U.S. Set to Co-Sponsor New Nuclear Security Initiative

This article is an ACT Web Extra. It was posted on March 14, 2014, and does not appear in the print or PDF version of the March 2014 Arms Control Today.

Kelsey Davenport

A new initiative to be launched at this month’s nuclear security summit in The Hague will commit participating states to the “highest standards” of nuclear security, the White House’s top official for countering weapons of mass destruction said in a March 6 interview.

The initiative will demonstrate the importance of adherence to nuclear security best practices and international guidelines, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for defense policy, countering weapons of mass destruction, and arms control, said in the interview.

The initiative, sponsored by the Netherlands, South Korea, and the United States, will be opened for states to join at the March 24-25 summit. This will be the third summit to be convened since President Barack Obama in 2009 announced an effort to lock down all vulnerable nuclear material.

Although the text of the initiative has not been made public, it reportedly will commit states to implement international guidelines for nuclear security, including those published by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Sherwood-Randall said the United States expects progress in three key areas at the summit: further commitments to dispose of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, efforts to strengthen the global “nuclear security architecture,” and “assurances,” or voluntary actions that states can take to demonstrate to the international community that they are maintaining high standards for nuclear security without disclosing sensitive information. Issue specialists use the term “architecture” to refer to the combination of elements dealing with nuclear security: institutions and organizations, legal instruments, evolving norms and best practices, and assurances.

At the summit, states will announce actions that will generate further progress in these key areas, Sherwood-Randall said.

Ensuring that the IAEA “has the resources it requires” and strengthening other international organizations, such as Interpol and the World Institute for Nuclear Security, are necessary elements for building up the nuclear security architecture, Sherwood-Randall said. She said that the summit process is contributing to strengthening the role of the IAEA and other multilateral organizations in nuclear security. For example, the summit process has helped make the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism a “durable international institution,” she said.

Progress in these areas will contribute to building a global nuclear security “scaffolding” so that the summits are no longer necessary and improving nuclear security is a “self-sustaining” process, Sherwood-Randall said. The United States decided to host a fourth summit in 2016 because this “job is not done,” she said.

One of the additional benefits of the summit process is that it has created a “global network of experts” who work on nuclear security across the governments of the 53 participating countries, she said.

The network of experts allows for “ongoing dialogue” and interaction among countries, she said, noting that this has led to “expanded bilateral cooperation.”

Interactive Summit

Sherwood-Randall said that the Dutch have done an “extraordinary job” preparing for the 2014 summit and have put forward “bold ideas” for the meeting. The Netherlands has planned a policy exercise in which the national leaders attending the meeting have to respond to various scenarios of a nuclear security crisis.

Like the past two summits, this one will produce a communiqué endorsed by the 53 participating states. States are also expected to make additional national commitments and sign on to joint statements, which are multilateral commitments to improve areas of nuclear security.

These multilateral commitments began at the 2012 Seoul summit, where states were able to sign on to 13 joint statements. The trilateral Dutch-South Korean-U.S. initiative will be just one of many new joint statements, also known as gift baskets, that will be announced at the summit.

Several states already have announced that they will present new joint statements at the 2014 summit or build on statements made in 2012. The Netherlands committed to leading a new joint statement on nuclear forensics that will be announced in The Hague, while the United Kingdom intends to keep working on its 2012 joint statement on nuclear information security, according to UK officials.

Participating countries were encouraged to prepare video messages to outline the progress made on nuclear security and goals for further improvement. On the second day of the summit, a session just for the leaders will focus on the future of the summit process.

There is no decision yet as to whether the process will continue after the 2016 summit. Obama administration officials have said in the past the summit process is not intended to be permanent and that no single institution is intended to take on the work of the summits. (See ACT, September 2013.)

U.S. Commitments

States are expected to pledge to eliminate stocks of U.S.-origin nuclear materials at the Dutch summit, and the United States will accept the HEU and plutonium for disposition, Sherwood-Randall said.

Since Obama initiated the summit process in 2009, 12 countries have eliminated their stockpiles of weapons-usable materials. According to a recent report released by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), 25 countries still have at least 1 kilogram of weapons-usable material. Of those 25 countries, 21 participate in the nuclear security summit process.

Australia, Belgium, and Italy have already pledged to return excess HEU or plutonium to the United States, but have not yet completed the disposition. It has been reported that, at this month’s summit, Japan will announce its intention to ship several hundred kilograms of plutonium back to the United States.

