Nuclear Security Plan Requires Additional Leadership, Funds, Experts Say

(Feb. 26) -Workers load spent highly enriched uranium into a transport container for removal from Romania. A U.S. plan to secure all loose nuclear material within four years would require significant additional investments and White House participation, according to experts (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).
(Feb. 26) -Workers load spent highly enriched uranium into a transport container for removal from Romania. A U.S. plan to secure all loose nuclear material within four years would require significant additional investments and White House participation, according to experts (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).

WASHINGTON -- Sustained executive leadership and more money in future budget cycles will be needed to even attempt to meet U.S. President Barack Obama's goal of securing the world's loose nuclear material within four years, according to a pair of nuclear experts (see GSN, Jan. 13).

"In order to get this job done in four years we are going to have to do more and we're going to have to do it faster and that's going to take more money," said Matthew Bunn, a principal investigator at Harvard University's Project on Managing the Atom.

The White House must play a role in overcoming obstacles to international cooperation -- such as complacency about the threat of nuclear terrorism, national sovereignty concerns over nuclear security and bureaucratic entanglements -- in order for the worldwide effort to succeed, according to Bunn.

The president's fiscal 2010 budget for programs related to nuclear security "was totally inadequate to the mission that he laid out both in the [presidential] campaign" and his nonproliferation speech in Prague last year, said Kenneth Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security.

The dollar figure for international WMD security programs across the federal government was reduced by $200 million from the 2009 budget cycle, he said. While the fiscal 2011 spending plan unveiled earlier this month is an improvement over the present fiscal year, the administration missed a chance to "frontload" the four-year effort," he said.

That "is not getting this process off on a very positive start," Luongo told Global Security Newswire yesterday during a telephone interview.

On Wednesday, the pair briefed congressional staffers about the nature of the nuclear threat and suggested steps lawmakers could take to help achieve the president's objective. They also warned that even if the president and Congress acted, it was unlikely the goal would be met within four years.

Loose nuclear material usually refers to actual warheads, highly enriched uranium or plutonium and even expertise 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 the nonproliferation agenda Obama laid out shortly after taking office. "I am announcing a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material worldwide," the president said in Prague last April.

To that end, the administration has planned a nuclear security summit for April 12 to 13 in Washington and invited over 40 countries to discuss strategies for carrying out the idea. Each nation is expected to show up with a list of initiatives it plans to undertake.

The summit will raise the issue of nuclear security "to a political level that it really hasn't been addressed at before in most countries," Bunn said yesterday during a telephone interview.

Budget Concerns

Under the budget blueprint rolled out Feb. 1 the National Nuclear Security Administration would receive a 13.4-percent funding increase for a total of $11.2 billion (see GSN, Feb. 2).

The agency, a semiautonomous branch of the Energy Department, would have roughly $2.7 billion for its Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation effort, which encompasses a number of programs designed to stop the spread of nuclear materials. If approved, that would be a nearly 26-percent increase in funding for the initiative.

A significant portion of that money -- about $560 million, up from $333.5 million this fiscal year -- would go to the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which aims to track down, protect and eliminate potential radiological and nuclear-weapon materials. The program also converts HEU-fueled research reactors to use proliferation-resistant low-enriched uranium fuel.

The proposed increase "comes at the expense of the radiological mission," according to Luongo, where programs have seen their funding decrease in recent years.

He also noted that the "outyear" budget for the threat reduction program "backloads" it between 2013 and 2015, after the four-year time frame laid out by the president.

Budget documents show the GTRI program is slated to receive nearly $660 million in fiscal 2013, followed by $987 million in fiscal 2014 and then more than $1 billion in the following budget cycle.

"If you're going to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the globe ... then you need to have a budget which is sized to do that, even if it means you don't have all the agreements in place that you need right now or while the Congress is considering" the White House request, he said.

The agency's International Nuclear Materials Protection and Cooperation program would also receive a boost in fiscal 2011 -- from $572 million to $590 million -- but that money is "50 percent Second Line of Defense and essentially 50 percent Russia, with a little bit of money for South Asia and China," according to Luongo.

He added: "There are a lot of other countries where we ought to be ... engaging on this question of improving nuclear security and we're not."

The materials protection effort was originally designed in 1994 to work cooperatively with Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union to secure weapons and weapons-usable nuclear material. It has since become a global initiative.

The Second Line of Defense program aims to strengthen the capability of foreign governments to deter, detect, and interdict illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials across international borders and through the global maritime shipping system, according to an NNSA fact sheet. The program works with foreign partners to equip border crossings, airports and seaports with radiation detection equipment.

"The problem is that the budget is sized to the programs that are in place. The programs that are in place are extremely important but they are not fully addressing the problems that we face and we need to have a more creative approach to this program than we currently have," Luongo told GSN.

Both he and Bunn believe the White House or Congress should include $115 million in additional funding for nonproliferation programs, possibly in a supplemental for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of that amount, $62 million would go toward the threat reduction program, restoring the effort to its 2009 funding level, according to Luongo. The other $53 million would go toward the material protection program to "allow them to do some additional work in Russia and then to think creatively about what they want to do in other parts of the world."

"At minimum we will need what the administration has requested for FY11," Bunn said.

