Analysis & Opinions - The Washington Post

Bombs That Won't Go Off

| November 19, 2006

With North Korea testing a nuclear bomb and Iran suspected of heading in that direction, one might be forgiven for thinking there's nothing but bad news these days about the spread of nuclear weapons.

But behind the scenes, one piece of good news has been unfolding: While there's a great deal more to do, much of the world's potential nuclear bomb material, scattered in hundreds of buildings in dozens of countries around the world, is notably more secure than it was before Sept. 11, 2001, which means that it's harder for terrorists to steal. And the critical effort to remove such material entirely from the world's most vulnerable sites is picking up steam.

Remarkably, more than 130 research reactors around the world use as their fuel highly enriched uranium (HEU) — the easiest material in the world for terrorists to use to make a nuclear bomb. Many of these sites have very little security and pose serious risks of nuclear theft.

For decades the U.S. Energy Department has had several small programs working on aspects of the effort to reduce this civilian HEU danger, but each was plodding along in its own stovepipe, without the resources or political leadership needed to get the job done rapidly.

So in 2004 the Bush administration launched the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, an integrated effort to convert these reactors to low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuels that cannot be used to make a nuclear bomb; to ship the HEU back to secure sites; and to beef up security at vulnerable sites in the meantime.

Now these efforts are producing some real payoffs. In August the Energy Department helped return 40 kilograms of HEU from Poland to Russia. In July a cooperative project airlifted three kilograms of it from Libya to Russia (following some 16 kilograms shipped in 2004). Libya's reactors have been converted and will never again need highly enriched uranium. In April the Energy Department and Russia finished shipping roughly 62 kilograms of lightly irradiated HEU fuel out of Uzbekistan — home of an armed militant movement closely linked to al-Qaeda. Work on converting Uzbekistan's reactors to LEU and getting the last HEU out of that country continues.

The Energy Department has collaborated with a French company to remove about 85 kilograms of HEU from several European facilities, and Canada returned 23 kilograms to the United States in April. Even in the United States, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative completed the conversion of reactors at the University of Florida and Texas A&M University in September.

The pace of these efforts — both converting reactors and removing HEU — has picked up substantially since the Global Threat Reduction Initiative was created. The people at the Energy Department and elsewhere who have made these and similar successes possible deserve credit for real contributions to world security. But there is much more to do; the scale and the urgency of the terrorist threat demand an even faster and bolder response.

The administration must act to ensure that securing nuclear stockpiles and removing them from vulnerable sites is at the top of the national security agenda — an item to be discussed with every country that has stockpiles to secure or resources to help and at every level and every opportunity until the job is done. Congress should come back ready to provide the additional funding that the Global Threat Reduction Initiative will need to provide targeted incentives to persuade states and facilities to convert fuels from HEU to LEU and to permit their HEU stocks to be removed. Greater funding also will be needed to speed up efforts to address the substantial quantities of material and sizable numbers of HEU-fueled reactors not yet covered by the initiative.

Every building that has all its nuclear bomb material removed means one less possibility that thieves and terrorists can get their hands on a bomb's essential ingredients. The successes of the past two years represent bombs that will never go off. But these successes, though real, are only the beginning. The world needs to move as quickly as possible to ensure that security upgrades and material removals get to all of these nuclear stockpiles before thieves and terrorists do.

The writers, who have served in government positions dealing with nuclear security and nonproliferation, are with the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. They are co-authors of "Securing the Bomb 2006."

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Wier, Anthony and Matthew Bunn.“Bombs That Won't Go Off.” The Washington Post, November 19, 2006.

The Authors