International efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism have entered a dangerous new era. There is growing uncertainty about how terrorist threats are evolving, and it is increasingly unclear if nuclear security protections against them will keep pace. If improvements to nuclear security do not adapt to these threats, the risk of nuclear terrorism will grow.

In their new report, “Revitalizing Nuclear Security in an Era of Uncertainty,” Matthew Bunn, Nickolas Roth, and William Tobey document the global community’s continuing steps to improve security for weapons-usable nuclear material in five areas that are key to nuclear security: broad protection against the full range of realistic threats; comprehensive programs to protect against insider threats; strong security cultures within nuclear organizations; realistic assessment and testing of security systems; and consolidation of weapons-usable nuclear materials. 

The report, from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs’ Project on Managing the Atom, shows that there has been important progress, but there is significant work to be done. Not all nuclear facilities are protected against all plausible threats; many do not have comprehensive, multilayered defenses against insiders; some nuclear security systems are not exposed regularly to rigorous vulnerability assessments and testing; the culture within many nuclear organizations is still not focused sufficiently on security; and nuclear materials remain in far too many locations.

The authors warn that, despite the need for stronger nuclear security, momentum is slowing. Budgets for U.S. programs that secure nuclear materials around the world have been declining for nearly a decade. International institutions have not made strengthening nuclear security a priority as many once hoped they would. Nuclear security cooperation between the United States and Russia, the countries with the world’s largest nuclear complexes, has almost completely lapsed.

The report provides recommendations for reducing complacency about the threat of nuclear terrorism; strengthening nuclear security implementation on the ground in five key areas; bolstering frameworks for nuclear security cooperation; and fostering and sustaining nuclear security leadership.