Nuclear Waste

Published — June 15, 2015 Updated — June 16, 2015 at 2:35 pm ET

Obama steps back from sweeping nuclear security goal

President Barack Obama waves as he departs following a news conference after meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders at Camp David in Maryland, Thursday, May 14, 2015. Andrew Harnik/AP

The administration looks for incremental gains in locking up nuclear explosives, rejecting demands by outsiders for a major new international agreement to prevent nuclear terrorism


As President Obama prepares for the last of the global summits he organized to lock down or eliminate nuclear explosive materials around the globe, his aides are hoping for modest achievements rather than pressing for broad new measures to help protect the world from a nuclear terror attack, according to current and former administration officials.

Obama set a high bar five months after his election when he said that nuclear armed terrorism was “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security” and promised that he would lead an effort to lock down all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years. But more than six years later, there is a consensus inside and outside the government that such a sweeping achievement remains out of reach.

Over the course of his presidency, Obama has scaled back his goals in this area and settled for what a senior White House official publicly described in 2012 as “the incremental nature of success,” rather than throwing his full weight behind the creation of global security standards for nuclear materials that independent experts say could have a more lasting and significant impact.

The administration’s focus on what its officials depict as the art of the possible has provoked grumbling from outsiders that progress achieved so far could be undermined after Obama departs in 2017, unless the government mounts a last-minute push for a more sweeping agreement — even one involving only a few dozen like-minded nations instead of a global pact.

“I completely understand that putting forth ambitious ideas is putting your hand into a buzz saw,” said Kenneth Luongo, senior advisor to the secretary of energy during the Clinton administration and former director of arms control and nonproliferation at the Energy Department, referring to opposition by several nuclear-weapons states and some others to a new system of nuclear material controls.

“But you have to do it, so you can show people the scar,” he said, and demonstrate to the world that the United States is prepared to take political risks to reduce this threat.

The Obama administration since 2009 has hardly slighted nuclear security: According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit group in Washington that advocates tighter control of nuclear explosive materials, the administration has invested more than $5 billion in it. That figure includes funds given to Russia and other countries to help secure their nuclear weapons arsenals, to convert research reactors so they burn fuel that cannot be used in weapons, and to improve the physical protection and accounting of nuclear explosive materials such as plutonium and highly-enriched uranium.

The summit meetings Obama led in in 2010, 2012 and 2014 about associated nuclear perils — in Washington, South Korea and the Netherlands — included 53 nations and were attended by 46 sitting presidents, prime ministers or other heads of state. Some of those leaders brought what the administration called “gift baskets” meant to highlight their commitment to nuclear security, including offers to ship nuclear explosive materials to the United States or Russia for destruction.

But Luongo, who now directs a nonprofit group called Partnership for Global Security, said the meetings left “gaps and fissures” in the patchwork of domestic regulations and international agreements designed to protect nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands. And he urged that the United States lead an effort to transform the current system, where it is up to individual countries to decide how seriously to take the protection of their nuclear materials, into one with enforceable international standards.

Laura Holgate, the senior director for WMD Terrorism and Threat Reduction at the National Security Council and a leader of the efforts to prepare for next year’s summit, declined to address planning for the final summit. Shortly after the second summit in March 2012, however, Holgate said the administration had not sought new nuclear security treaties because too many other countries were opposed to such measures.

Instead, she said, the summit process reflected “the incremental nature of success,” adding: “That’s just the way it is in this field. You don’t have giant thunderclaps and then the world is different.”

Asked for further comment last week, a White House spokesman forwarded a copy of a speech last July in which Holgate said the summits had “built up an impressive track record in meaningful progress” and helped make it “harder than ever for terrorists to acquire nuclear weapons.” In the speech, she said “we have not yet done all that we can or need to do,” but a “comprehensive” arrangement for controlling both civilian and military stocks of nuclear explosives would be promoted “over time.”

“We also need,” Holgate said then, “to reflect the principle of continuous improvement.”

In advance of the 2014 summit, however, the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, in a document labeled “Official Use Only,” said that while U.S. initiatives had made the world safer, there are still “serious threats that require urgent attention.” The May 2013 report, which was obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, said that terrorists were still seeking nuclear weapons, and plenty of raw materials to build them are still scattered around the world.

Hundreds of pounds of weapons-usable uranium are being stored at civilian sites, including in South Africa and Belarus, the document said. Scores of research reactors, where security is generally lower than at military sites, still operate with fuel composed of weapons-grade explosives, it said, including more than 60 in Russia alone. Meanwhile, global plutonium stocks are rising, the report said, with more than 100 metric tons produced since 1998, enough it said to build at least 20 thousand nuclear weapons.

The loss of even a small amount of this material from any of the hundreds of sites where they are stored could have catastrophic consequences, the report said. “In today’s global environment, a nuclear … device would not just impact one city or one country; it would gravely damage us all.”

The report’s depiction of the threat as an urgent problem has found resonance in a coalition of more than 80 arms control, academic, and philanthropic organizations known as the Fissile Materials Working Group. It plans to release a 16-page report Tuesday proposing what it calls “bold, new actions” to advance nuclear security at the final summit beyond what the Obama administration is presently considering, including creating a pathway toward “universal, mandatory…standards.”

