5 Big Nuclear Security Challenges Beyond Iran

Ed note. I’m pleased to welcome Alexandra Van Dine to UN Dispatch! 

The prospect of a nuclear deal with Iran has dominated news coverage, and the world is watching closely as diplomats work round the clock to craft an agreement in Switzerland. Certainly, the world’s most dangerous weapons in the hands of a nation known for extreme behavior and rhetoric, sponsorship of terrorism, and violating international nuclear agreements should seriously concern even the most casual observer.

But even as the political circus plays out, other nuclear threats persists. Here are five key nuclear security concerns that may be overshadowed by Iran, but are nonetheless huge challenges for international peace and security —  whether or not a deal is reached.

1) Keeping Nuclear Material Out of the Hands of Terrorists

The beginning of the 21st century has been pockmarked by horrific acts of terror around the world, from Madrid to London to Bali to Mumbai to New York City.  Now, imagine if any of these attacks had involved a crude nuclear device?

As terrifying as this may seem, it is not implausible.  Terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda have stated their intent to obtain a nuclear device.  They will not do this by launching a traditional nuclear program and enriching their own uranium or separating their own plutonium.  Instead, they will seek to buy or steal the fissile material necessary to construct a crude nuclear device using publicly available information.  With about 2,000 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear material scattered around the world in states of varying security, this devastation is within the reach of terrorists.  The international community must take steps to secure this material and cut off terrorist access to the bomb before we see the world’s first instance of nuclear terror.

2) Resuming Nuclear Security Cooperation Between the United States and Russia

In December 2014, Russia ended most aspects of its nuclear security cooperation with the United States, including its participation in the successful Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program and the Nuclear Security Summit process.  The United States and Russia together possess the vast majority of nuclear weapons and weapons-usable nuclear materials.Working cooperatively, the former Cold War foes have made significant reductions in both stockpiles as well as important security upgrades.

Despite recent tensions over Ukraine, ending cooperation in this existentially-important area is not in the national interest of either nation. The two countries don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues these days, but they share the common goal of preventing terrorists from acquiring a nuclear device.  Both states have material that could be stolen by would-be nuclear terrorists, and both states have been targets of terrorism in the past.  Choosing to end cooperation on securing and reducing this material now is simply a bad decision for national security in both Washington and Moscow.

3) Preventing Sabotage at Nuclear Facilities Worldwide

Yet another way for non-state actors to wreak nuclear havoc is by sabotaging a nuclear facility. Consider the massive meltdowns at Fukushima in 2011 and Chernobyl in 1986. These were accidents, but similar effects could be achieved by terrorists seeking to cause serious and lasting health effects on local populations, environmental damage, and even loss of life. Improving security and safety measures at nuclear facilities in all countries that have them is a responsibility that stewards of peaceful nuclear technology should take seriously.

4) Securing All Nuclear Material to the Highest Standards

There has been a lot of progress achieved through national legislation and international engagement, but it only applies to weapons-usable materials under civilian control, which make up just 15 percent of the 2,000 metric tons around the world. The remaining 85 percent are held in military stocks, which are not subject to any international security standards or oversight mechanisms.  And they’re not necessarily more secure than their civilian counterparts, which is a common myth.

Take, for example, the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  It is widely regarded as the most secure nuclear facility in the United States and holds highly enriched uranium that falls under the 85 percent of material held in military stocks. And yet, two years ago, an 82-year old nun and her two cohorts were able to break into the plant and access a restricted area, where they remained for two hours before security forces apprehended them.

5) Preventing an Accidental Nuclear Launch

As American President John F. Kennedy warned at a 1961 address before the United Nations General Assembly, “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.” This warning is just as salient today; although the Cold War ended more than two decades ago, nearly 2,000 nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russia remain poised to launch at a moment’s notice, on hair-trigger alert.  This means that, within minutes of a Presidential order, missiles can be airborne and headed towards targets across Russia.

In a time when a “bolt-from-the-blue” first strike was a legitimate concern, this high alert level may have had a place.  But today, it simply poses unnecessary risk.  This posture may permit only seven minutes for the U.S. military to detect and evaluate the nature of the incoming attack and as little as 30 seconds to brief the President.  If the attack came from a submarine, the President may have as little as ten seconds to decide how to respond.  There are many ways in which an early warning system in the U.S. or Russia might be fooled into detecting an “incoming attack”, including through cyber attack, computer malfunction, or even human error, and there have been numerous close calls in the past. Given the risk, it is clear that keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch at all times is a dangerous and unnecessary relic of the Cold War.

A nuclear weapon detonated at the hands of a terrorist group or an act of sabotage at a nuclear facility would be catastrophic, and its effects would reverberate across the globe. All countries can and should do more to prevent these nightmare scenarios from happening.  Iran may be grabbing the headlines, but the international community’s nuclear to-do list extends beyond preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.


Allie Van Dine is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), where she works on nuclear security and nonproliferation issues.  The views in this article are hers alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of NTI.