In Focus Re-energizing Nuclear Security

The 21st century introduced a jarring and seemingly unmanageable security landscape. Since 9/11, terrorism has become a major point of concern, particularly the potential for sophisticated terrorist organizations to attack critical infrastructures to reinforce their political message. Non-state actors continue in their efforts to obtain nuclear and radiological materials and to target nuclear facilities.

How can industry, civil society, and governments better protect facilities and work to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands?

Stimson experts Debra Decker, Lovely Umayam, Jacqueline Kempfer, and Kathryn Rauhut examine.

"Every senior leader, when you're asked what keeps you awake at night, it's the thought of a terrorist ending up with a weapon of mass destruction, especially nuclear."

-Robert Gates, Former U.S. Secretary of Defense

The threat of nuclear materials falling into the wrong hands is often overlooked, but it remains a present danger...

Boko Haram and ISIL have operated in or near countries that have, or are considering nuclear power.

Although most civilian nuclear facilities do not possess materials that can be made directly into improvised nuclear devices, some still do.

Leadership from both parties in the United States, and around the globe, have long understood the dangers posed by the spread of nuclear materials. At the urging of President Obama, dozens of world leaders attended four Nuclear Security Summits that took place from 2010-2016.

At these summits, political commitments were made and fulfilled, marking important gains in reducing stocks of fissile materials and increasing security, with a focus on nuclear material not under military control.

Industry and NGOs held parallel summits to demonstrate their commitment towards securing nuclear materials along with their respective governments.

But since the Nuclear Security Summits concluded, momentum to prevent nuclear terrorism has waned.

While states, industry, and civil society committed to preserving the work undertaken at the summits, it remains unclear how post-summit progress will be sustained.

Summit commitments are being fulfilled by countries in a national capacity or through bilateral partnerships, but there is no longer a central political mechanism to provide ongoing momentum to ensure that efforts are coordinated in the future.


Industry, civil society, and governments can do more to prevent some of the world's most dangerous materials from falling into the wrong hands. We propose several recommendations to bring all relevant stakeholders together to revitalize attention around nuclear security:

1) Regularly Review Compliance to International Nuclear Security Frameworks:

To keep nuclear security a top priority within the international community, states party to the amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and Nuclear Facilities (CPPNM) should call for regular reviews to ensure all parties are implementing the Convention in a reasonable and practicable manner. It will be critical for states to determine what an effective review process should look like in advance of the CPPNM Review Conference, to be held in 2021.

2) Simplify and Streamline Nuclear Security Reporting:

To facilitate assistance efforts and ease states’ reporting processes, countries willing to take leadership roles should consider new ways of streamlining reporting, starting off with a trial process to include the CPPNM’s fundamental principles as part of the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540 voluntary reporting.

3) Harmonize Industry, NGO, and Government Efforts to Promote Transparency and Security:

Nongovernmental organizations should continuously evaluate their roles within the nuclear security architecture to ensure that they are helping move the ball forward where governments or industry’s impact or reach may be limited. Possible roles for NGOs include: educating policymakers on nuclear security; acting as brokers among different stakeholders – governments, international institutions, and industry – to encourage transparency and accountability; and developing new effective and efficient ways for increasing security.

4) Develop Industry-Led Efforts to Implement Nuclear Security Summit Action Plans:

Nuclear industry representatives, possibly through industry groups such as the newly-formed Nuclear Industry Steering Group for Security (NISGS), should offer specific ways they can help implement the Nuclear Security Summit action plans for the five international institutions. For instance, industry groups could develop an industry framework for nuclear security governance that outlines how industry representatives, especially those at the executive level, can better incorporate nuclear security in their practices.

Governments need to spearhead these efforts, as meaningful changes in policy and regulation must be driven from the top. NGOs can advocate for more meaningful industry input into the process, so that perspectives from the operational-level can be taken into consideration. Industry, perhaps with the help of civil society, can also push forward with voluntary commitments — by subscribing to a corporate governance framework, peer reviews, and other transparency measures — to demonstrate that it is willing to do its share in upholding nuclear security.

Overall, new mechanisms outside an official high-level convening must be developed to take pragmatic steps to ensure a strong and stable nuclear future as prospects for the nuclear industry expand over the long-term.

Watch the video below to learn more about Stimson's ongoing work on Nuclear security

About the Experts

Debra Decker, Senior Advisor, Stimson

Lovely Umayam, Project Manager, Nuclear Security Program, Stimson

Jacqueline Kempfer, Research Assistant, WMD, Nonproliferation, and Security Program, Stimson

Kathryn Rauhut, Nonresident Fellow, WMD, Nonproliferation, and Security Program, Stimson

For additional information, contact Jacqueline Kempfer at jkempfer@stimson.org.

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