January 11, 2016
Today, nearly 2,000 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear materials—highly enriched uranium and plutonium—remain stored in hundreds of facilities, some poorly secured and vulnerable to theft, across 24 countries.
Despite important efforts to better secure materials in a number of countries, there is still no effective global system for how all weapons-usable nuclear materials should be secured. The mechanisms that do exist apply almost exclusively to a small fraction of all weapons-usable nuclear materials—the 17 percent used for peaceful, civilian applications. The remaining 83 percent are commonly categorized as “military materials” and are therefore outside the scope of current international security standards, mechanisms, and confidence-building arrangements. Security breaches and incidents at military nuclear facilities in the United States and the United Kingdom illustrate that governments must do more to secure these dangerous materials.
This military materials gap is dangerous. It creates a significant security risk on its own—and it erects a major barrier to establishing an effective global nuclear security system. Terrorists bent on stealing nuclear materials will not distinguish between nuclear materials designated as civilian and those designated as military. They will seek to obtain materials from the most vulnerable and least protected location. That is why international standards for effective nuclear security should not stop at civilian materials but must apply to any and all nuclear materials that a terrorist could use to build a nuclear device.
For more information on the military materials gap and what to do about it, see NTI’s recent report, Bridging the Military Nuclear Materials Gap, an outcome of the NTI Military Materials Security Study Group co-chaired by Des Browne, Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn.