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Nuclear Challenge

May 26, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Nearly every country in the world has radioactive materials that they use for peaceful purposes, but are believed to be of great interest to terrorists. This week, two Harvard researchers warned that the supply of loose nuclear material is growing, not shrinking. Much of the material was originally supplied by the U.S. and Russia.

In February the Energy Department’s inspector general said the department wasn’t moving quickly enough to recover it. Today Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced a joint U.S.-Russia program to recover that material.

To explain the problem that triggered this and to assess the new program itself, we’re joined by Matthew Bunn, a former White House science advisor and now senior research associate at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He is co-author of the report we just mentioned; and Laura Holgate, vice president at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit organization devoted to reducing nuclear dangers– she managed nonproliferation programs in the departments of defense and energy during the Clinton administration.

Welcome to you both. Laura Holgate, let’s start with basic ABCs of this. What is the material that this program is going after and where is it?

LAURA HOLGATE: Well, this program is going after two different categories of material. Essentially it’s going after material commonly called highly enriched uranium that is something you can make an actual nuclear weapon with. It’s what we made the weapon that we dropped on Hiroshima.

That material is located at… we know of, 130 research reactors in 40 countries and several other civilian-type facilities around the world in addition to military stockpiles. The second category of material that this program addresses is radiological material. This may exist in a hospital environment, having to do with treatment or diagnosis of disease. It may exist in an industrial environment, for example, using it to image oil pipelines. It may exist in a research environment to support experiments. But the use of that is something that would be much lower casualties, much lower impact.

MARGARET WARNER: Matt Bunn, what would you add to that in terms of what the material is and where it’s found, and can we assume from the description Laura Holgate gave us that some of this is pretty lightly guarded?

MATTHEW BUNN: Absolutely. Unfortunately for civilian research reactors around the world which are using this highly enriched uranium which is the easiest material in the world to make a nuclear bomb from, many of these facilities really have no more security than a night watchman and a chain link fence.

For the radiological material it’s often even worse because it’s in such a wide range of civilian contacts and hospitals and industry and agriculture. There are many, many sources in essentially every country in the world that use radiation for beneficial purposes. Only a small fraction of those would really be a big problem if dispersed by terrorists.

Still it’s a huge… that part of it is a huge problem. The highly enriched uranium is a finite job. One can easily imagine if we take the right actions now ten years from now being able to say, I’ve got that done. That material is secure.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, explain how that material particularly the highly enriched uranium. I said at the top that the U.S. and Russia really exported most of this. How did that come about.

LAURA HOLGATE: Well, it has its origins in the Atoms for Peace program that was launched by President Eisenhower. He essentially was trying to find a way for the rest of the world to get the benefits of the nuclear technology without putting at risk the notion of getting access to materials that could be used to make weapons with. So this was something that the U.S. and the Soviet Union seemed to be able to do together.

It also had its sort of element of a proxy war with that as well in terms of we supply our allies, they supply theirs. The point was these would go to research facilities, that it would help to develop the peaceful atom in countries all over the world. At the time no one thought about al-Qaida or the way terrorists might use this material.

MARGARET WARNER: Matt Bunn, are the U.S. and Russia still exporting it? And are there any other countries exporting it either overtly or covertly?

MATTHEW BUNN: Unfortunately there is still a small global commerce in highly enriched uranium to fuel research reactors, to fuel reactors that produce medical isotopes. The good news is that we are now developing the fuels that will make it possible to do those things without using fuel that can be used in a nuclear bomb. And part of Secretary Abraham’s initiative is to get all those reactors that still need to keep running converted to those safer fuels. But right now today, there is about 20 tons of highly enriched uranium at the civilian facilities around the world. That’s enough for hundreds of nuclear weapons. A lot of that came from the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: But Laura Holgate, in raising the specter of terrorism here, the implications seem to be that is this easy to handle for terrorists; what makes this kind of material particularly attractive as opposed to other kinds of nuclear materials?

LAURA HOLGATE: It’s not particularly easy. I don’t want anyone to think that this is something that can be done, you know, in passing. But getting access to the material is the hardest part. And highly enriched uranium would be the most attractive because it’s not very radioactive. It can be easily handled by somebody without being the risk of incapacitating them in the time they’re trying to handle it. The designs for how you might transform it into a nuclear weapon are well understood and publicly available. The amount of material that you need is not overwhelming.

So if the terrorist groups were searching for a bomb– and we know al-Qaida has said it is — that is its religious duty to get a nuclear weapon– then the relative ease of use of this material makes it the most attractive of the materials that might be available.

MARGARET WARNER: So Matt Bunn let’s go to the program. How will it go about getting all this back? I mean, are we going to pay these other countries to get it back? You mentioned what we hope they’ll use in its place. But how do we get that going?

