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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

American Forces Press Service

Official: DOD Improves Posture on ‘Loose Nuke’ Threat

By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 15, 2012 – Though the Defense Department’s role in nuclear nonproliferation centers on dismantling weapons of mass destruction in former Soviet Union states, DOD also plans, equips and trains for scenarios in which terrorists get their hands on nuclear weapons, the principal deputy assistant defense secretary for global strategic affairs said yesterday.

Kenneth B. Handelman testified with colleagues from the State Department, the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration and the Government Accountability Office before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on oversight of government management.

The hearing focused on interagency nuclear nonproliferation efforts around the world.

For fiscal 2013, Handelman said, President Barack Obama’s budget request for the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, or CTR, is $519 million, roughly $130 million of which would be devoted to nuclear security-related activities, which he called “truly a governmentwide team effort.” CTR is an initiative created in 1991 to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction and associated infrastructure in former Soviet Union states.

DOD's contribution to the nuclear security effort “comes primarily through CTR,” Handelman said.

“However,” he added, “given DOD's overall mission to defend the nation, there's a whole world of separate nuclear-security activities for which my agency plans, equips and trains.”

Such activities, he said, “center on a scenario none of us want to confront; namely, what to do when we think the bad guys actually have gotten their hands on really bad things.”

Planning for this type of “loose-nukes” situation is evolving substantially, Handelman said, and the watchword for DOD’s new thinking focuses on integration across DOD components and across the government.

“For instance,” he said, “the instability or collapse of a nuclear-armed state could quickly lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons or materials well beyond the country of origin and involve multiple state and nonstate actors as it moves across the globe.”

Today, Handelman said, the services are working to improve DOD’s defensive posture against the threat by enhancing the homeland’s protective posture, working with the intelligence community to better analyze and track terrorist networks, identifying likely paths to proliferation, and improving the ability to characterize the source and nature of loose-nuke threats.

“Our work at DOD has focused on how U.S. military units would coordinate with other U.S. agencies and with allies and partners in the face of such a loose-nuke threat scenario,” Handelman said.

Handelman said the first line of defense in attaining global nuclear security is a group of activities in which agencies from across the U.S. government participate, including DOD.

Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, described for the panel a three-tiered U.S. strategy -- site level, country level and global level -- to lock down or remove vulnerable nuclear materials.

“At the site level,” he said, “we work with other countries to minimize the civilian use of highly enriched uranium, to eliminate unneeded weapons-usable material, and to improve security at specific sites.”

Where site-level assistance is inappropriate,” Countryman added, “we cooperate at the country level with foreign governments to exchange best practices and to demonstrate the safe use of equipment.”

At the global level, the assistant secretary said, the United States helps to develop global initiatives through the Nuclear Security Summit process, the United Nations and other means to improve nuclear security around the world.”

One example is U.S. engagement with the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, he added, a partnership of 83 nations that conduct activities to strengthen plans, policies and interoperability on the issue of nuclear terrorism.

The National Nuclear Security Administration also makes important contributions at the site and national levels, Anne Harrington said, including working with partner countries on their nuclear security centers of excellence.

“These centers form an important network that will allow countries and regions to strengthen capabilities to secure facilities and to deter, detect and interdict illicit trafficking of nuclear and radiological material,” she said.

The NNSA also holds quarterly coordination meetings with DOD colleagues at the assistant-secretary level, Harrington said, “to discuss areas of common interest, coordinate on program ideas and do forward planning.”

The United States is looking forward into a global nuclear economy, she added, one that, despite the incidents at the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, will continue to expand in terms of use of nuclear power and uranium commerce.

“As long as nuclear materials exist,” Countryman told the panel, “we will have the same need to set the best possible example in the United States of securing those materials and of sharing that capability for protection with other countries, motivating them to do the same.”

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