TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: November 20

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Hacking out of prison: San Quentin inmates are learning to code.

By Charley Locke in EdSurge

2. Your breath could reveal a fake: How a beetle’s camouflage trick might make money harder to counterfeit.

By James Urquhart in Chemistry World

3. Russia has learned there’s a great deal it can get away with in Ukraine.

By Amy Knight in the New York Review of Books

4. Protected areas like wetlands and coral reefs are at highest risk from climate change but can also be part of the solution.

By Adam Markham at the Union of Concerned Scientists

5. A U.S. deal with Iran could reset the Mideast balance of power.

By Patrick Smith in the Fiscal Times

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.


Iran’s President Says a Nuclear Deal With the West Is ‘Certain’

Hassan Rouhani
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani participates in an interview in Tehran on Oct. 13, 2014 Mohammad Berno—AP

President Hassan Rouhani makes the pledge during a televised national broadcast

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took to the nation’s airwaves on Monday night to proclaim that a nuclear deal with the West will be signed ahead of a deadline in late November.

“We will find a solution to the nuclear subject and we believe that the two sides will certainly reach a win-win agreement,” said Rouhani, according to Iranian broadcaster Press TV.

Representatives from the U.S., E.U. and Iran are set to meet up in Vienna later this week to attempt to hammer out the details of the agreement. Diplomats issued the new Nov. 24 deadline after failing to meet an earlier target in July.

On Monday night, Rouhani struck a confident tone as he discussed the agreement, saying only the finer details of the deal need to be ironed out.

“Of course details are important too, but what’s important is that the nuclear issue is irreversible. I think a final settlement can be achieved in these remaining 40 days,” said Rouhani, according to a translation by Reuters.

The potential deal aims to guarantee that Iran’s nuclear program remains strictly for peaceful purposes. Iran has been hit with myriad sanctions by Western nations for moving ahead with a nuclear program that Tehran claims is engineered to meet the country’s scientific and energy needs. However, the U.S. and Israel have long argued that the Islamic Republic’s leadership has been attempting to develop a clandestine nuclear arsenal.

President Rouhani was swept into power 14 months ago after campaigning on a more moderate platform and signaling that he aimed to ease the animosity that’s been brewing between Washington and Tehran for decades. The potential nuclear deal is also seen as pivotal to staving off an all-out future war between Israel and Iran.

TIME politics

Why We Must Disarm the U.S.’s Unprecedented Nuclear Arsenal

Mayors of A-bombed Cities Issue Appeal To U.N. To Ban Nuclear Arms
Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui (C) speaks during the third session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons at the U.N. headquarters on April 29, 2014 in New York City. The Asahi Shimbun—2014 The Asahi Shimbun

The potential for so vast a massacre has never before existed.

August 6 is the 69th anniversary of the day the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The bombing of Nagasaki took place on August 9. An appropriate way to reflect on these events might be to contemplate our current nuclear arsenal and ask why it is being kept in place.

The U.S. has by far the most powerful nuclear arsenal on Earth. Our 14 Ohio-class submarines together carry the equivalent of at least 56,000 Hiroshima blasts. These ships are not a remnant of the Cold War. Eight were made after the opening of the Berlin Wall during the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

A fleet of 12 new Ohio-class submarines is currently undergoing design and construction: the first is scheduled for completion in 2021, the last in 2035. Also underway are a next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile and a next-generation heavy bomber, land-based and air-based delivery systems initiated by George W. Bush and continued by Barack Obama.

The country’s nuclear planners do not wait for a crisis to choose possible targets. Thousands of designated targets exist right now, often involving cities whose populations have no quarrel with us. Specific missiles have been assigned to each target city.

The U.S. citizenry cannot stop nuclear missiles once they are fired. Nor can we undo injuries—to humans, animals, plants and to the earth and sky themselves—once they are inflicted. Only by acting now— before they are fired and while the danger seems remote—can missiles be stopped and the injuries cancelled.

Polls conducted at the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies show that 73% of the U.S. population wants total elimination of nuclear weapons. But anonymous polls require no courage and carry no force. Making audible the population’s voice requires that people speak in their own voices and write their names, putting their opposition on record.

We have freedom over the ways we choose to express our opposition to these weapons. We have no freedom to determine what the stakes are or what happens if opposition fails.

