A Pakistani soldier stands guard during a curfew in Rawalpindi, Pakistan

A Pakistani soldier stands guard during a curfew in Rawalpindi, Pakistan Anjum Naveed/AP

Pakistan Named ‘Most Improved’ on Nuclear Security

Since 2012, Pakistan did more to boost protection of its atomic-bomb fuel than any other nuclear-armed country, analysts say. By Diane Barnes

Pakistan did more since 2012 to boost protection of its atomic-bomb fuel than any other nuclear-armed country, analysts said on Wednesday.

The South Asian nation "is taking steps to update its nuclear security regulations and to implement nuclear security best practices," according to the “NTI Nuclear Materials Index,” unveiled at a morning press conference.

At the same time, Pakistan ranked just 22 on a list of 25 nations in terms of its atomic-material protections, according to the second biennial edition of the global index, developed by the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Given its ongoing low rankings, the Islamabad government "must still improve its regulations for physical protection, control and accounting, and insider threat prevention," according to the assessment.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative is a Washington nonprofit organization, and the Economist Intelligence Unit is an analytical consultancy based in London, New York and Hong Kong. The two organizations collaborated to produce the new index in the run-up to an international gathering of world leaders on nuclear security this spring in the Netherlands.

Their report gives Pakistani nuclear security an overall score of 46 on a 100-point scale, a three-point increase over its rating in the prior version of the NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index, published in 2012.

(Read more Defense One coverage of Pakistan here)

Of the five subcategories rated in the new report, Islamabad made its greatest strides in "security and control measures." In that subcategory, Pakistan received nine more points than it did two years ago, bringing its total score in the area to 40 points.

"It is now possible to score Pakistan ... on the basis of its publicly available regulations," the report states, noting that the score accounts for details the country released on its physical protection requirements for atomic sites after the 2012 index went public.  

Pakistani law cites U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission dictates as applicable in those cases where Pakistan’s own regulations have not been spelled out. However, since U.S. law does not apply within Pakistan’s borders, the assessment does not credit Islamabad for what the authors called an "unenforceable" approach.

Pakistan gained six points for improvements in its "risk environment," but even with that uptick the nation scored just 19 out of 100 in this appraisal area. Report authors described the score as a rating of "prospects for political instability over the next two years, effective governance, levels of corruption among public officials, and the presence of groups interested in and capable of illicitly acquiring nuclear materials."

A number of possible nuclear arms-storage sites in Pakistan have faced attack in recent years, including an air force base subjected to an hours-long assault in August 2012. Such incidents have brought intense international attention to bear on the security of Islamabad's growing nuclear stockpile, which is currently estimated at between 90 and 110 nuclear warheads.

The nuclear-security index references the "pervasiveness of corruption" in Pakistan as another area of concern. Last week, the detained head of an India-based Islamic terror group was reported to have sought to acquire a nuclear bomb from inside Pakistan, and cited his boss's counsel that "anything can be arranged" there.

Looking at developments around the world since 2012, analysts said most or all bomb-capable material has been removed from seven nations: Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Mexico, Sweden, Ukraine, and Vietnam. None of those countries currently holds a full kilogram of nuclear material, according to the report.

Of the nations still in possession of at least that threshold quantity, Australia received the top-ranking score of 92 for its overall nuclear-security practices. The United States tied with the United Kingdom for 11th place.

The report's authors pressed for the creation of "a global nuclear materials security system that will cover all materials, that will employ international standards and best practices, and that will reduce risks by reducing weapons-usable nuclear material stocks and the number of locations where they are found."

The document urges that international leaders discuss this recommendation at the Hague nuclear security confab in late March.

"Leaders should use the opportunity of the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands to work toward consensus on the key principles of a global nuclear security system," the analysts wrote.