Officials Eye New Nuclear Security Gains Beyond Next Week’s Summit

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, a key White House aide, seen last week addressing a policy forum on nuclear security. Sherwood-Randall said on Monday that the Obama administration hoped to make strides on the issue of military nuclear material security in time for the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
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Douglas P. Guarino
March 18, 2014, 11:15 a.m.

With the 2014 Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit less than a week away, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and out­side ob­serv­ers already are be­gin­ning to look to­ward the next — and pos­sibly fi­nal — in­stall­ment of the glob­al gath­er­ing in 2016.

In par­tic­u­lar, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials and is­sue ex­perts hope to make pro­gress on what have proven to be two of the most dif­fi­cult is­sues to tackle dur­ing the sum­mits: The vul­ner­ab­il­ity of ci­vil­ian plutoni­um stocks, spe­cific­ally, and the se­cur­ity of mil­it­ary nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als, more gen­er­ally, to pos­sible theft and use by ter­ror­ists.

The sum­mits to date have fo­cused largely on the con­sol­id­a­tion, min­im­iz­a­tion and se­cur­ing of ci­vil­ian highly en­riched urani­um. A draft of the of­fi­cial com­mu­nique that all par­ti­cip­at­ing coun­tries will sign onto next week en­cour­ages “states to con­tin­ue to min­im­ize the use of HEU through the con­ver­sion of re­act­or fuel from HEU to [low-en­riched urani­um], where tech­nic­ally and eco­nom­ic­ally feas­ible,” ac­cord­ing to Re­u­ters.

The se­cur­ity of mil­it­ary nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als has been “very hard to talk about,” a key White House staff aide said on Monday.

Eliza­beth Sher­wood-Ran­dall — Pres­id­ent Obama’s co­ordin­at­or for de­fense policy, coun­ter­ing weapons of mass de­struc­tion and arms con­trol — said dur­ing a Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions web­cast that most coun­tries guard mil­it­ary in­form­a­tion closely, and are re­luct­ant to dis­cuss it in such a glob­al for­um.

Non­ethe­less, the ad­min­is­tra­tion hopes to make pro­gress on the is­sue between now and the 2016 sum­mit, which Pres­id­ent Obama will host in Wash­ing­ton, Sher­wood-Ran­dall said. She said the United States was “driv­ing a dis­cus­sion” on the mat­ter, and that “the Brit­ish are quite sup­port­ive” of the ef­fort.

The Dutch hosts of next week’s gath­er­ing of world lead­ers in The Hag­ue sought to in­clude lan­guage spe­cif­ic to both the se­cur­ity of mil­it­ary ma­ter­i­als and ci­vil­ian plutoni­um in the of­fi­cial 2014 sum­mit com­mu­nique to be signed by all 53 par­ti­cip­at­ing na­tions, ac­cord­ing to Har­vard Uni­versity Pro­fess­or Mat­thew Bunn.

The pro­vi­sions were watered down, however, as coun­tries sens­it­ive to is­sues per­tain­ing to the two top­ics began to res­ist, the former ad­viser to Pres­id­ent Clin­ton said.

“Since I haven’t seen the fi­nal lan­guage, I don’t know how un­suc­cess­ful they were,” Bunn told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire. “My un­der­stand­ing is they got something, but not as much as they had ori­gin­ally wanted.” 

Of­fi­cials at the Dutch em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton were un­able to com­ment by press time.

Sep­ar­ated plutoni­um — com­monly an in­gredi­ent in atom­ic weapons — can also be re­pro­cessed for use in ci­vil­ian power re­act­ors. But in the hands of ter­ror­ists, it could be used to make a leth­al “dirty bomb” or oth­er nuc­le­ar device.

Dur­ing Monday’s web­cast, Sher­wood-Ran­dall said she ex­pec­ted “some pretty good res­ults on plutoni­um” at next week’s sum­mit, but did not provide spe­cif­ics.

Bunn pro­jec­ted that the “best news on plutoni­um that will come out of the sum­mit” is an an­ti­cip­ated ac­com­plish­ment that has already been made pub­lic: That Ja­pan has agreed to send back to the United States 730 pounds of U.S.-ori­gin plutoni­um.

Sher­wood-Ran­dall de­scribed the planned re­pat­ri­ation of the ma­ter­i­al from Ja­pan in sim­il­ar terms dur­ing a pan­el dis­cus­sion last week.

The con­cerns of non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ex­perts re­gard­ing plutoni­um se­cur­ity do not end with the 730 pounds of U.S.-ori­gin plutoni­um in Ja­pan, however. For ex­ample, re­ports of lax se­cur­ity at the is­land na­tion’s Nuc­le­ar Fuel Re­pro­cessing Cen­ter in Rokkasho also have raised alarms.

More broadly, a re­port Bunn and his Har­vard col­leagues re­leased on Tues­day notes that “there is as much ci­vil­ian sep­ar­ated plutoni­um as there is in all the world’s stocks of nuc­le­ar weapons.” This is largely be­cause plutoni­um has been sep­ar­ated faster than it has been burned as fuel in re­act­ors, the re­port says.

