Let there be no doubt: If the radical jihadists responsible for the latest assault on innocents in Paris get their hands on weapons of mass destruction, they will not hesitate to use them. There is no limit to the horrible acts terrorists will carry out in pursuit of their ideological agenda. The best way to stop a WMD attack is to prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear materials in the first place.
If terrorists were able to detonate a crude nuclear weapon built with materials they stole or bought on the black market, the catastrophic consequences could easily include the deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands of people, the wide-scale destruction of property, the disruption of global commerce and restrictions on civil liberties worldwide. Citizens and leaders alike would be left to ask: “What could we have done, and what should we have done, to prevent it?”
The good news is that leaders and governments have been focused on this concern for a number of years and can point to progress in better securing and removing some of the world’s most dangerous nuclear material—the highly enriched uranium and plutonium that could be used to build a bomb—scattered across the globe. Thanks to work that began in the early 1990s and has intensified through biennial Nuclear Security Summits since 2010, we’ve reduced the number of countries possessing nuclear materials from 52 in 1992 to 24 today.
Yet as leaders prepare for the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., in March 2016, there is still ample cause for concern. Today, more than 1,800 metric tons of weapons-usable materials remain stored in countries around the world, some of it still too poorly secured and vulnerable to theft. A recent report on a sting in southeast Europe exposed another chilling reality: a black market in nuclear materials. Compounding the threat is the fact that it doesn’t take much material to build a bomb and the technical know-how needed to do it is more accessible than ever.
We also know that, despite leaders’ efforts, there is still no effective global system in place for how all weapons-usable materials should be secured. Implementation of existing international guidelines remains far from universal, and no mechanism exists for holding countries accountable for lax security at nuclear facilities. Moreover, even those mechanisms that do exist apply almost exclusively to a small fraction of all weapons-usable nuclear materials—the 17 percent used for peaceful, civilian applications. The remaining 83 percent are commonly characterized as “military materials” and are therefore outside the scope of current international security standards and mechanisms.
As recent security breaches at military facilities in the United States and elsewhere have made clear, lax regulation on military materials is incredibly dangerous. Just consider the case of the 82-year-old nun and her fellow peace activists who broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in 2012. Known as the “nuclear Fort Knox,” the Y-12 facility is operated by the Department of Energy and houses thousands of kilograms of highly enriched uranium. These activists spent nearly 1½ hours on the facility compound before a single guard noticed and arrested them for trespassing. Next time the intruders might not be so harmless.
Radiological materials, such as those used in medical equipment and scientific research, pose another largely unaddressed threat. These are materials that could be used to build a “dirty bomb” that would not kill thousands but could spread radioactive materials and contaminate and deny access to major portions of one of the world’s great cities or ports, causing billions of dollars in damage and sowing terror. Already, there are claims that Islamic State extremists may have stolen enough material to build one of these bombs.
As the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit approaches, we applaud leaders for engaging on the threat and for taking the steps they have already taken to remove and secure vulnerable materials, but we have a long way to go.
In addition to minimizing and eliminating these dangerous materials and the number of facilities where they are located, leaders must work to build a strengthened global security system. The system should cover all nuclear materials, including “military materials,” and apply international standards, best practices and measures that build confidence in the effectiveness of each state’s materials security.
States also should work to:
Secure all nuclear materials and facilities to the highest standards, including screening personnel with access to sensitive materials and facilities; and strengthen tools to prevent and detect the trafficking of nuclear materials across borders.
Ensure accountability through independent oversight and build a strong security culture that includes peer reviews, best practice exchanges and realistic security exercises and assessments.
Strengthen international cooperation on nuclear security, which should include reviving cooperation between the United States and Russia and enhancing intelligence and law enforcement cooperation.
Leaders also must do more to counter the dirty bomb threat. Last year, 23 countries at the Nuclear Security Summit agreed to secure their most dangerous radiological materials. Next March, additional countries should join the pledge. In addition, hospitals should replace blood irradiators that use the most dangerous material, cesium-137, with now available alternative technologies that achieve equivalent medical outcomes.
Now, as we mourn the victims of the Paris attacks and as France and its allies avenge their loss, we call on world leaders to dramatically step up efforts to tighten security around the dangerous materials needed to build weapons of mass destruction and disruption. In the face of escalating threats, leaders have an obligation to their citizens, to their neighbors, and to the wider global community to do all that they can to prevent catastrophe.
Sam Nunn is a former U.S. senator. Richard Lugar is a former U.S. senator. Des Browne is a former UK secretary of state for defence. All three serve on the Board of Directors of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.