Days after President-elect Barack Obama said that getting his national security team in place was a top priority, a new report from the Belfer Center at Harvard's Kennedy School urged immediate action on closing the gaps in nuclear security programs.
"The next U.S. president will take office still facing a very real danger that terrorists might get and use a nuclear bomb. ... Preventing such an attack must be a top international security priority -- for the next U.S. president and for leaders around the world," the report, titled "Securing the Bomb 2008," noted.
"The next U.S. president, working with other world leaders, should forge a global campaign to lock down every nuclear weapon and every significant stock of potential nuclear bomb material worldwide -- as rapidly as that can possibly be done -- and to take other key steps to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism," the report stated as it cautioned the incoming administration not to allow the issue "to slide to the back burner."
"This effort must be at the center of U.S. national security policy and diplomacy," the report continued.
Aside from physically securing stockpiles of material, the report, written by Matthew Bunn, an associate professor at Harvard's Belfer Center and a former Clinton Energy Department official, urged the United States to lead an international effort to quickly prohibit any reports of loose or stolen material as well as intensify efforts to penetrate the nuclear black market and criminal smuggling networks.
The president should name one official to oversee the development of the enhanced nuclear counterterrorism agenda, it stated. Currently, the departments of State, Defense, Energy, Homeland Security and the FBI are involved in countering nuclear threats.
"The president who takes office in January 2009 should appoint a senior White House official who has the president's ear -- probably a deputy national security adviser, though the specific title would depend on the person and the structure of the NSC," according to the report.
The report acknowledged that progress had been made in recent years but said more needed to be done.
"The probability of a terrorist nuclear attack today is substantially lower than it would be if these programs had never been in place," it stated.
One successful program mentioned is the joint U.S.-Russian Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, launched by President Bush and Russian President Putin in 2006. Seventy-five nations have joined the initiative.
Although there has been some recent tension in U.S.-Russian relations, the report noted that the two countries are working well together on the nuclear security issue. It also noted that Pakistan, which has been unstable recently, had also made some progress. "Today, security upgrades in Russia are nearing completion, and there is significant progress in Pakistan."
As for other nuclear powers, the report highlighted uncertainty in other countries around the globe that had sizable stockpiles of nuclear material. "The promising nuclear security dialogue with China does not yet appear to have led to major improvements in nuclear security there, and India has so far rejected offers of nuclear security cooperation. Upgrades in Belarus were delayed for years by poor political relations (though they are now nearly completed), and South Africa has not yet accepted nuclear security cooperation."