Leaders Search for Endgame at Nuclear Security Summit

A 'no trespassing' sign on a perimeter fence of Sizewell nuclear power station in March 2011 in Leiston, England. World leaders are gathering in The Hague to discuss strengthening the security of sites holding radioactive materials in a bid to prevent nuclear terrorism worldwide.
National Journal
Sebastian Sprenger
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Sebastian Sprenger
March 24, 2014, 3:31 a.m.

THE HAG­UE, NETH­ER­LANDS — World lead­ers gath­er­ing here on Monday and Tues­day are ex­pec­ted to dis­cuss al­tern­at­ive ways of put­ting the pre­ven­tion of nuc­le­ar ter­ror­ism on a per­man­ent foot­ing, amid fears that the ef­fort could lose steam.

Apart from the usu­al flurry of pro­clam­a­tions by in­di­vidu­al coun­tries on the im­port­ance of af­ford­ing great­er se­cur­ity to nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als, is­sue ex­perts hope the con­fab will take sub­stant­ive steps to­ward turn­ing the mo­mentum of an in­form­al com­munity of de­votees in gov­ern­ments around the world in­to a form­al gov­ernance ar­chi­tec­ture.

U.S. of­fi­cials so far have banked on the power of peer pres­sure among glob­al lead­ers — a de­sire to “look good,” as Eliza­beth Sher­wood-Ran­dall, the White House co­ordin­at­or for de­fense policy and coun­ter­ing weapons of mass de­struc­tion, said earli­er this month — as a mech­an­ism for ex­tract­ing nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity com­mit­ments from part­ner coun­tries at past sum­mits.

Pres­id­ent Obama made coun­ter­ing the threat of nuc­le­ar ter­ror­ism a key goal in his in­ter­na­tion­al-se­cur­ity agenda early in his pres­id­ency. Ac­cord­ing to White House of­fi­cials, Obama’s call to fo­cus high-level at­ten­tion on the is­sue fol­lows the lo­gic that pre­vent­ing ter­ror­ists from det­on­at­ing a nuc­le­ar device is most eas­ily achieved by deny­ing them ac­cess to atom­ic ma­ter­i­als in the first place.

Past Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mits, held in Wash­ing­ton in 2010 and in Seoul in 2012, were seen in large part as a product of U.S. lead­er­ship on the is­sue. What fol­lows when glob­al lead­ers re­turn home after the fi­nal sum­mit un­der the Obama pres­id­ency in 2016, however, is an open ques­tion, ex­perts say.

“Pre­vi­ous [sum­mit] meet­ings have use­fully fo­cused high-level at­ten­tion on the need to im­prove nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity and have made some mod­est pro­gress in that re­gard,” said Ken­neth Brill, who was a dir­ect­or of the U.S. Na­tion­al Coun­ter­pro­lif­er­a­tion Cen­ter and a former am­bas­sad­or to the In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency.

But the sum­mits have largely har­ves­ted “low-hanging fruit” by ur­ging vol­un­tary meas­ures, leav­ing the is­sue of the mis­sion’s longev­ity un­touched, he ar­gued in re­sponse to ques­tions from Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire.

“If gov­ernance is not ad­dressed in 2014 and 2016, the glob­al nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity re­gime will be left some­what im­proved, but still with sig­ni­fic­ant gaps; it will not be a re­gime com­men­sur­ate with the risk and con­sequences of nuc­le­ar ter­ror­ism,” Brill said.

White House of­fi­cials have al­luded to one po­ten­tial strategy for achiev­ing broad­er buy-in from coun­tries to­ward that end. Speak­ing via tele­con­fer­ence at a Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions event on March 17, Sher­wood-Ran­dall said the goal is to identi­fy a “core group of coun­tries” fol­low­ing agreed-upon nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity prac­tices that would “op­tim­ally” in­centiv­ize oth­ers to fol­low suit.

Ex­perts think that ap­proach likely will play out in the form of a tri-na­tion­al com­mit­ment to be offered at the sum­mit by the United States, the Neth­er­lands and South Korea. Called a “gift bas­ket” in dip­lo­mat­ic lingo, this mul­ti­lat­er­al state­ment is ex­pec­ted to be called “Strength­en­ing Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Im­ple­ment­a­tion,” Deepti Choubey, an ex­pert with the Wash­ing­ton-based Nuc­le­ar Threat Ini­ti­at­ive, wrote in a Feb. 25 ana­lys­is.

Each of the three coun­tries comes to the 53-na­tion Hag­ue sum­mit with un­fin­ished busi­ness of its own.

In the United States, rat­i­fic­a­tion of two key in­ter­na­tion­al agree­ments — the 2005 Amend­ment to the Con­ven­tion on the Phys­ic­al Pro­tec­tion of Nuc­le­ar Ma­ter­i­al, and the In­ter­na­tion­al Con­ven­tion for the Sup­pres­sion of Acts of Nuc­le­ar Ter­ror­ism — re­main stuck in the Sen­ate.

Nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity re­lated le­gis­la­tion also is held up in South Korea’s par­lia­ment, risk­ing em­bar­rass­ment for the coun­try at this week’s sum­mit, the Yon­hap news agency re­por­ted.

As for the Dutch, the coun­try is un­likely to meet a pledge at the 2012 Seoul sum­mit to quit us­ing highly en­riched urani­um for med­ic­al iso­tope pro­duc­tion by 2015, with of­fi­cials cit­ing earli­er un­fore­seen delays.

