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The Path to Nuclear Materials Security: Overcoming Political and Cultural Hurdles

February 25, 2016

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As world leaders prepare to gather for the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, they can point to significant progress made on their pledge to better secure the nearly 2,000 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear materials stored around the globe. The positive steps taken since the summit process began in 2010 include strengthening nuclear security policies and practices around the world and eliminating weapons-usable nuclear material from a dozen countries. These steps have helped protect the world from catastrophic nuclear terrorism.

Today, leaders recognize that global nuclear security is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, and they understand that at the 2016 Summit, each country will need to report on its commitments.
However, despite that understanding and the high-level spotlight placed on nuclear materials security, the 2016 NTI Nuclear Security Index discovered that progress in recent years has slowed.
So what has been preventing countries from making more progress?

Among the key hurdles: politics, cultural challenges and resources. Examples abound.

Political Will in the U.S. Congress
In the United States, a domestic political dispute over the death penalty stalled ratification of an internationally binding legal agreement for an entire decade.
The agreement at stake was an amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) that closes a major loophole by requiring strengthened security around a broad set of nuclear materials vulnerable to theft by terrorists or criminals—not just those in international transit.

President Obama had committed to ratify the amendment in 2010, but effort was stalled as lawmakers argued over whether criminals caught committing these crimes should be subject to the death penalty under federal law. Substantively, the disagreement was irrelevant. Existing laws already allowed officials to pursue the death penalty in the case of nuclear terrorist attacks.

Regardless, the death penalty dispute divided two leading senators and stalled multiple attempts in the Senate to pass legislation necessary to ratify the CPPNM amendment. The House of Representatives, meanwhile, voted nearly unanimously in favor of passing it—not once, but twice. Finally, in July 2015, the House Judiciary Committee came up with a solution and included the amendment in a major anti-terrorism bill, the USA Freedom Act, that House members knew would win approval in the Senate.

Until the United States ratified the CPPNM amendment, many experts cited U.S. inaction as preventing ratification by other nations. With a single successful vote, those dynamics changed dramatically. According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, ratification showed “that the United States is committed on a bipartisan basis to eliminating the greatest threat to global security: nuclear terrorism.” Since U.S. ratification, three more countries have followed suit.

Generating Public Pressure and Addressing Cultural Barriers
Around the world, political will often is directly tied to public pressure – or the lack thereof. “Politicians are hesitant to expend political capital if they’re not benefiting a clear constituency,” said NTI’s Samantha Pitts-Kiefer.
That can make the adoption of nuclear security measures challenging enough, as nuclear issues often don’t rank near the top of issues people are concerned about, according to national polls.
Complicating matters further is that in some countries, cultural forces can be a barrier to adopting new security laws and practices.

As an example, some countries in Northern Europe and Asia are reluctant to implement important nuclear security measures that would root out so-called “insider threats,” such as background checks and drug testing for nuclear personnel – but for different reasons. In Nordic nations, trust is highly valued, culturally, making it difficult to ask employees to provide proof that they’re doing nothing wrong. In some Asian nations, personal privacy is highly valued, making it difficult to ask employees for personal information needed for background checks.

In those cases and many others, policymakers must work to find creative ways to respect cultural norms while ensuring that nuclear materials are secured to the highest possible standards.

Providing Needed Resources
Finally, even when countries have the will, they must also have the way. That means resources.

Despite the risks, some countries with nuclear power programs or research programs that use dangerous nuclear materials may still lack the personnel and budgetary resources needed to implement adequate security measures. Often, bureaucracy stands in the way. There’s no doubt that expanding a nation’s cadre of experts on nuclear issues, building infrastructure and streamlining authority over the nuclear security mission are complex and expensive undertakings. But identifying resource shortages—both in human capital and financially—is an important first step toward building an effective nuclear security program with the resources to make a difference.
Whether sustaining political will, fostering public pressure or assembling the resources to get the job done, the hurdles to global nuclear security are significant. And while the most recent NTI Nuclear Security Index showed that global nuclear security efforts have slowed, every step a nation takes could be the one that makes all the difference. Step by difficult step, countries are overcoming barriers to effective nuclear security. But we must move faster.