Global summits on nuclear security: achievements, challenges, prospects

The necessity to respond to current challenges induces international community to improve available and search new instruments of cooperation aimed at increasing the international safety level. New instruments in this sphere obviously include global summits on nuclear security commenced in 2010 on the US initiative. The first two summits, in Washington (2010) and Seoul (2012), went down in history. At the summit in The Hague (the Netherlands) on 24-25 March 2014, national leaders, heads of governments and heads of international organizations discussed issues related to combating nuclear terrorism.


Washington Summit (12-13 April 2010)

The mechanism of summits at the highest political level allowed achieving significant progress in specific spheres of nuclear security, but also revealed serious drawbacks typical of such international policy instruments. Inadequate efficiency of this mechanism convinced most experts that the summit scheduled for 2016 would be the last event in this format.

Washington Summit (12-13 April 2010)

The Washington Summit was the largest meeting of heads of states and governments, as well as international organizations since the international conference in 1945 (San Francisco) where the UN was created. The White House invited 47 countries and three international organizations (UN, EU and IAEA). Laura Holgate, Senior Director for Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism, Administration of the US President, explained the choice of Summit participants as follows:

We couldn’t invite every single country that has any nuclear connectivity, and so we were looking for countries that represented regional diversity where we had states that had weapons, states that didn’t have weapons, states with large nuclear programs, and small with small nuclear programs. [1]

According to Trevor Findlay, a UN delegate and expert of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, 38 (81%) of the 47 invited states were represented by heads of states or governments [2].

Barack Obama, the US President, pointed out the new nature of nuclear threat [3]:

Two decades after the end of the Cold War, we face a cruel irony of history – the risk of a nuclear confrontation between nations has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up… In short, it is increasingly clear that the danger of nuclear terrorism is one of the greatest threats to global security – to our collective security.

The main objective of the Washington Summit was to involve world leaders to ensure security of all vulnerable nuclear materials in the world to decrease the threat of nuclear terrorism during the next four years.

With this goal, the Summit participants defined a system of principles and priorities formulated in the final document of the Summit, Washington Communiqué [4], in the form of political commitments accepted at the highest level.

The participants adopted the Work Plan of the Washington Nuclear Security Summit [5], which included a list of specific technical measures within the areas set in the Communiqué.

Participation in the Summit stimulated voluntary acceptance of national commitments to support the event goals by a majority of member states. 29 member states, including Ukraine, and the IAEA undertook specific obligations aimed at countering nuclear terrorism.

Ukraine’s decision to get rid of all highly enriched uranium (HEU) within its territory till the next summit became an outstanding event that led to general positive evaluation of nuclear security summits.

Besides, it was decided in Washington that the next summit would be held in 2012 in Seoul (Republic of Korea).

Seoul Summit (26-27 March 2012)

The second summit of the world leaders devoted to combating nuclear terrorism also became an outstanding event in the sphere of global safety. The government of the Republic of Korea met leaders from 53 states and heads of four international organizations. Compared with the first summit, the Seoul Summit additionally involved heads of states and governments of Azerbaijan, Gabon, Denmark, Lithuania, Romania and Hungary, and the Secretary General of Interpol.

Despite broad representation, the Seoul Summit may be considered intermediate, as one of its main tasks was to evaluate the progress reached in implementation of the Communiqué and Work Plan of the Washington Summit, as well as corresponding national commitments.

The Seoul Summit agenda was influenced by the dramatic events at Fukushima Daiichi (Japan) in 2011, especially since the date of the summit was nearly the same as the anniversary of the tragedy. Although catastrophic natural phenomena revealed serious drawbacks in ensuring NPP nuclear safety under natural hazards, the scale and complex nature of the damage and failure of almost all Fukushima NPP safety systems challenged NPP nuclear security as well. Thus, the issue of synergy between nuclear safety and nuclear security was reflected in the Summit program and documents.

According to expert analysis of how states and international organizations fulfill their commitments, almost 80% out of the scheduled measures had been completed before March 2012 [6].

The contribution made by Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Ukraine and Chile is the most important, as these countries ensured measures on minimization of highly enriched uranium in the civilian sector.

