Clearing the fog surrounding nuclear security

Apr 26 2012
VERTIC Blog >> Arms Control and Disarmament

Hugh Chalmers, London

Now that the dust has settled on the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), held last month in Seoul, commentators have begun releasing their reviews. These reviews are not universally complementary by any means. A common thread, illuminating a flaw in a patchwork approach towards improved nuclear security, weaves many of these commentaries together. In one form or another, calls are being made for a more transparent approach to demonstrating nationally-implemented measures for improved nuclear security.

Nuclear security in the spotlight
From its inception as a cooperative enterprise, nuclear security activities have often been kept low-key, and for good reasons. States guard their nuclear facilities very carefully, both as sources of industrial power and as military assets. Early efforts to secure vulnerable nuclear materials such as Project Sapphire in 1994, in which 600kg of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) was secured by the US from inadequate storage in formerly-Soviet Kazakhstan, had to be carried out in extreme secrecy.

Now such cooperative threat reduction activities have become relatively commonplace and are openly reported. Commitments made by various states to remove HEU and weapons-grade plutonium from their soil formed a significant part of the work plan produced by the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit. Since then, the US has removed 400 kg of HEU and plutonium and down-blended 700 kg of HEU from civil nuclear programs from countries around the world.

According to one assessment of the fulfilment of 2010 NSS commitments, approximately 80 per cent have been carried out. Without doubt this is something to celebrate; many concrete and visible steps have been taken to improve the security of potentially catastrophic quantities of nuclear material. Recall for instance that the ‘Little Boy’ bomb dropped on Hiroshima contained only 62kg of HEU (according to public information), less than one gram of which was eventually converted into energy. If only a fraction of the secured HEU and weapons-grade plutonium were to have fallen in to the wrong hands, and weaponised in some manner, the result could have been disastrous.

Nuclear security in the shadows
However, it is much harder to make a concrete assessment of the security of nuclear materials that remain behind. Among the commitments made in the 2010 work plan, it was decided that participating states will establish and maintain effective national nuclear security regulations, pursue the review and enforcement of compliance with these regulations, and maintain their periodic review and adjustment. Assessing the fulfilment of these commitments is not easy. As the Arms Control Association, authors of the above assessment, have noted, tracking the implementation of some commitments is difficult due to the caveats that some commitments contain, such as phrases like ‘as appropriate’ or ‘as soon as possible’.

The recently-released Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) Nuclear Materials Security Index has made some attempts to provide a quantitative ‘score’ to the transparency of states’ nuclear security implementation. Of the states that attended the 2010 NSS, and therefore signed up to the work plan commitments, states such as Israel, India, China, Poland, Pakistan and Italy received some of the lowest scores by NTI.

This is not to say, however, that the overall implementation of nuclear security in these states is poor. Indeed, Poland rated joint eighth, and Italy joint sixteenth, in a ranking of overall nuclear security covering 32 states. What it does say is that building international confidence that states are implementing effective national practices, and ensuring their periodic review and adjustment, is not a simple task. Maintaining secrecy over both the particulars and the effectiveness of national nuclear security arrangements is not always a bad thing; it is universally accepted that it is states’, and only states’, responsibility to secure materials under their control. Advertising weakness or releasing sensitive information could well serve to lessen, not increase, nuclear security. However, as John Carlson of NTI has argued, when taken to the extreme, ‘a culture of secrecy is actually contradictory to good nuclear security culture’.

Isolating domestic nuclear security practices from the scrutiny of international expertise can allow ineffective and hazardous approaches to become ingrained, to the detriment of both national and international security. A suitable level of transparency can expose these practices to the sharing of lessons learnt, allowing the refinement of both national and international approaches to nuclear security. And importantly, by displaying a level of transparency, states can build the confidence of the international community, who know that some level of accountability can be correctly placed if security procedures fail.

Clearing the fog surrounding nuclear security
But how can such transparency be practically implemented? States already report on their implementation of nuclear security legislation through the UN Security Council Resolution 1540 Committee, and through the Convention for the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (and its amendment) if they are party to it. Verification – either unilateral or multilateral – of the implementation of such legislation in the event of a security failure would involve an extraordinary leap in international intrusion into national sovereignty. Even in the remote event that such intrusion were accepted, international oversight of national judicial procedures could unknowingly pressure such systems into inaccuracy or even failure.

In this instance, as in many others, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) offers a useful middle-ground. Their Department of Nuclear Safety and Security offer a number of services to member states which can improve nuclear security practices, such as their Nuclear Security Guidelines and their International Physical Protection Advisory Service (IPPAS). While the former cannot do much to increase international confidence in domestic nuclear security practices, the latter certainly can. During an IPPAS mission, a state’s nuclear security systems are reviewed and compared with the IAEA Nuclear Security Guidelines and established best practices. Following this review, the IAEA then makes recommendations for improvements, which in the majority of instances are then implemented through bilateral support programmes.

This service is at the moment entirely voluntary, there are no compliance mechanisms in place and the final reports are shared only with the host nation. It cannot serve to ‘verify’ the implementation of nuclear security commitments made in multilateral forums, particularly when the commitments are flexible and only binding in the political sense. However, displaying this small level of transparency to a select multilateral team of experts can reassure the international community that host states have at the very least some of the best advice and a clear idea of how they can improve their nuclear security practices. The NTI Index has recognised this important confidence-building effect by including the hosting of IPPAS missions in its ‘Global Norms’ scoring category, and subsequently its overall nuclear security score.

At the moment, the NSS commitments that have been championed the most are those that are clearly-defined and relatively visible. The removal of sensitive nuclear materials and the conversion of HEU-dependent reactors are all worthwhile steps with a clear point of completion. Commitments to implement effective, reliable and evolving security practices ‘as appropriate’, or ‘as soon as possible’, have the right aim, but are hard to execute definitively. If these commitments were made alongside commitments to invite IPPAS missions to peer-review their implementation, confidence in, and the effectiveness of, national nuclear security practices could grow. Such commitments should not prove too controversial, as they are only binding in the political, not the legal, sense. Moreover, unlike nuclear safeguards commitments, the IAEA has no mandate to expose the results of their peer-review process to the international community. In the case of nuclear security, incremental steps towards limited transparency could eventually have a big effect.


Last changed: Apr 26 2012 at 10:29 PM




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