The Obama administration has since 2009 devoted significant attention to enhancing the security of nuclear materials, an initiative the President hailed as the best way of addressing “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.” He’d promised as a candidate that all vulnerable materials would be locked up by the end of his first presidential term. So is this really still a problem?
The White House effort — which built on a Bush administration program launched in 2004 — has substantially reduced the number of countries that hold threatening fissile materials. Under U.S. prodding, from 2012 to last year alone, seven countries completely eliminated all stocks of their weapons materials.
But nine nuclear weapons states still hold enormous stockpiles, and ten more nations that don’t have nuclear weapons still have enough fuel to build one. The White House has focused on civilian stocks of highly-enriched uranium, rather than on the much larger and more politically sensitive military stocks. And the administration has paid less attention to reducing global stockpiles of plutonium, which are large and growing.
So where is this material, for the most part?
More than 90 percent of the world’s highly-enriched uranium and plutonium are still held by Russia and the United States.
Together, these two countries have about 1,460 tons of the stuff. And that’s what remains after Russia converted 500 tons of highly-enriched uranium into benign reactor fuel, and sold it to the United States for $17 billion — in perhaps the most successful nuclear nonproliferation program ever attempted.
Other weapons states — France, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea — also hold large stocks of nuclear explosives for both civilian and military use. South Africa and Pakistan built their own factories for such explosives based to varying degrees on foreign designs.
Japan has an immense plutonium stockpile it says it needs for a civilian reactor program that won’t be completed for decades. Germany, Japan, Canada, Belgium, Kazakhstan, Poland, Italy, Netherlands and Belarus also have enough fissile material to build at least one nuclear bomb.
How did these countries get hold of their nuclear explosives in the first place?
The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council —the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain —all built nuclear weapons of their own before they declared that membership in the club should be closed.
Until the 1970s, the United States and Russia also helped smaller, non-nuclear weapons countries build research reactors and supplied weapons-usable uranium to fuel them. But after India built its first nuclear explosive under cover of the U.S. Atoms for Peace program, Washington’s policy changed.
Since then, the United States has been trying to retrieve the estimated 23 tons of highly-enriched uranium it exported to 35 countries under the program – most of it to France, Germany and Canada. Fifteen of those countries have returned all their U.S.-supplied weapons-grade uranium , including South Africa and Austria, but about 6.1 tons remain at 40 locations in 20 countries, according to a May 2014 Nuclear Regulatory Commission Report.
The United States has also helped support Russian efforts to retrieve the 11 tons it exported to that nation’s allies, mostly in Eastern Europe, under a similar scheme.
Why are some countries resisting better protections for their stocks of fissile materials, when the risks of a catastrophe seem so large?
Many countries don’t take the threat of nuclear terrorism as seriously as the United States, and some regard the prospect of a band of militants building an improvised nuclear bomb as something from a sci-fi movie.
Some also see themselves as unlikely targets of any nuclear terrorism and are reluctant to invest substantial sums to curb what they consider to be a distant threat.
Still others may see their holdings of nuclear explosive materials as a kind of insurance policy -- something that could one day be converted into weaponry if international conditions change and they feel newly threatened.
What’s the United States doing about its own fissile material stockpile?
The United States struck a deal with Russia in 2000 that calls for converting 34 tons of its weapons plutonium into reactor fuel, in exchange for that country doing the same. But Russia has decided to burn its plutonium in new reactors that are capable of efficiently producing more plutonium. The U.S. program to turn its own plutonium into reactor fuel was supposed to cost $1 billion, but the actual pricetag will more likely total $35 billion over the next 20 years, according to a government estimate last year. So far, none of the plutonium has been converted, and Washington hasn’t settled on a clear, new path forward.
The Department of Energy has done a better job reducing its stock of surplus weapons-grade uranium, turning 143 metric tons of it into a form can’t readily be converted to bomb fuel.
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Correction, March 11, 2015 6:12 p.m.: An earlier version of this story stated there are nine nations that don't have nuclear weapons but have enough fuel to build one. There are 10 such nations.