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How to Sustain Nuclear Security
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Duyeon Kim

The biennial nuclear security summit process is entering its third round, but despite the significant progress made thus far, nuclear security still is not dramatic or “sexy” enough to sustain top-level attention and interest.

The nuclear security summits, launched by U.S. President Barack Obama, began in Washington in 2010. Before the second summit, which took place in Seoul two years later, summit fatigue already had begun to set in despite the expanded participation list and agenda at the 2012 event.

On March 24, the leaders of 53 countries, the European Union, the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and Interpol will gather in The Hague to continue their discussion on ways to prevent nuclear terrorism. The challenge going into The Hague summit and the 2016 U.S. summit is finding ways to sustain the momentum and political attention they have generated at the highest levels on nuclear security issues. At the start of preparations for every meeting, the discourse still begins with, “What is nuclear security, and why does it matter?”

The recurrence of this most basic question indicates that nuclear security is still a highly specialized concept that is difficult for nonspecialists to grasp, a problem that is made more difficult by the changes every few years in the cast of leaders and their supporting “sherpas.”[1] The recurrence of the question also indicates that nuclear security is generally not regarded as urgent or compelling as the Iranian or North Korean nuclear problems. It should be.

Nuclear security is not an issue for nuclear-weapon states alone. Countries that generate nuclear power to meet their electricity needs or have research reactors are at risk of nuclear materials theft and smuggling as well as the sabotage of facilities. Adding radioactive sources—ingredients that can be used in “dirty bombs” and other means of radiological terrorism—to the assessment greatly expands the issue because they are used essentially everywhere for medical and industrial purposes.

The threat is not merely hypothetical. Between 1993 and 2012, there were 16 confirmed incidents that “involved unauthorized possession of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium [and] some of these incidents involved attempts to steal or traffic these materials across international borders,” according to the IAEA.[2] In the past two years, there have been break-ins at a French nuclear power plant and at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee.[3] With regard to radiological materials, another recent incident highlighted the need for improved security. On December 5, 2013, a missing shipment of cobalt-60, which is radioactive and can be used in a dirty bomb, was discovered abandoned after it was stolen from a truck transporting it to a storage facility in Mexico.[4]

Fortunately, the world has not yet experienced a catastrophic incident involving the security of nuclear materials that could be used by terrorists to cause mass destruction. Yet, that does not mean the coast is clear. A nuclear security failure seems to be low in probability, but its consequences would be devastating. Moreover, a nuclear incident in one country would affect its neighbors and the world.

The Hague summit comes at a pivotal and opportune time in the summit process. If done well, it can be the watershed moment for the global nuclear security regime.

Nuclear Security Summit Process

Successive summits and their priorities and future commitments have reflected the scope of the threat as it evolved over time.

The 2010 Washington summit could be described as the conceptualization summit. The central focus was the security of fissile materials, which can be used to make nuclear weapons. The convening of this summit reflected a heightened awareness of the threat of catastrophic terrorism that emerged after the September 11 terrorist attacks. It was also a recognition of nuclear weapons’ capability to cause mass destruction and an acknowledgment that nuclear terrorism is one of the most urgent security threats. Although this meeting raised the importance of nuclear security to the summit level, the threat perception varied considerably among states. Some non-nuclear-weapon states were said to have viewed the summit agenda as centered on U.S. concerns and threat perception.

Forty-seven world leaders agreed to lock down all vulnerable nuclear material in four years, a goal declared by Obama in his 2009 Prague speech. Despite marked progress since the 2010 summit, it has become increasingly clear that the four-year goal would not be completed on time.[5]

The 2012 Seoul summit could be described as the implementation summit that also proved nuclear security is a global responsibility. The hosting of the summit by South Korea, a non-nuclear-weapon state, was notably symbolic of the global nature of nuclear security. The Seoul summit expanded the participation list to 53 countries. The scope of the agenda also expanded to include the safety and security of nuclear facilities, and the summit placed a greater emphasis on the security of radioactive sources, not just weapons-usable material. The Seoul summit outcome was in part a reflection of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which reminded the world that malefactors or terrorist groups with access to nuclear facilities might be able to induce a Fukushima-like incident.

The evolution of national “house gifts”—voluntary national commitments—presented at the 2010 summit into multinational “gift baskets”—joint pledges by like-minded countries—at the 2012 summit is a clear reflection of the global nature of nuclear security and the multilateral effort required to secure vulnerable nuclear material.