MATTHEW BUNN: Well, really what Secretary Abraham is doing is he’s putting together a number of small pieces of programs that we had already and making sure that they cover the entire picture of the nuclear material that could be a danger to us — that’s critically important — and then making sure that we have flexible approaches to negotiate targeted incentives for each facility to get it to give up that material.

In one case it might be help with nuclear waste that they have on site as Laura helped arrange through the nuclear threat initiative in the case of almost three bombs’ worth of material that was air lifted out of Yugoslavia a couple of years ago. In another case it might be help employing the scientists after a reactor shuts down. In another case it might be help with decommissioning a facility. In pretty much every case it will require work to just get the material packaged and transported to somewhere where it can be secure.

MARGARET WARNER: And then, Laura Holgate, what are these countries, companies, facilities, supposed to use in its place?

LAURA HOLGATE: Well, in many cases these reactors simply should be shut down. They’re not providing a significant research capability. There’s all kinds of interesting ideas about regional centers of excellence that might provide to a group of countries a single facility at which they can send their scientists to do research or to gain access to medical isotopes.

There’s also research underway that is delayed unfortunately. It may be in trouble to convert these facilities so that they use a type of uranium that can’t be used in weapons — low-enriched uranium. That could be the solution path. The great thing about what Abraham has announced is that it recognizes that accomplishing the outcome of securing this material is going to require a diversity of tools. What he’s done is put a whole group of tools together under the rubric of nonproliferation as opposed to a whole variety of excuses and reasons that they were invented. And so now he’s said we’re going to take this tool kit, broaden it and integrate and put it in the service of securing and removing this material.

MARGARET WARNER: Matt Bunn, the phrase that keeps being used is that they want this material repatriated, quote-unquote, that is sent back to the U.S. or Russia from whence it came. How safe is the material back in the U.S. or Russia? Aren’t there huge concerns about the safety of similar material in Russia?

MATTHEW BUNN: That’s absolutely true. However, where we’re going to send it is particular facilities where substantial security upgrades have already been performed. And once there in most cases it’s going to be destroyed — blended to this low-enriched uranium that can’t be used in nuclear weapons so that it can never again pose that kind of proliferation threat – and, in fact, Secretary Abraham’s initiative is quite important but it’s only one of the steps that we need to take.

The next step we need to take is that President Bush needs to work with President Putin at their next summit to sweep aside the bureaucratic obstacles that convenient slowing our efforts to secure nuclear weapons and nuclear materials within Russia itself so that we can get all of those stock piles secured within the next presidential term. At the same time, President Bush needs to move out to forge a fast-paced global partnership to secure all of the material that exists in countries around the world. Not all of it is going to be removed under this kind of initiative that Secretary Abraham announced. We need to be working with countries on the very sensitive and difficult task of getting them to help us secure the stuff that’s going to stay in their countries.

MARGARET WARNER: Because we, Laura Holgate, have been talking mostly about the highly enriched uranium. There’s 80 or 70 other countries where they’re using this less deadly but material that could be used in a dirty bomb or something else provides the explosive device but could, in fact, people will come into contact with it – I mean, that sounds like an overwhelming task to recover all of that.

LAURA HOLGATE: Well that’s a real challenge. As Matt pointed out the difficulty there is identifying what are the top priority most dangerous elements because there’s no way that the U.S. even with a variety of international partners will address every last curie of potential radiological damage. The question is what’s the most important step. How do you get a collection of people to deal with it? Different countries, the International Atomic Energy Agency. Prioritization is the critical part. Every gram is important but not every radiological device is critical.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you see, Matt Bunn, as the greatest challenges just for securing this material that the program today is designed to address?

MATTHEW BUNN: Well, I think there are quite a number of key challenges. We need to make sure that we move out rapidly and flexibly to get this material out. We need to be… to be creative in providing the incentives that these facilities are going to require to give up their material. They’re worried if they give up the material what happens to those of us who work at that site, what happens to our facility, what happens to this nuclear waste that it’s generated over the years?

We need to be able to address those concerns flexibly so we can get this material out of those sites. And there’s a lot of work to do to overcome bureaucratic hurdles in Moscow, bureaucratic hurdles in Washington to get those kinds of things done. But if we do move out rapidly and flexibly on Abraham’s initiative I think we have a good chance within just a few years of getting the potential bomb material out entirely of the world’s most vulnerable sites and thereby significantly reducing the chance that terrorists could ever get the essential ingredients of a nuclear bomb.

MARGARET WARNER: Very briefly, Laura Holgate, Spencer Abraham said they’re devoting 450 million but over an unspecified period of time. Is that enough money?

LAURA HOLGATE: It’s hard to know until we understand what that money is intended to cover. Also until we get a threat assessment, a very clear vulnerability assessment across the board to know what’s the first place we need to go.

MARGARET WARNER: Laura Holgate, Matt Bunn, thank you both.

MATTHEW BUNN: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.