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Commentary | 9 January 2013

Nuclear Materials Security: Progress and Challenges

Today, weapons-usable nuclear materials are stored at hundreds of sites in approximately 30 countries around the world. Many of these sites are well secured, but some are not, leaving these materials vulnerable to theft by criminals or terrorist organizations that have publicly stated their desire to use nuclear weapons. A nuclear detonation at the hands of terrorists or a rogue state would be catastrophic, and the consequences would reverberate around the globe.

Thus, all countries with weapons-usable nuclear materials have a responsibility to secure and account for them, minimize them whenever possible and provide continued assurances to the rest of the world that these materials are not at risk for theft or diversion. As long as these nuclear materials exist, securing them will require constant vigilance.

The primary responsibility for nuclear security rests with individual states – but in a world where security is only as strong as the weakest link, every state has a security interest in how well others meet this responsibility. A failure of nuclear security in one state could well result in an attack in another. And as seen in Fukushima, a major accidental radiation release in one state can have serious political, economic and environmental consequences for their neighbors. A purposeful nuclear detonation anywhere in the world would have even graver consequences.

Despite the growing importance attached to nuclear security, there is no global system in place for tracking, accounting for, managing and securing all weapons-usable nuclear materials (e.g., highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium). Instead, the world relies on a patchwork of agreements, guidelines and multilateral engagement mechanisms with gaps and limitations that ultimately undermine global security, as well as confidence in the effectiveness of the system.

Ensuring that nuclear materials are secure will require strengthening the global system and taking actions in individual states. The global system and actions should be guided by five major principles.

  • The system should be comprehensive, covering all weapons-usable nuclear materials and facilities in which they might be present, at all times.
  • The system should employ international standards and best practices, consistently and globally.
  • At a national level, each state’s system should have internal assurance and accountability mechanisms.
  • Globally, the system should facilitate a state’s ability to provide international assurances that all nuclear materials and facilities are secure.
  • The system should work to reduce risk through minimizing or, where feasible, eliminating weapons-usable material stocks and the number of locations where they are found.

NTI is working with global partners to both build consensus on a global system as well as identify comparable data and actions for individual states to improve nuclear materials security.

NTI’s Global Dialogue on Nuclear Security Priorities is building consensus on the elements of a strengthened nuclear security system and is generating greater political will for states to take specific actions toward this end, in the Nuclear Security Summit process and beyond.

In conjunction with the Economist Intelligence Unit, NTI also launched the NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index in January 2012. This country-by-country assessment of the status of nuclear materials security conditions around the world reviews a broad range of publicly available indicators of a state’s nuclear materials security practices and conditions. Such an assessment is needed to measure risk, track progress and hold states accountable. The Index also can be used as a tool to identify needed improvements and provides a foundation for the urgent and ongoing work of strengthening security.

The NTI Index found that European countries had favorable nuclear materials security conditions, comprising 15 of the top 21 spots for countries with weapons-usable nuclear materials. Nevertheless, there is room for improvement. For example, several European countries have not ratified the critically important 2005 amendment to the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials.

European countries have an opportunity to improve their own materials security, provide assistance to others and help guide the process to strengthening the global system.

Securing nuclear materials is a cornerstone to preventing the spread and illicit use of these dangerous materials. But today’s global system is insufficient. A comprehensive, global approach is urgently needed. Each state should work toward strengthening the system, commit to effectively securing its own materials, and provide assurances to the global community that their materials are secure. The Nuclear Security Summit process provides a near-term opportunity for states to make these commitments and to take concrete actions that advance them.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.