Keep focus on nuclear security

Updated: 2012-03-26 15:31

By Swaran Singh (China Daily)

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More than 53 heads of state and representatives from four international organizations will attend the second Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul on Monday and Tuesday. They will take stock of the progress they have made in implementing the communiqu and work plan agreed at the first summit in Washington D.C. in April 2010 and endeavor to agree on substantial new measures that will be reflected in the communiqu released at the end of this summit.

But the original aim of these summits, strengthening global nuclear material security through national and cooperative measures, seems to have taken a back seat to a new focus on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear safety.

While the mandate of the first summit was to evolve national mechanisms to secure or dispose of nuclear and radioactive materials and prevent their trafficking, the attention of participants at the second summit has already shifted to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Iran, thanks to its staging in Seoul,

Although neither the DPRK nor Iran has been invited to attend, various comments in the lead-up to the summit have been frontloading the challenge of the DPRK and Iran's nuclear issues, and some of the leaders will be tempted to raise these issues, even if only on the sidelines of the summit. Particularly the United States, as President Barack Obama will no doubt want to play to the media with the presidential election on the horizon.

In addition, given the backdrop of the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant following the tsunami in Japan last March, the focus of the summit has shifted from the security of nuclear materials to the safety of nuclear installations. The Republic of Korea is an emerging exporter of nuclear technologies and this is likely to see the summit deliberating on the need to ensure the safety of nuclear power facilities. Several other influential leaders will also be carrying this message from their powerful domestic lobbies. The US has recently revived - after a freeze of three decades - its nuclear reactor manufacturing with a new project now sanctioned for Georgia.

This change in priorities seems most pronounced in case of the US. A landmark arms control agreement with Russia was followed by the high-profile inaugural Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in 2010, which managed to establish a consensus on 67 commitments aimed at preventing terrorists from getting their hands on weapons-grade nuclear materials. However, the US' budget clearly reflects a change in priorities. Funding for the Department of State Selected Global Threat Reduction programs, which were set up to reduce and protect vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials, was cut from $167.4 million last year to $155.4 million in the administration's budget request to Congress in February. The cuts primarily hitting a program that converts nuclear reactors to run on non-weapon-grade low-enriched uranium rather than highly enriched uranium. The International Nuclear Materials Protection and Cooperation Program, which was established to improve security at vulnerable stockpiles of nuclear weapons in countries deemed to be of special concern, fares even worse as its funding is slashed from $571.6 last year to $206 million.

Meanwhile, there has been almost no major breakthrough in the application of nuclear forensics to analyze the composition of nuclear materials in order to tackle the illicit trafficking of nuclear materials. Similarly, there has been no progress by the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in even opening negotiations for the proposed Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, which aims bring an end to the production of fissile materials. So far the Conference on Disarmament has been limited to informal discussions on the treaty's purpose, definitions and scope.

Meanwhile, the threat of nuclear terrorism has not abated. According to Khammar Mrabit, director of the safety and security coordination section of the International Atomic Energy Agency, nuclear and radioactive materials remain insecure and vulnerable. The Agency's Office of Nuclear Security still receives reports of "around 200 incidents a year" of theft, sabotage, unauthorized access and illegal transfers. Asian countries remain particularly vulnerable due to their growing number of nuclear installations.

There have been suggestions of strengthening existing mechanisms such as making the Agency's inspections more stringent and mandatory. There have also been proposals for maximizing crisis management through better coordination among national nuclear regulators around the world.

The achievements on nuclear security remain modest and misplaced. Bilateral and individual initiatives need to be elevated to multilateral mechanisms with specific procedures for verification and enforcement.

However, this will be unattainable at the Seoul summit given that the participants seem to be more interested in bilateral equations, or worst in personal media exposure, popularity ratings and setting scores.

The author is professor of diplomacy and disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.