Last week’s Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul was a further demonstration of Asian countries’ growing importance on the emerging issue of nuclear materials security. But while these states are becoming vital for preventing nuclear and radiological materials from falling into terrorists’ and criminals’ hands, the region faces some key tests of will.
For a start, there’s the problem of the sheer volume of dangerous nuclear material that exists. Individual countries normally don’t publicize the size of their nuclear material holdings, but the world’s estimated stockpile of fissile material is sufficiently large to make approximately 100,000 nuclear bombs. Roughly 1,600 metric tons of HEU and 500 metric tons of plutonium have been produced around the globe for both civilian and military purposes, while manufacturing a simple (although inefficient) Hiroshima-type atomic bomb requires as little as 50 or 60 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium by some estimates, and less than half that amount to power a sophisticated Nagasaki-type implosion bomb.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has confirmed almost two dozen incidents of theft or loss of fissile material. However, it’s unclear how many cases may have gone unreported, or the extent to which the stolen HEU or plutonium is available on the black market.
Another challenge is the diverging national perspectives regarding the risks presented by nuclear terrorism. The U.S. national statement to the 2012 summit simply states that: “Nuclear terrorism represents the most immediate and extreme threat to global security, requiring a strong and enduring commitment to domestic and worldwide action.” But many other governments consider the potential danger of nuclear terrorism abstract, remote, or improbable. This perception was reflected in the vaguely worded communique, which, as a document reflecting the lowest common denominator of all the summit attendees, didn’t offer measurable targets or any means of enforcement.
Still, Asian nations increasingly realize that they are as vulnerable to nuclear security threats as anyone else. Even those countries without nuclear power programs, and not located near states that have major nuclear assets, often have research reactors or dangerous radioactive materials. Any country’s territory can be used to smuggle nuclear substances and harbor criminal and terrorist organizations engaged in illicit trafficking networks.
As a result, the Seoul summit addressed two issues that typically are of greater concern for most Asian countries than nuclear terrorism, namely the safety and security of radiological sources, and security issues as they relate to nuclear accidents.
Radiological sources are radioactive materials frequently used in specialized equipment at civilian facilities, such as the ones hospitals employ for treating cancer. These items are often not as secure as other nuclear facilities, such as nuclear reactor fuel or at military bases. Indeed, not only are radiological sources stored under weaker security than more dangerous fissile material, which can be used to make a nuclear weapon, but their transfer and sale is less well controlled, and their movement across many international boundaries isn’t monitored.