What path for nuclear security beyond the 2016 summit?

In his oft-cited Prague speech of 2009, Barack Obama announced "a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years." The effort's highest-profile element was a series of Nuclear Security Summits that began in Washington in 2010 and concludes, again in Washington, in 2016. Clearly the initiative hasn't "secure[d] all vulnerable nuclear material," much less done so within four years. But that isn't necessarily to say that the effort has failed—or that it shouldn't be perpetuated. Below, experts from Cameroon, Turkey, and the United States debate how much the Nuclear Security Summits have accomplished; what still must be achieved to ensure the security of nuclear materials worldwide; and whether, after the final scheduled summit, the international community should seek to continue the process.

Round 1

Why the Nuclear Security Summits deserve to continue

The news these days is full of reminders that civilian nuclear programs can pose serious security risks. In the wake of the Brussels terror attacks, Belgians are worried about the security of their country's nuclear installations. The Nuclear Threat Initiative reports that "nuclear facilities are not prepared for the growing cyber threat"—underscoring the danger that nuclear facilities could be vulnerable to acts of cyber-related sabotage or theft. And of course the 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which has rendered a significant area around the accident site uninhabitable for decades, provides an indication of what could occur if a nuclear facility's security were breached by malicious actors. These are but a few examples illustrating the myriad challenges the world faces in ensuring security for civilian nuclear programs.

So how, faced with so many challenges, should countries work together to address these multifaceted threats?

Part of the answer lies in one of the immutable rules of international affairs: If you want to make progress, organize a meeting. Meetings are action-forcing events in diplomacy; they force governments and bureaucracies to reach decisions on key issues. The gold standard, of course, is a meeting that involves heads of state. And if you can get heads of state to commit to attending more than one meeting on a particular issue, you've gained just about the highest level of political commitment that a country can provide, short of a legally binding agreement.

For these reasons, the Nuclear Security Summits—initiated in 2010 and held at the leader level every two years since—have represented a significant boost in the attention that the United States and other nations pay to preventing nuclear terrorism. The question is why the world should now abandon a summit process that has registered such significant progress in improving nuclear security.

Galvanizing progress. President Obama's 2009 Prague speech is remembered as a sweeping vision for working toward a world without nuclear weapons. But perhaps the speech's most tangible outcome arose from Obama's statement that "[W]e must ensure that terrorists never acquire a nuclear weapon. This is the most immediate and extreme threat to global security. … So today I am announcing a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years." The Nuclear Security Summits were born from this announcement.

The timeline for securing all vulnerable nuclear material has proven longer than the four years President Obama set as a goal. But the summits have galvanized progress toward securing nuclear materials in countries around the world. At the 2014 summit, for example, 12 nations jointly announced that they had eliminated highly enriched uranium from within their borders. The summits have also produced a set of efforts—to enhance, for example, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism—that aim to strengthen international regimes protecting nuclear materials and preventing terrorists from obtaining them.

But even without taking into account the summits' specific outcomes, they have achieved one of their initial aims by inducing governments to focus attention at the highest level on nuclear security. They have maintained pressure on governments to take action. Without a summit process to focus attention, leaders rarely engage directly in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or its affiliated processes, even though this framework governs much of the world's efforts to bolster nuclear security. The result is that seemingly mundane—but incredibly important—activities such as ensuring security at nuclear power plants is often missing from the agenda when leaders meet. The summit process changes this dynamic. It puts leaders in a room together every two years to discuss nothing but nuclear security.

Moreover, the summits are designed so that leaders who wish to be seen as contributors to global security get a high-profile opportunity to make commitments to the security of nuclear materials—and to do so before the leaders of many of the world's largest, most powerful countries. The summit system also pressures nations into making concrete commitments. Few leaders who attend summits will wish to invite criticism by taking no action while there.

But the beauty of the summit system—or part of it, in any case—is that the summits are not the United Nations or the International Atomic Energy Agency. Thus action at the summits does not require consensus, or settling for the lowest common denominator. The summit process does strive for national commitments through consensus communiqués, but it also employs the novel mechanisms of "house gifts"—through which countries can make unilateral commitments to nuclear security—and "gift baskets"—through which smaller groups of nations can make multilateral commitments. This flexibility has contributed a great deal to the summits' workability.

Continued engagement. The work of improving nuclear security is still far from done. This year's Nuclear Security Index, produced by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, makes clear that too many nuclear materials and facilities around the world remain vulnerable. The vulnerabilities include the risk of cyber attack and sabotage. Indeed, the Nuclear Security Index includes a new sabotage ranking which demonstrates that "many countries considering nuclear power are struggling to put in place the basic measures necessary to prevent an act of sabotage that could result in a radiological release similar in scale to the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan."

