Nuclear Materials ‘Just Aren’t as Secure as They Need to Be’

Former director of Nuclear Regulatory Commission discusses goals of upcoming Nuclear Security Summit.

Allison Macfarlane.
Allison Macfarlane.
March 30, 2016

By Ruth Steinhardt

The Nuclear Security Summit begins Wednesday in Washington, D.C., bringing together leaders from more than 50 countries and multinational organizations to affirm international commitment to securing nuclear materials. [Learn more about the summit’s logistical implications for the Washington, D.C. area.]

The summit comes at a tense time for global security: Terrorist attacks in Belgium and Pakistan have killed scores in the past weeks, while a series of ballistic missile tests in North Korea continue to stoke nuclear fears. Allison Macfarlane, director of the George Washington University’s Center for International Science and Technology Policy and former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, talked to George Washington Today about the summit’s goals, its implications and how it could be affected by current events.

Q: What are the main issues on the table for the Nuclear Security Summit?

A: More controls on fission materials and more secure nuclear facilities worldwide.

Q: There have been three previous summits in this series. Have they had an impact on nuclear policy?

A: Well, nuclear policy is a very broad topic. Certainly the summits have drawn attention to the issue. Have they made the world significantly safer? They have certainly had some successes, but I think it all depends on your perspective.  

The summits are certainly a good idea, and it’s too bad this is going to be the last one. It takes a long time to focus world leaders on this issue and to get them to buy into the idea that action needs to be taken. Materials need to be locked up. Facilities need to be secured.

Q: Are those facilities not secured already?

A: Well, in the U.S., nuclear power plants are very well guarded. About a third of nuclear power plant workers are security-related. Some nuclear facilities are even more closely guarded, depending on their function and whether they’re military or civilian.

But in many other countries, securing nuclear facilities has not been a focus. Those facilities, those materials, just aren’t as secure as they probably need to be in this day and age. I hope the summit brings more attention to that, especially given its proximity to the attacks in Belgium and Pakistan.

Q: How will those recent attacks affect the conversation?

A: I think there will be more urgency. Those attacks are going to be first and foremost on peoples’ minds. I know symposium organizers have added a new session to talk about the Brussels attacks—especially because, in Belgium, nuclear facilities and workers have been targeted. We know militants have been tracking at least one high-level nuclear executive there. So this is a very important issue.

Q: Will you be taking part in the symposium?

A: I will be participating in some associated events. On Wednesday I’ll take part in the Solutions for a Secure Nuclear Future Summit, which is a parallel gathering for non-governmental organizations since the Security Summit is almost exclusively focused on government leaders and delegations.

And then on Thursday evening I’ll be giving a public lecture at the Elliot School of International Affairs called “Fukushima Five Years Later: Learning from a Nuclear Disaster.” [The meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which was triggered by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011, was the largest nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986. –Ed.] We learned a number of lessons from that disaster, so it’s one way to measure where we are.