Monthly Archives: January 2014

A Credible Radioactive Threat to the Sochi Olympics?

FAS Strategic Security Blog | George Moore | January 28, 2014

With the Sochi Olympics set to start on February 6th there has been an escalating concern about security threats to the Games. There are hunts for female suicide bombers (“black widows”), video threats from militant groups, etc., all of which have triggered a massive Russian security response, including statements by President Putin insuring the safety of the Games.

Many of the security concerns are raised by the proximity of Sochi  to Chechnya and relate to the threats expressed by Chechen leader Doku Umarov who exhorted Islamic militants to disrupt the Olympics.

In the past weeks the region has seen Islamic militants claims that they carried out two recent suicide bombings in Volgorad which tragically killed 34 people and injured scores of others. Volgograd is about 425 miles from Sochi and although the media stresses the proximity it is a considerable distance.

 

If increased realistic fears of suicide conventional bombing at Sochi were not enough, the Chechen connection is troubling when considering whether any of these groups might attempt to use radioactive materials to disrupt the Olympics. Chechens have been responsible for some of the earliest uses of radioactive material, starting from the placement of a small cesium 137 source in a Moscow park in the mid-1990s  and there have been repeated threats and reports of Chechen groups intent to use radioactive material in a Radioactive Dispersal Device (RDD), particularly the threat to use explosives to carry out the dispersal, creating a “Dirty Bomb.”

Since various sorts of radioactive material has been out of control in Chechnya since the Soviet Union collapsed it is certainly possible that militant groups might possess small amounts of radioactive material. Obviously explosives are readily available. Would any of these groups use radioactive material against the Olympics if they possessed it?  Unfortunately the answer may be that they would. Not only is it an extremely visible target, but Russian President Putin has made his personal prestige an issue, which may be viewed as too tempting a challenge for some of these groups to forego.

Therefore it seems that there is a credible threat that radioactive material might be used to disrupt the Games. Would Russian security efforts be effective in detecting and stopping such a threat? The answer is unclear, but it is certainly probable. Although the protection of major events against radioactive materials threats is not often discussed in the media, it has been an aspect of protection of Olympics and other events for over 25 years. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) publishes Nuclear Security Systems and Measures for Major Public Events, No. 18 in its Nuclear Security Series which provides guidelines for states in the various aspects of protecting major events. The IAEA also provides equipment and assistance to states hosting such events. The Russian Federation may or may not have availed itself of IAEA assistance, but is certainly aware via its IAEA participation of the methods, equipment, and procedures to employ to create a protective nuclear security system.

Assuming the Russian Federation has a world class nuclear security system to protect the Sochi Games from the threat of a Dirty Bomb or other type of RDD, any system may fail, particularly when it is challenged by attackers with suicidal intentions. If a Dirty Bomb were to go off in Sochi at or near one of the venues what would be the result?  From the point of view of a scientist the consequences would be very manageable and not too severe. Probably a number of fatalities due to any explosives that were used, and probably no near term fatalities from the radiation dose received by those exposed to the radioactive material since exposures would be expected to be relatively low. There would certainly be a cleanup and decontamination problem.

However, the way a scientist would look at the problem is not at all the way the public would react. Public and media reaction would be immense and might lead to panic, perhaps even leading to fatalities and injuries from panic induced reactions. Certainly the Games would suffer a major disruption, if they were not totally cancelled.

Hopefully Russian planners have considered how to provide an adequate response that would enable them to deal with an actual event and minimize public panic. In addition, they need to have planned for, and pre-positioned equipment that would enable them to deal with rumors and hoaxes that might be attempted by groups intent on disruption of the Games. The Russian system will need to be capable of dealing with reports of radioactive material presence or use that would need to be rapidly confirmed or debunked.

RDDs are often referred to as Weapons of Mass Disruption rather than Mass Destruction by experts. Although there is a potential threat to the Sochi Olympics, the addition of radioactive material to the conventional threats to the Games must be understood not to add very much in actual threat of harm to people in Sochi. Russian efforts to counter any threat need to focus not only on preventing any use of an RDD, but also need to focus on how to deal with the public should an RDD be used or threatened to be used.

 

Dr. George M. Moore is the Scientist-in-Residence and  an Adjunct Professor at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. From 2007-2012, Dr. Moore was a Senior Analyst in the Office of Nuclear Security at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria. At IAEA, he worked with the Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB) and served as Scientific Secretary for the Director General’s Advisory Group on Nuclear Security (AdSec). He also served as Scientific Secretary for the development of the Agency’s Fundamentals of Nuclear Security document, the top-level document in the Agency’s Nuclear Security Series that will be published in fall 2012. He is a former Fulbright Scholar (Netherlands) and a former Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Special Fellow. He is a licensed Professional Engineer (Nuclear) in California and was formerly an AEC-licensed research reactor operator. He is admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court and in a number of Federal Circuit and District Courts across the United States. After graduation from Annapolis, Dr. Moore served as a naval officer until he resigned from the Navy as a lieutenant commander. He then worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in various assignments in areas relating to nuclear physics, nuclear effects, and radiation detection and measurement. He left LLNL and served as an in-house counsel at Northern California’s utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric, until he entered private practice with the San Francisco firm of Kenney & Markowitz where he specialized in litigation in the areas of aviation, recreational boating, product liability, intellectual property, and commercial law. Dr. Moore left Kenney & Markowitz in 2002 to return to LLNL where he worked in the Nuclear Assessment (NAP) program. He left LLNL in mid-2007 to join the IAEA.

IAEA Delivers Final Report on Remediation in Fukushima to Japan

IAEA | 24 January 2014

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Remediation workers check bags of soil and other decontamination waste at a temporary storage site in Date city in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. (Photo: G. Tudor/IAEA)

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) handed Japan the final report from an expert mission that reviewed remediation efforts in areas affected by the Fukushima Daiichi accident.

The IAEA report, which is available online, describes the findings of the Follow-up IAEA International Mission on Remediation of Large Contaminated Areas Off-Site the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, held on 14 to 21 October 2013. The report highlights important progress in all areas to date, and offers advice on several points where the team feels it is still possible to further improve current practices.

Juan Carlos Lentijo, Director of the IAEA Division of Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology, led the 16-member mission team, which comprised international experts and IAEA staff working in a range of disciplines including radiation protection, remediation approaches and technologies, waste management and stakeholder involvement.

“The Mission Team was impressed by the amount of resources allocated and by the intense work that Japan is carrying out in efforts to remediate the affected areas and promote the return of evacuees to their homes, together with efforts for reconstruction of those areas,” he said.

The team welcomed progress achieved following the first IAEA remediation mission in October 2011, including the remediation of farmland and forest areas. The team also welcomed significant progress by municipalities and the national government in the development and establishment of temporary storage facilities for contaminated materials generated by on-going remediation activities. In addition, the mission team noted the progress made towards the national Government’s creation of interim storage facilities, with the cooperation of municipalities and local communities.

The mission observed that comprehensive implementation of food safety measures is in place to protect consumers and improve consumer confidence in farm produce, reflected in an increase in the economic value of the crops.

Japanese authorities were encouraged to sustain current public communication efforts and enhance these whenever necessary, especially with a view to explaining to the public that, in remediation situations, any level of individual radiation dose in the range of 1 to 20 mSv per year is acceptable and in line with the international standards and with the recommendations from the relevant international organisations such as ICRP, IAEA, UNSCEAR and WHO.

The team recognized the efforts to reduce residual doses to less than 1 mSv per year, but stressed that this target is a long-term goal, and that it cannot be achieved in a short time – for example, through decontamination work alone. The IAEA is ready to continue to support Japan in its remediation efforts, at its request.

The Mission was in line with the IAEA Action Plan on Nuclear Safety, which was unanimously endorsed by the IAEA’s Member States in September 2011 and defines a programme of work to strengthen the global nuclear safety framework.

