Endgame for the Nuclear Security Summits

Kenneth N. Luongo

President Barack Obama surprised virtually everyone when he announced last June that the United States would host another, and probably final, nuclear security summit in 2016. In doing so, he created the opportunity to significantly improve the nuclear security regime by the end of the decade and create an enduring and signature legacy for the summit process he initiated.

The upcoming summit in The Hague in March and the subsequent summit in the United States offer an opportunity to eliminate persistent weak links in the regime and improve nuclear security governance. By linking these two events in a strategic endgame, the summit participants can significantly strengthen the existing system and create a platform for continuous nuclear security progress after the series of summits ends.

Summit Legacy to Date

The nuclear security summits have done a very good job of raising the profile of the nuclear security issue through the participation of heads of state. They have led to the accelerated removal of all weapons-grade uranium from 12 countries, a growing network of nuclear security centers of excellence for developing and disseminating best practices in nuclear security, and the updating by dozens of countries of their national nuclear safety and security laws.[1]

Beyond the consensus communiqués, the summit process also introduced “house gifts”—individual national commitments—at the 2010 summit in Washington and “gift baskets”— multilateral commitments—at the 2012 summit in Seoul.

One important hallmark of the summit process has been the growth of the scope of the nuclear security issue with each event so that it now encompasses the full spectrum of challenges. The Washington summit focused almost exclusively on fissile materials. The Seoul meeting expanded the scope to include the interface between safety and security at nuclear facilities and the protection of high-activity radioactive sources that can be used in “dirty bombs.”

In addition, beginning with the Washington summit, two satellite summits organized by nongovernmental nuclear experts and nuclear industry officials were held in advance of the governmental summit. In 2010, each event was organized in isolation. Today, collaboration has advanced to the point where the themes for the nongovernmental and industry events in the Netherlands are being coordinated and these two events will exchange speakers and participants.

The summit participants have proceeded cautiously, however, avoiding important but controversial issues. In particular, the focus of the communiqués from the 2010 and 2012 gatherings has been on what is acceptable to 53 disparate countries rather than on what needs to be done to improve global nuclear security. As a result, gaps and weak links in the nuclear security system have been allowed to persist.

What has been missing from the agenda is attention to the improvement of nuclear security governance—the rules and practices that govern how well the global community manages the civilian and military nuclear enterprise—and the cohesion, information sharing, and confidence building in the effectiveness of the nuclear security system that are necessary for its optimal functioning.

The Netherlands, with its 300-year history as the capital of international law, is the ideal location to add these important nuclear security governance issues to the summit agenda.

Governance Challenges

The current system for managing nuclear security has improved significantly over the past decade. New UN Security Council resolutions were passed; the amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM), which expands the scope of required protection beyond nuclear materials in transit to include those materials in storage, has been opened for signature and ratification; and the nuclear security summits have generated new pressures for action.

Important as they are, these achievements do not address all the significant nuclear security challenges. Global experts have consistently identified four key governance improvements that still are needed.

  • The regime needs to be more cohesive, and its current components need to be universalized and maximized.
  • There needs to be greater cross-border communication of nonsensitive information for the purpose of building international confidence in the system.
  • The system requires the establishment of a peer review process similar to the one employed in the nuclear safety regime.
  • Best practices need to be disseminated. They should be allowed to be implemented in a flexible and culturally sensitive manner, but the result should be the global implementation of common security standards.

The summit participants have not adequately acknowledged these needs and have not acted to address them. A fundamental point about the current regime is that the impediments to its improvement are political, not technical, and political will is necessary to make these advances.

Two-Track Strategy for Progress

The challenges posed by the gaps and weaknesses in today’s nuclear security system can be addressed through two tracks: soft- and hard-governance approaches on a continuum over time. Soft governance includes promotion of a culture of continuous nuclear security improvement and new norm development through measures that are voluntary and not legally binding. Hard governance includes the legal mechanisms that ensure that nuclear security improvements and standards are codified, binding, and comprehensively implemented.

The goal for the international community should be the completion of the soft-governance confidence-building actions on a timetable ending in 2020. During this period, responsible states that are committed to a significantly improved nuclear security system should begin work on a framework convention, the hard-governance element of the process.

