The international nuclear community seems to need something like a miracle to get serious about developing new standards to ensure compliance with international nuclear obligations. Further proof of this fact was provided by Barack Obama's Nuclear Security Summit held in Washington on April 12-13.
Leaders from 37 countries and delegations from 10 other states have agreed to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials, such as uranium and plutonium, around the globe within four years to keep them out of the grasp of terrorists. This is certainly a success, if not a miracle.
However, this goal is unlikely to be achieved in four years. To make progress in this sphere, we must first solve the complex problems in the Middle East, India and Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and several other countries. It is the failure to solve these problems that is increasing the threat of nuclear terrorism.
Until recently, only the United States and Russia were serious about securing vulnerable nuclear materials. After the Washington summit, other countries may join in this titanic undertaking.
Russia, which helped the U.S. formulate the agenda for the summit, also initiated the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, currently the main document defining nuclear terrorism and nuclear terrorists. Only 60 UN member countries have signed the convention so far, but the Washington summit could encourage a few dozen more to join.
The nuclear terrorism convention is the only - even if not the best -- medicine against the nuclear disease.
Everything that was signed at the Washington summit (the communique and the agreements to exchange information and grant access to IAEA inspectors, etc.) is nonbinding. And it is a fact that nonbinding documents on nuclear problems tend to be misinterpreted by signatories.
All nuclear powers are afflicted with "national egotism" to a varying degree. This includes Iran and North Korea, whose nuclear programs are highly alarming, Israel, India and Pakistan, which have the bomb but have not come clean on the issue, as well as such old-timers like the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France.
Russia and the United States have been working to get over their "national egotism," as evidenced by their numerous arms control treaties, including the latest one signed in the Czech Republic.
If the Washington summit encourages other countries to join in the process, it will be a major success. Considering the fact that a second summit is already planned to take place in South Korea in 2012, it could even pave the way for meaningful non-proliferation efforts.
Although the purposes behind these global meetings are serious, they often include minor details that make experts chuckle. This time it was the announcement by Ukraine, Canada, Chile and Mexico that they will dispose of hundreds of pounds of highly enriched uranium used in civilian facilities.
Russia and the United States have been doing this for ten years.
Also, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili stirred a sensation by announcing that his country had thwarted an attempt to sell highly enriched uranium (HEU), even if it was just a few grams. He said it was the eighth such attempt in Georgia.
According to the IAEA, there have been 15 reported attempts to smuggle HEU, which is weapons-grade uranium, since 1993, which means that over half of them occurred in Georgia. Saakashvili has promised to disclose the details of the event at a later date.
The threat of terrorists acquiring HUE has been exaggerated. Any uranium with more than a 20% concentration of uranium-235 is considered highly enriched. Nuclear power plants use uranium enriched to 1%-5%.
Theoretically, uranium enriched to 30% or 40% could be used to make nuclear weapons, but it would take at least several hundred kilos of this kind of uranium to make a bomb. This is hardly a weapon terrorists could use. The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in Japan had approximately 60 kilograms of HEU. Weapons-grade uranium is enriched to about 90%.
But a "dirty bomb" is quite another matter. It combines radioactive material (low- or medium-enriched uranium) with conventional explosives and can contaminate people, buildings and the environment on a large scale, resulting in catastrophic and lasting consequences.
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