Promises, promises: A progress report one year after the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit

By Fissile Materials Working Group | April 6, 2011

Two years ago in Prague, President Barack Obama laid out his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. Recognizing that this would not likely be achieved in his lifetime, he outlined practical steps by which the international community might strive for greater security in a world where nuclear weapons still exist. One of these steps was the four-year goal to secure all loose nuclear material — almost immediately after his speech, concerns about nuclear terrorism and nuclear material security were prominent on the international agenda.

One year after the 2010 summit, countries are faring reasonably well in their efforts to meet summit commitments. It is striking that roughly 60 percent of the national commitments made in Washington have been completed.

To further that agenda, Obama hosted the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC, in April 2010, one year after his Prague speech. The summit was part of an international effort to improve the nuclear material security regime and all 47 attending nations endorsed the four-year plan to secure all vulnerable nuclear material. Participants signed a joint communiqué and work plan outlining steps that they would take toward this end, and agreed to meet again in 2012 in Seoul, South Korea.

Many states also made specific national commitments to improve nuclear security within their own borders. Twenty-nine nations made over 50 commitments in a wide variety of areas, including promises to give up fissile material stockpiles, sign relevant international agreements, tighten export controls, and provide funding for global nuclear security efforts.

Commitments on track. One year after the 2010 summit, countries are faring reasonably well in their efforts to meet summit commitments. It is striking that roughly 60 percent of the national commitments made in Washington have been completed. Kazakhstan secured enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) and weapons-grade plutonium to make 775 nuclear weapons, and Russia ended plutonium production and signed a plutonium disposition protocol with the United States. In the midst of chaos after an earthquake, Chile removed all of its remaining HEU and returned it safely to the United States.

Many countries have made progress on their commitments. Ukraine removed over half of its HEU in 2010, putting the nation on track to meet its pledge to eliminate all HEU by the 2012 summit, and China signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States to establish a Center of Excellence in China to promote nuclear security best practices.

In short, states are accomplishing what they promised to do in Washington last April. Moreover, there are indications that the summit process is having an impact beyond the countries that attended. Last December, Belarus — which was not represented at the 2010 summit — promised to give up all of its HEU by 2012 in the hopes of being invited to Seoul in 2012.

Further work to be done. This is not to say that the world’s nuclear security regime is close to being perfect. There will clearly be much work left to do even if all of the commitments made in Washington are met. Participating nations should consider two things in particular:

First, they should conduct and publicize a transparent review of participants’ commitment implementation progress at the 2012 summit. Currently, observations about commitment progress are made principally from open sources including newspaper articles and press releases from government agencies, as governments are often hesitant to discuss internal nuclear material security procedures. Nevertheless, an open discussion of what summit goals countries have accomplished by 2012 will be essential if the international community is to have a clear picture of where global nuclear security efforts stand.

Second, summit attendees should think of the next summit as an opportunity to push the nuclear material security agenda forward. The Washington summit was extremely important in terms of bringing attention to this issue, but it focused principally on achieving compliance with existing nuclear material security arrangements. As the 2012 summit approaches, countries should consider what new initiatives, funding pledges, and collaborations could be launched.

The progress made so far demonstrates the ability of the summit process to generate concrete outcomes and improvements in global nuclear security. The summit process is a unique and promising vehicle for advancing efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism; governments should take heed and invest the time and resources to ensure that it can live up to that promise.

Editor’s note: Rob Golan-Vilella, Michelle Marchesano, and Sarah Williams wrote this column. Golan-Vilella is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Arms Control Association (ACA). Marchesano is a senior budget policy analyst at Partnership for Global Security (PGS). And Williams is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy (CSTSP) at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Williams is also the coordinator of the Fissile Materials Working Group, and her comments are in that capacity and do not reflect the opinions or position of CSTSP or AAAS. The three are authors of an upcoming report on the Nuclear Security Summit commitments, which will be published by ACA and PGS on April 11, 2011. The report will be available on ACA’s website.

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