WASHINGTON — Lax security standards surrounding the transfer of American nuclear material to foreign countries could be an invitation to would-be nuclear terrorists, Rep. Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.) warned Monday.
"The federal government is playing hide-and-seek with disaster" by failing to ensure the safety of plutonium and highly enriched uranium once they are sold to other nations, Wolpe said.
Shipments of nuclear material within the United States are escorted by armed guards and governed by other security strictures. But, according to reports submitted to Congress by four government agencies, U.S. allies that purchase the radioactive material--mainly for use in commercial nuclear reactors and government research programs--are not required to follow the same strictures.
Security measures at home thus are "all but nullified" by the absence of strict standards abroad, according to Wolpe, who was the author of measures to fight nuclear terrorism in the 1986 Anti-Terrorism Act.
The strongest of the agencies' assessments, submitted by the Defense Department, conceded that current international guidelines "do not in themselves permit a confident conclusion in all cases that physical protection provided is adequate."
The Pentagon report added that the risk of nuclear theft could rise over the next decade as the number of weapons-grade plutonium shipments increases.
The United States has shipped about 100 tons of plutonium to major non-nuclear weapons states worldwide, according to Gary Milhollin of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. As of 1984, this nation had sold roughly 310 tons of enriched uranium to West Germany, Italy, Japan and Argentina alone.
None of these shipments have been protected by security measures equal to those followed in the United States, which include a minimum of seven armed escorts for shipments and of five armed guards for storage sites.
"We know that it takes as little as 20 pounds of nuclear explosive material to construct a nuclear bomb," Wolpe said. "The Administration should be making it a high priority to make sure that no plutonium or enriched uranium that we ship abroad gets in the wrong hands."
Wolpe's charges come on the heels of a Nov. 4 agreement between the United States and Japan that would loosen current restrictions on U.S. sales of nuclear material to Japan. Under the accord, now submitted to Congress for scrutiny, Japan no longer would need American approval to extract weapons-grade plutonium from spent reactor fuel.
Wolpe was critical of the agreement, noting that Japan has given no assurances that it will adhere to U.S. standards for the security of sensitive nuclear materials. The House Foreign Affairs Committee, of which Wolpe is a member, plans hearings on the accord later this month, he added.
In the Senate, Ohio Democrat John Glenn will join Wolpe to press for stiffer standards abroad as a condition of future nuclear trade agreements.