back to article To prevent 'lost' nukes, scientists suggest storing them in a hall of mirrors

Researchers say they have developed a method to remotely track the movement of objects in a room using mirrors and radio waves, in the hope it could one day help monitor nuclear weapons stockpiles. According to the non-profit org International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, nine countries, including Russia, the United …

  1. Ball boy Silver badge

    Not sure it's the right tech. to monitor nukes

    Monitoring a warehouse of one-off artworks, yes: I can see that a warehouse owner has a vested interest in making sure the articles haven't been tampered with; it's far less intrusive than installing movement sensors in picture frames, more able to cope with the introduction of a new item or intentional removal of one (re-signal the area, keep the updated signature), etc. - but for nukes? I'll monitor the silo a country has declared but how do we know that's the *only* silo the bad actors are using to store their fresh-from-the-factory atomic hell?

    1. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge

      Re: Not sure it's the right tech. to monitor nukes

      Well, first you need to believe the participating countries don't have secret stashes they never told you about. Good luck with that.

  2. ravenviz Silver badge

    “awaiting dismantlement”

    We’ll get on with it then!

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Sounds remarkably like a microwave car alarm from 30 years ago.

    Presumably these devices need to be tested and serviced and maintained every now again, like every other electro-mechanical device. To make sure that they remain safe for the owners and dangerous for their enemies. And surely that involves moving them about?

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      I'd also assume that even nukes in stockpile are going to get regular maintenance and checking. But you never know.

      The other problem is that you don't need AI to defeat this technique. If the equipment isn't secure and tamperproof then you just wait until the inspectors have run the test and left - then run the equipment yourself. That then gives you their baseline measurement. Which means you don't need an AI to predict anything.

      So the controls would need to be, if not tamperproof, at least remotely monitored?

      I suspect this might end up being an interesting academic idea that won't survive contact with the enemy.

  4. Anonymous Coward Silver badge
    Big Brother


    It seems to me that this relies on everything being perfectly stable. Any movement at all will trigger a change notification, but the system can't determine what specifically has changed. No any form of seismic activity could open you up to accusations of nuclear war preparation.

    Yes, I'm sure it's cheaper and easier than sending inspectors to tick a list. But if there are enough false warnings it'll end up costing significantly more.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Stability

      One of the problems is that some countries are reluctant to let inspectors in. Particularly if nuclear weapons are stored on military bases that also do other things, you're allowing nasty foreigners to come and look at your military secrets.

      it does therefore make sense to come up with inspection methods that can be done with minimal outside interference. As they're going to be more acceptable to the paranoid.

      However arms control is currently on the retreat. Putin is quitting everything - and hasn't been complying with most of it anyway, China are ramping up their nuclear arsenal from roughly equivalent in size to Britain and France to something an unknown amount bigger. North Korea aren't interested in arms control. Iran have either been outright flouting their nuclear agreements, or at least somewhat in breach for the last two decades. Israel still don't acknowledge having any nuclear weapons officially, so aren't likely to allow them to be monitored. And if Iran do go fully nuclear it's going to be hard to stop Turkey and Saudi Arabia joining the club.

      1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

        Re: Stability

        Blimey , I'd better go dig out the Protect and Survive manual :(

      2. DS999 Silver badge

        Re: Stability

        Don't forget India and Pakistan! They aren't likely to want the other to know what they've got.

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: Stability


          That's quite a complicated calculation. Nuclear weapons only "work" because other countries know you've got them and might use them. Given how awful they are, in most cases the best use of your nuke is not to use it. If you're forced to use them, it's going to be in dire emergency - which you'd rather avoid.

          So you need to have a strategy to communicate that you have them and that you're able to use them effectively.

          Equally, uncertainty seems to be a major component of nuclear strategy. It's even scarier to get into a potentially nuclear confrontation if you can't calculate the odds or the potential costs. Or at least that seems to be a major component of NATO nuclear strategy whenever I've had the misfortune to read about it. Presumably on the grounds that some dictator might think, "well the cost of this action is only two regional cities, and I've got loads of those..."

          Also, by submitting to inspection yourself, you get to know roughly what the enemy have got.

          Of course the other problem is that arms control was at least partly about saving money. Nuclear arms-races are expensive, so towards the end of Cold War it made sense to both get together and save some cash - and that made verification a sensible compromise. China is currently changing its nuclear posture, and that's causing the US to seriously worrry about its past decisions. Reducing tactical nuke stocks, and withdrawing whole types of theatre level systems made good sense in Europe at the end of the Cold War. But Putin's been in breach of that with the nuclear Iskander missiles for at least a decade. Plus China are building a range of such weapons. Hence Trump temporarily withdrawing from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty - and Putin not being interested in going back to it. Trump's argument was that Putin was in breach anyway and that China was developing medium range nuclear missiles - so the US needed to have them. The idea being if they kill your carrier group with a nuke, can you justify nuking one of their cities? Maybe not. Which might tempt them to try. Hence you have the ability to nuke one of their carrier groups right back. Or one of their amphibious groups transporting troops to Taiwan. Trump of course did it badly, and in a way that alienated the rest of his NATO allies - but then equally his NATO allies were ignoring the Russian breaches of the INF under the Obama administration, because it was cheaper and easier to ignore the problem and hope it might go away.

