Institute of Nuclear Materials Management Annual Meeting

Monday, August 23, 2021

By Ms. Jill M. Hruby

Administrator, National Nuclear Security Administration

Introduction

Thank you for that kind introduction, and thank you Susan Pepper and Julie Oddou for inviting me to speak at this important event today. Good afternoon everyone and welcome. It’s nice to see so many familiar names virtually attending the first Joint Annual Meeting between ESARDA and INMM. And of course, it is a great pleasure of mine to be back at INMM, addressing topics I feel are important for building a better and healthier future for our planet and all its inhabitants. Today, I will start by describing the geopolitical landscape and the Biden Administration initiatives to address today’s reality. I will then provide an overview of NNSA’s nuclear nonproliferation program and some future challenges that I hope we can work on together

Before I begin, I do want to state that without the collaborative, important work being done by great partner institutions like INMM and ESARDA, meeting our mission at NNSA for a safer and more secure world would be challenging, to say the least. I can’t overstate how important the sharing of new technical ideas and best practices, along with establishing a network of experts is to international progress in this area.

The dedication of both these institutions to advance research, development, and effective field implementation of nuclear safeguards and security has and deserves the Department of Energy’s utmost appreciation. 

I am particularly excited about the theme of this year’s meeting – “Advancing Together: Innovation and Resilience in Nuclear Materials Management” as it strongly coincides with the Innovate, Collaborate, and Deliver approach we are taking at NNSA to successfully accomplish our nuclear security missions. I know this community especially understands and appreciates the value of those three words. Our combined experiences in the world of nuclear materials management have told us time and time again that without innovation, collaboration, and delivery – we can’t accomplish what we have set out to seek…enhancing global security.  

At the Department of Energy, one of our top priorities is to lay the groundwork for our country to achieve President Biden’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 by advancing cutting-edge clean energy technologies and building an equitable clean energy future. Climate change goes beyond the United States - it affects us all. It has gone from being a single issue concerning our environment to now affecting the advancement of societies and survival of people around the world. I strongly believe that the way to effectively combat climate change requires global adoption of innovative nuclear science and technology, which can’t happen without us increasing nuclear safeguards and security – and that’s where the work of the Department of Energy and NNSA comes in.

Global Landscape and the Biden Agenda

Let me start by framing the challenges and opportunities I see today.

First, there continues to be a significant evolution in the nuclear landscape that demands our attention and response. Over about the past decade, the geopolitics have changed considerably – from a world where a limited number of states with nuclear weapons were committed to decreasing the size of their weapons stockpile and cooperating to secure nuclear materials to help thwart nuclear terrorism. Today’s world involves more states that have or desire to have nuclear weapons, increasing stockpile sizes and variety of weapons, and less cooperation and trust among the players.

At the same time, there is a resurgent interest in nuclear energy production as a clean energy solution to help slow the pace of climate change. This is a complex environment requiring new solutions. However, the good news is we still have the same common longstanding goals to achieve – providing effective nuclear materials safeguards and security to protect our citizens from incidents or accidents while allowing the development of nuclear energy and other peaceful uses. It is my sincere hope we will embark on a time of opportunity for new ideas for nuclear materials security and safeguards, and for new levels of international cooperation and not retreat to our corners and dangerously compete with one another.

President Biden’s interim National Security Guidance includes a commitment to continue efforts to secure fissile materials and radioactive materials worldwide. The administration has given focused thought on how to evolve the work from the nuclear security summits to better reflect today’s environment, and I think we can expect to hear new initiatives in this area that are visionary but are risk-based and realistic. The President has also committed to decreasing the reliance on nuclear weapons, to restarting strategic stability dialogs with Russia, and to maintaining safe, secure, and effective nuclear weapons as long as they exist. Finally, the President is whole-heartedly committed to clean energy and climate action, understands that nuclear energy can and must be part of the solution. As a statement of the importance of nuclear security, the President’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget request for NNSA increases over the 2021 enacted level.

NNSA Activities

Let me shift to describing the NNSA activities in nuclear security and nonproliferation. Throughout this meeting you will hear much more from NNSA and the U.S. national laboratories staff about the details of their work. I hope to paint a top-level picture of priorities for you before those talks and others begin.

The NNSA has three primary efforts in nuclear nonproliferation:

  • Securing materials both domestically and around the world;
  • Minimizing and managing any necessary materials including replacing nuclear and radiological materials with viable alternatives wherever feasible; and
  • And third, supporting nuclear nonproliferation and arms control monitoring and verification.

