A Chance to Boost Nuclear Security

The summit in Washington may produce commitment to a plan for securing nuclear materials from terrorists, largely because of President Obama’s demonstrated willingness to commit the U.S. to nonproliferation and disarmament goals, says nonproliferation expert Tanya Ogilvie-White.

April 12, 2010

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

More on:

United States

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

President Obama is hosting a summit of forty-seven nations today and tomorrow in Washington focused on securing nuclear materials from terrorists and criminals--a key part of this agenda to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. If successful, the summit will generate sign-on to an action plan for securing such materials, says Tanya Ogilvie-White, coauthor of the IIGG report, "Seeking Nuclear Security Through Greater International Coordination." Ogilvie-White says she is hopeful about the summit’s outcome because Obama has contributed to a cooperative atmosphere by clearly demonstrating a U.S. commitment to nonproliferation and disarmament.

What do you expect to come of this conference?

What I expect to come of this summit is, hopefully, a firm commitment from all of the forty-seven countries that are attending to a very clear action plan for how to secure fissile materials that could be acquired by terrorist organizations and criminal groups. One of the key problems at the moment is that there isn’t a consensus over the need to give priority to nuclear security. Many developed states believe it’s a serious issue and want to give it priority, but a number of developing states have so many competing priorities that they see nuclear security as way down their list of what they need to be focusing on. So what is unique about this summit is it is the first time developed and developing states have come together to focus specifically on nuclear security. I’m very optimistic that they will achieve that.

Are there drafts that have already been circulated?

Yes. There is a communiqué that has been circulated. In the run up to the summit, there’s been a series of pre-summit meetings held in different places. There was one in Tokyo. There was one in the Netherlands. And the idea behind those meetings was to prepare a document and set the agenda for the meeting. What I’m hoping out of the summit is that there will be clear leadership commitments to the action plan that’s already starting to be drafted. I am optimistic that that will happen. But there are a number of things that could get in the way and distract.

Let’s talk about the problems. List some of the obstacles that have to be overcome.

If you look at how nuclear security is debated in international forums, for example in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, which is the key international organization that deals with nuclear security, and also the way it is debated within the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) conference process, you can see that lots of other issues very often cloud nuclear security. And a lot of political differences get in the way and detract attention from nuclear security priorities. For example, considerable tension built up during the Bush administration over the U.S. desire to take a leadership role on nuclear security while at the same time either not fulfilling its commitments on disarmament or being assumed to not be fulfilling its commitments on disarmament and taking what some states would regard as a double standard on nonproliferation.

[W]hat is unique about this summit is it is the first time developed and developing states have come together to focus specifically on nuclear security.

Whether that was right or wrong, that is a perception that’s out there and, it’s led to a legitimacy problem for the United States and for other Western states that have been promoting the nuclear security agenda. It created considerable bad feelings, and it really did prevent the type of political will and the common sense of purpose you really need to build a strong nuclear security regime. That’s been recognized by the Obama administration. So this nuclear security summit is part of is a drive to try and build up good will that has been lacking and try to focus attention on nuclear security in a way that other issues don’t muddy the water too much. The Obama administration has tried to build its legitimacy by taking actions and showing that it has some solid commitments in the disarmament and nonproliferation area. The hope is that by the time states actually sit down at the summit, they’ll be feeling that here we have a U.S. administration that has the authority and legitimacy to lead in this area and is taking actions in other parallel areas which show that it takes its own international responsibilities very seriously. You can see that happening. There is so much that’s occurred in the last couple of weeks that you can really see that strategy blossoming.

You’re referring to the Nuclear Posture Review released the past week.

Yes. I’m talking about the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), and I’m talking about the follow-on to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed in Prague by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. These show the new U.S. administration trying to take a more balanced approach to nuclear issues, nuclear security, nuclear disarmament, and nuclear nonproliferation.

And Obama himself last year in Prague had called for the end of all nuclear weapons.

That in itself was a turning point, whether or not that end goal can be achieved.

He did say that. But the fact that he put it out there was really crucial and that speech in itself built some good will. But of course you do always have some naysayers out there, who argue that it’s all hot air. I was concerned for some time that they may have some force behind their argument because these things take time to achieve and of course, there were quite complex negotiations involved in the follow-on to the START treaty. It’s really crucial that these issues have been resolved on the virtual eve of the summit. The new NPR wasn’t ideal, but it did show real progress in other areas in terms of numbers and in terms of reducing the role for nuclear weapons. I’m hoping it will actually generate good will and confidence in the U.S. nuclear disarmament and nuclear security leadership role.

Why was Iran not invited to the summit?

There are a number of states that have been not very helpful on nuclear security, and Iran has been trying to argue that the nuclear security agenda is creating new and unfair obligations on developing states. To have Iran there would distract states from the key issue, which is how to secure those nuclear materials within four years. There are a number of states that haven’t been invited and the hope is that once the states that are participating reach agreement and come up with a concrete action plan it will be much easier to encourage other states to buy into that norm.

