Nuclear Security: US Falls to 11th Place amid Charges of Drug Abuse, Misconduct, and Low Morale
January 10, 2014
William J. Broad / The New York Times & The Associated Press
A report on the security of nuclear materials finds steady improvement in seven countries over the last two years. Abandoning uranium and plutonium that could be turned into weapons has lowered the number of nations able to make atomic bombs to 25 from 32. However, while Canada, Belgium and Japan increased nuclear security, the US has fallen to 11th place, tied with Britain. Meanwhile, the US nuclear force has been tarnished by low morale, drug abuse and courts-martials.
Nuclear Materials Report Shows Better Safekeeping
William J. Broad / The New York Times
(January 8, 2014) -- A report issued Wednesday on the security of deadly nuclear materials found steady improvement, with seven countries in the last two years giving up most of their uranium and plutonium that could be readily turned into weapons. Their actions lowered the number of nations with appreciable fuel for atomic bombs to 25 from 32.
"World leaders can claim significant progress in addressing the threat," the report said. It cautioned, though, that "much work remains to be done."
The 148-page report card came from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a private advocacy group in Washington that promotes safekeeping of nuclear materials and urges governments to strengthen their defenses against atomic terrorism. The group worked with the Economist Intelligence Unit, a company in London that analyzes risks. [The full report is available online at http://ntiindex.org/. -- EAW.]
The report was released as world leaders prepared for their third nuclear security summit meeting, to be held in March in The Hague. President Obama began the summit meeting process as a way to pressure nations into improving their nuclear security, which has been one of his administration’s top foreign policy objectives. Previous meetings were held in Washington in 2010 and Seoul, South Korea, in 2012.
The first edition of the report, the Nuclear Materials Security Index, came out two years ago, just before the 2012 meeting. It surveyed the precautions each country had in place and ranked them based on their security practices, something that had never been done publicly.
The updated rankings, posted online on Wednesday, contained a number of surprises and potential embarrassments. Australia remained in first place and even raised its score two points on a scale of 100, to 92 from 90. It did so by reducing its quantity of nuclear materials and by ratifying a treaty that commits countries to criminalize acts of nuclear terrorism and to cooperate in bringing nuclear criminals to justice.
The nations that made the biggest gains were Belgium (up seven points), Canada (up six points) and Japan (up six points).
Belgium improved by passing new security legislation, joining a treaty and decreasing its quantity of materials. Canada ratified treaties and issued new regulations on the transport of atomic materials.
Japan made sweeping nuclear upgrades after the 2011 Fukushima reactor disaster, including the formation of a regulatory body to address nuclear safety and security. It rose from 23rd in the rankings (behind nations like Kazakhstan and South Africa) to 13th, where it is tied with Argentina.
The United States lost one point and is now tied with Britain for 11th place. It fell because it excluded from nuclear safeguards a facility that handles atomic materials.
Worse, according to the authors of the report, the United States has not ratified two nuclear accords despite making commitments to do so. This is particularly negative as other states block efforts to strengthen nuclear security, arguing that "they will consider new initiatives only after the United States becomes party to the agreements," the report said.
North Korea remained in last place, its score 30. The report found it seriously deficient on most issues of atomic security.
Pakistan, a nuclear outlaw in some respects, raised its score three points and its ranking from No. 31 (out of 32 countries) to No. 22 (out of 25), "through a series of steps to update nuclear security regulations."
The seven countries removed from the list of those with bomb-making fuel were Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Mexico, Sweden, Ukraine and Vietnam. According to the report, their new status means they possess one kilogram (2.2 pounds) or less of materials that can fuel nuclear arms.
Nuclear security is typically a euphemism for a closed world of barbed wire and armed guards that never admits publicly to any problems. Behind the scenes, however, atomic insiders have long told of risky practices and security flaws that could let crucial ingredients for nuclear arms fall into the wrong hands.
Two men were recently arrested in the nation of Georgia for trying to sell radium 226, a highly radioactive isotope seen as ideal for making dirty bombs that spread deadly material. The International Atomic Energy Agency says it receives more than 100 incident reports a year on unauthorized activities with nuclear and radioactive materials, including thefts and losses.
In June, Mr. Obama announced that the United States would host what is expected to be the final security summit meeting, in 2016.
