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Global improvement in security for weapons-usable materials is lauded

But much work remains to reduce the risk of highly enriched uranium and plutonium falling into the hands of terrorists.

Seven countries have removed either all or most of their weapons–usable materials in the past two years, and numerous others have improved their protections against theft or diversion of the materials, according to a new report from the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI).

In its second biennial nuclear materials security index, the NTI again ranked Australia first among the 25 nations that hold inventories of at least 1 kilogram of highly enriched uranium (HEU), plutonium, or both for the protections it has in place to prevent their use by terrorists. The index considers numerous criteria, including the amount of materials and the number of sites where the materials are located, the physical security measures in place, international treaty and legal commitments, the existence of an independent nuclear regulatory agency, political stability, and the pervasiveness of corruption.

Since the release of the NTI’s 2012 index, seven countries—Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Mexico, Sweden, Ukraine, and Vietnam—have removed all or most of their stocks of weapons-usable nuclear materials from their soil, according to the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. Most of those materials have been sent to the US or Russia.

Among the nuclear weapons states, France scored highest in security at 7th, while the UK and US tied for 11th place. Russia was 18th. China, Israel, Pakistan, India, Iran, and North Korea brought up the rear, at 20th through 25th, respectively. Pakistan nonetheless was the most improved of the nuclear powers, the result of updated nuclear security regulations and its adoption of industry-standard best practices.

Among the most improved countries since 2012 was Canada, which shot up six places to second on the list. Canada incorporated into its national regulations the new International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines regarding the transport of nuclear materials, and it ratified two international legal agreements. Japan also moved up six places, to 13th, because of new safety and security steps, including formation of a new nuclear regulatory agency, that it took after the Fukushima nuclear accident. Belgium improved by seven spots, to 10th, after passing new nuclear security legislation and deciding to phase out nuclear energy. Germany improved by three places, to 4th.

Four nations increased their inventories of nuclear materials during the four years measured by the NTI and its partner, the Economist Intelligence Unit. Japan and the UK added to their civilian stocks, and Pakistan and India increased both military and civilian supplies. North Korea is also likely to have increased its stockpile, according to the NTI index.

About 85% of weapons-usable materials are kept for military or other noncivilian use. That tally includes the vast majority of HEU and about half of the separated plutonium. Noncivilian materials aren’t subject to International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines or to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and its 2005 amendment. Among the recommendations in the NTI index are the adoption of best-practices exchanges, information sharing, peer review, or other voluntary mechanisms to increase confidence worldwide in the security of those materials.

“Leaders of nuclear armed states need to raise confidence in the security of all nuclear materials, whether civilian or military. No one would have confidence in an international civil aviation system if regulations only applied to 15 percent of the planes that fly,” NTI president Joan Rohlfing said in a statement. “Why should our nuclear materials security rules apply only to a small fraction of these dangerous materials?”

The NTI security index was released in advance of the third biennial nuclear security summit in the Netherlands in March. At the inaugural summit held in Washington, DC, in April 2010, the leaders of 47 nations pledged to take actions to secure all vulnerable weapons-usable materials worldwide. The NTI estimates that there are 2000 metric tons of such materials, spread across hundreds of sites, some of which are poorly secured.

The report noted that it is dangerous to take the security of weapons-usable materials for granted. It cited as evidence incidents such as the security breach at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where protestors breached undetected the perimeter of the facility housing most of the US stockpile of HEU, and the removal of the deputy director of the US Strategic Command for gambling-related allegations.

The report contrasted the lack of a global system for how nuclear materials should be secured with the case of aviation. Nations set and abide by standards for airline safety and security through the International Civil Aviation Organization, which was created within the framework of the United Nations.


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