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As the intense conflict between Russia and Ukraine continues, and talk of a return to Cold War-style politics heats up, top world leaders, including President Vladimir Putin and President Obama, are slated to meet later this month to discuss how best to contain what all agree is a significant and growing international threat: nuclear terrorism.
While nuclear arms control and disarmament talks between nations have long been a cornerstone of diplomacy, making sure nuclear materials don’t fall into the hands of individuals or groups bent on harm has not received that same level of attention from the international community until recently.
“Unfortunately, the global … framework for nuclear security is quite weak,” said Matthew Bunn, professor of practice at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) and co-principal investigator for the Project on Managing the Atom, a nuclear research and policy program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
“It’s not like nuclear verification, where countries have signed treaties that allow the International Atomic Energy Agency legal rights to come and inspect. There’s nothing like that on nuclear security. It is considered a sovereign matter for each country to make up its own mind about what kind of security it should have.”
According to the first survey of nuclear security experts around the world, co-authored by Bunn and published this month by HKS, nearly all of the respondents said their nations’ policies and practices had become “much more stringent” in the last 15 years. The biggest catalyst for tightening up, they reported, was a major terrorism incident like 9/11, followed by reviews conducted either internally or by the International Atomic Energy Agency that revealed security inadequacies.
The survey is among several on the state of nuclear security made available on a comprehensive new website from the Belfer Center, as authorities prepare for the third Nuclear Security Summit to be held March 24-25 in The Hague, Netherlands.
Started at Obama’s urging to bring greater attention to the danger of nuclear terrorism, the summit convenes every two years, bringing together presidents and prime ministers from 58 invited countries to discuss ways to reduce the amount of nonmilitary caches of separated plutonium or highly enriched uranium that are vulnerable to terrorists; to improve security at sites where such nuclear materials are stored; and to develop better cooperation and accountability among nations to reduce the likelihood of nuclear terrorism.
“Nuclear terrorism is a combination of motivation, capability, and opportunity,” said Laura Holgate, senior director for weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and threat reduction at the National Security Council, during a March 3 panel at HKS about this year’s summit. Holgate and Gary Samore, the Belfer Center’s executive director for research, organized the first summit, held in 2010. “The only term in this equation that states have control over is the opportunity. It is the material. If you don’t have the material, you don’t have nuclear terrorism.”
Nuclear terrorists would be expected to pursue three goals: making a crude nuclear bomb that could decimate an entire city; sabotaging a nuclear facility to cause a meltdown or other tragedies; or building a dirty bomb that spreads radiological material that may not necessarily kill a large number of people, but would cause panic and massive disruption, and prove costly to clean up. All require surprisingly minimal nuclear expertise to accomplish.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a Manhattan Project to make a nuclear bomb. More than 90 percent of the work in the Manhattan Project was actually about making the nuclear material. Once you have the nuclear material, making the actual bomb is not as difficult,” said Bunn.
Thus far, 27 countries have eliminated all of the nuclear material on their soil, while almost all the remaining countries participating have taken meaningful steps to improve the security of their nuclear stocks, a development Bunn called “dramatic progress.”
“The reality is that nuclear security isn’t an on/off switch,” said Bunn. “It’s not something where it was vulnerable and now it’s secure. Rather, it’s a spectrum, and it’s a continuing process of always trying to look for vulnerabilities, find them, fix them, looking for ways you might be able to do things better, looking for ways to adapt to changing circumstances or changing threats.” read more
Matthew Bunn, professor of practice
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a Manhattan Project to make a nuclear bomb. More than 90 percent of the work in the Manhattan Project was actually about making the nuclear material. Once you have the nuclear material, making the actual bomb is not as difficult."