Toward the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit

The Korea Herald, 2012-01-15

The Nuclear Security Summit that will open in Seoul on March 26 will bring together heads of states united in their commitment to strengthen the international nuclear security regime and confront the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Building on the success of the first summit, held in the U.S. in 2010, the Seoul meeting is well-positioned to ensure that nuclear security remains at the top of the international security agenda. At the same time, the summit participants will have to deal with significant challenges in how to secure nuclear materials and prevent nuclear terrorist attacks.

The scope of these challenges becomes clear when we consider the amounts of nuclear material that have been accumulated worldwide. The global stock of fissile material is estimated to be almost 1,475 tons of highly enriched uranium and 485 tons of separated plutonium, which is enough to produce more than 100,000 weapons.

Large amounts of weapon-usable materials are used in a variety of civilian and military applications, presenting a constant security risk. If some of this material falls into the wrong hands, an act of nuclear terrorism might become a real possibility.

Preventing terrorism

Another danger is that nuclear facilities, such as nuclear power plants, spent fuel storage pools or reprocessing plants could become targets of a terrorist attack. It is quite possible that the damage to these facilities caused by a malicious act would far exceed the damage caused by human error or force of nature, as in Chernobyl and Fukushima.

These accidents demonstrated that even a limited release of radioactivity could have serious long-term heath and economic consequences.

The international community has long recognized the threat of nuclear terrorism. The key elements of the international nuclear security regime that was developed to counter this threat are the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.

These conventions require countries to provide adequate protection of their nuclear materials and create a legal framework for prosecuting acts of nuclear terrorism.

Most of the technical expertise in the nuclear security area is concentrated in the International Atomic Energy Agency, which develops guidelines and standards for physical protection and provides member states with expert advice and assistance.

Strengthening these elements of the global nuclear security regime is an important part of the Seoul summit's agenda. In particular, the summit could help bring closer the entry into force of the Amendment to the Physical Protection Convention, which would extend the coverage of the convention to domestic transport and storage of nuclear material and would require states to protect their civilian nuclear facilities from sabotage.

The summit is also likely to see its participants make new commitments to secure or eliminate dangerous materials and boost the IAEA role in this effort.

Better transparency

There are several other areas where the Seoul summit could make an important contribution to the strengthening of the current nuclear security mechanisms: extending the physical protection obligations to all categories of nuclear materials, improving transparency and accountability, and building an institutional framework for better international cooperation.

Most of the weapon-usable nuclear material that exists today has been produced for military purposes. More than 60 percent of plutonium and highly enriched uranium is currently associated with military programs. It is clear that protection of this material should be an absolutely essential part of any nuclear security effort.

Countries that have military material in their possession should make a strong commitment to making sure that their military stocks are safe and secure. As an initial step they could declare the amounts of weapon-grade materials in their arsenals and pledge to eliminate the material that is in excess of their national security needs.

A number of important steps in this direction have already been made ― the U.S. and the U.K. have published information on their nuclear material stocks. The U.S. and Russia have eliminated large quantities of highly enriched uranium and have been working to eliminate large amounts of their military plutonium as well. The Nuclear Security Summit will provide an opportunity to strongly support these steps and to ensure that they constitute a norm for all states that have military nuclear materials.

To further promote transparency and accountability regarding nuclear materials, the Nuclear Security Summit could consider creating a mechanism that would ensure that all countries report their holdings of civilian nuclear material to the IAEA.

This practice already exists today ― most states that have separated civilian plutonium submit annual declarations of their stocks to the IAEA. Some also report their civilian highly enriched uranium holdings.

Making these reports universal will ensure that these nuclear materials are properly accounted for, which is an essential step in ensuring their security. Furthermore, the summit could consider asking the states to report on the level of physical protection at their nuclear facilities.

With appropriate care, these reports would not disclose any sensitive information while providing accountability that ensures that states follow the IAEA recommendations and guidelines in implementing basic protection measures.

If necessary, these reports could use the mechanism developed by the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540 that successfully monitored the status of national legislations in the area of combating proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

To ensure that physical protection measures are adequate to the level of threat, participants of the Nuclear Security Summit could consider establishing a forum that would bring together security professionals ― intelligence and law enforcement agencies ― for consultations on threat assessment.

Coordination of efforts in this area would allow efficient exchange of the best practices and would help states develop their national physical protection programs to deal with threats.

Past successes

Finally, the nuclear summit process should carefully study the experience of successful international cooperation programs that helped improve nuclear security in the former Soviet Union and that worked on removing and securing vulnerable materials worldwide.

These are the U.S.-Russian Cooperative Threat Reduction program, the G8 Global Partnership, and the U.S. Global Threat Reduction Initiative.

These programs demonstrated that with strong political support states could work together to implement a very ambitious set of goals. To build on the success of these programs, the Nuclear Security Summit should encourage its participants to build partnerships that would bring the resources and commitment that are required to strengthen the nuclear security regime.

One of the most challenging aspects of nuclear security is the multifaceted character of the problem that requires coordination of efforts of many states in many areas. This makes the Nuclear Security Summit process particularly important, since it provides a unique forum that could provide political support to the most ambitious nuclear security programs and work effectively toward their implementation.