Experts warn that nuclear risks may be increasing

A nuclear watchdog issues a warning about the possibility that terrorists could obtain nuclear explosives or provoke a dangerous meltdown




U.S. efforts to keep nuclear explosive materials out of the hands of terrorists are losing steam and will be undermined without a concerted new diplomatic push, an independent nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., warned on Jan. 14.

The chill in U.S.-Russian relations and a range of problems elsewhere — bureaucratic inertia, inadequate funding, public distraction, and a weak grasp of the peril in some nations — have combined to slow international progress towards locking down all the building blocks of a potential terrorist bomb, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a nonprofit organization, said in a new report.

“We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe, and the world’s leaders must run faster,” said former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), who helped found NTI and played a leading role in organizing U.S. assistance for nuclear security efforts in Russia after the Cold War, In an introduction to the report.

Nunn, speaking at a cavernous Washington building where the Obama administration is scheduled to convene its fourth and final international summit to promote nuclear security measures in late March, sounded an unusually dour note as he surveyed the status of those efforts.

He said nations with lower nuclear profiles look to Russia and the United States for cues, and both nations are now updating their nuclear arsenals while curtailing their diplomatic contacts. At the same time, “brutal attacks and incidents by ISIL, al Qaeda, Boko Haram and other organizations are on the rise, raising the specter of catastrophic nuclear terrorism if they or other terrorists get control of dangerous nuclear material,” Nunn said. “And of course, that’s what the world must prevent.”

Reports like The Center for Public Integrity’s article in November that disclosed worries about exposing a missing trove of Soviet-era highly enriched uranium (a nuclear bomb fuel) “should provide all the impetus needed to act swiftly,” Nunn said.

NTI’s new study is the third such analysis by the group since 2011, and it again ranked key nations based on detailed assessments of their safeguards for keeping nuclear explosive materials — plutonium and highly-enriched uranium — out of the wrong hands. Among the 24 nations with enough material for bomb, Australia again got the top mark, while North Korea came in last.

India’s overall rank was 21st in that group, and South Africa was 16th. Worrisome activities by both countries were detailed in articles published this year by the Center. Japan, which was separately profiled by the Center last year, improved its ranking somewhat (to 12th place) by publishing nuclear security laws and regulations and hosting a review of its precautions by experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency, a UN group. Seven of the 24 nations have never had such a peer review, the report noted.

But the report also expressed concern that Japan — like India, Pakistan, the Netherlands, North Korea, and the United Kingdom — is increasing its stocks of “weapons-usable” nuclear materials, a circumstance that only adds to the burdens of locking them safely away.

The report further noted that more than 80 percent of all nuclear explosive materials are held by militaries, whose practices and safeguards are not covered by international agreements on the security of such materials. It urged all the nuclear weapons-states to agree on a set of security precautions they would each implement.

For the first time, the report also included a detailed and alarming analysis of the susceptibility of nuclear sites around the globe — including reactors, storage facilities, and factories — to cyberattack and sabotage.

Among 47 nations with the most nuclear materials or power plants, the report said, twenty don’t require even the most basic cybersecurity measures, it said. Terrorists, it warned, could exploit computer vulnerabilities either to overcome security precautions and gain direct access to nuclear materials, or they could deliberately disable a reactor’s cooling systems, provoking a disaster on par with the Fukushima plant meltdown in March 2011.

Nations with new or developing nuclear energy programs, such as Chile, Egypt and Indonesia, are particularly susceptible to sabotage because their legal and regulatory structures are immature, undermining oversight and enforcement of sound safeguards.

The NTI gave the United States a fairly high rating for cybersecurity — a 6th place ranking — but internal government audits have been more critical. The Energy Department’s inspector general, for example, reported in a November audit that officials had failed to properly report about contractors’ computer systems, impeding oversight.

A separate audit in June 2015 faulted the nuclear weapons laboratories for weak cybersecurity practices, including a failure to test systems for vulnerabilities and to protect against insider threats by ordering frequent password changes.

An audit released this week by Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s inspector general of cybersecurity at its Secure Operations Center, which contains sensitive details about nuclear power plants and generators in the U.S., showed attempts to gain unauthorized access or to insert malicious computer code had increased by 18 percent from fiscal years 2013 to 2014. Over the same period, cyberattacks throughout the U.S. government grew by 9.7 percent.

North Korea’s ranking at the bottom of the cybersecurity list as well as the nuclear security list was not surprising, according to Leo Abruzzese, director of global forecasting at public policy at the Economist Intelligence Unit, an offshoot of The Economist magazine that gathered and analyzed data for the report. North Korea is averse to the type of international cooperation and transparency that provides security assurances that the index rating system rewards, he noted, calling the country “dead last by a wide margin.”

Samantha Pitts-Kiefer, senior program officer for scientific and technical affairs at NTI, said the three summit meetings convened by the Obama administration so far have been helpful. A dozen nations have eliminated all nuclear explosives from their territories since the first summit, although only one acted in the past two years.

She and her colleagues said they worry that global leaders will be less attentive to the risks after the final summit this year.

“The results of this report should sound a warning not only that the work of securing all weapons-usable nuclear materials is unfinished,” the report said, “but also that attention and commitment to preventing a terrorist from building and using a nuclear weapon must intensify.”

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