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Report Examines Effort To Secure Loose Nukes


As Mike Shuster said a moment ago, the main subject of the summit in South Korea is the problem of potentially insecure nuclear materials around the world. For short, loose nukes. In April 2009, President Obama called for a global effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world in four years.

Well, on the eve of the Seoul Summit, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School has released a progress report on that four-year effort. And joining us is one of the authors, Matthew Bunn, a former White House staffer who's now at Harvard and is a specialist on this issue. Welcome to the program once again.

DR. MATTHEW BUNN: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And first, what's encouraging in your progress report is that you actually find there has been some progress. How do you measure that progress?

BUNN: Well, it's a hard thing to measure the progress. But we look at those stocks of nuclear material or nuclear weapons that seem to us to pose some of the highest risks. And we say, is something being done to reduce that risk and is it significant? And we find that for most of the highest risk stocks, the answer is yes.

For example, Ukraine just got rid of all of the weapons-usable nuclear material on its soil. The one area where we said, you know, there is progress on nuclear security but the things that threaten that nuclear security are growing even faster, and so the risk is getting worse and not better, was Pakistan.

SIEGEL: That's right. In assessing the three highest-risk nuclear stockpiles, you report significant progress and risks that are either stable or declining in Russia and in research reactors around the world. But when the subject is Pakistan, your report is a lot more disturbing.

BUNN: Well, Pakistan has a small and well-guarded nuclear stockpile. But that stockpile faces huge threats, both from insiders who might help steal nuclear weapons or materials, and from outsiders who might attack. There were well-armed, well-trained outsiders who attacked Pakistani military headquarters and a Pakistani military base, in both cases apparently with inside information. And you worry about that kind of attack taking place at a nuclear weapons storage site.

SIEGEL: Well, your report acknowledges a kind of a paradoxical irony here, which is you talk about that. And the Pakistanis come to regard a U.S. strike to secure their nuclear arsenal as one of their vulnerabilities. And they become even more opaque and less cooperative about their nuclear program.

BUNN: That's absolutely true. The Pakistanis won't let, for example, U.S. experts go to their nuclear sites because they're afraid if we knew where they were we'd be tempted to seize their nuclear stockpiles. I think Pakistan is an ongoing concern in part because their stockpile is also the fastest-growing in the world. They're making more and more as we try to lock this material down. So, there's a lot to be done to reduce the risks in Pakistan.

SIEGEL: Since, let's say, the breakup of the Soviet Union, how close have we come to somebody effectively - to the extent that we know it's happened - stealing materials with which one could make a nuclear weapon?

BUNN: We know that the theft of potential nuclear bomb material, that is highly enriched uranium or plutonium, is not a hypothetical worry, it's an ongoing reality. There are about 20 well-documented cases in the unclassified record, more in the classified record, of seizure of real highly enriched uranium or real plutonium that have been stolen.

And the most recent one of those was just last year in Moldova. And that case was particularly distressing because the Moldovan authorities say that they have information that smugglers, as yet uncaught, still have a substantial chunk of this highly enriched uranium.

So, this is something that's an ongoing problem, which is why it's worth focusing a global nuclear security summit on getting this material locked down, making sure that no more of it can be stolen, and then pulling together police and intelligence cooperation around the world to try to stop the smuggling of the stuff that's already been stolen.

SIEGEL: Well, Matt Bunn, thanks for talking with us once again.

BUNN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Matthew Bunn, associate professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.