Everyone agrees that the greatest single external threat facing the United States is terrorists potentially geting their hands on a nuclear weapon. The point of the Nuclear Security Summit underway in Washington, D.C. this week is to agree upon concrete measures to minimize that risk.

So far, terrorist groups cannot process their own nuclear material, so the only way they could get their hands on the stuff is by theft or conspiracy. It’s a wonder, then, that every nuclear facility in the world is not protected by multiple layers of security. But the fact is, not every facility is like Fort Knox.  In fact, the IAEA has documented 18 cases of theft or loss of weapons-grade nuclear material. Nuclear facilities have also come under direct assault by insurgent groups.  In 2007, for instance, armed men infiltrated a nuclear facility in South Africa, shot a guard, and escaped.  If this can happen in a relatively stable country like South Africa, just imagine the risk posed in a nuclear state like Pakistan.

President Obama has stated that his purpose for convening more than 40 countries is to identify specific ways that collectively, and as individual countries, they can secure nuclear materials, thereby reducing the risk that nuclear materials fall into the wrong hands.  As the Nuclear Threat Initiative argues in a report out today, this is a difficult, but hardly impossible goal. 

Terrorists cannot make a nuclear bomb unless they get hold of enough highly  enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium.  No material, no bomb.  These materials do not occur in nature, and are quite difficult to produce—well beyond the plausible capabilities of terrorist groups.  Indeed, making the needed nuclear material has always been the most challenging and costly element of national nuclear weapons programs, having consumed some 90% of the resources devoted to the Manhattan Project.  Hence, as President Obama and the UN Security Council recognized, securing nuclear material to prevent it from being stolen is the single most important step that can be taken to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism.  If all the nuclear weapons and all the plu- tonium and HEU produced by states can be reliably secured and kept out of terrorist hands, terrorists can be prevented from getting nuclear weapons.  Nuclear weapons, plutonium, or HEU exist in hundreds of buildings and bunkers in dozens of countries around the world—but not in thousands of buildings in hundreds of countries.  Providing effective security for these stockpiles is a big job, and a difficult job, but with the right leadership,resources, international cooperation, and planning, it can be done.  (emp. mine)

There is no silver bullet to prevent the doomsday scenario of a terrorist detonating a nuclear weapon in the heart of a major city, but there are several steps that countries can take to minimize the risk. (See the chart below from the Nuclear Threat Initiative report “Securing the Bomb”). 

 

This is a field perfectly suited for international cooperation. All states have a stake in reducing their own exposure to nuclear terrorism, but no single state can effectively achieve that on its own. The United States has the most to gain and most to lose on this issue, so it is especially helpful to see that the United States is playing host. I do worry, though, that the United States is only providing this leadership because of President Obama’s personal commitment to this issue.  To give this issue the lasting attention it deserves we ought to think of ways to give confabs like this more permanence. Maybe we should embed an annual Nuclear Security Summit into the architecture of international relations, akin to the G-20 or the annual UN Summit? 

Laudible as President Obama’s leadership is, this kind of top-level attention to nuclear security ought to last beyond the term of any single U.S. President.  

UPDATE:  Its seems that there will be another Nuclear Security Summit in two years in South Korea.  A significant development!

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