Theft of Nuclear Material: Reducing the Risk

An interview with William H. Tobey

On January 14, 2009, the Wisconsin Project spoke with William H. Tobey, Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration, U.S. Department of Energy. Mr. Tobey reviewed the principal nonproliferation accomplishments of his office, which included securing nuclear material in Russia, converting research reactors fueled by highly enriched uranium, and training programs aimed at improving border and export control security. He also described challenges in these areas that deserve the attention of the new administration. He is now a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Wisconsin Project (WP): Your office has played a key role in implementing the administration’s nonproliferation policy. What, in your view, have been the greatest achievements and, looking forward, what remains to be done?

William H. Tobey (WT):
I have the advantage of working with a great team of people. We have made enormous progress over the last several years. First, the Bratislava Initiative on nuclear material security was completed on time at the end of 2008. That, in large measure, finishes the work of securing nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons material in Russia. The Department of Energy worked at 123 sites in Russia, and the Defense Department worked at 25 sites. So between the two agencies, almost 150 weapon sites in Russia have been secured because of bilateral cooperation between the United States and Russia.

On my last trip there, a senior Russian official told me that, in his view, we advanced the completion of nuclear material security in Russia by 25 years. That’s a tremendous change in the state of the world from the early to mid-1990s.

WP: When you say secured, you mean new security systems have been installed?

WT: Well, it’s a comprehensive approach. Physical security, starting at the perimeter, with fences, cameras, guard posts, guard stations, and metal and special nuclear material detectors; but also training programs, including personnel security programs, reliability programs, etc.

WP: And these sites include nuclear weapon sites? How do you get around the sensitivity of knowing where the weapons are and how many there are and so forth?

WT: Yes, nuclear weapon sites. We don’t have insight into exactly where the weapons are and how many might be in one spot, but we do know which sites need to be secured. We hire Russian contractors. And we’re permitted to visit the sites before the security upgrade, at a midway point, and after the upgrade is complete.

WP: Do we know where all the highly enriched uranium is in Russia?

WT: We have worked at sites that contain highly enriched uranium, but Russia is not obligated to tell us exactly where within those sites the material is stored, or the quantity of material.

WP: What about highly enriched uranium stocked at civilian sites, like research reactors?

WT: There are research reactor sites in Russia that use highly enriched uranium; they remain a concern. These sites have not been part of our program. We have talked to Russia about converting these reactors to operate on low-enriched uranium.

WP: So, is fresh fuel sitting at those reactors? Is it secured?

WT: I would imagine that there is fresh fuel at those reactors, yes, but I can’t speak to security at the reactors. This is a Russian issue that we’re attempting to talk to them about. But so far, we haven’t worked on any reactor conversions within Russia.

WP: Is this high on your list of remaining things to worry about?

WT: It is. Not because these reactors are in Russia, but because as a general principle we would like to minimize the use of highly enriched uranium around the world. We’re converting reactors in the United States as well. But Russia does have the greatest number of unconverted reactors.

Russia has also been part of a program to accelerate the conversion of research reactors in other countries from the use of highly enriched uranium to low enriched uranium, and to secure storage of fresh and spent fuel, either in Russia or in the United States. To date, we’ve converted or closed a total of 62 reactors in 32 countries. Part of that work has been under the Bratislava Initiative, in cooperation with Russia. In fact, we’ve been able to accelerate this work through the Initiative. Since the Bratislava Initiative, we’ve converted or closed a total of 13 reactors. In a prior, similar period, we were only able to convert one reactor.

WP: Worldwide, how many research reactors are left to be converted?

WT: There was an original pool of about 129 civil nuclear research reactors using highly enriched uranium. We’ve converted 62 in various countries around the world, other than Russia. Some have been U.S.-supplied reactors and some have been Russian reactors. Through this process, we’ve removed to secure storage about two tons of fresh and spent fuel from the reactors that we’ve converted.

WP: How many reactors are you in the process of converting now?

WT: We’ve been doing about seven or eight per year lately.

WP: Would you say you’re adequately funded for this work?

WT: Yes, we’ve gotten a tremendous increase in funding and that’s enabled us to increase the number of conversions. There are limiting factors beyond simple funding, because it takes some diplomacy to get this work started, and it takes some planning at the reactors. It’s a fairly large logistical operation. For example, we did a reactor conversion in Hungary which required moving the fuel through Slovenia, shipping it around to St. Petersburg, and then transporting it by train to a final site in Russia. So the limiting factors at this point are not funding.

WP: How do you prioritize your work?