At the Washington summit concluding on April 1, a consensus document will reportedly be released regarding the future of the summit process. It envisions embedding the summits' work more firmly within five international institutions and partnerships: the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, Interpol, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. This makes sense. Political agreements reached at summits must be implemented, and the best way to monitor implementation is through the day-to-day work of existing institutions and partnerships.

But such immense challenges remain for nuclear security that the summit process should continue beyond President Obama's tenure. If nations are to continue making difficult commitments to prevent nuclear terrorism—if new action is to be galvanized while implementation of prior commitments is ensured—engagement at the leader level every two years still has a crucial role to play. No head of state can commit to regular summits on every important issue under the sun. But any head of state would be hard pressed to articulate why he or she can't dedicate a day, every two years, to rallying the world around preventing nuclear terrorism.

To end the summits now would be like stopping a race when you're in the lead. And nuclear security is not a race you want to lose.


House gifts, gift baskets, and the gift of nuclear security after 2016

In November 2015, up to 10 grams of the radioactive isotope iridium-192 were stolen from a storage facility near Basra, Iraq. The same month—and little more than two weeks after the Paris terrorist attacks—a suspect linked to those attacks was found with surveillance footage showing a high-ranking Belgian nuclear official. While the radioactive material missing in Iraq was eventually found (abandoned outside a gas station in a town nine miles from Basra), these two incidents have heightened fears that groups such as the Islamic State might obtain radioactive material and build a radiological dispersal device, commonly known as a dirty bomb.

Such incidents also emphasize why President Obama, in his 2009 Prague speech, said that the "most immediate and extreme threat to global security" was that terrorists might acquire a nuclear weapon. These concerns led him to initiate the Nuclear Security Summit process, which got under way in Washington the next year. But 2016 is both the last full year of Obama's presidency and the end of the summit process. The final summit—like the first, held in Washington—will help determine nuclear security's path going forward.

Much depends on whether a productive path is identified. The summits have led to some meaningful advances in nuclear security, but no permanent global regime for nuclear security has been established. The summit process has likewise failed to establish robust regional approaches to nuclear security. And the summits have produced no system for exerting control over military nuclear materials—an enormous failing when only a fraction of the world's nuclear material is in civilian hands. The most meaningful possible outcome at the fourth and final summit would be to establish a concrete plan for maintaining the momentum that the summits have already achieved.

Hits and misses. The summit process hasn't provided a magic solution to nuclear security threats. But it has yielded some concrete accomplishments. First and foremost, the summits have brought attention at the head-of-state level to nuclear security. Thanks to that spotlight, 12 countries have eliminated weapons-usable nuclear materials from within their borders since the summits began. Fourteen countries have shut down reactors using highly enriched uranium, or converted those reactors to use low-enriched uranium instead. This has eliminated 24 reactors that use highly enriched uranium. And across 27 countries, nearly 3,000 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and plutonium have been removed or disposed of.

The summits have also delivered increasingly multilateral outcomes. At the 2010 summit, discussions focused on a US-led agenda for civilian fissile materials and featured "house gifts" (that is, "voluntary pledges … made by single countries … to improve nuclear security"). At Seoul in 2012, discussions expanded to encompass a global agenda on nuclear safety and security implementation—and regional cooperation in nuclear security was enhanced through "gift baskets" (that is, pledges by multiple countries that "go beyond … summit communiqués"). At the Hague in 2014, 35 states committed to the Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation Initiative. The initiative, which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) later published as Information Circular 869, concerns these nations’ commitment to the agency's nuclear security recommendations. But despite these accomplishments, big challenges remain to be addressed at the final summit and beyond.

The first challenge is to achieve broader acceptance of, and compliance with, existing international nuclear security agreements. The Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, signed in 1980, is the only legally binding international agreement regarding physical protection of nuclear material. A 2005 amendment extends the convention's scope, especially where theft of nuclear materials or sabotage against nuclear facilities is concerned. But the amendment is not yet in full effect—only 94 states of the required 101 have ratified it. Meanwhile, the 2005 International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, which facilitates prosecutions and extraditions related to nuclear terrorism, is already in force—but 77 of the 152 states that possess less than one kilogram of weapons-usable nuclear materials have failed to ratify it. The most recent initiative to which states might commit is IAEA Information Circular 869, mentioned above, which remains open for new signatories at the 2016 summit. Wider adoption of these instruments is a must for strengthening the legal foundation for a global nuclear security regime, establishing an institutional support mechanism for such a regime, and facilitating implementation.

