Pakistan has emerged as the country with most improved nuclear security credentials in the 2020 Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) report that was released on Jul 22, 2020. Amongst the countries that have 1 kg or more of weapons usable nuclear materials (highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium), Australia has ranked first for the consecutive fifth time and Pakistan is at 19th position, ahead of its neighbour India.
The first NTI security index was released in 2012 to identify priority areas which could help improve global nuclear security efforts that were the focus of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process under the Obama Administration. The next two reports were also timed for release before the 2014 and 2016 Nuclear Security Summits (NSS), to help identify national actions that could strengthen nuclear security, track progress made by individual states, identify nuclear security priorities for the future, and build accountability by holding states responsible for their inaction. Since it remains an NGO led initiative, several states, including Pakistan remains reluctant to avoid giving undue legitimacy to the work of a non-state entity, especially when there are multilateral platforms like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) responsible for strengthening global nuclear safety and security efforts.
The NTI Index is based on the data gathered from the open sources about state’s national nuclear security efforts, their commitment to international conventions and treaties, and the transparency provided about the nuclear programs. States that do not have military nuclear programs are generally amenable to sharing of information as compared to the nuclear weapons possessor states that cannot provide complete transparency about their military programs for obvious reasons. This makes it easier for countries like Australia that does not have significant nuclear infrastructure, to continue occupying the top slot.
A more objective criterion by the NTI could be to compare states with matching nuclear infrastructures, such as India and Pakistan, in order to get a better understanding of the improvements in their national nuclear security efforts. According to the recent NTI Index, Pakistan has made significant progress in improving its security and control measures and stands at 15th position, which is three positions ahead of India. Once compared to the other countries, Pakistan has gained 25 points, which is the second-largest improvement by any country ever since the Index was launched in 2012, which is a result of its strengthened laws and regulations.
In the category of ‘Global Norms’ also Pakistan has gained one point, while in ‘Domestic Commitments and Capacity’, it has gained 16 points and stands at 15th position, whereas India is at the 20th position. The NTI index has placed Pakistan lower in the field of “Risk Environment” which mainly covers domestic political stability and terrorist threats. These factors, however, remain extraneous and not directly related to the national nuclear governance architecture.
Assessing nuclear security efforts by India, the NTI Index has recorded improvement of one point in ‘Risk Environment’ as a result of its improvement in “Illicit Activities by Non-State Actors.’ However, the NTI has once again highlighted a deficiency in India’s nuclear regulatory efforts, since it does not have an independent regulatory authority that could ensure implementation of national nuclear security laws and regulations and verify that the national reports being submitted to the IAEA are in line with the international best practices. This is a long-standing observation and was also highlighted in IAEA’s Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) mission reports that evaluate states’ regulatory infrastructure.
Assessing the overall global nuclear security efforts, the NTI has identified some key findings and made recommendations that could help states to improve their national nuclear security efforts:
- No country has eliminated their stocks of weapons-usable nuclear materials since 2016. This in contrast to the commitments made by some of the states during the NSS process.
- Regulatory requirements for nuclear security are not comprehensive, with significant weaknesses in key areas. This may lead to a nuclear related incident and backlash against the use of peaceful nuclear technology, such as nuclear energy.
- Cybersecurity is emerging a major challenge, which makes it imperative for all countries to strengthen their cybersecurity at nuclear facilities.
- Countries must work to strengthen and sustain political attention on nuclear security, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations should work to achieve universalization of key legal instruments governing nuclear security.
- The IAEA should work with countries without nuclear materials to build a stronger, more inclusive concept of nuclear security stressing that nuclear security is critical to maintaining public support for peaceful uses of nuclear technology.
- Countries should increase support for the IAEA by contributing to its Nuclear Security Fund and supporting and participating in IAEA activities.
- Countries should increase transparency and confidence by publishing annual nuclear security reports, by making public declarations about their progress on nuclear security, and by participating regularly in peer reviews, among other steps.
- To be responsible stewards, countries considering new nuclear energy capabilities should establish legal and regulatory frameworks that address insider threat prevention, cybersecurity, security culture, physical protection, control and accounting procedures, and response capabilities.
Nuclear security remains a national responsibility and states have obligations to ensure that their national nuclear security architecture is capable of dealing with all potential insider and outside threats to their nuclear facilities and materials. This however could best be achieved through collaborative approaches and by developing a better understanding of national culture and limitations of individual countries. States must nevertheless be encouraged to engage with the existing international instruments and conventions, and to provide requisite transparency, so as to demonstrate their seriousness towards global nuclear security efforts, but this cooperation should be based on realistic expectations and without undermining national security interests of individual states.