In October, U.S. special operations forces launched the daring raid in Syria that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This operation brought justice to a brutal murderer and marked an important victory in the war against jihadist terrorist groups.
Yet, if the last two decades have taught us anything, it is that killing or capturing the leadership of groups such as ISIS seldom diminishes their desire to attack American civilians or those of our allies. Indeed, every time we pass through airport security, attend a large public event or watch the news, we are reminded that these organizations seek to inflict harm upon us. Since the end of the Cold War, the possibility that a terrorist group or other adversary could obtain radioactive or nuclear materials has been a major concern. The consequences of such material being weaponized in a radiological dispersal device or improvised nuclear device could be significant in terms of lives lost, property destroyed and fear created.
This is why when Congress established the National Nuclear Security Administration in 2000, one of its three primary missions was to reduce nuclear threats around the world. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry strongly reaffirmed this mission at the 2018 International Atomic Energy Agency’s General Conference, declaring that “we must deny nuclear weapons to nonstate actors … including terrorists. We must protect nuclear and radioactive material from theft or misuse.”
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Together, the Department of Energy and the NNSA have worked diligently over the past two decades to put these words into action by securing radioactive and nuclear materials. We have removed or confirmed the disposition of 7,166 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, or HEU, and plutonium downblended or eliminated from 48 countries and Taiwan — enough material for more than 300 nuclear weapons. Other recent successes:
- NNSA, in partnership with other countries, has converted or verified as shutdown over 100 research reactors and isotope production facilities from the use of HEU to low enriched uranium, or LEU, eliminating the need for HEU in civilian commerce and allowing for its removal.
- In fiscal 2019 alone, NNSA removed or confirmed the disposition of more than 440 kilograms of excess HEU, and downblended or shipped for downblending 2.8 metric tons of surplus HEU.
- By providing incentives for licensees to voluntarily convert cesium-137 irradiators to X-ray irradiators that do not use a radioactive source, the NNSA’s Cesium Irradiator Replacement Project, or CIRP, has successfully conducted the safe removal of 108 irradiators to date. CIRP is on pace to meet our goal of eliminating all cesium-based blood irradiators in the United States by the end of 2027, permanently reducing the risk of this material being stolen or weaponized.
- NNSA has recovered over 1.2 million curies of disused radioactive sources, both domestically and internationally, working to secure or permanently dispose of this material.
- In 2019, NNSA’s Material Management and Minimization program completed its largest-ever multiyear removal campaign by transporting almost 700 kilograms of excess HEU from the United Kingdom to the United States for downblending to LEU.
Simply put, DOE and NNSA are working every day to secure radioactive and nuclear materials and prevent potential adversaries — foreign and domestic — from being able to obtain and use them maliciously.
Despite this significant progress, these materials remain prevalent throughout the world. Over 30 countries possess HEU and separated plutonium stored at hundreds of sites, and over 100 countries possess radioactive materials stored at thousands of sites. Over the past five years, the IAEA’s Incident and Trafficking Database has recorded over 250 incidents involving the theft, unauthorized possession or other criminal activities related to nuclear and radioactive materials. In other words, an unknown — but potentially substantial — quantity of such material remains outside of regulatory control, and these materials continue to pose a grave threat to international security.
Because of the seriousness of this threat, in FY20, NNSA requested more than $2 billion in funding for our nuclear nonproliferation, counterproliferation and counterterrorism programs — the largest increase in five years. This critical funding will allow NNSA to leverage our unique technical expertise and unparalleled scientific capabilities to develop new solutions to improve nuclear and radiological security. The knowledge generated at NNSA’s national laboratories allows us to understand and characterize the range of nuclear and radiological devices that a nonstate actor or proliferant state might attempt to construct. This information in turn informs a wide range of technical and policy solutions to defeat nuclear threats before they reach fruition.
NNSA’s funding will enable us to recapitalize DOE’s Radiological Assistance Program equipment, as well as aircraft that conduct radiation measurements to protect public health and safety. It will allow us to strengthen our partnerships with more than 100 agencies in over 70 countries — providing detection equipment and training to prevent nuclear smuggling and illicit transfers of materials or the equipment and technology to produce these materials — and to continue our work with industry partners to improve the security of devices and facilities that use high-activity sources through physical security and training measures.
Improving nuclear and radiological security not only improves the safety and security of the American people but also creates an umbrella under which civilian nuclear research and the application of nuclear power and radiation technologies can thrive. Securing nuclear facilities helps ensure the long-term viability of the commercial nuclear sector, which will play a crucial role in providing affordable, clean energy around the world. It also facilitates the proven life-saving applications of various medical isotopes to fight cancer and heart disease.
In the end, regardless of ISIS’ fate, NNSA’s role in the effort to defeat transnational terrorism and enhance global nuclear security will continue. As long as there are unsecured radioactive and nuclear materials — and potential adversaries seeking to target or threaten Americans — our nuclear threat reduction mission remains critical to our national security. This vigilance has helped to keep Americans safe and will continue to protect the freedoms and prosperity we enjoy in perpetuity.
Lisa Gordon-Hagerty is the administrator of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration.