Building Global Security, One Summit at a Time

Nuclear terrorism ranks at the top of many national security experts lists of possible nightmares. It’s hard to overstate the damage that could be caused by even a small nuclear weapon in one of the world’s major population centers. But just as terrorism has become a global phenomenon, efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism has to be a global effort. Thankfully, it is.

This weekend, leaders from 53 states and four international organizations will meet in Seoul for the world’s second Nuclear Security Summit. It’s a unique forum that brings together nations who have nuclear weapons – whether they are parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or not – and states that possess only lower-grade nuclear materials for power or medical purposes. The goal of the group is to prevent fissile materials that can be used to produce nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists or other actors with malicious intent.

This Summit is a follow up to a groundbreaking meeting in Washington, DC in 2010, called together at the behest of President Obama after he laid out a commitment to secure all nuclear materials in his 2009 Prague Speech. The DC Summit produced a work plan that included specific commitments from each nation. So far, according to a recent study by the Partnership for Global Security and Ploughshares Fund grantee the Arms Control Association, roughly 80% of the 67 commitments have already been completed. Notable progress includes:

  • Five nations (Romania, Libya, Turkey, Chile and Serbia) have completely eliminated all weapons grade uranium.
  • Removal of all weapons-usable material from Mexico.
  • Securing enough bomb grade materials to make 775 nuclear weapons inside Kazakhstan.
  • An end to plutonium production in Russia.
  • Installing radiation detectors at the ports of Abu Dhabi and Sharjah as part of the so-called Megaports program aimed at monitoring the world's largest transport zones.

These are real commitments, representing slow, steady progress that the Summit system has put in place. But total nuclear security will require more. This year’s Summit, thought of as the ‘implementation phase’ will need to push nations to go beyond the remaining commitments that have already been achieved. To truly have a global nuclear security regime, the international system needs to move beyond the current voluntary and patchwork system to a more global regime that includes an accepted baseline standard for the security of nuclear material. Simliar standards are already in place for air travel and other cross-border activities, it is past time that the global community take on collective responsibility for the world's most dangerous materials. Importantly, this summit includes the discussion of the nuclear safety issues raised by last year’s accident at the Fukushima Daichi reactor in Japan.

Nuclear security has been one of President Obama’s signature issues, and his leadership been significant in galvanizing the world to deal with one of the most significant terrorist threats. He is traveling to South Korea this weekend to ensure that the Summit is as successful as possible, demonstrating a continued commitment that will no doubt be critical to pushing nations to go farther toward creating a global baseline for nuclear security.

The trip will also include a stop by the demilitarized zone (DMZ), site of one of the world’s nuclear hotspots. It’s a notable show of solidarity with South Korea in the face of North Korea’s provocative announcement of a planned rocket launch last week, which if carried out would be effectively reneging on its promising Leap Day agreement to suspend nuclear and missile testing in return for U.S. food aid. The resulting diplomatic stand-off is unfortunate, but ironically appropriate. Impoverished but nuclear armed North Korea is widely considered to be one of the most likely origins for the kinds of proliferation the summit is aimed to address. With that kind of stark reminder of the reality of nuclear threats, the leaders at the Summit will have even more motivation to produce meaningful outcomes.

Several Ploughshares Fund grantees will be attending the Summit, working to ensure that the nuclear security agenda moves as fast as possible. Follow @AlexandraIToma and @Rethink_media starting Monday for live updates of the events. Or watch Joe Cirincione's below talk to the Korea Society below. 

2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit: A Policy Discussion from The Korea Society on Vimeo.