The Nuclear Security Summit that begins in Seoul on Monday will focus on a range of nuclear-related issues. But two subjects that should dominate discussions at the event are working toward an institutionalized mechanism for strengthening synergies between nuclear safety and nuclear security, and the question of how to restore confidence in the nuclear industry in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Both problems seem likely to require a greater oversight role, including through increased responsibilities for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has often been straitjacketed by politics.
The first Nuclear Security Summit, held in Washington in 2010, focused on finding ways of strengthening international safeguards to prevent nuclear terrorism. But with the fallout from Fukushima looming so large in the international consciousness, nuclear safety generally – including the sound construction of plants – is likely to be discussed.
In addition, more should be done to ensure that countries report their full holdings of civilian nuclear material to the international atomic watchdog agency. Of course, most states pursuing civilian nuclear programs are already making annual declarations of their stocks to the IAEA, while several conscientious countries, including India, are reporting on their highly-enriched uranium holdings generated through civilian nuclear programs. But there’s no binding rule on states to do so, and a properly enforced binding mechanism to this effect should be introduced.
Iran and North Korea, meanwhile, continue to be a worry for the international community in this regard, and although safety may be a feature of this week’s summit, expect worries over nuclear weapons programs and nuclear terrorism to still loom large.
The fact is that the nightmare scenario of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons remains a very real possibility, especially as the international community has to grapple with the fact that there is estimated to be about1,475 tons of highly enriched uraniumand 485 tons of separated plutonium around the world, enough for more than 60,000 nuclear weapons by some estimates.
The Seoul summit is an important event, providing a unique forum for about 50 world leaders to reiterate their commitment to nuclear safety. However, India earlier this year underscored its commitment to the cause by organizing a two day meeting in New Delhi in January for the Sherpas set to attend the Seoul summit. Almost 50 nations and entities including the United Nations and Interpol attended the Sherpas meeting, including three new countries to the summit, namely Denmark, Lithuania and Azerbaijan.
The Sherpas meeting was said to have discussed, among other things, measures for securing the management of highly enriched uranium, measures for ensuring radiological security, the promotion of transport security and combating illicit trafficking.
Pakistan, meanwhile, should be another important area of concern for world leaders when they gather in Seoul. Islamabad’s sins of omission and commission in nuclear proliferation are well known. Such countries would perhaps be less of a headache if a legally binding mechanism could be thrashed out to improve transparency over civilian nuclear programs.