Next month's Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands may come closer to establishing international standards for how to lock down dangerous nuclear materials than did the two prior gatherings of the biennial confab, sources say.
The Obama administration hosted the first summit in Washington in 2010 as part of its global effort to secure materials that could be used to manufacture illicit nuclear weapons. Observers have said the initial gathering of world leaders -- along with a subsequent meeting in South Korea in 2012 -- succeeded in boosting issue awareness and accelerating the efforts of some countries to reduce or eliminate their stockpiles of sensitive materials.
However, critics have also said the summits so far have done too little to create concrete international standards for exactly how to lock down such materials or define what must be done in order to consider them secure. This year's installment in The Hague -- expected to be the second-to-last such gathering -- may inch closer that goal, issue experts and others said.
According to multiple sources familiar with ongoing preparations for the March event, the United States, Netherlands and South Korea are encouraging summit participants to pledge that they will adopt and be bound by existing international guidelines for the physical protection of nuclear materials. The guidelines, established by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency, are not currently the law in individual countries.
The pledge will be one of several multinational "gift baskets" that the summit is expected to yield, in which several countries agree to offer the same nuclear-security commitment, sources say.
Peter Mollema, deputy chief of the Dutch embassy in Washington, told Global Security Newswire that "about half" of the 53 nations participating in the summit have so far agreed to sign onto the specific pledge of attempting to bring the international guidelines into domestic law.
"The other half are probably still thinking about it," Mollema said.
Mollema spoke briefly about the significance of this pledge during a discussion about the upcoming summit at George Washington University last week.
"In our country, living in the European Union, we are used to fact that European guidelines are automatically translated into national legislation and become enforceable," Mollema said. "They need to be translated into national legislation, and the more that takes place, the easier it becomes to enforce."
However, Miles Pomper, a senior research associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told GSN that in some respects the IAEA guidelines are not as strong as the existing Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material.
For one thing, the convention is already legally binding. It also covers more countries than are participating in the Nuclear Security Summits. The convention has 148 signatories -- more than double the number of countries participating in the summits.
On the other hand, the IAEA guidelines -- while not perfect in the view of Pomper and other issue experts -- provide more technical detail regarding precisely what must be done in order to secure dangerous nuclear materials. The convention provides more in the way of general principals without the same degree of detail, Pomper noted.
The United States already has physical-protection standards that are arguably even stronger than what the IAEA guidelines call for, but the idea behind the pledge initiative is "to get other countries to do that by leading by example," according to Pomper.
It is "one of the more positive" developments expected to come out of the March 24-25 summit, Pomper said.
One potential wrinkle, however, is that the United States has yet to ratify a 2005 amendment to the convention under which its principles for physical protection would apply not only within a nation's borders, but also during international transport.
Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) is holding up ratification of the convention amendment over his desire to include provisions extending federal wiretapping authorities and applying the death penalty specifically to acts of nuclear terrorism in the relevant legislation.
"It's going to be embarrassing when [the U.S. delegation] shows up [to the summit] without having this approved," given that the United States is pushing other countries to adopt an even more detailed pledge relevant to the physical protection issue, Pomper said.
In addition to the initiative pertaining to the physical protection of nuclear materials, the United States is also leading an effort under which agreeable summit participants would agree to adopt into law the IAEA code of conduct on so-called "radiological sources" by 2016, according to Pomper.
Radiological sources are those materials that could be used to disperse dangerous radioactivity over a large area, even though they are incapable of causing a Hiroshima-type nuclear blast. This could be done by pairing the radiological material with conventional explosives in a so-called "dirty bomb."
Kenneth Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security and a former arms control official in the U.S. Energy Department, told GSN that these initiatives showed that countries participating in the summit recognize that the current nuclear security regime is insufficient. At the same time, it appears that participating nations believe it is too difficult to draft and agree to new standards at such a high-level forum.
"I think that the thinking is that if you can get countries to sign up to what is in essence on the books, then you are on your way to improving your regime," Luongo said. "I think this initiative, if it goes forward, will very beneficial and I'm very supportive of it."
White House spokesman Jonathan Lalley and State Department spokeswoman Sandra Postell declined to comment on the various summit initiatives. Pomper and Luongo said their knowledge of the initiatives was based on discussions with various summit participants.
It is unclear, sources say, how far the summit communique -- the official document to which all participating nations sign -- will itself go toward establishing international standards, however.
According to Pomper, there is talk among summit participants about the need for countries to provide each other assurances that they have their own nuclear materials under control. One potential way to accomplish this would be to invite IAEA officials to review the regulatory systems of individual nations as the U.N. agency sometimes already does, he noted.
"It's not clear how much of this is will be in the communique and how much in gift baskets," Pomper said.
The Dutch embassy's Mollema told GSN that international negotiators worked out most, but not all, of the final details pertaining to the communique during a meeting in Thailand last month. He said the draft document "does speak about the responsibilities of states, the role of the international community and the role of IAEA," but he declined to provide specifics.
"There's still some discussions going on with some of the [summit] members and that is normal," Mollema said.
Luongo said he did not expect the communique would "have anything spectacularly new.
"It's been kind of a tough fight inside the [negotiating] process to get some of the issues in that they want," Luongo said. "But at the end of the day, the communique, in a sense, is the least ambitious product that is going to come out of the summit."
Overall, the observers said they expected more detailed "gift baskets" to move the summit in the right direction. The initiatives are not without shortcomings, however, the issue experts contend.
"Some of these things are quite useful, but in terms of what we'll expect out of the communique and the long term direction, we still need a lot more," said Pomper. "The good thing is we've still got another summit [in 2016]. But we really need to see a long-term sustainable framework much more than we've got at this point."
Regarding the possible adoption of IAEA guidelines, Luongo said "there are holes in the way those things are constructed, in the sense that there is no information sharing across borders.
"There's no peer review," he added. "All of the problems which are affecting international confidence in this system are still relevant even if everyone implements everything that's already on the books."
Pomper expressed concern that the international community might lose momentum after the final summit in 2016, before sufficient progress is made.
"You see some things that are kind of getting more to the core issues of assurance and standards "¦ It's just not to the level of commitment that you really need for the long term," he said.
"The fact is that in two years this process is likely to be over and so you're talking about a lot of attention drifting away," Pomper said. "Then what happens?"
Given news that a radioactive source was stolen in Mexico last year, Pomper said he hoped that some nations participating in the summit would pledge to not just secure nuclear materials "“ but also to replace them, when possible, with less dangerous substances. This could be particularly relevant to nuclear materials used in the medical field, he said.
"You can use other technologies like linear accelerators and other technologies that aren't radioactive sources to get the same output from a medical or other point of view," Pomper said. "We ought to be looking not just to make those secure, but to actually substitute those things where we get permanent threat reduction, rather than just putting more locks on those things."
One positive development in this area "“ although it still involves the use of radioactive materials -- was an announcement last week that Russia by 2016 would convert two of its medical isotope reactors to use low enriched uranium "targets." They would substitute for highly enriched uranium, which can more easily be used to make a nuclear weapon, said Pomper.
In the process of making medical isotopes, "targets," made of either highly enriched or low enriched uranium, are irradiated to produce the particular radioactive isotopes used in medical procedures.
In Pomper's view, the announcement -- which Russian officials made at a meeting of the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency on Jan. 30 -- goes further than Moscow's previous vows on the matter, as it includes "a concrete date certain."