States Make New Nuclear Security Pledges

Kelsey Davenport

Meeting in Seoul last month for the second nuclear security summit, the leaders of more than four dozen countries pledged to take specific actions to strengthen fissile material security and prevent nuclear terrorism.

The summit communiqué, a consensus document endorsed by the 53 countries and four international organizations attending the March 26-27 meeting, encouraged participants to announce “specific actions intended to minimize the use” of highly enriched uranium (HEU) by the end of 2013. Although South Korean President Lee Myung-bak acknowledged during the summit’s closing press conference on March 27 that the statement did not impose a legal obligation, he said the setting of a deadline was of “great significance” and that the minimization of HEU use would be carried on in a “more transparent way” as a result of this agreement.

The communiqué encourages states to “consider” the timely removal and disposition of their nuclear materials if it is “consistent with national security considerations.”

According to the list in a summary document issued at the end of the meeting, six countries—Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, and Poland—declared that they would return HEU to the country of origin, with some of them specifying that they would complete their work by the end of 2013. HEU, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, has applications in research and medicine.

Belgium’s and Italy’s commitments included plutonium, another nuclear explosive material that has civilian applications.

The Seoul meeting comes two years after President Barack Obama convened the first nuclear security summit in Washington in April 2010. At that time, participating countries endorsed the goal of securing all nuclear materials within four years. (See ACT, May 2010).

During the press conference ending the Seoul meeting, Lee said the reduction of HEU and plutonium use was the summit’s “core accomplishment.” About 480 kilograms of HEU has been removed from eight countries over the past two years, he said. Ukraine accounts for about half of that total, as government officials announced in March that 243 kilograms of HEU had been removed from the country over the previous two years and returned to Russia for down-blending into low-enriched uranium (LEU).

Since the 2010 summit, Chile and Mexico also declared that they had eliminated their stockpiles of HEU. At the summit, Sweden announced the removal of its plutonium.

Speaking in Seoul, Obama said that “more of the world’s nuclear materials will never fall into the hands of terrorists” as a result of the summit process. In the statement, Obama warned against “complacency” and said that “dangerous materials are still vulnerable in too many places.”

Building Up the Framework

While renewing the political commitments from the Washington summit on strengthening nuclear security and preventing nuclear terrorism, the communiqué encouraged countries to take further actions to strengthen the global nuclear security framework. Lee described the communiqué as a set of “comprehensive measures” that countries should take to “prevent nuclear and radiological terrorism.”

In addition to the provisions on minimizing the use of HEU and plutonium, the communiqué recommended actions in 10 other areas, including information security, security of radiological sources, and the interface between nuclear safety and security. These issues were less prominently addressed at the Washington summit.

Beyond the actions recommended in the communiqué, 49 of the 53 participating countries offered specific national commitments at the Seoul summit that were included in the summary document. Similar commitments, also referred to as “house gifts,” were made by 30 countries in Washington in 2010. More than 80 percent of those commitments were completed prior to the 2012 summit.

Many of the national commitments made in Seoul were offered by groups of participating countries. These joint statements, or “gift baskets,” were a new feature of the Seoul summit and included pledges of cooperative action in areas such as security of radiological materials; nuclear information security; development of high-density LEU fuel, which is needed for the conversion of some reactors from HEU to LEU use; and HEU use minimization.

Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and the United States offered a joint statement on minimizing the use of HEU for medical isotope production. Currently, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands use HEU to produce molybdenum-99, which is a radiological isotope widely used for treatment of medical conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and brain disorders. These three countries produce nearly half of the world’s supply of Mo-99.

In their statement, the four countries pledged to support conversion of all European facilities producing Mo-99 to LEU by 2015, subject to regulatory approval. As part of the pledge, the United States said it would supply the producer countries with HEU to ensure continued production of Mo-99 until they complete the conversions.

Belgium, France, South Korea, and the United States also made a joint commitment, declaring that minimizing the use of civilian HEU advances the “ultimate goal of nuclear security.” Those four countries said they would collaborate on the development of a high-density LEU fuel powder. According to the joint statement, the United States will provide South Korea with LEU, and South Korea, using a technology developed by the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, will manufacture the powder. Belgium and France agreed to test the fuel in their research reactors. Experts will then assess the performance of the LEU fuel.

The four countries agreed in the joint statement that if the method proves viable, they would share information and provide “necessary assistance” to aid countries in converting reactors to use the fuel. Lee said he expected the assessment to be completed by 2016.

Thirty-one of the countries participating in the summit also endorsed the Multinational Statement on Nuclear Information Security. The statement included 13 proposed actions that countries were encouraged to take to strengthen and protect information relating to nuclear security.

In addition to the six countries’ pledges to repatriate HEU and plutonium, the summary document listed a number of national commitments offered by participating leaders in Seoul. China, Hungary, and Nigeria made commitments to convert reactors to LEU fuel use, while Russia and South Africa indicated that they would consider the feasibility of reactor conversions. Canada indicated that it would identify an “alternate method” to replace its use of HEU for medical isotope production, the document said.

A number of countries pledged to take actions that would increase the security of radiological sources. According to the document, Armenia, Brazil, Morocco, Poland, the United States, and other countries made specific commitments to pass new regulations or update existing laws to increase the security of radiological sources.

Progress Since 2010

An additional objective of the Seoul summit was to celebrate the progress made since the 2010 meeting. Although the summit process did not adopt a tracking system to monitor national progress, many participating countries highlighted their achievements in national statements and the summary document.

Completion of the national commitments included funding contributions for nuclear security activities by eight countries. Nine countries sponsored training activities, conferences, and the creation of nuclear security centers since the 2010 summit. International agreements such as the 2005 amendment to the Convention for the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and the International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism were ratified by six countries acting on their national commitments.

The 2005 amendment sets legally binding obligations for member states to protect nuclear materials and facilities and expands cooperation on preventing nuclear smuggling. The Seoul communiqué set 2014 as the goal for the treaty’s entry into force. At the press conference, Lee announced that 55 of the 97 necessary ratifications of the amendment had been completed. The anti-terrorism convention criminalizes the planning or implementation of nuclear terrorism. It entered into force in July 2007.

Among the unmet commitments was the U.S. pledge to complete ratification of the anti-terrorism convention and the physical protection amendment. Argentina and France also have not fulfilled commitments to ratify treaties.

Kazakhstan and the United States pledged to convert reactors using HEU, but did not finish those efforts before Seoul. In both cases, the conversions are contingent on the development of an LEU alternative. Canada also committed to return a “large amount” of spent HEU fuel to the United States, but later indicated that the transfer was not likely to be completed until 2018.

The Netherlands will host the third nuclear security summit in 2014, and U.S. officials have indicated that it could be the final one. (See ACT, March 2012). In his statement in Seoul UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that he would “welcome discussions” of the post-2014 nuclear security summit process.