By Leland Cogliani
The United States is not prepared to respond to rapidly evolving and complex nuclear and radiological threats. Yet, modest resources and a few targeted efforts could meaningfully strengthen the country’s ability to track and mitigate such dangers and, in some cases, eliminate them.
There is reason for concern about current stockpiles of nuclear materials and the prospect that they will increase as more countries, investing in nuclear research and development, are showing interest in deploying nuclear power reactors and enrichment technologies.
Already, too many radiological and nuclear materials remain at risk for theft, including materials in the United States. That raises the chances that terrorists or other hostile actors could acquire the capability to pose a nuclear or radiological danger, such as threatening or detonating a rudimentary “dirty bomb,” which would spew radioactive material over a large area.
Further, disruptive technologies, such as 3-D printing, machine learning, and cyberattacks, can provide terrorists unprecedented opportunities to build crude nuclear devices or anonymously attack U.S. energy assets. Such perils should spur a greater preventive effort by the U.S. government, which has the resources and capabilities to be more proactive.
The Trump administration’s report of its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review reaffirmed that “preventing the illicit acquisition of a nuclear weapon, nuclear materials, or related technology and expertise by a violent extremist organization is a significant U.S. national security priority.”1 Yet, the report offered no new initiatives, and the funding levels for existing programs are in jeopardy.
Although the current administration prioritizes spending to modernize the nuclear stockpile, it has failed to take actions to address these nuclear-related threats. There is a clear lack of high-level governmental attention to nuclear nonproliferation, no well-defined and bold vision for nonproliferation activities, a breakdown of international cooperative efforts, and a continuing loss of critical nuclear expertise across the government.
These factors make nonproliferation programs vulnerable to budget cuts and irrelevance at a time when these efforts are needed more than ever. The president’s fiscal year 2019 budget request is a prime example. The administration proposed $11 billion for nuclear stockpile modernization efforts, a $375 million, or 3.5 percent, increase from the enacted funding levels for fiscal year 2018. At the same time, it proposed cutting core nonproliferation programs by $191 million, or 11 percent, to $1.5 billion.2 Funding cuts to nonproliferation programs were offered as offsets for the overall $1.3 trillion multiyear effort to modernize the nuclear weapons stockpile.
The government agency that has a leading role in reducing and preventing nuclear and radiological threats against the United States is the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous part of the Department of Energy. Within the NNSA, the Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation (DNN) has successfully led efforts over more than a decade to secure and permanently eliminate the most vulnerable nuclear materials around the world. For example, on August 29, 2017, the NNSA announced it had eliminated all highly enriched uranium (HEU) from Ghana. This made Ghana the 32nd country, plus Taiwan, to be completely HEU-free, significantly reducing terrorist access to material that could be used to produce a nuclear weapon or improvised nuclear explosive device.3
However, the DNN has not kept pace with a growing number of nonproliferation and nuclear security challenges. To strengthen nonproliferation efforts and refocus the DNN’s programs, three major efforts should be launched that would have the highest impact and receive strong congressional bipartisan support, including an initiative that maintains and builds critical capabilities to address current and future nuclear security threats, a proliferation detection consortium to advance the development and deployment of nonproliferation technologies, and a radiological initiative that would eliminate or secure within five years all of the highest-risk radioactive sources in the United States that could be used for a radiological dispersal device.
Nuclear Security Crosscut Initiative
The Energy Department needs a nuclear security crosscut initiative that would coordinate program activities and resources of the various offices and programs across the Energy Department and the NNSA. The goal would be to reduce nuclear and radiological threats and leverage the Energy Department’s unique expertise to address growing nonproliferation and nuclear security challenges that are a significant concern for the United States. These challenges include
- continuing interest by terrorist groups in acquiring nuclear and radiological materials,
- increasing global stockpiles of plutonium,
- inadequately secured nuclear and radiological materials,
- the threat of nuclear smuggling,
- nuclear weapons modernization and foreign nuclear weapons development,
- more countries investing in nuclear R&D and showing interest in establishing nuclear power reactors,
- reassessments of advanced reactor concepts and the fuel cycle,
- growing cyberattacks, and
- the rise of disruptive technologies, such as additive manufacturing, laser enrichment, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.
The NNSA is focused on maintaining core capabilities for the U.S. nuclear deterrent and nuclear weapons modernization efforts, but has not paid sufficient attention to the capabilities needed to understand and respond to foreign nuclear fuel-cycle and weapons development processes while supporting safeguards and future arms control technologies.
As an example of an emerging trend, there are 57 civil nuclear power reactors under construction in 18 countries around the world.4 There are a further 20 countries that currently do not have nuclear power programs that have expressed interest in developing them,5 and some are engaging in nuclear R&D—trends that have a significant impact on proliferation potential. Experts with knowledge about these issues reside at the Energy Department national labs, universities, and industry and are funded by different Energy Department and NNSA programs in many instances. Yet, these activities are not coordinated, and there is a risk of losing these capabilities based on neglect or lack of strategic vision.
