SAV in DC: NGOs the Tip of the Spear in Tackling Nuclear Terror


SAV IN DC relates analysis by SAV contributors to Washington DC-based discussions of South Asian strategic affairs.


*Video to be uploaded soon

Last week in Washington, 53 heads of state came together for the fourth Nuclear Security Summit (NSS). The agenda? Nuclear terrorism. What security issue could be more pressing than the world’s most deadly weapons or materials in the hands of violent non-state actors? Presidents and prime ministers, however, have a lot of issues on their plates. The real tip of the spear for promoting and facilitating progress on nuclear security are NGOs, dedicated to researching nuclear safety and security and partnering with international organizations and governments around the world to share, teach, and implement best practices.

The Summit process was conceived and begun by President Obama in 2010. It came to a close last week, removing the platform for what little time heads of states were able to spend working with their counterparts on this issue. As Ambassador Des Browne remarked Thursday at the NGO Side Summit to the 2016 NSS:

“If we allow terrorists to get their hands on nuclear or radiological materials, the effects will be seismic – and the damage won’t discriminate based on where the terrorists got the materials. It will be a collective failure, and we will all suffer consequences.”

The challenge of preventing nuclear and radiological terrorism, therefore, requires both regional and international collaboration. In 2014, SAV author Muhammad Hashmi presented a dire view of South Asian vulnerability to nuclear terror. At the NSS, President Obama also expressed concern relevant to South Asia:

“Nuclear arsenals are expanding in some countries with more small tactical nuclear weapons which could be at greater risk of theft.”

“The other area where I think we’d need to see progress is Pakistan and India, that subcontinent, making sure that as they develop military doctrines that they are not continually moving in the wrong direction.”

Last week the NGO Summit, Solutions for a Secure Nuclear Future, featured leaders in the field speaking on ways to tackle nuclear security challenges around the world. Ambassador (retd) Kenneth Brill highlighted the lack of international mechanisms to improve global nuclear security arrangements as threats develop and change, highlighting the International Convention on Nuclear Security he proposed last year. Ambassador Rafael Mariano Grossi lamented that while the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has the institutional capacity to work on nuclear security, it is often unable to do so because of challenges presented by:

  • Creating new international norms
  • The gap between nations that participate in the NSS and member sates of the IAEA
  • State hesitancy to allow the IAEA to truly play a leading coordinator role in a national context

Another speaker, Elena Sokova, Deputy Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, underlined the urgency of reducing civilian Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) through Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) conversion. The 2016 NSS included a ‘gift basket’ for reducing civilian HEU. SAV author Dr. Rizwana Abbasi, details the importance of gift baskets as a method of calling attention to successes. At the NGO Summit, however, Sokova voiced concern over South Asian participation in the HEU Minimization ‘gift basket’:

“I’m not sure what we will hear from other holders, particularly countries like Pakistan, India, and some other countries with stocks of HEU…Hopefully some countries will change their mind and join.”

India and Pakistan, as it turned out, did not sign on to the HEU Minimization gift basket as of the writing of this article.

Another session of the Summit addressed the murky world of securing military materials, which are monitored on a national but not international level. Andrew Bieniawski of the Nuclear Threat Initiative recommended publishing accident and security incident investigations to prevent similar mistakes by other nations. However, Bieniawsk observes that this proposal presents a unique challenge because:

“83% of weapon-usable nuclear materials worldwide…are held by just nine nations’ militaries.”

Naeem Salik, of the Center for International Strategic Studies, made it clear that he believed no country would follow any institutional standard that was not wholly voluntary. He further suggested that ‘gift basket’ initiatives and international security standard commitments in general would be more effective if not made public. After the summit, experts would like to see the United States lead in a set of international standards when managing its own military materials. Speakers emphasized that Confidence Building Measures could occur without a level of transparency that exposed classified material or compromised security, but allowed for information sharing on excess material disposal.

Naeem Salik chose to focus the beginning of his talk on the importance of voluntary national commitments. SAV expert contributor Dr. Rajeswari Rajagopalan, however, posits that international agreements are a more effective method than bilateral agreements. Confidence Building Measures seem to be crucial to all analysis. Another SAV author, Dr. Arun Viswanathan, advocated the importance of bilateral agreements, proposing cooperation on cybersecurity measures between the United States and India. These bilateral agreements, assured by measures to protect sensitive data, would strengthen more universal confidence building actions.

SAV Junior Editor Mariah Hays helped coordinate a breakout session of Summit attendees on “Controlling and Minimizing Radioactive Sources” that diverged from the specific discussion on the potential of nuclear terrorism to focus on materials management. Christopher Hobbs of King’s College London and Ioanna Iliopulos of NTI discussed their briefing on the broader lack of security structure protecting open (non-government) radiological sources from mismanagement. They point out:

“Considerably more prevalent than nuclear materials, radioactive sources are used throughout the world for medical, industrial, agricultural, research and other purposes.”

The briefing outlined opportunities for enhancing radiological source security including strengthening international and national frameworks, bolstering private sector education and training, and using alternative technologies in place of radioactive materials. One of the key issues in radiological safety is the variety with which these materials are treated from country to country. SAV Winter 2016 Visiting Fellow Aditi Malhotra suggests India’s handling of radiological materials contributes to its low scores on nuclear materials management, leaving room for improvement.

The NGO Side Summit constituted a key organizational engagement with the NSS, bridging the gap as both government and nongovernmental stakeholders pursue a path towards a more secure future. Each individual speaker represented an organization that has a dynamic effect on nuclear security. With the conclusion of the NSS process under President Obama, the international community’s reliance on the critical work on nuclear security by NGOs will grow.

-Mariah Hays and Hannah Haegeland


Posted in , CBMs, Cybersecurity, Fissile Material, IAEA, Nuclear Safety, Nuclear Security, Nuclear Security Summit 2016

SAV editorial staff

SAV editorial staff

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