Biden must act promptly to strengthen global efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism
Renewing the New START nuclear weapons agreement with Russia before it expires in February 2021 will be an urgent priority for the Biden administration. Doing so will set the stage for managing relations with Russia — and engaging China — on nuclear arms control, and preventing states like Iran and North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons.
But states are no longer the only source of nuclear threats to the U.S. Terrorist groups also pose a credible threat of attacking the U.S. using nuclear or radiological materials. A nuclear or radiological terrorist attack in a U.S. or other major global city would have severe and possibly devastating political, security, and economic consequences for the country attacked, as well as globally. The Biden administration will have an opportunity in 2021 to re-energize global efforts to prevent nuclear and radiological terrorism, but it will need to act promptly to do so.
Lack of knowledge about weaponizing nuclear or radiological materials is no longer an impediment to nuclear terrorism, but lack of nuclear or radiological material is — but these materials are in widespread use globally for a variety of mostly peaceful purposes: 22 countries have at least one kilogram of fissile nuclear material needed for an improvised nuclear bomb, and virtually every country has radiological sources that could be used for a “dirty bomb.”
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, since 1993 there have been some 3,500 incidents of lost, stolen, or misplaced nuclear and radiological material. Reliably securing these potentially destructive materials is essential to preventing nuclear or radiological terrorism.
Recognizing that no country acting alone can protect itself from nuclear and radiological terrorism, the Obama administration launched the nuclear security summit process in 2010 to focus the world’s leaders on the need to strengthen global nuclear security. Obama’s initiative led to four summit meetings in six years and produced substantial improvements to global nuclear security awareness and practices. Nonetheless, there was still much work left to be done when Obama left office — and that remains true as Trump’s exit nears.
The most important gap in global nuclear security is that while the terrorist threat is dynamic, the nuclear/radiological security regime is essentially static. The various agreements that currently make up the regime do not require assessments of how countries are meeting their nuclear and radiological security responsibilities and obligations or provide ways to help countries that need assistance in strengthening their nuclear or radiological security. There is also no agreed mechanism for identifying and addressing updates to strengthen the regime in response to changing threats or technologies.
Fortunately, there is a new opportunity to address gaps in the nuclear security regime, but it will require a return to active international leadership on nuclear issues by the Biden administration to realize it. During the Obama administration, the United States became a party to the Amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. The Convention — the only binding international agreement on securing nuclear materials — calls for an initial conference of the over 100 member states in 2021 to review implementation of the agreement and “its adequacy in light of the then prevailing circumstances.”
This first review conference is critically important to establishing a process of periodic, member state-led substantive reviews to assess Convention implementation issues, as well as “the adequacy” of the Convention in light of evolving technologies and threats. This assessment could then be the basis for considering whether the Convention needs updating to deal with evolving challenges (i.e., “the then prevailing circumstances”). A substantive and regular review process for the Convention would not be unique for international agreements involving complex technologies and threats: the Montreal Protocol for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and the Convention on Nuclear Safety have demonstrated the value of countries assessing the effectiveness of an agreement and adapting it to deal with changing circumstances and technologies. Countries party to the Convention would drive the review process, with the International Atomic Energy Agency providing support.
The Biden administration will need to act quickly to shape the Convention’s first review conference, which, depending on the pandemic, could occur in mid-2021. Reports on preparations for the conference to date suggest a lack of ambition in harnessing it to help the nuclear security regime become as dynamic as the technologies it deals with and the terrorist threats it faces. More engaged U.S. leadership is essential to building a coalition of countries who would support developing a periodic review process that regularly assesses the Convention and related nuclear and radiological security issues and develops substantive proposals for updating the Convention to deal with changing circumstances.
In a 2017 speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, then-Vice President Biden spoke with pride about the Obama administration’s efforts to strengthen nuclear security and prevent nuclear terrorism. He was right to be proud then, but there is more work to do — and the Biden national security transition team should start now to look at what the Biden administration can do (and with whom) early in 2021 to help shape the 2021 Review Conference of the Amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials so that it leads to a process of strengthening nuclear security and preventing nuclear terrorism that is consistent with longstanding U.S. national security priorities.
Kenneth C. Brill is a retired career Foreign Service Officer who served as U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA in the George W. Bush administration and as a senior intelligence official in the Obama Administration. He was founding director of the U.S. National Counterproliferation Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (2005-2009). He was involved in international environmental issues and negotiations in both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.