Other events recorded on the same day are as follows:

  • ratification of Amendment 2005 to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (19 countries) and ratification of the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (12 countries);
  • joining the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (6 countries);
  • contributions to IAEA Nuclear Security Fund (18 countries and EU);
  • creation of 12 national and regional centers for advanced experience and support of nuclear security.

The Seoul Communiqué [7] was adopted during the Summit. It is based on the priority system established by Washington Summit 2010. Document defined 11 priority areas of activity and principles to combat nuclear and radiation terrorism hazards, namely:

  • creation of nuclear security global architecture;
  • improvement of the IAEA role;
  • security of nuclear materials;
  • security of radioactive sources;
  • nuclear security and nuclear safety;
  • physical protection during transportation;
  • countering illicit trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive materials;
  • nuclear forensics;
  • security culture;
  • informational safety;
  • international cooperation in the sphere of security.

The Seoul Summit was peculiar in that only the Seoul Communiqué was accepted by all participants. 12 more multilateral statements on different aspects of nuclear security were made public during the Summit and the largest number of signatures were collected by statements on: security of information on nuclear issues (signed by 31 states); set of national laws on nuclear security (25 states); centers for training and support in the sphere of nuclear security (24 states, including Ukraine).

Leaders of states, heads of governments and international organizations decided to carry out the next summit in 2014 in the Netherlands.

The Hague Summit (24-25 March 2014)

During the nuclear security summit in the Hague (Netherlands), 58 world leaders who represented 53 countries and four international organizations (EU was represented by heads of the European Commission and EU Council) [8] approved specific agreements aimed at preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear materials that could be used in nuclear weapons.

It should be pointed out that the event was held during acute military and political crisis in Russian-Ukrainian relationships caused by occupation of the Crimea by the Russian Federation that was condemned by the majority of world community members. These events influenced the Summit and induced a series of discussions devoted to the crisis. In The Hague many leaders pointed out that the events in the Crimea seriously challenged the international peace and safety. Besides, only Ministers of Foreign Affairs represented Ukraine and Russia in The Hague, unlike previous summits.

Barack Obama, the US President, appealed to Mark Rutte, Prime Minster of the Netherlands and the summit host, and stated the following on the progress in ensuring nuclear security:

I convened the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington four years ago because I believed that we need a serious and sustained global effort to deal with one of the greatest threats to international security – and that’s the specter of nuclear terrorism. We made further progress at our second summit in Seoul. And under your Prime Minister’s stewardship, we’ve built on that progress here. In keeping with the spirit of these summits, this was not about vague commitments; it was about taking tangible and concrete steps to secure more of the world’s nuclear material so it never falls into the hands of terrorists.

Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, summarized the summit results and pointed out that greater attention would be paid to threats related to radioactive materials:

The scale of panic and fear a dirty bomb would cause doesn’t bear thinking about, not to mention the possible disruption to society. So I’m especially pleased that we are widening the scope of the NSS process to include this area.

The Summit resulted in the approved Communiqué [9]. This document expands the decisions accepted during the previous meetings in Washington (2010) and Seoul (2012) and performed with the Washington Work Plan.

In general, the Summit participants confirmed their commitment to common objectives of nuclear disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation and peaceful use of nuclear energy.

According to the Communiqué, the summit was focused on strengthening nuclear security and preventing terrorists and other criminals from acquiring nuclear materials that can be used in nuclear weapons and other radioactive materials that could be used in radiological dispersal devices with a dirty bomb among them.

Underlining connection of the Hague Summit with previous meetings, leaders of member states noted with satisfaction that most of the commitments made in Washington and Seoul were fulfilled and stated that continuous efforts were needed to achieve goals defined at the beginning of the process:

  • decrease of hazardous nuclear materials (highly enriched uranium and plutonium) which may be used in nuclear weapons;
  • improvement of security level of radioactive materials (including low-enriched uranium) which may be used for production of the dirty bomb;
  • improvement of international information exchange and international cooperation.

The Hague Summit Communiqué included new commitments based on results of previous summits in Washington and Seoul in order to achieve set objectives.

