Preventing Nuclear Disaster

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Preventing Nuclear Disaster

The IAEA has confirmed almost two dozen incidents of theft or loss of fissile materials. Last week’s nuclear, though, ended with no agreement on enforcement to stop terrorists acquiring them.

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.

The so-called “orphaned” radiological sources – those that have been lost, stolen, or discarded in landfills and other unsecured sites – pose a particular danger since terrorists can use them to make “dirty bombs.” These improvised explosive devices combine conventional munitions with radioactive materials. When detonated, they can spew radioactive substances across a targeted geographic area. And, although the number of additional casualties attributable to the radioactivity may not be much more than those killed or injured by the conventional explosion, the presence of the radioactive material could cause mass panic and disrupt economic and social activity in the affected region for years. Making a dirty bomb requires no special expertise, and radioactive isotopes suitable for the purpose are much easier to obtain than the weapons-grade fissile material needed for an actual nuclear explosive.

With this in mind, the summit urged national authorities to monitor the location and status of all radioactive sources on their territories. They also urged countries to phase out the use of HEU to manufacture medical isotopes and rely instead on LEU.

Last year’s meltdown of several reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant invariably placed nuclear safety on the agenda of the Seoul summit. The IAEA and other institutions have the lead role in this area, so the summit attendees addressed nuclear safety only as it applies to nuclear terrorism, such as preventing nuclear sabotage and responding to nuclear emergencies regardless of their cause. For example, the Japan accident made people realize how, if terrorists could replicate the multiple failures that led to the Fukushima disaster, they could cause substantial devastation. Had the Fukushima meltdowns been caused by a terrorist act, moreover, the existing nuclear safety and security regime would have been unprepared to deal with it.

Many of the meetings and discussions held so far relating to Fukushima have focused almost exclusively on safety and ignored the security implications, but the summit aimed to deepen the often tenuous dialogue between those expert communities that are responsible for nuclear safety and those engaged nuclear security. Their members often work and think independently of one another and in any emergency, their responses could interfere with one another unless suitable de-confliction occurs beforehand.

In fact, the tensions between nuclear safety and security shouldn’t be underestimated. For example, enhancing nuclear safety entails allowing people at a stricken nuclear facility to flee the disaster site as easily as possible, whereas strengthening security requires containing any saboteur and preventing the theft and removal of nuclear materials. Ideally, an appropriate nuclear safety-security tradeoff standard will be determined and then implemented in existing and especially the construction of new nuclear facilities.

A desire to enhance the perceived safety of nuclear power led Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his speech to the Seoul summit, to downplay the sovereignty concerns he had expressed at the 2010 summit since it was now “essential to restore public faith in nuclear energy, especially after the tragic events at Fukushima.”

For the first time, India’s secretive Department of Atomic Energy has invited IAEA Operational Safety Review teams this year to assist the Indian government to conduct publicly accessible reviews of its nuclear safety measures. Singh said these public reviews were designed “to enhance transparency and boost public confidence” in India’s nuclear power.

In its national statement, Pakistan also stressed that, “Nuclear security within a state is a national responsibility,” but like the Indian document the text added that, “Within this framework, the international community should explore space for cooperation on nuclear security through voluntary national actions and in pursuance of international obligations.”

Pakistan’s statement said the country’s nuclear security regimen has four pillars: a well-defined, robust command and control system; a rigorous regulatory regime; a comprehensive export control regime; and international cooperation. The government proposed expanding the last element by proposing to make Pakistan’s nuclear security training facilities core regional and even global centers for nuclear training and education.

More controversially, though, the Pakistani government also offered “to provide nuclear fuel cycle services under IAEA safeguards” and to “participate in any non-discriminatory nuclear fuel cycle assurance mechanism.” Meanwhile, the statement insisted that Pakistan also should be eligible to join the NSG and other export control regimes “on a nondiscriminatory basis.”

But the reality is that with the noticeable exception of China, most foreign countries are unwilling to grant Pakistan the same international nuclear privileges offered India due to Islamabad’s poor past nuclear proliferation and nuclear security record, highlighted by the Pakistani-based A. Q. Kahn illicit WMD proliferation network.

Is there a way of bridging the divide? Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong proposed that the IAEA provide direct support to regional organizations having a role in nuclear security and safety. Lee said such assistance was especially important in regions where countries are embarking on nuclear energy programs for the first time.

In the case of Southeast Asia, for instance, the IAEA would channel some of its nuclear security and safety programs through ASEAN. Since many ASEAN members have small but densely-populated countries heavily dependent on foreign trade, even a small nuclear incident would present a major disaster for their economies and security.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard helpfully suggested that governments might consider organizing regular peer reviews of their nuclear security arrangements “that would ensure ongoing transparency and keep each of us…on our toes, which is where we should be as we deal with this challenge.” Many countries already accept periodic reviews of their civilian nuclear reactors, but they evaluate their safety procedures rather than security issues.

As with so many things, though, money is an issue. Providing additional funding in the coming years, despite the tough budget climate, is essential for sustaining progress in nuclear materials security. The IAEA’s modest nuclear security programs require additional resources to become more effective, especially given the expected growth of global nuclear activities in coming years.

At the moment, efforts to transform the nuclear materials security issue is an ad hoc effort of the most committed and interested countries. But if nations are going to make lasting progress in making nuclear materials secure, they will need a more rationalized and institutionalized mechanism. New nuclear security leaders in Asia and elsewhereare needed. Whether they can muster the resources and co-ordination needed to prevent a nuclear disaster remains to be seen.