The Nuclear Security Summit – So what happened exactly?

For months here in The Hague we’ve been hearing about the Nuclear Security Summit. The number of leaders that will be attending, where they’ll stay, how they’ll get to the World Forum, and the incredible security that has gone into the summit. Much local attention has gone to this disruption, which included shutting down the highway between Amsterdam and The Hague. But now that the NSS has been and gone, and the world’s leaders are on their way home, what was exactly going on?

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So firstly, what was the intention of the NSS? The whole concept is Barack Obama’s, who hosted the first summit in 2010 in Washington DC. He believes that nuclear terrorism is one of the greatest threats to world security, and wanted to bring countries together to discuss nuclear security. This is the third summit since he became President.

One of the things he is most concerned about, and that is up for discussion at the NSS is “security for and reduction of highly enriched uranium and plutonium”. In other words – radioactive material that could be used in a dirty bomb. A bomb like this would make a large area radioactive enough to cause mass panic and terror, making the detonation of one in a city absolutely disastrous.

Many countries therefore want more control by the International Atomic Energy Agency of how radioactive material is kept. This is especially important in countries like Russia, the world’s largest nuclear power, and a country whose nuclear security is very weak. The system hasn’t been designed to protect against terrorists or people on the inside, and seeing as many soldiers working in nuclear weapons sites are extremely badly paid, this is always a possibility.

The problem with this summit though, like any other international agreement, is the ‘lowest common denominator’ issue. This means that with so many countries trying to agree, what they all agree on will be what the least willing country will accept. For example, if with climate change Germany wants a 15% drop in emissions, the US 10% and China will only go as high as 5%, then either there is a deal without China or everyone agrees on 5%.

The NSS avoids it by what is called Gift Basket Diplomacy. This entails different groups of states finding things they can agree on, and then separately making a statement together on that. For example, a number of countries including the US and UK signed the “Enhancing the Security of the Maritime Supply Chain” Gift Basket. In this way they can ensure that at least some countries can go further than the lower common denominator.

So what actually got done? The main statement of the summit recommitted all the countries involved to continuing to improve security for nuclear material, and to allow the IAEA more power in checking up on nuclear facilities. Another important Gift Basket was that two-thirds of the countries agreed that international guidelines on nuclear material would become national law, meaning that compliance is much more certain. This is great progress, but unfortunately India, Pakistan, China and Russia didn’t sign up.

This last country also provided plenty of distractions at the summit. The NSS itself was overshadowed in the media by the steps taken against Russia. The G8 group of industrialised nations met at the summit and decided to temporarily become the G7 once again; excluding Russia for failing to keep to international law. After this it was no surprise that Russia failed to make many concrete commitments. But even without the help of the world’s largest nuclear power, the NSS at least shows that countries across the world are working together more and more, and seeing the value in cooperating on issues such as these. And that is a positive sign.

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