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Impossibility of nuclear security

Guest Blogger

President Obama has big ambitions for his nuclear security summit on Monday and Tuesday. He wants nothing less than agreement among dozens of countries to work toward locking down all loose nuclear materials in four years. With the goal of preventing nuclear terrorism, Obama also wants a communique calling for a crackdown on smuggling and for support of standards for securing highly enriched uranium and plutonium stocks.

But how realistic is the laudable goal of securing uranium stocks? Is it possible to lock down all loose nuclear materials? Michael Levi has spent years pondering such questions. In his book “On Nuclear Terrorism,” he grapples with the logistics of how terrorists might acquire essential materials and deploy them and how they might be prevented from achieving nuclear capability. He praises the president for shining a light on this pressing issue and sees reason to undertake aggressive measures to strengthen security. But Levi, the David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations, acknowledges the impossibility of nuclear security.

By Michael Levi

Nuclear terrorism dwarfs almost every national security threat imaginable. Thus the prospect of locking down all nuclear materials is comforting: no nuclear materials means no nuclear bombs, and no nuclear bombs means no nuclear terrorism. That’s why President Obama has made securing all highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium in the next four years a priority, and why he’s convening an unprecedented Nuclear Security Summit this week to further that goal.

There’s only one problem: it’s impossible.

Nuclear materials are employed every day in civilian and military applications (though some of those can and should be eliminated). Bomb-usable ingredients are moved around as part of routine military operations and in the operation of civilian power programs. Even our efforts to eliminate atomic bombs can result in dangerous flows of weapons-grade materials, as warheads are broken down into their constituent parts. Security around these activities can be strengthened, but it cannot be made absolute.

Critics have an intuitively compelling response to this: Fort Knox. We do not lose gold from Fort Knox; why should we tolerate a situation where we might lose nuclear materials? Alas, Fort Knox is a special case. Rules allow only tiny quantities of gold to be taken from its premises (for assaying); as a result, any attempt to remove meaningful amounts is easily identified as illegal.

No such bright line exists in many nuclear facilities. Indeed it is not unimaginable (though it is highly unlikely) that someone nefarious might present himself at a Russian nuclear facility, ask for the plutonium shipment, and get exactly what he wants.

None of this is to suggest, of course, that there isn’t plenty that we can and should (indeed must) do to strengthen global security for nuclear materials -- which is why the president’s summit is so laudable.

There are still far too many facilities in Russia and elsewhere that fall short of the strict security standards that they should be adopting. There are nuclear programs around that world that would benefit from better screening of sensitive personnel. There are dozens of places where bomb-grade uranium is used to fuel civilian research and medical reactors despite the availability of safe and cost-effective alternatives. We have moved too slowly on these and other fronts, and Obama appears ready to change that.

Indeed when the president says that he wants to “lock down” all nuclear materials, he’s almost certainly referring to these sorts of efforts. Like his drive to eliminate nuclear weapons (something the president says probably won’t happen in his lifetime) he probably sees the push to lock down all nuclear materials as a way to motivate a host of necessary actions.

He should be careful, though, that the promise of a silver bullet doesn’t sap enthusiasm for more modest but still critical complementary steps, like improving port and border security, monitoring procurement networks, and training law enforcement personnel to recognize telltale signs of nuclear plots. The allure of an impermeable defense can lead planners to reject these plainly less-than-perfect tools. It is essential, if we take nuclear terrorism seriously, to avoid that result.

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By Steven E. Levingston  |  April 12, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags: Enriched uranium, Fort Knox, National security, Nuclear power, Nuclear weapon, Plutonium, Russia, Terrorism, locking down nuclear materials, obama's nuclear security summit  
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