By Barbara Slavin
Terrorist attacks in Belgium and Pakistan lend a greater sense of urgency to President Barack Obama’s final nuclear security summit, set to open on Thursday in Washington.
Leaders of more than 50 nations will discuss further steps to reduce and safeguard stockpiles of nuclear materials that would pose an even more serious threat to civilians than suicidal fanatics armed with guns and conventional explosives.
The concern is less about terrorists obtaining an actual nuclear weapon than stealing components for a so-called dirty bomb that could contaminate urban centers. Another frightening possibility is that terrorists could infiltrate and sabotage a nuclear power plant in an attempt to cause a catastrophic meltdown.
Belgian authorities found troubling evidence that the Islamic State network responsible for last week’s attacks on Brussels airport and the metro had been conducting surveillance of the home of a senior official at a local nuclear power plant. Two employees at another nuclear facility went to Syria as foreign fighters in 2012. One died in Syria, but the other returned to Belgium and was released from jail last year.
Long before the Syrian conflict and the advent of ISIS, the Obama administration made nonproliferation and nuclear security major priorities.
Since Obama started holding nuclear summits in 2010, 14 countries plus Taiwan have given up highly enriched uranium (HEU) once used in civilian reactors. An additional 2,697 kilograms of nuclear material has been moved or blended down to less potent forms and radiation detection equipment has been installed at 250 airports, seaports and land border crossings, according to Robert Manning of the Atlantic Council.
But there are still about 1,800 tons of nuclear material in military and civilian sites around the world, enough for thousands of weapons. The stockpile includes 61 tons of HEU at 100 civilian nuclear facilities in 25 countries. That’s enough for nearly 2,000 bombs.
China, whose president Xi Jinping will be attending the summit, has made a significant contribution to nuclear security by agreeing to take back HEU it provided as fuel for research reactors in several countries including Syria and Ghana. These reactors, developed in the 1950s and 60s, typically produce medical isotopes for use in treating cancer and other diseases, and were provided to many developing nations without much thought about their potential proliferation risk.
Miles Pomper, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told this analyst that China is also moving ahead with converting a reactor in Nigeria so that it does not need to use HEU. The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration hopes that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will help convert similar research reactors in Pakistan, Syria and Iran, said Pomper.
The United States and Russia have also been working to retrieve HEU from other countries. It is unfortunate that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not attending this year’s summit to underline this crucial collaboration. Russia, perhaps irked by Western sanctions over its intervention in the Ukraine, announced earlier this year that such summits had already “played their role” and that the matter should be left to the IAEA and other international organizations.
Another missed opportunity is the absence of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani.
As Kelsey Davenport of the Arms Control Association has argued, the summit would have provided an excellent opportunity to build on the recent nuclear deal with Iran in the area of nuclear safety.
“Currently, Iran is not providing adequate assurances that its nuclear activities are protected against acts of nuclear terrorism,” Davenport said.
“A recent report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative ranked Iran most at risk for sabotage to a nuclear facility, in part because Iran does not publish nuclear security laws or regulations so it is unclear what steps Tehran is taking to secure facilities such as the Bushehr reactor,” a reference to Iran’s only nuclear power plant.
Nuclear safety is a component of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran that was implemented in January and is a promising area for international cooperation with the Islamic Republic. Under the agreement, Iran shipped out most of its enriched uranium to Russia and has pledged not to have more than 300 kilograms of low enriched uranium for 15 years. Iran is also modifying a heavy water reactor so that it can never produce plutonium, another possible fuel for nuclear weapons.
The deal, while opposed by many in the U.S. Congress as too generous to Iran, was meant to ensure that the world’s nuclear club would not expand beyond its current roster of nine countries: the United States, Russia, France, China, Britain, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea.
A key question is how to institutionalize nonproliferation after Obama leaves office. There are real concerns about American nuclear policy under Obama’s successor, particularly if the winner of the November elections is the current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump.
The bombastic real estate mogul, who revealed in an early debate that he did not know what the nuclear triad is (it is the three means of delivering a nuclear weapon from land, sea or air) envisions a drastic retrenchment of U.S. foreign policy commitments that could spur more countries to develop nuclear weapons.
Reversing more than 70 years of U.S. strategic thinking, Trump told The New York Times recently that the United States might be “better off” if Japan developed nuclear arms to deter a nuclear North Korea and if Tokyo did not have to continue to rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella against both North Korea and China.
Trump also seemed fine with South Korea going nuclear along with non-nuclear members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Trump appears to regard as both costly and obsolete.
Even more worrisome, Trump’s isolationism could be a goad to Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear weapons. As Trump told the Times, “without us, Saudi Arabia wouldn’t exist for very long.”