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The World's Nuclear Security Is Important — But Also Kind of a Pain

The 2016 Nuclear Security Summit saw leaders from more than 50 countries address a topic generally considered to be pretty important. But they have no plans to do it again.
US Secretary of Energy Dr. Ernest Moniz. (Photo by US Department of State)

The 2016 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) was an international politics extravaganza involving leaders from more than 50 countries. And it didn't make a ton of sense.

For starters, a big chunk of Washington, DC mass transit was seemingly shut down just so heads of state could announce that terrorist bad guys obtaining nuclear weapons would be bad — but Hollywood has been pointing that out for decades. And while nuclear security is apparently an extremely important issue, the NSS found it necessary to muddy the waters by discussing other nuclear issues, like how to rid the world of nuclear weapons. In addition to all that, this is apparently going to be the final summit, even though they've been held only since 2010. Did world leaders solve the scourge of nuclear terrorism last week and forget to tell everyone?


The summits kicked off as a result of a speech President Barack Obama gave in Prague in 2009. He outlined his aspirations to make the world a place free of nuclear weapons, and in the more immediate future, to get together senior leadership from around the globe to figure out how to track down, secure, and (where possible) eliminate stocks of weapons-grade nuclear material in civilian hands.

Making sure terrorists don't get nuclear bombs seems like a reasonable objective — but the NSS isn't really about nuclear weapons. Well, it is, but the participants know that terrorists with nuclear bombs are low-probability events, even if they are potentially massive in impact. The bigger concern is a radiological weapon (or dirty bomb) that would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material.

"A radiological dirty bomb is a psychological weapon and it's an economic weapon. It's not going to kill thousands of people, but it is going to contaminate pieces of economic value that will need to be rebuilt," explained Ken Luongo, currently president of the Partnership for Global Security and formerly a nonproliferation expert at the US Department of Energy.

In other words, the point of a dirty bomb isn't to kill people so much as it is to kill infrastructure and economies. No matter how many billion dollars is spent decontaminating a place, there will be those who never again trust the radiation levels. Imagine Bad Guys stick a bag with radioactive material on a subway train, contaminating an entire line and dozens of stations. At that point, the city would have to shut down a huge chunk of his public transportation system for an age, and may need to consider rebuilding the whole network.


That kind of attack could make a precarious or bad economic system an outright disaster, so the nuclear security folks feel like they're in a race against time and imagination, trying to get ahead of some clever fellow who comes up with a bright idea for which the planners were unable to prepare.

Related: Security Guard's Murder Fuels Fears That Nuclear Plants in Belgium Could Be Attacked

"The real problem is that… there are literally tens of thousands of radioactive sources that are used in medicine, energy exploration, and a variety of other applications that go missing with regularity," Luongo said. "Most of these are no bigger than your thumb."

Nor are they kept very good track of. The rules governing such radioactive sources are "a patchwork of various recommendations, guidelines, but nothing binding," said John Bernhardt, a Danish diplomat with decades of experience in various organizations dedicated to monitoring, controlling, and eliminating WMD of various sorts. "There's an obvious lack of common binding standards how one should establish and maintain their nuclear security."

There are two reasons for this. First is that nuclear stuff in general has always been a matter of sovereignty and confidentiality. Countries start getting a bit edgy when curious strangers parachute in and start asking all manner of intrusive questions about security arrangements and vulnerabilities. For its part, the NSS is simply trying to encourage some basic agreement on fundamentals, like the idea of a Design Basis Threat (DBT). The idea behind DBT is that people who own and operate nuclear facilities of whatever sort should sit down, figure out all the threats they can figure out, and determine how screwed they'd be if any came to pass.


The other reason has to do with the culture of the nuclear industry. Nuclear power folks have been aware for quite some time that screwing up with nuclear stuff is very bad news. But the difference between nuclear safety and nuclear security is that safety is, more or less, a regular challenge that you can grind away at. Over time, with experience, folks learn lessons and hammer away at the problem, much the same way that airplanes are made safer year by year. But security concerns are driven by bad people who are very persistent in their bid to be bad. Thus, the security landscape is constantly in flux.

"Nobody was thinking about nuclear security before the fall of the Soviet Union, and then for the most part, nobody was thinking about nuclear terrorism until after 9/11," Luongo said. "Let's not follow the nuclear safety historical example. Because the improvements in nuclear safety have all come after accidents. So let's not close the door after the horse is gone."

So if getting everyone on board to make sure bad guys don't get nuclear material is a necessary and good idea, why is this supposed to be the last NSS? Well, in a nutshell, it's the last one because there was never supposed to be more than one.

Related: The Nuclear Industry Says Security Is Pretty Good — But It Could Be Better

The first NSS held in 2010 was intended to be a one-time affair. But it was generally recognized to be a pretty good tool for getting people with decision-making power together to talk about important topics. Thing is, in order to get the ball rolling in the first place, "the Obama people did promise that there would be no institutionalizing coming out of the summit process," according to Luongo. So there's no organization to continue the process, and once Obama is out of office, there may not be the will to keep herding all the cats.

It's possible that the next US president will pick up the baton, but getting more than 50 heads of state together to talk about a single topic is, in diplomatic terms, super-duper hard. But so is dealing with the effects of closing the door after the horse is gone.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via Flickr