New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Nuclear Security Challenges and Opportunities


Below are Assistant Secretary Ford's remarks to the Nuclear Security Contact Group in Vienna, Austria, on September 20, 2018.  They may also be found on the website of the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.

It is a pleasure to be here today, Mr. Convenor, and let me offer my congratulations for your assumption of the leadership here at the Nuclear Securutiy Contact Group (NSCG).

It is an honor to represent the United States at this meeting of the Group Since this is my first involvement with the NSCG since coming to the U.S. Department of State from the White House — and the first meeting since the United States has transitioned the lead role for this issue from the National Security Council staff to the Department — I hope you’ll permit me to say a few words about our broad approach to nuclear security and the challenges we face together in this regard.

It has been very helpful to hear from other representatives here today about the various activities our governments are undertaking in support of nuclear security. As a new arrival with the Group, I am naturally pleased to learn of these, but I would also like to take this opportunity to draw attention back to why all of these efforts are so important. All of you are aware of this, of course, but at this point of transition between Convenors and between institutional points of contact in the United States system, some important truths are perhaps worth restating.

Nuclear security means prevention and detection of – and responses to – the theft, sabotage, unauthorized access, illegal transfer, or other malicious acts involving nuclear or radioactive materials. This makes nuclear security a sibling discipline of nuclear safeguards – which aim to prevent deliberate diversion of material or technology from permissible to prohibited purposes by those already possessing it, whereas nuclear security focuses upon preventing access by those who shouldn’t have it in the first place.

Nuclear security is and must remain a high priority for our countries for several reasons. First and most obviously, it is essential that terrorists never acquire nuclear weapons – and this includes preventing terrorists and other malicious actors from gaining access to nuclear materials with which they could make an improvised nuclear device. Since the end of the Cold War, terrorists who have attempted to steal or build a nuclear device have been a common trope of popular entertainment, and such fears have been reinforced by many experts on the topic. A prominent academic of my acquaintance, for example — the redoubtable Graham Allison at Harvard — has been well known for making “when, not if” pronouncements about the likelihood of a terrorist nuclear attack, declaring that “nuclear terrorism is not just inevitable, but more likely than not in the decade ahead.” Such warnings we hear from outside of government must be heeded, lest these scenes we see on the movie screens become our reality.

Second, thefts of nuclear material or technology can fuel state proliferators as well. There is already some history of this, as we all know, and it is imperative to prevent poor secuirty in one country from facilitating weapons development in another. This is just another reminder of why we must stay vigilant against nuclear security threats.

Third, the success and future of international nuclear cooperation depends heavily upon maintaining sound nuclear security practices. Along with nuclear safeguards, sound nuclear security practices are part of the foundation upon which rest international efforts to share civil nuclear power generation capabilities and to promote technical cooperation in nuclear-related areas of enormous benefit to the health, nutrition, prosperity, and comfort of people all around the world – and especially in developing countries. It is hard to imagine that there could be much of a future for such efforts if the nuclear materials associated with them could not be kept out of the hands of terrorists or other malign actors, so the integrity and resilience of safeguards and nuclear security practices are essential to ensuring that everyone can benefit from nuclear knowledge.

All countries thus have a powerful interest in working together to make sure that the international community successfully meets nuclear security challenges. In the United States, we certainly think so, and nuclear security and associated international cooperation has been a priority for many years, enjoying consistent and continuing bipartisan support in Washington.

Over a couple of decades beginning in the early Clinton Administration, for instance, we spent something on the order of several billion on nuclear security improvements in the former Soviet Union in order to help modernize the security over the enormous quantities of nuclear materials stored there. Useful work remained to be done, so it was particularly disappointing that Russia suspended cooperation on these projects in 2014. Nevertheless, a great deal of good was accomplished.

The United States has also engaged in extensive efforts, over many years and multiple U.S. administrations, to reduce the amount of weapons-usable nuclear material that exists around the world – which is clearly important to nuclear security inasmuch as it minimizes the amount of material that has to be secured in the first place. This has included converting research reactors that use highly-enriched uranium (HEU) to use low-enriched uranium, and arranging the repatriation of over 6,700 kilograms of HEU and separated plutonium—more than enough for over 260 nuclear weapons—to their points of origin or confirming their disposition abroad.. In addition, efforts are being made to reinforce the use of alternatives to cesium-based devices, where possible, as a permanent risk reduction measure. To date, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has converted 52 cesium based irradiators to X-ray, and has contracts for an additional 140.

