When a number of institutions with licenses to hold nuclear material reported discrepancies between the amount of material they were supposed to have and the amount they actually possessed, Energy Department officials chose to write off the missing material instead of investigating, says a new report released by the Department's Inspector General.
With that news in mind, we offer the following excerpt from Chapter 2 of Michael Levi's well-regarded 2007 book On Nuclear Terrorism, out in paperback this spring.
Security at the Source
No material occurring in nature can be used to make a nuclear bomb, which requires either enriched uranium or plutonium. Uranium mined from the ground must be processed extensively—enriched—before it can be used in a bomb. Plutonium does not occur naturally aside from minuscule quantities and must be produced in a nuclear reactor. Both capabilities are widely agreed to be beyond the reach of even the most sophisticated terrorists. Thus state stockpiles of these nuclear materials and weapons are the gateways to nuclear terrorism. If nuclear weapons and materials can be locked up by capable, well-behaved states, and if those unable or unwilling to lock up materials or weapons can be denied them, nuclear terrorism can be made impossible.
This sort of strategy is so compelling that it should form the foundation of any sensible approach to preventing nuclear terrorism. Only nine countries have nuclear weapons. Policymakers are confident that in seven of them—the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, India, and Israel— no government imaginable would ever want to allow terrorists access to a bomb or to the materials needed to make one. A more contentious debate exists over what the other two states, Pakistan and North Korea, might do with their arsenals, but many believe that they would not part with them either. Many more countries retain civilian stocks of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium, the indispensable ingredients of nuclear bombs. Fourteen states without nuclear weapons are estimated to have at least twenty-five kilograms (about fifty pounds) of HEU each, the minimum amount required for a bomb according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Another twenty-six have at least one kilogram (about two pounds) of the material. Three countries without nuclear weapons also have sufficient plutonium with low enough radioactivity to be used in a bomb. Although these numbers may appear to indicate a widespread problem, they actually describe a limited challenge. In contrast with, for example, conventional explosives, nuclear weapons and materials are available only at a relatively small, known, group of facilities that in theory can either lock their materials down or end their operations if adequate security proves impossible. Meanwhile only one state, Iran, explicitly threatens to acquire highly enriched uranium or nuclear weapons in the near future, in theory a problem that can be managed using a mix of international diplomacy, inducements, economic pressure, or military action.
It was against a similar backdrop that cooperative efforts to keep weapons and materials under responsible control originated in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. Following the fall of the Soviet Union,Western analysts and politicians worried that lax security exposed ex-Soviet nuclear weapons and materials to theft or illicit sale, and scientists and engineers to recruitment by rogue states or by terrorists pursuing nuclear arms.4 The Soviet Union had relied primarily on the loyalty of its employees, backstopped by its internal security services, to control its nuclear assets—yet as the Soviet Union dissolved, that loyalty became questionable, while security services became weaker (though by no means sidelined) as successor states began to reform. Economic malaise produced new incentives for employees to sell nuclear weapons or materials, or their own services, to rogue states and terrorists.
The United States, widely agreed to have good security over its own nuclear weapons and materials, pioneered efforts to address the situation. Defense Department programs, which began in 1991, originally engaged several states of the former Soviet Union, applying American funding and expertise to dismantle or destroy nuclear arms, focusing on those missiles slated for elimination under arms control treaties. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Energy pursued its own initiative, focused on securing materials and human capital rather than weapons themselves. Efforts to work with others to secure nuclear weapons, materials, and expertise are known collectively as Cooperative Threat Reduction.
Beginning in 2002, American efforts were substantially supplemented by contributions made through the G-8 Partnership against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction, often referred to simply as the Global Partnership. Under that initiative, the United States committed $10 billion over the next ten years to extend its decade-old efforts, while its G-8 partners committed to match that $10 billion over the same period. Since the Global Partnership was announced, it has become an umbrella for efforts extending beyond the G-8. (Non-U.S. contributions to cooperative materials control existed before 2002, but were not comparable to the level of American contributions.) Also in this period, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States and others began to expand their cooperative threat reduction programs beyond the former Soviet Union to other states, like Pakistan, that appeared to need assistance.
