Q&A: Dutch Official Doubtful of New Plutonium Agreement at 2016 Summit

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte following a March press conference in The Hague at the end of the Nuclear Security Summit. Dutch officials have passed the role of summit leadership back to the United States after hosting this year's installment of the biennial gathering of world leaders.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
June 11, 2014, 9:21 a.m.

A key Dutch of­fi­cial sug­gests that those ad­voc­at­ing for a new in­ter­na­tion­al agree­ment lim­it­ing ci­vil­ian stocks of plutoni­um might not want to get their hopes up.

Dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view, Am­bas­sad­or at Large Piet de Klerk — who served as lead or­gan­izer of this year’s Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit in the Neth­er­lands — dis­cussed the out­comes of the March gath­er­ing and goals for the next, pos­sibly fi­nal, such meet­ing of world lead­ers in 2016.

Kees Neder­lof, an ad­visor for stra­tegic af­fairs at the Dutch For­eign Min­istry who served as de Klerk’s deputy dur­ing pre­par­a­tions for this year’s gath­er­ing, also par­ti­cip­ated in the con­ver­sa­tion with Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire and Arms Con­trol Today.

Among oth­er things, the Dutch of­fi­cials re­flec­ted on their ef­forts to ad­dress con­cerns that plutoni­um could fall in­to ter­ror­ist hands — a dire scen­ario that ul­ti­mately led the 53 na­tions par­ti­cip­at­ing in the sum­mit to prom­ise they would “keep their stock­pile of plutoni­um to the min­im­um level “¦ con­sist­ent with na­tion­al re­quire­ments.”

Pre­vi­ously, the bi­en­ni­al sum­mits, which the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ini­ti­ated with a 2010 gath­er­ing of world lead­ers in Wash­ing­ton, have fo­cused largely on highly en­riched urani­um. While less ra­dio­act­ive than plutoni­um, HEU sources are gen­er­ally thought to be easi­er tar­gets for ter­ror­ists look­ing to man­u­fac­ture a crude atom­ic bomb.

Plutoni­um, however, could cause leth­al ra­di­olo­gic­al con­tam­in­a­tion if paired with con­ven­tion­al ex­plos­ives in a so-called “dirty bomb.”

Some nuc­le­ar watch­dogs have said this year’s sum­mit pledge on plutoni­um, while a step in the right dir­ec­tion, is vague and should be made stronger by in­clud­ing a vow not to pro­duce the weapons-us­able ma­ter­i­al faster than it is con­sumed.

Oth­ers have pushed for more ag­gress­ive ac­tion, in­clud­ing a freeze on the ex­pan­sion of plutoni­um re­pro­cessing for use as nuc­le­ar fuel.

Ex­actly what the sum­mit pledge re­quires of in­di­vidu­al coun­tries is some­what open to in­ter­pret­a­tion, de Klerk ac­know­ledges. But with mul­tiple coun­tries look­ing to pur­sue re­pro­cessing, it was not pos­sible in the weeks lead­ing up to the March meet­ing to make the pledge lan­guage any stronger, he said.

The Dutch of­fi­cial said he did not ex­pect that polit­ic­al real­ity to change with­in the next two years.

“I could ima­gine a lot of out­comes but at this point it’s all spec­u­la­tion,” de Klerk said. “What you have to bear in mind is that, with­in the group, coun­tries have dif­fer­ent ideas for what the ideal fuel cycle is. “¦ These dif­fer­ences will prob­ably not change in the com­ing two years so “¦ I don’t ex­pect something rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent in 2016.”

Among the coun­tries that are, or could be­come, in­volved with re­pro­cessing ef­forts are the United States, Rus­sia, the United King­dom, France, China and South Korea. Also on the list is Ja­pan, where re­ports of lax se­cur­ity at a re­pro­cessing fa­cil­ity in Rokkasho, where plutoni­um stock­piles are stored, have been caus­ing con­cerns.

