What is most disturbing about this fact is that this amount of fissile material is enough to manufacture several hundred nuclear bombs. Fortunately, an increasing amount of missing nuclear material is less likely, but not entirely impossible. In a book released by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, Dr. Charles Ferguson (FAS President) takes a hard look at the current nuclear accounting system and points out some pretty serious flaws.
In his chapter of the book, “Nuclear Weapons Materials Gone Missing: What Does History Teach?”, Ferguson contends that even though six metric tons sounds like a lot of nuclear material to lose that there is no reason for alarm. He contends that there is a fair degree of certainty that the missing material was never diverted elsewhere. According to US Government officials, the missing weapons grade nuclear material can be chalked up to inaccurate measurements, clerical errors, and just the cost of doing business.
Ferguson states that the government considers this amount of missing fissile material “normal operating losses”. Therefore, the worry should not be if this six metric tons of weapons grade nuclear material landed in the wrong hands because it is highly unlikely. However, the cause for concern should come from the fact that the US government takes such a sloppy approach when it comes to inventorying nuclear material. Is it possible that some clandestine group could exploit these accounting weaknesses to obtain this nuclear material for their own ends?
The answer, unfortunately, is a resounding yes. A 2011 report issued by the Government Accountability Office, found that when it came to U.S. nuclear materials overseas, “Of the 55 visits made from 1994 through 2010, U.S. teams found that countries met international security guidelines approximately 50 percent of the time.”
Furthermore, the U.S. has a long history of not being able to account for various amounts of fissile material domestically, as well. Ferguson points to documents dating back to the 1940s and spanning to current years discussing the shear number of Materials Unaccounted For (MUF).
Though many documents, and government proponents, will point out that a trend emerges that shows the amount of missing nuclear materials is dwindling, what they do not point out is the fact that better accounting practices are not the main cause. The main reason that the amount of missing fissile is seemingly on the decline is due to the fact that since the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United States significantly decreased the amount of nuclear material being produced. This lessened production and naturally lessened the amount missing nuclear materials.
Even to this day accounting measures for nuclear materials appears to be sub-par. Though breaking into a nuclear facility is quite difficult, Ferguson contends that the sloppy accounting procedures leaves them wide open to an inside job. The National Nuclear Security Administration supports Ferguson’s theory. They both contend that nuclear facility employees have both means and opportunity, which means that the only thing that would be required is a motivator, usually money.
Who Has the Nuclear Material?
However, what is the scariest thing about the idea of the “inside job” in a nuclear facility is that the perpetrators do not even have to be exceptionally smart or skilled! Ferguson points to a RAND report that states, “The authors find that the success of most of the incidents examined depended less on detailed planning or expert execution than on the exploitation of existing security flaws.”
Not only has six metric tons of fissile material gone missing and is unaccounted for, but because of poor accounting procedures even more could be siphoned off without notice and diverted to dangerous fringe groups.
Even worse, the groups do not even have to be overly cunning to steal it.
With the current procedures in place, they only need means, opportunity, and a little motivation.