The second of its kind, the Seoul summit aims to reach consensus on securing nuclear materials against their use by militants. However, despite some progress in 2010, agreement may be harder to find this time. Mark Hibbs outlines the obstacles.

Between 26 and 27 March in Seoul, approximately 50 world leaders will convene for the second time in two years to discuss how to address the risk of nuclear terrorism. The Seoul summit follows an earlier summit in 2010, convened by US President Barack Obama in Washington DC, which was the first time that global leaders assembled for this specific purpose.

Mark Hibbs
Hibbs is a Germany-based nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program. His areas of expertise are nuclear verification and safeguards, multilateral nuclear trade policy, international nuclear cooperation, and nonproliferation arrangements.
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As in 2010, the leaders in Seoul are likely to pledge to take specific steps to keep nuclear materials secure and reduce the possibility that they could be illegally diverted into terrorist or criminal hands. However, there remain considerable differences between the stances of the various countries, and so they will struggle to generate the political will to craft a global nuclear security regime that is similar to those that exist for nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear safety.

Part of the reason for this discrepancy between rhetoric and action is a lack of belief on the part of many countries in the genuine risk of terrorists or criminals gaining access to nuclear materials. Concerns about the possibility date back to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the consequent risk posed to former Soviet arsenals, but there have as yet been very few incidents that have served to focus international attention on the issue. It is only in the decade since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States that the issue has gained a higher profile, leading Obama to call in 2009 for an international summit.

Improving standards

Since 2001, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has repeatedly warned legislators that the militant Islamist group Al-Qaeda, as well as more than 20 other militant groups, aim to acquire nuclear weapons. Similarly, the UK government asserted in its National Security Strategy of October 2010 that Al-Qaeda "will continue to seek all means" to obtain nuclear and radiological weapons.

These findings served as the backdrop for the announcement by Obama in Prague, Czech Republic, in April 2009 that he would convene and host a global summit on nuclear security a year later. The planned meeting, Obama said, would be part of a "new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years".

Obama's summit meeting was held in Washington over two days in April 2010 and attended by representatives from 47 countries, including 38 heads of state, the largest gathering of foreign leaders in one place since the Second World War. All but two states subject to international nuclear disarmament pressure - North Korea and Israel - attended the meeting. The result was a non-binding work plan and a communiqué voicing general aspirations to improve nuclear security, as well as a set of specific pledges made by individual countries.

The work plan, for example, pledged general support for the UN International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism; for the UN Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material, which had been revised five years previously but had not entered into force; for implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1540, passed soon after the 11 September 2001 attacks and requiring all countries to take measures to secure nuclear items; and for nuclear security initiatives at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The IAEA provides training for countries, advisory services, legal assistance, and support in managing nuclear materials and radioactive sources. In addition, it maintains a global database on illicit nuclear trafficking. More generally, the work plan urged countries to prudently manage inventories of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, and to pass legislation and participate in international co-operation and capacity building. 

More significant were some of the 54 specific commitments made by 29 countries that testified to active engagement in international programmes and contributed to a reduction of specific liabilities on their territories. Canada, for example, pledged to return a large amount of spent HEU fuel, used for isotope production, to the US, while Chile, Mexico and Ukraine pledged to remove their entire HEU stockpiles. China agreed to establish a nuclear security 'centre of excellence'. Finland invited the IAEA to review its national nuclear security system and Thailand committed to join the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), an international co-operation forum set up by Russia and the US in 2006.

After nearly two years, many of these important national commitments have been fulfilled. Chile sent its inventory of 18 kg of HEU to the US; Kazakhstan, working with the US government, removed a large inventory of spent fuel from an HEU-fuelled breeder reactor to a secure storage depot and secured more than 10 tonnes of HEU and three tonnes of weapons-grade plutonium. Japan is working to convert some HEU-fuelled installations and Ukraine removed 106 kg of fresh and irradiated HEU to Russia; a smaller amount of HEU still remains in Ukraine. In addition, Russia shut down the third and last reactor that it had used to make weapons plutonium. Six countries held educational conferences and workshops; three passed new export control laws; five ratified the two international conventions; four joined GICNT; five took legislative measures to deter nuclear smuggling; two invited IAEA security reviews; and six (Belgium, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Russia and the UK) donated funds to the IAEA nuclear security programme.

