Korea's Nuclear Summit a Damp Squib

The Nuclear Security Summit held on March 26-27 in Seoul, has turned out to be a half-baked extravaganza that produced little of significance except for proclaiming the lofty goal of a nuclear-free world vision – while one of the world’s nuclear outlaws lurked just 65 km to the north, rattling rockets in the face of the world’s most powerful leaders.

Much effort has been spent in the last several months through Sherpa and sous-Sherpa meetings at the highest political level, the 51 heads of state and global organizations including the leaders of the world’s most potent nuclear-tipped countries, who gathered in Seoul for the second security summit. They issued a 2200-word Seoul Communiqué that was long on words and short on commitment except for a series of non-binding vows to take observable actions around the end of 2013. They unanimously affirmed that “measures to strengthen nuclear security will not hamper the rights of States to develop and utilize nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”

As well they should. These commitments will be supported by each of the signatories in the hopes of promoting a global recognition that a nuclear explosion anywhere is a serious danger everywhere, reflected by the tragedy of the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent near-meltdown of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plants, which continue to cook menacingly today, more than a year after the temblor. Meaningfully, the leaders noted the nexus between nuclear security and nuclear safety, while addressing these ‘different chapters of the same book’ issues in a coherent manner.

In truth, the interface between nuclear security and safety will likely represent another step toward expanding the perceptions of nuclear power in a dangerous world. It also marks the opening of broader maneuvering to counter the emerging nuclear threats of the 21st century. The United States currently has 2,100 deployed strategic warheads, and Russia 2,600, according to the Federation of American Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In reality, nuclear terrorism has emerged as one of the most challenging threats to global security – a danger that people began to recognize after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, in which Al-Qaeda, a non-state actor, was able to kill more people than the imperialist Japan killed at Pearl Harbor in 1941. A nuclear 9/11 attack would certainly incinerate hundreds of thousands in a single blow at the heart of New York, for example.

Unfortunately, there is a misbelief among numerous nuclear skeptics that even if non-state actors like terrorists could obtain nuclear material clandestinely and make a crude bomb, it would be the United States’ and Russia’s problem, not a grave issue for other countries. It is a grave issue for any country faced with a deranged and capable non-state organization.

Meanwhile, the political leaders underlined the importance of securing, accounting for and consolidating highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium, while encouraging each state to take measures to minimize the use of HEU, including efforts to down-blend HEU into low enriched uranium. Given that approximately 25 kg of highly enriched is needed for making one nuclear warhead, it is realistic to point out that the United States and Russia in particular should take a more urgent action to speed up their own rates of down-blending and dismantlement rather than focusing attention on securing fissile materials globally.

That’s why the leaders, if not participating in the summit meeting merely for a photo opportunity, should continue to find common ground necessary to make ‘binding’ efforts toward strengthening nuclear security. Coming up with obligatory actions is, to be sure, a tough nut but it should be, after all, made in one way or another, since another fuzzy communiqué which embraces voluntary arrangements cannot secure the global security, safety and safeguards.

Bland commitments and sterile debates over unpredictable nuclear threats emanating from non-state actors and over dangers beyond men’s imagination will do nothing to fend off the opponents of the summit who are in strong favor of eliminating all nuclear weapons and dismantling nuclear reactors on the planet.

Equally alarming, waste and spent fuel which are stored on an interim basis in pools of water or in casks are of the greatest concern about the vulnerability of the materials to disasters like the Fukushima accident or possible terrorist attacks. Given that the effectiveness of concrete to contain nuclear waste is much less than 100 years, it raises rational questions about whether these sensitive materials can be effectively stored for periods that will exceed recorded human history so far, many times over.

Nevertheless, it is worthy to note that the Seoul Summit set a target date of 2014 for bringing the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material into force by 2014. Plus, agreement between the U.S., France, Belgium, and the Netherlands was made to produce medical isotopes without the use of HEU by 2015. The move could encourage other countries to act boldly over time.

(Lee Byong-chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.)