Nuclear Security Expert Urges Stronger Commitment to Keep Materials from Terrorists

Despite solid gains in the quest to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands, the world is not yet on track to secure all such materials in four years as advocated by the Obama administration, a Harvard University specialist on nuclear security says.

Matthew Bunn, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told a AAAS-organized briefing on Capitol Hill that nuclear terrorism is an urgent issue that must be addressed at the highest levels of government.

Matthew Bunn

“Nuclear terrorism is a real threat,” Bunn said. “People who say it is far beyond the capacity of terrorists to accomplish are wrong. People who say it is easy for terrorists to accomplish are also wrong. But it is a plausible and real risk that we have to deal with, particularly given the consequences” if terrorists were able to make a crude nuclear bomb using stolen materials.

Security is not as good as it needs to be to protect against the sophisticated threats that terrorists and thieves already have shown then can pose, Bunn told several dozen congressional staffers and others..

There is reasonably credible information, he said, that al-Qaida operatives are interested in acquiring nuclear materials or weapons, including an attempt in 2003 to purchase what they believed to be three Russian nuclear devices. There is no evidence they succeeded, but the terror group has made clear its intentions, Bunn said.

Making weapons-usable highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium is considered well beyond the capability of terror groups. Stealing or buying such material on the black market would put them much closer to the possibility of constructing a crude nuclear device, Bunn said. Weapons-usable nuclear materials are kept in hundreds of buildings and bunkers, many in need of beefed up security, in dozens of countries.

The recent nuclear summit in Washington helped put a spotlight on the nuclear security issue, and Bunn said there were some encouraging developments such as a pledge by Ukraine to eliminate all of its highly enriched uranium by 2012.

But it is now critical for leaders in the United States and elsewhere to seize the momentum, he said. “It’s going to take a lot of sustained, high-level leadership,” Bunn said. Effective and lasting nuclear security will not be achieved until key policymakers and nuclear managers come to believe that nuclear terrorism is a real threat to their countries’ security, he said.

Bunn spoke at a 3 May briefing sponsored by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.

President Barack Obama, in a speech in Prague early last year, called nuclear terrorism the “most immediate and extreme threat to global security” and laid out his hopes for securing all nuclear materials around the world by 2013. His administration is seeking a substantial increase in U.S. nuclear security funding to help bring that about. Bunn said the administration’s proposed 2011 budget request includes $559 million for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative, a 67 % increase from last year. The request also calls for $74.5 million in new spending for a “global nuclear lockdown” program and more than $25 million for upgrades in materials protection, control, and accounting methods in Russia and elsewhere.

At least those amounts, and probably more, will be required, he said, if the U.S. is to have any hope of encouraging and helping nations around the world to adequately secure their bomb-usable supplies of HEU and plutonium.

Bunn is co-principal investigator for the Harvard Project on Managing the Atom, which produces an annual report on the status of efforts to secure nuclear materials. The recently released “Securing the Bomb 2010” notes that the United States has helped remove all the HEU from nearly 50 facilities around the world, many of them in the former Soviet Union. Upgrades in security and materials accounting procedures have been completed at 210 of an estimated 250 facilities in Russia and Eurasia where weapons-usable materials are kept. Nineteen nations have removed all weapons-usable material from their soil, the report says, with four of them doing so since President Obama’s Prague speech.

But serious threats remain. “Securing the Bomb 2010” reports 18 documented cases of theft or loss of plutonium or HEU and several incidents showing striking evidence of security weaknesses (including an armed attack in 2007 on a South African site housing hundreds of kilograms of HEU). Probably the highest risk is posed by Pakistan, the report says. That volatile nation has a small, heavily guarded stockpile of nuclear materials that faces immense threats of theft both by insiders and outsiders.

Russia, which still has the world’s largest nuclear stockpile in the largest number of buildings and bunkers, continues to have important security weaknesses, including threats posed by corruption and potential thefts of material by insiders.

There also remains a risk that HEU could be diverted from one of the small research reactors at universities and other institutions. Many such facilities have only modest security measures in place, even in the United States, according to the report.

Bunn argued for a broad approach to nuclear security, including consolidation of nuclear materials at fewer, less vulnerable sites through a variety of financial incentives and policy tools. He said it might be possible to reduce the number of countries with weapons-usable nuclear material by half in four years, but only if political leaders are convinced of the need to take aggressive action.

Among his recommended steps to help convince them: Wider sharing of information among intelligence agencies; joint threat briefings by experts from various nations; nuclear terrorism exercises and simulations and “red team” tests of the effectiveness of existing nuclear security measures; and shared data bases on incidents related to nuclear security.

Nuclear security in the former Soviet Union was enhanced by U.S.-funded upgrades at weapons sites and a program to purchase Soviet-made HEU and blend it down to a low-enriched form that can be used in American power reactors. (Bunn noted that reactors using Russian-origin fuel now supply the electricity for one of every 10 light bulbs in the United States.)

It will not be possible for the United States to negotiate and fund similar programs for all relevant nuclear sites around the world in time to meet the stated four-year goal for securing all nuclear materials, Bunn said. Such an ambitious plan will work only if U.S.-funded efforts are combined with security improvements and material removals that key countries carry out by themselves.

But Congress, in addition to passing the administration’s 2011 budget request for nuclear security, has other opportunities to help reduce risks. Among Bunn’s suggestions:

  • Consider increased funding in other areas, such as the U.S. contribution for the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Office of Nuclear Security, and establish new incentives to move away from use of potential bomb materials, such as the use of HEU in the domestic production of medical isotopes.
  • Mandate priorities for intelligence collection, with more attention to nitty-gritty questions about nuclear facilities abroad, including adequacy of staff compensation and morale, corruption at the sites, and presence of criminal or terrorist activity in the area.
  • Expand efforts with other countries to put in place tough penalties for nuclear theft and smuggling.

Bunn said it is important for the U.S. to lead by example. “It’s tough to convince other countries to do these all things if we aren’t doing them ourselves,” he said. He cited a need, for example, to harmonize security measures for HEU and plutonium at all domestic facilities, whether under authority of the Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of Defense, or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“There is a huge gap between the security required if you’ve got 500 kilograms of HEU metal at a DOE facility versus if you’ve got exactly the same quantity and type of material and you are a private facility regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” Bunn said. “Terrorists don’t care who owns the facility. We ought to have the same rules for the same kind of material.” He said HEU-fueled civilian research reactors should not be exempted from security measures such as armed guards, perimeter fencing, and intrusion detectors.

Bunn also cited the need to upgrade protection against insider threats at U.S. facilities.

“At a lot of facilities in the United States, we have amazing protections against outsider threats,” he said. He noted that Oak Ridge National Laboratory has an armored personnel carrier with a gun that can fire 3000 armor-piercing rounds a minute.

But the lab is allowed to assume under DOE rules that if employees have obtained security clearances, “they are not going to become active, violent insiders,” Bunn said. Experience at other institutions with valuable material such as banks, suggests that the biggest thefts are pulled off by insiders, he said.

“We ought to be paying more attention to that,” he said, with programs that regularly assess and improve the security culture at nuclear facilities.