Nuclear mattersShortcomings in U.S. safeguards of weapon-grade nuclear materials

Published 15 April 2010

Reviews ordered by President Obama have found weaknesses in the U.S. government’s stewardship of its nuclear cache, from weapons to the ingredients and classified information that go into them; before opening the nuclear summit earlier this week, Obama said that “Unfortunately, we have a situation in which there is a lot of loose nuclear material around the world”; this is true for the United States as well

When it comes to safeguarding nuclear materials, the United States has its own shortcomings. These shortcomings have become more worrisome against the backdrop of two ominous developments:

  • The U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities have concluded that the risk of domestic terrorism has increased dramatically since the election of Barack Obama
  • U.S. extremist groups now show greater sophistication — and more interest in emulating terrorist methods insurgents and militants have used effectively in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Members of the Michigan Hutaree militia, for example, planned to use IEDs during a police funeral in a manner which is identical to the use of such IEDs by al Qaeda and the Taliban militants in Pakistan

The need to find solutions to problems with safeguarding U.S. nuclear weapons — and weapon-grade nuclear material — is thus even more pressing now.


AP’s Sharon Theimer writes that in one of the U.S. government’s most alarming and embarrassing incidents, nuclear cruise missiles were mistakenly loaded onto a B-52 bomber in 2007 and flown from North Dakota to a military base in Louisiana. That mishap occurred during President George W. Bush’s tenure.

Attracting less attention, several reviews since Obama became president have found weaknesses in the government’s stewardship of its nuclear cache, from weapons to the ingredients and classified information that go into them. Among the findings:

  • The Air Force in January removed an entire squadron overseeing a bunker of nuclear warheads at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, citing a failed inspection that it blamed on administrative problems.
  • In March, the congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO) detailed problems with a program under which at least thirty-four metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium is to be disposed of in fuel for nuclear power plants. Among other things, the Energy Department’s Office of Health, Safety and Security had not performed any oversight or taken part in project reviews of one of the facilities used for the project despite its rating as a “high-hazard nuclear facility.”
  • The Energy Department inspector general reported in January that the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico had not removed some highly enriched uranium while carrying out a department plan to consolidate nuclear materials into the most secure environments possible. The report said while the lab had removed material classified as Categories I and II — the most risky — and scaled back security accordingly, it had designated the enriched uranium in question as a lower Category III, using a method that wasn’t formally approved.
  • Last fall, the GAO reported that the Los Alamos National Laboratory, another nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico, had several security lapses in protecting classified information on its computers.
  • In September, the congressional investigators recommended that the Pentagon make several improvements in its process for assessing threats to installations where nuclear weapons are stored, maintained or transported.

Unfortunately, we have a situation in which there is a lot of loose nuclear material around the world,” Obama said Sunday, before opening the nuclear summit Monday in Washington. “And so the central focus for this summit is getting the international community on the path in which we are locking down that nuclear material in a very specific time frame with a specific work plan.”


The goal: securing all nuclear materials worldwide from theft or diversion, within four years. “The president may have his work cut out for him, starting at home,” Theimer writes.