Push for Tighter Global Nuclear-Security Standards Expected at Summit

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A view of the March 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea. World leaders at next month's summit in the Netherlands could move closer to establishing international standards for locking down nuclear materials, sources say.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
Feb. 7, 2014, 9:21 a.m.

Next month’s Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit in the Neth­er­lands may come closer to es­tab­lish­ing in­ter­na­tion­al stand­ards for how to lock down dan­ger­ous nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als than did the two pri­or gath­er­ings of the bi­en­ni­al con­fab, sources say.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion hos­ted the first sum­mit in Wash­ing­ton in 2010 as part of its glob­al ef­fort to se­cure ma­ter­i­als that could be used to man­u­fac­ture il­li­cit nuc­le­ar weapons. Ob­serv­ers have said the ini­tial gath­er­ing of world lead­ers — along with a sub­sequent meet­ing in South Korea in 2012 — suc­ceeded in boost­ing is­sue aware­ness and ac­cel­er­at­ing the ef­forts of some coun­tries to re­duce or elim­in­ate their stock­piles of sens­it­ive ma­ter­i­als.

However, crit­ics have also said the sum­mits so far have done too little to cre­ate con­crete in­ter­na­tion­al stand­ards for ex­actly how to lock down such ma­ter­i­als or define what must be done in or­der to con­sider them se­cure. This year’s in­stall­ment in The Hag­ue — ex­pec­ted to be the second-to-last such gath­er­ing — may inch closer that goal, is­sue ex­perts and oth­ers said.

Ac­cord­ing to mul­tiple sources fa­mil­i­ar with on­go­ing pre­par­a­tions for the March event, the United States, Neth­er­lands and South Korea are en­cour­aging sum­mit par­ti­cipants to pledge that they will ad­opt and be bound by ex­ist­ing in­ter­na­tion­al guidelines for the phys­ic­al pro­tec­tion of nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als. The guidelines, es­tab­lished by the U.N.’s In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency, are not cur­rently the law in in­di­vidu­al coun­tries.

The pledge will be one of sev­er­al mul­tina­tion­al “gift bas­kets” that the sum­mit is ex­pec­ted to yield, in which sev­er­al coun­tries agree to of­fer the same nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity com­mit­ment, sources say.

Peter Molle­ma, deputy chief of the Dutch em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton, told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire that “about half” of the 53 na­tions par­ti­cip­at­ing in the sum­mit have so far agreed to sign onto the spe­cif­ic pledge of at­tempt­ing to bring the in­ter­na­tion­al guidelines in­to do­mest­ic law.

“The oth­er half are prob­ably still think­ing about it,” Molle­ma said.

Molle­ma spoke briefly about the sig­ni­fic­ance of this pledge dur­ing a dis­cus­sion about the up­com­ing sum­mit at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity last week.

“In our coun­try, liv­ing in the European Uni­on, we are used to fact that European guidelines are auto­mat­ic­ally trans­lated in­to na­tion­al le­gis­la­tion and be­come en­force­able,” Molle­ma said. “They need to be trans­lated in­to na­tion­al le­gis­la­tion, and the more that takes place, the easi­er it be­comes to en­force.”

However, Miles Pom­per, a seni­or re­search as­so­ci­ate with the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies, told GSN that in some re­spects the IAEA guidelines are not as strong as the ex­ist­ing Con­ven­tion on the Phys­ic­al Pro­tec­tion of Nuc­le­ar Ma­ter­i­al.

For one thing, the con­ven­tion is already leg­ally bind­ing. It also cov­ers more coun­tries than are par­ti­cip­at­ing in the Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mits. The con­ven­tion has 148 sig­nat­or­ies — more than double the num­ber of coun­tries par­ti­cip­at­ing in the sum­mits.

On the oth­er hand, the IAEA guidelines — while not per­fect in the view of Pom­per and oth­er is­sue ex­perts — provide more tech­nic­al de­tail re­gard­ing pre­cisely what must be done in or­der to se­cure dan­ger­ous nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als. The con­ven­tion provides more in the way of gen­er­al prin­cipals without the same de­gree of de­tail, Pom­per noted.

