Evolution of nuclear security cooperation and nuclear security summit process

As the growing menace of nuclear terrorism, evolving threats and emerging actors will continue to pose challenges to the nuclear security parameters

Spread of terrorism across the world brought renewed focus on efforts to secure nuclear weapons and materials around the world. The threat of terrorism made nuclear and radioactive materials more vulnerable. President Obama, during the Prague speech in 2009, announced a Nuclear Security Summit process to strengthen nuclear security and secure all nuclear and radiological materials around the world.

The Nuclear Security Summit initiative was planned on four rounds. First three summits were held in Washington (2010), Seoul (2012), and The Hague (2014) respectively. Evaluation of the nuclear summit process and the actions announced by the states at each summit may help us understand the progress made by of NSS process. Despite major steps taken by States with regard to nuclear security there is still room for more cooperation among nations. The forth coming NSS scheduled for March 31and April 1, 2016 is also likely be the last. There is an assumption that the end of the summit process will leave a significant vacuum in global nuclear security governance that must be filled and backed up by some alternate solutions. Hence, more work will be required to strengthen the global nuclear security regime.


In order to build upon the efforts of accomplishing the goal of securing the world from vulnerable weapons-useable nuclear material the estimates of global nuclear stockpiles continues to alarm the world. The global estimated stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium is approximately 2,000 tons. The majority of material around 80 percent is designated for military purposes and lies outside of the scope of the summits. There have been 16 confirmed cases of unauthorized possession or custody of HEU or plutonium recorded by the IAEA’s Illicit Trafficking Database since 1993.They persuade the international community to explore a viable mechanism for secure and safer world from any nuclear incident.

Major developments in the Nuclear Security Regime

Major developments in the Nuclear Security regime can be assessed in various areas. The issues related to nuclear security identified by nuclear summit process can be looked from three perspectives: of civil society, of nuclear industry and the state’s role in the summit process. The objective has greater implication to build an environment that contributes to the existing measures and new actions to improve the nuclear security mechanism. This is unique opportunity provided by the summit process which introduced variety of stakeholders to engage on matters that do not require sharing of sensitive information. Hence it offered a collective approach regarding Nuclear Safety, Security and Safeguards for global peace and security.  

Awareness in civil societies across the globe regarding nuclear safety and security issues have seen a steady rise as the market for peaceful uses of nuclear energy and nuclear technology continues to expand. This development of awareness is positive in terms of promoting global consensus on mitigating the associated threats which are the subject of discussion of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process.

The NSS process emphasized the significance of Convention of Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM), less than 10 ratifications are required for its entry into force. This convention not only calls for prevention and detection of any possible theft or sabotage of nuclear material and but also demands from signatory parties to endorse domestic laws to devise punishments of such activities.

Other noticeable development is the identification of gaps in implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1540 that many states remain vulnerable to the efforts of terrorists and other illicit actors to obtain WMD, their means of delivery, and related materials. The follow-up resolution of UNSCR 1540, particularly UNSCR 1977 (2011), underscored the important role of UNSCR 1540 in strengthening global nuclear security.

What are the challenges to address the remaining gaps in the nuclear security summit process?

The NSS process has yielded good results. They include; the removal and/or disposition of 2,697 kilograms of vulnerable nuclear material, the elimination of civilian-use HEU from 14 countries. It also takes account of successful installation of radiation detection equipment at 250 international border crossings, airports and seaports to combat illicit trafficking in nuclear materials. Eventually, all these initiatives are expected to lead towards the establishment of a legally binding framework convention on nuclear security that will complement the current regime. However, state parties have political apprehensions regarding a legally-binding nuclear security regime. Because all states possessing nuclear material are mindful of their national responsibility to ensure international nuclear security standards.

Despite some noticeable developments in the nuclear security and safety standards few gaps persist due to changing dynamics, such as, cyber security threats. Beyond material control, working with international partners to build capabilities to prevent, detect, and respond to radiological and nuclear smuggling threats are lurking challenges which require continuous attention and planning in post nuclear summit setting.

The summit process has given movement to the reduction and elimination of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) production by reactor conversions and down blending but the gap of separated Plutonium stockpiles management has not been taken in to serious consideration and it is equally vulnerable to the risk of security and proliferation. But this is leading to another pressing challenge of how to include all nuclear materials, military and civilian, in the global nuclear security architecture.

Furthermore, the framework will still remain incomplete to achieve satisfactory international nuclear security standards unless confidence-building arrangements are put in place with the consideration of comprehensive approach without state specific considerations.

Last, but not the least, is the post nuclear security summit process scenario. This question is coming up since the summit process started and has remained unaddressed. A mechanism to sustain the so far achievements by the extensive process scored is, indeed, required.

In this regard, one option could be the responsibility can be given to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) when the summit process ends. And it can take forward the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process commitments. Moreover, during annual General Conference of IAEA, a session may be dedicated in taking overview of the commitments. And states may present progress through national statements. This suggestion may give some way out to this question.


As the growing menace of nuclear terrorism, evolving threats and emerging actors will continue to pose challenges to the nuclear security parameters. This fourth and last round of Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) process is significant to set a benchmark for nuclear safety and security practices mechanism.  The forthcoming summit is offering all states to think beyond the present. This process initiative for global nuclear security should not be the end but it should lead to new beginning with more rigorous planning for enduring international nuclear cooperation. Post summit scenario must be visionary and acknowledge so far achievements of this summit process.

The future of sustaining this momentum of nuclear safety and security standards and practices can be forecasted by the initiatives like Convention of Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM) and role of the IAEA. Because they both provide broader scope for nuclear security, technical assistance at expert level, while offering credibility, inclusivity and legal forum for convening nuclear security matters and discussions. This will also get together like minded states to lead towards a long term vision of global nuclear security.

Huma Rehman

Huma Rehman is a former fellow at Center for Non Proliferation Studies California-US

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