FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
September / October 2002
Volume 55, Number 5
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Front Page
Behind the Prospect of War with Iraq
Nuclear Security Legislative Update
Fire in the Hole
Non-Lethal Chemical and Biological Weapons

Nuclear Security Legislative Update

by Jaime Yassif

The past year has seen a flurry of congressional action on nonproliferation programs. Funds appropriated this fall as part of the 2002 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Bill will help secure dangerous radiological materials domestically, while the 2003 Defense Authorization Bill will address international nuclear and radiological materials security issues, as well as the US nuclear posture.

2003 Defense Authorization Bill

On November 13, both Houses of Congress passed the 2003 Defense Authorization Bill, authorizing funds for the Defense Department and for Department of Energy's nuclear weapons projects. The conference report reconciling the House and Senate versions of the bill will enhance cooperative international programs to secure nuclear and radiological materials and will affect US nuclear weapons development and test readiness posture.

Nuclear and Radiological Materials Security

The conference report includes many of the nuclear and radiological materials security provisions adopted previously by the Senate. Several of these provisions implement recommendations made by FAS researchers in studies on radiological weapons and highly-enriched uranium.

The Senate had authorized $40 million for the accelerated blend-down of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to a more proliferation-resistant form-below twenty percent U-235. (See "Closing the Gaps" by Robert Civiak, a recent FAS report on HEU security.) The final version of the bill authorizes $10 million, which can be used to establish new blending facilities and centralized secure storage facilities in Russia. This provides a precedent for expanding the 1993 HEU deal, the cooperative agreement between the US and Russia which initiated the blend-down of 500 metric tons of Russian HEU. The accelerated HEU disposition provision adopted in conference will facilitate the blend-down of additional materials in Russia's 1000-ton stockpile of excess HEU, without disrupting the original 1993 agreement.

The conference report includes the Senate provision authorizing $15 million for research and development of technologies that could reduce the likelihood of a radiological attack or mitigate the impact should one occur. The goal of this program is to develop technologies for detection, identification, and control of vulnerable radiological materials, as well as for their disposition. These technologies may include improved radiation detectors that could identify potentially dangerous materials as they pass through key points in the transportation system, such as borders, commercial harbors and airports. (For more information on related technologies, see "Weapons of Mass Disruption" by FAS's Michael Levi and Henry Kelly, in the November 2002 issue of Scientific American.)

The conference committee also adopted the Senate's provision to establish a Radiological Dispersal Device Materials Protection, Control and Accounting (RDDPC&A) program, and authorized the full $5 million proposed by the Senate. The RDDPC&A program will work internationally to identify and enhance the security of materials that could be used in a radiological attack.

The conferees partially adopted the Senate's proposal to expand the Materials Protection Control and Accounting (MPC&A) program outside the Russian Federation; the plan is designed to enhance the security of HEU stored at civilian nuclear facilities outside Russia and to accelerate the return of these materials to Russia. Instead of authorizing funds this year, the conference report requires the DOE to develop a plan that would be subject to approval during the next round of authorizations in 2003. The plan will include the projected costs and a proposed timeline for helping facility operators transport their HEU back to Russia and for providing these facilities with MPC&A security upgrades in the meantime.

The conferees partially adopted the Senate's provisions to strengthen international safeguards for nuclear materials and operations. Of the $35 million authorized by the Senate, $15 million was authorized in conference. Ten million dollars were designated for the development of proliferation-resistant nuclear energy technologies in cooperation with the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy. Some of the funds will support the development of high density LEU fuels and feasibility studies for reactor conversion to this proliferation-resistant fuel. (See "Closing the Gaps" for more information on reactor conversion.)

The remaining $5 million authorized for international nuclear safeguards will be used to strengthen export control programs in the Former Soviet Union and other regions of concern to US national security. The DOE can use these funds to provide assistance with domestic export controls on materials, technologies and expertise that could be used in the construction of a radiological or nuclear device.

