Countries Have Accelerated Nuclear Security Improvements

In many countries, national commitments have been made to support broad-based improvements to nuclear security conditions. Among other improvements, two fewer countries hold nuclear weapons-usable materials than did in the 2016 NTI Index, and 13 countries have made important improvements to the ways in which they secure materials stocks.

Since the 2016 NTI Index, two additional countries, Argentina and Poland, removed or disposed of all highly enriched uranium within their territories. They join Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Mexico, Sweden, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam—all of which similarly cleaned out their materials stockpiles between 2012 and 2016. The total number of countries with weapons-usable materials is now 22, down from more than 50 in the early 1990s and more than 40 in the early 2000s. The elimination of those materials reduces opportunities for interested terrorists and criminals to obtain weapons-usable nuclear materials.

Between 2016 and 2018, as measured by the NTI Index, countries with weapons-usable nuclear materials took a total of 82 actions[1] to improve nuclear security conditions, compared with 43 that were taken during the prior two-year period. Those actions include improvements to the core protection and control measures assessed in the NTI Index, such as (a) onsite physical protection, (b) control and accounting procedures, (c) mitigation of threats from within nuclear facilities (i.e., the risk that personnel with authorized access to materials could steal weapons-usable nuclear materials and/or potentially aid the terrorists or criminals who wish to obtain them), (d) physical security during transport, (e) response capabilities, and (f) cybersecurity of nuclear facilities.

Countries that still maintain stocks of weapons-usable nuclear materials—highly enriched uranium, separated plutonium, or fresh mixed-oxide fuel—accelerated the pace of their security improvements since 2016. Of the core protection areas measured in the NTI Index, countries made 30 tangible improvements since 2016, the majority of which were improvements to basic protection and security regulations such as insider threat prevention measures and physical security of materials during transport.[2] This progress compares to the 21 improvements countries made during the prior two-year period, 20 of which were improvements to cybersecurity measures.[3] In fact, of the 22 countries with weapons-usable nuclear materials, 16 improved their overall Theft Ranking score between 2016 and 2018.

Those improvements include:

  • Reducing opportunities for theft. Since 2016, six countries took steps to reduce their quantities and sites of fissile materials.[4] Four countries, however, increased their quantities of weapons-usable nuclear materials.[5] The more materials and sites a country has, the greater its exposure to risk of theft.
  • Strengthening physical protection measures. Three countries took actions to improve physical security[6] and five countries passed new laws or regulations to mitigate the insider threat.[7] Such steps reduce the risk that personnel with authorized access could steal nuclear materials and/or potentially aid terrorists or criminals.
  • Improving the physical security of materials during transport. Five countries improved regulations dealing with the protection of nuclear materials when they are being moved and are most vulnerable to theft.[8]
  • Improving response capabilities. Three countries took steps to improve response capabilities which are part of a layered security system that can help authorities recover materials should they be stolen from a site.[9]
  • Making international legal commitments to nuclear materials security. Two countries signed on to either the 2005 Amendment to the International Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPP) or the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT).[10]
  • Making commitments to nuclear materials security. Three countries made new voluntary commitments in the form of bilateral or multilateral assistance, contributions to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Nuclear Security Fund, or creation of new Centers of Excellence.[11]
  • Building international confidence in security arrangements. Three countries hosted international security peer reviews.[12] Peer review is a powerful tool for improving security performance and for building others’ confidence in a state’s commitment to continued improvement.
  • Of the countries and Taiwan with nuclear facilities that were assessed in the Sabotage Ranking, more than three-fourths improved their scores since 2016 (the inaugural year of the ranking). Particularly notable improvements were made in the category of Security and Control Measures.
  • Three countries improved their on-site physical protection of nuclear sites.[13]
  • Four countries improved their control and accounting procedures by passing new laws or regulations requiring that potential levels of radiation released as a result of sabotage help determine how to physically protect nuclear materials,[14] equipment, systems, and devices,[15] or by requiring identity verification and recordkeeping of those entering restricted areas in nuclear facilities.[16]
  • Eight countries improved insider threat prevention measures, including by enhancing the guidelines for the qualification and fitness of personnel with access to protected areas,[17] by improving the frequency of personnel vetting,[18] by requiring personnel to report suspicious behavior,[19] and by performing constant surveillance to detect unauthorized actions.[20]
  • Four countries enhanced their response capabilities by requiring on-site armed guards,[21] by training law enforcement officers to respond to security incidents at nuclear facilities,[22] and by requiring plans for protection of nuclear infrastructure in the event of a natural disaster.[23]

More than half of all countries in the Sabotage Ranking, however, still have total scores below 80 out of a possible 100, indicating substantial opportunities for improvement.


[1] NTI’s analysis of the actions that countries took to improve nuclear security conditions measures score improvements at the subindicator level and counts a country’s positive score change on an Index subindicator as a single improvement. The total number of actions does not describe the magnitude of those actions, nor does it describe their effect on a country’s overall score or ranking.

[2] “Core protection area” indicators refer to the NTI Index’s second category of indicators for countries with weapons-usable materials or nuclear facilities. The category evaluates on-site physical protection, control and accounting procedures, insider threat prevention, physical security during transport, response capabilities, and cybersecurity.

[3] The 2016 figures may differ from those published in the 2016 NTI Nuclear Security Index report as a result of backscoring or government data clarification.

[4] Listed in order of improvement from greatest to least: Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Kazakhstan, Belgium, and Germany.

[5] India, North Korea, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom.

[6] Australia, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan.

[7] Canada, China, Germany, Japan, and Pakistan.

[8] China, Japan, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, and Russia.

[9] Belgium, Italy, and Norway.

[10] Italy and Pakistan.

[11] China, Israel, and Switzerland.

[12] China, Germany, and Italy.

[13] Australia, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan.

[14] Armenia and Pakistan.

[15] Armenia, Bulgaria, and Kazakhstan.

[16] Armenia.

[17] Canada, China, Germany, and Japan.

[18] Finland.

[19] Spain.

[20] Bulgaria, Germany, and Pakistan.

[21] Although the regulatory change is forthcoming, Belgium has already stationed armed guards at nuclear facilities in response to recent threats.

[22] Algeria and Norway.

[23] Finland.