Thirty-five countries last month launched an initiative that they said bolsters their commitment to implementing existing international guidelines on nuclear security, in part by incorporating the “fundamentals” of the voluntary guidelines into binding national rules.
The initiative was announced at the March 24-25 nuclear security summit in The Hague, the third in the series of biennial meetings.
In a March 25 press conference in The Hague announcing the initiative, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said the initiative is the “closest thing we have to international standards for nuclear security.”
The new initiative, called “Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation,” was sponsored by the hosts of the three summits—the Netherlands, South Korea, and the United States—ahead of the March summit and was open to all 53 participating countries to join. (See ACT, March 2014, Web Extra.)
According to the document outlining the initiative’s commitments, the aim is to “demonstrate progress made in improving nuclear security worldwide.” These recommendations could serve “as a role model” for transparent behavior worldwide, the document said.
The initiative commits participating states to meet or exceed recommendations on nuclear security outlined in a series of documents published by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
At the March 25 press conference, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said that the initiative has two objectives: to “eliminate weak links” in the nuclear security and to “build confidence in nuclear security internationally.” By taking part in the initiative, the 35 countries have demonstrated their commitment to “continuous improvement,” he said.
The initiative’s roster includes all of the European and North American participants, as well as a range of others, such as Algeria, Israel, Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam.
The 35 states pledged to conduct self-assessments; host periodic peer reviews, including IAEA reviews by the International Physical Protection Advisory Service (IPPAS); and implement the recommendations identified during the review process. This will allow them to “continue to improve the effectiveness of their nuclear security regimes and operators’ systems,” the document said.
At the request of an IAEA member state, an IPPAS mission can assist the country in strengthening its national nuclear security regime by providing advice on implementing international guidelines and IAEA nuclear security guidance and by conducting reviews of the country’s measures to protect nuclear materials and associated facilities. IPPAS missions can focus on a specific facility or review national practices.
The initiative requires states to ensure that the management and personnel responsible for nuclear security are “demonstrably competent” and includes a list of optional activities that states can take to further improve their nuclear security.
In a March 25 interview, Kenneth Brill, a former U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, said that the initiative was a “useful step forward” for several reasons. It is important that states are agreeing on guidelines to follow for nuclear security and “implicitly recognizing international responsibility” for nuclear security. He also cited the commitment to voluntary peer reviews as a significant new development.
But there is “still a long way to go,” Brill said, adding that he would have liked to have seen China, India, Pakistan, and Russia sign join the initiative because India and Pakistan have growing stockpiles of fissile materials and China and Russia need to demonstrate leadership as recognized nuclear-weapon states with large stockpiles of materials.
In 2016, when the United States hosts the next summit, President Barack Obama must seize on the progress made at this summit and “take it to a new level,” Brill said.
Nuclear security must be “sustainable” and have “agreed-on mechanisms for going forward in the coming years,” he said. This includes legally binding nuclear security regulations and “mechanisms to assist states that need help in meeting them,” Brill said.
Array of Actions
The consensus communiqué issued by the summit’s 53 participants laid out a number of actions for states to take to improve nuclear security, but the recommendations are nonbinding.
States were encouraged to ratify the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM). The convention, which entered into force in 1987, sets security standards for nuclear material in transit. The 2005 amendment would expand the scope of the physical protection measures to cover material in storage.
An additional 26 ratifications are necessary to reach the 98 necessary for bringing the amendment into force. The United States and South Korea are among the 17 summit participants that have not yet completed ratification.
Although entry into force of the 2005 amendment will set binding legal standards for nuclear materials in storage, “two key gaps” will remain, Jonathan Herbach, a researcher in nuclear security and arms control law at Utrecht University’s Centre for Conflict and Security Law, said in a March 24 interview. He said the amendment covers only part of the world’s stockpiles of nuclear material because military materials are not included. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, 85 percent of the world’s nuclear materials are military stockpiles.
