2014 Nuclear Security Summit Q&A

Q&A with Graham Allison and Gary Samore
President Obama will travel to The Netherlands this weekend for the third Nuclear Security Summit to be held on March 24-25, 2014. Belfer Center nuclear experts Graham Allison and Gary Samore review in a short Q&A why the Summit is important and what it hopes to achieve.

Q. What’s the big idea? With the crisis in Ukraine, rumors of a new Cold War, Syrians being slaughtered, a global economic slowdown, and the other urgent challenges in the world today, why are President Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Xi Jinping, and leaders from 50 other nations traveling to The Hague for the Nuclear Security Summit?

In one line: because President Obama and the other leaders understand that they must take action to reduce the danger of nuclear terrorism—before it pushes itself into the headlines. The danger is that we could awake to a nuclear 9/11. If terrorists succeed in buying or stealing a nuclear weapon, or the materials needed to make one, they could use it to destroy the heart of a major city. As President Obama has noted, “just one nuclear weapon exploded in a city would destabilize our very way of life.

The big idea that this Summit will focus on like a laser beam is that the 53 nations and four international organizations assembled have the power to take actions that would go a long way toward preventing nuclear terrorism. Indeed, they can avoid a nuclear terrorist attack by doing just one thing: denying terrorists the means to achieve their deadliest ambitions. Imagine that all nuclear weapons and all nuclear weapons-usable material were locked up to a gold standard—beyond the reach of terrorists and thieves. We would have reduced the likelihood of a nuclear terrorist attack to nearly zero.

Q. What are the objectives of the Nuclear Security Summit? What do the leaders hope to accomplish?

The objectives of the world’s third Nuclear Security Summit are: (1) to concentrate the minds of leaders and governments on the need for action to reduce the risk of nuclear or radiological terrorism; (2) to create an action-forcing process to motivate leaders to take specific actions in preparation for the Summit or to commit to take actions by specified dates in the near future; and (3) to strengthen international cooperation and the international framework of agreements, institutions, and norms that encourage states to improve nuclear security.

Q. Since this is the 3rd Nuclear Security Summit, what has been accomplished so far?

Inaugurated by President Obama in Washington in 2010, the Nuclear Security Summit process has increased awareness of the nuclear terrorism threat, encouraged states to take actionable strides toward securing or eliminating nuclear weapons material, and provided a high-level platform for discussing future steps.

One result of this process is reflected in the sequence: 52, 38, 25, X. In 1991, 52 states possessed nuclear weapons-usable material (highly-enriched uranium or separated plutonium). By 2009, that number had shrunk to 38. In just the past five years since President Obama came to office, 13 additional states have eliminated all nuclear weapons-usable material, leaving only 25 states today with material that could be used in a terrorist’s nuclear bomb. [1]

Q. What are examples of specific actions that have been taken that make it less likely we will suffer a nuclear 9/11?

Think about Ukraine. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Ukraine inherited the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, comprising 2,000 strategic nuclear warheads and more than 2,500 additional tactical nuclear weapons. Thanks to efforts by the United States, Russia, and Ukraine, all of these weapons were removed from the territory of Ukraine by 1996. At the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in 2010, 15 bombs’ worth of highly-enriched uranium remained in Ukraine. Two years ago, at the second summit in Seoul, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych announced that since the previous assembly, Ukraine had worked with the U.S., Russia, and international inspectors to become nuclear weapons material-free. As a consequence, amidst the turmoil in Ukraine today, we can be thankful that at least it is not a nuclear crisis.

Other examples include:

  • In 2002, a joint U.S.-Russian initiative removed three nuclear bombs-worth of highly-enriched uranium from Vincas, a suburb of Belgrade, Yugoslavia. That material had remained under the authority of Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milosevic before, during, and for three years after a U.S.-NATO air bombing campaign compelled Milosevic to retreat from Kosovo.

  • In 2012, the U.S., Russia, and Kazakhstan succeeded in securing more than a dozen bombs’ worth of weapons-grade plutonium from Degelen Mountain in Kazakhstan, in a project you can read about here.

At next week’s Summit, a number of other heads of state are expected to make unambiguous pledges – following in the footsteps of Ukraine, Serbia, and Kazakhstan – to take specific, observable actions by dates certain that will secure or eliminate many bombs’ worth of nuclear materials.

Q. Where can journalists, analysts, students, and policymakers learn more?

Harvard’s Belfer Center has recently launched a new website called Nuclear Security Matters.

It includes basic facts, expert commentary, and reports and analyses from the Project on Managing the Atom. On Tuesday, the Center released a comprehensive report on what has been accomplished in a four-year effort launched in 2009 to secure nuclear material around the globe.

[1] This does not include 5 states that possess a negligible amount of weapons-usable material (1 kg or less), far short of a bomb’s worth of material.