Seizing momentum in the quest for nuclear security

It’s time to decide if one of the world’s biggest threats will be confronted by some of the world’s best defenses. Next week, President Obama will join more than 50 world leaders in Seoul, South Korea, to agree on a strategy to lock down and strengthen global defenses to prevent vulnerable nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists. While much progress has been made in recent years on nuclear security, bold action is needed.

Nuclear terrorism is both one of the greatest threats to national security and one of the most preventable. There have been 20 cases of theft or loss of fissile material … and that’s only what we know about. According to credible American intelligence assessments, al Qaeda has been after a nuclear weapon for more than a decade. It was only last fall that Moldovan police broke up a smuggling ring attempting to sell nuclear bomb-making materials. The North African buyer and a suspect thought to possess a kilogram of weapons-grade uranium remain at large. Preventing nuclear terrorism requires marshaling the resources of our international allies to close nuclear security gaps.

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In a time when partisanship is casting long shadows over Washington, there is a clear consensus on the importance of preventing nuclear terrorism. America’s bipartisan 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.” Echoing former President George W. Bush before him, Obama said, “It is increasingly clear that the danger of nuclear terrorism is one of the greatest threats to global security — to our collective security.”

The world in the 21st century demands that we confront the challenges of terrorism head-on. Fortunately, American leadership has been central to efforts to lock down vulnerable nuclear materials. Two years ago, 47 leaders gathered in Washington to strengthen frontline defenses to prevent nuclear terrorism. More than 60 pledges were made by countries to strengthen nuclear security, and the results are impressive: Eighty percent of those pledges have been achieved, according to a new independent research report.

Much progress has been made. This year, the final portion of Mexico’s weapons-grade uranium was secured and returned for safekeeping to the United States. It was the latest success of America’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which has removed all weapons-grade uranium from Serbia, Chile, Romania, Libya, Taiwan and Turkey since 2009. Thanks to America’s successful Megaports program, radiation-detection equipment is being installed in ports in the United Arab Emirates to prevent materials from being smuggled out of countries and onto the black market.

But progress combating nuclear terrorism is far from complete. Although the majority of the 47 countries that attended the first Nuclear Security Summit have accomplished the voluntary goals they set for themselves, bolder action is needed. Even if all nations fulfill their pledges, there will still be many additional steps to secure all vulnerable nuclear material. And while 80 percent is an impressive number, it’s not 100 percent. You wouldn’t be satisfied with getting rid of just 80 percent of the rats in your home, nor can we be satisfied with partial progress on nuclear security. Every single percentage of the world’s vulnerable nuclear materials poses a threat — particularly when 1 percent of the world’s nuclear material is still enough to create 1,000 nuclear weapons. 

The spread of loose nuclear material is not something a single country, acting alone, can prevent. There is no unilateral solution. Proliferation respects no borders. It’s a shared international threat with shared global consequences. In Seoul, countries must fulfill their remaining pledges, expand those promises and move toward finishing the job on nuclear security. Additional gaps must be identified and measures taken to encourage other countries to join in this global cooperative effort.

In the United States, important anti-terror nonproliferation programs including the Global Threat Reduction Initiative and the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Office of International Material Protection and Cooperation should be fully funded. Let’s put our money where our mouth is. In the longer term, the International Atomic Energy Agency should be given watchdog authority to ensure that all nations are living up to their word on nuclear security. Both measures are essential to create an effective one-two punch to combat nuclear terrorism.

The challenge posed by one of the world’s greatest threats offers the opportunity for some of America’s greatest action. Real momentum has been achieved to secure weapons-grade nuclear materials, but decisive and bold action is needed. The 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit next week will not fix nuclear security, but it’s a step in the right direction in building global support to combat this global threat. Serious challenges demand serious action.


Toma is executive director of the Connect U.S. Fund and co-chairman of the Fissile Materials Working Group, a nonpartisan nongovernmental organization.