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

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.

As the Seoul meeting approached, attention shifted from the accomplishments and weaknesses of the Washington summit to the goals, content, and scope of the next meeting. Everyone anticipates that South Korea will adapt its summit to reflect current events and its own regional concerns, including tensions with North Korea, spent-fuel management, and the aftermath of the Fukushima accident.

The preparation for the 2012 Seoul summit began with a November 2010 meeting of the "sherpas" (top officials from each country assigned to negotiate on issues before the summit) in Buenos Aires. The meeting was meant to review progress on the completion of national commitments and begin floating ideas for the next conference. Nine concepts emerged:

1. Developing HEU-management guidelines. Modeled on existing plutonium-management guidelines, these rules would call for states to provide greater transparency on their HEU holdings. They also suggest tough standards for security, transportation and international transfers. The guidelines would aim to raise the cost of storing the material, thus encouraging states that are making little use of stocks to eliminate or consolidate them.

2. Transportation security. Japan wanted to see more action to ensure radioactive material was protected from theft, sabotage or other malicious acts during transport. The Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) addresses these issues, though not all states have ratified the convention or built the necessary legislative and regulatory frameworks and provided sufficient resources to implement it.

3. Illicit trafficking. Over the past two decades, the IAEA's Illicit Trafficking Database has recorded hundreds of cases of criminal activity involving radioactive materials, including well over a dozen involving HEU or plutonium. Since illicit nuclear trafficking often makes use of the same tactics as do other black markets in humans, arms and drugs, it is considered imperative that law enforcement and border security are trained in what to look for in nuclear smuggling. The South Caucasus and Central Asia are of particular concern, in part because they are situated between the "supply" in Russia and potential buyers; these regions already have established networks for drugs, humans and arms, and all these could be used for nuclear trafficking as well. Officials could blunt the threat of nuclear smuggling by raising the level of border security in these countries and by providing training, detection equipment and response plans.

4. Nuclear forensics. These technologies and activities attempt to trace nuclear material (either used in a nuclear explosion or found unused) to its original source. This helps prevent future thefts, particularly from those who work in nuclear facilities, and also holds governments and organizations accountable for security lapses.

5. Advancing treaty ratification. There is currently no overarching framework for nuclear security, but nuclear-security standards could be enhanced if countries would merely implement measures already agreed upon. These include the 2005 amendment to the CPPNM, which takes a treaty that only governed nuclear material during international transport and extends its writ to ensuring domestic protection of the same materials. The International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICNST) also addresses nuclear security as it calls on states to take steps necessary to prevent, detect and respond to terrorist acts involving nuclear material. Despite the treaties' relevance, their potency is weakened through lack of follow-through. The CPPNM amendment, for example, has been ratified by only one-third of the countries that are party to the convention. Two-thirds must ratify it before it can go into effect.

6. Coordination with other international mechanisms. These include groups such as the IAEA, Interpol and the United Nations, all of whom will be participants at the summit. Already these organizations foster communication among countries and address issues related to nuclear security. Some, such as the IAEA, already concentrate serious effort on these issues.

7. Nuclear-security culture. This aims to follow the path of nuclear-safety regimens of the past quarter century, which sought to curb natural disasters and flaws in technology or human operation. A strong commitment by many nuclear operators to nuclear safety significantly diminished the chances of nuclear-plant accidents since Chernobyl (leaving aside Fukushima). The World Institute for Nuclear Security, for example, is an international organization already dedicated to promoting best practices in nuclear security and could use further recognition and support in achieving its goals.

8. Information security. This aims to ensure that records accounting for nuclear material and tracing their control are secure from unauthorized access. Growing concerns about cybersecurity make this issue particularly pressing.

9. Radiological-source security. This involves protecting radioactive materials, such as cesium, in medical and industrial uses. Most countries do not have the special nuclear material needed for weapons, but many have civilian uses for various radiological sources, which are susceptible to loss, theft and diversion. Often these materials are small in size, easy to transport, and housed in less secure facilities such as hospitals and schools. Such materials can be used in "dirty bombs," conventional bombs that dispense radiological material, to contaminate areas and cause panic.

As the sherpas and their deputies (the "sous-sherpas") met every few months, a consensus formed in favor of some of these ideas. Others have fallen by the wayside, and still others continue to be in dispute. For example, there is general support for doing more about nuclear smuggling, exemplified by the fact that Interpol will participate in the meeting for the first time. On the other hand, some developing countries have resisted drafting HEU guidelines as part of the summit process, saying such issues are best addressed within the IAEA. They have also resisted a U.S-led effort to set a date for phasing out the use of HEU in research reactors that produce medical isotopes.

The process of refining the agenda has been subject to many of the problems often seen in large, multilateral engagements: difficulty focusing the participants toward problem solving and away from established positions; a tendency to settle at the lowest common denominator; and challenges in making sure all participants are still engaged and on board with discussions. Organizers also have faced questions about the legitimacy and life span of the security-summit process as opposed to other, more established multinational institutions such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review process or the IAEA. Although these bodies tend to give short shrift to nuclear security, they are strongholds in developing countries, which generally view nuclear security as a lower priority than other nuclear-policy goals. Some countries have also questioned the legitimacy of any global attempt to address the issue of nuclear security, seeing it as a potential violation of their sovereignty and something that would allow other countries to discover their security vulnerabilities.

In addition, South Korea faces challenges in continuing the summit process while addressing issues of particular relevance to its population. The matter of greatest interest to Korean citizens is addressing the developing nuclear arsenal of North Korea. The rogue regime was invited to the forthcoming summit--but only on the condition that it renounce its nuclear-weapons program, an unlikely prospect. Thus, North Korea is not expected to attend the summit, and Washington will carefully avoid acknowledging any legitimacy in North Korea's program. Despite these expected interactions, the United States and South Korea could seek to use the summit as an opportunity to open a quiet dialogue with Pyongyang on radiological and nuclear security. In addition, the South Korean government is sure to take advantage of the captive audience of high-level leaders to seek support on the North Korean issue from sympathetic states on the margins of the summit.

