Increased Efforts Needed to Secure Nuclear Stockpiles, Researcher Says

WASHINGTON — Increased efforts are needed to improve the security of stockpiles of nuclear weapons and related materials throughout the world, a Harvard University researcher said in a report released yesterday, calling such a move “the most critical and cost-effective step” toward preventing terrorists from obtaining nuclear weapons (see GSN, Sept. 23).

In the report, Matthew Bunn of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs outlined both the progress that has been made over the last year in increasing the security of nuclear stockpiles, as well as lingering obstacles to such efforts. Bunn warned of the dangers of terrorist groups obtaining nuclear weapons and said that securing the materials needed to produce such weapons would be the most effective means of preventing a possible terrorist nuclear attack.

“A nuclear bomb cannot be made without the necessary nuclear materials, and these materials are beyond the plausible capabilities of terrorists to produce. Thus, if the existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons and materials can be effectively secured and prevented from falling into terrorist hands, nuclear weapons terrorism can be effectively prevented: no material, no bomb,” Bunn said in the report, which was funded by the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Over the past year, the United States has made progress in improving the security of nuclear weapons and materials throughout the world through several measures, according to Bunn. He cited the progress made in installing security and accounting upgrades for an additional 35 out of an estimated 600 tons of nuclear material in Russia. Early this year, the United States and Russia also achieved a “breakthrough” in discussions to grant U.S. experts access to Russian nuclear warhead storage sites, with an initial agreement allowing U.S. experts to visit nine such sites, Bunn said. 

In addition, an additional 30 tons of Russian highly enriched uranium (HEU) has been diluted this year to low enriched uranium, resulting in 193 tons of Russian HEU destroyed by the end of last month — “enough for over 12,000 nuclear bombs,” according to Bunn.

He also praised international efforts to help secure nuclear materials. By the end of the year, Bunn said, experts from the International Atomic Energy Agency are scheduled to visit nine countries to review their materials and facilities security arrangements and to advise on possible improvements. In addition, the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Fund has received more than $20 million in funding pledges, including an additional $3 million pledged by the United States last month, he said (see GSN, Sept. 16).

Bunn also noted a joint U.S.-Russian operation conducted last month that removed more than 30 pounds of HEU from a Romanian research reactor and transported it to a Russian storage site for future dilution (see GSN, Sept. 22). He also warned, however, that more than 130 research reactors around the world still use HEU, which would provide terrorists their best opportunity to produce a nuclear weapon, “yet many of these have no more security than a night watchman and a chain-link fence.”

Obstacles RemainDespite these successful efforts to improve nuclear material security, Bunn outlined several obstacles that remain to be overcome. For example, he criticized the Bush administration’s focus on a dispute over liability provisions in threat reduction agreements with Russia (see GSN, Oct. 17). This “obscure dispute,” Bunn said, has led to the expiration of two major threat reduction agreements — the Nuclear Cities Initiative, which works to reduce the number of Russian nuclear weapons workers; and an agreement on technical cooperation to reduce excess weapon-grade plutonium stockpiles.

Bunn also criticized the Bush administration for ending efforts designed to improve security at Russian tactical nuclear warhead sites. He dismissed the administration’s position that such efforts would help improve Russia’s operational nuclear capabilities.

“In other words, Russian operational nuclear capabilities pose so little threat to the United States that we can have a strategic arms reduction agreement with no verification provisions at all, but so much of a threat to the United States that we should leave Russia’s nuclear weapons more vulnerable to falling into the hands of terrorists to avoid increasing those Russian capabilities. This policy can most charitably be described as incoherent,” Bunn said.

In addition, Bunn criticized the U.S. Congress for hindering threat reduction projects by adding “impractical certification and reporting requirements” and for considering loosening restrictions on HEU exports for use in producing medical isotopes. Congress is currently debating an energy bill that includes a provision for loosening such restrictions (see GSN, Oct. 6).

What Can Be Done?In his report, Bunn called on U.S. President George W. Bush to make a firm commitment to secure stockpiles of nuclear weapons and materials throughout the world.

“President Bush needs to say firmly to his administration: ‘I want to get all of the nuclear weapons and materials in the world effectively secured, and the materials removed entirely from the most vulnerable sites, just as quickly as that can possibly be done. I want a plan drawn up, and a management approach put in place where I can hold someone accountable for getting it done. I will tolerate no delays,’” Bunn said.

He also said that “a single mission-focused effort” that include the ability to provide incentives to reluctant countries was needed to remove stockpiles of nuclear materials from the world’s most vulnerable sites. Such a program, which could possibly be funded at about $50 million annually, “could eliminate many of the most serious nuclear terrorism dangers around the world in a few years,” Bunn said.

Bunn also urged the Bush administration to accelerate and strengthen its cooperation with Russia to secure nuclear stockpiles, and to work to build a global coalition to upgrade the security of nuclear stockpiles throughout the world (see GSN, June 2).

“Together, these three elements … form the central core of a plan that could drastically reduce the danger of nuclear terrorism within the next few years,” Bunn said.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: NTI is the sole sponsor of Global Security Newswire, which is published independently by National Journal Group.]

October 23, 2003
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WASHINGTON — Increased efforts are needed to improve the security of stockpiles of nuclear weapons and related materials throughout the world, a Harvard University researcher said in a report released yesterday, calling such a move “the most critical and cost-effective step” toward preventing terrorists from obtaining nuclear weapons (see GSN, Sept. 23).