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Energy > 10. Nuclear Nonproliferation

Comprehensive review needed to address strategic planning limitations and potential fragmentation and overlap concerns among programs combating nuclear smuggling overseas.

Why This Area Is Important


The proliferation of nuclear weapons represents one of the greatest threats to U.S. and international security. As little as 25 kilograms of weapon-grade highly enriched uranium or 8 kilograms of plutonium could be used to build a nuclear weapon. If terrorists or other nations were to acquire and use a nuclear weapon, the results could have far-reaching and long-lasting social, financial, and health impacts. The United States has pursued a range of nuclear nonproliferation programs to address this threat through the Department of Energy’s (Energy) National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). In addition to NNSA, other U.S. government agencies—including the Departments of Defense (DOD), State (State), and Homeland Security (DHS)—support programs and activities to reduce proliferation concerns around the world. National Security Council (NSC) staff have the principal role in coordinating the implementation of NNSA, DOD, State, and other agency nonproliferation programs.

What GAO Found


GAO reported in December 2011 on issues relating to the coordination of federal programs involved in preventing and detecting nuclear smuggling overseas. GAO identified and reviewed 21 U.S. government programs and offices under five federal agencies—NNSA, DOD, State, DHS, and the Department of Justice (Justice)—that play a role in preventing and detecting smuggling of nuclear materials and illicit trafficking of related technologies overseas. These include programs that (1) conduct research and development on radiation detection technologies; (2) deploy radiation detection equipment along foreign borders and points of transit; (3) train and equip foreign customs and border security officials to identify and interdict illicit nuclear materials or technology transfers; (4) assist foreign governments in the development of export control systems; (5) enhance and coordinate with foreign antismuggling law enforcement and prosecutorial capabilities; and (6) analyze potential foreign nuclear smuggling cases and incidents.

Among other things, GAO found that none of the existing strategies and plans for coordinating federal efforts to prevent and detect nuclear smuggling and illicit nuclear transfers overseas incorporates all of the desirable characteristics of national strategies. GAO also identified potential fragmentation and overlap among some programs working in this area, especially those providing equipment and training in foreign countries to counter nuclear smuggling. Furthermore, there is no single recognized agency responsible for leading and directing federal efforts to combat nuclear smuggling. However, State is taking steps to enhance one of the principal interagency coordinating mechanisms.

Regarding strategic planning to combat nuclear smuggling overseas, GAO found that existing interagency strategies to coordinate efforts governmentwide lacked some of the desirable characteristics of a national strategy, such as identifying financial resources needed and monitoring mechanisms to be used to determine progress and make improvements. For example, the 2010 Global Nuclear Detection Architecture Strategic Plan—developed jointly by DHS, DOD, Energy, State, Justice, the intelligence community, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—did not identify the financial resources needed to achieve the strategic plan’s objectives or the monitoring mechanisms that could be used to determine programmatic progress and needed improvements. Similarly, implementation guidelines for international nuclear and radiological border security efforts issued by NSC in 2005 did not establish priorities, identify measures to track progress, or define the resources needed to effectively implement the strategy.

GAO also identified potential fragmentation and overlapping functions among some of these programs implemented by these federal agencies. Specifically, GAO identified six programs providing training to improve the capabilities of foreign border security and customs officials to prevent smuggling and illicit nuclear shipments: (1) NNSA’s Second Line of Defense program, (2) International Nonproliferation Export Control Program, and (3) Cooperative Border Security Program;[1] (4) State’s Export Control and Related Border Security program; and (5) DOD’s Weapons of Mass Destruction-Proliferation Prevention Program and (6) International Counterproliferation Program. Similarly, GAO identified four programs that are involved in providing equipment to foreign governments to enhance the ability of their customs and border security organizations to detect nuclear smuggling: (1) NNSA’s Second Line of Defense program, (2) State’s Export Control and Related Border Security program, (3) DOD’s Weapons of Mass Destruction-Proliferation Prevention Program, and (4) DOD’s International Counterproliferation Program. In prior reports on nuclear nonproliferation programs, GAO has found that consolidating programs sharing common goals and implementing similar projects can maximize limited resources and may achieve potential cost savings or other programmatic and administrative efficiencies.

In raising the issue of potential fragmentation and overlap, agency officials representing these programs told GAO that not all of them have the same focus, that some concentrate on specialized niches, and that many are complementary. For instance, in the area of training, NNSA officials told GAO that the Second Line of Defense program is focused on training in the use and long-term sustainment of the radiation detection equipment provided by the program, whereas the International Nonproliferation Export Control Program concentrates on training foreign customs and border guard personnel at official points of entry to detect illicit weapons of mass destruction-related commodity transfers and assisting border security officials to detect illicit trafficking of weapons of mass destruction-related items in “green border” areas between official points of entry. Regarding the provision of equipment, NNSA, State, and DOD officials noted that the Second Line of Defense program tends to provide larger equipment, such as radiation portal monitors and cargo scanning equipment, while the Export Control and Related Border Security program and International Counterproliferation Program provide smaller-scale equipment, such as handheld radiation detection pagers, hazardous materials kits, and investigative suits to foreign customs and border security organizations. While the agencies noted that these programs are complementary to one another, in GAO’s view the fragmented and overlapping nature of the programs nevertheless raises questions as to whether greater efficiency could be obtained through possible consolidation of such efforts.

Furthermore, GAO found that no single federal agency has lead responsibility to direct federal efforts to prevent and detect nuclear smuggling overseas. In the past, GAO has reported that interagency undertakings can benefit from the leadership of a single entity with sufficient time, responsibility, authority, and resources needed to ensure that federal programs are based upon a coherent strategy, are well coordinated, and that gaps and duplication in capabilities are avoided. For efforts to detect nuclear material smuggling into or movement within the United States, a 2005 presidential directive gave DHS’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office responsibility for developing the Global Nuclear Detection Architecture and managing the domestic portion of the global architecture. However, this directive divided responsibility for the international portion of the global architecture among State, DOD, and Energy.

