World leaders can make progress in preventing nuclear terrorism and simultaneously support the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement if they can connect the dots between the carbon-free world that we need and the strengthened nuclear security regime that is required to support it. These interconnected issues need to be the focus at the upcoming and final Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 1.
There is little doubt that if terrorists acquire nuclear material they will use it. Al Qaeda long ago pledged to obtain a nuclear device. ISIS recently shadowed a nuclear official in Belgium, a country with fissionable nuclear material. High intensity radioactive sources used for medical and industrial purposes – and the key component of a dirty bomb – go missing with regularity.
These threats, fed by serious gaps in the global nuclear security system, undermine international confidence in nuclear power, an essential non-carbon emitting energy source that is growing to meet climate pledges in Asia and expanding to conflict ridden regions like the Middle East.
President Obama, in 2009, pledged to lead the world in securing “all vulnerable nuclear material in four years” and he initiated a series of nuclear summits that include 53 world leaders. The summit process has made useful progress on Obama’s initial pledge by eliminating all fissionable nuclear material in 13 countries and disposing of or moving to secure storage nearly 3,000 kilograms of this material.
But the nuclear summits have glossed over three glaring gaps in the current nuclear governance regime that create opportunities for terrorists.
First, there are no binding international standards for countries with regard to securing dangerous nuclear and other radioactive material. There are some specialized agreements, such as the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials, which states have been trying to update for over a decade, but the current system is a patchwork of largely voluntary and technical arrangements and initiatives. The International Atomic Energy, for example, can only provide recommendations on nuclear security, which states can either follow or ignore.
Second, there is no mandatory process of assessing whether a country has secured its nuclear material. By contrast, peer review is mandatory for the safety regime of nuclear reactor operations. This lack of required assessments raises concerns about the consistency of global nuclear practices and decreases confidence that nuclear materials and assets in all countries are safe and secure.
And finally, there is no mechanism for the timely review and updating of nuclear security requirements as technologies and threats evolve. The NSS meetings have provided a political forum for action, but they are coming to a close. By contrast, other complex global challenges, such as international air travel, protection of the ozone layer, and climate change are managed through global conventions in which nations meet regularly and commit to action as circumstances change.
The nuclear security regime needs a similar global convention. The existing international agreements are too static to deal with an evolving threat. An international expert group has drafted a model nuclear security convention, but some nations have been reluctant to embrace this approach for reasons including concern about protracted global negotiations. But, a nuclear security convention, like the successful ozone protection treaties, could start with a small coalition of committed states and then grow into an agreement with global participation.
The reality is that radiation does not respect borders, this has been proven by the nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima. An intentional nuclear terrorist event will build on the profoundly negative consequences of these accidents and impact all nations’ economies, societies, and security, as well as undermine global efforts to address climate change.
The final NSS meeting is an opportunity for Obama to connect the dots and leave a lasting global impact on these critically important issues. But, that can happen only if he leads the summit in recognizing that closing the gaps in the nuclear security regime is necessary both for preventing nuclear terrorism and for addressing climate change by supporting nuclear energy’s continued contribution to carbon reduction efforts. Being successful in both of these areas is essential for future global security and prosperity.
Kenneth Luongo is the President of the Partnership for Global Security and the former Senior Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Energy for Non-Proliferation Policy. Kenneth Brill is a former U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA who also participated in international climate change negotiations 1999-2001. Both are members of the Nuclear Security Governance Experts Group that drafted the Convention on Nuclear Security and the Global Nexus Initiative which assesses the connection between climate change, nuclear power, and global security.
The original version of this post appears in The Huffington Post.