The group’s membership spans the political spectrum, and includes the Arms Control Association, the Cato Institute, the Federation of American Scientists, the Stimson Center, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as well as independent groups in Russia, India, Denmark and elsewhere. One of its members, the Stanley Foundation, has financially supported foreign travel by staff at the Center for Public Integrity. The working group has already given copies of its report to diplomats heading for a preparatory conference scheduled to be held in Lithuania the week of June 28.

The Working Group report calls on the nuclear weapons states to share more information about security practices and expenditures, and to support visits by foreign experts who could review the security arrangements for their fissionable materials (not the weapons themselves) — the way U.S. scientists helped their Russian counterparts in the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union left huge stores of such materials poorly guarded.

The Working Group report also calls for summit leaders, including the United States, to seek an agreement that highly-enriched uranium will no longer be used as fuel in civilian nuclear reactors, and that all research reactors should be modified so they only burn non-explosive fuel. Previous summits have called on countries to minimize — not end — their use of highly-enriched uranium reactor fuel.

The report further urges countries to agree to work towards halting the use of weapons-grade uranium to power ship-board or submarine reactors, a sensitive issue for the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, and India. A task force convened by the Federation of American Scientists in March recommended development of a propulsion reactor using reactor-grade uranium, although the Navy has expressed concern that such reactors would not be as powerful or efficient.

Holgate attended a closed meeting of nonproliferation experts at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington in March, several of the experts said, and raised doubts about parts of the plan. According to two of those present, Holgate noted that the idea of one state having a legitimate interest or stake in the security of another’s nuclear weapons materials was still controversial. This makes it unlikely that nuclear weapons states would accept any security standards set by outsiders, including international bodies, she suggested.

Countries should instead consider proposing “a menu of steps” allowing the nuclear weapons states to demonstrate that their protections for military-related fissionable materials are effective, Holgate said, according to the source and a copy of notes she provided to members of the group. National Security Council spokesman Mark Stroh responded that “I have no comment on whatever alleged handwritten notes you think you have.”

Gary Samore, who served from 2009 to 2013 as the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction and led preparations for the 2010 and 2012 nuclear summits, said he considers Holgate’s approach reasonable.

He said that some non-nuclear countries fear the United States has a hidden agenda, aimed at limiting their access to nuclear technology under the guise of security, or at highlighting shoddy security practices. They are especially worried, he said, that the United States might want to give the International Atomic Energy Agency or another group the power to set and enforce security standards, infringing on their sovereign rights.

Overcoming suspicions among the summit partners, he said, required constant reassurance and compromise. “We were always very prudent,” Samore said. “I always tried to make it clear that we were not trying to do something that was strongly opposed by key countries.”

Samore said that efforts to set and enforce security standards for fissionable materials related to military programs would be particularly problematic. Most non-nuclear weapons states at the summits would support such an agreement, he said, but Russia and France are opposed. “I think if we had tried to go down that road, we would have met resistance from almost everybody else — the Indians, the Chinese, the Pakistanis,” he said, “to say nothing of the U.S. nuclear establishment.”

“That isn’t to say that nothing can be done about nuclear security,” he said. “It just means that it can’t be done through a nuclear treaty,” but instead through bilateral discussions, such as those between the United States and Russia, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and France.

Those who favor a more ambitious U.S. agenda note that one of the major achievements of the 2014 summit was something very much like a treaty. Thirty-five of the 53 leaders in attendance agreed in writing to adopt the International Atomic Energy Agency’s guidelines on nuclear security into their national rules and regulations. They also agreed to periodic reviews by outside experts and to improve the training of their nuclear security personnel.

Four nuclear weapons states — France, the United Kingdom, the United States and Israel — signed the document, titled “Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation.” Four others in attendance, Russia, China, Pakistan and India, declined to join. Samore said there was hope two years ago that Russia, the world’s largest nuclear power, might sign the statement, putting pressure on the other three countries to do likewise. But he said that given the conflict between the United States and Russia over Ukraine, chances are that Russia will not sign the document.

Luongo nonetheless called the joint statement a “first step” toward the kind of comprehensive nuclear security agreement that he and others envisage. A group of 23 nuclear security experts, including Luongo and Kenneth Brill, U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency from 2001 to 2004 and director of the U.S. intelligence community’s National Counterproliferation Center from 2005 to 2010, proposed a draft of such an agreement in March.

It would be open to any state that wished to join, and require they establish and maintain a system for protecting nuclear materials that conformed to a series of legislative, regulatory, transparency and other standards to ensure those materials were secure. The language of the proposal describes those standards only in broad terms, but Luongo said the draft was merely the basis for the beginning of a discussion of the agreement.

But so far Brill, Luongo and others in the group haven’t found any nation — including the United States — willing to promote it as part of their political agenda.

Luongo said the reason that the idea hasn’t caught on yet is not because it’s unachievable but because no one is pushing it hard enough. By suggesting these goals are unattainable, he said, Samore and others underestimate the growing support for nuclear security — support generated in part by the administration’s own summits.

“Countries recognize there is a problem,” Luongo said. “But there hasn’t been the requisite leadership yet to move toward solving that problem. We have been moving in the right direction. But the stars are not yet aligned.”

This story was co-published with Politico Magazine.

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