On June 29, six men were arrested in Moldova for attempting to sell uranium to an undercover security agent, who was posing as a North African buyer. On July 15, the House of Representatives passed the FY 2012 Energy and Water Appropriations bill (H.R. 2354). Though they occurred on different continents, the two events are closely connected.
The House bill cut funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Second Line of Defense program by over $75 million below the FY 2012 request. The program installs radiation detection equipment to interdict nuclear trafficking at borders, airports and strategic ports in Russia, other former Soviet Union states and further afield.
The bill also cut the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) by $85 million below the FY 2012 request. The cut would have been more draconian but for an amendment offered by Reps. Fortenberry (R-NE) and Sanchez (D-CA) to add $35 million to the program.
GTRI is the key U.S. program in the global cooperative effort to secure and eliminate nuclear materials, including highly enriched uranium, at an accelerated rate.
The Moldovan incident is a warning, as are all nuclear smuggling incidents, that the threat of the theft or sale of dangerous nuclear materials is real. Securing and interdicting these materials is an urgent national security priority, and funding for the programs that support these efforts (such as GTRI) must reflect the urgency of the threat. Maj. Gen. Bruce Lawlor, the director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Technology, Security and Policy, argues that, “the odds of terrorists successfully acquiring nuclear material have increased in their favor.”
The men arrested in Moldova were caught in possession of roughly two kilograms of Uranium-235. The smugglers likely carried low-enriched uranium, according to Russian nuclear specialists, since they only asked for €20 million or $29 million for it, too low a price tag for highly enriched uranium (HEU). The exact details remain murky, however.
Low-enriched uranium cannot be used in a nuclear weapon. In order to make a bomb using this material, a terrorist group would need to further enrich it to highly enriched uranium. This process demands a great deal of expertise and advanced technology, and is likely beyond the means of a terrorist group.
In March 2010, two smugglers were caught with 18 grams of HEU in Georgia (see former intern Candice DeNardi and Gen. Gard’s post here), which is weapons-grade material. While 25 kg of HEU is needed for a crude nuclear device, a terrorist group could piece together material from multiple purchases.
According to a May 2011U.S.-Russia joint threat assessment on nuclear terrorism sponsored by Harvard University, the International Atomic Energy Agency has documented 20 cases of theft or loss of HEU or plutonium confirmed by the states concerned, and additional cases are known to have occurred. The study also warns that what is unknown is how many cases may have gone undetected, or how much stolen material may still be outside of state control.
Inexplicably, the House has twice – in FY 2011 and FY 2012 – cut funding for the very programs that keep nuclear materials off the black market. While government spending undoubtedly needs to be reigned in, budget cuts to successful programs to mitigate the threat of nuclear terrorism are foolish and shortsighted.
Congress should also act to bolster the penalties for the theft and smuggling of nuclear materials.
Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) in the last Congress introduced the Nuclear Prevention Trafficking Act in the Senate and House, respectively, which would make selling nuclear material a crime against humanity, simplify prosecuting traffickers and strengthen penalties for those convicted.
The Obama administration recently submitted implementing legislation to Congress for the 2005 Amendment to Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. Both treaties would augment the international counter-proliferation and counter-terrorism legal framework.
Swift Congressional approval of these common sense nuclear security measures would greatly strengthen U.S. efforts to combat and prevent nuclear smuggling and nuclear terrorism.