Ensuring the security of all fissile materials is a necessary step on the road to the global elimination of nuclear weapons.

The heads of as many as 53 nations, including India, are expected to attend the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul on March 26 and 27. The first such summit was held in Washington in April 2010, fulfilling a promise President Obama made in his 2009 Prague speech while calling for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. One obvious component of this goal is getting rid of existing nuclear arsenals.

Another is the securing and eventual elimination of all fissile materials (i.e. materials which undergo nuclear fission and provide the explosive energy of nuclear weapons). Now, obtaining fissile materials happens to be the single most difficult step in building a nuclear weapon, as evident from the labours of A.Q. Khan and the controversy over Iran. Therefore, securing and locking up such material is very important, not only to prevent its falling into the hands of terrorists, but also to ensure a nuclear weapon free world — if we ever get there — remains stable against “breakouts” by some renegade nation.

Meanwhile there are about 150,000 weapons worth of fissile materials lying around in the world as compared to the five to 25 kg needed for a weapon. Already, 20 cases of theft or loss of such material have been discovered. Clearly this is a very dangerous situation. The Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) was designed to bring high-level political attention to this vital but hitherto obscure problem of nuclear materials security.

Nuclear terrorism

Was the first NSS in Washington a success? To start with, the very fact that such a summit took place was a success in itself. Until then, the security of fissile materials would hardly have been considered the stuff of global summits. Nor were they matters of great public concern. Yet 50 world leaders converged on Washington. This was partly because of the charisma of a new U.S. President with an inspiring agenda. It was also because of the desire to be present at “the high table.” Once some major heads of government started accepting Obama's invitation, participation became irresistible for the rest. India, neither a signatory to the NPT nor a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, has been kept out of most international nuclear enclaves in the past. Its inclusion in the Washington Summit was a welcome development.

That summit reached a consensus that nuclear terrorism is among the top global security challenges and that strong nuclear material security measures are the most effective way to prevent it. This may not seem like much, but getting 47 nations to agree on any nuclear issue, however innocuous, is not always easy.

In addition, 29 of the countries present made voluntary commitments to enhance nuclear security. Country-specific steps — colloquially termed “house gifts” — were taken ahead of the summit. Thus, Chile removed all its Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) — 18 kg — in March 2010, while the Philippines joined the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism. Several countries, including India, announced that they would create new “centres of excellence” to promote nuclear security technologies.

Since then, several countries seem to be on track towards meeting their commitments by 2012. Reportedly, approximately 60 per cent of these national commitments have been completed, and notable progress has been made on the rest. For instance, Kazakhstan has secured enough material to make 775 nuclear weapons, Russia has ended its plutonium production and signed a plutonium disposition protocol with the U.S., Ukraine has removed over half of its HEU and so on.

Energy centre in Haryana

India has also made some progress, albeit slowly, on its commitment to set up a Global Centre for Nuclear Energy Partnership. It announced that the centre will have a 200 acre campus in Bahadurgarh, Haryana and comprise four different schools covering nuclear security, nuclear energy systems, and radiation safety.

Despite the good intentions and effort behind the NSS, many people have strong reservations about their usefulness. They feel that the voluntary and non-binding commitments amount to just “picking low hanging fruit” while the more difficult fissile material security problems remain unaddressed.

In response, attempts are being made to enlarge and strengthen the issues to be addressed by the 2012 Summit. Stronger commitments may be sought towards reducing the stocks of HEU and discouraging its use in producing isotopes for medicine, research reactors, etc. In addition to “house gifts” there will be “gift baskets” which refer to commitments of cooperative multinational efforts. Such multinational programmes have the potential to continue even after the sequence of summits ends.

Securing all materials

Unlike Washington, Seoul 2012 may choose to address the securing of all radioactive materials, and not just fissile materials. Radioactive but non-fissile materials used for medical, agricultural and scientific purposes cannot be used for nuclear weapons. But they too can cause casualties and massive disruption, even if not at the scale of nuclear weapons. A suitcase full of such radioactive material (the so-called dirty bomb) if exploded in a public place would, in addition to killing some people and polluting the neighbourhood with deadly radiation, also create enormous panic resulting in massive stampedes and more casualties given the public's extreme fear of radioactivity especially after Fukushima.

Terrorists keen on escalating from conventional to nuclear explosions may well start with dirty bombs. They are much easier to assemble. One just pilfers from hospitals and research laboratories bits and pieces of radioactive junk which are not guarded anywhere nearly as well as fissile material. Recall the Cobalt-60 leak from Delhi University equipment found in a scrap metal shop. Of course, the methods for securing all radioactive material at a thousand places will be quite different from guarding fissile material in a small number of heavily fortified places. So including them in the summit agenda may dilute the focus away from the main goal of fissile material security.

Finally, one hopes that India will take this opportunity to move away from its defensive mindset. Understandable during the days of nuclear sanctions, that mindset does not behove a nation aspiring to a leadership role in world affairs. It should make bold non-trivial pledges, and reiterate its commitment to setting up a truly independent nuclear regulatory authority.

(The author is Emeritus Professor, JNU, New Delhi and Co-Chair, International Panel on Fissile Materials.)

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