The Nuclear Security Summit of world leaders in Washington today and tomorrow is a follow-up of the promise United States President Barack Obama made last year in his Prague speech. He said “… We must also build on our efforts to break up black markets, detect and intercept [nuclear] materials in transit, and use financial tools to disrupt this dangerous trade … And we should start by having a Global Summit on Nuclear Security that the United States will host within the next year.”
Although the stated focus of the summit is to secure nuclear materials around the world, the conference has a much broader significance. For one thing, the summit marks the restoration of Mr. Obama's arms control initiatives set in motion last year. Until recently, it looked as if these initiatives had been derailed by the Obama administration's preoccupation with domestic issues such as healthcare and the economy. But with the healthcare bill having been passed, the extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia negotiated and the new, less belligerent Nuclear Posture review announced, the prospects of making further progress on disarmament and arms control seem brighter now.
Aside from this, the actual discussions taking place on the two days will cover a much wider range of issues than nuclear material security. With so many heads of important nations attending it, there will no doubt be the usual hum of bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the main conference dealing with a variety of regional issues and perspectives. India, in particular, will be involved in many of these private discussions.
We will return later to these larger issues that may come up in the summit, but the main agenda, that of securing nuclear materials, is important enough in its own right. Because of their somewhat technical and specialised nature, public awareness of the dangers posed by unsecured nuclear materials is much less than it deserves to be.
What are these nuclear materials and what makes their security so vital as to warrant such a high level summit of about 40 nations? The term ‘nuclear materials' (also known as fissile materials) refers to the substances which, by undergoing rapid nuclear fission, provide the explosive energy of nuclear weapons. There are very few such substances. They are mainly plutonium and two isotopes of uranium, U-235 and U-233.
Although a nuclear weapon has several sophisticated components in it, the most difficult to get hold of is its fissile material core. That is because plutonium is not available in nature, nor are large quantities of those two isotopes of uranium. Natural uranium mined from under the ground is predominantly U-238, a non-fissile material, and contains less than 1 per cent of U-235 and even smaller traces of U-233.
Therefore, in order to be used as nuclear weapon fuel, natural uranium has to be “enriched” in its U-235 content by removing most of the unwanted U-238 from it. This process of converting natural uranium into “Highly Enriched uranium” (HEU) is done in giant centrifuge plants (of A.Q. Khan fame). In the case of plutonium, it has to be entirely produced artificially by reprocessing the spent fuel of reactors. Both uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing involve very advanced, expensive and painstaking technology.
As a result, getting hold of weapon-usable fissile materials is the single biggest impediment to non-nuclear nations embarking on a nuclear weapon programme and to non-state actors producing a weapon illicitly. It is therefore obvious, especially when the danger of nuclear terrorism is no more a paranoid obsession but a possible reality, that all the fissile materials produced for weapon purposes and submarine fuel, as well as for certain research reactors by different nations should be very strictly accounted for and secured. This also includes material released from weapons dismantled in the arms reduction process.
According to the latest figures given by the International Panel on Fissile Materials the world has accumulated, in the 60 years since the birth of the nuclear age, a huge stock of such materials. There are altogether over 1,670 tonnes of HEU. Of this over 95 per cent is in the U.S. and Russia. The worldwide stock of separated weapon usable plutonium is about 500 tonnes, of which again Russia and the U.S. have the largest amounts. The U.S. has 92 tonnes, Russia 140-190 and the bulk of the rest is in the U.K., France and Japan. (More details of these stocks, their location and various other aspects of FM are available at the website www.fissilematerials.org)
That these are very large amounts can be appreciated by noting that it takes only about 5 kg of plutonium or about 25-40 kg of HEU to make a typical Hiroshima-Nagasaki level weapon. You can hold that much plutonium in your palm. Thus all that terrorists have to do is to pilfer a tiny fraction of the hundreds of tonnes spread around the globe to threaten a disaster far worse than 9/11 or any other terrorist attack thus far.
The goal of global nuclear disarmament provides another motivation for ridding the world of fissile materials. A serious conceptual problem often raised about universal disarmament is that even if you succeed in eliminating all nuclear weapons on earth, you cannot eliminate man's knowledge of the science behind it. That genie is out of the bottle for good. What is to prevent some groups from starting to produce these weapons all over again? Is a nuclear weapon-free world a robust and stable concept? Clearly one prerequisite for preventing illicit building of nuclear weapons is to gather, fully secure and eventually eliminate all weapon-usable fissile materials.
On the same day as the Obama summit of world leaders, and parallel to it, there will also be a non-governmental summit at Washington (on Monday) in which dozens of experts from around the world are expected to participate. We will discuss at a more technical and operational level, ways of initiating multinational efforts to make the vision of securing all vulnerable materials worldwide in four years closer to reality. Our recommendations will be conveyed to the political leadership at the summit.
Rise to the occasion
Let us return to the larger implications of the summit, particularly for India. That the Indian leadership at the highest level has been invited to be a participant on an equal footing with the “official” P5 nuclear powers is an indicator of its increasing acceptability at the nuclear high table. As a country which has vehemently (and rightly) complained in the past of the discriminatory nature of NPT and other such regimes India should, now that a non-discriminatory gathering has been called, rise to the occasion and behave as an active partner in international efforts to reduce nuclear dangers. It must adopt a statesmanlike posture, as befits a responsible nuclear power, confident of taking initiatives in this regard.
The time has come for us to regain some of our stature as crusaders for nuclear disarmament. In the old Nehruvian days, we were leading proponents of nuclear disarmament at various international forums. But our efforts lacked bite, in part because we ourselves had no nuclear arsenals to give up at that time. The situation is quite different now.
Reports that India may be willing to set up an international centre on nuclear security, if true, are welcome. But it must be remembered that nuclear security is different from the security of VIPs, bank vaults or even conventional military installations, with which we are more familiar. Apart from the normal security apparatus of walls, fences, armed guards and so on, protecting nuclear materials requires familiarity with the latest technical information on fissile material detectors, and the special properties of these highly radioactive materials, even a handful of which may be sufficient to make a full-fledged nuclear weapon. There is a fair amount of information on this among expert groups both within India and abroad.
If the proposed centre on nuclear security is to be of truly high international quality, our government will do well to involve in its formation and functioning not just the expertise within government agencies, but also non-governmental experts with a high international reputation. The “daddy knows best” policy of government technocrats has cost us enough already.
( R. Rajaraman is Co-Chair, International Panel on Fissile Materials and Emeritus Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi .)