The Nuclear Security Summit

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Overview of the four Security Summits


Four Nuclear Security Summits have been convened since 2010. This article offers a brief overview of the background and outcomes of the summits of 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016.


In April 2009, in Prague, US President Barack Obama reiterated his country’s support for the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. In the speech he called for securing all vulnerable nuclear materials across the world within four years as one of several steps to reach this goal. Per 2012, there were over 2000 tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) in civilian and military use in dozens of countries. According to the IAEA, 16 incidents involving trafficking of HEU and plutonium (fissile materials needed to make nuclear weapons) were reported between 1993 and 2005. Securing such nuclear materials is of high importance to prevent non-state actors from gaining access to these resources and reduce the risks of nuclear terrorism.


On 12–13 April 2010, US President Barack Obama hosted a Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC to address the threat of nuclear terrorism by enhancing international cooperation to secure all weapons-useable nuclear material. The Summit took place just a few days after the New START treaty was signed by the United States and Russia and only weeks before the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. President Obama invited 46 nations to participate as well as the heads of the United Nations (UN), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the European Union. The participating countries were chosen according to a range of characteristics including their influence on nuclear security in general. Heads of state or government represented 38 of the national delegations, making the gathering the largest of its kind hosted by a US President since 1945.

A number of bilateral and multinational initiatives, international agreements, and UN Security Council resolutions have been adopted to address nuclear security issues, especially since the 1990s. These include the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Zangger Committee, UN Security Council Resolution 1540, and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.

The 2010 Nuclear Security Summit concluded with a Communiqué – a high-level political statement by the leaders from all of the national delegations present at the Summit – to strengthen nuclear security and reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism, embracing the goal of securing all weapons-grade plutonium and uranium world-wide within four years. The Summit also agreed on a Work Plan, which lays out specific steps for realizing the goals of the Communiqué, including ratifying and implementing treaties on nuclear security and nuclear terrorism, converting civilian facilities that use highly enriched uranium to non-weapons-usable materials, reviewing national regulatory and legal requirements relating to nuclear security and nuclear trafficking, working with the IAEA to update and implement security guidance, and implementing UN Security Council resolution 1540 (2004). Resolution 1540 establishes for the first time binding obligations on all UN member states to take and enforce measures against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, their means of delivery, and related materials. It addresses first and foremost the threat posed by nuclear terrorism conducted by non-state actors. In addition to the Communiqué and the Work Plan, 29 countries announced specific measures they had taken or planned to take to support the goals of the summit.


On 26–27 March 2012, a second Nuclear Security Summit was held in Seoul, South Korea. More than 50 heads of state and international organizations participated, and, as agreed at the 2010 Summit, INTERPOL was added to the group of participants. Progress on the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit Work Plan and the status of individual country commitments were discussed. Other main issues discussed at the Summit were cooperative measures to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism, protection of nuclear materials and related facilities, and the prevention of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials. The Summit also served as a forum for discussing the relationship between nuclear security and nuclear safety, which has received renewed attention in light of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident.

The 2012 Nuclear Security Summit concluded with a Communiqué, and renewed the commitment to the Work Plan from the 2010 Summit without major changes. It was agreed that the next Nuclear Security Summit would take place in the Netherlands in 2014.


The third Nuclear Security Summit was held in The Hague, the Netherlands, on march 24 and 25, 2014. 53 countries and four observing organizations (the EU, the IAEA, the INTERPOOL, and the UN) participated. Since the Seoul Summit, several member states had reduced their stocks of HEU, equivalent of approximately 500 nuclear weapons in total, which had been down-blended to low enriched uranium (LEU). Other countries reported that they were in the process of removing all HEU from their territory, or had already done so. During the summit, a gift basket (i.e. non-consensus decision) on Strengthening Nuclear Security was introduced and signed by 35 states. Signing to the document implies a commitment to pass – or ensure the adequacy of existing– nuclear security laws.

The 2014 summit concluded with another Communique, through which leaders committed to further reduction of HEU stockpiles. 33 countries committed to fully implement UNSC Resolution 1540, and undertake to develop a national action plan. Further, it was agreed that the next Nuclear Security Summit would take place in the United States in 2016. The major themes set to be discussed at the 2016 Summit include (1) reducing the amount of dangerous nuclear material in the world and (2) strengthening nuclear security.

The summits have been a welcome addition to the international security architecture, but as long as the summits remain political forums without the possibility to disseminate legally binding decisions their effects will be limited. Another weakness of the summits is that only a limited number of (disproportionately Western) countries are invited to participate.


Between 31 March and 1 April 2016, representatives of 52 states met for the final meeting of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC. Russia, which had attended the three preceding meetings, boycotted the last installation. The Summit produced five action plans and hortatory statements on a range of topics related to nuclear security – from implementation of UN Resolution 1540 to INTERPOL’s role in countering nuclear threats. Efforts were also made to address cyber threats in the nuclear field. While the summits have fallen short of eliminating all civilian stockpiles of highly enriched uranium (HEU), 29 states have agreed to completely eliminate their stockpiles. The conference produced a Final Communiqué that reaffirmed “[the states’] shared goals of nuclear disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation and peaceful use of nuclear energy”, as well as continued international cooperation in other forums.