The 2014 Nuclear Security Summit

  • photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
    Mar 21, 2014

    On March 24-25th, leaders from 53 countries and 4 international organizations (United Nations, European Union, International Atomic Energy Agency, and Interpol) will convene in The Hague, Netherlands for a summit on nuclear security. President Obama started this process in 2010 with a summit in Washington, and Seoul followed in 2012. What can we expect from this summit?

    Q1: What are the goals of the summit process? What has been accomplished?

    A1: President Obama in his 2009 Prague speech called the threat of nuclear terrorism “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.” At the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), the Washington Communiqué endorsed the ambitious goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material within four years. While the Washington summit covered all material (highly enriched uranium [HEU], plutonium and radiological materials), its efforts mostly focused on securing HEU around the world.  Notably at the 2010 summit, Ukraine agreed to ship more than 100kg of HEU (several bombs’ worth) out of the country.

    The summit process has always been about bringing high-level attention to an undervalued risk. The Ukrainian example is telling: the United States had been asking Ukraine to secure that material for more than 15 years. The 2010 summit helped overcome bureaucratic hurdles to cooperation. 

    The summit process has spurred national and multilateral commitments. Observers suggest about 90% of the national commitments of the 2010 NSS have already been implemented. These included a wide range of initiatives, such as securing and removing HEU and plutonium, ratification of relevant treaties (such as the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material [CPPNM], and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism [ICSANT]), conversion of research reactor fuels from HEU, and the establishment of Centers of Excellence for training in nuclear security. At this summit, Japan is likely to commit to removing over 500kg of HEU and plutonium received from the United States, the United Kingdom and others. 

    Nonetheless, the 4-year goal originally set has not been achieved and officials are likely to portray this effort as a work-in-progress. 

    Q2: How will this Summit differ from the previous Summits? 

    A2: While the 2010 Washington NSS was narrowly focused on the security of fissile materials (HEU and plutonium), the 2012 Seoul NSS expanded the scope of discussions to include radiological security, transportation, and the intersection between nuclear safety and security. The 2012 summit pioneered the concept of “gift baskets” – where states would agree to cooperate on certain issues like information security or transportation security. The 2014 NSS will continue this innovation and add a few of its own.  There will likely be a focus on additional ways to institutionalize progress going forward.  Most observers suggest that the 2016 summit, planned for Washington, DC, will be the last one, and there needs to be a stronger architecture for ensuring continual progress. 

    Q3: What more needs to be done?

    A3: Like nuclear safety, the nuclear security regime is largely voluntary, and there is no international watchdog to ensure that recommended standards are being met.  The International Atomic Energy Agency can perform assessment missions, but these must be at the request of the specific country. The question is whether countries will agree that some limits on sovereignty are desirable to achieve better nuclear security. That push won’t come from international organizations like the IAEA, but must come from a core group of like-minded countries. That would be an enduring result and legacy of these summits, and the Dutch summit should be judged on its contributions to begin that process.

    Sharon Squassoni is director and senior fellow with the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.  Bobby Kim is research assistant and program coordinator with the CSIS Proliferation Prevention Program.

    Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Sharon Squassoni