U. S. Highly Enriched Uranium: Mitigating the Risk

U. S. Highly Enriched Uranium: Mitigating the Risk
For terrorists seeking to develop a nuclear weapon or improvised nuclear device, the most challenging obstacle is the acquisition of enriched nuclear material. But after several security failures, there are concerns about whether the United States’ stockpile of HEU is secure.

How Much are We Spending to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism?

The Obama administration has requested $12.6 billion for the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) as part of its Fiscal Year 2016 Department of Energy budget request. $1.9 billion of that request will go towards Defense Nuclear Non-Proliferation (DNN) programs tasked with preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and materials. The programs facilitate cooperation with international partners to better secure, monitor, and dispose of vulnerable nuclear material (military and civilian) and other radiological waste.

Nuclear Security: How the U.S. and Russia Can Save the World

The recent tension between Russia and the United States could increase the risk of a nuclear attack, but not in the way you are thinking.

For the last 20 years, the United States and Russia have cooperated over nuclear security in efforts to secure the former Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons and materials from terrorist groups and rogue states. Programs like the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and Megatons to Megawatts were designed to bolster security procedures, down blend highly enriched uranium for peaceful use and storage, and dismantle nuclear warheads that might otherwise have fallen into the hands of terrorists or rogue states. But now, the partnership between Russia and the United States on nuclear security is in trouble.

Reestablishing this relationship is critical to preserving global nuclear security, as Russia and the United States have the world’s largest nuclear stockpiles. Matthew Bunn, a Harvard professor at the Kennedy School who supervised a classified government study on protecting nuclear materials in Russia, explains in the New York Times that this is a critical moment in nuclear security. “There is a real danger that 20 years of U.S.-Russian cooperation to secure nuclear material will simply stop at the end of this year, and some of the gains we have made could slip away,” he said.

Angela Canterbury, the Executive Director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, expressed similar urgency on the issue: “Failing to reduce and secure nuclear weapons and materials puts all of us at risk. This is not a time for the U.S. and Russia to abandon their responsibilities to their citizens and the world.”  

While tensions over Russian expansion in Ukraine have certainly fueled the discontinuation of nuclear security cooperation, it has not been the only factor. Russia has long been frustrated by the “teacher-student” nature of the cooperation, and hope to project more independence by managing their nuclear security unilaterally.  This has led some experts to believe a new American approach is required, one that reaches out to the Russian nuclear community as true partners.  Dr. Matt Bunn again told NYT readers, “The United States needs to be actively proposing more fully equal approaches to put Russia in a position of a co-leader on nuclear security, not a state that needs help.”

The Obama administration has made strides towards salvaging the relationship. In September, Rose Gottemoeller, the senior arms control official at the State Department, led an American delegation to Moscow to address concerns of potential arms control violations. These efforts, however, so far have done little to alleviate the impasse.

Lt. Gen. Robert Gard (U.S., ret.), Chair of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation’s board, and Nick Roth, a research associate at the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, describe what is needed for progress on the issue in an article earlier this year, “It will require leaders from both countries to transcend geopolitical posturing and prioritize the threat of nuclear terrorism. Moreover, it demands a new approach that makes bilateral cooperation an equal partnership.”

There are plenty of examples of continued cooperation on nuclear security, in spite of other political tensions, including the cooperation between Reagan and Gorbachev. If there was ever an issue that ought to push two rivals to cooperate, preventing nuclear terrorism has to be it.

The Disillusioned Babysitters of America’s Nuclear Weapons

Ever wonder what it would be like to hold the key to America’s most lethal weapons in your hand? According to a recent expose by Mother Jones, the job is less exciting than one might think.

The U.S. currently maintains some 4,800 nuclear warheads and 454 Intercontinental ballistic missile silos across the country. Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones recently visited the 10th Missile Squadron, Alpha Missile Alert Facility in central Montana to catch a glimpse of the life of the men in charge of the nuclear launch keys.

For a job with such gravity, the day-to-day grind is exceptionally boring. Harkinson writes, “[the] worst part of the gig, the guys agreed, might be the stultifying tedium of being stuck in a tiny room all day and night waiting for an order you knew would never come.” Obsolescence and low morale run rampant among missileers.

