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 History of the Nuclear Security Summits

In 2009, early in his first term, U.S. President Obama traveled to Prague, Czech Republic, to deliver a major speech outlining his administration’s policies on nuclear weapons and nuclear security. During that speech, he called on world leaders to assemble in Washington, DC, one year later to work together to lock down thousands of tons of vulnerable nuclear materials spread across the globe to prevent it from getting into the hands of terrorists. The first Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) was held in 2010. It was the largest gathering of heads of state in a half-century, and it focused an important spotlight on the need to secure and eliminate weapons-usable nuclear materials.

Today, seven years and three summits later, world leaders return to Washington for the fourth and final NSS. From March 31 – April 1, heads of state from more than 50 countries and the leaders of four international organizations will engage in diplomatic negotiations and finalize new commitments to improve nuclear security protocols around the world.

The Nuclear Security Summits—2012 in Seoul and 2014 in the Netherlands—have resulted in significant progress in the effort to secure the world’s vulnerable nuclear materials. Among other achievements, the summits have helped convince 11 countries to take the single most significant step to protect against catastrophic nuclear terrorism: Eliminate their stocks of weapons-usable nuclear materials.

Despite progress, however, significant security gaps remain and there is still no effective global security system in place to provide “rules of the road” for nuclear security and hold countries accountable for their actions. As the summit process draws to a close, nuclear security policy experts are looking to this final meeting to chart a clear path for continued progress in the years to come.

What To Expect at the 2016 Summit

As in years past, the outcomes achieved at the Summit will be outlined in a series of documents containing political commitments by leaders. Individual countries release national statements. And as a group, countries are expected to reaffirm their commitment to nuclear security in a summit communiqué issued at the end of the proceedings. This document will provide a high-level overview of the top policy goals and objectives of the global community with regard to nuclear security.

In the national statements, countries describe past actions taken to improve security and announce new unilateral commitments; they will seek to achieve multilateral commitments through so-called gift baskets (see Decoding Summit Speak).

Heads of state also will participate in a scenario-based exercise on nuclear security. In 2014, participating world leaders were asked to respond to a nuclear smuggling scenario. This year, participants will tackle a similar real-life scenario.

Past communiqués and commitments were tracked for the next Summit. The big question for the 2016 Summit is how the leaders will track progress in the future.

Finally, two side summits—a Nuclear Industry Summit (NIS) and an NGO summit sponsored by the Fissile Materials Working Group, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation—will occur in concert with this year’s NSS (see Events).