Q&A: Changes Coming for U.S. Effort to Stop Nuclear Smuggling

Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
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Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
Aug. 23, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — A re­cently com­pleted White House-led stra­tegic re­view could shift pri­or­it­ies for a pro­gram in­ten­ded to pre­vent the smug­gling of nuc­le­ar-weapon ma­ter­i­al across in­ter­na­tion­al bor­ders, a top U.S. Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial tells Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire.

Anne Har­ring­ton, deputy NNSA ad­min­is­trat­or for de­fense nuc­le­ar non­pro­lif­er­a­tion, said in an in­ter­view that the broad as­sess­ment of the Second Line of De­fense pro­gram will mean that its sub­si­di­ary Mega­ports pro­gram will be more se­lect­ive about which in­ter­na­tion­al ports at which it chooses to in­vest in ra­di­ation-de­tec­tion equip­ment.

Over­all, there will be a great­er em­phas­is on mo­bile — rather than sta­tion­ary — de­tec­tion sys­tems, said Har­ring­ton, whose or­gan­iz­a­tion is a semi-autonom­ous part of the En­ergy De­part­ment.

In a wide-ran­ging in­ter­view, she ad­dressed a num­ber of is­sues, in­clud­ing why re­lease of an en­vir­on­ment­al im­pact state­ment re­gard­ing the po­ten­tial con­ver­sion of sur­plus weapons-grade plutoni­um to mixed-ox­ide re­act­or fuel has been delayed. The of­fi­cial also dis­cussed wheth­er the United States should in­sti­tute an im­port ban on med­ic­al iso­topes pro­duced with highly en­riched urani­um, giv­en con­cerns that Rus­sia could un­der­cut the mar­ket for iso­topes pro­duced with low en­riched urani­um.

“I can’t see any im­me­di­ate reas­on to en­gage in a med­ic­al trade war with Rus­sia over how they pro­duce their iso­topes,” Har­ring­ton said, not­ing Rus­sia’s stated in­ten­tion to even­tu­ally switch low en­riched urani­um.

Sep­ar­ately, the United States and Rus­sia are work­ing to craft im­ple­ment­ing agree­ments re­l­at­ive to the new Co­oper­at­ive Threat Re­duc­tion pact that the two na­tions an­nounced in June, Har­ring­ton told GSN. The deal re­placed the so-called Nunn-Lugar agree­ment that had en­abled U.S. ef­forts to se­cure nuc­le­ar weapons-re­lated items in Rus­sia since the end of the Cold War.

Har­ring­ton fur­ther dis­cussed the po­ten­tial for in­ter­na­tion­al nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity stand­ards fol­low­ing an In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency con­fer­ence that took place in Vi­enna in Ju­ly.

Ed­ited ex­cerpts of the re­cent in­ter­view fol­low.

Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Con­fer­ence

GSN: What do you think were the sig­ni­fic­ant out­comes from the IAEA nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity con­fer­ence in Vi­enna?

Har­ring­ton: I think the gen­er­al as­sess­ment of the con­fer­ence was that it was very suc­cess­ful. It was not an easy un­der­tak­ing to do something like this at the min­is­teri­al level and it was unique among IAEA con­fer­ences in that, one, it was at the min­is­teri­al level and, two, it was de­signed to bring policy and tech­nic­al com­munit­ies to­geth­er which is not the way things nor­mally run in the IAEA.

Policy is­sues are usu­ally dealt with at the Board of Gov­ernor’s level or an­nu­ally at gen­er­al con­fer­ence and there is just a con­stant stream of tech­nic­al meet­ings that go on. But you don’t typ­ic­ally bring the two com­munit­ies to­geth­er and it was fas­cin­at­ing to see seni­or policy people huddled around poster ses­sions, eagerly talk­ing to their sci­ent­ists about the work they were do­ing and this is coun­tries across the whole scale of de­vel­op­ment.

