Analysis & Opinions - Stimson Center

Nuclear Security Year in Review, 2021

| Jan. 20, 2022

2021 exposed the growing threat of non-state actors to nuclear security – without renewed high-level multilateral cooperation to prevent nuclear terrorism risks in 2022, efforts to strengthen the international nuclear security architecture could face a critical juncture.

With tensions growing between the United States and other nuclear-armed rivals, it is easy to forget that non-state actors continue to pose a serious nuclear threat. Yet, despite continuing evidence of this threat, in 2021, the headwinds confronting those working to reduce it only got stronger. 

Efforts to reduce nuclear terrorism risks have entered a new era. Nuclear operators must defend against threats they have been aware of for decades—like well-funded and sophisticated non-state actors with global reach, malicious insiders, corruption—while learning to be resilient against new threats, such as those posed by adversaries employing new technologies or evolving pathogens that could cripple security forces. 

Meanwhile, high-level efforts to prevent nuclear theft and sabotage have lost momentum. Unlike previous decades where preventing nuclear terrorism was an international priority, this new era lacks the same level of attention and focus. Lost are the deep bilateral cooperation between the nuclear-armed states like that which existed between the United States and Russia; the high-level multilateral engagement of the nuclear security summits; and the urgent collective drive to strengthen security at commercial and government nuclear facilities that occurred after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. While there were glimmers of hope throughout 2021, there are challenges that need to be addressed if momentum behind strengthening international nuclear security is to be restored. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Roth, Nickolas and Sneha Nair.“Nuclear Security Year in Review, 2021.” Stimson Center, January 20, 2022.

The Authors