The Seoul summit set a target date of the end of 2013, which officially concludes Obama’s four-year goal, for countries to announce specific voluntary actions designed to minimize the use of HEU in the civilian nuclear sector. This goal-oriented statement is a noteworthy achievement, considering the complexities of multilateral diplomatic negotiations. Still, it is merely an encouragement rather than a unanimous, binding commitment. The Seoul communiqué also urged states to bring into effect the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) and its 2005 amendment by 2014.[6] Furthermore, the summit participants established a vision for an effective system of nuclear security governance, but did not clearly define this architecture.[7]

A July 2013 report found that, since the Seoul summit, “approximately 24 countries have enhanced the security of nuclear material and facilities; 42 countries have taken steps to improve their national nuclear governance structures; 22 have focused on countering nuclear smuggling; and 49 countries have taken specific steps to advance nuclear security culture.”[8]

The 2014 Hague summit could become the cohesion and coordination summit. The meeting represents an important opportunity to stitch the patches of the nuclear security regime closer together and define in more detail the vision of the nuclear security architecture established in 2012. The Hague summit is expected to focus on three key themes: reducing the amount of nuclear material in the world, improving the security of nuclear material and radioactive sources, and improving international cooperation.[9]

The 2016 U.S. summit could become the cementation summit. It will be a critical moment for the global nuclear security regime whose pieces either can be patched up or remain fragmented and even begin to unravel. Some have called for establishing nuclear security as the fourth pillar of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, along with the current pillars of nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful nuclear energy. The 2016 summit will be a test of whether the nuclear security work can be consolidated and normalized.

Measuring Success at The Hague

The Netherlands began its summit chairmanship by identifying six priorities:

  1. Strengthening the physical protection of fissile materials and minimizing the use of HEU.
  2. Strengthening the legal framework, as by ratifying the amended CPPNM before the 2014 summit.
  3. Strengthening the system of International Physical Protection Advisory Service (IPPAS) missions, which are peer reviews carried out by the IAEA.[10]
  4. Encouraging measures that provide confidence to others of the effectiveness of a state’s nuclear security.[11]
  5. Improving the protection of high-activity radioactive sources.
  6. Strengthening the cooperation between nuclear industry and government.

It remains to be seen how much of the above list will be accomplished by the 2014 summit. The Hague communiqué, an umbrella statement endorsed by all participating leaders, is nearly complete.[12] Although summit communiqués are significant political statements, the difficulty of arriving at a 53-way consensus on every detail naturally results in weaker language. Thus, this year’s success stories are likely to be found in the gift baskets and national pledges made by summit leaders as opposed to the commitments outlined in the summit communiqué. A notable indicator would be if the gift baskets deepen nuclear security while, in combination with the communiqué, revealing a more coordinated, cohesive nuclear security architecture.

The Hague summit would have a significant success story to tell if all states were able to declare that they met the 2013 deadline for formulating plans to minimize their use of HEU while bringing into force the CPPNM and its 2005 amendment by 2014. These two goals were highlighted at the 2012 Seoul summit, but, unfortunately it appears very unlikely that they will be met. Sixteen countries that are summit participants have yet to ratify the amended convention, including the United States and South Korea, the hosts of the first two summits.[13]

Another noteworthy achievement would be a decision to address excess military stocks of plutonium and HEU. It is estimated that 85 percent of the world’s weapons-usable nuclear materials is noncivilian materials. Although it apparently has been difficult to discuss noncivilian materials in detail at previous nuclear security summits, as they are a matter of national security and sovereignty, summit participants have recognized the importance of a comprehensive nuclear security architecture. The 2010 and 2012 summit communiqués reaffirmed the “fundamental responsibility of states to maintain effective security of all nuclear materials, including nuclear materials used in nuclear weapons.” Yet, the noncivilian materials are not subject to international guidelines and best practices. For example, the CPPNM and its 2005 amendment are restricted to civilian materials although states are free to apply it to their military stockpiles.

The Hague summit needs to be more far-reaching than a four-year progress report. It should declare ways in which the fragmented nuclear security regime can become more cohesive and transparent. One way to accomplish this is to offer a nuclear security gift basket that leads to the development of a cohesive action plan of necessary initiatives.[14] The Hague meeting also needs to set the stage for the 2016 summit, which may be the final biennial nuclear security gathering of state leaders.

