Next Nuclear Security Summit Could Take on Radiological Threat

(Mar. 18) -U.S. President Obama, right, greets South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. Participants in the next summit, planned for 2012 in Seoul, might address efforts to secure potential radiological-weapon materials, according to officials (Jewel Samad/Getty Images).
(Mar. 18) -U.S. President Obama, right, greets South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. Participants in the next summit, planned for 2012 in Seoul, might address efforts to secure potential radiological-weapon materials, according to officials (Jewel Samad/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- World leaders might take a hard look at strategies for preventing terrorists from acquiring materials that could be used in a radiological "dirty bomb" when they meet in South Korea next year for the second Nuclear Security Summit, officials familiar with the event say (see GSN, Feb. 22).

While the exact date and venue for the two-day event have not yet been selected, Seoul and its international partners have begun to discuss inviting countries beyond the 47 that attended the 2010 summit in Washington, said Sangwook Ham, a counselor in the political section of the South Korean Embassy in Washington.

Next year's summit might also address topics beyond locking down potential nuclear threats, such as security of radiological sources and safeguarding the information and technology used in programs that work with fissile materials, he added during a recent conference at the Canadian Embassy here.

One of South Korea's goals for the 2012 summit will be "to display how the pledges made by leaders in 2010 have been effectively turned into concrete action," Ham said.

"While it is significant that many countries made voluntary commitments at the 2010 summit to strengthen nuclear security, Korea hopes that at the 2012 summit it can convince additional countries to step forward and announce their own pledges to enhance nuclear security," the diplomat told the audience.

Last year, President Obama hosted the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. World leaders and dignitaries from 47 countries and three international organizations unanimously pledged to secure global stocks of nuclear material within four years, a cornerstone of the president's nonproliferation agenda.

The White House also released a work plan that detailed further steps nations would take in the pursuit of nuclear security. The plan emphasized strengthening existing nonproliferation measures such as the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism and U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540.

Attendees agreed at the time to hold a second summit in 2012 in Seoul.

Participating capitals since the first event convened a two-day meeting of government officials in Buenos Aires last November to begin hammering out the agenda for the 2012 summit.

Several countries that participated in that meeting raised the idea of expanding the 2012 agenda to include radiological materials, according to Ham. While he did not discuss details of the matter, the term is often used to refer to radioactive substances used in medicine, industry and other sectors that might be dispersed by terrorists using conventional explosives.

Experts are unsure how many radiological sources are in use around the world. Some estimates say that there are somewhere between 100,000 and 1 million worldwide.

"Since progress was made at the 2010 summit in securing vulnerable nuclear materials, we could consider including the security of radioactive associates as the next step," Ham told the embassy audience.

The next summit might also examine security measures surrounding the information and technology that make up atomic programs, according to Ham.

"In past years ... the international community has tried to physically secure fissile materials; however, the securing of information and technology that is needed to commit an act of nuclear terrorism seems and equally worthwhile goal," he said, without offering details.

The diplomat, though, sounded a note of caution about adding too much to the schedule.

"We do realize that one of the reasons for the success of the 2010 summit was a narrowly focused agenda," Ham said.

Another three or four expert meetings are likely to be scheduled in advance of the next summit to finalize the agenda, he noted.

A senior White House nonproliferation adviser this week expressed optimism about the 2012 conference.

"With about a year to go before the Seoul summit, I feel very confident we will have a successful meeting," Gary Samore, National Security Council coordinator for arms control and nonproliferation, said Thursday by e-mail.

"We will be able to demonstrate substantial progress toward fulfilling commitments made in the work plan from 2010" and expand beyond the focus of the Washington summit to include radiological materials, Samore, the Obama administration's designated official for planning the event, told Global Security Newswire.

Having South Korea host the summit would "allow the international community to break away from the idea that nuclear security is a problem solely for nuclear weapons states," according to Ham. "Countries will be able to reflect upon the role of nuclear energy and the importance of nuclear security."

Domestically, Seoul has established an interministerial preparatory committee headed by Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik to organize the event, he said. In addition, a preparatory office led by Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan has been opened to oversee general planning, management and protocol for the summit.

