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

By Nilsu Goren, March 25, 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.


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