Why China should observe the Nuclear Security Summit pledge

By Hui Zhang | April 21, 2014

The most significant achievement to emerge from the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit was a pledge by 35 countries to observe the terms of a joint agreement, known as Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation. This document committed the signatories to incorporate the principles and guidelines of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regarding nuclear security into their national laws, and to allow teams of international experts to periodically evaluate their security procedures. Promoted strongly by the chairs of all three nuclear summits—the United States, South Korea, and the Netherlands— the 2014 initiative is an important step towards creating a robust global security system designed to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists.

Yet China, along with Russia, India, and Pakistan, did not join the pledge. Beijing has not offered any explanations.

China’s absence may be due to several reasons: First, China traditionally prefers to formally commit itself to agreements made by international bodies rather than those initiated by individual countries—even though in practice Beijing has followed almost all of the existing international legal frameworks to prevent nuclear terrorism. Second, even if it were willing to offer its political support, Beijing might not have the logistical or technical preparations in place to subscribe to the joint statement. Third, Beijing may be concerned about disclosing sensitive information if it opens its nuclear security arrangements to outside experts.

Inviting IAEA peer review. Such concerns are misplaced. Since 1996, the IAEA has sent teams of independent, international experts to about 40 different countries to conduct this sort of peer review, in which they assessed each country’s system of physical protection, compared it to international best practices, and made recommendations for improvements. Formally known as an “International Physical Protection Advisory Service,” each review, or “mission,” has provided an in-depth evaluation and helped to further strengthen a participating country’s nuclear security system. In the time since the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit, three nuclear weapons states—the United Kingdom, France, and the United States—have been the subject of missions. 

These missions play an important role in promoting a strong culture of nuclear security, and they provide reassurance to the international community at large that the hosting state has a sound nuclear security regime. The focus of any given mission is determined by the host country, and it often concentrates only on the legislative and regulatory framework of the civilian sector, while actually reviewing only the physical protection systems of those facilities selected by the host. Past missions have demonstrated that they can be conducted without compromising sensitive information.

Consequently, China has been making positive hints about inviting the IAEA to conduct such a peer review at one of its own nuclear power plants. Indeed, President Xi Jinping indicated as much at the most recent Nuclear Security Summit.

The timing couldn’t be better. Beijing’s traditional secrecy about nuclear issues has reflected badly on China’s international image. In recent Nuclear Materials Security Index reports from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, China received relatively poor overall marks, largely because of its lack of nuclear transparency. China should consider making more information available on its nuclear security policies and practices in order to build international confidence that it has effective nuclear security in place.

This approach would include publishing either annual reports on its nuclear security or details of its nuclear security regulations, as well as encouraging its relevant nuclear security professionals to participate in international workshops and training exercises—such as those sponsored by the World Institute for Nuclear Security. Such practices would help to improve the security of nuclear and radioactive materials so that they are protected from unauthorized access, theft, sabotage, and diversion to terrorists, concerns that China shares with the whole world.

Incorporating IAEA guidelines into China’s national laws. A key element of the joint statement is the call to embed IAEA guidelines in national laws and regulations, which is exactly what China needs to do as the next step in strengthening its nuclear security regime. China’s existing management of its nuclear materials and nuclear facilities is guided by the 2008 Guidelines of Nuclear Facility Physical Protection, which is primarily based on recommendations by the IAEA INFCIRC/225 Rev.4. The 2008 Guidelines need to be revised to the level of the latest IAEA guidelines, known as INFCIRC/225 Rev.5.

Moreover, the bulk of China’s major regulations and rules governing the control of nuclear materials were issued even farther back in time, long before the 9/11 attacks. China should update its 1987 regulations and 1990 rules to levels that are more stringent, meeting or exceeding the latest version of the IAEA’s physical protection recommendations.

Fortunately, while China’s written rules are outdated, in everyday practice, China’s nuclear security system does already include most of the major components recommended by IAEA guidelines. For example, the 2008 guidelines call on all civilian nuclear facili­ties to design their approach to physical protection by evaluating their current security based on the attributes and characteristics of any potential insider or outsider adversaries who might attempt to remove nuclear material or conduct sabotage. Major elements of the evaluation should include the motivations and intentions of potential criminals, the scale of their activity and capabilities, and possible means and tactics they could adopt. Potential adversaries include outsiders, insiders, and any collusion between the two.

However, there is one major weakness: Nuclear security systems at Chinese sites have not been subject to real-life, real-world tests with intelligent, creative, simulated adver­saries. China needs to conduct these on-site, realistic performance tests in which teams try to penetrate a given facility’s security system. Such “force-on-force” exercises are a good test of the security at nuclear sites, as they go beyond the vulnerability assessments and performance tests of individual components of security systems, instead looking at the security system as a whole.

Consequently, the latest version of the IAEA’s physical protection recommendations urges that all states carry out these practice exercises. No Chinese regulations require such tests, which are vital for identifying the strengths and weaknesses of security procedures. China may lack the experience and capabilities to carry out such tests at sites while simultane­ously maintaining safe and secure operation of the nuclear facilities. However, the experi­ence of the United States in conducting such tests demonstrates that they can be done safely.

Therefore, China has no reason not to pledge to the two key elements the joint statement requires: embedding IAEA guidelines and inviting IAEA peer review.

Other actions. The joint statement also suggests several additional actions that subscribing states can take to contribute to the continuous improvement of nuclear security. In fact, China has already implemented a number of actions that are close to those suggested by the joint statement. For instance, former President Hu Jintao announced at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washing­ton in 2010 that he and President Barack Obama would work together on the formation of a Chinese center that will serve as a forum for exchanging technical information, sharing best practices, developing training courses, and promoting technical collaboration to enhance nuclear security in China and throughout Asia.

China is already taking some solid, substantial steps in this direction. It has continued to make financial contributions to the IAEA Nuclear Security Fund, and China is considering increasing its donation. It will continue to donate Chinese-made nuclear security equipment. And under the framework of the IAEA, China is converting one of its reactors from using highly enriched uranium to using low-enriched uranium; it is helping Ghana do the same for its research reactor.

Joining the pledge is in China’s national interest. China not only can join the new initiative, it should join it—because joining is in China’s own national interest.

At the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit, the current president of China, Xi Jinping, stressed that increased cooperation regarding the nuclear security of one country is beneficial to all nations. Indeed, a terrorist attack in one nation could doom China’s ambitious plans for nuclear power development. An accident on the scale of Chernobyl would damage the development of China’s nuclear power. As Xi pointed out: “The amount of water a bucket can hold is determined by its shortest plank. The loss of nuclear material in one country can be a threat to the whole world.”

China’s participation in the initiative would also improve its international image. Moreover, given the fact that the nuclear terrorism threat is a top Washington priority, Beijing’s cooperation on the issue would benefit the Sino-US relationship. In fact, since 9/11, China and US cooperation on nuclear security has been a major driver to improving China’s nuclear security system. Such cooperation should continue and grow stronger. Xi Jinping’s pledge to join the initiative backed by US President Barack Obama would be a big gift for Obama at the 2016 Washington Nuclear Security Summit.

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