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The US Role in Securing Nuclear Material
March 2011

Editor’s Note: A new series of feature articles in think. will examine the main themes of the three issue areas on which the Stanley Foundation focuses its programming—global leadership, nuclear material security, and genocide prevention. Each article will lay out the concerns, international trends and dynamics, and underlying reasoning on which our approach and advocacy are based. We will also strive to inspire you to learn more, take action, and work with us as we push for better US and global policies that lead to a secure peace.

In the January 2011 edition of think., we laid out the real world context for US and international cooperative action to prevent nuclear terrorism. In this article, we want to further explore the role of the US in the global effort to secure weapons-usable nuclear material.

We all know that the US-led Manhattan Project developed what is without question the world’s most dangerous weapon. The US was also the first, and only, country to use nuclear weapons in war with the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Then, during the Cold War, the US, as well as the Soviet Union, stockpiled large numbers of nuclear weapons as a part of a mutually assured destruction policy. After the end of the Cold War, the US was one of a handful of nuclear-weapons possessing nations and, aside from Russia, it had one of the largest stockpiles.

US leaders quickly recognized that the fall of the Soviet Union left large numbers of weapons and significant quantities of weapons-usable nuclear materials widely scattered and potentially unsecure. With the birth of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, or the Nunn-Lugar Act, the US took on a global leadership role in securing the world’s nuclear materials. The efforts made over the last 20 years have without question made the world a safer place.

However, today’s world is a different place than it was at the end of the Cold War. There are more countries with nuclear weapons, which means the materials needed and the knowledge of how to build the weapons are spread even more broadly. There is an increased demand for nuclear energy, which often uses the same material used in weapons. This, too, means more material in more locations and the spread of knowledge and technology. There are also nonstate actors, especially terrorists, who desire to possess or use a nuclear weapon, which means that protecting the material (and weapons) from theft or diversion and containing the know-how of nuclear weapons development is more important than before.

These, and other reasons, are why today’s global effort to secure weapons-usable nuclear material requires strong US leadership. We’ve been using our diplomatic, technical, and other resources to lock down these materials for two decades, but today’s world demands that US (and other countries’) efforts be stepped up. It is in our national security interests to ensure that a nuclear terrorist event never occurs, especially on US soil.

The president and his administration, Congress, and the American public all have a role to play. If we are to attain effective, long-term nuclear materials security, President Obama must work to build upon his commendable efforts of last year bringing together the leaders of 46 countries to address the issue. Our own commitments from the Nuclear Security Summit need to be fulfilled before the next summit in South Korea in 2012. Our “leading by example” is crucial to our ability to leverage other countries’ actions.

Through the departments of Energy, State, and Defense, the US operates key programs that assist those nations who want and need help in securing or disposing of their nuclear material or interdicting illicit transfer or sale of nuclear materials. These programs require an investment, authorized by Congress in the US budget, that pales in comparison to the estimates of the costs of dealing with a nuclear terrorist event. The US investment in these programs, and other multilateral efforts, is a demonstration of leadership in locking down these dangerous materials.

The American public needs to understand the potential threat we face from a nuclear terrorist threat. Many don’t feel as if they have adequate knowledge about the technical aspects of nuclear weapons to understand how to combat nuclear terrorism. In reality, the most important thing for the public to understand is that despite the magnitude of impact of a nuclear terrorist attack, there are sensible, concrete steps that our government can take to reduce the risk of this ever happening. This understanding will hopefully lead to public backing for the policies that most lead to effective and sustainable nuclear material security.

Overall, US unilateral efforts to secure weapons-usable nuclear material must remain a top policy priority; however, we cannot secure the world’s nuclear material alone. Ultimately, this is an issue that must be addressed through international cooperation. In a future edition of think. we’ll examine further key multilateral efforts to secure nuclear material.

Jennifer Smyser

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