Nuclear security is an important consideration for Gulf countries

Robert Manning sheds light on this week's Nuclear Summit in Washington and the current state of nuclear proliferation

US secretary of state John Kerry last year defended the Obama administrations proposed deal with Iran over the county's nuclear programme. Brendan Smialowski / AFP
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It is the final chapter of one of American president Barack Obama’s rare, undisputed foreign policy achievements: the Nuclear Security Summit. But it ends with troubling questions: how enduring will it be? What next?

There is no question the summit is a response to the world’s worst post-September 11 nightmare: terrorists with a nuclear weapon threatening Washington, Beijing, Riyadh or Dubai. Already ISIL has used chemical weapons in Syria. In 2011, smugglers were caught in Central Asia trafficking in highly enriched uranium (HEU), and North Korea has sold nuclear equipment to Syria.

With the Iranian nuclear threat deferred, though perhaps looming, and as nations in the Middle East move toward civil nuclear energy, is the region ready for the challenges of nuclear security?

Since the end of the Cold War, the US and Russia have reduced nearly 90 per cent of their nuclear arsenals and melted down several tons of fissile material. Yet there remain some 1,800 tonnes of weapons-usable material scattered in hundreds of civilian and military facilities around the globe – enough for thousands of nuclear weapons.

These ominous realities led the UN Security Council to pass Resolution 1540 in 2004. In that resolution, the world community affirmed that the proliferation of nuclear, and other WMDs, is a threat to international peace and security and obligates all states to adopt legislation to prevent it and establish domestic controls to prevent illicit trafficking.

This threat and the global consensus to stop it is the rationale behind the Nuclear Security Summit that Mr Obama initiated in 2010. The fourth and final one will be held in Washington, DC on Thursday and Friday.

Since the first nuclear summit, 2,697 kilograms of nuclear material has been moved or melted down to low-enriched uranium (LEU), civilian-use HEU has been removed from 14 countries, security of fissile material has been enhanced worldwide, and radiation-detection equipment has been installed at 250 border crossings, airports and seaports to combat illicit trafficking.

This progress is the result of the summit shining a continuing spotlight on the issue and peer pressure on all 53 participating nations to devise and implement national action plans.

But there are major challenges ahead. The creation of a robust global nuclear security architecture remains to be achieved. And what happens after this summit to sustain the momentum created by this global effort?

Among the challenges ahead: how to remove (or convert to LEU) HEU from civilian facilities. There are 61 tonnes of civilian HEU at more than 100 facilities in 25 countries.

One emerging risk that requires new safeguards and new cooperation is that of cyberattacks on nuclear facilities, a threat that has been under-appreciated.

The US and Russia need to renew their commitment to repatriate HEU supplied to third countries. Russia will not attend the summit, the result of mistrust and confrontation with the US. But like climate change, nuclear security is a global issue transcending national competition: Moscow faces the same threat from ISIL.

Enhancing nuclear security remains an important issue. Some call for more transparency and the adoption of best practices, information sharing and common standards adopted by all nuclear weapons states. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council have a special responsibility to maximise safety.

The amount of HEU that fits into a package that might contain 5 pounds (2.3kg) of sugar is enough for a nuclear weapon that could kill tens of thousands. A key challenge for civilian nuclear facilities (including medical radiation facilities) is to reduce HEU use and improve the safety regime. Even medical isotopes in terrorist hands could lead to a “dirty bomb” (mixing of radioactive material with conventional explosives).

Countries must create road maps for progress in their action plans. Here, public-private partnership with governments and the nuclear power industry is critical.

In the absence of future nuclear security summits to serve as action-forcing events, what mechanisms will be employed? Fully adopting UN Conventions like that on Suppressing Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, adopting the 2005 amendment to the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials and nuclear security training for all nuclear operators, and security services are important tasks.

To maintain the momentum of the summit institutionally, several organisations must take ownership of issue: the UN Security Council, the IAEA and Interpol and regional security institutions should make it a priority.

Nuclear security should be on the agenda for the GCC. Nations in the region would be wise to form new mechanisms for nuclear cooperation to share best practices and enhance a culture of nuclear safety, manage spent fuels and devise plans for accident responses.

Creativity, commitment and sustained focus will be key to meeting the challenge of nuclear security.

Robert Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative.

On Twitter: @RManning4