Four factors make openly registering our opposition this summer and fall urgent:

1. Right now we have what we may never have again: a president who, in his Prague speech, put himself on record as saying nuclear weapons have to be eliminated. Furthermore, he acknowledged that because the U. S. is the only country to have used them, we are morally obligated to take the lead in eliminating them. So far Obama has failed to act. But if the U.S. population makes its will clear, he may act.

2. Next spring the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons will undergo its next five-year review at the United Nations. Article 6 requires that nuclear states give up their nuclear arms. Many of the treaty signers have expressed dismay and disgust with the failure of progress on Article 6. If by April 2015 the nuclear states have—after 45 years—still made little progress, the countries that have so far abstained from acquiring them may become convinced that a nuclear-free world is impossible. The dream of non-proliferation will end.

3. We have at present an ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who has written extensively about the moral horror of genocide inflicted on Armenians, Rwandans and others. She has criticized the United States for failing to act to stop genocide. Surely our citizenry can convince her that our own nuclear architecture is the genocide-ready instrument most in need of elimination.

4. The U.S. constitution makes Congress (through the requirement for a declaration of war) and the citizenry (through the second amendment) responsible for overseeing the country’s war making. A citizenry that turns its back on this responsibility is infantilized and marooned, severed from all governance. No one can take from us the authority over the country’s defense the constitution gives us; but if we do not act on it, it’s gone.

There are ways of honoring this responsibility that most of us might find too costly. Right now, Megan Rice, an 84-year old nun, is serving a three-year prison sentence for cutting through the security fences at the Oak Ridge, Tenn. nuclear facility. She and two companions set out in the middle of the night, crossing wilderness ground for several hours before they reached and broke through the fences. They risked not just prison sentences; they risked their lives.

The U.S. arsenal has taken away the right of self-defense from all creatures everywhere. Arrangements for so vast a massacre have never before existed on Earth. These arrangements must be unmade. They will not be unmade unless each of us steps forward and insists that it happen.

Elaine Scarry, who teaches at Harvard, is the author of Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom.

TIME National Security

Air Force Flunked Stolen Nuclear Weapon Test

An Air Force review called the failed drill a "critical deficiency," representing another setback for the Air Force nuclear program.

Security forces at a U.S. nuclear missile base failed to speedily recapture a stolen nuclear weapon in a simulated drill last year, according to a review obtained by the Associated Press.

The test failure came as the security team at Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base was responding to a hostile takeover of a Minuteman 3 nuclear missile silo. According to a review obtained by the AP through the Freedom of Information Act, the team showed an “inability to effectively respond to a recapture scenario” due to insufficient training and, lack of familiarity with “complex scenario” exercises and shortcomings in “leadership culture.”

The Air Force called the failure a “critical deficiency” at the base.

Military officials acknowledged a failed inspection of the base in August, but they did not publicly attribute it at the time to the failed simulation. Even the partially-censored review obtained by the AP does not specify what exactly went wrong.

A spokesperson for the Air Force Global Strike Command declined to comment further to the AP, but said nearly all of the recommendations in the review had already been put in place. An inspection of the base two months after the initial evaluation found no security weaknesses, according to the AP.

The Air Force nuclear missile corps has faced a series of recent embarrassments. A commander of the 450 Minuteman missiles was removed from his post last October after the Pentagon concluded that he drank too much and cavorted with “suspect” women on an official trip to Russia. And in March, the Air Force fired nine commanders at Malmstrom amid fallout from a cheating scandal.


TIME Ukraine

Eastern Ukrainian Separatists Say Referendum Is On Despite Putin’s Plea

A man guards a road intersection as pro-Russian activists strengthen the barricades in front of the Ukrainian regional office of the Security Service in Slavyansk, May 7, 2014.
A man guards a road intersection as pro-Russian activists strengthen the barricades in front of the Ukrainian regional office of the Security Service in Slavyansk, May 7, 2014. Alexander Zemlianichenko—AP

Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine plan to hold an autonomy referendum despite a request by Vladimir Putin to postpone. The coordinating committee of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic announced that it would hold the vote on Sunday

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine agreed Thursday to go ahead with a referendum on autonomy a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin urged postponing the vote.

The coordinating committee of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic met Thursday in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk and said afterward that the referendum would happen on Sunday as planned, the Associated Press reports. It’s unclear how the Kremlin will respond.

