This week, President Barack Obama and 50 world leaders will convene for the fourth and final time to discuss how to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists. This last gathering of the biannual Nuclear Security Summits comes at a particularly poignant moment, given what we know now about the Brussels terrorists’ interest in targeting nuclear facilities. For better or worse, the summits represent a more ad hoc approach to securing nuclear materials in particular, and advancing global cooperation on transnational threats in general.
Since 2010, the Obama administration has organized four summits on nuclear security. Driven by the president’s concerns about nightmare scenarios of terrorists gaining access to weapons of mass destruction, the summits have served to share information and policy ideas, and provide platforms to announce commitments to collective action to reduce risks to nuclear security.
The Brussels attacks and additional threat information discovered since have sharpened the salience of this year’s summit. Belgian authorities have revealed that the terrorists had identified nuclear power plants as potential targets; that a security guard at one plant was murdered recently; and that two power plant employees were recruited by the so-called Islamic State back in 2014. As Rose Gottemoeller, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, put it, “Nothing I can say would highlight [the summit’s message], sadly, better than this tragic attack in Brussels this morning. Thank god those terrorists do not have their hands on nuclear materials.”