Voluntary regimes can advance nuclear security

By Fissile Materials Working Group | November 8, 2013

International organizations and heads of state have gathered twice since 2010 to tackle the problem of nuclear security, working to prevent the theft, sabotage, and illegal transfer of dangerous radioactive material.

Five months from now, these leaders will meet again at the third of four planned biannual Nuclear Security Summits, this time in the Netherlands. Up until now, participant countries have focused on implementing existing treaties and recommendations and improving international cooperation. To further the summits' goals, they should also think about embracing voluntary compliance regimes.

Voluntary systems encourage companies and governments to comply with standards not covered by legal mandates. They've been used in the healthcare and chemical industries; helped develop new norms in energy-efficient building design; and allowed organizations to track how extractive industries compensate developing countries. Right now, the Obama administration is gathering reports from various agencies on how to encourage industries to follow stricter cyber-security regulations. While these initiatives are often spurred by particular events, they have also been pushed by visionary leaders. The summits provide an opportunity for US President Barack Obama or others to pursue a similar strategy on nuclear security.

In order for participants to make the most of their third meeting and pave the way for a successful legacy after the final summit in 2016, leaders should consider what voluntary structures they might put in place to better motivate countries to adopt existing recommendations and best practices.

Past successes. Voluntary, incentive-based regimes can encourage single companies or entire industries to adopt new policies that eventually develop into standard practice. The chemical industry’s Responsible Care program began as a response to the Bhopal Crisis in India in 1984 and has essentially developed into the sector’s standard code of conduct. Another example is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program launched in 2000, which allows and encourages developers to achieve a level of public recognition for energy efficiency and environmentally conscious design. In 2012, 41 percent of new non-residential building starts in the United States were LEED certified, up from just 2 percent in 2005. That tremendous growth shows the value of a voluntary approach—developers and clients are increasingly seeing LEED certification as a necessity, rather than simply an opportunity to positively sway public opinion.

The fact that voluntary approaches can lead to the adoption of industry-wide standards more effectively than top-down legislation makes it essential to consider how they might be used to improve nuclear security. Although a new international treaty or framework agreement would be the strongest instrument to bring about significant change in this area, until one is reached, efforts need to focus on achievable, medium-term goals. Voluntary regimes can help meet such goals, and the improvements they generate are also more likely to be durable than changes instituted from above.

Commercial industries have a vital role to play in the evolution of nuclear security. Industries may choose to adapt models from other sectors or come up with new voluntary approaches that fit their particular needs; either way, voluntary regimes will allow them to influence the structure and development of government regulations. Businesses are likely to engage in such actions both out of a sense of responsibility and because companies' long-term sustainability often depends on public acceptance of their work, responsible management, and the protection of assets and profitability. Accreditation, financial incentives, and reputation enhancement are potential tools for reaching such goals. Within any given industrial sector, voluntary initiatives may also allow for more effective global risk management because they will free companies from having to navigate a diverse set of national legal constraints. This may be most significant in sectors where no international organization currently has a role.

Building an effective voluntary regime. Designing a new voluntary compliance system will be complex and require creative thinking. It will have to be designed to meet the needs of both private companies and the various government agencies involved, and take into account existing recommendations and institutions. It should not unnecessarily burden industries and sites with frivolous or irrelevant measures. It would also need to be applicable across borders, engage multiple sectors, and take into account a long-term vision of the future. Building an incentive structure that demands information sharing and close collaboration between and among governments and industry would be the ideal. Finally, any voluntary regime should allow flexibility on the part of participants worldwide. Implementing new security measures, whether optional or compulsory, is likely to be a long and challenging process.

More than 50 world leaders, over 200 industry representatives, and approximately 150 nongovernmental experts will meet in The Hague, Netherlands in March 2014 to discuss next steps in improving global nuclear security. It is critical that they consider using voluntary, incentive-based structures to help reach their broader goal.

Editor's note: This column was written by Sarah Williams, the nuclear policy analyst at the Partnership for Global Security, and a member of the Fissile Materials Working Group.

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