U.S. must get its nuclear house in order before April Security Summit

As part of President Barack Obama’s initiative to secure all vulnerable nuclear material within four years, the U.S. will host more than 40 heads of state next month for a nuclear security summit. There is good reason for such a summit: There is enough bomb-grade nuclear material in the world — in every corner of the globe — to build more than 120,000 nuclear bombs. The U.S., which has the world’s second-largest stock of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, needs to unveil a much bolder strategy for securing its own bomb-grade material to inspire other nations to follow suit.

HEU is a prime target for nuclear terrorists. With about 100 pounds of HEU it is possible to create an improvised nuclear device that could create a 10-kiloton blast — on par with the one that devastated Hiroshima. While U.S. security of this material has improved since 9/11, there are still far too many weaknesses. The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has spent a great deal of time trying to resolve a constant stream of security debacles and accountability issues within the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. For example, in April 2008, government mock terrorists tested the security at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, defeated the protective guard force, and succeeded in both stealing simulated bomb-grade material and using it to create a mock nuclear device. And just last year, the amount of bomb-grade material Los Alamos could not account for “exceeded alarm limits,” according to the Department of Energy.

While the president can be commended for adding to his fiscal 2011 budget an additional $320 million for international efforts to secure nuclear material, it is disturbing that he did not similarly prioritize investments to better secure plutonium and HEU on U.S. soil. For example, there is little budgeted for downblending HEU into low enriched uranium (LEU), a material not usable in weapons — therefore not a target for terrorists — and much easier and less expensive to guard. Instead of downblending it, the U.S. is storing at least 400 metric tons of HEU.

A 10 percent budget increase for weapons-related investments and a 39 percent decrease for dismantlement of retired weapons is another strong indication that securing U.S. fissile materials is not a priority. Until the retired weapons are dismantled, they could still be used by the U.S. (or terrorists), sending a mixed message to the nations of the world. Furthermore, this funding decrease exacerbates the growing backlog of thousands of nuclear warheads in the dismantlement queue and raises concerns about security. A number of our most secure military storage bunkers are filling up fast. For example, the Air Force’s most secure facility, the Kirtland Underground Munitions Storage Complex, is virtually full. As more warheads are likely to be retired as a result of the new START treaty and the Nuclear Posture Review, it’s not clear there are adequate secure storage facilities for these excess warheads.

Rather than budgeting to adequately secure U.S. fissile material, the president’s budget pours billions of dollars into constructing the unnecessary Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, which creates a long-term purpose for large stocks of HEU. The justification for the facility is that it’s needed to produce the HEU components of nuclear weapons, but this excuse is shoddy and this costly project should be scrapped. There are thousands of perfectly good components in storage, and there is already space at Y-12 to build additional components after the stockpiled HEU is downblended.

The fiscal 2011 budget request also reduces funds for nuclear safeguards and security. But, even more significant than the decrease in funds is the recent shift in DOE’s attitude toward security oversight. The Office of Health, Safety, and Security (HSS), DOE’s independent oversight body, has not scheduled any oversight inspections for 2010, including force-on-force tests that use mock terrorists to measure the defense of our nuclear weapons labs and plants.

Without swift action on these and other similar gaps in security of our nuclear materials, the summit’s success will be compromised. No nation will take seriously the president’s commitment to achieving the goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material by 2012.

Stockton is a senior investigator and Drake is an investigator at the Project On Government Oversight. POGO is part of the Fissile Materials Working Group, which is convening a non-governmental summit April 12 on nuclear security.