Work Remains as Nuclear Security Deadline Arrives

President Obama speaks in Prague on April 5, 2009. Nuclear security specialists said that work remains to meet Obama's goal, laid out in the speech, of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials across the globe (AP Photo/Herbert Knosowski).
President Obama speaks in Prague on April 5, 2009. Nuclear security specialists said that work remains to meet Obama's goal, laid out in the speech, of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials across the globe (AP Photo/Herbert Knosowski).

WASHINGTON -- President Obama’s goal of locking away all vulnerable nuclear material from terrorists’ grasp by today remains incomplete, despite significant security advances over the past four years.

On April 5, 2009, Obama stood before tens of thousands of people in Prague, where he declared a series of steps his administration would take to advance the vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

Among those measures: “A new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years.”

In his last State of the Union address in February, the president suggested an understanding that the mission continues. The United States will “continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands,” he said.

Hundreds of facilities across the globe still hold separated plutonium or highly enriched uranium under varying degrees of defense, issue experts say. The international protective regime that surrounds them is largely voluntary and a patchwork at best, they warn.

“I think even the White House would admit that the four-year pledge is not going to be reached in four years, in part because they never defined what the goal of that four-year pledge was,” said Kenneth Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security.

“That four years was a sprint within a marathon to get a plan in place for how we do this,” Deepti Choubey, senior director for nuclear and biosecurity at the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative, told Global Security Newswire.

The next and possibly final gathering of world leaders to consider nuclear security is scheduled for 2014 in The Netherlands. What comes after that is impossible to know.

In comments and analyses issued as Obama’s self-imposed deadline approached, nuclear specialists said they are looking for more creativity, new actions and ultimately a binding framework of rules.

The White House has already expressed its opposition to enforceable international nuclear protective standards. It declined to comment for this article on what its future plans or expectations might involve.

“Any act of nuclear terrorism anywhere, no matter where it is, is going to have a reverberation around the world that is extremely negative,” Luongo said. “I think that’s the way you have to look at this. Not what can’t be done but what needs to be done.”

Successes and Setbacks

The Obama administration has had mixed success in realizing the disarmament goals laid out four years ago in an address seen as contributing greatly to the president's subsequent Nobel Peace Prize.

As promised, Washington lowered the national security strategy’s reliance on nuclear weapons and successfully pursued atomic arsenal reductions with Russia. Conversely, the Senate has yet to take up ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Conference on Disarmament remains unable to begin negotiations on an international accord to ban production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

There has been undeniable benefit in having Washington focus global attention to securing or eliminating stocks of nuclear weapon-usable materials, experts said.

The number of states holding such substances dropped from 41 in 2009 to 31 in early 2013, Luongo and former U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Brill noted in a Jan. 18 Politico commentary.

Austria, Mexico and Ukraine have divested their fissile material holdings since January of last year, while another five countries -- Kazakhstan, Poland, South Africa, Sweden and Uzbekistan – reduced their stocks during that period, the Nuclear Threat Initiative found. On Friday, Washington announced that all highly enriched uranium had been removed from the Czech Republic; since the Prague speech, in excess of 3,000 pounds of weapon-usable substances have been extracted from a host of nations.

Forty-nine nations sent leaders or high-level officials to the first Nuclear Security Summit, held three years ago in Washington. Delegates offered in excess of 60 national commitments, about 80 percent of which had been met by the time heads of state gathered again last year in Seoul, according to a checklist by Luongo’s group and the Arms Control Association, both of which are nongovernmental organizations.

Successes included the end to Russian plutonium production; additional funding for security activities at the International Atomic Energy Agency; and increased membership in two accords intended to block rogue actors from obtaining sensitive materials.

The 2012 conference delivered additional pledges, such as a deal under which the United States, France, Belgium and the Netherlands would manufacture medical isotopes without using weapon-grade uranium. Participants called for continued movement on a number of fronts, including pressing worldwide adherence to the amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.

“What was missing at both of those summits was a discussion about what kind of system do you need to have in place to have confidence that you have effective security around nuclear materials worldwide,” said Joan Rohlfing, Nuclear Threat Initiative president and chief operating officer.

There are a number of reasons to worry. Pakistan is wrestling with a threat from militants who have reportedly taken aim at some nuclear sites. Japan and a number of other nations hold large stocks of separated plutonium from civilian atomic activities. In excess of 120 civilian reactors around the world still use weapon-usable uranium, some secured only by a single guard and fence, Harvard University noted in a 2012 report.

The U.N. atomic agency in 2012 alone cited 160 incidents of illicit handling of nuclear materials, including two involving highly enriched uranium “in noncriminal but unauthorized activities.”

“This is a never-ending process. As long as nuclear materials that are weapons usable are in use there’s always going to be a need for maintaining high security on those materials,” said Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists. “There will be new threats developing, there will be new terrorist groups or even new state-level threats.”

Washington has stepped up existing defense projects, particularly removal of fissile materials from other nations and converting foreign reactors to use proliferation-resistant low-enriched uranium, but has not instituted new practices, Luongo said in an interview. Federal funding for the work has also remained largely frozen from Bush-era levels.

Luongo said he suspects the White House believes it cannot persuade nations to accept more aggressive measures or greater transparency about what actions are already being taken. Anticipating that some nations would not join a stepped-up global regime is no cause for not trying, he argued.

What exists instead is a hodge-podge that covers unilateral and multilateral projects, including those leading from the summits; IAEA efforts to build up nations’ security infrastructure; voluntary guidelines; and the two key treaties that make demands on member states but give them wriggle room to decide which commitments they can viably carry out.

