Ukraine nuclear security fears were exaggerated

Ukraine got rid of its nuclear weapons in 1994. EPA/Stringer

As the curtain fell on the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit, the Dutch organisers must surely have experienced mixed emotions: relief that the summit was a success, yet frustration that media attention was diverted from the event itself.

For while some 3,000 journalists were present in The Hague for the summit, attention was focused largely on the implications of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea rather than the achievements on the nuclear security front.

Indeed Barack Obama almost seemed to admonish the assembled journalists when he claimed that he was much more concerned about the prospect of nuclear terrorism than by the threat posed by Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

But it is easy to understand why events in Ukraine have dominated coverage of the summit. Russia is a major world power and escalation of this dispute over the Crimea could have implications in a range of areas from international trade to the nuclear talks with Iran.

So what does this mean for nuclear security? Some commentators have voiced concerns that events in Ukraine could significantly undermine international nuclear security efforts, with Russia perhaps less willing to collaborate with western powers on the issue. But this seems highly unlikely.

For many years now, Russia has played a central role in the drive to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism. It is a role that is very much in keeping with its position as holder of one of the world’s largest nuclear powers. Russia’s stock of nuclear materials is second only to the United States; together they account for some 80% of the world’s fissile material.

Take nuclear security work in Ukraine itself, for example. While the former Soviet Republic is now embroiled in a bitter dispute with Russia, it was only in 2010 that Moscow helped facilitate the removal of all HEU from Ukrainian territory. Over the course of two years, some 230kg were sent to Russia to be down-blended into a form that is not weapons-usable. The process echoed a similar project in Poland in 2006.

Soviet legacy

Much of Russia’s nuclear security work is driven by its own nuclear legacy. The dissolution of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s brought a host of problems from a nuclear perspective. In rapidly changing political and economic environment, the resources supporting Russia’s nuclear enterprise were cut dramatically. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a whole range of security issues: scientists with nuclear weapons knowledge were made redundant and left struggling to survive, for example, while nuclear materials were stolen by facility personnel seeking to make ends meet.

Aware of the threats posed by sub-par security, the United States worked with Russia from the 1990s to secure nuclear materials, facilities and sensitive knowledge. Much of the work in this context came under the Soviet Threat Reduction Act of 1991, legislation sponsored by two senators, Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, although the US Co-operative Threat Reduction Programme now encompasses a wide range of initiatives.

In any case, the US and Russia have co-operated to advance nuclear security for more than two decades now and tensions over Ukraine are not likely to derail this work. Vladimir Putin shares Obama’s concerns regarding nuclear terrorism. Whether detonated in New York or Moscow, a nuclear device, however crude, would have catastrophic effects. Of course there are many barriers, technical and other, to terrorist acquisition of nuclear weapons, but the possibility cannot be discounted.

In this context, and much like US-Russian arms control during the Cold War, nuclear security will probably remain an area of co-operation that is beyond other disputes and conflicts. Russia recognises this – and it is for this reason that Putin’s absence from The Hague had little real impact on proceedings. Russia still participated and the country’s preprepared statement did not change.

What comes next?

Beyond the gathering in The Hague, work on nuclear security will continue to advance, even if relations between Moscow and the West turn frosty. The summit did not produce any major surprises; incorporating international nuclear security guidelines into national legislation and repatriating highly enriched uranium (HEU) for down-blending into a form that cannot be used in the weapons process were logical steps that built on measures agreed at the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit.

This is not to downplay the significance of the summit; more than 30 states agreed to legislate on the aforementioned guidelines, an achievement not to be sniffed at. This was a particularly important step given that there is no one, overarching nuclear security treaty or convention.

But the lack of any major surprises or unexpected declarations undoubtedly fuelled media coverage of events in Eastern Europe. The dispute over the Crimea gave journalists the sensationalist headlines they hoped for rather than the mediocre ones they expected. The slow and steady work to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism is far less sensational than the threat itself.

Ultimately, fears regarding the impact of Ukraine on nuclear security are exaggerated. While Russia’s relationship with the West may fluctuate, this will have little tangible impact on international nuclear security efforts. The need to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism is something all states can agree on.