Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: How Useful are Nuclear Summits?


By Richard Weitz

One of the useful innovations of the Obama administration was to convene meetings of senior national leaders to focus their attention on what both the Bush and Obama administrations have called the number one threat to U.S. security — the possibility that terrorists will use acquire and use nuclear weapons against the United States.

But how might these meetings really be much more effective in dealing with the threat of preventing nuclear terrorism?

President Obama declared he would eliminate or secure all dangerous nuclear material within four years in his April 2009 Prague speech. He decided to organize the inaugural Nuclear Security Summit in April 2010 to support this objective.

That first meeting focused on enhancing the security of unsecured fissile material stocks (highly enriched uranium and plutonium), such as that found at a civilian nuclear power plant in the fuel assemblies, which could be used to manufacture a nuclear bomb.

At the time, other international institutions addressed the related issues of nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear disarmament, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Unlike the problem of countering vertical and horizontal nuclear weapons proliferation, where existing institutions exist (such as START and the NPT), attempts to improve the security of existing nuclear materials had been ad hoc attempts to strengthen and integrate national laws, programs, and regulations.

The United States and several other countries were pursuing initiatives in this area but they needed wider buy-in to be effective given the problem’s magnitude.

Periodic multinational meetings occurred to publicize the issue of nuclear terrorism, but they lacked follow through. The summit was deliberately designed to include almost all the important countries for the nuclear security issue and to require concrete measures of progress in addition to the invariably vague and non-binding political declarations.

The Obama administration’s success in securing the attendance at the 2010 summit of world leaders representing 47 countries with advanced nuclear technologies to discuss an issue that until then had been largely left to technical experts was a major achievement.

In the past, major innovations in the nuclear nonproliferation regime have typically followed a cataclysmic event. Now they were acting proactively to avert one. In addition, the level of international attention generated by the summit for nuclear materials security helped dispel the impression that the issue was exclusively an American obsession.

The 2010 summit made important contributions to promoting nuclear materials security. The three main products were its communiqué, work plan, and the specific commitments (“house gifts”) by the participating governments announced at the meeting. The communiqué encouraged states to pursue stronger nuclear security but without requiring them to achieve concrete goals or expend specific resources. The work plan specified concrete measures the state would take to secure its nuclear materials. The voluntary national commitments made at the Washington summit often accelerated projects—such as tightening export controls or reducing nuclear materials stocks– that were already underway.

But the individual national commitments did support specific projects in reducing fissile material, nuclear security capacity building, funding nuclear security training and other activities such as conferences, creating nuclear security centers, and adhering to international treaties and conventions against nuclear terrorism.

Furthermore, a review of these commitments shows that more than 80% were implemented by the time of the Seoul summit. Indeed, perhaps the most important decision of the 2010 summit was to hold a follow-on gathering rather than treat the summit as a onetime event, thereby ensuring continued attention and progress regarding the nuclear security issue.

The 2012 summit in Seoul expanded the agenda of nuclear security topics beyond those covered in 2010.

In addition to minimizing civilian use of HEU and enhancing the security of nuclear facilities, it encouraged states to consider how to fortify the security of their information and transportation systems for nuclear materials, to develop their nuclear forensics capabilities, to prevent illicit nuclear trafficking across national boundaries, to provide targeted assistance for updating national regulations, and to develop additional national and regional assets for nuclear materials security. Due to last year’s Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the Seoul summit addressed nuclear safety as it applies to nuclear security, such as how to maintain the security of nuclear materials at the site of a nuclear accident.

The Nuclear Security Summit was accompanied by two related events.

First, an expert symposium is gathering to analyze what nuclear specialists, NGOs and the mass public can do to promote nuclear security.

Isn't the Iranian nuclear challenge a realistic test of the system of prevention? Credit Image: Bigstock

Second, a conference of several hundred nuclear industry executives discussed how to strengthen nuclear safety more directly. Working with the nuclear industry in this way is essential for achieving progress on nuclear security, since this is where the rubber hits the road in terms of applying the relevant measures.

A persistent problem is the diverging national perspectives regarding the gravity of the risks presented by nuclear terrorism.

The U.S. national statement to the 2012 summit simply states that, “Nuclear terrorism represents the most immediate and extreme threat to global security, requiring a strong and enduring commitment to domestic and worldwide action.” But many other national governments consider the potential danger of nuclear terrorism abstract, remote, or improbable.

This perception was reflected in the vaguely worded communique, which, as a document reflecting the lowest common denominator of all the summit attendees, did not provide measurable targets, specific standards, or any means of enforcement.

The text frequently calls on states to “consider” doing things and “encourages” them to do others, but only “consistent with national security considerations.” For example, it “encouraged” them to take many steps to promote security and transparency by making public declarations specifying how they would reduce their use of HEU by the end of 2013.

Almost all the participating governments offered concrete if voluntary commitments regarding specific steps they would take to enhance the security of their nuclear material against theft or illicit use. Many pledged to increase the security of their radiological sources, a new priority of the Seoul summit. These are often located in poorly secured public places like hospitals or academic laboratories.

The most dangerous of these sources — such as cobalt-60, cesium-137, strontium-90 and iridium-192 — can be used to make “dirty bombs.” These improvised explosive devices combine conventional munitions with radioactive materials. When detonated, they can spew radioactive substances across a wide geographic area.

Although the number of additional casualties attributable to the radioactivity may not be much more than those killed or injured by the conventional explosion, the presence of the radioactive material could cause mass panic and disrupt economic and social activity in the affected region for years. Making a dirty bomb requires no special expertise, and radioactive isotopes suitable for the purpose are much easier to obtain than the weapons-grade fissile material needed for an actual nuclear explosive.

