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I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
U.S. Says Nuclear Security Work Remains

Kelsey Davenport

The United States decided to host a nuclear security summit in 2016, which would be the fourth such meeting, because the “existing nuclear security architecture” needs to be strengthened and deepened before the summit process ends, a White House official said last month.

Although a July 1-5 ministerial-level conference on the topic hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) played an important role in strengthening and institutionalizing nuclear security, progress in this area has not reached an appropriate point for the summit process to end, the official said in an Aug. 21 interview.

President Barack Obama launched the process with an April 2010 summit in Washington that focused attention on securing vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide in four years.

Some countries have said they would prefer the IAEA to take over the work of the nuclear security summits, but the official said the United States does not intend for any single organization or entity to assume the summits’ work. The official said, however, that the “mortar” between various layers of international organizations and informal processes needs to be strengthened before the summit process concludes.

The 2010 Washington summit came after President Barack Obama laid out his goal of leading a global effort to lock down and consolidate nuclear materials in an April 2009 speech in Prague. (See ACT, May 2010.) A second summit was held in March 2012 in Seoul, and the Netherlands will host more than 50 participating states and several international organizations next March 24-25 in The Hague. (See ACT, April 2012.)

In a June 19 speech in Berlin, Obama announced his intent to host a 2016 summit. Many experts had speculated that 2014 might be the end of the summit process because it would mark the conclusion of the four-year effort. (See ACT, November 2011.)

With an Office of Nuclear Security and a Nuclear Security Fund, the IAEA already plays a significant role in efforts to secure nuclear material, but that role is not defined in the agency’s statute. In his July 5 closing statement at the Vienna meeting, IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said the meeting recognized the “central role of the IAEA in supporting States’ efforts to strengthen nuclear security.”

In an Aug. 26 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Piet de Klerk, who is leading the Dutch preparations for the 2014 summit, made a similar point and added that the Vienna conference was important because it emphasized the prominence that nuclear security has attained “within the spectrum of IAEA activities.”

The meeting produced a declaration that the 125 participating countries adopted by consensus on the opening day of the conference. The declaration reaffirmed the role of the IAEA in “strengthening the nuclear security framework” and “coordination of international activities” in the field, but also said nuclear security is fundamentally the responsibility of individual states.

The declaration, although outlining proposed actions for states to take to strengthen nuclear security, did not contain any binding language. In a press conference on the first day of the IAEA meeting, Amano said that the declaration should not be characterized as weak. It marked the first time that language on nuclear security was adopted by consensus by such a large number of participating states, he said.

Amano declined to say what he hoped the next nuclear security conference would achieve. The White House official suggested that one way to strengthen the IAEA conferences and maintain the momentum for improving nuclear security would be to establish the meetings as a forum for announcing recent concrete accomplishments in that area and making commitments for further action.

As an example, the official cited the announcement during the IAEA conference by Canada, Russia, the United States, and Vietnam that they had completed a cooperative project to remove all remaining highly enriched uranium (HEU) from Vietnam. The HEU, which came from a research reactor, was sent back to Russia for disposition.

The idea of using a prominent event to spur progress in nuclear security in this way was part of the concept behind the nuclear security summit process. At the Washington and Seoul summits, countries announced pledges of specific actions, or “house gifts,” to the meeting.

The declaration from the Vienna meeting suggested that the IAEA consider organizing a conference on nuclear security every three years.

Mixed Reviews

In a July 5 interview at the end of the IAEA meeting, a second Dutch official said that the declaration could have been “more ambitious” in what it asked of member states. He also said the meeting exposed a need to “better coordinate” multilateral initiatives related to nuclear security to “avoid duplication” of activities. The 2014 summit in The Hague will seek to increase such coordination, he said.

The White House official agreed that the meeting confirmed the role of the IAEA in nuclear security, adding that the declaration was “forward looking” and increased the visibility of nuclear security.

The White House official and de Klerk said that the emphasis on completing ratification of an amended convention that sets protection standards for the storage and transport of nuclear materials was a positive result of the meeting. At the 2012 summit, participating states set a goal of bringing the treaty into force by 2014, which will require more than 30 additional ratifications.

