Nuclear Security, Post-Fukushima: Expectations for the Seoul Summit

Nuclear Security, Post-Fukushima: Expectations for the Seoul Summit

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Michelle Dover

Program Director, Ploughshares Fund

Miles Pomper

Senior Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

In 2010 President Barack Obama invited 47 countries to Washington to discuss securing vulnerable nuclear material, a cornerstone of his agenda to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism. By elevating a relatively obscure problem to the highest level, the Nuclear Security Summit resulted in concrete commitments by countries to improve various aspects of their nuclear security. Participating countries also agreed to convene a follow-on Nuclear Security Summit in South Korea in March 2012—the venue proposed by the Obama Administration when Russia declined its invitation to host the next summit. Despite the fact that South Korea does not have any weapons-useable material, it does possess a nuclear power industry, and is looking to increase its nuclear exports and nonproliferation standing on the global stage. South Korea’s selection as the host for the 2012 summit reflected the growing importance of leadership from key nuclear energy players on nuclear security issues.

In March 2011, as South Korea was revving up its preparations for the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit and identifying possible agenda items, the world’s attention became riveted on the unfolding nuclear safety crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant. A 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami precipitated a loss-of-coolant accident by cutting off the plant’s primary electricity supply and disabling the backup emergency diesel generators needed to power the cooling systems for the reactors. Three of the plant’s six reactors experienced partial core meltdown, and increased radiation levels near the plant prompted officials to evacuate thousands of local residents. As with the 1986 Chernobyl accident, the disaster at Fukushima pushed national and international officials to consider new measures to increase safety at nuclear facilities. Many countries implemented so-called “stress tests” of their nuclear plants, which examined the adequacy of facilities’ safety measures for various types of accidents. In the European Union, these stress tests were peer reviewed by a multinational panel, an important step for consistency and transparency in strengthening safety.[1]

Seoul was suddenly faced with the challenge of organizing a summit about nuclear security at a time when many Korean experts argued that the country’s population was more concerned about nuclear safety, particular given South Korea’s proximity to Japan. By contrast, the Obama administration was insistent on the need to keep the summit focused on nuclear security issues. Nuclear security measures aim to prevent, detect, and respond to intentional human actions such as theft of nuclear material or sabotage of nuclear facilities. Nuclear safety measures, by contrast, aim to prevent, manage, and mitigate the consequences of accidents involving nuclear material or facilities. Ultimately, U.S. and South Korean officials reached an uneasy compromise: the summit would remain focused on nuclear security, but would incorporate nuclear safety by including areas of overlap and complementarity between safety and security. For example, how might lessons from the decades-long development of nuclear safety standards inform efforts to beef up global nuclear security rules?

Context: The Development of Nuclear Safety Standards

Nuclear safety standards are maintained by national regulatory agencies, although a nuclear accident may impact areas beyond a country's borders. Given the secrecy with which nuclear matters are usually treated, states were long reluctant to cooperate on nuclear safety. That changed with the accident at the Chernobyl 4 reactor in Ukraine on April 26, 1986, which remains the world's worst nuclear accident to-date. Because Chernobyl 4 was built without a containment structure, steam explosions at the damaged reactor precipitated a widespread release of radioactivity. The radioactive plume drifted across Europe, which was unaware of the scale of the accident due to the USSR's unwillingness to share information. As details emerged, populations were outraged that they had been unknowingly exposed to radioactivity.[2] Countries responded by creating a series of legally-binding conventions to strengthen the global standards for safety, and to create a responsibility among them to share information in case of a disaster.

Since 1986, many countries have ratified four international conventions on nuclear safety: the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency; the Convention on Nuclear Safety; the Convention on Early Notification of a Nuclear Accident or Radiological Emergency; and the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. Over one hundred countries are parties to the Convention on Assistance in the Case of a Nuclear Accident and the Convention on Early Notification; 74 countries are parties to the Convention on Nuclear Safety and 63 countries are parties to the Joint Convention on Spent Fuel Management.[3] These conventions strengthen the international nuclear safety regime by setting standards for the use of nuclear material; outlining when and how cooperation should occur among states on issues of safety; and creating rules for reporting incidents to the international community.[4]

The Convention on Nuclear Safety was particularly important to the development of international standards. It contains several unique features to promote transparency, such as information sharing and peer review. Regularized assessments and implementation reviews put pressure on members to maintain and improve their safety standards. As noted by experts, current nuclear security conventions lack these kinds of tools for assessment, review, and information sharing.[5]

