New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Nuclear Security: Rededication and Refocus


Below appear the remarks Assistant Secretary Ford delivered at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., on December 2, 2019.  They may also be found on the website of the State Department's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.

Good afternoon. It has been nearly ten years now since the first Nuclear Security Summit was held in Washington, DC. Since that first summit in 2010, we had three more —Seoul in 2012, the Netherlands in 2014, and Washington again in 2016. These summits brought many world leaders together to declare their support for improving nuclear security practices.

While some of the objectives declared at the outset of this process were more ambitious than the facts would justify, the Summits played a valuable role in drawing attention to the challenges of nuclear security. Because participating countries were encouraged to come up with or sign up to “gift baskets” of promised nuclear security improvements, the meetings elicited some important pledges to address nuclear security challenges.

Yet a decade after President Obama made his notably unrealistic promise in 2009 to “secure all vulnerable material around the world within four years,” all too much remains to be done. For instance, despite longstanding concerns that terrorists or other non-state actors might steal some of the radioactive material used in certain medical treatments or industrial processes and fashion it into a radiological dispersal device — that is, make a so-called “dirty bomb” — the Nuclear Security Summits did not initially focus on the threat presented by radiological sources. To this day, much remains to be done to address that challenge worldwide. And despite all the old “within four years” rhetoric, the world still has much to do in the field of nuclear security more broadly.

I. A Collective Agenda

As the Nuclear Security Summits now recede into the past, the world’s leaders must not forget about nuclear security. Indeed, it is our challenge today to institutionalize and regularize nuclear security “best practices” — to make good nuclear security into “nothing special” in the sense, as I have suggested before, that it becomes as ordinary, habitual, and natural to all states and all stakeholders as breathing itself is to each individual human.

Where the Summits played a valuable role in jump-starting attention to these challenges, in other words, we must now do the longer-term work of making sound nuclear security into a day-to-day habit, rather than just a mere pledge. In a world in which terrorist organizations do seek to acquire nuclear or other radioactive materials, nuclear security is far too important not to be routinized.

If the Summit promises were a bit like the New Year’s Resolutions so many people make to lose weight and get in shape, therefore — promises that may catalyze someone to go to the gym and train hard every day for a few weeks, but which fade over time until one slumps back to something more like the status quo ante — we now need to build something more like a long-term fitness program. We need a “new normal” that establishes healthy patterns that can and will be sustained indefinitely.

To be sure, the day-to-day, routinized promise-keeping involved in ensuring sound nuclear security “best practices” and institutionalizing them worldwide certainly isn’t easy. It also lacks the intuitive political draw of flashy Summit promise-making, and there is alas still far to go before best practices are indeed routine everywhere. But bringing this about is, or should be, the core of our collective nuclear security agenda.

One of the ways in which we have been trying to advance this agenda is through the work of the Nuclear Security Contact Group (NSCG) — an informal and voluntary cluster of states committed to improving nuclear security worldwide, and that gather periodically to compare notes, encourage each other, and coordinate their own sovereign national efforts to promote effective steps forward. I will admit that even among NSCG members, progress has been slower than we had hoped in generating the sustained attention and energy these challenges require.

As can sometimes happen with well-intentioned international groups, there can be too much of an assumption that simply being there demonstrates real commitment to the cause, and too little meaningful action. NSCG members are also making only limited progress against the toxic political narratives of disinterest in or antagonism to nuclear security that still exist in some quarters — narratives that hinder improvements to security practices, and which can thus also threaten the cooperative nuclear technology-sharing work that depends upon the reassurances provided by good security.

But we have also seen signs of progress. Thanks in large part, I believe, to NSCG interventions and consciousness-raising from like-minded Member States, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been able gradually over the past two years to increase its regular budget for nuclear security. The IAEA continues to increase the profile and activity levels of its nuclear security work, as suggested in the 2013 evolution of its Office of Nuclear Security into a Division of Nuclear Security.

