WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is defending its efforts to keep the focus of this month’s Nuclear Security Summit in South Korea on preventing terrorists from obtaining nuclear and radioactive materials, despite warnings from some experts that, in doing so, it is overlooking other significant dangers (see GSN, March 6).
During a press briefing on Tuesday, Clinton-era Energy Department official Kenneth Luongo said that last year’s meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan highlighted the fact that the international community does not “have an adequate system for dealing with radiation that crosses borders.”
Similarly, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States revealed security gaps, he said. Some observers have raised concerns that terrorists could launch similar airborne attacks on nuclear reactors.
For these reasons, the upcoming summit should address issues typically thought to fall under the umbrella of nuclear safety, Luongo said. The safety and security of atomic materials can no longer be considered entirely separate issues, and delegates in Seoul should look at the “interface” between the two, he said.
“Fukushima blurred the line between nuclear safety and nuclear security,” according to Luongo, now president of the Partnership for Global Security.
Heads of state and top officials from more than 50 nations are to attend the summit from March 26-27 in the South Korean capital, which is intended to build upon a similar meeting that took place two years ago in Washington. A document to be issued at the end of this month’s meeting is expected to offer new security pledges, including a promise by no fewer than 10 state participants to remove highly enriched uranium and plutonium from their territories (GSN, March 13).
The event is being held in conjunction with a separate nuclear energy industry summit slated for March 23-24, also in Seoul. There, energy company officials from the United States and abroad will discuss “the role of the private sector in nuclear security and safety while cultivating an understanding of the need for in-depth cooperation within the industry,” according to organizing panel head Jong Shin-kim, president of Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power.
Delegates to a preparatory meeting on Feb. 28 pressed for inclusion of such nuclear safety matters in talks between government leaders at the security summit as well. The Obama administration, though, is looking to keep the agenda from becoming too broad.
“We think that it is important that we focus at the nuclear security summit … [on] preventing nonstate actors from acquiring nuclear materials either for terrorism or for criminal purposes, Mark Tokola, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, said following last month’s meeting. “We cannot allow the security summit [to] deal with issues that are not germane to its purpose.”
Some critics suggest the Obama administration’s support for domestic nuclear power expansion could be behind its unwillingness to expand the summit’s scope. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently approved the first new nuclear power plant in the country in decades.
“Spreading nuclear power spreads nuclear weapons capabilities and risks of nuclear terrorism . . . but since the U.S. wants to proliferate nuclear power, ‘we cannot allow’ these other issues to be discussed,” Daniel Hirsch, of the nuclear watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap, told Global Security Newswire.
An attack on a nuclear power plant, or an “accident like Fukushima can do far more damage than a criminal or terrorist group with some dirty bomb materials, yet” U.S. plants are “wide open” to such risks, Hirsch said.
Following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission revised its design-basis threat regulations, which establish requirements for nuclear facilities to protect themselves from adversary force. However, state governments and watchdog groups have argued that the regulations are still inadequate because they do not require facilities to protect themselves from the possibility of air attacks.
Activists have also criticized the Obama administration for failing to finalize a protective action guide for responding to nuclear disasters, including dirty bomb attacks and energy plant incidents. The latest version of the guide, which has been the subject of controversy since the time of the Bush administration, has been pending review at the White House Management and Budget Office for months (GSN, January 28, 2009).
Despite these criticisms, the Seoul security summit should “maintain a focus on securing nuclear materials and preventing nuclear terrorism,” White House spokeswoman Erin Pelton told GSN by e-mail. “The Nuclear Security Summits are the only gatherings of their kinds to focus on nuclear security; indeed there are many other opportunities for countries to come together to discuss nuclear safety.”
Pelton cited a Sept. 22, 2011, United Nations meeting on nuclear safety and emergency preparedness in the wake of the Fukushima incident and ongoing efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency as examples of opportunities to address issues the administration believes are outside the scope of the Seoul gathering.
Some experts, though, are expressing doubt that the upcoming summit will yield significant progress even on more traditional nuclear security issues.
During Tuesday’s briefing, Luongo said commitments many nations made during the 2010 event were based on nuclear security efforts that were already under way. For example, according to a report the Partnership for Global Security released Tuesday, Chile completed its national commitment to eliminate all 18 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from the country ahead of the 2010 summit.
The United States during the 2010 summit committed to converting six last reactors from using weapon-usable uranium to proliferation-resistant low-enriched fuel. By that time it had already converted 20 reactors; however, no new U.S. reactors have been converted since the summit, according to Luongo’s organization.
Persuading countries to commit to new projects will likely be more difficult, potentially causing the international effort to maintain progress on the issue to stall, Luongo said.
“If you don’t put more fuel in that engine, it’s going to sputter,” said Luongo, who advocated for countries participating in the summit to begin work toward creating international standards for nuclear security, rather than continuing to address the issue on a nation-by-nation basis.
South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Ahn Ho-young said last month that the 2012 summit could lay the ground for establishing a system of ‘global governance’ on security atomic substances. No baseline requirement covering all nations for the physical protection of atomic substances currently exists (GSN, March 13).
In the report released Tuesday, the Partnership for Global Security found that approximately 80 percent of the 67 national commitments made by 30 global leaders at the 2010 summit in Washington have been completed.
Assessing the value of some commitments, including those made by Washington, can be difficult, Luongo said.
For example, in the 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,” Luongo said, calling it a “free ride.”
White House spokeswoman Pelton said the U.S. goal “is to remove, consolidate, or eliminate as much material as practicable, and to ensure that all remaining sites are, at a minimum, in compliance with the guidelines set forth in the International Atomic Energy Agency document, ‘Nuclear Security Recommendations for the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and Nuclear Facilities,’ with the understanding that some sites will require more extensive security measures.”
The National Nuclear Security Administration for fiscal 2013 is seeking $2.5 billion for programs to stem the spread of nuclear weapons and sensitive materials across the globe. If approved, the request would increase funding for those operations by 7 percent from current levels, “which reflects completion of accelerated efforts to secure vulnerable materials within four years, the president’s stated timeframe,” a budget document says (GSN, Feb. 14.).
Some federal programs to lock down or eliminate stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and related materials in other nations would be significantly scaled back under the Obama administration’s fiscal 2013 budget proposal, nonproliferation groups have noted.
A Partnership for Global Security analysis of the administration’s request found that planned allocations to National Nuclear Security Administration’s efforts to secure foreign WMD-related materials are down 23.3 percent compared to enacted fiscal 2012 levels (GSN, March 7).
During Tuesday’s briefing, Luongo called the budget proposal “completely inadequate.”
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is defending its efforts to keep the focus of this month’s Nuclear Security Summit in South Korea on preventing terrorists from obtaining nuclear and radioactive materials, despite warnings from some experts that, in doing so, it is overlooking other significant dangers.