The lion’s share of recent attention to international nuclear agreements has gone toward the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran deal, its anticipated scuttling of the INF treaty, and the shrinking prospects for an extension to New START. But there is one area of nuclear security where the White House might be persuaded to boost its international engagement: strengthening efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism.
President Trump’s National Security Strategy describes the increasing danger that terrorists may acquire weapons of mass destruction, and it says that they must be prevented from doing so. Two groups that have expressed interest in nuclear and other WMD attacks are ISIS and Al-Qaeda, whose growing weakness increases the likelihood they will seek to demonstrate their continuing relevance with spectacular attacks in America or on American interests abroad.
Lack of knowledge about how to use nuclear material is not an impediment to nuclear terrorism; lack of nuclear and radiological material is. Such materials are in widespread use globally. Twenty-two countries have at least one kilogram of fissile nuclear material needed for an improvised nuclear bomb and virtually every country has radioactive sources, which could be used for a terrorist “dirty bomb” to spread dangerous radioactive material, for medical, industrial, and other peaceful purposes. Dozens of incidents of lost or stolen nuclear or radioactive material have been reported in the past decade.
Preventing nuclear terrorism by securing global nuclear materials is a team sport; no country alone can protect itself. The nuclear security regime has begun to define what countries are required to do to secure their nuclear material. The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, also provides advice and training to countries that request it. But while the terrorist threat is dynamic, the nuclear security regime is static. The regime does not require assessments of how countries are meeting their nuclear security obligations or provide ways to help those who need it, nor is there an agreed mechanism for developing and proposing needed updates to the regime. The Obama administration’s nuclear security summits produced improvements in global nuclear security practices and awareness, but left much work to be done.
Fortunately, there is a new opportunity to address gaps in the nuclear security regime, but it will require leadership from the Trump administration. The United States is a party to the Amended Convention for the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, which entered into force in 2016 and requires member countries to protect nuclear facilities and material in peaceful domestic use, storage, and transport, as well as to prohibit nuclear smuggling. The Convention calls for a conference in 2021 to review implementation of the agreement and its “adequacy in light of then prevailing situation.” This first review conference thus provides an opportunity for the more than 100 countries party to the agreement to establish a process of regular substantive reviews that would assess implementation issues and consider whether the nuclear security regime needs updating to deal with evolving threats and technologies. A substantive review process for the Convention would be similar to those for the Montreal Protocol for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and the Convention on Nuclear Safety, which have demonstrated the value of countries assessing implementation issues and adapting agreements to changing circumstances. Countries party to the Convention would drive the review process, with the International Atomic Energy Agency providing support.
While the Convention’s first review conference is not until 2021, informal discussions about it have begun and an initial meeting on the substance and process of the review conference will be held in Vienna this summer. Based on multiple discussions we have had or know about, active U.S. leadership will be essential for the agreement to become the forum for strengthening global efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism. Some countries are content with the status quo, but others want the review process to address gaps in the global nuclear security regime and hope the United States will signal it agrees by taking a leading role in shaping the 2021 review conference.
Despite the Trump administration’s antipathy toward other nuclear-security treaties, there is reason to think this one might be different. As President Trump’s National Security Strategy notes, “when America does not lead, malign actors fill the void”; Secretary of State Pompeo echoed this in a December speech on multilateral issues. Continued U.S. leadership is needed to ensure the world acts to prevent nuclear terrorism. Some countries would be happy to do little or nothing, but others know more needs to be done. It is time for the Trump Administration to lead in harnessing the Convention to strengthen the nuclear security regime to prevent nuclear terrorism.