Behind deadline

Despite these advances, Obama's stated aim of securing the world's unsecured nuclear materials by 2013 looks unlikely to be achieved. This is perhaps unsurprising: while technically feasible, this aim was politically ambitious. As soon as the 2010 summit concluded, questions were raised about how much work needed to be done, where and at what cost.

Immediately after the summit, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigated the matter and concluded that Obama's four-year strategy "lacked specific details concerning how the initiative would be implemented, including the identity of vulnerable foreign nuclear material sites and facilities to be addressed, agencies and programmes for addressing each site, planned activities at each location, potential challenges and strategies for overcoming those obstacles, anticipated timelines and cost estimates. As a result, key details... are unclear; including overall estimated cost, time frame and scope of planned work".

While many countries have been willing to allow the US to take the lead in paying for global nuclear security programmes - for 2012 alone, Obama's federal budget request included USD2.5 billion to support his four-year summit agenda - some countries seem reluctant to let Washington tell them how best to manage their nuclear materials. The GAO report, released months after the 2010 summit, documented problems faced by the US government in working with counterparts in Russia, China and India, where, it said, "political sensitivities have limited [US] efforts to relatively non-controversial exchanges of best practices, training and demonstration projects". In interviews with the GAO held between April and September 2010, US government officials backed away from the four-year timetable, describing it as having a "forcing function" to galvanise national and international efforts that must continue beyond 2013. The GAO also complained that US agencies were "vague" about "criteria used to judge when foreign nuclear sites can ultimately be considered secure".

Expanding the 2012 agenda 

In the meantime, South Korea, which at the 2010 summit had taken on the task of convening a second meeting in 2012, began preparing to host this summit.

The Seoul meeting will have similarities to the 2010 summit but departs from it in some respects. It will include a somewhat larger number of countries, perhaps just over 50 compared to the 47 attendees in 2010. The three new participants will be Azerbaijan, Denmark and Lithuania. As in 2010, the major achievements of the summit will be in the commitments made by participating governments. Officials preparing the summit drew up a 'matrix' for each country, focusing on what diplomatic steps would be necessary to persuade leaders to agree to make specific pledges; they told IHS Jane's that a few countries will announce significant commitments. For example, a small group of countries will jointly agree to take specific actions in a few areas, perhaps related to efforts to convert the use of isotope production reactors in Europe and elsewhere from HEU to low-enriched uranium (LEU), as commercial considerations might deter any one country from taking unilateral action that could negatively affect its industry.

The initial 2010 summit concerned the security of nuclear materials - plutonium and HEU - including in nuclear weapons programmes, since these materials would pose the gravest threat if accessed by militant groups. Following an initiative by the German government, the scope of the 2012 meeting will be expanded to include treatment of nuclear sources and other radiological materials.

Governments stress that militant groups, including Al-Qaeda, have declared their intention to obtain material to build so-called 'dirty bombs', explosive devices that would disperse radioactive material amid a local population. A few of these materials, such as caesium-137, cobalt-60, strontium-90 and americium-241, could be deadly if used in such a weapon. Accounting for radioactive sources is difficult because there are many thousands being used for civilian applications.

Moreover, during the second half of the 20th century, many radioactive sources were lost or discarded without being subject to collection and disposal by government authorities. Before the US government began to address this problem in the 1990s, with better management and source recovery programmes, as many as 100,000 discarded sources may have accumulated in the US alone, according to information from US officials presented at an IAEA symposium in 1998.

The decision to include radiological materials on the 2012 agenda was opposed by some governments on the grounds it would detract from the greater threat posed by plutonium and HEU. However, this reflects the nuclear security concerns faced by the vast majority of countries that do not have fissile materials on their territories, indirectly raising the politically sensitive issue of which countries would be invited to attend the summit meeting.

