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Fewer countries hold nuclear materials at risk to terrorists, report says

John Parie / U.S. Air Force via AP file

A Malmstrom Air Force Base missile maintenance team removes the upper section of an ICBM at a Montana missile site.

The number of countries that  possess nuclear materials like highly enriched uranium and plutonium that terrorists could use to create a nuclear weapon has decreased since 2012, but serious work remains, according to a report released Wednesday.

The study was released by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group in Washington, D.C., that promotes the securing of nuclear materials. According to the report, over the past two years, “seven countries — Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Mexico, Sweden, Ukraine and Vietnam — have removed all or most of their stocks of weapons-usable nuclear materials from their territories … In doing so, they have taken one of the most important steps toward ensuring that terrorists cannot gain access to these nuclear materials.”  The progress means the number of nations with appreciable bomb-making nuclear material has decreased from 32 to 25.

Read the NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index

The findings come ahead of the third nuclear security summit, which will be held in the Netherlands in March. President Barak Obama started the summit process to improve nuclear security – a key focus of his foreign policy. 

According to the NTI index, Australia ranks first among the remaining 25 countries in terms of overall nuclear security conditions, with Belgium, Canada, and Japan showing the most improvement. Pakistan ranks almost near the end at No. 22 but has improved its score by three points by improving its regulations for protecting dangerous materials. The United States and United Kingdom are tied for 11th place, but the U.S. ranks first in security and control measures. Worst on the list was North Korea.

The report also found the largest remaining challenge is the lack of "an effective global system for securing weapons-usable materials."

Jon Brook Wolfsthal, a nuclear security expert with the Monterey Institute of International Studies and former nuclear adviser to Vice President Joe Biden underscored the need for a global standard: "Every country has to have a basic level of security and if any one of them is a weak link then we’re all at risk," Wolfsthal said. He also noted that past presidents, including President George W.  Bush have pushed for a set of global standards but the international community has yet to adopt them. 

Nuclear security is one of the few issues on which Democrats and Republicans typically find common ground. The White House called NTI’s findings "a useful tool for measuring progress on nuclear security" and called on Congress to pass legislation that would allow the United States to ratify two key nuclear security treaties, raising global standards. Congressman Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was encouraged by the progress but he also underscored the threat that remains: "Pakistan’s inadequate safeguards are of very great concern. Ensuring that the Pakistani government takes all necessary steps to secure its control over these materials must be among our highest priorities." 

NTI was founded in 2001 by former U.S. Sen. Nunn, D-Ga., and CNN founder Ted Turner. This is the second index they have released on nuclear materials security. The first report came out in 2012 ahead of that year’s nuclear summit, held in Seoul, South Korea.