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A timely end for Obama’s Nuclear Security Summits?

Following the two suicide bombings in Brussels on Tuesday 22 March, it emerged that the attackers had conducted surveillance at the home of a Belgian nuclear scientist. Belgium subsequently expressed concern that the Islamic State may be seeking to attack, infiltrate or sabotage nuclear installations or obtain nuclear or radioactive material.



Such concerns already surfaced last year, when video footage of a top official from another Belgian nuclear facility was discovered in the apartment of a suspect who’d been linked to the attacks in Paris in November.

The most recent reports came just a few days before the conclusion of the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit, which took place in Washington from 31 March to 1 April. Held every two years since 2010, the summits are high-level international meetings aimed at improving measures to secure nuclear material and prevent radiological items from being used in acts of terrorism.

When United States (US) President Barack Obama launched the initiative in his 2009 Prague speech, he declared nuclear terrorism as one of the greatest threats to international security, and emphasised the global need to secure nuclear material.

Scientifically speaking, the main challenge in building a nuclear weapon is obtaining the fissile material needed to start a chain reaction with itself, resulting in the release of enormous amounts of energy. The fissile material needed comes in the form of highly enriched uranium (HEU), or separated plutonium.


Enriching uranium is the most technologically and scientifically challenging part of the process, and is generally considered unlikely to be achievable by non-state actors (which includes terrorist groups and smugglers). The very real threat and concern is that terrorists can steal the material needed. A simple or crude nuclear bomb only requires 25 kilograms of HEU, or eight kilograms of plutonium to cause the level of destruction seen in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The first Nuclear Security Summit took place in Washington, DC, in 2010, followed by the 2012 summit in Seoul, South Korea, and the third in 2014 in The Hague, Netherlands. The summit process has achieved a great deal, including the reduction (and in some cases, elimination) by many states of their use of HEU to power nuclear reactors for civilian scientific research; and in the production of medical isotopes for nuclear medicine. Instead, a high-density low-enriched uranium-molybdenum fuel is being developed to replace HEU. This will greatly reduce the current dependence on HEU, and will be considerably safer.

Already, more than 1 500 kilograms of HEU and separated plutonium have been recovered or eliminated, and progress has been also made on nuclear and radiological counter-smuggling strategies. Dozens of new education, training and support centres have been established worldwide, and national laws on nuclear safety and security have been updated in many states. Ten states are now totally HEU free.

For those African countries that were invited to the summits, namely Algeria, Egypt, Gabon, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa, the process has also led to notable achievements. Algeria and Morocco ratified a key convention relating to nuclear terrorism, namely the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT), and Egypt established an independent authority for controlling nuclear materials.

US President Barack Obama to open nuclear security summit in Washington. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

US President Barack Obama to open nuclear security summit in Washington. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

Gabon established the Gabonese Agency on Nuclear Safety and Security, and Nigeria converted one of its nuclear research reactors to utilise low-enriched uranium (LEU) instead of HEU, in addition to ratifying the ICSANT. South Africa converted its Molybdenum-99 (a medical isotope) production facility from using HEU to LEU, and repatriated US-origin spent HEU fuel from its nuclear research reactor back to the US.

It is evident that the Nuclear Security Summit process has benefited select countries, but what about the remaining states which were not invited to participate? In Africa alone, it is estimated that over 30 African countries have uranium deposits. With chronic electricity shortages but an abundance of uranium, many African countries are expected to turn to nuclear power in the near future. These African states, along with other developing countries, should not be excluded from the nuclear security debate.


Herein lies the double-edged nature of the Nuclear Security Summit process: Washington alone decided which countries it wanted to participate. Limiting the participation made it much easier to achieve consensus among countries. Nuclear terrorism is, however, a global threat, and the summits should have been open to all countries. Many states that were not invited to participate have felt excluded, which undermines the key aim of global cooperation on nuclear security matters.

Russia, which did not participate in this year’s final summit, has argued it is unacceptable for the invite-only summits to impose the ‘opinions of a limited group of states’ on international structures. Like South Africa, Russia promotes a multilateral approach to nuclear security and upholds the centrality of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Lastly, although the NSS has achieved some success in securing nuclear material in civilian facilities, HEU in universities, hospitals and other private locations only accounts for a small percentage of the world’s stock. The rest is held in military stockpiles and falls outside the scope of international security agreements. These military stockpiles are sometimes less secure than their civilian counterparts, as highlighted by the break-in at the Y-12 National Security Complex by a group of peace activists.

It is clear that the current global nuclear security architecture remains fragmented and incomplete. The political momentum of the Nuclear Security Summit should be used to develop a more robust international system based on the fundamental principles and guidelines that have been developed by the IAEA.

Only with a multilateral and comprehensive approach – one that includes all states and which focuses on enhancing prevention, detection, and response measures – can we hope to prevent groups such as Islamic State from targeting nuclear installations and obtaining dangerous nuclear or radioactive materials. In this, the IAEA has a clear responsibility to maintain both the political momentum of the summit process and to develop mandatory security standards.


While such a comprehensive and inclusive approach is crucial, the real question is perhaps whether there can be ‘nuclear security’ as long as nuclear weapons exist? Measures to improve nuclear security should take place within the overall framework of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

Only the verifiable and irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons (including a prohibition on the production of new fissile material, the dismantlement of existing stocks and the re-processing of plutonium and highly enriched uranium into non-weapons grade material) will ultimately prevent radiological items from being misused.

This article was first published by the Institute for Security Studies and is republished with their permission here.