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former IAEA Director-General

Security at U.S. Weapons Laboratories

Controversy Over Nuclear Safety Board Scope and Size

Overlooked but significant controversies have been simmering about an independent government board in charge of overseeing safety standards and practices at the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons complex, and the battle for independent oversight between the board and the agency. These issues are made all the more concerning against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s costly and expanding plans to recapitalize the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and increase the production of plutonium cores for nuclear weapons. In May 2018, the Energy Department issued Order 140.1 , which would change...

First-Ever Study Finds Congressional Attention on Nuclear Security Waning as Nuclear Terrorism Threat Persists

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A new report reveals a concerning loss of congressional leadership and interest in critical efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism.

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For Immediate Release: July 26, 2016

Media Contacts: Nathan Sermonis, Executive Director, Partnership for a Secure America, (202) 293-8580; Jack Brosnan, Program Associate, Partnership for a Secure America, 202-293-8580; Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy. Arms Control Association, 202-463-8270 ext. 104; Tony Fleming, Director for Communications and Operations, Arms Control Association, 202-463-8270 ext. 110
 

(Washington, D.C.)—A new report from Partnership for a Secure America and the Arms Control Association reveals a concerning diminution of congressional engagement and interest in critical efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism.

The report, Empowering Congress on Nuclear Security: Blueprints for a New Generation, assesses current congressional staff attitudes about nuclear security and explores the role of Congress and case studies in congressional leadership on this issue. The report also offers action items for lawmakers in enhancing nuclear security efforts and reducing global stockpiles of nuclear materials.

“As the threat of nuclear terrorism continues to loom, America must maintain its leadership of global efforts to keep dangerous nuclear and radiological materials out of the wrong hands,” said Nathan Sermonis, Executive Director of Partnership for a Secure America. “Unfortunately, congressional interest has steeply declined with nuclear security faded from the headlines. We need, however, an all-of-government approach to advance the most effective measures against this threat.”

This joint report, made possible by funding provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, comes at a time when national attention on the security of nuclear and radioactive materials is decreasing even as these materials remain at risk from theft and more countries express interest in nuclear research and development.

“Despite significant progress in securing and eliminating nuclear materials around the world and the continued dedicated leadership role of several lawmakers, there is a need for Congress to play a more active role in shaping nuclear security policy,” noted Kingston Reif, Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association. “We provide an important blueprint to build upon Congress’ historic bipartisan achievements on nuclear security and engage a new generation of policy advisers on Capitol Hill.”

To mark the publication of the report, Partnership for a Secure America and the Arms Control Association will be hosting an invitation-only event July 26 on Capitol Hill for congressional staff. The event will feature Ambassador Linton Brooks, Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, and General Frank Klotz.

For more information about the report, please contact Partnership for a Secure America at [email protected] or (202) 293-8580, or the Arms Control Association at [email protected] or (202) 463-8270 ext. 104.

The full report, Empowering Congress on Nuclear Security: Blueprints for a New Generation, is available online.

Posted: July 25, 2018

The Global Nuclear Security Grand Challenge

Technology for Global Security is announcing the Global Nuclear Security Grand Challenge to answer the question: “What is the best system design for countries, companies, and other organizations to confidentially and securely verify in real time that 100 percent of their nuclear weapons and weapons-usable fissile material remains in their control and to aid in the recovery of any loss if it occurs?” A great deal of progress has been made since the launch of the Nuclear Security Summits initiated by President Obama in 2010 . The equivalent of 130 nuclear weapons' worth of highly enriched...

On Nuclear Security, U.S. Must Put Its Money Where Its Mouth Is

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The Nuclear Security Summit process and associated U.S. nuclear threat reduction programs have played a vital role in reducing the risk of a nuclear or radiological attack by terrorists.

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Volume 8, Issue 1, April 15, 2016

The Nuclear Security Summit process and associated U.S. nuclear threat reduction programs have played a vital role in reducing the risk of a nuclear or radiological attack by terrorists. But the threat is constantly changing and may have grown in recent years in light of the rise of the Islamic State group and indications it may have nuclear and/or radiological ambitions.

Despite noteworthy achievements, however, significant work remains to be done to prevent terrorists from detonating a nuclear explosive device or dirty bomb. For example, even after four Nuclear Security Summits there are no comprehensive, legally-binding international standards or rules for the security of all nuclear materials. The existing global nuclear security architecture needs to continue to evolve to become more comprehensive, open, rigorous, sustainable, and involve the further reduction of material stockpiles.

It is thus puzzling that just weeks before the final summit in Washington earlier this month, the Obama administration submitted to Congress a budget that proposed significant spending reductions for key National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) programs that lessen nuclear security and nonproliferation risks, accelerating a trend in recent years of short-sighted cuts to these programs. If implemented, these decreases will slow progress on key nuclear security initiatives, jeopardize the sustainability of those initiatives, and undermine U.S. leadership in this area.

As the Senate and House of Representatives begin their work on the fiscal year 2017 defense authorization and energy and water appropriations bills—which establish spending levels and set policy for Defense Department and NNSA activities—lawmakers should reverse these ill-advised budget cuts. Additionally, Congress should encourage the NNSA to augment its nuclear and radiological security work to help ensure the end of the summit process does not weaken progress toward continuously improving global nuclear and radiological material security.

Disappointing Budget Request

If the risk of nuclear or radiological terrorism isn’t on your mind, it should be. The recent Islamic State group-perpetrated terrorist attacks in Brussels offered another bloody reminder of the danger of terrorism. To make matters worse, reports indicate that two of the suicide bombers who perpetrated the attack had also carried out surveillance of a Belgian official with access to a facility with weapons-grade uranium and radioactive material.

A new report published on March 21 by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs concludes that the risk of nuclear terrorism may be higher than it was at the time of the third Nuclear Security Summit in 2014 due to the slowing of nuclear security progress and the rise of the Islamic State group.

Against this concerning backdrop, the NNSA, a semiautonomous agency of the Energy Department responsible for the bulk of U.S. nuclear security work, in February requested $1.47 billion for core nuclear security, nonproliferation, and counterterrorism programs in fiscal year 2017—a reduction of $62.4 million, or 3.8 percent, relative to the current fiscal year 2016 level. (Note: these figures exclude the administration’s request of $270 million to terminate the Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel program for excess U.S. weapons plutonium disposition.)

The drop is even steeper when measured against what the NNSA projected it would request for these programs in its fiscal year 2016 submission, which was issued in February 2015. The agency had said it planned to ask for $1.65 billion in fiscal year 2017, or roughly $185 million more than the actual proposal.

The largest proposed reduction in the request is to the Global Material Security program, which improves the security of nuclear materials around the world, secures orphaned or disused radiological sources—which could be used to make a dirty bomb—and strengthens nuclear smuggling detection and deterrence. Within this program, the NNSA is seeking $7.6 million less than last year’s appropriation for radiological material security programs and roughly $270 million less for these activities over the next four years than it planned to request over the same period, last year.

Most experts agree that the probability of a terrorist exploding a dirty bomb is much higher than that of a nuclear device. This is due in large part to the ubiquitous presence of these materials, which are used for peaceful applications like cancer treatment, in thousands of locations and in almost every country around the world, many of which are poorly protected and vulnerable to theft. A new report published last month by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) noted that only 14% of International Atomic Energy Agency member states have agreed to secure their highest risk radiological sources by a specific date.

Along with reducing the budget for radiological security, the NNSA is planning to transition from a primarily protect-based approach for radiological materials to one that emphasizes permanent threat reduction through the removal of sources and the promotion of alternative technologies, when feasible. While it makes sense to seek to replace these sources as opposed to securing them in perpetuity, this revised approach raises numerous questions, including whether some sources will remain vulnerable for longer than under the previous strategy. At the current planned pace, it would take another 17 years to meet the NNSA’s much-reduced target of helping to secure just under 4,400 buildings around the world with dangerous radioactive material—down from a target of roughly twice that just last year.

Elsewhere in the NNSA nonproliferation budget, funding for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Research and Development activities would fall to $394 million from its $419 million fiscal year 2016 appropriation. This program matures technologies used in tracking foreign nuclear weapons programs, illicit diversion of nuclear materials, and nuclear detonations. The NNSA projected a request of $430 million in fiscal year 2017 research and development funding in its fiscal year 2016 request.

The NNSA has defended some of the reductions to the nonproliferation account on the grounds that several major projects have been completed, thereby lessening resource needs, and that the impact of spending cuts can be mitigated by using unspent money left over from prior years, largely due to the suspension in late 2014 of nearly all nuclear security cooperation with Russia. But the cuts proposed for fiscal year 2017, relative to what was projected last year, are significant, especially to the radiological security and research and development programs where the NNSA does not say they will use unspent balances.

An Energy Department task force report on NNSA nonproliferation programs released last year expressed concern about the recent trend of falling budgets for those programs (see chart). “The need to counter current and likely future challenges to nonproliferation justifies increased, rather than reduced, investment in this area,” the report said.

Similarly, Andrew Bieniawski, a former deputy assistant secretary of Energy who ran the NNSA’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative during both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations and who is now a vice president at NTI, said last month that the agency’s recent budget requests “do not match the growing threat and they certainly don’t match the fact that you are having a presidential nuclear security summit.”