–by Gill Tudor, IAEA Office of Public Information and Communication

 

(Note to Media: We encourage you to republish these stories and kindly request attribution to the IAEA)

India, Japan seek early deal on nuclear cooperation

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India and Japan’s talks on nuclear cooperation have gained momentum over the past few months and the two hope for an agreement on civilian nuclear energy soon, leaders of the countries said after meeting on Saturday.

“Our negotiations towards an agreement for cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy have gained momentum in the last few months,” Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, said in a statement after meeting his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe.

The Japanese prime minister said in a separate statement they had agreed to continue talks “with the view for early conclusion”.

Abe’s three-day visit to India, which started on Saturday, is underscoring growing business and political ties between the two countries as they face mutual rival China.

See slideshow on Abe’s India visit http://in.reuters.com/news/pictures/slideshow?articleId=INRTX17TVE

An agreement on civilian nuclear energy would open up the Indian market to Japanese players, reflecting another shift in Tokyo’s policy on a sensitive issue.

Japan is also looking to sell ShinMaywa US-2i planes, built by ShinMaywa Industries, that could be outfitted for firefighting or as a kind of amphibious hospital and cost an estimated $110 million per unit.

A joint working group has met to explore ways to cooperate on its use and production in India, Singh said.

The two countries are also cooperating on several infrastructure projects.

NAVAL EXERCISE

Japan would extend India a loan of about 200 billion yen for the extension of Delhi’s metro underground rail system, Abe said.

He added the two sides had also agreed to step up cooperation on high-speed rail systems.

Abe will be the first Japanese Prime Minister to witness India’s Republic Day celebrations on January 26.

India also invited Japan to the Malabar joint naval exercise this year. Indian and U.S. navies conduct their annual Malabar joint exercises in the Bay of Bengal once a year.

(Reporting by Krisha N Das and Nigam Prusty; Editing by Sophie Hares)

Is India a non-nuclear weapon state under the Rarotonga Treaty?

Arms Control Law | Marco Roscini | January 29, 2014

Australia is presently in discussions with India to begin exporting uranium for India’s civil nuclear programme. Australia, however, is a party to the 1986 Treaty of Rarotonga establishing a nuclear weapon-free zone (NWFZ) in the South Pacific Ocean, Article 4 of which provides that ‘[e]ach Party undertakes: not to provide source or special fissionable material, or equipment or material especially designed or prepared for the processing, use or production of special fissionable material for peaceful purposes to any non-nuclear-weapon State unless subject to the safeguards required by Article III.l of the NPT, or any nuclear-weapon State unless subject to applicable safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’. Is India, which has not ratified the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and possesses nuclear weapons, a non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS) or a nuclear weapon state (NWS) under Article 4 of the Rarotonga Treaty? If the former is the correct qualification, then Australia may be in breach of the treaty if it exports uranium to India, as India has only accepted limited IAEA safeguards (INFCIRC/66/Rev.2) on certain civilian plants, but not full-scope safeguards (i.e. applicable to all materials and facilities) under the INFCIRC/153(Corrected) model (I will leave the discussion of whether less comprehensive safeguards also meet the requirements of Article III of the NPT for another time).

