The World’s Summits on Nuclear Security: A Review

U.S. President Barack Obama released a foreign policy position in Foreign Affairs in 2007 titled Renewing American Leadership. Within the article, he outlined his plan to “renew American leadership in the world by confronting the most urgent threat to the security of America and the world – the spread of nuclear weapons, materials, and technology and the risk that a nuclear device would fall into the hands of terrorists.”

Nine years after the fact, the international community has made progress. There is a renewed focus on nuclear security and nonproliferation. Obama made nuclear security and nonproliferation a cornerstone of his foreign policy strategy and has encouraged heads of state and governments to make measurable and verifiable commitments to secure nuclear weapons, materials, and technology. There is a resurgence of attention from international organizations, non-governmental organizations, states, scholars, strategists, and private citizens to reopen the debate on nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Security Summits (NSS) are convening these interested parties and producing meaningful results. What follows is a survey and analysis of these summits, spanning six years between 2010 and 2016.

A SEAT AT THE TABLE (2010)

The 2010 Nuclear Security Summit was hosted by President Obama in Washington, DC. Forty-seven heads of state attended along with representatives from the United Nations, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the European Union. Obama championed this first meeting of its kind in modern history to address the importance of nuclear security and to promote nonproliferation efforts. The 2010 Summit had two primary focuses: preventing nuclear terrorism and creating avenues to secure and reduce highly enriched weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. Obama pushed forward an ambitious policy plan to secure the world’s nuclear materials in four years through a voluntary non-binding agreement. Washington Post reporter Mary Sheridan covered the historic inaugural meeting of the NSS and cited the group’s ambitious goal to “put the world’s nuclear weapon materials beyond the reach of terrorists.”

At the press conference, Obama stated, “The urgency of the threat and the catastrophic consequences of even a single act of nuclear terrorism demand an effort that is at once bold and pragmatic.” Ultimately, the Obama administration’s goal was to “transition U.S. nuclear policy from one still based on a Cold War strategy of massive arsenals to one suited to prevent, deter, and defeat the most discrete threats of the twenty-first century.” At this first conference, the policy that President Obama revealed in 2007 in Foreign Affairs seemed to be coming to fruition. Coined as “Obama’s Nuclear Spring, the broad initiative [was] to revive U.S. arms-control efforts and elevate the role of international treaties in U.S. nuclear weapons policy.” The summit’s task was to create pragmatic action plans and milestones known as the Washington Work Plan and commitments, statements of intent, and declarations of participation were noted in the Washington Communiqué.

World leaders would convene again at the United Nations conference with the intention of “strengthening the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which has long restrained countries’ nuclear ambitions” and discussing the Iranian and North Korean questions. President Obama used the prestige of the presidency and his own international political capital to rally support, which was largely received as a positive first step. “The future of nuclear weapons has moved beyond the fringe proposals and political posturing” and by the end of the first NSS, “Ukraine, Mexico, Chile, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, and Canada agreed to dispose of hundreds of pounds of highly enriched uranium used in civilian facilities.” At the end of the Summit, the members and organizations represented agreed to a six-month progress report and a reconvening of the Summit every two years.

MOMENTUM AND MEASURABLE RESULTS (2012) 

The 2012 Nuclear Security Summit was convened in Seoul, South Korea with 58 heads of state representing 53 countries and four international organizations with the addition of the International Police Organization (INTERPOL). Expanding on the first NSS, President Obama and his counterparts continued to focus on the three major areas of consensus: first, collaborating on efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism; second, securing and protecting weapons-grade nuclear materials and related facilities; and finally, working in concert to prevent the illegal and illicit trafficking of nuclear materials. President Obama’s remarks at the Opening Plenary Session of the 2012 NSS return to a refrain he has used often when making remarks on the status of nuclear security:

We are fulfilling the commitments we made in Washington. We are improving security at our nuclear facilities. We are forging new partnerships. We are removing nuclear materials, and in some cases, getting rid of these materials entirely. And as a result, more of the world’s nuclear materials will never fall into the hands of terrorists who would gladly use them against us.

The Summit proved to be another success for the Obama administration and the international community. Its members and represented organizations were able to expand and measure the progress that had been made in the nuclear security arena. In addition, in light of the Fukushima radiological accident in Japan, the South Korean delegation added radiological safety and security to the agenda. Essentially, the Seoul Communiqué built upon initial steps made at the first NSS in Washington, DC citing 13 areas of international attention, including the role of the IAEA, information security, the combating of illicit trafficking, and global nuclear security architecture, among others.

COMMITTING TO MILESTONES (2014) 

The 2014 Nuclear Security Summit was convened in the Netherlands at The Hague. President Obama and 57 of his counterparts along with four international organizations and hundreds of journalists from around the world gathered to build upon the commitments and goals of the 2010 and 2012 summits. The 2014 NSS assumed the same three major agenda items from the previous NSS but aspired to have higher-level engagement. Because Russia was in the process of annexing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his delegation were not in attendance. The crisis put a damper on talks and negotiations as the Ukraine crisis dominated most of the discussion between world leaders.

