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The 2016 Washington Summit: Time to Open the Next Chapter in Nuclear Security

Author: Artur Kacprzyk, Analyst, Polish Institute of International Affairs
Feb 24, 2016

African Union Expert Brief U.S. President Barack Obama speaks as he and Netherlands' Prime Minister Mark Rutte hold a joint news conference at the conclusion of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague March 25, 2014. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)


The fourth and almost certainly final Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) will take place from March 31 to April 1, 2016 in Washington, DC. Washington hosted the first such meeting of heads of states and government in 2010, followed by summits in Seoul (2012) and the Hague (2014). Though the NSS process is about to end, the struggle to prevent nuclear terrorism is not, and at present there is no vehicle with which to carry these efforts forward in a concerted manner. The NSS process has led to significant achievements in securing nuclear materials worldwide, but much more remains to be done.

As terrorist threats persist, nuclear and radioactive materials in numerous countries are still vulnerable, and the international nuclear security architecture continues to be fragmented and predominantly based on nonbinding measures. Although the last summit cannot conclusively resolve nuclear security problems, it presents leaders with an opportunity to chart a new direction of cooperation that would comprehensively address underlying challenges and ensure NSS’s enduring legacy.

Successes of the NSS Process

The NSS process was launched in the wake of U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech in Prague, in which he described the danger of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons as “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security” and pledged to lead an initiative to lock down in four years worldwide stocks of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium—materials that could be stolen and used to construct a nuclear weapon. Both HEU and plutonium are used for both military and civilian purposes.

Falling short of reaching the four-year goal, the NSS has still enabled progress in multiple areas. Bringing the attention of world leaders to the very technical and neglected issue of nuclear security has been a success in itself, with forty-seven countries participating in the first summit at Washington’s invitation, and fifty-three taking part in the subsequent meetings. Remarkably, NSS participants managed to maintain focus on nuclear security without deviating to disputes on nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy. These issues stalled or even blocked engagement at other forums, such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference. The NSS also prompted an increase in membership in international treaties and multinational initiatives.

Summits have concentrated on securing, consolidating, and minimizing the civilian use and quantity of HEU and, to a lesser extent, plutonium. Since the beginning of the NSS, thirteen countries became free of weapons-usable nuclear materials and two dozen reactors working on HEU fuel were either shut down or converted to operate on low-enriched uranium (LEU), which is unfit for use in nuclear bomb. Altogether, over fifteen tons of HEU, the equivalent of five hundred nuclear bombs, have been converted to LEU. One of the most notable NSS achievements is the removal of all remaining HEU from Ukraine in 2012, two years before the outbreak of conflict in the country.

Moreover, the NSS has aimed to improve the security of other radioactive sources, which are widely employed in the civilian sector and potential materials for a “dirty-bomb” that can spread contamination, causing major disruption and cleanup costs. NSS participants have also taken action in other fields, such as countering nuclear smuggling, developing nuclear forensics, and establishing twelve nuclear security training and support centers.

Many of these actions were carried out through so-called “gift baskets,” voluntary joint statements in which like-minded nations have committed to achieving specific goals linked to more general political declarations from summit communiques. The “Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation,” or Trilateral Initiative, is probably the most recognizable gift basket. Signed in the Hague by thirty-five states, the signatories have committed to implement International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recommendations, host peer reviews, and ensure personnel competency.

A significant role of the summits, besides bringing attention to nuclear security and providing a forum for engagement, has been to persuade and encourage participants to continuously intensify their nuclear security efforts and present related results in national progress reports.

NSS Shortcomings and Flaws in Nuclear Security Architecture

Despite NSS accomplishments, the process has also suffered from a number of shortcomings, compounded by current adverse international factors. According to the recently published NTI Nuclear Security Index 2016, progress in the implementation of NSS goals has slowed. This is partially due to a series of crises distracting leaders’ attention and summit fatigue. This trend will likely worsen without an appropriate successor to the NSS. At the same time, twenty-four countries still hold nearly two thousand tons of weapons-usable nuclear materials.

So far, one of the most notable shortcomings of the NSS process has been the lack of fundamental changes to global nuclear security architecture. Despite a growing number of ratifications, membership in key international agreements remains limited. Ninety-three states are party to the International Convention on Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, while the 2005 amendment to the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM) requires twelve more ratifications to enter into force. Additionally, more specific security standards contained in IAEA guidelines are voluntary and not universally implemented. The same applies to IAEA review missions. Above all, there is no obligatory and comprehensive system that would hold states accountable for their nuclear security commitments and require them to share necessary information.

