120 Bombs’ Worth of Nuclear Material Secured

January 4, 2011

The simplest way to combat nuclear proliferation and the threat of nuclear terrorism is to destroy or lock down the material that can be used to make nuclear weapons.  Since April 2009, when President Obama pledged to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years, six countries have given up all such materials and enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium have been secured to make more than 120 nuclear weapons.  While the Senate debated the New START agreement, and the country celebrated the holidays, two major operations secured materials in Ukraine and Serbia.  Locking down materials fits with the New START signing and other 2010 achievements to bolster the momentum for global action to combat real, present threats to American security, including Iran, North Korea and nuclear terrorism.

Operations in Ukraine and Serbia bring 2010 to a successful close.  While the New START debate played out on the Senate floor, work continued behind the scenes to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials.  Since April 2009, when President Obama pledged to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years, the U.S. has secured 3,085 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium-enough nuclear material to make more than 120 nuclear weapons.  Materials were secured in Ukraine, Serbia, Kazakhstan, Poland, Russia and Chile during 2010.   As the New York Times reported last week, “Under extremely tight security, Ukraine has sent 110 pounds of highly enriched uranium, a significant portion of its Soviet-era stock, to Russia for disposal or storage… The material, taken from research reactors, was moved by plane in December in specially designed casks as part of President Obama’s effort to reduce the chances that nuclear material might be diverted or stolen… Ukraine’s president, Viktor F. Yanukovich, agreed at a meeting convened by Mr. Obama in April to give up his country’s highly enriched uranium, which can be used to build nuclear weapons. In May, Ukraine shipped 123 pounds of highly enriched uranium by train to Russia, and officials said they hoped that the rest of the country’s stock would be exported by the end of 2012.  Days before the U.S. assisted Ukraine, U.S. officials aided Serbia in removing 13 kilograms (28 pounds) of Russian-origin spent fuel.  The shipment was the culmination of an eight-year effort to remove all HEU from Serbia and made Serbia the sixth country to eliminate all of its HEU since April 2009.  [New York Times, 12/31/10. NNSA, 12/22/10]

Comprehensive nuclear security agenda achieves significant accomplishments. Efforts to secure vulnerable nuclear material are part of a broader nuclear security agenda, aimed at controlling the dual threats of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism:

New START Treaty. Maj. Gen. (ret.) Paul Eaton explains the important gains won by passing the New START treaty, “Passing the New START Treaty secures vital U.S. national security interests by getting Americans back on the ground to inspect Russian nuclear weapons, ensuring strategic stability and helping shore up Russian support in dealing with pressing threats such as Iran and North Korea. Very simply, New START makes us safer.” [Gen. Eaton, 12/22/10]

Nuclear Security Summit. The U.S. hosted the Nuclear Security Summit, which brought together heads of state from nearly 50 countries to take action against the worldwide threat posed by nuclear terrorism. The summit resulted in an outpouring of important deliverables from a range of countries, including Ukraine, Russia, China, Kazakhstan, India, Japan and Pakistan. [NSN, 4/14/10]

Release of the Nuclear Posture Review. George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explains that, “The Nuclear Posture Review serves multiple purposes. It describes for potential adversaries the lines they must not cross if they want to avoid being destroyed by U.S. nuclear weapons… It seeks to reassure allies and non- nuclear-weapon states that the United States is a sober, responsible provider of security, and at the same time is doing its best to make possible a world without nuclear weapons. The Posture Review also signals the U.S. nuclear weapon complex and its beneficiaries and congressional patrons that the administration is a robust defender of America, and that a strong America requires a well-funded and appreciated nuclear complex.” Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen stated that the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review “reaffirms our ability to protect the security interests of the United States.” [Carnegie Endowment, 3/31/10. Adm. Mullen, via NSN, 4/6/10]                                                                                                                         

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. Analyst Deepti Choubey writes that because of the final consensus document, “For the first time, there are specific and measurable actions that states are asked to take in support of the three pillars of the NPT: nonproliferation, disarmament, and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. These actions were drafted in a way to serve as a scorecard for measuring progress and ensuring there would be accountability at future meetings. Transforming the lofty goals of the NPT debates into tangible action is real progress.” [Deepti Choubey, 6/3/10]

The administration and Congress can take significant steps in 2011 to advance nuclear security.  President Obama pledged to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years.  Matthew Bunn wrote for the Nuclear Threat Initiative that “it is quite plausible that at the end of the four-year effort, the number of countries where weapons-usable nuclear material exists could be cut in half or more; the number of sites could have been cut by 20-30 percent; and that all [remaining sites] could put in place effectively enforced rules requiring all of their dangerous nuclear stocks to be protected against a robust set of outsider and insider threats.”

Thomas D’Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, recently tallied the progress: “Nineteen down, 16 to go… We’re over halfway. We still have a lot more work to do. And with the support, the increased budgets that we have in this area that the president is proposing, specifically to lock this stuff down, we think we’re going to get this job done. That’s our plan.”  To reach these goals, Congress will need to maintain the 25% increase in funding levels for NNSA.  Congress and the administration will also need to maintain international commitments to this goal and boost specific partnerships with Russia, Pakistan and others.  A recent GAO report specifically recommended that programming with Russia be extended, and that “new incentives, inducements or other sources of leverage” be developed.  [Thomas D'Agostino, 12/30/10. Matthew Bunn, 4/10.  GAO Report, 12/10]

What We’re Reading

Iran has invited Russia, China and several European Union members to visit its nuclear facilities, but pointedly snubbed the United States.

Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province and a senior member of the ruling party, was assassinated by one of his guards because of his opposition to Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law.

Australian Premier Anna Bligh warned Australian floods could have a “significant long-term effect” on the global steel industry.

Stephen Bosworth, a top U.S. envoy, called for talks with North Korea as he flew into Seoul for a new round of diplomacy aimed at easing tensions on the Korean peninsula.

A top leader of Israel’s Labor Party threatened to pull out of the government if there is no progress in peace talks with the Palestinians.

Greece announced plans to build an eight-mile fence along part of its border with Turkey to prevent illegal immigrants from crossing.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir reassured Southern Sudan he will accept the results of Sunday’s referendum even if the South chooses to secede.

President Barack Obama is stepping up his outreach to Africa, using this year to increase his engagement with a continent that is personally meaningful to him and important to U.S. interests.

Brazil’s newly-appointed Trade Minister said that President Dilma Rousseff intends to put Chinese currency weakness on the agenda.

House Republican leaders announced plans for congressional investigations into a wide range of issues, from corruption in Afghanistan to Washington’s regulation of industry, using the power of their new majority to launch probes aimed at embarrassing the Obama administration.

Commentary of the Day

Emanuele Ottolenghi urges Western democracies to go after Iran’s human rights violators not only as a matter of principle, but also because they stand to gain ground in the standoff over Iran’s nuclear facilities by undermining the regime’s legitimacy.

Richard Cohen worries the United States has become able to fight nonessential wars with a professional military in places like Iraq and that, ultimately, this will drain us financially as well as spiritually.

Geoffrey R. Stone writes that the recently proposed Shield Bill, making it a crime to knowingly disseminate classified information about U.S. intelligence activities, violates the First Amendment and is the wrong way to protect government secrets.

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