Imagine a truck carrying weapons-usable nuclear materials leaving a well-secured facility. The armored vehicle moves through a series of secure gates, guarded by people with guns. Its destination? A nuclear research reactor half-way around the world. Is the reactor as secure as the facility it left? Does that country have a legal framework to provide effective security? Does it even require effective physical protection for the reactor?
Last week, the answers to all of these questions could have been "no." But today, you, your friends, and the world are all safer because an amendment to a treaty you've never heard of is now in force.
Despite its clunky acronym and relative obscurity, the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM) is the only legally binding international agreement focusing on the physical protection of peaceful-use (read: non-military) nuclear materials. Under the original agreement, countries are required to provide appropriate security for nuclear materials during international transport. The amendment, which just came into effect, expands the scope of the treaty to also include the storage and use of such materials at nuclear facilities and the protection of those facilities against sabotage.
It seems obvious that countries would be obliged to protect materials that could be used to build a nuclear bomb. But many countries are not providing adequate security for these dangerous materials. As the NTI Nuclear Security Index highlighted in January, countries pursuing nuclear energy often do not have the legal or regulatory structures required for effective security. What's more, in 2015 there were over 180 incidents of nuclear or radiological materials being lost or stolen.
The amendment to the treaty is a major step forward in addressing these issues. It modernizes and expands the international legal framework for nuclear security, creating a minimum set of requirements to which countries must abide and be held accountable.
That is not to say that the treaty, even as amended, is perfect. Even with the amended treaty now in force, there are no agreed-upon standards for protection of nuclear materials. The treaty only provides a broad set of physical protection requirements but no specifics. Also, more work is needed to ensure that all countries fully implement their obligations under this and other international treaties relevant to nuclear security. Military nuclear materials--which make up as much as 83% of global stocks of nuclear materials--are not covered by the treaty and still lack sufficient oversight and accountability. Much work remains to build an effective global nuclear security system.
Still, the entry into force of the amendment represents a significant step forward. It means that when nuclear materials are transported, stored, or used that the legal expectation of security and protection of those materials and facilities is the same for the United States as for Turkey or China or any of the other 102 countries party to the amended treaty. This success highlights the growing understanding that nuclear security is not simply a sovereign responsibility, but rather a collective one, shared by all countries, with or without nuclear materials.
Global diplomacy is not always flashy signing ceremonies and speeches. Often, it's more like this one--little-known but crucial steps, where the community of nations comes together to lay foundations for a safer world.