A few questions for NNSA’s Anne Harrington about dealing with nuclear threats


Anne Harrington, NNSA’s deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, speaks at a ribbon-cutting ceremony last week for a new counter-terrorism training facility at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge. (KNS photo/Adam Lau)

NNSA Deputy Administrator Anne Harrington was at Y-12 last Thursday, and before and after the staged events I had a couple of opportunities to talk with Harrington and ask her a few questions about non-proliferation and related issues.

Q: What’s the biggest threat out there today?

A: “Well, in the nuclear business, it’s all about the materials. . . . You can have all the additive manufacturing skills, or other things. You can make widgets, pieces and parts, but without the material you don’t have an improvised device. You don’t have a nuclear weapon or a nuclear stockpile. So any country that has significant amounts of highly enriched uranium or plutonium is always going to be a concern. It’s going to be high on our list.”

Q: Have there have been interdictions of nuclear smuggling that have never been made public?

A: “Not all of them are public.”

Q: How important is this capability?

A: “Oh, it’s hugely important . . . One the Sri Lankans here (at a Y-12 training class) is from their Megaports program, and he just came up to me and said, ‘Ms. Harrington, I just want to let you know we are so grateful for your help in setting up this program. We detect things coming in and out of our country all the time.’ A lot of the time it’s contaminated metal. Somebody’s processed a (radioactive) source in metal processing or something else. But they are exercising a capability that means if something more important does come through the level of confidence is much higher that they’ll not only identify it but treat it appropriately. And the procedures I’ve seen some of them go through . . at these ports are very impressive.”

Q: Is there a reason why interdiction of nuclear materials should not be made public?

A: ‘’Well, it’s always our concern that when there is an interdiction, we may not be finding all of the material that’s at risk. That’s where the collaboration with law-enforcement, the intelligence community, the whole package. It’s not just one piece. It’s all these pieces working together — the technology, the training, the law enforcement  . . . ”

Q: Is there a global hot spot of most concern?

A: “‘I would have to say probably the area in and around Russia continues to be a major concern for us, simply because Russia has such huge stockpiles of material.”

Q: Has the situation in the Ukraine ratcheted up things where people might try things now they wouldn’t have tried a year ago?

A: “No, but I think it’s safe to say that we are focusing along with other partners -– our European partners and others — on completing the ring of detection capabilities in that region.”

Q: How important is the Oak Ridge role in non-proliferation?

A: “It’s a huge role. You’ve seen a little bit of what Y-12 does here. There’s been a lot of publicity over the last four years about all the material returns, all the highly enriched uranium that we’ve brought back. This is where it gets managed, this is where the magic happens — when it turns from weapons material into non-weapons material. so the role of Y-12 is absolutely central. To say nothing of the sister lab (ORNL) over the ridge in Oak Ridge.”

Q: Such as the relatively new nuclear forensics lab at ORNL?

A: “The whole role of nuclear forensics in the future is going to do nothing but expand. We see all the way down to the uranium mining level the diversion of material.”

Q: Did the U.S. get caught with its pants down, to some extent, in not having the world’s best capability in nuclear forensics and having to play catch up?

A: No. Because we do have excellent forensics capability distributed across a number of laboratories. Livermore has excellent forensics capability, as does Los Alamos. But we need centers distributed around the country. If something like this (scenario in a counter-terrorism exercise) had really happened, then you would want to have a facility as nearby as possible in order to take that material and analyze it. The most important part is, OK, where did this come from and is there more out there?”

Q: The administration has been criticized for funding cutbacks in the non-proliferation program. Has that impacted the ability to get things done in the coming year?

A: ‘’Well, you have to look at things in perspective. I’ve managed programs in a lot of different places for a lot of years, and there are program cycles. There are peaks like we had in the four-year effort where we’re just pouring as many resources into accelerating something as possible. Then we do program reviews where every once in a while we step back and reevaluate the set of goals that we have. Circumstances may change, things may evolve that reset goals at a different level. We had a target initially of 100 Megaports (by 2015) . . . then after a review, we decided that if we did about 69 that really caught the majority of the cargo coming into the United States. And that, of course, has a bottom line budget implication, too. Not just for the current budget but into the out years. At the same point, at the same time, if we get a long-term deal, working with our international partners, with Iran, then that’s  going to be a long-term new commitment that will have to appear some place in the budget.”

Q: Talk about President Obama’s goals for recovery of vulnerable nuclear materials and how close you’re going to get before he leaves office.

A: Well, with the main goal of the four-year effort, we have met that . . . and surpassed it. We will continue between now and 2016, which is the next Nuclear Security Summit, to target a number of other supplies of materials. We will not get it all before he leaves office. But, on the other hand, new material continues to be produced. Our focus is to get as much as we can, especially the U.S.-origin material. We put it out there in the first place — we need to bring it back home. We’ll make sure it’s downblended, wherever it is. But then to work with countries on their own materials, on security, on transport, on insider threat, that whole range of issues that is at the core of our program.”

Q: Has it become increasingly difficult to work with Russia in securing Russian-origin materials because of the current state of tensions?

A: “There’s no way to avoid the impact of our geo-political relationship with Russia right now on some of our programs. But I think to the credit of both countries we have remained fully committed, especially to the third-country removal and bringing that material back to Russia. So that work is proceeding, I’m very happy to say.”

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.