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Q&A: Dutch Official Doubtful of New Plutonium Agreement at 2016 Summit

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte following a March press conference in The Hague at the end of the Nuclear Security Summit. Dutch officials have passed the role of summit leadership back to the United States after hosting this year's installment of the biennial gathering of world leaders. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte following a March press conference in The Hague at the end of the Nuclear Security Summit. Dutch officials have passed the role of summit leadership back to the United States after hosting this year's installment of the biennial gathering of world leaders. (Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/AFP/Getty Images)

A key Dutch official suggests that those advocating for a new international agreement limiting civilian stocks of plutonium might not want to get their hopes up.

During a recent interview, Ambassador at Large Piet de Klerk -- who served as lead organizer of this year's Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands -- discussed the outcomes of the March gathering and goals for the next, possibly final, such meeting of world leaders in 2016.

Kees Nederlof, an advisor for strategic affairs at the Dutch Foreign Ministry who served as de Klerk's deputy during preparations for this year's gathering, also participated in the conversation with Global Security Newswire and Arms Control Today.

Among other things, the Dutch officials reflected on their efforts to address concerns that plutonium could fall into terrorist hands -- a dire scenario that ultimately led the 53 nations participating in the summit to promise they would "keep their stockpile of plutonium to the minimum level … consistent with national requirements."

Previously, the biennial summits, which the Obama administration initiated with a 2010 gathering of world leaders in Washington, have focused largely on highly enriched uranium. While less radioactive than plutonium, HEU sources are generally thought to be easier targets for terrorists looking to manufacture a crude atomic bomb.

Plutonium, however, could cause lethal radiological contamination if paired with conventional explosives in a so-called "dirty bomb."

Some nuclear watchdogs have said this year's summit pledge on plutonium, while a step in the right direction, is vague and should be made stronger by including a vow not to produce the weapons-usable material faster than it is consumed.

Others have pushed for more aggressive action, including a freeze on the expansion of plutonium reprocessing for use as nuclear fuel.

Exactly what the summit pledge requires of individual countries is somewhat open to interpretation, de Klerk acknowledges. But with multiple countries looking to pursue reprocessing, it was not possible in the weeks leading up to the March meeting to make the pledge language any stronger, he said.

The Dutch official said he did not expect that political reality to change within the next two years.

"I could imagine a lot of outcomes but at this point it's all speculation," de Klerk said. "What you have to bear in mind is that, within the group, countries have different ideas for what the ideal fuel cycle is. … These differences will probably not change in the coming two years so … I don't expect something radically different in 2016."

Among the countries that are, or could become, involved with reprocessing efforts are the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China and South Korea. Also on the list is Japan, where reports of lax security at a reprocessing facility in Rokkasho, where plutonium stockpiles are stored, have been causing concerns.

Japan's nuclear industry has been on hold since the onset of the Fukushima crisis in 2011 and thus has been unable to use any of its stockpiles, De Klerk noted. Vague as it may be, the plutonium pledge from the 2014 summit is substantial enough for Japan, a party to the pledge, to take into account as it chooses a path forward, he said.

"They've agreed to this principle, and that should mean something," de Klerk said.

Similarly, de Klerk said commitments tied to a separate summit pledge to adopt International Atomic Energy Agency guidelines for securing nuclear materials into law "are quite significant," as evidenced by the reluctance of some high-profile nations to sign on.

Spearheaded by the United States, Netherlands and South Korea, this pledge has 35 signatories and has been touted by its proponents as a key step toward establishing internationally accepted nuclear security rules.

Critics, including some Republicans on Capitol Hill, have questioned the agreement's value, however, noting that major nuclear states such as Russia, China, Pakistan and India have not signed onto the accord.

De Klerk said the pledge is significant because individual countries who comply would no longer be able to "pick and choose" which of the previously voluntary IAEA guidelines to follow.

In addition, as part of the agreement, participants must also invite IAEA advisory teams into their countries so that they can assess how well they are following the guidelines, he noted.

"There are countries like the Russian Federation who are very skeptical about sort of the cost-benefit analysis of inviting outsiders to their nuclear installations," de Klerk said. "So there will be hard nuts to crack. … Maybe by 2016 we'll have a much larger group than before, but I'm hesitant to say there will be a consensus this time."

According Nederlof, who will take on the lead role for the Netherlands leading up to 2016, not all of the outlying countries have principled objections to the commitments contained in the pledge.

"Quite a number of these remaining countries suffer from -- I would call it -- these bureaucratic delays," Nederlof said. "So we have good hope that at least a part of this will be solved by 2016."

The Netherlands was engaged in intensive dialogue with all of the outlying nations during the months leading up to the summit, and many of the nations that did agree to sign the pledge did so within the last two weeks before the gathering, according to the Dutch officials.

"You should realize that we started with 11 countries in October … and that's where it remained until a few weeks before the summit," de Klerk said. "What we hoped for was for a majority of countries, and then we nearly got two-thirds. So we were very pleased, but there are still important countries" that have not signed, he said.

In addition to trying to bring outlying countries into the fold, Dutch, U.S. and South Korean officials may also be involved in devising a plan for ensuring that those countries who have pledged to adopt the IAEA guidelines follow through with their commitments, de Klerk said.

"We've kicked a few ideas back and forth at this point but it's all in very starting stages," he said.

