WMD Security Draws U.S. Government Attention

Christine Kucia

The Bush administration recently launched several programs to deal with securing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) worldwide, particularly radiological materials that could be combined with conventional explosives to form so-called dirty bombs.

The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Nov. 3 formed a Nuclear Radiological Threat Reduction Task Force to control radiological materials by identifying and securing high-risk materials—especially abandoned sources—both in the United States and overseas, and identifying vulnerable research reactors worldwide needing further assistance securing their fresh and spent nuclear fuel. The task force will consolidate the Energy Department’s efforts in the United States and abroad.

According to NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks, the effort “shows Secretary [of Energy Spencer] Abraham’s commitment to meeting the threat posed by nuclear and radiological terrorism on a global basis.” Edward McGinnis, head of the task force, told Arms Control Today Nov. 18 that the program will address the “full spectrum” of threat reduction by not only providing security for radiological materials “but also [by] working [with governments] to develop a regulatory infrastructure, and an effective one.” The new program will work closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency and the State Department.

The Energy Department task force is, in part, an attempt to address concerns raised in an August 2003 General Accounting Office (GAO) report on the security of radiological sources in the United States. According to the GAO, the United States has approximately 2 million sealed radioactive sources that may be used in medicine, construction, or other industries. More than 1,300 incidents of missing sources in the past five years showed inconsistencies in U.S. licensing and material control practices. Further, an April 2003 GAO report found that storage facilities for sensitive material are insufficient and that the Office of Environmental Management does not place a high priority on its domestic material recovery responsibilities. The Energy Department transferred this work to the task force. McGinnis noted that the task force’s consolidation of the department’s programs “does address very well that particular recommendation by the GAO that we ensure that importance is given organizationally” to securing dangerous materials in the United States.

Meanwhile, the Department of State has created a program to fill the gaps in international control of nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological materials. The Dangerous Materials Initiative was first mentioned by John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, in an Oct. 30 speech in London. Bolton told Arms Control Today Nov. 4 that the program “is intended to supplement a lot of the activity that we’ve had in export controls [and] border controls.” The initiative will focus on identifying needs that may not already be addressed by existing programs and helping countries develop near-term pilot projects that could lead to the establishment of long-term, sustainable systems of materials control. This new program aims to complement efforts already being carried out by the Energy Department and international agencies, according to the State Department.

Additionally, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is ramping up its efforts to prevent illegal WMD acquisition. The bureau formed a new WMD section to raise the profile of the threat domestically and to allocate additional resources to identify possible threats, prepare its response to potential attacks, and prosecute offenders. The new section will not be responsible for material control, which is already supervised by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Energy Department.