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The Other 83 Percent: Securing Military Nuclear Materials

March 8, 2016

Weapon - French Charles_De_Gaulle_(R91)_underway_2009

Imagine, for a moment, a world in which every country – even those with no weapons-usable nuclear materials – has adopted existing robust and effective nuclear security standards and protocols.

In such a world—a substantially more secure than the world we know now—a  full 83 percent of nuclear materials would still remain outside the scope of those standards and protocols and may be vulnerable to theft and sabotage. That’s because neither internationally recognized standards nor multilateral agreements currently apply to military nuclear materials.

This glaring military materials gap has not escaped policymakers, particularly in the shadow of recent breaches at facilities in the United States and United Kingdom. In one such instance, an 82-year-old nun was among those who managed to break into a U.S. military facility containing thousands of kilograms of highly enriched uranium.

Despite security lapses and incidents at military nuclear facilities, the challenge of securing the world’s military stockpiles – approximately 1,500 metric tons worth of nuclear material – has remained insurmountable. With the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit approaching, global leaders have the best chance in years to begin overcoming these hurdles and putting mechanisms in place to better secure military stockpiles.

“The ideal outcome [of the Summit] would be a gift basket addressing military materials,” says Miles Pomper, senior fellow at The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “However, whether such an ambitious package can be achieved is an open question.”

A look at previous summits reveals just how challenging such a gift basket (agreement) will be. None of the previous summit communiqués included specific commitments related to military materials. What progress was made came through unilateral action by countries such as the United Kingdom, which included a commitment related to military materials security in its 2014 summit statement.

“In the absence of a gift basket,” says Pomper “[more] national statements that include pledges related to military materials, or the creation of a plan – such as the formation of a technical working group – can help move the issue forward after the summit process ends.”

Whether a gift basket, national statements or a working group, a key component to any path forward is accommodating the national security and confidentiality concerns of nations. A recently released NTI reportBridging the Military Nuclear Materials Gap provides a roadmap for how to both ensure nuclear security and protect national security.

As detailed in the report’s recommendations, which were developed with military leaders, nations can unilaterally publish aggregate data regarding all of their nuclear materials, including military materials, to demonstrate that military stockpiles are effectively accounted for in national inventories. In 2012, the United States did just that when it published a report listing the total quantity of plutonium in the custody of the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Countries also can take bilateral or multilateral steps such as enlisting a trusted agent – for example an agent from an allied nation – to review sites containing military nuclear material and verify that adequate security measures are in place.

Terrorists bent on stealing nuclear materials will not distinguish between nuclear materials designated as civilian and those designated as military,” the NTI report warns. “They will seek to obtain materials from the most vulnerable and least protected location.”

Despite the challenges that exist when it comes to military nuclear materials, leading experts say it’s wrong to assume improved security is a lost cause.

“Skeptics say focusing on the security of military materials is too sensitive or too difficult,” former Senator Richard Lugar, a co-author of the report along with NTI Co-chairman Sam Nunn and NTI Vice Chairman Des Browne, a former U.K. defense secretary, said at its release last year. “Experience has taught us that international cooperation is crucial when it comes to securing weapons of mass destruction and the materials to build them.”