Former LANL Chemist Blogs On All Things Nuclear

By Anne Constable
The Santa Fe New Mexican.

One Santa Fean paying close attention to the historic nuclear deal with Iran is Cheryl Rofer, a retired Los Alamos National Laboratory chemist who has worked on environmental cleanup projects in Estonia and Kazakhstan.

On Nuclear Diner, the blog she writes with two other people, Rofer posts her own views about Iran agreeing to curb its nuclear program in return for the end of United Nations sanctions, as well as topics such as civilian power reactors, nuclear weapons and nonproliferation. “I’m trying to write things other people aren’t writing that I think important,” she said in a recent interview.

Sometimes, she admits, she gets into the “wonky weeds,” but Nuclear Diner’s goal is to “give explanations that help people make sense of what they are seeing in the news.”

Last Sunday was an example of such a post. It addressed concerns about the verification provisions of the Iran nuclear deal.

“Not mentioned is that all the parties to the agreement have access to highly detailed photographs of the earth’s surface, updated frequently,” she wrote. “Those photos are part of what the government calls National Technical Means. In the United States, it is run by the National Reconnaissance Office.

“But there’s yet another layer of verification. Satellite photos are easily available to the public. Look up your house on Google Earth or Google Maps. It’s fun, and a lot of people do it.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors will have access to Iranian uranium mines and mills, processing facilities, and centrifuge factories, she pointed out. “All of these facilities can also be watched from above. Mines are easier to see than centrifuge factories, but the centrifuge factories have additional verification measures to open up their visibility.”

She writes, “The [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] verification is tight enough that, in order to make a bomb, Iran would have to open up a parallel chain from mine to centrifuge. Only one link in that chain, one facility, needs to be uncovered.”

Rofer, 71, grew up in northern New Jersey in a family that believed in learning. “Anything I wanted to do was fine with them,” she said. As a kid, Rofer knew she would be some kind of scientist — after she determined there were “other things besides being a fireman.”

She left Ripon College in Wisconsin after her junior year to pursue a master’s degree in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. It was the 1960s, and out of 100 new graduate students, she said, only six were women. They were treated equally, she recalled, but “Nobody said, ‘Cheryl, you really should go on for a Ph.D.’ ”

After receiving her degree, Rofer got a job in 1965 as a technical writer in the reactor division at Los Alamos National Laboratory where her husband at the time was working as a materials engineer. She worked there for 35 years in different capacities, including in laser isotope separation, supercritical water oxidation and environmental cleanup.

In the 1990s, Rofer worked with the Estonian environmental minister to clean up a tailings pond on the Gulf of Finland. A former yellowcake plant that was now processing rare earths — chemical elements found in the Earth’s crust that are vital to many modern technologies, including consumer electronics — was causing concern in the region.

She also worked on a proposal for the removal of the surface contamination at Semipalatinsk, a nuclear test site in Kazakhstan.

After retiring from the lab in 2001, Rofer joined with two retired State Department employees, Pat Kushlis and Pat Sharpe, to start Whirled View, a blog where people could talk about international affairs. In 2011, she joined with Susan Voss, a nuclear engineer, and Molly Cernicek, an international relations entrepreneur, both of whom have worked at the lab, to launch Nuclear Diner.

Voss has worked on a space nuclear reactor with the Russians, and Cernicek is starting up a laser building plant in Russia.
“We think nuclear weapons need to be controlled,” Rofer said. “And because we’ve worked in other countries, we see the opportunity of working with them.”

She said she supports the new Iran deal, and “I agree with Obama that the pathways [for Iran to build nuclear weapons] are cut off. … Overall, it’s very good.”

“The inspection protocol,” she said, means that “the international inspectorate is going to be inspecting all the way from mines through centrifuge manufacturing. They will see if Iran is trying to break out.”

While “Iran does have a history of concealing plants and not totally coming clean on some experiments,” it has been adhering to the joint plan for action for the last year, she noted, and it has “given up so much in this. That suggests to me they really don’t have the desire to build a nuclear weapon.”

The U.S. has signed agreements with other countries “without knowing the entire history of what they did,” she said. “It’s the future that’s more important,” and the deal “really nails [that] down.”

Some of the doubters wanted to keep Iran from developing all forms of nuclear power, but Rofer pointed out that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty gives nations the right to peaceful uses of nuclear power. Moreover, as the president pointed out, there is no international consensus on a complete ban.

“It would be nice if Iran had no enrichment program, but that’s not going to happen,” Rofer said.

And she disputes claims that the Iranians would be able to hide activities not allowed under the deal. “We’re looking at them all the time. If something happened, the NGOs, governments, a gaggle of people across the Internet are going to notice,” she said.

The deal was endorsed Monday by the U.N. Security Council and the European Union foreign ministers. Congress, where many Republicans oppose it, has 60 days to consider the deal.

Because she finds international affairs fascinating, Rofer spends four hours or more a day on her computer, researching related issues and writing blog posts. But she’s also a trustee at her alma mater, is interested in photography, and a few years ago took up piano again and is now mastering Bach’s Two-Part Inventions.

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