Monday, March 27, 2006

U.S. confronts issue of 'loose nukes' on several fronts

U.S. confronts issue of 'loose nukes' on several fronts
By John Diamond, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Nuclear materials from Soviet warheads that once threatened U.S. cities are now helping to light them up.

With little fanfare, U.S. utilities have been buying uranium that once sat in Soviet nuclear weapons to fuel civilian nuclear power reactors. The program supplies half the uranium used by U.S. nuclear plants which, in turn, generate 20% of all U.S. commercial power. That means, essentially, that one in every 10 light bulbs in America is powered by uranium that once sat atop a Russian missile.


A program to extract nuclear material from dismantled Russian warheads and turn it into fuel in the USA provides about 10% of all electricity in this country.

1: Highly enriched uranium is removed from nuclear warheads.

2: The uranium is stabilized, turned into a gas and then diluted to about 5% of its original concentration of fissionable material.

3: United States Enrichment Corp. takes possession of the material in Russia, ships it to the USA, then processes it into fuel for nuclear power plants.

“Megatons to Megawatts” projections over 20-year life of contract:

• Cost: $12 billion

• Power: 6 trillion kilowatt hours

Energy equivalents:

• 10 billion barrels of oil

• 60 trillion cubic feet of natural gas

• 3 billion tons of coal

Cost equivalents (estimated to produce same amount of electricity today):

• $600 billion in oil

• $420 billion in natural gas

• $43 billion in coal

Linton Brooks, head of the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration, called the program one of several aimed at preventing a terrorist weapon from entering the USA aboard a container ship. That scenario sparked a recent furor over a deal that would have turned over terminal management at U.S. ports in six states to a company owned by the Arab emirate of Dubai.

Brooks' agency leads U.S. government efforts to keep nuclear weapons out of terrorists' hands, which President Bush has called the top national security priority.

While other programs, including those at the Department of Homeland Security, focus on domestic port security, the main line of defense must be overseas, Brooks said. That's because the overriding goal is preventing a nuclear weapon from arriving in the USA in the first place, he said.

The U.S. strategy against what is sometimes called the "loose nukes" problem includes:

•Securing sites. The United States has been helping Russia since 1991 to install modern security systems at nuclear material storage sites that were in sorry shape at the end of the Cold War. That job is largely finished.

•Securing nuclear material. Over the past decade, nuclear warheads and bomb-grade plutonium and uranium have been gradually consolidated from far-flung locations throughout the former Soviet Union to fewer, but more secure, sites in Russia.

•Reducing quantities. Through the "Megatons to Megawatts" program, Russia converts highly enriched uranium used in bombs into low-enriched fuel suitable for power reactors. It is then shipped to the USA and sold to power companies.

The self-financing program has converted 287 tons of highly enriched Russian uranium into reactor fuel since 1993, Brooks says. An additional 265 tons will be converted and sold on the U.S. market over the next seven years.

Other Energy Department programs exist to reduce the amount of nuclear material around the world. But even after they are completed, the United States and Russia will each have about 500 tons of highly enriched uranium in storage, enough to make tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. Highly enriched uranium is a concern because it is harder to detect than plutonium and would be easier for terrorists to make into a bomb, Brooks said.

•Border control. With U.S. help, Russia and neighboring countries have installed equipment designed to detect traces of smuggled nuclear materials. There have been several reported attempts to smuggle radiological material but no known successful thefts of plutonium or highly enriched uranium.

•Port security. An Energy Department "megaports" initiative, still in the early stages, is adding new cargo-screening devices at ports in Rotterdam, Netherlands; Piraeus, Greece; Freeport, Bahamas; and Colombo, Sri Lanka. There are plans to install security systems at least 10 other ports.

The Energy Department's budget request for non-proliferation programs next year is $1.7 billion, a 7% increase over this year. The total Energy Department budget request is $22.6 billion. The U.S. strategy also involves extensive operations in the Defense, State and Homeland Security departments and the intelligence community.

State's Proliferation Security Initiative, for example, focuses on scenarios in which nuclear material gets out of a foreign storage site, past border guards and through a port security check. It allows the United States and allied governments to block shipment of nuclear materials or technology to other countries, said Stephen Rademaker, who oversees the program.

In 2003, the program helped block a shipment of nuclear centrifuges from Malaysia, via a port in the United Arab Emirates, to Libya. The incident led to the unraveling of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan's secret proliferation network, and ultimately, to his arrest.

If a country involved in such smuggling "has a track record of supporting international terrorism, we really have to worry that at some point they'll transfer such weapons to international terrorists," Rademaker said.

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