The United States last week finished removing the last MIRV (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle) from its Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); these missiles will now each carry a single warhead. The move was the fulfillment of a promise the Obama administration made in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which stated that it would “enhance the stability of the nuclear balance by reducing the incentives for either side to strike first.” Read More
June 26th, 2014
Imagine the following scenario, not too different from the plot of the current season of the TV series “24” – but not that farfetched, either. The White House gets a call from a terrorist group that claims it has systematically diverted enough plutonium to make a crude nuclear bomb – perhaps 15 pounds – from a U.S. nuclear fuel fabrication plant. The group also claims that it was assisted by an insider in the IT department who was able to cover up the theft by compromising the computer-based material accounting system. The terrorists then threaten to detonate the bomb in Chicago in 24 hours unless its exorbitant demands are met.
The first thing the White House would want to know is whether the threat is credible or not. So the president calls the manager of the facility and asks if any plutonium is missing. Here’s the conversation:
MANAGER: “I’ll get back to you.”
THE PRESIDENT: “When?”
MANAGER: “Well, we’ll check our computer records and let you know in 72 hours if we can’t account for all of it.”
THE PRESIDENT: “We don’t have 72 hours! And the thieves claimed they fudged the computer records! You need to measure all the plutonium you have and make sure it’s all there pronto!”
MANAGER: Mr. President, we can’t do that. It would take us weeks or months to actually measure the plutonium. But, with all due respect, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not require us to rapidly assess the validity of alleged thefts in every conceivable theft scenario, or to do so without the use of our records system.
THE PRESIDENT: Call Jack Bauer!
MANAGER: I’m sorry, but it’s no use. Jack Bauer is not one of the tools that we committed to use in our Fundamental Nuclear Material Control Plan.
Plutonium and MOX Fuel
A shocking state of affairs, but sadly true. The plant in question is the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, now under construction by Energy Department contractor Shaw AREVA MOX Services. The MFFF is being built to turn excess plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program into a type of nuclear reactor fuel called MOX. It has experienced massive cost escalation and other programmatic difficulties in recent years, leading DOE to reconsider its plan to finish construction and operate the plant. However, MFFF supporters in Congress are forcing DOE to continue construction, and the project remains very much alive.
For more than ten years, UCS has been assisting local citizen groups and their counsel, Diane Curran, in efforts to block the NRC from issuing construction and operating licenses for the MFFF. In these proceedings, UCS has fought to ensure that the MFFF, if built, would have robust physical security and material accounting systems to protect against and detect theft of plutonium by terrorists. Although we have won some important concessions along the way, in a February 2014 initial decision, a majority of the three-member NRC Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) dismissed our complaints, opening the door for the NRC to issue the operating license.
In the decision, the ASLB noted that “NRC regulations do not require an applicant to rapidly assess the validity of alleged thefts in every conceivable theft scenario. Nor do regulations require an applicant to rapidly assess without the use of its records system.” A majority of the ASLB found that MOX Services provided reasonable assurance of its ability to rapidly assess the validity of alleged thefts and were satisfied that the company would take whatever actions are appropriate and necessary to evaluate the theft as it is alleged.
The initial decision has been appealed to the five NRC commissioners. The appeal is still pending, but there is little chance that the commissioners will vote to overturn the ruling of the ASLB majority.
A Flawed Plutonium Accounting System
Because of the security issues involved, the ASLB hearings were conducted behind closed doors, and many of the pleadings were not publicly released. But now that a redacted version of the decision has been made public, UCS is free to talk about our concerns with the material accounting system at the MOX plant, within the boundaries of the information that the NRC has released.
The central issue has to do with MOX Services’ approach to satisfying important NRC requirements for verifying periodically that items containing plutonium are where they are supposed to be and have not been tampered with. While the traditional approach to satisfying these requirements involves physically locating and inspecting items within certain time periods, MOX Services proposed instead that verification be accomplished only virtually, using the data within computerized inventory and process control systems. But one problem, as our hypothetical threat scenario indicates, is that this introduces additional uncertainty, as the data itself could potentially be inaccurate, either by accident or by malicious intent.
We argued that if the NRC were to accept this approach, MOX Services would have to provide a very high level of assurance that the data itself was accurate – that is, that it accurately reflected where the plutonium was in the plant. And we further pointed out that the NRC had no means of getting that level of assurance under the plan proposed by MOX Services. In fact, the NRC doesn’t even have a regulation for protection against cyberattack at a fuel cycle facility like the MFFF, although it plans to adopt one at a future date. In approving MOX Services’ material accounting scheme, the ASLB is relying entirely on the Energy Department’s cybersecurity requirements, without independently confirming that those requirements would be stringent enough to ensure the fidelity of the material accounting data.
MOX Services has committed to verifying the amount of plutonium in a storage vault within 72 hours, but by relying only on its computer records system. This verification doesn’t involve physically checking the material in the vault within this time frame because MOX Services refuses to – and perhaps is unable to – commit to doing so. (The plant will do an inventory check every 6 months, but in between will rely largely on its computerized records. This interim accounting is essential because if plutonium were stolen, it could be converted into a weapon in a matter of a few weeks or less.)
How Long Would Accounting Take?
But if an alleged theft involved compromise of the records system, MOX Services has made no commitment for how long it could take to verify whether any plutonium was in fact missing. And the ASLB majority accepted this state of affairs. (Panel chairman Michael C. Farrar, in his dissent, was sympathetic to our cybersecurity concerns.)