Ja­pan’s nuc­le­ar in­dustry has been on hold since the on­set of the Fukushi­ma crisis in 2011 and thus has been un­able to use any of its stock­piles, De Klerk noted. Vague as it may be, the plutoni­um pledge from the 2014 sum­mit is sub­stan­tial enough for Ja­pan, a party to the pledge, to take in­to ac­count as it chooses a path for­ward, he said.

“They’ve agreed to this prin­ciple, and that should mean something,” de Klerk said.

Sim­il­arly, de Klerk said com­mit­ments tied to a sep­ar­ate sum­mit pledge to ad­opt In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency guidelines for se­cur­ing nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als in­to law “are quite sig­ni­fic­ant,” as evid­enced by the re­luct­ance of some high-pro­file na­tions to sign on.

Spear­headed by the United States, Neth­er­lands and South Korea, this pledge has 35 sig­nat­or­ies and has been touted by its pro­ponents as a key step to­ward es­tab­lish­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­cep­ted nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity rules.

Crit­ics, in­clud­ing some Re­pub­lic­ans on Cap­it­ol Hill, have ques­tioned the agree­ment’s value, however, not­ing that ma­jor nuc­le­ar states such as Rus­sia, China, Pakistan and In­dia have not signed onto the ac­cord.

De Klerk said the pledge is sig­ni­fic­ant be­cause in­di­vidu­al coun­tries who com­ply would no longer be able to “pick and choose” which of the pre­vi­ously vol­un­tary IAEA guidelines to fol­low.

In ad­di­tion, as part of the agree­ment, par­ti­cipants must also in­vite IAEA ad­vis­ory teams in­to their coun­tries so that they can as­sess how well they are fol­low­ing the guidelines, he noted.

“There are coun­tries like the Rus­si­an Fed­er­a­tion who are very skep­tic­al about sort of the cost-be­ne­fit ana­lys­is of in­vit­ing out­siders to their nuc­le­ar in­stall­a­tions,” de Klerk said. “So there will be hard nuts to crack. “¦ Maybe by 2016 we’ll have a much lar­ger group than be­fore, but I’m hes­it­ant to say there will be a con­sensus this time.”

Ac­cord­ing Neder­lof, who will take on the lead role for the Neth­er­lands lead­ing up to 2016, not all of the outly­ing coun­tries have prin­cipled ob­jec­tions to the com­mit­ments con­tained in the pledge.

“Quite a num­ber of these re­main­ing coun­tries suf­fer from — I would call it — these bur­eau­crat­ic delays,” Neder­lof said. “So we have good hope that at least a part of this will be solved by 2016.”

The Neth­er­lands was en­gaged in in­tens­ive dia­logue with all of the outly­ing na­tions dur­ing the months lead­ing up to the sum­mit, and many of the na­tions that did agree to sign the pledge did so with­in the last two weeks be­fore the gath­er­ing, ac­cord­ing to the Dutch of­fi­cials.

“You should real­ize that we star­ted with 11 coun­tries in Oc­to­ber “¦ and that’s where it re­mained un­til a few weeks be­fore the sum­mit,” de Klerk said. “What we hoped for was for a ma­jor­ity of coun­tries, and then we nearly got two-thirds. So we were very pleased, but there are still im­port­ant coun­tries” that have not signed, he said.

In ad­di­tion to try­ing to bring outly­ing coun­tries in­to the fold, Dutch, U.S. and South Korean of­fi­cials may also be in­volved in de­vis­ing a plan for en­sur­ing that those coun­tries who have pledged to ad­opt the IAEA guidelines fol­low through with their com­mit­ments, de Klerk said.

“We’ve kicked a few ideas back and forth at this point but it’s all in very start­ing stages,” he said.

Dutch of­fi­cials will not, however, be tak­ing the lead in any new ef­forts to in­crease the sum­mit’s fo­cus on mil­it­ary nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als lead­ing up to 2016. So far, the bi­en­ni­al gath­er­ing has dealt largely with ci­vil­ian nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als. Dutch of­fi­cials tried to change this in their role as sum­mit hosts this year, but say they were largely un­suc­cess­ful.