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has also taken a prominent role in nuclear safety, hosting review conferences, developing voluntary codes for nuclear safety, aiding member states in strengthening their regulatory bodies, and establishing an international response system for reporting nuclear and radiological incidents and emergencies. After the Fukushima disaster, however, the IAEA was criticized by many in the international community for what was perceived as a slow and confusing response, dependent on the limited and inconsistent information provided by Japan.[6] The agency's Director General, Yukiya Amano, has worked since Fukushima to strengthen the IAEA's role in nuclear safety. In June 2011 Amano hosted a ministerial-level conference, and presented an Action Plan to the Board of Governors in September 2011.[7]

The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an organization of industrialized states, provides international cooperative safety research and studies regulatory issues, complementing the IAEA's work in nuclear safety on a smaller scale.[8]

On the industry level, the World Association of Nuclear Operators works to develop higher nuclear safety standards through sharing of best practices and peer reviews. Founded in 1989 after the Chernobyl disaster, the organization now includes operators of about 440 nuclear plants in over 30 countries worldwide.[9] Members exchange information about events and lessons learned, often through secure means accessible only to other members.

Among regulators, the International Nuclear Regulators Association and the Western European Nuclear Regulators Association allow regulators to exchange experiences and information to encourage cooperation.[10] On an informal level, NGOs and professional associations also contribute to the development of higher nuclear safety standards.

Despite the growth of organizations providing assistance to national regulatory bodies on matters of nuclear safety, calls have been made to improve and better harmonize existing standards. IAEA nuclear safety services suffer from limited resources, and members blocked efforts to expand the agency's nuclear safety responsibilities during the Board of Governors meeting in September 2011. However, the Fukushima disaster prompted many countries to examine their safety policies, and the European Union was a notable leader in conducting "stress tests" on its nuclear power plants to determine how they would respond to various crises.[11]

Recent Efforts to Establish Nuclear Security Standards

Historically, nuclear security has not enjoyed the same level of attention as nuclear safety. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, however, led President George W. Bush’s administration to devote far greater attention to the issue. President Obama followed suit, most notably in a 2009 speech in Prague, identifying nuclear terrorism as the most serious threat to international security. To address this threat, the Obama administration has focused primarily on nuclear security measures to prevent, detect, and respond to intentional human actions such as theft of nuclear material or sabotage of nuclear facilities. Citing a need for increased cooperation, President Obama announced in 2009 that the United States would start by hosting a "Global Summit on Nuclear Security…within the next year."

The inaugural 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC drew 47 national delegations, as well as representatives from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the European Union and the United Nations. The meeting produced a communiqué, which set broad goals and included a work plan detailing objectives for all states. The work plan emphasized cooperation, whether through information sharing or coordinating efforts among states on various levels. Though all attending countries supported the communiqué and work plan, the documents' commitments and goals were strictly voluntary, provided numerous caveats concerning implementation, and were vague regarding the extent to which new measures should be applied and in what time frame they should be completed.[13]

Difficulties in winning support for multilateral measures stems from the fact that nuclear security, like nuclear safety, is primarily a national prerogative under the jurisdiction of state regulatory agencies. Attempts at international coordination are often met with hostility from states, who perceive such initiatives as attacks on their sovereignty. Peer reviews and information sharing have not played the substantial role in nuclear security that they enjoy in the nuclear safety regime, since states seek to protect sensitive information about their facilities and security measures.

Indeed, there is no overarching international framework for nuclear security, though a few legal mechanisms address some dimensions of the issue. UN Security Council Resolution 1540, which established an obligation for all countries to implement measures aimed at preventing non-state actors from acquiring WMD, related materials, and their means of delivery under the UN charter, calls for states to put in place effective domestic nuclear security controls. The resolution includes provisions referencing the need for "appropriate effective" standards for physical protection and accounting of related material in production, use, storage and transport.

