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Nuclear Nonproliferation

Nuclear weapons continue to be a serious threat facing the United States. Federal agencies could improve how they implement nuclear nonproliferation activities.

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Since the 1960s, the United States and other nations have sustained a nuclear nonproliferation regime to curb the global spread of nuclear weapons. This has helped facilitate nuclear commerce and peaceful nuclear material and technology uses while constraining significant growth in the number of nuclear weapon states. However, the United States and other nations face a number of enduring and evolving nuclear proliferation threats that could undermine this regime and jeopardize international security and stability.

These threats include:

  • Inadequately secured weapon-usable nuclear materials in regions of concern
  • Terrorists potentially acquiring nuclear weapons
  • Nuclear weapon programs in countries of concern, such as North Korea

Federal agencies, including the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Department of State, as well as international organizations supported by the United States (like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)) work on reducing such threats and curbing nuclear proliferation.

Countries with Nuclear Weapons, that have Tested Nuclear Weapons, or Are Suspected of Pursuing Nuclear Weapons

Countries with Nuclear Weapons, that have Tested Nuclear Weapons, or Are Suspected of Pursuing Nuclear Weapons

Challenges at NNSA

NNSA is the U.S. agency with the largest budget dedicated to nuclear nonproliferation efforts. It works to secure and minimize weapon-usable nuclear materials worldwide, support the development of technologies to detect nuclear proliferation, and dispose of excess nuclear materials (among other things). However, NNSA faces a number of challenges in implementing these activities.

For instance, NNSA completed a number of projects to upgrade security at dozens of Russian nuclear material sites, such as installing modern perimeter fencing, surveillance cameras, and equipment to track and account for nuclear material. But this work was incomplete when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, and cooperation was dramatically curtailed. While the politics and the sensitivities involved in working with other countries can affect such nonproliferation efforts, NNSA could improve its programs’ outcomes by taking actions like developing more complete program management policies and practices to guide their implementation,  improving performance measurement, and  more clearly demonstrating program results.

Demonstration of radiation equipment for nuclear material verification

Demonstration of radiation equipment for nuclear material verification

Challenges at the State Department

The State Department works to sustain international consensus on nuclear nonproliferation, coordinates implementation of international treaties and agreements, and manages cooperative nonproliferation programs and activities. For example, the State Department leads negotiations for U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements, which outline conditions—such as physical security and peaceful use—for partner countries that may import civilian nuclear material and equipment from the United States. However, it is unclear whether the State Department kept Congress fully informed about nuclear cooperation negotiations with Saudi Arabia, as required by the Atomic Energy Act.

Additionally, U.S. efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation are implemented through the IAEA, an autonomous international organization affiliated with the United Nations that, among other missions, works to protect and control nuclear and radiological material and nuclear facilities. For example, IAEA helped monitor and verify certain provisions in the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, through which Iran committed to limits on its nuclear program in exchange for relief from U.S. (and other) sanctions. However, IAEA doesn’t have the guidelines it needs to ensure it is appropriately prioritizing its nuclear security work. It also relies heavily on voluntary contributions and hasn’t analyzed ways to stabilize its nuclear security funding. The State Department (which coordinates U.S. policy with and financial contributions to IAEA) could help IAEA address these issues.

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    • Allison Bawden
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