          So this one of those few issues where Trump wasn't being totally stupid - like his opposition to the Nordstream pipeline and his complaint of NATO allies under-investing in defence. Although, being Trump, his way of tackling it was of course megaphone diplomacy that was mostly counter-productive. Interestingly though it has since been revealed that Angela Merkel's government were so cynical as to offer to bribe Trump to drop his opposition to Nordstream with the promise that they'd also buy a certain amount of US liquified natural gas. And Trump refused. Thus being a rare example of Trump having the moral high ground, and acting on principal (God did I really just type that?) and Merkel being a cynical and dishones waste of space and not in fact the "new leader of the free world" as she was being hailed by her admirers back in the Trump days.

    2. DJO Silver badge

      Re: Stability

      In conjunction with CCTV it could be useful, saves some underpaid intern from having to sit through hours of screen time even more boring than welsh TV.

      CCTV is embarrassingly easy to spoof with recordings so do something like put a small display under the inspector's control in the CCTV field of view so the remote inspectors can confirm it's a live signal.

  5. johnck

    Red barrel

    Did they try replacing blue barrel with a red barrel of the same size in the same place to see if the system could detect that change? If the did it and it didn't detect a change then the system is pointless as a real thing could be replaced with a decoy and it wouldn't detect the change. If they haven't checked to see if it will detect such a change why not ?

    Also this system there still needs to be some way to verify that the value provided by the system to say that nothing has changed has actually been provided by the system when requested and isn't just a replay of an old value provided by the system, assuming it not continuous monitoring. If it is continuous monitoring you still need some way to make sure the data hasn't been tampered with on the way to it being checked, and the potential adversary has access to the hardware. Continuous monitoring also needs to cope with the fact that the things will move around in a bunker, for maintenance and testing if nothing else.

    As other have said, it might be useful for Art galleries, or warehouses where the owners don't want things to change, and its an interesting academic idea, but for nuclear weapon storage, no

    1. Paul Kinsler

      Re: replacing blue barrel with a red barrel

      FWIW, the article says the system uses radio waves, so the visible colour is unlikely to be relevant.

      Further, since the claim is system is sensitive to shifts of only a few millimeters, any new (or tampered-with) barrel would have to match the original sizing and positioning closely.

      It might indeed not be tamper proof. But it would make any tampering process at least somewhat more complicated than it was before, and therefore arguably more risky. Just because the idea is not a panacea does not mean it is not useful as part of a suite of controls.

  6. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

    Secure communications

    If the system does not have secure communications it can be defeated by a man in the middle attack. The man in the middle sends an extra ping to the storage facility and stores the result. From then on he can return that result to verification facilities as required and can make off with the bombs at his liesure.

  7. munnoch Bronze badge

    Fails like all forms of regression testing

    Did it do exactly the same thing as last time?

    Yes -- congratulations you didn't break it any more than it already is.

    No -- it could be more broken, it could be less broken, all you know is its different and now you need to figure out whether that was deliberate or not.

    So unless the stockpile stays completely static i.e. nothing is taken out for maintenance or dismantling then you have no idea what to conclude when the measurement changes.

    You need predicate based testing. Position of warhead #1 is X1Y1, position of warhead #2 is X2Y2...

  8. FuzzyTheBear

    Like anyone's going to want third party supplied equipment within the base ..

    And even more so , close to nuclear warheads ?

    Dreamers keep dreaming .. Noone's going to allow that on their bases.

    You got to be joking :D :D :D :D

  9. garwhale Bronze badge

    Let's get on with

    reducing the nuclear arms stockpile instead. Nuclear weapons cost tons of dosh ($450 billion to maintain the U.S. arsenal) and provide no benefit. At the very least, burn up the fissile material in nuclear power plants.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Let's get on with

      Nuclear weapons provide no benefit? Erm?

      What is the monetary value of WWIII not having happened? And if that happy circumstance was brought about by the existence of nuclear weapons, what therefore is the value of those weapons?

      Even if you think the Cold War could have been navigate without them, you still have cases like Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Where it is clear and obvious that Russia would be in an even worse position if they didn't posess nukes. German politicians have been absolutely clear that their fear or Russian nuclear power has stopped them at various points handing over weapons, or even allowing other countries to ship weapons they own - but Germany has veto power over. In the early war Germany even stopped the Baltic States from shipping artillery pieces that were left-over stock from the East German army - but because Germany were the origin of the end-user certificates - they still used their power to stop them being shipped on.

      You don't have to like nuclear weapons to acknowledge that they have a use. Even if that use is merely a threat.

      1. John H Woods Silver badge

        Re: Let's get on with

        Exactly, having them is using them. In fact it's the only sensible way of using them.

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: Let's get on with

          Could one argue that Project Orion is a sensible way of using your spare nuclear warheads?

  10. Anonymous Anti-ANC South African Coward Bronze badge

    This reminds me of where you're given two pictures, and have to find the differences between these two.

    Now, on that note, if you do a baseline measurement initially, then do another measurement 6 months down the line, and these two differ, then you'll know something got stolen, but what exactly got stolen is anybody's guess...

  11. atropine blackout

    A slight modification..

    .. might help discourage hacking this system.

    The interference pattern collected presumably depends on the frequency of the source, and if I understand the intent, they currently propose / use a constant RF frequency.

    That being the case, then perhaps a long-period pseudo-random sequence producing a (possibly very wide ) range of radio frequencies could produce a series of interferograms that would be quite hard to predict / spoof if you didn't know the sequence of RF frequencies.

    Provided you stay away from the worst water / atmospheric absorbers in the RF spectrum - tens of GHz up to THz I suppose - , you might also gain insights into the surface materials in the area being monitored - the drums / structure/ marker antennae will all have an RF absorption spectrum that will affect the interferogram for each frequency.

    That might well make tampering / substitution just a bit harder.

    I'm sure there are lots more variations on this theme; an interesting and unusual piece of work by the folks at the MPI.

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