The need for this crosscutting initiative presents an opportunity for the DNN to lead the initiative. The DNN should engage and coordinate with NNSA’s Office of Defense Programs, which includes production of unencumbered low-enriched uranium for tritium, and a number of Energy Department offices including the Office of Science, which includes programs for stable isotope production; the naval reactors program (HEU for naval reactors); the Office of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; and the Office of Nuclear Energy, which includes programs for fuel research. Representatives from these offices would form a working group to outline a 10-year strategy and joint investments.
The first part of this effort would be a gap analysis. This analysis would set the baseline for existing capabilities, identify capabilities that are underfunded or disappearing that would be needed for nonproliferation missions, and provide recommendations to reconstitute, exercise, and rebuild needed capabilities. The analysis would be broad and embrace new monitoring and detection technologies, including big data analytics and computer science to detect patterns, crowdsourcing techniques, and use of inexpensive sensors. The effort would employ test beds or facilities to train and test skills and capabilities, such as new centrifuge designs, ways to conceal nuclear weapons development, and advanced fuel-cycle developments. An important element would be efforts to attract and retain a highly skilled workforce.
The NNSA’s role in providing technical support during negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is a perfect example of the broad range of capabilities needed to answer critical questions from the president on the timing and pathways for nuclear weapons production. To support the negotiations, experts from seven national laboratories and two nuclear weapons production sites provided technical analyses on issues such as uranium enrichment, spent fuel reprocessing, reactor designs, and safeguards.
This initial effort would require approximately $30 million and could be modeled after a congressional effort to restore the national laboratories’ capabilities to assess foreign nuclear weapons capabilities in the 2009 emergency supplemental appropriations bill or the new stockpile responsiveness program, managed by the NNSA’s Defense Programs office, established under the fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.
Proliferation Detection Consortium
A core element of this joint effort should be a proliferation detection consortium that would help accelerate the pace of innovation, development, and deployment of key nonproliferation R&D technologies and coordinate efforts across labs and universities. The purpose of this consortium would be to develop a strategic partnership among the NNSA, national laboratories, universities, and industry that brings together leading experts and resources to collaborate and advance the development and deployment of nonproliferation technologies. The goal is an integrated approach to ensure that NNSA-funded R&D is efficiently coordinated to reap the greatest return on taxpayer dollars. The DNN would strengthen its position as a resource and convener for the diverse and fragmented set of stakeholders across the national laboratories, universities, industry, and other federal agencies.
The first step would be to identify key stakeholders to develop a five-year plan for nonproliferation R&D needs that is tied to specific scientific and engineering grand challenges to address nuclear and radiological threats. Prime national laboratories stakeholders would likely include Los Alamos, Livermore, Sandia, Oak Ridge, Argonne, and Pacific Northwest. Other laboratories and NNSA sites, such as Brookhaven, Fermilab, and Berkeley, could provide technical support on accelerator and other emerging technologies. Prime universities could be drawn from members of the nonproliferation university consortia currently led by the University of California at Berkeley, North Carolina State University, and University of Michigan, the stewardship science academic programs, and partnership-funded institutions. Prime NNSA offices would be the Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Research and Development (DNN R&D) and the Office of Nonproliferation and Arms Control.
The second step would involve convening a workshop of experts to identify the R&D grand challenges. Those challenges would include
- next-generation technologies and methods to detect foreign nuclear weapons program activities, such as uranium production, plutonium processing, and low-yield nuclear tests;
- arms control treaty technologies, such as warhead dismantlement verification;
- advanced technologies for detecting the illicit diversion of bomb-relevent fissile “special nuclear materials,” such as plutonium and uranium-235, and improved remote monitoring technologies for nuclear materials and operations;
- new technologies for counterterrorism and incident response; and
- nonradioactive alternatives to medical and industrial technologies that currently use radioactive sources.
The Energy Department already has used this type of model successfully. In 2014, the Energy Department launched the Grid Modernization Lab Consortium, which coordinated the activities of 13 Energy Department national laboratories, as well as more than 100 universities and industries, related to modernizing the electric grid.6 The consortium developed a four-year modernization plan that identified six major R&D challenges, defined future R&D investments, and, most importantly, identified key labs and program managers to lead and coordinate each of the R&D challenges.7
After it issued the plan, which involved workshops and feedback from the laboratories, universities, and industry, the Energy Department released a $220 million funding opportunity announcement to advance the R&D goals. These projects were jointly funded by the Offices of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability and Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. A similar model and level of effort can be used for a proliferation detection consortium pooling resources from the DNN R&D and the arms control office.
The DNN can build on the initial successes of the university consortium for enabling capabilities, verification technologies, and nuclear science that are currently being funded and can leverage the broader network of universities doing work for the Defense Programs office in the academic alliance and partnership program. Many of the Energy Department and NNSA labs have global security programs that include nonproliferation missions, but the labs are not well coordinated, and there may be redundancies. Some labs are not aware of technology developments at other labs or developments that may be funded by other non-NNSA agencies, including the Office of Science, that may be applicable to nonproliferation missions. A consortium would help share ideas and technology developments while avoiding duplication.
