World leaders at the third Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands in March 2014 can point to measurable progress toward the goal of reducing and securing the materials needed to build a nuclear bomb. Seven more states have removed all or most of these dangerous materials from their territories since the beginning of 2012; more than a dozen others have taken important new steps to reduce quantities and to better secure the materials they hold.

That progress in securing weapons-usable nuclear materials is measured here in the second edition of the NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index.

The good news, however, is tempered by the challenges ahead. The past two Nuclear Security Summits have put an essential spotlight on the issue of nuclear materials security, but the steps that governments have taken are not yet enough in the face of a threat that has changed fundamentally from the days of the Cold War.

Today, nearly 2,000 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear materials remain spread across hundreds of sites around the globe—some of it poorly secured. We know that to get the materials needed to build a bomb, terrorists will not necessarily go where there is the most material; they will go where the material is most vulnerable. We also know that nation–states no longer have a monopoly on the knowledge and ability to build and use nuclear bombs, so the path to a terrorist bomb is not hard to imagine.

Meanwhile, the international community is still not effectively organized to protect the world from catastrophic terrorism—despite grave concerns about the spread of these materials and the knowledge that groups such as al Qaeda are seeking weapons of mass destruction. In the face of this evolving threat, leaders must ask: What’s to stop terrorists from using a nuclear weapon if they get the material to make one? Where is the deterrence when there is no return address?

The strengths and shortfalls in our global nuclear materials security are catalogued in this new edition of the NTI Index, and we recommend actions that governments should take both individually and collectively to improve that security.

The need for urgent action is clear. Today’s threats are dynamic. Our response must be as well.

The positive steps taken so far do help make the world safer. At the same time, global nuclear security is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain—and that makes it imperative that sovereign states exercise their own responsibility in the context of global cooperation.

One of the unmet challenges for preventing nuclear terrorism is the development of an effective global system for how nuclear materials should be secured. In the absence of such a system, states use a wide variety of practices. Some are strong and others are weak, but overall security practices are uneven, and there is no effective process to assess nuclear security globally, to recommend course corrections, or to hold states accountable—even though one weak link in the chain can harm us all.

This disturbing lack of an effective system for security standards and practices around the world’s most dangerous materials stands in contrast to the strict standards in place in other high-risk global enterprises, such as aviation, where public safety and security are at stake. To protect their citizens’ safety and security, states can deny landing rights to airlines that don’t follow international aviation standards and recommended practices. Yet with weapons-usable nuclear materials, where poor security can lead to a nuclear catastrophe with global consequences, there is no shared system of standards, assurance, or accountability.

The world must develop a nuclear materials security system that will cover all materials, that will employ international standards and best practices, and that will reduce risks by reducing weapons-usable nuclear material stocks and the number of locations where they are found. The system must also encourage and help states provide assurances to one another, such as inviting peer reviews using outside experts, to demonstrate that effective security is in place.

As the United States and Russia have understood for more than 20 years—since the Cooperative Threat Reduction program was developed after the breakup of the Soviet Union—securing and eliminating materials of mass destruction requires cooperation. It is a security win–win for all nations.

As governments work to protect the world from those who seek to inflict unthinkable suffering and havoc, we hope the 2014 NTI Index will be a valuable resource. Following the release of the first edition in 2012, we sought feedback from countries about what we got right and how we could make improvements. We took that feedback seriously and made changes to this year’s edition. We look forward to receiving feedback once more. This Index should be looked on as a tool for improvement, not a perfect scorecard.

The Netherlands summit will create an excellent opportunity for leaders to think anew about these challenges and to provide critical guidance that can lead to significant improvements in how we secure these dangerous materials. We are optimistic that it can be done. We must not let inertia or the scale of the challenge prevent progress. Events in Syria demonstrate vividly the threats posed by weapons of mass destruction and the importance of nations cooperating to minimize the threat.

If the world is serious about preventing nuclear terrorism, it must also become serious about giving the International Atomic Energy Agency the funding and authority to do the job—or leaders must find effective alternative approaches to fill the large gaps in global security.

It is the duty of governments to reduce the risks that pose a threat to humanity and to God’s universe. Citizens must demand it, and leaders must answer the call.

The day after a nuclear catastrophe, citizens and leaders alike would be asking what we should have done to prevent it. I continue to ask the question: Why aren’t we doing it now?


Sam Nunn
Co-Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Nuclear Threat Initiative

Excerpted from the full 2014 NTI Index report