Cyber risks threaten nuclear security gains: study

Global efforts to strengthen nuclear security have accelerated but cyber-, terrorist and political threats are rising, according to the fourth edition of the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s Nuclear Security Index (NTI Index).

Developed by NTI with analytical support from The Economist Intelligence Unit (The EIU), the NTI Nuclear Security Index is the foremost tool for assessing nuclear security globally. Deteriorating political stability (including worsening corruption and flagging government efficiency) can hinder the implementation of nuclear regulations, and, in extreme instances, enable groups seeking to acquire nuclear materials or access to nuclear facilities—concerns that are only heightened in light of the fast-evolving cyber threat.

The cyber-threat is evolving rapidly, but progress in countering the threat is in many cases halting and uneven. To more fully capture cyber-security conditions, a new indicator was incorporated into this year’s index focused on cyber-incident response plans. However, just 15 countries (out of 47) scored positively on this metric.

Having stalled in 2015-16, progress towards increasing nuclear security has accelerated over the past two years, in large part owing to notable improvements in security and control measures.

For the fourth time Australia earns the highest score in the “theft ranking” for countries with weapons-usable nuclear materials, but Switzerland is now tied for first place having reduced its stocks of nuclear materials. Overall, six countries took steps to reduce their quantities and sites of fissile materials, but four countries increased their quantities.

The cyber-threat is evolving rapidly, but progress in countering the threat is in many cases halting and uneven. To more fully capture cyber-security conditions, a new indicator was incorporated into this year’s index focused on cyber-incident response plans. However, just 15 countries (out of 47) scored positively on this metric.

Among those countries with nuclear facilities that witnessed a deterioration in their risk environment, Belgium, Poland and the US saw the biggest score change. In the case of Belgium this reflected an emerging terrorist threat to the country’s nuclear plants, while in Poland and the US their fractious political scenes—and ensuing uptick in social protests (Poland) and decline in government effectiveness (US)—were the primary culprit.

Nearly 2,000 metric tonnes of nuclear materials and hundreds of facilities are distributed around the world, with no effective, established, universal system for securing them. The threat of nuclear terrorism will only continue to escalate. What can countries do? Recommendations for improving global nuclear security, and a detailed discussion of the NTI Index, are included in a new NTI report, Building a Framework for Assurance, Accountability, and Action [Fourth edition].”