The Trilateral Initiative has been a remarkable step in filling some of these gaps and standardizing IAEA recommendations and peer reviews, but it needs a greater number of endorsements. It is especially disappointing that it has not been signed by four states possessing nuclear weapons: China, India, Pakistan, and Russia. Russian refusal to participate in the 2016 NSS is largely due to its deteriorating relations with the United States and the West, and represents a serious blow to the process given that the country has the largest stock of weapons-usable materials in the world.

In general, exclusive participation in the summits facilitated consensus building and progress, but has simultaneously lessened their impact on countries outside of the process. In line with the main goal of the NSS, the summits have gathered most countries with major nuclear programs and nuclear material stocks, albeit with a few exceptions—most notably North Korea and Iran. Participants also included countries with nimble nuclear programs or no nuclear installations at all. Eventually, nuclear security efforts should gain wider participation, given the worldwide presence of radioactive sources, the possible use of other states’ territories in smuggling of nuclear materials and conducting terrorist attacks, and the threat of sabotage of nuclear facilities, especially as thirty states are reported to be considering or planning their first nuclear power reactors.

Additionally, the scope of the process has not been universal. First, the NSS has not included particular commitments regarding military stocks, which constitute 83 percent of all weapons-usable materials and are not specifically covered by existing international agreements. Concerns about the security of such holdings apply to various countries, ranging from Pakistan, where terrorist groups are highly active, to the United States, whose Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which contains large stocks of HEU, was infiltrated in 2012 by a group of activists. Second, as experts from the Fissile Materials Working Group (FMWG) point out, HEU minimization efforts have focused on civilian research reactors and medical isotope production and have not taken into account other non-weapon uses, such as pulsed reactors, critical assemblies, and naval reactors. Third, more attention should be paid to minimizing the use of plutonium. Although it is less suitable for terrorists than HEU, as it is comparably easier to turn HEU into a simple nuclear weapon, the threats related to plutonium should not be underestimated.

Nuclear security efforts also require better coordination of all significant actors, including multilateral initiatives (such as the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism and the G8 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Mass Destruction) and international organizations (the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations, European Union, and Interpol).

Conclusions and Recommendations

The 2016 NSS in Washington faces two main tasks. First, participants should take new commitments on issues neglected in previous meetings, particularly related to military stocks and civilian minimization, and expand the endorsement of current gift baskets, especially the Trilateral Initiative. Second, the NSS must clearly determine the way forward for continued efforts.

There is an undeniable need for a new, broad legal instrument that would set the current nuclear security architecture in place and complement existing mechanisms by filling the gaps in terms of standards, transparency, and accountability. Nevertheless, the process of negotiating and ratifying such an agreement would be lengthy. Therefore, there is a need for an additional track of regular consultation to continue the momentum started by the NSS, energizing a wider group of countries, enabling incremental progress, and thus reinforcing parallel negotiations on a treaty.

One option would utilize the provision of a CPPNM amendment, which, upon entry into force, would allow the parties to convene a review conference every five years. The other possibility would be to continue the process within the IAEA, possibly through regular ministerial conferences on nuclear security. The first event of this type was held in 2013, and the second is to take place in December. States can also explore using both forums, with the CPPNM conference taking place over longer intervals, potentially at the level of heads of states and governments. Meanwhile, IAEA ministerial meetings could be more frequent.

As is the case with the NSS, these meetings could lead not only to common declarations but also to the continuation of gift basket diplomacy, thus enabling like-minded states to further cooperate in certain areas. Regardless of the eventual path forward, more resources should be devoted to the IAEA, which would play a coordinating role in international nuclear security. If future efforts successfully include a wider range of participants and actions, demand for the Agency’s guidance, assistance, training, and review will increase.

Compared to the NSS, it will be more difficult to achieve progress through these new formats of engagement, since they will include more countries and address increasingly complex issues, often perceived as highly sensitive in terms of national sovereignty. However, a comprehensive and universal approach is necessary to achieve adequate nuclear security and preserve the legacy of the NSS.

Global Memos are briefs by the Council of Councils that gather opinions from global experts on major international developments.