The IAEA General Conference also made a modest but significant step forward in 2018 with its adoption of nuclear security resolution language emphasizing “that nuclear security contributes to the positive perception … of peaceful nuclear activities.” Thankfully, the General Conference retained this language in the 2019 nuclear security resolution, signaling that nuclear security – and the role of good security practices in facilitating nuclear technology sharing – is now clearly getting more sustained attention than before. The IAEA is now focusing more on nuclear security in ways that complement and reinforce both the Agency’s ongoing work in nuclear safety and its Technical Cooperation (TC) program. This new focus is helping ensure that TC efforts are not derailed by the risk that they might lead to unauthorized access to sensitive technology or materials.

As for the NSCG itself, its deliberations recently produced a statement of collective commitments related to nuclear security. This document — which is now available on the NSCG website — is not the sort of consensus-negotiated, lowest-common-denominator text one often sees emerge from multilateral fora, nor is it simply a high-level summary of inconclusive group deliberations. Instead, it is an informal “food for thought” statement, designed to pull useful strands of thinking together in a constructive way to help inspire and channel efforts to move the nuclear security agenda forward more effectively.

I’m proud that the United States was able to play a key role in bringing NSCG members together to develop and hone this statement of commitments, and we hope it will indeed be useful in encouraging constructive thought about how states can play more effective roles in promoting nuclear security, both within the NSCG and more broadly.

II. A Collective Commitment

So let me talk a bit about that paper. The NSCG’s paper entitled “Our Collective Commitment” says a great many things that I believe are important, and that can very helpfully contribute to our collective formulation of a strong nuclear security agenda.

Not surprisingly, it reiterates our commitment to the October 2016 “Statement of Principles” — promulgated by IAEA Information Circular 899 — that founded the NSCG, as well as a strong commitment to nuclear security best practices. The paper also makes clear that good nuclear security is required “in order to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation and terrorism involving nuclear weapons or materials, and in order to ensure the maintenance of a strong foundation for sharing the benefits of the peaceful uses of nuclear technology.”

This latter statement is particularly important, because it highlights the important way in which, rather than competing with each other, nuclear security and nuclear technology sharing go hand in hand. Specifically, nuclear security improvements are clearly identified as “a crucial enabler for sharing the benefits of the peaceful uses of nuclear technology worldwide,” because they help form “the foundation upon which rests the global system of technology-sharing that has already provided untold benefits to all humankind, and which we intend thus to help preserve for many years to come.”

This may seem like no more than basic common sense to most of you. To me, at least, it seems pretty obvious that it would be very difficult to imagine the continuation or expansion of today’s worldwide sharing of the benefits of nuclear know-how without confidence that nuclear technology and materials will reliably be kept out of the hands of unauthorized persons — and especially terrorists.

Nevertheless, there are still some people who don’t see good nuclear security practices as an enabler for or facilitator of technology-sharing, instead worrying that security equities exist in some kind of tension with the global cooperative enterprise. Thankfully, this view is wrong, and I’m pleased that the NSCG “Collective Commitment” paper makes it so clear that there is not tension here, but rather a strong complementarity.

But the NSCG paper doesn’t just voice this important insight about how security reinforces sharing. It also articulates a number of practical topics or themes of emphasis that can provide valuable points of focus as NSCG members and the broader nuclear security community work to identify where their efforts can be most effective. It stresses, for instance, the importance of each state ensuring “an adequate national nuclear security legislative and regulatory framework” — while also pointing out that countries can play important roles in “assisting each other, as appropriate, in developing and maintaining such best practices through cooperative capacity-building efforts.”