In addition, this type of program could help reinvigorate the nonproliferation program more broadly by focusing the expertise of the best labs and universities on funding technology and policy solutions to nuclear and radiological threats. Limited resources could also be pooled to address specific challenges and clarify roles and responsibilities across the labs and sites.
Radiological Eliminate-and-Secure Initiative
A radiological dispersal device, or dirty bomb, attack does not present an existential threat like a nuclear device, but it would still have devastating social and economic consequences. The most likely path for a terrorist to construct a dirty bomb is to steal poorly secured radiological material domestically. The United States should lead by example and be able to declare within the next five years that all vulnerable, high-risk radiological materials have been eliminated.
The NNSA has made progress in helping to secure the most vulnerable, high-risk radiological sources at medical and industrial facilities and has taken back orphaned radiological sources, but thousands of sources and hundreds of facilities remain vulnerable to theft. Given budget cuts, the NNSA has pushed back the date of securing buildings and materials to 2033 rather than accelerating efforts to secure these sources from terrorists. In addition, too much effort has been placed on securing materials rather than permanent threat reduction.
The goal of a radiological eliminate-and-secure initiative would be to eliminate, consolidate, and secure by 2023 the highest-risk radioactive sources in the United States that could be used for a dirty bomb. This strategy eliminates the most vulnerable sources in the United States for a dirty bomb, allows the United States to lead by example, and, where necessary, develops new U.S.-based industries that can commercialize and sell nonradioactive technologies on the market. This effort would likely require around $500 million over five years.
Although necessary, a program centered mostly on securing sources raises issues of sustainability. Instead, the primary focus should be on eliminating radiological sources. Fewer sources in fewer, well-protected locations is an effective approach. The DNN Cesium Irradiator Replacement Program, which is focused on replacing blood irradiators using cesium-137 with nonradioactive X-ray technologies, is a good model. Such technological measures should be expanded to other radiological materials, such as cobalt-60 and iridium-192, and to devices such as Gamma Knife technology and medical sterilization irradiators.
The most effective way to reduce the threat of a dirty bomb is to replace radiological sources with safe, effective, alternative technologies. This effort will require coordinating with the DNN’s R&D program to invest in alternative technologies to replace radiological sources. Coordination with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which licenses and regulates the use of radiological sources, is also necessary and has sometimes been a roadblock to moving to alternative technologies. The DNN can help demonstrate that alternative technologies are technically and economically feasible and cost effective and can provide the same level of performance as radiological sources.
These three specific initiatives could help galvanize nonproliferation efforts, significantly enhance U.S. national security, maintain capabilities needed to address current threats, and prevent and, if necessary, respond to future nuclear security threats. Even better, only modest resources are needed to have a big impact. There is no reason the United States should still be vulnerable to dirty bombs made from U.S. materials.
As a world leader in science and technology, including nuclear energy technologies, and with a network of national laboratories and research universities that are the envy of the world, the United States has no excuse for not leveraging these existing capabilities to address major nuclear and radiological threats. Attracting the best and the brightest to these grand national security challenges is imperative because the threats will be enduring and will require innovative solutions.
1. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Nuclear Posture Review,” February 2018, https://www.defense.gov/News/SpecialReports/2018NuclearPostureReview.aspx.
2. For base fiscal year 2019 funding, see U.S. Department of Energy, “FY 2019 Congressional Budget Request: National Nuclear Security Administration,” DOE/CF-0138, March 2018, p. 464, https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2018/03/f49/FY-2019-Volume-1.pdf. The core nonproliferation program base funding is $1.534 billion. For a comparison to fiscal year 2018 funding, see 164 Cong. Rec. H2498 (daily ed. March 22, 2018).
3. National Nuclear Security Administration, “NNSA Removes All Highly Enriched Uranium From Ghana,” August 29, 2017, https://www.energy.gov/nnsa/articles/nnsa-removes-all-highly-enriched-uranium-ghana.
4. World Nuclear Association, “World Nuclear Power Reactors and Uranium Requirements,” May 2018, http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/facts-and-figures/world-nuclear-power-reactors-and-uranium-requireme.aspx.
5. World Nuclear Association, “Emerging Nuclear Energy Countries,” April 2018, http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/others/emerging-nuclear-energy-countries.aspx.
6. See U.S. Department of Energy, “Grid Modernization Initiative: What We Do,” n.d., https://www.energy.gov/grid-modernization-initiative-0.
7. See U.S. Department of Energy, “Grid Modernization Multi-Year Program Plan,” November 2015, https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2016/01/f28/Grid%20Modernization%20Multi-Year%20Program%20Plan.pdf.
Leland Cogliani is a consultant at Lewis-Burke Associates for research universities, research organizations, and scientific societies and was formerly a Senate Appropriations Committee staff member with oversight of nuclear weapons and nonproliferation programs. He is a member of the board of directors of the Arms Control Association.