Des Browne Remarks to 2016 NGO Summit

Thank you very much, Irma, and thanks also to the Fissile Materials Working Group for hosting this side summit. It’s an honor to join you and so many others who work so hard day-in-and-day-out to advance nuclear security issues around the world.

The global NGO community has made an extraordinary commitment to the Nuclear Security Summit process over the past six years, providing governments and leaders with data-driven assessments of global nuclear security conditions, deep analysis of gaps in the security of nuclear and radiological materials, and important recommendations on how to make improvements.

You work cooperatively and effectively with industry and with governments. And I believe it is fair to say that heads of state would not have made the commitment they have to these issues without you. I am certain they would not be able to make important progress without the benefit of your good work.

NGOs also perform the valuable role of raising media and public awareness about the risk of nuclear terrorism and of identifying, engaging and educating the next generation of leaders who will have to take up these challenging issues.

I have been fortunate to work on these issues for many years, from positions both inside and outside government, and I can attest firsthand to the tremendous value of the work done by NGOs. As a citizen of the United Kingdom, as a resident of the United States, and as a former UK Secretary of State for defense, I thank you, again, for all that you do – and do so well – to help build a safer world.

A Challenging Backdrop

Given the recent tragedies around the world—in Paris and in Turkey, in Brussels and just this past weekend so horrifically at a public park where children were playing in the Pakistani city of Lahore—I don’t imagine anyone in this audience needs a reminder about the threat or the stakes when we talk about the security of nuclear and radiological materials.

Brutal attacks by ISIS, al Qaeda, and other increasingly sophisticated and well-financed terrorist organizations are on the rise. And it’s not difficult to imagine what these violent extremists would do if they could get their hands on nuclear or radiological materials.

Since the last Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague in 2014, the global threat environment has become more challenging across a number of other fronts:

·        Relations between the United States and Russia, which together hold the vast majority of the world’s nuclear weapons and materials, are badly frayed at a time when the countries should be cooperating, at the very least, on efforts to prevent catastrophic terrorism. The schism between the former Cold War rivals is impacting security across the Euro-Atlantic region and elsewhere around the globe and is leading to dangerous Cold War-style brinksmanship, inflammatory rhetoric, and a costly and destabilizing new arms race.

·        North Korea’s nuclear tests and continued provocations are serving as a sobering reminder of continued nuclear dangers from states, compounded by the threat of nuclear proliferation.

·        And then there is the U.S. presidential campaign. It’s unclear whether the race has yet reached its nadir, but I have to say that it's been rather unsettling for me to have such a close view of it. Nuclear issues haven't emerged as a significant area for debate in the contest thus far, but I think it's fair to say that those of us who work on disarmament, non-proliferation, materials security and other issues central to preventing nuclear catastrophe are concerned – to say the least.

So this is a challenging backdrop for our collective nuclear security efforts – and at the same time one that makes those efforts all the more urgent.

With the current Nuclear Security Summit process coming to an end, it’s important to catalog the significant security work that still needs to be done, and it’s important for leaders and the organizations that so effectively contribute to global security, to outline a viable path forward.

Taking Stock of Accomplishments

It’s also a good time to take stock of what has been accomplished since 2009, when President Obama launched the global effort to lock down thousands of metric tons of vulnerable weapons-usable nuclear materials during a speech in Prague outlining his nuclear agenda.

With respect to nuclear materials security and the achievements of the summits, there is good news to report:

·        The first three Nuclear Security Summits—in 2010, 2012 and 2014—brought unprecedented high-level attention to the threat of nuclear terrorism and the need to secure highly enriched uranium and plutonium. The Summit has now returned to Washington, where it began, but special thanks are due to the 2012 and 2014 summit hosts, South Korea and the Netherlands, for their important contributions.

·        Today, in large part as a result of the summit process, global leaders understand that nuclear materials security is much more than just a sovereign concern. It is a special responsibility and a collective responsibility—of both countries that hold materials and those that don’t but could be used as safe havens, staging grounds or transit points for illicit nuclear activities. Why? Because poor security in one country has the potential to affect us all.

·        Since 2010, countries have made vital upgrades to their regulatory frameworks, strengthened border controls, and ratified nuclear security agreements that govern the security of materials in use, storage and domestic and international transport.

·        Since the Summit process began, eleven countries have completely eliminated their weapons-usable nuclear materials, and many more have reduced their quantities of those materials. Consider this: The number of countries holding nuclear material that could be used by terrorists to build and detonate a nuclear bomb has been halved since 1991, from 52 then to 24 now.