The paper makes clear that States should strengthen their own legal and regulatory frameworks by such things as promoting universal adherence to and full implementation of relevant legally binding instruments — such as the amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM/A), and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT), as well as universal implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540, which seeks to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to non-state actors by mandating the protection of sensitive goods and know-how, and ensuring that related transfers between states are appropriately regulated. The paper also emphasizes the importance of all states improving their own national nuclear security practices, such as through protecting against insider and cyber threats, strengthening the security of radioactive sources, ensuring training and preparedness, coordinating with nuclear security support centers, and reconciling nuclear safety and security and sharing best practices with other countries, as appropriate.

The “Collective Commitment” paper places a strong emphasis upon promoting and expanding the IAEA’s nuclear security efforts, encouraging support for the Agency’s work in this regard, but also stressing that “[t]he IAEA must undertake this work with vigor and attentiveness, providing its nuclear security promotional activities with the resources and political and institutional support and encouragement they need in order to succeed” — not least through further regularizing IAEA budgets for nuclear security staff and core activities, and encouraging new donors and the diversification of funding sources within the extra-budgetary funding base. The paper also advocates for close coordination between IAEA Technical Cooperation projects and IAEA Integrated Nuclear Security Support Plans, noting again “the critical role of nuclear security as an enabler for sharing the benefits of the peaceful uses of nuclear technology.”

In our view, the NSCG “Collective Commitment” paper — with its practically minded focus upon specific and concrete ways that all countries can “up their game” in improving nuclear security and using bilateral and multilateral engagements to help spread sound nuclear security practices in the international community — can be a very valuable tool and guidepost in our work together in this arena. I encourage you all to read it, and to spread awareness of the points it makes.

The NSCG has also been exploring improved ways to articulate its Members’ support for nuclear security and coordinate national messaging in this respect. Among other things, this coordination work highlights the important contribution that sound nuclear security practices make to nuclear cooperation, noting that without a strong nuclear security and safety regime, citizens may consider nuclear technologies too risky safely to share — and that if lax security results in an incident, popular opinion may sour on nuclear technology entirely, notwithstanding its benefits. Far from being any kind of impediment to peaceful uses of nuclear technology, nuclear and radiological security is thus an essential element of such uses.

The same point, of course, can be made about nuclear safety, and the NSCG emphasizes the importance of both safety and security within the context of supporting all countries’ access to the peaceful benefits of the atom. All of those engaged in peaceful nuclear activities want assurance that they are not facing undue risks from nuclear accidents or malicious efforts. Implementing international standards for nuclear safety and guidance for security helps provide the assurance that these risks are being properly managed, thereby facilitating international cooperation in and access to peaceful nuclear activities.

Indeed, nuclear safety and security are also indissolubly linked to nuclear safeguards as well, inasmuch as a core component of nuclear and radiological security is ensuring that material remains under the control of the proper authorities at all times, and effective nuclear material accounting and control practices promote both strong security and strong safeguards, as well as helping to prevent and mitigate insider threats. Important nuclear security elements such as access controls, material tracking, insider threat prevention, and inventory management are also important to ensuring an effective system of nuclear safeguards at both the facility and the state level.

These are, in our view, critical messages. They should help us focus our efforts together in the nuclear security arena.

III. Our Work

So what are we doing in practical terms? At the U.S. Department of State — in addition to engaging bilaterally with foreign partners, trying to spur the IAEA to make its nuclear security work ever more effective, and supercharging the NSCG’s contributions to nuclear security promotion worldwide — the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (ISN) also supports nuclear security efforts through capacity-building programming.

Our Office of Nuclear Energy, Safety, and Security (NESS) leads efforts to develop and implement policies and diplomatic strategies related to nuclear security. NESS chairs or co-chairs several U.S. interagency coordinating bodies focused on nuclear security, supports U.S. participation in the Nuclear Security Contact Group, and serves as the State Department’s lead on the interagency physical protection assessment team tasked with ensuring adequate physical protection of U.S.-obligated materials abroad. The Office of Multilateral Nuclear and Security Affairs (MNSA) assists in implementing the efforts of the IAEA’s Division of Nuclear Security to prevent nuclear terrorism, through efforts to minimize risks associated with vulnerable nuclear and radioactive material.

