Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

Progress at The Hague Nuclear Security Summit

| Mar. 25, 2014

So what did the nuclear security summit in The Hague accomplish?  A good deal.  Despite being overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine and the associated crush of side meetings, the summit in The Hague once again served as a forcing event to cut through bureaucracy and get important decisions made.  Just as having friends over for dinner motivates you to clean up your house, going to a major global summit motivates leaders to push their bureaucracies to give them something worthwhile to talk about when they get there.

Key accomplishments of this summit included:

Plenary discussion at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague (NSS 2014 photo)
  • A “gift basket” in which 35 states pledged to implement “the intent” of IAEA nuclear security recommendations, accept periodic peer reviews, ensure that nuclear security managers and staff are “demonstrably competent,” and take other steps to ensure “continuous improvement” in nuclear security – a significant step toward a firmer global nuclear security framework (check out William Tobey’s take on the gift basket here and the Dutch summary here);
  • A communiqué that focused more on the global nuclear security framework and for the first time endorsed a set of steps states can take to convince the world they really are implementing effective nuclear security measures (though this was under the heading of “Voluntary Measures” and described as items states “may consider”);
  • A first-ever communiqué statement calling not only for states to minimize their stockpiles of HEU, but also to “keep their stockpile of separated plutonium to the minimum level… consistent with national requirements.”  (Producing no more separated plutonium than is actually required could be a big deal, since some 260 metric tons of separated plutonium have already built up in civilian stockpiles – more than in all the world’s weapon stockpiles combined.)
  • A major house gift from Japan, pledging to eliminate the hundreds of kilograms of weapon-grade plutonium and weapon-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) at the Fast Critical Assembly – some of the most dangerous material that exists in any non-nuclear-weapon state.  (Belgium and Italy also eliminated smaller stocks of HEU and plutonium in the lead-up to the summit.)
  • A successful scenario-based exercise that exposed the assembled leaders to some of the terror and confusion that might occur if the nuclear material for a bomb were on the loose – and the urgent need for international cooperation to strengthen the world’s ability to prevent and respond to such an event.

This summit saw a substantial strengthening of the idea of “gift baskets” – joint commitments by groups of states – first invented at the Seoul summit.  (A good summary of actual implementation of the Seoul gift baskets can be found here.) The gift baskets for Seoul were mostly first dipping of toes in the water; the ones for this summit went further, including the one on IAEA recommendations and peer reviews; another on radiological security; one on transport security; and several more.

Conceptually, the leaders at this summit reached consensus on the idea that nuclear security requires not just the hurry-up four-year effort that is now completed, but “continuous improvement” and “continuous efforts” extending far into the future.

Moreover, after three nuclear security summits, the leaders have developed two fundamental understandings.  First, there is much more widespread acceptance that there is a real threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism – though as we pointed out in our recent report, there are still a wide range of steps that should be taken to combat complacency about that threat, from sharing of real incidents and lessons learned to discussions among intelligence agencies.  Second, leaders have come to understand that they are ultimately responsible for nuclear security. Just as the CEO and board of a company that operates nuclear power plants face a responsibility for nuclear security that they cannot delegate, so too do heads of state and government in nations that possess weapons-usable nuclear material.

Of course, with 55 countries participating, each wielding a veto, there was a great deal that was not in the summit communiqué – or even in the commitments of coalitions of the willing.  Despite the considerable progress in The Hague, it remains the case that there is no global rule that says “if you have a nuclear weapon or the materials needed to make one, they need to be at least this secure”; there are no agreed global mechanisms for building confidence that states really are implementing effective nuclear security measures; and once leaders are no longer meeting at the summit level, there are few effective international forums for keeping high-level attention on nuclear security and agreeing on next steps.  Those are some of the fundamental issues that must be resolved in the two years leading up to the next and probably last nuclear security summit in the United States in 2016.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bunn, Matthew.Progress at The Hague Nuclear Security Summit.” Nuclear Security Matters, March 25, 2014, https://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/publication/progress-hague-nuclear-security-summit.

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