Putin said Wednesday the referendum should be postponed and claimed that Russian troops amassed along the border had pulled back, two moves apparently aimed at deescalating tensions in the region. Putin, however, maintained his calls for Ukraine’s military to cease operations against separatists that have spawned deadly clashes in eastern Ukraine.

The separatists’ announcement coincided with military exercises in Russia on Thursday involving the country’s nuclear forces, though those exercises have been planned since November.

TIME North Korea

North Korea: World Must ‘Wait and See’ on Next Nuclear Test

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un arriving at the Samjiyong airport in Ryaggang province in North Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un arriving at the Samjiyong airport in Ryaggang province in North Korea, April 1, 2014. KCNA/AFP/Getty Images

The Communist nation has conducted three nuclear tests in the past, and its recent threat came amid heightened tensions with South Korea. “The DPRK made it very clear, we will carry out a new form of nuclear test,” said a North Korean official

A North Korea official said at a UN news conference Friday that the world should “wait and see” what the government meant when it threatened earlier this week a “new form” of nuclear test.

“The DPRK made it very clear, we will carry out a new form of nuclear test,” Deputy UN Ambassador Ri Tong Il of North Korea (DPRK) said, according to Reuters. “But I recommend you to wait and see what it is.

The UN Security Council condemned North Korea March 27 for firing two medium-range Rodong ballistic missiles into the sea a day earlier, calling it a breach of U.N. resolutions but drawing the ire of the North. On Sunday, the official Korean Central News Agency published a statement threatening a “new form” of nuclear test, following three past tests, without elaborating on what that would mean.

Tensions between North and South Korea have spiked amid joint annual military exercises between South Korea and the United States. On Monday, North Korea fired shells across a disputed maritime border, prompting return fire from South Korea.

TIME Nuclear Weapons

U.S. Faces Challenges Maintaining Aging Nuclear Arsenal

Dismantled components of B-61 nuclear bo
Nuclear weapons, like this U.S. B61 bomb, contain thousands of parts DOE—Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Investigation reveals flaws in tending to the nation’s most deadly weapons

The last thing you hear when leaving the dealership behind the wheel of your new car is the salesperson. She’s reminding you to bring it back to the dealership for repairs to ensure the proper spare parts are used to keep it running like new.

You’d think the folks in charge of keeping the nation’s nuclear arsenal healthy would take the same approach. But they don’t.

That’s because the “configuration management” (CM) requirements — an “exact list, by version, of the drawings, specifications, engineering authorizations, manufacturing records and any other essential documents used in the development and qualification of a nuclear-weapon system or component” — haven’t been met, according to a new report from the Department of Energy (DOE) inspector general’s office.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) counts on those records to ensure its nuclear-warhead blueprints, and resulting upgrades, are correct. The failure to keep them that way has led to faulty parts being installed into the nation’s nuclear weapons. Compounding the problem is the fact that the nation’s nuclear-weapons blueprints are, well, falling apart. NNSA is the part of the DOE that oversees the nation’s nuclear stockpile.

“I’m pretty surprised,” Stephen Schwartz, a nuclear-weapons expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., said on Monday. “I would have thought that the people responsible for designing, building and maintaining our nuclear weapons would keep scrupulous records of what they did.”

Apparently, not so much.

“Our review … identified instances in which NNSA had not maintained accurate and complete CM information for its nuclear weapons and components,” the DOE inspector general says in a new report. “We also identified additional concerns with the use of nuclear-weapons parts and components that did not conform to specifications … sites did not always ensure that parts that did not conform to specifications were actually fit for use in a nuclear weapon.” Such actions “could negatively impact the reliability and safety of U.S. nuclear weapons.”

NNSA has acknowledged the inspector general’s concerns and has “proposed and initiated corrective actions are responsive to our findings and recommendations,” the inspector general said.

A big part of the problem is that the U.S. hasn’t built a new nuclear weapon since 1990. That’s pushing the nation to upgrade many existing ones, something that wasn’t generally considered when the weapons were built. It’s vital to have data on how those weapons were assembled, so their thousands of parts can be safely removed and upgraded. That’s also difficult to do when the blueprints are disintegrating.

“Irreplaceable nuclear-weapons CM information is degrading,” the inspector general said. “Specifically, film media and microfiche are being lost due to degradation, and radiographs are beginning to stick together, causing extensive damage and making the data unrecoverable.”