A second challenge is that nuclear security initiatives are hobbled by a dearth of regional approaches to the problem. Both the Nuclear Security Summits and the parallel Nuclear Industry Summits have addressed nuclear security standards and methods of assessing compliance with those standards. But they haven't focused on the growing demand for nuclear energy in regions, such as the Middle East, that suffer from conflict and violent extremism. This is problematic because risk environments can best be assessed at the regional level. To be sure, responding to nuclear security breaches and prosecuting the smuggling of nuclear and other radioactive material requires following IAEA recommendations, but it also depends on national legal frameworks and criminal codes, as well as on cross-border cooperation. The summit process has involved only limited regional outreach to non-summit states and limited sharing of information with them. Regional mechanisms need to be established that can hold governments accountable for their nuclear security.

A third ongoing need is to include military nuclear material in the nuclear security discussion. Countries willing to eliminate their civilian nuclear material have already done so. This means that little further progress can be achieved unless military materials are addressed. These materials constitute 83 percent of the world's highly enriched uranium and plutonium—and they remain outside international oversight. Military materials, like civilian nuclear materials, can be vulnerable to theft (particularly during transport), sabotage (both physical and cyber), and inadvertent access. An initial approach to tackling this problem might be for states, in military-to-military exchanges, to share best practices and other non-sensitive information regarding the security of military nuclear materials.

Reduced incentives? The International Atomic Energy Agency plans to hold ministerial-level meetings on nuclear security every three years. But the post-summit era will see reduced involvement at the presidential level, and states may perceive reduced incentives for improving their nuclear security. Already Russia has chosen not to participate in the 2016 summit—Moscow argues that the IAEA should play the central role in nuclear security and that no meaningful political agenda for nuclear security remains to be discussed. Russia and the United States possess almost 90 percent of the world's nuclear materials, so a lack of US-Russia dialogue on nuclear security is cause for concern; unfortunately, trust between the two nations is damaged amid the Ukraine crisis and the Syria conflict.  In any event, unless a concrete plan emerges in Washington for continuing high-level international dialogue on nuclear security, the progress achieved through the summit process risks coming to a halt.


Sustaining progress in nuclear security without the summits—an African view

Some—the Russian government, for example—argue that the Nuclear Security Summits have exhausted their ability to mobilize the international com­munity to secure nuclear materials. This argument is incorrect and dangerous. Nuclear and radiological terrorism continues to pose a threat and will do so for the foreseeable future. And though the summits have made good progress toward achieving their agenda, much unfinished business remains.

Across my home continent of Africa, for example, security measures are inadequate. In a number of nations, including some where terrorists operate, governance is patchy and regulation weak. Meanwhile, Africa is a continent where more than 20 nations have announced interest in establishing nuclear energy programs. South Africa, the only nation on the continent with nuclear power today, plans to expand its capacity. So—in one dedicated format or another—the summit process should continue beyond 2016.

Much to be proud of. The most significant accomplishment of the summit process has been a worldwide reduction in the number of sites hosting materials that could be used to make nuclear bombs. This reduction is crucial because, if all reactors used for research and isotope production were fueled with low-enriched uranium instead of highly enriched uranium (HEU), and all fresh and spent HEU fuel were taken back by supplier countries, terrorists seeking to carry out an attack with a crude, gun-type nuclear bomb would face much greater obstacles.

Africa has made an important contribution to eliminating civilian HEU and consolidating spent fuel. In 2010, South Africa finished converting its SAFARI-1 reactor—which produces molybdenum-99, the world's most important medical radioiso­tope—to low-enriched uranium. It was the first reactor worldwide to complete conversion and begin producing molybdenum-99 on a large scale. Additionally, 6.3 kilograms of US-origin spent HEU fuel were removed in 2011 from a South African research facility.

Another significant achievement for the summit process has been the support provided, at the national, bilateral, and multilateral levels, for education and training initiatives to develop human resources and build capacity. The International Atomic Energy Agency, for example, reported that in 2012 it had "conducted over 80 training events covering all aspects of nuclear security, involving more than 2,000 people." The United States in 2015 enabled more than 40 nuclear experts from developing countries—including Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, and South Africa—to attend the annual meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, where they learned about promoting a culture of nuclear security in their own countries. The training provided by programs such as these is vital to effective, sustainable nuclear security systems.

