Thwarting Nuclear Terrorism Requires Global Cooperation

How many people are truly aware of recent radiological material thefts in both Iraq and Mexico? What about revelations that the recent terrorist attackers in Belgium were exploring a nuclear option?

In Iraq and Mexico, the stolen devices had no ingredients for a nuclear weapon, but they did contain Iridium-192, a radioactive isotope perfect for a "dirty bomb" capable of dispersing radiological material against civilians. Luckily, the material in both cases was recovered intact. But that doesn't tell the whole story. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) keeps an incident and trafficking database with multiple unresolved cases. And there are literally thousands of radiological sources that remain unregulated or unaccounted for.

President Obama has called nuclear terrorism the greatest threat to US security, but the topic has been shockingly absent from the current Presidential election cycle. There has been nary a question, and hardly any in-depth commentary, from Secretary Clinton, Donald Trump, or other leading candidates - even after the recent Brussels attacks were linked to a plot against Belgian nuclear facilities.

It's more reason to take note that March 31 will kick off the fourth - and regrettably final - Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C.

The international summits began in 2010, following President Obama's promise to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. The summits are constructed on the premise that nuclear security is the key component of any campaign to prevent the proliferation of materials that could be fashioned into nuclear weapons or conventional weapons augmented with radiological material.

Past summits, which emphasized countering nuclear terrorism, have produced considerable gains. Delegations reaffirmed previous commitments to enhance security at nuclear sites, and solidified new agreements to counter theft or the loss of materials. Information sharing on best practices and offers of aid abounded.

By no means have the summits been an unqualified success in dealing with the problem of loose nuclear materials. However, the effort to strengthen safeguards and international cooperation has been commendable at a time when multilateral nonproliferation mechanisms, such as the review conference for the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, have found themselves stalled in proposing actionable steps for the future.

Even the US initiative behind the summits appears to be losing steam. In the budget request for Fiscal Year 2017, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) asked for $132 million less for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation programs. Part of the cut is accounted for in efforts to close the doomed Mixed Oxide Fuel (MOX) facility in South Carolina, but nuclear and radiological terrorism are continuing big threats, and there are many stockpiles of nuclear materials around the world that should be eliminated now rather than decades from now. Decreasing nonproliferation funding sends the message that we don't take these threats seriously.

Unfortunately, too many countries have diverted their attention toward massive programs that modernize their nuclear weapons stockpiles, jumpstarting a potential arms race when the focus should be on reducing nuclear materials and ameliorating the threat of nuclear terrorism. The U.S-Russian relationship is a perfect example. Rather than cooperating to reduce nuclear proliferation, the U.S. and Russia find themselves focused on their own nuclear weapons modernization plans and, of course, geopolitical disagreements. Indeed, Russia will not even make an appearance at this year's summit.

Thus far the Nuclear Security Summits have been instrumental for eliminating weapons usable materials in eleven countries. But the cooperation and enthusiasm embodied in earlier gatherings is waning. We cannot afford to be complacent. Where are the media's questions and the candidates' answers on these critical matters? The world's security weighs in the balance.