With anxieties over the nuclear activities of North Korea and Iran looming large, heads of state from 53 countries convened in Seoul this week to reaffirm and intensify their commitment to prevent nuclear materials from getting into the hands of terrorists.

At the meeting, a follow-on to the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit held in Washington by President Obama, several countries agreed to concrete steps to limit the use of highly enriched uranium in civilian nuclear reactors. Major breakthroughs, however, were in short supply. In a Q&A, Mark Hibbs explains that this incremental approach of small steps by like-minded countries is expected to continue in the years ahead. There’s little political will for setting up a binding and comprehensive global nuclear security framework.

What was the purpose of the security summit?

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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The meeting was held to build on the understandings and commitments of the 47 countries that participated in the 2010 summit to secure nuclear materials against loss, theft, and misuse.

Like the first meeting, the Seoul summit had two main components. The first was a communiqué, agreed to by all participants, which identified a dozen specific target areas needing attention. The second was a set of specific commitments made by states to improve the security of their nuclear materials and installations.

The communiqué, for example, aspired to minimize the use of highly enriched uranium; to bring into force in 2014 an amended international convention to protect nuclear materials against loss or theft during transport and use; and to protect sensitive information, vital to the defense of nuclear installations and materials, against theft and cyber attacks.

Specific national commitments included a joint program by Belgium, France, South Korea, and the United States to develop low enriched uranium fuel for high-powered research reactors around the world, which, if successful, would mean reactors would not need uranium enriched to nuclear weapons grade. Three of these countries, along with the Netherlands, also agreed on a coordinated plan to use newer and less sensitive uranium fuel in their reactors for the commercial production of medical isotopes.

What threat does unsecured nuclear material pose? How likely is a nuclear terrorist attack?

Terrorists could obtain knowhow needed for making a nuclear weapon and steal the highly enriched uranium or plutonium to make a bomb. Even more likely, perpetrators could obtain less protected radiological materials—from discarded medical sources, for example—to fashion a crude explosive device that could scatter dangerous radioactive material in a densely populated area. In addition, terrorists could use sabotage and deception to cause a severe accident at a nuclear power plant.

Just a few kilograms of weapons-grade uranium or plutonium are sufficient to yield a nuclear explosion. But the world inventory of weapons-grade uranium is about 1,600 tons and the inventory of plutonium is about 500 tons. Most of this material is in the hands of a few states that have nuclear weapons, but some of it is used in states without the high-security infrastructure associated with national nuclear defense programs. Over the last forty years, some civilian nuclear programs have continued to separate more plutonium than what can be used to generate electricity in reactors. More than 20 tons of weapons-grade uranium is used for civilian purposes in states without nuclear weapons. There are probably several hundred thousand items containing radiological materials worldwide.

Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world became alarmed by the seizure of small quantities of highly enriched uranium and plutonium by law enforcement personnel in Central and Eastern Europe. Attention focused on plutonium and enriched uranium in the Soviet nuclear complex which consisted of hundreds of sites scattered across nine time zones. Since then, Russia has significantly improved the security of these materials, but Western officials suspect that the whereabouts of some weapons-usable materials may not even be known to Russian authorities.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has documented over 2,000 cases of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials worldwide. In a case that was exposed by police in Moldova last year, smugglers tried to disguise a cache of several stolen kilograms of highly enriched uranium by shielding it with protective material.

After a scientist in Pakistan, Abdul Qadeer Khan, a decade ago peddled Pakistan’s most sensitive nuclear assets to clients in Libya, Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere, Pakistan authorities assured the global community that the country’s nuclear weapons are under control. But given the rise of extremism in Pakistan, concern about the security of its nuclear materials is justified.

Despite the threat and some documented cases of smuggling, the chances of a terrorist attack with nuclear weapons remains very low. The success of efforts to improve nuclear material security around the world, the consolidation of nuclear materials in a few sites, and the success of global efforts to counterterrorism have all reduced the chances that terrorists can access any material that may yet be vulnerable to theft or diversion.

As noted above, given the wider use of radiological sources in a variety of industrial, medical, and other commercial applications, there is some greater chance of terrorists acquiring these materials. But an attack involving radioactive materials would be orders of magnitude less destructive than an attack involving a nuclear device, though still very damaging.

Was the summit a success? Did leaders agree to new actions?

