An act of nuclear terrorism anywhere in the world would be a global humanitarian, economic, and political catastrophe, and would undermine the role of nuclear technology for energy, medical, industrial, and other purposes. Unfortunately, this is not a hypothetical concern. Well-resourced terrorist groups espousing apocalyptic ideology have pursued nuclear weapons in the past. While nobody knows who will be the next to pursue a nuclear weapon or attempt to sabotage a nuclear power plant, U.S. leadership is needed to ensure the international community continues to reduce the danger by effectively protecting the hundreds of nuclear facilities and transport operations around the world.
U.S. programs to strengthen security at nuclear facilities around the world are among the few nuclear policy issues with strong bipartisan support. Every president, from President Clinton to President Trump, for nearly three decades has said reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism was a national security priority. Despite this support, the United States has taken a back seat in strengthening nuclear security around the world in recent years, and progress is slowing. U.S. funding for strengthening nuclear security has declined significantly. The scope and scale of multilateral and bilateral nuclear security cooperation has been diminishing, particularly with countries like China and Russia which face significant risks. Countries are not keeping up with constantly evolving threats, like those posed by emerging technologies such as drones or cyber-attacks. Nuclear material and facilities remain too vulnerable around the world.
President-Elect Joe Biden has long been interested in preventing nuclear terrorism. In 2004, after the World Trade Center fell, the Pentagon had been attacked, and Osama Bin Laden was on the run, then-Senator Biden said during a speech at Georgetown University, “If we are to avoid nuclear terrorism in the future there is no more critical effort today than securing the world’s fissile materials.” Threats have changed since those harrowing days. Al Qaeda is significantly diminished; the Islamic State rose and fell. Yet, the importance of this effort has not decreased. As the Islamic State demonstrated, threats can evolve quickly. Recognizing that preventing nuclear terrorism must continue to be a national priority, Vice President Joe Biden, in one of his last acts in that role, reemphasized in January 2017 that “nuclear weapons—the proliferation of this deadly knowledge to more nations, and the possibility of a terrorist obtaining nuclear materials—remain among our most pressing security challenges.” Countries can significantly reduce this risk by working together to strengthen security around nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons-useable nuclear material, and nuclear faculties where sabotage could pose a significant risk.
There are critical steps the Biden administration can take in its nascent days to ensure states stay ahead of the constantly evolving threat of nuclear terrorism.
Developing a comprehensive Nuclear Security Plan. The Biden administration should develop a plan for achieving effective and sustainable nuclear security for all nuclear weapons, weapons-usable materials, and all of the nuclear facilities whose sabotage could cause a major catastrophe. The plan should include a strategy for encouraging international partners to strengthen protection against all plausible threats, including insiders; adapt to emerging technologies like drones; improve security culture; conduct realistic performance testing; and consolidate or remove vulnerable or unnecessary stockpiles of all highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium. The United States should provide technical support and resources to support these efforts when necessary. The plan should be developed and implemented with participation from all relevant stakeholders throughout the government, led from the White House, as success will require senior political leadership, technical experts, intelligence agencies, diplomats, program managers and more.
Engaging with countries that face significant risks. The United States should pursue constructive dialogue on preventing nuclear terrorism with countries that possess large quantities of weapons useable materials and that face significant risks. This should include countries with whom the United States has complicated relations like Russia and China. There are many areas where the United States should push back on Russian and Chinese behavior, but there is still a need for cooperation with these countries when it is mutually beneficial. This may be particularly challenging with Russia, but the Biden administration has already voiced support for continuing U.S.-Russian cooperation to reduce the risk of nuclear escalation and war. It should also support revitalizing US-Russian cooperation to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism. As guardians of the world’s largest nuclear stockpiles, they should work as equals to exchange ideas and best practices, discuss common challenges, and develop new technologies and approaches to cope with new threats, including drones.
Funding expanded nuclear security effort. Under both President Obama and President Trump, both budget requests and legislative appropriations for nuclear security programs have been declining for years. Some of this decline is due to projects being completed, countries being unwilling to implement other projects, or budget pressures from nuclear weapons programs. As an investment in U.S. national security in reducing the threats of nuclear and radiological terrorism, the U.S. government should provide resources to expand and revitalize its international nuclear security programs, with broader objectives and more money and personnel to accomplish them. In its role as role as a nuclear security “evangelist and consultant” where it persuades other countries to strengthen nuclear security and provides recommendations on how to do it, the United States should provide technical and financial support for all countries that need it. This means cooperating with as many of the countries with nuclear weapons, weapons-usable nuclear materials or nuclear facilities whose sabotage could cause a major catastrophe as possible regardless of their available resources, rich and poor countries alike.
Strengthening the international treaties and institutions that support stronger nuclear security around the world. The United States should increase financial and political support for the International Atomic Energy Agency. It should also focus on ensuring a successful review conference for the Amended Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (A/CPPNM), scheduled for 2021. The amended A/CPPNM is the most important legally binding international agreement focused on strengthening global nuclear security. As part of the review, the United States should encourage other countries to report on progress they have made on nuclear security, the challenges they face, and seek agreement on regular review conferences.
While the Biden administration faces many challenges around the world, preventing nuclear terrorism should continue to be a national security priority. Nuclear security, like deterrence or arms control, is not something that is ever finished. It is an enduring challenge requiring states to stay ahead of threats in order to reduce nuclear risks. Like other strategies for nuclear risk reduction, nuclear security requires political attention, a credible plan, international engagement and adequate funding. A small investment in nuclear security today could prevent catastrophe in the future.