In addition, we have a sustained research and development program that provides space-based sensors to monitor nuclear activities as well as supports our other three primary efforts. And the R&D program additionally sustains expertise in labs and universities including both people and experiment facilities, and more recently the development of test beds and develops ideas to get ahead of emerging threats.

Securing Materials

Let’s dive a little deeper into our efforts to secure nuclear and radiological materials. The objective of this program is to make it very hard for anyone to steal or acquire nuclear or radiological material, and if they are successful to make sure we interdict the material. That is why domestically NNSA helps private sector partners secure and, where possible eliminate, radioactive materials. We also partner worldwide to secure nuclear and radioactive materials, and to detect and deter trafficking of this material. Our efforts to secure materials encompasses not only weapons-usable nuclear materials, but also nuclear power plants and fuel cycle facilities, research reactors, and materials in transit. Globally, NNSA has collaborated with international partners to improve physical security at ten facilities housing nuclear materials over the past six years.

We also work with government, law enforcement, and business across the globe to protect radioactive sources used for medical, research, and commercial purposes.

Finally, we attempt to deter or detect nuclear material smuggling across borders by strengthening capabilities to detect, disrupt, and investigate any attempts and providing the expertise and tools needed to respond if smuggling is detected.

Minimizing and Managing Material

However, we don’t stop at just securing materials – we have an interest in minimizing and managing nuclear and radiological materials through three pillars of effort: material conversion, material removal, and material disposal.

The highest leverage step to minimizing the use of weapons-usable nuclear material is to eliminate the need for the material while still accomplishing peaceful objectives. NNSA accomplishes this through the Convert Program, working primarily at civil research reactors and medical isotope production facilities in the United States and around the world.

In addition, facilities that use weapons-usable materials cooperate with NNSA and experts from the National Laboratories to convert their highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel and targets to low-enriched uranium (LEU), a material that cannot be used in a nuclear weapon. NNSA is also working to develop and qualify new LEU fuels for their specialized reactors that cannot provide the same performance with existing LEU fuels.

Many of us here today know that nuclear power holds the key to clean energy solutions to fight climate change effectively. Advancing nuclear reactor concepts and designs offer optionality and flexibility, as well as non-electric applications. These innovative technologies have promising uses as batteries for remote locations or off-grid applications, industrial and chemical processes, hydrogen and isotope production, and desalination. Advanced reactors also have the potential to produce more energy with less waste and support many applications beyond electricity generation – essentially responding to the various needs of many nations. Which is why NNSA is standing up a new program to work on new reactor designs, including small modular reactors, to help improve proliferation resistance in facilities around the world.

As part of minimizing the amount of Highly Enriched Uranium, NNSA also manages the Molybdenum-99 Program. Moly-99 is an isotope that is used in over 40,000 medical procedures in the United States each day. The decay product of Mo-99, Technetium-99m, is the most commonly used radioisotope, relied upon for performing heart stress tests, identifying cancer in the body, and studying organ structure and function. The Moly-99 Program assists global Moly-99 production facilities in converting to non-HEU processes and supports the establishment of domestic supplies of Mo-99 without the use of HEU.

NNSA has already eliminated the need for weapons-usable material at over 100 civilian sites.

The second pillar of the material minimization and management effort is to remove any excess or unsecured material by collaborating with partner nations and international institutions to identify excess nuclear material and implement permanent solutions to consolidate, remove, and/or dispose of these inventories. NNSA has removed over 7,730 kilograms of H-E-U and plutonium from almost 50 countries, enough material for more than 300 nuclear weapons.

We also maintain the capability to carry out expedited nuclear material removals should the need arise.

The third pillar of materials minimization and management is material disposition. This effort aims to dispose of surplus or excess HEU and weapon-grade plutonium in the United States, as well as select material returned to the United States under the Remove program.

The U.S. HEU disposition program aims to eliminate 187 metric tons of HEU. To date, NNSA has downblended approximately 164 metric tons. The NNSA approach is to downblend HEU with natural uranium to make LEU that can be used as a research reactor fuel or as an isotope production target. By making LEU available for a variety of uses, the dispose efforts close the material management cycle.

In addition to the need to dispose of surplus HEU, NNSA also needs to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium. To do this, NNSA will use a dilute and dispose strategy – with plutonium downblended to less than 10 weight percent with an adulterant mixture; placed in a robust container to reduce worker exposure; and packaged in a criticality control overpack for transport and final disposition. The downblended material is carefully characterized to ensure compliance with the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant waste acceptance criteria and shipped to the repository for final emplacement in the geological repository 2,150 feet underground.