Efforts to bring existing materials under control have been two-pronged. Materials Protection, Control, and Accounting (MPC&A) and Weapons Protection, Control, and Accounting (WPC&A) have aimed to secure nuclear explosive materials. Parallel efforts have aimed to reduce stockpiles of materials and weapons, both to lower the overall burden on MPC&A and WPC&A and to eliminate nuclear explosive materials and weapons in cases where establishing effective security appears to be impossible.
To get a deeper understanding of these tools, focus for now on nuclear materials rather than on weapons.
These initiatives have produced important results. Over 49 percent of former Soviet nuclear explosive material outside weapons has received so-called rapid security upgrades, which “include items such as installing nuclear material detectors at the doors [of nuclear facilities], putting material
in steel cases that would take a considerable time to cut through, bricking over windows, and counting how many items of nuclear material are present.” These upgrades contribute substantially to preventing simple thefts. Items such as steel cases and bricked-over windows will prevent some thefts by nonemployees (referred to as outsiders) and slow others down so that guard forces can respond. Material detectors will promptly detect some theft attempts by facility employees (referred to as insiders) as well, reinforcing physical security upgrades.
In addition to the rapid upgrades, so-called comprehensive upgrades have been undertaken at 29 percent of former Soviet facilities. These upgrades focus in particular on systems to defend against insider threats, including both materials control upgrades to directly defeat theft attempts, and materials accounting upgrades to better deter thefts.
Many have argued that these upgrades can be perfected, making materials and weapons theft impossible. Perhaps the most intuitively persuasive case for that proposition is a recently popular argument: since it has been possible to provide absolute security for gold at Fort Knox, it should be possible to provide similar absolute security for nuclear facilities against thefts of nuclear weapons and explosive materials. This analogy has been made most notably by Graham Allison in his book Nuclear Terrorism, and has since been publicly endorsed by a host of others, such as Thomas Kean, co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission. Indeed the Fort Knox analogy is not new. After describing standards for materials security, Bernard Feld wrote in 1985 that “I refer to this as the ‘Fort Knox solution’, in view of its similarity to the procedures used in our country [the United States] for the transport and storage of gold. Plutonium is more valuable than gold, and much, much more lethal. Surely, it deserves at least as much care in its handling.”
Many advocates of cooperative materials and weapons security have noted, however, that those efforts will be undercut if new and irresponsible states acquire nuclear materials or weapons. These observers support a strategy for preventing nuclear terrorism that mixes cooperative efforts to control existing nuclear weapons and materials with vigorous efforts to prevent more states from acquiring nuclear materials or bombs.
Efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and materials have evolved over the last sixty-plus years and incorporate a wide range of tools. They rest on a mixture of incentives for states to forgo sensitive technologies and nuclear bombs, punishments for states that acquire nuclear weapons or dangerous technologies, systems that provide warning that states might be moving toward nuclear weapons or technologies, and tools that slow the progress of states that embark on that path.
As a result of these efforts, the spread of nuclear weapons has been far more limited than many predicted when John F. Kennedy warned in 1960 of a world with “ten, fifteen, or twenty nations [with] a nuclear capacity . . . by the end of the presidential office in 1964.”12 Instead, only one new state has acquired nuclear explosives in each of the last three decades. (India acquired nuclear explosives in the 1970s; Pakistan in the 1980s; and North Korea most likely in the 1990s.) Only one state, Iran, threatens to acquire nuclear weapons in the first decade of the twenty-first century, itself a testament to the effectiveness of efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. Although the world could take a sharp turn for the worse, it is not unreasonable to be largely optimistic about the future potential of nonproliferation.
||| Michael Levi is David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. On Nuclear Terrorism is copyright © 2007 by Michael Levi.