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Challenges of Protecting U.S. Nuclear Weapon Materials

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The following are remarks delivered in Geneva, Switzerland on September 12, 2012 at a UNIDIR conference, "Securing Civilian and Military Nuclear Materials: Current Status and Possible Improvements."

For the past four years, many nations have focused their attention on securing nuclear material around the world. While this is an important goal, it draws attention away from the inherent security challenges associated with maintaining a large nuclear weapons infrastructure. Facilities within the United States’ nuclear weapons complex possess enough separated weapons grade plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) to build tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. Recent events in the United States have highlighted these challenges and demonstrated that, even in nuclear weapon states with high standards for physical security, seemingly insignificant failures can have potentially significant consequences.

The most recent such event occurred on Saturday, July 28, 2012 at approximately 4:15am, when an 82-year-old nun and two sixty-year-old peace activists infiltrated the Y-12 nuclear weapons production facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, eventually gaining access to the facility’s protected area. Equipped with no more than hammers and a pair of bolt cutters, they traversed a 600-meter semi-wooded area, cut through three eight-foot high fences equipped with alarms and sensors, and avoided detection by armed guards for thirty minutes. Their target was the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF), a 150,000 square foot rectangular fortress holding approximately 400 metric tons of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU), the majority of military HEU in the United States. Upon reaching the HEUMF, the activists hung banners and spray painted “Woe to the Empire of Blood” and “the fruit of justice is peace” on its wall.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, three scenarios related to weapons grade nuclear materials are considered when establishing security at sites with separated nuclear weapons grade material: the creation of improvised nuclear devices capable of producing a nuclear yield; theft for use in a nuclear weapon; and the potential for sabotage in the form of radioactive dispersal or a “dirty bomb.”  A 2006 report written by the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight identified serious security vulnerabilities in the construction of the HEUMF.  If the group that gained access to the facility in July had malicious intentions, it is easy to imagine a much worse outcome than graffiti art on the side of a building.

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