The 2012 Global Nuclear Security Summit, which is scheduled to he held on March 26-27, 2012 in Seoul, South Korea, will be the largest summit ever held in Korea. The summit is expected to spotlight the danger of terrorists acquiring and using nuclear weapons. When delegates from 49 nations convened on January 16-17 in New Delhi to work on the agenda for the forthcoming summit, Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai said: “The main objective of the nuclear summit process has been to focus high-level global attention to the threat posed by nuclear terrorism.” He further said: “Security of nuclear materials is fundamentally a national responsibility but there is considerable scope for international cooperation to strengthen nuclear security objectives and standards.”
Indeed, security of nuclear materials is fundamentally a national responsibility but there is considerable scope for international cooperation to strengthen nuclear security as well as combating illicit trafficking. The preparatory meeting of the forum held in New Delhi was led by the US and South Korea. It focused principally on reaching agreement on a preliminary document that would be approved by participating nations at the Seoul summit.
It may be recalled that in April 2010, 47 heads of states and 3 heads of international organisations, the UN, IAEA, and EU, met at the inaugural Nuclear Security Summit held in Washington DC to highlight nuclear terrorism as one of the most-challenging threats to international security and pledged to take strong nuclear security measures to protect humanity, society and the environment. In April 2009, the US President Barack Obama delivered a speech in Prague, urging the world to come together to prevent nuclear terrorism and announced “a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world within four years”. Accordingly, the Summit was held in Washington in April 2010. It was the highest-level forum focusing on the common objective of preventing nuclear terrorism, which is one of the greatest threats to international security in the 21st century.
As the host country, the government of South Korea is coordinating the agenda to be discussed in the March gathering in Seoul through the official channels for organization of the summit. These include the Sherpa Meeting, and the Sous-Sherpa Meeting, both of which have important roles in drafting the wordings of the outcome of the event.
The international forum held in New Delhi in January was intended to firm up the agenda for the Seoul Global Nuclear Summit. The forum of so-called “sherpas” had representatives from 46 nations, the IAEA, the UN, the EU and Interpol. It was the fourth in a series of preparatory meetings for the high-profile March summit. The earlier preparatory meetings were held in Seoul, Helsinki and Buenos Aires. India was the first developing country to host the meet. The goal of the New Delhi meeting was to finalise the strategy that is expected to be approved at the Seoul summit for securing all of the world’s vulnerable atomic materials against potential acquisition by terrorist organizations. India is concerned over nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terror groups in Pakistan and more particularly about the role of the guardians who guard the country’s arsenal.
Potential threats of Nuclear/Radioactive Terrorism and challenge before the summit
In the nuclear nomenclature, words such as “nuclear security” and “nuclear security summit” conjure up contrasting definitions, which may lead one to think about nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation of nuclear arms, or even the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran. However, the purpose of the nuclear security summit is different. The concept of nuclear security is associated with tackling nuclear terrorism and finding means to prevent their occurrences. The purpose of the gathering is to seek ways that promote international collaboration that can help prevent nuclear-radioactive terrorism and protect nuclear/radioactive materials and the relevant facilities from terrorists and criminals.
Many countries represented at the meeting agreed “in principle” to minimize their use of weapon-usable highly enriched uranium (HEU) for civilian applications and not for military use as the material can be used to fuel nuclear weapons. The agreement on HEU material would be incorporated into the “Seoul Communique”—the final document that nations taking part in the summit are expected to adopt.
One of the central matters to be covered at the event in Seoul would be how to safeguard radioactive sources around the world from potential diversion by extremists seeking to produce an improved nuclear weapon. Additional agenda issues would include “practical and concrete” options for minimising the danger of a nuclear terrorist attack and preventing nuclear weapon crises like that at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi facility.