The 2010 Global Nuclear Detection Architecture Strategic Plan takes a step toward clarifying lead agencies responsible for different elements of the global architecture, including efforts overseas. Specifically, for the exterior layer of the global architecture—the portion focused on enhancing international capabilities for detecting nuclear and radiological materials abroad—the strategic plan identifies four performance goals, designating lead and supporting agency roles for each. However, it is unclear whether these more defined roles give authority to these lead agencies to provide direction and guidance across multiple agencies and programs. For instance, State and DOD officials told GAO that neither State nor any other federal agency has the authority to direct the activities or coordinate implementation of programs administered by other agencies involved in preventing or detecting nuclear smuggling overseas.

Regarding interagency coordinating mechanisms, the NSC has established mechanisms to coordinate efforts in this area, including a Countering Nuclear Threats Interagency Policy Committee (IPC) and a sub-IPC for international nuclear and radiological border security efforts. NSC officials declined GAO’s request to discuss various aspects of the IPC structure and how it coordinates U.S. efforts to combat nuclear smuggling overseas. However, some officials from other agencies expressed doubts about the value of the NSC’s coordinating role. Notably, DOD officials told GAO that they believed NSC has played a negligible role in coordination of programs to counter nuclear smuggling.

Coordinating groups have been established beneath the IPC structure to facilitate greater interagency cooperation at a working level to address the nuclear smuggling threat in foreign countries. One of the principal coordinating mechanisms for U.S. export control and related border security assistance activities overseas is an interagency working group (IWG). This IWG meets on a regular basis and officials at DOD, NNSA, and State told GAO the meetings are well attended and are useful for exchanging information—such as sharing calendars and information on planned program activities—and building relationships between program managers. However, agency officials GAO interviewed identified some limitations with this mechanism and its ability to facilitate a more cohesive national response to this threat. For example, NNSA and DOD officials told GAO that the coordination meetings are hampered by the participation of many individuals and are oriented toward high-level discussion, making in-depth discussion of specific issues affecting program implementation difficult in these settings. In addition, NNSA and DOD officials stated that while the IWG is useful for information exchange, it is not a mechanism designed or suitable for conducting more fundamental interagency strategic planning or for developing guidance and priorities for individual agency programs.

State officials told GAO that they have addressed the first limitation by chairing executive-level and regional sub-IWG meetings. For example, the quarterly executive-level meetings involving senior-level participation at the deputy assistant secretary level, allow for high-level discussion of agency programmatic goals and funding priorities, while regional sub-IWG meetings conducted at the action-officer level provide for more focused attention on nonproliferation capacity building in specific countries or regions. In addition, State officials told GAO that they have proposed addressing the second limitation by using the IWG as a means of developing common interagency strategies and approaches toward other countries and to encourage individual programs to engage or disengage in particular regions, countries, and functional areas.

GAO concluded that effective coordination of federal government efforts to prevent and detect nuclear smuggling overseas is limited by shortcomings in strategic plans, potential fragmentation and overlap among some programs, and divided responsibilities among several agencies. Furthermore, it is apparent that no single agency or program has the authority to undertake and implement a strategic re-evaluation and restructuring across the government to address these concerns.

[1]The Cooperative Border Security Program was an independent program at the time of GAO’s audit on the coordination of federal programs involved in combating nuclear smuggling overseas. However, the program is no longer an independent program, and its functions were merged into the International Nonproliferation Export Control Program in June 2010.

Actions Needed


To address these concerns, GAO recommended in December 2011 that the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (NSC) should

  • undertake—or direct and delegate an appropriate agency or agencies to undertake—a comprehensive review of the structure, scope, and composition of agencies and programs across the federal government involved in preventing and detecting smuggling of nuclear materials, equipment, and technologies overseas. Such a review should assess several issues, including: (1) the level of overlap and duplication among agencies and programs, especially in the provision of training and nuclear detection equipment; (2) potential for consolidation of these functions to fewer programs and agencies; (3) the feasibility, costs, and benefits of establishing a special coordinator to preside over the allocation of U.S. counter-nuclear-smuggling assistance to foreign nations and be responsible for directing the interagency process of development, funding, and implementation of all U.S. government programs related to combating nuclear smuggling overseas; and (4) any U.S. laws that would need to be amended by Congress in order to facilitate consolidation, elimination, or other changes to existing programs; and
  • issue new guidance that incorporates the elements of effective strategic plans, including clearly delineating the roles and missions of relevant programs, specific priorities and objectives, performance measures and targets, overall program cost estimates, and projected time frames for program completion.

How GAO Conducted Its Work


The information in this analysis is based on findings from the product listed in the related GAO products section. GAO reviewed uncosted NNSA nuclear nonproliferation program funding, but did not specifically discuss funding associated with the programs where GAO identified potential fragmentation and overlap, and GAO did not quantify the potential financial savings associated with those programs.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact


GAO provided a draft of its December 2011 report to NSC for report and comment. NSC did not comment on these recommendations.

GAO provided a draft of this report section to the Office of Management and Budget for review and comment. The Office of Management and Budget provided technical comments, which were considered and incorporated as appropriate. The Office of Management and Budget provided comments regarding the roles and responsibilities of other agencies, noting the administration has taken several steps to enhance and promote counter nuclear smuggling options within the national security agencies. These observations were addressed in conjunction with discussions GAO had with the other agencies during the course of its work. As part of GAO’s routine audit work, GAO will track actions to address these recommendations and report to Congress.


For additional information about this area, contact Gene Aloise at (202) 512-3841 or

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