IDSA COMMENT

How Accurate is the NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index?

January 24, 2012

The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) released a Report titled ‘NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index: Building a Framework for Assurance, Accountability and Action’, on January 11, 2012 showing a baseline assessment of nuclear security conditions prevailing in 176 countries. This Index was developed in associated with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The Report generated a great deal of media interest in a large part of the world. Media reports on the findings of the Report forced officials of some surveyed countries to take a stand on it. While the project that produced the Report engaged some credible scholars from western universities and elsewhere, but the control and leadership exercised on the project by known non-proliferation activists may have sent a wrong signal to the non-western world.

Countries were assessed in two categories: 32 countries that possess one kg or more of weapons-usable nuclear materials, and 144 countries having less than 1 kg or none; however, the latter could be used as safe heavens, staging grounds, or transit points for illicit activities. For the first category, a total of five sub-categories have been used to assess the performance of these countries.

It is surprising that the Report places India at the 28th spot in the first list with Vietnam, Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea below it. China is on the 27th spot while Japan is 23rd, and France is at the 19th position along with South Korea. The top five countries in this category are Australia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Austria.

The timing of the Report’s release is interesting. The second Nuclear Security Summit is scheduled to be held in Seoul in March 2012, and the last of the preparatory meetings (the Sherpas’ meeting) was held in Delhi in January, a few days after the release of the NTI Report. However, the Report did not figure in the New Delhi Sherpas’ meeting.

As part of the process of data collection, the project investigators circulated its methodology and information amongst a section of the international strategic, policymaking, and scientific communities. That the methodology of the Report was highly faulty was common knowledge even before it was published, notwithstanding the engagement of a panel of international experts or the development of the index by the EIU. In analysing such vast data, it appears that consistency of expert opinion was not checked. This is essential as different experts can have different opinions.

Transparency is a point on which many national governments as well as the Report find difficulties, especially vis-à-vis nuclear security. The Government of India and a former atomic energy chief have maintained that transparency and nuclear security are mutually contradictory. In fact, the Report has found merit in the argument that transparency may be paradoxical. It acknowledges that ‘This is not a call for states to reveal so much information that they compromise national and global security.’ But at the same time, the Report expects countries to: (i) publish nuclear security regulations and other ‘framework’ information that provide general descriptions of security arrangements; (ii) declare inventory quantities for both highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium; and (iii) make regular ‘peer reviews’ the norm for sites holding HEU and plutonium.

A closer look at the five categories—quantities and sites; security and control measures; global norms; domestic commitments and capacity; and societal factors—suggests that these are a mix of the genuine and the arbitrary. If a country has more sites and a larger quantity of nuclear materials, it will be rewarded lesser points. A comparison of India and Austria, for example, reveals that India is placed lower in the ranking due to the sheer size of its quantities of stockpile and number of sites. This is the reason why the first 10 rankings in the NTI index are awarded to smaller countries with smaller sites and quantities.

The selection of 32 countries in the first major category is also arbitrary. The criterion of selecting countries with more than 1 kg of nuclear weapons usable material is questionable. In order to make a credible weapon, a minimum of 5 kg of plutonium or 25 kg of highly enriched uranium is required. How, then, did the Report arrive at the figure of 1 kg is a question worth asking.

Unlike the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which had placed 44 countries with significant nuclear infrastructure under the Annex 2 list, the NTI considers 32 countries out of which three countries, namely—the Czech Republic, Belarus, and Uzbekistan—do not figure in the Annex 2 list. Algeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Columbia, Egypt, Finland, Indonesia, Peru, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey, and Zaire are all listed in Annex 2, although they do not figure in the NTI list.

Moreover, the NTI Report ignores radiological sources and focuses only on weapons-usable materials. The issue of radiological security was also raised in the preparatory meetings for the Seoul Nuclear Security meeting, and it is certain that the issue would be included in the agenda of the March 2012 meet. The non-inclusion of radiological materials is another case of arbitrariness.

The Report also includes the pervasiveness of corruption as an indicator. Firstly, there is the issue of how corruption is to be measured in any given society? Here it is also necessary to consider the fact that in developing countries, nuclear establishments are insulated from other governing bodies because of the national importance attached to them. Even more surprising is the Report giving a rating of 0-2 for groups interested in acquiring nuclear materials illicitly, while at the same time giving a rating of 0-4 for pervasiveness of corruption!

The inclusion of contribution to the World Institute for Nuclear Security (WINS) is also questionable. A country that supports WINS or any centre of global excellence wins points. The Report highlights WINS, but does not name other centres. Favouring one over others appears unfair to many for whom this Report is merely a marketing ploy to promote an organization like WINS.

The methodology and timing of the Report have prompted questions about the presence of a hidden agenda. It appears that this is indeed the case. First, the Report seems to be pushing the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI). Russia may have benefited from the Initiative, but other countries, including India, do not have full confidence in it. On previous occasions, too, India has been uncomfortable with moves to push the initiative directly, and more so, indirectly. The GTRI is an American initiative and it is methodologically faulty to assume that not joining the GTRI is bad for nuclear security.

The Report also mixes up multilateral regimes with international legal conventions and treaties in the global norms category. Arrangements like the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) as well as membership of the G-8 cannot be treated at par with international treaties and organisations.

Despite regular calls to make their nuclear materials stockpiles public, countries like China, Israel, Pakistan, and India have not done so, leaving it to other countries and think-tanks to engage in guess work. And they haven’t done so because nuclear stockpiles play a role in calculations pertaining to credible minimum nuclear deterrence.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is already working and mobilising its member states towards nuclear security. The Nuclear Security Summit convened by US President Barack Obama has also generated a momentum towards nuclear security as well as greater awareness of nuclear terrorism. The summit underscored the need for working together and the importance of international cooperation. The summit process received accolades for bridging the NPT-based international divide.

In contrast, the NTI Report seeks to recreate the old divide and could even prove counterproductive for nuclear security. The confidence and trust that the summit process gathered could be adversely affected by such documents. Governments have begun to question the credibility of the entire process of non-governmental actors contributing to the debate and discussions on nuclear security. Indexing will further provide an opportunity for countries to make allegations that the NGOs working on nuclear security are basically pushing the agenda of the US non-proliferation community as well as the US government. The Report broadly appears to be on the conventional North-South line; its subheading reads: ‘Wealthy and Democratic States Score Higher’.

The objective of the project may be noble: reshaping ‘international norms’ for nuclear security or ‘facilitating international dialogue on priorities’ for it. However, a preliminary analysis suggests that it will do more harm than good for global nuclear security.

Comments

Response of NTI

NTI welcomes input on the Nuclear Material Security Index, and our ultimate goal is to generate broad discussion about what is needed for effective nuclear materials security. At the same time, the above article has some inaccuracies and characterizations that require response.

You can read NTI's response to this article at:
http://www.nti.org/analysis/opinions/nti-response-idsa-article-how-accur...