Fukushima Daiichi disaster proved nuclear reactors are a potential Pandora’s Box for proliferation

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Concerns over nuclear weapons proliferation has re-emphasized the need for swift and accurate detection of nuclear tests conducted anywhere in the world.

Most nuclear weapons states publicly declare their nuclear status by way of nuclear tests, which can be conducted above ground, above the atmosphere, or underwater, but most recent tests have been underground detonations in order to align with the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 achieved by the Kennedy Administration.  Between 1945 and 1996, over 2000 nuclear tests were carried out worldwide.

Nuclear Test Ban Treaties in the United States

1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT)
1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT)
1976 Peaceful Nuclear Explosions Treaty (PNET)
1992 US Nuclear Test Moratorium
1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT)

The 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) bans all nuclear explosions everywhere, including underground, but has as of yet to become a law.  44 specific nuclear technology holder countries must sign and ratify before the CTBT can be enforced. Of these, nine are still missing: China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and the USA. India, North Korea and Pakistan have yet to sign the CTBT.

Known Nuclear Tests By Country
United States 1,054
Soviet Union 715
France 210
United Kingdom 45
China 45
India 6
Pakistan 6
North Korea 2

World Wide Nuclear Testing

International Monitoring System

The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Organization (CTBTO) established an International Monitoring System (IMS), which when complete will consist of 337 facilities worldwide which monitor for signs of nuclear explosions.  The IMS employs seismic, hydroacoustic, infrasound, and radionuclide monitoring to provide data to the CTBTO at the International Data Centre in Vienna.

While the CTBTO’s monitoring system is primarily used for detecting nuclear explosions, it can detect a range of radioactive isotopes, among them Iodine-131 and Caesium-137, which can also be used for other purposes.  Looking at the ratios between the various radioactive isotopes – in particular Caesium-137 – enables the source of the emission to be identified.  Xenon-131, Xenon-135, Kyrpton-85, and Argon-37 are other radionuclides commonly used as sources for detection.

If suspicious data is collected, on-site inspections can be dispatched to the areas in question.  Such inspections however, must be requested and approved by Member States, and will only be available once the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) goes into force.

North Korean Nuclear Tests

Recent reports have focused on the apparent desire of North Korean leaders to conduct another nuclear test.    Government officials have acknowledged that it will be nearly impossible to determine if and when North Korea will perform their tests, as they will be forced to rely largely on seismic monitoring records.

When North Korea conducted its second-known nuclear test in 2006 and in May of 2009, they took extreme measures to attempt to conceal the details of the event.

The IMS radionuclide system at Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada, collected samples two weeks after the 2006 North Korean nuclear test, which showed upon further analysis trace amounts of Xenon-133.  Only after closely comparing that data to data from the archives were analysts able to determine that the levels were elevated.

In 2009, they detonated their device more than a kilometer underground, and the world only knew about the bomb from what was learned from seismic waves.

CTBTO Analysis of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster

All four verification technologies of the International Monitoring System (IMS) were employed in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster: seismic sensors detected the Tohoku earthquake and its aftershocks; hydroacoustic stations recorded the rupture of the Earth’s crust and the subsequent tsunami wave; the explosions at the Fukushima power plant were picked up by infrasound stations; and radionuclide stations detected the subsequent radioactive emissions. Modeling tools were also used to predict the dispersion of the radioactive particles.

One of the first stations to detect radioactive emissions from the Fukushima power plant was the radionuclide station at Takasaki, some 200 kilometers from the plant. The dispersion of the radioactive isotopes could then be followed to eastern Russia on 14 March and to the west coast of the United States two days later. By the end of May 2011, more than 40 radionuclide stations had detected radioactivity from Japan.

Days After Disaster

Plume Detected


Across North America


Iceland and Europe


Entire Northern Hemisphere


Southern Hemisphere – Australia, Fiji, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea

Post-Fukushima Monitoring Problems

One of the oldest and best ways of detecting nuclear weapons explosions is through the monitoring of radionuclides in the air.  The United States has used air monitoring data to monitor nuclear capabilities in the Soviet Union and China for decades with varying levels of success and failure.