Non-Proliferation and Arms Control

Let’s now transition to discuss the NNSA’s Nonproliferation and Arms Control efforts. This program aims to strengthens nonproliferation and arms control monitoring and verification regimes to prevent proliferation, ensure peaceful nuclear uses, and enable nuclear reductions.

The elements of NNSA nonproliferation and arms control program are:

  • First, to support the capacity and capability of the International Atomic Energy Agency and partner countries to implement international safeguards obligations and detect and deter diversion of nuclear material or illicit use of nuclear facilities;
  • Second, to build domestic and international capacity to implement export control obligations and to control illicit trafficking of nuclear and WMD-related material and technology;
  • Third, to support negotiation and implementation of agreements and associated monitoring regimes to verifiably reduce nuclear weapons and nuclear programs;
  • In addition, we develop strategies and technologies to address emerging nonproliferation and arms control challenges and opportunities.

With respect to IAEA capacity and capability, NNSA has developed and provides over a dozen training courses every year to the I-A-E-A’s Department of Safeguards on a wide array of topics, including fuel cycle technologies, computer security, nuclear material accounting and control, physical protection, and insider threat mitigation. As a result of COVID, we have successfully transitioned to virtual training for many of the courses. I would just say I think this will help us enormously in the years ahead to train more people by allowing remote learning. Since May 2020, we have conducted more than 70 virtual training and capacity-building events attended by more than 2,500 participants.

The United States is committed to developing and maturing technology to help IAEA efficiently and effectively accomplish their mission. Over the last several years, NNSA has transferred over twenty innovative safeguard tools and methodologies to the IAEA to strengthen the international nuclear safeguards regime and the IAEA’s ability to verify peaceful uses of nuclear materials and facilities and to detect non-compliance.

Part of the nonproliferation program is to manage export controls. NNSA strengthens the U.S. Government’s ability to prevent and interdict exports that would contribute to foreign WMD programs of concern; strengthen foreign partner national systems of export control; and strengthen multilateral export control regimes. Further, NNSA is part of the U.S. government’s interagency licensing review process to ensure that, each year, thousands of proposed exports of sensitive items or technology receive the appropriate level of scrutiny before being transferred. The NNSA role is critical, since many items are “dual-use” in nature, with legitimate civil and military applications. Recognizing the important uses of items in clean energy, modern medicine, advanced imaging techniques, sterilized equipment, and other applications is important for the export regime to balance security and peaceful uses.

NNSA strengthens the capacity of U.S. government agencies to prevent and interdict U.S.-origin exports by providing customized WMD commodity identifications training to targeting and inspection specialists, enforcement, and investigative agencies. NNSA also engages foreign partners to strengthen their national export control systems to prevent illicit trafficking in nuclear and dual-use items through customized export licensing, enterprise outreach, and enforcement training programs, with the goal of developing a cadre of export control experts to provide training through bilateral and international partnerships.

Finally, developing and maintaining the technical means to monitor the terms of a nuclear arms control treaty or other international agreement is a critical factor in ensuring both successful negotiation and successful agreement. This is an exciting area with the rapid advance of new commercial satellites, open-source data, and artificial intelligence. It’s my hope that we can establish international cooperation that will support the establishment of fulsome verification regimes and treaties and agreements beyond what we have negotiated to date.

Research and Development

Lastly, let me briefly talk about NNSA’s research portfolio. NNSA advances its nuclear threat reduction mission by developing ways to detect and monitor foreign nuclear fuel cycle and weapons development activities, special nuclear material movement or diversion, and nuclear explosions. These same capabilities support nuclear arms control treaty monitoring and verification, operational interdiction and other nuclear security efforts across NNSA and the U.S. Government. This includes delivering space-based sensors to meet the nation’s operational nuclear test treaty monitoring obligations as well as its need to warn and give assessments of air, missile, and space threats. It also includes improving the speed, accuracy, confidence, and specificity of nuclear forensics analytic capabilities related to nuclear detonations.

Using the unique facilities and scientific skills of NNSA and Department of Energy’s national laboratories, and in partnership with industry and academia, R&D efforts provide the technical base for national and homeland security agencies to meet their nonproliferation, counterproliferation, and counterterrorism responsibilities.

Emerging technologies such as additive manufacturing, unmanned aerial systems, advanced nuclear reactors, high-powered computing and artificial intelligence provide opportunities to enhance the nuclear threat reduction mission by harnessing their capabilities to detect nuclear proliferation. At the same time, however, these technologies also introduce new risks, including lowering the barrier to proliferation. Therefore, global nonproliferation and counter-proliferation efforts must innovate to keep pace with technology developments to address evolving threats.

