The 2016 Nuclear Security Summit Returns to Washington

In his 2009 speech in Prague, President Obama described the threat of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons as the “most immediate and extreme threat to global security”. Setting the bar high, he also announced the start of a global summit process that would focus on the security of nuclear materials from the threat of theft and terrorism in and work “to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years”.

The following year, in 2010, the first Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) was hosted in Washington D.C., and was followed by summits in Seoul in 2012 and The Hague in 2014. This month, a final summit will take place in Washington D.C. from 31st March – 1st April.

This is a time to reflect on the NSS process to date – its arrangements, its achievements and shortcomings, its unfinished business, and how authorities can sustain the momentum.

Nuclear security back on the international agenda

Obama wasn’t the first US President to take on nuclear security. His predecessor, George W. Bush managed to cooperate with President Putin on the issue, and led international efforts to improve the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and the International Convention for the Suppression of Nuclear Terrorism.

The stakes were higher for Obama, however, whose credibility rested on delivering on the Prague agenda as an integral part of his Presidential legacy. The 2010 NSS was attended by 47 states and 53 attended the subsequent summits, the majority represented by heads of states.  This attracts media and public attention, and creates political leverage. This has led to many achievements, such as the pledge from President Victor Yanukovich in 2010 to remove 200 kg of highly enriched uranium from Ukraine, subsequently completed in 2012.

Participation has not been all inclusive

Participation at the NSS is voluntary, but by invitation only.  All invited countries participated, but several notable countries with nuclear programmes were not invited to attend (e.g. Iran and North Korea). Senior US official Laura Holgate was quoted in 2010 as saying: “We couldn’t invite every single country that has any nuclear connectivity, and so we were looking for countries that represented regional diversity where we had states that had weapons, states that don’t have weapons, states with large nuclear programs, and states with small nuclear programs.” The subtext read: spoilers were not welcome.

Russia has decided not to participate in the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit. Russian officials claim this is because the agenda has been realised, but the reality is that this is down to diminishing relations with the West. US representatives have described the Russian decision not to participate as “unfortunate”; the goal of the Nuclear Security Summits – preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons – ought to transcend strategic differences.

Innovative diplomatic tactics

Multilateral nuclear weapons negotiations are not known for being the most progressive or successful in international diplomacy. The Conference on Disarmament, as an example, has failed to achieve any concrete initiatives for 20 years. President Obama was keen to ensure the NSS process led to tangible results beyond the rhetoric. The process involved state representative “sherpas”, “sous-sherpas”, and “yaks” to do the bulk of the heavy negotiations behind closed doors well before, during and after the actual summits. This helped with relationship and confidence building between states.

More uniquely, the summit process initiated “gift basket” diplomacy, or voluntary commitments by groups of states in the form of joint statements. This attracted praise for the flexible nature of these “gift baskets” which allow “self-selected groups of countries to maximize the summit’s impact on targeted issues and achieve results that extend beyond the consensus positions in the communiqués…they encourage creativity, dynamism, and new leadership to address the transnational challenge of nuclear security”. Critics claim the voluntary statements and commitments lack a standardised format, reporting structure or verification methods. Whilst they encourage parallel commitments, they lack the advantages of formal bargaining, or the establishment of mutual obligation. One of the major gift baskets to come out of the 2014 NSS was the Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation initiatives signed by 35 states.

Dedication only to nuclear security

Definitions of nuclear security vary. A broad-brush approach sees this as the nexus of security and nuclear activities (civil and military), including nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. The NSS process defined it more tightly as applying to securing nuclear materials and technology from unauthorised access to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism. Leaving out issues of energy, non-proliferation, and disarmament kept focus on common interests and reduced the scope for strategic disagreement between states.

This has not been without controversy, as some states have seen it as an attempt to bypass the commitments of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). Informal attempts to refer to nuclear security as the ‘fourth pillar’ of the NPT in 2009 was met with swift opposition from other states, and this was quickly dropped. However, the idea has evolved to be seen as supportive, as a basis for all three pillars of the NPT.

Key goals of the NSS process have included:

  • minimizing the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU);
  • bolstering security at nuclear facilities through enhanced national regulations and implementation of best practices;
  • enhancing membership in international instruments and organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency;
  • instituting measures to detect and prevent illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials; and
  • establishing Centers of Excellence, build capacity, develop technology and coordinate assistance on nuclear Security.

Achieving results

The rise of terrorist groups with extremist ideologies, particularly in the wake of 9/11, mixed with the increased availability of nuclear material, much of in unsecure locations, is a dangerous equation. Experts in the past fifteen years have been assessing the extent of the threat and what we can do to prevent and reduce it. The NSS process has focused on material lockdown as a pathway to reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism, and with an initial four year timeline, it focused on getting results quickly. Within two years, more than 90 percent of the commitments made at the 2010 NSS were met. To date, the NSS process has achieved:

  • the removal and/or disposition of over 3.2 metric tonnes of vulnerable highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium material;
  • the complete removal of HEU from 12 countries – Austria, Chile, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Libya, Mexico, Republic of Korea, Romania, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine and Vietnam;
  • the verified shutdown or successful conversion to low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel use of 24 HEU research reactors and isotope production facilities in 15 countries, including Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, the Czech Republic, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States;
  • the completion of physical security upgrades at 32 buildings storing weapons-usable fissile materials; and
  • the installation of radiation detection equipment at 328 international border crossings, airports, and seaports to combat illicit trafficking in nuclear materials.

These achievements should be applauded, but risks of nuclear terrorism are by no means eliminated, and research such as NTI’s nuclear security index shows that progress in reducing the risks is slowing. The Fissile Material Working Group, a consortium of 80 civil society groups from around the world, has put forth policy recommendations to world leaders to consider for this upcoming summit. There will likely be further “gift baskets”, such as one “led by the Netherlands and Denmark aimed at eliminating HEU entirely from civil use,” but it is likely that the leaders at this summit will focus more on the process of carrying the work forward post-2016 NSS.

The final installation

The NSSs have strengthened global nuclear security culture and making it an agenda item for the highest level of policymakers. This year’s summit will be attended by 52 state delegations along with INTERPOL, the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the European Union.

It is likely that statements and the final Communique will address the taking the work of the NSS process forward. It is thought that the IAEA, the United Nations, INTERPOL, the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism will play a major role in this. There are likely to be regional intergovernmental processes or expert meetings to provide coordinated leadership, universal standards and processes for the arrangements and activities on the ground.

There will also be two side-events at the end of March: a Nuclear Industry Summit and a civil society shadow summit, Solutions for a Security Nuclear Future, sponsored by the Fissile Material Working Group, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. These meetings will come together to discuss how they can collaborate to advance nuclear security and sustain the momentum created by the formal NSS process.

Further information on the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit and related issues:

Photo: This image was originally posted to Flickr by Michel Temer https://flickr.com/photos/52454189@N07/13475341143

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