WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is highlighting nuclear security accomplishments made in the last two years in advance of next week’s summit in South Korea and signaling some “surprises” will be revealed about how much has been done thus far (see GSN, March 22).
Experts and some world leaders caution, however, that much work remains to be done in terms of ensuring that nuclear materials and facilities are sufficiently protected from terrorists.
During a Tuesday briefing on President Obama’s trip to the summit, Gary Samore -- White House coordinator for arms control, weapons of mass destruction, proliferation and terrorism -- said the March 26-27 meeting will be an opportunity for “cashing in” on commitments made during the first nuclear security summit, which took place in Washington in April 2010.
The White House expects “Seoul will provide an opportunity, as Washington did, for countries to make further commitments and to announce things that they’ve done, some of which I think will be surprises to people in terms of countries that have eliminated all the nuclear material in their possession,” Samore said.
Progress has been made in a wide variety of areas, the Obama adviser said.
“In some cases, it will be stronger physical security,” Samore said. “In other cases, it will be steps to consolidate the material. In other cases, it will be actual steps to eliminate those materials so that some countries no longer have any fissile material on their territory. In other cases, it will be measures to strengthen the security culture.”
In addition, “There will be about a dozen or so countries that are establishing training centers and support centers for their own nuclear industry and also to make available to other regional countries,” Samore said.
“Governments have been very effective in carrying out commitments they made in Washington two years ago,” Samore said. He referenced a report that the Partnership for Global Security released earlier this month finding that approximately 80 percent of the 67 national commitments made by 30 global leaders at the 2010 Washington gathering have been completed.
In the same briefing, Daniel Russel, National Security Council senior director for Asia, labeled the accomplishments “an unprecedented set of international cooperation around norms associated with nuclear security.”
Some experts say, though, that it is difficult to assess how much the security pledges have achieved. Partnership for Global Security President Kenneth Luongo said earlier this month that despite the finding that most 2010 commitments had been completed, assessing the value of those commitments can be difficult.
For example, in his 2009 speech in Prague that led to the first security summit two years ago, President Obama called for an international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years.
However, “nobody ever defined what the four-year goal was,” in terms of exactly what “securing” means, said Luongo, calling it a “free ride.”
In addition, some commitments that nations made during the 2010 summit were based on nuclear security efforts that were already under way, Luongo said. For example, Chile completed its national commitment to eliminate all 18 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from the country ahead of the 2010 summit, even though the commitment was noted as a goal at that gathering.
And some commitments have fallen through, administration officials have suggested recently.
“What’s always difficult is when political situations change in countries,” National Nuclear Security Administrator Thomas D’Agostino said during a March 8 breakfast meeting with reporters. “And there have been a few of those that happened over the last two years that will cause a country to believe that, ‘Hey, we no longer want to -- or we want to slow down the pace of what was committed to earlier.’”
NNSA officials declined to specify which countries D’Agostino was referring to. However, one example of a country that has reneged on a nuclear security agreement is Belarus (see GSN, Aug. 22, 2011).
In August, Belarus announced it would halt participation in an agreement to send its highly enriched uranium to Russia. The deal would have seen Belarus divest itself of hundreds of pounds of Soviet-era nuclear material, with assistance from the United States.
However, Belarus suspended the deal in retaliation for the U.S. State Department’s imposition of sanctions targeting four Belarusian state-owned firms due to concerns over ongoing political repression in the ex-Soviet state.
Stockpiles of weapons-usable nuclear materials have actually increased in nations such as India and Pakistan, despite the 2010 commitments, Agence France-Presse reported Page Stoutland of the Nuclear Threat Initiative as saying at a pre-summit Nuclear Security Symposium in the South Korean capital.
“At the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit … leaders should seize the opportunity to improve stewardship of the world’s most dangerous materials,” Stoutland said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Friday that world leaders should use the summit as opportunity to strengthen international law regarding nuclear security and safety, the Yonhap news agency reported .
“Strengthening the rule of law is a key priority,” Ban said. “This will require new efforts to achieve universal adherence to and more effective implementation of relevant international legal instruments.”
Although the Obama administration has sought to keep the summit focused narrowly on preventing nuclear materials from being obtained by terrorists, Ban also urged the international community to “take a holistic view of nuclear safety, nuclear security, nuclear disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation,” given Japan’s Fukushima disaster last year (see GSN, March 14).
While acknowledging some setbacks, D’Agostino also touted what he said were summit accomplishments. He said efforts to convert highly enriched uranium reactors to low enriched uranium, which cannot be used for making weapons, had “picked up.”
D’Agostino earlier this month suggested new announcements in this regard would be made at next week’s Seoul summit, but did not specify which countries were involved.
Similarly, the State Department on Wednesday heralded the accomplishments of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, which the United States co-chairs with Russia. The initiative “has produced important results that complement the Nuclear Security Summit process and help advance critical elements addressed in the summit,” according to the statement.
The initiative’s Nuclear Detection Working Group, chaired by the Netherlands, “is developing a series of guidance documents focused on developing and/or enhancing nuclear and radiological detection efforts,” the State Department said.
In addition, the Nuclear Forensics Working Group, chaired by Australia, recently completed a document “intended to raise policy-maker and decision-maker awareness of nuclear forensics as a tool to enhance nuclear material security and to prevent illicit uses of nuclear and other radioactive material.”
The Response and Mitigation Working Group, chaired by Morocco, agreed in February on a “scope document that focuses its activities on collaborative development of best practices and capacity-building to strengthen national emergency response framework in the event of a malicious act involving nuclear and other radioactive material,” the State Department said.