More specifically, the amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) deals with the security of nuclear material during transport, use and storage, and outlines states' responsibilities to cooperate in order to ensure the protection of nuclear material. But it does not set uniform standards for security.[14] The IAEA has issued basic standards for nuclear security, the latest revision of which was approved last year, but these standards are voluntary.[15] The International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (often referred to as the Convention on Nuclear Terrorism), obliges parties to "make every effort to adopt appropriate measures to ensure the protection of radioactive material," outlining offenses related to such acts and encouraging state cooperation in related law enforcement activity, and particularly extradition.[16]

While these measures create some legally-binding obligations concerning nuclear security, many experts see their requirements as insufficient, and some of the agreements suffer from incomplete ratification or an ineffective review processes. For example, the CPPNM amendment adopted in 2005 would expand the scope of the convention beyond protection of materials in transport to oblige states to protect all materials located within their borders. However, the amendment will only enter into force if two-thirds of the state parties to the convention ratify, accept, or approve it. As of March 2012, only 51 states out of the required 97 have ratified the amendment. In particular, the United States has not ratified the amendment; the U.S. Congress has held up required implementing legislation because of concerns from some lawmakers that it would increase the number of crimes punishable by the death penalty. Compounding the problem, other countries have indicated they are waiting for the United States to ratify the amendment before proceeding with their own ratification processes.[17] In addition, only one CPPNM review conference has been held since the convention entered into force, though parties met in other forums to create the 2005 amendment.[18]

Convincing countries that improving nuclear security is an urgent issue remains a major challenge. The Nuclear Security Summit has focused leaders' attention on the issue, but many still find nuclear safety to be a more pressing concern, especially post-Fukushima. Furthermore, summit organizers have faced criticism that the summit is bypassing established forums for engagement (primarily the IAEA or the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review process).[19] However, these bodies tend to place nuclear security far down their agendas, because they are the strongholds of developing countries, which generally view nuclear security as a lower priority than other nuclear policy goals. Some countries have also questioned the legitimacy of any global attempt to address the issue of nuclear security, seeing it a potential violation of their national sovereignties, and a mechanism for other countries to discover their security vulnerabilities.[20] When it comes to information security, for example, countries are particularly unwilling to share information for fear of compromising their facilities. Lessons learned from careful information sharing, such as U.S.-Russian bilateral efforts, and confidentiality measures in the Convention on Nuclear Safety's review process, could help overcome this obstacle.[21]

Opportunities for Overlapping Progress on Safety and Security in Seoul

As the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit approaches, organizers have worked to incorporate nuclear safety into the agenda without compromising its founding nuclear security mission. At their cores, there is a strong overlap between nuclear safety and security. Both disciplines deal with preventing, detecting, and responding to disasters involving nuclear facilities or nuclear materials; the difference lies in whether the scenarios of concern are maliciously intended or accidental.

Dealing with either form of disaster requires clear public communication and emergency response mechanisms, both areas where nuclear safety and security could use further development. In some cases, safety and security measures can reinforce each other's purposes. For example, safety measures protecting material can also secure it from unauthorized access. Operators have pointed out, however, that the opposite can occur. Safety measures, which often prioritize transparency, sometimes impede security measures, which tend to limit transparency in order to keep information secure.[22] Therefore, summit organizers face the challenge of looking for measures with inherently complimentary safety and security elements.

Areas of complementarity between safety and security for possible discussion at the summit include:

  • Encouraging peer reviews of both the nuclear safety and security aspects of power plants. Many European countries conducted stress tests in response to the accident at Fukushima that included peer reviews by a multinational panel, which could be expanded to include a review of security measures at the facilities. Russia and the United States, for example, managed to cooperate to improve nuclear security at Russia's facilities without compromising security information. Originally the country reports submitted under the Convention on Nuclear Safety were kept confidential, though in the past few years they have been published online with the reporting country's consent.[23] Countries could look at ways to conduct peer reviews of nuclear security elements while maintaining the confidentiality of sensitive results.
  • Promoting a holistic approach to safety and security. Since a terrorist attack could mimic an accident in its effects, identifying strategies to restore cooling and control functions and maintain containment in case of explosion or fire; harmonizing incident reporting and information sharing in a crisis; and incorporating security measures into reactor designs and operating plans would help integrate security and safety measures.[24] Nongovernmental organizations have already taken steps to encourage such integration: the World Institute for Nuclear Security (WINS), which works to strengthen nuclear security, announced with WANO the creation of a Joint Working Group in 2012 to identify best practices to manage the interface between nuclear safety and security.[25]
  • Ensuring unclassified results of security peer reviews are shared with regulators and other appropriate entities, which would promote transparency wherever possible. Operators and regulators could also learn from the WANO model in strengthening nuclear safety, using an organization such as WINS to promote the growth of a strong nuclear security culture.[26]

If initiatives focusing on the overlap between safety and security are to be effective they will need to be developed by the organizations or countries best suited to implementing them, which is another area for possible discussion. Standardizing information gathering and sharing could also be discussed, while improving communication with the public and international community would further both the safety and security agendas. At the national level, countries could be encouraged to ensure regulatory independence and robustness, which would give regulators the capacity to make the necessary changes to raise nuclear safety and security standards in their countries.

