Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

The gift of reminding everyone that disarmament still matters

| Apr. 04, 2016

My colleague Matthew Bunn has argued that nuclear security provides a foundation for all three pillars of the NPT. I agree with him. An act of nuclear terrorism would likely put an end to the growth and spread of nuclear energy. Nonproliferation cannot be achieved as long as stocks of highly enriched uranium or plutonium remain vulnerable to theft. And states will not give up the arsenals they possess as long as they believe that agents of an enemy state could steal nuclear weapons or materials to acquire a nuclear capability overnight.

But Brazil and fifteen other states (Algeria, Argentina, Chile, Egypt, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam) at this year’s Nuclear Security Summit in Washington see things the other way around, at least when it comes to disarmament.

In a joint statement, these states demanded that nuclear-armed states take “decisive steps to secure, reduce and irreversibly eliminate their nuclear arsenals and their huge stocks of weapon-grade materials.” They asserted that “nuclear security cannot be strengthened if we confine our efforts to the relatively small quantity of nuclear materials in peaceful use, while ignoring the dangers posed by the vast quantities of materials involved in nuclear weapons programs.” An almost identical group issued a similar statement at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit.

I agree with them too…at least in part.  Nearly 85 percent of the 2000 tons of HEU and separated plutonium in the world is in the hands of militaries—in weapons, in retired weapons, in weapons components, in bulk form, or in fuel for propulsion of naval vessels.  The vulnerability of these weapons and materials produces a very substantial portion of the risk of nuclear terrorism. As Dianna Blair and William Tobey pointed out in a recent discussion paper, this material is subject to greater secrecy and less international accountability. And it is often stored in bulk handling facilities where, as past incidents of nuclear smuggling suggest, it may be vulnerable to theft. Very little of the international effort and attention generated by the four nuclear security summits has been aimed directly at strengthening security for military stocks. 

The countries that joined Brazil are correct to point out this gap. They understandably resent the “do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do” approach of the nuclear weapon states.  Much of their statement is constructively forward-looking.

But what about tons of HEU and separated plutonium, much of which is weapons-useable, that is not controlled by military organizations? Hundreds of bombs worth of HEU and plutonium remains in civilian hands of and some of it is not as well protected as it should be. It is fine to argue that nuclear security efforts should not be confined to materials in civilian hands, but neither should we relax and ignore those materials until we achieve global nuclear disarmament.

Indeed, two of the countries that joined the “In Larger Security” gift basket—Kazakhstan, and South Africa—themselves have worrisome stocks of HEU.  Kazakhstan has pledged to get rid of its remaining HEU. But South Africa is holding on to hundreds of kilograms of unirradiated HEU, left over from its nuclear weapons program, in a facility that two teams of assailants attacked simultaneously in 2007. (One group made it inside to the emergency operations center, shooting one employee, but they fled when they met resistance. None of the material was stolen.)

The statement by the “In Larger Security” group would hit a lot harder if these states were not only pointing out a problem that is not of their making, but also demonstrating they were doing all they could to strengthen security in facilities that are under their control.  For example, at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit, a group of 35 countries (later joined by Jordan and now also by China) pledged to implement IAEA recommendations on physical protection and to subject their security arrangements to peer review.  But Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Singapore, South Africa, and Thailand never joined the “Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation” initiative.  In a major breakthrough this week, enough countries ratified the amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM) for it to enter into force.  The CPPNM criminalizes nuclear theft and specifies certain requirements for securing civilian nuclear material. But because Brazil, Egypt, Malaysia, Philippines, South Africa, and Thailand never ratified the treaty, they continue not to be bound by its provisions. (UPDATE: India announced that it joined the initiative on strengthening nuclear security implementation, see here.)

Even on the disarmament measures the group calls for, there is an element of the same sanctimonious stance they abhor when it comes from the nuclear weapon states. The group noted that 20 years after the conclusion of Comprehensive Test Ban negotiations, the treaty had still not entered into force.  But Egypt sticks out as an Annex II state that itself has refused to ratify the CTBT.

The group concludes by stating the world “can only achieve an effective and sustainable nuclear security architecture when international efforts are predicated on an approach that promotes nuclear security along with nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation. Such an approach should be based on
the strict and full implementation of relevant international obligations…”

If fulfilling disarmament obligations can help reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism, that’s one more reason for nuclear-armed states to shrink and eventually eliminate their nuclear arsenals. In the meantime, regardless of what others do, all states must work continually to improve the security for the nuclear materials and facilities on their soil.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Malin, Martin.The gift of reminding everyone that disarmament still matters .” Nuclear Security Matters, April 4, 2016,