September 4, 2018
The news out of Belgium was chilling: within days of deadly terrorist bombings at the Brussels airport and subway, authorities dramatically increased security around the country’s nuclear complexes, thus stripping workers of their security badges and sending most employees home. It was not a typical post-attack security crackdown. Authorities had reason to believe that an “insider” in Belgium might be helping Islamic State terrorists gain access to the country’s nuclear and radiological materials.
Even before those 2016 suicide bombings in Brussels killed 35 and injured more than 300 others, concern had been growing across Europe and beyond as authorities uncovered evidence that well-organized, well-funded, increasingly capable terrorist organizations were seeking weapons of mass destruction. The evidence reinforces that we are racing the clock to prevent an attack with catastrophic consequences.
It has been clear for some time that governments struggle to stay ahead of—even to keep pace with—those evolving, escalating threats. That recognition—along with the understanding that the only way to address the greatest security threats facing the world is for governments to work together—was the impetus for four global Nuclear Security Summits.
NTI’s Nuclear Security Index, a biennial ranking of nuclear security conditions worldwide, was born of the need to determine the steps that countries and the global community should take to strengthen security around nuclear materials and facilities and to evaluate progress against those steps.
The NTI Index has tracked that progress since 2012 (in tandem with the summits). Although the summit process is now over, the work it catalyzed has never been more important. This fourth edition of the NTI Index reflects the work that remains to be accomplished.
There are reasons for optimism. The 2018 NTI Index assesses nuclear security conditions in the 22 countries that have one kilogram or more of weapons-usable nuclear materials. Six years ago, 32 countries had such quantities, and we commend those countries (now including Argentina and Poland) that have addressed the threat in the best way possible: by removing or disposing of all their weapons-usable nuclear materials.
The 2018 NTI Index also finds that, since the 2016 report, countries have accelerated their work to mitigate the threat of theft or sabotage by improving physical protection at nuclear facilities, security during transport of materials, response capabilities, on-site cybersecurity, and more.
Specific improvements are detailed in this report, including NTI’s Theft Ranking (first released in 2012) and NTI’s Sabotage Ranking (added in 2016), the latter of which tracks nuclear facilities’ vulnerability to potential acts of sabotage.
At the same time, there are some unfortunate and alarming undercurrents. In the eight years since the first Nuclear Security Summit elevated the issue of nuclear security to the head-of-state level and promoted global cooperation on an issue that still too often is regarded as a sovereign matter, important progress made in the nuclear security realm is now in jeopardy.
Around the world, the overall risk environment is deteriorating, which makes progress challenging and potentially engenders backsliding. The Index’s “Risk Environment” indicators identify a global increase in political instability, ineffective governance, pervasiveness of corruption, and the presence and capabilities of terrorist groups. And this news comes at a time when a growing list of countries—including in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Europe—are developing ambitious new plans for nuclear power.
Countries made modest improvements in cybersecurity, but—overall—defenses remain dangerously insufficient to meet the expanding and rapidly evolving cyber threat. Governments and facility operators must step up their game to tackle the threats that exist on this front.
The results of this Index do not bode well for governments’ ability to keep their attention focused on what always should be job one: protecting citizens from harm. Instead, the results serve to reinforce the need for countries to band together to develop an effective global nuclear security system with the following: a common set of international standards and best practices, a mechanism for holding countries accountable for appropriate and effective security measures, and a robust legal foundation for securing nuclear materials.
That approach has been NTI’s top-level recommendation from the start, and it remains so today. In the face of emerging and escalating global threats, we believe leaders have an obligation to recommit to the security agenda laid out at the Nuclear Security Summits and to take tangible, measurable steps to protect against terrorist attacks that could have almost unfathomable consequences.
Ernest J. Moniz
Co-Chair & Chief Executive Officer
Nuclear Threat Initiative