Nuclear Security Summit: One year on, and looking ahead

We asked nuclear policy experts in Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs to summarize in one paragraph the achievements in the year since President Obama convened a summit on nuclear security on April 12-13, 2010. And we asked for a second paragraph on what needs to be done in the year before the follow-up summit planned for Seoul, South Korea.

Here are their replies:

Graham Allison, Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs:

Since last April’s historic Global Nuclear Security Summit, there have been a series of positive steps towards preventing what President Obama called the “single biggest threat to U.S. security, short-term, medium-term, and long-term”: nuclear terrorism.  From the elimination of more than half of Ukraine’s highly enriched uranium (HEU) stockpile to the safeguarding of more than 800 bombs’ worth of fissile material in Kazakhstan, states have made significant down payments on the president’s objective to secure the world’s most vulnerable fissile material by 2014. While these achievements should be celebrated, this is no time for a victory lap.  We have only reached the end of the first quarter in a race against time to ensure the world’s most dangerous materials do not fall in the deadliest hands.

Looking forward, I would propose one big idea: the establishment of the world’s first HEU-free zone (HEUFZ).  Countries committing themselves to an HEUFZ would forbid the development, use, and storage of HEU (uranium enriched to over 20%) on their territory.  In essence, an HEUFZ would represent the ultimate “gold standard” for securing nuclear material by reducing the available supply to zero: no stock; no stealing; no nuclear terrorism = no mushroom cloud. Considering Ukraine and Serbia’s astounding success in eliminating their supplies, and Belarus’s recent announcement that it will also give up its HEU, the former republics of the Soviet Union may be a good place to start.  An HEUFZ would complement the president’s renewed push to ratify the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty—which would ban all new production of fissile material but does nothing to address existing stocks.  It also directly links the momentum behind the Summit to the broader nonproliferation agenda. Now is the right time to get the ball moving towards establishing an HEUFZ.
Matthew Bunn, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Co-Principal Investigator, Project on Managing the Atom:

The year since the Washington nuclear security summit has seen new high-level attention focused on nuclear security around the world. Countries have eliminated stocks of potentially vulnerable material, strengthened regulations, established new channels of cooperation, and passed new laws.

But there is a great deal yet to be done to put effective and lasting security in place for all the materials around the world that could be used to make a nuclear bomb, and all the facilities whose sabotage could lead to a nuclear disaster. The lesson of the tragedy at Fukushima is that countries must do more to prevent and respond to nuclear catastrophes – whether caused by accidents or by terrorists. The future of nuclear energy depends on robust global implementation of best practices in both safety and security. For the Seoul nuclear security summit, simply listing the progress made since the last summit is not enough. Rather, we need concrete steps toward a world with stronger standards for both safety and security, and a new norm in which states regularly accept independent, international reviews of the nuclear safety and security measures they have taken.
Olli Heinonen, Senior Fellow, Belfer Center, Former Deputy Director General, International Atomic Energy Agency:

While many of the commitments made or newly introduced in the Nuclear Security Summit 2010 are proceeding well, there is no reason for complacency. Russia and the US are reducing their fissile material stocks and are well on their way to turning them into megawatts, but Pakistan is still in its nuclear upswing. If its drive is not halted, Pakistan could have at the end of this decade the fourth biggest nuclear weapons arsenal. Highly enriched uranium from Iran and North Korea are still waiting for repatriation plans.

It is also important to see that nuclear safety, security, and safeguards are an integral system to ensure that nuclear energy is used safely, securely and peacefully. Recent events in Fukushima have demonstrated that the international nuclear emergency response system, which relies heavily on the IAEA, has its weaknesses. A nuclear or radiological accident – whether at a nuclear facility or a result of a terrorist act – would affect everyone. Radioactivity does not stop at national borders. It is , therefore, important to ensure that the IAEA is able to respond in a timely, effective and independent manner, and provide its member states and public with independent assessments on implications, as well as support member states on further course of action.
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Senior Fellow, Belfer Center, Former CIA and Department of Energy senior intelligence analyst:

The purpose of the nuclear security summit was to drive home the point that high level leadership awareness and action are necessary to reduce the global risks of nuclear weapons . Since the summit, tangible steps have been taken towards the most important goal of locking up all weapons-usable nuclear materials as soon as possible. In addition to denying terrorists the stuff of nuclear bombs, states are making progress in efforts to strengthen international intelligence and law enforcement cooperation. To that end, a group of US and Russian generals, called the “Elbe group,” are working together to better understand the threat posed by nuclear terrorism; these generals are developing a set of recommended joint actions on potential ways to lower the risks.

Much more needs to be done, however. The black market in trafficking in nuclear materials needs to be shut down; it is unacceptable that any weapons-usable material be available to the highest bidder seeking nuclear bombs. States must also develop new ways of ensuring that the global expansion of technologies and materials for nuclear energy does not raise proliferation risks associated with the fuel cycle, transportation, waste and storage of materials. Finally, as global citizens, we must support our leaders in disarmament efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals, and ultimately eliminate them. For as long as nuclear weapons exist, there is a real risk of nuclear catastrophe.
William H. Tobey, Senior Fellow, Belfer Center, Former senior administrator, National Nuclear Security Administration:

The past year witnessed many solid achievements toward consolidating and securing nuclear material, although many of the projects highlighted by other nations at the Nuclear Security Summit have long been in the works, e.g. efforts to secure spent fuel from the BN-350 nuclear reactor in Kazakhstan.

Looking forward to the next Nuclear Security Summit, an ambitious but achievable goal would be to set a date certain for ending the use of highly enriched uranium (which can be used to make nuclear weapons) in civil applications, like research reactors. That would be a material contribution to international security.
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