January 12, 2016
Six years ago, 47 world leaders gathered in Washington, D.C., to work together to protect against the greatest security threat facing the world: catastrophic nuclear terrorism. The first Nuclear Security Summit was the largest gathering of heads of government since the founding of the United Nations 45 years earlier, and it put an essential spotlight on the imperative to lock down vulnerable nuclear materials.
At that 2010 summit, the leaders launched a major new initiative to reduce and secure the more than 2,000 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear materials spread across hundreds of sites around the globe. The task was awesome—and so was the leaders’ joint commitment to it.
It was a watershed moment for nuclear security.
As leaders prepare to gather again in Washington for what will be their fourth and final summit, they can point to significant progress made on their pledge—progress documented over six years in the two previous editions of the NTI Nuclear Security Index.
Since the start of 2010, a dozen countries have eliminated weapons-usable nuclear materials from their territories, nuclear security policies and practices have been strengthened in dozens more, and the entry into force of a key international treaty has moved closer to reality.
In large part as a result of the summit process, global leaders today understand that nuclear materials security is much more than just a sovereign concern. It is clear that because of the catastrophic nature of the threat, poor security in one country has the potential to affect us all. And it is also clear that we need to establish an effective global system for nuclear materials security.
The White House and the leaders who have made nuclear materials security a priority have good reason to be proud of their achievements, both in practical steps taken and in raising greater awareness about the risk.
As the 2016 summit approaches, however, leaders also have cause for concern. Their final meeting in Washington comes at a particularly perilous time for global security. Relations are frayed across the Euro-Atlantic region as one crisis seems only to give way to another. Brutal attacks and incidents by ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), Boko Haram, al Qaeda, and other organizations with deadly intent are on the rise across the Middle East and beyond. A sting in Southeast Europe last year exposed a vibrant and shockingly audacious black market in nuclear materials.
The 2016 NTI Nuclear Security Index, the third edition of our biennial assessment of nuclear security conditions around the world, reveals another problem: amid this global chaos, progress on the goals set at the 2010 summit has slowed.
In contrast to 2014, when the NTI Index reported that seven countries had eliminated their weapons-usable nuclear materials in the previous two years, this edition finds that only one country, Uzbekistan, has removed all of its dangerous nuclear materials since the last NTI Index came out. Progress in a host of other areas has also slowed, raising questions about the ability to sustain progress on this important initiative after the 2016 summit. Without the high-level attention and impetus provided by the summits and with so many competing priorities in a deeply unsettled world, can governments remain focused on the need to tighten nuclear materials security?
It’s a troubling question given how much is left undone and the potential consequences of inaction.
Today, 24 states still have one kilogram or more of weapons-usable nuclear materials, and although the amount is down from two years ago, more than 1,800 metric tons of weapons-usable materials remain stored around the world, much of it still too vulnerable to theft. The risk is compounded by the fact that a terrorist group wouldn’t need much nuclear material to make a nuclear bomb. Enough highly enriched uranium to fill a five-pound bag of sugar or a quantity of plutonium the size of a grapefruit is all terrorists would need to build and detonate a weapon. The result: catastrophic consequences that would stretch across the globe for economies, commerce, militaries, public health, the environment, civil liberties, and the stability of governments.
Meanwhile, cyber attacks are increasing—nuclear facilities are just as vulnerable as other key infrastructure—and a growing number of states are exploring nuclear energy even though they lack the legal, regulatory, and security frameworks to ensure that their facilities are secure as well as safe.
In addition to assessing the security of nuclear materials, the 2016 NTI Index assesses for the first time important emerging threats and vulnerabilities, adding indicators to determine how well states are prepared to handle cyber threats and potential acts of sabotage. The results are troubling.
I believe it is fair to say that today we are at a crossroads on nuclear security. When the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit opens, leaders will have important questions to answer: Will they take the difficult steps needed to better protect against nuclear theft, attack, and sabotage? Will they work together to build the global architecture needed to protect against catastrophic nuclear terrorism? Will they sustain the momentum that the summit process created?
We at NTI believe leaders must show even greater resolve today in the face of escalating threats. Because the consequences of an act of nuclear terrorism would reverberate around the globe, leaders also have an obligation to work together. We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe, and the world’s leaders must run faster.
Co-Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Nuclear Threat Initiative