Protecting the World from Nuclear Theft

March 22, 2012
By James F. Smith, Belfer Center

Imagine that terrorists managed to steal a small nuclear weapon, or were able to buy highly enriched uranium or plutonium and to fashion it into a crude nuclear device. What if they managed to explode that weapon in a crowded city? How drastically would our world change in an instant?

Loose nuclear material is not a fantasy; twenty cases of attempted thefts of fissile material been reported over the past two decades. Al Qaeda is just one of several terrorist groups that have declared themselves interested in nuclear terrorism.

That is why President Barack Obama and leaders and officials from more than 50 other countries will gather on March 26 and 27 in Seoul, South Korea, for the second Nuclear Security Summit. The goal is to focus the world’s attention on how to secure nuclear weapons-usable material so that it stays out of the hands of terrorists.

This gathering follows up the first summit, convened by President Obama in April 2010, which resulted in more than 50 commitments of specific action by 29 countries. This summit will examine the progress made in the past two years, and consider how much still needs to be done to live up to the first summit’s pledge to secure all weapons-usable material by 2014.

Researchers from Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs created a special summit website packed with virtual tools for delegates, journalists and watchdog groups to understand the basic issues and judge the summit’s progress toward securing nuclear weapons and materials worldwide.

The Belfer Center’s Nuclear Security Summit Dossier website offers an array of new documents and reports, including:

  • Nuclear Threat Briefing (English and Korean): a slide-show version of Professor Matthew Bunn’s assessment of the status of the threat of nuclear terrorism, including quick lessons on weapons-usable materials and the risks they can pose in the wrong hands.
  • Summit Scorecard: A summit-watching tool on what to look for in evaluating progress.
  • Consolidation - Thwarting Nuclear Threats: a new analysis of success stories, risks and opportunities in the campaign to consolidate dangerous nuclear materials in fewer, safer sites.

  • Fact Sheet: Understanding the key elements of nuclear terrorism and nuclear security (and how it differs from nuclear safety and proliferation).
  • Q&A on Nuclear Security: A question-and-answer approach to the key issues facing summit participants, including why the summit matters.
  • Twenty Questions Journalists Should Ask: Pointers for journalists covering the summit.
  • Background articles and research: from Belfer Center experts and selected documents from other research institutions.

Belfer Center Director Graham Allison traveled twice to Seoul before the summit, meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak as a member of the Eminent Persons Group formed to counsel Lee on summit issues. Allison, author of the 2004 book “Nuclear Terrorism: the Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe,” also addressed a pre-summit forum. Allison and other center specialists, including Prof. Matthew Bunn, co-principal investigator of the Managing the Atom Project; senior fellow Olli Heinonen, former deputy director general for safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency; and senior fellow William H. Tobey, former deputy administrator for nuclear nonproliferation at the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, wrote guides to the major summit issues, and briefed government officials and journalists in Washington and Seoul.

John Park, a Belfer Center International Security Program fellow and expert on North Korea, chaired a briefing at the U.S. Institute of Peace featuring presentations from Bunn and other experts for diplomats from countries taking part in the summit.

Since the 1970s, Belfer Center experts have examined all aspects of nuclear policy, from nuclear energy to nuclear proliferation and arms control. The risks of nuclear terrorism and the need for better security over fissile materials have commanded scholars’ attention since the breakup of the Soviet Union, when nuclear sites suddenly became vulnerable. The center’s early efforts led to legislation sponsored by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, which created the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program to help secure and dismantle nuclear sites in the former Soviet Union.

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picture of March 12 summit briefing at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.

March 12 summit briefing at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.

Twenty cases of attempted thefts of fissile material been reported over the past two decades.

closer picture from nuclear summit briefing

(From L to R): Michelle Cann, Partnership for Global Security; Kelsey Davenport, Arms Control Association; Matthew Bunn, associate professor of public policy; John Park, Belfer Center fellow; Abiodun Williams, senior vice president of United States Institute of Peace.