A view from The Hague: Outcomes from the third Nuclear Security Summit

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In recent years, nuclear terrorism has metamorphosed from fiction into a widely recognized global menace. This is to a large extent due to the Nuclear Security Summits (NSS) that followed Barack Obama's acclaimed 2009 Prague speech, in which he called for a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years. In the run-up to the third summit that will take place in The Hague March 24-25, this article expands on the main achievements so far and examines the road ahead.


The summit meetings of top world leaders and diplomats in Washington (2010) and Seoul (2012) were instrumental in raising awareness and the profile of nuclear security issues. They put the spotlight on the protection and control of nuclear materials and reaffirmed the importance of international treaties, instruments, and institutions.

The summits also helped to persuade states to reduce stockpiles of weapons-grade nuclear materials. In addition, border and transport control measures and forensic detection technologies were enhanced in order to prevent the illegal transfer or smuggling of these materials. Notably, the summits broadened the scope of nuclear security issues beyond the control of fissile and nuclear materials, to include safe treatment and storage of radioactive waste, as well as the export and transfer of low-grade fissile materials that could be used to construct “dirty bombs.”

Another achievement concerns the instruments of nuclear security governance. The summits served as a pull mechanism for states, encouraging governments to ratify key nuclear security conventions. Since the summit initiative, several participants joined the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, and ratified the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM). Once this amendment enters into force, signatories will be legally bound to protect not only transport of nuclear material, but all nuclear facilities and materials on their soil. And most states have begun developing domestic action plans, implementing more stringent regulations in accordance with these treaties. In the run-up to the Seoul Summit, many participating states even reported voluntarily on their progress toward implementing commitments made in Washington.

Finally, the summits stimulated the development of a nuclear security culture by fostering security training, sharing of best practices, and setting up of Centers of Excellence. In light of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the Seoul Communiqué also focused on the interface between safety and security at nuclear facilities. And several states hosted nuclear security workshops and conferences, or requested IAEA International Physical Protection Advisory Service missions to peer-review the security of nuclear installations.


Despite these successes, a number of challenges remain. In the first place, the goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years turned out to be unrealistic. Initial high expectations were not fulfilled. It is telling that the second summit saw fewer commitments than the first. In Seoul, neither the United States nor Russia proved willing to further reduce its stockpile of weapons-usable material or upgrade its security protocols. And despite all efforts, the amendment to the CPPNM remains to be ratified by a number of summit participants, among them the United States.

Moreover, nuclear security governance remains fragmented, comprising a plethora of policies, conventions, initiatives, and institutions. The lack of a single global nuclear security governance reflects the reluctance of states to transfer sovereignty to supranational bodies. Currently, actions are on a voluntary and discretionary basis, and states are not obliged to report on the nuclear security situation in their country. And if they do decide to report, there are no standards in place to ensure consistency. There is no level playing field with universally accepted benchmarks for actions nations must take, or goals which they must meet. Accordingly, as a January 2014 study by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) shows, nuclear security performance ratings of state policies vary hugely (see figure above). It is a matter of regret that several major countries, all NSS participants, continue to have an inadequate record in nuclear security.

The diversity in regulation and security levels is problematic, since a nuclear security regime is only as strong as its weakest link. This is amplified by the fact that just over 50 states participate in the summit process. Yet as the NTI assessment indicates, non-participants outside the purview of the NSS limit the summits’ efficacy.

What’s on the Menu

The next Nuclear Security Summit will address some of these challenges. It will call for maximizing the governance structures currently in place and urge further accessions to the 2005 CPPNM amendment. The summit will also aim to convince participants to further reduce stockpiles and the use of weapons-grade fissile materials. In addition, it will try to facilitate IAEA reviews of nuclear security structures, as well as national registration of civil or medical radioactive sources. Finally, special focus will be given to the importance of enhancing security culture within the nuclear industry, as well as ensuring that states increase their transparency, reporting more reliably on their domestic nuclear security situations. The goal is to improve the sharing of information and best practices.

