Harvard’s Seven Steps to Eliminate Terrorist Nuclear Threat

Publish date: June 17, 2002

Written by: Helene Tidemann

The recently published Harvard report “Securing Nuclear Weapons and Materials: Seven Steps for Immediate Action” reviews the dimensions of the danger of nuclear attack by terrorists and the efforts underway to combat it and recommends seven steps for immediate action to eliminate this threat. The seventh step favours controversial proposal by the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy to ship foreign spent nuclear fuel to Russia. A brief summary of the report follows beneath.

September 11th demonstrated that the threat from well-organised terrorist groups like Al Qaida is real. It is clear that terrorist’s interest in weapons of mass destruction includes chemical, biological as well as nuclear possibilities. The Harvard report focuses on the nuclear weapon threat.

Action is Needed Now

The report defines the threat by the huge size of the global stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material, the large number of countries and facilities where these stockpiles are held, and the poor state of security for some of them.

The fear is that sophisticated terrorist groups will get their hands on nuclear material. The amounts required to build a nuclear explosive are small, and can easily be smuggled in a brief case or under an overcoat. The detonation of such a bomb in a city would be a catastrophe beyond imagination. Even a 1-kiloton “fizzle” from a badly executed terrorist bomb would create a circle of near-total destruction near 1 mile in diameter.

Theft of these essential ingredients of nuclear weapons is according to this report not a hypothetical worry but an ongoing reality. Over the last decade there have been multiple confirmed cases of thefts. The problem today is that there is no binding international standard for how well these stockpiles should be secured. Since this is a global problem, it will require a global solution. A particular focus of the problem is in Russia and the report emphasises the importance of US and Russian co-operation.

The report outlines seven immediate first steps that should be taken to ensure that nuclear weapons and material are secured and accounted for.

1. A Global Coalition

The first step presented in the report is the building of a global coalition to secure Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). US, NATO and Asian allies and Russia would be participants and co-leaders of such a coalition. Key roles for the participants would include the securing and accounting for domestic stockpiles or to ask for and permit the help it needs in order to do this. Participants would work together to detect, interdict and investigate WMD theft and smuggling. Coalition participants should work together to put in place the capability to respond in the event of a WMD threat or attack. Some participants might also join with the US in making investments to help other countries secure and account for their stockpiles.

Such a global coalition cannot succeed without active and dedicated Russian participation. Of the 58 countries with Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU)-fuelled research reactors, roughly 40 received their HEU from the United States and the remainder from the Soviet Union, which means that Russia has supply relationships crucial in getting that HEU removed or secured. Russia also has broad range of relationships with countries that US would be unable to work with effectively such as Iran, North Korea, Libya and Belarus.

The report shows concerns about an unfortunate trend toward US-Russian threat reduction co-operation, focusing on US as donor and Russia as recipient. On the US side there is a tendency to take the view that since the US is paying the piper, it should call the tune. On the Russian side there is a tendency to expect the US government to cover the entire tab. On both sides there is suspicions and bureaucratic delays. A joint participation in a global coalition will help reverse this trend, the authors believe. To establish the needed partnership between US and Russia, significant changes is required from both sides, like flexible responses to the issue of access to sensitive facilities, acknowledging that expertise from both sides are useful in solving the proliferation problems.

The report also emphasises the importance to seize the post-September 11th opportunity to build this global coalition. This opportunity will not last forever.

2. Single Leaders for US and Russia

President Bush needs to appoint someone in the White House, who reports directly to him, who has no other mission but this to lead the US participation in the nuclear elements of a global coalition to secure weapons of mass destruction. This person should wake up every morning thinking, “What can I do to keep nuclear weapons out of terrorists hands today?”

A US leader for these efforts would work closely with Russian officials, including a Russian counterpart leader that should be appointed by President Putin. The authors stress that this is a full-time assignment and that these co-ordinators must have direct access to their Presidents.

