U.S. Program Deterring Nuclear Smuggling Can’t Measure Progress

Watchdog cites shortcomings of program to stop proliferation of WMDs

An instrument for detecting radiation during a 2011 exercise to intercept radioactive "dirty bombs" in waterways near New York / AP
June 20, 2016

The federal program responsible for detecting and deterring the international smuggling of nuclear and radiological materials cannot measure its progress, a government watchdog says.

The Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence program, or NSDD, is a key prong of the federal government’s effort to ensure that terrorists do not get ahold of nuclear or radiological materials to create weapons of mass destruction. The program has spent $1 billion over five years to provide equipment and training to other countries to counter nuclear smuggling. It plans to spend $809 million over the next five years.

But the Government Accountability Office concluded in a report released Friday that the program "cannot measure its progress toward completing key activities" because its current goals are not measurable and do not address all tasks relevant to the program, in addition to other shortcomings.

"NSDD cannot measure its progress toward completing key activities and achieving these goals," the report explains.

"NSDD’s goals are not all measurable, some describe actions rather than outcomes, and they do not fully address all of the program’s key activities," the report continues. "In addition, its performance measures are not aligned with these goals, and its program plan does not detail how it will complete key program activities or achieve its goals."

Without being able to measure progress, the program’s officials may not be able to recognize when their mission is accomplished. They also risk "continuing to deploy equipment past the point of diminishing returns," the auditors said.

The counter-smuggling effort is housed within the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency operating within the Department of Energy that promotes national security through the military application of nuclear science. The administration, established nearly two decades ago, protects the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons and also works to prevent terrorists, rogue nations, and other adversaries from obtaining nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.

The NSDD partners with 59 countries to provide tools and training in order to detect and counter nuclear smuggling. Program officials install radiation detection systems at locations of interest worldwide, including airports, seaports, and border checkpoints.

Established as the Office of the Second Line of Defense in 1998, the NSDD at first only provided equipment and technical support to sites in Russia. The program’s work was expanded to nations formerly part of the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe following the domestic terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

While NSDD has selected four five-year goals to guide its efforts, the goals are not all easily measurable and do not cover all program tasks, the GAO report concludes.

For instance, the NSDD seeks to "prepare partner countries to take full responsibility" of the radiation detection equipment and other tools they receive. GAO auditors concluded this specified goal is not measurable because it describes an action, not an outcome. The NSDD’s program plan does not specify the number of countries expected to take over full operation of equipment and does not provide a deadline for when this should occur.

The program plan also does not address what goals need to be met after countries assume full operation of the equipment they are provided.

GAO auditors noted that NSDD faces "unusual" challenges carrying out its work because of fluctuating conditions in partner countries. For example, more than two-dozen detection systems installed by program contractors in Ukraine have been destroyed as a result of the ongoing conflict between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists, which began in 2014

"NSDD officials do not know whether the program will be able to fix or replace them and, if so, when," the report says. "To mitigate this challenge, NSDD plans to deploy additional radiation detection equipment at key locations outside the conflict area."

The status of equipment sites in Russia—representing roughly 45 percent of program sites—is also unknown given Russia’s decision in 2014 to stop cooperating with the U.S. government on most matters related to nuclear nonproliferation.

The international smuggling of nuclear and radiological materials poses a significant national security threat, with terror groups like ISIS pursuing weapons capabilities. The Wall Street Journal reported in April that ISIS had hijacked a university chemistry lab in Mosul, Iraq, to create new explosive devices, including chemical weapons. Experts worry that ISIS has sought nuclear material to make a dirty bomb.

An Associated Press investigation published last October revealed that arms smugglers with Russian ties attempted to sell radioactive material to ISIS and other extremist groups, though the attempts were thwarted by the FBI.

Small quantities of highly enriched uranium can be used to fashion an improvised nuclear device, and radiological materials can also be combined with conventional explosives to create a dirty bomb.

There have been roughly 2,900 confirmed cases of illicit trafficking of nuclear and radiological materials as of 2015, according to an International Atomic Energy Agency database. Those cases come only from countries that volunteer the information.

Despite NSDD’s shortcomings, the program has provided equipment to other countries that helped detect and deter illicit nuclear smuggling. Officials in one unnamed partner country told GAO auditors that NSDD equipment and training had helped detect and interdict radiological material 15 times since 2009. Tools provided by NSDD to another country were used to seize weapons-grade highly enriched uranium, according to officials.

Jack Caravelli, a former National Nuclear Security Administration senior official, told the Washington Free Beacon that the GAO report points to chronic problems with the NSDD that have been ignored by leaders in the Department of Energy.

"For nearly 20 years DOE’s program management problems have been routinely singled out as a major flaw in the department’s ability to implement critical national security programs. Moreover, the problems cited by the GAO go to the fundamental quality of the program and raise questions about its integrity," Caravelli said.

"Unfortunately, senior DOE management seems incapable of learning or addressing the lessons of the past that keep recurring—and continue to be pointed out. That these same issues surface repeatedly by an independent investigatory body and are routinely ignored attest to either the department’s willful refusal to fix chronic problems or inability to do so," Caravelli said.

"In either case, the program is important and deserves to be better managed, perhaps outside DOE control."