The United States already has phys­ic­al-pro­tec­tion stand­ards that are ar­gu­ably even stronger than what the IAEA guidelines call for, but the idea be­hind the pledge ini­ti­at­ive is “to get oth­er coun­tries to do that by lead­ing by ex­ample,” ac­cord­ing to Pom­per.

It is “one of the more pos­it­ive” de­vel­op­ments ex­pec­ted to come out of the March 24-25 sum­mit, Pom­per said.

One po­ten­tial wrinkle, however, is that the United States has yet to rat­i­fy a 2005 amend­ment to the con­ven­tion un­der which its prin­ciples for phys­ic­al pro­tec­tion would ap­ply not only with­in a na­tion’s bor­ders, but also dur­ing in­ter­na­tion­al trans­port.

Sen­at­or Charles Grass­ley (R-Iowa) is hold­ing up rat­i­fic­a­tion of the con­ven­tion amend­ment over his de­sire to in­clude pro­vi­sions ex­tend­ing fed­er­al wiretap­ping au­thor­it­ies and ap­ply­ing the death pen­alty spe­cific­ally to acts of nuc­le­ar ter­ror­ism in the rel­ev­ant le­gis­la­tion.

“It’s go­ing to be em­bar­rass­ing when [the U.S. del­eg­a­tion] shows up [to the sum­mit] without hav­ing this ap­proved,” giv­en that the United States is push­ing oth­er coun­tries to ad­opt an even more de­tailed pledge rel­ev­ant to the phys­ic­al pro­tec­tion is­sue, Pom­per said.

In ad­di­tion to the ini­ti­at­ive per­tain­ing to the phys­ic­al pro­tec­tion of nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als, the United States is also lead­ing an ef­fort un­der which agree­able sum­mit par­ti­cipants would agree to ad­opt in­to law the IAEA code of con­duct on so-called “ra­di­olo­gic­al sources” by 2016, ac­cord­ing to Pom­per.

Ra­di­olo­gic­al sources are those ma­ter­i­als that could be used to dis­perse dan­ger­ous ra­dio­activ­ity over a large area, even though they are in­cap­able of caus­ing a Hiroshi­ma-type nuc­le­ar blast. This could be done by pair­ing the ra­di­olo­gic­al ma­ter­i­al with con­ven­tion­al ex­plos­ives in a so-called “dirty bomb.”

Ken­neth Luongo, pres­id­ent of the Part­ner­ship for Glob­al Se­cur­ity and a former arms con­trol of­fi­cial in the U.S. En­ergy De­part­ment, told GSN that these ini­ti­at­ives showed that coun­tries par­ti­cip­at­ing in the sum­mit re­cog­nize that the cur­rent nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity re­gime is in­suf­fi­cient. At the same time, it ap­pears that par­ti­cip­at­ing na­tions be­lieve it is too dif­fi­cult to draft and agree to new stand­ards at such a high-level for­um.

“I think that the think­ing is that if you can get coun­tries to sign up to what is in es­sence on the books, then you are on your way to im­prov­ing your re­gime,” Luongo said. “I think this ini­ti­at­ive, if it goes for­ward, will very be­ne­fi­cial and I’m very sup­port­ive of it.”

White House spokes­man Jonath­an Lal­ley and State De­part­ment spokes­wo­man Sandra Pos­tell de­clined to com­ment on the vari­ous sum­mit ini­ti­at­ives. Pom­per and Luongo said their know­ledge of the ini­ti­at­ives was based on dis­cus­sions with vari­ous sum­mit par­ti­cipants.

It is un­clear, sources say, how far the sum­mit com­mu­nique — the of­fi­cial doc­u­ment to which all par­ti­cip­at­ing na­tions sign — will it­self go to­ward es­tab­lish­ing in­ter­na­tion­al stand­ards, however.

Ac­cord­ing to Pom­per, there is talk among sum­mit par­ti­cipants about the need for coun­tries to provide each oth­er as­sur­ances that they have their own nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als un­der con­trol. One po­ten­tial way to ac­com­plish this would be to in­vite IAEA of­fi­cials to re­view the reg­u­lat­ory sys­tems of in­di­vidu­al na­tions as the U.N. agency some­times already does, he noted.

“It’s not clear how much of this is will be in the com­mu­nique and how much in gift bas­kets,” Pom­per said.

