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Matthew Bunn: U.S. Must Press Efforts to Improve Security of Nuke Materials
Some 25,000 nuclear weapons lie in the arsenals of at least nine countries, but the highest-probability danger the world faces is not a full-scale war. It is, rather, that a small group of terrorists could grab just enough highly enriched uranium from a poorly guarded site and assemble a crude device that could nevertheless devastate a city. The U.S. Congress and the administration of President George W. Bush must pay greater attention to this threat, nuclear security expert Matthew Bunn said at a AAAS briefing on Capitol Hill.
More than 2,300 tons of separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU), enough to make over 200,000 nuclear weapons, are scattered around the globe in dozens of countries, said Bunn, senior research associate at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Many of those sites are poorly protected, he added. Bunn addressed Senate staff members in Washington D.C. on 4 October, in conjunction with release of the sixth annual joint report of the Kennedy School's Project on Managing the Atom and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Securing the Bomb 2007. Bunn is author of the report; the briefing was organized by the AAAS Center on Science, Technology and Security Policy.
Terrorists have made documented attempts to steal or buy HEU over the past 15 years. Some of the known cases of seizure of stolen nuclear material were the result of sting operations, Bunn noted, adding that what we do not know is whether these efforts were just the tip of an iceberg. No terrorists are known to have acquired nuclear materials thus far. It is not as difficult to construct a nuclear bomb as we would like it to be, Bunn told the staffers, as long as one has the nuclear material.
A terrorist would not have to steal very much, Bunn said. "The nuclear material to make the very simplest kind of bomb, a gun-type bomb, would more or less fit in a six-pack. The nuclear material to make an implosion bomb, if it's a plutonium implosion bomb, would fit in a single Coke can." The best way to thwart terrorists, he said, is to prevent their access to nuclear materials in the first place, thus the need for upgraded security worldwide.
"We've heard from politicians time and again that securing nuclear materials is among the highest priority tasks," said Benn Tannenbaum, associate program director of the AAAS center. "Dr. Bunn presents a clear analysis of what's been done and how much work still needs to be done, and I hope that policy makers realize that we are far from completing this important job."
The new report notes areas of significant improvement in nuclear weapons security in the past year. In particular, Russia is credited with beefing up the protection of its nuclear materials, scattered at over 100 sites around the country. In past years, security doors to some of these facilities had been propped open for the convenience of staff, among other shortcomings.
In Pakistan, said Bunn, nuclear weapons are considered to be well-guarded, with multiple layers of protection, but many jihadist groups operate there, including al Qaida, and some officials responsible for safeguarding nuclear stockpiles may be sympathetic to them. In many other countries, research reactors on university campuses are scarcely guarded at all, as administrators do not perceive them to be possible terrorist targets. Japan, he said, significantly upgraded its once-lax nuclear security following the terror attacks of 11 September 2001.
Bunn, who worked on U.S.-Russian nuclear security issues in the administration of President Bill Clinton, urged the Bush Administration to take five key steps:
Appoint a senior official to lead and coordinate American efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism—and, importantly, convince other states to do the same. Bunn noted that this appointment was mandated in legislation enacting the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, which President Bush signed into law in August, but he has not yet acted on this provision.
Launch a global campaign to secure nuclear stockpiles, raising the issue at every opportunity with every country possessing nuclear stockpiles.
Develop global standards for protection of nuclear weapons and potential bomb material, because security is only as strong as the weakest link. The United Nations Security Council mandated a set of actions to prevent proliferation of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons to "non-state actors" (terrorist groups), in its Resolution 1540 of 2004.
Build strong "security cultures" that will sustain nuclear security efforts abroad.
Make stronger efforts to eliminate potential bomb-making material from as many sites worldwide as possible, by shutting down superfluous reactors and removing HEU.
Energy and Water appropriation bills in both Houses, which must be passed quickly, as they provide substantially increased funds for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative;
The amendment offered by Senators Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to the Senate's Foreign Operations appropriation bill, requiring the president to submit a comprehensive plan to ensure the safety of nuclear materials worldwide;
A separate Obama-Hagel bill, including a broad initiative on nuclear nonproliferation and counter-nuclear terrorism;
Bills introduced by Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), establishing a single leader for preventing nuclear terrorism and provide funds for blending HEU down to levels that are not sufficiently enriched to use in weapons;
Two House bills introduced by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), defining any transfer of weapons of mass destruction or related materials to terrorists as a crime against humanity and increasing funding for nuclear forensics.
In addition, said Bunn, Congress could undertake a variety of actions, such as increasing the administration's budget requests in relevant areas and directing President Bush to put nuclear security at the top of the national security agenda. But in the final analysis, he said, the president must take the lead for these efforts to succeed.
18 October 2007