Finally, numerous states have joined nuclear terrorism conventions during the summit process. Ten African states, among many other nations, have ratified the 2005 amendment to the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material since the summits began. A number of African nations have also acceded to the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. By joining these conventions, African states demonstrate a regional commitment to strengthening the global nuclear security regime.

Much left undone. Despite these notable successes, the summits have failed to realize several goals. One unmet goal is to phase out highly enriched uranium as a fuel for research reactors where technically and economically feasible. In Africa, seven countries host a total of eight operational research reactors. Two of these eight—one in Ghana, one in Nigeria—are powered with highly enriched uranium. Conversion is in process at both facilities. When these conversions are complete, Africa will have eliminated highly enriched uranium in civilian nuclear applications and the world will be a step closer to freedom from nuclear terror.

Another remaining challenge, particularly in some developing countries, is that complacency sometimes surrounds the threat of nuclear terrorism. A majority of developing countries do not prioritize nuclear terrorism in their national security agendas. They can dedicate only limited human and financial resources to nuclear security. Indeed, many political leaders in Africa believe the probability that nuclear terrorism will occur on their territory is zero. In the global nuclear security system, nations such as these are weak links that terrorists might exploit. The 2007 intrusion incident at South Africa’s Pelindaba nuclear research facility exemplifies how creeping complacency can sap security, even in advanced nuclear states with decades of experience. Complacency must be curtailed before the global nuclear security system can be considered adequate.

A last piece of unfinished business is simply that nuclear terrorism remains a threat—not a Hollywood concoction, but something dangerous and real. As argued in a 2014 report published by the Project on Managing the Atom, terrorists have "the motive, means, and opportunity [to commit] a monstrous crime." As long as the world is home to both terrorists intent on large-scale destruction and materials needed to make nuclear weapons, the threat of nuclear terrorism will persist.

No time to stop. With the summit process coming to a close, how can unfinished business be addressed? The most compelling approach may be to transfer the summit process to security institutions such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and Interpol. Each agency, depending on its capabilities and drawing on its existing staff and framework, might tackle a specific set of nuclear security issues. Such an approach has the potential to engage all UN member countries, including non-summit participants, in strengthening nuclear security.

Another way to continue the process is through the creation or expansion of certain initiatives for nuclear security training and standards. In nuclear security, people are a crucial element—so skill, knowledge, and ability must be developed wherever people involved in nuclear security actually work. One way to advance this goal would be, at the 2016 summit, to agree that the WINS Academy, a training and certification initiative of the World Institute for Nuclear Security, should be fully operationalized. In any event, when all nations have access to common training programs and best practices, and share a common nuclear security culture, countries and organizations will have the personnel and tools to identify and redress vulnerabilities in their nuclear security architectures.

Finally, the summit process could in some sense be continued if countries at the 2016 summit agreed on ways to promote, at the regional and international levels, comprehensive intelligence sharing. Political leaders across the developing world would thus become aware of the real dangers associated with terrorism and nuclear materials—and would be more likely to promote strong nuclear security measures in their nations.

A second death toll. No incident of nuclear terrorism has ever occurred. But securing vulnerable nuclear material is a must—not least because, in a globalized economy, an attack on any city would, in the words of former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, push "tens of millions of people into dire poverty," creating a "second death toll throughout the developing world." Given the severe threat that nuclear terrorism poses, continuing the summit process in appropriate, dedicated formats is an investment that could pay for itself many times over.


Round 2

The 2016 summit is done: Now what?

For people who follow Turkish politics, the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit was notable for a public spectacle at Washington's Brookings Institution, where security guards for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried to prevent some journalists from covering a speech by the president. Meanwhile, outside the building, Erdogan's guards got into fistfights with protestors who called him a terrorist. 

For people not invested in Turkish politics, the summit offered many meetings on nuclear security—plus a chance for reflection on what the summit process has accomplished and what remains to be done.

In this roundtable, participants broadly agree that security for nuclear materials still needs improvement, but they disagree on how the international community should seek to maintain progress now that the summits are finished. In particular, how much attention from heads of state is required going forward? Will the international community continue to care about nuclear security if heads of state pose for no "family photo" every other year? My roundtable colleague Michael H. Fuchs has his doubts. But I argue that the international community will care—thanks above all to the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) ability to coordinate global nuclear security efforts and convene meetings at the ministerial level.

