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A Race Between Cooperation and Catastrophe: The Need to Sustain Momentum on Nuclear Security

March 10, 2016

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Guest blog by Sam Nunn, NTI Co-chairman

The prospect is almost unthinkable: one of the world’s great cities devastated at the hands of terrorists armed with a crude nuclear weapon built out of materials stolen or bought on the black market.

On that dreadful day, with the consequences of nuclear catastrophe reverberating around the globe, citizens and world leaders alike would ask, “What could we have done, and what should we have done, to prevent it?”

Amid the destruction, we could not plausibly argue that the threat was not clear. In fact, there is evidence today that the elements of a perfect storm are in place:

• More than 1,800 metric tons of weapons-usable materials remain stored in 24 countries, much of it still too vulnerable to theft;

• Terrorist organizations have publicly stated their desire to acquire and use nuclear weapons, and the knowledge and technical know-how needed to build a crude nuclear bomb is easily accessible by the Internet or through rogue scientists;

• Cyber attacks are on the increase and nuclear facilities are just as vulnerable as other key infrastructure;

• Radiological materials that are used in medical equipment, for scientific research and in industry and that also can be used to build so-called radiological “dirty bombs” are dispersed across thousands of sites in more than 100 countries.

• 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.

Six years ago, President Obama hosted the first Nuclear Security Summit for world leaders to begin to collectively to address the threat posed by vulnerable weapons-usable nuclear materials. Today, as they prepare for their fourth and likely final summit, leaders have good reason to be proud of their achievements, both in practical steps taken and in raising greater awareness about the risk.

Since 2010, eleven countries have taken the most important step to prevent theft by eliminating their weapons-usable materials. 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 responsibility. 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, including weapons-grade “military materials,” which make up 83% of all weapons-usable nuclear materials.

On the challenging side, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) has found, through our 2016 NTI Nuclear Security Index, that progress on the goals set at the 2010 summit has slowed 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.

It is fair to say that we are now at an important checkpoint 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, cyber 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?

I believe we are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe. President Obama and the world’s leaders should be commended for their work so far – but all of them must run faster in the race that continues.

(Adapted from the Foreword in the 2012 NTI Index and the 2016 NTI Index)