Article IX(3) of the NPT defines a NWS as a state ‘which has manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967’. Under the NPT, therefore, India is not, and cannot be unless the treaty is amended, a NWS, as it has not manufactured or exploded a nuclear device before 1 January 1967. Unlike the NPT, however, the Rarotonga Treaty does not contain a definition of either NNWS or NWS. To solve the problem, one needs to apply the criteria for the interpretation of treaties provided in Article 31 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT). If the expression ‘NNWS’ in Article 4 of the Rarotonga Treaty is interpreted according to its ordinary meaning, it should be concluded that India is not a NNWS, as the ordinary meaning of this expression arguably is ‘state that does not possess or control nuclear weapons’, and not ‘state that has not manufactured or exploded a nuclear device before 1 January 1967’. Article 31(3)(c) of the VCLT, however, also provides that treaties should be interpreted taking into account ‘any relevant rules of international law applicable in the relations between the parties’. I would argue that the NPT can be seen as part of the rules ‘applicable in the relations between the parties’ and that, therefore, the definition of NWS (and, consequently, NNWS) contained therein may be extended, in the absence of alternative definitions, to the Rarotonga Treaty. This conclusion is reinforced by the following considerations: 1) Article 4 of the Rarotonga Treaty and Article III(2) of the NPT employ essentially the same language; 2) the Rarotonga Treaty refers in many instances to the NPT: the Preamble, for instance, reaffirms its importance and Article 4 itself requires the states parties ‘to support the continued effectiveness of the international non-proliferation system based on the NPT and the IAEA safeguards system’; and 3) NWFZs are usually seen as regional means to support the global nuclear non-proliferation regimes, not as alternatives to it (see Article VII of the NPT). An additional argument in favour of interpreting ‘NNWS’ in the Rarotonga Treaty consistently with the NPT could be that the definition of NWS contained in the NPT has become customary, and as such – again, lacking alternative definitions in the treaty in question – it also applies to the Rarotonga Treaty.

Could Article 4 of the Rarotonga Treaty be interpreted as referring only to NNWS ‘parties to the NPT’? The United States has made this argument in relation to Article III(2) of the NPT in order to justify its export of nuclear technologies and materials to India under the Global Partnership between the two countries. There is nothing in the letter of either provision, however, that supports this interpretation. What is more, this interpretation is in contrast with the object and purpose of the NPT: assuming that the NPT is based on the renunciation by the NNWS to certain uses of nuclear energy (the military ones) in return for assistance by the NWS in the peaceful uses of this type of energy, an interpretation of Article III that allows a state (India) to benefit from that assistance without also accepting to renounce to the military uses of nuclear energy seems in contradiction with the ‘grand bargain’ on which the NPT is founded. The same considerations can be extended to Article 4 of the Rarotonga Treaty, which, as already noted, expressly requires the states parties ‘to support the continued effectiveness of the international non-proliferation system based on the NPT and the IAEA safeguards system’.

Protest against India-Japan Nuclear Agreement

National Day of Protest: People Protest against India-Japan Nuclear Agreement

See pictures below this post (click twice for Hi-Res pics)

Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP)

25th January 2014 was observed as the national day of protest against the India-Japan nuclear agreement, which was a key agenda during the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent visit to India. The poster protest initiated by CNDP received very good response from the people. In Tokyo, the collage made from the poster was released by Yukiko Kameya, a senior evacuee from Fukushima. She wrote open letter to both the Prime Ministers on the occasion. Similar covering letters were written in India by Admiral L. Ramdas, Lalita Ramdas and renowned Gandhian Narayan Desai. Protests were organised in the cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Chennai and in places like Koodankulam, Jaitapur, Mithi Virdi, Fatehabad, Chutka and Kovvada where new reactor projects are proposed. Thousands of people marched for 8 kms and courted voluntary arrest in Jaitapur and intense demonstrations were organised across India.

Japan’s export of nuclear technology to India will fuel an insane nuclear expansion, which the Indian government is undertaking in complete contempt for Fukushima’s lessons. Commissioning Japanese companies would be providing crucial components for reactor projects being set up by nuclear giants like Areva, Westinghouse and GE. This is a struggle between the world’s largest corporations, mightiest governments and the most poor and vulnerable people who are left with no other option but to fight back.

And the worst victims of this insanity would be India’s poor, on whom these ill-conceived and dangerous reactor projects are being thrust upon through violent repression. In places like Jaitapur, Kovvada, Mithi Virdi, Chutka, Fatehabad, Mahi-Banswara and Koodankulam, new reactors are being built by depriving farmers and fisherfolk of their farmland, irrigation water and traditional livelihoods. These projects would destroy some of the world’s most pristine and fragile ecosystems. Several million people are going to be directly affected because of such eco-destructive projects.

