Q&A: Matthew Bunn on the Nuclear Security Summit

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(Pool/Getty)

As the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit approaches, real questions about what comes next in the effort to better secure fissile materials worldwide Remain.

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The final Nuclear Security Summit, aimed at securing nuclear materials around the world against terrorists and other threatening actors takes place March 31–April 1 in Washington, DC. With the Obama administration’s tenure winding down, there is widespread agreement that the president’s initiative, launched in 2010, has led to significant progress and an important increase in global awareness of the problem. But when President Obama leaves office in January 2017, there are real questions about whether the patchwork global nuclear security architecture will be able to ensure that the progress to date is sustained and that other outstanding issues will be tackled in future initiatives.

Matthew Bunn is a Professor of Practice at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and runs the university’s Project on Managing the Atom. He spoke with Michael Moran, a Carnegie Corporation Visiting Media Fellow for International Peace and Security, about the way forward.

Matthew, this is the last in a series of nuclear security summits. It was an initiative of the Obama administration and had not necessarily been on the front burner. Some progress has been made but what would you see as a good ending for this summit process?

The goal has to be to establish an effective continuing dialogue on next steps in nuclear security.
— Mathew Bunn

The goal has to be to establish an effective continuing dialogue on next steps in nuclear security.

Globally, we need to get on a path toward continued improvement toward excellence in nuclear security. And there’s a danger that when we’re not meeting at the summit anymore, if we don’t have effective processes for continuing to discuss this at reasonably high levels, we’ll end up instead on a path that leads to a slow decay of what we’ve already accomplished. The summit is going to lay out action plans for five particular institutions that already exist. This includes the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations, and several others. Whether those can assume the entire burden that had been borne by the summit process is unclear. There will be a big gap that something needs to fill when these summits are no longer taking place. They have been quite successful in raising the issue to the level of presidents and prime ministers; before, it was generally handled at the level of deputy office directors buried deep in a national bureaucracy. The summits created a forcing event where you could make things happen faster because leaders wanted to have something to announce at the summit. They also created a process in which reasonably senior officials—the summit Sherpas—talked to each other between summits, and somewhat surprisingly, they created interagency processes within countries. Often when preparing their presidents and prime ministers for the summit, agencies within countries were talking to each other in a way that wasn’t previously happening. So figuring out ways to replace or at least retain parts of all these different aspects of what the summit has been doing is going to be the great challenge of the last summit.

Has the public and political elite in the United States become somewhat complacent about the threat of nuclear terrorism following the death of Osama bin Laden and the morphing of the terrorist threat via the Islamic State (IS) into something that might look a bit more tactical?

Yes, I think growing complacency is a problem. I think the summit process has been successful in building broader consensus around the world that nuclear terrorism is a real threat to all countries. But that’s not universally accepted yet. There seem to be a lot of people who think, ”Oh, those nuclear efforts al-Qaida made long ago are irrelevant to today’s terrorism problem.” I just don’t think that’s true. If you look at the incredibly quick rise of the IS, it tells you that our ability to predict what terrorists will be doing in three, four, or five years is very limited. It may be that counterterrorism efforts will succeed and ten years from now we’ll have a much more limited terrorist threat, or it may be that IS morphs into something that poses an even larger and far more strategic threat.

If you look at IS today, we don’t have any publicly available evidence that they’re pursuing a nuclear weapon. But they have an apocalyptic ideology that calls for a final total war between Islam and the so-called “crusader forces,” which of course refers to the West and the United States in particular. And they presume they’re going to win that total war. Presumably for that purpose, you would need very powerful weapons. If IS did turn toward nuclear weapons, they have more money, more people, more territory under their control, and more ability to recruit globally than al-Qaida ever had. Yet al-Qaida had a more serious nuclear weapons effort than most people realize. It proceeded as far as carrying out crude conventional weapons explosives tests for their nuclear weapons program in the desert of Afghanistan. They were crude but technically sensible for the level or resources that al-Qaida had. Unfortunately, this is a problem that will be with us for as long as terrorists bent on mass destruction and the essential elements of a nuclear weapon exists on Earth at the same time.

There’s widespread agreement that the summit process has resulted in progress but how do we sustain this momentum once President Obama, who launched the initiative, leaves office in January 2017?

I remain hopeful that if this final summit does its job, we’ll be able to fill most of the gap left by the end of the summits and sustain a substantial amount of momentum going forward. There is a lot that the IAEA can do. In the global initiative to combat terrorism, we should create a specific working group that’s focused on nuclear security. And there are a number of other forums where there’s more that can be done to focus attention on improving nuclear security. One of the key things on which I would like to see more effort is letting people know about the threat and the specifics of incidents that have happened. It’s remarkable how many people are completely unaware that just over a year ago there was a major case of a sabotage at a nuclear facility at a nuclear plant in Belgium. It appears this was not terrorism, but may possibly have involved a labor dispute. Many are unaware that there was an incident many years ago at another plant where an insider brought explosives into a nuclear power plant that had not yet gone online, put the explosives on top of the steel pressure head, and detonated them. Fortunately, the plant had not even been loaded with radioactive fuel. It was really more of a symbolic attack, but also a signal that a terrorist could get into such a strategic location. There are plenty more of these kinds of incidents. I think there needs to be a focused effort to put together a database of incidents and lessons learned from such events. The threat is much more real than people realize.

We need to build a strong security culture and accept that good security is not just a matter of having modern equipment in places where nuclear materials are kept. It’s about the people at the site being aware of the threat and the importance of effective security to address it.

