Global Nuclear Materials Security System Needed, U.S. Expert Says

RohlfingTHE HAGUE – A global nuclear materials security system is needed to address the absence of universal standards and mutual accountability for securing nuclear materials, and to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism, an American non-proliferation expert has said.

John Rohlfing, president of Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), in a March 19 opinion for Project Syndicate, wrote that global leaders at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague should seek to establish a global nuclear materials security system underpinned by four key principles.

According to Rohlfing, these four principles are as follows:

  1. The system should cover all weapons-useable materials, including nuclear materials used for military purposes. (Today, only 15 percent of nuclear materials are used for civilian purposes. But no regulatory system can be effective if it applies to only a small share of the regulated items.)
  2. The system should employ international standards and best practices.
  3. All states should commit to measures that reassure other states that their security practices are sound, while protecting sensitive information.
  4. All states should commit to reducing and, where possible, eliminating their nuclear weapons-usable materials to minimize the risks these stockpiles pose. (In the last four years alone, 10 countries have rid themselves entirely of their weapons-useable materials.)

“Agreement on these four principles and the commitment to a global system for securing nuclear materials would be a paramount achievement for the Nuclear Security Summit process,” Rohlfing wrote ahead of the March 24-25 gathering of more than 50 heads of state and government and leaders of four international organisations. “As our leaders convene to discuss the issue, let us hold them accountable for achieving the goal of securing all weapons-usable nuclear materials before the summit process ends in 2016. Until that happens, the threat of nuclear terrorism will persist.”

As the president of NTI, an NGO engaged in projects to secure nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction usable materials in various countries, including Kazakhstan, Rohlfing knows what she is talking about. In January 2014, together with NTI Co-chairman and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, she also launched the second NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index, providing a comprehensive overview of the situation with nuclear materials globally and a set of recommendations on how to improve it.

In her opinion, Rohlfing explained why action is needed now more than ever.

“Today, nearly 2,000 metric tonnes of plutonium and highly enriched uranium – the raw materials of a nuclear weapon – are spread across 25 countries. With an amount of plutonium the size of a grapefruit, or enough highly enriched uranium to fit into a five-pound bag of sugar, a terrorist could make a bomb that could level a city. We know that Al Qaeda, groups in the Northern Caucusus and other terrorist organizations have tried to acquire these materials,” she wrote.

Despite the acknowledged threat, Rohlfing argued the international community still lacks agreement on the steps that should be taken to secure nuclear materials. “While leaders have met at two previous Summits, they still have not delivered what the world needs to achieve robust and lasting confidence: a global system for securing nuclear materials that holds all states accountable to a set of common standards and best practices,” she argued.

The principles to ensure nuclear materials security Rohlfing and NTI advocate resonate with the actions and approaches of Kazakhstan and its President, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

In his remarks to the 2nd Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul in March 2012, he said that “20 years have passed since Kazakhstan voluntarily closed the Semipalatinsk test site, the world’s largest nuclear test site, under my decree. Within the framework of long-term cooperation to improve its physical security, Kazakhstan, Russia and the United States also provided a model of partnership based on mutual trust.”

In the two years between the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April 2010 and the one in Seoul, President Nazarbayev said, Kazakhstan “implemented an unprecedented project to transport 210 tons of spent nuclear fuel to safe storage.”

“We keep on working on converting of the reactor to low-enriched fuel and creating a regional training centre for nuclear safety,” he added. “In cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), we are creating a unique automated system of accounting, control and physical protection of natural uranium.”

Kazakhstan has also joined the G8 Global Partnership against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

“We have ratified the amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and invite all participants of the Seoul summit to ratify the amendments so that they come into force before 2014,” the Kazakh leader told his colleagues in Seoul two years ago.

Turning to approaches to ensure nuclear security, President Nazarbayev said “nuclear power should be developed only when absolute security is guaranteed and should be based on three main principles” – universality, transparency and efficiency, and equality and trust.

According to the Kazakh President, to ensure universality, “the generalisation and codification of international law and accumulated experience in the development of peaceful nuclear energy is required. The goal is the adoption of legally binding nuclear safety standards.”

In order to ensure transparency and efficiency, “along with full and prompt attention to any incidents at nuclear facilities, the establishment of clear mechanisms for rapid response to emergencies is required.”

And, to provide for equality and trust, President Nazarbayev said, “all states should be given equal rights to access peaceful nuclear technology, as well as the use of low enriched uranium from the International Nuclear Fuel Bank. Our work with the IAEA to locate the International Nuclear Fuel Bank in Kazakhstan is progressing. This is our specific contribution to the strengthening of non-proliferation and disarmament.”

It was also then that President Nazarbayev suggested having a nuclear security summit every two years and offered Kazakhstan as a possible venue for a future summit.

It has already been announced that the fourth summit is to take place in the United States in 2016. There is no information yet if that will be the last summit in the series or if there will be others after 2016.

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