For nuclear security, good intentions are not enough

By Fissile Materials Working Group | February 20, 2014

In March, world leaders will gather in The Hague for the third Nuclear Security Summit, with the goal of reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism. Since the last summit, which took place in Seoul in 2012, many nations have shown improvement in securing nuclear materials, but incidents like the December truck-jacking of radioactive material in Mexico show how crucial it is to keep working toward a comprehensive system to battle the problem.

At the Seoul summit, participants issued 13 joint statements setting forth multilateral efforts that self-selected groups of countries would undertake to reinforce the goal of increased international cooperation. The joint statements have made a positive contribution to global security, but unfortunately, most were narrowly focused and did not define implementation and follow-up measures. They have demonstrated that small-scale projects lacking a long-term strategy are not enough to address the major challenges confronting the world's nuclear security regime, which include a lack of cohesiveness and transparency.

That’s not to say that the Nuclear Security Summit process hasn’t been effective. When more than 50 world leaders met at the first gathering, which took place in Washington in 2010, they brought international attention to a growing concern. The summit motivated countries to focus high levels of political attention on the possibility of nuclear terrorism, and in the years since, governments have made significant progress toward harmonizing and improving their national nuclear security systems.

The joint statements from Seoul, meanwhile, did play an important role, showing that countries are committing themselves to cooperative new action in priority areas. Initiatives laid out in the 2012 statements include projects to strengthen information and transport security, create high-density low-enriched uranium fuel, and complete work to secure materials at the Soviet-era Semipalatinsk nuclear test site.

The statements that propose these and other projects, though, while offering positive models for regional and international cooperation, are limited in ambition, and fall short of providing the kind of structure and accountability required to make durable improvements. The summits have congratulated countries that commit to unilateral or multilateral efforts, but the persistent lack of reporting mechanisms makes it difficult to measure the effectiveness of new and ongoing activities. This criticism is applicable to the entire summit process, and one that its organizers are aware of but have not seriously addressed. Some participants rebuffed early efforts to inject a reporting mechanism after the 2010 summit, and since then, the only public reporting has been done by nongovernmental analysts and countries periodically releasing information on a voluntary basis. This lack of consistent, comprehensive reporting on summit activities makes it difficult to judge progress and how well improvements at the national and regional levels are being fed back into the global nuclear security system.

To maximize their effectiveness, joint statements issued at the 2014 Hague summit and the expected final 2016 summit in the United States must lay out specific goals against which progress can be empirically measured; specify the time allotted to participants for follow-up; define a way of reporting to the international community; and address gaps and weak links in the current global nuclear security system.

Countries also must begin to put the short-term, ad hoc projects tackled in many of the Seoul joint statements into the context of a long-term effort to improve the nuclear security system. Joint statements alone cannot address the larger challenges in the nuclear security regime, but they can contribute to increased transparency, confidence building, and universalization of existing guidelines.

Enhancing the nuclear security system at the international level is vital because any system is only as strong as its weakest link. Weak links cannot be tolerated because the cost of failure is too high. Joint statements are an important way to identify countries willing to push certain agenda items, but participants must also begin to think about the legacy of the nuclear security summit process. Without an institutional home or clear successor, the future of the process after 2016 is uncertain. Such uncertainty can impede progress, diminish the willingness of states to take all but the most conservative actions, and slow the universalization of summit achievements.    

The expected final summit will be held in 2016 in the United States, after which more than 50 leaders will have met four times in six years. In the lead up to 2016, it is important that summit participants collectively decide to continue the work of improving nuclear security. The global nature of the threat posed by nuclear terrorism demands sustained high-level attention and international action.

Editor's note: This article was written by Michelle Cann, the senior budget and policy analyst at the Partnership for Global Security, Kelsey Davenport, the nonproliferation analyst at the Arms Control Association, and Sarah Williams, a nuclear policy analyst at the Partnership for Global Security.

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