Campus & Community

New Harvard report grades programs, recommends actions to more effectively prevent nuclear terrorism

3 min read

The amount of potential nuclear weapons material secured in the two years immediately following Sept. 11, 2001, was less than the amount secured in the two years immediately prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, according to official data described in a new report from Harvard University on steps needed to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists and hostile states. To accelerate the pace, sustained Presidential leadership, particularly in the United States and Russia, is urgently needed to sweep aside disputes over access to sensitive sites and other bureaucratic obstacles to progress, according to the report.

The new report, “Securing the Bomb: An Agenda for Action,” finds that programs to reduce this danger are making progress, but there remains a potentially deadly gap between the urgency of the threat and the scope and pace of efforts to address it. During fiscal year (FY) 2003, U.S.-funded programs completed comprehensive security and accounting upgrades on enough weapons-usable nuclear material to make more than 2,000 nuclear weapons (35 tons of nuclear material), and over 30 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) was permanently destroyed.

However, the 35 tons of potential bomb material secured last year is just 6 percent of the estimated 600 tons of potentially vulnerable nuclear material in Russia alone. By the end of FY2003, comprehensive security and accounting upgrades had been completed for only 22 percent of this material, and initial “rapid upgrades” – bricking over windows, installing detectors at doors – for only 43 percent. If progress continues at last year’s rate of 35 tons per year, it will take 13 years to finish the job in just the former Soviet Union. With presidential action to break through the logjams, the work could be completed in four years.

“This report reveals how much more needs to be done to protect against nuclear terrorism. We are not doing all that we can and all that we must,” said former Sen. Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), which commissioned the report. “There is a leadership gap between the words and deeds of government officials around the globe.”

“President Bush has an opportunity to take actions now that would dramatically reduce the danger of nuclear terrorism within a few years,” said Matthew Bunn, the report’s co-author with Anthony Wier, from the Project on Managing the Atom at the Kennedy School of Government. “He needs to seize that opportunity, before it’s too late. The terrorists will not wait.”

The report notes that President Bush himself has set the bar for urgent action, saying “the nations of the world must do all we can to secure and eliminate” these stockpiles, and warning “history will judge harshly those who saw this coming danger but failed to act.”

“Securing the Bomb” and its online companion at provide the most detailed assessment of global nuclear threat reduction programs to date.