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Managing the Soviet legacy

A US laboratory that helped win the Cold War today works to secure aging Russian nuclear facilities



Russian weaponry on display.

An intact nuclear weapon is stolen and detonated. A terrorist group somehow steals, purchases, or produces fissile material and fabricates a crude bomb, called an improvised nuclear device, which the group threatens to detonate if its demands are not met. Medical radioisotopes are stolen from a cancer treatment center and combined with conventional explosives to build a radiological dispersal device, or "dirty bomb," which may be used to contaminate and render uninhabitable a large urban area. A disgruntled employee sabotages a nuclear power plant's safety system.

These four different nuclear terrorism threats are realistic scenarios that keep government officials awake at night. The threat of nuclear terrorism to American and global security and stability looms larger today than ever before. Terrorists have demonstrated their resolve to escalate the destructiveness of their attacks, while control over nuclear and radioactive materials becomes a growing challenge in a world increasingly shaped by nationalism, religious zeal, and the disintegration of historic boundaries and alliances.

Nuclear nonproliferation has been historically defined as "relating to, or calling for, an end to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by additional nations." More recent events have required that the definition be broadened to include non-state entities, such as terrorists, and other radiological weapons, such as dirty bombs. U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy seeks to protect America's national security interests through a variety of programs that provide technical, regulatory, and infrastructure improvements. These programs are implemented through a number of U.S. government agencies around the world.

The U.S. Department of Energy, which houses the National Nuclear Security Administration, directly supports a range of nuclear nonproliferation activities in foreign countries. ORNL plays a large role in supporting DOE and NNSA in the task of reducing both internal and external threats to the United States from weapons of mass destruction. ORNL's Nuclear Nonproliferation Program (NNP) office provides extensive technical support to help the U.S. government address a range of critical nonproliferation issues and counter the threat of nuclear terrorism.

ORNL's suite of nonproliferation capabilities includes enhancing physical protection of nuclear material storage sites, developing new measurement techniques, improving personnel reliability for insider threat protection, and physically removing nuclear materials from regions of risk around the world. Although some of the work is conducted in research laboratories at ORNL, dedicated staff members carry out most of NNP's activities on foreign soil under occasionally difficult conditions. Because ORNL activities span the globe, many NNP staff members spend weeks at a time traveling and working in Russia and other former Soviet Union countries, where many of the nuclear weapons and related materials are located. The primary goal of the NNP office, which is managed by Larry Satkowiak, is to use ORNL experience and technical capabilities in a variety of ways to reduce the likelihood that nuclear materials will end up in the hands of America's adversaries.

Deterring Nuclear Terrorism

The most straightforward way to deter nuclear terrorism is to deny terrorists access to nuclear materials. More than 80 Russian facilities possess nuclear materials that U.S. officials fear could "leak" to rogue nations and terrorist groups. To lessen the likelihood of such an occurrence, the U.S. and Russian governments work together on ways to secure these facilities' weapons-usable nuclear material, help upgrade their safeguards and security systems, and improve their nuclear material accounting systems. The U.S. effort is coordinated by NNSA's Material Protection, Control & Accounting (MPC&A) program, a large multidisciplinary effort managed jointly at ORNL by Satkowiak, David Lambert, and Teressa McKinney.

Security measures intended to deter theft of nuclear weapons and materials in Russia and other countries have been enhanced using ORNL expertise in physical protection, material control, and accounting. The Laboratory manages a cadre of experts with more than 500 years of combined nuclear safeguards and security experience in DOE, the Department of Defense, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the private sector.



Former Soviet storage facility for highly enriched uranium.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

In this role, ORNL experts have the lead in several multimillion- dollar Russian projects that involve the design and installation of technical protection systems, as well as major construction. ORNL project management, physical protection, and engineering expertise have benefited the design and construction of consolidated nuclear material storage buildings for both civilian and military components in the Russian weapons complex. Over time, several ORNL engineers have become almost as familiar with Russian construction regulations as with those in the United States.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union provided research reactors, and the highly enriched uranium (HEU) to fuel them, to most of the Central and Eastern European satellite countries in the Soviet Bloc, including Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, stockpiles of weapons-usable nuclear material, mainly HEU, remained in former Soviet republics with varying degrees of safeguards and security. ORNL has assisted NNSA's Office of Global Threat Reduction in recovering these materials and transporting them to more secure locations for disposition. Since 2002, ORNL personnel have been actively involved in the repatriation of HEU fuel of Russian origin from seven of these research reactors. The most recent return of fuel—from the Czech Republic to Russia—occurred in September 2005.

