Twenty-three nations participating in the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands this week said they intend to comply with international guidelines regarding the security of so-called "dirty bomb" material.
The parties to the multilateral statement -- including the United States and countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East -- pledged to secure all their most dangerous "Category I" radiological sources under guidelines set out by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency. Specifically, they vowed to follow the IAEA "Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources."
Radiological sources are those that, if paired with conventional explosives, could form a "dirty bomb" that disperses radioactive contamination over an area, but which cannot produce a nuclear detonation akin to an atomic bomb.
This week's "gift basket" -- a term applied multinational pledges not signed by all 53 nations participating in the summit -- had been expected as part of a broader effort to inch the summit process toward the establishment of global standards for nuclear security. However, this one went further than some issue experts had anticipated.
In a Tuesday blog post, Matthew Bunn of Harvard University noted that the participating countries had previously committed to implementing the IAEA guidelines.
Still, the summit pledge "goes further, calling for measures such as checking the trustworthiness of people with access to radiological sources, providing a rapid response to any attempt to gain access to them (and carrying out regular exercises of that response capability), and developing a national-level response plan based on an in-depth assessment of the threat," Bunn wrote.
The gift basket also identifies "best practices" that participating nations "may consider," such as requiring "multiple factors" to be confirmed before a person is permitted to access sensitive materials, along with the installation of monitoring systems with "redundant and timely alarms … sent to a centralized monitoring facility."
Bunn called these practices "more venturesome" than other initiatives to which nations had previously committed. The former nuclear security adviser to President Clinton criticized the pledge for not including language regarding the transport of radiological sources, though.
Led by Japan, five countries -- including France, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States -- have signed onto a separate gift basket regarding transport security for nuclear and radiological materials. The five countries, which originally endorsed the gift basket at the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in South Korea, agreed to form a working group that would hold meetings aimed at improving the security of nuclear materials in transport.
The five countries will also "consider" taking other actions related to transport security, according to the joint statement they released this week. These include adopting the recommendations of the yet-to-be published IAEA "Implementing Guide on the Security of Nuclear Material in Transport." The nations will also "consider mutually exchanging information on physical protection and the security of other radioactive materials while in all modes of domestic international transport, in order to capture good practices and lessons learned."
The five countries participated in a table-top exercise in Tokyo in November 2013 aimed at helping advance the same objectives, the joint statement says.
"Furthermore, we held two working group meetings to address the transport security issues amongst the representatives of the governments," the joint statement continues. "As a result of the meetings, we decided to continue the working group activities until the next Nuclear Security Summit in 2016 and express our further commitment to work together for improving security in the transport of nuclear and other radioactive materials."
According to the joint statement, "Much knowledge and experiences [have] been gained from past transports conducted throughout the world over the last decades. Historically the security record of civilian transport of nuclear materials has been excellent and we must strive to maintain that record."
Bunn, however, criticized the transportation gift basket, which does not require the participating countries to utilize any specific security measures. He told Global Security Newswire that the transport-security pledge "is as weak as dishwater," and he took exception to its suggestion that "the security record of civilian transport of nuclear materials has been excellent" historically.
"Essentially what it means is just that the shipments have not been seized by terrorists so far," Bunn said. "It used to be legal to send plutonium by regular mail, and the industry complained loudly when the [U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission] started requiring any armed guards at all."
A 1974 report by the then-Government Accounting Office included photographs of bomb-grade highly enriched uranium sitting unguarded on a dolly in an airport, Bunn noted. More recently, a truck containing radioactive cobalt-60 was stolen in Mexico, but ultimately was recovered.
In light of the December incident in Mexico, nonproliferation experts have criticized the Obama administration's plan to cut funding for nuclear-security programs in fiscal 2015.