World leaders face a stark choice at the final Nuclear Security Summit later this week: Will they commit to efforts that continue to improve security for nuclear weapons, fissile materials, and nuclear facilities, or will the 2016 summit be seen in retrospect as the point at which attention drifted elsewhere, and nuclear security stalled and began to decline? The answer will shape the chances that terrorist groups, including the Islamic State, could get their hands on the materials they need to build a crude nuclear bomb.
In a report we published late in March, we outline the shape of the threat and the steps that must be taken to keep potential nuclear bomb material out of terrorist hands.
The world has made a lot of progress in securing vulnerable nuclear weapons-usable material:
But a global “reality check” on the status these efforts reveals that there’s a lot more to be done.
Since the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit, there has only been modest progress securing vulnerable nuclear-weapons useable material around the globe, and some efforts have lost ground. At the end of 2014, Russia cut off most nuclear security cooperation with the United States. The Obama administration is proposing its lowest-ever budget for programs to improve nuclear security around the world. Fewer countries are announcing major security improvements at nuclear facilities, and some are hanging on to highly enriched uranium or plutonium stocks they clearly do not need. And, the Nuclear Security Summit process is coming to an end—potentially decreasing international attention to this issue.
Meanwhile, threats are constantly evolving, and there are new, worrying trends. Two years ago, the Islamic State was one of many small extremist groups. Today, it controls swaths of Iraq and Syria, is recruiting globally, has demonstrated a desire and capability to strike far beyond its borders, and espouses apocalyptic rhetoric. And incidents such as an IS operative’s intensive monitoring of a senior official of a Belgian facility with significant stocks of HEU highlight the continuing threat.
Since the last Nuclear Security Summit, security for nuclear materials has improved modestly—but the capabilities of some terrorist groups, particularly the Islamic State, have grown dramatically, suggesting that in the net, the risk of nuclear terrorism may have increased.
We offer several recommendations to get nuclear security on the path of continuous improvement:
Effective and sustainable nuclear security is the single most effective means of preventing terrorists from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Now is the time for world leaders to put the world on the path toward continuous improvement in nuclear security.