Implementing International Mechanisms to Ensure the Security of Military Materials

In the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit Communiqué, leaders from more than 50 countries “reaffirm[ed] the fundamental responsibility of States, in accordance with their respective obligations, to maintain at all times effective security of all nuclear and other radioactive materials, including nuclear materials used in nuclear weapons, and nuclear facilities under their control. This responsibility includes taking appropriate measures to prevent non-state actors from obtaining such materials – or related sensitive information or technology – which could be used for malicious purposes, and to prevent acts of terrorism and sabotage.”

With this statement, leaders agreed that securing all weapons-usable nuclear materials–materials in civilian programs as well as “military materials” outside of civilian programs—is critical to preventing an act of nuclear terrorism. Yet, although military materials account for the vast majority of global stockpiles of weapons-usable nuclear materials—approximately 85%— there currently are no specific security standards or confidence-building arrangements for military materials in existing international security mechanisms.  

Terrorists wishing to steal the material needed to build a crude nuclear device care little how that material is characterized; they will go wherever the material is the least secure to obtain it. We also know that facilities housing military materials can be just as susceptible to security breaches as facilities housing civilian materials. If an 84-year-old nun can break into the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee—considered the most secure nuclear facility housing military materials in the United States—what could a group of armed terrorists, aided by a complicit or unwitting insider, do?

So how do countries that possess military materials implement practical steps to fulfill their stated responsibility to take “appropriate measures” to prevent non-state actors from obtaining these materials?  First, these countries should participate in a dialogue on how to strengthen the security of military materials, identifying the key baseline measures they should all take to ensure the highest standards of security. (Committing to apply IAEA recommendations and guidelines —which reflect the consensus of all IAEA member states—to all materials would be a good first step.) Second, countries with military materials should undertake measures that not only strengthen the security of military materials but build the confidence of others that these materials are effectively secured.  The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) has convened a high-level, international Military Materials Security Study Group of retired senior government and military officials from countries with military materials to develop recommendations for how to accomplish these steps.

Leaders acknowledged in the Communiqué the value of confidence building, noting the importance of “voluntary measures … to show that they have established effective security of their nuclear materials and facilities while protecting sensitive information … thereby building national and international confidence in the effectiveness of their nuclear security regimes.” Taking as their cue the extensive decades-long cooperation between the United States and Russia, who worked together to secure and dismantle nuclear weapons and secure and consolidate nuclear materials without divulging sensitive information, other countries with military materials can partner together and collaborate to strengthen and build confidence in the security of their military materials. Activities could include sharing best practices and lessons learned, engaging in cooperative activities such as training bilaterally or trilaterally, and inviting peer reviews where trusted experts would review security measures and make recommendations for improvement. Where possible and ensuring that sensitive and confidential information is not revealed, countries should highlight these activities in reports and press releases as a way to reassure others that they take their security responsibilities seriously and are working to continuously strengthen their security.

Taking these steps benefits us all. Countries with military materials can strengthen security and deter would-be-terrorists by publicly declaring and demonstrating that their materials are secure; countries without materials can feel more confident that a terrorist using stolen military materials will not detonate a nuclear bomb within their borders; and the public at large will sleep better knowing the risk that their cities, towns, and families will fall victim to a catastrophic nuclear attack is diminished. Building confidence in the security of all nuclear materials—not just the 15% that is civilian materials—is the only way the international community can truly be confident that military materials are secured to the highest possible standards.

Samantha Pitts-Kiefer is a senior program officer within the Scientific and Technical Affairs unit at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

February 23, 2015

In a new post for Nuclear Security Matters, an online forum of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, NTI's Samantha Pitts-Kiefer explains the importance of securing all weapons-usable nuclear materials.

Samantha Pitts-Kiefer
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer

Senior Director, Global Nuclear Policy Program