During the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama promised to "lead a global effort to secure all nuclear weapons materials at vulnerable sites within four years -- the most effective way to prevent terrorists from acquiring a nuclear bomb. Barack Obama will fully implement the Lugar-Obama legislation to help our allies detect and stop the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction."
Significant progress has been made on this promise, though the future looks bleaker with Russia's expected departure from a longstanding nuclear-deactivation agreement.
Internationally, the nations participating in the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in March 2012 wrote in a communique, "We welcome the substantive progress being made on the political commitments of participating states” since the summit in Washington two years earlier. "We stress the fundamental responsibility of states, consistent with their respective national and international obligations, to maintain effective security of all nuclear material.”
Each participating state issued a progress report of activities completed since the previous summit.
In the United States, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative -- a federal office charged with converting research reactors and isotope production facilities from highly enriched uranium to low enriched uranium, removing excess nuclear and radiological materials, and protecting high-priority nuclear and radiological materials from theft -- issues periodic progress updates.
The most recent, released on Nov. 7, 2012, said that the United States has "greatly accelerated its efforts to reduce nuclear and radiological threats since President Obama"s pledge in Prague in April 2009 to secure all vulnerable nuclear material in four years.”
Since the speech, the office says, the United States has:
• Removed 1376.1 kilograms of HEU and plutonium (enough material for approximately 55 nuclear weapons).
• Removed all weapons-usable nuclear material from nine countries and areas, including: Romania, Taiwan, Libya, Turkey, Chile, Serbia, Mexico, Sweden and Ukraine.
• Completed physical protection upgrades at more than 1,000 buildings totaling more than 10,000,000 curies – enough for approximately 10,000 dirty bombs
• Removed more than 10,000 at-risk radiological sources – enough for more than 6,500 dirty bombs.
• Converted to low enriched uranium fuel or verified the shutdown of 20 highly enriched uranium research reactors in 12 countries, including Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Japan, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, and the United States.
• Accelerated the establishment of a reliable supply of the medical isotope molybdenum-99 produced without the use of highly enriched uranium by establishing partnerships with South Africa, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, activity has continued on implementing the goals of a the 1991 bill authored by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia. The Nunn-Lugar program provided U.S. funding and expertise to the former Soviet Union to dismantle stockpiles of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
According to a running tally compiled by Lugar's office, 7,610 warheads have been deactivated -- 82 percent of the number targeted under the law. The categories in which 85 percent to 100 percent have been deactivated include intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, nuclear-equipped submarines, nuclear air-to-surface missiles, bombers, and test tunnels.
Perhaps most importantly, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine are now nuclear-free.
However, this progress may not continue. On Oct. 10, 2012, Russia announced that it would not renew its cooperation in the deal for a third time when it expires in 2013. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was reported to have said that Russia could afford to carry out its own efforts and that it was interested in continuing partnerships with third countries.
Arms control experts said the planned withdrawal leaves a large question mark over the effort. "The future of the program is now in doubt,” said Kingston Reif, director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. "There remains uncertainty about Russia's commitment to securing nuclear material.”
As for the portion of the promise about helping U.S. allies "detect and stop the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction,” we rated a similar promise a Compromise. The Proliferation Security Initiative is an international effort designed to stop shipments of weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, and related materials worldwide. The initiative has made progress working with "flag of convenience” countries -- 32 mostly small nations often used by shipping companies as their official nation of registry -- and in signing ship-boarding agreements. But measurable benchmarks in stopping shipments have been elusive.
All told, the U.S. has led a process in which significant progress has been made on deactivating nuclear weapons and securing nuclear materials. But Russia's intention of withdrawing from Nunn-Lugar, combined with the difficulty of measuring success in Obama's pledge to "detect and stop the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction,” leads us to rate this promise a Compromise.