In ad­di­tion, the U.S. del­eg­a­tion could well face ques­tions from their in­ter­na­tion­al col­leagues about do­mest­ic budget cuts and the im­plic­a­tion for Wash­ing­ton’s lead­er­ship in the nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity arena. Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials main­tain that the over­all mis­sion re­mains suf­fi­ciently fun­ded, at­trib­ut­ing most of the pro­jec­ted fisc­al 2015 cuts to a de­cision to moth­ball an un­fin­ished mixed-ox­ide re­act­or-fuel fa­cil­ity be­cause of skyrock­et­ing costs.

One as­pect to watch at the sum­mit, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts, will be the de­gree to which a pro­spect­ive in­ter­na­tion­al nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity frame­work will lean on the In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency to pro­duce meas­ur­able, en­force­able pro­gress.

The or­gan­iz­a­tion is slated to play a key role in the White House plan for strength­en­ing ex­ist­ing in­sti­tu­tions. Sher­wood-Ran­dall said that coun­tries com­mit­ted to up­ping their nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity com­mit­ments should com­men­sur­ately in­crease their con­tri­bu­tions to the agency.

“In our view … the nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity mis­sion has to be­come something that the IAEA does more of, and that means that the coun­tries that care about the mis­sion are go­ing to have to sup­port it [in] do­ing it,” she said at the re­cent event.

Kel­sey Dav­en­port, a non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ana­lyst with the Wash­ing­ton-based Arms Con­trol As­so­ci­ation, poin­ted to the agency’s In­ter­na­tion­al Phys­ic­al Pro­tec­tion Ad­vis­ory Ser­vice as evid­ence that the Vi­enna-based U.N. nuc­le­ar watch­dog already is equipped to make im­port­ant con­tri­bu­tions.

“The IAEA has played a crit­ic­al role in cre­at­ing guidelines for best prac­tice in a series of nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity guid­ance doc­u­ments and mak­ing sug­ges­tions and re­com­mend­a­tions for im­prove­ments through its re­view mis­sions, which, thanks in part to the sum­mit pro­cess, more and more coun­tries are tak­ing ad­vant­age of,” Dav­en­port said in an email last week.

The U.N. agency’s ad­vis­ory ser­vice can dis­patch teams of ex­perts to help im­prove nuc­le­ar-fa­cil­ity se­cur­ity in coun­tries that vo­lun­teer to par­ti­cip­ate.

For the agency to func­tion as a key play­er in the nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity arena, however, changes are needed in its fund­ing struc­ture, Dav­en­port ar­gued. Be­cause this type of work is fin­anced with funds out­side the base budget, there is little of the fin­an­cial pre­dict­ab­il­ity re­quired for long-term plan­ning, she said.

Some ex­perts also see polit­ic­al lim­it­a­tions in the agency’s ad­op­tion of a great­er lead­er­ship role in nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity, par­tic­u­larly if a U.S. push at this year’s sum­mit suc­ceeds in bring­ing a great­er fo­cus on safe­guard­ing world­wide mil­it­ary stocks.

“The agency’s will­ing­ness to take on a great­er role in nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity is a pos­it­ive de­vel­op­ment, but it is not clear that all of its mem­ber states are will­ing to give nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity the pri­or­ity, broad­er man­date, and re­sources needed to really drive the agenda,” said Michelle Cann, a seni­or budget and policy ana­lyst at the non­profit Part­ner­ship for Glob­al Se­cur­ity.

“Frankly, it’s hard to ima­gine nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity be­ing el­ev­ated bey­ond third fiddle” amid oth­er agency pri­or­it­ies, “so I’m not con­fid­ent that [it] is an ap­pro­pri­ate suc­cessor to the [Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit] pro­cess,” Cann said via email.

Lead­ers are slated to con­vene on Tues­day, without staff, for an Obama-mod­er­ated dis­cus­sion about “the fu­ture of the sum­mit pro­cess,” Sher­wood-Ran­dall said.

Ac­cord­ing to Brill, for “real pro­gress” to take place after The Hag­ue, Obama must “kick his ad­min­is­tra­tion in­to a high­er gear” to­ward a leg­ally bind­ing glob­al nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity re­gime some­time by 2020. “Without that, the [Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit] pro­cess will end with a whim­per, which may be fol­lowed some­where down the road by a very large, ter­ror­ist-pro­duced bang,” he said.

Mean­while, some ex­perts say that too strong a fo­cus on an over­all frame­work for se­cur­ing nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al is mis­placed, be­cause such sub­stances should best be set aside or des­troyed in the first place.

“I think a ton of en­ergy is go­ing in­to a glob­al ar­chi­tec­ture that will as­sure that Coun­try X will ap­ply Stand­ard Y to Ma­ter­i­al Z, even though most coun­tries don’t have Ma­ter­i­al Z, and in fact should not be en­cour­aged to ac­quire Ma­ter­i­al Z,” Alan Ku­per­man, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fess­or at Uni­versity of Texas-Aus­tin and co­ordin­at­or of the Nuc­le­ar Pro­lif­er­a­tion Pre­ven­tion Pro­ject, told GSN last week.

“Pre­vent­ing ac­quis­i­tion of nuc­le­ar bombs by coun­tries and ter­ror­ists is best ac­com­plished by halt­ing all use” of highly en­riched urani­um and plutoni­um, he ar­gued. “Everything else is a dis­trac­tion, or even worse, fa­cil­it­ates the use of such dan­ger­ous ma­ter­i­als,” Ku­per­man said.

Ed­it­or’s Note: The Nuc­le­ar Threat Ini­ti­at­ive is sole spon­sor of Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire, which is pub­lished in­de­pend­ently by the Na­tion­al Journ­al Group.

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