The Office of Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism (WMDT) works against threats of terrorists acquiring nuclear and other radioactive materials that are outside regulatory control, including those lost during the breakup of the Soviet Union. Materials outside control remain a concern and could be exploited by terrorists or others wishing to cause harm. WMDT manages the U.S. role as co-chair of the 89-member country Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) and supports the development and implementation of GICNT workshops and exercises in which partner nations share best practices and test national protocols and capabilities for preventing, detecting, and responding to nuclear terrorism. GICNT, in fact, is one of those rare contemporary bright spots of U.S.-Russian cooperation on shared interests: at the most recent GICNT Plenary in Buenos Aires, the United States and Russia were confirmed as GICNT co-chairs for the third, four-year term in a row.

WMDT also serves as U.S. co-chair (along with the EU) of the Nuclear Forensics International Technical Working Group, which works to identify and socialize best practices in nuclear forensics, and conducts exercises to test capabilities, for its more than 50 participating nations. WMDT works with priority foreign partners and international organizations such as the IAEA, INTERPOL, and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime to strengthen cooperation and capabilities to prevent, detect, and respond to incidents of nuclear and other radioactive material smuggling and security. The office also serves as the U.S. point of contact to the IAEA’s Incident and Trafficking Database program, and leads U.S. government efforts to coordinate the U.S. response to nuclear and radioactive material smuggling incidents overseas upon the request of governments desiring such assistance.

In our Office of Export Control Cooperation (ECC), we engage in a variety of capacity-building efforts related to nuclear security. Our Export Control and Related Border Security (EXBS) program, for instance, assisted the Nuclear Radiology and Safety Agency of Tajikistan in constructing a WMD regional training center that now hosts national and regional nuclear security courses and seminars for Central Asian and Afghanistan government officials. In fact, the center is now an official IAEA-designated regional training site. Our Embassy-based staff also facilitate provision of radiation detection technology and training to foreign partners. Recently in the Philippines, for example, our personnel helped the Department of Energy access inoperable radiation detection systems and push forward a Memorandum of Agreement on operating the systems.

In our Office of Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR), the Partnership for Nuclear Threat Reduction (PNTR) program helps build partner states’ capacity in nuclear security and mitigating threats from radicalized or coerced personnel at sensitive nuclear facilities. All known cases of theft involving nuclear material have been led or abetted by insiders, after all. To help address this threat, PNTR focuses on efforts to prevent radicalized, disgruntled, or coerced insiders from diverting nuclear material, technology, and expertise. This program currently works with relevant stakeholders in Egypt, India, Libya, Pakistan, South Africa, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.

And the work we have been doing on nuclear security in the ISN Bureau is only one part of the broader corpus of U.S. government programming in this area, including but not limited to the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. We’re proud of all of these efforts, and especially of their relentless focus upon practical results. With the help of the NSCG’s articulation of the “Collective Commitment” paper — along with NSCG Members’ emphasis upon coordinated promotional messaging and support for forward-leaning IAEA nuclear security efforts — we hope to enlist and encourage an ever broader array of states to contribute to these endeavors in the months and years.

IV. The Challenges Ahead: “Can’t” versus “Won’t”

To help further catalyze creative, practical, forward-looking thinking about how to promote nuclear security around the world — and how to make progress on the critical agenda of “hard-wiring” good nuclear security into States’ habitual behavioral patterns — we have also been encouraging NSCG members to think through how they would answer a series of specific questions. These questions focus upon trying to identify the principal challenges that States feel they confront in advancing the global nuclear security agenda, how the NSCG itself and the IAEA can help overcome these obstacles, and what sort of concrete nuclear security “deliverables” it might be possible to bring to fruition in the next few years.

If you were to ask me what I think the main challenges are as we try to institutionalize a global “new normal” of nuclear security “best practices,” I would probably point to what I call the “Three Cant’s” and the “Two Wont’s.” Let me explain.

