of uranium, the production of radioactive wastes that need managed isolation for a million years, all done to drill for oil which is then transformed into pollution, cannot be smarter or cheaper than conservation and efficiency that cost next to nothing and are pollution-free.
As a public relations cover, the Nuclear Titanic will also provide electricity to the city of Pevek (pop. 100,000) and to a desalination plant, replacing four small reactors called the “Bilibino” complex, which is set for decommissioning beginning in 2021.
Undersea earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricane winds and rogue waves are dangerous, unpredictable and inevitable, but they are natural disasters. Placing hot, bobbing vulnerable nuclear reactors directly into a pristine wilderness like the Arctic Ocean in the face of such enormous risks is not just tempting fate, but constitutes reckless endangerment of the public commons. The Bellona Foundation in Oslo warned, using more diplomatic and understated terms, that “far-flung locations present hurdles to proper disaster response in the event of an accident.”
Most governments with nuclear stationary reactor operations understand them to be uniquely dangerous. Ordinary reactors stand alone among all the world’s potentially disastrous industrial operations in being required to have evacuation plans before powering up. But how to evacuate the oceans?
Summer Quarterly 2018
By Peter Maurer, ICRC
The International Committee of the Red Cross appeals to all States, global leaders and citizens to act on the increasing risk of the use of nuclear weapons. Whether used in a specific region or among major powers, the use of nuclear weapons would cause a catastrophic and irreparable humanitarian disaster.
If a nuclear conflict happened today, there is no international plan or capacity to respond adequately to even a limited use of nuclear weapons. Therefore, the only sound course of action is prevention. We appeal for urgent efforts to ensure that nuclear weapons are never again used.
Avoiding a global nuclear catastrophe requires urgent action by all the world’s governments:
- States possessing nuclear weapons and their allies must urgently take measures to reduce and eventually eliminate the risk of nuclear weapon use. All other members of the international community have a stake in ensuring they do so;
- States Parties to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) must use the 2020 Review Conference, and its April 2018 Preparatory Committee in Geneva, to change course, away from threats of use and modernization of nuclear arsenals and towards full implementation of commitments they made in 2010 and previously to nuclear arms reductions, risk reduction and other effective nuclear disarmament measures; and
- States should take the necessary steps to adhere to the 1972 NPT, the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and other nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation treaties to which they are not yet party and fully implement their provisions.
The ICRC makes this Appeal against the backdrop of a world in which the risk of use of nuclear weapons seems to be increasing. With previous restraints steadily falling away, and threats of use of nuclear weapons entering mainstream politics, we see a shift from a focus on non-use and elimination to making the use of nuclear weapons possible or more likely:
- With military incidents involving nuclear States and their allies occurring with disturbing frequency, the danger of use of nuclear weapons may be greater today than during the cold war.
- The UN Secretary General recently warned the Security Council that “The cold war is back… but with a difference. The mechanisms and the safeguards to manage the risks of escalation that existed in the past no longer seem to be present.”
- States possessing nuclear weapons have plans for adapting nuclear weapons in ways that will make them able to be used in a wider variety of contexts. In parallel, their command and control systems have become more vulnerable to cyber-attacks.
To be clear, the ICRC understands that all States and, in particular those engaged in conflicts in volatile areas of the world, face complex security challenges, including risks to their security and that of their allies. Regional conflicts are now intertwined with global rivalries. A multitude of protracted conflicts continue with no political solutions in sight. Yet the introduction of nuclear weapons and threats of their use only renders such conflicts more dangerous and increases the risk of a global conflagration in which much of humanity will suffer irreparably. Indeed, in some cases, the existence of nuclear weapons and the “security” benefits attributed to them are root causes of the tensions themselves.
We also recognize that in the last two decades, significant steps have been taken to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons from Cold War levels. Yet reductions alone do not reduce the risk of their use in light of the facts and dangers mentioned above. Concerted steps towards reducing nuclear risks are therefore urgently needed. Nuclear weapon States and those allied to them bear particular responsibility. Such measures are well known and include:
- Unequivocal commitments never to use nuclear weapons first [only China, India and North Korea have done so];
- Removal of nuclear weapons from “hair trigger” alert status;
- Pre-notification of military exercises that may involve the launch of missiles or other vehicles associated with nuclear weapons;
- Re-establishment of joint early-warning centers to clarify in real-time unexpected and potentially destabilizing events; and
- Steps to progressively reduce the role of nuclear weapons in security policies.
This Appeal is rooted in what the ICRC knows through its own experience in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 73 years ago and that of Japanese Red Cross hospitals which, even today, continue to provide treatment for many thousands of survivors of the US atomic bombings. From this experience, and from what has been learned through engagement with environmental experts, the United Nations and other organizations, it is clear that:
- The catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons use cannot be limited in time and space, and that more victims will die in the months and years following their use than at the moment of the blast through radiation poisoning, cancers and other diseases;
- There is still today no international capacity or plan for humanitarian assistance to respond adequately to the use of nuclear weapons; and
- Even the use of just a hundred nuclear weapons, which represents a fraction of existing arsenals, against urban targets could lead to [mass smoke from vast firestorms causing] a cooling of global temperatures, shortening of growing seasons, food shortages in large parts of the world, and the deaths of over a billion people.
This Appeal by the ICRC also reflects the urgent concerns of the entire International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, including 191 National Societies and millions of volunteers around the world. Just last November, the Movement expressed its deep alarm at the increasing risk that nuclear weapons may be used and stressed “that any risk of use of nuclear weapons is unacceptable given their catastrophic consequences.” Together we adopted an ambitious four-year Action Plan to ensure nuclear weapons are never again used and are eliminated.
Three years ago in my statement on nuclear weapons to the Geneva diplomatic corps ahead of the 2015 Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, I concluded: “We know now more than ever before that the risks are too high, the dangers too real. It is time for States, and all those in a position to influence them, to act with urgency and determination to bring the era of nuclear weapons to an end.”
Too often, the international community has been unable to prevent foreseeable crises. This time it is imperative that we prevent impending nuclear catastrophe. Seldom has collective action to reduce nuclear weapon risks and move towards their elimination been more urgent. —April 23, 2018