Video: 'Two bombs worth' of nuclear material secured

  1. Transcript of: 'Two bombs worth' of nuclear material secured

    RACHEL MADDOW, TRMS HOST: Congress adjourned for Christmas , the Senate ratified the new nukes treaty with Russia . That, of course, is a central priority for President Obama , nuclear safety , making sure the future does not have an unintended mushroom cloud in it. It's sort of his signature issue. It is among the things he most worked on as a senator and that he most wants to do as president. When the president gave his big speech on nukes three months after inauguration, a speech before that huge open air crowd in Prague back in April 2009 , in that speech, he not only promised he would get that treaty with Russia done, he also promised this.

    BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So, today, I am announcing a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years.

    MADDOW: In his first term, in four years, the U.S. will lock up all vulnerable nuclear material around the world . Aiming high that's what's on the public record. You may you already know those things. But here's something no one has known about until now because no one has been able to report this but us. Working in deep secrecy over Christmas time , under high security conditions, we have just completed an airlift of more than 100 pounds of highly enriched uranium out of Ukraine . On a secret mission , we have just moved enough weapons grade material to make, I think, two nuclear bombs , to move it from somewhere unsafe to a locked-down secured facility. This mission is complete. Any information about the mission has been deeply embargoed until the mission was complete, because this is potentially the most dangerous thing in the whole world , and fixing it is one of the most important things in the whole world . Joining us now is Thomas D ' Agostino . He is the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration . Mr. D' Agostino , congratulations on this mission . Thanks for making time .


    MADDOW: Why is a country like Ukraine willing or even eager to try to get own uranium off their hands, to help us help them lock it up?

    D' AGOSTINO: Because in Ukraine , they recognize they're part of the international community . They recognize how dangerous this material is. And their interest is not about possession. They want to be part of the international community . They've made statements at the Nuclear Security Summit earlier this year that they want to get rid of the majority of this material this. And they are following through on these commitments.

    MADDOW: They see it as they don't want it on their territory because they see it as a security risk to themselves? Because they don't want the responsibility of handling it because that's expensive? What's their calculation about this?

    D' AGOSTINO: Well, their calculation is being part of the international community . It is a recognition that this is dangerous material . We are protecting the material . We've done security upgrades in Ukraine to protect the material that's there. But as part of the overall commitment on national security and nuclear security , there is general recognition that the fewer places where this stuff is at, the better off the world is.

    MADDOW: Yes.

    D' AGOSTINO: This is a global problem. It's not a Ukraine problem or Russia problem or U.S. problem. It's a global problem. And that's why the president brought together these 46 countries in recognizing that we do want to secure this material , all vulnerable material in four years. That's a hard job. But the Ukraine piece was that we just completed essentially, over the holidays, as you mentioned is just a tremendous accomplishment. And it's a demonstration of the commitment by the President Yanukovych and President Obama working together with Russia that we can do things together, you know, despite all of the problems around the world .

    MADDOW: Help me understand the threat that this material poses. This is highly enriched uranium . It's considered to be weapons-grade material .

    D' AGOSTINO: Right.

    MADDOW: Nothing else would have to be done to this in order to be able to use it in a weapon.

    D' AGOSTINO: Yes.

    MADDOW: What is the risk if it fell into the wrong hands?

    D' AGOSTINO: Well, the risk is fairly significant. As you mentioned, we've got 100 pounds, 50 kilograms, of this material that we're bringing back. It's a recognition that you can make two nuclear weapons with this material . It doesn't require a lot of technology or know-how to make a nuclear bomb . Unfortunately, the word is out there from an information standpoint. So the key in the nuclear security business is material . It's all you about material . It's just like in real estate . It's location, location, location. For nuclear security , it's material , material , material . You've got to get your hands on the material , have less of it of it, protect it, have it in fewer locations, get rid of it. That's our plan.

    MADDOW: Where is most of it? When you talk of whom the president used a very specific term, "vulnerable nuclear material ." Where most of the nuclear material that's considered not secure, that's vulnerable to exploitation, stealing it, some sort of threat?

    D' AGOSTINO: We have a plan that really gets material out of 35 countries, where the majority of the material is around the world .


