Recharging Nuclear Security

The Obama-era priority of strengthening global nuclear security and protecting all vulnerable materials has faded out like an old photograph. It was a unique and remarkable opportunity that launched four unprecedented heads-of-state summits in the U.S., Asia, and Europe. But its transformative potential was squandered.

It never built the durable bridge necessary for long-term engagement among the key stakeholders. It didn’t push the policy bounds of what reticent nations would bear. It left critical emerging issues unaddressed. And it ended abruptly, handing the leadership baton back to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

A new report makes clear that the IAEA’s handling of the nuclear security mission is in need of significant improvement. The results of this analysis are predictable because the summits were intended to supercharge a vital issue that was languishing in the international bureaucracy.

Despite its significant value, the IAEA does not excel at dynamism and creativity. And its consensus-based approach allows nations opposing creative policy proposals to effectively smother new ideas. Its nuclear security activities are built on a small foundation of Agency financing and a much larger, unstable base of “extra-budgetary” contributions from individual nations, keeping the agenda off balance and vulnerable.

One hand-off from the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process was a series of action plans for five different international organizations and initiatives. But much of it has fallen flat without the forcing focus offered by world leader’s attention.

Another enduring result was a collaboration among key nuclear security stakeholders in the non-proliferation and nuclear industry communities. This partnership has thrived and been expanded to include other key constituencies under the Global Nexus Initiative. But, the future effectiveness of global nuclear security requires more.

Strengthening global nuclear security requires that its agenda be expanded to enhance its relevance. The protection of nuclear materials and infrastructure from terrorist attack and exploitation remains vitally important. But the nuclear security agenda has become larger and more diverse in recent years.

Advances in emerging disruptive technologies including computing and cyber, materials science, UAVs and drones, artificial intelligence, and exotically fueled advanced reactors are rising security imperatives. The global community is not well prepared to respond to the implications of these new technologies. The negative consequences of that approach have already been demonstrated in the cyber security area.

The future of global competition is going to be defined by the race for technological superiority. The U.S. and its allies have some significant advantages at the moment. But they are failing to fully understand the important nexus of emerging and nuclear technologies. This poses a new and significant nuclear security challenge.

The global policy guardrails for these issues are going to be significantly influenced by those nations that are quick to analyze the implications and act to develop the required frameworks. This is especially important because the major nuclear powers are suspiciously circling one another on these and so many other issues. Creating international consensus in those circumstances will be very difficult.

There was a failure to fully exploit the potential of the last major push to strengthen nuclear security. That was a significant disappointment. The danger has now morphed and become more complex. Fading away from this challenge will be a significant risk to future global security.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security