The result of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit

The result of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit

The 2016 Nuclear Security Summit achieved new international commitments that will improve the nuclear risk outlook for coming years. It also leaves clear security gaps that hamper the progress made so far. 

The 2016 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) concluded in Washington on Friday is the last in a series of biennial meetings providing world leaders a forum to address nuclear terrorism. Considering that recent incidents have highlighted the potential danger of radioactive materials, the summit presented a timely opportunity for an international response on enhancing global nuclear security.

First initiated in 2010 by U.S. President Barack Obama, the NSS process has focused on mitigating the risks of nuclear terrorism through the securement, reduction, and elimination of highly enriched uranium (HEU) stockpiles. Each of the three previous summits has fostered global cooperation and elicited concrete action, such as the agreement of 35 states to accept regular reviews of their nuclear security arrangements by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  

The 2016 NSS sought to not only to build upon this progress but also create a system for the international community to continue to monitor nuclear security risks. The outcome is particularly crucial in light of developments since the last gathering. While slow but measurable progress has been made on nuclear security since 2014, the motivations and capabilities of the Islamic State to conduct radiological terrorism have only grown.

Thus, the risk of nuclear terrorism appears to be, for the moment, increasing. Detailed below are the major successes and shortcomings of the 2016 NSS, and the impacts these developments have on the nuclear risk outlook.

Improvements in nuclear cyber security

One of the most significant international commitments that emerged from the two-day summit was the commitment of 29 nations — including all countries with HEU stockpiles exceeding 1,000 kg, minus Russia — to create a new initiative on nuclear cybersecurity.

Nuclear cyber security remains a major gap in the existing international architecture. Source: Nuclear Threat Initiative

All parties to the agreement will attend two international workshops in 2016 aimed at sharing and improving the integrity of industrial controls at nuclear facilities, which is the computerized systems that regulate physical processes like security and power. While other efforts have sought to strengthen the security of data systems that contain sensitive nuclear information, this represents the first international effort focused solely on cyber attacks with immediate physical implications.

With ISIS expanding its cyber capabilities and surveilling Belgian nuclear facilities, the initiative will help reduce cyber security risks at a time when nuclear computer systems are becoming more realistic targets for terrorist groups.

Establishment of follow-on architecture

The greatest challenge of the final NSS was to establish a follow-on architecture for the international community to continue work on nuclear security in the absence of the NSS format. Ultimately, world leaders did commit to an architecture that sustains the nuclear security agenda, but the most significant and concrete agreements failed to secure the commitment of major countries in attendance, and universally approved action plans were often vague.

All delegations agreed to accelerate work on nuclear security objectives through their membership in and support of five leading international organizations, including the IAEA and the UN. These commitments cover the continuation of general NSS priorities such as voluntary national reporting of progress on nuclear security and the sharing of best practices, and will serve to expand international efforts against nuclear terrorism as first prompted by President Obama’s summit process.

While these outcome documents create the opportunity for future progress and keep nuclear terror risks on the global radar, the 2016 NSS failed to secure universal, concrete commitments about the main goal of the process: eliminating HEU stockpiles. That being said, a minority of 19 delegations — including major stockpile countries like the United States and the United Kingdom — did commit to more tangible actions. Among these commitments, the countries accepted a gradual elimination of HEU in civilian applications, a ban on HEU in new civilian nuclear facilities, and a successive nuclear security conference in 2018.


Source: Nuclear Threat Initiative

The absence of major stockpile countries such as China, France, and Japan from the agreement suggests that a true international commitment to HEU elimination is missing, and that risk mitigating efforts will remain fragmented for the near future. Nonetheless, the fact that some nations have agreed to a future nuclear security conference is a promising development, and the opportunity remains for other countries to follow suit.

Arguably, a more significant legacy of the 2016 NSS is progress made on a 2005 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, the only legally binding treaty on nuclear security. The amendment, under which state parties are legally bound to protecting their nuclear facilities and materials intended for peaceful use, received the necessary support needed to become valid.

The law will not enter into force until recent ratifiers formally document their adherence with the IAEA, but represents a legal institution that counters nuclear terror risks by holding states accountable. Furthermore, the scope of the law is notable for going beyond HEU to diminish the risks posed by lesser radioactive materials such as Iridium-192, the kind of materials most likely to be obtained by ISIS and other organizations.

Risks without Russia

Though the nuclear security agenda promoted by the 2016 NSS was not as comprehensive or palpable as desired, it is fair to say that progress — however incremental — was made, and the risk of nuclear terrorism will be lessened as a result. Yet, the concluding summit was not without more explicit shortcomings. For one, though bilateral and trilateral dialogues occurred between the U.S., China, Japan, and South Korea, no progress was announced with regard on North Korea.

Even more important, however, was Moscow’s refusal to attend. The absence of Russia due to tensions with the West confirms a trend of increased nuclear security risk in what is the world’s largest nuclear state.

Budget cuts to nuclear security programs, an aging nuclear infrastructure, and an active nuclear black market have created a domestic environment in which the risk of nuclear terrorism is growing while the capacity to secure radioactive materials is shrinking. A Russian presence at the 2016 summit could have reassured the international community of Moscow’s commitment to upholding and refining its standards of nuclear security in times of heightened risk.

Instead, Russia’s absence leaves strong sentiments of uncertainty interspersed throughout each of the summit’s successes. The 2016 NSS achieved advances in nuclear cyber security and a discontinuous yet workable architecture for countering radiological terrorism, but Moscow will remain a prerequisite for global nuclear security.


Categories: Politics, Security

About Author

Ian Armstrong

Ian Armstrong is Commissioning Editor and Senior Analyst at GRI. He also serves as the Geostrategy and Diplomacy Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Previously, Ian assisted in research at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, Scottish Parliament, and Hudson Institute's Center for Political-Military Analysis, where he has focused on non-proliferation and international energy. Ian's analysis has been featured at prominent outlets such as Huffington Post, Business Insider, Foreign Policy Association, CBS News, and RealClearEnergy.