|FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
Volume 54, Number 6
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Recommendations for Preventing Nuclear TerrorismBy Frank von Hippel
Nuclear weapons are inherently terrorist weapons. During the Cold War, US and Soviet nuclear weapons were developed, produced and deployed to deter potential aggressive actions by the other despite the expectation of tens to hundreds of millions of "collateral" civilian deaths if nuclear-war plans were executed. The catastrophe did not happen - but still could.1
The September 11 attack established the credibility of another danger: Terrorists exist who would be willing to make and use nuclear weapons. Indeed, it is known that Osama Bin Laden has tasked his operatives to acquire nuclear-weapons materials. There has been much argument about whether terrorists could make a successful implosion weapon using plutonium.2 It is generally agreed, however, that educated terrorists could turn weapon-grade uranium (containing more than 90% U-235) into a gun-type nuclear explosive of the type that the US used on Hiroshima and with which South Africa stocked its nuclear arsenal.3 Plutonium, even if it is not made into a nuclear explosive can still be used in a radiological weapon, if dispersed into the atmosphere as a fine inhalable oxide aerosol. However, this would be mostly a psychological weapon. The near-term casualties would likely be few and the increased cancer risks of individuals in the exposed population slight, although there might eventually be on the order of a thousand extra cancer deaths added to 200,000 expected cancer deaths over the lifetimes of an exposed population of a million.4
Estimates of the global stocks of separated highly-enriched uranium (HEU, containing more than 20% U-235) and plutonium inside and outside of weapons are shown in Table 1. Although Russia and the US possess the largest stocks, all stockpiles containing sufficient material to make a single nuclear explosive are of concern. Today, for example, there is concern about the security of Pakistan's stockpile of weapon-grade uranium. It is relatively small but probably sufficient to make tens of nuclear explosives.
Long before the events of September 11, programs were underway to increase the security of fissile materials worldwide, end their production and to dispose of excess stocks. The US has been the principal funder of these efforts, which were mostly launched following the collapse of the Soviet Union as a result of warnings of the possibility of "loose nukes." A decade later, however, budgets were being cut, completion dates were slipping by many years and some programs were on the verge of cancellation.
Table 2 shows: US expenditures on some key cooperative fissile-material security programs in Russia and disposition of US excess plutonium during fiscal year 2001, which ended in September 2001; the level of effort proposed in the Bush Administration budget for fiscal year 2002; and the preliminary results from the Congressional Conference Committees responsible for reconciling the House and Senate budget actions.
It will be seen that the Bush Administration proposed lower funding for these programs in its first budget than did the Clinton Administration in its last budget. This was despite the recommendations in January 2001 of a bipartisan group co-chaired by Howard Baker and Lloyd Cutler that the funding of these programs should be increased approximately tenfold (see the last column of Table 2). It was also despite lobbying of the White House by such Republican stalwarts as Senators Domenici and Lugar who have been leading advocates of these programs.
Within the Department of Energy budget, the Administration decided instead to increase the funding for US nuclear-weapon R&D. Within the Department of Defense, the new Bush appointees gave overwhelming priority to national missile defense. Indeed, even after the White House announced its budget, DoD officials lobbied successfully to eliminate the funding for the one program on Table 2 for which the DoD was responsible: helping Russia shut down three plutonium-production reactors in Siberia which together continue to produce about a ton of weapon-grade plutonium per year.
After the September 11 attack, the White House came to the Congress with a request for an additional $40 billion in emergency funding. However, it included no additional funding for nuclear-materials security in Russia. When a bipartisan Congressional coalition proposed an additional supplement, which would have included such funds, President Bush threatened that he would veto any additional supplement beyond his request.
