The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The nuclear threat is real — but at least many governments are taking it seriously

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, second from right, with other officials at an undisclosed weapons facility in 2017.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, second from right, with other officials at an undisclosed weapons facility in 2017. (Korean Central News Agency/AP)
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WHILE MUCH of the world is justifiably anxious about North Korea’s rise as a nuclear weapons power, and the doomsday talk can be jarring, there is a glimmer of good news in the latest biennial index of nuclear security prepared by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, published Sept. 5. The report shows that, though the last nuclear security summit was two years ago, nations are continuing to work toward properly securing fissile material and vulnerable nuclear sites.

The best way to avoid nuclear materials falling into the wrong hands is for nations to not keep them around. The most promising finding in the study is that the number of countries with more than one kilogram of highly enriched uranium, the fuel for a nuclear bomb, has dropped from 32 to 22 in six years, with Argentina and Poland removing or disposing of those materials most recently. The others that have given it up are Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Mexico, Sweden, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. That’s down from more than 50 countries in the early 1990s.

Among the 22 with more than a kilogram of highly enriched uranium, 21 have improved their defenses against theft of nuclear materials over the past two years; only North Korea received a worsening score, the study said. Also, the report says, of the 45 nations that have nuclear facilities, there was broad improvement in security and control measures, such as on-site physical protection, measures to avert insider threats and physical security during transit. Much of this work is in the thankless category of tweaking procedures and methods, but it suggests a seriousness of purpose long after the speeches at the summits are over.

Unfortunately, the world at large does not show as much promise. The index tracks the “risk environment” for countries and found it was declining in some that possess nuclear materials. The authors of the study say this criteria measures “political stability, effective governance, the pervasiveness of corruption, and whether there are groups in the country interested in and capable of illicitly acquiring nuclear materials.” The United States was cited for deterioration in political stability and effective governance. It is not difficult to see why amid the tumult of the Trump presidency. The report cites “heightened social unrest, resignations and vacancies from key government departments, and the increasingly deep polarization of political party politics (which contributes to a country’s ability to establish and sustain policies to secure nuclear materials).”

The study found that Belgium, Egypt, India, Pakistan and Russia “all face a heightened risk that a capable terrorist group could commit acts of nuclear terrorism.” Many countries are also “poorly prepared” for a cyberattack on nuclear facilities.

No one should harbor any illusions that the problem known as “loose nukes” has gone away. A catastrophe always is possible. But hard work might avert disaster, and it appears many governments are taking the threat seriously.

Read more:

Walter Pincus: The Pentagon is seeking money for a new nuclear weapon. Congress should be skeptical.

George F. Will: If Iran wants nuclear weapons, it will get them

Richard A. Clarke and Steven Andreasen: With nuclear weapons, we’re getting too comfortable thinking the unthinkable