Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Missed Opportunities in Nuclear Material Security

Several recent reports underscore the need to account for and secure nuclear material as our best chance to reduce the risk of theft or diversion of fissile material, and the resulting risk of nuclear terrorism.

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.


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  2. Devabhaktuni Srikrishna emailed me with a link to a co-authored article published in the November 2005 isue of the Nonproliferation Review, which concludes that, "The current nuclear detection system architecture falls short of being able to reliably catch fissile nuclear material in transit, specifically shielded highly enriched uranium and plutonium, both within the United States and abroad," and proposes recommendations.

    The link is:

    And the cite is: Devabhaktuni Srikrishna, A. Narasimha Chari and Thomas Tisch, “DETERRENCE OF NUCLEAR TERRORISM WITH MOBILE RADIATION DETECTORS” (Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 12, No 3, November 2005, pages 573-614)

  3. It's not really surprising that it's hard to detect a lot of the U and Pu in transit. After all, what we're looking FOR (radiation) is exactly what needs to be shielded AGAINST (even by terrorists handling the stuff). How do we create detectors that get around that fact?

    Regarding this issue:
    "Homeland Security assured appropriators that the $377,000 machines would detect highly enriched uranium 95 percent of the time"
    my question is this: Who made them, was the HS representative fiscally linked to the company, and can we prosecute them for fraud and/or corruption? Only by doing so do we ensure that we get quality products that do what they're supposed to, and there are few areas that's more important than controlling nuclear weapons.

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  5. This appeared yesterday in the Washington Post, “Radiation-Monitor Study Sought: Chertoff Wants Cost-Benefit Analysis of New Security Machines”

    On Friday, Chertoff asked the Defense Department's Defense Threat Reduction Agency to form the "team of experts" who can provide the independent review of those test results, according to a letter to the agency that the Defense Department released yesterday.

    Detecting highly enriched uranium (HEU) is bound to suffer from false negatives when using portal detectors (like ASPs) that rely on natural radioactivity of HEU – just as the GAO had pointed out – especially when concealed or shielded like with lead, iron, concrete, or water. This is due to physical constraints, not simply technological limitations of detectors used in the ASP. We examined these quantitative tradeoffs in "Detection of Shielded HEU (passively)—just how hard?" on pages 6-18,

    In addition to false-negatives (GAO) and false-positives (DHS/DNDO) which are under discussion, we tried to enumerate all the reliability issues that need to be designed for as part of the section “What are the technical challenges to building a reliable metro-scale detection system for HEU?” on pages 38-40, “Intelligence, Border Security, and Forensics Will Fail: Secure DC, NYC, and Other Cities from Nuclear Attacks with Highly Enriched Uranium”

    Additional reliability metrics have to do with the minimum detectable quantity of HEU, distance of detector from the target, the number of transportation pathways not covered by detectors, detector failure rates, and integrity of the detector readings when operators themselves try to compromise the system.

    In the long term I tend to remain hopeful all these challenges are solvable and one or more redundant detector rings around cities can form a viable second or third line of defense. The “Global Nuclear Detection Architecture” proposed in the DNDO charter is a mirage, and reliable detection on a global scale is not achievable in the near term. A domestic, metropolitan nuclear detection architecture has the potential to be become a reliable nuclear detection system around primary targets.