The Hague N-security summit: Serious forum or talking shop?

The 2014 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) will be held in The Hague, the Netherlands on March 24 and 25. It will be the third edition of the conference.

The second NSS was held in Seoul in March 2013. The NSSs were initiated by President Barack Obama, who during his famous Prague speech in 2009, pointed out the dangers of nuclear terrorism and how it is one of the greatest threats to international security. Though the chance of terrorists carrying out an attack with nuclear material is slight, Obama warned that if it happened, the consequences would be enormous. Following this, the US mounted an initiative to further enhance the security of all nuclear material in the world within four years. With this in mind, the US hosted the first NSS in 2010 in Washington DC. The 2014 summit will be attended by 58 world leaders. It will chart the accomplishments of the past two years, identifying which of the objectives set out in the Washington Work Plan and the Seoul Communiqué have not been met and propose ways to achieve them.

Since the Washington summit in 2010, agreements have been reached to better secure hazardous nuclear materials such as highly enriched uranium and plutonium. At the Seoul summit, the participating countries discussed the progress made and added the security of radioactive sources used for ‘dirty bombs’ to the agenda. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is continually developing methods to enhance the security of nuclear material and radioactive sources. A number of countries voluntarily invite the IAEA to review their national security measures on a regular basis. 

How are the terms “nuclear security” and “nuclear security summit” different and what do they conjure up? While “nuclear security” may carry images of nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation of nuclear arms, or the nuclear programme of North Korea and Iran, nuclear security as a concept is associated with nuclear terrorism. Therefore, Nuclear Security Summits are meetings where participants discuss about measures to be taken by countries and ways of promoting international collaboration to prevent nuclear/radioactive terrorism.

Nuclear terrorism

The threat of nuclear/radioactive terrorism being faced by the international community is more serious than it appears. Though it is not easy for terrorists to have access to nuclear weapons or highly enriched uranium and plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, given the modern technology, that possibility cannot be discounted and there have been incidents of attempted theft of nuclear materials. According to the IAEA, between 1993 and 2010, a total of 33 cases involving the illicit possession, transaction, or theft of highly enriched uranium or plutonium were reported. That makes securing such materials extremely important. 

Equally dangerous is the threat of so-called dirty bombs, which use lethal radioactive materials such as caesium. Radioactive materials are widely used in medical institutions, colleges, research institutions and business facilities. These can easily be turned into weapons and therefore the possibility of radioactive terrorism is much higher than that of nuclear terrorism. A release from the University of Texas at Austin’s Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project in January 2012 mentioned that a large group of US non-proliferation, medical and health specialists called on US lawmakers to curb use of medical isotopes produced from Russian weapon-ready uranium and to entirely prohibit their employment no later than 2017. The group of experts in their letter said that Russia was quickly increasing its utilisation of bomb-grade uranium to produce the medical isotope molybdenum 99 in order to gain supremacy over isotope sales in the US medical sector.

The specialists requested that lawmakers modify legislation approved in November 2011 by the Senate -the American Medical Isotopes Production Act- to mandate “preferential procurement” of isotopes that are not generated from weapon-usable uranium. IAEA’s Illicit Trafficking Database reveals that there are more than 150 cases of illicit possession, smuggling, or theft of radioactive materials and nuclear materials every year since 2005, of which three quarters are related to radioactive materials.  
Given this, there always exists the possibility of terrorists obtaining weapon-class nuclear materials and detonate a weapon in a large city, attack a nuclear facility such as a power plant, or explode a ‘dirty bomb’ by using radioactive materials. Such a possibility remains a common concern. The Netherlands summit, therefore, is expected to focus on the following achievable and visible goals: (a) optimal security for and, if at all possible, a reduction in the use of highly enriched uranium and plutonium; (b) ratification of the amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material by more countries to ensure that the amendment enters into force as soon as possible; (c) more frequent reviews of state security structures by IAEA advisory missions; (d) national registration and protection of highly radioactive sources (e.g. medical equipment); (e) greater role for industry in nuclear security, to enhance the security culture and existing regulations. States should provide information to their own people and the international community to demonstrate that they are taking appropriate measures to maintain the security of their nuclear material and facilities; and (f) these confidence-building measures will increase trust in the international protection system.

It is to be seen how much the Netherlands summit can deliver in reducing the amount of dangerous nuclear material in the world, improving the security, and improving international cooperation to achieve the above or just be another talking shop.  

(The writer is Japan Foundation Fellow at the Reitaku University, Chiba, Japan)

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