Likely outcomes

The summit's managers express confidence that, as in 2010, a number of specific national commitments, including a few major items, will be announced by participants. Perhaps one or more governments might agree to convert HEU-fuelled reactors, and non-binding agreements or statements in the communiqué may be made to encourage reactor conversion and deployment of technologies for isotope production that do not rely on HEU.

The communiqué will probably support the role of the IAEA, and perhaps the International Criminal Police (Interpol), in nuclear security, and encourage the development of nuclear security culture, securing radioactive materials and combating nuclear smuggling through forensics and border controls. It could also contain general commitments to excellence in nuclear security, to protect all HEU and plutonium against design-basis threats and an endorsement of the latest revision of the IAEA's recommendation on physical protection of nuclear material. Individual countries might commit themselves to reducing their plutonium and HEU inventories, invite IAEA assessments and peer reviews, and report on ongoing progress to other summit participants.

However, some important issues that advocates want to put on the international nuclear security agenda are highly unlikely to reach consensus in Seoul, such as a proposed agreement to convert all reactors using HEU to LEU fuel. This has been discussed by governments and experts for three decades but has so far proven unattainable. During this period, approximately 25 countries have given up their inventories of HEU. At present, non-nuclear weapons countries still hold around 20 tonnes of HEU, while a few countries continue to operate HEU-fuelled reactors, and two of these, China and Russia, are commissioning new HEU-fuelled units.

Over the same period, 77 reactors worldwide have been converted from HEU to LEU fuel. The 2010 summit communiqué vowed to "promote" reactor conversion "where appropriate". In line with a consensus statement made by all parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) during a review conference in 2010, the Seoul summit will include a commitment "in principle" to minimise the use of HEU in civilian nuclear reactors. However, there have so far been no watertight commitments to convert HEU-fuelled units in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Russia. As yet, neither the US nor others have called for a global ban on the use of HEU.

Russia operates reactors with HEU fuel, and a commitment by Moscow at the summit to convert any of these to LEU would be a significant achievement. Supported by the US following a 2009 bilateral agreement, Russia has carried out feasibility studies to convert six HEU-fuelled reactors. However, reactor conversion is not a priority for Russia's nuclear industry, as many officials do not consider the threat of nuclear terrorism on Russian territory to be serious. This lack of concern is illustrated by Russia's decision to go ahead with plans to operate a new HEU-fuelled reactor. Since the 1980s, uranium-silicide fuels have been developed of sufficient density for most reactor uses, permitting LEU to be substituted for HEU in many reactors. However, programmes to develop higher-density uranium-molybdenum fuels for the remaining HEU-fuelled reactors have been less successful, deterring conversion of a handful of high-flux reactors.

Separately, a few countries are operating fast critical assemblies, some of which are associated with large HEU inventories. One of these installations is in Japan; its HEU inventory has been unofficially estimated at between 200 kg and 500 kg. Japan said it needed this installation for development of future fast breeder reactors.

A related topic of discussion is whether to seek a common commitment to convert HEU-fuelled naval propulsion reactors and to deploy in the future only LEU-fuelled propulsion reactors. Facing a shortage of domestic HEU fuel and aiming to consolidate its nuclear industry, France has built a fleet of LEU-fuelled nuclear submarines. However, the US, which has a large HEU inventory, will not convert HEU-fuelled naval reactors requiring about three tonnes of HEU annually. Similarly, Russia will not convert its nuclear submarines, which use around 600 kg HEU per year. Regardless of French success with LEU-fuelled naval reactors, neither the US nor Russia have committed to develop LEU fuelled-technology for future submarines, thereby preventing establishment of a global norm to delegitimise use of HEU by non-nuclear weapons states for future propulsion reactors.