WT: Our first priority has been to secure weapons and weapons-usable material. The good news is that, within Russia, which had the great bulk of such work, our job is virtually done. Priority was given to nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons material at vulnerable sites. In fact we endured some criticism before I got here because we had been allegedly slow in securing larger quantities of material that, in our view, was not as vulnerable as material stored at smaller sites. So, if 250 kg of highly enriched uranium, a quantity that could be used in a weapon, was very vulnerable, whereas two tons was less vulnerable, we chose to go after the most vulnerable material first. This meant that in some cases, we secured smaller sites first. And because it can take almost as much time to secure a small site as a large one — there being certain fixed costs in time and money for security upgrades — our progress may have looked slow, when measured by the amount of material vs. the number of sites that had been secured.

WP: Presumably this initiative has required a lot of cooperation with your Russian counterparts. It sounds like an example of a way in which the United States and Russia are working closely on an important, and sensitive, international security issue.

WT: It’s a bright spot in U.S.-Russian relations. We’ve worked very closely and productively together on nuclear materials security. And it’s flowed, I think, into other areas. For example, the close cooperation we had with Russia on nuclear material security allowed us to cooperate in launching the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.

WP: How have other governments, aside from Russia, responded to this initiative?

WT: The Initiative is intended to bring to bear the resources of other countries across the whole spectrum of measures to defeat the threat of nuclear terrorism. It has now been joined by over 70 countries. And I would note that at the Global Initiative to Combat Terrorism meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan in the summer of 2007, agreement was reached to minimize the use of highly enriched uranium.

WP: When you think about securing a hypothetical quantity of bomb-usable material, do you make a judgment about who might steal, smuggle or take it by force?

WT: I don’t think you can separate terrorists and nonproliferation issues. We’re worried about the material falling into the hands of terrorists. But we’re also worried about it falling into the hands of nation states that would pursue illicit weapon programs. The threat from both terrorists and nation states are the reasons why we’re working on improving site security and converting reactors. For reactors, our goal is to convert them and to remove the material, to absolutely secure storage, either in Russia or in the United States.

WP: But for reactors that haven’t been converted, that have some fresh fuel, and probably some spent fuel, do your recommendations for security depend on the threat you’re imagining?

WT: Yes, and it takes into account our overall assessment of the threat in a particular country.

WP: Do you think the greatest threat is from forcible removal or corruption — smuggling and sale by someone on the inside?

WT: I think it depends on the type of facility. If you’re talking about research reactors, it’s probably less likely that it would be an insider threat. But if you’re talking about other, larger, facilities where weapons-usable material is handled, an insider threat would probably be more acute. We know from experience that bulk material is more vulnerable to theft by insiders.

WP: How vulnerable is a lightly-guarded research reactor with a few bombs worth of material to forcible attack by a well-armed group?

WT: There are some real difficulties in this scenario. First, it’s not easy to remove the fuel from the reactor. You have to know how to remove the fuel. Stored fresh fuel is, in some ways, easier to secure because there are physical protection measures you can take that would be more difficult with respect to fuel in the reactor itself. And we do have programs for securing the fresh fuel at reactors that haven’t been converted.

WP: What is the chance that we’d know about it if enough highly enriched uranium or plutonium for a few bombs went missing somewhere in the world?

WT: I don’t think we would necessarily know. Sovereign states would control such information, and we cannot compel them to share it. There is a reporting requirement to the International Atomic Energy Agency for such incidents, and many countries do report them. But I don’t think it’s by any means certain. There’s at least a good chance that a government might be reluctant to admit it.

WP: What is the likelihood that we could determine the origin of material that went off in a bomb in the United States, for instance?

WT: We’ve worked reasonably hard, and I think are working harder, at improving our forensic capabilities. At this point, I think there’s an excellent chance that we would be able to determine physical characteristics which would point to the origin of material that went off in a bomb. But these things take time. It’s not something that could be done overnight. Moreover, even if the country of origin of such material is known with certainty, it does not necessarily explain how it came to be in a weapon that detonated. Was it, for example, used directly by a nation state, sold by a nation state to a third party, or stolen by a third party?

WP: Detection of illicit transfers is another aspect of nuclear security. Tell us about your worked with the Megaports initiative.

