Nuclear Weapons Materials Gone Missing: What Does History Teach?

Ever since President Obama made securing nuclear weapons assets a top priority for his global arms control agenda, guarding and disposing of these holdings have become an international security preoccupation. Starting in 2010, multilateral nuclear summits on how to prevent nuclear theft and sabotage have been held every two years - the first in Washington, the second in Seoul, the third in The Hague. Scores of studies have been commissioned and written, and nearly as many workshops (official and unofficial) have been held.

Yet, in all of this, the urgent task of securing and disposing of known nuclear weapons assets has all but sidelined what to do about nuclear weapons-usable plutonium and highly enriched uranium that we have lost track of. This is understandable. It also is worrisome.

How likely is it that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could detect even a large amount of MUF in a timely fashion at declared civilian nuclear sites? What of national means of detection? What can we learn from the history of civilian MUF discoveries in Japan and the UK and of military MUF in the United States and South Africa? How well can the IAEA or any existing nuclear material accountancy system track the production of special nuclear material or account for past production?

This volume gives us more than a few answers. Much of the analysis is technical. Most of it, technical or not, is downbeat. The good news is that this is the first dedicated volume on this specialized topic. There is likely to be more of such histories written in the future. How they might read, however, ultimately will depend on how much unnecessary civilian and military material production is curtailed, which is itself a matter worthy of another book.

This book is available on the NPEC website.