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Commentary | 28 October 2019

Reviving political momentum to strengthen global nuclear security

Nuclear Security Risk Reduction Terrorism Global Security

When senior government officials – presidents, prime ministers, or foreign ministers – believe something is important, things get done. Policies and priorities are developed, resources are marshalled, stakeholders are convened, and deliverables are expected.

Action on nuclear security is no different, and over the course of six years, the series of Nuclear Security Summits achieved significant progress in reducing the risk of nuclear materials getting into the hands of terrorists.

But today, political attention on this topic has significantly diminished since the last Nuclear Security Summit in 2016. Given the threat of catastrophic nuclear terrorism facing the global community, there is a dire need to recapture political attention and momentum on nuclear security and collectively manage the long-term risks associated with the peaceful use of nuclear materials and technology.

Legacy of the Nuclear Security Summits

Biennially between 2010 and 2016, more than 50 heads of government gathered to share their nation’s progress on nuclear security and make commitments to future actions. These Nuclear Security Summits—first convened by President Obama—led to significant progress in nuclear security, with around a dozen countries completely eliminating their weapons-usable nuclear materials and many more updating their nuclear laws and regulations, committing to implement international nuclear security guidance, and agreeing on the need to build confidence through information sharing. Efforts also achieved entry into force of a major international treaty.

There is no doubt that the high-level attention brought by the Summits—and by the charismatic U.S. president who conceived of them—was a large reason for the significant progress on nuclear security during that period. After all, to generate action, especially momentous action, there is nothing like the public accountability and peer pressure of leaders having to meet their counterparts on the global stage.

Summit participants took steps at the 2016 Summit to sustain political attention and momentum and continue efforts to strengthen nuclear security through other international institutions and mechanisms like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). However, high-level political attention has waned. Not only have we seen evidence that progress and commitment to nuclear security has slowed, political obstacles prevent the IAEA from realizing its full potential as a central player in nuclear security.

This is not to say that heads of government must meet at regular summits or that every meeting between leaders must have nuclear security as the first talking point, but it must be a priority for leaders, demonstrated through tangible and visible commitments and actions.

Fortunately, there are opportunities to revive political momentum in the near future.

2020 ICONS

An important opportunity will come in February 2020, when the IAEA convenes its third International Conference on Nuclear Security (ICONS). ICONS kicks off with ministers or their designees offering national statements and issuing a ministerial declaration outlining general principles on nuclear security. Unfortunately, most countries have not sent ministers, itself a symptom of waning high-level attention. The remainder of ICONS consists of panels, presentations, and side events open to government officials, academics, and NGO representatives.

The ministerial segments and ministerial declarations—underwhelming at past ICONS—could be brought to life, if countries would be willing to take a more ambitious, forward-leaning approach, including by sending ministers to attend the ministerial segment.

Ministers should offer up new commitments, perhaps joining with other ministers to push the envelope in areas such as minimizing highly enriched uranium, committing to implement IAEA nuclear security guidance, providing support for the IAEA’s nuclear security mission, or highlighting the importance of information sharing. One possible vehicle for delivering commitments at ICONS is through signing INFCIRCs (IAEA information circulars) that originated as joint commitments at the Nuclear Security Summits and are now open to signature by all IAEA member states.

Ministers should also use the ICONS platform to promote ways their country has made progress in nuclear security, perhaps highlighting recent achievements.

The CPPNM/A RevCon

The next major opportunity will come in 2021, when the IAEA will convene a review conference (RevCon) for the Amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM/A). The CPPNM/A is the only legally binding treaty requiring countries to protect nuclear materials and nuclear facilities and is therefore the foundational international instrument for nuclear security. At the RevCon, as I have recently argued, countries should prioritize actions to build a strong, effective, and sustainable treaty regime.

The 2021 RevCon—the single mandated review conference, required five years after the amended treaty’s entry into force—should not be a pro forma meeting to check a box. Instead, countries should take a more ambitious approach and agree to hold future RevCons, with each successive RevCon selecting the next review conference date. The possibility of future RevCons is clearly envisioned by the text, and they will enable a more sustainable treaty regime that can evolve as threats, technology, and best practices evolve.

The RevCon also provides a unique opportunity for countries to engage in real, substantive dialogue on nuclear security—on lessons learned, best practices, and ideas for continuous improvement. Countries can share their assessments of trends in nuclear security that will impact how they implement the treaty based on their own national or regional context.

As the preparatory process for the RevCon gets under way this year and next, some political heft is needed to drive the RevCon toward such an ambitious approach and avoid a wasted opportunity.

Regional Fora

Important opportunities for rebuilding political attention on nuclear security and overcoming barriers at the IAEA exist within regional fora. Different countries and regions hold a variety of perspectives about nuclear risks. Neighboring countries often have existing trust relationships that can encourage more openness regarding sensitive topics. National and regional contexts are unique; a one-size-fits-all approach fails to acknowledge these differences.

Countries focused on gaining the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology, whether to provide reliable energy, life-extending medical treatment, or opportunities for scientists, understandably want the IAEA to prioritize its technical cooperation and assistance. Countries focused on the threat of nuclear terrorism want to strengthen the IAEA’s role in addressing this threat through its nuclear security activities.

These interests don’t have to conflict and should be mutually reinforcing. An act of nuclear terrorism anywhere will have global consequences, including a negative impact on the public’s perception—and acceptance—of peaceful use of nuclear material and technology. A greater understanding of this linkage—and the IAEA’s important role in both technical cooperation and nuclear security—is needed at the political level. Regional fora, conferences, or high-level meetings among regional leaders, might enable more constructive opportunities to increase awareness about the importance of nuclear security and strengthen support for the IAEA’s role.

Looking Ahead

It is vital that all countries work together to prevent an act of nuclear terrorism—an event that would impact us all. But political will is needed to take the actions necessary to strengthen nuclear security, strengthen global cooperation, and support the IAEA’s role. Upcoming opportunities exist for regaining political attention, but governments need to seize them. Over the next two years, we will see which path they take.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network (ELN) or any of the ELN’s members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges.