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Stepped-up US diplomacy needed now to prevent nuclear terrorism

President Biden gives remarks to discuss lowering healthcare and prescription drug cost at Germanna Community College in Culpepper, Va., on Thursday, February 10, 2022.
Greg Nash

As it responds to Putin’s unprovoked criminal invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration cannot afford to overlook other issues of importance to U.S. national security, such as preventing nuclear terrorism.

Without nuclear material, nuclear terrorism is impossible. Nonetheless, there is currently no seamless global regime to secure nuclear material and prevent criminals or terrorists from acquiring it. Instead, there is a patchwork of mostly voluntary arrangements between like-minded states. Even the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the so-called nuclear watchdog, can only recommend, not require, nuclear security action by its member nations.

A late-March meeting in Vienna on the amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (Convention) is an opportunity to start a process of systematically identifying and addressing the seams in the global nuclear security system.But without stepped-up U.S. diplomatic leadership, that opportunity will be missed. 

The Nuclear Threat Initiative’s well-regarded biennial Nuclear Security Index concluded in 2020 that for the first time since 9/11 progress on securing nuclear material had slowed significantly. The threat of nuclear terrorism, however, remains.

The Bush and Obama administrations engaged in robust diplomacy to strengthen global nuclear security; the Trump administration did not.

The most lasting result of Obama’s nuclear security summits initiative (2010-2016) was prodding enough states to ratify the amended Convention so it could enter into force.

The amended Convention is the only legally binding international agreement that requires nations to secure nuclear material. At present, it is a set of requirements with as yet no process of assessment and accountability for how nations are meeting their commitments, or for updating those commitments to meet changes in technology or the threat.

The late-March Vienna meeting is the first review conference of the 127 nations party to the amended Convention. Its purpose is to review implementation of the amended Convention and assess its “adequacy” in meeting its goals in light of the current situation. But there is no agreement on how to do that.

The Convention states that “further conferences may” be held not more often than every five years, but a more robust approach is needed to prevent nuclear terrorism, rather than react to it. The amended Convention’s March review conference should either agree or chart a path to do the following: 

  1. Commit to holding regular and substantive quinquennial Convention review conferences with at least one intercessional preparatory meeting.    
  2. Establish a mechanism to support nations needing help meeting their nuclear security obligations, which would encourage more nations to adopt the Convention and strengthen the regime. The mechanism could be, for example, a fund to support IAEA work with nations needing assistance.
  3. Consider at each quinquennial review conference: (i) whether the Convention’s requirements are adequate to deal with changes in technology and/or threats; (ii) if changes are needed, either adopt them at the review conference or establish a process to negotiate new proposals for the approval of nations party to the Convention; and (iii) assess the effectiveness of the assistance mechanism and whether changes to it are needed.

This sounds ambitious, but it is not novel. For example, two vital treaties — the Convention on Nuclear Security and the Montreal Protocol for the Protection of the Ozone Layer — have succeeded precisely because of their regular and substantive review processes, which allow them deal with complex and evolving challenges. Nations party to the amended Convention are also party to these treaties and know the value of their regular and substantive review processes.

Adopting this best practice approach for nuclear security is essential if the global nuclear security regime is to be as dynamic as the challenges it faces. 

Building support for this approach, however, will require the kind of robust U.S. diplomatic leadership demonstrated by the Bush and Obama administrations. 

The preparatory meetings for the March review conference have thus far seen no strong push for a regular and substantive a review process from the U.S. or anyone else; EU nations are thought to be generally supportive of the concept, but will not take the lead, while some other states prefer a “one and done” Convention review process.

The U.S.  and the global community cannot afford to miss this opportunity to establish a review process of regular and substantive future meetings that would make the amended Convention the bedrock of an effective global nuclear security regime.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine complicates the diplomacy of nuclear security, but there is still time to shape a productive outcome in line with longstanding U.S. national security goals at the late-March Vienna meeting.  To do so, however, the Biden administration needs to step up its diplomatic leadership on the issue now.

Kenneth C. Brill is a retired career Foreign Service Officer who served as an ambassador in the Clinton and Bush Administrations and was the founding Director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Tags Armed Attack foreign relations International Atomic Energy Agency Nuclear safety and security Nuclear Security Summit Nuclear terrorism Russia Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Ukraine

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