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Confronting Twenty-First Century Nuclear Security Realities

Kenneth N. Luongo
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
November 2009

In the past six months, President Barack Obama has taken three major steps to protect the world from nuclear terrorism and advance the disarmament agenda. First, during his April speech in Prague, he outlined his arms control and nonproliferation objectives and announced a US-led international effort to secure all of the world's vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. Three months later at the Group of Eight Summit in Italy, he pledged to convene a Nuclear Security Summit in 2010 to discuss steps to secure nuclear materials, combat nuclear smuggling, and prevent nuclear terrorism. Most recently, he chaired a session of the UN Security Council, which unanimously adopted Resolution 1887, a call for states to take actions that support the effectiveness of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

All that said, there needs to be more than a summit to focus and drive his agenda. The challenges facing today's nonproliferation regime require that existing treaties and international agreements be supplemented with new policies and more flexible mechanisms that retain the international legitimacy of formal treaties. There needs to be a new global framework that can specify the threats, integrate the responses, and catalog the commitments of all nations to provide the best security possible for their fissile materials. Success in the fight for fissile material security depends on fusing traditional and ad hoc nonproliferation components in a way that materially and operationally expands the menu of prevention, management, and response options available.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change offers a useful model for building international consensus and coordinated action to advance a long-term, global objective. UN Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1887, which specify requirements for nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction security by all nations, offer another model. But whichever path is taken, it must result in concrete action and extend beyond government obligations and include vital contributions from civil society and the private sector.

The new policy agenda for addressing twenty-first century nuclear security realities will be difficult to sell in the international community. Some countries don't think they have a security problem; others see nuclear materials as tools of technological and economic advancement; and still others think nuclear terrorism is an overblown threat of concern primarily to wealthy countries. But domestic political and economic considerations cannot be the determining factor in evaluating the policies necessary to ensure global nuclear security and prevent nuclear terrorism.

Therefore, here are six new policies to improve nuclear security that should be on the agenda leading up to next year's summit and then implemented beyond that event:

  • Produce a global nuclear material security road map based on measurable benchmarks of vulnerability and proven security upgrades and that provides its implementers with the financial and technical resources needed to act on these priorities.

  • Minimize and eliminate the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) around the globe, as HEU is the most useful and accessible fissile material for terrorists.

  • Accelerate efforts to secure and eliminate global HEU and plutonium stockpiles. These steps should include reducing the size of fissile material inventories, minimizing the number of locations at which fissile materials are stored, improving security at those sites, and extending international monitoring to remaining excess military and civilian stockpiles.

  • Establish Regional Nuclear Training Centers in key regions of the world to cultivate local security culture and provide access to best nuclear security practices.

  • Expand the concept behind the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative to include the creation of an international rapid reaction force that would allow for quick and coordinated multilateral action in the face of a nuclear emergency or disarmament opportunity.

  • Increase funding for the agenda overall—i.e., International Atomic Energy Agency safeguard activities, US-led efforts such as the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, and the expansion of the multilateral G-8 Global Partnership.

The rapid pace of globalization has eroded the pillars upon which the nonproliferation regime was built and the international community needs to catch up. When President Obama's nuclear security summit takes place in six months, it will create a historic opportunity to generate commitments and galvanize international support for his agenda. But the summit is only one important step in what must be a continuous process of improving nuclear security. Thus, after the summit, follow-up activities will be critical to ensuring that the specific actions agreed to by countries are implemented.
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