There was evid­ence that there is a real thirst for more of that kind of in­ter­ac­tion. I think the IAEA may have struck a real chord here in terms of it how it may want to think in the fu­ture about or­gan­iz­ing some of its meet­ings and to give those two com­munit­ies more of an op­por­tun­ity to in­ter­act with each oth­er.

GSN: What would you say is the prac­tic­al ad­vant­age of hav­ing that in­ter­ac­tion as op­posed to what has tra­di­tion­ally happened in the past?

Har­ring­ton: It’s a two way street: On the policy side, in­di­vidu­als were very in­ter­ested in un­der­stand­ing the tech­no­logy be­hind things bet­ter and, in par­tic­u­lar, un­der­stand­ing things that were hap­pen­ing in their own coun­tries bet­ter, wheth­er it’s … ad­vis­ory ser­vices of the IAEA or on bor­der se­cur­ity and de­tec­tion cap­ab­il­it­ies and so forth — it gave them a real chance to also learn a little bit.

And, cer­tainly from the tech­nic­al side, it gave the tech­nic­al people a chance to un­der­stand what sort of ques­tions are on the minds of policy-makers. And what drives the dir­ec­tion of what the tech­nic­al com­munity is be­ing asked to do. De­vel­op­ing that bet­ter and mu­tu­al level of un­der­stand­ing, where each piece of the equa­tion comes from, I think was fas­cin­at­ing to watch.

GSN: Are there any par­tic­u­lar hopes or ex­pect­a­tions for the next nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity sum­mit in 2014 in the Neth­er­lands, and is there any­thing in par­tic­u­lar that came out of Vi­enna that you think relates to that?

Har­ring­ton: Let me go back quickly to Vi­enna, be­cause you asked what were some of the main things that came out. I think the biggest thing is that you had 1,350 re­gistered par­ti­cipants, 125 coun­tries and 31 min­is­ters there to talk about nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity and, in par­tic­u­lar, about the IAEA’s role in nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity and clearly sup­port­ing the IAEA’s func­tion in that area, which I think was viewed by many as a tre­mend­ous step for­ward in terms of really nail­ing down that par­tic­u­lar area of re­spons­ib­il­ity.

GSN: Do you see any re­la­tion­ship between that and what is hoped to come out of the nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity sum­mit in the Neth­er­lands next year?

Har­ring­ton: Well, I don’t think it’s a secret that at least there is some hope that a series of con­fer­ences sim­il­ar to what the IAEA just held in Vi­enna could pick up the nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity sum­mit mantle and keep that mo­mentum mov­ing for­ward. Giv­en the suc­cess of the con­fer­ence, I think there’s room for op­tim­ism that that, in fact, could be the case.

The oth­er prac­tic­al ef­fect of the con­fer­ence was to provide some dir­ect in­put to the IAEA for the next nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity work plan. So not only was it a good op­por­tun­ity to dis­cuss some fun­da­ment­al is­sues about nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity, but you’re also at the same time provid­ing dir­ect in­put to the IAEA staff as they’re fi­nal­iz­ing their next se­cur­ity plan. So that has a very prac­tic­al im­pact and that will gov­ern the work of the agency from 2014 to 2017.

GSN: So it’s hoped gen­er­ally that whenev­er the nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity-sum­mit pro­cess winds down, that IAEA will step in and con­tin­ue that for­ward in its own ca­pa­city?

Har­ring­ton: Yes.

GSN: Do you see any chance for dis­cus­sion either in this IAEA pro­cess or at the next nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity sum­mit for more talk about po­ten­tial uni­ver­sal stand­ards for nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity? The em­phas­is so far has been more on in­di­vidu­al states and what they can in­di­vidu­ally bring to the table.