Another issue unlikely to gather consensus is an agreement to reduce inventories of separated plutonium. The world's growing inventory of separated plutonium may be around 500 tonnes, nearly all of it in nuclear weapons states; around half of the plutonium is for weapons and half of it is for civilian programmes. The amount is increasing owing to civilian reprocessing programmes in France, India, Russia and the UK, and plutonium stocks will rise again if reprocessing programmes are expanded in China, India and Japan. While military stockpiles are being reduced through the efforts of the US and Russia, which possess by far the greatest proportion of the world's military plutonium, between 1996 and 2010, the world's civilian plutonium inventory increased from around 150 tonnes to around 250 tonnes, according to the International Panel on Fissile Materials' Global Fissile Material Report 2010 .

For this reason, some advocates, such as the Fissile Materials Working Group, a US-based non-governmental coalition of nuclear security experts, favour making a global commitment in Seoul to halt this build-up. However, this is highly unlikely, owing to ongoing national programmes. For example, France sees its civilian reprocessing programme as an important commercial opportunity, while China has begun reprocessing spent power reactor fuel in a pilot facility and aims to build a commercial-scale plant. India plans to build further separation plants and Japan intends to operate an almost finished commercial reprocessing plant regardless of chronic construction and commissioning delays. China, India, Japan and Russia aim to produce plutonium for use in future breeder reactors. Other nuclear power-generating countries in Europe and Asia view plutonium as a potential future carbon-free energy resource. Neither they, nor the US, want to try to force others not to produce more plutonium, even though the build-up has far outstripped current demand.

Perhaps most crucially, the summit is also unlikely to result in a commitment to create common international standards for nuclear security. More than is the case for nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear safety, nuclear security, defined as the prevention and detection of, and response to, malicious acts involving nuclear material, radiological materials and associated facilities, is a subject that relies on the voluntary participation of individual states and sharing information that is considered by governments to be extremely sensitive. Unlike non-proliferation and nuclear safety, where civilian industry is subject to national laws, international obligations and intensive outreach, the role of industry in nuclear security has been comparatively limited.

The absence of common international standards could arguably contribute to undisclosed security deficits that could be revealed to, and exploited by, terrorists or criminals. At the same time, some experts argue that creating such a baseline could establish a low level of security and prevent standards from being improved above that level. In addition, a publicly accessible list of security standards could prove useful to potential illegal infiltrators, by allowing them to identify security vulnerabilities within the system.

Credibility problem

The primary reason behind this failure to introduce a global standards regime is a lack of major concern on the part of many governments about the risk of a nuclear terrorist attack, when they can cite the lack of any nuclear terrorism incident as evidence that current efforts are sufficient. Ultimately, many governments have been unwilling to go beyond case-by-case participation in nuclear security-related endeavours because they are satisfied that the level of physical protection they provide for their materials and installations is sufficient.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to greater political commitment in addressing nuclear security issues is the fact that an attack has not so far been made using radiological or nuclear materials. Many nuclear professionals seem to believe it is only a theoretical possibility that these materials could be used in an attack. By contrast, the nuclear safety regime has been constructed on the basis of significant responses by the IAEA and national governments to two severe nuclear accidents: Three Mile Island in the US in 1979 and Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986.

In addition, international concern about the risk posed by former Soviet arsenals is now declining. Concern peaked in 1994, when a rash of smuggling incidents featuring small amounts of HEU and plutonium were uncovered in Russia, the Czech Republic and Germany. The threat from the Soviet nuclear weapons legacy appears currently to have receded, in part because Russia's political leadership has reasserted control since the late 1990s and because Russia has co-operated with the US and other countries in rectifying deficiencies in control over its nuclear materials. As of 2012, the IAEA had identified a total of 18 cases in which stolen nuclear weapons-usable materials were recovered. However, in very few of these cases was the material's origin detected, nor who stole it, under what circumstances, or where the materials were being taken. Moreover, in none of the cases were terrorist groups identified as having stolen or obtained these materials.