WT: Sure. As we began to complete our work on materials security at weapons sites in Russia, we realized that we should turn elsewhere. If the first line of defense includes guns, guards and gates at nuclear weapons materials sites, the second line of defense is composed of radiation detectors at border crossings, first within Russia, in order to provide a back-up in case, for example, insiders were successful in smuggling nuclear material. Within Russia, we got agreement in 2006 to accelerate the completion of their border security work and basically to split the cost with the Russians and get it completed by 2011 — six years ahead of their previous schedule. In fact, the one place we’re confident that there are portal monitors in place that could detect nuclear material is on the Russian border with North Korea.

And, beyond Russia, at border crossings around the world, we wanted to deal with this threat regardless of the origin of the material or its destination. We’ve provided radiation detectors at large seaports, border crossings, and airports. There are 19 operational Megaports, (large ports that handle a high volume of shipping containers) with work underway to equip an additional 20. Ultimately, our goal is to equip about 70 ports around the world.

WP: Have any of the ports detected radioactive material?

WT: Yes, it’s not an infrequent occurrence. Most of the Megaport-related alarms have been set off by radioactive scrap. One of our detectors actually was involved in the detection of a small quantity of highly enriched uranium, but it wasn’t a port. It was at a border crossing.

WP: Couldn’t the use of lead shielding prevent the detection of radiation?

WT: Shielding makes detection more difficult, but shielding also imposes costs on would-be smugglers. It’s heavier and it’s susceptible to x-rays. U.S. port security is handled by the Department of Homeland Security. In addition to using radiation detectors, they x-ray containers. If they see a large dark spot in a container full of sneakers, maybe it won’t set off the radiation detector, but it will be noticed in the x-ray. If a container is heavier than it should be, given the declared contents, customs officials may notice. So, we might not detect the radiation from a sphere of HEU in a lead box, but we might detect the lead box.

WP: So what remains to be done on these second line of defense initiatives?

WT: As I said, we’ve completed work at 19 ports. We’ve got work underway at 20. But that only gets us about halfway to our goal. So, we need to continue our work at ports. We also need to continue building on the border crossing work in Russia and elsewhere. We have an active program of cooperation in places like Georgia. We’d like to work more closely with Turkey, as well. Both of those countries are in an area of the world where there’s a history of smuggling.

WP: Another aspect of improving security at border crossings is training the officials who man those crossings.

WT: Yes, using our commodity identification tool, we’ve trained literally thousands of U.S. and foreign inspectors. This type of training is a really important element for second line of defense. In many cases, proliferation-sensitive material is not readily identifiable. Our goal is to put a trained eye on the scene. Since September 11, 2001, we’ve trained 6,000 domestic export enforcement officials and 10,500 foreign officials. And in 2008 alone, we trained over 4,000 officials in 46 countries.

WP: Is there anything you’d like to say to your successor? Any suggestions on what he or she should focus on?

WT: I think we’ve made tremendous progress in securing Russian nuclear material and in research reactor conversions. That work will have to continue. First, we will have to sustain the 2.5 billion dollar investment we’ve already made in Russian nuclear security by making sure that the equipment is maintained and people continue to be trained to operate it properly. Second, we’ll have to continue the reactor conversions, in cooperation with Russia. Third, we need to continue working on the second line of defense. In Russia, we have completed most work at nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons material sites, so we need to expand civil nuclear and radiological security and second line of defense work.

WP: From what you’ve said, I gather that the unfinished work in Russia is primarily at civilian research reactors.

WT: That’s largely it. We’ve got a few more sites in the military programs that we were given to by Russia after the Bratislava Initiative. We tried to complete them during the Initiative, but couldn’t because of short construction seasons, limited numbers of cleared and trained contractors, etc. That work will be completed over the next year or two. But the research reactors are a large issue that will need to be dealt with. Second line of defense work should also be a priority. This means much more than simply providing radiation detectors. It involves training border guards and other officials, active diplomacy to make sure that governments spend time and money to curb smuggling.

I think we also need to continue to make progress on disposing of dangerous nuclear material. We’ve purchased 320 metric tons of Russian highly enriched uranium for use in U.S. civil nuclear reactors. Ten percent of American electricity comes from former Soviet material that had been in weapons once aimed at us or at our allies. Under the highly enriched uranium purchase agreement, we’ve agreed to purchase a total of 500 metric tons.

We also need to continue with a program to dispose of 34 metric tons of U.S. weapons grade plutonium. We are building a fuel fabrication facility at Savannah River South Carolina, which will turn this material into enough civil reactor fuel to power a million households for 50 years.

Finally, we need to continue with international programs of cooperation like the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, which is really a force multiplier to U.S. efforts to improve efforts in this area. And it provides access, intelligence, and personnel that the United States could never hope to muster on its own.