    D' AGOSTINO: We've done with 19 countries right now. We have 16 more to go. So this part of this four-year effort is to work our way through, step by step, year by year, shipment by shipment, all of this material . Bring it back to both the United States where it came from, and Russia , where it came from. So back in the '60s, in the Atoms for Peace program and the recognition to do more nuclear research was needed, material was sent out in the form of highly- enriched uranium . We now recognize that we need to really repatriate that material , bring it back, return it to its place of origin, protect it.

    MADDOW: So 19 countries down, 16 to go.

    D' AGOSTINO: Nineteen down, 16 to go. It is we're over halfway. We still have a lot more work to do . And with the support, the increased budgets that we have in this area that the president is proposing, specifically to lock this stuff down, we think we're going to get this job done. That's our plan.

    MADDOW: You think you're on track to do it completely within four years?

    D' AGOSTINO: We're on track. It is not just the National Security Administration . It requires a whole government , the State Department , the Department of Defense . We work with other countries. Just this shipment that we completed with the Ukraine involved over four countries working together, 35 different organizations. So it's a logistical challenge different languages, different cultures, different laws. You know, you can just imagine. You just layer these things on. We're talking about governments here.

    MADDOW: Yes.

    D' AGOSTINO: And we're talking about material moving out of a country. This is, you know there's national pride involved in some cases. And so getting this job done this year, this amount of material just since April, when the commitment was first made, I think is just a remarkable achievement.

    MADDOW: Yes. But when you think about the thing that amazes me, and maybe this is just because I've read too many spy novels and this is the way I think about things. But it's not only all of those countries and all of those languages and all of those different incentives and all of that logistical concern.

    D' AGOSTINO: Right.

    MADDOW: It's that it all has to be done in secret.

    D' AGOSTINO: Absolutely. Yes.

    MADDOW: If you believe the heist movie , view of the world , right, then it is stuff that bad guys want. It's most vulnerable to those bad guys when it is in transit. That's always the way it works in the plot of those movies.

    D' AGOSTINO: Absolutely.

    MADDOW: Is that true in real life ?

    D' AGOSTINO: The same in real life ? Absolutely the same in real life . And that's why we are very quiet about these operations. You know, when they're going to happen, they usually happen under the cover of night, how many people are involved. We limit people in each of these different organizations and pulling all of this together. I can assure I've been on a couple of operations when they happen at night. You see the country, wherever it's taking place, they marshal together their security forces . Roads are usually closed and radios are turned off, and it happens very quickly. So it's what is remarkable to see from my standpoint is how there's a general recognition around the world this is the right thing to do. This is not about Democrats or Republicans or this country versus that country. This is about people thinking about their future. It's a marvelous program.

    MADDOW: One specific logistical detail about this, and I know this is different depending on the exact type of fuel that you are moving, whether it's irradiated, how much shielding it needs -

    D' AGOSTINO: Sure.

    MADDOW: And how dangerous it is, what are these tasks that you put the material into to move it?

    D' AGOSTINO: Certainly. Usually there's usually two containers, one within the other container, welded or bolted on different pieces. For example, the Ukraine operation , which we just completed, these casks were over a quarter of a metric ton , very heavy, 250 kilograms. The casks down in our operation in Kazakhstan , as you know, were many metric tons . These were huge casks. And fresh material , with highly enriched uranium that hasn't been irradiated, you don't need as much shielding because you don't have those radioactive decay products.

    MADDOW: So you can have these casks

    D' AGOSTINO: Yes.

    MADDOW: That are roughly the same structure, but anywhere from a quarter metric ton to many metric tons .

    D' AGOSTINO: Right.

    MADDOW: And depending on the size that they need to be in order to be safe, that restricts how you can move them.

    D' AGOSTINO: Right.

    MADDOW: Because you can't put something the size of a house on a helicopter.

    D' AGOSTINO: Right. Exactly. So in this case, for the Ukraine operation , we move these via airplane, the aircraft, Russian aircraft, Russian casks that we commissioned, we contracted for this operations to make sure this transportation was available. For spent fuel, typically, it's much heavier because of the radioactivity involved. It has to go by rail or by truck. When you go by truck from one country to the next, usually, you're crossing borders and you're getting into well, I don't want that stuff driving down my road. So we've done things like do you remember that movie "Planes,_Trains_and_Automobiles"? Of course, we've done these types of things where we have trucks going to rail, going to ship, going back to a train. And it's an operation that gets planned all the way around . Our recent Serbia had 13 kilograms returned. It was one of those types of operations. So

    MADDOW: And throughout, you need to make the balance between having adequate security to repel any effort by bad guys to get their hands on this stuff while it's on transit.