Bringing the Summit Home

In a June 2013 speech in Berlin, Obama announced that he would host the 2016 nuclear security summit. Doing so places pressure on Obama to declare that all vulnerable nuclear material has been secured in four years, or by then six years from the time the participants endorsed that goal at the 2010 summit. Yet, the White House so far has been unable to publicly define “vulnerable nuclear material.” It also has been unable to spell out the metrics of the four-year “goal,” which the White House soon reformulated as a four-year “effort,” apparently to suggest the administration’s acknowledgment that the job cannot be done by the end of 2013. The U.S. sherpa team needs to start its planning immediately after the Hague communiqué is adopted in March so that the 2016 summit can truly consolidate the patches of the nuclear security regime. Such plans perhaps should have started with Obama’s June Berlin speech. The to-do list ahead of the 2016 summit could include the following goals:

Clearly define the purpose of the 2016 summit, establish the end state for nuclear security, and complete pledges on time. The White House should immediately clarify the purpose of the 2016 summit, give a detailed picture of what the world would look like with secured nuclear materials, and provide the metrics it will use to measure progress toward that end state. One challenge would be how to deal with calls among some participating states for an expanded agenda, which could be a factor in ensuring full participation at the 2016 summit. As for the process, it may be practical to continue the work at a senior level through existing institutions such as the IAEA and UN while convening summits as needed. The absence of biennial summits, however, could run the risk of further diminishing the already dwindling sense of urgency for nuclear security and remove much of the political pressure for national governments to ensure that they have fulfilled their pledges.

Engage in effective communication and outreach. One aspect of the problem of sustaining high-level attention and involvement is public relations. Effective communication and outreach to policymakers and the general public need to continue with intensity. This begins with helping stakeholders, including sherpa team policymakers, nuclear industry, and nongovernmental analysts, understand the significance and urgency of nuclear security by communicating it in a manner that is easily understood. A systematic education of political elites and the public is necessary, while the use of visual effects and social networking services could be helpful tools.

Enhance transparency and peer reviews and strengthen nuclear security culture. Unlike nuclear safety, nuclear security involves state sovereignty and classified information, which have made transparency and peer reviews difficult. Yet, it is important to devise a system of measures that provides confidence to the international community that a state has an effective nuclear security system. Some states share information and best practices by publishing some information on their nuclear security arrangements while others request IAEA missions on ways to strengthen their nuclear security systems. There are limits to the effectiveness of this approach as most nuclear security information is classified and states are not obligated to follow the IPPAS recommendations.

Conduct regular status checks. If the 2016 summit serves as the final bookend to the biennial summit process, then a mechanism needs to be established to continue the nuclear security process. One way could be to hold regular meetings of separate working groups based on broad themes. For example, the IAEA could host conferences to announce recent accomplishments in nuclear security and declare future actionable commitments in the way the summits have done.[15] Perhaps the IAEA conference delegations could be led by ministers, and working groups could be led by current nuclear security summit sherpas or officials at a rank just below that level. Ministers at a July 2013 IAEA conference called on the agency “to consider organizing international conferences on nuclear security every three years.”[16]

Address military stockpiles and separated plutonium. World leaders should decide to deal with military nuclear material stockpiles. The summit process so far has not substantively addressed this topic; it has been easier to reach consensus on materials for civilian use. Because the bulk of the world’s nuclear material remains outside civilian programs, it is a realm that requires attention and confidence-building measures. A precedent exists in the U.S.-Russian cooperative threat reduction efforts; it might be worthwhile to explore a multilateral approach. Nuclear-armed states could present gift baskets that commit to revealing the extent to which the IAEA’s most recent revision of its recommendations on physical protection is being applied to noncivilian nuclear materials.[17]

Another issue is separated plutonium, which has received much less attention than HEU in its civilian form in the nuclear security summit process, although each can be used to manufacture a nuclear bomb. Steps could be taken to address existing stocks of plutonium and capabilities to produce it.[18]

Enhance accountability and establish standardized reporting mechanisms. Nuclear security may encounter increasing challenges in accountability and ensuring that states fulfill their pledged commitments, especially if 2016 is the last summit. Penalties may be viewed as one way to hold states accountable, but they might risk the essence of the summit process: its reliance on voluntary commitments and consensus agreements.

Establish a nuclear security secretariat. Information and progress reports on the various elements of nuclear security are as fragmented as the regime itself. A rough Excel spreadsheet tracking progress and the remaining tasks supposedly exists in a computer of a White House official, but where will it be stored after 2016, and who will take the initiative with enough fervor and attention to detail to ensure that all elements of the global nuclear security work are on track?

