The Government Accounting Office’s recent discovery of lax security procedures for controlling access to nuclear materials in the United States draws attention to a broader problem worldwide, as Doug writes in a letter published in yesterday’s Washington Post:
“The GAO's startling undercover work reminds us that this is exactly what we do need: more effective lists and verification measures to ensure that all nuclear weapons and materials are accounted for. This means we need presidential leadership to tighten domestic regulation of nuclear materials, accelerate cooperative threat reduction and extend START.”
Taking the goal of a nuclear weapon free world seriously, as George P. Schultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn argued in a January Wall Street Journal op-ed, will require effort to carefully verify and protect nuclear materials everywhere.
However, efforts to secure vulnerable fissile materials remain unjustifiably slow and US priorities in this area have been questionable:
*As a Government Accounting Office report documented in March 2007, the Department of Energy has been misleading on the progress it has made in installing security upgrades at sites that have vulnerable fissile material.
*Based on a March 2007 GAO report which concluded that the radiation detection technology proposed by the Department of Homeland Security is much less effective than the administration had claimed and that the cost-benefit analysis does not support the costly procurement and installation of the new monitors, the Washington Post now reports that, the Department of Homeland Security may have misled Congress:
“Congress had allowed the five-year project to move ahead after Homeland Security assured appropriators that the $377,000 machines would detect highly enriched uranium 95 percent of the time… Auditors from the Government Accountability Office later found that the detection rates of machines tested by the department were as low as 17 percent and no higher than about 50 percent.”
The GAO noted (p.12) the concern of one national laboratory scientist about the possibility of false negatives that detectors could
“conceivably misidentify HEU as a benign nuclear or radiological material or not detect it at all, particularly if the HEU is placed side by side with a non-threatening material, such as kitty litter.”
*Even if this radiation detection technology worked 100% of the time, it would not provide 100% protection against nuclear smuggling as smugglers might circumvent major ports and border crossings where this technology would be installed, instead using smaller, less traveled border crossings. As an example, Lawrence Scott Sheets and William J. Broad, in a January report in the International Herald Tribune about the case of a Russian citizen, Oleg Khinsagov, arrested in the Republic of Georgia last year for smuggling and attempting to sell a sample of HEU, warn about the problem of poorly policed border crossings and noted that the smuggler had traveled from Russia to Tbilisi by a high mountain road.
*Another GAO report from January reveals that the Department of Energy has made only limited progress in securing many of the most vulnerable sources of radiological material (that could be used to make a dirty bomb). Despite this limited progress, the funding for international radiological threat reduction program at the Department of Energy has been drastically cut in the past years (cut from $24 million in the FY 2006 budget request to $6 million in the FY 2008 budget request).
These reports reflect a questionable approach of focusing resources and energy on technologies that are not yet ripe deployed at locations that are not truly choke-points against the threat of nuclear or radiological terrorism.
Given limited resources, the danger is that these efforts may distract resources and attention away from proven methods to control nuclear materials at the source where it is produced and used. Verified control at the source represents our best chance to prevent the theft or diversion of nuclear material and this approach should be the focus of our political and financial resources rather than single-minded pursuit of a porous and technically elusive last line of defense at the border.