Reducing the Threat of Nuclear Terrorism: What Can Summits Do?

By Samantha Pitts-Kiefer

Yesterday I arrived in Amsterdam with my colleagues from the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) as well as members of the nonproliferation community to address what President Obama has called “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security” – nuclear terrorism. This so-called “Knowledge Summit” and a separate nuclear industry summit precede a gathering of over 40 heads of state in The Hague on March 24-25 for the Nuclear Security Summit. This will be the third of such gatherings that began in 2010 in Washington, D.C., when President Obama brought together the largest group of heads of state hosted by a U.S. president since 1945 with the ambitious goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material. Two years later, in 2012, a second Summit was hosted in Seoul, Korea. In 2016, President Obama will again host what many assume will be the last Summit.

Perhaps the most important achievement that has come out of these Summits is the spotlight they’ve shone on an issue beyond most people’s radars. The threat of nuclear terrorism remains, for many, abstract, and its solution – nuclear security – is complex and technical. The Summits have also led to consensus among world leaders that the threat is grave enough to warrant their attention, cooperation and commitment to work toward a more secure world. But with the third Summit fast approaching and the fourth, and perhaps final, Summit looming in 2016, it’s time to ensure that the Summit process will produce the system and mechanisms necessary to achieve the mission that first inspired heads of state to gather in Washington beyond 2016.

Why is the threat so grave? There are nearly 2,000 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear material (the highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium that can be used to build a nuclear bomb) in hundreds of sites—some of them poorly secured—in 25 countries around the world. That’s enough material to build 20,000 bombs like the one that destroyed Hiroshima and 80,000 bombs like the one that destroyed Nagasaki. We know that al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have actively sought this material. We know the technology and know-how exists to help build a bomb and that a group like al-Qaeda wouldn’t hesitate to use it to kill tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

Imagine if the terrorists on 9/11 had not used planes but a nuclear weapon.

That’s the bad news. But there is good news. The hardest step for a terrorist is to acquire nuclear material. That means there’s a solution – secure all material to the highest possible standard wherever it is located. This is the goal of the Nuclear Security Summits.

So far, the Summits have resulted in significant contributions to global security and have reduced the threat of nuclear terrorism. At NTI, we’ve measured some of this progress through the Nuclear Materials Security Index, a unique public assessment of nuclear materials security conditions around the world, produced with the Economist Intelligence Unit. NTI developed the Index to promote action by governments and to fill certain gaps not addressed by the Summits—namely, the lack of any consensus on priorities for securing nuclear material and any means to track progress. The 2014 Index demonstrated significant progress since 2012. Most importantly, seven countries got rid of their weapons-usable nuclear material. In addition, of the 25 countries with these materials, nine improved their nuclear security laws and regulations and eleven signed important treaties that govern nuclear security and joined or contributed to international organizations and institutions that support global cooperation. Many of these improvements – almost a third of those captured in the Index – are attributable to the Summit process.

These and other individual country commitments have undoubtedly made the world more secure. But global problems are never solved with individual actions alone. That’s why the major challenge still exists:  there is no global system for securing nuclear material.  What does that mean? It means that, incredibly, the security of what is some of the world’s most dangerous material is not subject to any common international standards or “rules of the road” that all countries must follow. There is no international body or mechanism tasked with holding states accountable for lax security and no expectation for countries to build confidence that they are effectively securing their materials. That’s right. Even though material stolen in one country could be used in a nuclear bomb in another, many countries prefer to say to others, “Just trust me.”

Compare this to the civil aviation industry. Every time we board a plane, we can feel confident because almost all countries are members of an international body that sets safety and security standards. The organization audits airlines, shares concerns with other member states and therefore enables countries to make a decision whether to ban that airline from landing at its airports. We all benefit from this cooperation. But the fact is, the consequences of a plane crash, though tragic, would pale in comparison to the catastrophic results of a nuclear bomb exploding in one of our cities – hundreds of thousands dead and injured, dire economic, environmental, and public health consequences, the loss of civil liberties, and, indeed, the loss of our way of life.  The lack of a global system to prevent this just doesn’t make sense.

Nuclear terrorism is a shared threat and a shared, not just a sovereign, responsibility. World leaders at the upcoming Summit can make important progress on this mutual challenge by agreeing on the principles of a global nuclear security system in which:

  • all nuclear material, in both civilian and military programs, would be covered;
  • international standards and best practices would be employed consistently;
  • countries would build confidence in the effectiveness of their nuclear security; and
  • risk would be minimized by the reduction and, where possible, elimination of nuclear materials so that they no longer pose a threat.

Leaders must also decide on the process for building such a system and on how to sustain the momentum and attention on the nuclear security mission that the Summits have so far provided beyond 2016. There is no institution or mechanism currently designed to take this mission on. The time between the 2014 and 2016 Summits will provide a narrow window of opportunity to begin to put in place the global system needed to achieve the goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material and to ensure continued focus on the nuclear security mission. If 2016 arrives and leaders fail to do so, the window will close. The mission is too great and the risks too dire to allow this to happen.


Samantha Pitts-Kiefer is a Senior Program Officer at the Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington, D.C. She holds an M.P.A.  from the Harvard Kennedy School, a J.D. from Villanova University, and a B.A. from St. Olaf College. She is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.