The Nuclear Security Summit could also address countries' concerns about the proper forums for developing higher standards by supporting existing processes and institutions. The IAEA, for example, already has programs that deal directly with nuclear security and safety, though these programs' capacity is constrained by the fact that they are often funded through voluntary contributions. At the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit some countries agreed to contribute to the Nuclear Security Fund, which provides support for IAEA nuclear security programs; the 2012 Summit could use this example as a starting point for further progress. The 2012 Summit could also promote the ratification and implementation of existing treaties and conventions as a way to increase safety and security standards, and consider initiating a process for a broader framework that incorporates mandatory standards.

The 2012 Nuclear Security Summit is challenged like its predecessor with raising the subject of nuclear security from its usual obscurity to high-level attention. Leaders gathering in Seoul to discuss ways of improving the international nuclear security regime will do so in the shadow of the one-year anniversary of the devastating tsunami in nearby Japan, which precipitated a new global push for improved nuclear safety. In a post-Fukushima world, the Nuclear Security Summit will have to incorporate nuclear safety into its discussions to maintain the summit's relevance to present concerns— but it must do so in a complementary way so as not to water down international focus on the vital task of securing all of the world's vulnerable nuclear materials.

[1] "After Fukushima: EU Stress tests start on 1 June," [Press release] Europa, May 25, 2011,
[2] Ortwin Renn, "Public responses to Chernobyl: lessons for risk management and communication." Journal of Environmental Psychology, 10.2 (1990), pp 151-167,
[3] "Conventions and Codes," Nuclear Safety and Security, International Atomic Energy Agency,
[4] "Nuclear Safety & Security: Conventions and Codes,", last updated November 6, 2010,
[5] Kenneth Luongo, Sharon Squassoni and Joel Wit, "Integrating Nuclear Safety and Security: Policy Recommendations," [Policy Perspectives] Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 13, 2011,
[6] Borger, Julian, "UN's nuclear watchdog IAEA under fire over response to Japanese disaster,", March 15, 2011.
[7] "IAEA to organize nuclear fast-response team: French minister," Platts, September 20, 2011,
[8] Richard Meserve, "The global nuclear safety regime." Dædalus, Fall 2009,
[9] "Centres," World Association of Nuclear Operators, accessed December 1, 2011, 
[10] Richard Meserve, "The global nuclear safety regime." Dædalus, Fall 2009,
[11] Marie Maitre, "G8 leaders want tougher nuclear safety rule." Reuters, May 26, 2011,
[12] "Remarks by President Barack Obama," Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, April 5, 2009,
[13] William Tobey, "Planning for Success at the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit." Policy Analysis Brief, The Stanely Foundation, June 2011,
[14] "Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material," Inventory of International Nonproliferation Organizations and Regimes, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, last updated July 14, 2011,
[15]  "Nuclear Security Recommendations on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials and Nuclear Facilities," INFCIRC/225/Revision 5, IAEA Nuclear Security Series No. 13, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, 2011,
[16] "International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism" Audiovisual Library of International Law, United Nations,
[17] Fissile Materials Working Group, "Two treaties. One Congress. No time to wait." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 15, 2011,
[18] Kenneth Luongo, Sharon Squassoni and Joel Wit, "Integrating Nuclear Safety and Security: Policy Recommendations," [Policy Perspectives] Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 13, 2011,
[19] Mary Beth Nitikin, "Securing Nuclear Materials: The 2010 Summit and Issues for Congress," Congressional Research Services Report, April 27, 2011,
[20] Jack Boureston and Tanya Ogilvie-White, "Expanding the IAEA's nuclear security mandate," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 2010 66: 55.
[21] Kenneth Luongo, Sharon Squassoni and Joel Wit, "Integrating Nuclear Safety and Security: Policy Recommendations," [Policy Perspectives] Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 13, 2011,
[22] "The Interface between Safety and Security at Nuclear Power Plants," A report by the International Nuclear Safety Group, INSAG-24, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, 2010,
[23] Kenneth Luongo, Sharon Squassoni and Joel Wit, "Integrating Nuclear Safety and Security: Policy Recommendations," [Policy Perspectives] Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 13, 2011,
[24] Kenneth Luongo, Sharon Squassoni and Joel Wit, "Integrating Nuclear Safety and Security: Policy Recommendations," [Policy Perspectives] Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 13, 2011,
[25] "Building a Stronger Connection between Nuclear Safety and Nuclear Security," [Press release] The World Institute for Nuclear Security and the World Association of Nuclear Operators, February 22, 2012,
[26] "Time for an Integrated Approach to Nuclear Risk Management, Governance, and Safety/Security/Emergency Arrangements." World Institute for Nuclear Studies, (Vienna: 2011).

