Nuclear Nonproliferation:

U.S. Efforts to Help Other Countries Combat Nuclear Smuggling Need Strengthened Coordination and Planning

GAO-02-426: Published: May 16, 2002. Publicly Released: Jun 26, 2002.

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The worldwide trafficking and smuggling of nuclear material has reportedly increased in recent years. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports 181 confirmed cases of illicit trafficking of nuclear material since 1993. Many of the cases reported by IAEA involved material that could be used to produce a "dirty bomb" that could spread radioactive contamination over a wide area. Nuclear material can be smuggled across a country's border through various means. Many nuclear smuggling cases have been traced to nuclear material that originated in the former Soviet Union. The United States, through the Department of Energy's Material Protection, Control, and Accounting program, has helped them secure nuclear material at civilian and defense facilities--the first line of defense against potential theft and diversion of nuclear materials. To address the threat posed by nuclear smuggling, the United States is helping these countries improve their border security--a second line of defense--but these assistance efforts face daunting challenges. U.S. efforts to combat nuclear smuggling are divided among six federal agencies--the Departments of Energy, State, and Defense; the U.S. Customs Service; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and the U.S. Coast Guard. From fiscal year 1992 through fiscal year 2001, the six agencies spent $86 million to help 30 countries, mostly in the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe, combat the threat of smuggling of nuclear materials. GAO found that U.S. assistance is not effectively coordinated and lacks an overall governmentwide plan to guide it. Although an interagency group, chaired by the State Department, exists to coordinate U.S. assistance efforts, the six agencies that are providing assistance do not always coordinate their efforts through this group. The Departments of Energy, State, and Defense have pursued separate approaches to installing radiation detection equipment at other countries' border crossings; consequently, some countries' border crossings are more vulnerable to nuclear smuggling than others. U.S. assistance is generally helping countries combat the smuggling of nuclear and other radioactive materials, but serious problems with installing, using, and maintaining radiation detection equipment have undermined U.S. efforts. These and other problems have largely resulted from a lack of agency oversight and follow-up.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy, in consultation with the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the Secretaries of State and Defense should ensure that equipment is installed in a timely fashion and is adequately maintained.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In an August 2002 letter the Department of State noted that it had taken steps to improve equipment delivery and maintenance. Specifically, State noted that DOE's Second Line of Defense program had agreed to undertake, on a global basis, the maintenance, repair and replacement of radiation detection equipment provided to other countries by the U.S. government for nonproliferation purposes.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy, in consultation with the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the Secretaries of State and Defense should strengthen efforts to obtain a full accounting of the equipment that is in each country, including the handheld radiation detection equipment.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Acting Administrator, NNSA, informed us by letter dated September 24, 2002, that NNSA's Second Line of Defense Program was working with the Department of State to develop agreements or other legal vehicles to ensure that information about nuclear material detections and interdictions is shared with the United States in a timely manner. In June 2003, DOE's Director of the Second Line of Defense program told us that all agreements with foreign countries receiving U.S. assistance now include a provision requiring that data on interdictions and detections should be provided directly to DOE.

    Recommendation: In concert with the the development of the plan, there are other steps that could be taken immediately to improve U.S. efforts. This is an opportune time for agencies with duplicative or overlapping responsibilities to consolidate their efforts under a single agency program office. To that end, the Secretary of State should consolidate all border security and nuclear smuggling efforts under one program office.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: agency implmented recommendation

    Recommendation: In concert with the the development of the plan, there are other steps that could be taken immediately to improve U.S. efforts. This is an opportune time for agencies with duplicative or overlapping responsibilities to consolidate their efforts under a single agency program office. To that end, the Secretary of Energy, in consultation with the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, should consolidate radiation detection equipment activities in one Department of Energy office, preferably within the Second Line of Defense program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Based upon our recommendation, DOE consolidated its radiation detection functions within the SLD office.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should take the lead in facilitating the development of a governmentwide plan to help other countries develop an integrated approach to combat nuclear smuggling. The plan should be developed in conjunction with the Secretaries of Defense and Energy (working with the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration), and the Commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service, as well as the heads of other federal agencies participating in this effort. The plan should, at a minimum, identify, (1) a unified set of program goals and priorities, including defining participating agencies' roles and responsibilities; (2) overall program cost estimates; (3) time frames for effectively spending program funds; (4) performance measures; (5) strategies to maintain and sustain the operation of the equipment, including cost estimates; and (6) an exit strategy for each country receiving assistance, including a plan for transferring responsibility for equipment maintenance to the host country.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We noted in the above cited September 2002 accomplishment report, that efforts were underway to develop an integrated plan to combat nuclear smuggling. We recommended that the Secretary of State take the lead in facilitating the development of a governmentwide plan to help other countries develop an integrated approach regarding this matter.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy, in consultation with the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, and the Secretaries of State and Defense should seek recipient country assurances that information about nuclear materials detected by U.S.-supplied equipment is shared with U.S. agencies on a timely basis.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2003, DOE's Director of the Second Line of Defense Program told us that all agreements with foreign governments receiving U.S. assistance now include a provision requiring that data on interdictions and detections should be provided directly to DOE.

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