“Our point has been that es­tim­ates are 85 per­cent of weapons-us­able ma­ter­i­al is mil­it­ary ma­ter­i­al,” de Klerk ex­plained. “You lose part of the cred­ib­il­ity of the pro­cess if you don’t speak about that.”

The Dutch dif­fi­culty in mak­ing pro­gress on the is­sue might, to some ex­tent, be at­trib­uted to its re­l­at­ively di­min­ut­ive status among states host­ing nuc­le­ar arms, Neder­lof sug­ges­ted.

“We did our best,” Neder­lof said. “It’s clear that, of all the nuc­le­ar-weapons states, we were not a coun­try with a lot of lever­age. Some­times we get this glance — ‘Who are you to start this con­ver­sa­tion in the first place?’”

Ed­ited ex­cerpts from the in­ter­view, con­duc­ted at the Dutch em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton last month, ap­pear be­low:

GSN: Can you talk a bit about who you are meet­ing with and what you are talk­ing about dur­ing this vis­it to the United States?

De Klerk: This is sort of a post-sum­mit han­dover vis­it. It star­ted with talks in “¦ New York on the mar­gins of the [Nuc­le­ar Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty Pre­par­at­ory Com­mit­tee meet­ing this spring] and then it was nat­ur­al to also come to Wash­ing­ton to, on the one hand, re­flect to­geth­er on what was good and what was bad dur­ing the sum­mit, and also to see how we could be of ser­vice go­ing for­ward, real­iz­ing fully well that we’ve handed over the bat­on to our U.S. col­leagues. “¦

GSN: Is there a plan for how to im­ple­ment the agree­ment by some coun­tries at the sum­mit to ad­opt the IAEA guidelines for nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity?

De Klerk: This was a vis­it to start up that sort of think­ing again, and in­deed we had some fruit­ful back and forth about how to give things an­oth­er kick in the butt.

Neder­lof: The am­bi­tion, of course, is to have all Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit coun­tries em­brace this ini­ti­at­ive and oth­ers. “¦

One of the is­sues is that it takes for cer­tain coun­tries quite a long time to get it through the bur­eau­crat­ic pro­cess. Quite a num­ber of these re­main­ing coun­tries suf­fer from — I would call it — these bur­eau­crat­ic delays. So we have good hope that at least a part of this will be solved by 2016, but I re­cog­nize that there are a few coun­tries where there maybe are prin­cipled ob­jec­tions to the com­mit­ments. “¦

The point is that we have to talk to those coun­tries and try to per­suade them that it’s bet­ter to com­mit to such a thing than to stay out­side, but wheth­er we are suc­cess­ful re­mains to be seen.

GSN: Is there an act­ive ef­fort to bring in hol­d­outs, such as Pakistan, In­dia, etc.?

De Klerk: Is there a wish on our part to bring them aboard, yes. Is there already an ac­tion plan or strategy for how, no. “¦

GSN: But there is dia­logue?

Neder­lof: There was. Dur­ing the peri­od that we were the chair, we had been in­tens­ively con­tact­ing all these coun­tries and quite a num­ber of these coun­tries were brought in the last two weeks be­fore the sum­mit.

De Klerk: You should real­ize that we star­ted with 11 coun­tries in Oc­to­ber “¦ and that’s where it re­mained un­til a few weeks be­fore the sum­mit. … It all of the sud­den jumped to 35. “¦ What we hoped for was for a ma­jor­ity of coun­tries, and then we nearly got two-thirds. So we were very pleased, but there are still im­port­ant coun­tries [that have not signed].

