Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

Tenth Anniversary of Global Threat Reduction Initiative

| May 29, 2014

September 11, 2001 convinced decision-makers in Washington that terrorists were capable of carrying out catastrophic attacks on the United States. The idea that an individual or group could make a bomb from nuclear or radiological material was no longer just an outlandish scenario, but a realistic threat that needed to be addressed. Ten years ago this week, the Bush administration responded to that threat by establishing the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI).

GTRI has helped to substantially reduce the risk that nuclear material would be stolen and used in a terrorist attack. Nuclear terrorism only requires two things: a willing accomplice with technical know-how and a relatively small amount of nuclear or radiological material. GTRI prevents potential terrorists from acquiring the material by removing or disposing of nuclear material from poorly protected facilities; converting nuclear reactors from highly enriched uranium (HEU) to low enriched uranium (LEU) not suitable for a nuclear bomb; and improving security at reactors in developing countries.

Programs that ensure nuclear material is not stolen are a good investment compared with the financial, political, and social costs of an act of nuclear terrorism. Since its creation, GTRI has helped to make considerable progress in reducing the likelihood that nuclear material might fall into the wrong hands. It has removed (or confirmed disposition of) more than four tons of nuclear material from poorly protected facilities and helped 18 countries remove all of their nuclear material.  It has helped dozens of research reactors convert to LEU or shut down. It has upgraded security at more than 1,600 buildings with radiological sources and removed tens of thousands of radiological sources with inadequate security.

Despite the success of this program, there is a substantial amount of work remaining. There are still thirty countries that possess nuclear weapons useable material; more than a hundred nuclear reactors that still use HEU fuel; and countless buildings with radiological material with insufficient security. Russia, which has the most nuclear material in the most buildings, is one of the biggest challenges. There are dozens of nuclear reactors in Russia that still use HEU fuel. There is also considerable risk that nuclear material could be stolen from Russian facilities.

Unfortunately, there may be rough waters ahead for U.S. programs that keep nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists. Budget pressures and international politics have come together in a way that may put the future of these programs in doubt. The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2015 budget request reduced nuclear security programs by more than 20% compared with last year’s budget. The budget request for GTRI alone was reduced by more than 25% compared with its budget the previous year; nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars below what the Obama administration projected the budget would be four years ago.

Moreover, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has strained U.S.-Russian relations. The House of Representatives has already passed a bill prohibiting the United States from cooperating on nuclear security with Russia. This not only has implications for future progress in improving security in Russia, but it also prevents the United States from helping other countries return nuclear material to Russia.

Improving nuclear security in Russia, or in any country where this material remains, will require both a financial commitment from the United States and the political will to make this a priority. President Obama said just this week “American isolationism is not an option. We don’t have a choice to ignore what happens beyond our borders. If nuclear materials are not secure, that poses a danger to American citizens.” This means ignoring Russian nuclear material is not an option. The Obama administration should make continuing cooperation with Russia a priority and work with Congress to make certain that all U.S. nuclear security programs, including GTRI, are adequately funded.

In the aftermath of the largest act of terrorism on U.S. soil, the 9/11 commission was created to study how the attacks occurred and how such a tragic event could be prevented in the future. As part of its final report, the commission wrote, “If the government's leaders understood the gravity of the threat they faced and understood at the same time that their policies to eliminate it were not likely to succeed any time soon, then history's judgment will be harsh." While it might have been difficult for many to conceive of a tragedy like 9/11, it is clear now that there are individuals with the will to use nuclear material against the United States and its allies. It is clear that there are ample amounts of inadequately protected nuclear material located across the globe. The Obama administration and Members of Congress understand the threat of nuclear terrorism exists and they know what they need to do to address it. If they fail to act, history’s judgment will, indeed, be harsh.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Roth, Nickolas.Tenth Anniversary of Global Threat Reduction Initiative.” Nuclear Security Matters, May 29, 2014, https://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/publication/tenth-anniversary-global-threat-reduction-initiative.