Opening Remarks at the Institute for Nuclear Materials Management Annual Meeting

Opening Remarks at the Institute for Nuclear Materials Management Annual Meeting

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Thank you, President Ken Sorenson, for your introduction and for your outstanding record. Thank you, Teressa McKinney, for organizing this conference, and I thank all gathered here today for the outstanding work of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management.  I am delighted to welcome you to Atlanta and to my home state of Georgia.

All Americans should be grateful for this Institute and for your 56 years of remarkable work to advance effective nuclear materials management around the globe.  While great progress has been made, I think that we can all agree we have “miles to go before we sleep”.

Our Nuclear Threat Initiative has worked closely with your Institute since our founding in 2001.  We have partnered on several key projects, including the development and launch of the World Institute for Nuclear Security, an organization that has grown to more than 2,000 members from 108 countries and that provides a forum to share and promote best security practices among those responsible for nuclear material all over the world.  In addition, two members of our NTI team, Corey Hinderstein, who is about to begin a two-year stint at the Department of Defense, and Kelsey Hartigan, have held leadership posts with your Institute.   

I also want to praise two people in today’s audience whom we have worked closely with over the years – Laura Holgate of the National Security Council staff and Matthew Bunn of the Belfer Center.  Laura and Matt have both dedicated their careers to reducing nuclear risk and have had enormous roles in reducing nuclear dangers.  They will be speaking on a panel this morning, and I look forward to hearing their valuable insights on the Nuclear Security Summit process and the global nuclear security agenda. 

Today, the elements of a perfect storm are in place around the world:  an ample supply of weapons-usable nuclear materials, an expansion of the technical know-how to build a crude nuclear bomb and the determination of terrorists to do it.

This should be a grave concern for all of us.  As this crowd knows, terrorists don’t need to go where there is the most material; they are likely to go where the material is most vulnerable.  That means the future of the nuclear enterprise requires that every link of the nuclear chain be secure.  The catastrophic use of atoms for terrorism will jeopardize the future of atoms for peace.

Perspective is crucial.  The enemy of nuclear security is not only complacency; it’s also paralyzing pessimism.  The message must go out that on nuclear material security, we must –  and we are –  moving forward.  Because of the cooperation between the United States, Russia and other nations, including the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program in the early 1990’s, the world has made real progress in securing weapons-usable nuclear materials. 

Since 2012, seven states, including Ukraine, have completely eliminated these materials from their territories.  Imagine the Ukraine crisis today if there were still nuclear weapons and weapons-usable nuclear materials spread around the country. 

While 25 countries still possess weapons-usable materials today, that’s half the number of states that had them in 1992.  Also, more than a dozen states have recently taken important steps to improve the security of their nuclear materials by reducing their quantities. 

Today, I also want to praise the Global Threat Reduction Initiative team, who are celebrating GTRI’s 10th anniversary this year, and everyone who has been a part of this crucial work.  The Department of Energy launched GTRI in 2004 to focus on and accelerate the United States’ efforts to secure vulnerable nuclear and radiological material located at civilian sites around the globe.  This work has been supported and funded by both the Bush and Obama administrations, and many in this room have been critical to its success. 

Many of the removals of weapons-usable nuclear material have been accomplished in partnership with Russia.  Despite the serious tension between the U.S. and Russia over the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, we must not lose sight of how essential cooperation between our two countries is to global security and to preventing catastrophic terrorism and nuclear proliferation.  It is critically important that the United States and Russia, as the two nations with the largest amounts of nuclear material, continue to work to reduce nuclear dangers.  There will be a huge cost in diminished global security if the Ukrainian crisis continues unabated and poisons the atmosphere for essential cooperation in these areas. 

The tragic downing of the Malaysian plane in Ukraine last week makes the situation even more urgent.   It also highlights how risks escalate when dangerous technologies like surface-to-air missiles fall into dangerous hands.  We are in a high-risk new era.  Two immediate questions and one long-term one:

  1. Will President Putin use his power to force the Russian rebels to assure a humane recovery effort and a full, objective investigation?
  2. Will President Putin begin working vigorously and responsibly to end the civil war in Ukraine?  As NTI Board member and former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov stated recently, “Only international cooperation can prevent Ukraine from becoming a failed state.”
  3. Will the Malaysian Air tragedy shock Russia, indeed shock all of us, into thinking anew about the essential accountability of sovereign states for dangerous weapons and materials to our neighbors and the world?

