WASHINGTON -- North Korea and Pakistan have the world’s worst overall atomic material security conditions among a set of 32 nations holding a threshold level of substances that could be used in nuclear weapons, according to an expert-developed index
unveiled on Wednesday (see GSN
, Dec. 13, 2011).
Experts behind the sophisticated data analysis said they hope it will be used to inform discussions among policy-makers and state leaders at the upcoming Global Nuclear Security Summit in South Korea.
The first-of-its-kind security index was commissioned by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based nonproliferation organization, and developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
The NTI index assesses the 32 states that possess a minimum of 1 kilogram of weapon-usable nuclear material on their overall nuclear protective conditions by looking at five broad factors: quantities and sites; security and control measures; global norms; domestic commitments and capacity; and societal factors. The expert assessment, which studied data from a wealth of international and national sources, notably does not examine the on-the-ground defenses of individual atomic facilities.
The analysis found that weapon-usable material was spread around the world at hundreds of different sites, many of which lack strong security protocols, said Sam Nunn, the former U.S. senator from Georgia and co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
“Nuclear material security is the No. 1 defense we have to prevent nuclear terrorism,” Nunn said.
Terrorists looking to carry out a nuclear strike will go where they believe weapon-usable material is most vulnerable, he added at the National Press Club event launch for the index. “We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe,” according to Nunn.
Following North Korea with its score of 37 out of a possible 100 points and Pakistan with its score of 41, Iran was given the third-lowest score for overall nuclear security conditions – 46 points. The three states, which all either possess nuclear weapons or are widely seen as moving in that direction, were particularly faulted under the index’s methodology for poor societal factors such as corruption and government instability; a lack of participation in global nuclear security norms; and their domestic capacity to fulfill such commitments.
Deepti Choubey, NTI senior director for nuclear security, emphasized in a telephone briefing on Tuesday that the intent behind the index was not to single out the worst offenders for criticism but to make clear that all nations have room for improvement.
“We have been very careful to make sure this is not a naming and shaming exercise,” Choubey said.
“We really hope that what we’ve created here is a tool and resource for ensuring that we have a far better sense for what the breadth and problem is,” she added.
The United States, which under President Obama has become the most prominent proponent of securing the world’s atomic substances, was given a middle-of-the-pack ranking of 13. It received a score of 78 for good nuclear security conditions.
Australia was ranked the highest of the 32 nations with a score of 94. Hungary and the Czech Republic came in second and third place, with respective scores of 89 and 87.
The United Kingdom was ranked 10th while the other remaining recognized nuclear powers, France, Russia and China, were respectively ranked 19th, 24th and 27th.
India and Israel were also given problematic ratings. New Delhi, which like rival Pakistan possesses nuclear arms outside of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, was No. 28 on the list and received an overall score of 49 points. Jerusalem, which is also widely assumed to wield an undeclared nuclear arsenal, was ranked 25th and assigned a score of 56 points.
Under the index, weapon-usable material is defined as 20 percent enriched uranium, plutonium and mixed oxide fuel. The index did not analyze security conditions around nations’ stocks of radiological substances, which could be used to build a radiological “dirty bomb.”
In addition to ranking the 32 threshold states, the index also analyzed the nuclear security conditions in 144 other nations that have less than 1 kilogram of weapon-usable material. These countries were assessed under a subset of conditions such as domestic legislation criminalizing atomic materials smuggling and participation in international nonproliferation agreements, according to Leo Abruzzese, global forecasting chief for the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Nunn said the 144 nations were included in the NTI index as it is important to assess what states have the potential to be used as safe havens or staging grounds for illegal atomic activities.
Denmark received the top score within that group – a perfect 100 – while conflict-striven Somalia came in last with five points.
Nunn said there have been bright spots on the nuclear security front.
“We see clear signs that governments are becoming more engaged on this issue. Nineteen countries plus Taiwan have completely eliminated their stocks of weapon-usable material,” he said.
While recognizing the need to maintain secrecy regarding the specific defenses surrounding individual nuclear sites, Choubey said nations could improve international confidence in their ability to protect their most sensitive materials by publishing their atomic material regulations. At present, only 13 of the 32 threshold nations make such information publicly accessible, she said.
Nations could also allow regular peer reviews of their facilities holding weapon-usable material – a service that is offered by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the NTI nuclear security expert said.
Nunn said it was his hope the index would play a role in framing the discussions at the Global Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul and would “help guide the international community … as they work to set up priorities after the summit.”
The March event is a follow-on to the 2010 summit in Washington where 47 nations committed to securing all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years.
Speaking at the press club, Choubey said, “Foremost we must begin a dialogue that leads to a much needed global consensus on priorities” for actions to improve nuclear material security. She suggested that one of the top goals should be reaching consensus on a global baseline of the minimum security requirements for all nations.
Nunn said the Seoul summit could be used to reach agreement on expanding the mandate of the U.N. nuclear watchdog to include verifying that countries are meeting minimum requirements for nuclear security practices. Currently the Vienna, Austria-based agency is only authorized to monitor member nations’ civilian atomic programs to ensure resources are not being diverted to weapon production activities.
Choubey also suggested the summit be used to build consensus on bringing into force the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material
, which legally requires member nations to protect nonmilitary atomic substances wherever they are employed, stored or shipped. More than 40 states are still needed to ratify the amendment before it can go into effect, she said.
[Editor's Note: The Nuclear Threat Initiative is the sole sponsor of Global Security Newswire, which is published independently by the National Journal Group.]