Impressions of the Nuclear Security Summit

, Director of Nuclear Power Safety, Climate & Energy | April 14, 2010, 11:15 pm EDT
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There is no question in my mind that the Nuclear Security Summit was a remarkable event. It is a major accomplishment that the U.S. was able to pull it off at all, elevating to the highest level an issue that had not previously received the degree of attention commensurate with the threat. And several of the “house gifts”—specific commitments that the U.S. cajoled international attendees into bringing along to the party—are substantial accomplishments in their own right.  In particular, world security will be enhanced by the pledges made by Ukraine and Mexico to get rid of their stockpiles of bomb-usable highly enriched uranium (HEU); by Canada to return to the U.S. its inventory of lightly irradiated (and hence still vulnerable) HEU; and by Russia to shut down its last remaining plutonium production reactor. In these cases the countries in question were dragging their feet, and the summit gave them a needed push.

However, I also think that the Obama administration, by playing it safe, missed the opportunity to truly advance the goal of increased nuclear security around the world by ensuring that all vulnerable weapon-usable materials are protected against the threats we face today and in the coming decades. Even worse, it has made some missteps that could actually work to undermine this goal. As a result, the summit’s outcome, unfortunately, was aligned with our modest pre-summit expectations (see UCS statement).

The summit, for all its hoopla, ended up merely endorsing the current weak regime governing nuclear material security. The communiqué reaffirms that nuclear material security is “the fundamental responsibility of States.” This sounds good on its face but actually reinforces the status quo notion that security is a domestic concern and that the international community should keep its nose out of individual states’ business unless they are invited in on a voluntary basis. This attitude is inconsistent with the oft-stated but absolutely true observation that a security vulnerability anywhere is a threat to countries everywhere.

In contrast, UCS believes that protection of weapon-usable materials from theft is fundamentally an international responsibility and is too important to be left up to individual states to implement as they see fit, especially given the wide range of views from one country to another regarding the seriousness of the threat. What is needed, and what the summit should have endorsed instead, is a new international regime with stringent mandatory standards, formal peer reviews, and tough enforcement mechanisms.

While the United States today considers these to be non-starters, it was the United States that proposed such a regime back in the Clinton administration when discussions at the IAEA on amending the Convention on Physical Protection to address domestic facilities first began. But these proposals were vigorously opposed by France and other countries, and eventually the United States reversed its own position. The summit was the perfect venue to at least begin to discuss these issues again, but that opportunity is now past.

The summit also focused largely on HEU and for the most part de-emphasized another material that nuclear weapons can be made from and that exists in large quantities around the world: plutonium. While the communiqué endorses the principle of minimization of the use of HEU, it has no comparable provision regarding the use of plutonium. It thus fails to address the continued production and stockpiling of plutonium in countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and Japan, which operate reprocessing plants that extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. As stocks of vulnerable materials grow, they will be even harder to secure than they are today, making an already dangerous situation even worse.

Finally, the new protocol for the U.S.-Russian Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement will only increase the risk that plutonium will be stolen, because the U.S. regulations for protecting this material from theft after it is transferred to the civilian nuclear sector are completely inadequate.

As UCS pointed out in our statement last week, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) weakened security standards in 2009 for the storage of some types of nuclear fuels containing plutonium (known as mixed-oxide or MOX fuel), even though a single fuel assembly would contain many bombs’ worth of plutonium. The nuclear industry is pushing for weakening standards for transportation of plutonium-containing fuels as well.  And the Energy Department contractor that is building the plant in South Carolina to convert U.S. weapons plutonium to MOX fuel has recently asked for an exemption from NRC’s material accounting and control requirements, presumably because the requirements can’t be met at the plant as currently designed.

These types of regulatory shortcuts are inconsistent with the commitments in the Nuclear Security Summit work plan and set a terrible example, not only for Russia but for all the summit participants. The Obama administration must understand that the United States cannot weaken the controls on its plutonium stockpiles while demanding that other countries strengthen their own controls.

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