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Nuclear Security Standards Still Lacking After Summit, Advocates Say

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak speaks on Tuesday at the start of an official dinner for leaders who attended the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul. The meeting achieved little progress toward establishing concrete standards aimed at preventing extremists from acquiring nuclear materials, independent experts said on Tuesday (AP Photo/Yonhap News Agency). South Korean President Lee Myung-bak speaks on Tuesday at the start of an official dinner for leaders who attended the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul. The meeting achieved little progress toward establishing concrete standards aimed at preventing extremists from acquiring nuclear materials, independent experts said on Tuesday (AP Photo/Yonhap News Agency).

WASHINGTON – The 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in South Korea achieved “modest” new gains toward the goal of ensuring that terrorists cannot obtain vulnerable nuclear materials but did little to establish concrete standards toward that end, observers said on Tuesday (see GSN, March 27).

The gathering of 53 world leaders that wrapped up on Tuesday was meant to build on the accomplishments of the first security summit in Washington in 2010. The communique issued at the conclusion of this week’s event urged continued international cooperation on a host of atomic protection activities, but it is a “limp document” in terms of establishing universally accepted benchmarks, Kenneth Brill, former U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, told Global Security Newswire.

“The kind of language [used in the document] --‘we encourage,’ ‘we urge,’ ‘if it’s possible’ -- [represents] the lowest common denominator” in international negotiations, Brill said.

The Seoul summit produced some tangible new achievements, such as pledges by Italy and several other nations to eliminate their stocks of fissile material, the nongovernmental Fissile Materials Working Group noted in a Tuesday statement. The summit also yielded an agreement between the United States, France, Belgium and the Netherlands to produce medical isotopes without the use of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium by 2015, the group noted.

In addition, a number of nations also used the summit as a venue for announcing unilateral legislative and other measures for enhancing nuclear security (see related GSN story, today).

However, much like achievements unveiled two years ago, the commitments announced on Tuesday are voluntarily, involve a relatively small number of countries and come with no legally binding standards, Brill and others said.

The stated goal of the 2010 summit -- which produced 67 national commitments -- was that all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world be secured by 2014. The 2012 communique issued Tuesday stated that all governments bear the “fundamental responsibility” of protecting atomic substances and averting their acquisition by extremists.”

The document also places a high priority on guarding caches of highly enriched uranium, and urges countries to by the close of 2013 declare plans to reduce their reliance on the substance to the lowest level possible.

Alexandra Toma, executive director of the Connect U.S. Fund, said the Seoul summit largely produced a “reaffirmation” of the 2010 goals, and that advocates had “hoped to see bolder” new statements that pushed participants toward the creation of international standards for nuclear security.

Seoul summit-goers sought to broaden the scope of the gathering as compared to the 2010 event. However, topics added to the agenda -- including nuclear facility safety and the security of radiological materials that could be used to make so-called “dirty-bombs” -- were also addressed in a “lowest common denominator” fashion, according to Brill.

He said this week’s event “opened the door a crack” to the issue of nuclear facility safety, which some experts have said has become increasingly intertwined with nuclear security following the 2011 Fukushima atomic plant disaster in Japan (see GSN, March 14). The Seoul communiqué affirmed the importance of “coherent and synergistic” nuclear safety measures but did not urge any specific actions.

There is some indication that world leaders might move toward firmer universal commitments on more traditional nuclear security issues by the time the next summit takes place in the Netherlands in 2014, Brill said. For example, the Seoul communique sets a 2014 target date for adopting the 2005 amendment to the Convention for the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, which includes requirements aimed at protecting nonmilitary nuclear material in domestic use, storage or transport. In addition, some world leaders seem to be warming to the idea that a more robust international consensus is needed, Brill noted.

Brill pointed to remarks at the summit by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in which she said world leaders “need to establish an accountability framework on nuclear security that builds confidence beyond 2014.

“In that regard, one thing that we might consider would be regular peer reviews of our domestic nuclear security arrangements that would ensure ongoing transparency and keep each of us, and all of us, on our toes, which is where we should be as we deal with this challenge,” Gillard said.

Currently, the “nuclear security regime is a patchwork of unaccountable voluntary arrangements that are inconsistent across borders,” Kenneth Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security, said in a statement Tuesday. “Consistent standards, transparency to promote international confidence, and national accountability are additions to the regime that are urgently needed.”

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