It is unfortunate that the entire template of Indo-Japanese relations has been shifted to growth-fetish and militarism. The military cooperation between India and Japan has increased manifold over last few years, ostensibly to contain China at the behest of the US. India’s nuclear weapons have not provided it with any security, and its defence budget has exponentially increased. The country has become the world’s largest importer of weapons. It is particularly disconcerting to see Japan extending nuclear supplies to a country which is actively advancing its nuclear weapons system, jeopardising stability and peace in South Asia. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe being chief Guest to the Republic Day military parade where nuclear missiles and other killer hardware was showcases, was a very disturbing development.

We need better relations between India and Japan. But increased military partnership on the one hand and India deporting Japanese activists on their way to Koodankulam, a site of massive and intense but thoroughly non-violent anti-nuke protests, is not the kind of relation that we look ahead for. The two Asian countries must focus on learning lessons from Fukushima and jointly promote renewable energy sources and sustainable lifestyles.

Kumar Sundaram, Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace(CNDP)

click twice for Hi-Res pics:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Company Struggles to Keep U.S. in the Uranium Enrichment Game

The New York Times | MATTHEW L. WALD | JAN. 27, 2014

EUNICE, N.M. — While the only American-owned company that enriches uranium prepares for bankruptcy, its competitor is zooming ahead with construction of what it describes as a cluster of far more economical and efficient new centrifuges.

Urenco, a German-Dutch-British consortium that began producing here in 2010, is on its way to doubling its size, and is apparently competing successfully even as the market for its product shrinks because of reactor shutdowns in Japan and elsewhere after the Fukushima Daiichi accident three years ago. At the same time, the American company, USEC, continues to ask for a $2 billion loan guarantee from Washington as it tries to prove, despite the impending bankruptcy, that its American Centrifuge project is close to commercial operation.

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A cylinder of uranium-rich gas at the Eunice, N.M., plant of Urenco of Europe. Michael Stravato for The New York Times

The end result may be that uranium enrichment, which was pioneered by the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to develop the atomic bomb, may become primarily a European and Russian technology.

“The competitors are not standing still,” said Ruthanne Neely, senior vice president at UcX, a nuclear fuel consulting company.

Enrichment plants sort two types of uranium that occur in nature: uranium 235, which splits easily in reactors and bombs, and uranium 238, which does not. In nature, one uranium atom in 140 is uranium 235, but most reactors require a level of one in 33 to one in 20. Iran has used centrifuges to enrich uranium to one part in 20. At a little more than 9 uranium 235 parts in 10, the uranium is bomb fuel.

The Manhattan Project, and later the Atomic Energy Commission, mixed the uranium with fluorine to create a gas. The gas, uranium hexafluoride, was forced through a barrier that allowed one form to pass more easily than the other, a process called gaseous diffusion. Government-owned gaseous diffusion plants — eventually inherited by USEC — began by making weapons but later provided enrichment services for uranium owned by electric utilities with power plants. The last of those enrichment plants shut last year.

But Urenco and others put the gas into centrifuges. That technology has spread worldwide, including to Pakistan, which made nuclear bombs using centrifuges based on Urenco designs, stolen from the company by A. Q. Kahn, a Pakistani metallurgist. The process uses about 95 percent less electricity than gaseous diffusion.

Today the technology of enrichment is an odd mixture of secrecy and openness. In a hall filled with centrifuges at the Urenco facility here in the desert of eastern New Mexico, a white plastic sheet was stretched out in front of the piping at the top of the devices, so that a visitor could not see how they were linked together. A red line painted on the floor marked where visitors could stand, so they could not see the piping. The restrictions were required by the federal government, an official explained, so that a would-be bomb maker could not learn how to link the centrifuges together.

But in a hallway outside a conference room in the office area of the plant, a poster-size full color photo of the piping was openly displayed. That photo was taken at a twin plant in the Netherlands, company officials said, and was not covered by American secrecy rules.