Participants of the Summit in the Hague Communiqué confirmed fundamental provision on responsibility of national governments for security of all nuclear and other radioactive materials under their jurisdiction and pointed out the need to strengthen and improve coordination of international cooperation in this sphere. The IAEA and other intergovernmental organizations and international instruments should contribute a lot to these tasks.

The Summit Communiqué also includes paragraphs with support of national governments in their efforts to:

  • improve security culture and countering nuclear terrorism;
  • exchange of information on the best experience at national and international levels;
  • develop networks for training of experts in this sphere.

The main Summit document includes a section related to measures and principles aimed at creation of strengthened and comprehensive international nuclear security architecture. The document names the Convention of the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and its Amendment 2005, the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, and international organizations (first of all, the IAEA and the UN) and multilateral initiatives (the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction).

The Communiqué focuses on the role of the IAEA, its documents, recommendations, guides and advisory missions in this sphere. The role of the IAEA will be crucial in the years ahead that would require increase of financial support of its activity through the Nuclear Security Fund.

The Summit participants mentioned resolution 1540 of the UN Security Council among international instruments and the importance of timely and regular reporting according to provisions of this legally binding document.

Special section of the Communiqué is devoted to measures performed on the voluntary basis. The document recommends a range of measures that might be considered by national governments.

According to the main objectives of summits, the Hague Communiqué gives details on common measures which should be aimed at ensuring security of nuclear and other radioactive materials. The document stresses on attention that should be paid to high-enriched uranium and plutonium, decrease of their amounts to the minimally possible level. Concerning radioactive sources, the communiqué recommends implementation of the IAEA Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources and Nuclear Security Series.

Specific provisions of the Hague Communiqué focus attention to following areas:

  • interaction of nuclear security and nuclear safety;
  • specific role and main responsibility of nuclear industry in implementation of relevant measures;
  • state and private partnership on nuclear security;
  • ensuring information and cyber security in nuclear sphere, protection of critical information infrastructure;
  • countering illicit trafficking of nuclear and other radioactive materials;
  • development nuclear forensics.

Several brief, but very important issues of the Hague Communiqué are devoted to the future mechanism of nuclear security summits. They highlight importance to continue and strengthen measures in this area, including in the frameworks of international measures where leading role, obviously, should be given to the IAEA. Besides, the document states that the next summit will be held in 2016 in the USA.

Advantages, drawbacks and related perspectives for summits

New mechanism of nuclear security summits, commenced by the US President, plays a great role in decrease of risks related to hazards of nuclear terrorism. The mechanism has some weaknesses which limit its efficiency and influence on its further perspectives.

Generic features typical for such instrumentation mostly specify advantages and drawbacks of the mechanism of global nuclear security summits, which could be referred to so-called “soft” political instruments.

Positive characteristics of the summit mechanism include its efficiency for early response to changes in the safety sphere. This may be illustrated by time spent to prepare and carry out the first summit: in April 2009, Barack Obama during his speech in Prague announced on the nuclear security summit in Washington in 2010, and in a year this grand event was successfully carried out. There issues on countering nuclear terrorism were put on the highest political level.

Advantages of the mechanism also include flexibility of approaches to preparation and holding of summits. In particular, the mechanism uses institute of “sherpas”, officials who are assigned by each government and they regularly gather to meetings for preliminary thorough examination of event program and documents.

Such intensive preparatory efforts allow considering relevant events and facts that affect security of nuclear materials, for example, such as the Fukushima accident. The inclusion of information and cyber security to the list of priority activities is another example.

Besides, the summit mechanism stimulated states and international organizations for voluntary acceptance of commitments on improving security of nuclear materials and nuclear facilities.

Considering drawbacks of the summit mechanism, attention should be paid to the fact that the White House initially had not planned to continue the initiative of Barack Obama beyond 2014, since summits should not replace current instruments of international policy, in particular, the IAEA activity. However, the scheduled measures were implemented only partially due to specific drawbacks and obstacles typical of this type of political instruments, namely:

  • voluntary nature of undertaking commitments on nuclear security by participants;
  • only political responsibility if such commitments are not met;
  • difficulty in implementation of international regulations on nuclear security within the summit mechanism.

