Why Biden’s new nuclear security agenda might not work as planned

By Sitara Noor | April 4, 2023

The 2010 nuclear security summit in Washington, DC.The 2010 nuclear security summit in Washington, DC, was aimed at preventing nuclear terrorism. Credit: White House.

Early in March, the Biden administration unveiled its 19th National Security Memorandum. While the operational part of this memorandum is classified, the White House shared a factsheet on the new strategy, which is centered around three main pillars: countering weapons of mass destruction terrorism, advancing nuclear material security, and improving radioactive material security. The three-pronged strategy aims to reinvigorate long-standing approaches to risks from weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and nuclear security and introduce new ways to deal with emerging threats.

While the Biden administration’s new strategy acknowledges emerging risks during crises, especially in the wake of the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—and particularly as regard’s military activities in and around Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant—it also provides a sharp reminder that the traditional nuclear security risks demand continuous attention. Just the same, the Biden strategy falls short in terms of new ideas and concrete plans for dealing with emerging nuclear security challenges and for garnering the international support needed to transform those plans into reality.

A different international context. The new US strategy on nuclear security aims to prevent, mitigate, and respond to emerging threats posed by the WMD terrorism at national and international level. It specifically considers the implications of on‑and-over-the-horizon technologies that can affect the nature of threats and would require a corresponding response. The strategy also offers the first comprehensive policy for the security of radioactive materials. The strategy is intended to be President Biden’s agenda to reinvigorate and carry forward the work of the Obama administration on nuclear security. But, although President Obama managed to convene four successful Nuclear Security Summits between 2010 and 2016, those efforts came in an altogether different international political and security environment. The summits built momentum that resulted in some tangible results, including the entry into force of the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, the removal and down-blending of highly enriched uranium from more than 50 facilities in 30 countries, and over 260 other national security commitments and pledges from participating countries.

President Biden’s new strategy also hinges on strong international support. However, the current political and security environment arguably offers less space for deep-rooted international collaboration. The international community may not reciprocate with the level of interest in joining hands for a new nuclear security initiative as existed for the past nuclear security summits.[1]

To enhance national security, the Biden administration will have to trim an exorbitant defense wish list

Biden’s strategy may not be able to gather such a critical mass, either because of differing priorities or competing security agendas between countries—or both. Without sufficient international cooperation, little can be done about nuclear security as those risks transcend international boundaries.

What worked that won’t. Biden’s nuclear weapon policy is driving on a different trajectory than Obama’s, as depicted in the latest Nuclear Posture Review. His administration is advocating a greater role for nuclear weapons across domains and across regions to maintain Washington’s competitive edge against both Beijing and Moscow. This obvious difference from the Obama approach[2] is likely to invite more criticism than garner the necessary international support for new nuclear security cooperation.

In addition, Biden’s new National Security Memorandum was released as the global non-proliferation regime is arguably in a state of chaos. When nuclear risks are at their highest, existing arms control treaties are falling apart, and new partnerships are being built only against perceived adversaries. The possibility of developing a new international momentum for nuclear security is highly unlikely.

Historically, new nuclear policies have gained traction primarily in reaction to current events. It was after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that international community realized the proliferation risks posed by these deadly weapons and worked to the development of safeguards and deterrence strategies. Later, it was the threat of total annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis that gave way to new arms control treaties resulting in the reduction of US and Soviet nuclear stockpiles. Similarly, it was only after the Chernobyl accident in the former Soviet Union (now Ukraine) that the international community got serious about the transboundary risks of nuclear accidents and agreed to some new nuclear safety measures such as the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident and The Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency. That no major nuclear security incident with radiological consequences at the scale of Chernobyl has subsequently happened partly explains why nuclear security risks remain an abstract threat for many countries.

Despite some remarkable achievements, the Nuclear Security Summit model was deemed unsustainable in the long run and eventually the work was shifted back to the relevant international organizations—including the UN, IAEA, and Interpol—which are more inclusive in terms of global representation and equipped to carry out the necessary technical work. Nonetheless, unlike the summits, these organizations had to work strictly within their legal framework and could not generate executive decisions for quick execution. They also have limited funding which is largely directed to other priority areas: For instance, the IAEA has relatively less funding for nuclear security as compared to safety and safeguards which are considered a bigger priority.

Despite the risks, Russia continues to use Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant as a source of leverage

Likewise, for many countries that don’t possess nuclear weapons, nuclear security is a low priority because the risks of terrorism using weapons of mass destruction or misuse of nuclear materials remains a remote and low-probable outcome. Framed that way, Biden’s nuclear security agenda has little chance of recreating the international momentum achieved with the Obama summits. Yet, less-concerned countries should care: They may not possess nuclear weapons or even weapons-grade nuclear material, but they almost certainly possess radioactive sources for medical or industrial applications that could be used for terrorism purposes.

In view of the rapidly evolving threat landscape and potentially high consequences even from a small-scale nuclear security incident involving nuclear or radioactive material, nuclear security must remain a priority agenda. Biden’s new security strategy underscores his administration’s commitment to nuclear security and puts a necessary spotlight on this enduring challenge by putting it back on the national security agenda. However, it falls short of outlining some new ideas and devising a concrete plan of action to deal with emerging challenges and garnering necessary support, especially given the current conflicting priorities of the international community.


[1] These summits received due criticism for being an exclusive club of 53 countries and for creating a parallel arrangement to traditional and more representative forums such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Still, they attracted countries that, together, processed or controlled almost 98 percent of dangerous nuclear material globally, including China and Russia.

[2] President Obama’s nuclear security agenda was based on policies that complemented each other, and this was a contributing factor to the success of the summits. For example, Obama’s nuclear security vision was in line with his nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation approaches as jointly outlined in his 2009 Prague speech.

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1 year ago

Obama spoke in Prague about nuclear abolition and then proceeded to promote a $1-2 trillion upgrade to the US nuclear arsenal. Talk the talk and walk in the other direction.