Nuclear Nonproliferation:

DOE Made Progress to Secure Vulnerable Nuclear Materials Worldwide, but Opportunities Exist to Improve Its Efforts

GAO-15-799: Published: Sep 23, 2015. Publicly Released: Sep 23, 2015.

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What GAO Found

The Department of Energy (DOE) achieved goals for two of its four key activities under the President's 2009 initiative to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials within 4 years. Specifically, from April 2009 through December 2013, GAO's analysis of DOE's records found that DOE exceeded its goal for removing or disposing of 1,201 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium by more than 400 kilograms, and it exceeded its goal of downblending (i.e., mixing HEU with either depleted or natural uranium, or low-enriched uranium (LEU), to produce a new product that has a lower concentration of uranium-235) 2,700 kilograms of HEU by an additional 2,200 kilograms. However, it missed its goal for providing physical protection upgrades at 43 buildings by 11 buildings and missed its goal of converting 34 foreign reactors to more proliferation-resistant LEU by 11 reactors. DOE officials said that political challenges, including access to key sites, and technical concerns such as delays in the development of LEU replacement fuels for certain high-performing nuclear reactors, complicated its efforts to achieve these goals.

DOE has developed new goals since the end of the 2009 initiative for efforts related to the initiative's four key activities. For example, DOE's goal is to remove or dispose of an additional 1,029 kilograms of fresh and spent HEU, as well as plutonium worldwide from 2014 to December 2019, and convert 27 foreign research reactors and medical isotope production facilities to LEU by the end of fiscal year 2019. However, GAO identified several challenges that may hamper future progress. For example, DOE and other U.S. agencies have not completed an inventory of U.S plutonium overseas as GAO previously recommended in September 2011. DOE and the other agencies did not agree with this recommendation, citing such an effort was impractical and unwarranted. Without such an inventory, the U.S. government is not able to identify where vulnerable weapons-usable materials such as plutonium reside. In addition, DOE has neither completed a prioritization of nuclear materials, including recently identified U.S.-origin HEU, at foreign locations for return or disposition to identify the most vulnerable material stocks to focus efforts on, nor established a time frame for doing so. Another challenge GAO identified is that DOE and other agencies have not visited key sites to determine whether U.S. nuclear material on-site is protected according to international physical security guidelines. Specifically, GAO identified 11 key sites that hold more than 3,500 kilograms of U.S.-origin HEU that DOE and other agencies have not visited in more than 20 years to determine whether they are protected according to international physical security guidelines. DOE has taken steps to develop a methodology for selecting and prioritizing physical protection visits but has not yet provided GAO with a time frame for prioritizing and conducting such visits. Without an assessment of the physical security conditions of U.S.-origin nuclear materials at sites containing key quantities of such material, it may be difficult to ensure that such materials are being adequately protected in accordance with international physical security guidelines, and that DOE and U.S. agencies are removing or disposing of the most vulnerable nuclear materials.

Why GAO Did This Study

In April 2009, President Obama announced an initiative to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials—such as those that could be stolen by terrorists and used to construct a nuclear device—within 4 years. DOE is primarily responsible for activities under this initiative, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Departments of Defense (DOD) and State, and the National Security Council (NSC) also have roles. GAO was asked to examine actions taken under this initiative.

This report (1) assesses the extent to which DOE achieved its goals for four key activities under the initiative and (2) examines DOE's goals going forward and assesses challenges that may limit its ability to secure additional vulnerable nuclear materials. GAO reviewed relevant documents and interviewed officials from DOE, NRC, DOD, and State, as well as discussed these issues with officials from NSC and selected foreign government agencies. This is a public version of a classified report GAO issued in August 2015.