Below is a brief review of the ongoing efforts, organized by their purpose:
The important complementary efforts to create civilian jobs for the excess nuclear-weapons workers that Russia can no longer support will not be discussed here. Obviously, the effectiveness of technical assistance will be reduced and even negated if a significant percentage of the people in Russia's nuclear cities are unemployed and desperate for means to put food on their families' tables.5
The US began to upgrade the security of its own fissile materials in the late 1970s. Recently, however, US Army and Navy commando teams have demonstrated that they were still able to penetrate the security systems at a number of US nuclear facilities and seize and carry off significant quantities of weapon-usable nuclear materials. In one mock raid on a site at the Los Alamos nuclear-weapons laboratory, Army Special Forces showed that they could kill the guards and made off with several bombs worth of weapon-grade uranium in a garden cart.6
The situation is much worse in Russia, however. The security system it inherited from the Soviet Union, which concentrated on controlling personnel, began to break down with perestroika, when job mobility and freedom to travel increased greatly. The drastic decline in Russian living standards and the rise of the Russian mafias put pressure on this weakening system. The major barriers that prevented a huge hemorrhage of Russian weapons materials into the black market were the dedication of the great majority of the Russian nuclear workers and the continued controls imposed by the Russian security apparatus on access to the "nuclear cities." Nevertheless, there have been a number of intercepts both inside Russia and in the surrounding countries of small quantities of plutonium and HEU.7
Since 1994, the US has been helping Russia to install Western-style materials protection, control, and accounting systems at the many sites where it stores nuclear weapons and fissile material. The US spent $170 million on this effort during FY 2001. However, security upgrades have been completed on facilities containing less than 40% of the estimated 600 metric tons of HEU and separated plutonium that Russia has outside of its nuclear weapons and US program managers currently project that completion of these upgrades will take another nine years.8
A higher level of effort is required. However, full expansion of the programs into weapons-production facilities and nuclear-weapon storage sites will require resolution of disagreements over the level of access to the security improvements that the US needs to assure itself that its funds are being properly used. Russia must also commit that the equipment will be properly operated and maintained and that systems and deployments will be subject to regular and stringent performance testing.9
Increase transparency of stocks
In 1996, the US Government published its estimates of the amount of plutonium that it had produced and acquired (111.4 tons), the quantities in various uses, including weapons and components (66.1 tons), and an accounting for most of the 11.9 ton difference between production and current stocks (there was a 2.8 ton "inventory difference").10 However, publication of a parallel report on US HEU, promised for 1997, has been delayed indefinitely.
Given that weapon-usable fissile material anywhere represents a potential security threat everywhere, countries should be able to expect a certain amount of transparency about each other's holdings. Declassification of past production and current inventories in broad categories would also strengthen the basis for deeper reductions. For example, the US government is unlikely to commit to further equal reductions of stockpiles of weapons plutonium because it believes that Russia's residual stockpile is already twice as large as its own. Russia's secrecy makes impossible the discussion of other possible reduction formulas _ for example, to equal levels.
Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy (MinAtom) has agreed to carry out a US-financed study of the production, current stocks and disposition of its civilian plutonium. However, the Administration did not include funding for this project in its proposed budget for FY 2002. This effort should be funded and extended to include military plutonium. The publication of how much military plutonium the US possesses has not threatened its security. Nor would it endanger Russia.
After the end of the Cold War, the US, Russia, U.K. and France all announced that they had ended production of fissile material for weapons and China made known its production moratorium.11 Only Israel, India and Pakistan are believed to be producing HEU and/or plutonium for weapons purposes today.
Plutonium. In Russia, however, three production reactors in Siberia continue to operate, producing together about 1 ton of separated weapon-grade plutonium a year. The by-product heat from these reactors is required by the district heating systems of the nearby cities. During the early Clinton Administration, an agreement was made for US/Russian co-funding of the replacement of these reactors with alternative sources of heat and power. The first proposal was to replace the reactors with natural gas-fueled turbines. Then, when sufficient gas pipeline capacity was not available and Russia's national gas utility, GasProm, was not willing to build it without US financing, the focus shifted to new coal-fired replacement plants. Then, when the costs of these plants grew to about a billion dollars, the focus shifted to converting the reactors to a fuel that could be stored so that chemical reprocessing and plutonium separation would not be necessary. Most recently, when the costs of that conversion effort began to climb and the new core design began to encounter problems in the licensing process, the focus switched to replacement with refurbished coal and oil-fired plants for a total estimated cost of about $420 million.12
However, for the past two years, the Republican staff of the House Armed Services Committee has opposed the use of DoD funds for fossil fueled replacements. This year they were joined in their opposition by the Bush Administration's political appointees in the DoD. The National Security Council refused to intervene with the House Republican leadership in defense of the White House budget. The Senate, which supported the program, was able only to prevent the ban from extending beyond FY 2002.
Transparency seems to be working with regard to the end of US and Russian plutonium production for weapons. The two countries have implemented a 1994 agreement to inspect each other's shutdown plutonium-production reactors. As of October, they were also about to implement an agreement under which Russia would allow the US to monitor the storage and disposition of the plutonium separated from the production-reactor spent fuel produced from 1997 until their shutdown. However, the future of this transparency agreement is uncertain, given that it was contingent on US support for the reactor-conversion project.
Russia is also still separating annually 1-2 tons a year of civilian, but weapon-usable, plutonium from the spent fuel discharged from Soviet-designed power reactors in Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Russia. Because the economics for this activity are unfavorable, foreign customers are opting for spent-fuel storage instead of reprocessing and the domestic customers are likely to follow.13 The Clinton Administration offered a $70 million package of assistance if Russia would accelerate the phase-out of this "reprocessing" business. The negotiations broke down because the US linked $20 million of the joint R&D to a Russian agreement to build no more power reactors in Iran. These negotiations should be restarted and completed. Ending Russia's reprocessing would be very much in the US interest even without this linkage. After Sept. 11, the US is also in a good position to press for an accelerated phaseout of commercial reprocessing in Britain, France, Japan and India as well.
HEU. There is no mutual verification of the US and Russian cutoffs on the production of highly-enriched uranium. However, the US enrichment plant that remains in operation has been transferred to a private company, USEC, which is limited to producing uranium enriched to less than 5.5% U-235 for power-reactor fuel.14 One of Russia's enrichment plants is licensed to produce HEU enriched up to 30%.15 However, a small fraction of Russia's stock of excess weapon-grade uranium would suffice to supply HEU fuel for its research and naval-reactor for many decades.
Given Russia's sales of surplus weapon-grade uranium to the US, it is surprising that verification of its nonproduction of HEU has not become an issue in the US domestic debate. It would be desirable to preempt such a debate by allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect and implement remote monitoring at US and Russian enrichment plants to verify that they are not producing HEU. This transparency could be incorporated into an agreement to provide Russia with the funding to accelerate the blend-down of its excess HEU (see below).16
HEU use in US nongovernmental and US exported research reactors has dropped dramatically because of the US Reduced Enrichment Research and Training Reactor program which is converting research reactors from HEU to LEU.17 However, the cooperative US-Russian effort to convert Soviet-designed research reactors to LEU has been moving very slowly. The impediments to rapid progress should be fixed. During the Gulf War, we were concerned about the weapon-grade uranium in the fuel of Iraq's French-built research reactor. During the Balkan Wars, we worried about the highly-enriched uranium fuel of Yugoslavia's research reactor. And today, we worry about security at research reactors in Kazakhstan that are fueled by weapon-grade uranium. At some point, unless we take urgent and comprehensive action, our luck will run out.