Summit participants placed a lot of focus on the progress reports about reducing the world’s highly enriched uranium (HEU) deposits. Several countries around the world made solid commitments to reducing HEU in their nuclear power facilities and research institutions and replacing it with low-enriched uranium (LEU), which cannot be weaponized. In a progress report released at the NSS, promising numbers of member states agreed to participate in HEU reduction. It was also reported that 12 states had noted all HEU within their perspective territories had been eliminated, engendering the term “HEU-free States.” These states include Ukraine, Vietnam, Austria, Chile, Turkey, Taiwan, Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, Libya, Romania, and Mexico.

Despite the 2014 NSS largely being overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis, the Obama administration reported being pleased with the progress that the international community was making in securing nuclear weapons and nuclear materials. Further, the Obama administration reported that there were significant steps taken to secure and reduce nuclear weapon materials in a host of states. Significant portions of the attending states came to the Summit prepared to take direct action within their particular scope of influence, and many were proudly boasting about the progress made in nuclear transportation, developing national nuclear security cultures, and sharing information. The national progress reports also revealed there were over 30 states developing national legislation that could be considered precursors for future bilateral and multilateral binding agreements and treaties. President Obama in his remarks at the Opening Plenary Session conveyed similar sentiments to those addressed in the national progress reports:

The consensus, based on what I heard, was that we should recognize this next summit will be a transition summit in which heads of state and government are still participating, but that we are shifting towards a more sustainable model that utilizes our ministers, our technical people, and we are building some sort of architecture that can effectively focus and implement on these issues and supplement the good work that is being done by the IAEA and others.

The work at the 2014 NSS marked tremendous progress securing nuclear material, preventing terrorism, and increasing international cooperation. In a marked five-year achievement, Japan offered to release to the United States small stockpiles of plutonium and caches of HIU. The release of plutonium by Japan convinced other states to consider reducing or eliminating their own weapons-grade plutonium. The end of the 2014 NSS saw 35 states adopting the Nuclear Security Guidelines provided in The Hague Communiqué, but not all attendees agreed to adopt the measures in their entirety. President Obama suggested moving toward more sustainable measures for the future NSS and creating stronger institutions such as the IAEA and strengthening the Arms Control Treaty and Nonproliferation Treaty.

THE FUTURE OF NUCLEAR SECURITY (2016)

The 2016 Nuclear Security Summit took place back in Washington, DC. The world reflected upon the major commitments to promote awareness of the major threats of radiological terrorism and the steps that had been taken to drive meaningful and measurable improvements to global nuclear security, which included strengthening nuclear security architecture at national, regional, and global levels, including through broadened ratification and implementation of international legal instruments regarding nuclear security.

The attendees at the 2016 NSS reaffirmed a commitment to the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and its 2005 Amendment and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism. The Russian delegation informed Washington that it was going to forgo attending the Summit, citing it did not believe they would be able to add value to the meeting and cited concerns over sovereignty and conflict with already established international organizations. This absence was likely the result of continued tensions between the United States and the Russian Federation on issues regarding both Ukraine and Syria.

Issues surrounding the threat of radiological terrorism were a major theme of the 2016 NSS. The international community was proud to report in the Securing the World from Nuclear Terrorism Fact Sheet that the number of facilities around the world with nuclear material is in decline. In many cases, states like Ukraine have eliminated all nuclear material from its territory. Dozens of participating states also gave updates on their own achievements and made additional commitments to securing nuclear material, arranging to downgrade their materials and subsequently reduce their stockpiles to zero, joining the growing number of states to be the HEU-Free States.

TOWARD “GLOBAL ZERO”

Launching his presidential campaign in 2007, President Obama unveiled an ambitious plan to secure and reduce the number of nuclear weapons and weapons-grade materials in the world. The NSS has manifested itself as the vehicle driving this ambitious plan. There is no doubt there have been major achievements made by the international community to the secure the world from radiological terrorism, secure previously unsecured nuclear material, and maintain a robust commitment to nonproliferation. There has been a marked and measurable reduction in highly enriched uranium and plutonium and the most robust set of security principles ever attempted in the nuclear age.

However, it should be noted that there is still a lot of work to be done. North Korea continues to defy international law and norms with its testing of nuclear weapons. The conflicts in Syria and Ukraine have effectively removed Russia—the world largest holder of nuclear weapons and materials—from the table. The de facto Cold War between India and Pakistan remains. Moreover, the IAEA continues to receive reports about nuclear and other radioactive materials found outside regulatory control. However, eight years after President Obama set out to do something more on nuclear security in the post-Cold War era, he has something to be proud of. The world is markedly safer today because the international community set out to make it so. There is a renewed commitment to nonproliferation and the nuclear security debate is in full motion. The deliberate ambitions of President Obama and a host of heads of state have placed the world on a pathway to eliminating nuclear weapons from the planet.

Image: South Korean President Lee Myung-bak attending the Nuclear Security Summit on April 13, 2010 (Creative Commons, Flickr, Republic of Korea)


Johnny V. Boykins is a husband, bow tie aficionado, amateur chef, co-host of the Irrelevantly Relevant Podcast, and U.S. Coast Guard veteran. Boykins has interned at both the United Nations Headquarters in New York City and Geneva, Switzerland. He earned his M.A. in diplomacy and security studies from Norwich University, and a B.A. in political science and communications from Eckerd College. He also has a graduate certificate in teaching and learning, and currently lives in Tampa Bay, Florida.

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