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Energy, Security, and Climate

CFR experts examine the science and foreign policy surrounding climate change, energy, and nuclear security.

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Can Innovation Make Nuclear Energy Cheap?

by Michael Levi

Nuclear power promises zero-carbon electricity but suffers from serious cost challenges. That makes calls for more research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) efforts to promote innovation natural. But ask sixty experts where nuclear energy is heading, or ask them whether innovation could change that, and you’ll get sixty different answers. Who should you believe? Read more »

The Continuing Threat of Nuclear Terrorism

by Michael Levi

Micah Zenko and I have an op-ed on nuclear terrorism today in USA Today. The opening paragraph captures the theme pretty well:

“President George W. Bush called it his ‘ultimate nightmare.’ Sen. John Kerry, running for president in 2004, said that it was ’the greatest threat that we face.’ They were both talking about the terrifying possibility that a terrorist group could acquire a nuclear weapon and attack the United States. Yet this year, over the course of three presidential debates, the issue barely surfaced. That is dangerous: Nuclear terrorism remains one of the very few vital risks to America, and the next president, whoever he is, will need to work vigilantly to prevent it.” Read more »

Is South Korea Undermining Sanctions Against Iran?

by Michael Levi

The Wall Street Journal delivered some disturbing news yesterday: South Korea “sharply boosted imports of Iranian crude” in April, buying 42 percent more than a year before, and 57 percent more than in March. Analysts have speculated as to whether Seoul was attempting to sneak in extra oil before European sanctions begin to bite. A more careful look at the data, though, suggests that the spike in Korean imports is less peculiar than meets the eye. Read more »

How To Talk To Tehran

by Michael Levi

Richard Haass and I have an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal in which we outline a strategy for U.S. diplomacy with Iran. The basics are simple: Neither war nor containment is an attractive option. Moreover, with economic and military pressure on Tehran rising, Iranian leaders may be gaining greater incentives to do a deal, and the United States may be gaining more leverage. At the same time, there’s little chance that the Iranian regime could give up enrichment entirely and survive; meanwhile, on the U.S. side, no deal is worthwhile if it leaves Iran too close to the bomb. We thus outline a mix of inspections and physical limits on the Iranian program that the United States should put on the table; if Iran accepts, the newest sanctions (including impending ones) should be dialed back. Until that happens, the current sanctions should stay in place, and the ones coming down the pike should proceed apace. Read more »

Will China and India Undermine Sanctions Against Iran?

by Michael Levi

If analysts and reporters know one thing about sanctions, it’s that if you don’t have complete international cooperation, they don’t work. That instinct has been on full display in recent discussions of oil market sanctions targeted at the Iranian nuclear program. Yes, the United States and Europe might refrain from buying Iranian oil, but so long as China and India are willing to buy the surplus crude, won’t the sanctions be toothless? Read more »

How Much Radioactive Contamination Is Too Much?

by Michael Levi

First it was radioactive material in milk and spinach near the Fukushima reactors. Now it’s radioactive iodine in Tokyo tapwater that exceeds limits for infant consumption. All of which makes me think back to some work that I did in 2002 on dirty bombs. (Even if you aren’t interested in dirty bombs, read through; there’s a lesson for the current situation here too.)

My colleagues and I wanted to estimate the consequences of a dirty bomb attack. To do that, we simulated the dispersal of radioactive material and then determined the area over which contamination levels would exceed established safety limits. The results were disturbing: large swaths of a city could be put off limits by a relatively modest attack.

Some smart people pushed back. Contamination was considered unacceptable under existing regulations if continued exposure raised the risk of death from cancer by more than one-in-ten thousand. But the background rate of death from cancer was already one in five. If a large area became contaminated in a dirty bomb attack, they asked, wouldn’t authorities relax the limits? Faced with a choice between abandoning chunks of a city and accepting, say, a one-in-a-thousand increase in the cancer fatality rate, wouldn’t people pick the latter?

Over the years, I became somewhat sympathetic to that argument, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. In particular, I was pretty sure that changing the safety thresholds after an event (rather than developing a set of alternative rules in advance) would be tough. Few people have the technical knowledge to judge for themselves what’s safe or not. In the aftermath of an ugly incident, they may also lose trust in authorities, which means that they won’t trust revisions to the rules either. Authorities may be stuck with the preexisting guidelines even if there’s a more rational alternative. Read more »