The Fukushima accident also has altered the agenda. There are a number of international institutions and forums dedicated to nuclear safety, but given the magnitude of the accident, its proximity to South Korea and Seoul's large nuclear-power industry, South Korean leaders will undoubtedly use the summit as an opportunity to reassure their citizens about the safety of nuclear power. The inclusion of nuclear safety posed an underlying tension in the run-up to the summit between South Korea and the United States because the latter believes the nuclear-safety issue is better addressed elsewhere. An uneasy compromise has emerged, with summit participants planning to discuss the areas where the issues of safety and security coincide. In truth, the nascent international nuclear-security regime could learn a great deal from the more established nuclear-safety regime that developed after the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Possible areas for action modeled on the nuclear-safety regime include the use of regular assessments, information sharing, peer review and reviews of related international conventions. These integrate safety and security concerns. Since many countries are concerned about the safety of nuclear plants, peer reviews would help educate countries about preventative safety measures while creating new avenues for cooperation. And since nuclear crises do not respect political borders, support could be given to existing international institutions, for example by increasing funding for IAEA activities in nuclear safety and security. Regular reviews and near-universal adherence to the Convention on Nuclear Safety offer a vision of what might happen were the amended CPPNM and the ICNST to have the same reach and regular review. Even efforts to implement integrated approaches to risk management or standardize information gathering and distribution would further reinforce the development of frameworks to ensure nuclear security.

South Korea also seeks to place a greater focus on securing radioactive sources and civilian facilities, such as nuclear-power plants, waste-management sites and hospitals. The Obama administration devoted little attention to this issue at the 2010 summit because it wanted to concentrate on securing the more dangerous fissile materials. However, for most countries, particularly those without fissile material, the threat of a dirty bomb is greater than that of the detonation of a nuclear device. One possibility could be making the current voluntary IAEA Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources a legally binding measure. Another might be to launch a broad, international scientific effort to look for technological alternatives to the most high-risk radioactive sources. Securing radioactive sources is not limited to on-site measures; it also requires a comprehensive tracking system and police training on how to respond to stolen nuclear material. This regimen can be enhanced by adherence to international mechanisms such as UN Security Council Resolution 1540. South Korea could discuss sharing or exporting its unique technology for tracing and tracking radioactive sources in real time as one of its house gifts.

South Korea also has developed parallel processes to occur around the Nuclear Security Summit. In 2010, separate meetings for industry and policy experts were held in conjunction with the summit. This time, South Korea is looking to build those meetings (scheduled to be held several days before the main summit) into something more substantial, particularly the industry event. The organizers of the Korean industry meeting are planning to put together three working groups--on HEU minimization, information security, and the intersection of safety and security--that will draft recommendations related to industry for political leaders at the summit.

In addition, Seoul has been working with Washington to encourage a fresh round of house gifts, including some potential "gift baskets" in which several countries will join together in a commitment. One particularly telltale sign will be how forthcoming Russia is in the field of HEU minimization, given that Moscow is viewed as the source of a significant amount of the HEU that has been seized by government authorities around the world. Russia has more than half of the world's remaining HEU -fueled reactors but has been reluctant to convert the reactors to LEU for largely social, cultural and economic reasons rather than technological ones. Only recently did it agree to cooperate with the United States on feasibility studies regarding converting some reactors, scheduled for completion by year's end. A true house gift from Moscow would be a commitment to move forward with converting those reactors and look to convert others.

The Seoul summit will also need to address the next steps for the nuclear-security-summit process. It is clear that all vulnerable nuclear materials will likely not be secured in the summit's four-year window. The question becomes whether there should be other summits in 2014 and beyond.

Given the four-year goals embraced at the first summit, it would make sense to have another summit in 2014 to assess whether these goals have been reached and what further actions should be taken. The joint commitment to that four-year time frame should also make it relatively easy to win support from countries for holding such a summit. Indeed, the biggest obstacle in this regard could prove to be a domestic one: concern by other countries that if Obama is not reelected, his Republican successor may not share the same commitment to the nuclear-security process. That said, nuclear security has been a truly bipartisan effort up to now, and the security summit has endorsed many Bush-administration initiatives.

Summits bring high-level attention to low-profile challenges, but leaders may be wary of meeting every two years on such a narrow agenda. Still, the regular nature of the meetings and the "house gifts" approach have served to generate support for the process among lower-level officials.

Organizers are pondering whether to push for a narrow focus at a lower level, a wider focus at the same high level, or less frequent meetings. A narrow focus could ensure that efforts continue to concentrate on meeting Obama's goal. A broader focus that includes nuclear safety, for example, and other peaceful nuclear issues could persuade leaders to attend such a meeting every two years. Finally, less frequent meetings would allow more opportunity for scoring progress and demand less high-level attention.

With the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit taking place on the eve of national elections in both the United States and South Korea, the meeting is sure to arouse partisan passions on both sides of the Pacific. Opposition leaders in Washington and Seoul will denounce the meeting as a meaningless photo op beside the ongoing conflicts with North Korea and Iran. In order to rebut this criticism, political leaders should strive for an ambitious outcome, particularly on the national commitments, which are not subject to the same lowest-common-denominator pressures as the broader declaration anticipated for the summit. They also need to set a firm foundation for the future by agreeing on a 2014 summit and putting in motion a process that will decide the future direction for these efforts. Such a success would ensure that the next U.S. administration--Democratic or Republican--is well positioned to continue efforts to protect the country against nuclear terrorism.

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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