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"Global Cleanout: An Emerging Approach to the Civil Nuclear Material Threat"


September 2004

Author: Philipp C. Bleek, Former Research Fellow, Project on Managing the Atom/International Security Program, 2009–December 2010

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security; Managing the Atom; Science, Technology, and Public Policy



Nuclear proliferation to terrorists willing to sacrifice their lives to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians represents a grave threat to the United States and its allies; nuclear proliferation to hostile states poses serious dangers. Yet poorly secured civil research sites with hundreds of nuclear bombs' worth of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium are scattered around the globe. Because obtaining such material is the greatest hurdle to constructing a nuclear weapon, these sites represent an urgent proliferation threat.

Over the past decade, the United States has conducted five major operations to secure and remove Soviet-origin nuclear material from sites in Kazakhstan, Georgia, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Bulgaria. These operations make clear that securing bomb-usable nuclear material is eminently feasible from diplomatic, technical, and financial perspectives.

In the past year, the threat posed by civil nuclear material stockpiles has attracted increased attention in both the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government. Recently announced policy initiatives and legislation have the potential to resolve many of the issues addressed in this paper, but rapid and comprehensive implementation will be needed. These efforts can benefit from the lessons of past operations. Despite the evident tractability of the threat, dozens more sites still remain unaddressed, their 'nuclear-bombs-in-waiting' protected from terrorists, hostile state agents, and black-market nuclear profiteers by little more than chain link fences and single guards. This despite the fact that securing civil nuclear material stockpiles would leave a lasting legacy: a world in which nuclear terrorism and nuclear threats from states were far less likely. Terrorists and states hostile to the United States and its allies are racing to acquire weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. It is not yet clear whether the United States is racing to stop them.


For more information about this publication please contact the MTA Program Assistant at 617-495-4219.

For Academic Citation:

Bleek, Philipp C. "Global Cleanout: An Emerging Approach to the Civil Nuclear Material Threat." Paper, September 2004.

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