The Seoul Nuclear Summit

The Seoul Nuclear Summit

Mini Teaser: Obama has emerged as champion of securing vulnerable nuclear materials. Two years after his Washington summit on this arcane but important matter, leaders are descending on South Korea to track progress and fashion goals for the future.

by Author(s): Miles A. PomperMichelle E. Dover

The preparation for the 2012 Seoul summit began more than a year ago with a November 2010 meeting of the “sherpas” (top officials from each country assigned to negotiate on issues before the summit) in Buenos Aires. The meeting was meant to review progress on the completion of national commitments and begin floating ideas for the next conference. Nine concepts emerged:

1. Developing HEU-management guidelines. Modeled on existing plutonium-management guidelines, these rules would call for states to provide greater transparency on their HEU holdings. They also suggest tough standards for security, transportation and international transfers. The guidelines would aim to raise the cost of storing the material, thus encouraging states that are making little use of stocks to eliminate or consolidate them.

2. Transportation security. Japan wanted to see more action to ensure radioactive material was protected from theft, sabotage or other malicious acts during transport. The Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) addresses these issues, though not all states have ratified the convention or built the necessary legislative and regulatory frameworks and provided sufficient resources to implement it.

3. Illicit trafficking. Over the past two decades, the IAEA’s Illicit Trafficking Database has recorded hundreds of cases of criminal activity involving radioactive materials, including well over a dozen involving HEU or plutonium. Since illicit nuclear trafficking often makes use of the same tactics as do other black markets in humans, arms and drugs, it is considered imperative that law enforcement and border security are trained in what to look for in nuclear smuggling. The South Caucasus and Central Asia are of particular concern, in part because they are situated between the “supply” in Russia and potential buyers; these regions already have established networks for drugs, humans and arms, and all these could be used for nuclear trafficking as well. Officials could blunt the threat of nuclear smuggling by raising the level of border security in these countries and by providing training, detection equipment and response plans.

4. Nuclear forensics. These technologies and activities attempt to trace nuclear material (either used in a nuclear explosion or found unused) to its original source. This helps prevent future thefts, particularly from those who work in nuclear facilities, and also holds governments and organizations accountable for security lapses.

5. Advancing treaty ratification. There is currently no overarching framework for nuclear security, but nuclear-security standards could be enhanced if countries would merely implement measures already agreed upon. These include the 2005 amendment to the CPPNM, which takes a treaty that only governed nuclear material during international transport and extends its writ to ensuring domestic protection of the same materials. The International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICNST) also addresses nuclear security as it calls on states to take steps necessary to prevent, detect and respond to terrorist acts involving nuclear material. Despite the treaties’ relevance, their potency is weakened through lack of follow-through. The CPPNM amendment, for example, has been ratified by only one-third of the countries that are party to the convention. Two-thirds must ratify it before it can go into effect.

6. Coordination with other international mechanisms. These include groups such as the IAEA, Interpol and the United Nations, all of whom will be participants at the summit. Already these organizations foster communication among countries and address issues related to nuclear security. Some, such as the IAEA, already concentrate serious effort on these issues.

7. Nuclear-security culture. This aims to follow the path of nuclear-safety regimens of the past quarter century, which sought to curb natural disasters and flaws in technology or human operation. A strong commitment by many nuclear operators to nuclear safety significantly diminished the chances of nuclear-plant accidents since Chernobyl (leaving aside Fukushima). The World Institute for Nuclear Security, for example, is an international organization already dedicated to promoting best practices in nuclear security and could use further recognition and support in achieving its goals.

8. Information security. This aims to ensure that records accounting for nuclear material and tracing their control are secure from unauthorized access. Growing concerns about cybersecurity make this issue particularly pressing.

9. Radiological-source security. This involves protecting radioactive materials, such as cesium, in medical and industrial uses. Most countries do not have the special nuclear material needed for weapons, but many have civilian uses for various radiological sources, which are susceptible to loss, theft and diversion. Often these materials are small in size, easy to transport, and housed in less secure facilities such as hospitals and schools. Such materials can be used in “dirty bombs,” conventional bombs that dispense radiological material, to contaminate areas and cause panic.

