The Role of Civil Society in Strengthening Nuclear Security


By Ms. Rebecca Earnhardt, Research Associate, Nuclear Security Program, Stimson Center, USA

April 2021 marked the fifth anniversary of the 2016 nuclear security summit. The nuclear security summit process was a high point for multilateral progress to strengthen nuclear security, with dozens of world leaders focused on the effort. Recent statements from President Biden signal a return to making nuclear security a global priority. At the 2021 Munich Security Conference, President Biden indicated that international cooperation to “lock down fissile and radiological material to prevent terrorist groups from acquiring or using them” is a priority. This will require efforts to develop and support civil society and nuclear security leaders around the world.

Civil society plays a critical role in strengthening nuclear security, offering creative, innovative, and interdisciplinary approaches in solving difficult nuclear security issues. By holding policymakers accountable, educating stakeholders, and promoting dialogue, civil society fulfills multiple functions in supporting nuclear security efforts. To organize and amplify these activities, the International Nuclear Security Forum (INSF) supports these efforts through community-building, education, and collaboration. As the only international civil society network focused on achieving these goals, the INSF reinforces the fundamental role civil society plays in strengthening nuclear security around the globe.

Photo: Joe Biden at Munich Security Conference 2021

Civil Society Plays a Critical Role in Strengthening Nuclear Security

Multiple stakeholders have an interest in and are responsible for nuclear security, including policymakers, regulators, operators, and civil society. Civil society serves several vital functions in strengthening nuclear security.

Civil society highlights the dangers of nuclear terrorism. Civil society can conduct in-depth and rigorous research that addresses the threat of nuclear terrorism. For example, in January 2021, the Stimson Center published an article emphasizing the growing threat of far-right extremism and nuclear terrorism threats.

Civil society generates innovative ideas. Civil society organizations can conduct in-depth research and brainstorming on nuclear security policy, presenting these ideas to other stakeholders. The Fissile Materials Working Group – predecessor organization to the INSF – proposed ideas to government officials in preparation for the nuclear security summits process.

Civil society experts act as knowledge hubs and educators. Civil society organizations provide a platform for generating, sharing, and identifying strategies for reducing nuclear terrorism risks. The Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, for example, hosts annual conferences that include panels on different aspects of nuclear security and manages an online community of experts and students who share ideas and research through the “Journal of Nuclear Materials Management”.

Civil society experts and organizations track global nuclear security progress. Civil society provides independent assessments of national, regional, and global nuclear security. A key resource for tracking progress is the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s (NTI) Nuclear Security Index, a state-level database that highlights progress and gaps in nuclear security over time. Additionally, the Project on Managing the Atom regularly publishes comprehensive reviews of progress in international nuclear security.

Civil society encourages governments to act and holds governments and industries accountable. Drawing on the networks of its members, civil society amplifies calls to action. Most recently, nuclear security experts penned a letter to the Biden Administration urging the president to take action to strengthen nuclear security, all of which was coordinated by the INSF.

Civil society promotes dialogue and partnerships. Civil society brings together diverse stakeholders into discussions with government officials. NTI, for example, plays a critical role in facilitating dialogue. The Global Dialogue on Nuclear Security Priorities project by NTI convenes global nuclear security experts to discuss gaps, priorities, and next steps for strengthening nuclear security.

Civil society helps with nuclear security implementation. Civil society helps operators with implementing nuclear security best practices. The World Institute for Nuclear Security produces tools for evaluation, including self-assessments, employee attitude surveys, and peer review to assist organizations. NTI also assists in nuclear security implementation through its International Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU) Bank project with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Photo: NTI Dialogues Project

The INSF Amplifies Civil Society Efforts

Civil society possesses a diverse set of expertise and tools to strengthen nuclear security. Many of these entities fulfill multiple roles at once. As a network of civil society organizations, the INSF combines these efforts and fosters partnerships across organizations. The INSF is based on a core set of principles that guide network priorities. The INSF supports efforts that:

  1. Elevate expert and political attention to the challenges of preventing nuclear and radiological terrorism, and the contributions of nuclear security to the sustainability of peaceful uses of nuclear technology.
  2. Foster innovative and creative approaches to problem-solving and analysis to reinvigorate international attention and support for stronger nuclear security.
  3. Enhance equity and inclusion in the community by actively incorporating a diversity of perspectives to improve the quality and credibility of our nuclear security policy initiatives.
  4. Cultivate the next generation nuclear security community through active educational outreach and mentorship.
  5. Encourage leadership by engaging policymakers, international institutions, operators, and civil society in constructive dialogue on nuclear security-related threats and opportunities to address the danger.

The INSF leads by example, ensuring the application of these principles. The INSF publishes monthly newsletters, highlighting stories from across the globe and sharing member updates. The newsletters cover a range of nuclear security topics including global architecture, advanced reactors, material minimization, emerging technologies, crisis operations, and threats. Also included are updates from INSF member organizations, featuring a variety of nuclear security activities such as dialogues, conferences, publications, and professional development programs. The INSF highlights nuclear security threats and strengthening material security through public events, including webinars on Russian nuclear security and insider threats. The INSF website also serves as a nuclear security knowledge hub, featuring a nuclear security resources library that includes international guidance and treaties.

In addition to its public-facing efforts, INSF staff hold meetings with policymakers and private industry, participate in multilateral dialogues, and host community-wide discussion forums. Through meetings with policymakers, INSF staff have emphasized the need to prioritize nuclear security while providing a roadmap for how to address the threat of nuclear terrorism. To support community-building, INSF staff also led a community discussion focused on sustaining and expanding civil society efforts to strengthen nuclear security. The INSF seeks to continue this momentum by organizing civil society efforts leading up to the A/CPPNM review conference in 2022.

A Civil Society is Needed to Increase Rate of Progress in Strengthening Nuclear Security

Although civil society can be faster and more flexible in crafting responses to urgent nuclear security issues compared to governments, there are obstacles to what civil society can do, including limited financial resources and lack of access to sensitive information. Governments should devote more resources to funding civil society efforts to strengthen nuclear security.

Civil society organizations will once again have opportunities to push for strengthening international nuclear security architecture and nuclear security implementation at the national level, as evidenced by recent statements from world leaders. As the role of civil society in nuclear security continues, the INSF will provide a platform for civil society to collaborate, share ideas, and combine efforts. To elevate the impact of civil society on nuclear security, the INSF will continue to focus on creating a voice for international civil society through community-building, education, and collaboration.

About the Author

Rebecca Earnhardt is a Research Associate with the Nuclear Security program at the Stimson Center. Prior to joining Stimson, Earnhardt was a Faculty Specialist in the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, focusing on technology transfer and adoption, red team scenario development, over the horizon CBRN threats, and CBRN adversary psychology. Earnhardt’s work centers on the impact of organizational structure and bureaucratic processes on nuclear security culture, reducing nuclear terrorism risks, and analyzing nuclear enterprise responses to emerging technologies. Her current research interests include emerging technologies, nuclear and radiological terrorism, nuclear security culture, physical protection of nuclear facilities, and nuclear facility crisis operations. Earnhardt is currently pursuing a PhD in Policy Studies at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. She holds a B.A. in Political Science and a B.A. in Homeland Security/Emergency Preparedness from Virginia Commonwealth University, and a M.Sc. in Biodefense from George Mason University.

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