By Siddharth Ramana
The Washington Nuclear Security Summit in 2010 brought international consensus on the issue of nuclear terrorism through an unanimous acknowledgement of the need to secure fissile materials and nuclear stockpiles from non-state actors. Significantly, the success of the Summit is gauged from over 50 specific commitments to secure or eliminate nuclear materials from 29 countries. Primary focus during the last Summit was on eliminating Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) stockpiles, which underlines one of the arguments that nuclear disarmament advocates. As the Summit prepares for its second meeting, the threat posed by nuclear terrorism remains predominant and three interrelated nuclear safety and security aspects can be discussed.
1. Nuclear Terrorism: Insider Threats and Safety
The Nuclear Security Summit 2012 in Seoul, South Korea, will be held in a region that has faced disturbing nuclear developments including the Fukushima disaster in Japan. The Fukushima disaster publicized the damages caused by a nuclear accident. Terrorist groups celebrate the publicity that accompanies the damage caused by their actions, and therefore, while Fukushima was a natural disaster, the fears of nuclear terrorism perpetuated especially by insider threats, have gained greater concern. A terrorist attack, for example, on nuclear spent fuel rods or even the sabotaging of a nuclear plant or storage facility can create a disastrous situation. What compounds fears of nuclear terrorism is the fact that easily accessible radioactive material can suffice for such acts.
Instances of mischievous activity in nuclear installations have been reported worldwide with varying fatality. They have however merited the lowest incident rating concern level. Although the foucs post Fukushima has been to assess seismic damage to nuclear reactors, the continued threat posed by insider access to nuclear plants and facilities continues to remain of vital concern. For example, Kenneth N Luongo of the Arms Control Association highlights that different countries hold different operational standards of security clearances for nuclear facilities and no standardized approach to nuclear security exists. While technical guidelines are governed by the IAEA, the pressing need is to strengthen individual security facilities at all installations where highly radioactive substances are located. This would include laboratories, hospitals, and other facilities where such substances can be found.
2. Nuclear Proliferation
While the main focus of the Summit is on nuclear safety and security, there is an additional underlying theme of the elimination of nuclear weapons stockpiles to further minimize the threats posed. Developments in East Asia and North Africa highlight the failure of the international community in advocating this measure. North Korea, for example, has shown that it cannot be conventionally deterred anymore, after it sank the South Korean naval ship Cheonan, and shelled Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. It has even threatened to test a nuclear device later this year, possibly in response to being kept out of the 2012 Summit.
Similarly, sustained NATO action against Libya in 2011, after it voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons programme, underlines the vaunted deterrence capabilities through acquisition of nuclear weapons. Therefore, the continued success of nuclear-armed states in dealing with conventional threats leads to further proliferation and underminesthe Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Consequently, an increase in states producing fissile materials will flood the already existing high stockpiles of these resources, which returns to the focal point of the Summit: safety and security. Tellingly, there have been three cases of nuclear fuel being held for ransom.
3. Global Nuclear Disarmament: For a Better Future
As per figures released by the International Panel on Fissile Material, 1,670 tonnes of HEU exist worldwide. Over 95 per cent is divided between the US and Russia, and worldwide stock of separated weapons grade plutonium is about 500 tonnes, of which again Russia and the US have the largest amounts. Only a fraction of this nuclear material is needed to produce a nuclear weapon, and therefore, if smuggled to a rogue state, the threat of a nuclear conflict increases. Consequently, nuclear security cannot be de-linked from the larger objective of moving towards Global Zero.
The US was understandably wary of pushing countries on the contentious issue of fissile material in Washington, since it was then battling domestic opposition to the New START agreement with Russia. The passage of the treaty in December 2010, and the present economic crisis in the US, however, presents opportunities for it to lead from the front. The United States should focus its defense spending on warhead and delivery system upgradation, while simultaneously securing its national interests by working with the international community in securing nuclear materials worldwide, instead of the current situation where it is pursuing cost cutting in nuclear security. Given that America usually leads, presumably other major powers would follow.
The Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul presents opportunities to learn from the developments in the region where it would be hosted. The interrelation between the three aforementioned aspects indicates that focus is not limited to nuclear terrorism alone; there are also pressing concerns of nuclear proliferation and global disarmament, which could possibly widen the ambit of all future Nuclear Security Summits.
Research Officer, IPCS
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