Jeffrey Lewis

Armageddon 2

The supremely bad U.S.-Russian plan to nuke asteroids.


The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Russia’s State Atomic Energy Organization (ROSATOM) recently signed an agreement that provides for cooperation in a number of areas, including safeguards against nuclear proliferation, nuclear reactors, and defense from asteroids.

Defense from asteroids? What?

Let’s be clear about one thing: When DOE and ROSATOM talk about "defense" against asteroids, that means they are going to discuss nuking rocks in space. (What do you think the ATOM stands for anyway?) Recently, a labbie at Los Alamos National Laboratory modeled a one-megaton explosion against an asteroid in space — about 50 times the size of the device used in Hiroshima. The Russians think it "will take a nuclear device much bigger than one megaton to intercept" the sort of asteroids that interest them, according to Oleg Shubin. He should know: He’s ROSATOM’s deputy director of the development and testing of nuclear munitions. Boys will be boys.

We can choose between two pop culture references to mock this terrible idea.

One is Michael Bay’s 1998 movie Armageddon, a Bruce Willis-Ben Affleck vehicle so terrible that Bay apologized for it. Bay really should also have apologized for the schmaltzy theme song, "I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing." I don’t know if U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz was reluctant to add asteroid defense to the program of cooperation, but I like to imagine ROSATOM Director Sergei Kirienko down on one knee, belting out the Dianne Warren-penned, Aerosmith-performed power ballad, slowly overcoming Ernie’s resistance:

I don’t wanna close my eyes,
I don’t wanna fall asleep,
‘Cause I’d miss you, babe,
And I don’t wanna miss a thing.

So, there’s that. There is also a crazy Russian cosmonaut character, which now seems sort of prescient.

On the other hand, the 1979 Atari video game, Asteroids, offers style. The millennials who populate Twitter might not know this, but Asteroids was amazing. (Did you know that you can play Asteroids in your web browser? Really. Go ahead, this article will still be here in a couple of hours.) My pal Arrigo makes a good case for choosing this reference: "Atari, it just sets the mood and carries that aura of passé which is so fitting."

Is someone huffing whippets in the Forrestal Building? Let us start by reviewing the myriad legal agreements that prohibit exploding nuclear weapons in space.

The Outer Space Treaty prohibits placing "any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction" in orbit, on celestial bodies, or "in outer space in any other manner" — to say nothing of blowing them up. The Limited Test Ban Treaty prohibits nuclear explosions anywhere except underground. That means no explosions in the atmosphere or "beyond its limits, including outer space." The Threshold Test Ban Treaty limits the size of underground nuclear explosions but also has a companion agreement on "peaceful" nuclear explosions that makes clear any such explosions must be underground. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) did have a clause governing peaceful nuclear explosions, but that clause has to be interpreted now in light of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits any nuclear explosions, full stop. (The United States has signed but not ratified the CTBT.) The states that are party to the CTBT did agree to discuss underground peaceful nuclear explosions at a later date, but space is still off limits.

In other words, a mess of legal obligations stand between us and detonating a nuclear weapon in outer space. It’s not entirely clear to me what there is to talk about with ROSATOM beyond how we absolutely, positively cannot do any of the things they are discussing. Who’s ready for lunch?

At best, this program is make-work with a couple of junkets to Russia and northern California for bored weaponeers. At worst, it threatens to undermine of the framework of important treaties that help stop the further spread of nuclear weapons.

Now, I don’t mind a paper study here or there. Asteroids — really near-Earth objects (NEOs), of which asteroids are one type — are a real policy issue, even if a global asteroid catastrophe is the kind of catastrophe that only happens once in a million years or so. Smaller asteroids, which can still do quite a bit of damage, hit the earth more frequently. In February, a meteor exploded over Russia. No one was killed, but lots of people were injured. And the thing about statistics is that very unlikely events are not impossible. Hell, Robin Thicke is famous. (Here is a nice primer on the asteroid threat — a bit dated, but very well done.)

So, if some labbie wants to simulate a megaton-sized nuclear explosion against an asteroid, I suppose that’s fine with me. But a cooperative program of work with ROSATOM seems like a permission slip to start planning things that are neither a good idea nor legal. There is a long and disreputable history of Strangelovian characters like Edward Teller and Lowell Wood using "planetary defense" as a justification for one nuclear weapons scheme or another, long after the demise of what little Cold War rationale might have existed. Convening the Cold War fossils for tea and cookies isn’t very reassuring on this point.

Teller is a particularly important, and reviled, figure in this discussion. I.I. Rabi, one of Teller’s colleagues on the Manhattan Project, is said to have reflected, "it would have been a better world without Teller." In the 1950s, Teller was talking about a 10,000- megaton bomb — that’s 670,000 Hiroshimas, in case you are counting at home. On his blackboard at Los Alamos, Teller reportedly had a device so large that it would kill everyone on earth. He named it "Backyard," since there would be no need to move it anywhere. (Alex Wellerstein has a wonderful blog post on Teller, from which much of this is drawn, entitled "In Search of a Bigger Boom.")

