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Strengthening Nuclear Security: Progress Made, Challenges Ahead

Mar 29 , 2012
  • Fan Jishe

    Senior Fellow, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

On March 27, President Lee Myung-bak declared a successful close to the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, the second of its kind following the first one in Washington DC two years ago. In this summit, 53 world leaders and heads of 4 international organizations gathered in Seoul to review the progress made since 2010 Washington Summit, and to discuss national measures and international cooperation as required to enhance nuclear security.

Even though the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit ended without any major breakthrough, we still can say some progresses have been made in strengthening nuclear security. First, the international consensus on nuclear security is consolidated in this summit. Protecting and preventing the proliferation of nuclear materials has been a major subject in American foreign policy toward former Soviet Union ever since the end of cold war, and plenty work has been done in the last two decades and it has been rewarding in terms of nuclear nonproliferation. Originally, strengthening the nuclear security was an American agenda; however, the terrorist attack in September 11, 2011 raised the alert of nuclear terrorism for all countries concerned. By sponsoring the first nuclear summit, President Obama raised the priority of nuclear security for all participating countries. The participating world leaders have many urgent national and international challenges to tackle with, but the summit focused their minds and efforts on nuclear terrorism. In this sense, the Nuclear Security Summit itself is a major progress toward nuclear security. International consensus on this issue was built ever since the first summit, and the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit furthered this endeavor.
Second, many countries are willing to take, and have taken actions at national level to strengthening the nuclear security in the past two years and for the future. In the 2010 Washington Summit, participating countries made 67 national commitments to bolster global nuclear security, and 80% percent of those commitments have been achieved. Without the international consensus built in the Nuclear Security Summit, it is doubtful whether any countries could have achieved so much over such a short period of time. This momentum continued in this year's summit. The United States, the Netherlands, France, and Belgium announced their plans to convert highly enriched uranium targets used in reactors for producing medical isotopes into low enriched uranium targets, and it is expected that participating countries will present their voluntary actions intended to minimize the use of highly enriched uranium at the end of 2013. 
Third, many countries are willing to cooperate with international partners to strengthen nuclear security and nuclear safety, and reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism. The consequence of any nuclear devices detonated by terrorist groups, or any nuclear accident similar to the one  in Fukushima Daiichi last year, could not be confined within one country's border. Given nuclear disaster's global political, economic, social, and psychological consequences, there is no place that can be free of nuclear disaster. To strengthening nuclear security and nuclear safety requires not only national measures but also international cooperation. The Nuclear Security Summit serves as a perfect platform for all participating countries to work together to address these threats, and this year's summit encouraged all states' contribution to expand IAEA's role in strengthening nuclear security, to cooperate on advanced technologies and systems, to share best practices, to provide technological assistance, and to share information.
Though many progresses have been made, and this momentum is likely to continue, it is still too early to be complacent. Considering the huge fissile materials stockpiles and the increasing amount of nuclear materials with many developing countries developing nuclear power plants, it is believed that the protection of nuclear materials remains challenging, and the danger of nuclear theft and illicit trafficking poses a sever concern for many countries. 
According to the International Panel on Fissile Materials' estimates, there are currently about 2000 tons of weapon usable material—-about 1500 tons of highly enriched uranium and almost 500 tons of separated plutonium in global stock. Most of these fissile materials are held by the United States and Russia, and other fissile materials are scattered at hundreds of sites in more than 30 countries. Some of these materials are well secured due to efforts made in the past years, but many are not yet. These materials not well secured are vulnerable to theft and illicit trafficking. Even though President Obama has an ambitious plan, namely, to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years, it is a job easy to say than to do. The US Government Accountability Office's investigation concluded that his plan lacked key details including cost, time frame, and scope of work. If President Obama wants to make further progress in nuclear security, he gets tremendous work to do. 
Other than the challenges of the huge amount of stockpile, the increasing interests from developing countries to develop nuclear power plants to generate electricity as an alternative for fossil fuel and a solution to global warming might be another challenge in nuclear security. The more countries develop nuclear power plants, the more nuclear materials will be produced, and the more challenging it will be to fully secure nuclear materials. One example could illuminate such a danger. In November 2007, four gunmen intruded into the Pelindaba nuclear reactor and research center in South Africa in which weapon useable fissile materials enough for a few nuclear bombs were stored, and they attacked the guard, took a computer and fled away. If not enough efforts is made to strengthen the security of these nuclear facilities, nobody could rest assured of the nuclear security situation.
In a word, the Nuclear Security Summit is moving torwards the right direction to strengthen nuclear security, to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism, but it is only one step in a long march. As what the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit indicates, to build a world free of nuclear threat, it is time to turn promise to action, hope to reality. 
Fan Jishe is a Senior Fellow from the Institute of American Studies at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and he is also the Deputy Director of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation Studies.
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