Anti-Nuclear Terrorism Initiative Launched

Wade Boese

The United States and Russia launched an initiative July 15 that they hope will energize countries worldwide to prevent and react to nuclear terrorist attacks. Whether they succeed remains uncertain, as the initiative is still in its formative stages.

Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin announced the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism July 15 in St. Petersburg just before the Group of Eight (G-8) summit. A joint statement by the two leaders declared that “[t]he United States and Russia call upon like-minded nations to expand and accelerate efforts that develop partnership capacity to combat nuclear terrorism on a determined and systematic basis.” Putin told reporters that he hoped the initiative “opens new horizons” and delivers “concrete results.”

Precisely what other governments will be asked to do is expected to be clarified over the next several months. Moscow and Washington plan to hold a meeting sometime this fall to draw up a statement of principles to guide future actions under the initiative.

When and where this inaugural event will take place has not been determined. Department of State officials interviewed Aug. 17 by Arms Control Today said that other expected participants include the six other G-8 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom) and a few additional select governments. The International Atomic Energy Agency also will be invited as an observer.

One of the State Department officials said the limited participation reflected a desire to restrict the number of those negotiating the principles to a “manageable number.” Afterward, all countries who endorse the principles would be welcome to participate in the initiative.

The U.S. intent is to keep the principles “short and sweet,” the official said. The principles, he added, would not “radically” veer from the contents of the presidents’ joint statement. In their statement, the two leaders urged stepping up efforts to account for and secure nuclear materials, ferret out and crack down on illicit nuclear trade, stiffen penalties for terrorists seeking nuclear material, and prepare for the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

Much of what is in the joint statement, such as safeguarding nuclear materials against theft, are measures countries have already voluntarily committed to doing or are obliged to do by legally binding agreements and acts. For instance, UN Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1673 require governments to “adopt and enforce appropriate effective laws” to deny nonstate actors unconventional weapons. (See ACT, June 2006.) Another State Department official stated that these pre-existing commitments and obligations constitute the “floor” of what should be expected of other countries.

The State Department officials stressed that the initiative’s value will be measured in part by how quickly governments can translate it into action: holding exercises, forming task forces, convening working groups, and sharing lessons learned. The heart of the initiative, they insisted, was the creation of “partnerships and networks” within and between governments, as well as the public and private sectors.

In a July 18 speech in Washington, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Robert Joseph spoke on this theme. “The initiative will bring diplomats together with first responders, forensic and technical experts, law enforcement officers, the military, and others,” he stated.

Joseph further said a specific work plan would be drawn up at the initiative’s first meeting. He outlined some objectives that the United States would like to see achieved, such as including national nuclear materials information databases and a real-time process for sharing information on detections of illicit nuclear trafficking.

At the same time, Joseph emphasized the voluntary nature of the initiative. “Our goal is to galvanize our partners to invest greater resources in their own capabilities to protect nuclear materials on their territories,” Joseph stated.

In many respects, the initiative resembles the Bush administration’s voluntary three-year-old Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to interdict shipments of unconventional weapons in transit. Like the PSI, there are no plans for the nuclear terrorism initiative to have a secretariat, formal structure, or financial dues. PSI participants repeatedly note that the PSI is “an activity, not an organization.”

Announcement of the new initiative largely drew praise. Japan, Kazakhstan, and Turkey issued statements welcoming the initiative, as did NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. Former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a leading advocate of securing global nuclear materials, also labeled the initiative a “significant breakthrough” but cautioned that “there can be a big gap between words and deeds, a big gap between pledges and programs, and a big gap between goals and accomplishments.”