Nuclear Summit agenda is to ensure terrorists don't get the bomb

Non-proliferation targets states; nuclear security targets non-state actors

Updated - November 28, 2021 08:48 pm IST

Published - April 12, 2010 12:21 am IST - WASHINGTON

There is a simple way to decode the sacred words of nuclear theology. If the atomic world is divided into the ‘haves,' ‘have nots' and the ‘must not haves,' then arms control and disarmament is aimed at the first tier: those that actually possess nuclear weapons. Non-proliferation focuses on the states which do not have them and the emerging architecture of ‘nuclear security' targets those who must never have them — non-state actors and terrorists.

Limiting, reducing and eliminating the arsenals of nuclear weapon states is what the game of arms control and disarmament is all about, which is why, perhaps, there has been so little progress. Even U.S. President Barack Obama, who spoke of a nuclear weapons-free world in his Prague speech last April, added the caveat that this was unlikely to happen in his lifetime.

The have nots of the nuclear world are those who have voluntarily agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons by acceding to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty as non-nuclear weapon states. The entire system of non-proliferation is aimed at ensuring that this second tier of players in the global system remains true to its commitment. Since the NPT allows these countries to acquire and develop sensitive nuclear technologies like enrichment and reprocessing for peaceful purposes, the U.S. is trying to tighten the non-proliferation screws, but there is, as yet, no international consensus.

The Obama administration hopes to use the recent arms reduction treaty between the U.S. and Russia to make another push at the NPT review conference this summer. As non-members of the NPT, India, Pakistan and Israel used to be treated as undifferentiated members of this tier. The Indo-U.S. nuclear deal saw India being cut a lot more slack, but it still finds itself on non-proliferation target lists of one kind or another. A recent example was the 2009 G-8 ban on enrichment and reprocessing technology sales to India and other non-NPT states.

The third tier in the matrix of nuclear concerns consists of terrorists and non-state actors, who must not be allowed to have nuclear weapons under any circumstances. If non-proliferation measures are aimed at states, physical security of the kind that the April 12-13 Nuclear Security Summit is promoting is aimed directly at terrorists. The goal is to ensure they are never able to acquire, purchase or steal nuclear or radiological material from states which own or monitor stocks of such material on their territory.

There is, of course, a thin line dividing the narrow subject of physical security from the wider set of nuclear issues. If there is a danger of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, those countries which have such weapons need to discuss how to keep their arsenals secure. Sources familiar with the summit document said measures to keep assembled nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists did not form part of the agenda in the preparatory phase.

According to nuclear theology, de-alerting and de-mating weapons and warheads has to be part of a separate discussion on disarmament, which has yet to start in earnest. Thus, concerns such as Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of terrorists will be addressed only indirectly at the Washington summit, with the question rephrased to focus on the physical protection of nuclear material.

If states deliberately allow sensitive nuclear material within their jurisdiction to go to places it should not, that's proliferation and not theft. Though there is always the danger of states proliferating to non-state actors directly or via middlemen of the kind who made up the wider A.Q. Khan network, the Washington summit is unlikely directly to address state behaviour of this kind because the U.S. has already developed ad hoc arrangements like the Proliferation Security Initiative to interdict such proliferation.

What is lacking so far is a strong international focus on the physical protection of radioactive and radiological material without prejudice to the nuclear or non-nuclear weapon status of countries. In other words, even if the Pakistani government's claim about A.Q. Khan operating on his own is true, the fact that he could load sensitive nuclear material and technology on to a plane and fly out of the country undetected suggests serious shortcomings in Pakistan's system of physical security.


The 1979 International Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (ICPPNM) was the first instrument to deal with physical protection of uranium and plutonium, but only when they were in transit. In 2005, the Convention was amended to include the protection of physical facilities where such material is kept. But with only 32 countries, including India, having acceded, the Amendment has yet to enter into force.

Pakistan has not acceded, nor has the U.S. Finally, UN Security Council Resolution 1540 of 2004 obliges countries, inter alia, to develop and maintain physical protection measures for WMD items, refrain from helping non-state actors acquire or develop WMDs and to pass laws prohibiting non-state actors from doing so.

The Russian-sponsored International Convention on the Suppression of Nuclear Terrorism of 2005 has entered into force, but key states like the U.S. and Pakistan have not yet ratified it. This convention obliges state parties to make the unlawful possession of radioactive material with intent to kill, cause injury or damage a criminal offence. States are obliged to prosecute or extradite suspects and the convention rules out the “political offences exception” as a ground for refusing extradition.

The Washington summit is likely to see a call being made for wider adherence to these international instruments and guidelines. The U.S. would also like to use the summit to wean countries off Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) altogether. HEU is used across the world in research reactors as well as for the production of medical isotopes.

But the farthest the declaration is likely to go is to endorse national initiatives in this regard. The Obama administration’s inability to forge a consensus on HEU will come as a setback to its policy on Iran, given Tehran’s announcement that it is going to enrich uranium to 19.5 per cent for medical purposes.

Some analysts are uncomfortable with the summit’s compartmentalised approach to nuclear security, non-proliferation and disarmament. “One scenario that needs to be managed in particular, is that in which states might use terrorist groups to attack adversaries by proxy, ‘engineering’ nuclear security breakdowns on their own soil to facilitate terrorist access to weapons or materials,” says Ian Kearns of the British American Security Information Council.

‘Misguided attempt’

Given the linkages between nuclear security, disarmament and non-proliferation, U.S. attempts to separate the nuclear security summit from the rest of the non-proliferation and disarmament agenda are misguided, he argues in a new monograph released on the eve of the Washington meeting. But Indian officials familiar with the negotiations on the summit draft say that had these issues not been separated out, meaningful consensus would have been hard to achieve.

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