Security and Defence


The final Nuclear Security Summit: goals accomplished?

30 Mar 2016 - 10:43

The fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) will be organized in Washington DC on 31 March and 1 April 2016. The Summit will end a process initiated by President Obama to decrease the threat of nuclear terrorism, which he described in a speech in Prague in 2009 as 'the most immediate and extreme threat to global security'. Clingendael expert Sico van der Meer addresses the questions what we can expect from the final NSS, and even more important: what did the NSS process actually accomplish after four high-level summits? 

Although one could discuss whether nuclear terrorism is indeed such an extreme threat, arguing that there are more immediate  threats that should receive policy priority, recent incidents with smugglers selling nuclear material in Moldova, radioactive material stolen in Iraq, and terrorists spying on nuclear installation personnel in Belgium show once again that the threat is not theoretical. From this perspective it is worthwhile to look forward what we can expect from the final NSS, and even more important: what did the NSS process actually accomplish after four high-level summits in Washington (2010), Seoul (2012), The Hague (2014), and Washington again (2016)?

Aims of the NSS
When discussing the NSS process, it is important to consider what the aims are, and what not. The NSS process is about preventing nuclear terrorism. Terrorists could obtain nuclear materials and use them to build (crude) nuclear bombs or – more feasible – radiological devices (‘dirty bombs’). The NSS aims at accelerating international efforts to secure vulnerable nuclear materials, break up black markets for these materials, and detect and intercept illicitly trafficked materials.

Contrary to what many people think, the NSS process is not about nuclear weapons in the possession of states. There is no discussion on the risks of the existing 15,850 nuclear weapons in the world, nor on nuclear disarmament or non-proliferation issues. While discussing policies to secure fissile materials the focus is on civilian stockpiles of these materials. The much larger military stockpiles in nuclear weapon states are generally not being dealt with.

Also important is that the NSS process is mainly focussing on the most dangerous nuclear materials: highly enriched uranium and plutonium, which are commonly only used in nuclear research reactors or military nuclear programmes. Radiological materials, like the ones being used in hospitals and laboratories all over the world, are not the core topic of the NSS, although they have been included in discussions to some extent during the NSS in The Hague in 2014. The argument to give less attention to radiological materials is that they usually may be more easy to steal and use for terrorists, but that they cannot be used to build (crude) nuclear weapons – they can only be used for less devastating dirty bombs.

Coalition of the willing
There are other multilateral fora dealing with nuclear security as well, for example the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM), and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT). The aim of President Obama was to accelerate such existing processes to secure vulnerable nuclear materials. He chose to assemble a group of states which were, he hoped, willing to speed up the process.

The NSS is thus a so-called ‘coalition of the willing’; not all states are involved, only states which the organizers invited because they were expected not to block any accelerated progress. States like Iran and North Korea, to mention some states with interesting nuclear policies, did not participate in previous Summits. Russia, a state with enormous stockpiles of nuclear materials, declined the invitation to this year’s NSS as well.

The positive aspect of such a ‘coalition of the willing’ is indeed that most participants are on the same page and quicker steps can be taken than if more states would be on board. Yet, the states not participating are important as well – security measures are most effective when broadly applied, because terrorists and their facilitators are always looking for the weakest link.

During the final NSS the participants will surely reflect upon the accomplishments made; states that promised steps during previous summits will account for their progress; and probably there will be announced some kind of ‘action plan’ to strengthen nuclear security efforts in existing international organizations like the IAEA.

With the important limitations described above in mind, one must acknowledge that the NSS process to some extent achieved its goal of preventing nuclear terrorism – even without counting the final summit, but no surprises are to be expected. Global nuclear security is strengthened indeed, which makes it harder for terrorists to acquire nuclear materials. The attention of President Obama, inviting more than 50 world leaders to ‘his’ summits, surely enabled quicker action than would have happened otherwise.

The main accomplishment of the NSS process is that (groups of) individual states were encouraged to take concrete steps. These have been called ‘gift baskets’; participating states have been making public promises of increasing nuclear security measures, individually or in cooperation with other states. Various ‘gift baskets’ have been announced during the first three summits. States have promised to implement more effective national nuclear security policies to prevent incidents, and even more: some states announced to get rid of their stockpiles of nuclear materials. At the time of the first NSS, 35 nations were possessing highly enriched uranium and/or plutonium. Currently, this number is down to 24. Although these 24 states still account for some 20,000 tons of highly enriched uranium and/or plutonium, the reduction means less locations with dangerous materials and thus less opportunities for terrorists. 

Although one could ask ‘Was this enough?’ at the end of the NSS process, it should be acknowledged that every step, how modest it may be, that decreases the threat of nuclear terrorism is positive.

Work to be done
Nevertheless, three important remarks should be added to this modestly positive evaluation. First: the work to prevent nuclear terrorism is not finished at all; even though the NSS process initiated some extra steps, much more has to be done to ensure that the world will not be confronted with any nuclear catastrophes in the future. Ongoing attention for and improvement of nuclear security policies are required.

Second: although the various national improvement measures are good news, the NSS process has not given rise to any new global system regarding nuclear security. The current global nuclear security framework remains a patchwork. Even though one may discuss whether any new framework would have been desirable, still the question remains who will ensure that all promises made during the NSS are also kept. Who will retain the pressure to actually continue the international attention for nuclear security threats?

And last but not least: the agenda of the NSS process has been quite limited indeed, especially considering the powerful instrument of bringing together so many state leaders for four times. Why did Obama not start a Summit process on that other nuclear challenge: accelerating the speed of nuclear weapons disarmament? His pledge, during the same Prague speech in 2009, that the United States would take “concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons” did not work out very well. Maybe the issue of reducing the global number of nuclear weapons could be the agenda of any next high-level summit process, initiated by anyone else.