With the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit less than a week away, the Obama administration and outside observers already are beginning to look toward the next — and possibly final — installment of the global gathering in 2016.
In particular, administration officials and issue experts hope to make progress on what have proven to be two of the most difficult issues to tackle during the summits: The vulnerability of civilian plutonium stocks, specifically, and the security of military nuclear materials, more generally, to possible theft and use by terrorists.
The summits to date have focused largely on the consolidation, minimization and securing of civilian highly enriched uranium. A draft of the official communique that all participating countries will sign onto next week encourages “states to continue to minimize the use of HEU through the conversion of reactor fuel from HEU to [low-enriched uranium], where technically and economically feasible,” according to Reuters.
The security of military nuclear materials has been “very hard to talk about,” a key White House staff aide said on Monday.
Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall — President Obama’s coordinator for defense policy, countering weapons of mass destruction and arms control — said during a Council on Foreign Relations webcast that most countries guard military information closely, and are reluctant to discuss it in such a global forum.
Nonetheless, the administration hopes to make progress on the issue between now and the 2016 summit, which President Obama will host in Washington, Sherwood-Randall said. She said the United States was “driving a discussion” on the matter, and that “the British are quite supportive” of the effort.
The Dutch hosts of next week’s gathering of world leaders in The Hague sought to include language specific to both the security of military materials and civilian plutonium in the official 2014 summit communique to be signed by all 53 participating nations, according to Harvard University Professor Matthew Bunn.
The provisions were watered down, however, as countries sensitive to issues pertaining to the two topics began to resist, the former adviser to President Clinton said.
“Since I haven’t seen the final language, I don’t know how unsuccessful they were,” Bunn told Global Security Newswire. “My understanding is they got something, but not as much as they had originally wanted.”
Officials at the Dutch embassy in Washington were unable to comment by press time.
Separated plutonium — commonly an ingredient in atomic weapons — can also be reprocessed for use in civilian power reactors. But in the hands of terrorists, it could be used to make a lethal “dirty bomb” or other nuclear device.
During Monday’s webcast, Sherwood-Randall said she expected “some pretty good results on plutonium” at next week’s summit, but did not provide specifics.
Bunn projected that the “best news on plutonium that will come out of the summit” is an anticipated accomplishment that has already been made public: That Japan has agreed to send back to the United States 730 pounds of U.S.-origin plutonium.
Sherwood-Randall described the planned repatriation of the material from Japan in similar terms during a panel discussion last week.
The concerns of nonproliferation experts regarding plutonium security do not end with the 730 pounds of U.S.-origin plutonium in Japan, however. For example, reports of lax security at the island nation’s Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Center in Rokkasho also have raised alarms.
More broadly, a report Bunn and his Harvard colleagues released on Tuesday notes that “there is as much civilian separated plutonium as there is in all the world’s stocks of nuclear weapons.” This is largely because plutonium has been separated faster than it has been burned as fuel in reactors, the report says.
The more than 50 nations participating in the Nuclear Security Summits could make steps toward better securing civilian plutonium by pledging not to produce the material faster than it is consumed, Bunn said.
Others are arguing for more aggressive action. In a separate report released on Tuesday, the University of Texas-Austin’s Nuclear Proliferation Project urges summit participants to freeze the expansion of spent-fuel recycling altogether. The idea, according to the recommendations, would be “to avoid creating more reprocessing and [mixed-oxide] fuel facilities that cannot be adequately safeguarded against nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism.”
Discussing the security of such facilities at the summits has been difficult, though, in part because several countries remain interested in reprocessing plutonium for reactor fuel. While U.S. efforts to build a facility that would reprocess leftover weapons plutonium from the Cold War in South Carolina have stalled, other countries remain active in the reprocessing business — or hope to be soon.
In addition to Japan, countries that are involved with or hope to be involved with reprocessing include Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China and South Korea, the Harvard report notes.
By contrast, the summit process has been far more successful at consolidating, securing and minimizing stocks of highly enriched uranium because there “really isn’t any civilian need for HEU anymore,” said Bunn. Most reactors that rely on the bomb-grade substance for fuel can be converted for the use of low-enriched uranium, he said.
In addition, locking down highly enriched uranium has been a priority because it is the substance with which a terrorist could most easily construct an atomic bomb, Bunn said.
With highly enriched uranium, a violent actor could construct a simple “gun-type” bomb that slams two pieces of the substance together to cause a nuclear detonation. By contrast, with plutonium, a more complex process in which the substance is crushed into a smaller density is required, he said.
Plutonium, however, is much more radioactive than highly enriched uranium, making it a particularly potent ingredient for a dirty bomb. This form of device would use conventional explosives to disperse potentially lethal radiation throughout an area, Bunn noted.
Tuesday’s report by Bunn and his colleagues says the Obama administration’s four-year effort to secure all the world’s vulnerable nuclear materials — which ended in 2013 — did not achieve its stated goal.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s planned budget cuts to its nonproliferation programs in fiscal 2015 are expected to slow some nuclear-security efforts around the world with which the United States is involved, the report notes.
Even on the HEU front, weaknesses remain, as evidenced by a 2012 incident in which an 82-year-old nun and two other peace activists were able to infiltrate the U.S. Y-12 facility, where “thousands of bombs’ worth” of the substance is stored, the report states.
“The international nuclear security framework remains weak and uneven,” the assessment adds. In addition, next week’s summit is not expected to create international standards for how dangerous material must be secured, Bunn noted.
Countries attending next week’s summit are expected to take some steps toward the goal of international standards, in that some will pledge to provide non-specific “assurances,” or demonstrations, that they are in fact securing their own sensitive materials, Bunn noted.
Some countries also are expected to sign onto multilateral pledges to follow existing guidelines of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency regarding the physical security of nuclear and radiological materials.
“It will be a peg on which we can hang the hat [of international standards], but there won’t actually be a hat yet,” Bunn said.