Nuclear terrorism prevention at a crossroads
The crisis in Ukraine underscores the prescience of the international efforts to eliminate all nuclear weapons and weapon-grade material there after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their success lowered the danger of deadly nuclear assets falling into the wrong hands.
President Barack Obama and the more than 50 world leaders meeting at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague on Monday need to show the same vision. They must seek to eliminate the persistent weak links in the global nuclear security system that can make dangerous materials vulnerable to nuclear terrorists.
There has been progress in securing nuclear materials because of the two previous nuclear summits. Removal of weapons-grade material, for example, has accelerated in 12 countries. But, unfortunately, the earlier summits focused on what is acceptable by consensus rather than on what is needed to prevent nuclear terrorism.
Terrorist groups are actively seeking nuclear weapons or material. There are more than 100 incidents of theft or misuse of nuclear material each year. Twenty-five countries now possess weapons-usable nuclear material and nuclear facilities are expanding into dangerous neighborhoods around the globe. Virtually every state has highly radioactive material that could be used in a dirty bomb.
This summit is actually the beginning of the end of the heads-of-state meetings. The Washington–hosted gathering in 2016 will likely be the last. So these two meetings must yield results. Together they can form a solid foundation for an effective governance system for the world’s nuclear materials and facilities, creating a springboard for new policies and action.
Many global experts and political leaders now say that five important policy improvements are needed.
The first goal is to universally implement all elements of the existing nuclear security regime. Nations can now accept or ignore the few existing international legal requirements and more numerous non-binding expert recommendations – which is one reason for today’s uneven patchwork of international controls.
Second is to increase sharing of non-sensitive information between nations, which can help build international confidence in the system’s effectiveness. Most nations shield virtually all security data, sensitive or not, from other nations — limiting the international cooperation needed to prevent a transnational threat.
Third, states should undertake new voluntary actions to improve security without waiting for new international mandates. Four, these new national actions should be reinforced by adopting a peer review and best practices system to strengthen security performance.
Five, a legally binding nuclear security framework convention must be pursued to bring together the current fragmented regime, address its weak links and allow for rapid adaptation to unforeseen future challenges.
These steps are achievable — but require political leadership. World leaders at The Hague could start by agreeing to implement current requirements and devise a comprehensive set of voluntary steps by 2020, naming a group of states to lead that process.
They also should identify a smaller group that can examine legally binding options, such as the framework convention, and report at the final summit. This approach would help produce a plan for continued work and progress after the summits end.
The Nuclear Security Summits have created expectations that leaders will act decisively to prevent nuclear terrorism. Results have fallen short of these hopes. In The Hague, Obama and world leaders will have the first of two remaining opportunities to establish a global control system equal to the risks and catastrophic consequences of this very real threat.
Failure to do so will only reveal a lack of imagination and seriousness.
PHOTO (TOP): Ukrainian specialists cut the last strategic Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire bomber at an airbase outside the Ukrainian city of Poltava 330 km (198 miles) southeast of the capital Kiev, January 27, 2006. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
PHOTO (INSERT 1): A Hatf-VI (Shaheen-II) missile with a range of 2,000 km (1,242 miles) takes off during a test flight from an undisclosed location in Pakistan, April 21, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer
PHOTO (INSERT 2): A Trident II, or D-5 missile, is launched from an Ohio-class submarine in this undated photo. REUTERS/Files