3. Accelerating, Strengthening and Sustaining the Security

The stockpiles should be secured as fast as possible. To do this it is necessary for US and Russia to rebuild a partnership approach that can sustain broad Russian support, set an agreed deadline and jointly develop a strategic plan to meet this deadline. According to the report the main security risks may be addressed within four years.

There will be more work to be accomplished after the deadline, like improvements and up-grading of the systems. They should provide the necessary resources to carry out the plan, resolve the access issues and overcome the many bureaucratic obstacles. Suspicion between the US and Russia has to disappear and flexibility on both sides is needed. The US government should offer Russian experts reciprocal access at US facilities engaged in comparable activities, undermining the argument that the US is spying through such visits.

It is equally important that the security systems installed are adequate to defeat the threats they are likely to face.

It is crucial to sustain the security for these stockpiles into the future. US should seek a clear commitment from the Russian government to provide its own resources to sustain and improve the security systems once US assistance phases out. It will also be crucial to build up effective regulation in Russia so that site managers know they will be punished through fines or facility shut downs, if the high standards to security and accounting for nuclear material is not met. It will also be necessary to drastically reduce the number of buildings and facilities where nuclear warheads, plutonium and HEU are stored. The surest way to prevent nuclear theft is to remove the material from the buildings where it is stored. And the smaller the number of buildings and facilities to be secured, the lower the cost of ensuring effective security.

4. A Global Cleanout and Secure Effort

There are today 345 operational or shutdown reactors fuelled with HEU in 58 countries. Security of these hundreds of buildings varies widely, from excellent to appalling. Vulnerable nuclear material anywhere could be stolen and made into a terrorist bomb. The threat of nuclear theft is not limited to the former Soviet Union. A global effort is needed to address this threat by ensuring that all vulnerable stockpiles of plutonium or HEU are either eliminated or provided with high levels of security.

Today there are many small programs that address this threat. Some of them are:

  • The Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) program has been developing proliferation-resistant low-enriched fuels to replace HEU research reactor fuels, and helping US and US supplied reactors convert.
  • The United States also has in place a major take-back effort for irradiated HEU from US supplied research reactors. This is an offer to take the spent fuel off reactor operator’s hand if they agree to convert to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU).
  • A similar Russian RERTR program and HEU take-back program is underway with funding from the US
  • Under the Atomic Energy Act countries supplied by the United States are required to maintain adequate security for US-obliged nuclear material and the US government is required to check to ensure that they are doing so.

    All of these programs are valuable and are making genuine contributions to international security. But there is no consolidated effort with the authority and flexibility to provide targeted packages of incentives to each facility to give up its HEU or plutonium or to participate in a rapid security-upgrade program.

    The goal should be to eliminate all the highest-risk HEU stockpiles in the world within a few years.

    Given the availability of LEU fuels in the RERTR program, and the risks posed by HEU, there is no longer any need for HEU in the civil sector.

    The report suggests that with a program funded at $50 million per year, many of the most urgent security hazards posed by HEU and plutonium outside of the former Soviet Union could be addressed within a few years.

    Some states like Pakistan, India and China will pose particular difficulties for co-operative international efforts to upgrade security for nuclear material because of the secrecy surrounding their nuclear efforts. Pakistan’s connection to Afghanistan and Al Qaida, and the likelihood of nuclear “insiders” that could be sympathetic to Al Qaida, have raised international concerns over the potential vulnerability of their nuclear stockpiles.

    Tens of tonnes of separated, weapons usable plutonium are processed and shipped from place to place every year — when only a few kilograms is enough for a bomb. Most of this material is well secured, but the security varies widely from one country to the next.

    The Bush administration and the congress is proposed to establish a “global cleanout and secure” program funded at roughly $50 million in fiscal year 2003, making funds available from fiscal year 2002 so the program to eliminate these stockpiles can get started immediately.

    5. Leading Toward Stringent Global Nuclear Security Standards

    Today there are no binding international standards for nuclear security in place. There have been efforts to formally negotiate more stringent standards, but they have made limited progress.

