Bloomberg News

World Leaders Vow to Secure Loose Nuclear Material by 2014

March 27, 2012

Lee Myung Bak, South Korea's president, front row center, stands with world leaders, heads of state and international organizations for a family photograph at the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

Lee Myung Bak, South Korea's president, front row center, stands with world leaders, heads of state and international organizations for a family photograph at the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

World leaders pledged to secure all vulnerable nuclear material by 2014 and to boost security to keep the ingredients for atomic weapons out of the hands of terrorists.

U.S. President Barack Obama, his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev and leaders from more than 40 nations set out the goals in a communiqué at the conclusion of a two-day nuclear security summit in Seoul.

Countries will accelerate swapping out high-enriched uranium, the key ingredient in nuclear bombs, for low-enriched uranium at research facilities vulnerable to sabotage or attack, according to the non-binding document. The leaders promised to share more information on smuggling and atomic stockpiles. They first pledged to clean up loose material in 2010.

“I would not characterize these as small steps,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said today at a press briefing in the South Korean capital. “We are working very aggressively. There’s actually a lot of action happening. The world is actually becoming a more secure place.”

The six-page communiqué, drafted over the course of a year by nuclear envoys from participating countries, focuses on steps that countries can take to secure nuclear material. Early drafts of the document showed that some nations wanted to recognize international legal agreements, like the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty, as essential to the fight against terrorism. That language was scotched in the week before the summit convened.

‘Non-State Actors’

The communique called on countries to “maintain effective security of all nuclear material, which includes nuclear materials used in nuclear weapons, and nuclear facilities under their control, and to prevent non-state actors from acquiring such materials and from obtaining information or technology required to use them for malicious purposes.”

“I would have liked to hear an overall plan for improving nuclear-material security worldwide in a uniform way,” said Kenneth Luongo, who with the Department of Energy helped secure atomic material in Russia after the Soviet Union disintegrated. “We need something that’s a lot better across the board.”

Kazakhstan, Russia and the U.S. said in a statement at the summit they would finish cleaning up nuclear-weapons material from the former Soviet Union’s Semipalatinsk nuclear-bomb test site. Belgium, France, South Korea and the U.S. said in a separate statement that they’re working to create new low- enriched uranium fuel.

‘Effective Veto’

“The downside of multilateral negotiation is that you’re always going to devolve to the lowest common denominator,” said Miles Pomper, a senior researcher at the Center for Non- Proliferation Studies, in an interview today in Seoul. “The countries with the least incentive to make progress have an effective veto.”

Obama said today at the summit that there are “still too many bad actors” in the world trying to get their hands on nuclear material, which could result in a terror attack that kills large numbers of people. The U.S. leader inaugurated the first nuclear security summit in Washington DC in 2010.

“These dangerous materials are still vulnerable in too many places,” he said. “It would not take much, just a handful or so of these materials, to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people and that’s not an exaggeration, that’s the reality that we face.”

The legacy of the Soviet Union’s breakup, inadequate atomic stockpile controls and the proliferation of nuclear-fuel technology mean the world has lost precise count of atomic material, which could be used to make a weapon.

Weapons-Grade Material

There are at least 2 million kilograms (4.4 million pounds) of stockpiled weapons-grade nuclear material left over from decommissioned bombs and atomic-fuel plants, according to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, a nonprofit Princeton, New Jersey research institute that tracks nuclear material. That’s enough to make at least 100,000 new nuclear weapons on top of the 20,000 bombs already in weapon-state stockpiles.

Some nations wanted the summit to “affirm that full and effective implementation” of nuclear treaties “has a vital role in promoting international peace and security,” according to a previous draft of the statement, which was written on Feb. 21 and obtained by Bloomberg News.

North Korea dropped out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 while Iran has been accused of violating its statutes by seeking an atomic-weapons capability. They didn’t attend the summit. Other nations like India, Israel and Pakistan aren’t members of the treaty and did attend.

“The scope that was agreed in this summit is a bit small,” Chang Sang Ku, president of the Korea Institute of Nuclear Nonproliferation and Control, who is a Korean delegate to the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, said in an interview. “But considering that security issues should be approached in collaboration with global partners, we can say that we have achieved meaningful outcomes on technical matters.”

The next summit on nuclear security will be held in the Netherlands in 2014.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Tirone in Seoul at jtirone@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net; James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net


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