Without a centralized database—a checklist of all commitments and pledges made at every summit—and a “conductor” or dedicated staff to orchestrate global nuclear security tasks, the existing patchwork that has started to come closer together may never cohere. As a practical matter, the IAEA or UN could be the keeper of this secretariat, perhaps by reconfiguring and expanding the mandate of the IAEA’s existing nuclear security office or by newly creating the entity as part of the UN. Whatever form it takes and wherever it is housed, the secretariat will need to be adequately funded to carry out its mission.


The nuclear security summit process, which began as Obama’s project with a U.S. focus, expanded its scope at the Seoul summit to reflect the global nature of the problem and evolving world challenges. It is important to maintain this kind of adaptability while maintaining a focus on the core nuclear security priorities stipulated in the 2010 Washington agenda.

The 2010 summit was a milestone in conceptualizing nuclear security. The 2012 summit injected measures to implement the necessary tasks at hand, globalized the agenda, and set forth a vision for nuclear security governance and the global regime. The 2014 summit is a crucial opportunity to sharpen that vision and make the patchwork of the nuclear security architecture more coherent. The 2016 summit may be the final chance for world leaders to set the cement poured in The Hague and to institutionalize and normalize nuclear security so that it becomes a natural endeavor that does not need to rely on summits to inject short-term political adrenaline.

Over the past four years, the summit process has proven that nuclear security is not an isolated problem for nuclear-weapon states. It is equally urgent for non-nuclear-weapon states that use nuclear energy or use radioactive sources for medical and industrial uses.

To continue making progress in strengthening global nuclear security, the summit participants will have to overcome a number of challenges:

Ambition versus reality. Each nuclear security summit has been a struggle between those pushing for more-ambitious goals and those who argue for a focus on incremental achievements. This difference in approaches has been described as a debate between transformationalists and incrementalists.[19] The main difficulty for ambitious approaches is translating them into practical actions on the ground while agreeing on specific actions involving sovereignty issues, technical and cultural differences, and 53 different national interests. On the other hand, the risk with the incremental approach is an unclear end state, a longer process, and shallow security measures. The urgency of nuclear security makes it imperative to pursue transformational as well as incremental approaches across the board, but a practical approach may be to secure success stories on substance incrementally while aiming for transformational progress on the process and structures.

Scope of the agenda. The summit process has struggled with maintaining a limited focus on nuclear materials and facility security. Some participating states have argued for an expansion of the agenda to include other nuclear issues, such as disarmament and nonproliferation. Other forums exist for discussions on these topics. It is unclear whether the demands for an expanded agenda will continue to be made at future summits or whatever forums are established to carry on the work of nuclear security.

Momentum, political will, and interest. The summit process is useful in that it incentivizes participants to fulfill their commitments to avoid the embarrassment of having nothing to announce in front of their fellow leaders. The challenge for the future is to overcome political fatigue and maintain a sense of urgency, even in the absence of a major nuclear security incident. The political value of the summit process already began to decline ahead of the second summit; it took a nuclear disaster in Japan to draw some world leaders back to the summit process in 2012.

Funding. The nuclear security summits can produce important policies that deepen nuclear security, and various stakeholders can help build capacity for nuclear security globally. Such initiatives, however, are hollow without proper financing. Mechanisms exist to fund nuclear security programs, but funding has already been a key challenge in completing the task. One largely untapped resource is the private sector, and a public-private fund could be an effective way to implement critical nuclear security programs. [20]

Significant as they are, these challenges are not insurmountable. Nuclear security must not rest as a four-year or six-year exercise. It is important that world leaders do not lose sight of the threat that nuclear and radiological terrorism pose to the world. It is also important that leaders impart coherence and momentum to a currently fragmented process that depends too heavily on the presence of top leaders, especially if the summits end in 2016. That would be a suitable legacy of the nuclear security summits.

Duyeon Kim is senior fellow for nonproliferation and East Asia at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. She previously was a diplomacy and security correspondent for a South Korean TV news broadcaster.


1. A “sherpa” is the lead delegate of each country’s team preparing for a summit. Ahead of each summit, these delegates are in charge of setting the agenda and drafting the communiqué, which is adopted by leaders at the summit.

2. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “IAEA Incident and Trafficking Database: Incidents of Nuclear and Other Radioactive Material Out of Regulatory Control, 2013 Fact Sheet,” n.d., http://www-ns.iaea.org/downloads/security/itdb-fact-sheet.pdf.

3. Natalie Huet and Emmanuel Jarry, “Greenpeace Activists Break Into French Nuclear Plant,” Reuters, July 15, 2013; Dan Zak, “The Prophets of Oak Ridge,” The Washington Post, September 24, 2013.