    D' AGOSTINO: Right.

    MADDOW: And also keeping a low enough profile so nobody thinks, "Hey, what's all the security guys doing over there? That must be valuable."

    D' AGOSTINO: Yes, that's right. We do want to keep you know, there's what we call it in the business is operational security , OPSEC for short. The footprint, the kind of image you project is a big deal . And so people show up. They're wearing dark clothes and they have you know, they're very important. They've got this secret police in various countries. This is all voluntary work , of course, that happens. But pulling this off is a huge challenge and doing it under the quiet of the operation . So as I said, this is a wonderful opportunity to highlight you know, here we are, the last week of the year. We have, obviously, the Christmas holidays. Think about how difficult it is to pull together an international organization like the IEA to send their inspectors over the United States send our team over there and the Russians to send their team over there, the United Kingdom , which helped in this operation as well, pull their team over, all during a period of time with a huge snowstorm and traffic problems at the airports, which had an impact on our operation . So you have to be dynamic and be able to respond to changes.

    MADDOW: Yes. Is there really a finite amount of this stuff that can be locked up? Or are we always making more of it?

    D' AGOSTINO: There is a finite amount of material out there. And what we want to do is shift from a highly- enriched uranium environment where we have highly- enriched uranium around the world and turn it into low- enriched uranium , because it isn't the same problem at all with low- enriched uranium .

    MADDOW: So you can convert the reactors that are now using highly- enriched uranium , which is very dangerous, into low- enriched uranium reactors that still provide power but aren't as dangerous.

    D' AGOSTINO: Absolutely. Most of the highly- enriched uranium reactors are not power reactors, but they're actually reactors for research.

    MADDOW: Yes.

    D' AGOSTINO: But at the same time, you've got it exactly right. You want to go from highly-enriched to low- enriched uranium . The LEU does not give you the same problems that highly- enriched uranium has. And that's our plan to get this forward.

    MADDOW: I am I think the reason that you're willing to come talk to me about this is because I'm the only person that I know of who doesn't work in the field who is I'm really obsessed with the prospect of nuclear smuggling, black market nuclear material , terrorists causing a radioactive explosion, if not a nuclear explosion itself.

    D' AGOSTINO: Right. Sure.

    MADDOW: You know, and there you are, in charge of that not happening. And you are the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration . You are the Undersecretary for Nuclear Security in our government . But forgive me for saying this, but you're sort of the undersecretary for saving the world , if you worry, like I do, that this is the way the world ends.

    D' AGOSTINO: We do worry.

    MADDOW: I mean, you seem like a relatively relaxed guy. Do you feel like you have enough resources? Do you have enough support to do what you are trying to do?

    D' AGOSTINO: Yes. We have wonderful resources. The answer is yes. We have enough resources. It's not just our agency. What we, of course what we provide is the technical capability. The United States has invested over the last 60 years a tremendous amount of resources into nuclear issues, whether they're warheads, nonproliferation, power production. And we have a wonderful infrastructure that's part of my organization of laboratories and plants, of experts, you know, 30,000 scientists and engineers that know this stuff like the back of their hand. You can't do it without technical know-how. And the president has recognized that. He's made a significant investment in my organization alone. I think our budget has gone up 10 percent from FY 10 to from fiscal year 10 to fiscal year 11. That's a huge increase given the fiscal conditions that we're currently under.

    MADDOW: Yes.

    D' AGOSTINO: And these are commitments of resources, not just for one year, but over time , because one of my worries I do worry, as you say, about one of these things going off. But my other worry is actually the people that work in our organization not feeling that their mission area is important. And so your interest in this area is absolutely vital to making people understand and communicating that to the American people in general so that people in Congress know about it , and the White House has been fantastic.

    MADDOW: Is there any political resistance to what you do, any real political resistance? Or is it just a matter of getting it technocratically together to do it?

    D' AGOSTINO: I think there is no to my knowledge on the specifics, the general plan , there's no political resistance.

    MADDOW: Good, because I will kill them.

