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East: U.S. Says Securing Nuclear Material A Top Priority

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 20 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S. expert on securing nuclear materials says the possibility of thieves stealing unprotected matter in the former Soviet Union remains an issue of serious concern to the American government.

Kenneth Sheely, Deputy Director of the Russia and NIS (Newly Independent States) Nuclear Materials Security Task Force at the U.S. Department of Energy, told RFE/RL that America is doing all that it can to secure as much nuclear material in the former Soviet Union as possible.

Sheely works under a program at the Energy Department called Nuclear Material Protection, Control and Accounting (MPC&A) which focuses on protecting nuclear matter in the former USSR. He says the program came about when measures to improve nuclear security in the region were proposed in 1992, and funding made available by the U.S. Congress.

Says Sheely: "Our focused goal here is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, to prevent the use of nuclear materials in a terrorist attack by securing the material at its source. Once the material is stolen, it is a very difficult process to track it down and retrieve it."

Sheely said the program is involved with 53 facilities in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Uzbekistan, Georgia and Belarus.

Sheely explains: "During the Soviet period these facilities relied on more of a human-based security system and that system was very effective in controlling the material. But as the Soviet Union was breaking up in the early 90's, some of those infrastructural security activities started to break down because of political change and economic conditions."

He said that in the U.S. and other countries, "we rely more on a technology-based system than a human-based system. So ... it is important to actively work with the sites to help make this transition to a more technology-based security system."

According to Sheely, the program is designed to run from 1992 to 2002 and will cost the U.S. about $800 million. He says the program is designed to last 10 years because that is the time experts determined was needed to upgrade and secure all the identified facilities in the former USSR that use or store nuclear materials.

Explains Sheely: "I think we all believe and understand that nuclear security isn't a point in time -- it is a lifelong commitment. So, we don't want to give anyone the impression that nothing needs to be done after the year 2002, but [the program] focuses more on the rapid upgrades and getting quick-fixes in place as soon as possible."

Sheely says the program operates under a broad umbrella agreement between the U.S. and all the countries involved in the program. In addition to that, some of the countries have additional and more specific agreements, he adds.

Sheely says the umbrella agreement permits U.S. experts to go to the facilities and determine the quantity and quality of the nuclear material. Sheely says the program is most concerned about weapons-usable, fresh radiated plutonium and highly enriched uranium.

If this material is present, Sheely says the experts will conduct a security review to determine if the material is well-protected. If not, the experts began an analysis of what needs to be done to safely secure the material.

Explains Sheely: "The objective of this program is to work with these facilities to rapidly install MPC&A upgrades -- physical protection upgrades, material accounting upgrades, and material control upgrades, so that we can improve the security of the material where it is stored, where it is used, and prevent it from leaving. The terminology that has been used is that this is the first line of defense against nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism."

Sheely says the first major area of concern is physical protection -- meaning the actual physical barriers that prevent people who work outside the facility from taking the material. He explains that these measures include hardening the walls where the material is stored, bricking up windows, replacing wooden doors with reinforced metal doors, putting in special high-tech fencing, and adding security cameras and special lighting to the facility.

Sheely says that once an outsider is prevented from entering, the second area of concern is to protect the material from people who work at the facility.

He explains that this involves material control -- meaning that access to the nuclear matter is kept to only those people working at the facility who actually need to use the matter in their research or work.

To tighten security in this area, metal detectors, badge readers and nuclear materials portable monitors -- devices that can detect nuclear material -- are installed, Sheely says. He adds that a two person rule is often enacted -- ensuring that no one person is allowed to have access to the material alone.

Explains Sheely: "It takes a two person rule -- two people have to simultaneously enter in their information, and in some cases even the geometry of their hands have to be read, to verify they really are who they say before they can have access to the material."

According to Sheely, the last area of security is called material accounting. This involves measuring and weighing the material and determining its enrichment, he explains. All of the data is computerized in a digital inventory where the material can be carefully tracked and monitored.

Sheely says as much of the work as is possible is contracted to local companies in the countries where the program is operating. He adds this is an important part of the program since the objective is taking a joint approach to solving nuclear security issues, and is not about the U.S. imposing its will or ideas.

But Sheely says one of the most difficult parts of the job is gaining the trust of the people in the countries where the program operates.

Explains Sheely: "We have 40 years worth of Cold War, and many times it takes a lot of relationship building, discussions, training and exchange of visits before we can get a common understanding and a good relationship built so we can start signing contracts and get equipment installed."

Sheely says the program is also sometimes hampered by limited telecommunications abilities and other problems like a lack of electricity or power in some of the countries. But he says the people involved in the program have learned to be innovative.

For example, Sheely says his team was active in the recent removal of nuclear material from Georgia.

Says Sheely: "The work in Georgia was a specific case where there were some other factors, such as limited power to the facility to operate modern security systems, [which required] the team had to be very innovative in what they put in place to secure the material there."

Michael Haase, a manager for the MPC&A program in Russia, told RFE/RL that the U.S. confirmed as early as January 1996 that Georgia had a small amount of nuclear material in its possession which was virtually unprotected.

Haase says: "We were able to go in very quickly and install some interim security measures while the long-term solution -- which was....transporting the material out of Georgia to the United Kingdom -- was in a lengthy negotiation. So, one of the things this program did....was going in within a period of a few weeks and putting in some rapid upgrades and alarm systems, including a large brick barrier in front of the storage vault."

Haase, who spends about 20 weeks of the year traveling to the countries involved in the program, says that the program has been quite successful since its inception.

He says a measure of that success is due to the fact the program has operated essentially free of political interference and pressure.

For example, Haase says his team's work in Belarus was not affected by that country's changing political climate. He says that the security upgrade of the Sosny Institute of Nuclear Power Engineering in Minsk was successfully completed at the end of 1996, and additional staff training and procedural reviews continue unhampered.

Explains Haase: "We do come across a lot of hurdles as we proceed with our work, but we do work jointly to overcome those. And we are not coming in to try and impose our methods on these institutes, it is truly a cooperative effort."

Haase says the best part of the program is fostering friendships and relationships with the people involved in the program. He adds that it is also gratifying to see the work completed successfully and realize that perhaps the effort has made the world a bit safer.

Says Haase: "I'm glad we are seeing the fruition of our work and we are seeing some concrete results from the program."