A high-level Bush administration official told a gathering of nuclear experts Dec. 14 that the United States had accelerated its efforts to secure approximately 600 metric tons of fissile materials in Russia and was on track to complete this work by 2008.
Paul Longsworth, deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), rebuffed charges by former Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) that such security upgrades would not be completed until 2013 as “simply not true.”
Longsworth said that Kerry had erred in using the wrong standard to assess the progress of the Department of Energy effort. Kerry judged progress by the percentage of fissile materials secured rather than the number of sites that had received security upgrades, a figure that puts the Bush administration’s progress in a better light.
A Dec. 10 NNSA press release said that upgrades were completed at nearly 70 percent of Russian sites and anticipated that “close to 80 percent” would be secured by the end of 2005.
Kerry’s criticism was based on a Harvard University report by Matthew Bunn and Anthony Wier entitled “Securing the Bomb: An Agenda for Action,” in which the authors explained that the amount of nuclear materials receiving comprehensive security upgrades had only increased from 17 percent to 22 percent during fiscal year 2003 and that the overall pace of installation for security upgrades had slowed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The Energy Department’s fiscal year 2005 budget request, released nearly a year ago, reported a similar assessment, concluding that slightly more than one-quarter of Russia’s weapons-usable material would be secured by September 2004. Nevertheless, that budget report still held that the upgrade would be completed by 2008.
NNSA officials said the difference between the two sets of numbers stemmed from the order in which the sites were secured. The most vulnerable sites were secured first, but these sites also were smaller and contained less fissile materials. As progress continues on security upgrades, larger sites will be targeted, and greater amounts of nuclear materials will be secured “with roughly the same amount of time and effort as previously completed sites.”
NNSA announced Dec. 10 that two more nuclear facilities had received complete security upgrades: the Electrochemical Plant at Zelenogorsk, which blends highly enriched uranium (HEU) down to low-enriched uranium (LEU) and also produces LEU for commercial use, and the Urals Electrochemical Integrated Plant, which enriches uranium for commercial fuel. A third facility, the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrates Plant, received a security upgrade in September.
The Bush administration also announced in mid-December that it had waived human rights-related restrictions on threat reduction funds to Uzbekistan that will aid that country in securing and eventually eliminating weapons of mass destruction-related materials. Meanwhile, the United States and Kazakhstan signed an amendment to the cooperative threat reduction program on biological weapons Dec. 8, raising the level of funding allocated to those projects by roughly $35 million, and allowing for expanded cooperative efforts between the two countries on bioterrorism.
In another threat reduction endeavor Dec. 22, a collaborative mission between the United States, the Czech Republic, and Russia succeeded in secretly returning 6 kg of HEU from a research reactor near the Czech capital of Prague to a secure facility in Russia.