    D' AGOSTINO: Well, my sense is there will always be and this is the good thing about government , one of the many good things about the government . This is a good government job to have. I'm just blessed to be here. But one of the there will always be people questioning, "Well, should you be putting more into this part of your program on detecting illicit transfer? Should you be putting more into securing material ?" We benefit from the input from a variety of sources. Ultimately, the decision gets made in my organization. I work with the secretary of energy very closely on this because this is a technical job. It's a job should our next dollar be towards looking for that radiation detector that can really find the stuff ? Or should it be to build one more fence around a certain facility? Or should be it to repatriate the material back to Russia or the United States ? Those are where there's where the differences come in. But big picture -wise, there is no difference on this. This is just great stuff .

    MADDOW: That's good news. That's very good news. Thomas D ' Agostino

    D' AGOSTINO: I'll let you know.

    MADDOW: Yes, seriously. I'll give you my cell phone number, OK? You probably already have it. Thomas D ' Agostino is the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration , the man responsible for a mission that just locked down more than 100 pounds of previously un-secure weapons-grade uranium in Ukraine , which is a Christmas gift to the nation and to the world .

    D' AGOSTINO: Thanks.

    MADDOW: Mr. D' Agostino , thank you very much for joining us. And don't ever, ever mess

updated 12/30/2010 11:30:02 PM ET 2010-12-31T04:30:02

The United States has helped Ukraine send two atomic bombs' worth of weapons grade uranium to Russia during a secret operation over the holidays, the Obama administration confirmed Thursday on msnbc's The Rachel Maddow Show.

The removal of more than 111 pounds of highly enriched uranium followed a pledge by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to get rid of all of his country's highly enriched uranium by April 2012.

Image: Thomas D'Agostino
Thomas D’Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, talks Thursday night on The Rachel Maddow Show on msnbc.

"The Ukraine, they recognize they're part of the international community, they recognize how dangerous this material is," Thomas D’Agistino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, told Maddow.

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The material will be blended down in Russia, rendering it useless for bomb making, the Associated Press said.

Yanukovych agreed to give up the uranium in a multinational deal announced at a nuclear security summit hosted by President Barack Obama in April. Shipments like the one recently completed from Serbia result in permanent threat reduction because they eliminate weapons-usable nuclear material at civilian sites. Securing the material will prevent it from falling into the wrong hands, officials say.

As an incentive, the United States is providing replacement low-enriched uranium that can be used for Ukraine's research reactors.

The summit deal also has the United States building a $25 million "neutron source facility" nuclear research project for Ukraine, the administration said. The facility will be able to produce 50 different types of medical isotopes, using only low-enriched uranium.

Secret operation
"The fewer places this stuff is at the better off the world is," D'Agostino told Maddow. "This is a global problem."

"It doesn't require a lot of technology or knowhow to make a nuclear bomb," he said. "Unfortunately the word is out there."

The "vulnerable nuclear material" was in 35 nations, D'Agostino said.

"We're done with 19 countries and have 16 more to go," D'Agostino told Maddow, noting the U.S. and other countries were on track to complete removal by the end of the four-year deadline established by the nations.

All the movement has to be done in secret and coordinated with other nations, he said.

Four nations were involved in the Ukraine operation, he said.

"Pulling this off is a huge challenge," he said.

The removal operation completed Thursday involved 21 specially designed casks for the uranium to be flown on five flights from three cities, officials told The Associated Press. The operation was delayed for days by ice storms in Ukraine. The U.S. also helped deliver some of the replacement fuel to Ukraine.

"This may have been the most complicated operation NNSA has done in recent years," said Andrew Bieniawski, the U.S. agency's associate deputy administrator for global threat reduction.

The uranium came from three research facilities, in Kiev, Sevastopol and Kharkiv. The U.S. also helped Ukraine remove a slightly larger amount of spent uranium by rail in May. An additional amount of uranium remains in Ukraine, but the U.S. said the material was on track to be removed by the April 2012 deadline.

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On Dec. 22, 28 pounds of Russian-origin highly enriched uranium spent fuel was removed from the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences in Serbia, making that nation the sixth country to eliminate all of its stockpiles of the material since April 2009, the nuclear security agency said after an operation there.

The agency has removed or assisted with the disposition of enough material to make more than 122 nuclear weapons, it said.

About 3.5 million pounds of highly enriched uranium and half a million pounds of bomb-grade plutonium remain in the world, according to Harvard University's Belfer Center. That material could be used to build as many as 200,000 nuclear weapons, or about 8 1/2 times the world's current stockpile of 23,360 warheads.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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