We're Not Doing Enough to Protect the World's Nuclear Materials

President Obama and leaders from over 50 countries are meeting in the Hague this week to discuss nuclear security. The over-arching theme of the conference, unfortunately, is a troubling one. Put bluntly: We're not doing enough to protect the world's most dangerous materials.

It's not necessarily anybody's fault. In fact, it's sort of everybody's fault that we've cooked up more highly enriched uranium and plutonium than we can secure. Quite ironically, you could say that the decades-long global arms race that brought nuclear weapons to over two dozen countries in the name of security actually managed to make the world less safe, especially with the looming threat of nuclear terrorism: we're now surrounded by a vast supply of dangerous materials just waiting to fall into the wrong hands.

That's why President Obama convened the first biennial Nuclear Security Summit in 2010 with the goal to secure the global supply of nuclear materials within four years.

We're Not Doing Enough to Protect the World's Nuclear Materials

Welp, it's been almost four years, and guess what? We're not even close to being finished. We've actually seen a series of close calls and stark reminders of how unstoppable thieves can be. Take the Vastberga, Sweden, incident in 2009, when masked men dropped from a helicopter through a skylight to clean out a cash depot in less than 20 minutes. As Harvard Kennedy School researchers point out in a new report on nuclear security, that could've been enriched uranium instead of Swedish krona.

Or imagine if the 82-year-old nun and friends who broke into the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, had intentions other than protesting. They skirted past sophisticated security systems and waltzed right up to a building containing the world's largest supply of enriched uranium. In the end, one lonely security guard caught them. A group of terrorists surely would have taken him down in the blink of an eye.

That's pretty embarrassing. It's also pretty horrifying. Why is it such a mess? Well, as Harvard's Eben Harrell points out in a Time column, we haven't done a good job of remaining vigilant. After all, as security measures improve, so do thieves' methods, and even the most sophisticated systems don't make up for lazy guards. (Looking at you, Oak Ridge.)

So what can we do? In their report, Harrell and his colleagues rattle off a few shortcomings that could be easily addressed:

Progress is evident over the last several years, but the governance of nuclear security at the international level remains weak and uneven. There are no specific global standards for how secure nuclear weapons or weapons-usable nuclear material should be; no inspections, verification, or even standardized self-reporting mechanisms to build confidence that states are fulfilling their nuclear security obligations; and no agreed-upon forum for continuing a high-level dialogue on nuclear security after the summit process ends in 2016. It is clear that much work remains.

Inevitably, it's worth admitting to ourselves that we'll never be safe. Until all of the world's enriched uranium and plutonium has been destroyed, there's always going to be a vulnerability that thieves or terrorists can exploit. Whether it's a snoozing security guard or a Hollywood-inspired heists, villains always find a way. [Time, Harvard Kennedy School]