Repatriated HEU fuel is transported to special Russian facilities after safeguards have been upgraded under the MPC&A program. At these facilities the weapons-grade uranium is diluted, or blended down, into low-enriched uranium (LEU), which cannot be used as a nuclear weapon. NSTD's Bill Hopwood leads a team of inspectors that monitors the blend-down process, thus transforming the material from a potential threat to a valuable fuel for nuclear power plants.

In 2005 the United States and Russia reached a notable milestone in the plan to reduce the availability of HEU to hostile weapon makers, and ORNL helped another major DOE-NNSA program achieve this goal. On September 30, 2005, the United States and Russia issued a Joint Statement to mark the completion of the conversion of the equivalent of 10,000 Russian nuclear warheads into fuel for nuclear reactors that provide 10% of America's electricity. In 1993, the United States and Russia signed an agreement to down-blend 500 metric tons of HEU from Russian nuclear weapons (enough for 20,000 weapons) to LEU. This uranium is then supplied to manufacturers that prepare nuclear fuel for use in commercial nuclear power plants in the United States. About half of the nuclear fuel that the United States Enrichment Corporation (USEC) sells to American nuclear utilities comes from down-blended Russian HEU.

NSTD's Danny Powell leads a team of more than 20 Oak Ridge personnel who assist in nearly continuous "on-the-ground" monitoring of the blend-down operation in Russia. In addition, Powell led a technology integration team, including José March-Leuba, Tanner Uckan, and Ray Brittain, that developed and installed blend-down monitoring systems, based on time-varying neutron activation of uranium hexafluoride, that continually monitor the down-blending of HEU to LEU. ORNL Corporate Fellow John Mihalczo, March-Leuba, and James Mullens developed the heart of this blend-down monitoring system, which provides assurances to the world that the Russians are, indeed, moving away from five decades of Cold War nuclear policies.

For many people living in the former Soviet Union, the face of the U.S. government is a friendly group of Oak Ridge safeguards specialists. ORNL's nonproliferation programs have been successful primarily because dedicated Laboratory staff have provided a critical service under difficult conditions. Much of the work has been accomplished on a technical level through collaborations with foreign government agencies, laboratories, and scientists. Equally important, however, is the positive impact exerted by ORNL personnel on a more personal level. While the value of these personal interactions between technical experts from Russia and Tennessee cannot be measured in the laboratory, it is hoped that the residual goodwill will outlast the weapons of destruction that brought them together.

Whom Can We Trust?

Nonproliferation officials are placing increasing emphasis on assessing the threat from insiders—personnel with authorized access to a facility and/or its systems—as part of the broader effort to stem the flow of nuclear materials. Thefts of nuclear and radiological material are accomplished most frequently by insiders or by persons receiving assistance from insiders.

ORNL has undertaken the task of developing stronger human reliability programs at Russian civilian and military facilities to supplement their conventional physical security measures. As a result of ORNL's strong partnership with the Department of Defense and U.S. industry, the Laboratory has formed a team of physiological, psychological, and technical specialists with expertise in human reliability. ORNL's approach is to help develop effective insider protection programs through drug and alcohol testing, aberrant behavior recognition, and stringent procedural requirements.

From Johannesburg to Beijing

When a nation decides to terminate its nuclear weapons program, chances are high that Oak Ridge expertise will be involved in the program's dismantlement. In 1991 the Republic of South Africa shocked the world with an announcement that six nuclear weapons devices had been secretly produced and dismantled. South Africa had agreed to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and provide the IAEA with a complete inventory of nuclear materials, including residual uranium powders contained in thousands of multi-sized drums. When the IAEA sought U.S. help in 2001 to assist South Africa in measuring and declaring the amount of fissionable uranium present in the drums, Oak Ridge offered a solution. An unused drum scanner and a South African national trained to operate the device were sent from Oak Ridge to South Africa.

With a growing peaceful nuclear energy program, China is becoming increasingly concerned about the threat from insiders working with terrorists. China has adopted new regulations on protecting and accounting for nuclear materials and has been eager to learn about U.S. methodologies. In October 2005 Michael Whitaker and several ORNL colleagues participated in a Joint U.S.-China Integrated Nuclear Materials Management Technology Demonstration conducted in Beijing. The Department of Energy called the event "a model for successful cooperative projects" that "marks an important step in continued collaboration between the United States and China in the area of nonproliferation, nuclear security, and safeguards."

Russia, Kazakhstan, Serbia, Iraq, Czech Republic, South Africa, and China are among the countries where ORNL staff have been involved in nuclear nonproliferation work. In each instance, they represent locations where only a decade ago few would have imagined scientists from East Tennessee would have a presence. As the world's political stage evolves, so, too, does the Laboratory's mission.

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