Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

A Pivotal Year for Nuclear Security?

| Mar. 29, 2016

The history of nuclear security has been described as an example of “punctuated equilibrium” -- long periods of inaction and complacency followed by events that catalyze action. U.S. history is rife with examples where the discovery of vulnerabilities or major incidents led agencies to strengthen nuclear security requirements.

A similar pattern can be seen on the international stage. In the 1970s, growing concerns about terrorism led to the first International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear security recommendations. In the early 1990s, reports of stolen Russian nuclear material led the United States to initiate the most extensive bilateral nuclear security cooperation to date.  The 9/11 attacks led many countries to toughen their nuclear security requirements, and to the creation of the IAEA Nuclear Security fund and a sharp increase in U.S. nuclear security spending.  In 2009, President Obama’s call to eliminate all vulnerable nuclear material within four years and the nuclear security summits that accompanied that effort served as the catalyst for the largest-ever multilateral effort to increase security for nuclear material. Much like these other defining moments, 2016 is set to be a pivotal year, as world leaders confront tough choices about whether and how to put nuclear security on a path of continuous improvement.

First, this week, the United States will host the fourth, and likely final, Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC. Since 2010, dozens of world leaders have gathered on a biannual basis to discuss how nuclear security can be strengthened. The summits elevate the issue of nuclear security amongst political leadership around the world, empowering states to make pledges to strengthen their nuclear security. As a result, there has been significant progress in reducing the risk that nuclear material would be stolen around the world (although there is still much work to be done).

In 2016, summit participants will have the opportunity to increase the momentum that exists today. At the summit they will present five action plans for international institutions to carry on the nuclear security effort: International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations, The Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, Interpol, and The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. It is essential that these plans provide an achievable pathway that continues momentum behind strengthening nuclear security around the world. Otherwise, the significance of nuclear security in many countries will likely wane, progress will slow down, and there is even the potential for backsliding.

Second, the horrifying attacks in Belgium and the revelations of terrorist monitoring of an official at a nuclear site with several bombs’ worth of highly enriched uranium highlight the ongoing threat.

Third, after the Summit concludes, the IAEA and the United Nations will make decisions about their involvement in nuclear security. The IAEA will host its second ministerial level conference on nuclear security and the United Nations will present the results of a “comprehensive review” of implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires all states to provide “appropriate effective” security and accounting for all nuclear weapons or related materials. Although 1540 is an essential tool for strengthening nuclear security, its implementation has been inconsistent and some of its provisions have been ill-defined. Both the IAEA and the UN have been playing a larger role in nuclear security in recent years. Their continuing leadership on this issue is critical.

Fourth,  the United States and Russia may or may not rebuild their bilateral nuclear security relationships. At the end of 2014, for example, Russia cut off the majority of nuclear security cooperation with the United States.  Throughout 2015, the relationship between the two countries continued to devolve. But, while the political differences between Russia and the United States heightened tension, bilateral cooperation is not an impossible feat. Though once adversaries at the peak of the Cold War, the two countries still managed to cooperate when it was in both countries’ interest. As the two countries with the most nuclear weapons useable material, cooperation and leadership between the United States and Russia is essential to reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism. This is the year for nuclear security advocates to seize the opportunity, and present a compelling case to re-ignite cooperation between U.S. and Russian nuclear experts.

Finally, the U.S. presidential elections will have an enormous impact on the future of nuclear security over the next decade. The U.S. government has served as the promoter and financier of nuclear security improvements around the world for more than 20 years. Both President Bush and President Obama made nuclear security a priority. In 2005, the Bush administration expanded cooperation between the United States and Russia as part of the Bratislava Initiative. The Obama administration had the four-year nuclear security effort and the nuclear security summits. Whoever is elected U.S. president in 2016, must have a strong and far-reaching vision and strategy for how best to strengthen nuclear security globally. Voters should be asking candidates what their plan is to keep nuclear and radiological materials out of the hands of the Islamic State and other terrorists.

Decisions about how multilateral cooperation will continue, whether U.S. and Russian cooperation will resume, and what approaches to take to U.S. nuclear security policy will be made amidst a backdrop of a rapidly evolving international threat environment. The strength and numbers of terrorists with apocalyptic ideologies that could support nuclear terrorism is greater than at any previous time; there is still vulnerable nuclear material in the world; and there are signs that momentum to secure nuclear material is slowing down.

Government officials, international organizations, and NGOs interested in reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism have an enormous amount of work to do in 2016 to ensure that the world continues down the path of improved nuclear security. This week’s summit will be an important indicator of how much will be accomplished.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Roth, Nickolas.A Pivotal Year for Nuclear Security? .” Nuclear Security Matters, March 29, 2016,