An official with the nuclear agency touted the administration's attention to nonproliferation.

"The president is requesting close to $2.7 billion for NNSA's nonproliferation programs, an increase of 25.8 percent over FY 2010. This demonstrates not only the president's commitment to his historic pledge to secure vulnerable nuclear material within four years, but the vital role that DOE/NNSA plays in achieving that goal," NNSA spokesman Damien LaVera told GSN by e-mail. "That includes $558.8 million for GTRI, up 67.8 percent, to accelerate the removal and disposition of high-priority vulnerable nuclear material overseas and convert additional HEU-fueled research reactors."

The funding boost will enable the "acceleration and expansion" of multiple projects, including conversion of another seven reactors to use of low-enriched uranium fuel, security upgrades at 19 more Russian nuclear sites and nuclear security collaboration with states outside the former Soviet Union, LaVera said.

Potential Congressional Actions

There are a number of steps Congress can take to help carry out the president's nuclear security goal, the experts said.

From a financial standpoint, lawmakers could approve a "voluntary contribution" of $20 million to the International Atomic Energy Agency's Nuclear Security Office, according to Luongo. That office, which implements the U.N. watchdog's nuclear security activities, has an annual budget of less than $10 million, he said.

Such a contribution "could take some of the burdens off the United States and take the U.S. face off of some of these interactions," Luongo told GSN.

Congress also could appropriate roughly $125 million to secure all radiological materials in the United States, beginning with sources used by the nation's 500 major metropolitan hospitals, he said. The nuclear agency has already done that at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia for about $16 million for eight buildings, or $250,000 per building.

"The Congress has a role, frankly. If they think more should be done then they ought to make proposals in the budget for what should be done," Luongo said. "If the appropriators are going to take an extreme green eyeshade approach to this issue they are going to bear some of the responsibility of the blame if we don't get this job done. Frankly, last year they didn't do a particularly good job."

Bunn suggested lawmakers move forward on a bill now being debated that would essentially cut off U.S. exports of highly enriched uranium for medical isotope production in other countries so long as sufficient isotope supplies exist.

He said the legislation could be bolstered by adding a policy that once there are sufficient domestic supplies of isotopes produced without highly enriched uranium the United States would no longer import medical isotopes produced using highly enriched uranium, either.

Congress can also take action by exercising "in-depth oversight" of the administration's nonproliferation programs and introducing new initiatives itself, according to Bunn. He noted that the popular Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program was launched in that fashion.

"I think Congress can help if it chooses to do so," he said. Still, "the biggest things that need to be done are creative and consistent executive branch leadership and that's hard to legislate."

Three Years Left

Both experts predicted that Obama's original goal of securing the world's loose nuclear materials within four years is not likely to be met.

"It's not going to happen in four years because we've already lost year one," Luongo told GSN.

"We are not yet on a trajectory that will get the job done in four years," according to Bunn.

He said it is "plausible" that the number of countries with actual weapons or material could be cut in half in that time frame -- since some nations have only one research reactor -- and the number of sites or buildings containing those items could be reduced or consolidated by 20 or 30 percent.

Rules and procedures for nuclear security in all countries where material remained could also be in place by then, he added.

Bunn said much would depend on what approach the White House decides to implement.

"If you focus only on upgrades the United States is going to pay for, that U.S. experts are going to travel to the sites and help implement, that can't be done everywhere in four years," he told GSN yesterday.

Or the United States could attempt to convince countries that their current nuclear security arrangements are not yet effective and they must take action themselves, he added.

The administration can be expected to pursue a "mix" of those approaches on a nation-by-nation basis, according to Bunn.

Bunn said the success of the upcoming nuclear security summit would be determined once world leaders return home and decide whether to take action. He added that it is important a "review mechanism" be established during the conference so that governments can consult with one another on the matter.

Luongo said he hoped April's summit would result in a "framework agreement" that identifies the dangers of nuclear and radiological terrorism, details what efforts countries have in place today to combat the threat that other nations can use a base and provides new initiatives that are "legit and we ought to act on."

Such a document would "provide in one place a road map for how we're going to do this and what the tools are that we're going to use," he said.

However, Luongo added, the expected summit outcome is an agreement among the countries in attendance to take "modest additional action" on nuclear security.

For example, countries could agree to ratify an amendment the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material regarding materials in storage and in current use, he said. The 1980 compact is the only international legally binding undertaking regarding physical protection of nuclear material. It establishes measures related to the prevention, detection and punishment of offenses relating to nuclear material, according to an International Atomic Energy Agency fact sheet.

Thus far, only 12 of the nations invited to the security summit have ratified the convention, Luongo said.

Attendees also could endorse the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, he added. The international effort is designed to bring together experience and expertise from the nonproliferation, counterproliferation and counterterrorism disciplines and integrate them to strengthen the global architecture against nuclear terrorism.

"The administration is trying mightily to do the maximal," Luongo told GSN. "The problem is that the international community is not completely onboard that this is a No. 1 danger."

March 4, 2010

WASHINGTON -- Sustained executive leadership and more money in future budget cycles will be needed to even attempt to meet U.S. President Barack Obama's goal of securing the world's loose nuclear material within four years, according to a pair of nuclear experts (see GSN, Jan. 13).