Several participants at the Vienna meeting raised concerns about the IAEA’s ability to increase its nuclear security activities, given uncertainties about funding for those efforts. The budget for the Office of Nuclear Security comes primarily from extrabudgetary contributions, which often are attached to particular projects. IAEA member states provide such funds on top of their assessed contribution to the agency.

In a May 2013 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office raised the concern that nuclear security work might be underfunded at the IAEA. The report recommended that the U.S. secretary of state work with the agency and member countries to “evaluate the nuclear security program’s long-term resource needs” and determine whether extrabudgetary funding can provide a reliable basis for planning future efforts.

Even if the IAEA has limited resources for its nuclear security work, it should be the primary driver for strengthening nuclear security, a Slovenian official said in a July 3 interview. All IAEA member states should have a voice in developing a nuclear security regime, the official said.

The IAEA has 159 members.

Slovenia attended the IAEA meeting, but does not participate in the nuclear security summit process.

The Slovenian official said that if the nuclear security summit participants are serious about framing nuclear security as a “global problem,” they should open the summit process to all interested states to “craft a global solution.”

The Dutch official acknowledged the concern that the participant list was limited, but he said this was necessary to achieve more-concrete results and that outreach to nonparticipating countries will remain an important part of the summit process.

U.S. Priorities

In addition to strengthening the nuclear security architecture and ensuring that participating states make further pledges of specific actions, a main U.S. goal for the 2014 summit is to develop the concept of “assurances,” voluntary steps that states can take to demonstrate that they are maintaining high standards of nuclear security without disclosing sensitive information, the White House official said.

Assurances balance the “immutability of sovereignty with the interdependence of global norms,” the official said. One way to provide such assurances is to take advantage of the IAEA International Physical Protection Advisory Services (IPPAS), the official said.

At the request of member states, the agency can conduct an IPPAS mission at a designated facility. After visiting the site, IAEA experts provide the state with recommendations on how it can enhance its physical protection.

If all countries allowed peer reviews of their nuclear facilities, that would “make a big difference,” Amano said in a June 28 op-ed for Project Syndicate. The United States strongly supports IPPAS reviews, the White House official said.

De Klerk praised the IAEA meeting’s emphasis on the use of IPPAS missions and the participants’ encouragement of the IAEA “to foster the sharing of experiences and lessons” from these missions. Discussing these issues in the IAEA will contribute to taking further steps in nuclear security at the 2014 summit, he said.

Although not optimistic about the possibility of a future requirement that all countries undergo peer reviews, the White House official said that the United States will soon receive an IPPAS mission, which Washington views as a valuable tool for “continuous improvement” in nuclear security. IPPAS missions originally were viewed as reviews to assist states with problems in their security arrangements, but the United States is working to “de-stigmatize” these missions and demonstrate their value as a tool for “mature programs” as well, the official said.

Some countries have called for legally binding international requirements for nuclear security, but a German official cautioned against placing too much emphasis on binding requirements in the short term. In a July 4 interview, he said moving toward a treaty on nuclear security, or required peer reviews, may act as a “disincentive” for states to strengthen norms in the short term because they may choose to wait for “what is coming next.”

A Russian official said in a July 3 interview that binding reviews would “undermine the consensus” achieved at the meeting that nuclear security is a state responsibility.

Toward the 2014 Summit

In the August 26 e-mail, de Klerk said that the 2014 summit will be the “right moment for looking at results” from the previous two summits in their “core business” of reducing the quantities of vulnerable material or providing better protection for it.

He said that closer cooperation between governments and the nuclear industry will be another priority in 2014, adding that these groups “share the same goal but have different responsibilities.” Industry involvement in “evaluating regulations and providing input for new regulations” has been seen to contribute to the effectiveness of the nuclear security regime, de Klerk said.

A third focal point for the 2014 summit is increased sharing of “training, knowledge, and expertise” to be “better prepared against nuclear terrorism,” de Klerk said.


Kelsey Davenport's reporting from Vienna was supported by a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America.