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Strengthening Nuclear Security in a Post-Summit World
The decades-long effort to minimize the risk of nuclear terrorism is at a critical crossroads.

This spring, the United States hosted the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC. Senior representatives of more than 50 nations convened to mark the end of an unprecedented international initiative over the last six years to strengthen security measures aimed at preventing nuclear terrorism. During that time, many states made significant progress, but more work is needed.

Governments must continue their efforts to ensure that all stocks of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium—the key ingredients for nuclear weapons—are effectively and sustainably protected, everywhere they exist, against threats that terrorists and thieves could realistically pose.

Build Upon National Security Commitments

National commitments to improve nuclear security, offered as “house gifts” at each of the nuclear security summits, were important devices for making and marking ongoing progress. Now that the summits have ended, states should continue to build on these commitments. The newly formed nuclear security contact group can play a useful role by serving as a place where like-minded states can develop more-stringent security principles and guidelines that they pledge to apply to all stocks of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons-usable materials, and invite other states to sign on.

Consolidated Storage Sites

But principles and pledges only matter if they result in increased security on the ground. Governments should focus on addressing the dangers that create the highest risks, such as insider threats, facilities that handle fissile materials in bulk, and cyber threats. Reducing the number of sites where HEU and plutonium are stored can help on all of these fronts. All countries should develop national-level plans for accomplishing their military and civilian nuclear objectives within the smallest practicable number of locations.

Strengthen Security Culture

Within organizations responsible for nuclear weapons or materials, effective and sustainable nuclear security depends on establishing not only strong security rules and policies but also healthy security habits and practices. An organizational culture that prioritizes security will discourage complacency about threats and vulnerabilities. Every country with weapons-usable nuclear materials should have a program to assess and strengthen nuclear security culture, and managers and appropriate staff should receive briefings on existing or emerging threats.

 

As part of a cooperative international action to increase nuclear security, storage containers of highly enriched uranium are shipped under protected transport from Hungary to Russia in 2013. (NNSA)

Expand International Cooperation

New international cooperation on nuclear security is essential, particularly now that there are no plans for more high-level summits. The United States should expand its nuclear security cooperation with India, Pakistan, and China, in particular, sharing knowledge about nuclear security arrangements and consulting on regulatory and technical steps that might strengthen security for all concerned.

Despite ongoing tension between the two countries, the United States and Russia must find a way to rebuild the nuclear security cooperation that has been a foundational component of their relationship for more than two decades. If they were able to work together on issues of mutual interest during the Cold War, surely they can do so now to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism. The United States and Russia should agree to a set of cooperative activities that includes nuclear security, but also related areas that are in both countries’ interests, such as scientific exchanges on nuclear energy development.

The Obama-led era of summits has ended, but the need for urgent action has not. States must now recommit themselves to continuous improvement of nuclear security within their boarders and find ways to work together effectively toward that end. This work will not be easy, yet it is the only way to ensure that nuclear weapons and the materials used to make them remain out of the hands of terrorists.


Martin B. Malin is executive director of the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Nickolas Roth is a research associate at the Project on Managing the Atom.

Parts of this article draw from the authors’ 2016 report with Matthew Bunn and William H. Tobey titled “Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: Continuous Improvement or Dangerous Decline?” published by the Project on Managing the Atom.


— Commentary by Martin B. Malin and Nickolas Roth
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