Action! But the IAEA is not the only institution that will carry the summit process forward. Indeed, organizers of the 2016 summit must have read Hubert Foy's Round One piece in which he proposed that the IAEA and Interpol should continue the work of the summits. In Washington, organizers announced action plans for those two entities, but also for the United Nations, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction.

The action plans, as Fuchs has already observed, set clear goals for each agency. Moreover, they establish a division of labor for nuclear security based on each agency's area of expertise. For instance Interpol, through its Radiological and Nuclear Terrorism Prevention Unit, will take the lead on certain tasks related to radiological and nuclear terrorism. The Global Partnership will, among other things, help implement the "gift baskets"—mechanisms through which many summit participants have committed to specific actions in nuclear security.

But again, who exactly will meet to discuss nuclear security now that the summits are done, and where will meetings take place?

The communiqué for the 2016 summit announced that the main venue for future meetings among summit participants would be the IAEA International Conferences on Nuclear Security. And though Fuchs has argued in both rounds that meetings without heads of state might not be adequate to preserve nuclear security momentum, the IAEA and its conferences are in fact the correct vehicles both for sustaining summit progress and for following up on commitments that states have already made.

The 2016 conference will bring together the key agencies relevant to nuclear security—and will include ministerial meetings leading to a declaration of political commitments. It will also include a scientific and technological segment that focuses on the technical, legal, and regulatory aspects of nuclear security. This two-track approach is a clever way to separate high-level political discussions, involving ministers and other senior government officials, from the detailed assessments and work plans that are properly discussed among technical and legal experts.

The summits were designed to bring high-level attention to nuclear security. But the process has reached the end of its life cycle. Additional summits would only create fatigue. Now is the time for implementation of summit commitments, including the gift baskets.

But nuclear security is a field that suffers from a proliferation of initiatives and meetings. So a division of labor among institutions according to their expertise—as established in the action plans—is key to ensuring that commitments turn into actual progress.

Summit states have reached political agreement that nuclear terrorism is an urgent concern. But institutions will monitor whether states comply with their commitments. Day-to-day implementation of the gift baskets will speak louder than the negotiated language of consensus communiqués.


For nuclear security, summits on the sidelines?

The fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit came and went without attracting enormous public notice—except from the residents of Washington, DC, who noticed some major traffic headaches. But the 2016 summit, like its predecessors, delivered meaningful progress in nuclear security. Additional support was pledged for nuclear security training. Joint statements were delivered regarding nuclear transportation security, cyber security, minimization of civilian highly enriched uranium, and a number of other issues. This represents steady progress. It's not exciting, but it's very, very necessary.

With the summit process now formally complete, it's time to consider how countries can continue the work of the summit process—short of holding biennial meetings at the head-of-state level. Actually, as I described in Round One, continuing the Nuclear Security Summits in their existing form would be my preference. Neither my roundtable colleagues nor the broader nuclear security community seem eager to pursue that idea. Nearly everyone, however, agrees that the summit process has been productive and that it deserves, in some form, to continue.

Indeed, participants in the 2016 summit already agreed to carry on the work of the summits through a number of global mechanisms that address related issues. Specifically, nations agreed on "action plans" that will be pursued through the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, Interpol, and the Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. These action plans are detailed, substantive guides for the coming years. If implemented, they can help sustain the progress that the summits achieved. Meanwhile, discussions about other ways forward for the summit process will be conducted among sherpas ("officially designated officials who represent[ed] their governments in preparations for the Nuclear Security Summits").

Yet these processes will likely be insufficient to ensure that states implement the decisions made over the last six years or that they make new commitments. If governments are to make tough decisions, action-forcing events are still required. Two plausible paths for forcing action present themselves.

The first is a variation on the existing format of biennial, head-of-state-level summits: Summits could take place every two years on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Already, every September, national leaders converge on New York for the annual gathering of the United Nations. Every year, many of those leaders participate in sideline summits and special events that shine a spotlight on issues deserving heightened attention. Such a format would provide one great advantage: Leaders would already be together in New York and would only need to dedicate a few extra hours to nuclear security. The disadvantage would be that most sideline meetings at the UN General Assembly are lost in a maelstrom of other meetings. So the media and relevant bureaucracies might pay inadequate attention to nuclear security summits held under this format.

An alternate approach would be for ministers of foreign affairs and energy, rather than heads of state, to hold biennial nuclear security meetings. These ministers have the authority to make decisions on many key issues in foreign policy and civilian nuclear programs, so their presence would ensure that decisions made at the meetings would have the support of relevant national agencies. Ministers are also senior enough to garner public attention.

