The Nuclear Security Summit: Forging Consensus and Building Momentum

Thomas Young
Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress
April 20, 2010


The Washington Nuclear Security Summit was the latest in a succession of steps that US President Barack Obama has taken in order to advance his administration’s nonproliferation agenda. The first two steps, signing the New START Treaty and reducing the role that nuclear weapons play in US defense strategy, were intended to demonstrate that the United States is committed to its Article VI obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The Nuclear Security Summit, however, focused attention on the risk posed by nuclear terrorism. In convening the summit the Obama Administration had two clear aims: the first being to gain agreement on the level of the threat, and the second to gain specific national commitments that would create much needed momentum. Both of these aims were, to some extent, achieved.

President Obama leads a moment of silence at the start of the first plenary session

President Obama leads a moment of silence, Source: White House/Pete Souza

President Obama talks with Presidents Nazarbayev and Medvedev

President Obama with Presidents Nazarbayev and Medvedev, Source: White House/Pete Souza









Although the summit communiqué and accompanying work plan are non-binding, it is the individual pledges made by states that add substance to what critics may otherwise claim is mere rhetoric. In addition, all 46 states joined President Obama’s “call to secure all vulnerable nuclear material in four years,” something that will be largely achieved by reinforcing and ratifying existing initiatives and conventions. By gaining this support, and creating momentum towards achieving that goal, the summit can be seen as a success. Nevertheless, the extent of this success remains dependent on the will of these states to take concrete actions before the next summit in 2012.

The Nature of the Threat

While the summit communiqué is, primarily, a re-assertion of existing treaties and norms, it does bring all participants onto the same page regarding the threat posed by nuclear terrorism. This is conveyed by the strong statement within the document which notes that “nuclear security is one of the most challenging threats to international security.” [1] President Obama’s opening statement was geared towards achieving this aim as he highlighted that “while the risk of a nuclear confrontation between nations has gone down, […] the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.” A consensus on the threat was not apparent before the summit and one appears to have been made possible by the agenda’s narrow focus on securing the weapons-usable material that already exists. It did not, for instance, raise the issue of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, something that would have complicated proceedings and may even have led to Pakistan’s absence. [2]

President Obama holds a bilateral meeting with President Yanukovych of Ukraine [Source: White House/Pete Souza]

President Obama holds a bilateral meeting with President Yanukovych of Ukraine, Source: White House/Pete Souza

Furthermore, by convening a summit of this scale dedicated to the issue of nuclear security, President Obama highlighted just how important this issue is to the United States. This will help foster the impression that taking concrete actions in this area is a way for nations to improve their bilateral relationship with Washington – which may have been one of the aims of the administration. If it was, then Ukraine’s announcement that it intends to remove all highly enriched uranium (HEU) from its territory by the time of the next security summit in 2012 suggests that this policy has enjoyed some initial success.

Securing Material Inside National Borders

The commitment that participants made to secure all fissile material within four years places a firm emphasis on the ability of each state to secure its own stocks and to nurture an effective security culture. This commitment is emphasized in both the communiqué and the work plan, with the latter highlighting “the responsibility of every participating state to maintain effective nuclear security and a robust domestic regulatory capacity.” [3] In addition, participants stated in the communiqué that they “agree to promote measures to secure, account for, and consolidate” stocks of Plutonium and HEU at central storage facilities. [4] Measuring success in these areas will ultimately be key to establishing whether or not the summit was a success overall.


Reasserting and Strengthening Existing Commitments

Rather than creating any new initiative or convention, the summit and its final documents instead focus on the need to reinforce and ratify existing international agreements. President Obama addressed this issue in his post-summit press conference when he highlighted that it became apparent in discussions that “we do not need lots of new institutions and layers of bureaucracy” but instead “need to strengthen the institutions and partnerships that we already have.” This outcome is particularly apparent in the work plan, which sets out a number of ways in which participants can strengthen the following regimes and organizations:

  • International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Terrorism (ICSANT)
  • Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM)
  • International Physical Protection Advisory Service (IPPAS)
  • Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT)
  • United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 (UNSCR 1540)
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