Though there are risks, it is not easy for terrorists and terrorist organizations to obtain nuclear weapons or HEU and plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, though there are incidents that have occurred in frequency concerning the management of nuclear materials. There is a case of intrusion into an HEU storage facility by a group of armed people; there is another incident where a civilian broke into the security system of a military facility. There are concerns that cases of illicit transaction of nuclear materials are occurring every year. For example, between 1993 and 2010, a total of 33 cases involving the illicit possession, transaction, or theft of HEU or plutonium were reported to the IAEA.
Equally dangerous could be the threat of so-called dirty bombs, which use lethal radioactive materials such as cesium. Radioactive materials are widely used in medical institutions, colleges, research institutes as well as business facilities. These can be easily turned into weapons and therefore the possibility of radioactive terrorism is much higher than that of nuclear terrorism. The magnitude of the destruction caused by this use, however, would be considerably smaller. The Fukushima nuclear power plant accident in March 2011 demonstrated that the fear of people being exposed to radiation is no less than the nuclear terrorism. According to IAEA Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB), more than 150 cases of illicit possession, smuggling, or theft of radioactive materials and nuclear materials have been reported every year since 2005, and more than three quarters of them are related to radioactive materials.
In the meantime, a release from the University of Texas at Austin’s Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project in January 2012 mentioned that a large group of US non-proliferation, medical and health specialists called on US lawmakers to curb the use of medical isotopes produced from Russian weapon-ready uranium and to prohibit entirely their employment no later than 2017. The group of experts in their letter said that Russia was quickly increasing its utilisation of bomb-grade uranium to produce the medical isotope molybdenum 99 in order to gain supremacy over isotope sales in the US medical sector. This organisation argues that such an effort goes counter to US moves to heighten its manufacturing of medical isotopes through reactors that do not use highly enriched uranium. It is argued, therefore, that Moscow’s program could also raise the threat of nuclear terrorism.
The specialists requested that lawmakers modify legislation approved in November 2011 by the Senate—The American Medical Isotopes Production Act—to mandate “preferential procurement” of isotopes that are not generated from weapon-usable uranium.
It should therefore be the common concern of the international community to take preventive measures against nuclear/radioactive material terrorism, as such activities have potentially disastrous outcome. As South Korea relies heavily on outside sources for its economy and politics, it is likely to be affected seriously in the event of an act of nuclear terrorism. Therefore, the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul in March 2012 is of great importance for South Korea.
In his greetings, President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea noted that the work of preventing nuclear terrorism and guarding against other nuclear threats is a difficult challenge and therefore steadfast political determination and international cooperation can yield significant progress. As the Summit Chair, South Korea, is expected to do everything possible to help define a vision for greater international nuclear security and to formulate specific work plans that will put that vision to practice. The Seoul Summit is not only expected to produce tangible results in building a more secure and peaceful world but would highlight the benefits of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy in promoting green growth and a more prosperous world.
As the host country, South Korea would be concerned that the Summit will have implications for North Korea, though the international gathering is not expected to specifically take up the issue of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons development. Though deterring terrorists from acquiring and using nuclear materials is the main objective of the Seoul Summit, South Korea also does not plan to officially discuss Iranian and North Korean issues at the summit. However, the summit itself may send a message to North Korea.
The Stalinist state is viewed as a top proliferator of missiles and other armaments and suspected of conducting nuclear collaboration with nations such as Syria. South Korea does not expect the new North Korean leader Jim Jong-un would substantially alter his father’s policies on nuclear weapons. Kim Jong Il, who died in December 2011, saw nuclear arms as his regime’s insurance policy against a possible invasion by South Korea and the US, and as a crucial tool for securing economic and security concessions from the international community. This policy is unlikely to change under the new regime.
As the host of the March summit, Seoul will have to choose a successor to chair the next summit. The Netherlands has agreed to host the third nuclear security summit in 2014. The Netherland’s central location in Europe makes it an attractive choice. The formal naming of the Netherlands as the 2014 host is likely to occur during the Seoul session. It is commendable that global efforts would contribute to make the world a better, safer and more secure place than before.
By Rajaram Panda