It’s unlikely that any new format will be as effective as the summit format employed from 2010 to 2016. But sideline meetings among heads of state or dedicated summits among appropriate ministers would have a good chance of providing nations the incentives they need to continue making progress in nuclear security.


Radiological terrorism: The unaddressed threat

Fissile material gets all the attention. Well, most of it anyway—whether at the Nuclear Security Summits or here in this roundtable. And that's understandable. Substances that terrorists might fashion into nuclear bombs do deserve the lion's share of attention whenever nuclear security is discussed. But radioactive sources—materials produced because they emit radiation useful in agriculture, industry, construction, medicine, mining, research, and transportation—are quite dangerous in their own right. They number in the millions. Tens of thousands of these sealed radioactive sources—small capsules of highly concentrated radioactive material in solid form—merit real concern. They can be vulnerable to theft and to black-market sale. Worse, they could be used by jihadists to make a radioactive dispersal device, otherwise known as a dirty bomb.

So far, the threats posed by radioactive sources have gone largely unaddressed. To be sure, radioactive sources were introduced to the agenda of the Nuclear Security Summits in 2012, when the Seoul communiqué emphasized the importance of insuring that radiological sources aren't put to malicious use. But four years and two summits later, radioactive sources continue to pose a very real threat. As my colleague Nilsu Goren mentioned in Round One, up to 10 grams of iridium-192 were stolen just last year from a storage facility in Iraq. The material was later recovered, but the incident was alarming. Accordingly, a letter signed by 35 Nobel laureates ahead of the recent summit urged world leaders "to devote the necessary resources to make further substantial progress …in preventing nuclear and radiological terrorism."

Tracking and accounting for radiological sources is not easy. As noted, sources are broadly dispersed and are used in a wide variety of applications. They are often trafficked across borders by smugglers or insiders seeking profit through illegal trade. This means that many radioactive sources lie outside regulatory control and are very vulnerable to misuse. Between 2013 and 2014, some 133 member states reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at least 276 incidents of illicit trafficking or other unauthorized activity involving radioactive sources. With governments and the private sector unable to trace radioactive material from manufacturer to user and ultimately to safe disposal, chances are unacceptably high that terrorists will someday detonate a dirty bomb.

But opportunities exist for strengthening the protection afforded to radioactive sources—for example, by achieving universal adherence to and implementation of the IAEA's Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources. The code seeks the "development and harmonization of policies, laws, and regulations on the safety and security of radioactive sources." Unfortunately, as of February, only 130 of 168 IAEA member states had committed to the code politically, and only 103 had notified the agency that they intended to act in accordance with the related Guidance on the Import and Export of Radioactive Sources.

Nor have many states established robust, comprehensive legal and regulatory frameworks for radiological security. In Ghana, where I work, President John Mahama last year signed the Nuclear Regulatory Act of 2015, making Ghana just the third country in sub-Saharan Africa with an independent nuclear regulatory authority. Weak legal structures in many countries—along with the lack of universal adherence to the Code of Conduct—mean that a vast number of radiological sources exist outside national and international security mechanisms.

Another opportunity for improved radiological security is to establish regular training and educational opportunities for personnel involved in the management and disposal of radioactive sources. Effective security procedures depend on the behavior of individuals who actually work with radiological devices. New educational and training programs should be developed, specifically tailored for radiological source security, through the IAEA, the International Nuclear Security Education Network, or other entities. All such efforts should be aimed at cultivating a strong security culture.

Finally, the private sector could provide a stronger first line of defense against radioactive material falling into terrorist hands. Radiological best practices should be regarded as an issue of corporate responsibility and instilled across entire industries. Organizations such as the IAEA and the World Institute for Nuclear Security could facilitate international exchanges allowing firms to share best practices. These organizations could also facilitate upgrades to the equipment that firms use for physical protection, accounting, and detection of nuclear smuggling.

Initiatives such as these are not glamorous. But they may be the difference between a normal day in some global capital—and the day when a dirty bomb abruptly forces the world to view radiological security in a new, unpleasant light.


Round 3

The Middle East: Culprit for my nuclear security insomnia

What keeps me up at night—US East Coast time—is reading Turkey's morning news concerning Syria and Iraq. The insomnia is especially severe when my thoughts turn to nuclear security not just in Syria and Iraq but in countries throughout the Middle East.

All participants in this roundtable agree that, despite the achievements of the Nuclear Security Summits, the threat of nuclear terrorism is not necessarily diminishing. In the Middle East, nuclear terrorism seems a particularly immediate concern. True, the region lacks large quantities of highly enriched uranium and plutonium. But its political instability and its tendency toward violent extremism are conditions that can enable nuclear terrorism.

