The 2014 Nuclear Security Summit: Are We Safe Yet?

Miles Pomper
March 27, 2014

Barack Obama speaking at the Nuclear Security Summit, Wikimedia Commons

Barack Obama Speaking at the Nuclear Security Summit, Wikimedia Commons

If the nuclear security summits represent a global race against nuclear terrorists, the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands marked the first time that member states even began to jog. States will need to run much faster, however, if we hope to catch up to our deadly adversaries. President Barack Obama kicked off the race in his 2009 speech in Prague when he called nuclear terrorism “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.” A year later, he hosted the inaugural Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. Two years later, the South Korean government hosted the second summit in Seoul.

The first two summits were not without their accomplishments. Foremost among them was convincing other governments that the threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism was something that all states had to take seriously, and which required collective action to address. While the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States convinced US policy makers of these larger dangers, many other governments appeared unconvinced that the threat of mass destruction terrorism was real. Many also believed that if an attack occurred, the United States would be the most likely victim, with little or minimal threat to their own national security.

We Are All in This Together, Right?

The first two summits helped shatter some of this complacency and convinced some states to take steps toward greater security. For instance, a number of states ratified important nuclear security treaties and reduced or eliminated their holdings of terrorists’ preferred nuclear bomb material, highly enriched uranium (HEU).  Notably, Ukraine removed the last of the HEU on its territory in 2012, something that has helped prevent the current crisis in Ukraine from taking on an even more complex, nuclear dimension.

Nonetheless, the pace of action was akin to a leisurely berry-picking stroll in the countryside: states picked a sweet berry here or there (say, a commitment to minimize HEU or signing a treaty) while terrorists seemingly raced ahead.

Thanks to some inspired leadership by the Netherlands, the most recent summit in The Hague represented a more focused and disciplined effort to catch up to the terrorists. In part, this occurred because of a strategic decision by the Dutch government. Rather than try to advance only those issues that could win the consensus of the diverse club of fifty-three summit participants (from Ghana and Belgium to Russia and China), the Dutch emphasized efforts that could allow a significant chunk of summit members to take stronger steps to challenge the terrorists, even if total consensus remained unobtainable.

One initiative, led by the three past and present summit hosts and signed onto by thirty-two other states, was particularly important because it represented the first effort to take a hole-filled patchwork of national rules and regulations and stitch it into a binding global system of rules providing fewer openings for terrorists.

Until now, states were free to accept or reject the recommendations of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on how to provide sufficient security to thwart nuclear terrorism. Under the new initiative, states agreed to carry out these recommendations at a minimum and to provide regular assurances—in the form of reporting, peer reviews, and IAEA assessments—that they are fulfilling this new commitment. The United States led a similar effort in which twenty-three states agreed to implement IAEA recommendations for securing the most dangerous radiological sources  (such as cesium chloride the ideal “dirty bomb” material) by 2016. The United States also pledged to lead an international research and development effort on non-isotopic alternatives to civilian uses of these most risky sources, such as those used in the medicine, oil, and gas industries.

To close the gap with the terrorists, more of the summit participants need to sign onto these initiatives—among the notable countries who haven’t stepped up are Pakistan (which faces an acute terrorist threat) and Russia (which not only faces an acute terrorist threat, but houses much of the world’s nuclear material and is believed to be the source of many thefts). The initiative also needs to win support from the more than 100 IAEA members who don’t participate in the summit process.

In addition, these commitments need to be further hardened into more binding international law to provide them permanence after the summit process ends in 2016. And they need to be supported by a continued political process after 2016.

US Up Next in 2016

In his closing remarks to the summit, President Obama offered a few thoughts in his regard. He called for states to take action between now and 2016 to create a stronger nuclear security architecture. And he suggested that ministers could continue to provide a political impetus to the process after top leaders stand aside. These ideas make sense, but turning them into practical realities will require sustained attention from the United States and other champions of the nuclear security effort.

Other elements of the summit process will require more focus as well. The summit’s final communiqué mentioned the need to address holdings of plutonium—a key nuclear bomb-making material.  But the final document did so wrongly in a way that failed to treat the risk of maintaining dangerous stocks of this material—in pure or mixed-fuel form—as equivalent to the danger posed by HEU. In addition, the summit process has focused on civilian holdings of HEU and plutonium, but the parties have not been able to agree that serious attention must be paid to military stocks of these nuclear bomb materials as well, even though the latter makes up about 85 percent of these holdings.

Lastly, by any measure, it was embarrassing for two past summit hosts—the United States and South Korea—to come to the 2014 Summit without having ratified two essential nuclear security treaties—the International Convention for the Suppression of Nuclear Terrorism and a key 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material.

Overall, the Netherlands should be congratulated for picking up the pace in the race against nuclear terrorism. But if we are to cross the summit finish line before the terrorists, the United States will have to convince its partners to run an even stronger anchor leg.

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