This is why Secretary Hagel’s announcement today is welcome, but not a fix for the more important problem at hand. Yes much of the U.S. nuclear fleet is out of date, but so is its cause.

While the ICBM program ostensibly exists to deter our nuclear-armed adversaries abroad, according to Lt. General James Kowalski, the real nuclear threat for America today is not Russia or North Korea, but “an accident. The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid.”

According to Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control, “you can’t screw up once—and that’s the unique danger of these machines.” Having a flawless safety record is imperative; but “nuclear bases that were once the military’s crown jewels are now ‘little orphanages that get scraps for dinner”’.

Harkinson sheds light on the fact that the dangers of maintaining the ICBM program outweigh its purpose as a viable deterrent–not to mention how expensive it is: “ditching the ICBMs would save taxpayers $14 billion over the next 10 years.”

Ultimately, the fewer nuclear weapons we maintain, the less risk for nuclear disaster. Scrapping the ICBM program would be a good start.

Alarming Nuclear Security Blunder Demonstrates Need for Change

The Inspector General of the Department of Energy reported on September 24th that the Office of Secure Transportation (OST) failed to correctly report an incident involving unauthorized access to nuclear weapons.


The OST is managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and is responsible for safely and securely transporting special nuclear material owned by the U.S. Government. “Special nuclear material” can include nuclear weapons, nuclear weapon components and fissile material. The OST implements the Human Reliability Program (HRP), which ensures that only authorized individuals with the “highest standards of reliability as well as physical and mental suitability” have access to special nuclear material. The vetting process includes a Q-level clearance, drug testing, and more. While the HRP was created with the aims of streamlining management and clarifying responsibilities, problems most assuredly remain.  

What happened?

As this IG report suggests, there continues to be management and clarity issues within the NNSA-run office, of which this incident is a clear example considering the main cause was a lack of understanding of the duties, responsibilities and reporting requirements of personnel.

First, the OST agent who was allowed access to nuclear weapons was not properly checked for HRP status. Consequently, limitations that had been placed on the agent while temporarily off HRP status were not upheld.

Secondly, the OST failed to submit a complete report of the incident relating to the actions of the Unit Commander, and an internal investigation reached a flawed conclusion based on the incomplete report. (The IG report notes that the “Unit Commander did not take physical possession of the nuclear weapons.”)

The Report is marked For Official Use Only (FOUO) so further details are currently unavailable but can potentially be attained through a Freedom of Information Act Request.

This incident is the latest in a list of security and transparency issues that plague the NNSA and nuclear laboratories. As recently reported, Congress and the Government Accountability Office eagerly await a “roadmap” promised by the NNSA outlining a new clear vision and structural improvements to mitigate further ambiguity and security incidents. For more on the NNSA restructuring, click here.

Nuclear Security Enterprise Struggles with the Issues it was Created to Solve

Nuclear weapons spending has become a hot-button issue in recent years, particularly as it becomes increasingly clear that our budget cannot sustain the current nuclear modernization strategy. Those in favor of upgrades argue that in order to reduce nuclear weapons numbers while maintaining our deterrent capability, modernization is key. This myopic view of spending on nuke upgrades fails to bring key internal and external inadequacies into view, and instead undermines the legitimacy of our future deterrent strategy.  

By not keeping an eye on internal inadequacies and by perpetuating a culture of complacency, our nuclear weapons management reputation has been tarnished, likely affecting the way our allies and enemies see our future deterrent capability.

In the late 1990s, the Department of Energy fell victim to cost overruns and security issues. At the urging of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, Congress created a new semi-autonomous entity in 1999 called the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). By creating a separate governing body, the security and overhead could be streamlined to minimize gaps in security and duplication in oversight.

However, while the role of NNSA has remained the same—to oversee our nation’s nuclear weapons management, development, and nonproliferation and nuclear security efforts—the entity itself has run into the same budgetary and security issues that it was created to solve.

Where we stand today
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has criticized NNSA’s inefficiencies, structure, and cost/security balance for years without change. In one of the latest attempts to create positive momentum, the Congressional Advisory Panel on the Governance of the Nuclear Security Enterprise, created in 2013, released its interim report in March.