The Fukushima Daiichi disaster proved once again that it is a completely different and easier objective to fit computer models to past tests, than to see how well a computer model predicts the outcome of a future test.

Historically, the ease of detecting fallout particles was a main reason why the United States, Soviet Union, and United Kingdom were able to negotiate the LTBT in 1963, and worldwide protests against fallout were a main impetus for the treaty.

The problem is that the possibility of detecting and also forecasting nuclear tests has raised expectations that the CTBTO has not always been able to meet.  Aside from the failure to detect the Indian nuclear test series in May 1998, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster also overwhelmed all radiological monitoring systems within hundreds of kilometers of the crippled complex.

In a Post-Fukushima world, relying upon the ability to detect trace levels of radioactive materials may no longer be adequate for monitoring for nuclear explosions, and more substantial and easily interpretable methods will likely be required, as it is now being proven before our very eyes, that our monitoring capability and ability to maintain security of nuclear materials is insufficient.

Radionuclide monitoring in part relies on noble gas detection capabilities.  The Fukushima Daiichi reactors, not Chernobyl, are responsible for the largest noble gas release in history, as the entire noble gas inventories of Units 1-3 were released.

In the first days after the March 11th disaster, United States military bases hundreds of kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi ordered the evacuations of women and children.  The airborne release of radionuclides into the atmosphere have not been quenched after nearly two years, though they obviously are not as large as they were days after the disaster when they overwhelmed CTBTO monitoring systems in Japan.

In the United States, Xenon-133 measurements taken by researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratories in the State of Washington detected levels of radiation over 450,000 times the detection levels and persisted for weeks.

These released materials continued to accumulate and saturate in the atmosphere, which only makes the detection of nuclear explosions by monitoring nuclear fallout more difficult.  Due to the lack of ability to regain control of the ongoing releases, in many areas in Fukushima Prefecture, the contamination levels are continuing to rise from the ongoing deposition.

On top of the continued release from Fukushima Daiichi, one must also include the normal amounts of noble gases released from emissions from nuclear facilities around the world, and the assuredness of the capabilities of existing systems seems less and less grounded.

There is reason to believe that the Fukushima Daichi disaster has altered the natural background levels of radiation around the world.  The United States has been sending out helicopters over the course of the last year, equipped with radiation monitoring equipment and given clearance to fly low in order to gather data which will be used to update and remap current background levels of radiation in the United States.  They have been dispatched from the Pacific Northwest to New York City, all the way down to Texas, and many places in between.

Currently, the Fukushima Daiichi plume is still being carried around the world, making a complete round trip in under 45 days.

This additional source of radiation will make it even more difficult if not impossible to conclusively monitor for nuclear explosions using the IMS network.  Scientists will be forced to attempt to rule out the radiation which is presumed to be from Fukushima Daiichi as well as from normal background radiation and other industrial, medical, or military uses of nuclear technologies.  Additionally, detonations more than 1 kilometer below the surface are likely far unable to be detected by airborne monitoring systems.

This makes it extremely difficult to ascertain the location of a test, forcing the CTBTO to rely more heavily on the other methods employed by the system, which can also be triggered by other natural events.  For example, in Japan, the amount of seismic activity has dramatically increased since the March 11th, nuclear disaster, which makes the seismic monitoring more difficult.

Critical components of the proliferation process

For decades, the United States attempted to act as if they could conceal science.  Our approach was that we needed to further our nuclear weapons capabilities in order to protect ourselves from our enemies who were surely pursuing the same objectives.

We continued to act as if we truly believed that through the privatization and classification of information, we would be able to prevent others from coming to the same logical and methodical conclusions that we had.  True, it may have slowed down the pace of development, but it did not prevent the same discoveries from being made around the globe.

The same type of arguments which were once made for the continued attempts to control science, are those used to attempt to continue nuclear weapons testing in the face of Test-Ban Treaties.

