Joe Biden, the US and the fight against nuclear terrorism


By Benjamin Hautecouverture, Senior Research Fellow, Foundation for Strategic Research, France

At the virtual 2021 Munich Security Conference, the new US President Joe Biden declared: "We will (…) work together to lock down fissile and radiological material to prevent terrorist groups from acquiring or using them."1 Five years after the last nuclear security summit in Washington2, and after four years of the Trump presidency, is this a sign of the United States' renewed determination to put the issue of nuclear security at the top of the international political agenda?

A brief history of the threat

In theoretical terms, the possibility for nuclear science to be used for terrorist purposes was envisaged even before the successful explosion of the very first nuclear bomb. The Secretary of War of the first Truman Administration, Henry Stimson, declared in April 1945: “The future may see a time when such a nuclear weapon may be constructed in secret and used suddenly and effectively with devastating power by a wilful nation or a group against an unsuspected nation or group of much greater size and material power.”3 In practical terms though, the strategic analysis of non-state nuclear and radiological threats began in the 1970’s in the United States, with the increase in the intensity of the violence projected by terrorist attacks. That said, international mass destruction terrorism was not taken up in earnest by analysts before the 1990’s, and the emergence of new forms of transnational violence of a religious or millenarist type. The Aum Shynrikio sect provided one of the first examples of such a development through its chemical (but non-nuclear) attacks in Japan. Nuclear and radiological terrorism remained perceived as risks – as opposed to full-blown threats – until the events of 9/11 in the United States, even if this risk was becoming clearer at the time with the explosion and decay of the Soviet bloc in eastern Europe.

Prior to 9/11, two theses conflicted on the issue of nuclear and radiological terrorism:

  • The terrorist agent seeks publicity and visibility of his cause rather than a massive death toll.
  • It is the growing availability and accessibility of non-conventional weapons that determines the increasing likelihood of their use for terrorist purposes.

After the 9/11 attacks, nuclear and radiological terrorism became considered as a full-blown and undeniable threat. The whole international community has been concerned with nuclear and radiological terrorism since then. A few days after the attacks, then IAEA Director General Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei claimed: “We have to and will increase our efforts on all fronts—from combating illicit trafficking to ensuring the protection of nuclear materials—from nuclear installation design to withstand attacks to improving how we respond to nuclear emergencies.”4 Eight years later, President Obama translated this commitment into a national and international programme to secure the world's fissile materials in four years.5

1“Remarks by President Biden at the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference “, February 19, 2021, The White House 2NSS 2016, March 2016, Washington 3Quoted by Benjamin Hautecouverture, “A possible international regime to cover radiological materials”, International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation & Disarmament, 2009 4Quoted by Benjamin Hautecouverture, “A possible international regime to cover radiological materials”, International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation & Disarmament, 2009 5Barck Obama had made a presidential campaign promise about hosting an international summit on nuclear security.

Obama’s legacy

It will be remembered that the fourth world Summit on Nuclear Security (NSS), which was attended by 52 State delegations by invitation, was held in Washington on 31 March and 1 April 20166. The event brought to a close a cycle of four summits called for by President Obama in 20097 and opened in the spring of 2010 to address the dangers of nuclear terrorism at the highest level of the main nuclearized States.

The Obama administration, in launching the NSS process, was pursuing two goals, one political, the other institutional. The first one was based on the notion of specific deliverables that would have to take shape in future "house gifts". It was a question of identifying what each State could specifically contribute to the construction of greater nuclear security globally. The second was based on what Laura Holgate, who was then at the heart of the American decision-making process on nuclear security, called the four "Es", that is to say, on her own terms, “to elevate, empower, enhance, and energize the enduring international institutions working on nuclear security.”8 The aim was to integrate as effectively and flexibly as possible various instruments created in previous years, such as UNSC Resolution 1540 (2004), the relevant IAEA department, Interpol (particularly with regard to their work on nuclear forensics and law enforcement on smuggling), the Global Partnership against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the 2006 Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.

