Nuclear terrorism dwarfs almost every national security threat imaginable. Thus the prospect of locking down all nuclear materials is comforting: no nuclear materials means no nuclear bombs, and no nuclear bombs means no nuclear terrorism. That's why President Obama has made securing all highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium in the next four years a priority, and why he's convening an unprecedented Nuclear Security Summit this week to further that goal.
There's only one problem: it's impossible.
Nuclear materials are employed every day in civilian and military applications (though some of those can and should be eliminated). Bomb-usable ingredients are moved around as part of routine military operations and in the operation of civilian power programs. Even our efforts to eliminate atomic bombs can result in dangerous flows of weapons-grade materials, as warheads are broken down into their constituent parts. Security around these activities can be strengthened, but it cannot be made absolute.
Critics have an intuitively compelling response to this: Fort Knox. We do not lose gold from Fort Knox; why should we tolerate a situation where we might lose nuclear materials? Alas, Fort Knox is a special case. Rules allow only tiny quantities of gold to be taken from its premises (for assaying); as a result, any attempt to remove meaningful amounts is easily identified as illegal.
No such bright line exists in many nuclear facilities. Indeed it is not unimaginable (though it is highly unlikely) that someone nefarious might present himself at a Russian nuclear facility, ask for the plutonium shipment, and get exactly what he wants.
None of this is to suggest, of course, that there isn't plenty that we can and should (indeed must) do to strengthen global security for nuclear materials--which is why the president's summit is so laudable.
There are still far too many facilities in Russia and elsewhere that fall short of the strict security standards that they should be adopting. There are nuclear programs around that world that would benefit from better screening of sensitive personnel. There are dozens of places where bomb-grade uranium is used to fuel civilian research and medical reactors despite the availability of safe and cost-effective alternatives. We have moved too slowly on these and other fronts, and Obama appears ready to change that.
Indeed when the president says that he wants to "lock down" all nuclear materials, he's almost certainly referring to these sorts of efforts. Like his drive to eliminate nuclear weapons (something the president says probably won't happen in his lifetime) he probably sees the push to lock down all nuclear materials as a way to motivate a host of necessary actions.
He should be careful, though, that the promise of a silver bullet doesn't sap enthusiasm for more modest but still critical complementary steps, like improving port and border security, monitoring procurement networks, and training law enforcement personnel to recognize telltale signs of nuclear plots. The allure of an impermeable defense can lead planners to reject these plainly less-than-perfect tools. It is essential, if we take nuclear terrorism seriously, to avoid that result.
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