Similarly, officials will talk about their level of production, which the industry measures in “separative work units,” or SWUs (pronounced “swooze”), but they will not say how many centrifuges are needed to produce that work. Power consumption of any given centrifuge is “less than a standard household light bulb,” said Jay Laughlin, the head of operations, somewhat vaguely.

Another secret is the speed at which the centrifuges spin, although when a visitor was led through a hall filled with a forest of tubes, Mr. Laughlin, referring to their collective whine, said, “If you had perfect pitch, you’d know how fast they were spinning.” A spokesman for USEC said that when a radio reporter toured its demonstration centrifuge array, in Piketon, Ohio, the reporter was forbidden to record the sound, for the same reason.

The exterior walls of the centrifuges are aluminum tubes, recalling events from more than a decade ago, when Saddam Hussein’s import of such tubes into Iraq led the Bush administration to assert that he was developing nuclear weapons.

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Urenco’s uranium centrifuge in New Mexico. USEC, the only American-owned enrichment company, is seeking capital to modernize. Michael Stravato for The New York Times

Urenco’s newest centrifuges are larger and spin faster, and each produces more SWUs than the old ones, so construction cost and electricity consumption are each down about 25 to 30 percent, Mr. Laughlin said.

The tubes here have sandbags on top, to dampen vibration, and clear plastic hoses filled with water running down the sides to help equalize temperatures. They are intended to run for years, maintenance-free. Urenco describes the centrifuges as simple, but they have a complication: They are extremely difficult to shut off and then restart, so as a result, Urenco says it does not build them unless it has presold their production.

“Our philosophy is ‘Sell it, finance it, build it,’ ” said Melissa Mann, president of Urenco’s American subsidiary.

USEC had expected to have its own centrifuges running by now, and presold their production. Now it is meeting that commitment using an inventory of SWUs from its now-defunct gaseous diffusion plants. It can also buy some SWUs from Tenex, a Russian export company, a spokesman said.

Although USEC has benefited from a desire by nuclear utilities to nurture another competitor in the marketplace, market analysts say it still has to persuade those companies to stick with it as it sells them uranium enriched in Russia or in old gaseous diffusion plants. For USEC to win a loan guarantee, it will need to present the Energy Department with signed contracts for purchase of the production of the new centrifuges.

So far, the department has repeatedly turned down USEC’s loan guarantee applications and told USEC to come back when the work was further along.

The budget deal in Congress earlier this month, however, provided $62 million from the nuclear weapons budget for work on USEC’s American Centrifuge project because the centrifuges could make fuel for a reactor that would produce a weapons material, tritium. Congress also provided another $56 million to the Energy Department that could be transferred to USEC later. USEC’s centrifuge would be substantially more productive than Urenco’s latest model, said a USEC spokesman, Paul E. Jacobson.

“After years of technological enhancement, the Urenco machine is reaching the end of its development maturity in terms of efficiencies and cost,” he said in an email. “In contrast, the American Centrifuge machine is in the early stages of its technological development, value engineering and cost efficiencies.”

But first the company has to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the Energy Department that its machines will run nearly flawlessly for years. And if it gets the $2 billion loan guarantee, it will still have to raise approximately another $2 billion to build the project.

Intelligence Agencies Won’t Release Reports On Excessive Secrecy

Huffington Post | Matt Sledge | 01/28/2014

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A little more than three years ago, Congress passed a law ordering the nation’s top intelligence agencies to review their classification procedures. Those reports on government secrecy are finished — but they won’t be released for public consumption just yet.

The National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency have all rebuffed HuffPost’s requests for copies of the reports on over-classification, or withholding documents from the public with no compelling or legal reason to do so. None of these reports, produced by the agencies’ inspectors general, are themselves technically classified, but they have been marked “for official use only,” which means they can only be released to the public after a review process.

