Nuclear Security: A missing link in the nuclear question
More than 10 years ago, a film titled 'The Peacemaker' starring Hollywood stars George Clooney and Nicole Kidman made a moderate hit. The movie, which dealt with the efforts to prevent a terrorist group from making an attack with a stolen nuclear bomb upon UN Headquarters in New York, was a stark reminder of the risk of nuclear terrorist attacks. Fortunately, the terrorist group's attempt was finally thwarted.
We may not be always that fortunate in the real world. According to IAEA's Illicit Trafficking Database, more than 2,000 cases of illegal trafficking, theft or loss of nuclear and radiological materials have been reported around the world from 1993 to 2011. About 60 percent of those materials have not been recovered. In addition, it is estimated that currently about 1,600 tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and around 500 tons of plutonium are stored in various locations throughout the world. What if some terrorist groups acquire those materials and use them to threaten humanity?
Here lies the paramount importance of nuclear security, which can be briefly defined as the prevention of illegal transfer or other malicious acts involving nuclear material. When the U.S. President Barack Obama laid out his vision for 'a world without nuclear weapons' in Prague in 2009, he aptly pointed out that nuclear security is the urgent first step for realizing the goal. He later convoked the first meeting of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC in April, 2010. It is in this same vein that Korea hosted the second Nuclear Security Summit that came to a successful close on 27th March with the adoption of the ‘Seoul communiqué’ after two days of extensive discussions among more than 50 leaders worldwide including from the EU.
It should be noted that the Seoul Summit has concretized and implemented what was politically pledged at the Washington Summit. Firstly, it provides important timelines for advancing nuclear security objectives, such as the target year (end of 2013) for states to announce voluntary actions on minimizing the use of HEU and the goal year (2014) for bringing the amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) into effect. Secondly, it reflects the need to address both the issues of nuclear security and nuclear safety in a coherent manner for the sustainable peaceful uses of nuclear energy. It also emphasizes the need to better secure spent nuclear fuel and radioactive waste. Thirdly, it sets out specific measures to prevent radiological terrorism, an issue which was only briefly touched upon at the Washington Summit.
In addition, 32 countries submitted the national progress report over 70 commitments on specific actions to enhance nuclear security. The participating countries have shown that nearly all of these have been achieved. For example, the United States and Russia over the past two years converted highly enriched uranium, which could be used to make 3,000 nuclear weapons, into low enriched uranium for use in nuclear power plants. 480 kilograms of highly enriched uranium for civilian use have been removed from eight countries over the past two years. In particular, Ukraine and Mexico removed all of their highly enriched uranium to become HEU cleanout states.
All these efforts and achievements confirmed at the Seoul Summit, however, do not guarantee ultimately nuclear security. That could be provided through raising the awareness and alertness of the civil society. That was also the lesson of the Hollywood hit, 'The Peacemaker'.
Seung-Ho KIM is Chargé d’Affaires a.i.,The Mission of the Republic of Korea to the EU