According to the 2016 Nuclear Security Index, published by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), Middle Eastern nations rank poorly when it comes to safeguarding their nuclear materials from theft. Of the 24 countries that possess at least 1 kilogram of weapons-usable nuclear materials, two are Middle Eastern: Israel and Iran. The Index ranks these countries near the bottom of the theft-protection list. Israel comes in at number 20 and Iran at 23.

Among the 152 countries with less than 1 kilogram of weapons-usable nuclear materials, about a dozen are Middle Eastern. They are all over the lot in their vulnerability to theft—from the United Arab Emirates at number 24 to Syria at 151 (just above Somalia). Clearly, the region's efforts to prevent nuclear theft are not strong enough.

Where vulnerability to nuclear sabotage is concerned, the Middle East does even worse. Of the 45 countries in NTI's sabotage index, five are Middle Eastern. Israel—the highest-ranking of the five—comes in at number 36. Iran is tied with North Korea for last place.

And as my roundtable colleague Hubert Foy has discussed, concern about nuclear materials is not limited to fissile materials. Radiological sources are also an issue of pressing concern. The Middle East's generally lax security environment, along with its political instability, makes the misuse of radiological sources more likely in this region than in many other places.

Civilian radiological sources are ubiquitous, particularly in medicine. They would be relatively easy to access in children's hospitals, for example. Luckily, most radioactive sources are not easily dispersible. Their half-lives are short. They could contaminate only limited areas. Moreover, anyone attempting to steal an unshielded source might die from acute radiation exposure. Still, using a radiological source in a "dirty bomb" could create panic and terror in local populations. A dirty bomb would turn affected areas into no-go zones for a number of years, which would have profound economic repercussions.

Another reason to be concerned about Middle Eastern nuclear security is the planned expansion of nuclear power in the region. Some nations, pointing toward Iran's limited right to enrich uranium under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, will also wish to enrich uranium domestically. To be sure, such nations have the right to pursue the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, including uranium enrichment. But in order to alleviate international concerns about their enrichment capacity, these nations must develop robust laws regarding nuclear security. They must establish procedures for secure interim storage of nuclear materials. And they must make final disposition plans for spent fuel and radioactive waste.

The International Atomic Energy Agency can help with all of those tasks. It has the authority, resources, and expertise for the job. But a lot of work will nonetheless fall to state regulatory authorities. A key challenge will be for regulators to establish independence from political authorities. A key component of success, meanwhile, will be identifying nuclear security approaches appropriate to the region—via close cooperation between regulators and the nuclear industry. Here the Nuclear Security Summits can extend their legacy. The Nuclear Industry Summits that ran parallel to the Nuclear Security Summits offer a valuable model for including industry in the dialogue toward establishing good nuclear security practices in the Middle East.


Summits end; nonproliferation challenges don’t

In late March, just as representatives to the final Nuclear Security Summit were converging on Washington, Donald Trump was revealing to The New York Times his cavalier and irresponsible attitudes toward nuclear proliferation. Just last week, Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee for president. So perhaps now more than ever, it's important to impress on both publics and governments the indispensability of concrete nonproliferation action.

My roundtable colleagues Hubert Foy and Nilsu Goren don't agree with me that the Nuclear Security Summits should continue at the head-of-state level, but we all agree that the summits, as action-forcing events, have focused attention on key nonproliferation issues. Whether the summits continue or not, focusing attention on nonproliferation—and disarmament—will remain a perennial challenge.

When a new US administration takes office next year, it must grapple—no matter the identity of the president—with a set of nuclear policy issues whose implications will reverberate far into the future. They include:

  • Determining whether a viable path exists toward negotiating further reductions in US and Russian nuclear arsenals. Relations between Moscow and Washington are at a post–Cold War low, so chances for serious follow-up negotiations to the New START agreement seem poor. But if there’s one area where Russia and the United States should try to move forward despite their tense relationship, this is it.
  • Settling on an approach toward modernization of US nuclear forces. As my colleagues Larry Korb and Adam Mount have discussed, Washington faces decisions today that will determine the composition of US nuclear forces for decades. If the United States is truly committed to reducing stockpiles while maintaining a credible deterrent, tough choices must be made in the coming years—such as whether to reduce the size of the intercontinental ballistic missile force (which, indeed, seems wise).
  • Sustaining the historic Iran deal. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action proves that, with diplomacy, it's possible to stop a country from acquiring nuclear weapons. The deal's success and continuing credibility will be key to sustaining the nonproliferation regime and encouraging countries to live up to their nonproliferation obligations. Yet criticism of the deal abounds, as the newspapers attest almost every day, so it is critical to ensure that the deal succeeds and all sides follow through on it.
  • Finally, contending with North Korea. As Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities expand, especially where miniaturization and missiles are concerned, significant challenges face US policy makers striving to ensure regional stability. The world is taking a stricter approach to North Korea, with China in March endorsing a tough UN Security Council resolution aimed at Pyongyang. Yet the North still seems intent on proceeding down the nuclear path.

