Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 6, 2011

Nuclear News: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on January 6, 2011

The Good

Potential ingredients for a terrorist nuclear bomb have been secured:

“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, officials announced Friday.

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.”

This is yet another example of success for a low cost-high reward program.  Securing potentially vulnerable stocks of fissile material, particularly HEU, is the most effective way to prevent nuclear terrorism.  While a low probability event, the danger of such an attack will continue to exist as long as vulnerable caches of fissile material remain.

In other good news, a new repository for low-level radioactive waste may open:

“A Texas commission Tuesday set in motion the importation of low-level radioactive-waste from 36 other states, a move long sought by the nuclear-energy industry and long opposed by environmentalists.

The Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission, which manages the state’s radioactive-waste dump, voted 5-2 to approve rules governing the process for accepting the out-of-state material.”

“The site will permanently store low-level radioactive waste—contaminated materials and equipment from nuclear plants, research laboratories and hospitals. The material includes everything from parts from dismantled nuclear-energy plants to booties worn by scientists working in labs where radioactive materials are present. More highly contaminated waste, such as spent fuel from power plants, wouldn’t be stored at the site.

The waste will be stored at the 1,338-acre site in concrete-reinforced underground units.

States are responsible for handling low-level radioactive waste produced within their own borders, but space for it is limited. And the three disposal sites for it in the U.S. don’t take all kinds of materials within the low-level category or can only take waste from certain states. That leaves 36 states without a permanent storage place.”

Obviously there are always legitimate environmental concerns when it comes to the location of radioactive waste repositories.  Due to a lack of specific information regarding this particular site, I am not considering that in regards to my “good” value judgment about this development.  Instead, I am concentrating on the fact that there is a dire need for such a depository.  While not solving the problem of nuclear power plant spent fuel storage that was intended for the Yucca Mountain site, it does help address the need to centralize and secure lower-level radioactive material most likely to be used in a dirty bomb.

The Bad

The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) within DHS has finally completed their “nuclear detection architecture” assignment:

“The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office delivered its long-awaited “strategic plan” for the global nuclear detection architecture to Capitol Hill on Dec. 20, according to DNDO chief Warren Stern. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano signed off on the plan that same day.”

“The 31-page document defines the goals of the architecture, including detecting nuclear and radioactive materials; communicating information to relevant agencies and officials; and coordinating with those partners to “minimize gaps and also remove overlaps,” according to Stern, who was appointed to his post by President Obama last August.”

This is not bad as much as perhaps a continuing tragedy of misplaced priorities.  Nuclear detection capability can be useful, but to date the return on investment is small.  Despite the best of intentions, DNDO has yet to demonstrate an ability to exert much influence over any pieces of the “architecture” that it does not directly own.

“In addition, the interdepartmental road map outlines the roles of a number of federal branches in preventing terrorists from detonating a nuclear or radiological device inside the United States, he said. Participating entities include the Defense, Energy, Justice and State departments, the U.S. national intelligence director and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

“He added that while the detection office intends to have its implementation plan developed by the third quarter of this calendar year, there is no deadline for the other departments to complete their documents, nor are officials required to submit those plans to Congress.”

DNDO/DHS has control over detection activities at the border.  The Department of Energy, through programs like the Second Line of Defense, holds sway overseas.  Domestically, while DNDO provides a wide range of assistance, it is still up to local and state authorities to decide their level of participation in radiation detection programs.

There is also the matter of resources.

“The office has received roughly $4 billion in funding since its inception, according to a Government Accountability Office statement released last year. Some of that money went toward expanding existing programs at other DHS components, including deploying radiation portal monitors at U.S. points of entry.”

Current technology is unlikely to detect HEU and only has a slightly better chance of finding plutonium, so for the most part the system is useful for finding potential dirty bomb ingredients.  What if some of the money directed towards detection was instead focused on decontamination/recovery?  What would be the point of terrorists attempting to use a dirty bomb if the technology existed to clean up afterward?

Perhaps nuclear/radiological detection is the missile defense of homeland security.  By that I mean it is a very useful capability to develop, one that in limited circumstances currently adds value, but also is seen as something of a technological panacea to problems that can be addressed through other means.

The Ugly

The recent assassination of Pakistani governor Salman Taseer has implications beyond the political.  Steve Coll, blogging at the New Yorker, explains the nuclear connection:

“Pakistan’s Personnel Reliability Programs, as they are known in the nuclear security trade, involve not only evaluating the suitability of bodyguards for governors but also the management of the country’s swelling stockpile of fissile materials and nuclear bombs. Taseer’s betrayal should give pause to those officials in Washington who seem regularly to express complacency, or at least satisfaction, about the security of Pakistan’s arsenal.”

If true, this might be representative of  serious cracks in Pakistan’s nuclear security.  It is not only the risk of their nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands that we have to worry about.  Pakistan is currently working to expand their arsenal, exposing increasing amounts of fissile material to insider threats.

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Comment by william R. Cumming

January 6, 2011 @ 11:46 am

The Ukraine seems to be two countries to me but both have been helpful on non-proliferation issues!

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