Report warns against nuclear security complacency

Progress on securing weapons-usable nuclear materials around the globe has slowed in the past two years, ending a period of substantial improvement from 2012 to 2018, according to a new report from the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a nongovernmental organization based in Washington, DC.

For a fifth straight time in their biennial nuclear security report, NTI researchers ranked Australia as the top country for the strength of its measures to protect weapons-usable materials. Receiving 93 of a possible 100 points on the Nuclear Security Index, Australia possesses 1–10 kg of highly enriched uranium (HEU), according to the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM). That is well below the 25 kg that the NTI says is the minimum amount required to fashion a crude nuclear device.

The index rates the 22 countries known to have 1 kg or more of HEU or plutonium on five measures: quantity of material and number of sites where it is located; security and control measures; global norms such as international legal commitments and voluntary participation in global security initiatives; implementation of international agreements (and capacity to do so); and risk factors such as political instability, corruption, and the presence of nonstate actors.

The U.S., which has 565 tons of HEU and about 88 tons of plutonium, according to the IPFM, tied with the U.K. for ninth place on the NTI index, the same result as in 2018. The two were also the highest scoring of the states possessing nuclear weapons. They were followed by France, China, Israel, Russia, Pakistan, India and North Korea. Pakistan was the most improved of the nuclear nations since 2018, rising 7 points to 47 as it added new regulations on physical protection, cybersecurity, and the mitigation of insider threats.

In addition to possessing military plutonium, the U.K., France, China, India and Russia have sizable stocks of non-weapons-grade plutonium that has been separated from civilian spent nuclear fuel. Japan, which ranked eighth on the NTI index, owns the largest quantity of civilian plutonium — 45 tons, the vast majority of which is stored in other countries. Several European nations also store plutonium abroad at reprocessing facilities. The IPFM estimates world stocks of civilian plutonium at 310 tons, compared with 1335 tons of military plutonium.

NTI co-chair and CEO Ernest Moniz, who served as secretary of energy under President Obama, said in a July 22 briefing that progress on improving security has significantly slowed since the 2018 report, despite the opportunity to narrow major gaps that remain at both individual country and global levels. Whereas 10 nations ridded themselves of their plutonium or HEU stocks from 2012 to 2018, none of the countries that still had them in 2018 have given them up since.

The NTI report also includes separate rankings that examine more countries. One index assesses security actions in 46 countries (and Taiwan) that have nuclear facilities at which an act of sabotage could result in a dangerous release of radiation; another rates 153 countries (and Taiwan) that have less than 1 kg of weapons-usable nuclear materials or none, on their actions to support global nuclear security efforts.

In general, the NTI found that nations without nuclear materials are not sufficiently engaged in efforts to bolster the global nuclear security architecture and to guard against nuclear smuggling. It urged the International Atomic Energy Agency to work with countries to improve participation, noting that nuclear security is critical to maintaining public support for peaceful uses of nuclear technology.

Nuclear security regulations in critical areas such as cybersecurity, insider threat prevention, and security culture remain insufficient to address modern threats, Moniz said. The number of countries that improved their security in the past two years is lower than the number that did so from 2016 to 2018, and the average score increase of those making improvements has also gone down. “Against the background of a more complicated and unpredictable environment, terrorist threats evolving, emerging technology and cyber representing new challenges, as well as a world facing increased disorder and disruption, this is a deeply worrying trend,” Moniz said.

Substantial improvements were reflected in the 2018 report after individual nations took action in conjunction with the nuclear security summit that President Obama hosted in 2016, Moniz said. No similar high-level security conferences that would drive commitments to the same extent have taken place since. “The data suggest that without the driving force of high-level political events, like the [three] nuclear security summits that were held between 2012 and 2016, attention on nuclear security has waned,” he said.

New in this year’s report is an assessment of security protections for materials that could be used in a radiological weapon, or dirty bomb. Highly radioactive materials such as cobalt-60 and cesium-137 are used in hospitals and sterilization facilities, for oil exploration and pipeline inspection, and in other applications. Although the NTI didn’t rank the 176 nations included in the new part of the study, its survey found that only one-quarter have in place all the regulatory regimes necessary to secure and control radioactive sources and protect them from theft and unauthorized use; just under one-fifth of the countries have no relevant regulations. Only about half of the countries have any specific requirements to secure radioactive sources, and just over one-third of the nations maintain an active registry of radioactive sources that would allow a regulatory body to track the sources and to identify appropriate disposition pathways. Said Moniz, “The results of this first assessment of radiological security show great cause for concern.”

– Physics Today, August 10, 2020
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2020

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)