Improve State Stewardship of Nuclear Materials and Facilities

The four Nuclear Security Summits held between 2010 and 2016 assembled world leaders to focus global attention on the critical importance of securing nuclear materials and facilities. Through national commitments, countries took actions to reduce the chance that nuclear materials could be stolen or facilities sabotaged. In the combined 2014 and 2016 NTI Indexes, 19 improvements were directly attributable to previous summit commitments. This year, 18 improvements were directly traceable to the summit process.[1]

The job of securing all weapons-usable nuclear materials and of building an effective global nuclear security system is far from finished, however. At the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, leaders agreed to five “action plans” that describe how the IAEA, Interpol, the United Nations, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and the Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction would continue the important work begun through the summits. Much of the work committed to in those plans, however, remains unfinished. Leaders must be held responsible not only for meeting the 2016 commitments but also for moving beyond them to close the remaining gaps in the international nuclear security system. Countries should actively participate in IAEA ministerial meetings and CPP review conferences, and they should raise pragmatic and progressive nuclear security initiatives at G7 summits and the like.

Particularly as the use of nuclear power spreads globally, it is essential to maintain safety, security, safeguards, and confidence in the exclusively peaceful use of nuclear energy. Security should be embedded into developing fuel cycles internationally, while countries—including those with established nuclear programs should maintain a focus on the conditions that underpin nuclear security. As risks increase alongside the growing quantities of nuclear materials, no new facilities capable of producing weapons-usable nuclear materials should be constructed unless there is unmet commercial demand.

To provide for nuclear security, countries should:

  • Commit to further decreases in stocks and applications that require use of weapons-usable nuclear materials. The more nuclear materials and sites, the greater the exposure to risk of theft. All countries should work to minimize their use of weapons-usable nuclear materials, and they should reduce or eliminate stockpiles of those materials where possible.To do that, countries should end their use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) for civilian purposes wherever possible. HEU is a central component of a nuclear bomb; low-enriched uranium (LEU) is not. Although most HEU is designated for nuclear weapons purposes, significant amounts remain in civilian programs and non-weapons applications. Given that nearly all civilian and naval applications of HEU fuel have established LEU alternatives, the international community must take steps now to accelerate efforts to minimize—and ultimately eliminate—HEU in the civilian and naval spheres. This goal could include the creation of regional HEU-free zones that underpin the global norm against civilian HEU use. Plutonium also contains significant security risks, particularly separated plutonium. To minimize its associated risks, countries must reduce plutonium stocks to minimum levels and must adhere to fuel cycle policies that keep new plutonium and fresh mixed oxide production in balance with consumption. Finally, as countries move toward the development and deployment of advanced nuclear reactors, they must consider the security implications of their new designs. The reactors and their associated fuel cycle facilities are still in the design phase, so developers should consider how to build in security features now that will limit opportunities for theft or diversion of attractive material in the future. That effort will make implementing IAEA nuclear security guidelines easier for operators.[2]
  • Improve core security and control measures. Although improvements in the protection of nuclear facilities have been made, critical gaps remain. More than half of the countries in the Sabotage Ranking still have room to improve their on-site physical protection regulations or material control and accounting Only three countries with nuclear facilities at risk of sabotage have the most favorable nuclear security conditions to protect against insider threats (Czech Republic, Japan, United Kingdom). Countries should prioritize improving the strength of the security culture at all types of nuclear sites. In particular, those countries that are developing new nuclear power reactors should upgrade regulatory frameworks commensurate with the threat and should incorporate lessons from countries with long-standing nuclear power programs. Countries also should enhance their participation in organizations like WINS to train and support their nuclear workforce, host international security reviews, and gain lessons from peer reviews and IAEA advisory services.
  • Reduce political risks that can undermine nuclear security. In addition to improving the security and control measures of nuclear materials and facilities and to bolstering global norms for secure nuclear use, countries should not overlook the political and economic factors that exacerbate terrorist threats to nuclear materials and facilities. Governments should intensify efforts to maintain political stability and effective governance while reducing illicit activity, including corruption, criminal activity, and terrorism. Countries with political risk factors should redouble their efforts on nuclear security to ensure that their materials and facilities are well secured.

[1] This analysis mirrors that of prior NTI Index reports. It considers whether improvements in the NTI Index are directly related to a national commitment made during a Nuclear Security Summit in the form of either a national statement or participation in a joint statement or “gift basket.” The NTI’s methodology for considering whether a commitment has been “fulfilled” includes national mention of the improvement in nuclear security conditions within a Nuclear Security Summit Progress Report. In the 2016 NTI Index, NTI observed only six improvements directly related to Nuclear Security Summit commitments; in the 2014 NTI Index, NTI observed 13 improvements directly related to Nuclear Security Summit commitments.

[2] Some of the advanced reactors use fuels based on plutonium or high-assay low-enriched uranium (such as 19 percent) that are different from current light-water reactor fuel cycles. Those reactors could lead to the need to process, transport, and dispose of nuclear materials that are more attractive for theft or diversion. In some cases, new fuel production facilities will be required. Some advanced reactors are designed to be built on ships or trucks, which could create different kinds of security risks compared to the large, visible footprints of current nuclear power plants.