Nuclear security is generally accepted to mean “the prevention of, detection of, and response to, criminal or intentional unauthorized acts involving or directed at nuclear material, other radioactive material, associated facilities, or associated activities”. In short it is about preventing terrorists from acquiring radioactive material or attacking nuclear facilities. Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, nuclear security concerns have been heightened, but how real is the danger?

As William Tobey (a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs) writes we are failing at nuclear security: “In twenty known cases over the past twenty years, officials have seized plutonium or highly enriched uranium outside of authorized control. The most recent such cases were in 2003, 2006, 2010, and 2011.  In the 2011 case, six people in Moldova were arrested with 4.4 grams of highly enriched uranium (HEU). The smugglers claimed to have access to 9 kilograms of HEU. 

While none of these incidents involved enough material to make a nuclear weapon, they are important for two reasons, Tobey notes.  First, in many instances, the seized material was advertised as a sample of a larger quantity for sale; material which, if it exists, authorities have never recovered.  Second, the presence of fissile material outside of security measures is physical evidence of failure that might be recurring. A second category of evidence of failure is created by security near misses.  In 2012, four months after the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, an 82-year-old nun and two senior citizen accomplices broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex, which houses the central U.S. repository for weapons-grade uranium. Although these were protesters, not terrorists, it should serve as a wake-up call. Every year governments report several cases of radioactive sources being lost or stolen. According to the IAEA’s Incident and Trafficking Database, in 2013 alone there occurred 146 incidents of theft, loss, illegal possession, or other unauthorized activity involving radioactive sources. That number only accounts for events that participating governments chose to report.

Although the threat of nuclear terrorism has been acknowledged by most states, nuclear security was seen as a matter of national interest. As Carlton Stoiber (a consultant on international nuclear law) notes, states were not enthusiastic about bringing their national nuclear security practices within the scope of international obligations or involving international bodies in such matters.

International nuclear security law

As such there is no single binding international instrument that addresses nuclear security in a comprehensive matter. Jonathan D. Herbach (a research fellow specialized in nuclear security and arms control law at Utrecht University’s Centre for Conflict and Security Law) writes that nuclear security, in the form of measures aimed at the physical protection of nuclear material, began as an extension of the non-proliferation regime. Article III of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) obliges non-nuclear-weapon States Parties to conclude an agreement with the IAEA under the Agency’s safeguards system with a view to preventing diversion of nuclear material to non-peaceful purposes. The IAEA consequently developed INFCIRC/153, which is formatted as the model agreement for States to fulfil their NPT Article III obligations. Together with INFCIRC/225, these guidelines, although non-binding, have been of fundamental importance to the development of the international legal framework for nuclear security, Herbach writes.

 The international legal framework for nuclear security consists of the following instruments: 

  • The Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) (1980) which applies primarily to the protection of nuclear material in international transport;
  • the CPPNM Amendment (2005) which extends the convention’s application to protection of nuclear material in domestic use and of facilities against sabotage;
  • the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT) (2007);
  • United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540 (28 April 2004);
  • IAEA guidance documents like INFCIRC/225/Rev.5 and INFCIRC/153 (already mentioned);
  • various multilateral, regional and bilateral agreements and initiatives.

The CPPNM Convention has played a positive role in ensuring the protection of nuclear material. However after some years of experience with the regime, the parties identified several weaknesses that were addressed in the Amendment to the CPPNM. The Amendment however has yet to enter into force. The US (!) still has not ratified the 2005 Amendment.  

Nuclear security summits

nss 2014In 2009 President Obama delivered a speech in Prague in which he called nuclear terrorism one of the greatest threats to international security. He announced an international effort to secure vulnerable nuclear materials within four years that would begin with a Global Summit on Nuclear Security. The nuclear security summits have done a very good job of raising the profile of the nuclear security issue through participation of heads of state, Kenneth N. Luongo (President of the Partnership for Global Security), states. “They have led to the accelerated removal of all weapons-grade uranium from 12 countries, a growing network of nuclear security centers of excellence for developing and disseminating best practices in nuclear security, and the updating by dozens of countries of their national nuclear safety and security laws”.  The summit process also introduced “house gifts”—individual national commitments—at the 2010 summit in Washington (by December 2013 over 90 percent of the national commitments had been completed) and “gift baskets”— multilateral commitments—at the 2012 summit in Seoul. In The Hague, at the third nuclear security summit, thirty-five nations announced their commitment to strengthen nuclear security implementation. International guidelines from the IAEA on the protection of nuclear materials will be translated into national legislation. Member states of the IAEA are not obliged to follow the guidelines, but once countries incorporate the guidelines into national legislation, compliance with IAEA rules becomes mandatory. While the list of states subscribing to the initiative was impressive, so was the list of states which declined to do so, notably including China, India, Pakistan, and Russia. Convincing these and other non-signers to join the initiative should be a central priority in the lead-up to the next Nuclear Security Summit in 2016, William Tobey writes.

The events in Ukraine remind us why nuclear security is so important.  When the Soviet Union dissolved, Ukraine inherited the third largest superpower nuclear arsenal in the world. Thanks to a combined effort of the US, Russia, and Ukraine there are no nuclear weapons on the territory of Ukraine anymore."Had that not happened, those dangerous nuclear materials would still be there now and the difficult situation we're dealing with in Ukraine today would involve yet another level of concern," US President Obama said at the summit.

Nuclear security not only involves building and strengthening an international legal framework and implementing nuclear security laws, it also involves the need to consider the fight against terrorism in general, for example are we using acceptable methods to kill terrorists or are we creating more terrorists because of the US drone policy?

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