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The 2012 Nuclear Security Summit: Hey…Ho…Let’s Go!

The 2012 Nuclear Security Summit: Hey...Ho...Let's Go!



Amid the looming specters of a North Korean missile launch, Fukushima clean-up and an ever-saber-rattling Iran, the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit is under way.  This year’s summit promises another raft of commitments, initiatives and communique-issuing.  The very thought of sherpas, sous-sherpas and other underlings toiling for nearly two years on a workable agenda and set of deliverables is enough to set one’s mind a-twitter.  The Summit, you see, is the culmination of a whole lot of work by a whole lot of folks you’ve never heard of.

Having been involved in these high-profile confabs, I am well-aware that they serve worthy, but limited purposes.  And of course, they do set some countries up for failure, the highest profile of which had been when Belarus reneged on its pledge to hand over HEU to Russia. The government suspended the deal in retaliation for the U.S. State Department’s imposition of sanctions targeting four Belarusian state-owned firms due to concerns over ongoing political repression.

This year’s get together is no exception: the meeting in Seoul will focus on nine key concepts, including illicit trafficking, nuclear forensics, and radiological source security.  I was quite pleased to see the latter two items on the agenda given that they are rather down-in-the-weeds.  Nuclear forensics, for example, is the way in which folks can trace the origins of nuclear materials – a particularly useful capability in  a “post-det” scenario.  It turns out that the U.S. capability to do post-detonation nuclear forensics was aging rapidly.  In the post-9/1 world, attention has turned to rebuilding that capability.  And of course, the probability of having a radiological dispersion device detonated in the U.S. or elsewhere is far more probable than having a nuclear weapon used given the widespread use of radiological sources.

While I applaud the Obama Administration and the fifty-three countries and four organizations for coming together to review the results of the past two years and to plan for the next set of accomplishments, I return to the seeming hypocrisy of the Administration’s stance on the Gold Standard.

In a speech today at South Korea’s Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, President Obama spoke loftily about the moral obligation of the U.S. to reduce its nuclear weapons arsenal.  He spoke of working with Russia to finally address reductions in tactical nuclear weapons and warheads in reserve.  And he even spoke of the need for nuclear power.  To wit:

“….And with rising oil prices and a warming climate, nuclear energy will only become more important.  That’s why, in the United States, we’ve restarted our nuclear industry as part of a comprehensive strategy to develop every energy source.  We supported the first new nuclear power plant in three decades.  We’re investing in innovative technologies so we can build the next generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants.  And we’re training the next generation of scientists and engineers who are going to unlock new technologies to carry us forward.

One of the great challenges they’ll face and that your generation will face is the fuel cycle itself in producing nuclear energy.  We all know the problem:  The very process that gives us nuclear energy can also put nations and terrorists within the reach of nuclear weapons.  We simply can’t go on accumulating huge amounts of the very material, like separated plutonium, that we’re trying to keep away from terrorists.

And that’s why we’re creating new fuel banks, to help countries realize the energy they seek without increasing the nuclear dangers that we fear.  That’s why I’ve called for a new framework for civil nuclear cooperation.  We need an international commitment to unlocking the fuel cycle of the future.  In the United States we’re investing in the research and development of new fuel cycles so that dangerous materials can’t be stolen or diverted.  And today I urge nations to join us in seeking a future where we harness the awesome power of the atom to build and not to destroy.

In this sense, we see how the efforts I’ve described today reinforce each other.  When we enhance nuclear security, we’re in a stronger position to harness safe, clean nuclear energy.  When we develop new, safer approaches to nuclear energy, we reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism and proliferation.  When nations, including my own, fulfill our responsibilities, it strengthens our ability to ensure that other nations fulfill their responsibilities.  And step by step, we come closer to the security and peace of a world without nuclear weapons.”

All good stuff.

But what about requiring potential civilian nuclear trading partners to forgo development of enrichment and reprocessing technologies?  You know, the technologies that allow countries to actually generate the very materials that the summitteers are seeking to lock down?  Sure, fuel banks are a very useful and important step in limiting the spread of these technologies.  But, the icing on the cake would be to require other countries not to develop the technology.  It would be so….consistent.

I have spoken at length about this seeming inconsistency in the Adminstration’s nonproliferation policy in previous posts.  But, in light on this high-profile meeting, I thought it bore repeating:  if the Administration is serious about making sure that terrorists and unsavory governments do not gain access to weapons of mass destruction or their components, then it should make providing access to civilian nuclear technologies contingent upon giving up the “right” to build and operate ENR facilities.  Doing anything less would just be hypocrisy.

P.S. For more on how the U.S. has sought to implement its 2010 commitments, check out NNSA’s handy dandy fact sheets.




Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.

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