What Path for Nuclear Security Beyond the 2016 Summit?

By Nilsu Goren

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 withsurveillance 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 theStrengthening 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.

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 howthe 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.

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. TheNuclear 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.

These essays were originally published in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.