Soft governance. The security summit participants can readily tackle the issue of maximizing the current regime in The Hague if there is the will to do so. The assembled 53 countries can agree to fully implement all the nuclear security recommendations put forth by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to which not all currently adhere because these recommendations are nonbinding. They can agree to employ the review provision in the CPPNM and its amendment, which has rarely been utilized. They also can agree to refocus efforts under the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism on the prevention of nuclear terrorist acts rather than the legal response to them. Additionally, to promote regime universalization further, a simple checklist with about 50 items could be introduced to allow for easy assessment of countries’ compliance with the current conventions and IAEA recommendations.[2]

The remaining issues—the needs for regime cohesion, information sharing, and common security standards—can be raised as important new issues at The Hague summit, and the summit participants can make preparations to implement them at the U.S. summit two years later. One of the most effective approaches would be for some key countries to put forth a gift basket or similar initiative identifying steps for future improvements in nuclear security governance.

These governance objectives have been gathering support in recent years. In June 2012, the Asia Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, which includes numerous former government officials from the region, called for binding nuclear security standards, an international mechanism for reporting on nuclear security performance, and peer review of nuclear security measures.[3] At the Seoul summit, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard endorsed a nuclear security accountability framework and peer review.[4] Others, including a group comprising former U.S. Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), have called on world leaders at The Hague summit to “commit to develop a comprehensive global materials security system.”[5] In advance of the July 2013 IAEA International Conference on Nuclear Security, the agency’s director-general, Yukiya Amano, wrote that it was a “no brainer” to have peer reviews of a country’s nuclear security arrangements and noted that they are being used effectively to improve nuclear safety.[6]

Hard governance. States need to be thinking beyond these important intermediate confidence-building steps and examining the value of hard-governance approaches. This includes consideration of a framework agreement on nuclear security that can supplement, not replace, existing conventions and close the security gaps.

The proposal for this type of an agreement has been criticized as potentially detracting from efforts to universalize the existing international agreements and as potentially requiring a very difficult international negotiation. These complaints, however, seem defensive and weak.

The call for universalization of the existing regime has been a key part of the nuclear security summits. Universalization also is an objective of the IAEA. A framework agreement would do nothing to undermine these existing agreements or impede countries from signing and ratifying them. Its goal is to better knit the existing commitments together and fill gaps, not incorporate or replace these agreements. In fact, the convention can simply reference the existing agreements, identify their fundamental objectives, and designate a process for addressing them. It can then rely on protocols to define specific actions for implementation. There are successful examples of this approach, including the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer. In this case, the framework identified the challenge and principles, and then its protocol identified the actions that the parties would take to mitigate the impact of chlorofluorocarbon gases on the ozone layer.

Beyond the Summits

In order to effectively manage the future improvement of the nuclear security system after the summit process ends, the summit participants, countries outside the summit process, and the nongovernmental and industry communities must give serious thought to the process for determining the successor to the nuclear security summits. This is more than a bureaucratic formality. The lack of an institutional home for the summit process and its commitments has been cited as one reason for the lack of significant policy innovation at the summits. Without clarity on follow-up for and monitoring of summit commitments and a forum for making new commitments after the 2016 summit, there is a disincentive to make significant policy offers.

The innovations of the nuclear security summits—high-level participation, attention to nuclear terrorism, unilateral and multilateral commitments, acceleration of security improvements, and integration of key stakeholder groups through the satellite summit process—are important characteristics that need to be maintained. Most options for a successor to the summit process, however, are not very well suited to embrace all these innovations in one forum or organization.

For many, the IAEA seems like the most likely candidate to inherit the summit process. The agency has a number of obvious advantages. It is a widely respected international institution. It possesses the technical staff and institutional capacity to develop recommendations for nuclear security and carry out missions to assess areas for improvement. It has upgraded the status of the Office of Nuclear Security within its own bureaucracy. With its successful July conference, it demonstrated its ability to attract high-level political actors and execute a comprehensive, substantive program.

Inevitably, the IAEA is going to have a major role in managing the nuclear security issue, and it has shown that it can generate support among its member states for expanded nuclear security efforts. Yet, it has not created the channel for action beyond the consensus of its members that is an essential part of the summit process. This can potentially be remedied, but it will not be easy or quick.