Former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger once clearly illustrated this point when he said, “[i]f we need nuclear weapons, we have to know that they work.  That is the essence of their deterrence…. The only assurance that you have that they will work is to test them.”[1]

After the September 11th disaster and rise of nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, the risk of nuclear proliferation was more eminent than ever.  A 2006 Defense Science Board study stated, “Weapons that are not seen as useable and effective by potential adversaries cannot be an effective, reliable deterrent.”

Alexander Hamilton once said, and I find it still to be true, “Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct.  Even the ardent love of liberty will after a time give way to its dictates.”

It is known that a few of the key necessities to a nuclear weapons program are intent, resources, knowledge, manpower, secrecy, and above all the critical nuclear materials required to develop a nuclear device.

The problem here lies in the fact that the nuclear fuel cycle is not closed, every year thousands of tons of nuclear waste are generated at facilities around the globe with no long term disposal plan.  As the amounts of nuclear waste grow, so too do the pressures on companies, regulators, and elected officials to maintain security over the nuclear inventories.

With no place to put it, and nothing to do with it, I feel it was inevitable that nuclear materials would find their way into the hands of unintended owners, inferring once more the critical role that nuclear power stations play in the proliferation problems.

Simply stated, without the enriched materials produced while operating commercial nuclear reactors, we would be in more of a position capable of controlling the proliferation of nuclear materials.

Who has been deterred and by what method?

Opponents maintain deterrence requires new weapons to counter new threats, and assert that these weapons must be tested.  They do not see any relation between nonproliferation and disarmament.

However, it is important when we stumble upon one of the historic problems of our age that we do not continue to pretend as if it were inconsequential.  We cannot argue that it makes no difference which choice we choose, we cannot even opt for no action, for that in itself is a choice.  In order to make a decision, we must be able to look at what has been done so far and assess if it was worth it, and if not be strong enough to make a change.

We must remember that we can no more unlearn the things we have learned, as we can undo the things which we have done, and that we are incapable of hiding science though we are able to muddy the waters.

In light of this, does it not instead seem that the critical component to preventing proliferation is the attitudes and perceptions of the public and elected officials?  Is it not more important to develop and promote a society where the use of nuclear weapons as a threat or a deterrent is not necessary or accepted?  Where should it begin if not with the very people that make up society, from top to bottom?

It seems to me when considering whether something is of “science” or “pseudo-science”, that two questions are required, “Does it work?” and “Did it work the way you said it would?”

I think the same questions are useful in assessing as to whether the current approach to proliferation through the use of nuclear weapons as a means of deterrence has worked, and secondly, if it has worked the way that it was told it would work.

Next, I would pose the similar questions to the role of nuclear reactors and the growing piles of spent nuclear fuel in relation to the fuel cycle and proliferation threats.  Has it worked, and did it work the way we thought it would?

But in the context of the world today, the real questions I feel come down to;

How have our safeguards worked since inception?  Have our existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons been sufficient to deter other nations from developing their own nuclear programs?

If activists can break into what was thought to be one of the most secure nuclear complexes in the United States at K-12 with relatively no opposition or difficulty, are our current approaches to security adequate to ensure safety?

What of the current security protocols at industrial nuclear sites, are they as robust as the defenses at the K-12 facility were previously thought to be?

Have the nuclear industry and exchange of industrial nuclear technologies and information played any contributing role to the proliferation threat which we now face, or are they to be continued to be observed as unrelated events?

How has the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and continuous release of radioactive materials affected our international monitoring capabilities, or changed the way that elected officials and governments view potential nuclear disasters as a threat to anti-proliferation threats?

It seems that until we answer some of the root questions and problems, every further change will never be able to make things better, just more or less the same or for the worse.  Unless we take strong and lasting measures to change the current approach, we must prepare to only be warned by the indication of a nuclear weapons test, not an absolute confirmation.

[1] U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Foreign Relations.  Final Review of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (Treaty Doc. 105-28), S.Hrg. 106-262, 106th Congress, 1st Session, 1999

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