Many of the details are classified, but the issue is of sufficient concern that the inspector general’s office said it has received “multiple allegations” of improper record keeping when it comes to U.S. nuclear arms. In one case, a nuclear-weapons lab opted to use a nuclear-weapon part that didn’t meet required specifications, a shortcoming discovered only when a part in a second batch failed. Had the part in the second batch not failed, the first batch would likely have been installed on the W76-1, “resulting in a reliability concern for a component with nuclear-safety features.”

The Navy had to return 11 of 23 W76-1 nuclear warheads to NNSA because of wiring damaged by the use of commercial off-the-shelf parts in the warhead’s remanufacturing. “The W76-1 weapons were returned due to the discovery of dielectric material missing from a detonator-cable assembly,” the inspector general says. “Dielectric material acts as a nonconductor to a direct electric current and is used to help ensure that an electrostatic discharge does not accidentally set off the main charge of the weapon.”

The W76 is the warhead atop the missiles carried by the Navy’s Trident submarines. With a yield of 100 kilotons, it is seven times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Keeping the nation’s nuclear arsenal in shape has become more difficult as the companies and people who originally built it disappear. “Not having a fully implemented supplier quality-management program,” the inspector general warned, “can have devastating impacts on the reliability and safety of our nuclear weapons.”

Schwartz concurs. “This could have significant consequences,” he says. “This isn’t a one-off problem affecting one particular class of warheads — it looks like it’s affecting quite a lot of them.”

TIME North Korea

North Korea Threatens ‘New Form’ of Nuclear Test

N. Korea launches mid-range ballistic missiles
Rodong medium-range ballistic missiles in a military parade at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang in July 2013 Kyodo/AP

The communist nation warned on Sunday it would test an unspecified new kind of nuclear weapon despite global censure. Its new threat follows test-firings of two Rodong midrange ballistic missiles, which landed in the sea between North Korea and Japan on Wednesday

North Korea promised on Sunday to carry out a “new form” of nuclear test after a recent round of ballistic testing, heightening tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula.

The North’s Foreign Ministry didn’t specify what it meant by a “new form” of nuclear testing. However, Western allies have long believed the isolated state is trying to make small nuclear weapons that can be carried by intercontinental ballistic missiles, the New York Times reports.

Pyongyang’s new threat follows test-firings of two Rodong midrange ballistic missiles, which landed in the sea between North Korea and Japan on Wednesday.

North Korea prompted tightened sanctions and global condemnation when it carried out its third nuclear test a year ago.

“North Korea should bear in mind that if it ignores the stern demand from the neighboring countries and the international community and carries out a nuclear test, it will have to pay a price for it,” South Korea Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tae-young said.

North Korea has struck a defiant tone despite overtures from South Korea that include generous foreign investment if the North ends its nuclear program. Pyongyang’s warnings also come as North Korean and Japanese officials are meeting for their first high-level talks in more than a year.


TIME Military

Air Force Applies a Band-Aid to a Sucking Chest Wound

Secretary and Global Strike Command issue Malmstrom update
Lieut. General Stephen Wilson, chief of the Air Force's Global Strike Command, and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, detail what happened at Malmstrom. Scott Ash / Air Force

The Air Force punishes mid-level officers who failed to prepare for yesterday's war

Like doctors relying on leeches after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, Thursday’s action by the Air Force to punish missile officers who had cheated on tests, or their superiors, is a 20th century patent medicine for a 21st century wound.

The service, at a Thursday news conference, said it would cashier nine mid-level nuclear officers and will discipline scores of junior officers at Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base following a test-taking scandal that erupted there earlier this year. The colonel in charge of the base also submitted his resignation Thursday, along with most of his subordinate commanders, for their ignorance of widespread cheating on their watch. Similar cheating was not found at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., and F.W. Warren Air Force Base, Wyo.

“The best way to change a culture is to fire everyone down to about the O5 [lieutenant colonel] level, and replace them with people possessing the culture you want to instill,” says Tim Cerniglia, who served on a MX Peacekeeper crew at F.E. Warren in 1997-99 and says he remains in touch with currently-serving ICBM operators. “If [the punishment] is isolated to Malmstrom, then it is like excising a mole but ignoring the cancer. The rot goes much deeper than this.”