Har­ring­ton: There was a lot of dis­cus­sion of that at the nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity con­fer­ence. And, al­though the Of­fice of Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity has not yet been el­ev­ated to a di­vi­sion status, I think that you heard a lot of com­ments from coun­tries about the util­ity of the IAEA is­su­ing stand­ard­ized guidelines, self-as­sess­ment guides — all of these tools that the IAEA has provided — and a lot of dis­cus­sion about the util­ity of mov­ing to­ward more stand­ard­ized prac­tices. That def­in­itely was one of the themes of the con­fer­ence.

Nunn-Lugar

GSN: Can you briefly de­scribe the work that the NNSA Glob­al Threat Re­duc­tion Ini­ti­at­ive does spe­cific­ally with­in Rus­sia and talk about which of those pro­jects, if any, might have any changes in light of the new Nunn-Lugar agree­ment that was signed?

Har­ring­ton: GTRI’s pro­jects in Rus­sia right now are go­ing to fo­cus primar­ily on the tech­nic­al as­sist­ance that we provide to their ef­fort to con­vert their own re­search re­act­ors from highly en­riched urani­um to low en­riched urani­um.

This is part of the glob­al HEU min­im­iz­a­tion ef­fort that’s been un­der way for many years, but which has very much been high­lighted un­der the nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity sum­mit pro­cess. Un­der the nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity sum­mit and the pres­id­ent’s nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity agenda, we have been work­ing very closely with Rus­sia to re­pat­ri­ate to Rus­sia the highly en­riched urani­um from re­act­ors that they provided un­der their atoms-for-peace pro­gram. …

This is a huge step for­ward be­cause the largest num­ber of re­main­ing HEU-fueled re­act­ors is in the Rus­si­an Fed­er­a­tion. This is [a] high pri­or­ity goal for us, but hap­pily it’s one that the Rus­si­ans have really taken on board. And, even [Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir] Putin has made men­tion of their com­mit­ment to do this and that they will have the first one done by the end of 2014. And then [they] are de­vel­op­ing a sched­ule for sub­sequent con­ver­sion to low en­riched urani­um, and then elim­in­a­tion of the HEU. I think it’s a very pos­it­ive story.

The new ar­range­ment that we have for work­ing with Rus­sia will al­low us to con­tin­ue just as we have in the past. Our GTRI work wasn’t un­der the Co­oper­at­ive Threat Re­duc­tion [agree­ment] any­way; it’s un­der a dif­fer­ent set of ar­range­ments so that didn’t really im­pact that pro­gram as much as it did the In­ter­na­tion­al Ma­ter­i­al Pro­tec­tion Co­oper­a­tion pro­gram. But that one also will go for­ward as we see it un­changed, once we get the fi­nal ad­just­ments in all of the im­ple­ment­ing lan­guage com­plete.

GSN: So when it comes to things that the En­ergy De­part­ment was in­volved with in terms of se­cur­ing ma­ter­i­als in Rus­sia, set­ting up se­cur­ity fa­cil­it­ies and main­tain­ing that se­cur­ity, are there any changes with the ex­pir­ing of the old agree­ment and the sign­ing of the new one?

Har­ring­ton: No, as I said, when you change the agree­ment, the im­ple­ment­ing ar­range­ments have to be ad­jus­ted to re­flect the name of the new agree­ment and — they are some re­l­at­ively mech­an­ic­al things — but you have to align the im­ple­ment­ing doc­u­ments with the new gov­ern­ing doc­u­ment. Once that pro­cess is done, we really don’t ex­pect to see much, if any, dif­fer­ence at all in how we have been work­ing with the Rus­si­ans.

GSN: Is there a rough time frame for when you think that im­ple­ment­a­tion lan­guage will be worked out?

Har­ring­ton: We’re push­ing very hard to get this done, but Rus­sia — as much of the rest of Europe — dis­ap­pears for the month of Au­gust and not a lot pro­duct­ive is done. At least at the lab level, they are work­ing hard to get these doc­u­ments lined up be­cause they want to get the work done. And, it’s just a real test­a­ment to the very strong tech­nic­al work­ing re­la­tion­ship that we’ve de­veloped between our labs and the Rus­si­an in­sti­tutes. They un­der­stand the im­port­ance of get­ting this work done, so they’ve pushed very hard from their end to make sure that things don’t lapse.

