Obama's Chapter in the Story of Global Nuclear Non-Proliferation

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At this week's international nuclear security summit in Seoul, President Obama and other leaders will try to push forward the decades-long effort to make us all safer from nuclear weapons.

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Presidents Obama and Lee Myung-Bak, of South Korea, meet in Seoul / Reuters

In April 2010, Barack Obama convinced leaders from forty-seven countries to meet in Washington and discuss a topic to which most had previously paid scarce attention: securing vulnerable nuclear materials. Most of these leaders cared little about the matter at hand but were eager to please a popular new U.S. president with the goal of securing all nuclear materials within four years. The desire to cultivate Obama's favor had an important payoff: high-profile attention to an issue that has often lingered in obscurity, even compared to other concerns in the abstruse world of global nuclear politics. And that attention meant potentially significant progress in keeping nuclear-weapons materials from terrorists.

The leaders at that summit also agreed that South Korea would host another nuclear-security summit in 2012. On the face of it, South Korea was a strange choice, given that it neither possessed nuclear weapons nor the materials to make them--highly enriched uranium or separated plutonium. But Obama's first choice, Russia, turned down the opportunity, and South Korea's president Lee Myung-bak was eager to raise Seoul's standing on the global stage and give the country's burgeoning nuclear-energy industry a global seal of approval.

So, today, 50 or so leaders descend on Seoul to track progress since the last summit and make a batch of fresh commitments. While their presence is sure to be heralded by the U.S. government, Korean citizens are likely to be less welcoming. Many in Korea find it strange that their government should be putting so much effort into an event on nuclear terrorism when nuclear threats from North Korea and the effects of the Fukushima accident in Japan appear to be more pressing issues for the peninsula. Other countries share similar concerns, believing that the United States has devoted too much attention to the threat of nuclear terrorism at the expense of nonproliferation, safety, and disarmament issues.

These concerns are likely to limit the ambitions of those who would like to see governments make significantly deeper nuclear-security commitments at Seoul. They are also likely to hamper efforts to make the current biannual security-summit process an ongoing fixture of international relations--particularly if attempts are made to stretch the current process beyond Obama's four-year time frame. States face a choice: they can move forward with a wider process that takes in more issues in order to justify continued high-level attention; they can continue discussing a relatively narrow set of issues at a lower level; or they can maintain these high-level meetings but on a less frequent basis.

In a 2009 speech in Prague, President Obama called for a world without nuclear weapons and identified nuclear terrorism as the most serious threat to international security. His focus was on nuclear security measures aimed at preventing, detecting, and responding to intentional human actions such as theft of nuclear material or sabotage of nuclear facilities. The international community has a long way to go before it can address such issues effectively, however. Some limited international mechanisms cover aspects of the problem, but there is no comprehensive international framework for nuclear security.

In his Prague speech, Obama announced plans to hold a nuclear-security summit in 2010. In addition to delegates from the 47 represented nations, this first summit in Washington pulled in representatives from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the European Union, and the United Nations. The meeting produced a communiqué, which set broad goals, and a work plan that detailed objectives for all states. The work plan emphasized cooperation, whether through sharing information or coordinating efforts among states on various levels. Though all countries supported these documents, the commitments and goals were strictly voluntary, provided numerous caveats, and only vaguely specified which new measures should be applied and in what time frame.

In many ways, the most concrete "deliverables" from the summit were the states' individual commitments, dubbed "house gifts." The White House announced that 54 national commitments were made by 29 countries. These included pledges to donate money to the IAEA, remove or secure nuclear material, prevent nuclear smuggling, ratify or support existing conventions and treaties, and convert reactors from running on nuclear-weapons-usable highly enriched uranium (HEU) to safer low-enriched uranium (LEU).

The last promise was particularly important. Unlike its cousin, plutonium, HEU is suitable for use in the simplest kind of nuclear weapon, a so-called "gun-type" bomb. In gun-type devices, one subcritical piece of fissile material is fired at another subcritical target. Together they form a critical mass and spark a chain reaction. The process is so simple and well understood that such a device does not need to be explosively tested; even the first such bomb, which was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, was not tested prior to its use. Terrorists who acquired a sufficient quantity of HEU would not need to be backed by the scientific and financial resources of a state to construct such a nuclear device.

The primary civilian use of HEU has been in research reactors and other test facilities, where it has been used in the process of producing medical isotopes and in civilian propulsion reactors. A half century ago, the Soviet Union and the United States started shipping HEU abroad as part of their peaceful nuclear-cooperation programs ("Atoms for Peace" in U.S. parlance) because it generates a high flow of neutrons, useful for research and a number of specialized tasks.

In the 1970s, the United States and the Soviet Union realized the potential proliferation problem of stockpiles of HEU fuel scattered around the world and began researching how to convert reactors to the use of LEU fuel. Russia later restarted the Soviet program, but it has been reluctant to convert its own reactors to LEU. After the September 11 attacks, the United States accelerated its efforts to secure HEU holdings around the world and convert facilities to LEU.

Conversion is not a simple process: LEU fuel cannot be introduced into a research reactor without significant changes to the reactor itself, similar to how cars cannot run on fuels which they were not designed to handle. Since it is expensive to change the core design completely (much like putting a new engine in an old car), engineers attempt to tinker with the reactor core to achieve the same performance while not altering the reactor's basic dimensions or running costs. The challenge is particularly difficult given that research reactors are even less standardized than power reactors, meaning that almost every conversion of a reactor requires a time-consuming process to determine what changes can be made safely even before undertaking the years-long conversion process itself. However, these technical challenges pale next to the difficulty in motivating countries, particularly Russia, to undertake conversions. U.S. officials estimate that even after decades of effort, little more than one-third of the almost two hundred facilities worldwide that used HEU have been converted to LEU or shut down.

An April 2011 report by the Arms Control Association and the Partnership for Global Security concluded that roughly 60 percent of the 2010 commitments had been met, and substantial progress had been made on another 30 percent. Very few commitments had seen no progress at all. Ukraine, which was highly integrated into the Soviet nuclear complex, was suddenly left in the early 1990s with control of nuclear-weapons, energy and research programs, along with associated facilities and radioactive waste. While it transferred its weapons back to Russia in the 1990s, Ukraine still has nuclear-energy and research programs. It pledged to remove all of its HEU stocks by the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, and today it has removed 50 kg of HEU fuel and 56 kg of spent HEU fuel from three sites. Thus, it is on track to fulfill its commitment. Outside of the summit, Ukraine has developed its legal and regulatory structures and accepted the United States' help in strengthening its on-site security. Other states have continued to complete their promises to increase cooperation with international mechanisms such as the IAEA, the G-8 Global Partnership and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. They have also ratified related treaties and conventions, created new training and research centers, and physically secured or minimized the use of fissile material.

But other foreign-policy considerations can interrupt these efforts. Belarus, another former Soviet state with a substantial nuclear program, was not invited to attend the 2010 summit because it resisted pressure to give up its stockpile of HEU, but it pledged to the United States in December 2010 that it would ship its remaining weapons-grade HEU (nearly enough for two bombs) to Russia by the time of the 2012 summit. However, Minsk retracted that promise after the United States imposed sanctions on Belarus for cracking down on opposition leaders and cooperating with Iran's nuclear program.

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Presented by

Miles A. Pomper and Michelle E. Dover

Miles A. Pomper is a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, where Michelle E. Dover is a research assistant.

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