There will probably always be states on the outside that are going to be criticizing and sniping. Over time, hopefully, everyone will come on board. Because much has to do with domestic politics and leadership change, one hopes that in the future, the political system in Iran, or at least the current regime in Iran, will change and you’ll have a more cooperative regime that will accept international norms. So the approach is correct to start with the smallest group of states that have shown willingness to cooperate and to share international norms on nuclear security and nonproliferation and try and get agreement among them first. Even among those states, there are disagreements and differences in how they prioritize nuclear issues.

Like what?

There are states that are coming from the Middle East and from Southeast Asia which are launching nuclear energy programs. Yet nuclear security isn’t high on their security agendas. So there needs to be a consensus about prioritizing nuclear security among those key states which pose significant problems going forward. Promoting nuclear energy programs obviously increases the number of nuclear materials in use in the civilian sector, and obviously those are vulnerable to theft and sabotage.

There’s been talk about a possible Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty (FMCT). That’s not going to emerge from this conference, will it?

When the the Obama administration announced the summit last year, it was perhaps more optimistic about what could be achieved than it is now. At the moment the administration is trying to be more realistic about what is achievable and trying to focus attention on existing initiatives that have already been agreed to but are not being implemented.

Like what?

For example, there is the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM), which was signed in 1980, and its amendment of 2005 which form a cornerstone of the emerging nuclear security regime. Those two need to be signed and ratified, especially by states which are launching these energy programs or already have them, and many have not. And a number of the states that are coming to the summit have not done that.

Did these originate in the United Nations?

They are conventions launched under the auspices of the IAEA. They are voluntary agreements, and they are not binding. So states don’t have to sign them. But obviously it would be much better for the international community if they did, because they set out very clear guidance as to how to secure nuclear materials and nuclear facilities in transport and in use. So they really are crucial, and they haven’t been signed or fully implemented by a number of different states [the United States is a party to it]. It’s actually fully implementing and getting full support for these types of agreements, which already exist, which I think the summit really hopes to achieve. And there are others which are already out there, most of them are voluntary.

Are there any which is not voluntary?

The one that isn’t voluntary is UN Security Council Resolution 1540, of 2004, which is mandatory. The resolution puts binding obligations on all UN member states under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to take and enforce effective measures against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, their means of delivery, and related materials.

Are there many states that are not fulfilling these?

The majority of states are not fulfilling them. One of the main problems that the summit will try to address is that it [the U.N. Security Council resolution] doesn’t set out clear guidelines. Nowhere does it actually say specifically what states have to do. It doesn’t set common standards. As a result, most states are just doing the minimum, or they are not doing very much at all, to ensure the safety of nuclear materials on their territory. What I hope the summit will do is set the bar relatively high and set high common standards.

In the past, most of the publicity about the spread of nuclear materials focused on Pakistan and the A.Q. Khan network, and Libya, which for a while was trying to sell its knowhow. Is outright black marketing of nuclear materials a problem?

It’s huge. And of course states have ultimate responsibility to control and shut down those networks operating on their territory, but there are always loopholes that these non-state actors can exploit, and this is always a problem. One key development in recent years is that governments are trying very hard to engage the nuclear industry, nuclear energy operators, and civil society actors, so that there is greater awareness of how these types of networks operate, the types of threats that are out there, how they can sabotage systems and the sort of processes that need to be put in place to protect from sabotaging systems.

Promoting nuclear energy programs obviously increases the number of nuclear materials in use in the civilian sector and obviously those are vulnerable to theft and sabotage.

And one of the things that the summit organizers have done is that they have actually invited some two hundred non-state experts and representatives from the industry from around the world to attend the summit as well. So from the beginning, the summit is actually operating on two levels. You have the state level, with international leaders meeting to try and agree on some common text to set standards and agree on an action plan. And on another level, you also have people coming together as part of what’s called the "fissile materials working group initiative," which involves experts from around the world.

If I interpret the sum total of your comments, you’re fairly optimistic that something very positive will emerge from the summit?

I am optimistic because I really do think that there have been a series of events in recent years that have raised awareness of the nuclear security problem. Look at what happened a couple of years ago in South Africa, where the country’s biggest nuclear reactor was breached by about eight people. They actually got into it, and there was enough nuclear material stored there for about twenty-five nuclear weapons. Luckily, it was stopped by security services. But the fact is that there are people out there who are trying to get nuclear materials for malicious uses. After 9/11 there was a general awareness of the need to address this issue, but the issue became tied up with the whole issue of the war on terror and U.S. leadership on nonproliferation. The whole issue got mired into this sort of nasty political bog, where countries were simply not seeing eye to eye on this.