Previewing next week’s 47-nation Washington conference on nuclear security, senior National Security Council aides Gary Samore and Ben Rhodes told reporters that they expect the meeting to resolve with specific national commitments that “rally collective action behind the goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material within four years,” (in Rhodes’ words.) To get there, however, the assembled world leaders won’t try to create any new joint nuclear-security infrastructure, a move seen as a bridge too far.
Instead, Rhodes and Samore said a great deal of conference effort will concern how countries in possession of nuclear material can strengthen their civilian and military means to ensure the security of their stockpiles and prevent smuggling; strengthen their legal systems to “take action against any individuals involved in nuclear smuggling,” Samore said; and strengthen regulatory infrastructure to ensure licit activity by private firms involved in the nuclear-energy sector or other areas that touch on nuclear development. Unspecified countries will announce their own steps for nuclear security, they said, and they floated the prospect that some countries will follow Chile’s leadin handing over part or all of their weapons-grade uranium or plutonium to U.S. or international supervision. “If we’re able to lock those [materials] down and deny them to nonstate actors, then we have essentially solved the risk of nuclear terrorism,” Samore said.
But don’t expect international efforts to play anything more than a supporting role for national efforts. Samore explained that the summit won’t try and rewrite the rules of the world’s minimal nuclear security architecture or create any new supervisory body beyond the International Atomic Energy Agency. “The current structure that we have available focuses primary responsibility on national actions, and at this time, countries insist that their sovereign responsibility for securing nuclear materials, whether in the civil or military sector, is primarily a national responsibility,” Samore said. “We’re facing here an urgent need to try to take corrective measures within four years, so I think we want to focus on the system that is currently available and we think that system can be made to work. If we were to spend a lot of time trying to construct a new international architecture, I think it might actually have the unintended effect of really diverting us from taking the practical measures that we really want to take in the near term.”
So what to do about nations like Pakistan, where the world’s most dangerous private nuclear proliferation network was run by a national hero, A.Q. Khan, and when he was caught red-handed he suffered a fate no worse than house arrest without the world gaining access to him? We’ll see what the conference comes up with.