According to Wednesday’s report, the 2014 and 2016 meetings will offer "moments of accountability for states to demonstrate progress on their own nuclear materials security" and their commitment to :working toward a robust global nuclear security system."
A version of this article appears in print on January 9, 2014, on page A9 of the New York edition with the headline: Progress Is Seen on Nuclear Safekeeping.
Drug Probe Undercuts Hagel Pep Talk to Nuke Force
F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. (January 10, 2014) -- Moments before he launched a carefully planned pep talk to members of the Air Force's nuclear missile force, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was undercut by yet another sign of trouble in their ranks: a drug probe of two missile officers.
Hagel flew here Thursday to deliver a message he felt needed to be heard by men and women who sometimes tire of toiling in a job that can seem like military oblivion. He wanted to buck them up, while also insisting they live up to their own standards, which he said should never be compromised in a business as potentially dangerous as the launching of the world's deadliest weapons.
"We depend on your professionalism," he declared to an assembly of members of the 90th Missile Wing, which operates 150 Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles, one third of the entire ICBM force.
What Hagel did not count on was the news -- disclosed just as he was preparing to deliver his words of praise and encouragement -- that two Minuteman 3 launch control officers at an ICBM base in Montana had been removed from duty because they were under investigation for illegal narcotics.
Details of the illegal narcotics case were not released, but the two officers were members of the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations was handling the probe.
Hagel did not mention the news, which he was told about by aides while he was visiting a missile launch control center in "Flight Echo" of the 319th Missile Squadron at a remote site just across the state line in his home state of Nebraska. The Pentagon's press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said Hagel was the first defense secretary to visit an ICBM launch control center since Caspar Weinberger in 1982. Since then, defense secretaries have visited ICBM bases but none has ventured to a launch center, a pill-shaped capsule buried at least 60 feet below ground.
In his speech later back at F.E. Warren, Hagel stepped lightly on the sensitive issues of misbehavior and occasional performance, training and leadership lapses in the ICBM force.
"You are doing something of great importance to the world," Hagel told the group. Lest they sometimes doubt that importance, he said, "You have chosen a profession where there is no room for error -- none."
Hagel made no direct reference to problems revealed in the past year by The Associated Press, including an unprecedented sidelining last spring of 17 launch control officers at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., after commanders deemed them unfit to fulfill their duties, which include the potential launching of nuclear war, and none in his audience asked his views on the state of their profession.
One asked Hagel what the future holds for ICBMs, and the Pentagon chief said the Obama administration was committed to preserving all three legs of the strategic nuclear triad: ballistic missile submarines, heavy bombers and ICBMs. He said the Pentagon was making progress on a study it began last year to determine what kind of missile should replace the Minuteman 3, which was first deployed in 1970 and is approaching obsolescence.
Some have questioned whether the U.S. can afford to further modernize its ICBM force at a time of shrinking defense budgets.
"You are doing something of great importance for the world," Hagel said. At the same time, he said he realizes that their jobs must be carried out in isolation, with little public recognition or acclaim.
"No fanfare, no TV cameras," Hagel said.
The unsung nature of their work, coupled with increasing talk about ICBMs being an expendable element of the U.S. nuclear force, has weighed on the morale of many in the missile force. The AP disclosed in November that a RAND Corp. study of the ICBM force had detected signs of "burnout" among a sample of missile launch officers and some missile security forces.
In an apparent allusion to breakdowns in discipline, Hagel said, "How you do the job really is as important as the job itself."
F.E. Warren Air Force Base, which is headquarters for the organization in charge of all 450 U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles, has more than 3,000 enlisted airmen and officers and saw 12 courts-martial in 2013, compared with nine the year before, 12 in 2011 and eight in 2010, according to Air Force statistics provided to the AP last week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
In each of the past four years, the courts-martial rate at F.E. Warren was higher than in the Air Force as a whole, the statistics show.
Drug offenses have been at or near the top of the list at F.E. Warren. Of the seven top offenses that led to courts-martial there last year, for example, the most common was "use of controlled substances," and also on the list was the distribution of controlled substances, according to statistics provided by the Air Force Legal Operations Agency. In 2012 the top offense in courts-martial was "wrongful use of marijuana."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.