This concentration on existing mechanisms emphasized that the administration’s primary aim was to strengthen rather than to create. In relation to the IAEA, in particular, the work plan conveys the need to ensure that the organization has “the appropriate structure, resources and expertise needed to carry out its mandated nuclear security activities.” [5] This not only relates to financial contributions but also to the extent to which nations cooperate with the organization. Towards this end, several nations took the opportunity to pledge additional funding to the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Fund. In addition, the IAEA has pledged to complete its final review of the next revision of INFCIRC 225, the IAEA nuclear physical security guidance document, which is expected to be released later this year. As a significant sign of a commitment to nuclear security, the United States agreed to voluntary inspections at its National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Center for Neutron Research. NIST will convert its research reactor from HEU to low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel and “will invite the IAEA to review the security” at the center. The United Kingdom also announced that they will “invite the International Atomic Energy Authority to carry out a security inspection at Sellafield,” the country’s high capacity nuclear reprocessing center.

One issue that figures prominently in both of the final documents is the need to promote education and training as a means of establishing effective security cultures. In this regard the work plan emphasizes “the importance of the human dimension of nuclear security, the need to enhance security culture, and the need to maintain a well-trained cadre of technical experts.” [6] In order to achieve this, the work plan states that participating nations will promote cooperation with all stakeholders, including industry and academia. An emphasis is also placed on the exchange of best practices, asking for support when it is needed, and providing support when it is requested. Once again, the degree to which these statements of intent are turned into reality will depend on how serious the nations view the issue and the extent to which they support U.S. leadership in this area. It will also depend on the ability of all those who participated to ensure that the momentum created by the summit is not lost. In this context, the announcement that “Italy, Japan, India and China will create new centers to promote nuclear security technologies and training” was particularly encouraging.

Measuring Progress

One notable success of the summit was its establishment of review mechanisms that effectively create a deadline for progress. It is expected that by the time of the 2012 summit in South Korea, those present will have implemented specific steps that display their commitment to the four year goal. As part of this process, the work plan also establishes a plan for so-called “sherpas” of the 47 nations (designated senior governmental officials who were already nominated by participating countries in preparation for this summit) to meet every six months in order to review progress. But this begs the question as to whether or not the same 47 nations that were present at this summit will also be there at the follow-on gathering in 2012. In order for an effective review process to take place it stands to reason that this will be the case, but will additional nations also be invited? If the answer is no then this may narrow the scope of what is trying to be achieved and could alienate those nations that are not invited to either summit.

National Commitments

Perhaps the real substance of the summit can be seen in the individual commitments (see table below) made by nations to either eliminate or reduce their HEU stocks, as well as convert research reactors to the use of LEU-based fuel. However, the use of HEU by large producers in Europe and Canada for the production of medical isotopes does not seem to have been a significant point of discussion. Some of the most notable national announcements are as follows:

  • Ukraine announced that it will remove all of its HEU by the time of the next Nuclear Security Summit in 2012 and it is hoped that half of this material will be removed by the end of this year.
  • Kazakhstan announced that it will convert a research reactor to LEU fuel and eliminate its remaining holdings of HEU.
  • Mexico announced a trilateral agreement with the United States and Canada to convert Mexico’s Central Nuclear Laguna Verde research reactor from HEU to LEU based fuel.
  • Canada announced that it will return 50 percent of spent HEU fuel stored at Chalk River Labs to the United States which is waste from the production of medical isotopes. No statement was made on repatriating 45 kilograms (kg) of unirradiated HEU targets used to manufacture medical isotopes for the MAPLE reactors which were cancelled in 2008. Fresh shipments of HEU for targets at Chalk River are also set to continue.
  • Japan announced that it will be creating a human resources center for nuclear security at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency in Tokai. Italy, India and China made similar announcements.
  • Malaysia was singled out for praise by President Obama in his bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Najib for its recent action on the Strategic Goods Act. This will strengthen the ability of the Malaysian authorities to take action against individuals and entities engaged in proliferation.