In a recent Washington Post op-ed entitled “Strategic Terrorism,” former Chief Technology Officer of Microsoft Nathan Myhrvold warned the world that the economics and availability of weapons of mass destruction have radically changed and that today we face a different cost equation and a different world.  With today’s technologies, a small number of people can obtain incredible destructive power with crude nuclear, biological, chemical or cyber weapons, as well as high-tech conventional weapons, as we have just seen in Ukraine.

The Ukraine tragedy and the terrible loss of innocent lives increases the distrust and makes cooperation even more difficult.  Paradoxically, it also makes the rebuilding of trust and cooperation more essential.

There are still nearly 2,000 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear materials spread across the world in hundreds of sites, some of them still poorly secured and vulnerable to theft or sale on the black market.  As you know, a small amount is sufficient to build a terrorist nuclear weapon.  Though not my subject today, we have “miles to go” to improve the security of radiological material which could be used in a "dirty bomb", and the world is fortunate that this has not already occurred.

We must secure all materials to the highest possible standard.  Yet, stunningly, even though the destructive power of these materials in dangerous hands has the capacity to shatter world confidence, kill hundreds of thousands, and change society as we know it, there is no effective global system for how it should be secured.  Let me repeat that.  There is no effective global system for how weapons-usable nuclear materials should be secured.  Let me tell you what I mean. 

In spite of the global threat posed by these materials, security practices of countries vary widely, as many in this room know.  Some states require strong nuclear security practices, including the threats from inside; others don’t.  Some states require strong measures to counter the risk of insider threat; others don’t.  Some facilities have armed guards on site; others have to call the police or military to respond and hope that they get there in time. 

Several important elements for guiding states with their nuclear security responsibilities do currently exist, but they fall short of forming standards or reflecting best practices.  For example, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) develops very useful guidance on various nuclear security topics.  In order for them to constitute international standards, states must treat them as requirements and not suggestions.  At the Hague Nuclear Security Summit in March, 35 countries did just that and committed to “to realize or exceed” the intent of key guidelines.  In addition, security guidance should reflect the strongest security approaches – true best practices – not the lowest common denominator.  WINS’ best practices are one area where this is happening, and I urge your continued support for WINS’ efforts.

Another serious gap in international efforts is that they cover only approximately 15 percent of weapons-usable nuclear materials –  those used in civilian programs.  The remaining 85 percent of materials are categorized as military or non-civilian and are not subject even to limited guidelines.

This lack of an effective global system for nuclear materials security stands in stark contrast to other high-risk global enterprises.  For example, in aviation, countries set standards for airline safety and security through the International Civil Aviation Organization, which then audits state implementation of the standards and shares security concerns with member states.  If your practices don’t meet these standards, your plane isn’t going to land in the United States, the E.U., China, Russia, Japan, India, Brazil, or most other places around the world.

Obviously, in an age of terrorism, the airline industry depends on this safety and security system for its economic viability, and countries depend on it to protect their citizens.  Shouldn’t the security of potentially the most dangerous material on the planet have an equally effective approach?  

We also need to think broadly about nuclear security as it is affected by nonproliferation, arms reductions and nuclear energy. For example, let’s think about these questions and challenges:

  • What are the security implications of continuing to increase nuclear material stockpiles without limits?
  • What are we doing about the spread of technology for peaceful nuclear power programs that can also be used for nuclear weapons, and can we close gaps by building consensus around new approaches to the nuclear fuel cycle?
  • Can we think and act boldly by beginning to bring the production of all enrichment and reprocessing under strict international monitoring?

The intersection of all of these areas is the nuclear material and whether it is managed responsibly.  Nuclear security is not a stand-alone issue; it is a continuing and perpetual mission, one that can be made easier or harder depending on the policy decisions made in these related areas.

My bottom line: the world needs a nuclear materials security system in which:

  1. All nuclear weapons-usable materials are covered – civilian and military.
  2. All states adhere to internationally recognized standards and best practices.
  3. States demonstrate to each other that they have effective security in place by taking reassuring actions, such as inviting peer reviews of their facilities using outside experts; and
  4. States reduce risks by decreasing their materials stocks and the number of facilities that house them.

The Issue of Sovereignty

The global discussion about nuclear security is changing for the better, and the Nuclear Security Summits have been very productive.  I give President Obama high marks for his initiation and leadership of this effort.  The toughest roadblock to more effective nuclear materials security remains a concept of national sovereignty that is not consistent with today’s dangers.  States opposed to global rules on nuclear security contend that the responsibility for nuclear security within a state resides entirely with that state. 

