A hot mic shouldn't overshadow a dirty bomb. The Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul ended recently with two dominant story lines: President Obama's "hot mic" comments to Russian President Medvedev and the 53 participating governments congratulating themselves on the summit's outcomes. Both miss the key strategic problem the Seoul Summit did not address: the need to unify the current patchwork, largely voluntary approach to nuclear security that is not commensurate with the risk or consequences of nuclear terrorism.
A quick reading of the Seoul Summit Communique highlights the problem. Virtually every significant substantive step described in the communique is preceded by the words "we encourage." So states are "encouraged" to share best practices, to safely secure and dispose of unneeded nuclear material, and to work with and support the International Atomic Energy Agency. But there is no obligation to meet the voluntary standards and no institution, not even the IAEA, with the mandate to evaluate countries' nuclear security performance. This underscores the fundamental failing of the current global approach to nuclear security: it is based on national voluntary actions that are unaccountable and inconsistent across borders.
There are a number of G-8, U.N. Security Council, U.S.-Russian and other like-minded states' nuclear-security initiatives and programs; however, none develop globally agreed standards for nuclear security. But a security system is only as strong as its weakest link. The current patchwork arrangement of largely voluntary actions is full of potential gaps and weak points that terrorists can exploit.
We know for a fact there are terrorist groups seeking nuclear material and there is a black market in such material. In 2011, police in Moldova broke up a black market smuggling operation attempting to sell highly enriched uranium. Unfortunately, one member of the smuggling group remains at large with as much as a kilogram of highly enriched uranium, as does a potential buyer from North Africa.