By Bryan Bender, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- A government audit requested by Representative John Tierney concludes that a US program to improve security at nuclear research reactors around the world has made significant progress but "critical security weaknesses remain" that make the sites vulnerable to theft by terrorists.
The National Nuclear Security Administration, an arm of the Department of Energy, has provided reinforced vaults, motion sensors, security cameras, and centralized alarm stations at 18 of 22 reactors that house highly enriched uranium under the $14 million project called the Global Research Reactor Security program. The remaining four reactors are scheduled to be upgraded by the end of 2010.
The Government Accountability Office said in the audit that while most upgraded facilities now meet security guidelines outlined by the International Atomic Energy Agency, some do not. (Click here to read the report.)
"Foreign research reactors that have received NNSA upgrades where GAO conducted site visits generally meet IAEA security guidelines; however, in some cases, critical security weaknesses remain," the report concluded. "At four of the five reactors visited, GAO identified security conditions that did not meet IAEA guidelines."
The program is part of a larger US effort to secure vulnerable nuclear material around the world, including a separate project to remove highly enriched uranium from some of the most vulnerable facilities and have it turned into a safer form of nuclear fuel. In one such operation earlier this year, the NNSA removed enough material from Romania to make two atomic bombs. (Click here to read the Globe story on the effort.)
Tierney, a Salem Democrat who is chairman of a House oversight panel on national security and foreign affairs, responded to the latest findings by saying that he is encouraged by the work so far, but "progress is not enough – we need results."
In a statement, Tierney said that "the NNSA needs to urgently address the remaining vulnerabilities identified by GAO. Highly enriched uranium is used in nuclear weapons. We have to make sure that nuclear material does not fall into the hands of those who would use it for harm. There is no higher priority to the security of the United States and the world."
NNSA spokesman Damien LaVera, responding to the release of the GAO report, agreed that "more work needs to be done with our foreign partners to ensure that these reactors fully meet IAEA guidelines."
But he also noted that the agency is working to convert some reactors that use highly enriched uranium to low enriched uranium, which is not suitable for making bombs.
"Together, these steps represent concrete steps forward in implementing the President's goal of securing vulnerable nuclear material within four years," LaVera said.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.