These “house gifts” [7] follow on from Chile’s earlier announcement that it had shipped its remaining stocks of HEU to the United States. Furthermore, in a significant move that injected additional momentum into the process, the United States and Russia signed a protocol that updates and amends the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement that was originally signed in 2000. Under this protocol, both countries agree to dispose of 34 metric tons (MT) of plutonium (68 metric tons in total), with the material to be consumed as nuclear fuel. Although disposition will not begin until 2018, after the necessary infrastructure is in place, the State Department did announce that it “envisions disposition of more weapons-grade plutonium over time.” In order to facilitate this process, the United States will provide Russia with up to 400 million dollars in support.

Despite this positive step, the United States can be accused of double standards by continuing to export weapon-grade HEU while encouraging others to limit HEU use and control trafficking. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy admitted in March that it plans to sell 160 kg of HEU to France and disclosed plans in February to send 93 kg to Belgium and 17 kg to Canada. The latter is particularly troublesome given that Canada already has at least 45 kg of ready-to-use 93 percent HEU from the now defunct MAPLE reactor project. This inconsistency in U.S. policy must be addressed.

Challenges and Absences

A review of the list of summit participants also raises some important questions. While the Obama administration’s official position was that those present were supposed to represent a cross-section of “states that had weapons, states that don’t have weapons, states with large nuclear programs, states with small nuclear programs,” all states that possess nuclear weapons (with the exception of North Korea) were invited, as were the vast majority of those that possess significant stocks of HEU. As a result of this, it is notable that Belarus, Libya and Serbia were not invited, despite the fact that all three had either had nuclear weapons programs in the past before abandoning them, or had possessed nuclear weapons and renounced them. [8] The reason why these states were not invited is unclear. But their absence does highlight the challenge of further internationalizing the momentum that the summit created. While it is important that participants implement the measures that they committed to, as well as going further, it is also necessary to create a norm of behavior that convinces those that were not invited, such as the three states listed above, of the need to take similar actions. This is also applicable to those states that may wish to develop civilian nuclear power, or are uranium producers, that were also not invited to the summit. This includes Namibia (7 percent of the world’s uranium reserves), Niger (7.5 percent of the world’s uranium reserves), Mongolia, Uganda and Senegal – to name a few. If these countries are not included then it will represent a small but significant flaw in the effort to address nuclear security.

Furthermore, there is no real mechanism for ensuring that participants abide by their commitments other than the review process that the summit created. However, it is interesting that the French and Dutch delegations did propose the creation of an International Tribunal in The Hague to try leaders from countries suspected of supplying nuclear material to terrorists. According to an interview with Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, President Obama had reacted positively to the idea; however, it appears that nothing solid was agreed upon.


While much will depend on the will of states to implement the individual measures to which they agreed, the summit can be considered a success on two distinct levels. First, it achieved a degree of consensus from a diverse group of nations on the threat posed by nuclear terrorism. And second, it produced significant national commitments that may help galvanize similar actions across the international community. These were the primary aims of the summit and it is on this basis that it should be judged.

[1] “Communiqué of the Washington Nuclear Security Summit,” The White House,, April 13, 2010.
[2] At the beginning of 2010 Pakistan prevented the Conference on Disarmament (CD) from signing-off on the CD’s agenda for the year. This agenda would have included discussions on a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, something that Islamabad is currently opposed to on the basis that it may impede its ability to achieve strategic parity with India.
[3] “Work Plan for the Washington Nuclear Security Summit,” The White House,, April 13, 2010.
[4] “Communiqué of the Washington Nuclear Security Summit,” The White House,, April 13, 2010.
[5] “Work Plan for the Washington Nuclear Security Summit,” The White House,, April 13, 2010.
[6] “Work Plan for the Washington Nuclear Security Summit,” The White House,, April 13, 2010.
[7] Term used by the White House in the context of the summit to describe the individual national commitments made by states.
[8] The former Yugoslavia – of which the current state of Serbia was a major part – previously had a nuclear weapons program; Libya gave up its WMD aspirations in 2003 and Belarus was in possession of former Soviet nuclear weapons after the fall of the USSR.

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