The Netherlands has a clear stake in securing nuclear facilities and materials, reflected by the fact that the next summit will take place in The Hague. As one of the most densely populated countries in the world, it could suffer high casualties from a single nuclear attack. Moreover, it houses a number of nuclear industries, such as URENCO, a nuclear fuel company that enriches uranium. And the Netherlands is home to two major transport hubs, Schiphol Airport and the port of Rotterdam, one of the biggest ports in the world. Both are vulnerable to nuclear material being smuggled in or through. The choice of The Hague furthermore fits its image as the “International City of Peace and Justice.” The city houses both the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court and is increasingly the home for security companies, institutions, and programs, such as The Hague Security Delta, which aims to transform the wider Hague area into a security cluster.

In preparing the summit, the Netherlands has suggested that greater emphasis be given to participants’ input. The goal is to move past formal policy statements and create more room for informal and spontaneous discussions. The organizing Sherpa team also seeks to further stimulate the offering of “gift basket” policies in “nuclear security themes” for which no consensus exists. The Dutch, for example, are developing a gift basket that promotes cooperation in the field of nuclear forensics.

The Road Ahead

The success of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague will depend, first of all, on achieving the stated goals. But even more so, it will be measured against what follows. The summits were never intended as a permanent mechanism, but rather as stepping stones to strengthen nuclear security. After the final summit in Washington in 2016 the summit initiative will end. To ensure the lasting success of these initiatives, the 2014 NSS can stimulate states to embark on three promising paths.

First, it should communicate that nuclear security is truly a global concern, requiring worldwide involvement and action. The two side-events, the Knowledge and the Industry Summit, offer a good platform for this. But the summit must also reach out to states not present at the summit and involve NGOs, international organizations, industries, journalists, and think tanks worldwide. Creating global support for tackling nuclear security issues will require more than declarations from high-level politicians or businessmen. Efforts to popularize nuclear security issues could benefit from well-known public figures’ voicing their support for more stringent policies (as former officials Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn have done).

To improve understanding, awareness of threats, and responsiveness, there is a need to develop threat scenarios and nuclear security foresight studies. Here media initiatives play an important role. For example, at The Hague Center for Strategic Studies, we will be launching a publicly accessible three-dimensional timeline providing an overview of the global history of nuclear issues, from the scientific discovery of the atom, nonproliferation and nuclear energy issues, to nuclear security threats and policies.

Second, the summit can take a firm step towards overcoming fragmented, non-binding, and predominantly national nuclear security policies. Nuclear security is a global public good, and securing this good requires global governance structures. States that do not adequately secure their nuclear materials create dangerous externalities for their own citizens and the global community at large.

Convincing reluctant states, both within and outside the realm of the summit, will require some to set the example for others to follow. The gift-basket approach could help to move beyond the lowest common denominator and work towards a Nuclear Security Framework that would bundle existing rules and regulations. UNSR 1540 is set to form a cornerstone of such a framework, with its binding mandate that states prevent nuclear, biological, and chemical materials from falling into the hands of non-state actors. With its near-global membership and political neutrality, the IAEA may well be best suited to administer adherence to nuclear security policies, peer reviews, and recommendations. In order to counter fears that addressing security issues will siphon off funds originally allocated for other purposes, such a step should involve additional funding.

Finally, the summit could help foster a more proactive approach. The summits so far (and other conventions and initiatives, for that matter) have tended to focus on immediate concerns, paying less attention to future trends. One of them is that nuclear power is taking flight to new regions. It is worrisome that some of the countries where new plants will be built offer relatively poor nuclear security policies. One suggestion would be to involve nuclear industries from these countries in the security enterprise, for example by strengthening security culture. Because of the relatively apolitical nature of nuclear security, all-encompassing cooperation may well prove feasible.


Four years after Obama called for securing all vulnerable nuclear material, the record remains mixed at best. The summit initiatives succeeded at raising awareness about nuclear security and terrorism issues. They have given states incentives to speed up securing and eliminating highly enriched uranium and plutonium, stimulated accession to conventions, and put security culture on the map. Despite these successes, however, significant gaps in global nuclear security governance remain, and a level playing field is arguably as far away as it was in 2009.

To close the gaps in the global security governance, the summit in The Hague can chart several promising paths. It will be crucial to strengthen the notion that nuclear security is a global public good in which all states have a stake. The summit may encourage initiatives by smaller groups of states that are willing to go the extra mile and create plans for a more comprehensive nuclear security framework. This would provide an excellent precursor to the final summit in Washington in two years, which could be hailed as the start of a truly global governance framework that safeguards one of the greatest goods we have: our security.

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