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The Peninsula

The Seoul Nuclear Security Summit: Reviewing Progress and Maintaining Momentum

Published March 21, 2012
Category: South Korea

By Peter Crail

The upcoming Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul will, for the second time, bring significant high-level attention to the threat of nuclear terrorism and the global responsibility of nuclear material security. World leaders have recognized that a nuclear terrorist attack anywhere would have global consequences, and that with enough nuclear material spread around the world for tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, the prospect of nuclear terrorism is real but preventable.

At the 2010 summit in Washington, 50 world leaders endorsed President Barack Obama’s April 2009 call to secure all vulnerable nuclear material in four years and agreed that strengthening nuclear security requires “responsible national actions and sustained and effective international cooperation.” Establishing a global nuclear security architecture, therefore, is not just a U.S. initiative but an international prerogative in which every state plays a part. South Korea’s role in hosting the 2012 summit reflects the need for countries in different parts of the globe to provide regional leadership and to address the challenges of nuclear terrorism in their regional contexts while at the same time ensuring that international standards on nuclear material security are strengthened and harmonized.

Taking Stock

The Seoul summit is most likely a mid-point in the nuclear security summit process, with a final summit to be held in the Netherlands in 2014. A key function of the meeting will then be to take stock, both literally and figuratively, of the progress made over the past two years to consolidate and secure nuclear material.

One important measuring stick to evaluate progress is the degree to which the participants at the 2010 summit accomplished the specific goals they pledged to achieve. A recent study by the Arms Control Association and the Partnership for Global Security assessed that about 80 percent of the 67 commitments made at the 2010 summit by 30 countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been completed. These accomplishments range from the ratification of nuclear security conventions to the removal or disposition of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons. This represents significant progress and the parties involved should be commended for engaging in such important follow-up. However, there remains a substantial amount of nuclear material at risk for misuse and there are still no globally agreed standards to effectively secure it. The summit should build on the progress made by charting a path to setting high standards for controlling weapons-useable nuclear material and minimizing its use around the world.

A Broader Agenda

While the 2010 summit focused on the key goal of securing nuclear material, the Seoul summit will expand the agenda to address additional threats stemming from the use of nuclear technology.

With the summit being held a little over a year after the tragic accident at the Fukushima reactors, the summit will confront the nexus between nuclear safety and security and highlight the responsibilities of states possessing nuclear power to prevent, mitigate, and respond to potential dangers. It is important to remember that the prospect of nuclear terrorism is not limited to the use of a nuclear device, but also includes sabotage against nuclear reactors with the intent of causing a man-made Fukushima. Efforts to protect against such a scenario overlap considerably with measures to limit the damage caused by another natural disaster.

The summit will also touch upon a broader class of material than just those used in nuclear weapons. Whereas 32 countries currently maintain HEU and plutonium, nearly every country has radioactive material, which is used in the construction, food, and medical industries, among others. Terrorist groups may be interested in acquiring such material for use in a so-called “dirty bomb,” which uses explosives to spread radiation over a wide area. Though not as destructive as a nuclear device, the prevalence of radioactive materials might make such radiation dispersal devices an attractive alternative.

One issue that is likely to be raised in the course of the meeting, but not specifically addressed, is the North Korean nuclear weapons program. The enigmatic country possess enough nuclear material for several nuclear weapons and has the ability to make more using its uranium-enrichment program. The summit’s proximity to the North Korean threat makes it difficult to ignore, particularly in light of Pyongyang’s announced rocket launch next month and its implications for disarmament diplomacy, but it will not be an appropriate forum to shape the agenda on the North’s weapons program.

It is fitting the Seoul Summit would seek to address a broader agenda of nuclear security concerns, particularly as they relate to recent regional experiences. Yet the core priority of the summit process should remain: consolidating, securing, and where possible, eliminating HEU and plutonium around the world.

Maintaining Momentum

Unlike efforts to address nuclear proliferation and disarmament, which involve much political conflict and compromise, nuclear security is more a matter of coordination and cooperation. The steps necessary to consolidate, control, and curtail the use of weapons-useable nuclear material are largely well known and this lack of political controversy has allowed a wide variety of countries to take part in the summit process. However, priorities need to be set, funds need to be committed, and expertise needs to be developed to achieve this goal. The summit process has placed the challenge of nuclear terrorism firmly on the international agenda and that momentum should be used now to lock down the remaining vulnerable nuclear material and to lay the groundwork for sustained efforts past 2014 to build a robust and uniform nuclear security regime.

Peter Crail is a Nonproliferation Analyst for the Arms Control Association. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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