At the Global Nuclear Security Summit, President Obama will likely highlight the significant investments in his FY 2011 budget to secure nuclear material around the world. But that may not be enough to inspire the 40 other nations attending the Summit to get out of their comfort zones and address their own nuclear security gaps.
Frankly, if we want other nations to follow, we have to lead by example. Highly enriched uranium (HEU) is a prime target for nuclear terrorists: with about 100 pounds it is possible to make an improvised nuclear device that could create a blast on par with the one that devastated Hiroshima. Yet, the U.S. has the world’s second largest stock of HEU and plutonium. Although U.S. security of this material has improved since 9/11, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is still uncovering far too many weaknesses within the nuclear weapons complex. In addition, the FY 2011 budget has decreased funding for dismantlement and for the most effective method of securing HEU (called downblending), and has increased funding for the construction of a facility that will create a long-term purpose for storing large stocks of HEU. This does not provide the other Summit nations much incentive to secure or reduce their own stockpiles.
The U.S. should alter its course regarding HEU. The steps to accomplish this are fairly straightforward, and should be supported by Members of Congress interested in national security and fiscal responsibility on both sides of the aisle.
For instance, the U.S. should increase funding for downblending, as well as how much it plans to downblend from around 130 metric tons to at least 400 metric tons. The resultant low enriched uranium (LEU) is not usable in weapons—so therefore not a target for terrorists—and is much easier and less expensive to guard.
The U.S. should scrap its plan to pour billions of dollars into constructing the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Y-12 National Security Complex. A stated reason for the facility is that it’s needed to produce the HEU components of nuclear weapons, but this reasoning is shoddy. There are thousands of perfectly good components in storage, and Y-12 already has the capacity to build additional components even after the stockpiled HEU is downblended.
Another step is to increase funding for dismantling the growing backlog of retired nuclear warheads. Until the retired weapons are dismantled, they could still be used by the U.S. (or terrorists). In addition, a number of our most secure military storage bunkers are nearly full. Unless dismantlement is accelerated, it’s unclear where the additional retired warheads resulting from the new START treaty and the Nuclear Posture Review will go.
A final step would be to reverse the Department of Energy’s decision to reduce the number of independent oversight inspections for 2010, including force-on-force tests which measure the defense of our nuclear weapons labs and plants. Scheduling such tests would not only help ensure the security of our own labs, but would demonstrate to the other Summit nations the importance of oversight.
Taking these steps would provide the example necessary to encourage other nations to take similar steps, bringing the President’s ambitious goal of securing the world’s vulnerable nuclear material in four years closer to reality.
Peter Stockton is a Senior Investigator and Ingrid Drake is an Investigator at the Project On Government Oversight. POGO is part of the Fissile Materials Working Group, a bipartisan group of the leading experts working on this issue. The Group is convening a non-governmental summit on April 12, 2010, to bring together leading international NGOs, nuclear industry representatives, the media, and other relevant parties around the nuclear security agenda.
This post is the second of a three-part series on the Nuclear Security Summit. The first post in the series, Nuclear Security Summit Offers Unprecedented Opportunity, was written by Vlad Sambaiew and published on April 6. The third post, Bipartisan Support for Non-Proliferation Programs, was written by John Isaacs and published on April 8.