U.S. Nuclear Policy and Posture: Securing Nuclear Weapons and Materials

This paper is part 6 of the 6-part series, U.S. Nuclear Policy and Posture: Core Steps, 2018–2020.

Weapons-usable nuclear materials remain located at hundreds of sites in 22 states around the world. Despite considerable progress made since 2010, in particular due to the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process, major challenges remain. There is still no global nuclear security system or set of international standards and best practices that all states follow; the state of security of nuclear facilities and materials remains uneven around the world, particularly in the case of measures to protect against cyber threats; several states continue to increase their stockpiles of weapons-usable nuclear materials; and states continue to avoid participating in confidence-building measures that would allow others to hold them accountable for their nuclear security commitments and obligations. These challenges are likely to be exacerbated because there is currently no forum to sustain and build on the momentum of the summits.

Moreover, the decades-old cooperation between the United States and Russia on nuclear security has come to an abrupt end. Russia pulled out of the Nuclear Security Summit process in 2016, has avoided participation in the Nuclear Security Contact Group (the group of NSS states that have agreed to continue meeting after the NSS ended to track and promote continued implementation of NSS commitments), and has played an obstructionist role in several global forums pertaining to nuclear security. It also suspended several nuclear security-related agreements, including the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, leaving the world’s largest nuclear complex largely isolated from the international community.

Future nuclear security efforts should focus on (1) strengthening the global nuclear security architecture, including by building mechanisms to ensure accountability; (2) minimizing and, where possible, eliminating stocks of weapons-usable nuclear materials and the number of sites at which they are located; (3) seeking opportunities to re-engage Russia and other major nuclear powers on nuclear security; (4) addressing emerging threats to nuclear security; and (5) ensuring effective security of military materials, including nuclear warheads.

Possible steps include:

1. Sustain the progress achieved during the NSS process and address remaining gaps in the global nuclear security architecture. This includes ensuring the success and long-term viability of the Nuclear Security Contact Group as a mechanism for sustaining international engagement and progress on nuclear security issues and ensuring that the 2021 Review Conference of the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM), as amended, is robust and substantive and that it results in agreement to hold a review conference every five years. To ensure accountability, states should help build confidence in the effectiveness of their security practices and take reassuring actions to demonstrate that all nuclear materials and facilities are secure. Moreover, additional resources should be provided to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for its important nuclear security mission.

2. Minimize and, where possible, eliminate stocks of weapons-usable nuclear materials and locations where they are located. Minimization, elimination, and consolidation of stocks of weapons-usable nuclear material will contribute to significant threat reduction, leaving terrorist groups with fewer potential targets for theft of nuclear materials. Future efforts should focus on codifying highly enriched uranium (HEU)-free zones in regions that are already free of HEU, such as South America and Southeast Asia; continuing to support the eventual elimination of all HEU globally, through HEU reactor conversions, HEU repatriation efforts; minimizing the use of HEU for medical isotope production; and developing cost-effective plutonium management and disposition strategies.

3. Seek opportunities to re-invigorate nuclear security cooperation with Russia and other states. As the world’s two largest nuclear powers, the United States and Russia have a special obligation to cooperate on nuclear security. Future cooperation need not take the form of unilateral technical assistance, but rather be based on the principles of mutual benefit and equality. Priorities can focus on (1) sustaining nuclear security of materials at facilities and in transit; (2) insider threat mitigation; (3) illicit trafficking prevention; (4) emergency preparedness and response; and (5) radiological security to prevent a dirty bomb attack. This work could be done in the context of a new U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism. Moreover, the United States should re-invigorate nuclear security cooperation with other states with nuclear weapons, including China, India, and Pakistan.

4. Address emerging cyber threats to nuclear facilities. A cyberattack against a nuclear facility could facilitate the theft of nuclear materials or an act of sabotage leading to catastrophic radiation release. Yet most states are not effectively prepared to deal with this emerging threat. New strategies and approaches to nuclear security are needed to comprehensively address the cyber threats facing nuclear facilities today.

5. Ensure effective security of military nuclear materials, including of nuclear warheads. Military nuclear materials remain outside the scope of international nuclear security standards and confidence-building arrangements. Efforts should be undertaken to encourage states to declare and give assurances that their military materials are secured to the same or higher standards as those applied to comparable civilian nuclear materials. Moreover, states should pursue confidence-building measures such as reporting, best practice exchanges, trainings, and peer reviews to build confidence in the security of these materials.


February 1, 2018
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Future nuclear security efforts should focus on (1) strengthening the global nuclear security architecture, including by building mechanisms to ensure accountability; (2) minimizing and, where possible, eliminating stocks of weapons-usable nuclear materials and the number of sites at which they are located; (3) seeking opportunities to re-engage Russia and other major nuclear powers on nuclear security; (4) addressing emerging threats to nuclear security; and (5) ensuring effective security of military materials, including nuclear warheads.