U.S. Official Rejects Call For International Nuclear Security Standards

President Obama speaks in March during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea. A high-level Obama administration official on Monday rejected calls for summit discussions aimed at hammering out enforceable, worldwide atomic material security standards (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais).
President Obama speaks in March during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea. A high-level Obama administration official on Monday rejected calls for summit discussions aimed at hammering out enforceable, worldwide atomic material security standards (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais).

WASHINGTON – A senior Obama administration official on Monday rejected suggestions that the Nuclear Security Summit process should strive to establish enforceable international standards for protecting vulnerable nuclear materials (see GSN, March 28).

Advocacy groups have argued that the 2010 summit in Washington and a follow-up event last month in South Korea have focused largely on voluntary pledges by individual or small groups of nations to make various efforts in the nuclear security arena.

Achievements participating countries touted at the conclusion of the Seoul event included pledges by Italy and several other nations to eliminate their stocks of fissile material and an agreement between the United States, France, Belgium and the Netherlands to produce medical isotopes without the use of weapon-grade highly enriched uranium by 2015.

In addition, a number of nations used the summit as a venue for announcing unilateral legislative measures for enhancing nuclear security.

The value of these individual pledges is difficult to measure, according to critics, who have argued that delegates to the planned 2014 summit in the Netherlands should strive to create universal standards that would cover all participating nations.

Laura Holgate, senior director for WMD terrorism and threat reduction at the National Security Council, rejected this assertion during a Monday talk at the Hudson Institute, however. Advocacy groups should not be surprised that more comprehensive, enforceable agreements did not come out of Seoul, she said.

“If that was an expectation of those groups they certainly had no basis for that to be an expectation,” according to Holgate. “It’s never been a goal of the summits to create that,” she said, adding that there was “no evidence” in the communique produced during the 2010 summit that would suggest “that that’s where the summit was headed.”

Holgate suggested she was wary of “the notion of spending time now to actually negotiate new treaties when we can’t even get universalization of the existing treaties.”

“I’d rather spend time with the doers than the ditherers and what the summit has done so far is empower the doers,” Holgate added. “I think that’s really where we need to keep our focus.”

Holgate’s remarks followed criticism in recent weeks that the Seoul summit “underperformed” in terms of moving the Obama administration closer to its goal of securing all vulnerable sensitive nuclear materials throughout the world by 2014.

Speaking during an April 6 panel discussion on summit outcomes, Ploughshares Fund President Joseph Cirincione said the meeting of more than 150 nations had  a “minimalist agenda” that merely “sped up what was already under way” since the first summit in Washington. Other critics made similar assertions about the 2010 event, noting that a commitment Chile made then eliminate all 18 kilograms of highly enriched uranium within its borders had already been completed.

Similarly, the United States during the 2010 summit committed to converting six reactors from using weapon-usable uranium to proliferation-resistant low-enriched fuel. By that time it had already converted 20 reactors; however, and no new U.S. reactors have been converted since the summit, critics have said (see GSN, March 14).

Sharon Squassoni, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said during the April 6 discussion that while the 2012 summit produced some notable gains – such as the medical isotope production agreement between Washington and its three European allies – it failed to produce any enforceable, international standards for nuclear security.

The event allowed for a “continued focus on sovereignty, where everyone has the right to do as little” as they choose, Squassoni said.

Fellow panelist Robert Gallucci, a Clinton-era envoy on North Korea, lamented that actual developments from the 2012 summit “went almost entirely unnoticed.” Many media outlets focused on comments President Obama made to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev regarding missile defense negotiations than on the core issue of ensuring terrorists cannot obtain nuclear materials, he said.

Gallucci said the threat of nuclear terrorism is “the single most important” issue and that people should not “take solace in the fact that it hasn’t happened yet.”

Cirincione, however, suggested that Obama’s remarks to Medvedev dominated headlines because the summit itself “did not demand attention.” The veteran nonproliferation analyst said the summit’s accomplishments were “all good things” but that they ultimately amounted to “small potatoes” given the amount of work that needs to be done to ensure that all sensitive materials are secure.

International officials involved in planning the next nuclear summit “have to be told they can do better than this,” Cirincione said.

One issue in particular that Cirincione said did not receive adequate attention at the summit is the need to reduce the civilian use of plutonium. He asserted the issue was not addressed because host country South Korea has ambitions regarding the production of mixed-oxide fuel, which contains plutonium and reprocessed uranium.

Cirincione also criticized the U.S.  National Nuclear Security Administration for seeking funds under its nonproliferation budget to construct a mixed-oxide fuel production facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The plant is intended to convert nuclear warhead material into reactor fuel, but Cirincione contented it creates a significant proliferation concern by promoting the use of weapon-grade plutonium.

According to Cirincione, last year’s disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi atomic power plant underscored the dangers of using plutonium in fuel. He said the radioactive contamination dispersed into the environment was more toxic than it would have been had the plant not been powered by fuel that contained plutonium. Researchers who studied a 20-mile radius around the damaged Japanese reactors recently reported finding plutonium levels that were about double those from residual fallout caused by above-ground nuclear tests the United States and former Soviet Union conducted during the Cold War.

Holgate, though, rejected suggestions that the Nuclear Security Summit agenda should be expanded to include matters such as post-Fukushima nuclear safety concerns, as some issue experts have suggested.

Broadening the scope of the meetings would be a “disaster,” and would “limit the ability to make progress” on security issues, Holgate said.

May 1, 2012
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WASHINGTON -- A senior Obama administration official on Monday rejected suggestions that the Nuclear Security Summit process should strive to establish enforceable international standards for protecting vulnerable nuclear materials.

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