The gravest danger we face is nuclear terrorism, acclaimed President-Elect Barack Obama during the 2008 US presidential campaign. In 2008 America was in grave danger. It was experiencing the onslaught of a massive global economic crisis, putting the very foundations of capitalism, democracy and security into question. North Korea and Iran’s nuclear capabilities were growing in the shadows and Al Qaeda was growing in strength.
An “American Hiroshima,” was promised by Al Qaeda. And their presence in Pakistan at the time, a country that had a very problematic nuclear security system with a stockpile of 60 nuclear weapons and other related facilities, did not ease concerns. To complicate things further Obama was bombarded with after study claiming statistical probability that Al Qaeda will obtain and detonate a WMD within the United States; the findings even suggested a 50% chance in the next 10 years.
This deadly soup combined with growing evidence of nuclear materials being either improperly guarded or unaccounted for, would raise any leaders trepidations. The number of reported nuclear thefts was also “disturbingly high”. In Europe, ‘most sites’ used to deploy nuclear weapons did not have security systems which meet the Department of Defense standards. In 2008 the U.N. General Assembly annual report stated there were nearly 250 reported thefts of nuclear or radioactive material worldwide during a year’s period.
The probable tipping point for Obama was not the probability of a nuclear terrorist attack but the consequences of one. If a ten-kiloton nuclear weapon, approximately the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, were detonated at Manhattan’s Grand Central Station in New York, it would instantly kill over 500,000 people, injure hundreds of thousands, and cause over $1 trillion in direct damages.
This past decade has witnessed a new era of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, in which the threat of terrorists acquiring a nuclear device received increasing attention. Thanks in many ways to President Obama’s initiation of numerous new disarmament initiatives with Russia and his organisation of the world’s first nuclear security summit which continues to this day.
Important to mention is that the NSS are not about non-proliferation. According to Barack Obama: ‘in a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.’ Therefore, the focus is of these summits are on the rogue nuclear material and making sure that such material does not fall into the wrong hands. It is about nuclear security in a world where, as Robert Kagan has pointed out, anyone with a backpack and a cellphone can pose a danger to humanity. The summits have been a success and key to fighting Obama’s gravest threat, of nuclear terrorism, in many regards.
The 2010 Washington Nuclear Security Summit set the stage for a safer future. It succeeded in placing pressure on nations to improve the security of nuclear materials around the world, particularly with respect to civil nuclear power plants. The Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) stockpiles of Ukraine and Mexico were completely removed and sent to Russia and the US, where they were safely disposed of. Also, the US and Russia converted much of their own HEU stockpiles (the equivalent amount needed to produce 3000 nuclear weapons) into Low Enriched Uranium (LEU), thereby removing its military application.
The 2012 Summit in Seoul, South Korea, proved the world’s dedication to nuclear safety. By then the number of participants had grown from 47 countries in Washington to 53 countries and 4 international organisations. It was, however, in other regards less successful than hoped, with little increase in the ratification of the 2010 agendas and no agreed hierarchy of concerns relating to nuclear security.
Additionally, North Korea refused to send a representative to the summit, and ten days prior, it announced the launch of a long-range missile in honour of the late North Korean President Kim Il-Sung. Regardless, during the summit’s conclusion, the attendees pledged to hold a third and final Nuclear Security Summit in 2014 in the Netherlands.
The first summit set the stage, the second one confirmed the world’s dedication to nuclear security and the 2014 Hague Summit will chart the accomplishments of the past four years, identifying which of the objectives set out where fulfilled and which ones need to be worked on.
The summit will continue focusing on the reduction of enriched nuclear material and more frequent reviews of state security structures by IAEA will be emphasized. Additional focus will be put on highly radioactive sources, mainly medical equipment as well as the role of industry. Indeed, the Summit will try and enhance international nuclear security culture by examining existing nuclear industry regulations and asking states to provide information to their citizens on the state of their nuclear material and facilities. The true success of the summit will be known in a few weeks’ time.