This week, Washington is playing host to the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit, NSS for short. And if the traffic jams, pedestrian barriers, and bar tabs are anything to go by, it's a big deal.
On the face of it, the NSS is pretty straightforward. President Barack Obama has once again invited numerous heads of state, top bureaucrats, and countless legions of flunkies to descend on some lucky city, as they've done every two years since 2010, to remind each other that it would be a really, really bad thing if terrorists got nukes, dirty bombs, or just about anything that glows in the dark.
This is supposed to be the last year of the NSS, even though the world hasn't eliminated each and every last threat to its nuclear stuff. But the summit was Obama's brainchild, and its future is uncertain after he leaves office. In fact, some have been distinctly underwhelmed with the summits' results.
Security around the NSS is insane. So insane, in fact, that the agenda isn't public. Keeping the media on a tight leash and away from the action at international summits is the norm, but this one is a cut above.
That said, the NSS has two official side events, the Nuclear Industry Summit or NIS, and the Solutions for a Secure Nuclear Future Summit, a conference for various non-governmental organizations. In some respects, private industry's involvement in nuclear stuff is a bit like that of government's; they're both in charge of lots of nuclear material, they both have direct security responsibilities, and they therefore both have lots of armed guards. Granted, private industry is not quite as big into the nuclear weapons business, but industry reps still have important things to say.
The big mantra at the NIS is about "safety and security" — a good thing for people to focus on considering the topic. There's an important aspect of the culture of the nuclear industry that's worth calling out: It knows that if it screws up, lots of people die. That's the view expressed by industry adages such as, "If one of us has an accident, we all suffer the consequences," or, "If one of us has a security problem, we all have a security problem," which were very much in focus at NIS.
This has meant that there's a lot of in-group discussion of safety issues, comparing notes on best practices, and so on. The hope is that it leads to a sort of industry peer review that, along with appropriate government oversight and regulation, presents a reasonable way to go forward.
And despite the high profile and often dire consequences of nuclear accidents, as a whole, the nuclear industry actually has a pretty good safety record.
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The industry's general approach to security — an issue that ramped up quickly after 9/11 — makes sense: treat it like another aspect of safety, or at least integrate it with safety. Figure out what and how different players can share intelligence, information, and best practices, when the sharing isn't overridden by higher-priority security concerns. Using this template not only makes sense, but also gives the nuclear industry a way to better utilize some kinds of scarce resources, like top-notch cyber security experts, by encouraging a form of sharing.
Nuclear security involves two categories, which you can call "guys with guns" and "loose stuff." The guns part is the active defense — armed guards, cyber security, etc. This is a group that's already pretty uptight and serious about avoiding screw-ups to begin with, so they already have an edge on security. It's not like anyone is going to be able to hijack a reactor easily.
Nuclear plants have been working on upping security for quite some time now, and it seems to be paying off. Nuclear plants — along with chemical and fertilizer plants — are very high-value targets for terrorists, but we know that already, so we protect those sites very well.
But nuclear security encompasses a lot more than nuclear plants. There's the production of medical isotopes, and research reactors, and other various chunks of nuclear material floating around for one reason or another. And the security situation there might not be quite as healthy.
Former US senator Sam Nunn, chairman of Nuclear Threat Initiative, an NGO that focuses on reducing the threat of nuclear material falling into the wrong hands, said in his prepared remarks that according to his organization's most recent study of nuclear security conditions around the world, "progress [is] slowing across a number of trend lines — from the pace at which countries are eliminating their weapons-usable stocks to the steps they're taking to secure their remaining materials."
While this is apparently going to be the last international summit on nuclear security for a while, the folks at NIS have already announced that they're going to continue holding these summits going forward. It's not clear yet whether it's going to be annual or continue on with the existing practice of meeting every two years.
Overall, there's probably reason for very cautious optimism on nuclear security, but the worrying stuff is coming from newer, less-familiar threats (especially cyber.) At least the nuclear industry recognizes it has to get its act together and work collectively if it's going to keep ahead of the curve. But when it comes to taking very sensitive materials out of play, things are slowing down. From what was on display at NIS, the industry seems to understand it needs to improve. Now it just needs to do so faster than the guys who would love nothing more than to make one of those security mantras come true: If the industry has a failure, lots of people pay.
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