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Nations Back Global Threat Reduction Initiative

By Greg Webb

Global Security Newswire

VIENNA — More than 90 nations agreed Sunday to support a U.S. initiative to reduce the vulnerability of nuclear and radiological materials worldwide. U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) in May and received a broad endorsement for the effort during a two-day “partnership” meeting here (see GSN, Sept. 16).

Abraham indicated Saturday that the United States would direct another $3 million toward initiative activities, adding to the more than $400 million already committed.

The threat reduction initiative seeks to identify and secure potentially dangerous materials at international nuclear research reactors. In particular, the program seeks to prevent terrorists from acquiring fresh highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel — which could be used to create a nuclear weapon if enough were stolen — as well as spent reactor fuel, which could be used to make “dirty bombs.”

The weekend meeting was jointly coordinated by the United States and Russia and held in the shadow of the adjacent International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters, as officials there discussed Iran’s nuclear activities (see related GSN story, today).

The GTRI effort was described by one U.S. official as being “like motherhood: everyone is for it,” and a number of recent successes have bolstered its startup. In particular, the United States has financed or administered several missions to transfer fresh HEU fuel, from research reactors in Eastern Europe and central Asia, back to Russia, the original supplier.

Despite these successes, implementation of the global effort poses daunting obstacles, according to experts here. The hurdles consist of an incomplete inventory of nuclear materials worldwide, the cost of implementing reactor security or conversion measures, and some nations’ resistance to surrendering materials they believe give them more international standing.

The hopes for the program are ambitious.

“The challenge we face in the 21st century … is not just a challenge related to securing dangerous materials,” Abraham said in his opening statement to the meeting. “Rather, the challenge that confronts us is directed at thwarting the aims of senseless killers, killers always searching for more treacherous means to sow terror and death.”

To date, U.S.-sponsored missions have returned weapon-usable materials from a number of research reactors to Russia. These missions include the repatriation of 48 kilograms of HEU fuel from Serbia (see GSN, Aug. 23, 2002), 14 kilograms from Romania (see GSN, Sept. 22, 2003), 17 kilograms from Bulgaria (see GSN, Dec. 29, 2003), nearly 17 kilograms from Libya (see GSN, March 8), and most recently 11 kilograms of enriched uranium from Uzbekistan (see GSN, Sept. 14). 

In addition, the United States recently retrieved spent nuclear fuel assemblies it had provided to research reactors in Germany (see GSN, Aug. 13).

More missions are expected in the near future, with Russia’s top nuclear official Alexander Rumyantsev announcing Monday that discussions were under way to remove fresh fuel from Ukraine and the Czech Republic, and that efforts to collect spent fuel are being negotiated with Uzbekistan and Serbia.

These missions, however, have dealt only with known stocks of fresh and spent fuel.

A looming problem might be to simply identify and locate all the nuclear materials in the United States and Russia as well as the material those nations have supplied to the world over the past five decades.

“The first task we must undertake involves creating an official inventory of high-risk materials worldwide, which includes, but is not limited to, materials located at enrichment plants, conversion facilities, reprocessing plants, research reactor sites, fuel fabrication plants and temporary storage facilities. It also includes the kinds of material that could be used in a [radiological dispersal device],” Abraham said.

This task would certainly be complicated at a global level, experts here said, but of more worry perhaps would be the initial problem of creating an accurate database of materials located in the former Soviet Union.

“We are well aware of the location of research reactors and critical assemblies,” Rumyantsev said in a press briefing Sunday.

However, two U.S. officials said that the movement of nuclear research materials was so pervasive during the Soviet era that Russia does not have a complete understanding of where the materials are today.

An additional hurdle could be paying for the initiative on a global scale. The United States has so far funded the operations, but the plan calls for more expensive activities, such as converting HEU-fueled reactors to use lower enrichment levels.

A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report noted that in the United States itself there are eight research reactors that could be converted to use low-enriched fuel, but so far no funds have been allocated for that work (see GSN, Aug. 2).

Also hindering the initiative’s progress is the prospect that some nations could be reluctant to abandon their nuclear facilities, according to Bill Potter, director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

In Russia alone, Potter said, no research facility has completely parted with its highly enriched uranium. The Russian sites “do attach importance of certain kinds to the presence of HEU,” he said.

Therefore, in applying that experience to other former Soviet states and the wider world, it is critical that U.S. officials work diligently to understand what factors are important — including financial and political — to both site officials and national leaders, Potter said.

Despite these potential threats to the initiative’s progress, optimism abounded at the weekend meeting. Rumyantsev reported that 13 of the 17 nations with HEU-fueled research reactors have agreed to switch to low-enriched fuel. The remaining four face technical hurdles that will need more time to overcome, he said, but the problems would be solved.

“Together with the U.S. Department of Energy, we will certainly bring this job to conclusion,” Rumyantsev said.

NTI Analysis