Robert Kelley is a licensed nuclear engineer who has worked on many aspects of nuclear weapons and later on nuclear nonproliferation. His personal experiences include weapons simulation testing, plutonium metallurgy, isotope separation and emergency response. These experiences were extremely useful in carrying out intelligence analyses of foreign countries and lead to field experience as a chief inspector in Iraq nuclear weapons inspections and elsewhere. He is currently affiliated with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden and several other nonproliferation organizations.
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. On Monday evening, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed another set of sanctions against North Korea. These sanctions were far less than what U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley had fought for, which was all-out action, including authorizing countries to seize vessels suspected of carrying weapons, materials, or fuel into North Korea and to use all necessary measures to ensure compliance. Russia and China, who have veto power at the Security Council, objected to these harsh measures, as did South Korea, so much lesser sanctions were passed on Monday that limit oil exports to North Korea and voluntary inspections of vessels from other countries carrying supplies to North Korea.
During the BRICS Summit that took place last weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced North Korean nuclear program, but also warned the West that escalating the situation nor sanctions against North Korea would help.
VLADIMIR PUTIN: Do you really think that because of the imposition of some sanctions, North Korea will abandon its course towards development of weapons of mass destruction? Under these circumstances, winding up military hysteria will not bring us any good. All of this can lead to a global catastrophe on the planet and huge number of human casualties. There is no other way apart from a peaceful and a diplomatic one to resolve the North Korea nuclear problem.
SHARMINI PERIES: By way of background, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test on Sunday, September 3, 2017, stating it was the first test of a thermonuclear weapon, or a hydrogen bomb. The United States Geological Survey reported an earthquake of 6.3 magnitude not far from North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site. South Korean authorities said the earthquake seemed to be artificial, but consistent with a nuclear test.
The USGS as well as China’s Earthquake Network Center reported that the initial event was followed by a second, smaller earthquake at the site several minutes later, which was characterized as a collapse of the cavity. The North Korean government said it has detonated a hydrogen bomb that could be loaded onto a intercontinental ballistic missile, ICBM. The announcement stated the warhead had a variable yield, the explosive power of which is adjustable from 10 kilotons to 100 kilotons, which can be detonated even at high altitudes for super powerful EMP attack.
A later technical announcement called the device two-stage thermonuclear weapon and stated experimental measurements were fully compatible with the design specifications and there had been no leakage of radioactive materials from the underground nuclear test. Photographs of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspecting a device resembling a thermonuclear weapon warhead were released a few hours before the test.
On to talk about this with me is Robert Kelley. He’s a veteran of 35 years who worked at the U.S. Department of Energy Nuclear Weapons Complex, most recently at Los Alamos, and managed the centrifuge and plutonium programs at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and later was the director of the Department of Energy Remote Sensing Laboratory, which is a premier U.S. nuclear energy response organization. He’s also seconded by the U.S. DOE to the IAEA where he served twice as director of the nuclear inspections in Iraq in 1992 and again in 2001.
I state all of that so you are fully aware of the capacity of Robert Kelley to assess the situation we are facing. Thank you so much for joining me, Robert.
ROBERT KELLEY: Good evening.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Robert. Let’s get started. Is there evidence that what the North Koreans detonated on Sunday, September 3, was a thermonuclear or what is known as a hydrogen bomb? Does North Korea really have the capacity to detonate a hydrogen bomb with the nuclear capability that could be mounted on a missile?
ROBERT KELLEY: We have a few pieces of information about whether or not it was a hydrogen bomb. First, they claim it was. I think that’s worth very little. The second is we have a large seismic event, so we know there was an explosion that could just very well have been a simple fission explosion. Then we have the pictures of the president of South Korea standing next to an object. The object at first blush looks kind of like a thermonuclear bomb, but that can be whipped out in a machine shop in a matter of a few days and look like something you could find on the Internet or other places. I’ve looked at the drawings, the four photographs that have emerged that I can find, and I can see a lot of mistakes in the way that thing is built and put together, so I don’t think that the thing he’s looking at could go into a missile, survive a flight, and then become a nuclear explosion at the end.
What we really need is we need some radioactive debris that will leak out of the test site, and we have evidence, there is evidence, seismic evidence, that part of the total collapsed after the explosion. That may lead to cracks in the earth and radioactive materials will get out in very small quantities, not serious from a health point of view, but enough that the sniffer planes that fly in the region there can pick it up. If they can collect that radioactive debris, they will know pretty much unequivocally whether it was a hydrogen bomb or not. Until that happens, we’re depending on the North Korean News Agency to tell us it was, and I put pretty much zero credibility on their statements.
SHARMINI PERIES: Can you provide more details as to how this nuclear explosion took place and what this tells us about their capability?
ROBERT KELLEY: Well, the explosion takes place underground in a tunnel where they can walk in, carry in hundreds of pounds of equipment and materials to make the nuclear explosion underground, so this is a situation where they’re just not constrained by the real world of having to build a small weapon that will fill a missile. They can drive trucks into these tunnels with hundreds of kilograms of explosive if that’s what they want to do. If you have hundreds of kilograms of explosive and a fair amount of uranium, you can make a 50-kiloton explosion rather easily if you’re in the business without it being a hydrogen bomb.
This is not a realistic military situation. This is a chance for an experiment and also to really try to fool us politically. They’ll be very, very happy to see all the people running around in the mainstream media saying this was a hydrogen bomb. I was watching CNN today, and they said without any explanation or caveats whatever, it was a hydrogen bomb, and it’s just not true that you can say that at this point. It might turn out to be. At this point, you can’t say it. The North Koreans have pretty well pulled wool over the eyes of the American media.