Some countries may fall short in providing for adequate nuclear security because for one reason or another they simply cannot meet the standard. These are the “Can’ts.” They might, for example, not be aware of the need for good nuclear security in a particular context, or of what “best practices” actually entail. That is the first “Can’t.”

The second “Can’t” relates to possible failures of education or capacity, such as where – despite good intentions – a government may not know how to strengthen nuclear security in its country in order to come up to appropriately high standards, or where it lacks the resources or other capabilities necessary to do so.

The third “Can’t” relates to governmental “bandwidth” and the challenges of prioritization in a world full of pressing challenges — such as where a government may be unable to address nuclear security properly because the relevant leaders or personnel are preoccupied with meeting some other pressing challenge or threat.

As a practical matter, of course, it is not always easy to solve the challenges presented by these “Three Can’ts.” Nevertheless, much of the diplomatic engagement and capacity-building assistance we do in the ISN Bureau — as well as in the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, not to mention the IAEA itself — is devoted to helping partner states handle these problems. And we all have a pretty good track record of working with states to improve things in the “Can’t” department.

Things are sometimes trickier, however, with the “Two Won’ts.” Some countries simply choose to deemphasize nuclear security, or are even in some sense hostile to it.

The first “Won’t” relates to the perceived costs of appropriate nuclear security or competing economic interests, such as where parties convince themselves that proper security measures will unduly increase the expense of equipment or capabilities they wish to acquire. This attitude may tempt them to cut corners, perhaps quite dangerously. Similarly, a supplier may see security as a needless cost that can be shirked in the name of sales or market share. All such thinking is very short-sighted, of course, since — just as with nuclear safety — if you’re truly worried about cost, the worst possible outcome would surely be to face a dangerous nuclear incident resulting from one’s own negligence. All the same, such attitudes can sometimes be a problem.

The second “Won’t” is more a pathology of outlook. Believe it or not, some countries may resist nuclear security measures because they feel that a focus upon nuclear security is some kind of Western, imperialist imposition. At best, such a contention is simply silly; at worst, it smacks of a shameful cultural essentialism, or even racism — as if to imply that prudence, competence, and common sense can be monopolized by any particular region or culture, and that the peoples of the Global South are incapable of them. We should all fiercely resist and rebut such nonsense.

But the second “Won’t” sometimes alternatively takes a form to which I’ve alluded already – namely, a suspicion that there is some kind of tension between nuclear security and the widespread sharing of nuclear benefits. It can take the form, in other words, of the belief that promoting security somehow intrinsically comes at the cost of inhibiting cooperation. By this point, you won’t be surprised to hear again that I think such thinking is quite wrong and misguided. Both safety and security are in fact enablers and facilitators of cooperation, which would be very difficult to imagine occurring — or even continuing, let alone expanding — were not it not clear that safety and security were being well handled.

It is in order to address this alternative manifestation of the second “Won’t” that I think it so important that the NSCG’s “Collective Commitment” paper articulates some of the broad points I described earlier — namely, that there is no tension between security and cooperation, and indeed that cooperation rests in large part upon a foundation provided by the assurance of sound security practices. In parallel with concrete capacity-building assistance aimed at the “Three Can’ts,” therefore, anyone committed to nuclear security should emphasize this message in order to raise awareness, to demonstrate the positive value of nuclear security, and to encourage all governments to develop the political will to follow through in making nuclear security improvements.

V. Conclusion

So that’s my tour d’horizon of the nuclear security agenda as I see it from the State Department — and as I hope a good many of my NSCG counterparts also see it as we work together in support of these important objectives. I hope my remarks have given you a taste of our efforts in this area, and indeed that you yourselves will be able to contribute to forestalling nuclear terrorism by promoting this broad agenda wherever you can.

Thank you.

-- Christopher Ford

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