Many members of Congress agree with these concerns. In August 2014, 26 senators sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget seeking increased funding for NNSA nuclear nonproliferation programs for fiscal year 2016. Though the 2016 request was higher than the previous year’s enacted level, it did not meet the Senators’ desire “to further accelerate the pace at which nuclear and radiological materials are secured and permanently disposed.”

Reinvigorating Congressional Leadership

The global effort to prevent nuclear terrorism is at a key inflection point. While the United States can’t tackle the challenge on its own, U.S. leadership and resources are essential. The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2017 budget request was a missed opportunity to advance many good ideas in this space that haven't received adequate attention and investment.

Congress has a critical role to play in this endeavor, and there are a number of steps it can take this year to sustain and strengthen U.S. and global nuclear and radiological security efforts.

First, Congress should increase fiscal year 2017 funding for NNSA radiological security and nonproliferation research and development efforts, the two programs hardest hit by the agency’s proposed budget cuts. Additional funding would allow an acceleration of efforts to secure dangerous radiological materials and ensure the United States is prepared to confront emerging security and nonproliferation challenges.

Congress should also call for a global strategy, stronger regulations, and increased funding to secure and eliminate the most vulnerable highest-risk radiological sources around the world during the first term of the next administration. This multidimensional effort should entail a number of elements, including: securing the most vulnerable sources (where needed); requiring the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to implement stronger regulatory requirements; supporting universal adherence to the IAEA Code of Conduct on radiological sources; mandating additional cost-sharing by industry; and, where appropriate, accelerating the development and use of alternative technologies. An accelerated international radiological security effort would be consistent with a proposal from Sen. Carper (D-Del.) requiring the administration to craft a plan for securing all high-risk low-level radiological material in the United States.

In addition, Congress should require NNSA to report on its research and development activities and identify opportunities to expand them in areas such as:

  • developing alternatives to high performance research reactors that run on highly enriched uranium (HEU);
  • converting HEU-powered naval reactors to use low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel (the White House announced on March 31 that the Energy Department is forming a research and development plan for an advanced fuel system that could enable use of LEU in naval reactors); and
  • examining ways adversaries could potentially use 3D printing and other new technologies to make nuclear-weapons usable components.

Other ideas that have been put forth to augment NNSA’s (and the rest of the interagency) nuclear security and nonproliferation work worthy of Congressional backing include:

  • completing a prioritization of nuclear materials at foreign locations for return or disposition, to identify the most vulnerable material stocks to focus efforts on, and establishing a time frame for doing so;
  • developing new detection and monitoring technologies and approaches to verify future nuclear arms reductions;
  • outlining a plan for how to expand U.S. nuclear security cooperation with China, India, and Pakistan and addressing obstacles to such an expansion and how they could be overcome;
  • developing approaches to rebuild nuclear security cooperation with Russia that would put both countries in equal roles;
  • building a global nuclear materials security system of effective nuclear security norms, standards, and best practices worldwide;
  • enhancing protections against nuclear sabotage; and
  • strengthening—and sharing—intelligence on nuclear and radiological terrorism threats.

In addition, Congress should seek ways to dissuade other states from pursuing programs to reprocess fuel from nuclear power plants, which lead to the separation of plutonium.

While the Nuclear Security Summit process has seen significant progress in the minimization of highly enriched uranium (HEU) for civilian purposes, global civilian plutonium stockpiles continue to grow. East Asia in particular is on the verge of a major build up of separated plutonium, which could be used in nuclear weapons and poses significant security risks. Japan and China both have plans to reprocess on a large-scale, and doing so would almost certainly prompt South Korea to follow suit.

To its credit, the Obama administration has recently been more vocal in expressing its concerns about these plans. Congress should encourage the administration, and NNSA in particular, to engage in additional cooperative work with countries in East Asia on spent fuel storage options and the elimination of excess plutonium stockpiles without reprocessing.

Over the years, U.S. support for nuclear security programs at home and abroad has resulted in an enormously effective return on investment that greatly strengthens U.S. security, and will be even more important in the years ahead in absence of head of state level summit meetings.

Indeed, there is a long legacy of members of Congress from both parties working together to reduce nuclear risks. For example, in 1991, Senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) put forward the “Soviet Nuclear Threat Reduction Act of 1991,” which authorized $400 million to create U.S.-led programs assist the countries of the former Soviet Union secure and eliminate nuclear weapons, chemical weapons, and other weapons. This effort became known as the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, which has successfully liquidated thousands of Cold War-era Soviet weapons.

Twenty-five years later, the evolution of security and proliferation challenges requires similarly bold and innovative Congressional leadership.

—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy

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The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. 

