03/30/2016 07:50 am ET Updated Mar 29, 2017

Let's Get Serious About Nuclear Security

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Last fall, the AP published an unnerving exposé of a thriving black market in Moldova for radioactive materials that could be used in dirty bombs. In one case, the AP described an attempt to sell bomb-grade uranium during which "a middleman for the gang repeatedly ranted with hatred for America as he focused on smuggling the essential material for an atomic bomb and blueprints for a dirty bomb to a Middle Eastern buyer."

What's being done about keeping the world's deadliest materials out of the hands of terrorists?

A lot. But progress is slowing, and the fourth Nuclear Security Summit being held in Washington in March may be the last chance to put tools and processes in place to solidify the gains and create a path to an effective global security system that will protect us all.

Since 2010, three previous Nuclear Security Summits have put an unprecedented spotlight on the threat of nuclear terrorism and generated actions in countries around the world to strengthen their own security and support global efforts.

But despite many positive steps, there is still no effective global system for managing these dangerous materials. There are no international "rules of the road" that all states follow. We have little visibility into actions that countries are taking, and no international oversight ensures that countries are fulfilling their responsibilities.

What's more, 83 percent of global stocks of weapons-usable nuclear materials -- highly enriched uranium or plutonium categorized as "military" -- is outside the scope of the security mechanisms that do exist, leaving a significant security gap. And while we want to believe that the security of military materials is as strong as possible, incidents in the United States and in the United Kingdom demonstrate that this would be naïve.

Recently, the Nuclear Threat Initiative released our 2016 NTI Nuclear Security Index, looking at nuclear security conditions in 176 countries. We identified important progress but also serious red flags in the way countries are trying to protect the world against catastrophic nuclear terrorism.

Here's the good news, some of which is a direct result of countries fulfilling Nuclear Security Summit commitments:

  • The number of countries holding nuclear material that could be used by terrorists to build and detonate a nuclear bomb has been halved since 1991, from 52 then to 24 now. A dozen countries have decreased their quantities of these deadly materials in the past four years.
  • Fifteen of the 24 countries with weapons-usable nuclear materials improved their overall scores in the Index and a half-dozen countries took new voluntary steps, like joining international anti-nuclear terrorism initiatives or funding and supporting similar efforts.
  • Of the 24 countries, four including the United States became parties to international legal agreements related to nuclear materials security, strengthening the global legal foundation.

Now here's the bad news:

  • First, over the past two years, only one country -- Uzbekistan -- has completely eliminated its nuclear materials (compared to seven countries between 2012 and 2014). No improvements have been made in key security measures assessed by the Index. And global stocks of weapons-usable nuclear materials are potentially on track to increase after a period of decreasing levels.
  • Second, this year's Index for the first time looked at national requirements for protecting nuclear facilities against cyber attacks, which could knock out critical systems and lead to the theft of nuclear materials or a major radiological release along the lines of Fukushima. As the New York Times reported, the Index shows that countries are ill-prepared for this emerging threat: 20 out of 47 countries with nuclear power or other facilities such as research reactors have no requirements to protect them from cyber attacks.
  • Finally,a majority of countries with such as nuclear power plants or research reactors showed major regulatory gaps in areas such as reducing threats by insiders and controlling access to sensitive facility areas. This was particularly the case in countries with ambitions for new nuclear power: of those nine countries, eight scored in the bottom half of the 45 on security and control measures.

Where does this leave us? As long as nuclear materials and facilities exist and the nuclear terrorism threat remains, the cooperative work necessary to prevent catastrophic nuclear terrorism must continue. If this summit ends without an agreed path forward, the international community risks seeing its efforts to strengthen nuclear security languish or, worse, backslide.

The 2016 summit must not mark the end of high-level attention to nuclear materials security. Instead, it's our final window of opportunity to set a path for continued progress in a new phase of strengthened and lasting international cooperation.


Joan Rohlfing is the president and chief operating officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

The views expressed above are the author's own.

This post is part of a blog series produced by The Huffington Post and Carnegie Corporation of New York about issues related to the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit. World leaders will gather in Washington, D.C., on March 31-April 1 to address the threat of nuclear terrorism and steps toward creating a global nuclear-security system to prevent it. To view all of the posts in the series, visit here. Join the conversation on Twitter at @CarnegieCorp, #NSS2016.