As part of our efforts to develop the next generation of nuclear fuel cycle and material monitoring capabilities, NNSA’s Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation has created a field demonstration program that integrates research and experimental testbed activities to advance technology in support of the Nation’s treaty verification and monitoring needs. We hope to expand this to include international partners in the future.

In summary, although nuclear security is a U.S. Government-wide effort, the technical base of safeguards and nuclear security support relies on the DOE, NNSA, and our national laboratory partners. This vital mission is a source of great pride to me and my colleagues, and I’m genuinely excited to participate in the I-A-E-A’s 65th General Conference next month to support the building of stronger cooperation.

The INMM and the nuclear materials management community are also integral to ensuring that the highest nuclear safeguards, safety and security standards are met. I am proud that NNSA actively organizes and leads sessions and that NNSA staff members hold leadership positions in the regional chapters that foster advanced nuclear materials management, promote research in the field, establish standards, improve the qualifications of those employed in this field. And NNSA regularly participates as presenters in domestic and international INMM and ESARDA technical workshops that cultivate innovative thinking in the field of nuclear material stewardship.

NNSA is proud of its accomplishments, but we recognize there is still much work to be done globally to minimize and secure vulnerable and excess radioactive and nuclear materials. As INMM works to broaden its geographic diversity, attracting and supporting more participants from underrepresented regions such as Africa and Asia, NNSA will broaden its support as well.

Going Forward

I want to conclude with some remarks about the future, highlighting three areas: nuclear energy, international cooperation, and the next generation experts.

I think the world needs nuclear energy as safe, secure, reliable, clean base power capability. For this to be successful, new innovative, cost-effective approaches are needed including more inherently safe and secure reactors, potentially new fuels with less proliferation concern, new remote safeguard and improved security options, and more mature spent fuel disposition options.

Additionally, I think increased collaboration with our international partners is our best hope to accelerate this change. Implementing more nuclear power and supporting sophisticated life-saving nuclear applications while reducing the threat of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism requires international cooperation. I hope NNSA can continue to increase partnerships even beyond the 100 agencies in more than 70 countries we have today. The depth and focus of cooperation should continue to evolve.

That is why now, more than before, our ability to train, recruit, and retain the next generation of nuclear safeguards and security professionals is vital to our nonproliferation mission and to our nuclear materials management efforts to help unlock their potential impact on agriculture, health, and economic development worldwide. NNSA is strongly committed to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in our workforce as we pursue an aggressive hiring strategy with a goal of adding an estimated 4-6,000 employees annually across the Nuclear Security Enterprise.

We have engaged over 250 undergraduate and 500 graduate students through the University Consortia for Nuclear Nonproliferation as part of our efforts to develop America’s intellectual capital and support nuclear security and safeguards research and development. These consortia link universities and DOE national laboratories to address basic research shortfalls in nuclear nonproliferation and security and treaty compliance monitoring. We also engage with INMM student chapters to help students with an interest in the Nuclear Security Enterprise participate in a wide variety of nuclear material management and safeguards activities through education and the development of professional ethics.

While we have seen success in our recruiting efforts, we look forward to partnering with INMM and ESARDA on this topic. Specifically, as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, your support for both STEM and foreign policy educational programs are very important to developing and training the next generation of diverse nuclear security experts. INMM has been a leader in this field for over six decades, and I know from personal experience what amazing work you do in this area. I also know that your members are some of the best and brightest in the field of nuclear materials management ­– talented minds who can help NNSA deliver on its nonproliferation mission. So, I encourage those of you interested in exploring a career with us to visit our website at energy.gov/nnsa and click on careers tab up top.

And finally, in the coming days, you will engage in discussions about pressing nuclear security issues such as artificial intelligence, nuclear forensics, countering unmanned aerial systems, cyber threats, and emerging threats and technologies, among other important topics.

NNSA values these discussions as they provide a collaborative platform for the nuclear materials management community to share technical challenges and accomplishments with everyone and learn about NNSA and our international partners’ recent achievements to enhance global security.

This Joint Meeting, much like our work, is about innovating and collaborating, so we can set the conditions today for the successful management of nuclear materials for a better future, and in doing so, deliver on nuclear power’s potential as a source for clean energy.

To quote Secretary Granholm, “All of you can help drive nuclear energy innovation forward. Whether you want to learn more about how you can contribute to this work, or if you have questions or if you have suggestions, let's talk, because the only way we're going to seize this massive opportunity to finally get our arms around the climate crises, the only way it's going to happen, is if we work together.”

Thank you again for allowing me the opportunity to speak with you about themes that are so important to me, and so important to NNSA.

Please continue to stay safe and healthy, and I look forward to your questions.