According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), nuclear security is the prevention and detection of, and response to, theft, sabotage, unauthorized access, illegal transfer or other malicious acts involving nuclear material, other radioactive material or their associated facilities. In the simplest terms, nuclear security is the protection of nuclear materials against theft and nuclear facilities against sabotage. Nuclear material is housed in some unsuspecting facilities.
For instance, radioactive sources including cobalt, cesium and iridium isotopes are present in more than 150 countries worldwide, though only 20 states – down from 40 in 2005 – have at least one kilogram of weapons-usable fissile materials like highly-enriched uranium and plutonium. If such materials were to end up in the wrong hands, such as those of a non-state actor or terrorist group, they could be used to create a dirty bomb – a conventional weapon laced with radiological material often referred to as a weapon of mass disruption.
To fuel a nuclear weapon, fewer than 25 kgs of weapon-grade uranium or 8 kgs of plutonium could be potentially sufficient to create an explosive nuclear chain reaction. While there have been significant achievements to reduce and limit where fissile materials are located, global amounts of fissile materials have remained largely static.
One such effort to reduce and limit the spread of fissile materials was the series of biennial Nuclear Security Summits spearheaded by President Barack Obama, taking place in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016. This effort was not renewed by President Donald Trump, and the Center encourages President Joe Biden to revive international nuclear security cooperation.
One complication to stopping the spread of fissile materials is that they have civilian uses, such as fuel for nuclear reactors, although all civilian reactors currently in service for nuclear energy use fuel blended well below the level needed for weapons. There are also non-energy civilian purposes for small amounts of fissile materials, such as for blood irradiators in hospitals. These peaceful uses underscore the need for such materials to be tracked and secured at all times so that their use does not provide cover for accumulations in quantities suitable for weapons.
Recent Analysis on Nuclear Security
- Protecting Against Disaster – The Need for a Security Assurance at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant January 6, 2023
- Fact Sheet: Preventing a Dirty Bomb: Why Radiological Security Matters November 18, 2022
- A Possible Win for Nuclear Safety: Talks Begin On Demilitarizing the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant September 30, 2022
- Summary: Fiscal Year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 7900) July 26, 2022
- Iran, IAEA Agree on New Safeguards Plan April 5, 2022
- Fact Sheet: The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program March 29, 2022
- How Many Nuclear Weapons Exist, and Who Has Them? March 22, 2022
- The Mehdi Hasan Show March 9, 2022
- Nuclear Weapons and Power Plants with Samuel Hickey March 7, 2022
- Exploring Russia’s nuclear weapon stockpiles and what led to the invasion of Ukraine March 4, 2022