The World's Nukes Are Still Vulnerable The leaders meeting at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington are being asked to make sure their nuclear materials don't fall into the hands of terrorists. But how much material is there — and how do you define "secure"?
NPR logo The World's Nukes Are Still Vulnerable

The World's Nukes Are Still Vulnerable

Honor guards at Andrews Air Force Base met the planes of dozens of heads of state, arriving in Washington for the Nuclear Security Summit on Monday. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images hide caption

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Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Honor guards at Andrews Air Force Base met the planes of dozens of heads of state, arriving in Washington for the Nuclear Security Summit on Monday.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

World leaders are gathered in Washington to discuss how to protect nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists. But what are these materials — and what's involved in keeping them safe?

One frightening thing about material that could be used to make a nuclear weapon is that there's so much of it: 500 tons of plutonium and 1,600 tons of highly enriched uranium around the world — enough to make 120,000 nuclear bombs. Another is that it's so widely dispersed, not just at nuclear weapons sites but at civilian reactors that generate electricity and produce isotopes for medical treatments.

The danger that terrorists could obtain such material is quite real. According to a new report from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, or NTI, there have been "18 documented cases of theft or loss of plutonium or highly enriched uranium," as well as many incidents that pointed out security failures at key storage sites.

The report cites Pakistan and Russia as the areas where the risk of losing nuclear material remains greatest: Pakistan, because its "small and heavily guarded" stockpile is vulnerable to theft by insiders and attack from terrorists; and Russia, because its large and widespread stockpile still has security weaknesses.

Weapons Aren't The Only Worry

Nuclear expert George Perkovich says nuclear weapons sites are — in some ways — less of a worry than civilian facilities because there are relatively few weapons plants and storage areas, and they're generally well known.

Perkovich is the head of the Nonproliferation Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The focus of the summit is really more on fissile materials, plutonium and highly enriched uranium," he says. "The idea is to get heads of state to focus on what's on their own territory and whether it's secured to the state of the art."

Those fissile materials include the waste produced by civilian nuclear power plants and nuclear reactors aboard naval vessels.

William Tobey, a nuclear nonproliferation expert at Harvard's Belfer Center, points out that 10 countries are known to have substantial amounts of nuclear material on hand, while about 20 others have enough to make at least one weapon.

The state of the art for securing those materials varies from country to country, but Tobey says it includes perimeter security for nuclear sites, "the guns, guards and gates part," and accountability systems for making sure that what's in a nuclear stockpile stays in the stockpile.

Profiling The Guards

A third element is careful screening of the people who are in charge of securing the material.

"You need background checks to make sure that the people inside the security area aren't susceptible to bribery or terrorist sympathies," Tobey says.

The NTI report recommends that governments, such as Russia, that are securing nuclear sites and materials must reduce the size of their nuclear complexes to levels they can afford to maintain. It says they should also see to it that scientists, workers and guards are adequately paid, fed and housed.

Despite the size of the nuclear materials problems, Tobey stresses that it's not overwhelming.

"It's a significant threat," he says, "but we are safer than we were 10 years ago, because an enormous amount of progress has been made."

The NTI report notes that the U.S. has helped remove all the highly enriched uranium from nearly 50 sites around the world, and that 19 countries have now removed "all weapons-usable nuclear material from their soil."