The Ugly Truth About Nuclear Terrorism

Image: Flickr/Blake Burkhart. CC BY 2.0.

We're half a step behind.

The fourth, and likely final, Nuclear Security Summit wrapped up recently, aimed at controlling nuclear bomb materials so terrorists can’t get them. To be sure, some real progress has been made. But if we take a step back and compare that progress to the immensity of the challenge, we are left with a nagging question: are we doing enough?

President Obama proposed the summits seven years ago, with a now-famous 2009 speech in Prague. Since the summits started in 2010, governments have removed or secured weapons-usable materials from more than fifty facilities in thirty nations. Over a dozen countries are now free of these deadly ingredients, including Ukraine—one less thing to worry about as that country struggles with internal chaos. Overall, 3.8 tons of material have been secured (enough for 150 nuclear weapons); fifteen centers of excellence created; radiation detectors at three hundred border crossings, airports and ports put in place—the impressive list goes on.

This is great stuff, and we can all appreciate the value of locking up nuclear materials that could otherwise be used by terrorists to build a bomb. And given the recent terror attacks in Paris, Brussels, Turkey, Pakistan and elsewhere, and reports that ISIS operatives were tracking a Belgian nuclear official, the danger appears to be real and growing.

Yet the uncomfortable truth is that the threat of terrorists getting nuclear weapons continues to grow along with the stocks of nuclear materials and weapons around the globe. The limited progress we are making is not keeping pace with the threat.

We are losing.

As President Obama put it on April 1, “our work is by no means finished . . . Global stocks of plutonium are growing, nuclear arsenals are expanding in some countries, with more tactical nuclear weapons which could be at greater risk of theft . . . ”

Indeed, Obama’s vision for preventing nuclear terrorism has always been broader than just controlling nuclear materials. He understood that to win this race, we must also end production of the materials, reduce nuclear weapons and stop nuclear testing. As Obama said, “preventing nuclear terrorism is one part of the broader agenda that I outlined years ago in Prague, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and seeking a world without them.”

As welcome as the Nuclear Security Summit process is, even if all the nuclear materials under its purview were locked away tomorrow, we would still live with the threat of nuclear terrorism. Here’s what we need to do to really address this urgent challenge.


First, when you’re in a hole, stop digging. Civilian stocks of weapons-usable materials are growing faster than we can lock them down. For example, on April 1, energy secretary Ernest Moniz appeared with a senior Japanese official to announce that half a ton of highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium had been shipped from Japan to the United States. These are the two main ingredients in nuclear bombs, so—great news right?

Yes, but Japan already has almost fifty tons of plutonium, and is moving ahead with the Rokkasho plutonium reprocessing plant that could produce up to eight tons of plutonium each year: one step forward, sixteen steps back. Japan, which recently suffered the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima, would be the only country without nuclear weapons to operate such a facility. This makes China, South Korea and North Korea nervous.

As President Obama said during the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, “We know that just the smallest amount of plutonium—about the size of an apple—could kill hundreds of thousands and spark a global crisis . . . We simply can’t go on accumulating huge amounts of the very material, like separated plutonium, that we’re trying to keep away from terrorists.”


Second, look at the big picture. The summit process focuses only on civilian stocks, intended for use in nuclear power and medical research, which are a small fraction of the total. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, 83 percent of the roughly two thousand tons of global stockpiles are in “military” reserves, off-limits to civilian controls. So when summit participants talk about progress in controlling nuclear materials, they are only looking at 17 percent of the problem.

And don’t assume that military stocks are more secure. In 2012, an eighty-two-year-old nun and two peace activists broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which stores military highly enriched uranium. In 2007, the U.S. Air Force mistakenly loaded six nuclear-armed cruise missiles onto a bomber and flew it across the country, leaving the weapons unguarded for thirty-six hours. More recently, Air Force nuclear weapons personnel have made headlines for falling asleep on the job and other negligent practices.