Limited success

Limited success

The Nuclear Security Summit, the second of its kind, held in Seoul on March 26-27, 2012 after a summit in Washington in 2010, brought together the leaders of 53 countries, along with five leaders of four international organisations tried to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism from the world. The main objective of the summit was to prevent non-state actors, including terrorists and criminals, from acquiring dangerous nuclear materials, as the greatest obstacles to nuclear terrorism as not designing a weapon, concocting a plot or recruiting volunteers willing to suffer martyrdom; it is acquiring the fissile nuclear material needed for a nuclear explosive device.

The summit produced few significant outcomes. The conference, overshadowed by concerns about North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile activities, shied away from expanding its mandate to call for concrete steps towards ridding the world of atomic weapons. Though South Korea as the host defended the summit, saying that it did “yield practical outcomes to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism”, analysts described the actual results modest and that nothing binding was adopted.

Following his Prague speech of April 2009 in which President Barack Obama ambitiously pledged to “secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years”, the second summit in Seoul achieved little of note. However, President Obama’s goal which is driven by the need to ensure that terrorists never obtain a nuclear weapon or materials usable for a nuclear device, its urgency cannot be overstated.

Twenty countries are believed to possess bomb-grade material that is not secure. While fissile material security is usually associated with developing countries, developed countries such as the US must also take additional steps to safeguard their own nuclear materials. Regrettably, despite a myriad of national laws and international agreements, there is no universal standard for how safe and secure nuclear materials need to be.

There is a nonpartisan agreement in majority of countries of the world that nuclear terrorism remains one of the most daunting threats of the 21st century. This is the reason why leaders from more than 50 countries met in Seoul in March to address nuclear terrorism. The 2010 summit in Washington helped catalyse new commitments by states to secure loose nuclear materials. Today, more than 80 per cent of these commitments have been accomplished. But these measures are inadequate to address the real issue because there is an absence of globally agreed-upon standards for securing nuclear material. The countries which are serious to address this issue are reliant only on a patchwork of voluntary steps, bilateral agreements and unfunded mandates.

Confirmed thefts

The year 2011 delivered two reminders of the threat posed by unsecured nuclear material: one from Moldova and one from Japan. In Moldova, police broke up a nuclear smuggling ring that was looking to sell highly enriched uranium, which in sufficient quantities can be fashioned into an improvised nuclear device. One member of the group in possession of weapons-usable nuclear material remains still at large. There have been 18 confirmed thefts or loss of weapons-usable nuclear material worldwide.

The Seoul summit focused on averting the low-probability but high-risk danger, which has the potential to devastate the international economy and paralyse world trade. The summit’s specific goals were to promote a common understanding of the threat of nuclear terrorism, forge agreement on effective measures to secure dangerous nuclear material, protect nuclear facilities such as nuclear power plants from direct attack and support related initiatives to prevent the spreads of nuclear materials and technologies.  

The Seoul summit adopted an 11-point Seoul Communiqué, outlining renewed agreement and commitments including setting a timeline for the countries to come up with individual action plans to reduce the use of highly enriched uranium for civilian purposes by the end of 2013. Two years ago, there was 1,600 tons of highly enriched uranium in the world. Together with stocks of 500 tons of plutonium, they were enough to make more than 1,26,000 nuclear weapons. Some of the countries also initiated group projects to reduce highly enriched uranium use for medical or research purposes during the summit, including a four-way project using a conversion technology developed by Korea.

China’s President Hu Jintao declared that China considers nuclear security a grave issue and will assist countries in the Asia Pacific region to train nuclear security experts and reduce the use of highly enriched uranium. He did not specifically mention North Korea, China’s closest ally, which has both plutonium and uranium enrichment programs.

The Communiqué did not mention North Korea and Iran. The two countries are at the forefront of current concerns when it comes to suspected development of nuclear weapons. With a North Korean launch of a ballistic missile likely on April 12, President Obama and his counterparts discussed on the summit sidelines how to respond if Pyongyang goes ahead with what it contends will be a peaceful space launch. Though North Korea was not on the agenda, the summit’s participants did effectively speak with one voice regarding Pyongyang.

Notwithstanding the shortcomings, the summit is an initiative with positive direction. In view of the problem of gigantic proportion that the nuclear issue poses, it would have been over-ambitious to expect any visible result so soon. The next summit will be held in 2014, and Korea selected the Netherlands as the host.    

(The writer is a former senior fellow, IDSA)   

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