President Barack Obama will host a two-day global summit on nuclear security in Washington, D.C., this week after terrorist attacks in Belgium reinvigorated concerns about nuclear weapons and terrorist groups.
The White House has made nuclear security a central part of its security policy since 2009, when President Obama discussed nuclear security during a speech in Prague.
Despite Obama’s longstanding emphasis on nuclear security policy and securing potentially dangerous nuclear materials, critics claim that the world has made little progress on the latter goal.
According to the Nuclear Threat Institute, a nuclear proliferation watchdog, “The Nuclear Security Summits have had a positive effect, but the strategic goal of developing an effective global nuclear security system remains unachieved.”
Gary Samore of the Brookings Institution and Harvard University’s Belfer Center told the Christian Science Monitor by phone that prior summits had largely accomplished the goals they set out to accomplish.
“Most of the steps that were possible,” said Dr. Samore, “have already been taken. There is not much else Obama can do.”
The White House on Wednesday issued a fact sheet on the Obama administration’s nuclear security accomplishments. This week’s nuclear security summit is just one of four such meetings that Obama has attended throughout his administration.
The other three meetings saw dozens of world powers agree to more than 260 nuclear security commitments, including pledges on information and transportation security for nuclear materials, among others.
With these commitments, the White House says that achievements include a decline in the number of facilities with nuclear material, the elimination of nuclear material from some countries altogether, and tightened security at borders and nuclear sites.
According to Samore, most of the loose ends in the world nuclear security sphere can now be attributed to international terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State rather than governmental actors.
“We know that terrorist organizations have the desire to get access to these materials, and their desire to have a nuclear device,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, to reporters. “That was certainly the case with al Qaeda, and that is certainly the case with ISIL as well.”
Samore told the Monitor that this summit will issue work plans for follow up steps that world organizations can take to buffer security, including plans for organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and Interpol.
Samore’s fellow Belfer Center professor Matthew Bunn told the Monitor that the summit aims to answer the question of what will fill the gap left by the conclusion of the global summit series. The summit will also result in group and national commitments, as well as completion announcements.
Meanwhile, despite the importance of continuing discussions about the issue of security, one key player is missing out on the opportunity to attend this week. Russia, though interested in nuclear security issues, is boycotting the summit because of the conflict in Ukraine.
According to Bunn, Russia has become uncooperative in nuclear security matters.
Critics of the summits say that nuclear materials are still vulnerable to theft. Others say that many countries have not taken appropriate steps to secure their reactors against cyberattack.
The most recent terrorist attack in Brussels, Belgium, also ratcheted up security fears that terrorists could acquire material to create nuclear “dirty bombs.”
As far back as November, 2015, Belgian police found that the same group involved in the Paris attacks had been monitoring Belgian nuclear sites and the locations of nuclear materials.
Officials have also revealed that some of the terrorists involved in the Brussels attacks had also filmed Belgium’s top nuclear scientist, heightening concerns that ISIS may try to develop a nuclear weapon.
Dr. Matthew Bunn told the Monitor by phone that despite critics’ fears, “If you look across the spectrum, you see the progress we have made from 9/11 to 2012 has slowed, but there is still progress to be made at this summit.”
Currently, President Obama and other world leaders are taking part in bilateral meetings about a range of security issues, not limited to nuclear security, says Samore.