Containers holding used nuclear fuel being stored under water for up to five years
to allow the fuel to cool down, before the uranium and plutonium is reprocessed.
Photo By Don McPhee
By Julian Borger
The London Guardian
Washington is in the throes of grinding to a halt for the Nuclear Security Summit on Monday and Tuesday, when delegations from 47 countries, 38 of them led by heads of state or government, come to town to talk about locking up the world’s “loose” nuclear material.
This is Act III of Barack Obama’s nuclear strategy, following the publication of the Nuclear Posture Review and the signing of the New Start treaty with Russia. Act IV will come next month in New York, at the review of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty.
The common aim is to contain the twin menace of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism, which Obama has identified as the principal threats to his country and to global security. The NPR and Start have both underwhelmed arms control purists, but have generally been welcomed as positive steps towards disarmament given the political environment Obama is operating in.
The Nuclear Security Summit is likely to trigger the same mixed emotions. The copies of the summit’s final communique and workplan that I’ve seen inevitably read like the lowest common denominator documents they are. The communique preamble, reads as follows:
Nuclear terrorism is one of the most challenging threats to international security, and strong nuclear security measures are the most effective means to prevent terrorists, criminals, or other unauthorized actors from acquiring nuclear materials.
In addition to our shared goals of nuclear disarmament, nuclear nonproliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy, we also all share the objective of nuclear security. Therefore those gathered here in Washington DC on April 13, 2010 commit to strengthen nuclear security and reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism. Success will require responsible national actions and sustained and effective international cooperation.
We welcome and join President Obama’s call to secure all vulnerable nuclear material in four years, as we work together to enhance nuclear security.
That nails down the main formal aim of the exercise – official backing for the Obama deadline to secure the world’s stocks of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU). The communique puts “fundamental responsibility” for looking after the stockpiles in the hands of national governments, but asks for more support for the various international conventions on the issue, which mostly languish unratified or ignored, in particular the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.
The accompanying work plan goes into more detail, calling itself a political (voluntary) commitment to take concrete actions. But those actions include efforts to bring the two UN conventions into force as legally binding documents. The plan calls for more support for the IAEA so that the agency can help states tighten their own security through an evolving set of guidelines. Rich countries are also urged to help poorer countries to better guard fissile material in the research reactors dotted around the world. Also:
Participating States will consider, where appropriate, the consolidation of national sites where nuclear material is held;
Participating States will consider, where appropriate, converting highly-enriched-uranium fueled research reactors, and other nuclear facilitiesusing highly enriched uranium, to use low enriched uranium, where it is technically and economically feasible;
There is to be another summit at a yet-to-be-specified location in 2012, to assess progress, but the bar for that progress is set comfortably low. What is lacking, even in the UN conventions, is any ‘gold standard’ for what the security on a nuclear site should look like. (Ian Kearns at BASIC has written a paper called “Keeping the lid on”, on what ought to come out of the summit) Even the IAEA security guidelines would not provide adequate protection against a determined terrorist assault on a university research reactor.
The main point of the exercise however is to get leaders from over 40 countries together to focus on an issue that is normally paid lip-service to. It sets a benchmark for good global citizenship, and more importantly a new benchmark for getting along well with Washington.
To that end, the world leaders have all been asked to bring something to the party, and that is where the real meat of the summit will be found. Chile shipped its HEU to the US last month, just in time for the summit. Other states, probably including Ukraine and Canada, will promise to convert HEU reactors to more proliferation-proof LEU. And the US and Russia will sign a deal on Monday to each dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium removed from weapons by using it to generate nuclear power.
The invited leaders will also be feel some pressure to come up with some concrete achievement to bring back in 2012, and so orders will be given and officials chivvied to do something. It is the art of leveraging political capital, and there is no question Obama is putting a lot of capital, time and energy, into what is arguably the world’s most serious but neglected security problem.
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