Looking back on nuclear progress

The track record of success speaks for itself. Last year America secured enough vulnerable nuclear material around the globe to produce 800 bombs. In Poland 1,000 pounds of enriched uranium were removed– the largest removal of weapons grade uranium in history. More than 100 pounds of highly enriched uranium was removed from three sites in Ukraine in December.

Confronting the 21st Century challenges posed by nuclear terrorism cannot be done alone and our international partners are working hard to achieve ambitious goals. 

In only a year’s time, 90% of the national commitments made at the summit have been completed or had significant progress made, according to a new report by the nonpartisan Arms Control Association and Partnership for Global Security. Russia, for example, shut down its plutonium production altogether— Chile surrendered its stockpile of uranium. 

Our international partners are steadily eliminating these nuclear threats and, consequently, helping reduce the risk of future acts of nuclear terrorism.

The 9/11 Commission warned, “The greatest danger of another catastrophic attack in the United States will materialize if the world’s most dangerous terrorists acquire the world’s most dangerous weapons.” 

Loose nuclear materials combined with Al Qaeda's well-known commitment to acquiring and using a nuclear device constitutes a serious threat that demands our sustained effort and attention. U.S.-led programs like the Global Threat Reduction Initiative are vital to ensuring the fight against nuclear terrorism is truly global.

Progress has also been made to decrease Cold-War era nuclear arsenals by ratifying the New START treaty. Ratified in December, New START instituted a rigorous on-the-ground inspection regime and ensured that America and Russia, which possess 90% of the world’s nuclear stockpiles, reduced their arsenals. Importantly, the debate on New START, the first prolonged nuclear discussion in a Post-9/11 World, demonstrated a new nuclear consensus. 

Military and diplomatic leaders overwhelmingly supported its ratification— in fact every living Secretary of State, both Republican and Democrat stood behind the treaty. These leaders realized the problems of a globalized world cannot be solved by 1950’s thinking.

Despite this progress, much more work remains. The next modest step after New START is to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). One of my duties as Ambassador to the IAEA was to represent U.S. interests at the CTBT organization under the Bush administration. This prudent treaty will help America galvanize others to confront proliferating regimes and should be ratified promptly.

Unfortunately there remain a few that still adhere to a Cold War logic that could undermine the gains of the past year. At the forefront of this school of thought is Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) who, while sincere in his concerns, represents an era out of touch with the security challenges of today. This old way of thinking opposed New START, which reduced Russian nuclear arsenals and put boots on the ground to inspect them. 

It opposed anti-terror nonproliferation funding, which is essential to support global efforts to block terrorists’ efforts to acquire material for a nuclear device. And it opposes CTBT, which strengthens America's hand to confront proliferating regimes and hinders their development of nuclear weapons, without materially affecting the U.S. stockpile.

The Washington Nuclear Security Summit summoned the largest group of heads of state ever to address nuclear issues. These leaders agree current nuclear threats can be mitigated by concerted attention and sustained action. 

It’s clear that opposing nuclear weapons treaties and not funding efforts to deal with nuclear material security problems, which Senator Kyl and some of his colleagues have either done or proposed, will hurt, not promote, America’s security. The years ahead will determine if the progress of the past year will propel us down a path towards reducing nuclear threats or whether the archaic thinking of a few will divert us towards a more problematic and less secure destination.

Ken Brill served as an ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency and was founding director of the National Counterproliferation Center.