Dutch officials will not, however, be taking the lead in any new efforts to increase the summit's focus on military nuclear materials leading up to 2016. So far, the biennial gathering has dealt largely with civilian nuclear materials. Dutch officials tried to change this in their role as summit hosts this year, but say they were largely unsuccessful.

"Our point has been that estimates are 85 percent of weapons-usable material is military material," de Klerk explained. "You lose part of the credibility of the process if you don't speak about that."

The Dutch difficulty in making progress on the issue might, to some extent, be attributed to its relatively diminutive status among states hosting nuclear arms, Nederlof suggested.

"We did our best," Nederlof said. "It's clear that, of all the nuclear-weapons states, we were not a country with a lot of leverage. Sometimes we get this glance -- 'Who are you to start this conversation in the first place?'"

Edited excerpts from the interview, conducted at the Dutch embassy in Washington last month, appear below:

GSN: Can you talk a bit about who you are meeting with and what you are talking about during this visit to the United States?

De Klerk: This is sort of a post-summit handover visit. It started with talks in … New York on the margins of the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Preparatory Committee meeting this spring] and then it was natural to also come to Washington to, on the one hand, reflect together on what was good and what was bad during the summit, and also to see how we could be of service going forward, realizing fully well that we've handed over the baton to our U.S. colleagues. …

GSN: Is there a plan for how to implement the agreement by some countries at the summit to adopt the IAEA guidelines for nuclear security?

De Klerk: This was a visit to start up that sort of thinking again, and indeed we had some fruitful back and forth about how to give things another kick in the butt.

Nederlof: The ambition, of course, is to have all Nuclear Security Summit countries embrace this initiative and others. …

One of the issues is that it takes for certain countries quite a long time to get it through the bureaucratic process. Quite a number of these remaining countries suffer from -- I would call it -- these bureaucratic delays. So we have good hope that at least a part of this will be solved by 2016, but I recognize that there are a few countries where there maybe are principled objections to the commitments. …

The point is that we have to talk to those countries and try to persuade them that it's better to commit to such a thing than to stay outside, but whether we are successful remains to be seen.

GSN: Is there an active effort to bring in holdouts, such as Pakistan, India, etc.?

De Klerk: Is there a wish on our part to bring them aboard, yes. Is there already an action plan or strategy for how, no. …

GSN: But there is dialogue?

Nederlof: There was. During the period that we were the chair, we had been intensively contacting all these countries and quite a number of these countries were brought in the last two weeks before the summit.

De Klerk: You should realize that we started with 11 countries in October … and that's where it remained until a few weeks before the summit. ... It all of the sudden jumped to 35. … What we hoped for was for a majority of countries, and then we nearly got two-thirds. So we were very pleased, but there are still important countries [that have not signed].

One important component [of the pledge] is to comply with IAEA guidelines. Another important component is to invite IAEA advisory teams to your country to advise on how you dealt with nuclear security. There are countries like the Russian Federation who are very skeptical about the … cost-benefit analysis of inviting outsiders to their nuclear installations. So there will be hard nuts to crack. … Maybe by 2016 we'll have a much larger group than before, but I'm hesitant to say there will be a consensus this time. …

Nederlof: The larger the country, the more bureaucratic structures. … You can figure out for yourself which countries those are. …

De Klerk: All those countries, they need to pass a lot of hurdles before they can commit to something like that, and in a way we should not dismiss that as purely obstruction because they take it serious. The commitments that they are going to make are quite significant, to take onboard a national legislation. The IAEA guidelines, when they were voluntary, you could pick and choose.

Nederlof: There were always recommendations [in the broad communique signed by all summit participants] that countries are recommended to take serious these guidelines of the IAEA. That's fine, but there's a threshold to actually implement in national legislation. …

GSN: Is there an effort to think about how to help countries that have already agreed to the pledge to comply, or is the ball now in their court?

De Klerk: This visit is the first contact with the United States [following the March summit]. We haven't talked to the [South] Koreans. If there are sort of guardians of the process it would be the three, so we need to sit together at some point in the future to see how we would take that forward. We've kicked a few ideas back and forth at this point but it's all in very starting stages.

GSN: Have your U.S. counterparts expressed interest in doing that sort of thing?

De Klerk: Yeah, but they're just starting and getting their act together, and they are in the lead. … If they ask us to undertake specific roles, we'd be happy to within our dismantled team. …

GSN: Do you think it would be possible at the next summit to do something more with regard to plutonium, such as a pledge to not produce more than you consume or to try to limit reprocessing?

De Klerk: I could imagine a lot of outcomes but at this point it's all speculation. What you have to bear in mind is that, within the group, countries have different ideas for what the ideal fuel cycle is. You've always had countries that recycle and want to make use of [mixed-oxide fuel]. … These differences will probably not change in the coming two years, so you have to work with this diverse group. … I don't expect something radically different in 2016. …

As chairman, we went around and had very interesting discussions in, say, Japan. And clearly Japan is one of those countries that has come under criticism for accumulating plutonium more than what they are using in their reactors. Now with their reactors closed, they can't use MOX fuel.

All this will be a factor in deciding [how to move forward]. … They've agreed to this principle, and that should mean something. … It's interesting that they have required from every producing company … an annual statement of what you need. … To some extent, it is already part of their system, but how it will further evolve, I'd be as interested as you are.

Editor’s Note: Watch on Thursday for Part 2 of this two-part interview.

Clarification: This article was modified after publication to note that Arms Control Today participated in the interview.

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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