The future of nuclear security

By Fissile Materials Working Group | June 24, 2013

Gaps in international law and inconsistent security measures leave radioactive materials and facilities around the world vulnerable to misuse, sabotage, and theft by would-be terrorists. To help mitigate the serious global threat of nuclear terrorism, the United States launched the Nuclear Security Summit in 2010, a series of bi-annual meetings that bring together dozens of world leaders with the aim of keeping materials like highly enriched uranium out of the wrong hands.

The summit process has become an important mechanism for improving nuclear security, but its potential has not been fully realized. The 2010 Washington summit and the 2012 Seoul summit focused primarily on accelerating incremental efforts, rather than building consensus for bold new actions. At the third summit, to be held in March 2014 in the Hague, Netherlands, countries will evaluate their progress on locking down vulnerable nuclear materials and should commit to more ambitious cooperation.

All of the 53 countries that participated in the 2012 Seoul summit have taken steps to improve nuclear security at the national, regional, or international level, but significant challenges still need to be addressed. States have begun to share more information about their nuclear security improvements, but there is no standardized reporting mechanism, making it difficult to fully evaluate progress. Additionally, despite sustained high-level political attention on this issue for three years, leaders have not yet clearly defined their vision for the future of the global nuclear security regime. These issues must be addressed for the 2014 summit to be a success.

An expanding scope. At the first summit in 2010, 47 countries gathered in Washington and produced a work plan, along with more than 60 specific national commitments to improve global nuclear security. The participants also endorsed the objective of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world within four years. When leaders reconvened in Seoul two years later, six new countries had joined their ranks and approximately 90 percent of the national commitments made in Washington had been completed.

Before 2010, nuclear security was largely viewed as a technical problem for states that possessed nuclear weapons. However, that outlook oversimplified the threat posed by nuclear materials and underestimated the potential consequences of nuclear terrorism. The summit process helped narrow the threat-perception gap between nuclear and non-nuclear nations, and between rich and poor ones.

In 2012, the summit broadened its agenda beyond fissile materials, to include radioactive sources commonly used in medical and industrial processes, as well as safety and security at nuclear facilities. This encouraged previously disinterested countries to recognize that they had a stake in improving global nuclear security. Though not all countries possess fissile materials, which are themselves usable as weapons, radioactive materials are found nearly everywhere and can be used to make dirty bombs—explosive devices that spread radioactive contamination. Population growth and increasing demand for electricity is also spurring the expansion of nuclear power in new regions, making for a growing number of facilities that contain potentially dangerous material.

It is therefore crucial that all states recognize and actively participate in the international effort to lock down vulnerable nuclear materials, prevent smuggling, train specialists in the field, and secure radioactive sources. The Nuclear Security Summits have helped achieve that goal.

Overzealous confidentiality. Measuring improvements in nuclear security at a global level, though, is not a simple task. The sensitive nature of the materials and installations involved cause governments and other owners of nuclear material to err on the side of secrecy. Analysts must often rely on news articles, press releases, personal experiences, and anecdotes to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the system. The nationally focused nature of the nuclear security regime further stymies efforts to take a comprehensive look at a system that lacks universal standards, information-sharing requirements, or regular peer-review mechanisms.

There is a distinct and pervasive lack of transparency and consistency in the current nuclear security regime. The Nuclear Security Summit process has encouraged states to report on their security efforts, but states are not required to follow specific guidelines on what and how they report, making it difficult to evaluate progress. This needs to change, as overzealous confidentiality is itself a significant liability. The summit process has demonstrated that more information can be safely shared and that cautious openness can help lead to greater cooperation among states.

The 2014 summit marks the end of the four-year effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world and therefore requires an assessment of what the summit process has achieved. However, announcing the success of this material lockdown effort is not as important as it is for summit participants to put forward a vision for the future of nuclear security. Now that President Obama has announced a fourth summit, to be held in Washington in 2016, the international community should commit to ways of making progress sustainable over the long-term.

Summit participants must use the 2014 summit to strengthen the foundations of the nuclear security regime. That means they must agree to continue to address the issue at a high level and report more consistently on improvement efforts. They must also take the opportunity to define their ultimate goals and begin to articulate a vision for the future. Having drawn the attention of world leaders to nuclear security issues three times in four years, they must not allow the summits to end without outlining a strategy to address the structural deficiencies of the current nuclear security regime. No doubt, eliminating weak links from the international system will require time, cooperation, and compromise, but this reality is not an excuse for inaction.

This article was written by Michelle Cann, the senior budget and policy analyst at the Partnership for Global Security (PGS), Kelsey Davenport, the nonproliferation analyst at the Arms Control Association (ACA), and Sarah Williams, a nuclear policy analyst at PGS. A July 2013 report by ACA and PGS highlights steps the Nuclear Security Summit has taken and important issues to be addressed in 2014.

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