Nuke Street

Nuclear Security Summit 2014 and the NTI Index

10 Feb, 2014    ·   4300

Ambassador Sheel Kant Sharma gauges the challenges associated with global approaches to tackle nuclear security

President Obama’s major initiative launched in Washington in 2010 will enter its next stage with the convening of the third Nuclear Security Summit in the Hague. The fourth one is set for Washington in 2016. This process of Nuclear Security Summits is unique in many ways. It has brought together Heads of States/Governments from over  fifty nations to discuss, define and put in action a concerted global campaign to deal with the challenges posed by nuclear terrorism by addressing threats to nuclear enterprises from theft, sabotage, unauthorised access with malevolent intent, subversion of personnel and terrorism in general.

The heightened concern about certain aspects of security of nuclear enterprises, that is, of nuclear material including uranium and plutonium and radioactive substances involved in various nuclear facilities, reactors and nuclear fuel cycle, has been there since the break-up of the Soviet Union. The US took the lead in 1994 in getting the IAEA to commence a whole spectrum of activities to prevent and combat illicit nuclear trafficking and to enhance physical protection of nuclear material and facilities. In parallel, the hugely successful Nunn-Lugar programme was also launched bilaterally with Russia to salvage nuclear material in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union.

Initially the effort was driven by fear of proliferation but it assumed a magnified threat perception after 9/11 since it was felt that suicide-bands of non-State actors could lay hands on nuclear material or dangerous radioactive substances to create mass panic or attack nuclear reactors to release radioactivity. While the responsibility to comprehensively enhance protection of nuclear enterprises to avert, prevent and combat such menace lay squarely on the governments concerned, support has steadily grown for international response through cooperation and assistance including through provision of equipment and advisor services, sharing of best practices and broad awareness raising about danger of nuclear terrorism.

The IAEA has completed several five-year action plans to help its member states, on request, in diverse aspects of nuclear security in the same way as it has put in place a systematic programme for assisting countries regarding nuclear safety. While safety-concerned public health implications of the phenomenon of radiation is inherent to peaceful uses of nuclear energy and has received funding from the regular budget, the security-related programme has generally been funded by extra-budgetary contributions led by generous US funding.

The Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process raised the level of international action and concern to the highest and gave a significant political profile to all related programmes in nuclear security, whether bilateral or multilateral. Participating governments have been sensitised and spurred to act owing to a high level interest in the Summit process, preceded by preparatory ‘sherpa’ meetings and careful drafting of declarations and recommendations for action. The impact of these summits is comprehensive in that all facets of the menace are addressed, such as reducing nuclear materials (usable for bomb-making) in reactors by converting them to fuelling with lower levels of enriched uranium, eliminating surplus stocks ofsuch material as was the case with several successor states of the former Soviet Union,  adopting measures for greater security and control such as on-site physical protection, better accounting and control, prevention of threats from insiders and capability for effective response to any security-related event.

Global norms have been emphasised in terms of legal commitments internationally, such as adherence to the twelve terrorism-related legal instruments and voluntary commitments following internationally recognised IAEA recommendations and guidelines. However, global commitments in this regard being limited in scope, the NSS process also stressed voluntary building of domestic capacity to address challenges to nuclear security, for example, by strict regulations and an effective regulatory body, legislating domestic laws for security of nuclear material, and legally effective controls on non-State actors in keeping with landmark UN Security Council resolution 1540. In addition, since the IAEA’s safeguards system provided an effective route, in particular, to keep track of and account for nuclear materials, adherence to proper safeguards was also part of the slew of recommendations from the Summits. The overall purpose of these summits will be served in assembling the full set of building blocks for nuclear security architecture to be adopted by states concerned in appropriate ways by international legal instruments, domestic legislation, assurances through invited peer review mechanisms and a widely accepted security culture.

Since this entire gamut of actions can be seen by different states in different perspectives of non-proliferation or nuclear disarmament, the NSS process has been inclusive while respecting sensitivities of states that are parties to cardinal nuclear treaties such as the NPT and bilateral and multilateral accords and arrangements. In this sense the Obama initiative on NSS might serve to alleviate to some extent the effects of the current void in international negotiations aimed at effective nuclear arms control; the credibility of the initiative being bolstered by Obama’s Prague and Berlin speeches for a nuclear weapons-free world.

It is a no-brainer that no approach today would be perfect to address safety, security and proliferation challenges posed by nuclear enterprises the world over, diverse purposes of which range from limitless deterrence credibility to clean and safe energy for sustainable development. However, it is to the credit of the NSS Summits that more or less all countries with capabilities in nuclear technology are encouraged to join and invited, notable exceptions like North Korea notwithstanding.

Since the time India has been welcomed into the global nuclear mainstream with the historic nuclear cooperation agreements with the US, France and other key countries, it has become natural for India to be expected to play its due contributory role. As a developing country it was unprecedented for India, for instance, to announce a million dollar voluntary funding to IAEA’s nuclear security programme, and it reflected preference to IAEA’s central role which was also underlined by the NSS process. The long standing standard-bearers of the global nuclear order have their preferences and practices, at the same time, to which India’s approach need not be of an outsider. In keeping with its long-term plans for exploitation of nuclear energy as a critical part of a right energy mix, India’s association with the global mainstream has to be consistent and forward-looking. Hence, the association of India with the NSS process to the fullest and continued participation in it.

An off-shoot of the NSS process has been a narrowly focused civil society project by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) which has sought to create a template to observe and gauge the state of global nuclear materials security readiness through a NTI Index. It attempts to present a biennial snapshot of how weapons-usable nuclear material is secured worldwide. The second issue of the NTI Index is out but it is yet to make a desirable impact, perhaps due to grading of countries on a set of criteria that have shades of prescriptive ‘one size fits all’. It needs to respect government sensitivities and predispositions to preferred national approaches to nuclear materials security. The tricky part may be how to provide due weight to areas to which particular governments attach priority given their specific situation.

A process of realistic assessment of international preparedness would have benefited from giving, at least, space for self-assessment of countries alongside the NTI team’s view of them. The goal of global nuclear security is too critical to brook contributions which risk being seen, arguably, as one-sided, and no matter how rigorously done internally, the test of any endeavour to nuclear- materials security mapping should be coherence with the main NSS process. The grading by the Index, despite its limited focus on nuclear materials, may lead some to gloating on a good score card ascribing overall national prestige while in other cases it may be viewed as an affront.