GSN: Do you think be­fore the end of the year?

Har­ring­ton: Cer­tainly be­fore the end of the year.

GSN: Do you ex­pect any changes for Amer­ic­an con­tract­ors work­ing in Rus­sia for the En­ergy De­part­ment, in terms of con­tracts be­ing ter­min­ated or li­ab­il­ity chan­ging?

Har­ring­ton: The ar­range­ments that are in the new agree­ment are sat­is­fact­ory to us in terms of those sorts of things — in terms of our ac­cess and li­ab­il­ity where we need it. I think that’s an im­port­ant ele­ment of the new agree­ment, and the new way of do­ing busi­ness really on a peer-to-peer basis is that we ask for what’s needed.

The CTR agree­ment, if you know it, was very com­press­ive but it de­man­ded the same terms and con­di­tions for a train­ing pro­gram as it did for silo elim­in­a­tion. While the po­ten­tial for hav­ing to ex­er­cise a li­ab­il­ity clause for a train­ing pro­gram is fairly low, for blow­ing up a mis­sile silo it might be pretty high. I think the ar­range­ment that we have now gives us bet­ter flex­ib­il­ity to ask for what is needed.

GSN: So you don’t ex­pect any con­tract­ors to be pulling out as a res­ult of the change?

Har­ring­ton: I would not ex­pect that, no.

Med­ic­al Iso­topes

GSN: It was said earli­er this year that state­ments by Rus­si­an of­fi­cials had in­creased U.S. con­fid­ence that Rus­sia is go­ing to fol­low through in even­tu­ally elim­in­at­ing the use of HEU in med­ic­al iso­tope pro­duc­tion. At one point, a five-year goal was stated. Are there any up­dates?

Har­ring­ton: I think that we have a gen­er­al goal that Rus­sia shares to min­im­ize the use of HEU for ci­vil­ian pur­poses and it’s con­sist­ent with that. And it’s also con­sist­ent with the dir­ec­tion that the rest of the world’s med­ic­al iso­tope pro­duc­tion is mov­ing. The em­phas­is very strongly at the [Par­is, France-based] Nuc­le­ar En­ergy Agency and its sub­com­mit­tees is very strongly in fa­vor of LEU-pro­duced iso­topes.

GSN: In light of that, is it un­ne­ces­sary for the United States to have an out­right ban on im­port­ing med­ic­al iso­topes pro­duced with HEU?

Har­ring­ton: We’ve already taken steps, as you’re aware, to give pref­er­ence to LEU-based iso­topes, so there already is that pref­er­ence on the street. And, cer­tainly with Aus­tralia and South Africa, there are enough pro­du­cers of LEU-based iso­topes and we’ve been sup­port­ing our own do­mest­ic de­vel­op­ment of LEU-based iso­topes. I can’t see any im­me­di­ate reas­on to en­gage in a med­ic­al trade war with Rus­sia over how they pro­duce their iso­topes.

Second Line of De­fense

GSN: Turn­ing to Second Line of De­fense, you said in March that the in­ter­agency re­view on that pro­gram had been fin­ished and that it was now clear­er what its role was go­ing to be go­ing for­ward. Can you talk a little bit now about what that role will be and how it will be sim­il­ar or dif­fer­ent to what it was pre­vi­ously?

Har­ring­ton: One of the things that came out of the re­view which I think was very in­ter­est­ing was a re­as­sess­ment, for ex­ample, of the Mega­ports pro­gram and identi­fy­ing a point of di­min­ish­ing re­turn in terms of which ports, which trans­ship­ment ports, really con­trib­ute the most to U.S. na­tion­al se­cur­ity.

