Summit heralds progress in global nuclear security

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Summit heralds progress in global nuclear security

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Since global leaders gathered for the inaugural Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April 2010, the world has come a long way in realizing the summit’s goal of a world free of nuclear terrorism.

Around 10 countries have voluntarily reduced or eliminated their highly enriched uranium by about 400 kilograms (882 pounds) over the past two years. China, Algeria and others have signed international nuclear security treaties to place their nuclear materials under stricter control.

According to Seoul officials, the second Nuclear Security Summit, to be held in Seoul for two days beginning today, will provide greater momentum for countries to follow up on their commitments to nuclear security.

Several influential countries on nuclear security will reveal their plans of how much and by when they will cut highly enriched uranium and plutonium during the summit, a Seoul official said. Those plans will be made public at the closing of the summit tomorrow.

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“The amount of nuclear materials the countries would likely pledge to cut during the summit will be sufficient to manufacture thousands of nuclear warheads,” the official said.

Initiated by U.S. President Barack Obama to prevent terrorists from obtaining and using nuclear weapons, the first Nuclear Security Summit united leaders of 47 nations and three international organizations.

At the summit, those leaders discussed Obama’s proposed goal of securing the most vulnerable nuclear material within four years, and the agreed upon principles and actions were spelled out in the Washington communique. The communique, a summary of the 12-point agreement, contains commitments by world leaders to strengthen nuclear security and reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism. The separate voluntary Work Plan further detailed the plans.

The Seoul summit, which will bring together the top leaders of 53 countries and four international organizations, will renew the commitments with the Seoul communique.

According to the organizers, the Seoul communique will include: reducing the use and strengthening the management of highly enriched uranium and plutonium; encouraging countries to join in on nuclear security-related regulations; strengthening international cooperation on preventing the illegal trafficking of nuclear materials; and supporting the nuclear security activities of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

At Seoul’s proposal, strengthening the management of radioactive materials is also on the agenda, organizers added.

Bolstering the physical protection of nuclear facilities, an issue that grabbed the public’s attention after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis in Japan last year, will be also reflected in the Seoul communique, the organizers said. Seoul has supported it.

In an e-mail interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily, Graham Allison, director of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said Seoul did the right thing to take on such important challenges.

“The global ‘renaissance’ in nuclear power, in which Korea will be a key player, will only be possible if nuclear power is kept both safe [no more Fukushimas] and secure [no nuclear terrorism],” he said.

Allison said the Seoul summit can play an essential role in nuclear security, as there is much left undone after the Washington summit. He expected the Seoul summit to bring about an agreement on a “gold standard” for nuclear security, including steps to reduce the probability of theft of nuclear weapons or materials and a mechanism to make states accountable for nuclear security measures.

Producing weapon-grade nuclear material or a radioactive device only takes 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium or 8 kilograms of plutonium, nuclear experts say. That is a tiny amount of the material scattered all over the world.

Nuclear experts estimate that there are about 1,600 tons of highly enriched uranium and about 500 tons of plutonium in the world, an amount sufficient to produce about 126,500 nuclear weapons.

A total of 26 countries have around 120 research reactors using highly enriched uranium, and around 16 tons of highly enriched uranium were used for civilian purposes in non-nuclear states as of last year.

A considerable amount of them are vulnerable to the possibility of falling into the hands of terrorists, nuclear experts warn.

According to the IAEA, arrests for trafficking of nuclear materials were reported more than 1,800 times around the world between 1993 and 2010, with the frequency of such cases increasing to 200 times annually on average since 2007.

Last week, Korean President Lee Myung-bak stressed voluntary efforts by the participating countries to reduce nuclear materials and discuss the situation. In 2005, Korea signed two international conventions on nuclear security - the International Convention on Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism and the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials.

Two years later, Korea joined the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, an international partnership launched in 2006 that aims to strengthen the global capacity to prevent, detect and respond to nuclear terrorism.

Lee said the countries will have to cooperate on measures to prevent the proliferation of nuclear materials and to secure technology for safe management.

“The Nuclear Security Summit, since its launch, has been an effective platform to address nuclear security issues,” said an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“The Seoul summit will not just highlight those accomplishments, but will create new momentum for a world without nukes.”

The official expected the summit to also serve as an opportunity to raise awareness among the Korean public on the significance of the issue of nuclear security.


By Moon Gwang-lip [joe@joongang.co.kr]

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