The summit’s communiqué and the specific commitments made by participating governments represent incremental improvements in the world’s nuclear security on a number of fronts. The coordinated effort to replace weapons-grade uranium fuel with low enriched uranium, and to abandon the use of the former material at several key reactors, may help overcome the commercial disincentives that have so far inhibited some countries from converting their medical isotope industries to low enriched uranium fuels.

Prompted by the accident at Fukushima a year ago, the communiqué sent the message that there is a strong correlation between nuclear security—broadly defined as detection, prevention, and response to malicious acts involving nuclear and radiological materials and associated facilities—and nuclear safety. Japan’s industry and nuclear regulators could have mitigated this accident had they previously taken actions that were recommended by their counterparts in the United States and Europe. The communiqué did not spell out that sabotage would threaten both the safety and the security of power reactors.

But the summit communiqué pulled back from endorsing the establishment of a global nuclear security regime on par with that which is in place for nuclear nonproliferation and, to a somewhat lesser extent, for nuclear safety. The communiqué is laced with caveats underscoring the voluntary nature of pledges to improve nuclear security.

As was demonstrated at the IAEA in June 2011 in response to the Fukushima accident, most governments resist legally binding agreements and are disinclined to forfeit their sovereign authority by making commitments to a set of common, internationally agreed-upon nuclear security and safety standards.

Did the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran dominate the agenda?

These issues didn’t dominate the agenda, but they dominated the global response to the summit, regardless of the fact that neither country attended the meeting. Because nuclear terrorists so far have not carried out a dramatic attack, many nuclear professionals, heads of state, and publics aren’t convinced that this threat is real. By contrast, North Korea’s imminent plan to launch a long-range missile under the guise of a satellite launch and Iran’s resolve to enrich more uranium and operate a plutonium production-type reactor certainly galvanizes international attention.

Are there gaps in international support for nuclear security?

Yes. Russia has been conspicuously absent from the nuclear security forefront in some key areas. Regardless of the post-Cold War history of terrorism on Russian territory and Russia’s huge inventory of nuclear materials, Russian industry and authorities are supremely confident that a terrorist attack on a Russian nuclear installation or one that uses stolen Russian nuclear materials will not happen.

Russia operates many installations using highly enriched uranium, but it declined in the run-up to the summit to convert any of these to use low enriched uranium instead. Russia’s nuclear industry says the cost is prohibitive. Western officials say Moscow’s lack of response is consistent with its limited cooperation in international efforts to halt nuclear smuggling.

The navies of both the United States and Russia use highly enriched uranium to fuel their submarine fleets. France has successfully switched to using low enriched fuel for new submarine reactors, but neither Russia nor the United States will commit themselves to follow suit.

In 2010, the Washington summit focused on the threats associated with nuclear weapons-usable materials. The agenda for the 2012 meeting was enlarged to include radiological materials that have caused fatal accidents and can be used to make “dirty” bombs. That should appeal to the vast majority of states in the world—many of which are developing countries—that do not have any enriched uranium or separated plutonium on their territories and therefore are not overly concerned with nuclear security issues they view as mainly a problem for advanced countries and nuclear weapons states. But many developing countries are wary of committing themselves to actions that limit their freedom of action, cost money, or tie up scarce human resources.

What will happen on the way toward the 2014 summit and beyond?

We’ll see a continued incremental approach. The 2014 nuclear security summit to be held in the Netherlands may be the last. There will be more voluntary commitments, but there is little sense of urgency. There will be an IAEA meeting on nuclear security in 2013. Its advocates intend this event to bolster global nuclear security “architecture” and “governance.” But it is notable that countries participating in the Seoul summit did not use either of those words in reference to the 2013 meeting.

A critical issue in the future will be funding because absent money and political will there is little low-hanging fruit left to pick. In his federal budget proposals for 2012, Obama included about $2.5 billion for international nuclear security related items—an amount that dwarfs what other participants at the summit are spending. Until now, many countries have been willing to permit the United States to pay for improvements in their nuclear security.

In the meantime, some U.S.-Russian bilateral programs, which were largely financed by the United States and formed the backbone of international nuclear security initiatives since the end of the Cold War, are winding down. The United States is keen to share the burden of improving nuclear security with other states, but it isn’t clear that this will succeed.