The NSA said its report is “not available for public release” and told HuffPost to submit a public records request. The CIA refused to respond on the record to HuffPost’s request for its report, but a spokesman did say that its review had found no instances of over-classification. The lesser-known DIA provided more detail; according to a spokesman, the agency’s report found that its personnel “often misclassify, and typically that means over-classify, information.”

“The refusal by several agencies to release their reports on over-classification is actually a neat illustration of the problem — too much information is being withheld from the public for no good reason,” said Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. “But we basically knew that already. The real question is what to do about it.”

The agencies’ reports are the fruits of an earlier effort to address the problem of over-classification. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed a law called the Reducing Over-Classification Act that imposed a September 2013 deadline for spy agencies’ inspectors general to review the classification system for documents.

The law was passed because when it comes to secrets, government agencies all too often err on the side of caution or fear. In a 2012 report, the Public Interest Declassification Board — whose members are appointed by the president and Congress — found that our current classification system is “fraught with problems. In its mission to support national security, it keeps too many secrets, and keeps them too long.”

The American public learned only in September about how an atomic bomb was almost accidentally detonated over North Carolina in 1961. And CIA documents from 1962 about the Berlin Wall were only recently declassified.

“Why in the world did we feel compelled to even classify East Germany press reports? And why is so much still classified, now that the wall has long been demolished, Germany reunified and the Cold War ended?” asked James Warren in the New York Daily News. “It’s just dumb.”

Critics of government secrecy argue that needless over-classification encourages people like Edward Snowden to head to the press. After she was sentenced to a 35-year prison sentence, former Army Pfc. Chelsea Manning said in a statement that she gave documents to WikiLeaks in part because “Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.”

The CIA, NSA and DIA all said they met their September 2013 deadline.

Asked to characterize its inspector general’s findings, however, the NSA did not respond to a request for comment.

CIA spokesman Todd Ebitz said in an email that “the [Office of the Inspector General] report, which was provided to the Congressional committees specified in the Act, concluded that CIA classification policies, procedures, and regulations are consistent with federal requirements and have supported implementation of an effective classification management program.”

“The CIA OIG found no instances of over-classification in the sample of finished intelligence products that were reviewed as part of its evaluation of the Agency’s classification management program,” Ebitz said.

A DIA spokesman went into the greatest detail. His agency’s inspector general, he said, found in a summary that “agency classification practices were overly protective and risk-averse,” and “that because these practices are deeply rooted in the culture, it will take special senior leadership emphasis to change how people work with classification.”

The DIA inspector general recommended that the agency implement new, more tailored training for its different divisions. The authority to classify documents is now supposed to align with a new centers-based model at the agency. The third recommendation was that the agency consolidate its classification guides “so you have fewer guides and more clear guidance.” And finally, all the agency’s new guides should undergo quality control.

The DIA decided to accept all of its inspector general’s proposals, the spokesman said, which are now in “varying stages of implementation.”

The spy agencies’ comments come on the heels of earlier reports issued by other federal agencies that found spotty implementation of their own accepted classification policies.

The Department of Homeland Security released its report in August. Findings for the Federal Bureau of Investigation came as part of a Department of Justice report from September that found a combined 170 marking errors on 56 classified FBI documents. The Department of Defense also completed a report that found that 70 percent of the 220 documents it reviewed had classification discrepancies, and 23 documents were misclassified.

Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists, said that all the reports he has read so far, while they shed some light on over-classification, “fell short of expectations because they asked the wrong question.”

Even if the CIA, NSA and DIA eventually release their reports, Aftergood suggested, the public may be underwhelmed. Instead of considering deeply the question of government secrecy and its corroding influence on the public’s right to know, he argues, inspectors general have decided to count emails and memos. They did not reconsider an executive order issued by Obama in 2009, or question the reasons for classification at a more fundamental level.

“They defined ‘over-classification’ as classifying information in violation of the executive order on national security secrecy,” Aftergood continued, “but the real issue is that the executive order itself permits too much information to be classified. And that is a problem that goes beyond what the IGs were prepared to consider.”