The Panel reports that NNSA is doing relatively well on the physical management and modernization side. It states that, “Stockpile Stewardship has succeeded in sustaining confidence in our nuclear deterrent.” But it also reports that NNSA is not focusing enough on the culture, hierarchy, and vision of the Enterprise, which has led to mistrust, confusion, and ineffective, reactionary solutions. “This is not time for complacency about the nuclear deterrent,” says the panel, “our allies depend on these forces and capabilities for extended deterrence and could well pursue their own nuclear weapon capabilities if they perceive the US commitment or competency to be weakening.”

In other words, by focusing on nuclear weapons’ physical structure without also putting substantial effort into repairing the NNSA’s rocky foundation, we may very well be damaging the future of our security and the legitimacy of our nuclear deterrent. This sentiment is echoed by the panel’s key finding that “[t]he current viability of our nuclear deterrent is not in question. At the same time, the existing governance structures and practices are most certainly inefficient and in some instances ineffective, putting the entire Enterprise at risk over the long term.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) weighs in

From September 2012 to May 2014, the GAO conducted an examination of DOE/NNSA 2009 – 2012 security reforms and the implementation of these reforms aimed at improving the security enterprise. The main conclusion of the May 2014 report was that while the NNSA has made efforts toward improvement, they have not been enough, have not been implemented evenly across sites, and there has not been diligent record keeping of quantifiable progress. The report states, the “efforts to-date have not prevented several serious security incidents” and “the goals for security appear to be less clearly defined and less focused than previous attempts at security reform.”

One of the worst and perhaps most well-known security breaches during this period was at the Y-12 National Security Complex. Protestors including a nun, Sister Megan Rice, were able to use simple bolt cutters to reach a restricted area that contained highly enriched uranium (HEU). The consequent DOE report cited a litany of inadequacies leading up to the incident including “troubling displays of ineptitude…, misunderstanding of security protocols, poor communications, and weaknesses in contract and resource management.”

Finally, the GAO says that “without developing a clear vision and path forward for its security program,” the NNSA risks further deterioration of inter-agency collaboration, NNSA/nuclear laboratory trust, physical security, and of the organizational health of our security enterprise.

The bright side

The new Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and NNSA Administrator, Frank G. Klotz, responded to the GAO report in a three-paragraph letter stating that the “NNSA agrees with the GAO’s recommendation and has already initiated  an effort to develop a security roadmap for NNSA.” The “road map” Klotz refers to has an estimated due date of December 31, 2014.

Beyond this anticipated course of action, Klotz’s presence itself might be a guiding light for positive change. Klotz is a retired Air Force Lieutenant General who has made safety and security his top priority in his new post. Additionally, Klotz has experience streamlining nuclear weapons control and amending faulty security systems, having successfully led Global Strike Command from 2009 to 2011, the team that was created to rectify issues with the Air Force’s management of nuclear weapons.

The NNSA’s mission and success are vital to our national security. Perhaps Klotz’s experience and commitment coupled with a new, forward-looking vision will drive the NNSA’s internal structure towards balance and more effective policies.

Don’t Forget About the Other “Rogue State”

While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is busy trying to find a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear problem, our further Eastern “rogue state” foe is cruising under the radar. North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s nearly three-year tenure has been marked by an expansion of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear program.

Time to Change U.S. Missile Defense Culture

By Philip Coyle

As a taxpayer, you might be disappointed to learn that the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and its contractors haven’t been following standard and essential quality control procedures when it comes to the design, development, and production of a key missile defense system. If not, you should be.

The September 8, 2014, report of the Department of Defense (DoD) Inspector General (IG), “Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle [EKV] Quality Assurance and Reliability Assessment, Part A,” criticizes the sloppy work finding 48 “nonconformances” with good practice.  Twenty-two of those are “major,” meaning “nonfulfillment of a requirement that is likely to result in the failure of the quality management system or reduce its ability to ensure controlled processes or compliant products/services.”  

For those of you who don’t speak wonk, this means the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system deployed in Alaska and California and designed to protect the U.S. homeland against a potential North Korean or Iranian missile attack isn’t dependable. The EKV, which is intended to collide with and destroy an incoming missile high above the Earth’s atmosphere, is a small but very critical part of the GMD system. If the EKV doesn’t work, neither will the GMD system. To date, GMD has cost taxpayers roughly $40 billion.

Part B of the DoD IG report analyzes the reliability of the EKVs now deployed in the field in Alaska and California, but that report will be classified so taxpayers won’t see the bottom line.

