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The New Nuclear Regime

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Korea Times reported the slow initiation of a new world nuclear order, the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS):

World leaders gathered for a second summit on nuclear security are poised to approve more specific plans and new pledges of action to prevent nuclear terrorism and ensure atomic safety, diplomats said Tuesday.

Top leaders from 53 nations and four international organizations, including U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, on Monday kicked off a two-day meeting dedicated to making the world a safer place without the threat of nuclear terrorism.

The second Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul is a follow-up to the first summit hosted by Obama in Washington in 2010, when leaders focused on strengthening the security of fissile material worldwide and securing against nuclear terrorism.

The major international nuclear treaty today is the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This recognizes five nuclear-weaponized states: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China. It forbids all other signatories from developing nuclear weapons, but leaves them free to use nuclear energy for non-military purposes. The nuclear states are responsible for preventing proliferation of weapons, and also for eventual nuclear disarmament.

So why is there a need to pursue new treaties? First because the NPT is widely perceived to have failed: nuclear states have not disarmed, they may have covertly helped other states to acquire nuclear weapons technology, and the distinction between peaceful and military technology is too thin to police. However, the overt reason, as far as the USA is concerned, is that non-state organizations may have access to nuclear weapons.

The focal point of these concerns is our neighbourhood, where China, Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons capability, Saudi Arabia and Israel are suspected to have access to weapons, Iran has declared intentions of weapons developments, and North Korea has developed weapons and is testing delivery systems. In this background, the Hindu wrote about India’s concerns:

As its title makes clear, the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) — now in its second iteration — is all about security: how to ensure that nuclear material around the world does not fall into the wrong hands.

But behind that broad agenda lie other, less consensual aims that are beginning slowly to bubble up to the surface. Some of this was evident in the run-up to the Seoul summit — at the “sherpas” meeting in New Delhi earlier this year and in the meetings which took place between 50-odd national delegations these past few days — but despite several countries seeking to steer a new course, the politics of the NSS remains surprisingly uncomplicated for things nuclear in this day and age.

For Pakistan — whose Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani spoke at the opening dinner Monday night — the summit was an occasion to flag its long-standing demand for access to civilian nuclear technology. “Last year, the IAEA Board of Governors unanimously approved the safeguards agreements of our two new civil nuclear power plants,” he said, referring to the Chashma-3 and 4 reactors supplied by China.

Though most participants in the summit regard Pakistan as a high-risk country because of the A.Q. Khan episode and the links its military has had with extremist elements, Prime Minister Gilani said the “democratic government of Pakistan” is fully committed to nuclear security. But the summit declaration is likely to adopt accounting and reporting measures that are designed to increase international confidence in the security of Pakistani materials.

Indian officials said they shared these global concerns about nuclear security in Pakistan but conceded that a balance had to be struck so that India itself — which is seen as a constructive player in the NSS process — does not end up getting unduly burdened by the same obligations.

While the U.S. is not averse to pursuing arms control goals like the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty outside of the Geneva-based U.N. Conference on Disarmament, which is currently log-jammed, it knows the NSS is not the forum where any meaningful negotiation could take place.

Indian officials say part of the reason the NSS process has worked so far is because the usual division of states into those who have signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and those, like India, who have not, is not a factor here. An attempt was made before the first summit in Washington in 2010 to bring in the NPT but this was beaten back by the US and others. Noting the constructive role New Delhi has played in the two summits, senior Indian officials say this demonstrates the stake India has in the global nuclear regime and the contribution it can make to its strengthening once others stop using the NPT stick against it.

“Log-jam” is a phrase that applies to any process which has to do with nuclear inspections and controls, largely because these involve inspections which many nations find overly intrusive. It seems that the same problems beset the new process. The WSJ reports that the same concerns arise in this new process as well:

As 54 world leaders gathered Monday for a second summit on nuclear security, the seemingly uncontroversial goal they set at their first meeting two years ago—securing and reducing radioactive materials that can be turned into bombs—has turned out to be difficult to do.

Working-level discussions have bogged down over issues of national sovereignty, competing corporate interests, trade priorities and differing perceptions about the threat of nuclear terrorism.

The article in Korea Times goes on to list the achievements of the new regime:

Over the past two years, more than 10 nations, including Australia and Argentina, got rid of some 400 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, which are enough nuclear material to make approximately 16 nuclear weapons.

The U.S. and Russia, the world’s two largest nuclear superpowers, also eliminated seven tons and 48 tons of highly enriched uranium each, according to the summit’s organizing committee.

Negotiators, or “sherpas” from the 53 nations held their final meeting in Seoul on Friday and fixed the agenda for the Seoul summit and discussed the text of a so-called “Seoul Communique” that will be announced at the end of the summit.

“Sherpas have already agreed the Seoul Communique will pledge to minimize the civilian use of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium,” said a senior Seoul diplomat said on the condition of anonymity, adding the text will include “practical visions and concrete actions” on ways to promote global cooperation and enhance measures for nuclear materials and facilities from being exploited by terrorists.

“Also, at least 10 more nations will separately pledge to eliminate their stocks of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium,” the diplomat said.

The most obvious way to eliminate enriched radioactive material is to explode it. Since nuclear explosions are more or less banned, the remaining possibility is to dilute the radioactive material by mixing it with natural uranium. But these facilities also need to be monitored. An article from NTI tells us what elimination entails:

The United States and Russia supplied much of the HEU [Highly Enriched Uranium] fuel used in research reactors world-wide; other producers include China (which sent HEU fuel for research reactors to Nigeria, Ghana, Iran, Pakistan, and Syria, as well as enriched uranium to South Africa, and Argentina); France (to Chile and India); the United Kingdom (to Australia, India, and Japan); and South Africa (which did not export this fuel). Before 1978, when Washington and Moscow became concerned about exports of highly enriched fuels, most of the fuel supplied by the United States (the bulk of which went to North American and the Asia-Pacific), was of very high enrichment levels (90% and above). The Soviet-supplied fuel, chiefly sent to Eastern Europe, was typically 80% enriched. In order to reduce the risk of theft, many countries have returned HEU fuel, both fresh and spent, to its country of origin.

Besides converting facilities to use LEU fuel, there have also been efforts to consolidate fresh and spent HEU fuel at a smaller number of relatively secure locations. This has involved removing the fuel, mostly to the United States and Russia, from other countries, as well as consolidating the fuel within countries. U.S. programs in this area (the Russian Research Reactor Fuel Return program to repatriate fuel to Russia, and the Foreign Research Reactor Spent Nuclear Fuel Acceptance Program, which repatriates U.S.-origin fuel to the United States), have all been subsumed under the 2004 GTRI initiative. Together, the two programs have returned over 2,060kg of spent and fresh HEU fuel to the United States and Russia since 2004.

No wonder then that there is a developing log-jam over the new nuclear regime as well. This will clear magically when there is nuclear disarmament.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

March 27, 2012 at 4:01 am

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