GAO: Nuclear Security Agenda Needs Details

Robert Golan-Vilella and Daniel Horner

The Obama administration’s nuclear security agenda is short on details concerning its “overall estimated cost, time frame, and scope of planned work,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report released Dec. 15. In the report, consisting of a public summary of the classified September version, the GAO also assessed the nuclear security work performed by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and found that its progress was uneven across programs and countries.

The GAO reported that the National Security Council (NSC) has approved a document that serves as a government-wide strategy for achieving President Barack Obama’s goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. (See ACT, May 2009.) That document lays out the main actions that the U.S. government will take toward this end and defines the role of each agency involved in the effort, according to the GAO. However, the GAO said that “this interagency strategy lacks specific details concerning how the initiative will be implemented.”

According to the GAO, the “NSC does not consider the 4-year time frame for securing nuclear materials worldwide a hard and fast deadline.” NSC officials said they saw it instead as a “forcing function” to drive U.S. nuclear nonproliferation programs and mobilize greater international support on the issue of nuclear security, the report says.

The GAO recommended that the NSC lead and coordinate “the development of a comprehensive plan for implementing” Obama’s four-year initiative. That plan should identify “the specific foreign countries, sites, and facilities where materials have been determined to be poorly secured”; the agencies responsible for addressing each location; potential challenges and the steps needed to overcome them; and the time frames and costs associated with the goal. According to the report, NSC officials provided no written comments on this recommendation but said they believed development of such a plan could take years.

Mixed Progress in NNSA Programs

The report focused in detail on the contributions of the NNSA to the nuclear security initiative. The NNSA “was the only agency to have developed a formal written plan with specific details regarding how it intends to contribute to the 4-year nuclear material security goal,” the GAO said.

The NNSA received the highest marks for its Material Protection, Control, and Accounting (MPC&A) activities in Russia. Through this program, which works to conduct security upgrades at nuclear facilities, the NNSA has improved security at 110 Russian nuclear warhead and material sites, the GAO said. However, the GAO noted that the MPC&A program is due to expire on Jan. 1, 2013, and transfer full responsibility for its activities to Russia. The report argued that the NNSA would be unlikely to meet this deadline and recommended that the NNSA and Congress take steps to prepare for extending the program past 2012.

Other NNSA programs in Russia have achieved more limited success, the GAO said. The Materials Consolidation and Conversion (MCC) program was created in 1999 with the goal of moving highly enriched uranium (HEU) from 50 buildings and five sites by 2010; it “has achieved removal of all HEU from only 1 site and 25 buildings,” the report said.

Likewise, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), which includes an effort to convert or shut down Russian HEU reactors, has made little progress toward that end, the GAO said. According to the report, the GTRI plans to convert or shut down 71 HEU-fueled research reactors and related facilities in Russia by 2020. To date, Russia has shut down three HEU facilities and committed to shutting down five others, the GAO said.

Under an agreement signed Dec. 7, Russia and the United States agreed to conduct feasibility studies on the conversion of six reactors in Russia. According to the GAO report, previous estimates had said the accord would be completed “in early fiscal year 2010,” which began in October 2009.

“NNSA officials told us that any agreement to conduct these studies would not constitute an official Russian decision to convert or undertake activities toward conversion,” the GAO said. In a Dec. 30 e-mail to Arms Control Today, NNSA spokesman Damien LaVera said, “While [the Dec. 7 agreement] does not commit Russia to convert those reactors, we think this is an important step forward and a demonstration of our joint commitment to minimizing the use of HEU wherever possible.”

Beyond Russia

The GAO report cites several notable successes in GTRI efforts to remove weapons-usable material from nearly two dozen countries. Following Ukraine’s commitment at the April 2010 nuclear security summit in Washington to get rid of all of its HEU by 2012, in May the GTRI facilitated the removal of “more than a third of Ukraine’s HEU inventory” to Russia, according to the report.

The report notes the NNSA’s completion of a contract with South Africa for the return of U.S.-origin spent HEU fuel to the United States. According to LaVera, the contract, signed in August 2010, covers 5.8 kilograms of U.S.-origin HEU spent fuel. The material is scheduled to be returned to the United States in the first half of 2011, he said. That will mark the removal of all U.S.-origin HEU spent fuel from South Africa, he said.

Another U.S.-South African effort cited by the GAO concerns the production of the medical isotope molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) from low-enriched uranium (LEU) by the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa). Until now, large-scale producers of the isotope, which is used to detect diseases and study organ structure, have used HEU. However, in a Dec. 6 press release, the NNSA announced the arrival in the United States of the first shipment of LEU-based Mo-99 approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use by U.S. patients. The United States has no Mo-99 production facilities. In the Dec. 30 e-mail, LaVera said Necsa and the NNSA had been working together for years on this issue and that after the April summit, the NNSA provided $25 million to support Necsa’s conversion efforts.

The GAO report also examined nuclear security cooperation with China and India, which the GAO said has been much more limited in its scope and results.