Like the first, the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) was held in Washington, with others in Seoul (2012) and The Hague (2014). This article makes six arguments by way of a summary stock-take of nuclear security.

First, the threat of nuclear terrorism is real. With 15,000 nuclear warheads, around 1,400 metric tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and 500 tons of separated plutonium held at over 100 sites in more than 30 countries, there is enough nuclear materials to increase the world’s stock of nuclear bombs to 10 times their present number.

The risk is threefold. Terrorists could acquire HEU or plutonium, make a nuclear bomb and explode it in a target of their choice. Or they could sabotage a nuclear plant and cause an accident along the lines of the Fukushima meltdown five years ago. Or they could steal radiological material from a hospital or scientific lab, wrap it around conventional explosives, and detonate it in a crowded quarter of an economically key city to create panic and cause massive economic disruption with contamination of buildings that would require weeks of cleanup.

The known evidence confirms that al-Qaida has been interested in pursuing all three options and Belgian authorities have indicated that the terrorists responsible for the Brussels attacks were watching people employed at a nuclear power plant. It is safe to assume their intentions were not benign.

The worrying thought is that terrorists need to succeed in only one plot, while law enforcement authorities must succeed in discovering and thwarting every plot. The comforting thought is that within each plot, the terrorists must escape detection at every stage while authorities need to penetrate just one stage to defeat them. Overall, the conclusion is that the risk of nuclear terrorism is low probability but high impact.

Second, the gravity and magnitude of the problem was recognized long before the first NSS in 2010 and efforts to address the threats have also been underway for a quarter century. When the former Soviet Union imploded, it left behind the largest amounts of nuclear materials, stored and being used in the biggest number of plants and facilities spread across the biggest geographical area, with many vulnerable to theft and sabotage. The Russia-U.S. hire purchase agreement and the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction programs in particular have been brilliantly successful in reducing these threats dramatically in several ex-Soviet countries.

For example, a trilateral Russia-Kazakhstan-U.S. program locked down and secured nuclear materials lying around as “scrap” in the Degelen mountain, the site of over 200 nuclear tests. In October 2012, a three-sided stone monument was unveiled with the simple sentence in all three languages etched on it: “The world has become safer.”

Third, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 heightened the urgency of the need to secure nuclear materials against the risk of terrorists getting hold of some. U.S. President Barack Obama incorporated this into his larger nuclear policy agenda to launch the NSS. The biggest benefit of the summit process has been to raise the profile of the problem and get buy-in from 50-plus leaders. There has also been substantial progress in national implementation of various security measures.

Between them, the old efforts and new NSS-based push have ensured that 30 of the 57 countries with weapons-usable nuclear materials have eliminated all such material, typically with U.S. assistance; security arrangements have been tightened in all countries that retain nuclear materials; over 100 research reactors using HEU as a fuel have shut down and more than 60 have converted to low enriched uranium in a program begun in the late 1970s; and many more countries have become party to the various global governance instruments.

Fourth, that said, significant gaps and therefore vulnerabilities remain and so the NSS agenda is incomplete. Around one-quarter of the countries have not yet joined the 1980 Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials. Its 2005 amendment still requires eight more ratifications to enter into force 11 years on. The CPPNM is the cornerstone of the international regime to assure the physical protection of nuclear materials while in storage or during domestic and international transport.

The 2005 International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT) is in force but just over half the U.N. member states (103 of 193) are states parties. In other words the diffuse patchwork of national pledges and implementation need to be reinforced by legally binding, uniform and enforceable global standards.

The gaps and vulnerabilities are particularly acute in the Asia-Pacific region. We lack a regional equivalent of the European Atomic Community. The East Asia Summit should initiate studies to this end with a sense of urgency to promulgate transparent regional norms and surveillance to minimize the chances of another major nuclear disaster and institute regionwide coordinated emergency response mechanisms.

The third biennial Nuclear Security Index published by the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative shows most Asian countries fall near the bottom of theft and sabotage precautions with respect to nuclear materials, plants, facilities and personnel (to guard against insider threats).

Fifth, attention to nuclear security has so far been limited to materials in civilian control, when the reality is that 83 percent of all nuclear materials are under military control. Four years ago a group of peace activists breached the security around a nuclear complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. As U.S. Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar noted, if an 82-year-old unarmed nun can penetrate America’s nuclear Fort Knox, we have to be concerned about terrorists gaining access to nuclear materials.

Within the requirements of classified programs and information, we somehow have to bring military-use nuclear materials inside the process of securing all nuclear materials to international standards. Until then the nuclear security framework will not be comprehensive, universal and effective.

Finally, a single issue is rarely suitable for an annual summit process. The NSS has been the biggest gathering of world leaders on nuclear policy. (Dare we dream of a bigger gathering of world leaders on nuclear abolition as the best available guarantee of nuclear security?) Each summit after the first suffered from the law of diminishing returns and Russia is right in saying there was little point to the fourth (although this was likely more an excuse than the reason for Moscow’s failure to attend).

Because the agenda is unfinished, however, the momentum must be sustained through five avenues: the United Nations; the International Atomic Energy Agency, for example by adopting its rigorous guidelines and standards and utilizing its peer review services, as Australia has done, in addition to its illicit incidents trafficking database; Interpol for combating nuclear smuggling; the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, co-chaired by Russia and the U.S.; and the Group of Seven Global Partnership, although this would almost certainly be better handed over to the Group of 20 as the globally more representative body.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University and co-convenor of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.

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