Reports shine light on nuclear weapons vigilance

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

While public attention is focused on a new arms-control treaty between Russia and the United States, the slow, dull work of keeping nuclear warheads and weapons-grade uranium and plutonium protected from terrorists goes on almost unnoticed.

But two new reports have shed light on the subject. A fascinating study on China's system of securing its nuclear weapons was published last week. Two days earlier, an update on the multiyear U.S. effort to secure Russian nuclear sites, and those of other countries, was presented to the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water, which has jurisdiction over funding for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

Mark A. Stokes's study of Beijing's nuclear weapons for the Project 2049 Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on Asia, describes where the Chinese are storing their warheads and how they are protecting them. Stokes, who served 20 years in the Air Force, also worked in the Defense Department's office of international security affairs, where he handled China, Taiwan and Mongolia.

Stokes writes that "under its declaratory no-first-use policy, the PRC's [People's Republic of China's] nuclear deterrent has relied upon quantitative and geographic ambiguity," while the Chinese Communist Party's Central Military Commission "maintains strict control over China's operational nuclear warheads." In peacetime its warheads stock is managed "through a system that is separate and distinct" from the People's Liberation Army's Second Artillery missile bases. This includes warheads for use by the air force and the navy but separate from China's civilian-controlled fissile materials.

Stokes identifies an independent organization called 22 Base as the prime group "responsible for storing and managing most of the Second Artillery's warhead stockpile." The storage complex is in central China near Taibai Mountain, one of the highest peaks in the country. Tunnels have been dug deep into the mountain, and rail lines enable constant movement of nuclear weapons in and out of the 22 Base complex. "China's warhead and handling system is designed to survive a first strike and retain sufficient operational capability for retaliation," Stokes writes.

Stokes concludes that "22 Base's physical protection system appears to be founded upon more than 'guns, gates, and guards,' " which often mark the U.S. system. While a dedicated security battalion and a cavalry company patrol the 400-square-kilometer security zone, a technical support battalion works on safekeeping warhead components. The report points out, however, that China's warheads are "most vulnerable" during their constant transport between storage and launch sites -- the movement that Beijing counts on to make itself less vulnerable to a first strike.

Securing other countries' nuclear warheads and materials is a focus of President Obama's fiscal 2011 budget, with a $2.7 billion request for nuclear nonproliferation efforts, up 26 percent from the current year's spending. Steven Black, who runs those programs for the National Nuclear Security Administration, defended the increase before the House committee last week as he laid out the variety of efforts to secure nuclear warheads and vulnerable fissile material.

The Global Threat Reduction Initiative program, Black told lawmakers, is working to remove 530 kilograms of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium from countries such as South Africa, Mexico, Serbia, Ukraine and Belarus. (It takes about 20 kilograms of HEU to make a bomb.) "We cannot parachute into a country in the middle of the night and send special ops teams to secure this material. It is all cooperative work," he said.

In addition, Black is working to convert 10 research reactors in foreign countries from using HEU to using low-enriched uranium, which cannot be used for weapons. Seven countries have signed cooperative agreements for the switchover, but South Africa and the Ukraine are two of the holdouts. "We're fairly confident the new president of Ukraine will be receptive to the work," Black said.

Another task carried out in Russia has been upgrading security at 210 of 229 facilities that contain nuclear materials. Upgrades also have been done at 73 warhead sites. Nineteen other buildings are being worked on, but, Black said, it is difficult to open discussions with the Russians about their deficiencies in facing the newer "insider threat," a subject he deferred to a closed congressional setting.

Black said the largest part of his budget, about $1 billion, is being spent on programs to dispose of surplus plutonium and highly enriched uranium. Beyond that, he said, "our priority is to create multiple layers of defense, such as deploying radiation-detection monitors at critical transit points so we can intercept this dangerous material as far from our shores as possible." He said Russia's Federal Customs Service has agreed to equip all of the country's approximately 350 border crossings by 2011 with radiation-detection devices and to split the cost with the United States. The United States will pay for 55 similar devices in 19 other countries and four foreign seaports.

One Russian agency that has been less cooperative, Black said, is the State Atomic Energy Corporation, called Rosatom. The civilian side is somewhat less open than the military side, he said, adding, "We will probably never get access to the most secret sites, the warhead production facilities."

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