Another innovation this year was that, in addition to making individual national commitments (“house gifts”), groups of countries also signed on to “gift baskets” in which they pledged to cooperate to achieve certain objectives. For example, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and the United States jointly pledged to minimize HEU use in their production of medical isotopes. In addition, Belgium, France, South Korea, and the United States committed to develop a high-density LEU fuel powder.

Although President Obama’s 2010 goal of securing all vulnerable fissile materials within four years is hard to measure in the absence of agreed standards, it almost certainly cannot be meaningfully realized in only two more years.

A senior White House official described the nuclear security summit process as a “sprint within a marathon” because there was some progress in achieving nuclear materials security before the summits, and more efforts will be needed after they end.

In his statement in Seoul UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that he would “welcome discussions” of whether to continue the nuclear security summits after 2014. The international community needs to decide whether to continue holding the summits every two years, lengthen the time between summits, hold them at the ministerial rather than the heads-of-state level, or fold them into another nonproliferation institution. Three prominent initiatives directly support the summits’ objective of enhancing nuclear materials security: the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Mass Destruction, UN Security Council Resolution 1540, and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.

The Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Mass Destruction was launched by the Group of Eight (G-8) leading industrial states at the 2002 annual summit. It generated a sustained multinational effort to promote non-proliferation, disarmament, safety, and security with respect to weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The G-8 pledged that they would raise a total of $20 billion over 10 years to support the initiative and invited other governments not belonging to the G-8 to join them as partners.

Although several did join and contributed additional resources, the G-8 has fallen somewhat short of its original objective of raising $20 billion for counter-WMD work. The Partnership’s focus on the former Soviet Union has meant that few resources have gone to projects in other locations. Most seriously, the original Global Partnership will soon expire, with many projects unfinished and many other threats thus far unaddressed. The last G8 summit decided in principle to extend the initiative, but did not offer a specific resource commitment or work plan.

A related nuclear counterterrorism initiative arose in April 2004, when UN Security Council Resolution 1540 (UNSCR 1540) was enacted. It obliges all states to refrain from supporting non-state actors seeking nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons and their delivery systems. It also requires that all governments establish export controls over WMD-related materials and technologies as well as criminalize WMD-related proliferation activities through national legislation.

Adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, UNSCR1540 formally established accountability benchmarks and penalties for states not complying with their obligations. Since renewed, the resolution established a 1540 Committee to monitor and assist with the resolution’s implementation. A variety of nongovernmental organizations have also sought to help members meet their UNSCR 1540 requirements.

The nuclear security summits overlap most clearly with the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT). Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George Bush launched this program on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg. Many countries have since joined the GICNT, with recent adherents having pledged to do so to meet their NSS commitments.

The GICNT entails a range of specific multinational activities aiming to protect nuclear material, detect illicit nuclear trafficking, interdict and recover diverted nuclear items, and respond to nuclear terrorist incidents through measures focused on emergency response, consequence management, and identifying and bringing to justice those responsible for actual or attempted nuclear terrorism.

A distinct feature of the GICNT is the diverse range of public and private actors involved. Participants collaborate closely with private sector civilian nuclear power producers as well as with the IAEA and other multilateral institutions. The central government agencies involved in GICNT activities include those responsible for diplomacy, homeland security, defense, intelligence, energy, science and technology, law enforcement, and finance as well as representatives of local governments. This latter focus reflects the fear is that “homegrown” as well as “transnational” terrorists might exploit even small amounts of poorly secured nuclear or radiological materials to conduct terrorist acts. Sub -national governments often are primarily responsible for ensuring the safety and security of facilities within their jurisdictions that containing these materials. In addition, local law enforcement agencies could first detect terrorist activities in that community.

GICNT-sponsored activities also stress the importance of capacity building through sharing technologies and best practices designed to enhance members’ capabilities to deter, detect, prevent, and respond to nuclear terrorist threats. One of the original purposes of the GICNT was to integrate existing nuclear security programs; it now needs to be integrated with the new NSS.

The nuclear security summits build on these three earlier initiatives—as well as other multinational, bilateral, and unilateral mechanisms against nuclear terrorism such as the Proliferation Security Initiative, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism—and reinforces their activities.

As demonstrated again during the Seoul summit, all these institutions sustain global attention to countering the threat of nuclear terrorism by non-state actors even while the problems associated with states of proliferation concern—notably Iran and North Korea—continue to dominate the immediate nonproliferation agenda of most governments. Even so, these processes need to be integrated better to overcome dangerous gaps, reduce wasteful redundancies, and exploit helpful synergies among these infinitives.

For example, the Global Partnership could serve as a mechanism to generate funds for summit projects. The UNSCR 1540 process could refine the legal obligations of states to prevent nuclear and other forms of WMD terrorism. Meanwhile, the GICNT seminar and exercise program could operationalize and field test NSS recommendations and commitments. In turn, the nuclear security summits — or whatever institution that might replace it–could serve as the mechanism for assessing these nuclear security activities and recommending additional measures to states and funders.

One other task will be to establish a mechanism for addressing the concerns of those countries that belong to some of these institutions but not others.

Perhaps the UN General Assembly, arguably the world’s most inclusive international forum, could serve that function by convening at least one annual discussion on nuclear materials security.

Or the nuclear summits could become a more universal meeting of all interested countries while another mechanism could hold more exclusive sessions attended only by those countries having the most developed nuclear sectors or that are most vulnerable to nuclear trafficking.

(Editorial Comment: One is reminded of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922  and one might ask can the nuclear summits do what the Washington Navy Treaty could not, namely limit a core threat by placing treaty limits but with no real enforcement mechanism for violating those limits.

And what is the incentive for those who want nuclear materials and weapons, not to do so by a treaty process, particularly one of which they almost by definition will not be part of?

In many ways, Iran will be the test of the feasible in this area.)