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Nuclear Security Summits
Nuclear Security Summits: A series of international summits that emerged out of U.S. President Barack Obama's call in April 2009 to "secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years." The summit process focuses on strengthening international cooperation to prevent nuclear terrorism, thwarting nuclear materials trafficking, and enhancing nuclear materials security.
Nuclear energy
Nuclear energy: The energy liberated by a nuclear reaction (fission or fusion), or by radioactive decay.
Radioactivity: The spontaneous emission of radiation, generally alpha or beta particles, often accompanied by gamma rays, from the nucleus of an unstable isotope.
Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS)
The Convention on Nuclear Safety commits states operating nuclear power plants to establish and maintain a regulatory framework to govern the safety of nuclear installations. The Convention was adopted in 1994 and obligates parties to carry out comprehensive and systematic safety assessments of installations and ensure that the physical state and operations of installations are in accordance with the requirements of the Convention. For additional information, see the Convention on Nuclear Safety.
Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management (JC)
The Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management opened for signature in 1997 and entered into force in 2001. The Convention aims to achieve and maintain a high level of safety in spent fuel and radioactive waste management; ensure that there are effective defenses against potential hazards during all stages of management of such materials; and prevent accidents with radiological consequences.  For additional information, see the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management.
Radioactive waste
Radioactive waste: Materials which are radioactive and for which there is no further use.
Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management (JC)
The Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management opened for signature in 1997 and entered into force in 2001. The Convention aims to achieve and maintain a high level of safety in spent fuel and radioactive waste management; ensure that there are effective defenses against potential hazards during all stages of management of such materials; and prevent accidents with radiological consequences.  For additional information, see the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
IAEA: Founded in 1957 and based in Vienna, Austria, the IAEA is an autonomous international organization in the United Nations system. The Agency’s mandate is the promotion of peaceful uses of nuclear energy, technical assistance in this area, and verification that nuclear materials and technology stay in peaceful use. Article III of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires non-nuclear weapon states party to the NPT to accept safeguards administered by the IAEA. The IAEA consists of three principal organs: the General Conference (of member states); the Board of Governors; and the Secretariat. For additional information, see the IAEA.
Nuclear Energy Agency
The Nuclear Energy Agency is a specialized agency within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that was established in 1958. The NEA’s objective is to assist member countries in maintaining and developing nuclear energy as a safe, environmentally acceptable, and economical energy source by serving as a forum where states can share information and experience and promote international cooperation. For additional information, see the NTI Inventory.
UNSC Resolution 1540
Resolution 1540 was passed by the UN Security Council in April 2004, calling on all states to refrain from supporting, by any means, non-state actors who attempt to acquire, use, or transfer chemical, biological or nuclear weapons or their delivery systems. The resolution also called for a Committee to report on the progress of the resolution, asking states to submit reports on steps taken towards conforming to the resolution. In April 2011, the Security Council voted to extend the mandate of the 1540 Committee for an additional 10 years.
Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM)
The CPPNM: Obliges parties to ensure that during international transport across their territory, or on ships or aircraft under their jurisdiction, civil nuclear materials are protected according to agreed standards. The convention also provides a framework for international cooperation on the protection, recovery, and return of stolen nuclear material, and on the application of criminal sanctions against persons who commit crimes involving nuclear material. The CPPNM opened for signature on 3 March 1980 and entered into force on 8 February 1987. The Amendment to the CPPNM extended the convention’s scope to also cover the physical protection of nuclear material in domestic use, in storage, and during transport, and of nuclear facilities used for peaceful purposes, and provided for additional cooperation between states. For additional information, see the CPPNM.
International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (NTC)
The NTC: The General Assembly adopted the Nuclear Terrorism Convention in April 2005. It opened for signature on 14 September 2005. The Convention addresses the unlawful possession or use of nuclear devices or materials by non-state actors. The Convention calls on states to develop a legal framework criminalizing offenses related to nuclear terrorism, as well as for international cooperation in nuclear terrorism investigations and prosecutions. For additional information, see the Nuclear Terrorism Convention.


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