Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

Five Questions with the White House WMD Advisor

Feb. 27, 2014

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall is the White House Coordinator for Defense Policy, Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction and Arms Control, National Security Staff. Among her many responsibilities, she serves as President Obama’s principal advisor on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation and WMD terrorism. We recently had the opportunity to interview her about the Obama administration’s work on nuclear security.

Q: What do you see as the most important steps to improve nuclear security around the world that have been accomplished since President Obama’s Prague speech in 2009?
A: The most important impact on improving nuclear security since the Prague speech has been the momentum that has been generated by the Nuclear Security Summit process.  The unprecedented 2010 Summit in Washington set in motion a series of accomplishments that have made our world safer, both now and for the future.  Let me give you a few concrete examples. The number of countries possessing the world’s most dangerous materials (HEU and Pu) has significantly declined; 12 countries are now HEU-free, and a significant number of former nuclear facilities no longer possess HEU or Plutonium.  Security at dozens of nuclear storage sites around the world has increased.  Many countries are adopting international requirements for nuclear security, and ratifying the nuclear security treaties.  19 countries have launched a counter nuclear smuggling initiative, and more are joining.  7 new training centers for nuclear security have opened around the world. And, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) nuclear security mission is larger, stronger, and more widely accepted.  Last year’s IAEA Nuclear Security Ministerial – the first ever – was a great success.  And the Summit process has generated a vibrant global network of senior officials and experts from 53 countries and 4 international organizations who get up every day asking themselves what they can do to make the world safer by ensuring that fissile materials are safe wherever they are located.

Q: What are some of the most important steps that still need to be taken?
A: We’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s a lot more to be done.  Every time that I see the Kennedy School’s Graham Allison he reminds me of that!  There is a great deal of nuclear and radiological material to secure or dispose of permanently.  And we need to continue to work to enhance the global nuclear security architecture we’ve established by strengthening nuclear security treaties, institutions, coalitions, and norms.  We want to address civilian and military nuclear material, and we want to mobilize countries to demonstrate to one another that they are each effective security stewards.  We are also determined to achieve further reductions in stocks of weapons-useable material.

Q: With the 4-year effort completed and the last Nuclear Security Summit coming in 2016, how will the United States help motivate other countries to keep improving their nuclear security — and sustaining the improvements already made?
A: The President announced in Berlin last June that he would host the 2016 Summit, and we don’t know if 2016 will be the “last” summit.  There is so much more work ahead of us on this front, and getting leaders together is what we call an “action forcing event” that motivates people to get things done.  As we approach 2016, we’ll be looking closely at whether we still need Summits to drive progress.  Key aspects of the Summits’ success have been the personal attention of leaders, a focus on tangible, meaningful outcomes, and a scheduled bi-annual event that creates pressure for progress. 

Q: What more should be done to combat complacency and build a broad international understanding of the threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism?         
A: In the Nuclear Security Summit Sherpa community – which is made up of the people in governments across the world who work with us on these issues every day -- I don't think there is a problem with complacency. We are seized with this challenge – with preventing sensitive materials from falling into the hands of terrorists or others who could use it to do us harm. The stakes are high and the threat is real. As the President has said, the danger of nuclear terrorism is one of the greatest threats to global security.  The hardest part of making a nuclear weapon is getting the material.  Even a small amount of nuclear material could kill and injure hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Terrorist networks could acquire the materials to assemble their own nuclear weapon, wreaking havoc on global peace and stability, and resulting in extraordinary loss of life and global economic damage.

That's why the President convened the first-ever Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC in 2010.  That's why countries from every region in the world committed to join us in working to ensure that we have the best possible protections in place to keep nuclear materials secure. And that's why we continue to work with countries around the world to lock down sensitive materials, break up black markets, detect and intercept materials in transit, and use financial tools to disrupt their trade.

Q: What can the Obama administration do to get the implementing legislation through Congress so the United States can ratify the amendment to the physical protection convention and the nuclear terrorism convention?
A: President Obama and his administration have been ardent supporters and promoters of both the physical protection and nuclear terrorism conventions.  We’ve gone to great lengths to get them passed by our Congress. As the United States initiated the negotiations of these important treaties and joined other countries in calling for their ratification by the time of this Summit, I regret that Congress has not yet passed implementing legislation to allow us to join others and bring these treaties into force. The legislation was overwhelmingly supported by the House last year, and it is now up to the Senate to finalize it so we can continue to play a leadership role.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Five Questions with the White House WMD Advisor.” Nuclear Security Matters, February 27, 2014,