A trans­ship­ment port that, let’s say, primar­ily func­tions to take goods made in In­dia and trans­ship them to Aus­tralia maybe isn’t as val­id a tar­get for our pro­gram as a port, 30 per­cent of whose out­bound cargo ends up in a U.S. port. That would be pretty im­port­ant.

So we really re­fined that kind of ana­lys­is, in or­der to bet­ter tar­get where our in­vest­ments go. So that was, I think, a very use­ful step, and also re­vis­it­ing some of the tech­no­lo­gies that we were us­ing and how we com­bine tech­no­lo­gies to ad­dress traf­fick­ing in some par­tic­u­lar geo­graph­ic loc­a­tions.

So [sta­tion­ary] portals are very use­ful in cer­tain places. Mo­bile vans are very use­ful in some places. Hand­helds, back­packs — there’s a lot of dif­fer­ent de­tec­tion cap­ab­il­ity avail­able now and what we’ve done is ad­just the mix of tech­no­logy that we ap­ply to any par­tic­u­lar situ­ation.

GSN: In the in­terest of cost-ef­fect­ive­ness?

Har­ring­ton: Not just cost-ef­fect­ive­ness, but mis­sion ef­fect­ive­ness.

I was in the Middle East in Ju­ly and it’s really hard to lay a road across the desert and say this is where all the traffic is go­ing to go. You need a dif­fer­ent, more flex­ible kind of cap­ab­il­ity in many coun­tries where a sta­tion­ary de­tect­or doesn’t give you.

And so modi­fy­ing the mix of tech­no­lo­gies ac­tu­ally makes us much more ef­fect­ive in terms of what we can de­liv­er. We’ve seen this in prac­tice in a num­ber of places now, and so that’s go­ing to af­fect fu­ture de­cisions on pro­cure­ment and tech­no­logy choices.

GSN: In light of these re­as­sess­ments, do the pre­vi­ously stated goals of equip­ping 650 sites in 30 coun­tries and 100 sea­ports by 2018 still stand, or have those been ad­jus­ted in light of the new as­sess­ment?

Har­ring­ton: Those have been ad­jus­ted, I’m not go­ing to give you new fig­ures be­cause I might mis­quote them. But those have changed and, in fact, I’ve been re­view­ing some of the draft goals that we’re cir­cu­lat­ing right now. And, the fo­cus is much more on the de­liv­ery of mo­bile ca­pa­city than sta­tion­ary. And, as I’ve said, we’ve re­as­sessed the Mega­ports tar­get and we be­lieve the new tar­get is very de­fens­ible.

MOX

GSN: The en­vir­on­ment­al im­pact state­ment for con­vert­ing weapons-grade plutoni­um in­to mixed-ox­ide re­act­or fuel was ex­pec­ted to come out about now. Can you say why that hasn’t happened yet and when it might come out?

Har­ring­ton: As you know, we are do­ing an ana­lys­is of op­tions for pos­sible dis­pos­i­tion and that’s still un­der re­view. Un­til we have a clear path for­ward that the sec­ret­ary has re­viewed and ap­proved, it doesn’t make much sense to is­sue that EIS im­me­di­ately. There’s noth­ing ur­gent about get­ting it out, and hold­ing on to it un­til the ana­lys­is is com­plete makes a lot of sense.

GSN: Has the Ten­ness­ee Val­ley Au­thor­ity stated ex­pli­citly that it is in­ter­ested in us­ing the fuel in the con­text of that doc­u­ment?

Har­ring­ton: We’re work­ing closely and have been for sev­er­al years with TVA, [and] when the doc­u­ment comes out, you’ll see the de­tails. An­oth­er thing people have to ap­pre­ci­ate is the fact that we’re just two months in­to hav­ing a new sec­ret­ary in the build­ing. …

Ba­sic­ally, for any ma­jor de­cision an­nounce­ment, we have to find time on his cal­en­dar to brief him be­fore we go ahead and make pub­lic state­ments. So part of it is just a trans­ition ele­ment. It’s al­ways a really bad thing to sur­prise your new boss.

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