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North Korea’s arsenal ‘an enormous threat’

Siegfried S. “Sig” Hecker, a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory and internationally recognized expert in plutonium science and nuclear security, discusses recent U.S.-Russian history and the current status of Russia’s nuclear programs Friday at the University of New Mexico’s Continuing Education Conference Center

Siegfried S. “Sig” Hecker, a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory and internationally recognized expert in plutonium science and nuclear security, discusses recent U.S.-Russian history and the current status of Russia’s nuclear programs Friday at the University of New Mexico’s Continuing Education Conference Center. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Siegfried S. “Sig” Hecker, a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory and internationally recognized expert in plutonium science and nuclear security, estimated Friday that leader Jong Un’s regime has 10 to 16 nuclear weapons and described the North Korean arsenal as “an enormous threat.”

 HECKER: Former LANL chief spoke at UNM

HECKER: Former LANL chief spoke at UNM

Hecker has traveled to North Korea several times by invitation and is one of the last outside scientists to see the secretive nation’s nuclear weapons work. He made the comments during a question and answer session after a presentation to an audience of about 80 people attending a lecture sponsored by the Albuquerque International Association.

His invited visits, the last of which occurred in 2010, were North Korea’s way of trying to convince the rest of the world that it had a workable nuclear weapons program, Hecker said, and secure what it views as the proper level of “respect” from the United States and the rest of the world.

Although Hecker said he doubts North Korea has tested a hydrogen bomb as claimed, he said it has built a nuclear arsenal.

Also, there have been confirmed satellite launches and tests of increasingly sophisticated missiles thought to be capable of reaching the continental United States.

Hecker said that shortly after President Barack Obama took office, there seemed to be some opportunity to “try to keep the situation from getting worse.”

But after Obama said, “I’ll reach out my hand if you unclench your fist,” Hecker said, the Iranians responded with dialogue while North Korea responded with more testing – which Heckler said was, in essence, “a punch between the eyes.”

Since then, the situation has worsened, and the only avenue being pursued is tightening sanctions against North Korea, he said.

He said that options are few and that military action is especially problematic given the proximity of Seoul to the North Korean border.

Although he said that somehow the U.S. has not managed to play its cards right, he acknowledged the difficulty in dealing with dictatorial regimes that deprive their own people to pursue their nuclear ambitions.

Russian engagement

Hecker’s 50-minute presentation focused on what he described as the unprecedented cooperation that developed between Russian and American nuclear scientists after the collapse of the Soviet Union – cooperation that has evaporated with Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and Syria.

But he predicted it will return, out of necessity, and become a model for nonproliferation.

Hecker, a research professor at Stanford University and senior fellow at The Center for International Security and Cooperation, said reining in nuclear weapons and materials is complicated by North Korea’s quest for nuclear equity and, perhaps to a lesser degree, by Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As the Soviet Union dissolved and its former states struggled economically, American and Russian scientists immediately recognized the need to secure Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal – which included an estimated 100,000 warheads – and more than 1 million kilograms of fissile material spread throughout the former Soviet Union.

The 1990s, he said, presented a “window of opportunity” for such cooperation because “scientists work best in this diplomatic mode when their governments are in chaos and, well, that’s what happened” when the USSR folded.

“During that time, we had the opportunity to step in. What we needed were a few key government people who would help us along,” Hecker said.

He credited former President George H.W. Bush, as well as former Sens. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., for creating a domestic political environment that allowed U.S. scientists to work with their Soviet counterparts to secure potentially “loose” nuclear weapons in Kazakhstan and other parts of the Soviet Union.

He also praised former President Bill Clinton and credited Russia’s nuclear scientists and engineers – whom he described as highly competent, patriotic and responsible – for their willingness to cooperate with their American counterparts.

In the ensuing years, all of Russia’s vast nuclear assets, including 39,000 weapons, and materials were secured without a single accident, he said.

Even afterward, Russian and American scientists and engineers continued helping each other solve numerous nuclear-related issues – even allowing mutual benefits to one another’s nuclear test facilities and laboratories.

The picture is very different today.

The road ahead

Despite the current uncertainty among most of the world’s nuclear powers, Hecker said he believes such U.S.-Russian cooperation on nuclear issues is still possible.

“I’m going to Russia next week to try to rekindle that,” he said, noting that it will be his 51st trip there.

“In the nuclear world, because the weapon proliferation and terrorism issues are so immense, you can’t solve them by yourself,” he said. “We (the U.S. and Russia) can do everything right, and the world can still go to hell. So the only way you can handle these dangers is to work together. You’ve got to cooperate.

“On the nuclear energy end, the only way you can generate significant electricity is if you do it safely, securely and economically,” he said. “That takes cooperation. A country today cannot start a nuclear energy program by itself without cooperation.

“A great example is South Korea. South Korea had the United States’ help all the way through, and now they’re the best in the world at building nuclear reactors. But North Korea went it alone: They got the bomb, but they can’t produce electricity.

“Cooperation is the key, and our governments know that,” he said.

Regrettably, governments get bogged down by “political issues” that make nuclear cooperation nearly impossible.

“That’s what makes this current situation so bad,” he said. “The decisions are made mostly for domestic reasons on both sides. … Russia is really hamstrung by domestic issues,” particularly Putin’s concerns with staying in power.

“Right now, it’s hard to do anything, because the Russians are blocking everything because of their domestic issues.

“Eventually, they’re going to come around again, and hopefully it doesn’t take a catastrophe to get us back together,” Hecker said. “Hopefully somebody can see the light and say, ‘Look, we’ve got to live with nuclear – it has bad sides; it has good sides.’ The only way to make sure you manage that is cooperation. … How long will that take? We don’t know.”

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