Other options for carrying on the work of the nuclear security summits include transferring it to the Group of Eight, the Group of 20, or the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism or creating a new institution. Yet, all of these options have significant drawbacks, including limited membership, focuses that are different from those of the security summits, a lack of a “gift making” channel, potential opposition from members, and a limited history of involvement with the private sector or nongovernmental organizations on nuclear security.

There are three additional options. The first is that no single institution will inherit the mission of the nuclear security summits, and the mission will be disaggregated and absorbed by other existing institutions. This option almost certainly will dilute the political momentum and power that have been hallmarks of the nuclear security summits.

The second option is to create a troika of the countries that have hosted the summits and periodically call for a meeting to review the state of the issue and offer new initiatives. None of the host countries—the United States, South Korea, or the Netherlands—has yet expressed any public support for this nascent proposal.

The third option is to use the framework convention as the vehicle to maintain political pressure on governments to continue their focus on the issues and, in the process, allow for continuous improvement in the nuclear security system.

The best path forward for the nuclear security summits would be to carry forward the broad definition of nuclear security and marry that with a technical expertise track and a parallel, high-level political process that includes the pursuit of a framework convention and its subsequent protocols. This combination can maintain momentum and drive innovation. This type of an arrangement would provide an incentive for the nuclear industry and the nongovernmental community to remain involved in the issue and deepen the partnership among these key stakeholders, which is critical for future success.


The nuclear security summits have passed the halfway point and are now heading into the endgame. The legacy of the summits, however, is not yet written. They have made modest progress to date, but have lacked creativity. Most of what has been accomplished was contemplated before the summits began.

Strengthening the nuclear security governance system is a major new issue that has sufficient scope and power to continue to drive the nuclear security system on a path of continual improvement. There is no better place to begin this effort than The Hague, with its strong and long-standing connection to international law.

A nuclear security governance initiative offered at The Hague summit would outline the issues that need to be addressed and studied further. The results of these analyses can be presented in 2016 for consideration and action. This linkage between summits would create momentum and act as a springboard for the development of a cohesive soft- and hard-governance action plan.

This sequence of actions can significantly reduce and ultimately eliminate weak links in the current global nuclear security system. If summit participants follow this sequence, they will create an effective, comprehensive, and durable global nuclear security system that will be an enduring legacy of the nuclear security summits.

Kenneth N. Luongo is president and founder of the Partnership for Global Security (PGS) and the Center for a Secure Nuclear Future. He previously served as senior adviser for nonproliferation policy to Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary. He is a member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors. This article is based on the work of the Nuclear Security Governance Experts Group, which the PGS co-chairs with the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and the Stanley Foundation.


1. See Michelle Cann, Kelsey Davenport, and Sarah Williams, “Nuclear Security Summit: Progress Report,” Arms Control Association and Partnership for Global Security, July 2013, http://pgstest.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/nuclear_security_summit_report_2013.pdf; U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, “United States, International Partners Remove Last Remaining Weapons-Usable Highly Enriched Uranium From Hungary, Set Nuclear Security Milestone,” November 4, 2013, http://energy.gov/articles/united-states-international-partners-remove-last-remaining-weapons-usable-highly-enriched.

2. Nuclear Security Governance Experts Group, “Building International Confidence and Responsibility in Nuclear Security: Summary Report and Initial Policy Recommendations,” June 2013, http://www.nsgeg.org/NSGEG_Amman.pdf.

3. Asia Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, “Statement on Nuclear Security,” June 13, 2012, http://a-pln.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/APLNNuclearSecurityStatement13vi12.pdf.

4. Julia Gillard, “Intervention to the Plenary of the Nuclear Security Summit, Seoul,” March 27, 2012, http://pmtranscripts.dpmc.gov.au/browse.php?did=18467.

5. George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, “Next Steps in Reducing Nuclear Risks,” The Wall Street Journal, March 5, 2013.

6. Yukiya Amano, “Securing Nuclear Material,” Project Syndicate, June 28, 2013, http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/strengthening-the-convention-on-the-protection-of-nuclear-materials-by-yukiya-amano.