Nuclear Nonproliferation:

U.S. Agencies Have Limited Ability to Account for, Monitor, and Evaluate the Security of U.S. Nuclear Material Overseas

GAO-11-920: Published: Sep 8, 2011. Publicly Released: Sep 8, 2011.

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The United States has exported special nuclear material, including enriched uranium, and source material such as natural uranium under nuclear cooperation agreements. The United States has 27 nuclear cooperation agreements for peaceful civilian cooperation. Under the U.S. Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (AEA), as amended, partners are required to guarantee the physical protection of U.S. nuclear material. GAO was asked to (1) assess U.S. agency efforts to account for U.S. nuclear material overseas, (2) assess the Department of Energy's (DOE) and U.S. agencies' efforts to evaluate the security of U.S. material overseas, and (3) describe DOE's activities to secure or remove potentially vulnerable U.S. nuclear material at partner facilities. GAO analyzed agency records and interviewed DOE, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Department of State (State), and partner country officials. This report summarizes GAO's classified report issued in June 2011.

DOE, NRC, and State are not able to fully account for U.S. nuclear material overseas that is subject to nuclear cooperation agreement terms because the agreements do not stipulate systematic reporting of such information, and there is no U.S. policy to pursue or obtain such information. U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements generally require that partners report inventory information upon request, however, DOE and NRC have not systematically sought such data. DOE and NRC do not have a comprehensive, detailed, current inventory of U.S. nuclear material--including weapon-usable material such as highly enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium--overseas that includes the country, facility, and quantity of material. In addition, NRC and DOE could not fully account for the current location and disposition of U.S. HEU overseas in response to a 1992 congressional mandate. U.S. agencies, in a 1993 report produced in response to the mandate, were able to verify the location of 1,160 kilograms out of 17,500 kilograms of U.S. HEU estimated to have been exported. DOE, NRC, and State have established annual inventory reconciliations with five U.S. partners, but not the others it has transferred material to or trades with. Nuclear cooperation agreements do not contain specific access rights that enable DOE, NRC, or State to monitor and evaluate the physical security of U.S. nuclear material overseas, and the United States relies on its partners to maintain adequate security. In the absence of access rights, DOE's Office of Nonproliferation and International Security, NRC, and State have conducted physical protection visits to monitor and evaluate the physical security of U.S. nuclear material at facilities overseas when permitted. However, the agencies have not systematically visited countries believed to be holding the highest proliferation risk quantities of U.S. nuclear material, or systematically revisited facilities not meeting international physical security guidelines in a timely manner. Of the 55 visits made from 1994 through 2010, U.S. teams found that countries met international security guidelines approximately 50 percent of the time. DOE has taken steps to improve security at a number of facilities overseas that hold U.S. nuclear material but faces constraints. DOE's Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) removes U.S. nuclear material from vulnerable facilities overseas but can only bring back materials that have an approved disposition pathway and meet the program's eligibility criteria. GTRI officials told GAO that, of the approximately 17,500 kilograms of HEU exported from the United States, 12,400 kilograms are currently not eligible for return to the United States. Specifically, GTRI reported that over 10,000 kilograms of U.S. HEU are believed to be in fuels from reactors in Germany, France, and Japan that have no disposition pathways in the United States and are adequately protected. In addition, according to GTRI, 2,000 kilograms of transferred U.S. HEU are located primarily in European Atomic Energy Community countries and are currently in use or adequately protected. GAO suggests, among other things, that Congress consider directing DOE and NRC to compile an inventory of U.S. nuclear material overseas. DOE, NRC, and State generally disagreed with GAO's recommendations, including that they conduct annual inventory reconciliations with all partners, stating they were unnecessary. GAO continues to believe that its recommendations could help improve the accountability of U.S. nuclear material in foreign countries.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider directing DOE and NRC to complete a full accounting of U.S. weapon-usable nuclear materials--in particular, HEU and separated plutonium--with its nuclear cooperation agreement partners and other countries that may possess such U.S. nuclear material.

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider amending the AEA if State, working with other U.S. agencies, does not include enhanced measures regarding physical protection access rights in future agreements and renewed agreements, so that U.S. interagency physical protection teams may obtain access when necessary to verify that U.S. nuclear materials have adequate physical protection. The amendment could provide that the U.S. government may not enter into nuclear cooperation agreements unless such agreements contain provisions allowing the United States to verify that adequate physical security is exercised over nuclear material subject to the terms of these agreements.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help federal agencies better understand where U.S. nuclear material is currently located overseas, and to strengthen controls over U.S. nuclear material subject to nuclear cooperation agreements, the Secretary of State, working with the Secretary of Energy and the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, should determine, for those partners with which the United States has transferred material but does not have annual inventory reconciliation, a baseline inventory of weapon-usable U.S. nuclear material, and establish a process for conducting annual reconciliations of inventories of nuclear material on a facility-by-facility basis.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help federal agencies better understand where U.S. nuclear material is currently located overseas, and to strengthen controls over U.S. nuclear material subject to nuclear cooperation agreements, the Secretary of State, working with the Secretary of Energy and the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, should establish for those partners with which the United States has an annual inventory reconciliation, reporting on a facility-by-facility basis for weapon-usable material where possible.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help federal agencies better understand where U.S. nuclear material is currently located overseas, and to strengthen controls over U.S. nuclear material subject to nuclear cooperation agreements, the Secretary of State, working with the Secretary of Energy and the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, should facilitate visits to sites that U.S. physical protection teams have not visited that are believed to be holding U.S. Category I nuclear material.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To help federal agencies better understand where U.S. nuclear material is currently located overseas, and to strengthen controls over U.S. nuclear material subject to nuclear cooperation agreements, the Secretary of State, working with the Secretary of Energy and the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, should seek to include measures that provide for physical protection access rights in new or renewed nuclear cooperation agreements so that U.S. interagency physical protection teams may in the future obtain access when necessary to verify that U.S. nuclear materials are adequately protected. Careful consideration should be given to the impact of any reciprocity clauses on U.S. national security when negotiating or reviewing these agreements.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy, working with the Secretary of State, and the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should develop an official central repository to maintain data regarding U.S. inventories of nuclear material overseas. This repository could be the Nuclear Materials Management and Safeguards System (NMMSS) database, or if the U.S. agencies so determine, some other official database.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy, working with the Secretary of State, and the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should develop formal goals for and a systematic process to determine which foreign facilities to visit for future interagency physical protection visits. The goals and process should be formalized and agreed to by all relevant agencies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy, working with the Secretary of State, and the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should periodically review performance in meeting key programmatic goals for the physical protection program, including determining which countries containing Category I U.S. nuclear material have been visited within the last 5 years, as well as determining whether partner facilities previously found to not meet International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) security guidelines were revisited in a timely manner.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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