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North Korea's actions point to importance of tracking nuclear weapons worldwide

The threat of nuclear weapons is of big concern to the U.S. and other countries around the world, as evidenced by North Korea’s announcement that it will expand its arsenal. In “Focus on Technology,” Ann Thompson reports even before tension in the Korean peninsula, scientists were trying to identify and protect plutonium and uranium all over the globe.

In a variety of different ways, for the past twenty years, the U.S. has been trying to get a handle on:

  • Who has plutonium, and enriched uranium?
  •  Who’s trying to steal it?
  • Who’s buying it?
  • If it’s enough to make any weapons?

Harvard’s Matthew Bunn was involved in a study on what the U.S. should do with the material after nuclear weapons were dismantled and then how plutonium and enriched uranium should be managed overall.

“In the unclassified record there are about 20 well confirmed cases of seizure of stolen highly enriched uranium or plutonium over the years. The most recent case was in 2011, although most of them occurred in the mid to late 1990s.”

He says one of the most disturbing facts is that in all but one of the cases, when the material was seized by authorities, nobody noticed it had been missing. Bunn says there are a handful of places we should keep our eyes on.

  1. Pakistan-has a relatively small nuclear stockpile which is heavily guarded, but a target from Al Qaeda
  2. Russia-has the world's biggest stockpile and the largest number of bunkers housing it.
  3. Research Reactors-many on university campuses with little more than a security guard and chain link fence.

Catching nuclear thieves is not easy. To aid investigators, The U.S. Department of Energy has established the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  The Smithsonian Magazine reports it’s “the equivalent of a fingerprint database that will help scientists sleuth out the origins of nuclear materials on the black market.”

Mike Kristo, at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California, uses samples from the Y-12 to compare to ones he has. “The interdicted materials came to us through a variety of means, U.S. government agencies, State Department for example, law enforcement agencies. Typically these are arrangements made in concert with other countries.”

Matthew Bunn says the world has taken big steps to get the nuclear materials locked down. He says security is much better than it was 10-15 years ago. In fact, 23 countries have eliminated all nuclear material altogether.

Other positives….Bunn says he doesn’t know of any cases where sellers and buyers have actually managed to find each other, and that includes Al Qaeda.

Bunn thinks we need to secure every kilogram of plutonium and highly enriched uranium and do a better job of tracking smuggling rings. He says the key is having international cooperation.

Right now all eyes are on North Korea where a shuttered plutonium reactor is expected to restart in three months to a year.

Ann Thompson has decades of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting.