Global Nuclear Security: Progress and Pitfalls

Global Nuclear Security: Progress and Pitfalls

A summit hosted by the Obama administration one year ago has spurred momentum on global nuclear security measures. But the United States must lead efforts to redouble commitments on preventing the proliferation of nuclear materials, writes CFR’s Emma Belcher.

April 15, 2011 3:25 pm (EST)

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This week marks the one-year anniversary of a summit at which forty-seven world leaders pledged to prevent nuclear materials from falling into terrorist hands. Contrary to early criticism--including from Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who said it "made no meaningful progress in dealing with nuclear terrorism threats"--the summit has had a positive impact in just one year.

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Since the summit, states have repatriated at least 875 pounds of high-enriched uranium (HEU)--enough for up to seventeen bombs--and given more than $16 million in extra funding to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and UN for nuclear security; seventeen states have ratified nuclear security treaties; and four have joined the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism


To be sure, it is difficult to know what accomplishments were direct results of the summit. Removal and securing weapons-usable material has been ongoing since the mid-1990s, particularly in the former Soviet Union, and this year’s efforts have been a continuation of this policy. Similarly, there has been no discernible increase in the rate of treaty ratifications. However, the summit put nuclear security in the spotlight and brought momentum for countries crucial to nuclear security efforts, like Ukraine, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

New agreements followed the summit, such as increases in funding for international bodies and training and education centers for nuclear personnel in China, Japan, and India. At a macro level, the summit provided a focal point for cooperation between officials throughout states’ bureaucracies, and the next summit will be an important review and accountability mechanism for progress--an attribute sorely lacking to date.

The [2010] summit put nuclear security in the spotlight and brought momentum for countries crucial to nuclear security efforts.

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However, there is still much ground to cover before the spring 2012 summit, set to be hosted by South Korea. In the lead-up to the next summit, it is important to hold others accountable to their pledges, working with them and nonparticipants to realize their goals. In this regard, it is crucial for the United States to set a stronger example by ratifying treaties established to safeguard nuclear materials, a stated goal of the Obama administration.

Response to Nuclear Terror Threat

The 2010 Summit communiqué acknowledged the seriousness of the nuclear terrorism threat, and committed states to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. An accompanying work plan outlined steps states could take, and some individual states pledged additional action. Despite the communiqué’s nonbinding nature, the work plan set tangible benchmarks against which states can be judged.

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Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

Terrorism and Counterterrorism


Pledges included: removing unnecessary highly enriched uranium (HEU) from states’ territories (leaving fewer sites from which nonstate actors could steal HEU); better security for existing fissile material stockpiles; converting reactors to use low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel; ratifying relevant international agreements; and improving security culture.

At the halfway point between summits, what progress has the international community made toward achieving its goals? The following are the most notable developments:

  • Ukraine has made notable strides in its pledge to eliminate its HEU. In the month following the summit, Ukraine repatriated 123 pounds of Soviet-era HEU to Russia, and an additional 111 pounds in December--roughly five to six bombs’ worth (around fifty pounds is sufficient for a bomb). It is on track to finish removing all HEU by the next summit.
  • The United States finished repatriating one thousand pounds of HEU from Poland (although Poland had not pledged this at the summit), and the United States led removal of around 412 pounds of spent fuel from Poland in October 2010.
  • Belarus has pledged to eliminate its remaining HEU, believed to be around five hundred pounds, even though it was not a summit participant. Whether the summit had any direct bearing on Belarus’ decision is questionable, but Belarus will be invited to the next summit as a result, and the fact remains that the issue is gaining momentum.
  • Russia has stopped producing plutonium, and signed a plutonium disposition agreement with the United States. Russia has also fulfilled its pledge to contribute to the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Fund, providing $6.5 million. The fund provides around 90 percent of the budget for the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Plan, which helps states improve their nuclear security and training, and provides technical advice on physical protection of sources.
  • The United Kingdom has signed an agreement for £4 million ($6.2 million) over two years for the Nuclear Security Fund.
  • The United States assisted Kazakhstan in shutting down a plutonium production reactor and moved the reactor’s fissile material to a more secure storage facility in Eastern Kazakhstan.
  • At the 2010 summit, the United States, Canada, and Mexico reached an agreement with the IAEA to convert Mexico’s research reactor and remove its HEU. In December 2010, Vietnam and the United States reached an agreement to complete Vietnam’s reactor conversion.
  • In December, the United States led removal of all remaining fissile material from Serbia (28 pounds), bringing the total amount of fissile material removed from Serbia since 2002 to around 6,682 pounds of HEU and plutonium--material for more than 120 weapons, according to the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration.

In addition, in April 2011, the United States donated $3 million to the United Nations Trust Fund for Global and Regional Disarmament. Portions of this fund go to assisting states in implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires states to take measures to prevent WMD terrorism-related activities within their borders.

The lack of [U.S. treaty] ratification suggests a disdain for international treaties and exceptionalist behavior, which many found so troubling during the Bush administration.

Seventeen states have ratified important international treaties, including the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (Nuclear Terrorism Convention) and the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) and its amendment. Bahrain, Laos, and Lesotho acceded to the CPPNM (although none was a summit participant), as did many to its amendment, including Bahrain, Germany, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia (the United Kingdom ratified the amendment in the lead-up to the 2010 summit). Armenia and Georgia have ratified the Nuclear Terrorism Convention as pledged.

The United States has also signed agreements to establish centers of excellence--which would train and educate nuclear site personnel on physical security and accounting of materials--with Japan, China, South Korea, and India. Brazil is considering a center for Latin America. Other training centers are planned for Algeria, Italy, and Kazakhstan.

These examples show that far from being a toothless, nonbinding exercise, last year’s summit galvanized momentum and produced tangible results.

Unfinished Business

However, work remains to be done, particularly on UN Security Council Resolution 1540. Implementation remains uneven since the summit, with thirty-two states yet to file reports with the 1540 Committee on their obligations, and few states reporting recent developments. Similarly, several states that possess significant quantities of HEU are yet to ratify the CPPNM amendment--including Canada, France, Japan, Kazakhstan, and the United States--and the Nuclear Terrorism Convention--Canada, France, Germany, and the United States.

U.S. failure to ratify the Nuclear Terrorism Convention and the CPPNM Amendment is troubling. The summit was President Barack Obama’s personal initiative, and it signaled to others that the United States was serious about progress on nuclear security. Yet the lack of ratification suggests a disdain for international treaties and exceptionalist behavior, which many found so troubling during the Bush administration. U.S. ratification is essential for it to maintain a leadership position, and might encourage additional ratifications.

Congress must pass supporting legislation, which the administration submitted on the anniversary of the summit, to enable ratification of both the Nuclear Terrorism Convention and the CPPNM Amendment before the next summit, lest it squander hard-fought U.S. influence.

The next summit in South Korea will provide a visible platform for assessment of achievements and disappointments. At the summit, states must solidify consensus on nuclear security and find creative ways to tackle new problems, such as cutting off the production of fissile material, which the 2010 Summit avoided because of political sensitivities. Continuing to produce fissile material increases the quantity that needs protecting, adding to the problem that efforts have strived to avoid--opportunities for non-state actors to get their hands on fissile material and manufacture a bomb.


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