The 2005 amendment also does not address radiological sources. These sources, he said, are “more easily obtainable” and require “less technical expertise to use in an explosive device” than nuclear materials.
The CPPNM also does not provide a mechanism for expansion to cover additional areas, such as military materials, he said.
The communiqué identified voluntary measures that countries could take to demonstrate to the international community that they are implementing sound nuclear security practices without compromising national security. These measures, also known as assurances, include “publishing information about national laws, regulations and organisational structures,” the communiqué said. The measures in the communiqué also include “further developing training of personnel involved in nuclear security by setting up and stimulating participation in training courses and applying domestic certification schemes,” as well as exchanging information on good practices.
One of these voluntary measures is to invite the IPPAS reviews, but there are concerns by experts and summit participants that the IAEA may not have the capacity to handle an increased volume of IPPAS missions.
Bart Dal, former national coordinator for nuclear security and safeguards in the Netherlands, said in a March 24 interview that the size of the IAEA budget and staff is “just one” of the factors that needs to be considered. Dal, who has participated as an expert on IPPAS missions, said that countries need to “continue training experts in physical protection” for the teams that carry out these missions.
IPPAS teams are comprised of experts from member countries.
Implementing the recommendations from IPPAS missions is voluntary, but there is “no example of a country that did not follow up on the recommendations” in all of the missions that have taken place, Dal said.
The communiqué encouraged states to take actions to minimize their stockpiles of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and keep stockpiles of plutonium “to a minimum level.”
Several countries announced progress on eliminating weapons-usable materials and pledged to continue efforts to reduce their stockpiles of those materials. Currently, 25 countries possess HEU or separated plutonium, 21 of which participate in the summit process.
Two of those countries, Japan and the United States, announced in a March 24 joint statement that the United States would take back more than 700 kilograms of HEU and plutonium from the Fast Critical Assembly facility in Japan. In the United States, the HEU will be down-blended into low-enriched uranium and used for civilian purposes, the joint statement said. The plutonium will be “prepared for final disposition” in the United States, the announcement said.
In other announcements at last month’s summit, Belgium and Italy each issued a joint statement with the United States saying it had completed the return of HEU and plutonium to the United States, fulfilling pledges made at the 2012 summit in Seoul. The United States will secure the materials and dispose of them, the statements said.
Italy, in an effort that also involved the IAEA and the United Kingdom, returned about 20 kilograms of HEU and plutonium. The cooperation included the “development of novel packaging configurations for the consolidation of plutonium materials within Italy, and the training and certification of personnel for specialized packaging operations” in Italy, according to the U.S.-Italian joint statement. The statement also said that the two countries would work together to eliminate additional stockpiles of these materials from Italy.
The U.S.-Belgian statement did not specify the amount of HEU that Belgium returned, saying only that it was “significant.” The two countries will work together to dispose of more material, their joint statement said.
Canada also announced on March 24 that it had returned about 45 kilograms of HEU to the United States.
At the summit, 13 countries issued a joint statement proclaiming themselves free of HEU. The majority of the countries have eliminated their stockpiles since Obama began the effort to secure nuclear materials in 2009. The list of countries includes the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Vietnam, all of which got rid of their stockpiles in 2013.
It is unclear if the summit process will continue beyond the summit that the United States will host in 2016. U.S. officials have said in the past that the summit process was never meant to be a permanent institution.
In a March 25 statement, Irma Arguello, president of the Argentina-based NPSGlobal Foundation, said that, at the 2016 summit, “leaders must lay the foundation for an efficient, adaptable, inclusive, and harmonized nuclear security system” that can become “the enduring legacy of the process.”
In the Hague communiqué, countries agreed that their representatives will “continue to participate in different international forums dealing with nuclear security” because “continuous efforts” are needed to strengthen international nuclear security. The document recognized that the IAEA will play the “leading role” in the coordination of these efforts, but did not rule out future summits or indicate any successor organization.
Kelsey Davenport’s reporting from The Hague was supported by a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America.