Of course, we already know that the GMD system is defective from the poor record of performance of the EKV in past flight intercept tests.  The DoD IG reports that “Three of these intercept tests resulted in failures attributable to the EKV.”  A fourth failure in a test a year ago last July is still being studied by MDA.  But the IG truncated its analysis.  If it had included all of the failures attributable to the EKV going back to January 2000, it would have reported six failures attributable to the EKV, not three.  And once the analysis of last year’ test are in, the count likely will be seven failures attributable to the EKV, not three. What’s more, given MDA’s problems with quality control, even a successful test of the system, such as the one that occurred in June, doesn’t demonstrate system reliability.

The complexity of the EKV effort is apparent from this summary in the DoD IG report: “With more than 1,800 unique parts, 10,000 pages of work instructions, and 130,000 process steps for the current configuration, EKV repairs and refurbishments are considered by the program to be costly and problematic and make the EKV susceptible to quality assurance failures.”

At the heart of these problems is a culture at MDA and its contractors with roots that go back to January 2, 2002, when the Secretary of Defense exempted MDA from following the Pentagon’s normal rules for acquiring a weapons system.  Little wonder, then, that the DoD IG found that MDA and its contractors didn’t follow the rules; they think they don’t have to!  

According to the DOD IG, “Therefore, the EKV did not go through the milestone decision review process and the product development phase (Engineering and Manufacturing Development).”  Why is this important? The DoD IG explains: “The purpose of the milestone decision review is to carefully assess a program’s readiness to proceed to the next acquisition phase and to make a sound investment decision committing the DoD’s financial resources. For the product development phase, the program is assessed to ensure that the product design is stable, manufacturing processes are controlled, and the product can perform in the intended operational environment.”

As a result, The DoD IG concludes, “the EKV prototype was forced into operational capability” before it was ready.  “A combination of cost constraints and failure-driven program restructures has kept the program in a state of change. Schedule and cost priorities drove a culture of ‘use-as-is’ leaving the EKV as a manufacturing challenge,”

This history would be troubling enough if it were only history.  Unfortunately MDA and its contractors have never recovered from the culture that resulted when they first were exempted from the rules.  They see those rules as not applying to them.  They see themselves as not having to answer to those rules, and this drives program interactions at all levels where oversight is concerned in the Pentagon and the Congress.

This has implications for future missile defense development efforts. For example, MDA is in the early stages of designing a new EKV to replace the current fleet. Without a change in the default culture, the nation is unlikely to have a more dependable product than the existing, flawed, kill vehicles. Ominously, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has already begun to raise concerns about the acquisition plan for the new EKV.

Can the Director of the MDA, Admiral James D. Syring, put us on a more responsible path?  Indications are the Admiral Syring cares deeply about not repeating past mistakes. And he certainly knows the best culture of the U.S. Navy.  For example, the Navy’s offensive strategic missile systems have a long history of quality, distinction, and excellence.  The people who work in those programs maintain the highest standards and hold themselves accountable to them.  When it comes to defending the United States, our missile defense programs deserve no less.

Philip Coyle is the Senior Science Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. In 2010 and 2011 Mr. Coyle served as the Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs (NSIA) in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

On the Anniversary of Hiroshima, We Must Reinvigorate the Pursuit of a Safer and More Secure World

Today marks the 69th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima during World War II.

On August 6, 1945, an American B-29 bomber dropped the world’s first deployed atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The explosion wiped out 90 percent of the city and immediately killed 80,000 people. Tens of thousands more would later die from radiation exposure.

Three days later, the U.S. dropped a second, bigger atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, killing an estimated 40,000 people immediately and obliterating everything within a 1,000-yard radius.

Japan’s Emperor Hirohito announced his country’s unconditional surrender in a radio broadcast on August 15, citing the devastating power of a “new and most cruel” bomb.

Today, we remember the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons and remind ourselves that though it has been nearly seven decades since the first atomic bomb was used in warfare, the threat of a nuclear disaster is not a vestige of some bygone era.  

Thanks to important agreements and significant unilateral reductions by the United States, Russia, and other nuclear weapons states, the global stockpile of nuclear weapons is significantly less than it was during the Cold War. However, at least 17,000 nuclear weapons that we know of still exist today in nine countries, with many on hair-trigger, launch-ready status.

