Tag Archives: nuclear submarines

How to Hide Nuclear Bombs in the Ocean: Nuclear Submarines

The INS Arihant’s India’s nuclear submarine inaugural voyage in November 2018 was a triumphal step forward in India’s long, often tortuous quest to deploy atomic weapons at sea…  Hiding missiles in the ocean solves these problems, giving India more confidence that its forces could survive a nuclear attack from China or Pakistan, and hit back.But managing such weapons is not easy. One difficulty is ensuring that a submarine can receive orders without giving away its location. India has been building low-frequency radio stations, which use large antennas to propel signals underwater, for this purpose. Yet these are also vulnerable to attack, which is why some nuclear-armed states use airborne transmitters as well.

A second hitch is that the k-15 missiles aboard the Arihant can only fly a puny 750km, which means that the submarine would have to park itself dangerously close to China’s coastline to have a hope of striking big cities. Longer-range missiles, which could be fired from the safety of Indian waters, are in the works. But bigger missiles, and more of them, necessitate a bigger hull. That, in turn, requires that the nuclear-powered subs be fitted with bigger reactors—a fiendish technical challenge.

A third problem is keeping the Arihant safe. Nuclear submarines can only do their job if they can slip silently out of port and into the oceans. They are typically chaperoned by leaner attack submarines. But admirals complain that the navy, whose share of the defence budget has dwindled to 15%, has just 13 of these. The delivery of new French attack subs has been delayed.

Meanwhile India’s nuclear arsenal is swelling. A recent report by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a research organisation, estimates that it has 130-140 nuclear warheads, with enough fissile material for 60-70 more. The stockpile, though smaller than Pakistan’s and half the size of China’s, has roughly doubled since 2010. Many of the new warheads will go to sea. A second nuclear submarine, the Arighant, is nearing completion, and a third is in the works.

India’s Nuclear Submarines, Economist,  Nov. 17, 2018, at 44

Fixing the Holes of Nuclear Security

The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty…is the most recent upset in a series of escalating tensions between the two superpowers. ..

Today, a new framework is needed to tackle risks posed by nuclear material in transit, to track small quantities of fissile material used in testing equipment, and to address the approximately 150 metric tons of weapons-grade uranium fuel designated for use in naval propulsion.  Nuclear material security in the naval sector represents an increasingly salient issue for all states—particularly as a number of governments announce plans to develop nuclear navies or face pressure to do so. Tony Abbott, a former prime minister of Australia, argues that a nuclear naval program is necessary to address the future security challenges in his country’s part of the world. South Korea has a similarly renewed interest in a nuclear navy. In the Middle East, Iran is purported to be planning a reactor for nuclear propulsion and in South America, Brazil has had an active program to develop nuclear-powered attack submarines for more than a decade. Beyond the planning phase, India recently commissioned its first nuclear submarine, the INS Arihant, using a Russian design…

There are a number of potential institutional configurations for plugging the holes in the nuclear security system. One approach might involve further bolstering the cooperative measures included in the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material—the only legally binding document that outlines government obligations to protect nuclear facilities and nuclear material in transit. Another proposal calls for a so-called Supplemental Protocol within an IAEA-supported and state-sponsored committee process. The benefit of both of these approaches is that their implementation would use the IAEA’s institutional framework (relying on expertise and legal precedence emanating from the existing safeguards regime) rather than starting from scratch. A third approach may involve using the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism as a diplomatic vehicle to pioneer an international materials accountancy system similar to those that national governments use to keep track of their fissile material.

Excerpts from Andrew W. Reddie, Bethany L. Goldblum, Why the security of nuclear materials should be focus of US-Russia nuclear relations, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Nov. 13, 2018

Under-Sea Nuclear Deterrence: China

China for decades has struggled to develop nuclear ballistic-missile submarines . The country finally might be on the cusp of deploying reliable boomers.  An effective Chinese ballistic-missile submarine fleet over the long term could have a stabilizing influence on the world’s nuclear balance. But in the short term, it might heighten tensions. Especially if Beijing lets popular fervor drive its build-up.n n That’s the surprising conclusion of a new report from Tong Zhao. …Beijing began developing boomers as far back as 1958. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the country completed its first boat….A Type 094 apparently conducted China’s first undersea deterrence patrol in 2015. “China has obtained, for the first time, a demonstrably operational underwater nuclear capability. This represents the start of a new era for China’s sea-based nuclear forces.”  As of late 2018 there are four Type 094s in service. Beijing has not publicly released a detailed plan for its SSBN fleet expansion, but the U.S. military expects China to build between five and eight of the vessels, in total, according to Tong and various military reports and statements.

