Global Security Newswire
Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues
Global Nuclear Materials Lockdown to Take Longer Than Four Years
WASHINGTON -- A senior U.S. official last week signaled that President Obama's goal of securing the world's loose nuclear material is likely to take longer than the four-year time frame he gave shortly after taking office (see GSN, Jan. 26).
"We're looking at a focused four-year effort, that doesn't mean all material is secure in 2013," Laura Holgate, National Security Council senior director for WMD terrorism and threat reduction, said Thursday in remarks at a nuclear deterrence forum in Arlington, Va. "We all know that that's a long-term proposition, and, in fact, a perpetual proposition, but we are working together with our international partners in a global effort that is trying to make as much progress against that ambitious goal as we can in that four-year time frame."
"There has never been any question among those involved in these programs that there will be work to do after December 2013. As long as nuclear materials exist, security responsibilities will persist," she later said during a panel discussion.
Loose nuclear material is generally defined as actual weapons, fissile material or atomic know-how from the former Soviet Union and beyond that could fall into the hands of rogue nations or nonstate actors. The containment of such material became a cornerstone of a sweeping nonproliferation agenda Obama laid out in an April 2009 speech in Prague.
"I am announcing a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years," the president said.
To that end, the White House last spring convened the first of its kind Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. World leaders and dignitaries from nearly 50 countries pledged there to secure global stocks of nuclear material within the four-year time frame and agreed to hold a second security summit in 2012 in South Korea.
The schedule has been cited widely by the nongovernment community, the media and even administration officials.
"I'll tell you the four-year goal will end in 2013," Anne Harrington, deputy chief of the National Nuclear Security Administration, told reporters last week during that agency's budget rollout.
"The impression we may have had a couple years ago was that there was some sort of goal within four years," said Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists.
However, a Government Accountability Office report issued in December found a number of flaws with the administration's efforts to achieve the four-year plan, including a lack of specific details concerning the initiative's implementation and questions on which sites would be addressed. The overall schedule was also unclear, congressional auditors said (see GSN, Dec. 16, 2010).
Those issues mirrored concerns held by some nongovernmental organizations after the White House first unveiled the ambitious time line, Ferguson said.
When experts had initial conversations with administration officials, "We'd say, so what do you really mean by that? How are you defining vulnerable? When you say all, to the layperson that implies the entirety of nuclear material that could potentially be used in a device through the whole world," Ferguson told Global Security Newswire during a Friday phone interview.
The Obama administration told auditors that "the four years should not be considered a hard and fast deadline for completing nuclear material security work worldwide," William Hoehn, a senior GAO analyst who contributed to the report, said last week at the deterrence summit.
Officials said the "real value" of the plan should be seen as its "forcing function" to accelerate existing U.S. efforts and mobilize international awareness to the threat of nuclear terrorism, "not as an effort to beat the clock and achieve a certain level of nuclear material security internationally within a certain time limit," Hoehn said in his prepared remarks.
"I think we need to get off the four-year objective and recognize what its importance was," Kenneth Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security, said during the same conference. "Its importance was a driver ... it focused attention and it drove actions and I think all of those things are extremely important but it is a long-term effort and I think we need to now start thinking about what are we going to do over the long-term."
Holgate touted the administration's nuclear security progress since the April summit, saying various U.S. threat reduction programs had secured roughly 20 sites around the world that contained thousands of kilograms of atomic material. In addition, 40 buildings and sites inside Russia have been secured, she added.
Moscow has also helped to safeguard 2 tons of weapon-grade uranium removed from Ukraine and other countries, according to Holgate.
Meanwhile, Japan recently stood up the Integrated Comprehensive Support Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Nuclear Security for Asia (see GSN, Feb. 10). The facility will provide training to security forces on nuclear counterterrorism, atomic material safeguards and regulations. Similar sites are expected to open in China, India and South Korea in the coming years, Holgate told the audience.
The current budget climate is another reason why the four-year time frame could be extended, she added.
Last week, the House of Representatives passed a GOP-backed bill that would cut $60 billion in discretionary spending for this budget year. That could take $1.1 billion from the National Nuclear Security Administration's proposed spending plan, including $647 million from its nuclear nonproliferation operations, Foreign Policy magazine reported before the House vote (see GSN, Feb. 18).
The overall budget blueprint for this fiscal year has not been passed, and federal spending has been mostly frozen at fiscal 2010 levels under a continuing resolution approved by Congress in December.
"Obviously we can only do the things we have the resources to do. Money is constrained, our opportunities are constrained, and we may find ourselves in a position of not being able to help countries who have made commitments in the Nuclear Security Summit in expectation we will have the resources to help them. They might not be able to do that," according to Holgate.
Specifically, the effort to remove all highly enriched uranium from Belarus could be at risk, she said. That country last year announced it would eliminate all of its Soviet-era weapon-grade uranium before the next global Nuclear Security Summit in 2012 (see GSN, Dec. 1, 2010).
Experts estimate the nation possesses between 375 pounds and 815 pounds of highly enriched uranium, including 90 pounds that has been enriched to the 90 percent level required to fuel a warhead.
"There's a lot in those budgets that you can't expect them to be cut and then the level of programmatic behavior to proceed. We're defending those cuts vigorously with specific details about what's at risk and we'll continue to do so," Holgate told the audience.
Luongo said officials must find another way to sustain momentum on nuclear security, because "as you get closer to that four-year date and you don't meet it, irrespective of whether it was hard and fast or not, people are going to start to fall away from it."
Convening a nuclear security summit every two years would be one way to re-energize the process and avoid a potential tapering off in enthusiasm and attention paid to the issue at the political level, according to Luongo.
Still, Holgate's comments leave doubt about the administration's efforts going forward, according to Ferguson.
"It's kind of vague when [Holgate and other administration officials] say, 'Well, we're going to make a hard effort,'" he told GSN. "One concern I have is that now we don't seem to have any clarity as to what are we going to try to achieve by the end of 2013."
Holgate is correct that nuclear security is an ongoing process, he added. "You don't get to a certain date and say, 'Yep! Everything's done!' Security is like out of sight, out of mind then and that's dangerous because then you become complacent" and set the stage for a potential catastrophe in the future.
Ferguson added that he understood the budgetary constraints Holgate and others were working under but "there are those of us within the NGO world saying, we understand fiscal reality but you're cutting off your nose to spite your face."
"These are very important programs and they don't cost that much money," Ferguson told GSN.
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