    The report suggests that the US should join with a number of like-minded states with substantial nuclear activities in making a politically binding commitment to meet a stringent, agreed standard for security and accounting for all their nuclear material and facilities. They will report to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on their nuclear security regulations and procedures.

    The IAEA standard today are almost entirely rule-based, rather than performance-based: they call for nuclear material to be locked in vault, but do not say how hard the lock should be to pick or break etc. Therefore the authors stress the need for an agreement on at least a minimum design basis threat that security systems for weapons-usable nuclear material everywhere should be able to meet.

    For stringent international standards to have real teeth the report suggests that there have to be some means to confirm that the standards were being met. This can include exchange of information about national nuclear security procedures and standards, and bilateral or international visits or peer reviews at selected facilities, with managed access to protect sensitive information. With creativity and high-level leadership this can be achieved in a way that does not make the information available to potential terrorists and thieves.

    6. Accelerated Blend-Down of Highly Enriched Uranium

    HEU is the easiest material for terrorist to make nuclear weapons from because it can be used in a simple “gun-type” bomb. Destroying as much as possible of this is therefore essential to ensure it will never fall into hostile hands.

    By paying Russia to blend this material to a form that can never again be used in weapons and then store it in Russia, held off the market for a specific period, the security objective of destroying HEU could be decoupled from market constraints, and the accelerated blend-down could be accomplished without disturbing world nuclear fuel markets.

    This accelerated blend down effort would build on the US-Russian co-operative effort to address threats posed by weapons-usable nuclear material — the HEU Purchase Agreement, signed in 1993. Under this deal, 500 tonnes of HEU from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons are being blended to low-enriched uranium (LEU) (which cannot support an explosive nuclear chain reaction) and sold to the US for use as commercial nuclear reactor fuel.

    Currently, 30 tonnes of HEU is being blended to LEU each year. The report suggests working out an accelerated HEU blend-down arrangement supported by both US and Russia. In principle such a deal would be very simple. The US would pay Russia its capital and operating costs to blend the large quantities of additional HEU each year. Russia would agree that this additional LEU would be held off the market to avoid crashing the uranium and enrichment prices with a flood of additional material onto the market. These additional blended stocks could then be blended to commercial levels and metered onto the market at the 30-tonne-per-year rate once there was no more material to blend. Such a deal would serve the US national security interest as well as Russia’s financial interests.

    7. New Revenue Streams for Nuclear Security

    Given the scale of the activities that need to be funded and the need to provide funding for Russia’s huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material, the authors suggests developing new revenue streams that can supplement on-budget government expenditures. They recommend two particular approaches to be pursued.

    The first is a dept for non-proliferation swap. In such a swap, a portion of Russia’s debt would be cancelled and instead this payment would go into an auditable fund to finance agreed non-proliferation and arms reduction initiatives. The report urges for the Congress to complete passage of this legislation and for the Bush administration to begin negotiating with Russia and other potential creditor nations to begin implementing an auditable and transparent debt-for non-proliferation swap.

    The second is to allow Russia to import foreign spent nuclear fuel for long-term storage and reprocessing. Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy (MINATOM) projects that it might be possible to earn $20 billion in gross revenue from importing 20,000 tonnes of spent fuel over 10-20 years.

    The report states that in order to allow such an offer from Russia some of the following criteria will have to be met:

  • Effective arrangements to ensure that the entire operation has high standard of safety and security.
  • Resolve the proliferation risks posed by Russian nuclear co-operation with Iran.
  • A portion of the revenue is used to fund disarmament, non-proliferation and cleanup projects.
  • The project can not in any way contribute to separation of additional unneeded weapons-usable plutonium or to Russia’s nuclear weapons program.
  • And finally, one has to make sure that the project has support from people likely to be affected by it through a democratic process, giving them the opportunity to ensure that their concerns is effectively addressed.