The alleged security failings in the UK Trident submarine program exposed by a Royal Navy whistleblower William McNeilly on 17 May bring into focus the issue of security gaps and vulnerabilities of military nuclear programs. When we learn about nuclear security lapses regarding these programs, it is usually due to untoward incidents or whistleblowing. Proper oversight would identify and resolve vulnerabilities before incidents occur. There is little in the way of credible public information, however, about the principles and implementation approaches to securing nuclear arsenals. Given how much attention the global community pays to the security of civilian nuclear materials to prevent nuclear terrorism, this lacuna concerning nuclear materials in the military realm is disconcerting.

In 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama launched a global effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials that could otherwise fall into the wrong hands and be fashioned into an improvised nuclear device – the nightmare scenario that continues to haunt global leaders and nuclear terrorism experts. Three Nuclear Security Summits (NSSs) held in 2010 in Washington, DC, in 2012 in Seoul, and in 2014 in The Hague, significantly boosted these efforts. Among the biggest achievements is an expedited removal of over 15 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from research reactors and civil stocks worldwide. This is important because if terrorists wanted to build a crude nuclear bomb, a gun-type device based on HEU would be the easiest option. Due to the NSS push, 12 more countries are now completely free of HEU. Additional countries pledged to rid themselves of weapons-useable materials in civil applications as soon as replacement technologies are available or have taken measures to substantially increase the security of their nuclear material.

These achievements are laudable and must continue. So far, however, these efforts have not tackled the big elephant in the room – the security of nuclear weapons and stocks of HEU and plutonium in military programs. To their credit, participating states in the last Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague for the first time agreed to Communique language that refers to the security of all nuclear materials. But no specific commitments or solutions were offered. Although HEU and plutonium in weapons and military stocks account for roughly 85% of global holdings of these materials, they remain outside of any of the existing international nuclear security mechanisms or oversight, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear security guidelines and recommendations. Neither is military nuclear material covered by the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials.

Regrettably, there is not much appetite among the nuclear weapons possessors to open a discussion on developing security guidelines or best practices for control, protection, and accounting of these dangerous materials and weapons. There is even less desire to subject nuclear security arrangements of weapons arsenals and nuclear material stocks to peer reviews or any form of international oversight.

The main reassurances that nuclear armed states put forward are claims that their nuclear weapons and materials are well secured and that we should simply take their “solemn word for it,” in the words of Lieutenant-General (retired) Khalid Kidwai, who until recently ran the organization that controlled Pakistan’s military nuclear program. This is hardly reassuring, as every year we learn about vulnerabilities and breaches at nuclear weapons sites around the world. The argument that weapons sites are better secured than civilian stocks because they are protected by the military is not credible in light of the security problems that have come to light. Consider, for example, the series of test cheating scandals last year at the Malmstrom U.S. Air Force Base in Montana and charges in April of illegal drug use by nuclear missile launch officers at the same base. The problem is not limited to Malmstrom. As detailed in Eric Schlosser’s book, Command and Control, multiple cases of inadequate security and dangerous close calls have been pervasive throughout the history of the US nuclear weapons program.

Authorities often justify their refusal to discuss the security of nuclear weapons and stocks on grounds that providing such information would itself jeopardize security. No serious expert would insist that every detail needs to be shared or made public. Yet, if there is a will to tackle nuclear security risks and vulnerabilities in earnest, ways could be found to provide limited but meaningful and credible information that would allay concerns. It would be equally reassuring to the nuclear possessor states themselves to know that other weapons states have tight nuclear security arrangements.

In the world that still has more than 16,000 nuclear weapons and well over a million kilograms of weapons-useable nuclear materials in military programs we cannot afford to rely on verbal assurances. As members of the Global Agenda Council on Nuclear Security of the World Economic Forum, we want to be sure that nuclear weapons security resembles Alcatraz, not house arrest.

This op-ed and the call for strengthened security of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials in military programs are supported by the members of the Global Agenda Council on Nuclear Security

AuthorsElena Sokova is Executive Director of the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme of the International Institute for Strategic Studies

Image: World leaders attend the opening session of the Nuclear Security summit (NSS) in The Hague March 24, 2014. REUTERS/Yves Herman