Ten years of reducing global nuclear dangers

The gravest threat to the security of the United States and the world is a terrorist obtaining a nuclear weapon.

We know that acquiring a weapon or the nuclear-explosive material to make one is the hardest step for terrorists to take and the easiest step for us to stop.  By contrast, every subsequent step in the process—building the bomb, transporting it, and detonating it—is easier for the terrorists to take and harder for us to stop.

The bottom line: Securing nuclear materials at the source is the most effective, least expensive way to prevent nuclear terrorism.

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Building on the foundation of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program after the fall of the Soviet Union, the world redoubled its efforts after 9/11 to improve the security of nuclear weapons and materials.  In 2002, the Nuclear Threat Initiative worked with the U.S. State Department on a U.S.-Russia-Serbia effort to remove 100 pounds of highly enriched uranium from a poorly secured research facility near Belgrade.

Lessons learned from that important effort led to the creation of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) 10 years ago.  The Department of Energy launched GTRI to accelerate the United States’ efforts to secure vulnerable nuclear and radiological material located at civilian sites around the globe.  This work has been supported and funded by both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Over the last 10 years, GTRI, along with global partners including Russia, has made significant and lasting achievements in nuclear security, including removing or verifying the disposition of more than 200 nuclear bombs’ worth of highly enriched uranium and plutonium (the key ingredient for a nuclear weapon), from dozens of countries.

In 1992, 50 countries around the globe had weapons-usable nuclear materials.  Today, that number has been cut more than in half.  We have also seen measurable progress through the Nuclear Security Summits that began in Washington in 2010 by President Obama and continued in South Korea in 2012 and in the Netherlands this past spring.

While great progress has been made to decrease the risk posed by nuclear terrorism, the threat still looms large, and there remains much work to secure nuclear and radiological materials and prevent catastrophic terrorism.

At the top of my list are four key principles:
  1. Nuclear materials security is both a sovereign responsibility and a shared obligation.  Each nation’s security—as well as global security—is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, and no single nation can tackle this threat alone.
  2. Accountability and assurances are essential.  It’s not sufficient to just declare, “Trust me.”
  3. Standards and best practices must be implemented by all states, and must cover all weapons-usable nuclear materials, including those outside the civilian sector.  I am pleased that a growing number of countries at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit recognized the need for an international architecture, or global system, that holds all states accountable to a common set of standards and best practices.
  4. Over time, we must work to permanently minimize risks by reducing quantities of these materials and where possible, eliminating them.

Our leaders must get serious about sustaining a focus on nuclear material security efforts, even if the Nuclear Summit process ends after 2016.   All who are tasked with implementing commitments made at the Summit must understand the world’s expectation that these commitments will be carried out, and other nations must provide resources and assistance where required.  We must remain committed, and our international partners must remain engaged and work with us to eliminate these dangerous materials.

There will be a large price to be paid in diminished U.S. and global security if cooperation in this area slows down or comes to a halt.  Yet, funding for these critical programs has declined rapidly, with the Administration’s FY15 budget request proposing an approximate 25 percent reduction.  In fact, this would be the third year in a row that these critical nonproliferation programs have been cut.  We must view our nuclear and radiological threat reduction efforts as a core component of our national security strategy and not as a contingency fund for financing other security programs.  Surely, preventing nuclear terrorism should be at the top of our list of national security and budgetary priorities.

The threat of nuclear terrorism is real. The need to work urgently—and in a smart way—is real.  This is a critical global challenge that requires all countries to work together.  We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe.

Nunn served as senator from Georgia from 1972 to 1997. He is currently co-chairman and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to reduce the threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.