Concerned about the prospect of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear materials, U.S. President Barack Obama in 2010 convened the first Nuclear Security Summit (NSS). In his speech in Prague in 2009, Obama explained that nuclear terrorism was the most immediate and dangerous threat to global security; the NSS was part of a wider effort to secure the world’s stockpile of vulnerable nuclear materials.
The NSS has been held every two years since the first conclave. Last week, Obama hosted his second, one that not only took stock of the progress that has been made over the past six years, but also continued its work. It is unclear if the NSS process will survive the Obama presidency: It should. Reports that members of the Islamic State group were observing Belgium nuclear power plants should set off warning bells about the immediacy of this threat. A leader-level summit will keep this issue near the top of international security agendas and help ensure that these efforts garner support and resources.
Typically, leader-level meetings are talk shops, where rhetoric is abundant and action is short. Since the NSS process was launched, however, participants have made over 260 commitments to secure their nuclear materials; about three-quarters of those promises have been implemented. Radioactive materials have been removed, security has been strengthened, “centers of excellence” that teach and spread best practices have been established, and treaties have been signed and implemented. As a result, it is reckoned that highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium from more than 50 facilities in 30 countries — enough material for 130 nuclear weapons — have been secured, and the number of facilities with nuclear materials has declined substantially. All nuclear materials have been removed from their territory of 14 countries and Taiwan.
International cooperation is increasing. Not only is there sharing of information about security practices, but governments have agreed to incorporate international best standards, invite international peer review, and commit to constant review, revision and upgrading of their nuclear security systems. New binding legal commitments are emerging, such as the Amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, which will soon go into force with over 80 ratifications since 2009. In other words, these commitments will endure beyond the formal NSS process.
The NSS has had a special significance for Japan. At the 2014 summit, the Japanese government agreed to remove 500 kg of highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium from its facility in Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, the largest project by a country to remove nuclear material from its territory. That assignment was completed ahead of schedule. This year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to removal all highly enriched uranium from Kyoto University’s Critical Assembly; the facility will be converted to one that uses lower-grade uranium, and the highly enriched uranium will again be moved to the United States. In a bilateral meeting, Abe and Obama underscored the need to prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear materials, and the two countries will be sharing information and intelligence to better defend Japanese nuclear facilities and protect the transportation of nuclear materials.
Significantly, those two men also met with South Korean President Park Guen-hye on the sidelines of the summit to confirm their commitment to trilateral cooperation to combat the North Korean nuclear threat. They agreed that solidarity among their three countries is critical for dealing with and preventing further provocations by Pyongyang and promised concrete cooperation in the security and defense areas.
The work is not done, however, and continuing attention at the highest levels of government is needed to stay on top of this threat. The reality and danger notwithstanding, governments must be prodded to devote resources to this issue. Even the U.S. has cut its budget to help other countries clean up their nuclear facilities by 50 percent, from over $800 million in 2012 to less than $400 million in its proposed 2017 budget. Washington justifies the decline by noting that work has been completed, but that rationalization clashes with the administration’s claim that the threat remains high.
The independent Nuclear Threat Initiative has warned that many radioactive sources remain “poorly secured and vulnerable to theft.” It worries that a “dirty bomb” of radioactive materials is more likely than terrorists building a nuclear device, especially since less than half the countries that attended the 2014 NSS pledged to secure such materials.
Finally, there was no missing Russia’s absence at last week’s meeting. Moscow boycotted the gathering, complaining that there was inadequate consultation and cooperation in its planning. Russian President Vladimir Putin no doubt bristles at the notion that the nuclear security process is seen as led by Obama and the U.S., especially since his country has some of the world’s largest stockpiles of civilian nuclear material and its ability to secure that material has been questioned as its economy crumbles, its nuclear infrastructure is underfunded and organized crime spreads its tentacles. That may be unpleasant to hear, but it’s a reason to double down on the NSS process, not keep a distance — a logic that all countries should embrace.
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