What GAO Recommends

GAO continues to believe that DOE and other U.S. agencies should complete an inventory of U.S. plutonium at worldwide sites as GAO recommended in September 2011. In this report, GAO recommends that DOE complete its prioritization of nuclear materials at foreign locations. GAO also recommends that DOE and other agencies visit sites containing key quantities of U.S nuclear materials that have not been visited in at least 5 years. DOE agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact David C. Trimble, (202) 512-3841, trimbled@gao.gov

 

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: U.S. interagency physical protection teams visit partner country facilities to monitor and evaluate whether the physical protection provided to U.S. nuclear material meets International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) physical security guidelines. The U.S. teams visit certain facilities where U.S. nuclear material is used or stored to observe physical protection measures after discussing the relevant nuclear security regulatory framework with the partner government, and make recommendations for upgrading the physical protection of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium at vulnerable sites. Our September 2011 report (GAO-11-920) found that U.S. interagency physical protection teams had neither met a key programmatic goal for visiting countries containing Category I quantities of U.S. special nuclear material every 5 years, nor had they visited all partner facilities believed to be holding Category I quantities of U.S. nuclear material. Accordingly, we recommended that the Department of State work with the Department of Energy and other U.S. agencies to facilitate U.S. physical protection visits to Category I sites that U.S. teams have not previously visited that hold Category I quantities of U.S. nuclear material. Since that report, U.S. agency teams have worked to visit all countries containing Category I quantities of U.S. nuclear material within the last five years. In addition, other DOE records indicate that since that report U.S. teams visited all sites holding Category I quantities of U.S. nuclear material to the extent practicable given access concerns, and completed the corrective action to the extent possible in fiscal year 2014. In July 2015 DOE officials stated that these actions were partly in response to GAO's recommendation, and DOE reported to GAO that it had taken final corrective actions toward this recommendation and closed it in September 2014.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the global initiative to remove and secure vulnerable nuclear materials achieves its stated goals of securing the most vulnerable nuclear materials and ensure that U.S. agencies are able to secure as much vulnerable nuclear material as possible, and to ensure that the most vulnerable nuclear materials are given priority for removal or disposition, the Secretary of Energy should complete the prioritization for removal or disposition of inventories of identified nuclear materials at foreign locations, including recently identified stocks of U.S.-origin HEU at foreign locations, to determine priorities for efforts going forward.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: U.S. interagency physical protection teams visit partner country facilities to monitor and evaluate whether the physical protection provided to U.S. nuclear material meets International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) physical security guidelines. The U.S. teams visit certain facilities where U.S. nuclear material is used or stored to observe physical protection measures after discussing the relevant nuclear security regulatory framework with the partner government, and make recommendations for upgrading the physical protection of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium at vulnerable sites. Our September 2011 report (GAO-11-920) found that U.S. interagency physical protection teams had neither met a key programmatic goal for visiting countries containing Category I quantities of U.S. special nuclear material every 5 years, nor had they visited all partner facilities believed to be holding Category I quantities of U.S. nuclear material. Accordingly, we recommended that the Department of State work with the Department of Energy and other U.S. agencies to facilitate U.S. physical protection visits to Category I sites that U.S. teams have not previously visited that hold Category I quantities of U.S. nuclear material. Since that report, U.S. agency teams have worked to visit all countries containing Category I quantities of U.S. nuclear material within the last five years. In addition, other DOE records indicate that since that report U.S. teams visited all sites holding Category I quantities of U.S. nuclear material to the extent practicable given access concerns, and completed the corrective action to the extent possible in fiscal year 2014. In July 2015 DOE officials stated that these actions were partly in response to GAO's recommendation, and DOE reported to GAO that it had taken final corrective actions toward this recommendation and closed it in September 2014.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the global initiative to remove and secure vulnerable nuclear materials achieves its stated goals of securing the most vulnerable nuclear materials and ensure that U.S. agencies are able to secure as much vulnerable nuclear material as possible, and to ensure that Category I and Category II U.S.-origin nuclear material is protected in accordance with international physical security guidelines, the Secretary of Energy should work with U.S. agencies by requesting and, where feasible, undertaking physical protection visits at partner country sites that hold Category I and Category II quantities of U.S.-obligated nuclear material that have not been visited in more than 5 years--particularly those that have not been visited in 20 or more years.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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