A Blueprint for Preventing Nuclear Terrorism

The United States and Russia bear a special responsibility for the world's nuclear security. Can they live up to it?

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This week, leaders or senior officials from 54 countries and four international organizations met in Seoul, South Korea for a summit on keeping nuclear weapons and their essential materials out of the hands of terrorists. Today’s terrorists have global reach, so that mission rightly requires a broad international effort. But the United States and Russia possess 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons and most of the world’s weapons-usable nuclear material, and so bear a special responsibility for preventing nuclear terrorism. Unfortunately, both countries missed an opportunity in Seoul – neither committed to major new steps to strengthen nuclear security at home beyond the steps they were already taking, nor did they announced any new joint initiatives. That must change.

Russia has the largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons and weapons-usable nuclear material in the world, located in the largest number of buildings and bunkers. Most of the known arrests related to theft or smuggling of highly enriched uranium (HEU)—the easiest material for terrorists to use to make a nuclear bomb—have occurred in Russia or in nearby countries, including the arrest last year in Moldova of a gang of HEU smugglers allegedly working for a Russian businessman. Having recovered from the chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has dramatically improved security and accounting measures for its nuclear weapons and materials, with billions of dollars of U.S. help.  But weaknesses remain. In the United States, a U.S Air Force flight that unknowingly carried six live nuclear weapons across the country in 2007 made clear that improvements are needed at home as well.

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Cooperation to secure and dismantle nuclear stockpiles has been a pillar of the U.S.-Russian relationship throughout the ups and downs of the two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Recently, disputes over a range of issues from missile defense to intervention in Syria have soured relations. The time has come for Russia and the United States to get past their squabbles and redouble their cooperation to lock down nuclear stockpiles. Before the next security summit in 2014, the two countries should take three steps together to strengthen nuclear security:

  1. Agree that they will each provide security meeting high standards for all stocks of nuclear weapons, highly enriched uranium, and separated plutonium, and will regularly conduct realistic tests to ensure these standards are met at all times.
  2. Agree that they will make sure every facility and transporter handling nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials has the financial and personnel resources required to provide effective security, now and in the future – including providing well-trained, well-armed, professional guard forces (rather than poorly paid conscripts, as is sometimes the case today).
  3. Agree to review every location where nuclear weapons, highly enriched uranium, and plutonium exist to see if it can be eliminated, considering in detail whether the continued benefits of having those stocks really outweigh the costs and risks. Russia committed to do such a strategic review in the 1990s, but it has yet to be completed. The United States is in the midst of a drastic cut-back in the number of buildings with HEU and plutonium in its nuclear complex.

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As part of this joint effort, Russia and the United States will need to put in place a renewed legal foundation for their nuclear security cooperation, as the current agreement expires in June 2013. The new agreement should build a genuine partnership that extends across a wide range of potential projects, from nuclear security to verification of nuclear disarmament. By taking these steps, the United States and Russia can improve global security and show leadership at the same time by reducing the number of places where nuclear weapons, HEU, and separated plutonium continue to exist, and securing those locations where material or weapons must be maintained.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were the most likely purveyors of nuclear terror. The threat of all-out war between the two countries has thankfully receded. But massive nuclear stockpiles remain as a legacy of the Cold War, and terrorists are trying to get them. The two countries still have much to do together to ensure that a nuclear detonation in a major city truly becomes a nightmare scenario relegated to the past.

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Matthew Bunn is an associate professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Eben Harrell is a research associate with the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School and a Boston-based stringer for TIME.  They are co-authors of two recent reports about nuclear terrorism, Progress on Securing Nuclear Weapons and Materials: The Four-Year Effort and Beyond and Consolidation: Thwarting Nuclear Theft published by the Belfer Center.