Chile material being packed
A Chilean official loads the fresh highly enriched uranium into the special transport container. Photo and caption from National Nuclear Security Administration via Creative Commons license.

In a remarkable story in Sunday’s Washington Post, we learn that the US National Nuclear Security Administration had just packed up a bit less than 40 pounds of highly enriched uranium, which is enough to make a bomb, in Chile when the magnitude 8.8 earthquake struck that country on February 27. As expected, the shipping containers holding the material were not breached in the earthquake, and after a few minor adjustments to the shipping plan, the materials were safely shipped and arrived in the US in late March.

The Post article informs us that this action was taken under the Nunn-Lugar program, which was funded by Congress in 1991 to provide billions in funding to secure nuclear weapons and weapons-grade material from the former Soviet Union and other countries. The website for the Nunn-Lugar program informs us that it has been responsible for the deactivation of almost 6000 nuclear warheads. The Post article tells of the most recent successes:

In the early 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union gave rise to worries about hundreds of tons of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium left spread across 11 time zones, as well as questions about the security and storage of nuclear materials from weapons being withdrawn and disassembled.

Today, the focus is on smaller but still dangerous quantities of nuclear material, often nestled in research reactors well beyond the former Soviet Union. In the past year, the United States has cleaned out highly enriched uranium from Romania, Taiwan, Libya, Turkey and Chile. Bieniawski said 18 countries have been swept free of highly enriched uranium.

The upcoming summit in Washington is aimed at further progress:

At a summit in Washington on Monday and Tuesday, President Obama will press leaders or other representatives of 46 countries to accelerate such efforts and fulfill his pledge to lock up all the vulnerable material within four years.

It’s so refreshing to see actual progress in making the world a safer place. With the increased rhetoric aimed at sanctions on Iran, which is still far short of weapons-grade enrichment (they have boasted 20% enrichment, although it is likely more like 5-10%, and over 90% is required for weapons), this report of actual success in removing already existing weapons-grade material to safe storage is documentation of tangible progress.

When this information is coupled with the signing of the new strategic arms limitation treaty with Russia (pdf) and the nuclear posture review, we see that the Obama administration seems to be moving in the right direction on the issue of arms reduction.

Lest we get too happy about this situation, though, we should keep in mind that the general effort toward seeking out and removing weapons of mass destruction was dealt a huge blow when Vice President Cheney outed Valerie Plame’s CIA identity, since she led a covert group working in WMD anti-proliferation. Also, I note on the Nunn-Lugar website this discouraging bit:

For a private citizen, the best way to support NUNN-LUGAR is to make sure that the money, authorized by the United States Congress for such an important task, is being spent efficiently. Unfortunately, Defense Enterprise Fund ("DEF"), a Program funded with NUNN-LUGAR money, fell victim to gross mismanagement, and the US government’s investigation of DEF has been, at best, half-hearted.

The documents related to the continuing DEF investigation are found on this website. It is our belief that those who mismanage the funds that were supposed to be used to enhance the security of the world should be held accountable.

Blatantly stealing a tactic from Marcy Wheeler at Emptywheel, I’d like to invite readers to consider this to be a working thread in which we can read the posted documents together and work toward further exposure of the mismanagement. Sadly, even though there may well be documentation of "gross mismanagement", I don’t expect much cooperation from the Obama administration in looking back on these crimes, just as they won’t look back on torture or illegal wiretapping.