1 April 2010

This is the year for nuclear material security

Fissile Materials Working Group

Fissile Materials Working Group

The Fissile Materials Working Group (FMWG) brings together the experience of leading nonproliferation experts and nongovernmental organizations to...


A few weeks ago, an anti-nuclear group breached security fencing at the Kleine Brogel Air Base in Belgium. Undetected, the group spent more than an hour on a military base where U.S. nuclear weapons are supposedly stored. Worse yet, they then uploaded to YouTube a video showing exactly how they exploited Kleine Brogel's security weaknesses.

Replace peace activists with terrorists and the results could be devastating.

With enough nuclear material spread around the globe to build more than 120,000 Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs--much of it inadequately secured--the opportunity for nuclear terrorism is real. In fact, only a month ago a top U.S. intelligence official told Congress that he was "especially concerned" about terrorist access to WMD-related materials and technologies. Thus, it is time to get serious about rapidly locking down and reducing these dangerous nuclear material stockpiles.

Lasting worldwide nuclear security won't be achieved unless every member of the international community commits the appropriate time and resources to preventing nuclear terrorism by better safeguarding global fissile material stockpiles."

The good news: This year the Obama administration, Congress, and the international community will have four strong opportunities to enhance defenses against nuclear terrorism and expand the global coalition that can support the president's goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide within four years--an objective that received a bipartisan standing ovation during the State of the Union address.

The first opportunity is for Congress. Specifically, it needs to find the will to support an administration proposal to increase domestic spending for global nuclear security to roughly $2 billion in fiscal year 2011. Unfortunately, such a significant increase over the current year's budget has already inspired much grumbling on the Hill, with some questioning whether the country can afford it. But the real question we should be asking is whether we can afford not to aggressively finance the president's initiative. In any case, it's a relatively cheap request. For instance, let us compare the budget for locking down nuclear weapons and materials to the budget for curbing climate change--another serious global challenge. In 2007, climate change funding stood at $6.5 billion--more than triple the budget request for nuclear material security. Moreover, nuclear security spending is only about .3 percent of the overall defense budget.

But the weight of moving this agenda forward isn't solely on Congress--or the United States for that matter. This brings us to the second opportunity: President Barack Obama's Nuclear Security Summit in mid-April. There, the 44 countries in attendance will discuss an international plan of action to better secure vulnerable nuclear material. Sadly, some of these nations seem to think that nuclear terrorism isn't an acute danger and that not much more needs to be done to prevent it. A main goal of the summit should be to change this perception.

The third opportunity is for those nations participating in the upcoming Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York City. Here, the focus will likely be more on the disagreements among NPT signatories than their common challenges. Nonetheless, it's a chance to address nuclear material dangers among a large gathering of government officials.

2010's final opportunity to better strengthen nuclear material security controls is for the members of the Group of Eight (G-8) and Group of Twenty (G-20), all of whom will meet later this year in Canada. The G-8 already has a multilateral initiative on WMD security called the "Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction." But to be truly global and effective, this initiative must be reshaped, reenergized, and refinanced. Additionally, the G-20, now solely focused on economic issues, must concern itself with global security issues and offer real contributions to nuclear material security. This next joint meeting provides a chance for the G-8 and G-20 members to address both of these issues.

Lasting worldwide nuclear security won't be achieved unless every member of the international community commits the appropriate time and resources to preventing nuclear terrorism by better safeguarding global fissile material stockpiles. Insufficient action in this year of opportunity could have consequences that we don't even want to contemplate.

Editor's note: The coauthors of this column are Alexandra Toma, program director at the Connect U.S. Fund, and Kenneth Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security.