Why the World is Failing to Secure Fissile Materials

Image: Explosion from nuclear weapon test taken from Wikimedia Commons

By Maciej Lempke, Columnist

Many countries around the world continue to produce fissile materials. As of January 2013, the global stockpile of plutonium is about 490 tons, 260 tons of which are in civilian custody.[i] The global stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU), as of December 2012, is estimated to be about 1380 +/- 125 tons.[ii] Plutonium stocks are currently increasing in states such as Pakistan, India, Japan, France, United Kingdom, China, and Russia for use in military and civilian programs.[iii]Although global stockpiles of HEU have been shrinking, its production is robust in Pakistan, India, and North Korea, where it is mainly used for military purposes.[iv] Worryingly, there are no legally binding international security mechanisms in place to ensure the safety of global plutonium and HEU stockpiles. Indeed, even with the most advanced security measures at nuclear facilities and international borders, the safety of fissile materials cannot be fully guaranteed. Consequently, the question is not whether fissile materials can be stolen but how much will be stolen and when. This realization is particularly worrying, as ensuring the safety of fissile materials is crucial for preventing nuclear terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, many states in possession of HEU and plutonium are failing to ensure the security of these materials. This situation stems from several issues.

First, some states with stockpiles of fissile materials might try to deliberately transfer them to state or non-state actors. North Korea, for example, poses the greatest threat in this respect. Pyongyang, which has a record of illegal trading of nuclear weapons-related materials, is highly likely to sell HEU either to terrorist organizations or state actors. The regime cooperates with criminal networks through its diplomatic posts around the world and uses illegal trade as a source of state revenue.

Second, there are states that have no reliable security measures or lack capabilities to protect nuclear facilities or nuclear stockpiles. In this regard, Russia poses one of the greatest risks of illicit transfer of HEU and plutonium. Despite recent administrative improvements, Russia struggles to provide sufficient security of its nuclear facilities and vast amounts of fissile materials. The biggest challenge remains high corruption rates among the civilian employees of Russia’s nuclear industry as well as military servicemen at nuclear military bases and border crossings. It is widely known that Russian customs officials are hardly a firewall for nuclear smugglers because they usually participate in illegal trade.[v] In 2006, Georgian security services in cooperation with the CIA and FBI apprehended a group of smugglers who were carrying 100 grams of HEU from a Russian nuclear fabrication plant in Novosibirsk.[vi] The smugglers were able to bypass Russian border control agents and a radioactive detector installed at the Georgian checkpoint, which was reportedly turned off.[vii] To make matters worse, the increased international tensions over Ukraine has led Russia to suspend its participation in many of the key threat reduction initiatives with the United States that are aimed at securing fissile materials and nuclear weapons stockpiles.

Pakistan, which has the most robust nuclear weapons program in the world, also has one of the lowest security standards of its fissile materials stockpiles. Pakistan’s stockpiles are not subject to any international oversight that could credibly confirm their safety. In this case, the main threat stems from the high presence of jihadi terrorist groups with strong connections in the Pakistani military.[viii] This situation significantly undermines the stability of the government, which also struggles with widespread corruption. Furthermore, attacks on the munitions complex at Wah in 2008 and the Pakistani Army’s GHQ in 2009 demonstrate that terrorist groups could gain access to Pakistani nuclear facilities.[ix]

The safety of fissile material is also in jeopardy in highly developed countries. Japan, which has the largest stockpile of and produces the most separated plutonium, has questionable security measures at its nuclear facilities. According to recent studies, insufficient security measures at Japan’s biggest plutonium production and uranium enrichment facility at Rokkasho threatens the safety of the stored materials.[x] Reportedly, the complex is secured by unarmed security guards or lightly armed police force.[xi]Japanese authorities have a different perception of threats and believe that no terrorist organization would be interested in stealing fissile materials from their nuclear facilities.

The United States is also unable to ensure security of its nuclear facilities. In 2012, an 82 year-old nun and two other protesters broke into the Y-12 HEU production facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In addition, a recently published U.S Government Accountability Office report stressed that there is no single recognized agency responsible for leading and directing federal efforts to combat nuclear smuggling.[xii] The same report indicated that there are differences in the rate of success for interdicting smuggled nuclear and radiological materials across border control locations in the United States.[xiii]

Ultimately, ensuring the safety of fissile materials is imperative to preventing nuclear terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons. The IAEA’s Illicit Trafficking Database reported 222 incidents of illegal movement of nuclear or radioactive materials between July 2009 and June 2010, including six cases that involved HEU and plutonium.[xiv] Modern criminal networks have considerable resources and capabilities to smuggle fissile materials across international borders. Trafficking methods are also continuously improving as criminal organizations become more technologically and structurally sophisticated. Taking these issues into consideration, the international community should adopt a reliable and legally binding framework, which would set rigorous security standards for all states possessing fissile materials and nuclear weapons stockpiles. The leading powers, including United States, Russia, and China, should also strengthen multilateral cooperation with respect to law enforcement and prevention of illicit transfer of fissile materials. The world needs concerted action from all states to ensure the safety of fissile materials and ultimately their elimination. Until these mechanisms exist, the world will continue to face the threat of nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation.


[i] International Panel on Fissile Materials, “Fissile Material Stocks”, available at: http://www.fissilematerials.org/,

[ii] International Panel on Fissile Material, “Global Fissile Material Report 2013: Increasing Transparency of Nuclear Warhead and Fissile Material Stocks as a Step toward Disarmament”, p.2 available at: http://fissilematerials.org/library/gfmr13.pdf

[iii] Ibid, p.18,

[iv] International Panel on Fissile Materials, “Fissile Material Stocks – India and Pakistan”, available at: http://fissilematerials.org/countries/pakistan.html, http://fissilematerials.org/countries/india.html

[v] Michael Bronner, “100 Grams (and counting …) Notes from the nuclear underworld”, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs – Harvard Kennedy School, June 2008, p.7, available at: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/100-Grams-Final-Color.pdf

[vi] Ibid, pp. i-2,

[vii] Michael Bronner, “100 Grams (and counting …) Notes from the nuclear underworld”, pp.9-10,

[viii] Shaun Gregory, “The terrorist threat to nuclear weapons in Pakistan”, European Leadership network, available at: http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/the-terrorist-threat-to-nuclear-weapons-in-pakistan_613.html

[ix] Ibid,

[x] Douglas Birch and R. Jeffrey Smith, “Japan Producing Huge, Lightly Guarded Stockpile of Plutonium”, available at: http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/fukushima-anniversary/japan-producing-huge-lightly-guarded-stockpile-plutonium-n49376

[xi] Ibid,

[xii] International Panel on Fissile Materials, “Fissile Material Stocks”, available at: http://www.fissilematerials.org/,

[xiii] Ibid,

[xiv] Martin Matishak, “Danger of trafficked nuclear radiological materials lingers: experts”, Nuclear Threat Initiative, November 2011, available at: http://www.nti.org/gsn/article/danger-of-trafficked-nuclear-radiological-materials-lingers-experts/http://www.nti.org/gsn/article/danger-of-trafficked-nuclear-radiological-materials-lingers-experts/


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