Seoul Searching: An International Dialogue on Priorities for Nuclear Materials Security

Next week, more than 50 world leaders will gather for the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul to address the greatest threat to global security: nuclear terrorism.  Today, weapons-usable nuclear materials are stored at more than 100 sites worldwide, and although some sites are well-secured, many are not, leaving materials vulnerable to diversion or theft by terrorist groups seeking nuclear weapons. 

The first Nuclear Security Summit in 2010 placed an extraordinary spotlight on an urgent challenge.  The commitments generated from the 2010 Summit have made the world safer:  More than a dozen countries have removed more than 400 kg of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium from their territories; Russia eliminated 48 metric tons of excess HEU; the United States has eliminated 7 metric tons. Thirteen countries have ratified an important treaty designed to protect nuclear materials, and 12 countries have ratified another treaty against nuclear terrorism.

This year’s Summit must build upon these concrete steps by setting priorities.  There is no global consensus on what matters most for securing materials worldwide and no global system for tracking, managing and securing vulnerable nuclear materials.  Because global nuclear materials security is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, world leaders must set priorities for securing nuclear materials and lay the foundation for a system that will get the job done. 

The Seoul Summit provides a critical opportunity to take this important step.

The NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index, released in January 2012, provides a basic framework to launch an international dialogue on priorities.  Prepared with the Economist Intelligence Unit with guidance from an international panel of experts, the NTI Index is a first-of-its kind baseline assessment of nuclear materials security conditions worldwide.  The Index identifies five key areas critical for nuclear materials security:

  • Quantities and Sites. How much material does a country have and at how many locations?
  • Security and Control Measures. What kind of requirements for protection measures are in place?
  • Global Norms. What international commitments related to materials security has a country made?
  • Domestic Commitments and Capacity. What is the domestic capacity of the country to fulfill those international commitments?
  • Societal Factors. Could a given country’s societal factors—such as corruption or government instability—undermine its security commitments and practices?

Participants in the Seoul Summit may have their own factors to consider, but the dialogue about what’s effective, what’s important and what makes a difference should begin now.

In order to keep the world’s most dangerous materials out of the most dangerous hands, the international community must benchmark progress and hold states accountable.  Governments should provide accurate declarations of their weapons-usable nuclear materials, as well as the current status of their nuclear materials security conditions. 

States also should build appropriate transparency to increase international confidence. This is not a call for states to provide information that would compromise security interests—some information clearly should remain secret.  Rather, states can and should share information about their nuclear security approaches and regulations.

Next week in Seoul, states will make new commitments to strengthen international efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism.  These commitments continue to be important, but world leaders in Seoul should work to devise a comprehensive and coordinated approach.  The Nuclear Security Summit process has proven to be extremely valuable and may be the best forum to build a system of global governance, thanks in part to the high-level attention afforded to such a large gathering of world leaders.  

The consequences of a nuclear terrorist attack – whether in Tokyo or Tel Aviv, Mumbai or New York – are almost unthinkable.  World leaders in Seoul should take important steps to ensure that such a catastrophe never happens.

March 20, 2012

NTI describes why the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit is important and why world leaders must seize the opportunity to start a dialogue on priorities for nuclear materials security in Seoul.

Nuclear Threat Initiative