Global Cleanout: An Emerging Approach to the Civil Nuclear Material Threat

Global Cleanout: An Emerging Approach to the Civil Nuclear Material Threat

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Philipp C. Bleek

The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

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Executive Summary

Terrorists and states hostile to the United States and its allies are pursuing nuclear weapons. The acquisition of even primitive nuclear weapons by terrorists willing to sacrifice their own lives to kill thousands of civilians would be catastrophic, while nuclear proliferation to hostile states poses grave dangers.

Obtaining fissile material, either highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium, remains the single greatest obstacle to acquiring a nuclear weapon. A sophisticated terrorist organization could plausibly construct a rudimentary nuclear bomb if it obtained such material; a state almost certainly could. Yet dozens of insecure civil research centers scattered around the globe house HEU or plutonium, many protected by only the most rudimentary security measures. While security upgrades have a critical role to play, only by ensuring that there is nothing left at a site to steal can the threat of nuclear diversion be entirely eliminated.

The United States has conducted five operations over the past decade to “clean out” specific vulnerable civil nuclear material stockpiles supplied by the Soviet Union. These operations make clear the haphazard nature of past and current attempts to address this threat. Efforts to date have been characterized by a consistent pattern of passivity in site identification; incoherence in site selection; sluggish implementation due to ad hoc operations, the absence of clear lines of responsibility, and insufficiently empowered implementing officials (all of which stem in large part from a lack of awareness, engagement, and leadership by senior government officials); allowing Russia to effectively stymie progress; and failure to effectively engage third parties, including countries and perhaps non-state actors.

These shortcomings highlight the key ingredients of a viable “global cleanout” approach:

  • A comprehensive, global threat assessment is a necessary ingredient of any systematic approach to the threat posed by civil nuclear material stockpiles. Existing U.S. government and International Atomic Energy Agency information, supplemented by limited amounts of targeted collection, should suffice to compile such a database.
  • A prioritized, global implementation plan should lay out a systematic strategy for dealing with vulnerable sites, prioritized primarily according to proliferation threat—based on materials, security, and location—although opportunity will invariably play a role as well.
  • A coherent U.S. government program requires the designation of a single legally, financially, and politically empowered implementation office, with adequate resources to get the job done. Establishing such an office will only be possible with high-level executive branch and congressional engagement.
  • A flexible approach to providing incentives targeted to the needs of each facility (and the states where such facilities exist) will be essential to rapid progress in removing vulnerable nuclear materials from sites around the world.
  • Vigorous engagement with Russia is required to communicate the priority with which the U.S. government views this issue and to induce Russia to play a more constructive role than it has at times in the past.
  • Diplomacy to engage other countries and perhaps non-state actors is required for a truly global solution to a truly global threat. Third-party countries have facilities, expertise, and funds to offer, and may be more credible actors in some cases. And non-state approaches, such as purely commercial or non-profit deals, at a minimum merit exploration.

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The 2023 NTI Nuclear Security Index


The 2023 NTI Nuclear Security Index

“The bottom line is that the countries and areas with the greatest responsibility for protecting the world from a catastrophic act of nuclear terrorism are derelict in their duty,” the 2023 NTI Index reports.


Highly enriched uranium (HEU)
Highly enriched uranium (HEU): Refers to uranium with a concentration of more than 20% of the isotope U-235. Achieved via the process of enrichment. See entry for enriched uranium.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
IAEA: Founded in 1957 and based in Vienna, Austria, the IAEA is an autonomous international organization in the United Nations system. The Agency’s mandate is the promotion of peaceful uses of nuclear energy, technical assistance in this area, and verification that nuclear materials and technology stay in peaceful use. Article III of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires non-nuclear weapon states party to the NPT to accept safeguards administered by the IAEA. The IAEA consists of three principal organs: the General Conference (of member states); the Board of Governors; and the Secretariat. For additional information, see the IAEA.


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