Teller spent the Cold War as an advocate for lots of things I don’t think were good ideas and as an implacable opponent of most everything I think was. By the 1980s, he was promoting "Excalibur," a Strategic Defense Initiative project in which nuclear weapons detonated in space would generate X-ray lasers that would shoot down incoming Soviet ICBMs. (As I have noted before, Reagan administration officials had trouble grasping that the lasers resulted from nuclear explosions in orbit. One exasperated advisor took to telling then-Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, "It go boom, Cap.")

Teller outlived the Soviet Union, which left him shooting at asteroids. "Late in his life," one colleague wrote, "Teller was a powerful advocate for defending against asteroid impacts." That’s a nice way of saying that, after the Cold War, Teller turned to planetary defense as a way to resurrect stupid ideas like "Backyard" and "Excalibur." Teller even schlepped his way out to Chelyabinsk-70, now Snezhinsk, one of the closed Soviet nuclear cities, to convince the Russians to join his foolish crusade. I guess it worked.

Teller said his interest was in planetary defense, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see it was about his shrinking target base. It just took an astronomer: David Morrison.

Morrison — who is best-known for patiently dealing with all the 2012 Mayan doomsday morons — knows more about detecting asteroids and what to do about them than just about anyone. (He wrote the primer referenced above.) Morrison knew Teller and seems to have liked him well enough. That hasn’t stopped Morrison, however, from telling stories that illustrate Teller’s less appealing side. After Teller’s death, Morrison described a 1992 meeting of Teller, Lowell Wood, and other nuclear weaponeers at Los Alamos that Morrison and few other astronomers attended.

Morrison and another well-known scientist, Clark Chapman, have written an account of the meeting that is much too long to reproduce here. (Still, it is worth reading in full.) The short version is that the astronomers present noticed that the asteroid scenarios promoted by Teller, Wood, and other weaponeers just happened to require nuclear weapons like "Backyard" and "Excalibur." Morrison and the other astronomers were also struck by how little debate occurred among the weaponeers, who simply followed Teller and Wood’s advocacy of artificial scenarios that required nuclear solutions. Morrison and Chapman are perhaps too polite to say so directly, but their account leaves the impression that Teller and Wood let their enthusiasm for certain nuclear weapons projects drive their analysis of the asteroid problem, rather than the other way around.

Excuse me, anyone seen an asteroid that might need a gigaton worth of yield?

Morrison and Chapman’s account emphasizes the differences in perspective between weaponeers and astronomers, ending with a comparison of Teller’s demeanor to that of the easy-going, well-liked, and equally eminent astronomer Gene Shoemaker. (Shoemaker as in "Shoemaker-Levy 9.")

The distinction between weaponeers and astronomers is relevant here — after all, DOE and ROSATOM are largely weaponeers. And there is a good case to be made that, for now at least, the threat posed by asteroids is really an astronomy problem.

There are, of course, some hypothetical scenarios in which a nuclear explosive might be the best solution to an asteroid barreling toward our little planet. (That’s the thing about hypothetical scenarios.) But the likelihood of a very large asteroid impact is extraordinarily small to begin with, and the scenarios in which a nuclear explosive would be necessary are those in which we would see the asteroid in time to act, but not with so much time that we could fashion a non-nuclear response. This is a vanishingly small subset of an already unlikely class of threats. 

The real problems are the asteroids that we won’t see until after they hit us. The meteor that exploded over Russia in February struck out of the blue. And a system of nuclear interceptors is of no use against asteroids we can’t detect.

Our current efforts to scan the heavens have eliminated, according to Morrison, about 80 percent of the asteroid risk. Being able to deal with the next 10 percent requires much larger investments in space surveillance, particularly new telescopes like the $390-million Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) that the National Science Foundation and DOE are about to start building in Chile. This is an important project — much more so than funding some boondoggle to sample vodka in Snezhinsk or Sarov. It is also in real budgetary peril because of sequestration. "I’ve been told we are a high priority for both agencies," U.C. Davis Professor and LSST Director Tony Tyson told Science magazine, "but it’s hard to read the political tea leaves."

Hey, Tony, sorry about Chile. But if you want to go see the monastery at Sarov, there’s travel money.

I realize that telescopes aren’t nearly as sexy as a couple of megatons in space, but improving our detection capabilities can provide plenty of warning, including enough time to sober up the folks at ROSATOM and put them on a plane to Los Alamos or Livermore in the event that Ben Affleck is tied up with freeing hostages in Iran.

As you can tell, I am a little unhappy that DOE is planning some silly conference of weaponeers to talk about asteroid deflection while the LSST is on the sequestration chopping block. We should not undermine the framework of treaties and agreements that support our fight against the very real spread of nuclear weapons in order to reduce a largely hypothetical danger, particularly when we are on the verge of cutting much more useful investments in detection. Having DOE and ROSATOM talking about asteroid defense is a waste of money, and it would be even if we weren’t staring at sequestration and a government shutdown.

If the folks at ROSATOM are really that bored, I’ve got a better idea for just a couple hundred bucks, plus shipping. What will it be: arcade or cocktail style?

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

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