The U.S. military has responded to the China’s new boomers by boosting its own anti-submarine capabilities. “Between Chinese efforts to create a credible sea-based nuclear deterrent and U.S. endeavors to strengthen anti-submarine countermeasures, tensions are brewing under the surface of the South China Sea and the broader Pacific Ocean,” Tong explains.

Exceprts from David Axe China Is Building More Submarines That Carry Nuclear Weapons. And It Could Be a Good Thing, The National Interest, Oct. 27, 2018

Underwater Nuclear Wrecks

Russian scientists have said that radioactive waste sunk in the Arctic by the Soviet Navy has not leaked any contamination….  Data on the scuttled cargoes –– which includes several thousand containers of radioactive waste, as well as an entire nuclear submarine –– come from a month-and-a-half-long expedition in the Kara Sea conducted by the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Oceanology.  Mikhail Flint, the institute’s head, told reporters last week that scientists on the expedition had managed to significantly improve their maps of where the sunken waste lies, especially in the area of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, a former Soviet nuclear bomb testing site.  From Novaya Zemlya’s craggy coast, the expedition conducted additional research mapping radioactive hazards in the White Sea, and then progressed to the Laptev Sea some 2000 nautical miles to the east.

Since the first decades of the 2000s, these mapping and measuring expeditions have taken place on an annual basis. Environmentalists fear the waste could eventually rupture and spoil thousands of square kilometers of fertile Arctic fishing grounds.

Beginning in 1955 and continuing until the early 1990s, the Russian Navy dumped enormous amounts of irradiated debris — and it one case an entire nuclear submarine — into the waters of the Arctic. It was not, however, until 2011 that the Russian government admitted this on an international level.  That year, Moscow shared with Norwegian nuclear officials the full scope of the problem. The list of sunken objects was far more than had initially been thought, and included 17,000 containers of radioactive waste; 19 ships containing radioactive waste; 14 nuclear reactors, including five that still contain spent nuclear fuel; the K-27 nuclear submarine with its two reactors loaded with nuclear fuel, and 735 other pieces of radioactively contaminated heavy machinery.

Exceprts from  Charles Digges ussian officials update maps of radioactive debris sunk in Arctic, Bellona, Oct. 15, 2018.

The Nuclear Supply Chain

The report from the Energy Futures Initiative released on August 15, 2017 by former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz calls for greater federal investment in the US huclear-power industry. The report calls for expanded government loan guarantees, tax incentives and research on nuclear technology.

Nuclear power makes up about 20 percent of U.S. electricity generation, but the industry has been struggling.  Five nuclear plants, with a combined capacity of 5 gigawatts, have closed early since 2013, and an additional six plants are scheduled to shutter early over the next nine years. Of the two new nuclear plants under construction in the U.S., one was halted by Scana Corp. in July 2017 and backers of the other, Southern Co.’s Vogtle plant in Georgia, are seeking additional aid from the federal government.

Westinghouse Electric Co., the nuclear technology pioneer that is part of Toshiba Corp., went bankrupt in March, after it hit delays with its AP1000 reactors at each of those plants. After it declared bankruptcy, Westinghouse — whose technology is used in more than half the world’s nuclear power plants — said it shifted its focus from building reactors to helping dismantle them.

The U.S. needs companies and engineers that can both build and run nuclear enterprises…. The U.S. Navy’s reactors require supplies and qualified engineers, and American nuclear scientists fill vital national security roles, it said.  Companies, such as BWX Technologies Inc. of Lynchburg, Virginia manufacture nuclear components for both the commercial nuclear industry and naval reactors. If the commercial business collapses, that may mean one less company able to process highly enriched uranium, according to the report.

“A shrinking commercial enterprise will have long term spillover effects on the Navy supply chain, including by lessened enthusiasm among American citizens to pursue nuclear technology careers,” according to the report.

