A race to the top in nuclear security strategy

By Fissile Materials Working Group | April 23, 2014

The possibility of a nuclear terrorist attack has been called a black swan occurrence, an unlikely but possible event that is the national security nightmare that keeps President Obama— and other world leaders—up at night. At a closed-door session of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague last month, the assembled leaders were challenged to respond to terrorist nuclear attack scenarios. The goal was to focus them on the serious security and financial consequences that would affect all nations if poorly secured nuclear materials fell into the wrong hands.

They defeated the virtual dangers through collective action. After three summits and six years, however, it is clear that real-world international cooperation and consensus on nuclear security remains weak. And focusing on the threat alone has proven insufficient motivation for significantly improving global defenses against nuclear terrorism.

In advance of the likely final summit in 2016, the fear of nuclear terrorism should be redirected into a global nuclear security “race to the top.” The concept of a race to the top would flip the incentives in favor of showcasing nuclear security improvement and raise the overall expectation of what can and should be done. Posing this challenge could eradicate the lowest-common-denominator approach of past summits, and help eliminate the significant security vulnerabilities that now exist. A “race to the top” should change the narrative from risk to responsibility, and incorporate regional cooperation and competition, incentives for action, and rewards for superior performance. The rewards for demonstrating maximally effective nuclear security can include a special acknowledgment at the next summit, a certification for those nations that confirm their improved performance, and an opportunity to address their peers and the media on why and how they chose to improve.

A good place to start this race to the top is among the 35 nations that signed on to a new agreement in The Hague to strengthen nuclear security implementation, known as the Trilateral Initiative. Sponsored by the three Nuclear Security Summit hosts—the Netherlands, South Korea, and the United States—the initiative’s signatories agreed to implement the major recommendations of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for nuclear and radiological source security. But the initiative goes further by underscoring that nuclear security is an international responsibility as well as a national one, and encouraging the signatories to “assess new ideas to improve the nuclear security regimes.” In addition, a new section of the summit communiqué on “voluntary measures” identified actions that countries can take to show that they are implementing effective security. 

While the full implementation of the IAEA recommendations will be valuable, that alone will not eliminate all the weak links in the global nuclear security system. The current architecture does not include any binding standards for security performance; any mandatory, regularized and objective assessment of security effectiveness on a global basis; or any requirement that nations take steps to build international confidence in their security systems by providing non-sensitive information on their planning and practices. In addition, some major nuclear states—including Russia, China, India and Pakistan—did not sign the initiative, thereby exempting the world’s largest fissile material stockpile and the fastest-growing ones from its scope. Also left unclear is how the signatories will demonstrate implementation of their commitments.

To address these shortcomings and succeed in the race to the top, the Trilateral Initiative signatories should take five steps leading up to the 2016 summit.

First, nations must be willing to share non-sensitive security information to help build higher levels of international confidence in global nuclear security. The details on facility vulnerabilities, the specific threat spectrum to be defended against, and how precisely that is done is not information that can or should be openly shared. But other information is less sensitive. For example: How are countries fully implementing the IAEA’s physical protection recommendations beyond their previous actions? If they are participating in a peer review process with the IAEA or others, how have they implemented the resulting recommendations? Have they completed a comprehensive threat analysis? Can they demonstrate the independence of their regulatory apparatus? Do they “red team” the security at their facilities to independently assess its adequacy?

Second, the signatories should create a peer review process on a regional basis or among politically likeminded nations that can supplement the IAEA’s efforts. The Agency offers to assess nuclear security if it is invited by a member state. But it has a limited capacity to do these assessments, and their results remain confidential unless a country agrees to release the information. This is a very different peer-review system than the multilateral approach under the nuclear-reactor safety regime, where nations are mandated to produce periodic reports, and other governments review them and make recommendations. The nuclear-reactor safety model is one that should be emulated by the new initiative’s adherents. .

Third, states should determine what best security practices are most suitable for their needs and culture. Nuclear security approaches are not one-size-fits-all. There should be common performance standards, but the implementation of those objectives can be individually determined by each nation. For example, some nations in Asia do not have armed guards at facilities and perform only minimal background checks on employees. It probably is not realistic to expect significant changes in a nation’s gun laws, but off-site guards with weapons should be trained to quickly respond.

Fourth, by fully implementing the IAEA’s recommendations and acceding to the few binding treaties that exist, the initiative’s supporters can de facto begin the process of creating common international standards for nuclear security. These voluntary actions can avoid the need for unpopular new mandates in the near term, but lead to new norms of international behavior that then can ultimately result in universalized global security standards. The lack of any binding, common criteria for nuclear security is one of the most significant obstacles when attempting to measure concrete progress on a global basis.

Finally, as part of the commitment to assess new ideas for nuclear security improvement under the Trilateral Initiative, serious consideration must be given to establishing a legally binding framework convention on nuclear security that will complement the current regime. The convention will have two important substantive objectives—to eliminate gaps in the current regime so that the resulting architecture is harmonized, strengthened, and made adaptable and sustainable, and to standardize security performance requirements so that progress can be measured. A convention would also have significant political value by maintaining high-level attention to nuclear security and supporting the process of continuous improvement after the summits’ end.

At the end of the summit in The Hague, Obama called upon his colleagues to “finish strong” by marshaling the political will to take necessary actions leading up to the 2016 summit. Engaging in a nuclear security race to the top over the next two years will demonstrate that countries understand that radiation from a terrorist attack or sabotage will not respect any nation’s borders. There needs to be a much more aggressive global effort to prevent it. And the summit at The Hague has provided a vehicle to do it.

Editor's note: This article was written by Kenneth N. Luongo, the president and founder of the Partnership for Global Security and the Center for a Secure Nuclear Future. He is also co-chair of the Nuclear Security Governance Experts Group and the Fissile Materials Working Group. He previously served as the senior advisor for nonproliferation policy to the US Secretary of Energy.

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