U.S. efforts to stem 'extreme threat to global security' far from complete

A global lockdown of nuclear explosive materials remains an elusive U.S. goal



Unidentified International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and Iranian technicians are on hand to cut the connections between the twin cascades for 20 percent uranium enrichment at Natanz facility, some 200 miles (322 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, in January 2014.

Kazem Ghane/AP/IRNA

This story has been corrected.

Since the start of the Manhattan Project in 1942, the world has accumulated 1,875 tons of nuclear explosive materials, the equivalent of tens of thousands of enormously powerful bombs. An estimated 25 countries hold these materials today at hundreds of sites, sometimes in facilities with questionable security.

Terrorists could engineer a devastating attack against a civilian population or a large military installation merely by gaining access to a few pounds of these materials, because the designs of simple nuclear weapons are no longer secret. A stock of enriched uranium the size of a six-pack is all they would need to fuel a crude bomb as powerful as the one that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945.

Anxious officials in the United States have sought as a result to eliminate or at least better secure stocks of nuclear explosive materials around the world, with mixed results.

Some governments have balked at reducing or eliminating their stocks, arguing that the materials are important economic assets they have a right to keep. Some have resisted adopting stringent standards for securing their nuclear explosives, saying that rigorous precautions are unnecessary, too expensive and a barrier to the development of peaceful nuclear programs.

The United States, meanwhile, has mismanaged some of its domestic efforts to secure or reduce its own stockpile of nuclear explosive materials.

The Center for Public Integrity has been investigating the global effort to control dangerous nuclear explosives. Our aim is to shine a light on the gravest risks today, and on secretive but sometimes unsuccessful efforts to secure these materials.

We’ve already published two sets of stories in this project, and a third series is scheduled to be published next week. In the initial pieces, we examined the financial, technical and political problems that afflict a longstanding U.S. and Russian plan to destroy 68 tons of surplus, Cold War-era weapons plutonium.

The second series detailed controversy over Japan’s construction of one of the world’s largest plutonium factories, a facility producing materials with no immediate use. U.S. officials have complained privately that the site is not adequately protected from a terrorist assault.

Here is a primer on this topic in anticipation of the third series of articles:

The Obama administration has since 2009 devoted significant attention to enhancing the security of nuclear materials, an initiative the President hailed as the best way of addressing “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.”  He’d promised as a candidate that all vulnerable materials would be locked up by the end of his first presidential term. So is this really still a problem?

The White House effort  which built on a Bush administration program launched in 2004  has substantially reduced the number of countries that hold threatening fissile materials. Under U.S. prodding, from 2012 to last year alone, seven countries completely eliminated all stocks of their weapons materials.

But nine nuclear weapons states still hold enormous stockpiles, and ten more nations that don’t have nuclear weapons still have enough fuel to build one. The White House has focused on civilian stocks of highly-enriched uranium, rather than on the much larger and more politically sensitive military stocks. And the administration has paid less attention to reducing global stockpiles of plutonium, which are large and growing.

So where is this material, for the most part?

More than 90 percent of the world’s highly-enriched uranium and plutonium are still held by Russia and the United States.

Together, these two countries have about 1,460 tons of the stuff. And that’s what remains after Russia converted 500 tons of highly-enriched uranium into benign reactor fuel, and sold it to the United States for $17 billion  in perhaps the most successful nuclear nonproliferation program ever attempted.  

Other weapons states  France, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea  also hold large stocks of nuclear explosives for both civilian and military use. South Africa and Pakistan built their own factories for such explosives based to varying degrees on foreign designs.

Japan has an immense plutonium stockpile it says it needs for a civilian reactor program that won’t be completed for decades. Germany, Japan, Canada, Belgium, Kazakhstan, Poland, Italy, Netherlands and Belarus also have enough fissile material to build at least one nuclear bomb.

How did these countries get hold of their nuclear explosives in the first place?

The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council —the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain —all built nuclear weapons of their own before they declared that membership in the club should be closed.

Until the 1970s, the United States and Russia also helped smaller, non-nuclear weapons countries build research reactors and supplied weapons-usable uranium to fuel them. But after India built its first nuclear explosive under cover of the U.S. Atoms for Peace program, Washington’s policy changed.

Since then, the United States has been trying to retrieve the estimated 23 tons of highly-enriched uranium it exported to 35 countries under the program – most of it to France, Germany and Canada.  Fifteen of those countries have returned all their U.S.-supplied weapons-grade uranium , including South Africa and Austria, but about 6.1 tons remain at 40 locations in 20 countries, according to a May 2014 Nuclear Regulatory Commission Report.

The United States has also helped support Russian efforts to retrieve the 11 tons it exported to that nation’s allies, mostly in Eastern Europe, under a similar scheme.

Why are some countries resisting better protections for their stocks of fissile materials, when the risks of a catastrophe seem so large?

Many countries don’t take the threat of nuclear terrorism as seriously as the United States, and some regard the prospect of a band of militants building an improvised nuclear bomb as something from a sci-fi movie.

Some also see themselves as unlikely targets of any nuclear terrorism and are reluctant to invest substantial sums to curb what they consider to be a distant threat.

Still others may see their holdings of nuclear explosive materials as a kind of insurance policy -- something that could one day be converted into weaponry if international conditions change and they feel newly threatened.

What’s the United States doing about its own fissile material stockpile?    

The United States struck a deal with Russia in 2000 that calls for converting 34 tons of its weapons plutonium into reactor fuel, in exchange for that country doing the same. But Russia has decided to burn its plutonium in new reactors that are capable of efficiently producing more plutonium. The U.S. program to turn its own plutonium into reactor fuel was supposed to cost $1 billion, but the actual pricetag will more likely total $35 billion over the next 20 years, according to a government estimate last year. So far, none of the plutonium has been converted, and Washington hasn’t settled on a clear, new path forward.

The Department of Energy has done a better job reducing its stock of surplus weapons-grade uranium, turning 143 metric tons of it into a form can’t readily be converted to bomb fuel.

So what's your next series of stories about?

Please tune in next week.

Correction, March 11, 2015 6:12 p.m.: An earlier version of this story stated there are nine nations that don't have nuclear weapons but have enough fuel to build one. There are 10 such nations. 

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