What to Expect at The Hague Nuclear Security Summit

By Matthew Bunn
On March 24-25, leaders from around the world will gather in The Hague for the third nuclear security summit.  What should we expect the summit to accomplish? Overall, the summits have already transformed the international nuclear security discussion, elevating the topic from the bowels of governments to presidents and prime ministers, motivating states to make decisions to upgrade security, increasing understanding of the nuclear terrorism threat, and getting thousands of people around the world focused on improving nuclear security.  But that progress may come more from the process than from the pageantry of the summits themselves.

Welcome archway greets visitors in The
Hague (NSS 2014 photo)

No one should expect too much from the joint communiqué that will be issued in The Hague.  These are negotiated in a consensus process that gives every participating country a veto.  While the Dutch hosts tried out some venturesome ideas in early drafts, many were whittled down in later discussions.  The reality is that the past summits covered the points where agreement could most easily be reached, creating a higher hurdle for each new summit to find important new ground where everyone can be brought on board.  Nevertheless, the communiqué may go further than before in emphasizing the need for effective protection of military stocks as well as civilian ones, and plutonium as well as highly enriched uranium (HEU); it may emphasize the importance of taking a performance-based approach to regulation and inspection; and it is likely to include language encouraging countries to take steps to assure the world that they have effective security measures in place.  (Piet de Klerk, the Dutch Sherpa chairing the summit preparations, offered a brief preview in an interview in Arms Control Today in December.)

The more interesting action, as at past nuclear security summits, will be in the commitments made by individual countries (“house gifts,” introduced at the Washington summit in 2010) or groups of like-minded countries (“gift baskets,” a further innovation from the Seoul summit in 2012).  These have included some major steps – such as Ukraine eliminating all of its HEU (which included enough high-quality HEU at a single site for a simple gun-type terrorist bomb), and the United States and the Europeans joining together in a pledge to eliminate HEU from their medical isotope production.  This year, the Japanese press have reported that Japan will pledge to eliminate the hundreds of kilograms of high-quality plutonium at the Fast Critical Assembly at Tokai.  De Klerk noted that the three summit hosts so far – the Netherlands, the United States, and South Korea – have put together a gift basket focused on countries commiting to implement the security measures called for in IAEA recommendations.  Other commitments can be expected on steps ranging from better security for dangerous radiological sources to protecting secret information on nuclear security.

Unfortunately, so far the process has not managed to reach agreement on new approaches to global governance of nuclear security, the “new standards” for security President Obama called for in Prague, or a mechanism to keep high-level discussions going when the nuclear security summit process comes to an end.  Those issues remain to be addressed in the lead-up to the final nuclear security summit – planned for Washington in the spring of 2016.

Matthew Bunn is a Professor of Practice at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.