by Robert G. Gard
On June 6, 2011, the Belfer Center at Harvard University released the results of a year-long study entitled “The U.S.-Russia Joint Threat Assessment on Nuclear Terrorism”.
The study is significant because, between them, the U.S. and Russia possess about 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons and weapons grade nuclear materials that terrorists could use to make crude but highly destructive nuclear explosive devices. Shortly after the report was released, President Obama announced the continuation of the National Emergency, initially declared in 2000, regarding the large volume of weapons-usable fissile materials in Russia in multiple locations, subject to diversion or theft.
The joint study warns of a persistent danger that terrorists could obtain or produce nuclear explosive devices and employ them with catastrophic consequences, and that the threat is increasing due to globalization and the proliferation of technical knowledge. “If current approaches toward eliminating the threat are not replaced with a sense of urgency and resolve,” the study report warns, “the question will become not if but when, and on what scale, the first act of nuclear terrorism occurs.” The study states that making a nuclear bomb is potentially within the capabilities of a “technically sophisticated terrorist group.” But the UN Terrorism Prevention Office warned as early as 2001 that there were some 130 terrorist groups capable of developing a home-made nuclear bomb if they could obtain highly enriched uranium or plutonium.
The “catastrophic” result of a nuclear attack would not be limited to the resultant loss of life and massive destruction, the study notes, but it also would produce international psychological trauma and widespread political and economic chaos. Both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have recognized that the greatest threat to U.S. and international security is a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon.
This prompts the question as to why, especially after 9/11 and the explicit threats posed by terrorist organizations, “current approaches” are inadequate, as the report concludes. The study identifies two principal reasons: secrecy on the part of nation states that want to protect their sovereignty and, the most significant barrier, a widespread attitude of complacency.
Issues of sovereignty and security have limited the participation of several states including China, Pakistan and India, as well as North Korea and Iran, and probably at least to some extent also the United States. There’s no doubt, however, that complacency has been a major factor in the lack of urgency in dealing with the issue of nuclear terrorism by many nations, including the United States. It’s too easy to consider what has not yet occurred, such as a terrorist nuclear attack, to be unlikely or even far-fetched.
President Obama broke the previous mold of half-hearted efforts to prevent terrorists from obtaining fissionable materials that they could use to fashion nuclear explosive devices. He announced in his comprehensive nuclear nonproliferation speech in Prague in 2009 that he would lead an effort to secure these materials world-wide in four years. He followed up this pledge a year later by holding a Nuclear Security Summit with some 47 other countries, which resulted in a work plan and commitments by participating nations to specific actions in the furtherance of that goal. Unfortunately, however, the United States Congress does not share the President’s sense of urgency.
Following the April 2010 nuclear summit, the administration requested in its Fiscal 2011 budget an increase of $556 million, or 26% over the 2010 appropriation, for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation account to begin financing the highest priority commitments obtained at the summit to secure fissionable materials. A critical part of this request was an increase of over $200 million above the FY 2010 appropriated level for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, a key program in the effort to implement the four year goal.
In February 2011, the recently elected House of Representatives, with a new Republican majority, passed a continuing resolution that cut $61 billion from the President’s Fiscal 2011 budget request. The House leadership claimed that the reductions did not impact national security, but they included a cut of $648 million, or 24%, below the requested amount for the Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation account. This amount was even $97 million, or 5%, below the 2010 appropriation. The final Fiscal 2011 continuing resolution, finally passed by both Houses of Congress in April of this year, included a lesser, but nevertheless significant, reduction in the request for the Nonproliferation account of $360 million, including a $123 million cut to the Global Threat Reduction Initiative.
The President’s budget request for Fiscal 2012 was released before the cuts were made to programs in his request for 2011, so the administration did not have an opportunity in its 2012 request to compensate, or to make up, for the cut in the 2011 request for the nonproliferation account. On 25 June of this year, the House Appropriations Committee approved $2.086 billion for the Fiscal 2012 Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation account, a reduction of $463 million, or 18%, below the President’s request, and rescinded $30 million in prior year unobligated balances, thereby cutting the funds requested and previously appropriated for this high priority set of programs designed to deal with the greatest threat to U.S. security by $853 million over the two year period.
In its report, the Committee stated that it had fully supported the program to secure vulnerable fissionable materials world-wide, but it cut $120 million from the requested amount for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, including a reduction of $50 million from domestic radiological protection and $70 million, or 47%, from the program to shutter research reactors around the world using highly enriched uranium or to convert them to low enriched uranium fuel, which cannot be used to make a nuclear weapon.
There are dozens of research reactors around the world using highly enriched uranium, the easiest materials for terrorists to use to make explosive nuclear devices, and there are additional reactors using highly enriched uranium to produce medical isotopes. Supplying fuel to these reactors requires transporting to the reactor sites hundreds of kilograms of highly enriched uranium, when these materials are highly vulnerable to attack or diversion. In addition, many of these reactors have minimum security measures; they must be shut down and the highly enriched uranium removed, or converted to low enriched uranium fuel, to be made safe from terrorists.
To date, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative has shut down or converted 76 reactors using highly enriched uranium. The current target is for the National Nuclear Security Administration to confirm the shut down or to convert 46 more of these reactors by the end of 2016 and to reach a total of 200 by 2022. According to information the National Nuclear Security Administration provided to Congress, if the cut of $70 million stands, there will be a significant slowing of reactor conversions currently underway in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Poland, Ghana and Nigeria, and a delay of two years in the overall conversion program.
The development of new high density fuels to enable conversion of more than two dozen highly enriched uranium fueled reactors is also an active project of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative. These reactors collectively use 675 kilograms of highly enriched uranium per year, enough materials for 27 simple nuclear explosive devices. The $70 million reduction will delay these conversions by about three years and will delay the ability of our own country to produce medical isotopes without highly enriched uranium by two years to 2017.
Hopefully, the joint U.S.-Russian study will receive sufficient attention to help offset the complacency that plagues members of the United States Congress and allows them to fail to accord to the threat of nuclear terrorism the priority it deserves. It also should energize the Obama administration to weigh in more strenuously to protect funding for its nuclear nonproliferation programs, even while engaged in three military conflicts and dealing with a persistently weak economy.