Despite Budget Cuts, Hunt for Dangerous Nuclear Materials Continues
The probability that the world may descend into all-out nuclear war is low, the department's Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas M. Countryman told reporters Feb. 15 in Washington, D.C.
However, the threat of isolated attacks continues to grow, he said.
The world has not done enough to secure fissile material, Countryman said. Meanwhile, terrorist groups are actively trying to obtain it in order to cause mass casualties, he added.
But President Obama’s proposed budget reduces funding that is intended to prevent such acts, says the Fissile Materials Working Group, a non-governmental international coalition that proposes policies for nuclear security. In a recent statement, the group called Obama’s budget “a major step backwards in the fight against nuclear terrorism.” The group cites a $293 million cut to the National Nuclear Security Administration and reductions to nuclear security programs at the Pentagon and State Department.
But Countryman says that a slight decline across all of the accounts he oversees that amounts to about $8 million won’t have a negative impact on nuclear security efforts.
“I’m still confident that we’re able to continue the programs we have in export control to counter nuclear smuggling and in other areas that meet the president’s goals,” he said.
He acknowledged a significant decrease in funding for a program that helps countries install radiation detection equipment at seaports, airports and land crossings. This program has been successful fighting smuggling and remains an important component of the United States’ efforts to counter proliferation around the world, Countryman said.
He also took exception to the working group’s reading of the proposed budget and said that the amount of money given to the NNSA to battle proliferation has actually increased this year.
“I wouldn’t over-interpret these particular cuts,” Countryman said.
The NNSA is the lead agency behind a goal established at a 2010 Nuclear Security Summit to safely lock down vulnerable fissile materials worldwide by 2014.
There are different strategies to reach the goal: removing high-priority nuclear material worldwide; taking highly enriched uranium and “down blending” it so it can be used as fuel and in energy production; providing security upgrades to sites where fissile material is stored, and consolidating materials at those locations.
“We’ve done a lot around the world,” Countryman said, citing an ongoing effort to remove highly enriched uranium from Ukraine and Mexico. But there are seven other countries that have varying quantities of such material, including Argentina, Hungary, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, the Czech Republic, Belarus and South Africa.
“A lot of the material we’re concerned about is in Russia and the former Soviet Union,” Countryman said. “And the Russian Federation has made good progress in cooperation with us in consolidating weapons usable material . . . and in down blending [highly enriched uranium]. There’s quite a bit left to do.”
Since the initiative was established at the summit, many of the actions have been carried out with ease, Countryman said. Now comes the hard part, which mostly relates to the physical challenge of dealing with vast amounts of material.
“As you can imagine with fissile material, you don’t just drive up with a truck and load it on,” Countryman said. “You have to make very careful preparations of the site and have very specific plans for how it will be secured or down blended.”
World leaders will meet for a second Nuclear Security Summit next month in South Korea. President Obama has said that one of the top priorities at the summit will be to determine how to prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear materials.
“I think the progress we’ve made over the past two years, not just in locking down fissile materials, but in assisting states around the world to detect and counter smuggling of nuclear material, is significant and greatly reduces the risk that any terrorist group can succeed,” Countryman said.
That doesn’t mean terrorists won’t keep trying, he added.