At the summit, the United States will announce further upgrades to the physical security of its nuclear facilities, Sherwood-Randall said. Referring to a 2012 break-in at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, she said that strengthening physical security is an “ongoing process” for all countries and that the United States is discussing with its counterparts the lessons that were learned from this incident.

While the focus of the first two summits was on civilian materials and facilities, some countries, including the Netherlands, would like to see the summit process expanded to more formally include the protection of military materials and the elimination of excess materials. According to the NTI, military materials comprise about 85 percent of the world’s nuclear stockpiles. It is unclear to what extent military materials will be addressed at the upcoming summit.

Sherwood-Randall said that the United States also would announce further actions to be taken with other countries in a variety of areas, including strengthening the security of radioactive sources, converting HEU-fueled research reactors to run on low-enriched uranium fuel, and enhancing detection to prevent the smuggling of nuclear materials.

2010 Commitments

The United States recently fulfilled a commitment it made at the 2010 summit when the IAEA completed a review of the physical protection measures at a U.S. nuclear facility.

Such reviews, conducted by the IAEA International Physical Protection Advisory Service (IPPAS), are a way to demonstrate that countries are willing to receive “constructive criticism” and take steps to improve performance, Sherwood-Randall 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 protection of nuclear materials and associated facilities. IPPAS missions can focus on a specific facility or review national practices.

The two-week IPPAS mission in the United States, which was completed last October, reviewed the physical protection systems at the Center for Neutron Research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland.

According to an Oct. 11 IAEA press release, the IPPAS mission resulted in “a recommendation and some suggestions for the continuing improvement of nuclear security overall.” The team identified best practices at the facility and concluded that U.S. nuclear security practices in the civil nuclear sector are “robust,” the release said.

These missions are an example of the assurances concept that the Obama administration hopes will be advanced at The Hague summit, Sherwood-Randall said. It is important for the United States to set an example for IPPAS missions because there is a “spectrum” of what countries are willing to open up for inspection, she said.

There is no mechanism that tracks whether countries follow through on the recommendations from the IPPAS missions. But Sherwood-Randall said countries that requested missions are working to implement the recommendations.

At a December meeting in Paris, participants at the first international seminar on IPPAS missions reached a similar conclusion, a French official said in a March 7 interview. He said that states have “an incentive to take action on recommendations” once they have completed an IPPAS review because requesting a peer review “shows an openness to suggestions for improvement.” But he added that there are ways to improve the effectiveness of the IPPAS mission process and encourage greater implementation of the IPPAS recommendations and suggestions.

Follow-up IPPAS missions should receive more emphasis, he said, adding that these missions can “assess the implementation of prior recommendations” and “reinforce positive progress.”

One of the recommendations from the Paris meeting was that the IAEA should produce a “guide of good practices” observed during IPPAS missions, he said. This will allow other states to “perform self-assessments in some areas and improve their own practices,” he added. States might release some of the findings from the IPPAS missions that do not compromise national security, he said. This transparency would “provide evidence to the international community that a state has good nuclear material security,” he said.

IPPAS findings are confidential, but some states, including the Netherlands, have chosen to release some of the findings from the IPPAS teams.

South Korea, host of the 2012 summit, recently hosted an IPPAS mission, which reviewed the country’s regulatory framework for nuclear and radioactive materials, its security measures for the transport of these materials, and physical protection measures at two reactors, according to a March 7 IAEA press release. The IAEA said that its team identified “good practices” and made recommendations for “continuous improvement.”

The South Korean IPPAS mission was the 62nd mission conducted by the IAEA since the service was first offered in 1995. Forty countries have received IPPAS missions to date, according to the IAEA.

Armenia, a nuclear security summit participant, announced that it has invited an IPPAS mission to be conducted this year, and additional countries are expected to announce requests for IPPAS reviews at the summit.

Treaties Not Ratified

One commitment from the 2010 summit that the United States has not met is its pledge to complete ratification of two key legal instruments.

One of these is the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. The original treaty, which entered into force in 1987, sets security standards for nuclear material in transit. When in force, the amendment will expand the scope of the physical protection measures to cover material in storage.

Officials from other countries have called on the United States to take action on the 2005 amendment. (See ACT, March 2014.) Sherwood-Randall said that Washington does need to pass the implementing legislation that will allow the United States to complete the ratification process. The House of Representatives passed the legislation last June, but there has been no movement in the Senate.