(And this doesn’t even take into account the possibility that the plutonium was not stolen from vault storage but from other areas of the plant, where it’s even harder to rapidly account for the loss of bomb-sized amounts of plutonium – an additional issue that we didn’t have the time or resources to raise with the ASLB.)
This means that if the MFFF eventually starts up and the scenario we present comes to pass, the president could be waiting for weeks, or even months before the plant manager could answer the question: Is any plutonium missing?
At a time when the threat of terrorism remains high, this inadequate approach to detecting theft of U.S. plutonium poses unacceptable and unnecessary risks to the whole world.
June 16th, 2014
In response to the recent string of bad news for the ICBM force, the Air Force has announced that it will make a number of changes to try to alleviate some of the morale problems that have been plaguing the force. The commander in charge of ICBM forces will be upgraded from a three star general to a four star, in keeping with equivalent commanders of other branches in the service; missileers will be eligible for new bonuses and incentive pay; a service medal for launch officers will be instituted; new ROTC scholarships for missile duty have been added, with ten already awarded; and more mid-level command personnel will be added, along with improved training for missile launch officers. Read More
June 6th, 2014
On 5 June 2014 Chinascope.org, “a media research entity that gathers, translates, and periodically analyzes Chinese-language media reporting,” posted a commentary on an editorial by Chu Shulong, a well-known Chinese scholar of international relations. The commentary claims the Tsinghua University professor calls “for China to maximally increase its nuclear deterrence against the U.S. and Japan.”
That’s a bit of an exaggeration.
Chu’s editorial is a long-winded, angry response to U.S. Secretary of Defense Hagel’s speech at the recently concluded IISS Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore. The title doesn’t mention nuclear weapons at all, but calls on China to “Quickly Improve Air-Sea Strength in Response to Japan-U.S. Provocations.” The bulk of the text is a blustery fusillade of historical reminders, criticisms and denunciations aimed at the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia that closes by reminding readers,
“China did not succumb to U.S. provocations and threats during the Korean War and the Vietnam War when it was farther behind, and today and tomorrow should be better prepared to respond to U.S. and Japanese provocations, threats and attacks against China in the East Sea, South Sea and Western Pacific.”
But buried in the concluding paragraphs, after stating that China should quickly correct weaknesses in its air and sea defenses, is the following single-sentence reference to Chinese nuclear weapons.
Chinascope translated it as,
“At the same time, [we] should also maximally increase the strategic deterrent capability of our missiles and nuclear weapons, in order to defend against the U.S.’ threats and blackmail on a larger scale.”
I would translate it somewhat differently.
“At the same time, [we] should, to the greatest degree, improve the strategic deterrent capability of missiles, nuclear weapons, etc., and prevent greater U.S. threats and blackmail against China.”
The differences are minor but significant. Improving the strategic deterrent capability of China’s small nuclear arsenal does not necessarily imply “maximally increasing” its size. China has been working steadily to bolster the credibility of its ability to retaliate from a nuclear attack for many decades, and Chu may simply be calling on his government to accelerate that effort. It is unlikely that the Tsinghua professor is recommending a massive Chinese nuclear build-up. It is worth noting this is not the first time his comments on Chinese nuclear weapons policy have been misconstrued by the U.S. media.
June 2nd, 2014
U.S. ICBM forces were recently in the news again, and, as too often seems to be the case lately, the news was not good. In the past year, stories have come out about missile launch officers cheating on exams and taking drugs, a commander removed after drinking and inappropriate behavior on a trip to Russia, and another for passing counterfeit gambling chips. The latest report concerns an Air Force security team at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana (also the home of the cheating scandal and drug investigation) that last summer failed an exercise designed to test its ability to respond to the simulated capture of an ICBM silo. While the failure was reported at the time of the exercise, it was not clear that this was because of a security problem. Now more details have come out about what actually happened. Read More
May 28th, 2014
The history of the debate over missile defense is full of miscalculations about its possible benefits versus its risks and costs.
Probably much of that is due to the fact that strategic missile defense always sounds better after 30 seconds than it does after 30 minutes. Read More
April 29th, 2014
Today, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) released its long-awaited study of alternative options for disposition of excess weapons plutonium. The report confirms what I anticipated in a paper I presented in July 2013: the option of down-blending the plutonium with inert materials and emplacing it in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is feasible, has the least technical risk, and is (by far) the least expensive alternative. Read More
April 14th, 2014
The March/April issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has an article (unfortunately behind a paywall) about the enormous stockpiles of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) the United States still retains for weapons purposes, co-authored by GSP Program Director Lisbeth Gronlund and myself. The article is based on chapter 6 of UCS’s recent report, Making Smart Security Choices, and concludes that the United States should immediately declare much more of this material excess and dispose of it in ways that minimize the risk that it could be stolen by terrorists and used to make a nuclear weapon. Read More
March 25th, 2014
The communiqués issued at the previous two Nuclear Security Summits said almost nothing about the dangers of separated plutonium. That was a problem. The 2014 Nuclear Security Summit communiqué does say something about plutonium—but the world would have been better off if it had remained silent on the issue. Read More
March 24th, 2014
On March 26, the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to have a hearing to receive words of wisdom from a Congressionally-mandated “Congressional Advisory Panel on the Governance of the Nuclear Security Enterprise,” which is government-speak for trying to fix the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Read More