Heeding the outcomes & remaining challenges of the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit

On March 24-25, 53 world leaders convened at The Hague for the third Nuclear Security Summit to discuss the implementation of national measures to protect vulnerable fissile and radiological material from belligerence-prone hands. The following commentary focuses on the summit’s outcomes and remaining challenges as a platform to build on for continued progress.

Judging by media coverage, one of the most publicized achievements of the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit was Japan’s agreement to forfeit approximately 500 kg of fissile material (~300 kg of plutonium and ~200 kg of highly enriched uranium). However praiseworthy, the word “achievement” might be a precipitated misnomer, since the deal left unaddressed an additional 9 tons of separated plutonium, which has accrued objections from China and Iran due to purportedly lax security impositions on Japan’s nuclear facilities. Japan is also scheduled to inaugurate another nuclear fuel plant, which will be capable of producing several more tons of plutonium, starting this fall, seemingly in contradiction with nuclear security goals.

The “Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation” or “Trilateral Initiative” was another of the summit’s revered achievements that might fall short of expectations. The initiative, or “gift basket” in summit parlance, encourages its signatories (35 out of the 53 total participating countries) to implement IAEA recommendations as fully and thoroughly as possible, to voluntarily share nuclear security information, and to engage in additional voluntary actions, including peer-reviewing best practices, to bolster nuclear security. Though US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz considered it “the closest thing we have to international standards for nuclear security,” the initiative lacks key verification mechanisms, which might render it, at the very least, insufficient. For instance, it does not require specific actions by the signees to demonstrate the implementation of their voluntary commitments, while 18 of the participating countries, including Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia did not sign onto the proposal. All participating countries did sign the summit’s communiqué, but the standardization of nuclear security safeguards was only subtly mentioned in the document, leaving ample room for much-needed improvement in the future.

Among other achievements, Belgium proposed to relinquish “significant” amounts of fissile material (the exact amount is unknown), while Italy followed with an offer to give up 20 kg of HEU and separated plutonium. The summit also had an unparalleled focus on the need to secure radiological or “dirty bomb” material, evidenced by two of the resulting proposals: the Radiological Security gift basket and the US unilateral “house gift.” The former committed all 23 signatory states to secure Category I radioactive materials in accordance with IAEA guidelines, while the latter pledged to spearhead an international effort to find non-isotopic alternatives to high-activity radiological material.

In spite of the visible progress, a question remains: has the Nuclear Security Summit process reached a plateau, or are the existing economic and political resources enough to carry it forward?

President Barack Obama, who has championed nuclear security issues in the past and founded the first summit in 2010, has expressed his intention to “finish strong in 2016” in reference to nuclear security commitments. The administration’s budget request however, seems to suggest otherwise, as it proposes to cut funding for nonproliferation and nuclear security activities by 18 percent (while increasing spending for nuclear weapons by almost 7 percent) and to halt construction of the controversial mixed-oxide fuel fabrication facility (MOX). The facility was previously tasked with converting 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium into commercial reactor fuel.

Though a halt to the MOX project might in itself avoid nuclear proliferation risks associated with plutonium reprocessing, the administration’s proposed construction moratorium comes without any commitments to embark on alternative paths to dispose of the outstanding material. Reputable organizations have studied and proposed plutonium “immobilization” and direct disposal techniques as viable, environmentally safer, and more cost-effective disposition mechanisms, but these alternatives have not been endorsed at the national level.

The lack of agreeance to resolve the MOX controversy, along with the overall budget proposal might be perceived in dissonance with President Obama’s expressed commitments to the nuclear security regime. This, in turn, might undermine the momentum running up to the 2016 summit (to be held back in the United States) as leaders from other countries might understandably become skeptical and also feel less pressure to showcase their own progress regarding nuclear security.

Is finishing strong then, an attainable goal for 2016?

Many scholars in the field agree that the most desired outcome of the 2016 summit is the development of a “robust global nuclear security system,” as reflected in the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s latest report. The Trilateral Initiative and the summit’s communiqué seem to have laid the foundation for the establishment of such a security regime but there is a continued need to push for the transition from “voluntary” and unverifiable commitments to “mandatory” and legally binding agreements. This strategy might better compel states to comply with nuclear security best practices and guidelines, including in the military arena.

Still, it remains unclear whether the summit process will culminate with the universalization of nuclear security standards, especially after its projected downgrade to a ministerial level beyond the 2016 gathering. This downgrade might make it difficult to harness the necessary political momentum to generate the desired outcomes, while the 2016 summit alone is unlikely to establish a nuclear security regime that also targets military material (85% of the world’s fissile-materials stockpiles). The Hague’s communiqué mimicked the legacy of the last two in that it avoided explicit discussions about securing fissile material used for military purposes; a trend that is not expected to change before the 2016 summit is convened. In addition, recent break-ins by peace activists at nuclear facilities in the US, France and the UK, continue to highlight the vulnerability of civilian and military nuclear sites to unwanted intruders. This raises concerns about the possibility of ill-intentioned future break-ins by hostile non-state actors.

Thus, looking at 2016 as the end year for high-level engagement in the nuclear security dialogue might be dangerous and misleading. Continued economic and political investment will be needed to carry the process forward.

For more information on nuclear security, refer to BASIC’s nuclear security factsheet.

 Photo credit: Michel Temer, Flickr

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