Threat of 'Nuclear Terror' Diverts Abolition Efforts


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DUNEDIN, New Zealand (IPS) - President Barack Obama indicated in Prague in 2009 that he was interested in achieving a "world without nuclear weapons." Since that bold statement (which was one of the reasons for his Nobel peace prize) he has been persuaded by his foreign policy advisors and pressured by the Nuclear Weapons Laboratories to put nuclear abolition on hold and to focus instead on issues such as nuclear safety and nuclear security. [P] ARABIC | JAPANESE TEXT PDF

The first nuclear summit in Washington in 2010 therefore focused its attention on nuclear security and the prevention of nuclear terrorism. These objectives, while important, do not really address the safety of ‘peaceful’ nuclear reactors or the reduction or abolition of nuclear weapons.

On the contrary, nuclear security, as defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), refers to "the prevention and detection of, and response to, theft, sabotage, unauthorised access, illegal transfer or other malicious acts involving nuclear material, other radioactive substances or their associated facilities." In other words the focus is on making sure that nuclear material does not get into the ‘wrong hands’. This in turn gets redefined in terms of where states line up in the ‘war on terror’. What is surprising about this focus is that there is little solid evidence that terrorist groups are seeking highly enriched uranium either to make dirty bombs or to fuel the nuclear ambitions of states wishing to acquire more sophisticated nuclear weapons.

The first as well as the second summit (Seoul, March 26-27, 2012) focused on nuclear terrorism and better management of nuclear and fissile materials: how to prevent, detect and respond to the “illicit" (however this is defined) seizure of any kind of nuclear material, whether raw ore, yellow cake, hexafluoride, metal oxide, ceramic pellets or fuel rod assemblies.

The first summit aimed to turn nuclear security issues into an important prerequisite for advancing nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy, thereby helping to realise "a world without nuclear weapons." Sceptics argue this diverted attention from the business of deeper cuts in arsenals, dealing more creatively with threshold and virtual nuclear states and establishing clear guidelines/roadmaps for nuclear abolition.

The first summit did, however, generate a work plan to minimise and reduce the amount of highly enriched uranium (HEU); ratify international agreements such as the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT) and amend the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM). Some gains were made there and the Seoul Summit was intended to review progress on these measures and (in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown) to focus attention on the dangers of nuclear accidents.

What is somewhat problematic is the link between theft of nuclear materials and terrorist activities. The fact that Osama bin Laden described acquiring nuclear weapons as a "religious duty," and that the 9/11 Commission Report concluded that Al-Qaeda has tried to acquire or make nuclear weapons does not mean that Al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group is capable now or still interested in achieving this objective. It is certainly a big leap to go from there to suggesting that such weapons in the hands of terrorists will be used to generate massive loss of life or can confer any obvious political benefits. To focus so much attention on this low probability behaviour is a distraction from moving toward a nuclear-free world –with reduced reliance on both nuclear energy and nuclear weaponry.

The South Korean government hoped that the Seoul Summit would be a "stepping-stone to breakthroughs in broader areas of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament". While it did discuss the interface between nuclear security and safety, the summit communiqué did not really establish this stepping-stone nor did it place any real restraints on the continued expansion of nuclear power or energy in Northeast Asia and in the rest of the world.

In fact most commentators felt the communiqué was bland and rather non-committal. Signatories were "encouraged" 28 times but never "required" to undertake anything. The final communiqué had at its core an agreement among participating countries to continue decreasing their holdings of nuclear materials. Even this agreement, however, was high on generalities and low on specific targets for eliminating or reducing such materials. It encouraged each state to voluntarily set and announce targets for minimising possession of HEU by the end of 2013. The United States and Russia have been converting HEU into low enriched uranium (LEU) but there has been little progress made on the reduction or eradication of the 500 tons of plutonium, which are enough to generate 126,000 nuclear weapons.

The communiqué was notable for its omissions rather than inclusions. For example, Japan highlighted the dangers from nuclear terrorism without referring to its rapid expansion of nuclear technology exports to countries such as Vietnam and Jordan, which arguably might not have the regulatory frameworks for protecting and safeguarding nuclear materials.

Iran, North Korea and Uzbekistan all have significant stockpiles of weapons grade material as well but they were excluded from the conversations and no reference was made on how to deal with their nuclear materials.

Surprisingly, for a conference that took place on the Korean peninsula, there was no mention of ways in which North Korea could be restrained from advancing its nuclear programme; nor any real discussion on how Pakistan’s nuclear materials could be better secured.

Most importantly, however, there was no real willingness to establish clear links between peaceful and non-peaceful uses of nuclear energy or between nuclear safety and nuclear disarmament. From a peace movement perspective, the summit failed to fuel momentum towards Obama's aspiration for a nuclear weapon-free world.

At the tird summit scheduled for 2014 in the Netherlands it is important that these links be established and the abolitionist objective be at the heart of all the conversations.

*Kevin P. Clements is a professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. [IPS Columnist Service | April 2012]

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