Nuclear Security: The Focus Must Not Flag

Nuclear Security: The Focus Must Not Flag

Dr Manpreet Sethi cautions that while great strides have been made in global nuclear security, steep challenges still remain

The last few weeks have witnessed the release of at least three reports (123) on nuclear security. This is a welcome development since the import of this subject has in no way diminished since the end of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process in 2016, and the urgency of the challenge must be kept alive. In fact, nuclear security is a journey and not a destination. It is hence critical that every now and then the spotlight is placed on the issue to check whether the international community is on the right track.

In theory, it could well be argued that a considerable distance has been travelled since the first NSS in 2010. There is indeed in place today a mosaic of institutional mechanisms, international treaties, cooperation arrangements, national efforts and even a couple of dozens of Centres of Excellence on nuclear security across the world. The NSS process did have an impact on awareness levels, and countries came to the Summits armed with reports on their actions and with new commitments contained in a gift basket. Membership of treaties accordingly went up and national legislations and regulations were tweaked to meet international benchmarks. As a follow up to the NSS process, five action plans on nuclear security today exist at the UN, the IAEA, the Global Partnership against spread of WMD, Interpol, and the Global Initiative on Countering Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT). Yet, challenges remain, and these must be well understood to further nuclear security to the next level.

A preliminary challenge comes from the lack of good relations amongst big powers. If they are not on the same page in their assessment of the threat, it can prove to be a huge stumbling block when moving on issues that have global dimensions. Different countries obviously have different priorities. It is the sense of consensus amongst the big stakeholders in the international community that can bring about a sense of urgency on issues to make them a priority for all. This happened, for instance, in the 1970s in the case of the conclusion of the NPT, and then in the early 1990s regarding the extension of the NPT. It happened again in 2010-2014 when President Obama pushed for nuclear security as a common concern. But once Crimea happened and Russia became the ‘enemy’, collaboration on the issue stopped. President Putin refused to participate in the 2016 NSS claiming that for Russia the issue of nuclear security was over. As of today, despite the Helsinki Summit, the US-Russia relationship does not look good. Neither is the US-China track offering any hope of consensus on matters of global concern. On the other hand, the sense of salience attached to nuclear weapons is seriously up, making countries clam up on their nuclear weapons ambitions. So, if nuclear material in military holdings was to be the next thing on the agenda of nuclear security, it is unlikely to get anywhere for a while. And, if countries with the biggest nuclear stockpiles sound more belligerent and reticent on sharing nuclear information, one can hardly expect smaller players to offer transparency. Nuclear security, therefore, looks less a matter of priority for now.

The second challenge is that the lack of focus from big stakeholders leads to lack of uniformity in recognising the threat and rigour of implementation amongst others. While those that recognise it as a national threat remain focused on it, others may become more lax and end up as weak links in the chain. So, a country that deals in no nuclear material may refuse to enter treaties or accept burdensome national regulations when there is no international spotlight on the subject owing to no major power pressure. It is no secret that nuclear/radiological material accounting and reporting are perceived as burdensome by countries that do not perceive this threat as of a high concern. Since it is not considered a priority, the material and human resources available are never enough to meet the requirements of the reports that need to be submitted to some international instruments such as the UNSCR 1540 Committee.

The third challenge comes from the need to balance national sovereignty with international responsibility. Since both dimensions impinge on each other on a subject like this, too much international oversight could be perceived as overly intrusive, just as much as a lack of international commitment could make countries overly lax and make them de-prioritise actions needed to enhance not just their own but everyone else’s nuclear security. This balancing act between national and international, however, is not easy.

The fourth challenge remains the lack of punishment for non-compliance. Most nuclear security measures are voluntary, and there is no instrument under which punishment for violation is possible. Given that countries that have indulged in proliferation have gone unpunished, the risk of similar behaviour not eliciting any action might not prove to be enough of a deterrent in case nuclear security in some country is compromised.

The fifth challenge arises from the fact that after Fukushima, which dissipated the sense of nuclear renaissance, the nuclear market is once again a buyer’s market. So, sellers are ready to sweeten deals to sell nuclear reactors. Given that the predominant sellers in the nuclear market today are Russia and China who are hardly known for high standards themselves, the sale of reactors to countries that might have less than strong regulatory environments and unstable security situations could create risks for nuclear security. A lack of insistence on high level security anywhere could lead to a disaster somewhere, but its impact would be more than just national.

To turn the situation around, nuclear security must be perceived as a common goal by the major stakeholders. Hence, the focus at levels where it continues to receive the highest political attention is important. Secondly, sharing of a few kinds of material or information could be most helpful. For instance, sharing technologies for detection of nuclear material such as scanners at ports, decontamination techniques or materials, and medical counter-measures could enable their manufacturing at lower costs and thus incentivise countries to have them installed. Similarly, sharing advances in nuclear forensics could help prevent nuclear terrorism through deterrence by threat of punishment. In another example, sharing best practices and experiences in enforcement e.g. training of physical security guards, on the making of personnel reliability programmes, tools for data mining and storage for easy retrieval, etc could help countries learn from one another. India’s nuclear security centre under the GCNEP could take up some of these issues.

Lastly, events and efforts will be periodically needed to keep the momentum going on nuclear security. Some such opportunities are bound to come up during the review conferences of the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM), which is due in 2021, IAEA ministerial conference, etc. More will have to be created. In fact, it is essential to understand the paradox that confronts the world. The absence of an untoward incident over a period of time could lessen the threat perception and interest in nuclear security. But that laxity may lead to an incident. So, nuclear security will have to be a journey that is embarked upon till such time as nuclear material and terrorism continue to exist.

It will be a long journey.

About the Author

Dr. Manpreet Sethi is a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi, where she leads the project on nuclear security. She is an expert on a range of nuclear issues, having published over 80 papers in academic journals of repute. Over the last 18 years she has been researching and writing on subjects related to nuclear energy, strategy, non-proliferation, disarmament, arms and export controls, and BMD. Her current focus areas include nuclear security instruments (UNSCR 1540, summits, treaties and laws, PSI, CSI, etc) and nuclear governance (regimes and architecture).

This was originally written for the Nuclear Threat Monitor.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members.

Image: Pixabay stock.

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