Press Service of Russian Defense Ministry, Vadim Savitsky/AP

Getting Past Crimea at the Nuclear Security Summit

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has cast a shadow over the biannual meeting, threatening to distract delegates from securing the world’s nuclear weapons. By Stewart M. Patrick and Claire Schachter

Today, fifty-three countries and four international organizations are gathered in The Hague for the third Nuclear Security Summit. Russia’s annexation of Crimea has cast a shadow over the biannual meeting, threatening to distract delegates from the critical task at hand: following through on their commitments to lock down the world’s unsecured nuclear weapons, fissile material, and related technologies. The summit’s success will depend on whether the participating countries are willing to move beyond the harmonization of national pledges to construct a strong framework for nuclear security, undergirded by more powerful conventions and institutions.

The NSS process originated five years ago, in President Obama’s Prague speech of April 2009. Describing nuclear weapons as the most pressing threat confronting humanity, he stressed the need to prevent terrorists from getting ahold of the world’s most dangerous weapons. The following year, his administration hosted the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC, where participants adopted an ambitious target: securing all vulnerable nuclear material by 2014. When the parties convened for a second summit in Seoul two years later, each country presented a list of national actions taken toward the collective effort. By 2012, 60-80 percent of national commitments to secure or eliminate stockpiles of fissile materials were achieved. According to experts, that percentage of commitments that have been implemented has risen to 90 percent today.

Still, it’s clear that progress has been uneven. On the one hand, the NSS has served as a flexible format to catalyze concrete action. Participants arrive at each meeting with specific national pledges, as well as thematic “gift baskets”—voluntary initiatives that countries present and seek to acquire backers for, ideally as many as possible. (This year, for instance, South Korea, the Netherlands, and the United States are announcing a trinational initiative on “Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation.”) The process also imposes relative accountability, as participating countries must submit national progress reports that explain how they are fulfilling their obligations.

Consequently, the number of countries and facilities in possession of HEU and plutonium is decreasing, and many countries have made progress in securing or eliminating vulnerable material. One noteworthy success story is Ukraine, which removed all the highly-enriched uranium (HEU) on its territory in order to fulfill its 2010 NSS  commitment. Observers have rightly noted how much higher the stakes in Crimea might be today had it not done so.

There are other success stories. According to the 2014 Nuclear Threat Index, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Mexico, Sweden, and Vietnam have also eliminated their stocks of weapons-useable nuclear materials. In addition, thirteen other countries have reduced their stockpiles. And today, Japan announced it will turn over a massive cache of weapons-grade plutonium and HEU to the United States—a coup for President Obama.

Nevertheless, the risk remains. Terrorists would need only a small amount of diverted fissile material (some thirty-five pounds of HEU or nine pounds of plutonium) to fashion a crude nuclear weapon. Terrorists could also make use of loose radiological material to create a less destructive “dirty bomb.” Such a dispersal device would function as a weapon of “mass disruption,” sowing panic and economic chaos (if deployed, say, at the lower end of Manhattan under the right conditions, it could make that area uninhabitable for decades). It is thus worrisome to learn that in the past year alone approximately 140 cases of missing or unauthorized uses of nuclear and radioactive material were reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

More broadly, it is clear that NSS participants will fall short of their 2014 target goal of locking up all nuclear material. There are still twenty-five states with one kilogram or more of weapons-usable nuclear materials, and some states are still increasing their stockpiles, including Japan, the United Kingdom, India, and Pakistan. Existing institutions also fail to adequately address the threat. Approximately 85 percent of the global stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium (approximately 2000 metric tons scattered across hundreds of sites in twenty-five countries) remains outside of civilian programs and therefore not subject to IAEA guidelines or to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material [PDF] (CPPNM) and its 2005 Amendment[PDF]. Moreover, many nations have not translated the IAEA guidelines into domestic law, and they are thus not enforceable when it comes to material used by civilian programs. The United States has been pushing countries to commit to more stringent international guidelines and incorporate these into domestic legislation, but its own failure to ratify the 2005 amended version of the CPPNM undercuts these efforts.

Perhaps most disturbing are gnawing doubts about the capacity or will of select countries to safeguard their nuclear arsenals, as well as to track, interdict, and prosecute nuclear smugglers. Pakistan is a particular concern, given that country’s growing arsenal of nuclear weapons (including small, portable battlefield devices) and its penetration by (and periodic sponsorship of) jihadist networks. North Korea is another concern, given its penchant for selling sensitive contraband, including weapons, to the highest bidder, and uncertainty about command and control of its nuclear arsenal during internal crisis.

Given these continued—and in some cases growing—concerns, NSS delegates cannot afford to rest on their laurels.  Success will require that world leaders:

  • Remove the Crimean elephant from the roomThe United States and Russia should release a bilateral statement declaring that despite differences over Crimea and Ukraine, both remain committed to the NSS process and facilitating the fulfillment of the objectives of the Washington Workplan, their individual pledges, and those of all participants. The world needs Russia to play ball on securing civilian-use nuclear material as well as on non-proliferation generally, given the number of facilities and quantity of material still in its possession. It may be too late to prevent unhelpful issue linkage, but confronting the problem squarely could make it more difficult for any stakeholder to hold the process hostage going forward.
  • Untether U.S. leadershipPresident Obama has allocated political capital to this issue. But the United States cannot lead by example with one hand tied behind its back. The president should declare his determination to work with lawmakers of both parties to push legislation through the Senate that will ensure U.S. compliance with the CPPNM and its 2005 amendment.
  • Share the security burden: The summit communiqué should include a renewed commitment by NSS states to assist developing countries meet their commitments under UN Security Council resolution 1540 (as extended in resolution 1977), including through strengthening the 1540’s committee’s capacity to provide technical assistance to countries that require expertise to deal with proliferation threats.
  • Support Pakistan’s progress: The communiqué should include a strong statement acknowledging the particular challenges facing Pakistan, and pledging multilateral and bilateral assistance from NSS parties, as well as from the IAEA, in assisting the securing of its nuclear arsenal. Such a collective announcement would be less inflammatory than unilateral U.S. efforts to elicit greater nuclear cooperation, given the often fraught relationship between Washington and Islamabad, and would be appropriate given theimprovements Pakistan has made and its engagement with the NSS process.
  • Realize the potential of the IAEAParticipants should settle on a near- and long-term strategy for empowering the IAEA to play a greater role in the field of nuclear security diplomacy, starting with transforming the IAEA guidelines into standards and pushing for their implementation, and increasing core funding to the IAEA Office of Nuclear Security.
  • Secure the post-2016 agenda: As things currently stand, the final NSS summit will occur in 2016, the last year of the Obama presidency. To remove uncertainty, the entire NSS membership should endorse the indefinite extension of the biannual summit, which will continue to meet as long as the world faces a threat from unsecured nuclear weapons. Creating a standing summit mechanism should be the first step in formalizing—and ultimately institutionalizing—what has to date been an informal system of parallel national pledges.

A concrete, forward-looking communiqué should be the first step in creating a robust multilateral framework for nuclear security, helping to ensure that this agenda moves ahead—even against the eerily familiar backdrop of escalating tensions between a set of nuclear powers.

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