A tiny fraction of the overall defense budget
President Obama certainly hasn’t been a slacker. He’s spoken powerfully about the nuclear terrorism threat before international audiences. He’s organized three summits focused on these risks, each used by his appointees to try to persuade or bludgeon other nations into taking this issue as seriously as nuclear weapons experts do.
The summits have been useful stages for a dozen countries to announce that they’ve had their last nuclear bender. They’ve told the world that they either have sent or will soon send all their nuclear materials back to Russia or to the United States.
The Obama administration, moreover, has invested more than $5 billion in nuclear security programs, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington nonprofit group that advocates tighter control of nuclear explosive materials. That figure includes funds given to Russia and other countries to help secure their weapons, to convert research reactors so they burn fuel composed of materials that cannot be used in weapons, and to improve the physical security and accounting of nuclear explosive materials.
Five billion dollars over seven years is not chump change, but it’s less than one percent of the amount spent on national defense during every single one of the Obama years.
Over the course of his presidency, moreover, Obama has scaled back nuclear security goals and settled for what a senior White House official once described as “the incremental nature of success," rather than throwing his administration’s full weight behind the creation of new global security standards that independent experts say would have had a more lasting and significant impact.
In advance of the 2014 summit, the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, in a document labeled “Official Use Only,” said that while U.S. initiatives under Obama had made the world safer, there are still “serious threats that require urgent attention.” That May 2013 report, obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, said that terrorists were obviously still seeking nuclear weapons or the raw materials to build them.
It noted that hundreds of pounds of weapons-usable uranium are being stored at civilian sites, including in South Africa and Belarus, that experts have described as imperfectly-guarded. Scores of research reactors that use fuel composed of weapons-grade explosives are still operating, including more than 60 in Russia alone, and security precautions at these are lower than at military sites. Meanwhile, global plutonium stocks are rising, the report said, with more than 100 metric tons produced since 1998.
The internal Energy Department report called for removing or eliminating 1.1 metric tons of weapons-grade uranium and 400 kilograms — over 880 pounds — of plutonium from sites around the world. It urged the removal of all highly-enriched uranium — that is, uranium that could be fashioned into a bomb — in eight more foreign countries by 2016. It proposed that the administration undertake a better accounting of existing plutonium stocks, decide the best ways to dispose of it, and persuade other countries to balance production with consumption so that the net global stockpile will finally begin to shrink. It proposed substantially accelerating U.S. efforts to convert research reactors that use weapons-grade uranium to burn a form of uranium that cannot easily be used to fuel weapons — calling for 13 more such reactor conversions by the end of 2016.
None of these deadlines was adopted by the department, or the administration. Too difficult diplomatically, and too costly domestically, the Obama administration’s policymakers decided.
“There wasn’t much interest” in other countries, a former senior official deeply involved in the effort told us, and the political benefits for the administration turned out to be more limited than initially anticipated.
Nuclear weapons modernization gets a higher priority
Moreover, as the administration was debating how much to invest in nuclear security in 2014, “there were debates,” said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear weapons expert who formerly worked at the White House, in June of that year. “Should they provide more money for nonproliferation, or more money for weapons? It’s clear that weapons won that debate.” Proposed spending since then has well fallen short of earlier projections.
So where do we stand now?
Japan, India, Pakistan, the Netherlands, North Korea, and the United Kingdom are increasing their stocks of “weapons-usable” nuclear materials, a circumstance that only adds to the burdens of locking them safely away.
While four nuclear weapons states — France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Israel — signed a useful agreement at the 2014 U.S.-led summit entitled “Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation,” three other key nations — Russia, China, and Pakistan — declined. (India declined then but more recently has indicated it may sign the agreement later this month.) The agreement asked for little more than a commitment to follow International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear security guidelines.
Along with India and Russia, Japan still plans to build a new energy system based on advanced plutonium-burning reactors. In Japan, the fuel would be supplied by a factory at Rokkasho that will be the world’s largest for making plutonium. It has a security system that U.S. experts consider too casual, making its imminent opening a sore point in that country’s nuclear-related discussions with Washington for at least the past decade.
South Korea has expressed a similar interest in plutonium production to supply reactor fuel, pointing explicitly to Japan as a precedent. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, and Indonesia could also follow Japan’s example. Experts also worry about Turkey, Vietnam or Egypt.
Already, Japan has 9.3 metric tons of plutonium stored at Rokkasho and nine other sites in the island nation; about 35 tons of plutonium are stored in France and the United Kingdom. Once Rokkasho opens, the size of its stockpile could easily double in five and a half years, because by the government’s own forecast Japan is at least 20 years from completing the first of the commercial reactors designed to burn the plutonium that Rokkasho will produce.
Building such large factories for nuclear materials poses special risks. Experts say the International Atomic Energy Agency will likely be able to track 99 percent of the plutonium as it moves through the Rokkasho plant. While 99 percent might sound good, the plant’s annual output will be so high that a one-percent error rate means roughly eighty kilograms of plutonium a year could be untraceable — enough for 26 bombs. Critics worry as a result that the sizable uncertainties will open the door to diversion attempts by insiders.
India, meanwhile, completed in 2011 a reprocessing plant capable of extracting new plutonium from about 100 tons of spent fuel yearly at Tarapur, north of Mumbai. It joined three older plants that produced an estimated 3.8 to 4.6 metric tons of plutonium over the past 40 years. Another plutonium plant is under construction at Kalpakkam, south of Chennai on the Indian Ocean, which the Nuclear Threat Initiative said “will likely surpass” Tarapur “as India’s largest plutonium producer.”
India’s security precautions at such sites have generally been panned by U.S. officials, who privately rank them below those in Russia or Pakistan, and also say they see little evidence the country is doing enough to keep potential terrorists at bay. A paramilitary force responsible for guarding all of India’s nuclear sites is short-staffed, poorly trained, and ill-equipped, our reporting revealed. (Since our series appeared, a debate has ignited there over whether India should create a more specialized nuclear security force).