This dubious argument implies that the world must accept a very high degree of catastrophic nuclear risk to protect a very broad definition of nuclear sovereignty.  Is that really the case?  As I see it, this definition of sovereignty will not survive after the first act of nuclear terrorism.  If a nuclear disaster occurs, what would we wish we had done to stop it?  What keeps us from doing it now?

The stakes for both global commerce and stability are extremely high.  Let me give a vivid example.  A couple of years ago, Scientific American magazine reported on a study that investigated the likely impact of a hypothetical regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan using 100 weapons.  According to the computer models, more than 20 million people in the two countries could die from the blasts, fires and radioactivity.  Smoke from the fires would cover all the continents, diminish sunlight, and shorten growing seasons.  Agricultural yields would decline around the world, and one billion people with marginal food supplies could die of starvation within 10 years.

It goes on, but suffice to say that even if you give this scenario a substantial discount—or even if you change it radically downward by assuming a limited terrorist nuclear attack rather than a regional nuclear war—one truth should be clear.  The right to do whatever you wish with nuclear technology in your own country is no more compatible with global nuclear security than “do-whatever-you-want” aviation rules would be compatible with safe and secure international air travel.  We have no trouble applying this logic to countries like Iran and North Korea, but doesn’t nuclear security accountability apply to all?   

Fortunately, many countries support the idea of shared and effective responsibility.  They understand that this call is not an abdication of sovereignty; it’s an assertion of the prime obligation of a sovereign state – to protect its citizens from disaster.  A concern for the fate of citizens in our own countries entitles, even obligates, leaders to insist on global standards for nuclear materials security and a more secure nuclear fuel cycle.

The Tasks and Call to Action

While much of the work in nuclear security is in the hands of governments, it is clear that they need more effective partners outside government.  Before closing, let me briefly tell you the parts of the apple that NTI is biting off in terms of promoting global nuclear security:

  • We are engaged in a global dialogue that brings experts together from inside and outside of government and across the nuclear industry to determine how to design and build a global system for nuclear materials security.  We believe that our work made a positive impact at the recent Netherlands Summit. 
  • In 2012 and 2014, we evaluated and benchmarked nuclear security conditions in 176 countries through the NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index, with particular emphasis on those with weapons-usable material.
  • As I mentioned, working with many in this room, we helped create the World Institute for Nuclear Security.  WINS needs sustained support from government and industry to continue this critical work. 
  • We recently launched a “Pilot Project” on verification, the results of which will be shared in a special session at this meeting by Kelsey Hartigan and Andrew Newman. 

Finally, I want to update you on an initiative we launched in 2006, when NTI, through the generosity of Warren Buffett, pledged $50 million to help create a low-enriched uranium stockpile to be owned and managed by the IAEA.   It was matched two-to-one by a number of nations, including the United States, the European Union, the United Arab Emirates, Norway and Kuwait.

As the United States and its negotiating partners engage in nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna, success hinges on Iran agreeing to verifiable commitments to prove to the world on a continued basis that its nuclear program is exclusively peaceful.  

Iran has vigorously asserted it needs national enrichment capability to protect against an interruption in its nuclear fuel supply, despite Russia’s commitment to supply all the necessary fuel for Iran’s only nuclear power reactor at Bushehr.  So, in theory, if Iran’s concerns about security of supply are addressed, it should have no need for a large domestic enrichment program.  The point of the fuel bank is to empower countries to confidently purchase nuclear fuel on the market rather than build their own enrichment facilities, so the fuel bank could help meet Iran’s energy security concerns as a back-up to the market. 

Unfortunately, at a time when the fuel bank could be a valuable asset, progress on its establishment is stalled.  In the last three years, the IAEA and Kazakhstan, which has volunteered to host the bank, have not been able to finalize plans.  They must intensify these efforts to quickly resolve the remaining issues.

The fuel bank is not just a good idea; it could be an urgently needed piece of the puzzle to reduce nuclear threats, including playing a role in the resolution of the Iran crisis, or at least avoiding other Irans in the future. 

We believe we are making a contribution.


We are the first to admit that NTI is a small organization with a limited budget dealing with global threats and global opportunities.  The world looks to members of the INMM to lead in the field of security as you have led in safeguards and so many other areas.  Your wisdom and experience are vital to the future of the nuclear enterprise and our security. 

Yes, governments do have the primary responsibility, but this organization plays a very big role.  Your Institute recognized this when you broadened your Physical Protection technical division to include, and indeed highlight, nuclear security.  You have recognized that our new era requires new approaches.

The world has changed. We must think anew. 

We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe.  Together, we must run faster.  With your vigorous help and strong leadership, I am confident that we will.  Thank you. 

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