Listed drawbacks are enhanced by problems related to assessment of risks and nuclear terrorism hazards that is not fully in compliance with change of safety conditions.

In fact, for example, Marks Hibbs, leading expert of the Fund, names an obstacle to implement international standards on nuclear safety, namely “lack of major concern on the part of many governments about the risk of a nuclear terrorist attack, when they can cite the lack of any nuclear terrorism incident as evidence that current efforts are sufficient” [10].

It is difficult not to agree with such a point of view, especially considering that in comparison to primitive nuclear explosive, production of the so-called dirty bomb is not a big problem.

Restrained attitude to taking specific commitments on security of nuclear materials related to the threat of nuclear terrorism is explained by William Tobey, famous American analyst, who pointed out “an apparently widespread view among leaders that, while nuclear security is an important issue in general, it is not sufficiently dire for any of them to acknowledge it as a problem in his or her own country [11].

Sharon Squassoni, famous American expert of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, names drawbacks of the summit mechanism and draws attention to vague statements of the summit documents. Squassoni states that the word “to encourage” occurs in the Communiqué 28 times.

Optional development of provisions of the main documents and voluntary character of national commitments lead to, on the one hand, impossibility to implement formalized approach to assess performance of national measures within the summit mechanism and, on the other hand, to possibility to take such commitments in extremely wide interval: from major events to efforts on ratification of this or that international document. As a result, some foreign experts assess progress in the so-called HEU “global cleanout” and point out that about a half of the total HEU reduction was ensured due to performance of commitment only by Ukraine [12].

Several words about the place and role of Ukraine in nuclear security improvement

The role of our country in efforts on improving the global nuclear security level cannot be overestimated. It is mentioned above that Ukraine made a major contribution to the reduction of global nuclear terrorism threats. The summit mechanism was considered successful because Ukraine fulfilled its commitments on removal of HEU from the entire territory.

Having removed HEU, Ukraine was transferred to safer part of the list in the International Rate – NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index [13]. Ukraine has joined countries that do not own such materials or whose general amount does not exceed 1 kg. It holds position 23 (together with the United Arab Emirates) out of 151 countries where nuclear security was assessed. Our state obtains leading position by indices of categories “supporting global regulations and standards” and “national capacity” in the view of security of nuclear materials and nuclear facilities, but in category “risk environment” which includes indicators considering corruption level in the state, political stability, state management quality, Ukraine received low grades. Considering assessments of international experts, it can be concluded that future success of our country in the sphere of security of nuclear materials and nuclear facilities will depend on joint efforts of Ukraine in reforming state administration and public relationships.


Reference information from editors:

  • Natural uranium consists of 99.27% U-238, 0.72% U-235 and 0.0055% U-234.
  • Highly enriched uranium includes 20% or more of U-235, or U-233, or their mixture. This uranium may be used in nuclear weapons, but on condition that it is enriched by more than 90% with U-235, which is approximately by 25–100 times higher than in reactor fuel.
  • Low-enriched uranium contains less than 20% of U-235, or U-233, or their mixture. Low-enriched uranium containing from 2% to 5% U-235 is used for NPP fuel production.
  • Depleted uranium includes lower percentage of U-235 compared to natural uranium. Depleted uranium is used for claddings of nuclear bombs and as nuclear fuel for multistage hydrogen bombs.
  • During 2012, 5839 million tons of uranium were mined. According to the World Nuclear Association, demands for uranium will significantly increase by 2030 and will reach 119,000 tons. To compare, current demand makes 62,000 tons.
  • According to the IAEA, 25 kg of highly enriched U-235 (more than 90%) is needed to create an efficient model of nuclear bomb.


  2. Trevor Findlay, Beyond Nuclear Summitry: The Role of the IAEA in Nuclear Security Diplomacy After 2016
  8. NSS 2014: Heads of Delegations,
  9. The Hague Nuclear Security Summit Communiqué,
  11. William Tobey, Planning for Success at the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, June 2011.
  12. “Summit success over-Seoul-ed”, Arms Control NOW, Arms Control Association blog, April 11, 2012,
  13. NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index,

Serhiy Kondratov, Senior Researcher of the National Institute for Strategic Studies, 05/04/2014