Global progress seen in securing nuclear materials

But the ranking given to the United States slips over the past two years

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Nations around the globe have taken important steps over the past two years to safeguard nuclear weapons materials from potential thefts by terrorists, an expert Washington-based group concluded Jan. 8 in a comprehensive report.

The number of nations with significant stocks of those materials fell during the period from 32 to 25, the report said, largely because of a concerted effort by the United States to collect the materials or to assist in their protection or destruction.

But the ranking given by the group — a nonprofit entity known as the Nuclear Threat Initiative — to U.S. security measures slipped during the period, the report stated, partly because the government has not allowed international inspection of a former military bomb fuel plant now being used to prepare reactor wastes for burial.

The group also criticized Congress for failing to ratify two international treaties setting standards for fissile material protections and making nuclear terrorism a crime. Congress’s failure to do so, said the report’s authors, prevented the United States from receiving a better score.

The group, which is headed by former Sen. Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn and devoted to curtailing the dangers posed by nuclear explosive or “fissile” materials, listed the United States as one of four countries out of 25 with stocks where security had lagged.

The other three countries were the United Kingdom, which has expanded its civilian stocks of fissile materials; Italy, where the report cited problems with widespread corruption; and South Africa, where overall physical security of such stocks is a concern. All lost a single point out of 100 possible under the NTI’s scoring system.

The rankings were made by a panel of 15 experts from around the world, who graded the countries on such categories as the physical protection of nuclear sites, international legal commitments and the sheer quantity of the nuclear materials within their borders. The experts included Russia’s Anatoly Diakov, a professor at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Tatsujiro Suzuki, vice chairman of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, and Matthew Bunn, professor at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

The report was issued as the United States and others prepare for the third international nuclear security summit in the Netherlands in March. The summits were launched in 2010 by President Obama to highlight the dangers from fissile materials and the need to secure them more carefully.

Among the 25 states with stocks of nuclear explosive materials, the United States tied for 11th place with the United Kingdom in its security measures.

The index was created by NTI with the Economist Intelligence Unit, a global risk analysis company, which consulted 15 experts from 14 countries — including Argentina, Australia, China, France, India, Japan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States and Vietnam.

Australia ranked first in the NTI’s index with 92 points out of 100, partly by ratifying the treaty to criminalize nuclear terror. North Korea, scoring low in 12 of the 19 categories, came in last, with just 30 points. That country recently “has also taken new steps necessary to produce new weapons-usable nuclear materials,” the report said, which may affect its score in future rankings.

Page Stoutland, a former Energy Department official who is the vice president for nuclear materials security at NTI, said that the United States lost points partly because it has not placed a facility called H-Canyon, a Cold War-era factory for producing bomb fuel at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, on a list of sites of sites open to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

A major NTI goal is to build world support for expanding the IAEA’s authority to monitor and enforce protections for fissile materials.“There’s got to be a permanent mechanism put into place here, and that’s the heart of our recommendations,” Nunn said. “You’ve got to have standards, you’ve got to have best practices and you’ve got to have peer review. And you’ve got to have an agency that has the authority and the mandate and the budget to deal with this problem on a continuing basis.”

Savannah River is no longer engaged in weapons work, and is being used to separate fissile materials from domestic and foreign research reactor wastes, in order to prepare them for disposal, according to the Department of Energy.

As part of its effort to press other governments to enhance the security of their fissile materials and the transparency of their holdings, the U.S. government since the Johnson administration has declared that certain civilian nuclear sites are “eligible” for international inspections. But H-Canyon has never been one of them, a former White House official said.

Another site at Savannah River called K Area that stores several tons of surplus weapons plutonium has been under IAEA safeguards for the past ten years, according to Tom Clements, a nuclear expert at Friends of the Earth.

The Austrian-based agency monitors the plutonium, he said, using video and tamper alarms that feed signals to the agency’s Vienna headquarters. He said he was told about the arrangement by a Department of Energy official.

Energy agency officials in Washington did not immediately respond Thursday to requests for comment.

Scott Sagan, a member of the NTI’s panel of experts who has served as a consultant to the Defense Department and U.S. weapons laboratories, said that the government keeps some non-weapons facilities off of the list of sites eligible for IAEA inspections out of security concerns.

“The U.S. government faces a tradeoff often when it has facilities that are involved in sensitive technology,” he said. “For the sake of nonproliferation and nuclear security, we want to show transparency and be open to safeguards. But in order to protect sensitive information we sometimes make an exception to our rule of transparency.”

Besides complaining about the inspections, NTI officials also expressed concern about the fate of two treaties — the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.

Congress has been debating legislation needed to implement the treaties since the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. But the implementing bill has been stalled in part by political discord over whether to authorize the death penalty in nuclear terror cases.

NTI President Joan Rohlfing, a former senior Energy Department official, on Wednesday called for action on the legislation. “Despite a 2010 commitment,” she told reporters, “Congress has still not passed legislation to complete the ratification of two critical treaties designed to protect against a terrorist with a nuclear weapon. Clearly, we are still lacking a global will to tackle this challenge with the urgency it deserves.”

Thomas Moore, a former senior adviser on arms control issues at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Obama administration failed to push hard enough for passage of the implementing bill.

“The administration really has put itself out on a limb both domestically and internationally with these two treaties, and the only reason is what I would call their failed legislative strategy,” he said.

Jonathan Lalley, assistant press secretary for national security at the White House, said in a statement that the administration has been working for two years with key Congressional staff and committees to pass the legislation.

“We call on Congress to complete the process so that the United States can fully exercise its influence to bring these critical nuclear security commitments into force around the world, and raise global standards for securing weapons-usable nuclear material,” Lalley said.

At a news conference, Nunn pointed out that seven countries had removed all or most of their stocks of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium since NTI released its first report on the topic in 2012. The countries were Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Mexico, Sweden, Ukraine and Vietnam.

But he said inadequate security for fissile materials still represents a grave threat. “We know that terrorists are seeking materials,” said Nunn, who in the 1990s worked with then-Sen. Richard Lugar to establish programs that dismantled and locked up Soviet nuclear weapons.

“We know that information about building a nuclear weapon, even though a crude weapon, is widely available,” Nunn said. “We understand the consequences of a detonation – hundreds of thousands of dead and injured, disruptions to global commerce and confidence, long-term environmental and public health consequences" and probably much reduced civil liberties.

Nunn cited statements by leaders of the International Atomic Energy Agency that “a large percentage” of the dangerous nuclear material it recovers has never been reported missing, and some of the material reported missing is never found. A nuclear explosive device, he said, could be fashioned from a piece of highly-enriched uranium that could fit in a five-pound bag of sugar, or a piece of plutonium the size of a grapefruit.

In total, four states have increased their stocks of nuclear explosives since 2012, the report noted. Japan and the United Kingdom added to their civilian stocks, while India and Pakistan have increased both their civilian and military stocks.

The NTI report found that Pakistan improved its nuclear weapons-related security the most of any of the nuclear weapons states. The report cited the country’s efforts to “update its nuclear security regulations and to implement nuclear security best practices,” without providing details.

Pakistan nonetheless still ranked fourth from the bottom of the rankings.

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