US and British naval reactors are also fueled with weapon-grade uranium _ as are Russian icebreaker reactors. Russian naval reactors use HEU of lesser but still weapon-usable enrichment. Efforts should be mounted to design reactors fueled by non-weapon-usable low-enriched uranium (less than 20% U-235) for future nuclear-powered ships. An immediate focus should be on the next generation of Russian nuclear icebreakers and Russia's proposed barge-mounted nuclear power plants.18
Dispose of excess stocks
HEU. Russia continues to carry out its contract to blend down 500 metric tons of weapon-grade uranium from excess Soviet nuclear warheads for sale to the US for low-enriched power-reactor fuel. As of the end of August 2001, 125 tons of WgU had been blended down and delivered and Russian government officials have indicated on a number of occasions the availability of additional excess HEU. At the scheduled rate of blend-down of 30 metric tons per year, however, disposal of the first 500 tons will not be completed before 2013.
The uranium market cannot absorb the additional low-enriched uranium without ruining the weakest enrichment company. This market constraint could be broken, however, by having governments finance an accelerated blend-down of Russia's excess weapons uranium to, for example, 19.9% enrichment, the level at which, according to international agreement, enriched uranium is no longer weapon-usable. This partially blended-down uranium could be stored and blended down further for sale as the market requires.19
The US has declared excess much less HEU than Russia: only 174 tons, 80% of it less than weapon-grade.20 This is in part because the US started with a smaller inventory and in part also because it is building a stockpile of weapon-grade uranium big enough to support its naval-reactors for "many decades."21 At some point this huge US stockpile of WgU for naval-reactor fuel will become an issue. Questions will arise as to whether it is appropriate to stockpile sufficient WgU to make on the order of ten thousand warheads. The US and Britain could preempt these problems _ and reduce the danger of other countries using their naval-reactor programs to justify HEU production22 - by following France's example and designing their future naval reactors to operate on LEU.
Plutonium. Russia and US have each committed to dispose of 34 tons of weapon-grade plutonium. In addition, the US plans to dispose of its complete stockpile of 18 tons of non-weapon-grade but weapon-usable plutonium. However, Russia has conditioned its commitment on an estimated $2 billion of foreign financial assistance to build and operate plutonium-oxidation and mixed-oxide (MOX, uranium-plutonium) fuel-fabrication facilities in Russia and convert some of Russia's light-water reactors (LWRs) and breeder reactor to be able to use MOX fuel safely.23 Thus far, sufficient funding commitments have not been forthcoming to allow this program to move forward. Even if the funds could be raised, the absorptive capacity of the small fleet of reactors that Russia could convert is estimated at about 2 tons of plutonium per year. This is grossly inadequate. Russia's current stockpiles of excess weapons and civilian plutonium total 66 tons and could easily double as a result of future declarations of excess weapon plutonium.
The cost of disposing of Russia's excess plutonium could be reduced to about $1 billion and the reactor bottleneck removed if one or more of the Western European countries that already use MOX fuel as a means to dispose of their stockpiles of civilian plutonium were willing to buy fuel made with Russian weapons plutonium.24 If Russia would agree to suspend its civilian reprocessing for at least some decades, this path could also be used to help dispose of its stock of separated civilian plutonium.
Alternative disposition approaches exist25 but Russia's nuclear establishment, which still dreams of a future powered by plutonium-breeder reactors, insists that both its and the US excess weapon-grade plutonium must be used in reactor fuel. Perhaps Britain, which also has a huge stock of (mostly civilian) excess plutonium and lacks light-water reactor capacity to dispose of it in MOX fuel, could pioneer non-MOX disposal of separated plutonium.26
In the meantime, the estimated life-cycle cost for US plutonium disposition has climbed to $6.6 billion over 20 years27 and the Bush Administration has been having second thoughts about the urgency of this program. This would further undercut the international effort to dispose of Russia's excess weapons plutonium, since Russia has made its willingness to do so contingent on a parallel US plutonium disposition effort. However, political pressures from states that do not want to become the permanent homes of the US plutonium are helping prevent the jettisoning of the program.
The author is Co-Director of the Science and Global Security Program at Princeton University as well as Chair of FAS.Notes: