Tech Talk iconTech Talk

Controversial India-U.S. Nuclear Deal Hangs in Balance

A major agreement lifting restrictions on nuclear commerce with India, which Washington and Delhi have been negotiating for years, finally has reached its final hurdle, approval by Congress. The Bush administration has just a couple of weeks to get the U.S. legislatureâ''s assent before adjournment, and may not succeed. The draft agreement has been immensely controversial in both India and the United States, as well as in several other influential countries. Just the thought of it came close to bringing down the Indian government this summer.

The main Indian opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has condemned the agreement as a â''nonproliferation trapâ'' that will prevent the country from realizing its full military potential. The Hindu right has been particularly incensed by reports that Delhi made back-channel promises to never test nuclear weapons again, as a condition of getting a go-ahead for the deal from the Nuclear Suppliers Group , 45 countries that export nuclear technology.

The decision on Sept. 6 by the Nuclear Suppliers Group to support the deal was the next-to-last hurdle that the agreement had to clear before going to Congress. The Arms Control Associationâ''the ordinarily staid and cautious voice of the American arms control establishmentâ''assailed the supplier groupâ''s move as â''a nonproliferation disaster of historic proportionsâ'' supported only by â''Orwellian claims.â'' Londonâ''s Financial Times called the U.S.-India agreement â''a bad dealâ'' that â''makes a mockery of the non-proliferation treatyâ'' and threatens to â''accelerate the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan.â''

So enraged has been the Arms Control Association, two weeks ago it circulated a report from Platts Nuclear News Flash claiming that Germany was caving into the U.S. position because of crass commercial concerns. (According to the Platts report, Franceâ''a supporter of the U.S.-India dealâ''would let Germanyâ''s Siemens retain a one-third stake in the French nuclear manufacturer Areva if Germany dropped objections to the Indian deal in the suppliers group, which it has been chairing.)

Letâ''s calm down a little and consider the various arguments and counter-arguments analytically.

First, itâ''s true as an Indian expert author argued in Spectrum last year, that Indiaâ''s performance in nuclear energy has consistently lagged behind expectations, and that claims made for the deal by the Indian government should therefore be treated with suspicion. But doesnâ''t this cut both ways? Indiaâ''s past shortcomings have had a good deal with its go-it-alone path; the agreement with the United States, if approved by Congress, will allow the country to import nuclear reactors for the first time since its initial 1974 nuclear weapons test, and tentative plans call for it to buy about eight.

Second, itâ''s true that making it easier for India to import nuclear fuel also will make it easier for the country to obtain fissile material for its atomic bombs; nuclear material is fungible. But isnâ''t the horse already out of the barn? India has gone nuclear and will not give up its arsenal unless every other nuclear weapons state does the sameâ''a position it has consistently adhered to since the 1950s, when its diplomats first starting calling nuclear nonproliferation an attempt to disarm the unarmed, while leaving the armed free to keep arming.

Yes, it sticks in the craw (third) to now allow India to import nuclear technology freely, after it used imported technology, in defiance of pledges made, to get material for its first bomb. But is this â''rewardingâ'' India, or just acknowledging that something has changed that canâ''t be unchanged? And (fourth) how much, really, will the agreement further heat up an arms race between India and Pakistan thatâ''s already very heated?

Maybe this is the really decisive point: for sure, the special treatment India gets in the deal is bound to enrage Pakistanis, whose ongoing assistance is crucial to hunting down Al Qaedaâ''s leaders, ending the global war on terror, and bringing U.S. troops home. Given Pakistanâ''s extreme instability, is it really a good idea to feed flames there, without truly compelling cause?

Just for the sake of a few reactor sales, do we want to worsen the odds of an Islamist government coming to power in nuclear-armed Pakistan?


CERN accelerator

Find the full-size image at Slashdot

The LHC successfully circulated protons around the accelerator ring earlier this morning. (it was 9 am European time, so the Fermilab people were having a "pajama party" in their remote control center in Battavia, Illinois).

The live webcast from the LHC control rooms still going on. Check it out!

But an experimental physicist on the project who just got back from CERN told me that the "real" collisions won't commence until October. "This is when the real fun will start!" he said.

Electric Supergrids Gaining Traction

Incomplete and constrained transmission grids pose a serious impediment to the use of renewable energy sources such as wind power. Proposals launched over the past week show that support for more lines is going mainstream.

Last week none other than Greenpeace called for an underwater power grid criss-crossing the North Sea to accelerate the installation of dozens of new offshore wind farms. In "A North Sea Electricity Grid [R]Evolution", Greenpeace Belgium and Brussels-based environmental consulting firm 3E map out an offshore network composed of 6,200 kilometers of undersea lines. According to their models, this grid extension could add 68 gigawatts of wind power capacity by 2020 -- enough to meet 13% of net power demand of seven North Sea countries.

Yesterday the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Competitiveness, an alliance of corporate CEOs, university presidents and labor leaders, lent its support to grid expansion, urging the next U.S. president to create a "national transmission superhighway." The proposal is part of a broader "100-Day Energy Action Plan". The Council would empower the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to determine when and where expanded transmission capacity is needed, overriding state authorities. "As with the interstate highway system and the information superhighway, our leaders must knit together the current patchwork of regulations and oversight into a seamlessly connected electrical power highway," states the plan.

Proposals that need to be debated.

The North Sea Grid a la Greenpeace:


A $100 Billion Plan to Create 2 Million Green Jobs

A report released today (Sept. 9) by John Podestaâ''s Center for American Progress lays out a plan that could create 2 million new jobs in two years by spending $100 billion to â''jumpstartâ'' a clean energy economy. The report, written by economist Robert Pollin and colleagues at the University of Massachusettsâ''s Political Economy Research Institute, would focus investments on energy-efficient building, mass transportation, smart electrical grids, wind and solar, and advanced biofuels. Funds could come from the proceeds of auctioned carbon emission credits and could be allocated in the form of tax credits, direct government spending, and loan guarantees.

Lame Battery Equals Great Bike Ride

Thanks to the good folks at Garmin, who had the foresight to equip their $650 Edge 705 cycling computer with what must be the worst rechargeable battery they could find, today I had a wonderful early autumn ride through the prairie-grass laden fields of suburban Minneapolis. I was unconcerned about my heart rate, my pedaling cadence, my location, elevation or speed. The distance I traveled mattered not a whit. And time just didn't matter.

More LHC!

In addition to being the biggest particle physics experiment in history, the Large Hadron Collider will likely also soon win the prize for most random collection of media attempting to describe it. The gamut is huge: from the sublime to the mundane, from education to infotainment, and finally to the outright wackadoo, the experiment is so complicated that everyone is having a crack at explaining it to his or her target demographic. (Though the hip-hop-particle-physicist demographic is likely quite small, I would argue that it is also the most awesome.)

Now, a nascent comic book from PhD comics (via Boingboing). The LHC is the kind of thing the cliche "a picture is worth a thousand words" was invented for.


LHC Countdown: T minus one


My God, it's full of stars.

Tonight at 8 pm on the History Channel, Johns Hopkins University theoretical physicist David Kaplan hosts a program that will explain the significance of the Large Hadron Collider, which is the largest particle physics experiment in history and after twenty-some years of design and construction is finally ready to be fired up tomorrow. The show is called "The Next Big Bang."

Later today I'll also be posting a video about the LHC (albeit with considerably lower production values and a less hyperbolic title). I was at CERN in July and got a chance to see parts of the 27-kilometer accelerator ring, 100 meters underground, a couple of days before they finished construction and closed it up. After the experiments get going in the tunnels, the radiation will be too intense to allow anyone in.

The picture above shows the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), one of four equidistant experimental particle detectors that are strung around the accelerator ring like Cathedral-sized beads. CMS is on the French side; its fraternal twin, ATLAS, is on the Swiss side. The LHC is so big that it spans the border of the two countries.

Follow IEEE Spectrum on Twitter

Well, better late than never. Follow IEEE Spectrum on Twitter for updates from the Web site and reports from the field, like the sweet tweets from senior editor Tekla Perry as she ogles new goodies at Tech Crunch 50 this week.

FDA Holds Public Hearings on Nanotechnology

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has decided to take on the daunting task of figuring out how the size of a material (versus its chemical composition) affects its toxicity.

In keeping with the theme of pithy little size innuendos like â''size mattersâ'', this is a big nut to crack. A lot of work, research, development of new tools, creating of new measurement standards, and lots of money and time will be required to sort it out.

But instead of â''letâ''s roll up our sleeves and get to workâ'' we get â''letâ''s have a public meeting.â''

There must be some real or imagined benefit to engaging in this kind of public theater, but I imagine whatever it is it will not likely bring us any closer to determining how the size of particles imparts its level of toxicity.

The assumption behind these types of meetings is to foster an environment of openness and transparency with the general public.

But I canâ''t help but think that TNTLog has it about right when it laments about public acceptance of technologies whether â''any kind of education, or even twenty years in a Soviet Gulag would change such entrenched views?â''

Are Network Analysis Techniques Successful in Iraq?

In his new book, The War Within, the Washington Post's Bob Woodward claims that breakthrough techniques used to "locate, target and kill key individuals in extremist groups" helped turn the tide against insurgents in Iraq last year. In an interview last night on CBS's 60 Minutes, Woodward shies away from disclosing any details about these techniques--1:32 in--for fear of compromising special operations. But he likens the "special capability" to the introduction of the tank and the airplane in combat:

In September 2006, I wrote about new network analysis capabilities being developed for the intelligence community in an article entitled "Modeling Terrorists." In it I highlighted the work of several groups:

[Prof. Barry] Silvermanâ''s group [at the University of Pennsylvania] focuses on individual agents, but other modelers take a more organizational approach, simulating large-scale social networks on supercomputers and churning out trillions of bytes of data. Models built by Edward MacKerrow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Charles Macal at Argonne National Laboratory, Alok R. Chaturvedi at Purdue University, Desmond Saunders-Newton at BAE Systems, and Kathleen Carley at Carnegie Mellon University use thousands or millions of relatively simple agents to examine how networks form and mutate, how individuals communicate, and who leads and who follows. Carleyâ''s programs, which process real data, stand out for their ability to help analysts imagine how a terrorist network might adaptâ''or notâ''after its leader is killed or captured.

Such work, concentrated in the United States and sustained by tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in funding by various intelligence organizations, including the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, points to a new era in training and intelligence analysis. The experts developing these systems are reticent about exactly how their programs are being used. But outside observers say it is a good bet that software designed to identify the critical people in a terrorist organization will be usedâ''if it hasnâ''t been alreadyâ''to draw up lists that prioritize which people should be killed or captured so as to do maximum damage to the organization.

There is, of course, no way to know whether Woodward was referring to these kind of social simulations and network analysis techniques. But the recent decrease in violence in Iraq coupled with Woodward's assertions suggest that if nothing else, U.S. intelligence has some new, very accurate arrows in its quiver. And at the very least, these sorts of research projects have contributed to a better understanding of how networks such as Al Qaeda in Iraq function.

Although it is virtually impossible for people outside the military and intelligence communities to assess the real impact of social network analysis tools on counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq, we know that they are being used there as part of the effort to break up networks that build and deploy IEDs, as Spectrum executive editor Glenn Zorpette points out in his current article in Spectrum, "Countering IEDs":

Attacking the network boils down in part to analyzing social networks, collecting and analyzing intelligence, and persistently surveilling places. It has been a difficult challenge, depending as it has on wildly incongruous data, tips, and reports from surveillance systems, such as unmanned aerial vehicles, and from local people suspicious of activity in their neighborhoods. â''Itâ''s a challenging new frontier,â'' says [Colonel Barry L.] Shoop. â''Combining an ­understanding of the psychology and sociology of terrorist networks with probabilistic modeling, complexity theory, forensic science, pattern recognition, and data mining to predict human behavior is new.â''

These techniques are so new that it's a good bet that targeted networks haven't figured out ways to counter them. Yet.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.

Load More