The second international Nuclear Security Summit convenes this week in Seoul, South Korea, with more than 50 countries represented to propose and discuss efforts to lock down weapons-grade nuclear materials — high-enriched uranium and plutonium — that could be used to build a nuclear weapon. The first Summit was convened in April 2010 by President Obama in Washington, D.C., and served to raise the importance of this issue to 47 countries who participated.
As one of the founders of the Fissile Material Working Group (FMWG), I was able to join a complementary NGO summit at that time, which brought together more than 200 non-governmental organizations, think-tanks, and academics to discuss nuclear security. We also helped organize a conference for international experts this past Friday in Seoul to complement the second government summit.
We’ve made a great deal of progress since the 2010 meetings, completing about 80% of various pledges by countries to secure weapons-grade uranium and plutonium, to convert nuclear reactors from high- to low-enriched uranium, and to improve border control, monitoring, and training programs to help keep nuclear bomb material away from would-be nuclear terrorists and non-state actors. Mexico, for example, recently removed all of its high-enriched uranium (HEU), and the U.S. has recently helped another five countries (Chile, Libya, Romania, Serbia, and Turkey) eliminate their fissile material.
Despite this progress, much still remains to be accomplished. In particular, President Obama’s goal to lock down all weapons-grade nuclear material in four years (by 2013-2014), as stated in his famous 2009 Prague speech, now appears highly unlikely. Nevertheless, several pledges will no doubt be made by participating countries this week in Seoul, and these advances should be welcomed by all.
But major challenges remain. For example, 120 research reactors around the globe still use HEU as fuel or to produce medical isotopes, and many of these sites leave much to be desired regarding security. Five of the nine nuclear weapons states — France, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and the U.S. — have yet to ratify two important anti-terrorism treaties, the 2005 amendment to the 1980 Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM), and the 2005 International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT). And there is still no baseline, international standard for nuclear security at nuclear power plants, fissile material storage sites, transportation routes, and processing facilities.
This has to change. With enough weapons-grade fissile materials in dozens of countries with nuclear weapons and/or nuclear power to make some 100,000 nuclear bombs today, we cannot wait for the tortoise-like progress of the international community. The Seoul Nuclear Security Summit must provide real progress in eliminating high-level nuclear materials, and the major nuclear weapons states, including Russia and the United States, must lead the way.