For the first time, experts lifted the cloak of secrecy and surveyed the precautions each of the 32 countries that have materials that can fuel atom bombs has in place and ranked the nations from best to worst.
Australia takes the top spot in nuclear security while Japan comes in at No. 23, behind nations like Kazakhstan and South Africa. The United States ties for 13th place with Belgium.
Last place goes to North Korea, which the report finds to be seriously deficient on issues of atomic security, and next-to-last to Pakistan.
The ranking is a joint project of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a private advocacy group in Washington, and the Economist Intelligence Unit, a company in London that does risk analyses. Their goals are to stir debate on how to promote security and to encourage governments to strengthen protections against atomic terrorism.
“We’ll never get this job done if we continue to operate behind closed doors,” Deepti Choubey, senior director for nuclear security at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said Tuesday in an interview. The analysis was unveiled Wednesday morning and posted online at www.ntiindex.org.
The nuclear analysts said they worked from public information like general procedures for training guards and protecting sensitive sites.
“There was no spying,” said Leo Abruzzese, director of global forecasting at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “It was pieced together” from a wealth of obscure data.
Sam Nunn, the former Democratic senator from Georgia and a founder of the threat initiative, said the study “is not about congratulating some and chastising others.” Rather, Nunn said, it should be “a resource for improvement.”
The global assessment is an outgrowth of President Obama’s effort to get nations to take more responsibility in locking up bomb materials vulnerable to theft and covert sale. In 2010, he held a security summit meeting in Washington that drew attention to the danger. Experts warned terrorists could buy or steal the makings for nuclear arms from the world’s secretive maze of atomic storage and production sites, which number in the thousands. A second summit meeting will be in March in Seoul, South Korea.
The new analysis centers on security precautions for the two main fuels of nuclear arms — plutonium and highly enriched uranium. It did not try to assess protections for highly radioactive materials a terrorist might try to scatter with conventional explosives in a dirty bomb.
For each country, the study looked at 18 factors, including known quantities of nuclear materials, physical protections, accounting methods and transportation security as well as larger societal factors like political stability and corruption.
Australia came out on top because it reduced its holdings of weapon-usable materials to “a small amount” and did well on the overall indicators, the report said. It received 94 out of 100 possible points.
Among the nine countries known to possess nuclear arms, Britain came out on top with a score of 79. The report credits its high status to concrete security measures as well as “its commitment to and follow-through on international obligations.”
The United States scored 78 — a fairly good ranking, the evaluators said, considering its possession of a sprawling nuclear complex that dates from the earliest days of the atomic era.
Japan received a score of 68 because of its vast stores of plutonium, relatively poor measures with security personnel and lack of an independent regulatory agency.
A surprise nation on the list is Iran. It claims no ambitions for making bomb fuel even while global leaders worry that its growing atomic program seeks just that capability. The study team said Iran was a part of the analysis because of its possession of highly enriched uranium for a research reactor in Tehran.
Iran received an overall score of 46, its standing undercut by what the report judged to be corruption, political instability and poor procedures for nuclear control and accounting. Of 32 nations, it ranked 30th.
Pakistan, with a security score of 41 and a nuclear complex that is undergoing rapid growth, had poor transportation security, political instability and the presence of terrorist groups eager to get their hands on nuclear materials.
North Korea came in last with a score of 37. The report cited 10 indicators that came in below the global average, including site and transportation security as well as political stability.
The report said nearly a quarter of the nations with materials that can fuel atom bombs scored poorly on social factors because of “very high levels of corruption.” And it warned several of those “also scored poorly on the prospect of political instability over the next two years.”
That bleak combination, the study concluded, “significantly increases the risk that nuclear materials might be stolen, with help from corrupt insiders or in the midst of government distraction or political chaos.”