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Nuclear Summit Progress and Pitfalls

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
March 27, 2012

Nuclear Summit Progress and Pitfalls - nuclear-summit-progress-and-pitfalls

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The potential threat of nuclear terrorism has been markedly reduced due to the high-level focus produced by the initial Nuclear Security Summit in April 2010 and reinforced by the just-concluded summit in Seoul, South Korea. The practical effect of both summits is the development of a clearly articulated work plan that prioritizes strategic objectives and specifies national commitments for the forty-seven participating countries.

In the Seoul Communiquť, the leaders re-emphasized the threat of nuclear terrorism, and stressed that it is the responsibility of states "to maintain effective security of all nuclear material, which includes nuclear materials used in nuclear weapons, and nuclear facilities under their control." These state pledges are voluntary and nonbinding, and there are no enforcement measures to compel compliance.

Yet, approximately 80 percent of national commitments from the first Nuclear Security Summit have been fulfilled. This was not due to diplomatic pressure or economic sanctions, but was instead driven by national leaders' fear of embarrassment that they could not deliver on their promises, combined with U.S. technical and financial assistance. For example, Ukraine (as a Soviet republic) once maintained a stockpile of five thousand nuclear weapons; last week, it shipped its remaining weapons-grade uranium to Russia, where it will be blended down to low-enriched uranium to fuel civilian research reactors. This was accelerated to meet the Nuclear Security Summit pledges, and made possible by $60 million in U.S. technical and financial assistance.

But despite the sustained progress of the Nuclear Security Summits, President Obama will not meet his four-year deadline to secure all loose nuclear materials, which he first declared as a candidate in 2008, with the clock restarting after the April 2010 summit. In December 2010, Obama administration officials backtracked, claiming that the deadline was more of a "forcing function" that would accelerate U.S. nuclear nonproliferation programs and mobilize international support for nuclear material security.

Moreover, there is still no comprehensive and coordinated U.S. government plan to secure all nuclear materials. National Security Council officials recently admitted to GAO investigtators that "developing a single, integrated cross-agency plan that incorporates all these elements could take years."

There is mounting concern these days over the development of nuclear arms in Iran and North Korea. Yet, neither country has enough fissile material to fuel a nuclear weapon; together, Iran and North Korea have less than a fraction of 1 percent of worldwide nuclear material. Today, thirty-two countries possess 1 kilogram or more of weapons-usable nuclear material. Preventing nuclear terrorism requires, in large part, locking down all of that material--at least in accordance with the latest IAEA guidelines.

Raising awareness among the forty-seven national leaders attending the Nuclear Security Summit increases the likelihood of achieving the ultimate goal of nuclear material security. However, lasting and effective nuclear security is not a one-time pledge, but rather an ongoing process that will only end with the universal elimination of all weapons-usable material. Since that will not occur anytime soon, world leaders will need to sustain the progress of the past two years with the results to be reported at the next Nuclear Security Summit in 2014.

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