The Dutch em­bassy’s Molle­ma told GSN that in­ter­na­tion­al ne­go­ti­at­ors worked out most, but not all, of the fi­nal de­tails per­tain­ing to the com­mu­nique dur­ing a meet­ing in Thai­l­and last month. He said the draft doc­u­ment “does speak about the re­spons­ib­il­it­ies of states, the role of the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity and the role of IAEA,” but he de­clined to provide spe­cif­ics.

“There’s still some dis­cus­sions go­ing on with some of the [sum­mit] mem­bers and that is nor­mal,” Molle­ma said.

Luongo said he did not ex­pect the com­mu­nique would “have any­thing spec­tac­u­larly new.

“It’s been kind of a tough fight in­side the [ne­go­ti­at­ing] pro­cess to get some of the is­sues in that they want,” Luongo said. “But at the end of the day, the com­mu­nique, in a sense, is the least am­bi­tious product that is go­ing to come out of the sum­mit.”

Over­all, the ob­serv­ers said they ex­pec­ted more de­tailed “gift bas­kets” to move the sum­mit in the right dir­ec­tion. The ini­ti­at­ives are not without short­com­ings, however, the is­sue ex­perts con­tend.

“Some of these things are quite use­ful, but in terms of what we’ll ex­pect out of the com­mu­nique and the long term dir­ec­tion, we still need a lot more,” said Pom­per. “The good thing is we’ve still got an­oth­er sum­mit [in 2016]. But we really need to see a long-term sus­tain­able frame­work much more than we’ve got at this point.”

Re­gard­ing the pos­sible ad­op­tion of IAEA guidelines, Luongo said “there are holes in the way those things are con­struc­ted, in the sense that there is no in­form­a­tion shar­ing across bor­ders.

“There’s no peer re­view,” he ad­ded. “All of the prob­lems which are af­fect­ing in­ter­na­tion­al con­fid­ence in this sys­tem are still rel­ev­ant even if every­one im­ple­ments everything that’s already on the books.”

Pom­per ex­pressed con­cern that the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity might lose mo­mentum after the fi­nal sum­mit in 2016, be­fore suf­fi­cient pro­gress is made.

“You see some things that are kind of get­ting more to the core is­sues of as­sur­ance and stand­ards “¦ It’s just not to the level of com­mit­ment that you really need for the long term,” he said.

“The fact is that in two years this pro­cess is likely to be over and so you’re talk­ing about a lot of at­ten­tion drift­ing away,” Pom­per said. “Then what hap­pens?”

Giv­en news that a ra­dio­act­ive source was stolen in Mex­ico last year, Pom­per said he hoped that some na­tions par­ti­cip­at­ing in the sum­mit would pledge to not just se­cure nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als ““ but also to re­place them, when pos­sible, with less dan­ger­ous sub­stances. This could be par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als used in the med­ic­al field, he said.

“You can use oth­er tech­no­lo­gies like lin­ear ac­cel­er­at­ors and oth­er tech­no­lo­gies that aren’t ra­dio­act­ive sources to get the same out­put from a med­ic­al or oth­er point of view,” Pom­per said. “We ought to be look­ing not just to make those se­cure, but to ac­tu­ally sub­sti­tute those things where we get per­man­ent threat re­duc­tion, rather than just put­ting more locks on those things.”

One pos­it­ive de­vel­op­ment in this area ““ al­though it still in­volves the use of ra­dio­act­ive ma­ter­i­als — was an an­nounce­ment last week that Rus­sia by 2016 would con­vert two of its med­ic­al iso­tope re­act­ors to use low en­riched urani­um “tar­gets.” They would sub­sti­tute for highly en­riched urani­um, which can more eas­ily be used to make a nuc­le­ar weapon, said Pom­per.

In the pro­cess of mak­ing med­ic­al iso­topes, “tar­gets,” made of either highly en­riched or low en­riched urani­um, are ir­ra­di­ated to pro­duce the par­tic­u­lar ra­dio­act­ive iso­topes used in med­ic­al pro­ced­ures.

 

In Pom­per’s view, the an­nounce­ment — which Rus­si­an of­fi­cials made at a meet­ing of the Par­is-based Nuc­le­ar En­ergy Agency on Jan. 30 — goes fur­ther than Mo­scow’s pre­vi­ous vows on the mat­ter, as it in­cludes “a con­crete date cer­tain.”

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