David Hoffman

Nuclear risks and ranks

Since the early days of the atomic age, nuclear weapons have been surrounded in secrecy. Atom-splitting releases some of the most intense energy mankind has ever known, so the protective walls are not surprising. At the same time, as long as nuclear bombs and materials remain a danger, a certain amount of transparency is desirable ...

KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images
KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images

Since the early days of the atomic age, nuclear weapons have been surrounded in secrecy. Atom-splitting releases some of the most intense energy mankind has ever known, so the protective walls are not surprising. At the same time, as long as nuclear bombs and materials remain a danger, a certain amount of transparency is desirable — it can help detect a breach.

Twenty years ago, there was genuine fear that a disintegrating Soviet Union would spread weapons or fissile material around the world. After 9/11, the specter of nuclear terrorism grew more intense. So far, we have been lucky–the worst-case scenarios have not happened.

But the nagging concern remains: where might there be a hole in the fence?

This question is behind a new project of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-governmental organization co-chaired by former Sen. Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, and Ted Turner, the television mogul, to combat nuclear, chemical and biological weapons threats. The new project, the Nuclear Materials Security Index, is a country-by-country ranking of conditions. It can’t replace the work of government sleuths to discover and stop proliferation and smuggling. But it is a very open attempt to hold all countries up to the same yardstick, similar to the Transparency International index of corruption perceptions. The value of such an index is that it can serve as a public early warning system. The NTI project is explained here.

The Economist Intelligence Unit, assisting NTI, pulled together information from sources around the world, and ranked nations in five categories: quantities and sites, security and control measures, global norms, domestic commitments and capacity, and societal factors (such as corruption and political instability.) The ranking looks at all countries, but is particularly important for 32 nations with weapons-useable nuclear materials: highly enriched uranium and plutonium. These countries were judged on the basis of 18 indicators and 51 sub-indicators.

Without harming security, these nations ought to be more open about their nuclear materials, the NTI authors recommend. They point out:

"Today, there is no requirement for a state to publicly declare its weapons-useable nuclear materials holdings for either military or civilian applications, and for those states that have done so, there is no mechanism for verifying those declarations. Nine states, however, voluntarily declare their civilian plutonium holdings to the IAEA. In addition, the United States and United Kingdom have declared their nuclear weapons holdings; both also have released the production history for the HEU and plutonium in their military holdings. These examples show that governments can do more to report their inventories without compromising their national security interests. Such declarations are needed to confidently assess and track inventory trends and to monitor whether inventories are growing or declining."

Transparency is a good cause, but a tall order, and the NTI authors got a taste of this when they approached countries for information. Iran (rank: 30 of 32) and North Korea (rank: 32) were asked to verify what the researchers had found. They didn’t answer.

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