Brussels steps up as a leader in nuclear and radiological security

By Fissile Materials Working Group | March 18, 2014

The United States has historically set the pace in global security where it comes to chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological (CBRN) threats by promoting cooperative initiatives and introducing the latest technical innovations. However, Washington will likely share its leadership role in the near future, as fighting CBRN dangers has increasingly become a top security priority for the European Union and its member states—a commitment demonstrated by Brussels’ recent allocation of additional funds to such projects, and the Netherlands’ hosting of the forthcoming third Nuclear Security Summit. The EU’s willingness to share this leadership burden comes at a critical moment, as Washington has been signaling its intention to pull back with sharp cuts to key US nuclear security programs, as proposed in President Barack Obama’s most recent budget request.

Fortunately, the EU’s CBRN Centres of Excellence initiative has recently launched several cooperative projects that may well constitute the first step towards a future leadership role. In doing so, Brussels is leveraging its own experience. Thanks to a history of regional cooperation, the EU possesses the know-how and funds to assist with and promote CBRN security outside its own borders, through projects that focus on regions rather than individual states. It’s a useful approach: Since accidents and incidents involving CBRN materials do not respect national borders, and terrorists may source materials and strike from any location, measures independently undertaken by states are not sufficient to guarantee their own security unless other countries do likewise.

In line with the goal of facilitating global improvements in nuclear security systems, the projects under the CBRN Centres of Excellence initiative provide guidance and resources to selected non-EU countries, particularly those not involved in current global efforts like the Nuclear Security Summits. In working with these countries, the EU aims to promote more effective national CBRN security systems and legal frameworks.

The broadening of EU outreach is particularly important at this time, as the nuclear power industry continues to expand worldwide, welcoming new and unprepared players, and radiological sources are increasingly employed in industrial and medical equipment by countries with limited infrastructure and technical expertise.

Something new. Since the beginning of 2013 the CBRN Centres of Excellence initiative has launched dozens of outreach efforts in regions that include North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Project 8, recently launched in Southeast Asia, is among them and demonstrates Brussels’ emergent leadership. It also exemplifies the EU’s innovative approach to CBRN security, which aims to fill geographical gaps by engaging regions instead of individual countries. This promising EU strategy seems likely to take the spotlight away from the usual US predominance in security outreach.  

Project 8 targets five Association of Southeast Asian Nations members—Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, and the Philippines. While no significant nuclear activities are underway in Southeast Asia now, the region is expected to develop atomic energy in the near future: Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines already have nuclear facilities or construction plans. Moreover these countries’ location makes them potential transit points for trafficking nuclear material from East and Southeast Asia to the Middle East.

Project 8 entails intense cooperation between EU and local experts to develop and amend national CBRN legal instruments. The resulting influence over those countries’ security strategies and internal affairs is unprecedented and makes the project stand out from past EU or US initiatives, which merely entailed recommendations or external guidance. The high level of trust recipient countries have placed in the EU throughout this cooperation reiterates once more Brussels’ potential as a future global leader.

Despite the growing possibility of CBRN danger in the target countries, their legal systems are inadequate to grapple with the challenges: National regulations on nuclear material and radioactive source management are either fragmented or absent, resulting in limited or non-existent export controls, extremely loose border checking, crude safety standards, and scarce resources and technical expertise to address these deficiencies. Most importantly, numerous international legal instruments are still under-implemented, first among them United Nations Security Council resolution 1540, which calls on all UN members to develop and enforce regulatory frameworks against the proliferation of CBRN weapons, delivery systems and related materials.

Hence leadership is absolutely necessary in this region, where countries have begun to independently address nuclear-security legal gaps—for example, the Malaysian Nuclear Power Corporation established in 2010 has started restructuring national export control regulations—and the lack of guidance and coordination among states would likely create an ineffective framework that would be difficult to rectify.

The regional approach. Targeting a wider geographical area rather than individual states is especially advantageous because recipient countries within any given region share similar challenges, which can be dealt with more effectively if they are addressed simultaneously. Furthermore, a shared regional strategy encourages neighbors to exchange best practices; improves dialogue and mutual trust; prevents isolation due to different legal systems; and mitigates concern over loss of economic competitiveness to nearby countries, which is one of the most common rationales for opposing restrictions—such as export controls—stemming from CBRN security regimes.

Regional cooperation initiatives like Project 8 may also contribute to raising nuclear-security awareness among countries with negligible civilian nuclear activities. Many of these states consider nuclear-security measures an unnecessary impediment to industry and trade and do not prioritize allocating funds to combat potential risks, as they believe this responsibility lies solely with the major nuclear-power states. A regional approach could thus be the ideal instrument to adjust these countries’ perspectives on their role within the international nuclear-security endeavor: A broader focus on the region makes them active participants in a multilateral, cooperative project, equally invested in the global effort. Conversely, a country-specific approach—such as the US initiative to assist in the drafting of Vietnam’s atomic energy law, passed in June 2008—makes target countries mere recipients of a foreign troubleshooting project and indirectly condones passivity.

Future challenges. To truly be effective as a global leader in nuclear security, though, Brussels will have to overcome several problems. 

The first obvious challenge is related to the recipient countries’ inability to implement and enforce the newly established legal framework, due to logistical unpreparedness or political and financial constraints. In response, the EU may have to consider additional long-term projects that focus on implementation and capacity-building.

Second, a few key neighboring countries—including China and India—may be reluctant to consent to foreign involvement in their own national affairs, thus precluding the possibility that the EU could coordinate a broader regional security strategy in the future. The cooperation of neighboring countries is important to ensure that the target countries’ newly established legal systems function well and become integrated into the wider global CBRN system. Therefore EU experts should consider additional outreach efforts to these neighboring countries, perhaps to include joining forces with the Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, which has recently strengthened its commitment in Southeast Asia. This Group of Eight initiative has begun to invite emerging countries like China and India to some sessions, and this opportunity to cooperate on security issues with G-8 members could help mitigate their distrust of foreign powers and gradually allow outsiders some influence in domestic affairs.

Nevertheless, the message conveyed by Project 8 remains clear: Nuclear security risk mitigation must be a global effort, and the European Union is prepared to expand its outreach activities beyond participants in the Nuclear Security Summits to help these regions build adequate legal frameworks and infrastructures. Brussels’ latest endeavors in Southeast Asia have already marked an important change in global CBRN security efforts and may soon shadow Washington’s supremacy in outreach initiatives.

Editor's note: This column was written by Morena Priori, an intern at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.

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