Obama Hails Nuclear Security Milestone

May 2016

By Kelsey Davenport

An amended treaty setting standards for nuclear security received enough ratifications to enter into force, President Barack Obama announced at the fourth meeting of world leaders on nuclear security in Washington last month. 

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed the announcement on April 8, when Nicaragua became the 102nd state-party to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) to deposit its instrument of ratification for the 2005 amendment to the treaty. 

Two-thirds of the states-parties to the original CPPNM must complete the ratification process for a proposed amendment to be approved and take effect. The newly approved amendment will enter into force May 8.

The CPPNM amendment expands the original treaty to require parties not only to protect nuclear material in international transit, but also to protect nuclear facilities and nuclear material that is in domestic storage, use, or transit. 

In an April 1 press briefing at the end of the two-day summit, Obama said that entry into force of this treaty will provide “more tools” in the event of the theft of nuclear materials or an attack on a nuclear facility. 

Since Obama hosted the first summit focused on preventing nuclear terrorism and securing nonmilitary nuclear materials in 2010, entry into force of the 2005 amendment to the CPPNM has been a key priority. After the initial call for ratification at the 2010 summit in Washington, it was reiterated at the subsequent gatherings in Seoul in 2012 and The Hague in 2014. At the 2012 summit, leaders set the goal of entry into force by the end of 2014. 

Several summit participants completed ratification of the amended treaty in the weeks leading up to the meeting, including Azerbaijan, New Zealand, and Pakistan. The United States, after committing to ratify the amended treaty at the 2010 summit, completed the process last July. 

IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said on April 8 that entry into force will “increase international cooperation in locating and recovering stolen or smuggled nuclear material.”

National Commitments

Over the course of the six-year summit process, countries made more than 260 specific commitments to improve nuclear security, Obama said in his April 1 remarks. 

Beginning with the 2010 summit, each country was encouraged to make specific commitments to enhance nuclear security at each subsequent summit. Beginning in 2012, countries could also make commitments in coordination with other countries in the form of joint statements (see box below).

In addition to the elimination and consolidation of weapons-usable nuclear material, Obama noted that the summit commitments included state actions to improve nuclear security by strengthening regulations and physical security of nuclear facilities and multilateral cooperation to prevent nuclear smuggling.

A European official at the summit said on April 14 that some of the “more notable accomplishments” at this summit came from China and India, countries that have stockpiles of weapons-usable materials for civilian uses.

The official said these countries “finally stepped up” and joined one of the major multilateral initiatives to emerge from the summit process.

A 2014 joint statement committed subscribing states to meet the intent of the IAEA’s voluntary guidelines on nuclear security in their domestic laws and regulations. China and India did not sign the joint statement in 2014, but committed to it at this year’s summit.

An official from an Asian country pointed to an increased number of peer reviews as an important accomplishment of the summit process. He said that the summit process “transformed” the IAEA International Physical Protection Advisory Service (IPPAS) from “a practice for states with security concerns to an accepted best practice.”

More than 20 countries, including China, France, Indonesia, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, requested IPPAS missions over the course of the summit.

The Asian country official said that the summit process could have done more to encourage states to examine protections against cyberattacks or sabotage, which he identified as growing threats that “many countries are not prepared to combat.”

The UK did offer a joint statement on enhancing cybersecurity at nuclear facilities. It includes holding workshops to address areas at risk from cyberattacks and reporting to the IAEA on the progress made to address these threats. Twenty-eight countries signed on to the statement. 

Material Removals

One of the initial goals for the summit process that Obama announced in April 2009 in Prague was to “lock down” weapons-usable nuclear material in the civilian sector. When the summits began in April 2010, 32 countries possessed weapons-usable materials. By April 2016, that number had dropped to 22 countries. 

Obama said in his April 1 press conference that, over the course of the summit process, “more than 3.8 tons” of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium has been removed or secured. That is “more than enough to create 150 nuclear weapons,” he said. 

Notable Joint Statements from the 2016 Summit

When 52 countries met for the fourth nuclear security summit in Washington from March 31 to April 1, they had the opportunity to sign on to multilateral joint statements that targeted particular areas of nuclear security. These joint statements, or “gift baskets,” are voluntary commitments. More than a dozen new joint statements were offered at the summit. Some of the more important ones are summarized below.

Consolidated Reporting

Seventeen countries, led by the Netherlands, subscribed to a joint statement that integrates reporting requirements under treaties and other international instruments into a single consolidated national nuclear security reporting form. The form includes relevant requirements under the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires states to provide information on steps taken to put in place export controls and nuclear security measures. It also allows for the voluntary provision of additional information on domestic measures taken to enhance nuclear security. Subscribing states support the use of the model reporting form.


Twenty-eight countries signed on to a joint statement, led by the United Kingdom, that commits them to ensuring adequate cybersecurity at industrial control and plant systems at nuclear facilities. The statement includes plans for international workshops on threats, vulnerabilities, and incidents that can affect control systems.

Mitigation of Insider Threats

Twenty-seven countries committed to establishing and implementing national-level measures to mitigate insider threats. The measures outlined in the joint statement include implementing national-level policies on this issue, establishing trustworthiness programs, and developing a nuclear security regime for the protection of materials and facilities from insider activities. States also committed to supporting an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) training course on measures to prevent and protect against insider threats.

Preparedness and Response

Capabilities South Korea led 24 countries in supporting a joint statement in which they pledge to consider developing certain capabilities, such as establishing and maintaining national preparedness and response plans. The statement commits subscribing states to supporting international best practices on preparedness and sharing technical capabilities. The statement encourages national tabletop simulation exercises to ensure preparedness for and responses to incidents of nuclear or radiological terrorism.

National Nuclear Detection Architecture

Finland led 23 countries in a joint statement that commits the subscribing states to supporting and implementing the IAEA’s recommendations on nuclear detection and creation of national comprehensive and integrated nuclear detection strategies. Countries also pledged to share best practices and work on integrating border and interior detection capabilities.

    At the recent summit, Argentina announced that it had gotten rid of its remaining HEU, joining more than a dozen countries that removed all weapons-usable material over the course of the summit process. 

    With the elimination of Argentina’s remaining stockpile, South America is free of weapons-usable materials. 

    Indonesia committed at the summit to eliminate its remaining stockpile of HEU by this September, and Poland is scheduled to complete removal of its remaining stockpile before the end of the year. 

    While acknowledging that minimizing the number of countries with weapons-usable nuclear materials is significant, the European official said these efforts are “just a drop in the bucket” in comparison to the stockpiles of materials in the military sector.

    According to a January report from the nongovernmental Nuclear Threat Initiative, 83 percent of weapons-usable material is in military stockpiles. Military stockpiles were not targeted as part of the summit process. 

    During the summit, however, the United States released information on the security of its military stockpiles. A White House summary document released at the summit provided some details on U.S. security for these materials, which includes steps such as personnel reliability programs and physical protection measures that meet or exceed IAEA recommendations for storage of nuclear materials.

    In another step toward greater openness, Washington publicly released data on the size of its HEU stockpiles for the first time in 15 years. According to a White House press release on March 31, the United States had 586 metric tons of military and civilian HEU as of September 2013. The United States held 740 metric tons in 1996, according to the release.

    The European official said that Washington’s announcement of its stockpile size was a “positive step toward greater transparency” that he hoped would encourage similar steps from countries such as China and Russia. 

    The official also applauded Washington’s decision to explore using low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel for naval reactors, which was announced at the summit. Currently, naval nuclear reactors for U.S. Navy ships and submarines use HEU. 

    Some countries, such as France, already produce submarines that use LEU.