One im­port­ant com­pon­ent [of the pledge] is to com­ply with IAEA guidelines. An­oth­er im­port­ant com­pon­ent is to in­vite IAEA ad­vis­ory teams to your coun­try to ad­vise on how you dealt with nuc­le­ar se­cur­ity. There are coun­tries like the Rus­si­an Fed­er­a­tion who are very skep­tic­al about the “¦ cost-be­ne­fit ana­lys­is of in­vit­ing out­siders to their nuc­le­ar in­stall­a­tions. So there will be hard nuts to crack. “¦ Maybe by 2016 we’ll have a much lar­ger group than be­fore, but I’m hes­it­ant to say there will be a con­sensus this time. “¦

Neder­lof: The lar­ger the coun­try, the more bur­eau­crat­ic struc­tures. “¦ You can fig­ure out for your­self which coun­tries those are. “¦

De Klerk: All those coun­tries, they need to pass a lot of hurdles be­fore they can com­mit to something like that, and in a way we should not dis­miss that as purely ob­struc­tion be­cause they take it ser­i­ous. The com­mit­ments that they are go­ing to make are quite sig­ni­fic­ant, to take on­board a na­tion­al le­gis­la­tion. The IAEA guidelines, when they were vol­un­tary, you could pick and choose.

Neder­lof: There were al­ways re­com­mend­a­tions [in the broad com­mu­nique signed by all sum­mit par­ti­cipants] that coun­tries are re­com­men­ded to take ser­i­ous these guidelines of the IAEA. That’s fine, but there’s a threshold to ac­tu­ally im­ple­ment in na­tion­al le­gis­la­tion. “¦

GSN: Is there an ef­fort to think about how to help coun­tries that have already agreed to the pledge to com­ply, or is the ball now in their court?

De Klerk: This vis­it is the first con­tact with the United States [fol­low­ing the March sum­mit]. We haven’t talked to the [South] Koreans. If there are sort of guard­i­ans of the pro­cess it would be the three, so we need to sit to­geth­er at some point in the fu­ture to see how we would take that for­ward. We’ve kicked a few ideas back and forth at this point but it’s all in very start­ing stages.

GSN: Have your U.S. coun­ter­parts ex­pressed in­terest in do­ing that sort of thing?

De Klerk: Yeah, but they’re just start­ing and get­ting their act to­geth­er, and they are in the lead. “¦ If they ask us to un­der­take spe­cif­ic roles, we’d be happy to with­in our dis­mantled team. “¦

GSN: Do you think it would be pos­sible at the next sum­mit to do something more with re­gard to plutoni­um, such as a pledge to not pro­duce more than you con­sume or to try to lim­it re­pro­cessing?

De Klerk: I could ima­gine a lot of out­comes but at this point it’s all spec­u­la­tion. What you have to bear in mind is that, with­in the group, coun­tries have dif­fer­ent ideas for what the ideal fuel cycle is. You’ve al­ways had coun­tries that re­cycle and want to make use of [mixed-ox­ide fuel]. “¦ These dif­fer­ences will prob­ably not change in the com­ing two years, so you have to work with this di­verse group. “¦ I don’t ex­pect something rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent in 2016. “¦

As chair­man, we went around and had very in­ter­est­ing dis­cus­sions in, say, Ja­pan. And clearly Ja­pan is one of those coun­tries that has come un­der cri­ti­cism for ac­cu­mu­lat­ing plutoni­um more than what they are us­ing in their re­act­ors. Now with their re­act­ors closed, they can’t use MOX fuel.

All this will be a factor in de­cid­ing [how to move for­ward]. “¦ They’ve agreed to this prin­ciple, and that should mean something. “¦ It’s in­ter­est­ing that they have re­quired from every pro­du­cing com­pany “¦ an an­nu­al state­ment of what you need. “¦ To some ex­tent, it is already part of their sys­tem, but how it will fur­ther evolve, I’d be as in­ter­ested as you are.

Ed­it­or’s Note: Watch on Thursday for Part 2 of this two-part in­ter­view.

Cla­ri­fic­a­tion: This art­icle was mod­i­fied after pub­lic­a­tion to note that Arms Con­trol Today par­ti­cip­ated in the in­ter­view.

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