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Posted: April 15, 2016

European Missile Defense No Answer to Russia

USS Monterey armed with SM-3 Block IA interceptors and the Aegis missile defense system. The SM-3 cannot intercept Russian long-range missiles. The just-passed House Armed Services Committee plan to accelerate U.S. missile defense deployments in Poland to counter Russian action in Ukraine is all bark and no bite. By Tom Z. Collina The United States has a strategic interest in establishing economic and political stability in Ukraine, reassuring nervous NATO allies, and warning Russia that further interference in Ukraine or elsewhere would be a serious mistake. Congress, however, should be...

The Week Ahead March 17-20: P5+1/Iran Talks; Nuclear Security Knowledge Summit; Ukraine Crisis & New START

The following are some of the key arms control dates and developments to watch in the coming week. For more news and analysis on these and other weapons-related security issues, consider subscribing to ACA's monthly journal Arms Control Today, which is available in print/digital and digital-only editions. - the Editors at Arms Control Today March 16: Crimea Referendum & New START Tensions are rising in Ukraine as Russian military forces have been deployed to the eastern boarder of Ukraine and a referendum on secession of Crimea is scheduled to take place on Sunday, March 16. Should the...

The Nuclear Triad, for Less

The U.S. could save $16 billion by downsizing the strategic submarine fleet from 12 to 8 and still deploy a New START-size force. By Tom Z. Collina Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned this week that "tough, tough choices are coming" if the Pentagon is forced to make deep spending cuts, as required by law. Options on the table include slashing 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers and retiring an aircraft carrier. But, so far, the Pentagon says it is not considering options for reducing the high cost of nuclear modernization programs. It should. The United States can stay at warhead levels set by the...

Activists Sentenced for Y-12 Break-in

Three peace activists who broke into the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee were sentenced Feb. 18 to prison terms of 35 months to 62 months.

Timothy Farnsworth

Three peace activists who broke into the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee were sentenced Feb. 18 to prison terms of 35 months to 62 months.

In U.S. District Court in Knoxville, Megan Rice, an 84-year-old Catholic nun, received a sentence of two years and 11 months for her role in the break-in on July 28, 2012. The other two activists, 65-year-old Michael Walli of Washington and 58-year-old Gregory Boertje-Obed of Duluth, Minn., were each sentenced to five years and two months. All three were ordered by the court to pay $53,000 and will have three years of supervision after completing their prison time.

The three activists were convicted last May 8 on charges of trespassing, defacing government property, and sabotage. They had pleaded not guilty. According to a 2012 article in The Denver Post, the defense lawyers for the three protesters claimed that it was only after their clients rejected a guilty plea that the prosecutors decided to charge them with the sabotage count, increasing the maximum prison term from one year to 20 years.

According to news reports, the three activists, who call themselves “Transform Now Plowshares,” were able to breach the security fences, spill human blood, and paint biblical phrases on the facility that stores approximately 400 tons of highly enriched uranium. The protesters spent more than two hours behind the security fences before being arrested.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), part of the Energy Department, is in charge of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, including the Y-12 facility. After the break-in, Energy Department Inspector General Gregory Friedman released a report outlining the security failures that allowed the break-in to happen, actions taken by the NNSA to improve security shortly after the break-in, and recommendations for further actions to better secure Y-12 and other facilities in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

The break-in triggered sharp criticism from Congress. At a Sept. 12, 2012, hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said, “When an 82-year-old pacifist nun gets to the inner sanctum of our weapons complex, you cannot say, ‘Job well done.’” At the same hearing, Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman said, “The incident at Y-12 was unacceptable, and it served as an important wake-up call for our entire complex.”

Posted: March 4, 2014

Week Ahead March 3-9: IAEA mtg; Pentagon Budget; Nuclear Security; Ukraine & the NPT

As the crisis in Ukraine continues to dominate global attention and the news headlines, several other arms control developments of significance in the coming week. For more news and analysis on these and other weapons-related security issues, consider subscribing to ACA's monthly journal Arms Control Today, which is available in print/digital and digital-only editions. The March issue of ACT will be available online later this week to all subscribers. - the Editors at Arms Control Today Week of March 3: IAEA Board of Governors Convenes The 35-member International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)...

Nuclear Security: More Action, Less Encouragement

By Kelsey Davenport Delegates gather at the IAEA on July 1 for the opening of the International Conference on Nuclear Security. Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) held its first ministerial-level meeting on nuclear security, the International Conference on Nuclear Security: Enhancing Global Efforts . The purpose of the high-level conference was to strengthen and bring greater global attention to nuclear security and inform the agency's nuclear security plan for 2014-2017. However, after producing a ministerial declaration with lowest common denominator language, "...

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