As the Obama administration did last year, Korean officials plan to host an event for nongovernment experts and organizations on the sidelines of the 2012 conference, Ham added.

South Korea is an "inspired choice" to host the next summit, Kenneth Luongo president of the Partnership for Global Security, said during the same panel discussion.

He noted that while the country has no nuclear weapons, it shares a border with would-be nuclear power North Korea. In addition, South Korea attended the 2010 summit; is a contributor to the Group of Eight industrialized nations' Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction; is a member to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Group of 20 states; is a significant consumer of domestic nuclear power; and home to an established nuclear energy export industry.

"They are at the confluence of a lot of different currents, including the developing world, the developed world and nuclear technology," Luongo told the embassy audience.

He suggested the 2012 summit adopt a six-point "Seoul Declaration" that would, among other measures, assess nations' implementation of the 2010 commitments; seek to strengthen the fissile material security regime; establish an international standard for nuclear security; and endorse the idea that all high intensity radiological sources in public buildings will be secured.

Guest List

Ham underscored the importance of inviting the correct mix countries to the Seoul summit

"Since nuclear terrorism cannot be prevented in isolation, we certainly would like to address nuclear security through a very inclusive process," Ham told the audience last week. However, "placing 190 world leaders at one very long table just is not feasible," he joked.

Samore emphasized engaging the international community at the 2012 summit and beyond.

"The truth is that achieving nuclear security is going to require a much broader set of countries to work together than just the 47 or so countries that attended the 2010 nuclear security summit," he wrote, adding that U.S. officials selected those countries most involved in terms of existing or likely future nuclear programs.

"We have always recognized the need to translate the work of the NSS into the broader international community and having established such a good working relationship among the 47 summit participants, the next big challenge for us coming out of Seoul will be how to create some kind of bridge to translate that work into the broader international community," he told GSN.

To that end, the United States has encouraged nations to organize regional meetings so that neighboring countries that did not participate in the 2010 summit can be briefed and learn about ongoing efforts.

Poland, for example, hosted an outreach meeting for Central and Eastern Europe and next month Chile will hold a conference for all the Latin America countries, Samore noted.

The United States must also look for more engagement by the United Nations, the White House official said, highlighting the work of the Conference on Disarmament performs in support of the Security Council's Resolution 1540, which is intended to prevent nonstate actors from obtaining weapons of mass destruction, their means of delivery and related materials.

The 65-nation conference, which must make decisions by consensus, has been deadlocked for roughly a decade in its efforts to promote disarmament initiatives. Most notably, Pakistan has continually resisted attempts to negotiate a fissile material cutoff treaty.

"There's a mechanism and groups who could be marshaled to work on the nuclear security issue, just as they work to provide assistance and outreach for the 1540 committee," according to Samore.

Future Summits

Even as South Korea and its partners prepare for next year's conference, it remains to be seen what, if any, follow-up there might be to the Seoul summit, including a 2014 event.

"We are keeping things open-ended for what comes after Seoul and haven't decided on a follow on yet," Samore wrote. The White House believes that the leaders and dignitaries must make the decision themselves if holding a summit at every two years is the most effective way to proceed, he explained.

"If at some point the leaders decide that the summit process has served its purpose and it's time to find a way to work through other institutions then we would be very comfortable declaring that it's been successful," Samore stated.

"At this point it's too soon to make that judgment," he added. "Hopefully that will emerge out of the meeting in Seoul."

Luongo said the summits should not be viewed solely as a way to keep "fire under the feet of countries" to enact nuclear security measures, but also as a forum for frank, high-level discussions.

"I see nuclear security as one of the top three or four transnational challenges and I see the NSS process as an opportunity to create something not on a yearly basis but on a every other year basis for leaders to get together and talk about these subjects," Luongo said.

March 18, 2011
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WASHINGTON -- World leaders might take a hard look at strategies for preventing terrorists from acquiring materials that could be used in a radiological "dirty bomb" when they meet in South Korea next year for the second Nuclear Security Summit, officials familiar with the event say (see GSN, Feb. 22).