Nuclear material containment and US aid to former Soviet States.

Author:Chambers, Catherine

    Nuclear nonproliferation remains a major goal specified in the U.S. National Security Strategy. Cold War era concern about the potential for thermonuclear war between competing super powers has been replaced by a different sort of nuclear threat--the potential for terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction. Since even very small quantities of nuclear material can enable terrorists or rogue states to build nuclear weapons, incidents involving the diversion or leakage of "direct-use" nuclear material in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union (FSU) have prompted concern about nuclear proliferation. In response to this potential threat, the U.S. has undertaken efforts such as the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program to assist the FSU states to strengthen their nuclear material controls and/or to reduce nuclear material stockpiles. However, even with monitoring by U.S. agencies and notable improvements in security, there is no guarantee that such aid will have the desired effect. FSU states may have an incentive to overstate or even encourage increases in risk in order to increase aid. This paper evaluates the potentially destabilizing impact of selected U.S. policies on nuclear proliferation and global security.

    The paper proceeds as follows. Section 2 includes a discussion of the risk associated with nuclear materials in the FSU states and U.S.-funded programs designed to reduce that risk. Section 3 presents a static model of the U.S. decision concerning the level of aid. This model is modified in Section 4 to a two-stage Bayesian game in which the U.S. has incomplete information concerning the actual level of risk in the FSU state. Under certain conditions, it is optimal for an FSU state to exaggerate the level of risk, perhaps by limiting its own expenditure on security for nuclear materials, in order to increase the level of aid from the U.S. Finally, Section 5 offers conclusions.


    "Direct-use nuclear material" consists of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium 239. The primary barrier to producing a nuclear device is obtaining weapons-grade nuclear material. Hence, the potential diversion or loss of such direct-use nuclear material presents a significant proliferation risk because it is relatively easy to handle and because it can be used to manufacture nuclear weapons without further enrichment or irradiation in a reactor. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 25 kg of weapons-grade uranium or 8 kg of plutonium are the minimum amounts required for a 20-kiloton explosion similar to the Nagasaki bomb. A more sophisticated technology would require as little as 5 kg of weapons-grade uranium or 3 kg of plutonium (Settle, 2003). The Center for Defense Information (Blair, 2001) indicates that obtaining nuclear material is the primary difficulty in producing a nuclear device. "Sophisticated terrorists could fairly readily design and fabricate a workable atomic bomb once they manage to acquire the precious deadly ingredients (the Hiroshima bomb which used a simple gun-barrel design is the prime example)." A so-called "dirty bomb," a conventional explosive packaged with radioactive material, could be made with very small amounts of nuclear material and little expertise. Because the level of radioactivity is so low, such a device is not significantly more deadly than a conventional bomb. However, it could cause panic, disrupt commerce and require costly cleanup of affected areas (Council on Foreign Relations, 2006).

    Many types of nuclear facilities routinely handle, process, or store direct-use material. Besides nuclear weapon production facilities, direct-use material can also be found at research reactors, reactor fuel fabrication facilities, uranium enrichment plants, spent fuel reprocessing facilities, and nuclear material storage sites. (Civilian nuclear power facilities are of less concern because they typically use low-enriched or natural uranium as fuel, which would require additional enrichment before nuclear weapons production can occur. The plutonium produced as spent reactor fuel also requires processing before it is suitable for nuclear weapons.) Nuclear materials are controlled to prevent and detect their theft. A nuclear material control system consists of three overlapping components: material protection, material control, and material accounting. Material protection systems are designed to limit access to nuclear material by outside individuals and to prevent the unauthorized removal of material from a facility by inside individuals. Material protection includes the installation of physical barriers to restrict access, background checks of personnel with access to nuclear material, and continuous behavior monitoring. For example, the Army's Nuclear Weapon Personnel Reliability Program (PRP) specified certification requirements for persons assigned to nuclear weapons duties and required commanders in nuclear capable units to monitor the behavior of persons with access to a nuclear weapon or nuclear components, affording an opportunity to tamper with or damage a nuclear weapon when such activities could go undetected (Department of Defense, 1993). Material control systems contain, monitor, and establish custody over nuclear material. Nuclear facilities control material by storing material in containers and vaults equipped with seals that can indicate when tampering may have occurred, controlling access to and exit from nuclear material areas using badge and personnel identification equipment, and establishing procedures to physically monitor nuclear materials. Designated custodians are assigned responsibility for nuclear material in their possession. Material accounting systems maintain information on the quantity of nuclear materials within specified areas and on transfers in and out of those areas. Physical inventories are reconciled periodically with recorded inventories and trend analysis is used to detect protracted theft of small amounts of nuclear material. All nuclear facilities in the United States are capable of updating material accounting data within twenty-four hours, and those with the most modern systems are capable of updating material accounting data within four hours.

    In addition to facility-specific security systems, the United States and most other countries have established standardized material protection, control, and accounting (MPCA) systems. These systems include regulations governing procedures for nuclear material protection, control and accounting, inspection requirements to ensure that the systems are implemented properly, and tracking systems to provide information on the location and disposition of nuclear material nationally. In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy have promulgated regulations on controlling nuclear material such as requiring two or more authorized persons to be present when nuclear material is accessed or using closely monitored television cameras to maintain surveillance over nuclear material.

    Prior to its break-up, the Soviet Union produced up to 1,400 metric tons of HEU and 400 metric tons of plutonium 239 (Lee, 2003). With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia and seven other FSU states inherited an estimated 650 tons of direct-use nuclear material. Exact amounts and locations of all direct-use materials are not known (GAO, 1996; Monterey Institute of International Studies, 2001). Though most nuclear material in FSU states is in non-weapons stockpiles, it is considered to be vulnerable to theft because it is relatively safe to handle, easily transportable by one or two persons, and can be used to make a nuclear weapon without additional processing.

    The FSU inherited Soviet nuclear security systems dating back to the 1940s. In these systems, accounting procedures focused on production rather than theft. The system impelled Soviet facility managers to monitor production quotas but with little attention to tracking net gains and losses of materials. To protect its nuclear materials and production programs, the Soviet Union located its nuclear materials in closed "secret cities," separated from other urban areas. Personnel working in the Soviet nuclear complex were subjected to intensive screening and their activities were closely monitored. Facilities controlled access to nuclear material using a three-person rule, requiring two facility staff members and at least one person from the security services to be present when material was handled. The Soviet system relied on manual, paper-based systems that made tracking material time consuming. Rather than measuring actual losses, the Soviet system applied standard estimate loss rates to account for materials that could be held up in processing equipment. Soviet nuclear material controls were generally adequate within the Soviet-era security system which included severe penalties for violations of control procedures, strict limitations on foreign travel by its citizens, and rigid internal security (GAO, 1996).

    Social and economic changes in the FSU states have increased the threat of theft or diversion of nuclear material which Soviet-era MPCA systems are not well suited to adequately counter. The major nuclear facilities in Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy, the MINATOM weapons complex, are no longer secret, and access to these and other nuclear facilities in the FSU states has increased. According to a GAO assessment, security problems are exacerbated by an increased insider threat at FSU nuclear facilities brought on by the loss of prestige and deteriorating economic conditions for nuclear workers. Economic hardships have precipitated changes in worker attitudes and placed pressures on families and lifestyles. Wage arrears for workers in nuclear plants reached months. Suicides among both low level employees and well known scientists rose and dozens of...

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