US Nuclear Posture

The House and Senate diverged on the controversial issues of new nuclear weapons development and shortened test readiness time.

The House version of the Defense Authorization Bill contained a provision that would have weakened Congress' 1993 ban on the development of low-yield nuclear weapons, also known as "mini-nukes", and would have allowed research to begin on their development. Opponents of "mini-nuke" development claim that their low yield-below 5 kilotons-would make them more "useable" and would therefore blur the crucial distinction between conventional and nuclear arms. Ultimately, the conference committee rejected the House version, thereby upholding the prohibition on these weapons.

The final bill did, however, authorize a feasibility study on another proposed nuclear weapon system, the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), also known as the "bunker buster." The stated purpose of this system is to destroy bunkers buried deep underground and protected by thick concrete walls or thick layers of solid rock. The administration requested $15 million to fund the first year of a three-year study on the RNEP, but the Senate cut the funds from their version of the bill. The final version authorizes funds for the feasibility study, but with several restrictions. The feasibility study cannot be initiated until 30 days after the submission of a joint Defense and Energy Department report on: 1) the military requirements for the nuclear earth penetrator; 2) the nuclear weapons employment policy for the weapon; 3) the types of targets that it is designed for; and 4) an assessment of conventional alternatives that could be used to destroy the same types of targets.

The National Academy of Sciences will also conduct a study addressing the short and long-term effects on civilian populations if a nuclear weapon were used to destroy an underground WMD storage facility; the report will also assess the potential for conventional weapons for these purposes. (See "Fire in the Hole" by FAS's Michael Levi, a recent Carnegie Endowment Working Paper on nuclear options for counterproliferation and conventional alternatives. A summary of this piece appears in this edition of the PIR.)

The House and Senate also battled over shortening nuclear test readiness time. The House bill required the DOE to submit to congress a plan for achieving a one-year test readiness posture, but the final version of the bill calls for plans for test readiness within six, twelve, eighteen and twenty-four months.

$10 Million in Emergency Supplemental to OSRP

On September 1st, the Off-Site Source Recovery Project (OSRP), run by the Department of Energy, was granted $10 million as part of the 2002 congressional emergency appropriation for homeland security. This program recovers commercial radioactive sources that might otherwise be abandoned by licensees who have no other means of disposal. The OSRP has recovered over 3,000 sources containing Americium-241 and Plutonium-238, but until recently has had difficulty sustaining operations due to repeated budget cuts. The new funds will ensure the continuation of the program and facilitate the recovery of an additional 5,000 sources within the next 18 months.

The Off-Site Recovery Program (OSRP) recovers and secures radioactive sources from licensees who have no other means of disposal. In this operation, the OSRP recovered an americium/beryllium source that had been used to facilitate oil well logging at a drill site in Texas.

Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty

On May 24th Presidents Bush and Putin signed the Moscow Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions (SORT). They committed to reducing the U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear arsenals to 1,700-2,200 warheads within the next ten years. The three page treaty leaves the 1991 START treaty in place and gives each side the right to withdraw upon three months written notice to the other party.

Before it can enter into force, the SORT treaty must first be approved by both chambers of Russia's Federal Assembly and ratified by the U.S. Senate. On December 7th, President Putin submitted the SORT treaty to the Duma, one month after Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgi Mamedov announced that the treaty would be ratified by the Russian Duma by the end of the year. The U.S. Undersecretary of State, John Bolton, issued a statement in November maintaining that the Bush administration would like the Senate to follow suit as soon as possible.

The Department of Defense stated in this year's Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that it intends to initiate SORT reductions by retiring all 50 of its Peacekeeper ICBMs and by converting four Trident submarines from nuclear to conventional weapons.

Members of the arms control community have argued that the treaty is not sufficiently binding, citing the lack of verification provisions and the absence of requirements for warhead destruction. They have also criticized the treaty's failure to address non-operational and tactical nuclear weapons. On the right, some critics have questioned the need for an arms reduction treaty in the first place.