Monday, April 12, 2010

Nuclear Security Issues: We Have Our Own

A 360 Degrees Analysis

President Obama, holding a summit to urge world leaders to secure their nuclear material, frequently calls the risk of terrorists getting a nuke "the single biggest threat to U.S. security." What he is less likely to talk about is the United States' own shortcomings in safeguarding its nuclear stockpile.

In one of the U.S. government's most alarming and embarrassing incidents, nuclear cruise missiles were mistakenly loaded onto a B-52 bomber in 2007 and flown from North Dakota to a military base in Louisiana. That gaffe occurred during President George W. Bush's tenure.

Attracting less attention, several reviews since Obama became president have found weaknesses in the government's stewardship of its nuclear cache, from weapons to the ingredients and classified information that go into them. Among the findings:

  • The Air Force in January removed an entire squadron overseeing a bunker of nuclear warheads at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., citing a failed inspection that it blamed on administrative problems.
  • In March, the congressional Government Accountability Office detailed problems with a program under which at least 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium is to be disposed of in fuel for nuclear power plants. Among other things, the Energy Department's Office of Health, Safety and Security hadn't performed any oversight or taken part in project reviews of one of the facilities used for the project despite its rating as a "high-hazard nuclear facility."
  • The Energy Department inspector general reported in January that the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico had not removed some highly enriched uranium while carrying out a department plan to consolidate nuclear materials into the most secure environments possible. The report said while the lab had removed material classified as Categories I and II - the most risky -- and scaled back security accordingly, it had designated the enriched uranium in question as a lower Category III, using a method that wasn't formally approved.
  • Last fall, the GAO reported that the Los Alamos National Laboratory, another nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico, had several security lapses in protecting classified information on its computers.
  • In September, the congressional investigators recommended that the Pentagon make several improvements in its process for assessing threats to installations where nuclear weapons are stored, maintained or transported.

"Unfortunately, we have a situation in which there is a lot of loose nuclear material around the world," Obama said Sunday, before opening the nuclear summit Monday in Washington. "And so the central focus for this summit is getting the international community on the path in which we are locking down that nuclear material in a very specific time frame with a specific work plan."

The goal: securing all nuclear materials worldwide from theft or diversion, within four years. The president may have his work cut out for him, starting at home.

NRC; US Dept of Energy; US Dept of Defense; GAO; Reuters; UPI; AP; Jane's Information Group.

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