Strategic Space

Nuclear Security Summit Process: Progress and Prognosis

21 Mar, 2016    ·   5002

Dr Manpreet Sethi reflects on the past and future of global nuclear security in light of the upcoming NSS

Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Distinguished Fellow at CAPS

In less than two weeks from now, the Heads of Governments of over 50 countries will once again gather to discuss the knotty issues of nuclear security. Having met three times earlier in the last six years, this congregation in Washington will bring the Nuclear Security Summit process to a close. President Obama had started this initiative from the US capital in 2010. It had been his aspiration then to use the forum to get nations to secure all nuclear material on their territories over the next four years. That was an underestimation of the task and even six years hence, the Security Summit will sign off without being able to claim that all has been well-secured. However, what has certainly been achieved is the accordance of a highest level of attention across the world to the issue of nuclear security in order to minimise, if not obviate, chances of nuclear terrorism. Of course, there can be no guarantees in this business. And yet, the coming together of national heads has ensured that actions leading up to the cause of nuclear security have received due attention amongst national priorities.

The Summit process also inspired nations into action since they came with report cards in hand to showcase the highlights of all they had done at the national and regional levels towards nuclear security. These came to be known as 'house gifts' when brought by individual nations, or 'gift baskets' when they came as part of a regional initiative. The actions have taken many forms, creating national legislation to handle unauthorised access to nuclear and radiological materials, strengthening of the national nuclear security culture, tightening of export controls, outreach to national industry, regional efforts, or the signing/ratifying of nuclear security specific treaties. Indeed, over the last few years adherence to such international treaties has increased. Ten additional countries, for instance, have ratified the International Convention on Suppression of Acts of Terrorism since the last Summit in 2014, leading the total ratifications to about 100. Similarly some of the major nations that have accepted Amendment 2005 of the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials in the last two years have been the US, South Korea, Turkey, Japan and Singapore. Of course, the DPRK, Iran, Israel and Pakistan remain notable holdouts of both Conventions. But interestingly, there have been murmurs that Pakistan might carry their ratification as a house gift to Washington later this month.

In another task undertaken under the aegis of the NSS, progress has been made in ensuring security of highly enriched uranium through either the conversion of research reactors running on HEU to low enriched uranium (LEU), or its repatriation and elimination. Given that HEU is relatively easier to smuggle out of facilities and also somewhat more amenable to being used by terrorists, the focus over the last couple of Summits has been to get nations to give up its use for civilian purposes such as in research reactors. While the US has led an international effort in this direction called the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors from 1978 onwards, and some 44 reactors outside of the US were converted to using LEU by the 1990s, interest and resources into this initiative dwindled over time. It is only post 9/11 that the realisation of the dangers of nuclear terrorism revived interest and the Summits have brought it into sharper focus. So it is that if 50 countries had an HEU stockpile of more than 1 kg in 1992, it is now down to half the number. Since 2010 when the first Nuclear Security Summit was held, HEU has been removed from 13 countries. Of course, military stockpiles of HEU remain and so does the right of nations to use this for naval propulsion in the case of nuclear-powered submarines. But then the Nuclear Security Summit process has steered clear of bringing any sort of nuclear weapons-related activity within its ambit. Its objective has been to spur national action on securing nuclear and radiological material (including better accounting of orphan sources) with the broad understanding that military-related material is likely to be anyway better secured. While this may or may not be the case in all nuclear-armed nations, there is no doubt that acceptance of best practices in nuclear security in one aspect of national nuclear activities would have spill-over benefits too.  

With curtains coming down on the Summit process in April 2016, what will keep the focus and momentum on nuclear security alive? Several think-tanks across the world have thrown up ideas on this. Some have suggested holding ministerial-level summits every two years with the heads of government convening only every four years. Others have recommended holding periodic nuclear security issue-specific conferences. Some have even offered the NPT Review Conferences which are held every five years as a platform to focus on nuclear security. However, the most popular and likely to be accepted idea is that of the IAEA taking a lead on this.

Traditionally, the IAEA has been an organisation tasked essentially with promotion of peaceful uses of nuclear energy and to prevent clandestine development of nuclear weapons through an elaborate verification regime. Nuclear safety and security have largely been peripheral and not primary responsibilities. But given the large membership of the organisation, its experience in the nuclear domain since 1957 and a deep expertise built over years, IAEA does seem the best equipped to carry the mantle of the Summits into the future. In any case, the IAEA has periodically issued guidelines, albeit of an advisory nature, on aspects of nuclear security. For instance, in 2003 the IAEA brought out a Code of Conduct on Safety and Security of Radiological Material, in 2009 in an initiative to support efforts at nuclear security it issued INFCIRC/225/Rev 5 that provided implementation guidance on Amendment 2005 of the CPPNM with respect to security of domestic transportation of nuclear materials. In July 2013, the IAEA orgnaised an international conference on nuclear security that was attended by 125 states and 21 organisations. By comparison, the NSS have been attended by only about 50 odd countries and 4 organisations. This itself provides a sense of the reach and influence of the IAEA. The Conference has already tasked the IAEA to undertake International Physical Protection Advisory Services (IPPAS) to nations that want to seek help on nuclear security.

For the moment, the IAEA does suffer from the limitation of availability of monetary sources for the tasks of nuclear security. Financing is available only by way of voluntary contributions by nations, such as India's pledge for a US$ 1 million in 2012-13. But there is no regular nuclear security budget that can allow the Agency to do long term activity planning on nuclear security. Another limitation it faces is that of enforcement since it has an advisory role, by way of offering guidance that is non-binding and only for voluntary acceptance. It can levy no penalties for non-compliance and nor does it extend its diktat over the military-related nuclear programmes. However, if nations agree to provide the mandate of nuclear security to the IAEA then some of these limitations can be overcome.

It is imperative that the momentum achieved on nuclear security outlasts the Summit process. In fact, the four exercises can hope to be called a success only if they would have imbibed the 'habit' of constant vigilance and effort at nuclear security. Therefore, it is equally necessary that the right mechanisms and procedures are found to carry the process forward. The Summit process would dissolve into failure if the momentum was to be lost due to souring of inter-state relations. Some of this is already evident in US-Russia relations. Russia has refused to participate in the Summit at Washington and has spurned offers of collaboration over the still pending conversion of about 63 civilian Russian reactors still using HEU. Russia has the largest stockpile of HEU at approximately 700 tonnes and the non-participation of a nation of such capability and stature does deal a blow to the Summit process.

Nuclear security is a global concern. It is the responsibility of each nation to ensure that no terrorist organisation is able to find a weak link within its territory. But securing nuclear materials is also a journey and can never be a destination. Unfortunately, none can ever claim that a state of perfect nuclear security has been attained. Nations will have to persist with their efforts and hope to stay ahead of the non-state actors. While the NSS ensured a high level of national commitment, time bound follow-up, targeted focus areas and inclusion of new countries and constituencies, it is signing off at a note of political discordance between the US and Russia. The future of nuclear security will depend on the new mechanisms found to carry the process forward. But even more important would be the need to hold on to the political consensus on the subject. It is in India’s interest to find ways of keeping interest and actions on the issue active and alive.