Commentary by Ernest J. Moniz

The world today faces complex and potentially catastrophic threats: the slow burn, quite literally, of climate change; a naturally occurring or manufactured virus that kills millions of people worldwide; a radiological dirty bomb explosion that renders a city center uninhabitable for years; a nuclear weapons exchange that could incinerate entire countries; or the detonation of a terrorist nuclear bomb built from stolen nuclear material that kills thousands of people in an instant. All would create additional, enormous consequences for our environment, global economies, and humanity as a whole.

The COVID-19 pandemic offers a window into the grave implications of poor planning to prevent a crisis from emerging and then escalating. Preventing a naturally occurring virus is tough, but there have been countless missed opportunities to slow the spread and stem the damage—and the unfolding disaster has offered a powerful lesson in the importance of prevention and preparation, coordination and cooperation, accountability and action—all grounded in attention to the science.

These fundamentals are the foundation for the NTI Nuclear Security Index, a biennial ranking of nuclear security conditions worldwide that recommends steps that countries and the global community should take to strengthen security of nuclear materials and nuclear facilities and evaluates progress against those steps. Born out of concern the world is not doing enough to prevent a terrorist attack with almost incomprehensible consequences, the NTI Index has tracked progress and provided guidance on nuclear security since 2012.

This year, for the first time, the results show that progress to secure nuclear materials and facilities has slowed significantly. This is an alarming development for a host of reasons. It comes at a time when the global risk environment is characterized by growing disorder and disruption and the international community’s ability to manage cross-border threats is taxed. Disinformation and disruptive technologies have added to governments’ challenges, and intensified competition among major nuclear powers—particularly the United States, Russia, and China—has strained international institutions, treaties, and norms. Constant vigilance by nuclear operators, governments, and international organizations will be needed to keep pace with the threats in this increasingly dangerous risk environment.

The key finding of this year’s NTI Index may be an outcome of the end of the series of Nuclear Security Summits—head-of-state events begun in 2010 and held every two years through 2016 that brought high-level attention to nuclear dangers, promoted efforts to reduce them, and resulted in important progress toward securing materials and facilities against nuclear terrorism and other threats.

Security improvements captured by the NTI Index between 2012 and 2018 reflected the work of the summits. Since the summit process ended in 2016, no comparable, cooperative global effort has emerged to replace the summits’ role in galvanizing countries to take bold, ambitious actions—even as the terrorist threat, and new concerns such as cyber attacks on nuclear facilities, continue to mount. Now, in the first reflection of the post-summit nuclear security landscape, it is no surprise that progress has slowed.

Given the challenging security backdrop for this key finding, it is more important than ever to identify shortfalls and to call for governments, industry, and the international community to once again step up their efforts to prevent a catastrophic attack or act of sabotage that could further shake global foundations.

We all know this work can be successful. In 2012, when the NTI Index was launched, 32 countries had 1 kilogram or more of weapons-usable nuclear materials; today, that number is 22, and the countries that have addressed the threat in the most permanent ways possible—by eliminating or disposing of all of their weapons-usable materials—are a model for the world. Scores of countries also have taken important steps to mitigate the threat of theft or sabotage by improving physical security around materials and facilities, tightening security during transport of materials, expanding cybersecurity practices, adopting new insider threat-prevention measures, and more.

No one should conclude, however, that progress has slowed because much of the work is completed. That is simply not the case. As the data show, large gaps remain across all the categories and indicators we examine—and the report shows major weaknesses in key areas such as insider threat prevention, security culture at facilities, and cyber security. More rigorous threat assessments, personnel vetting, and new regulations, among other steps, must be put in place before extremists exploit weaknesses in these areas and do real damage. Continuous improvement—even among high-performing countries—must also be a priority, not only to keep pace with, but to stay ahead of, evolving threats.

Thousands of radiological sources held in every country offer extremists another path to cause chaos—and in conjunction with the NTI Index, we are releasing a first-of-its-kind Radioactive Source Security Assessment that examines national policies and actions to secure these potentially dangerous sources. Typically used for research, medical, industrial, or agricultural purposes, the sources often are poorly secured and housed in areas open to the public, such as hospitals and universities. In the hands of an extremist, a radiological source can be used to build and detonate a radiation-spewing dirty bomb in the heart of a city.

Unlike weapons-usable nuclear materials, these sources don’t pose an existential threat, and a dirty bomb would not cause mass casualties or injuries—but cleanup would be enormously costly, environmental and psychological consequences would be significant, and the area around a detonation would be uninhabitable for years.

The good news is that the risk can be eliminated by replacing the dangerous sources with equally effective alternative technologies. NTI has worked closely with New York City, Atlanta, and the state of California—along with Central Asia and the United Kingdom—to do just that. We hope the new assessment included in these pages will build increased awareness of the risk, start a broader discussion about alternatives, and highlight best practices for keeping sources secure.

As we’ve learned through the COVID-19 pandemic, global security is only as strong as the weakest link. When it comes to existential threats—and even to those that could do just serious damage—every country can do more and must do more. Leaders around the world have a responsibility to use all the tools at their disposal, from the adoption and enforcement of new security requirements to coordinating and cooperating with other countries, to protect against nuclear and radiological terrorism so that we never have to face the terrible consequences.