An older missileer agrees. “It’s implausible that missileer cheating was confined to Malmstrom,” says Bruce Blair, an Air Force launch officer during the 1970s who is now advocating for nuclear disarmament at Princeton University. “The Air Force is either in denial or it muffed the investigation. Cheating has been extensive and pervasive at all the missile bases, going back for decades.”

The Air Force maintained that such a broad cashiering of officers in charge of nation’s intercontinental ballistic missile force—450 ICBMs siloed at bases in Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming—was unprecedented. That may be true, as far as it goes. But the real issue is the lethargy that pervades the nation’s missileers since they’ve spent the past 20-plus years primed to attack… well, no one.

That’s the key: to keep the nuclear edge sharp, the U.S. military needs a clear, identifiable, acknowledged like-sized foe against which to hone it. Lacking such an enemy, the atomic blade, inexorably, will dull over time. It’s called, for lack of a better term, human nature. Let’s face it: Staring down the Soviets with the doctrine of mutually-assured destruction made a bizarre kind of sense during the Cold War, but those ICBMs are worthless when it comes to keeping Vladimir Putin’s troops out of Ukraine.

“I certainly picked up on spotty morale and micromanagement issues at all of the bases, and so did those who participated in our follow-on reviews,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James says. “The drive to always score a hundred percent on exams when 90 percent was the standard, and the use of these scores in some cases as the sole differentiator on who got promoted and who didn’t, just seemed inappropriate to me.”

The probe concluded that 91 officers cheated, or tolerating cheating, at Malmstrom. “It showed various levels of involvement from officers who sent, received, solicited test material, or those who simply had knowledge about it but failed to report it,” Air Force Global Strike Command commander Lieutenant General Stephen Wilson said.

According to Wilson, the Air Force investigation revealed that:

– Leadership’s focus on perfection led commanders to micromanage their people. They sought to ensure that the zero-defect standard was met by personally monitoring and directing daily operations, imposing an unrelenting testing and inspections, with the goal of eliminating all human error. This approach is unrealistic given the ICBM mission is built around redundancy through weapon system design, standardized procedures and teamwork.

– Leaders placed too much emphasis on monthly test scores. Although the required passing score is 90 percent, crewmembers felt pressured to score 100 percent on each and every test. Leaders lost sight of the fact that execution in the field is more important than what happens in the classroom. These were all bright officers. And as we’ve said before, none of these needed the information to pass the test. They felt compelled to cheat to get a perfect score.

– In the ICBM environment, there’s been an unhealthy overemphasis on perfection and a marked fear of failure, which kept airmen from identifying their weaknesses and working to correct them. Nuclear airmen perceive that any error would could receive high-level attention, derail advancement and could potentially end their career. The constant oversight, inspection and testing regimen alienated subordinates, and a lack of midlevel officers in the squadron contributed to a gap between squadron leaders and missile crews.

The Air Force has identified more than a half-billion dollars in ICBM infrastructure improvements to be spent on “our Minuteman squadrons, ICBM helicopter support and some critical communications areas,” James said.

Absent a foe, apparently, there’s always funding.


Japan to Turn Over Nuclear Cache to U.S.

Japan will hand over a decades-old stockpile of material large enough to build dozens of nuclear weapons in President Obama's biggest success yet in securing nuclear materials

Japan will turn over to the United States a stockpile of material large enough to build dozens of nuclear weapons, in the biggest success yet in President Barack Obama’s efforts to secure dangerous material.

On Monday, Japan will announce that it will hand over more than 700 pounds of weapons-grade plutonium and a large amount of highly-enriched uranium that is estimated at 450 pounds, the New York Times reports. American officials have been quietly pressing Japan to turn over the material, which is reportedly protected insufficiently, and the country has more than nine tons of plutonium stored at various locations throughout the country.

Some right-wing politicians in Japan see the stockpile as a deterrent, arguing that if the world knows Japan has the ability to turn nuclear material into weapons it is less likely to be attacked. Obama’s initiative has focused on securing nuclear material and pushing countries to harden their security to prevent it from falling into the hands of terrorists, and the Obama administration is hailing Japan’s decision to hand over its material as a success.

“This is the biggest commitment to remove fissile materials in the history of the summit process that President Obama launched,” Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall of the National Security Council told the Times. “It is a demonstration of Japan’s shared leadership on nonproliferation.”


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