A team of CBRN specialists train at the Satsop nuclear power plant in Elma, Wash.
A team of CBRN specialists train at the Satsop nuclear power plant in Elma, Wash. // 5th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment via Sgt. Mark Miranda

Summits Are Nice but Obama Needs to Do More for Nuclear Security

World leaders at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague this week are there because, as comedian George Carlin would say, we have too much “stuff.” In this case it’s nuclear stuff that can blow up the world.

Carlin said that the whole meaning of life “was trying to find a place for your stuff.”  Since 1945, a score of nations have produced thousands of tons of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium. Today, we are awash in this stuff, enough to build over 100,000 more nuclear weapons on top of the 17,000 already stockpiled by nine nations.

The problem isn’t just that we have made (and are still making) more of this stuff than we can possibly use. It is also, as Carlin warns, that “when you leave your stuff, you gotta lock it up. You wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff.” A lot of this nuclear stuff is not really locked up very well; it is highly susceptible to terrorist attack or insider diversion.

This is not an abstract issue. Outsiders have proven how easy it is to break into even facilities believed to be highly-secure, including two attacks on a nuclear facility in South Africa in 2007 and an 82-year old nun who broke into the Y-12 nuclear production plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and spent several hours wandering around the weapons complex with her fellow protesters before guards finally arrived. 

The insider threat is just as worrying. Since 1993, there have been at least 2,330 confirmed cases of illicit or unauthorized trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials recorded by the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA. Over 160 of these occurred in 2012. Recent charges of drinking, cheating and corruption at the highest levels of U.S and Russian nuclear command structures do little to add to confidence that officials are in control.

In 2010, President Obama hosted the first nuclear security summit in Washington.  The goal is to get states, large and small, to lock up their nuclear stuff more tightly and eliminate as much of it as possible. The summits are the most successful arm of Obama’s nuclear agenda, but even here his administration has fallen short of the president’s goals.

(Related: Nuclear Summit Not Expected to Advance Military-Grade Security)

The summit process has transformed the entire discussion of nuclear security. It has expanded the groups and countries working on security, elevated the level of officials involved and empowered international organizations, like the IAEA. What were once discussions among nuclear wonks are now agenda items of national leaders. The progress is real and demonstrates the effectiveness of global cooperation in reducing these threats.  Since the summits began, 12 countries have cleaned out their stores of highly-enriched uranium, including seven countries since January 2012, and many have improved their security.

But Obama had pledged in Prague in 2009, and again at the first summit in 2010, to secure all nuclear materials within four years and to set new standards for their security.  His administration has done neither. There are still hundreds of sites in 25 nations with this nuclear material. We have a patchwork of policies, rather than legally-binding requirements or agreed standards for all nations storing this stuff. 

We are going in the right direction. When you are fleeing a forest fire, however, it is not a question of direction but of speed. Can we get to safety before disaster overwhelms us? The current pace is only sporadically urgent. Worse, there is a real chance that even this cooperation will cease after the final, planned summit in 2016.

Much bolder action is needed to prevent terrorists from getting the material they want to build a bomb — just a chunk of plutonium the size of a grapefruit, or a sphere of uranium smaller than a basketball.

The president’s staff says faster progress is hard. Many nations don’t want to take on the expense or trouble of increased security. Some balk at doing anything while the U.S. fails to ratify simple nuclear security protocols agreed to years ago and is still spending billions on making more weapons while cutting the budgets for weapons dismantlement and security. 

Here are some simple steps the president could take to increase the global cooperation we need to prevent nuclear terrorism.

First, reverse his budget priorities. The fiscal year 2015 budget increases spending on nuclear weapons programs by seven percent, and seems to have gotten the money by raiding nuclear security programs. The budget slashes spending on the only program we have to convert civilian reactors from using highly-enriched uranium, which can be used for a bomb, to low-enriched uranium, which cannot.  Last year, the Senate Appropriations Committee issued a blistering assessment of the administration’s failure to properly fund this program, even before this year’s cuts: “Because of insufficient planning and funding, the goal of converting or shutting down HEU-fueled research reactors has slipped by eight years — to 2030.” The committee also warned that the lack of funding for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (cut again this year) would leave “nuclear and radiological material unsecure for an additional 20 years,” and this “does not serve the national security interests of the United States.”

Second, make the case that this need is real by conducting a national intelligence estimate of the threat of nuclear terrorism. Obama administration staff say they have trouble convincing some nations of the urgency of threat. An official assessment, including releasing material on the past determined efforts of al Qaeda to get nuclear material, would go a long way to making the case both globally and domestically.

Finally, put together a coalition of the willing to adopt global standards that ensure, as Matthew Bunn and his co-authors argue in a new Harvard University study, that all nuclear weapons and weapons stocks are secured against at least the baseline threat of a well-placed insider; a modest group of trained, well-armed outsiders; or both working together.

The president can justifiably claim great credit for what he and his fellow world leaders have accomplished since 2010. Because of their efforts, the world is a safer place. And more achievements will be announced at the summit. But there is no room for complacency. We have to stop making any more nuclear bomb material, eliminate as much of it as we can as quickly as we can, and make sure that as long as any of it exists no one comes by and takes our stuff.

Joe Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund and the author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late.