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Nuclear Security: The End of the Beginning

Apr 08 , 2016
  • Fan Jishe

    Senior Fellow, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Last weekend, 52 world leaders from countries around the world and four heads of key international organization concluded the fourth and the last Nuclear Security Summit. The summit, first proposed by President Barack Obama in 2009 and followed by three summits in Washington DC in 2010, in Seoul in 2012, and in The Hague in 2014, has largely accomplished its mission, and from now on the global governance of nuclear security will shift from summit format to daily management.

Progress achieved through the four summits is quite impressive. As originally designed, the Nuclear Security Summit is to raise global awareness of nuclear security at the highest level. Without any doubt, the number of world leaders participating in the four summits manifests the importance attached to nuclear security by countries around the world. In the past seven years, more and more countries signed and ratified the key international instrument – the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and the Amendment to the convention adopted in 2005, and it is expected to come into effect very soon. More and more countries are beginning to strictly observe and actively participate in other international agreements and multilateral regimes, such as International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, the United Nations Security Council resolutions 1373, 1540 and 1887, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, the Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. Their support and cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) reach a higher level as well.

A broader and solid consensus on strengthening nuclear security has been reached, and concrete, tangible steps have been adopted to secure the world’s vulnerable nuclear materials. Over the past seven years, 14 nations and China’s Taiwan have eliminated entirely the highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium they once possessed. South America is now completely free of dangerous nuclear materials, and Central Europe and Southeast Asia will soon be free of these materials as well. Many countries have strengthened the physical protection of nuclear materials and facilities, and stronger regulations have been put into place. Fifteen Centers of Excellence have been created to promote national and international exchange and cooperation, education and training, which is critically important to boost nuclear security. In addition, major progress has been made in combating illicit trade and trafficking, such as by installing radiation detection equipment at international border crossings, airports and ports, and through regular exercises to intercept potential proliferations. Nations have made hundreds of commitments to improve nuclear security, and most of those voluntary commitments have been implemented as well.

What the Nuclear Security Summits have achieved is significant, but this is no time to be complacent. The results of the investigation after the terrorist attack in Brussels and Paris are pretty disturbing. There is some evidence that the terrorists behind both attacks may have planned something big. They videotaped a Belgian nuclear official who works at nuclear research sites with a wide range of nuclear and radiological materials; no one knows what they were after by monitoring this official. Two years ago, somebody with access to the Belgian reactor sabotaged it for reasons unknown to the authorities. Perhaps worse, one employee who once worked in the reactor and has access to the “vital areas” went to fight for the Islamic State. Once the terrorists obtain the nuclear and radiological materials, they may be able to fabricate a crude nuclear device or a dirty bomb to use for terrorism. Even after decades of efforts to improve nuclear security, no one is confident that future nuclear terrorism can be prevented.

With the transition of global governance of nuclear security from summit format to daily management, the joint communiqué and action plans in support of the United Nations, the IAEA, Interpol, and the multilateral regimes adopted in the last summit are good in theory, but how to implement these commitments and improve cooperation in practice is an open question.

Now it is time to double investment in nuclear security. This job should be done on two fronts: first, the states bear the fundamental responsibility to secure vulnerable materials and minimize the use of HEU, and second, the states should expand their cooperation in countering nuclear smuggling and deter, detect, and disrupt attempts at nuclear terrorism. That each sweeps the snow in front of the door is important, but many developing countries may have the will but not the ability to do so in a satisfactory way. Meanwhile, the United States and European countries have accumulated enough experiences, developed advanced technology and equipments necessary for nuclear security in the last two decades, hence, it is equally if not more important for them to come to help in this regard. Furthermore, the United States and Russia, the two superpowers possessing most of the HEU and plutonium, should minimize the use of HEU, and reduce their stockpile of both HEU and plutonium. Before asking others to do more, both countries should set a good example first. In promoting nuclear security, the developed and developing countries have common but differentiated responsibilities. Once countries fail to keep nuclear material from falling into the wrong hands, if there occur loss, theft, or other related criminal activities, how to share intelligence, cooperate to detect, intercept, disrupt, and defeat these activities will test all countries’ political will. It is always easier said than done.

Now that there will not be another Nuclear Security Summit, it is time to translate political stances into concrete measures. In this context, the ending of the summit is also the beginning of substantial efforts and investment in nuclear security.

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