These have all been solid steps in the right direction. Unfortunately, the pace of progress on nuclear materials security is beginning to stall.

Pace of Progress has Slowed

I’m sure many of you are familiar with NTI’s Nuclear Security Index, the biennial report assessing nuclear security conditions across 176 countries. Our 2016 edition, released in January, found that progress on the goals set by the summits has slowed across a number of trend lines, from the pace at which countries are eliminating their stocks of materials to the steps they’re taking to secure the materials they have.

This is a troubling development, especially with the end of the official summit process now upon us.

In addition, there are important goals yet to be met. Today, there is still no effective global system for managing these dangerous materials: no international “rules of the road” that all states follow, little visibility into actions that countries are taking, and no international oversight to ensure that countries are fulfilling their security responsibilities.

Moreover, 83% of global stocks of weapons-usable nuclear materials are categorized as “military” and outside the scope of the international security mechanisms that do exist, leaving a significant security gap. This must change.

Many states also have nuclear facilities that continue to be vulnerable to acts of sabotage that could cause a radiological disaster, particularly in the face of the escalating threat of cyber attacks.

What’s more, despite the fact these materials could be stolen and used in a “dirty bomb” that could render an area uninhabitable for decades, radioactive sources are present in almost every country in the world, used in hospitals or universities that have little or no security.

Imagine if Wall Street or the port in Rotterdam or the Singapore airport or any other iconic or essential piece of global infrastructure became a no-go zone overnight—and for many years to come.

At the 2014 summit, 23 countries pledged to secure their most dangerous radiological sources, and NTI has found that by the end of this year, 22 of the 23 will have met that commitment. Many already have. Those countries are leaders in this effort and should be commended for their commitments – but there are still thousands of sources in more than 100 countries, so there is a great deal of work left to be done.

Another area of concern is how to protect nuclear facilities such as power plants and research reactors from threats by insiders. The NTI Index found that many countries have major gaps in the types of regulations that would help protect against malicious acts and would control access to sensitive facility areas. This was particularly the case in countries with ambitions for new nuclear power.

What Next for the International Community?

So where does this leave the international community at the conclusion of this final summit?

As long as nuclear materials and facilities exist and the nuclear terrorism threat persists, the cooperative work necessary to prevent catastrophic nuclear terrorism must continue and must remain the highest priority of governments.

Countries with weapons-usable nuclear materials—whether they produce it, use it, lease it or borrow it—have a special responsibility to act both individually and collectively to protect them. That responsibility is heightened in an environment where non-state actors have the capacity and the will to seize and use the materials as they seek to advance their deranged agenda through terrorism.

Because of the leadership of President Obama and those who have actively engaged with the nuclear-security agenda he advanced in 2009, we now know this is a challenge that can be met.

Put simply, countries can eliminate their materials – and the world should encourage and help those who choose this route – or they can keep their materials and deploy the very best security available to make sure those materials don’t fall into dangerous hands. That will require a shared set of rules, including for military materials, to keep countries accountable and to build confidence among others.

If the Nuclear Security Summits end without an agreed path forward, the international community risks seeing its efforts to strengthen nuclear security languish or, worse, backslide. Leaders must make defining a path forward a priority and the path must allow for an ambitious, forward-leaning agenda.

NGOs also must stay vigilant in pushing the agenda forward. NTI will continue to shine a light on the work countries are doing through our biennial Index, and we will continue to use our convening authority to help governments and experts fertilize new ideas. I know all of your organizations will continue to make these important issues a priority as well.

We live in uncertain times in an uncertain world. If we allow terrorists to get their hands on nuclear or radiological materials, the effects will be seismic – and the damage won’t discriminate based on where the terrorists got the materials. It will be a collective failure, and we will all suffer the consequences.

Barack Obama challenged the world to accept the special responsibility that goes with having and using dangerous materials. The end of his term in office and the end of the official summits cannot exonerate the rest of us from pushing ahead.

We cannot walk away from this. Future generations will not forgive us if we fail to follow through on our collective responsibilities.

Thank you again for the tremendous work you have done to get us to this important point. The NGO community has every reason to be proud of its work in this field, and the world’s leaders owe you a debt of gratitude. And just as we must push them to carry their work forward, we must push ourselves to press ahead as well.

I know we will – and I have every reason to believe we will succeed.





March 30, 2016

Des Browne urged non-governmental organizations to continue their important work on nuclear and radiological security following the final Nuclear Security Summit.

Des Browne
Des Browne

Vice Chair, NTI