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Photo by Andrew Harrer via CNP

Global Nuclear Security

​Although 2016 is only half over, it’s already shaping up as a key year for global nuclear security. Two international summit meetings have already been held, both in the United States.

A variety of nuclear security issues were discussed there, but the driving force of the meetings was to develop answers to a question put forth by the Obama administration: “How do we lock down fissile material that would be vulnerable to terrorists?” U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall tells Security Management in an interview.

That question has been the raison d’état driving force of the all the biannual Nuclear Security Summits, which started in 2010 in Washington, D.C., followed by a 2012 summit in Seoul and a 2014 summit in The Hague.

The 2014 summit, attended by more than 50 world leaders, marked the first time that leaders participated in a tabletop exercise in which they had to respond to a fictional nuclear security scenario. 

“It had never happened before. Frankly, the staff of some of the leaders were a little nervous about doing it…there was no script,” Sherwood-Randall says. But potential faux pas notwithstanding, conducting such an exercise was considered crucial. “We discover where there are gaps, where there are weaknesses in the response. It’s very important to exercise to test our capabilities,” she explains. 

The exercise was fruitful; as heads of state, all of the leaders held a unique position that only a handful of people ever experience, and that gave them an understanding of each other and a connection that facilitated cooperation. “They relate to one another differently than they relate to anyone else,” Sherwood-Randall says.  

Then, in January of this year, nuclear officials from 37 nations met again for Apex Gold, a minister-level summit meeting held in Livermore, California, which also included representatives from the United Nations, the European Union, and the International Atomic Energy Agency. 

Like the heads of state did a year before them, the ministers attending Apex Gold also participated in a tabletop exercise featuring a fictional nuclear incident. 

According to U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) aides, the outlines of the scenario were as follows: a country that borders your country reports that some of its highly enriched uranium has gone missing from a civilian facility and is no longer under regulatory control. The scenario was communicated by way of a film. 

“Think of an episode of 24,” says a DOE aide. The film was shown at the dinner that kicked off the APEX Gold meeting. 

The next morning, the ministers were taken though a series of questions: What do you do? Why? Who do you talk to? How do you communicate this? What capabilities could you bring to the situation? This resulted in a brisk shower of responses that were discussed during a half-day meeting.   

The discussion produced several takeaways. One was the importance of the prioritization of actions and decision making. Participants seemed to agree on the following formula: first you prevent, then you protect, and then you prosecute. A second lesson was that channels of cooperation between countries must be established and arranged in advance, not forged once a situation develops.

A third takeaway was that information in these types of situations will be in high demand, so technical nuclear information needs to be well-curated and clear—instead of rolled up in a dense 10-page technical report—to allow heads of state to use it to take action. Officials also need to think about how and when information will be presented to the public.  

Participants concluded that the exercise was valuable, so when various heads of state met in late March for the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., they too participated in a similar scenario-based exercise. 

At that summit, which was hosted by the Obama administration, leaders also discussed various nuclear terrorism threats, how to secure nuclear materials, and how to counter nuclear smuggling.  

In particular, President Barack Obama urged world leaders at the summit to do more to safeguard nuclear facilities to prevent “madmen” from militant groups, like the Islamic State (ISIS), from obtaining atomic weapons. Groups like al Qaeda have long sought such weapons, Obama said, and recent actions by ISIS have raised similar concerns. 

“There is no doubt that if these madmen ever got their hands on a nuclear bomb or nuclear material, they would certainly use it to kill as many innocent people as possible,” Obama said. “It would change our world.”

In addition to the international summits, the administration is also attempting to beef up national nuclear security with increased funding. Around the time of the March nuclear summit, the administration requested an increase of $357 million for DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) in its FY 2017 budget request, a 3 percent increase over the FY 2016 appropriation.

Because the United States hasn’t fielded a new nuclear weapon for a few decades, its deterrent arsenal is among the oldest in the world. NNSA is charged with refurbishing and updating the current stockpile, to ensure that it remains effective for another few decades. 

For example, NNSA says that the funding increase will allow the agency to complete production of the W76-1 thermonuclear warhead by 2019, deliver the B61-12 thermonuclear gravity bomb’s first production unit by 2020, and deliver the W88 Alt 370 nuclear warhead first production unit by 2019.

Established by Congress in 2000 as a semiautonomous agency, the NNSA is charged with maintaining the security and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, reducing the global danger from weapons of mass destruction, and responding to nuclear emergencies in the United States and abroad. The increased funding is needed for the agency to keep pace on all these tasks, according to Frank G. Klotz, the administrator of NNSA and under secretary for nuclear security.

“The continued strength of our nonproliferation, prevention, and response capabilities are critical to carrying out our missions,” Klotz said in a statement. 

In the long run, NNSA estimates that more than $290 billion will be needed over the next 25 years to support its nuclear modernization plans. Besides weapons updates, this effort includes projects such as replacing aging nuclear facilities. 

But the agency is running into difficulties in trying to do this, according to a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). 

More specifically, the agency is having problems managing both contracts and projects related to nuclear facility replacement, the GAO found. Roughly 90 percent of DOE’s budget is spent on contracts, but NNSA has not fully established policies for conducting effective oversight of management and operations contractors. “This remains a high risk area,” the report finds.

In the international sphere, Sherwood-Randall says that the consensus among world leaders and ministers who participated in the scenario exercises is that they are valuable enough that they should continue to be held in future forums, when a new administration takes over in 2017.  

“We would like to end the last year of this administration so that it leaves the global community in the strongest position possible,” Sherwood-Randall says. “But frankly, this is a project without end.”