None of these challenges is new. Still, facing them requires sustained, high-level commitment and attention—much like the commitment and attention brought to bear during the Nuclear Security Summits.

The White House has announced that President Obama will visit Hiroshima during an upcoming trip to Japan. Perhaps the president will take that opportunity to outline a practical vision for tackling the nuclear challenges ahead—a sort of Prague speech 2.0 that presents a more detailed road map for achieving his nuclear vision. The decisions that lie ahead are tough, and addressing them will require bold but pragmatic thinking.


Nuclear security: From summits to mechanisms

The idea behind the Nuclear Security Summits was to prevent terrorist groups such as the Islamic State from gaining access to nuclear weapons, fissile materials, and nuclear facilities. But nuclear security is never "done"—not as long as fissile and radiological materials exist—so even now, with the summit process complete, the threat of nuclear terrorism is not necessarily diminishing. Truth is, the risk of nuclear terrorism cannot be eliminated. But if states make the utmost commitment to protecting nuclear materials, nuclear security can be continuously improved. The 2016 summit in Washington eased the way toward continuous improvement by establishing a set of nuclear security mechanisms that all states can join and all can implement—even without summits.

One such mechanism is the Nuclear Security Contact Group, created via a joint statement by 40 of 52 governments represented in Washington. The group is envisioned as a tight-knit community focused on synchronizing efforts toward implementing the summit agenda, and it is to meet annually on the sidelines of the General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Michael H. Fuchs, my roundtable colleague, has argued that nuclear security meetings in which heads of state do not participate might be inadequate to preserve momentum in nuclear security. Fuchs concedes, however, that if biennial summits involved ministers of foreign affairs and energy, they would likely gain the support of relevant national agencies and attract meaningful public attention. As it happens, the Nuclear Security Contact Group will be composed of "appropriately authorized and informed senior… officials," as Fuchs envisions that such a group ought to be. Significantly, group members may recommend to national leaders that additional Nuclear Security Summits be convened. And—importantly for nations such as my own Cameroon, which has not been part of the summit process—the contact group will be open to non-summit countries that wish to participate in the summit agenda.

Another significant mechanism concerns best practices for sharing nuclear security information. This mechanism, established in Washington through a joint statement by 17 countries, includes a consolidated national reporting form that enables states to report on nuclear security in a consistent manner. But the form can also take into account varying national circumstances—different nations, for example, have committed to different international instruments. Using the form as a template, states will more readily be able to meet their reporting requirements, making their nuclear security activities more sustainable. The mechanism will also, by increasing transparency, build international confidence in the effectiveness of nations' nuclear security regimes.

Finally, the 2016 summit resulted in five action plans intended to transfer segments of the summit agenda to existing nuclear security institutions. For states that belong to these institutions, the action plans represent mechanisms for playing enhanced roles in improving nuclear security. The plan established for the United Nations, for example, calls for increased efforts to fully implement Security Council Resolution 1540 (which obliges states not to support the ambitions of non-state actors seeking access to weapons of mass destruction). Initiatives such as these allow states that did not participate in the summit process to get involved now.

To be sure, fora for collective action on nuclear security extend beyond the institutions involved in the action plans. They also include the nuclear industry, professional societies, and communities of nongovernmental experts. These are all key components in the nuclear security architecture, and they can nurture new ideas while helping professionals build their skills and establish global connections.

In the post-summit era, a danger exists that President Obama’s vision for reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism won't be pursued vigorously enough. Nuclear security could decline dangerously. But these outcomes can be avoided if nations challenge themselves to implement commitments made during the summit process—and if the mechanisms growing out of the 2016 summit are utilized as they deserve to be. The mechanisms are designed to perpetuate some of the summit process's most important attributes: the ability to attract sustained, personal attention from national leaders; a format capable of eliciting commitments from participating countries; and a focus on tangible, meaningful outcomes.


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