The more than 50 na­tions par­ti­cip­at­ing in the Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mits could make steps to­ward bet­ter se­cur­ing ci­vil­ian plutoni­um by pledging not to pro­duce the ma­ter­i­al faster than it is con­sumed, Bunn said.

Oth­ers are ar­guing for more ag­gress­ive ac­tion. In a sep­ar­ate re­port re­leased on Tues­day, the Uni­versity of Texas-Aus­tin’s Nuc­le­ar Pro­lif­er­a­tion Pro­ject urges sum­mit par­ti­cipants to freeze the ex­pan­sion of spent-fuel re­cyc­ling al­to­geth­er. The idea, ac­cord­ing to the re­com­mend­a­tions, would be “to avoid cre­at­ing more re­pro­cessing and [mixed-ox­ide] fuel fa­cil­it­ies that can­not be ad­equately safe­guarded against nuc­le­ar pro­lif­er­a­tion and nuc­le­ar ter­ror­ism.”

Dis­cuss­ing the se­cur­ity of such fa­cil­it­ies at the sum­mits has been dif­fi­cult, though, in part be­cause sev­er­al coun­tries re­main in­ter­ested in re­pro­cessing plutoni­um for re­act­or fuel. While U.S. ef­forts to build a fa­cil­ity that would re­pro­cess leftover weapons plutoni­um from the Cold War in South Car­o­lina have stalled, oth­er coun­tries re­main act­ive in the re­pro­cessing busi­ness — or hope to be soon.

In ad­di­tion to Ja­pan, coun­tries that are in­volved with or hope to be in­volved with re­pro­cessing in­clude Rus­sia, the United King­dom, France, China and South Korea, the Har­vard re­port notes.

By con­trast, the sum­mit pro­cess has been far more suc­cess­ful at con­sol­id­at­ing, se­cur­ing and min­im­iz­ing stocks of highly en­riched urani­um be­cause there “really isn’t any ci­vil­ian need for HEU any­more,” said Bunn. Most re­act­ors that rely on the bomb-grade sub­stance for fuel can be con­ver­ted for the use of low-en­riched urani­um, he said.

In ad­di­tion, lock­ing down highly en­riched urani­um has been a pri­or­ity be­cause it is the sub­stance with which a ter­ror­ist could most eas­ily con­struct an atom­ic bomb, Bunn said.

With highly en­riched urani­um, a vi­ol­ent act­or could con­struct a simple “gun-type” bomb that slams two pieces of the sub­stance to­geth­er to cause a nuc­le­ar det­on­a­tion. By con­trast, with plutoni­um, a more com­plex pro­cess in which the sub­stance is crushed in­to a smal­ler dens­ity is re­quired, he said.

Plutoni­um, however, is much more ra­dio­act­ive than highly en­riched urani­um, mak­ing it a par­tic­u­larly po­tent in­gredi­ent for a dirty bomb. This form of device would use con­ven­tion­al ex­plos­ives to dis­perse po­ten­tially leth­al ra­di­ation throughout an area, Bunn noted.

Tues­day’s re­port by Bunn and his col­leagues says the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s four-year ef­fort to se­cure all the world’s vul­ner­able nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als — which ended in 2013 — did not achieve its stated goal.

Mean­while, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s planned budget cuts to its non­pro­lif­er­a­tion pro­grams in fisc­al 2015 are ex­pec­ted to slow some nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity ef­forts around the world with which the United States is in­volved, the re­port notes.

Even on the HEU front, weak­nesses re­main, as evid­enced by a 2012 in­cid­ent in which an 82-year-old nun and two oth­er peace act­iv­ists were able to in­filt­rate the U.S. Y-12 fa­cil­ity, where “thou­sands of bombs’ worth” of the sub­stance is stored, the re­port states.

“The in­ter­na­tion­al nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity frame­work re­mains weak and un­even,” the as­sess­ment adds. In ad­di­tion, next week’s sum­mit is not ex­pec­ted to cre­ate in­ter­na­tion­al stand­ards for how dan­ger­ous ma­ter­i­al must be se­cured, Bunn noted.

Coun­tries at­tend­ing next week’s sum­mit are ex­pec­ted to take some steps to­ward the goal of in­ter­na­tion­al stand­ards, in that some will pledge to provide non-spe­cif­ic “as­sur­ances,” or demon­stra­tions, that they are in fact se­cur­ing their own sens­it­ive ma­ter­i­als, Bunn noted.

Some coun­tries also are ex­pec­ted to sign onto mul­ti­lat­er­al pledges to fol­low ex­ist­ing guidelines of the United Na­tions’ In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency re­gard­ing the phys­ic­al se­cur­ity of nuc­le­ar and ra­di­olo­gic­al ma­ter­i­als.

“It will be a peg on which we can hang the hat [of in­ter­na­tion­al stand­ards], but there won’t ac­tu­ally be a hat yet,” Bunn said.

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