Bringing the Developing World into the Nuclear Security Conversation

Stimson Spotlight

Bringing the Developing World into the Nuclear Security Conversation

By Audrey Williams: 

Last month, 58 world leaders convened in The Hague for the third Nuclear Security Summit (NSS). Building off progress made at previous summits in Seoul (2012) and Washington (2010), the 2014 NSS participating countries made commitments to reduce stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and weapons-grade plutonium (Pu), to secure other radioactive sources (such as cobalt-60 and strontium-90), and to increase international cooperation and information exchange.

The progress of the NSS process has been largely defined by two developments since the first summit in 2010: heightened international recognition of nuclear security and the reduction of national stockpiles of nuclear material (HEU and Pu). Since 2010, 12 countries have eliminated their stocks of nuclear material, while 15 additional countries have made progress toward reduction. Yet reduction of nuclear material-HEU especially-is regarded as the low-hanging fruit of nuclear security. Despite this effort, 25 countries still have enough nuclear material for a bomb, and other security efforts-such as physical security at nuclear sites and binding international standards-remain elusive.

For all of its progress, the NSS process cannot and will not be a panacea for global nuclear security. It is likely that the NSS process will end in 2016, the date of the next summit, which will again be held in the United States. While the NSS jumpstarted the global nuclear security conversation, other actors and initiatives will be tasked with sustaining it. Looking forward, the legacy of the summits is now a more pressing issue than the modest HEU removals touted as their most concrete success. At present, the most pressing need for nuclear security is a comprehensive global nuclear security regime. The NSS so far has failed to produce the internationally binding standards and monitoring mechanisms that would allow for a stronger global commitment to nuclear security. Actors around the summit are already beginning to discuss and assemble a global regime that would include these features. Yet such a regime can only be successful if it takes into account the needs, the priorities, and the capacity limitations of all governments.

Many nuclear obligations fall into a global security/development divide, pitting the priorities of developed countries against the priorities of developing countries. Nuclear security is no exception. For countries facing conventional armed conflict, poor public health, and widespread poverty, it is impractical and even irresponsible to divert financial and political resources toward nuclear security. Yet many developing countries-including nearly half of the states on the African continent-are considering peaceful nuclear power programs to meet their energy needs. In addition, developing countries are using peaceful nuclear technology provided by the IAEA's Technical Cooperation (TC) program to address development challenges such as limited access to clean water, food insecurity and poor public health. These trends point toward the growing presence of nuclear technology and material in developing countries-and thus an increasing role for these countries in bettering nuclear security.

In an effort to create consensus, the list of countries invited to the NSS remains limited and prioritizes states where nuclear material is in use. Those developing countries invited to the summits are expected to return home and encourage their neighbors to implement the results. However, increased nuclear security going forward will require direct engagement with all states in the developing world as well as strategies that match nuclear security aspirations with efforts to meet other security and development challenges. The IAEA can be a central actor in this engagement. It boasts near universal membership and already has established relationships with the developing world based on its TC program. Yet the IAEA's activities and departments remain siloed; a country's relationship based on interactions with the TC program will not automatically lead to greater cooperation with other IAEA departments (such as safeguards and safety and security). Perceptions of the IAEA's work are also siloed. While the IAEA is seen as a central actor in shaping and carrying out the legacy of the NSS process, developed countries tend to see the IAEA foremost as a security actor. However, developing countries engage primarily with the Agency on development-not security-terms. As the global nuclear security regime takes shape and the NSS process winds to a close, discussions around the IAEA's centrality must capitalize on its unique ability to engage the developing world if the Agency's full potential is to be realized.

Translating existing, TC-based relationships between the IAEA and developing countries into nuclear security cooperation will require concerted efforts on the part of actors both inside and outside of the Agency. The IAEA can help engage the developing world and bring more countries into the global nuclear security conversation, but only if the current members of that conversation recognize the needs and priorities of the developing world. Building a truly global nuclear security regime requires the involvement of all countries. If a nuclear terrorism event would leave no country untouched, then the global nuclear security conversation can leave no country out.

Photo credit: Patrick Rasenberg via flickr