The GAO did warn in 2010 that certain programmes the US had established under the Co-operative Threat Reduction programme in 1991, to secure nuclear assets in the former Soviet Union, would soon expire or be taken over by Russian authorities. This was a troubling prospect for the US as much work remained to be done. In 2008, then US secretary of defense Robert Gates said he was "worried" about the past Soviet legacy because "the Russians probably do not have any idea how many [nuclear artillery shells] they have or, potentially, where they are". However, in the same breath he expressed "fairly high confidence" that known Russian inventories were under control. Gates put the number of old, not fully accounted for, Russian nuclear weapons at "tens of thousands".

In the meantime, the primary area of concern about nuclear terrorism has shifted from Russia to Pakistan. In 2004, Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan confessed to having illegally sold Pakistan's uranium enrichment assets to Libya, Iran and North Korea, illustrating the vulnerabilities in its security systems, although he was never criminally convicted on these charges and has since received a full pardon. Bolstered by up to USD100 million in assistance from US agencies in recent years, Pakistan's military now appears to be in control of a nuclear weapons programme that continues to produce HEU and plutonium. The real threat posed by Pakistan may not be that materials or weapons will be stolen, but that they will be unprotected should the country collapse. During the 2010 summit, Pakistan and other nuclear armed states resisted attempts by other participating governments to discuss the security of their nuclear weapons. They will do so again if that subject is raised in Seoul.

As well as this shifting focus of concern, countries that are part of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) may be critical of US efforts and the summit's conclusions and unwilling to sign up to the meeting's resolutions as a result. Consistent with the NAM's scrutiny of global nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation efforts, its Vienna chapter has criticised the funding of nuclear security programmes at the IAEA, as well as the security summit process itself. One US diplomatic cable leaked in advance of the Washington summit testified to an "uproar" at an internal NAM meeting concerning the list of invitees. A NAM representative told IHS Jane's in November 2011 that Iran, which chairs the NAM in 2012 and which strongly influences the NAM agenda on nuclear issues, views nuclear security summits as a US-led conspiracy to interfere with developing countries' nuclear programmes.

In light of these sensitivities, the IAEA in recent years has been disinclined to press for the closure of as many as 200 research reactors that its experts believe is justified on safety and security grounds; many of these reactors operate using HEU and are in developing countries. Nuclear summit negotiators told IHS Jane's in January 2012 that during negotiations over the contents of the Seoul summit communiqué, developing countries attempted to link nuclear security commitments to nuclear disarmament by the big powers and succeeded in weakening some of the general commitments in the document. Such tensions among summit members may work against efforts to reach agreement on the major issues, leading instead to more generalised statements of intent.

These tensions may be eased somewhat at the upcoming summit by enlarging the scope of the meeting to include radiological materials, as managing these materials is the greatest nuclear security challenge faced by many developing countries.

Future resolutions

The sheer volume of directly usable nuclear weapons materials in the world - as much as 1,600 tonnes of HEU and 500 tonnes of plutonium - implies that the task of meeting nuclear security challenges will be far from being achieved when Obama's four-year deadline expires in 2013. As such, the nuclear security regime will remain considerably weaker than that of non-proliferation, for example, and governed by few international treaties or agreements.

Yet, the prospect of another summit after Seoul, currently set for 2014 and potentially in the Netherlands, may act as a spur to maintain momentum, with governments making commitments in 2012 keen to demonstrate their progress before Obama's deadline. After that point, it may prove difficult to sustain summits with such a large number of heads of state attending, but governments might agree to continue meeting annually at the working level.

As the international nuclear security fabric is comparatively weak compared to the web of commitments in non-proliferation and nuclear safety, the best prospect for institutionalising the 200-plus commitments and pledges generated by the

Washington and Seoul summits may be for the March event to conclude with a statement in the communiqué spelling out a common understanding that assuring nuclear security must be a dynamic, continuing endeavour. Such commitments could be buoyed by a planned international conference in 2013, probably at the IAEA, to address the issue of deficiencies in the architecture of the nuclear safety regime. The gradual implementation of these commitments and recommendations would therefore help contribute to an incremental improvement in global standards of nuclear security, helping to guard against any sustained efforts by terrorist groups to access nuclear materials.

This article originally appeared in Jane's Intelligence Review.