As the sherpas and their deputies (the “sous-sherpas”) have continued to meet every few months, a consensus has formed in favor of some of these ideas. Others have fallen by the wayside, and still others continue to be in dispute. For example, there is general support for doing more about nuclear smuggling, exemplified by the fact that Interpol will participate in the meeting for the first time. On the other hand, some developing countries have resisted drafting HEU guidelines as part of the summit process, saying such issues are best addressed within the IAEA. They have also resisted a U.S-led effort to set a date for phasing out the use of HEU in research reactors that produce medical isotopes.

The process of refining the agenda has been subject to many of the problems often seen in large, multilateral engagements: difficulty focusing the participants toward problem solving and away from established positions; a tendency to settle at the lowest common denominator; and challenges in making sure all participants are still engaged and on board with discussions. Organizers also have faced questions about the legitimacy and life span of the security-summit process as opposed to other, more established multinational institutions such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review process or the IAEA. Although these bodies tend to give short shrift to nuclear security, they are strongholds in 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 as a potential violation of their sovereignty and something that would allow other countries to discover their security vulnerabilities.

IN ADDITION, South Korea faces challenges in continuing the summit process while addressing issues of particular relevance to its population. The matter of greatest interest to Korean citizens is addressing the developing nuclear arsenal of North Korea. The rogue regime was invited to the forthcoming summit—but only on the condition that it renounce its nuclear-weapons program, an unlikely prospect. Thus, North Korea is not expected to attend the summit, and Washington will carefully avoid acknowledging any legitimacy in North Korea’s program. Despite these expected interactions, the United States and South Korea could seek to use the summit as an opportunity to open a quiet dialogue with Pyongyang on radiological and nuclear security. In addition, the South Korean government is sure to take advantage of the captive audience of high-level leaders to seek support on the North Korean issue from sympathetic states on the margins of the summit.

The Fukushima accident also has altered the agenda. There are a number of international institutions and forums dedicated to nuclear safety, but given the magnitude of the accident, its proximity to South Korea and Seoul’s large nuclear-power industry, South Korean leaders will undoubtedly use the summit as an opportunity to reassure their citizens about the safety of nuclear power. The inclusion of nuclear safety posed an underlying tension in the run-up to the summit between South Korea and the United States because the latter believes the nuclear-safety issue is better addressed elsewhere. An uneasy compromise has emerged, with summit participants planning to discuss the areas where the issues of safety and security coincide. In truth, the nascent international nuclear-security regime could learn a great deal from the more established nuclear-safety regime that developed after the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Possible areas for action modeled on the nuclear-safety regime include the use of regular assessments, information sharing, peer review and reviews of related international conventions. These integrate safety and security concerns. Since many countries are concerned about the safety of nuclear plants, peer reviews would help educate countries about preventative safety measures while creating new avenues for cooperation. And since nuclear crises do not respect political borders, support could be given to existing international institutions, for example by increasing funding for IAEA activities in nuclear safety and security. Regular reviews and near-universal adherence to the Convention on Nuclear Safety offer a vision of what might happen were the amended CPPNM and the ICNST to have the same reach and regular review. Even efforts to implement integrated approaches to risk management or standardize information gathering and distribution would further reinforce the development of frameworks to ensure nuclear security.

South Korea also seeks to place a greater focus on securing radioactive sources and civilian facilities, such as nuclear-power plants, waste-management sites and hospitals. The Obama administration devoted little attention to this issue at the 2010 summit because it wanted to concentrate on securing the more dangerous fissile materials. However, for most countries, particularly those without fissile material, the threat of a dirty bomb is greater than that of the detonation of a nuclear device. One possibility could be making the current voluntary IAEA Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources a legally binding measure. Another might be to launch a broad, international scientific effort to look for technological alternatives to the most high-risk radioactive sources. Securing radioactive sources is not limited to on-site measures; it also requires a comprehensive tracking system and police training on how to respond to stolen nuclear material. This regimen can be enhanced by adherence to international mechanisms such as UN Security Council Resolution 1540. South Korea could discuss sharing or exporting its unique technology for tracing and tracking radioactive sources in real time as one of its house gifts.

Image: Pullquote: There is currently no overarching framework for nuclear security, but nuclear-security standards could be enhanced if countries would merely implement measures already agreed upon.Essay Types: Essay