Furthermore, 21st century global security continues to be fashioned upon the crumbling edifice of nuclear deterrence. Our continued reliance on weapons that have the ability to annihilate nations but do little to address the rise of violent extremists like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or the deteriorating situation Afghanistan, makes us less safe, not more secure.

We need to continue to work with others to decrease global nuclear stockpiles, and use the billions of dollars we spend on relics of the Cold War to develop creative solutions to present and future threats.

In addition to the thousands of nuclear weapons possessed by nine nations, there is nearly 2,000 metric tons of nuclear material spread across hundreds of sites in 25 countries, and not much of it is effectively secured. We know that terrorists are bent on acquiring a nuclear weapon, and according to former Senator Sam Nunn, a determined group or individual “would only need enough highly enriched uranium to fit into a 5-pound bad of sugar or enough plutonium the size of a grapefruit” to fashion a crude nuclear device.

The tragic attacks of September 11, 2001—and the discovery of A.Q. Khan’s nuclear technology black market just a few years later—should open our eyes to the dangerous and unpredictable world in which we live today.

While there have been many important accomplishments in reducing the threat of lost or stolen nuclear material (particularly during President Obama’s first term) now is not the time to rest upon our laurels. It is important now more than ever to appropriately fund critical nonproliferation programs at home and abroad that work to secure vulnerable nuclear materials, and keep them out of the hands of terrorists.

In a recent interview ahead of the anniversary, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller reinforced President Obama’s commitment to a world without nuclear weapons. Referring to the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, Gottemoeller stated that the “United States will continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring nonnuclear attacks” and seek to make deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or our allies “the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.”

Today, we use this solemn anniversary as motivation to ensure that our leader’s words mean something, and continue our tireless march towards a more balanced national security strategy and a safer world.    

Iron Dome is not GMD

by Lt. General Robert Gard, Jr.

The Israeli Iron Dome rocket/artillery defense system is touted as destroying 85 to 90 percent of the targets it attacks. U.S. Senator Ron Paul (R-KY) was so intrigued by Iron Dome’s success during a visit to Israel that, upon returning home, he advocated deploying the system in U.S. cities.

While few if any other missile defense advocates go that far, several supporters of the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse national missile defense system (GMD) believe that Iron Dome’s purported success is testimony to the potential effectiveness of GMD. Yet these are two very different systems.

Iron Dome, first deployed in 2011, is designed to target small, unguided, inaccurate, slow- and low-flying rockets fired from four to 70 kilometers away from the defensive system. The rockets’ trajectories travel entirely in the atmosphere. An Iron Dome battery consists of an S-Band phased array radar, a fire control element, and three launchers, each armed with 20 explosive-tipped, proximity-fused Tamir interceptors, which are three meters long.

GMD faces the far more daunting task of intercepting warheads in space that are delivered by intercontinental ballistic missiles. In the space environment, debris from the booster rocket and countermeasures designed to spoof the defense fly together with, and at the same speed as, the attacking warhead, making it difficult for the interceptor to distinguish between the warhead and non-lethal objects. Impact hit-to-kill vehicles must try to find and collide with warheads traveling 15,000 miles per hour.

Iron Dome, known as a low-tiered capability, is one of three systems Israel is developing to provide a layered missile defense complex. The other two have not yet been employed in combat.

The Arrow is the top-tiered system, intended to intercept tactical ballistic missiles. Its development was accorded high priority after the first Gulf War, when Iraq attacked Israel with Scud missiles. Arrow II, with an explosive warhead, was first deployed in 2000. Arrow III, which had its second successful flight test in January 2014, is being designed in collaboration with the U.S. Boeing company to employ an impact hit-to-kill interceptor to engage intermediate range ballistic missiles in space. Arrow III, not Iron Dome, is similar to GMD.

David’s Sling, also called Magic Wand, is a mid-tier system under development in cooperation U.S. defense contractor Raytheon. It is being designed to intercept high velocity medium and long range rockets, cruise missiles and short range ballistic missiles. It had its first successful intercept test in November 2012, but has not yet been operationally deployed.  

However successful Iron Dome may be, it cannot serve as a harbinger for the potential of GMD. It is no more a harbinger than a Ford Fiesta is for a Ferrari. They are very different systems.