Nuclear security: continued breakthrough or stalled progress?

On October 11, 2001, a month following the catastrophic events of 9/11, a CIA report concluded that Al-Qaeda infiltrates planned to detonate a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb at the heart of New York City. Though later deemed as a false alarm, the motivation to conduct a nuclear attack by non-state actors, combined with the widespread availability of fissile material often stored under subpar conditions, makes nuclear terrorism a looming threat.

This week, the third Nuclear Security Summit is set to take place at the World Forum in The Hague from March 24-25, with the ultimate goal of reducing proliferation risks from terrorist groups and state actors. Top dignitaries from 53 countries, along with representatives from four international organizations, including the EU, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Interpol, and the UN will convene to examine best practices for securing existing fissile material, reducing its total amount, and increasing international cooperation regarding nuclear security. The gathering is part of a series of four biennial summits, an initiative triggered by President Barack Obama’s Prague speech in 2009, where he pledged “to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years.” The fourth summit is planned for Washington DC in 2016 as a culmination of the current administration’s headway in nuclear security.

In advance of this week’s summit, an NTI report revealed that since the last meeting in 2012, seven countries (Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Mexico, Sweden, Ukraine, and Vietnam) have relinquished or considerably reduced their fissile material stockpiles, lowering the total number of states harboring one kilogram or more of weapons-usable nuclear material to 25. The one-kilogram threshold was proposed by the IAEA in its INFCIRC 225 Revision 5 report, which stipulated that quantities greater than one kilogram warranted increased protection. In addition, fifteen other countries have made strides to reduce their materials stockpiles, strengthen protections against physical and insider threats, and update regulations for materials transport.

Some progress is clearly better than none, but it remains to be seen whether the summit’s goal of establishing international nuclear security standards and verification mechanisms will be achievable. For starters, the summit process only covers weapons-usable materials used for civilian purposes, which represents just 15% of the total fissile material in the world. The remaining 85% is destined for military use, and in some instances it is not any more secured. A glaring example was the 2012 Oak Ridge nuclear reservation incident, where an 82-year old nun and two other companions broke into the US nuclear facility to mount a protest against nuclear weapons use.

Notwithstanding the United States’ unparalleled investment in the nuclear security sector, incidents like the aforementioned attest to security gaps within nuclear facilities in the US, a concern that is exacerbated by recently proposed budget cuts to the US nuclear security pipeline. Nearing million, these cuts would affect the International Material Protection and Cooperation program and the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, two platforms to reduce the quantity of nuclear materials and ensure their safety. Budget withdrawals to nuclear security, juxtaposed with an overall increase in nuclear weapons spending might be the harbinger of a larger problem, and one that is evidenced by the lack of assurance to convene a nuclear security summit beyond 2016. Has the critical momentum generated by previous summits reached a plateau?

There are two additional events that might endanger positive discussion outcomes from the World Forum: Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the conscious exclusion of key players – North Korea and Iran – from participation in the summit.

Russia’s occupation of Crimea has heightened tensions between Moscow and the West, leading the US, the UK and France to threaten to boycott the Sochi G8 summit in June, unless Russia withdraws its troops from Ukraine. It is likely that tensions might also transpire to The Hague and overwhelm the summit’s discussions.

Lastly, North Korea’s and Iran’s exclusion from the summit hinders the overall goal of establishing a consensus on international nuclear security standards and verification mechanisms. The failure to invite Iran, in particular, might have further negative repercussions in the broader context of establishing a Middle East WMD-free zone, as Tehran might perceive the summit’s dynamics as a deliberate attempt to isolate it from the international cooperation fora. Choosing inclusion over alienation as a means to address the Iran conundrum could have better served as an incubator for confidence-building opportunities with other regional players, such as Israel, even if the latter might have posed its own reservations. Instead, diplomatic ostracism from the nuclear security discussions might undermine the trust-building effort that has been a central part of the P5+1 interim agreement process.

Also, this week, BASIC will hold a private roundtable event in Cairo, Egypt, centering the discussion on Egypt’s role in the region and in the global pursuit of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament as a member of the New Agenda Coalition. The meeting will draw from the expertise of Egyptian academics, government officials, and distinguished international participants to examine Cairo’s strategy to advance the Middle East WMD-free zone agenda, in the broader context of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the 2015 NPT Review Conference.

For more information on nuclear security, please refer to BASIC’s fact sheet.

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