Nor has this consistent and continuing U.S. support occurred only nationally and bilaterally. In the multilateral arena, we have, for example, continuously supported nuclear security initiatives at the IAEA. This has included providing direct monetary support for the Nuclear Security Fund, upon which the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Division relies for about 85 percent of its operating budget. In fact, we are the largest contributor to the Fund, with our voluntary contributions in 2016 and 2017 amounting to about a third of the total. We have also given in-kind support through the provision of subject-matter experts, training courses, equipment, and so forth.

For decades, as these efforts illustrate, every U.S. administration has made nuclear security a priority. Under the George W. Bush Administration, moreover, we led the creation of new global security norms such as the provisions of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540, requiring all states to adopt and enforce appropriate laws and practices to prevent the proliferation to non-state actors of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. With our international partners, we also pioneered the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, an international partnership committed to strengthening the global capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to nuclear terrorism, as well as the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction.

Under the Obama Administration, we initiated the head-of-government-level Nuclear Security Summit process, through which four meetings were held that helped elicit new commitments to make progress on materials security and minimization. Since the last Summit was held in March 2016, this process has been transitioning from what I describe as its “promise-making” phase into one of institutionalizing “promise-keeping” — which is precisely what brings us together today. We can also look for new opportunities to make new commitments and announce new accomplishments, especially at high-level IAEA meetings in the coming months and years.

As I noted in a speech last year when I worked on these issues as Special Assistant to the President and the NSC’s Senior Director for Weapons of Mass Destruction and Counterproliferation, the Trump Administration recognizes the importance of partnership relationships in responding to nuclear security challenges. The transition to “promise-keeping” – that is, working with partners to ensure that everyone follows through on their various nuclear security commitments, and that we all institutionalize nuclear security “best practices” as the “new normal” of everyday government and industry activity – is a critical step in the international community’s response to this problem.

We must build a shared vision against the threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism, minimize vulnerable materials to the extent possible, help build capacity in the countries that retain these materials, and work with other states and international organizations to spread a culture of security that continues to adapt as technologies and threats change. In the event that such defenses are circumvented and nuclear or radioactive material falls out of regulatory control, we must be prepared to quickly locate and secure smuggled nuclear materials and bring the criminals involved to justice. These are high priorities for us in the current U.S. Administration, as we aim to transition nuclear and radiological security into what we hope it will remain over the long term: an axiomatically important, enduring priority for the international community, the key tasks of which have become regularized, routinized, and systematized so as to receive persistent day-to-day care and attention from international, state-level, and private-sector and civil society actors of all sorts and at all levels.

In doing this in conjunction with international partners such as yourselves, we will of course face challenges. Not least in ensuring that everyone devotes resources to nuclear security sufficient to ensure that the specter of nuclear terrorism never materializes. We in the United States are proud of the role we have played as the largest contributor to supporting the Nuclear Security Fund and the IAEA’s Division of Nuclear Security. It worries us, however, that this critical work remains so dependent upon extra-budgetary contributions. This is clearly not the right answer over the long term, as it makes the Division’s budget unpredictable and contingent. If nuclear security work is to continue effectively – which, as I have noted, builds a sustainable foundation for our cooperative projects over the long term – there clearly needs to be a migration to regularized funding commensurate with the challenge. We look forward to working with you on this.

In sum, the United States remains strongly committed to nuclear security – and to the ongoing process, through this Nuclear Security Contact Group and elsewhere – of building best practices for nuclear safety and security into the collective muscle-memory of the international community. Good work has been done in this arena over a long time, and we remain focused upon working with our partners to sustain this emphasis.

Let me conclude by reminding you of the pronouncement about nuclear security threats by Graham Allison that I mentioned earlier. He deserves credit for drawing much useful attention to the issue. But I also want to make sure that credit is also given to you and your colleagues, and all of the other partners who have been working to address these challenges over the last quarter century and more.

It’s true that Professor Allison has warned darkly that “nuclear terrorism is not just inevitable, but more likely than not in the decade ahead.” But here’s an important point, however: he said that in the year 2004 — nearly a decade and a half ago now. I think that should give us some hope, and encourage us in our endeavors. For my part, I do not think that nuclear terrorism is inevitable. We have already all done a great deal to prevent it, and if we remain focused upon these challenges in the years to come, I believe that together, we may be able to forestall it indefinitely.

Thank you.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
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