Summit Successes Over Seoul-ed?

President Barack Obama (2nd R) speaks during the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit on March 27, 2012 in Seoul, South Korea. World leaders from 53 nations gathered to address the issues of nuclear security and preventing nuclear terrorism. (Image Source: Yonhap News)

By Benjamin Kagel and Kelsey Davenport

A panel of four foreign policy experts weighed in on missed opportunities from the recent nuclear security summit, held March 26-27 in Seoul, South Korea. Speaking at the National Press Club last Friday, the panel discussed global nuclear security and ways to prevent nuclear terrorism.

Robert Gallucci, former chief U.S. negotiator during the North Korean nuclear crisis of 1994, said that nuclear terrorism is the “single most important threat” to the United States. Despite a global consensus supporting the need to strengthen nuclear security, President Obama’s open mic gaffe on missile defense overshadowed media coverage of the summit discussions—an indication, according to some experts, of the modest achievements made in Seoul.

Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, called the Seoul summit an “underperforming summit” with a “minimalist agenda.” While the summit may have sped up national commitments already in progress since the 2010 Washington summit, Cirincione said the new achievements are “small potatoes” compared to what can and should be done.

His point is illustrated by a look at the progress made on highly enriched uranium (HEU) minimalization over the past two years. In a speech at the conclusion of the summit, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called attention to the “major reduction in terms of volume” of nuclear materials citing the removal of 480 kilograms of civilian use HEU.  President Lee referred to this reduction in the global stockpile as a “core accomplishment” of the summits.

And he is right; this significant progress should be celebrated. But it is important to note that about half of the total reduction came from the Ukrainian HEU cleanout. According to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, there are still approximately 2,000 tons of fissile materials worldwide: about 1,450 tons of HEU and 550 tons of separated plutonium, enough nuclear material for tens of thousands of nuclear weapons.

Sharon Squassoni, director and senior fellow for the Proliferation Prevention Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also called the summit a limited success. While many countries reaffirmed their commitments to nuclear security, Squassoni was disappointed that the summit continued to focus on the primary role of the state in securing nuclear materials. The international community, on the other hand, can only “encourage” compliance with recognized international norms. The language used at the summit discouraged more progressive goals she said.

Squassoni also said the media wanted to discuss the issue of North Korea and Iran, but the focus of the summit was nuclear weapons and materials security. The problem with tackling this issue, Squassoni said, is that there are “no enforceable standards of behavior” to hold countries accountable for nuclear security. And the 2012 summit did little to raise the bar on accountability, containing numerous caveats with the phrases “as appropriate” or “when requested” appearing frequently in the Seoul communiqué. This was a consensus document endorsed by all participants which recommended actions for countries to take to increase nuclear security but used the same non-binding language that came out of Washington two years ago. In the six page document the word “encourage” appeared 28 times which some experts referred to as diplomatic language of the “lowest common denominator.”

Alexander Glaser, assistant professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and member of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, said securing nuclear material in theory really is not that difficult, but countries are not doing enough to stop production of fissile materials and thereby “missing 99% of the problem.” While Glaser’s point is valid, it should be noted that halting fissile material production was not a goal of the summit. Negotiations for a fissile material cut-off treaty are stalled in Geneva.

Despite the shortcomings highlighted by experts, the summit process is making important progress in strengthening global nuclear material security. While summit participants did not agree on a formal tracking system for sharing progress in 2010, nearly all of the 53 participating countries submitted national progress reports on their accomplishments over the past two years. These submissions listed activities consistent with actions suggested by the consensus documents from the Washington summit that were undertaken in addition to the specific national commitments offered by many of the countries.

For example, over thirty countries listed activities taken to strengthen nuclear security culture, such as participating in trainings, hosting conferences, or developing nuclear security centers of excellence. Over a dozen countries mentioned specific actions taken to strengthen regulations for physical security over nuclear materials and nearly two dozen discussed the deployment of new radiation detection monitors along national borders and ports. While countries may have taken some of these actions regardless of the summit process, the high level attention on nuclear security facilitated by the summit process is clearly spurring national actions that positively impact the global material security framework.

Moving Toward Fissile Zero

The panelists also offered recommendations for raising the bar on nuclear materials security. The speakers echoed Glaser’s comment that to prevent nuclear terrorism, government leaders need to stress the goal of reaching “fissile zero.” Gallucci emphasized this point stating that all countries must stop producing plutonium or HEU for “any purpose whatsoever.”

Plutonium minimization, however, did not receive much attention at the summit. According to Cirincione, progress on this issue was inhibited, in part, by South Korean interest in reprocessing plutonium. Cirincione also characterized the Obama Administration’s stance on plutonium usage as weak.

In particular, Cirincione and Squassoni both voiced concerns over the current plutonium disposition strategy. They were critical of President Obama’s commitment to building the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina. The MOX facility will blend weapons-grade plutonium with depleted uranium oxide to make a mixed oxide fuel for nuclear power plants. However, Cirincione said the facility is a “plant producing fuel to nowhere,” because no power company wants to buy the fuel.

Squassoni was also critical of the MOX facility but acknowledged the difficulty in shutting down the project. She described it as a “big jobs program” with lots of U.S. contractors involved and “too many entrenched interests.” President Obama and other government leaders have to start viewing their choices of what fuel to use in reactors “through a nuclear security lens.”

The United States is not the only country where altering national policy on plutonium use is likely to be difficult. Glaser identified Russia, India, and China as hard cases to persuade against reprocessing. Glaser admitted that alternative fuel sources to plutonium are uncertain; however, reprocessing plutonium should not be on the table. Squassoni also stressed the importance of taking the “shine off nuclear energy.”

The next president will have to make sure the 2014 nuclear security summit in the Netherlands remains focused on nuclear security. Cirincione stated that regardless of whoever wins the election, the next president will need to build a bipartisan effort now to ensure the continued strengthening of global nuclear security.

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