In terms of sources—that is, the materials that might be vulnerable to a heist or illegal sale—the former Soviet arsenal was the subject of the Nunn-Lugar Act and other efforts through the years, but the U.S.-Russia relationship has soured. Similarly, the Pakistani military arsenal and its nuclear research and storage facilities has been a source of concern, and U.S.-Pakistani ties have deteriorated quite dramatically since bin Laden was found to be living just a few blocks from their national military academy. How has this geopolitical friction effected the practical effort to secure these sources?

At the end of 2014, Russia cut off all but a small portion of U.S.-Russian security cooperation, in part due to aspects of the actual process the Russians objected to, but also as a reaction to the U.S. decision to suspend bilateral nuclear energy and science cooperation as part of the sanctions prompted by Russian actions in Ukraine. U.S.-Russian tensions are now very high. But I think the reality is that Russia and the United States have the world’s largest stockpiles of materials, and the largest experiences in learning to account for those stockpiles, and we have a responsibility jointly to figure out ways to work together even in difficult periods. There’s no way we’ll ever do a Nunn-Lugar–type program again, and it’s not really appropriate anymore. Russia has the money to secure its nuclear facilities if it chooses to do so. But there’s a lot more to be done; we should be sharing best practices and doing joint R&D to develop new and cost-effective security and accounting systems. We ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time—to confront Russia where their behavior threatens U.S. interests and the stability of other countries, but also cooperate with them on areas of mutual interest as we did when we signed the nuclear proliferation deal with Iran. I will be heading to Moscow later this month for a Track 2 meeting which is exactly on the topic of what kinds of nuclear energy, nuclear security, and safety cooperation the United States and Russia should be doing again. I’m hopeful the participants will be able to nudge their respective governments back to a more sensible approach to cooperation.

What about Pakistan? This is a constant source of worry for many in counterterrorism and nuclear proliferation circles.

Pakistan combines having the world’s fastest growing nuclear stockpile with some of the world’s most capable terrorists—a nerve-jangling combination. They’ve made substantial investments in security, but those security systems face huge threats, both from outsiders and from insiders in the nuclear program. The United States has funded a major cooperation program with Pakistan, and a good deal of the highest priority work has already been done. But there’s the concern about whether all the progress will last if we’re less engaged in the future and whether we can get on a pathway focused on continued improvement toward excellence in nuclear security.

What we ultimately need is for states to agree that wherever there is a nuclear weapon or materials to make one, the area needs to be protected against the full spectrum of threats that both outsiders and insiders could pose. At a minimum, even in the safest countries, such stocks need to be protected against a modest group of well-armed, well-trained outsiders able to operate as more than one team, against an insider, or against outsiders and insiders working together. And cyber has to be a part of that in this day and age. One of the things I’ve been calling for is a political commitment for those kinds of levels of protection. During the 2014 summit, there was a commitment known as the “Strengthening Nuclear Security Implementation” initiative, where countries agreed to meet the objectives of IAEA nuclear security recommendations and accept periodic peer reviews. That was a very useful and important step, which we should build on and get more countries to join. But we still haven’t seen a commitment to address the full spectrum of plausible security threats. That’s not going to happen at this summit but in the years to come that should be a goal.

The final summit obviously cannot address every outstanding issue, so can you give me a sense of what the major outstanding issues are—beyond sustaining progress already made—going forward?

One would be an agreement to reduce the number of places where nuclear materials exist. Again, probably not at this summit, but a goal for the future should be reducing the number of places you have to secure to the absolute minimum possible. Every place where you eliminate the nuclear weapons or the weapons-usable material is one less place that could make a mistake, leaving a vulnerability that some group could exploit. It’s also one less group of insiders to worry about, and protecting fewer sites means you can get better security at a lower total cost.

One of the big announcements likely to come in the lead-up to the summit is eliminating some particularly dangerous material from a facility in Japan. One of the things that needs to be done is focusing not only on converting research reactors so they no longer need to use highly enriched uranium (HEU), but on incentives to shut down HEU-fueled reactors that are no longer needed, which in many cases may be cheaper and easier than converting reactors to low-enriched fuel.

Finally, there is the issue of plutonium. So far a lot of our effort on eliminating materials and sites with materials has focused on HEU. But there also are increasingly gigantic stockpiles of civilian plutonium. Today there is more civilian plutonium separated from spent fuel in a form that could be used for nuclear weapons than in all the world’s nuclear weapons stockpile put together. It’s an amazing statistic. So far very little is being done either to reduce those stockpiles or limit the spread of places where plutonium is being used and handled. We need some serious focus on minimizing bulk processing of plutonium and the number of locations where it exists, not just the size of the stockpiles. It turns out how many tons you have is not closely related to the risk. A building with 100 tons of plutonium doesn’t really pose any more risk of nuclear theft than a building with 10 tons. The risk really has more to do with questions such as “are you processing it in bulk and how many different places with different people are handling this stuff?” We really have to focus on how to figure out a way to minimize the civilian plutonium risk as well as on minimizing the civilian HEU risk. I think we are on a path to eventually eliminate the civilian use of HEU. Plutonium will be harder, but we need to make sure we’re on a path to ensure every aspect of that plutonium is secured and accounted for to the highest standard. 

Michael Moran is a Visiting Media Fellow and author of The Reckoning: Debt, Democracy and the Future of American Power. The opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily of the Corporation.