SHARMINI PERIES: Robert, you had 35 years or more of expertise in this field and studied nuclear explosives. What is the nature and capacity of nuclear power that North Korea has?
ROBERT KELLEY: Well, I’m going to split hairs with you on terminology. There’s no question they have nuclear explosives, and they can build something that goes underground into a room, a chamber inside a tunnel, and produces a large nuclear explosion. That’s fairly easy to do for a state like North Korea when the constraint is to build it in a large room. When you say that this thing is a nuclear weapon, that’s a whole different animal because now the weapon has to be small enough to be delivered on a missile. It has to be strong and rugged and able to take the stresses of the missile flight. That’s what a weapon has to do.
This thing underground really shook the earth. It gave a very large seismic signal like an earthquake, but it doesn’t mean it’s a weapon. It doesn’t mean it’s a hydrogen weapon. It just means that given the constraints of doing something in a space where they have a lot of room, not many constraints about size and weight, they can make a large explosion. It’s a nuclear explosive. It may not be a nuclear weapon.
SHARMINI PERIES: I imagine that U.S. and Russia and China are all monitoring every move being made by the North Koreans. What do we know about their nuclear capability so far? Should we worry?
ROBERT KELLEY: Well, they’re playing with us, and I think you can really see the play in the missile program. There was a great deal of hype in the last few months that they have ICBMs and they’re continental ballistic missiles and they could reach the United States. Well, actually, all they’ve done is fire a powerful missile straight up into the air, virtually straight up, watched it go for a very long time and then fall back to earth, and so it’s clear that they have a very powerful engine. That’s very different from pointing this thing at a place that’s many miles away and then seeing if it can really fly for thousands of miles and end up where they want it to end up.
The reason they fired this missile straight up into the air is because they can see it. They can see it’s still working and when it falls back down, they know roughly how long it went and how well it performed. As soon as they fire it over the horizon, if you’re sitting, let’s just say, for example, in Los Angeles, and you fire it toward the East Coast of the United States, once it disappears over the Sierra Nevada, if you don’t have someone out there watching it and collecting information from it, you lose all sense of what it’s doing. These things are not weapons. They’re not well thought out, they’re not being tested properly, and they really don’t have a clue as to how well they work in the long run.
It may sound a bit flip, but if I fire this thing toward the United States and I actually don’t know whether it’s going to hit Mexico, Canada, or the U.S., I don’t know how far it went and I don’t know if it actually survived hitting the target, I really don’t know very much. That’s why I think they’re playing us around. The United States has a pretty good idea where these missiles are going. They can track them, I’m sure. They have range ships in the region looking with radar and other ways to track the North Korean missiles. They know a lot more about the North Korean missile than the North Koreans do.
Again, once they fire it in some direction where they no longer have a way of seeing where it’s going, they’re lost. When they fired this thing over Japan a few weeks ago, the last they saw was when it disappeared over Japan, and it went another thousand kilometers or so and then broke up and fell in the ocean. They wouldn’t know that if we hadn’t told them. They really don’t know how well their system performed. They don’t know how close it came to the intended target. They don’t know if it didn’t just break up in flight and disappear.
They’re not really doing a very serious program, and in that sense, I don’t think these weapons are well developed. That doesn’t mean that I’m not worried about them getting better and better. They are getting better and better, but to say that they are nuclear-capable right now I think is a gross exaggeration, a gross exaggeration.
SHARMINI PERIES: Robert, given the proximity of Russia, China, and South Korea, they’re all in the region, who is going to be affected by nuclear residue and the effects of a nuclear weapon in the region, does the IAEA have any jurisdiction or monitoring power over this situation?
ROBERT KELLEY: To speak specifically to your question, I don’t work at the IAEA anymore and I don’t talk to them about these things. What you do have to look at is the IAEA has absolutely zero responsibility for worrying about nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons delivery systems. The entire function of the IAEA is to keep track of nuclear materials in a country. They do that by going to the country, making measurements of containers filled with uranium or fuel rods for a nuclear reactor.
They are accountants who deal with those kind of things. If you looked at the interview, for example, that the director general gave just yesterday on CNN, he said very clearly, “We don’t have any idea if these things are hydrogen bombs. We don’t have any way of knowing.” Frankly, he doesn’t have anybody on his staff who has either the data or the experience to judge it. They’re the nuclear accountants. They’re worried about how much material a country has. They don’t look at weapons at all.
SHARMINI PERIES: Robert, from your experience, can you tell us who is assisting the Security Council to make its determinations, to weigh and provide analysis about North Korea’s capability and what could be done to deter them?
ROBERT KELLEY: I certainly don’t know what the outcome of it is or will be. If you look at the people that are on the Council, you’ve got the perm five, all of whom have some capability of making judgments about what it is North Korea’s doing. You have ten other members who serve there in kind of an honorary capacity and rotate in and out, and I doubt that they have any meaningful contribution. Probably the most important organization that’s supporting the Security Council is the Comprehensive Test Ban Organization in Vienna. They’re the ones who are making the measurements of seismic shock. They’re the first ones who come out and say there’s been a man-made earthquake, if you will, in North Korea and that they probably have set off another device. They’re the ones who will look for radioactive debris to try to see if they can find additional proof that it was a nuclear explosion.
You do have to remember that the CTBTO in Vienna is not charged with doing any analysis. Much like the IAEA, they collect a lot of information and sometimes they can collect it beautifully and have access that other people don’t have, but their job is specifically limited by the treaty to provide raw information to the member states and let the member states do the evaluation. Well, in the case of Nikki Haley, she’s giving the U.S. view, and the U.S. view is one of several.
SHARMINI PERIES: Robert, I thank you so much for joining us, and I think everyone would agree here that de-escalating the situation is the best route to go. I imagine the situation will continue to unfold, and I look forward to having you back.