Build an Effective Global Nuclear Security System

With the end of the Nuclear Security Summit process in 2016, it is more important than ever to intensify and broaden international efforts to build an effective global nuclear security system. Among the ongoing challenges is the lack of a common set of international standards and best practices, the absence of a mechanism for holding states accountable for appropriate and effective security measures, and an incomplete legal foundation for securing materials that is neither universal nor fully implemented.

The international community has taken several steps in the right direction, including the formation of the Nuclear Security Contact Group[1] at the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, entry into force of the 2005 Amendment to the CPPNM, and the continued elimination of stocks of weapons-usable nuclear materials.


Yet the current patchwork of international initiatives for securing nuclear materials and facilities still has major gaps that prevent the system from being truly comprehensive and effective.


Among the most significant gaps: the majority of all highly enriched uranium and nearly half of all plutonium stocks are in non-civilian programs and thus remain outside international legal instruments on nuclear security.[2] Participation in international peer review—a tool for improving performance and building confidence about the effectiveness of a country’s security—or other measures to build confidence in the security of nuclear materials remains limited. Three countries with more than one kilogram of nuclear materials have not hosted an international peer review within the past five years; four have never hosted an IAEA IPPAS or Integrated Regulatory Review Service mission.[3]

To build a system that addresses such critical gaps, countries should:

  • Bolster the international legal foundation for nuclear security and take advantage of the 2021 review conference of the CPP. By adhering to and participating in international treaties and guidelines related to nuclear security, countries can reinforce their existing legal framework as part of a comprehensive global nuclear security system. The 2016 entry into force of the 2005 Amendment to the CPPNM was a positive step. Moving forward, countries should sign and ratify key treaties, voluntarily implement treaty requirements before ratification, and implement IAEA nuclear security guidance. The CPP provides a mechanism for regular review conferences to be held at intervals of at least five years, but apart from the mandatory review conference that was held five years after entry into force in 1987, the review conference mechanism has never been exercised. Now, with the 2005 Amendment to the CPPNM in force, a review conference has been scheduled for 2021, providing an important opportunity for dialogue, coordination, and progress on nuclear security. The CPP review conference provision provides the flexibility necessary to address a broad range of nuclear security topics, and it brings a broader group of countries to the conversation than just those that participated in the Nuclear Security Summits. As depositary for the CPP, the IAEA will play an important role by serving as the designated convener of review conferences and should move quickly to name a review conference president and design a robust preparatory process.The review conference mechanism will be used to good effect only if leaders opt to take full advantage of the opportunity. States should agree to hold regular review conferences every five years as a standing arrangement and should build robust, substantive review conference agendas and intersessional processes.
  • Strengthen and build confidence in the security of all materialsThe CPP, which is the primary nuclear security treaty, directly applies only to civilian nuclear materials. Countries with military nuclear materials should commit to securing them while meeting the same or higher standards as those used for peaceful activities. Those countries also should take steps to reassure others that they are securing the materials consistent at least with relevant IAEA guidelines.
  • Build international confidence in the effectiveness of nuclear security, and strengthen the IAEA’s role and capacity. Words alone are not enough to give states confidence in each other’s security practices. Countries should demonstrate their commitment to enhancing and building confidence in nuclear security by conducting international peer reviews, and nuclear suppliers should make export agreements conditional on the completion of the peer reviews and the resolution of any shortcomings identified therein.[4] Countries should declare overall quantities of materials to allow governmental and non-governmental assessments and tracking of inventories. Such declarations reassure others that materials are properly accounted for without compromising national security interests. Public release of official documents increases confidence that the basic legal and regulatory framework for nuclear security is in place. Such information can be published while protecting sensitive information and without revealing details about site-specific security measures. For example, some countries voluntarily include declarations of highly enriched uranium quantities alongside figures of civilian plutonium in their annual reports.[5]The IAEA plays a key role and must be strengthened to enhance its resources for nuclear security risk management. A number of resources are available to countries, such as the Nuclear Security Series recommendations and guidance; IAEA review missions, training programs, and workshops; and the Nuclear Security Conferences (held every three years). Countries should support the IAEA by providing human and financial resources, as well as providing necessary political support for the IAEA to intensify its work with member states to strengthen nuclear security. Countries also should make voluntary commitments, such as contributing to the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Fund and the World Institute for Nuclear Security or participating in the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism or the Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. Participating in training and workshops to share best practices, hosting a Center of Excellence or Nuclear Security Training and Support Center for nuclear security training, and providing and accepting bilateral or multilateral assistance further demonstrate a commitment to improving security and participating in a strengthened global system. By taking voluntary measures and publishing information about those activities, countries can build confidence in the effectiveness of their security.

Secretary General Amano accepting treaty language. Photo courtesy of IAEA


[1] The Nuclear Security Contact Group was established to facilitate cooperation and sustain nuclear security progress.

[2] The total quantities of military materials are difficult to estimate. According to the figures collected for the NTI Index, approximately 90 percent of all highly enriched uranium globally and 40 percent of plutonium is outside of civilian control.

[3] The three countries that have not hosted a review of their security arrangements in the past five years are Iran, Kazakhstan, and the Netherlands. India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan have never hosted a review. International peer review is a powerful tool for improving security performance and for building others’ confidence in a state’s commitment to continued improvement. States can further build other governments, and stakeholders’ confidence in their nuclear security practices by publishing the results of the review while redacting sensitive information. Regular participation in peer reviews will require international investment in the IAEA, which plans to expand its advisory capabilities.

[4] Some states already have shared the full or partial results of peer reviews with suppliers as a confidence-building effort.

[5] Pursuant to the Guidelines for the Management of Plutonium, IAEA INFCIRC 549.