The risk of nuclear sabotage or theft of America’s nuclear weapons material is rising due to declining political stability and increased partisan rancor under the Trump administration, according to a new report by a respected scientific policy and advocacy group.
The report from the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington specifically cites the administration’s failure to appoint experts to key national security jobs as a factor in the rising level of risk. The report says the risk level in the United States has increased on a par with that of Belgium, Poland, and Taiwan.
Political stability and effective governance have suffered in the U.S. since 2016 because of “heightened social unrest, resignations and vacancies from key government departments and the increasingly deep polarization of political party politics,” said the report by NTI, which is headed by former Obama administration energy secretary Ernest Moniz. The group has been systematically assessing the security of nuclear materials around the globe for the past six years, and issued its new assessment on Sept. 5.
“There are some unfortunate and alarming undercurrents,” Moniz warned in the report’s opening letter.
Many key diplomatic posts at the State Department remain vacant, an issue that complicated preparations for the face-to-face meeting in June between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, where nuclear weapons issues were discussed. Partisan divides can interrupt hard-fought progress toward better nuclear security, and civil unrest can sow the type of hostile dissent that could inspire sabotage at a nuclear site, according to the report.
The Energy Department, which coordinates U.S. nuclear policy, did not respond to a request for comment.
The NTI report drew on analysis by the Economist Intelligence Unit, a private-sector research team that designed an objective, scientific system for ranking nuclear nations’ progress toward improved protection of nuclear materials and facilities. Nuclear security experts from more than a dozen countries and two international nuclear security oversight bodies advised the unit on which indicators to measure and their significance.
The U.S.’s downgraded score for political stability reflects “large-scale demonstrations that we have seen over the past couple of years, and anticipate we will continue to see,” Hilary Steiner of the Economist Intelligence Unit said, “Charlottesville being one example of that.” Unflinching partisan divisions in government undermine policy compromises that can benefit nuclear security, and therefore the U.S.’s effective governance score slipped since 2016, she said.
The study evaluates the protection of nuclear material among the 22 nations that possess at least 1 kilogram of materials essential to making nuclear weapons, and 44 countries plus Taiwan that have nuclear reactors capable of releasing dangerous levels of radiation.
Nuclear security experts who conducted the study judged each country’s defenses against a range of threats, including sabotage, theft and cyber-incursion at nuclear power plants, research centers and during transportation of fissile materials. The experts also analyzed what might be impeding progress toward improved security.
The backslide in nuclear security isn’t unique to the United States, according to the new report. In all, 54 countries were deemed to be at higher risk of theft or sabotage now than they were in 2016, according to the Nuclear Threat Index.
“Such deterioration has occurred at a time when well-organized, well-financed and increasingly capable terrorist organizations are actively seeking the materials necessary to build weapons of mass destruction,” the report said.
The report noted an uptick in political unrest in Turkey, where a new nuclear power plant is under construction and expected to open in 2023, and where dozens of warheads built and controlled by the U.S. are stored in fortified bunkers. Turkey’s nuclear security rating dropped from 39 in 2016 to 24 now, out of a possible score of 100, the report said.
“The risk of social unrest is rated as high, risks to orderly transfer of power have increased, and a moderate risk of armed conflict within the next two years exists” in Turkey, according to the index. Its downgraded rating in nuclear security also is attributable in part to the Turkish government’s struggles to carry out policies, “and the pervasiveness of corruption among public officials is high,” the report said.
Among countries with weapons-useable nuclear materials, Australia and Switzerland got the best ratings for guarding against theft. The U.S. tied with the United Kingdom for 12th, and North Korea was rated worst in the world at protecting nuclear material against theft, according to the report. Finland is at the least risk of sabotage. The U.S. ranks 11th in that category. North Korea, once again, is the world’s worst.
The Nuclear Threat Initiative issued its first index in 2012, in tandem with the second of four Nuclear Security Summits convened by the Obama administration. The aim of the reports was to encourage countries to adopt security practices that will make nuclear materials more difficult to steal. “Although the summit process is now over, the work it catalyzed has never been more important,” Moniz wrote in his introductory letter to the report.
Not all the news was bad: The number of countries that possess 1 kilogram of nuclear material suitable to make a nuclear bomb has declined by nearly one-third since 2012, when 32 nations were on the list. Argentina and Poland shed their stocks completely and “addressed the threat in the best way possible,” Moniz wrote, “by removing or disposing of all their weapons-useable nuclear material.”
Collectively those nations that did improve security since 2016 are progressing faster than countries historically have, according to the report. Japan, for instance, made notable strides by implementing stricter vetting practices for personnel working at nuclear facilities and requiring cyber-incident response plans. Similarly, India, though still hampered by rampant corruption and a worrisome terrorist presence, fortified its political stability and adopted United Nations norms for protecting nuclear materials since 2016.
Moniz singled out Japan for praise during his speech unveiling the report. A planned plutonium-fueled nuclear plant in Japan has put nuclear security experts on edge that fresh stocks of bomb-useable materials will attract terrorists. In India, careless handling of dangerous nuclear waste stoked public outcry for limits on its nuclear program, and India’s porous defense of nuclear material raised concerns internationally as recently as 2015 that the U.S., a major supplier of India’s nuclear technology, hadn’t put sufficient pressure on India to adopt adequate protections.
Several steps can be taken to better protect nuclear materials and swing the pendulum of security back in the direction of improvement for nations such as the U.S. that backslid, according to the report. Its authors recommended countries improve their basic security measures: Adopting vigorous vetting of personnel working in the nuclear industry, hardening on-site physical security at nuclear installations and better training personnel to recognize security weaknesses. Those developing nuclear power plants, for instance, can adopt robust regulatory standards and emulate what’s worked in countries that have more experience protecting nuclear plants. The report also recommends reducing political risk through effective governance and cracking down on illicit activity, such as government corruption and terrorism.
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