At the end of Barack Obama's second term, it could be said that the result of the NSS cycle was quite impressive, with a total of 935 house gifts between 2010 and 2016: creation of centres of excellence, IPPAS missions, remove of HEU in many states - 17 countries that became completely HEU-free, South America free of HEU, Central and Eastern Europe free of HEU -, 80 new ratifications of the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM) between 2009 and 2016, etc.

Having said that, the nuclear security process has been eroded over the last few years: the threat of nuclear terrorism continues not to be shared by all states. There is still a fairly strong division between the countries of the North and the South on the matter. Russia's annexation of the Crimea and the growing gap between Russian and Western security interests and perceptions has undermined the dynamic. Furthermore, the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament from the end of the second Obama term has brought the issue of disarmament into the nuclear security arena, polarising debates and limiting the enthusiasm of the nuclear-weapon states. Finally, the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House has broken the United States' lead on this subject with most of the world's States. The Covid-19 epidemic has ended up diverting attention from this issue on several levels.

It should be added that the lack of momentum given to nuclear security since 2016 does not imply that actions are no longer being carried out on the ground, nor that the IAEA has not taken up this issue in a serious manner. From this point of view, the programmes and commitments made in the first half of the 2010 decade then entered a phase of low-noise implementation, which is normal.

If we are to avoid nuclear terrorism in the future there is no more critical effort today than securing the world's fissile materials

Senator Biden at Georgetown University, 2004

What to expect, what to hope for

While the Biden administration is expected to deal with highly strategic nuclear issues, involving power relations between states - the modernisation of the arsenal, the Iranian dossier, the North Korean dossier, the resumption of bilateral arms control with Russia, strategic dialogue with China, collective security in Europe, etc. - is nuclear security a minor issue for the new administration in place?

A sign of feverishness in the expert community, in a letter sent to President Biden in early February 2021, 30 experts called for a resumption of US leadership on nuclear security: “U.S. leadership on this issue has weakened and international progress has slowed,” they wrote, including Sharon Squassoni from George Washington University and William Tobey from Harvard University9.

It so happens that Joe Biden didn't discover nuclear security on January 21, 2021 but has been defending this issue for twenty years. In 2004 at Georgetown University, then Senator Biden had already insisted on securing fissile materials: “If we are to avoid nuclear terrorism in the future there is no more critical effort today than securing the world's fissile materials”, he said10. The President therefore has a strong sensitivity to this issue.

After years of declining or stagnating budgets for nuclear security in various US relevant offices, the new team in place brings an opportunity to relaunch American national and international programmes. Furthermore, the year 2021 sees two opportunities to put nuclear security back on the international political agenda: first, this year will see the Amended Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (A/CPPNM) hold its review conference. Secondly, next August should see the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) hold its tenth review conference11. The reduction of nuclear risk will be one of the privileged topics of this meeting. Nuclear security is an integral part of this, both in military and peaceful uses.

In several respects, therefore, 2021 could and should be an opportune political moment to relaunch international action on nuclear security, formulate a new vision and provide the means to implement it.

6Initiated in April 2010 in Washington, the cycle of NSS continued in spring 2012 in Seoul, in spring 2014 in The Hague and again in Washington on 31 March and 1 April 2016, the last summit of the cycle. 7“Remarks By President Barack Obama In Prague As Delivered “, The White House, April 5, 2009 8Tatsujiro Suzuki, “Nuclear Security Policy of the Obama Administration – Its Achievements and Issues Left Behind: An Interview with Laura Holgate”, Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament, Volume 1, 2018 - Issue 2, p.488 9Timothy Gardner, “Experts urge Biden to restore U.S. leadership in global nuclear security”, Reuters, February 12, 2021 10Nickolas Roth, “U.S. Priorities for Reducing the Risk of Nuclear Terrorism”, Stimson Center, January 14, 2021 11originally scheduled for spring 2020

Benjamin Hautecouverture is a historian and a political scientist, a senior research fellow at the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (Paris, France). He is Senior Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, Technical Director at Expertise France, and one of the founders of the European Union Consortium on Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.