4. Gabriela Martinez and Joshua Partlow, “Stolen Cobalt-60 Found in Mexico; Thieves May Be Doomed,” The Washington Post, December 5, 2013.

5. As early as February 2011, U.S. administration officials were acknowledging that the effort would not be completed in four years. See Martin Matishak, “Global Nuclear Materials Lockdown to Take Longer Than Four Years,” Global Security Newswire, February 22, 2011, http://www.nti.org/gsn/article/global-nuclear-materials-lockdown-to-take-longer-than-four-years/. See Paul Wilke, “The Nuclear Security Summit 2014: Challenges and Opportunities,” WP1226, June 10, 2013, https://www.wiltonpark.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/WP1226-Report.pdf.

6. According to the IAEA, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material is “the only international legally binding undertaking in the area of physical protection of nuclear material. It establishes measures related to the prevention, detection and punishment of offenses relating to nuclear material.” The 2005 amendment “makes it legally binding for States Parties to protect nuclear facilities and material in peaceful domestic use, storage as well as transport. It also provides for expanded cooperation between and among States regarding rapid measures to locate and recover stolen or smuggled nuclear material, mitigate any radiological consequences of sabotage, and prevent and combat related offences.” See IAEA, “International Conventions and Legal Agreements: Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material,” n.d., http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Conventions/cppnm.html.

7. The term “nuclear security governance,” which was used prior to the 2012 Seoul summit, was changed to “nuclear security architecture” in the final Seoul communiqué due to controversy over the definition of “governance.” Some states apparently thought the term carried negative connotations, implying that some countries do not have good governance.

8. Michelle Cann, Kelsey Davenport, and Sarah Williams, “The Nuclear Security Summit: Progress Report,” Arms Control Association and Partnership for Global Security, July 2013, p. 5, http://uskoreainstitute.org/research/special-reports/nss2013.

9. Nuclear Security Summit 2014, https://www.nss2014.com/en.

10. IAEA, “International Physical Protection Advisory Service (IPPAS),” June 20, 2013, http://www-ns.iaea.org/security/ippas.asp.

11. These confidence-building measures are sometimes known as assurances, but it is not clear whether that term will continue to be used in the summit process.

12. The communiqué is drafted and negotiated in sherpa meetings prior to the summit. Usually, most of the substance and key points are decided on during the first sherpa meeting, sometimes during the second meeting. In the case of the 2012 summit, officials say the language was negotiated until the official release of the communiqué on the final day of the summit.

13. IAEA, “Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material: Declarations/Reservations Made Upon Expressing Consent to Be Bound and Objections Thereto,” December 4, 2013, http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Conventions/cppnm_amend_reserv.pdf.

14. Kenneth Luongo, “Improving Nuclear Security Governance Through the Nuclear Security Summits,” European Leadership Network, September 4, 2013, http://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/improving-nuclear-security-governance-through-the-nuclear-security-summits-_733.html.

15. Kelsey Davenport, “U.S. Says Nuclear Security Work Remains,” Arms Control Today, September 2013.

16. 2013 IAEA International Conference on Nuclear Security, “Ministerial Declaration,” http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/Meetings/PDFplus/2013/cn203/cn203MinisterialDeclaration.pdf.

17. According to the IAEA, INFCIRC/225/Revision 5 is the cornerstone of the physical protection regime and is “intended to provide guidance to States and their competent authorities on how to develop or enhance, implement and maintain a physical protection regime for nuclear material and nuclear facilities, through the establishment or improvement of their capabilities to implement legislative and regulatory programmes. The recommendations presented in [the document] reflect a broad consensus among IAEA Member States on the requirements which should be met for the physical protection of nuclear materials and nuclear facilities.” IAEA, “Nuclear Security Recommendations on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and Nuclear Facilities (INFCIRC/225/Revision 5),” IAEA Nuclear Security Series, No. 13 (2011), http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/Publications/PDF/Pub1481_web.pdf.

18. Fissile Materials Working Group, “Policy Recommendations: Consensus Policy Recommendations to Prevent Nuclear Terror From the Fissile Materials Working Group,” October 2013, http://www.fmwg.org/8%20FMWG%20Recommendations%2010-2013.pdf.

19. William Tobey, “Planning for Success at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit” (unpublished, November 12, 2013) (copy on file with author).

20. Emma L. Belcher, “A Nuclear Security Fund,” Policy Innovation Memorandum, No. 6 (July 2011), http://i.cfr.org/content/publications/attachments/Policy_Innovation_Memo6_Belcher.pdf.

Posted: January 9, 2014