“There are no standards, nobody has to do anything, nobody has to report to anybody, nobody has to provide any transparency,” Luongo said. “There’s no requirement that any country do anything.”

Rohlfing offered a similar warning: “There’s no agreed international set of practices for how you manage, how you track, how you account for and how you secure nuclear materials. That’s a big problem because you have a very uneven level of practice from country to country.”

What’s Next?

Issue watchers hope to see heads of state begin to address these vulnerabilities at next year’s summit in The Hague. They are offering guidance to any officials who are ready to listen.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative has been conducting what it calls “Track One and a Half” discussions on an “effective global comprehensive nuclear materials security system,” Rohlfing said. Participants encompass government officials, nuclear industry representatives and independent experts from nuclear powers China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, along with other nations.

It is the organization’s hope that these talks will position governments to consider the composition of such a global program next year. Should that occur, delegates might be guided by five NTI-devised principles:

-- The framework must be comprehensive, covering all sensitive nuclear materials and the facilities in which they are held;

-- It must involve global best practices and standards;

-- Each state must institute “internal assurance and accountability” measures -- legal and regulatory rules to guide security operations and hold institutions and individuals responsible for their actions;

-- Governments should be able to provide assurances to other nations, as well; and

-- There should be a focus on reducing the number of facilities with weapon-usable materials and phasing out stocks when possible.

“I think we’ve had some tentative success and we will see where some of these ideas have landed in the official process, whether they will make their way to the end,” Choubey said. “There’s a lot of careful tending and further development that needs to be done.”

The 2014 summit offers an opportunity to formally begin establishing a comprehensive security scheme, and a potential 2016 gathering would be the accountability moment, according to the NTI official.

The Nuclear Security Governance Experts Group, a coalition of 23 issue specialists, in March issued a report that includes 30 recommendations toward meeting five “steps” -- defining the scope of nuclear security, universal membership in the existing regime, a promise of “continuous improvement,” dealing with political obstacles to improvement, and establishing a unifying instrument.

Success at next year’s meeting in The Hague will be dependent in part on leaders’ willingness to accept that unifying framework for global nuclear security and to begin work on an accord that would enter into force in 2020, the NSGEG report says.

This single “umbrella” would cover all existing mechanisms, tweaked as needed to avoid conflicting demands, said Luongo, one of the NSGEG participants. It would lay out the obligations of a nation considered a good global citizen.

While it is clear the international community, particularly Western states, would not accept a new bureaucracy to oversee the revamped system, there are other options, Luongo said. He said these could involve giving greater authority to the International Atomic Energy Agency or having the three nations that have hosted the security summits convene further meetings on a regular basis.

An IAEA nuclear security conference scheduled for July in Vienna, Austria, will be an opportunity for the agency to demonstrate whether it can take over the function of promoting the issue at the political level, Luongo asserted.

The U.N. organization has sponsored several corresponding meetings since 2003, but this will be the first in which minister-level officials have been asked to present statements, said Khammar Mrabit, IAEA nuclear security director.

The event will also feature broad discussions on security achievements and challenges, as well as sessions on specific technical issues such as cyber security and physical protection of nuclear plants. It will be key to directing the agency’s security work, Mrabit said in a telephone interview.

“It is up to the member states to decide what should be further strengthened,” he said when asked about the potential for greater IAEA authority in this sector.

A new security framework does not have to be established from the start, but rather could be rolled out over a period of years as states work alone or in groups toward an accepted goal, Luongo stated. In that, it would be similar to agreements on fluorocarbons or climate change, he said.

“I understand the danger and the concern that people have about entering into a big new international negotiation, and I don’t think that’s what we’re arguing,” he said. “What we’re arguing is there needs to be a process by which you actually improve the nuclear security system in reality, over a period of time. And we’ve put that date as 2020.”

Ferguson said his discussions with officials from Nuclear Security Summit participant states suggest the process will end in 2014. He and others also played down the likelihood that leaders would agree to an overarching security framework.

"A comprehensive framework for nuclear security is a laudable goal," said Dutch Ambassador Piet de Klerk, lead organizer for the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit. There is no organization today to work on such a program, "and maybe more important is that the appetite among participating states for starting such an effort in a serious way is not big," he told GSN by e-mail.

The priority should be on strengthening existing measures, including pushing for universal membership in the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, Ferguson said.

The United States has not ratified the nuclear terror accord, and is among more than 30 nations that must still approve an amendment to the physical protection pact before it can be enacted.

Bringing the amendment into force before the 2014 summit “would be a powerful statement,” Ferguson said.

In the absence of the biannual summits, nations and international organizations will have to ensure they maintain the personnel and resources to continue safeguarding or eliminating nuclear materials and weaning more facilities off weapon-grade uranium, he added.

Each government should have one senior official who could track progress and threats and then have access to the head of state, according to Ferguson. “There has to be someone minding the ship,” he said.

Luongo warned that the issue could slip from top-level focus should the summits come to a final end next year.

“If it falls back to the technical level again, I’m not sure you’re ever going to get it back up,” he said.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The Nuclear Threat Initiative is the sole sponsor of Global Security Newswire, which is published independently by the National Journal Group.]

April 5, 2013

WASHINGTON -- President Obama’s goal of locking away all vulnerable nuclear material from terrorists’ grasp by today remains incomplete, despite significant security advances over the past four years.