In addition to extending a tax credit for new nuclear power and the Energy Department’s loan guarantee program, the report says the federal government could also direct the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to “place a greater emphasis on the national security importance of nuclear power and its associated supply chain.”

Excerpts from Moniz: Nuclear Power’s Woes Imperil US National Security, Bloomberg, Aug. 15, 2017

 

Nuclear Ships Go to Die

A $1.65 billion facility will be built at a nuclear site in eastern Idaho to handle fuel waste from the nation’s fleet of nuclear-powered warships, the Navy and U.S. Department of Energy announced Tuesday.Officials said the new facility is needed to keep nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines deployed.

The new construction will be at the Naval Reactors facility on the Energy Department’s southeastern Idaho site that covers about 890-square-miles of high-desert sagebrush steppe. The area also includes the Idaho National Laboratory, considered the nation’s primary lab for nuclear research.  Officials said site preparation is expected to begin in 2017 with construction of the facility likely to start in 2019, creating 360 on-site jobs. The facility is expected to start operating in late 2024…

Officials say the new facility will operate through at least 2060 and can handle a new type of spent-fuel shipping container, which is not possible at the current facility. The Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier will use the new container when the carrier becomes operational. So will nuclear-powered submarines under construction, officials said.  The facility will have storage spaces to submerge the fuel waste in water so it cools before being transferred into dry storage areas, said Don Dahl, a spokesman for the Naval Reactors facility.

The places where the waste will be submerged will meet seismic standards aimed at preventing them from being affected by earthquakes, unlike existing storage spaces at the site that don’t meet those standards.

The Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program, a joint Navy and Energy Department organization, has been sending spent Navy fuel to the Idaho site since 1957. It’s transported by rail from shipyards. Dahl declined to describe security at Navy site….

Nuclear waste coming into Idaho prompted lawsuits when state leaders in the late 1980s and early 1990s thought the site was becoming a permanent nuclear waste repository. The lawsuits culminated in a 1995 agreement, then a 2008 addendum, limiting such shipments and requiring most nuclear waste to be removed from the federal site by 2035. The deal applies to the Navy’s spent nuclear fuel.  Under the agreement, fuel waste coming to the new facility after 2035 will only remain for the six years it takes to cool in pools. After that, it’s required to be put in dry storage and taken out of Idaho. However, the nation has no repository for spent nuclear fuel at this time, so where it will go is not clear.

US to build $1.6B Idaho facility for warships’ nuclear waste, Associated Press, Dec. 6, 2016

Nuclear-Powered Submarines of India

The INS Arihant, India’s first nuclear-powered submarine armed with ballistic missiles (SSBN, in military jargon)… is a 6,000-tonne boat that will provide India with the third leg of its nuclear “triad”—it already has land- and air-launched nukes….India believes SSBNs are a vital part of its nuclear strategy, which forswears the first use of nuclear weapons….Because they can readily avoid detection, SSBNs can survive a surprise attack and thus ensure India’s ability to launch a retaliatory “second strike”….Some nuclear theorists argue that submarine-based deterrents promote peace by making the other side more frightened to attack first. …

China is ahead of the game. It has a fleet of four second-generation Jin-class SSBNs and is testing JL-2 missiles to install in them. These weapons have a range of 7,400km (4,600 miles)—too short, for now, to reach the American mainland from the relative safety of the South China Sea. Pakistan, for its part, is in the early stages of a lower-cost approach. This involves arming diesel-powered subs with nuclear-armed cruise missiles with a range of 700km.

A more immediate worry to India is Pakistan’s development and deployment of smaller “tactical” nuclear weapons for use on the battlefield. These may make it more likely that any war between India and Pakistan will go nuclear. They also increase the risk of Pakistan’s weapons being used accidentally—or falling into the hands of extremists (such weapons are under the control of lower-level commanders whose professionalism and loyalty may be dubious)….

India says it will not develop battlefield nukes of its own. Instead, it will rely on the threat of massive retaliation against any use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan. Still, it may be another decade before India has a fully-fledged sea-based deterrent. Arihant’s Russian nuclear-power generator is unsuited to long patrols. Initially, the sub is due to be armed with the K-15 missile, with a range of 750km—not enough to reach big cities in northern Pakistan. Striking Chinese ones would be harder still.

Asian Nuclear Weapons: What Lurks Beneathh, Economist, Feb. 6, 2016, at 36