Nuclear security system still little more than theory

Commitments on nuclear security are often at odds with domestic politics

US president Barack Obama appears on two large screen as he delivers his speech during the closing session on the last day of the nuclear summit in The Hague yesterday. Photograph: Frank Augstein/EPA

US president Barack Obama appears on two large screen as he delivers his speech during the closing session on the last day of the nuclear summit in The Hague yesterday. Photograph: Frank Augstein/EPA

Wed, Mar 26, 2014, 01:00

Luckily, one of the successes of US president Barack Obama’s drive to secure vulnerable nuclear material has been Ukraine, which announced two years ago that it had removed all highly enriched uranium (HEU) from its territory. Had it not done so, the stakes in Crimea today would be considerably higher.

The transfers took place as a result of Ukraine’s commitment to targets set by the 2010 nuclear security summit in Washington. Ironically, the uranium went in three shipments to Russia, under a “threat-removal programme” brokered by the US National Nuclear Security Administration.

In retrospect, those transfers show not just that the series of nuclear security summits instigated by Obama – of which The Hague NSS was the third – has worked to a degree at least, but that not grabbing whatever progress is available could have far-reaching, perhaps awful, consequences.


Holy grail


But as Obama moves on to the Nato summit in Brussels today, his arms control experts know there is no room for complacency – because the architecture of the “holy grail” of non-proliferation, an effective global nuclear materials security system, remains little more than theory.

That key element of the “NSS work plan” requires multinational agreement to draw up a manifest for logging, tracking, managing and securing all fissile nuclear material held in storage – a project on which real progress must be made by the final summit in 2016 if it’s ever to become a reality.

And it’s here, of course, that the commitment of global leaders to nuclear security – reiterated so upliftingly in the Hague summit’s closing communique last night – often sits uncomfortably with domestic political imperatives.

The simple fact is that – apart from North Korea and Iran, who were not in the Netherlands – there are still some 25 states with 1kg or more of weapons- usable nuclear material, and some states are still increasing rather than reducing their stockpiles.

On top of that, some 85 per cent of the global stockpile of HEU and separated plutonium remains outside civilian control and so not subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) guidelines or the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and its 2005 amendment.


Dirty bomb
Place in that context the fact that a group such as al-Qaeda would need only a small amount of fissile material – about 16kg of HEU or 4kg of plutonium – to make a crude nuclear weapon, or less to make a “dirty bomb”.

Or the fact that in the past year alone there have been some 140 cases of missing or unauthorised use of nuclear and radioactive material reported to the IAEA, whose central role in combating nuclear terror was also underlined in the closing communique.

In 2011 six people were arrested in Moldova as they tried to sell more than a kilo of weapons-grade uranium 235. In 2010 two Armenians were arrested in Georgia trying to sell 18g of HEU in a lead-lined cigarette case.

The security of Pakistan’s arsenals is a constant concern. A new concern now is Russia’s willingness to co-operate with the West.

Not for nothing did Obama, when asked recently what keeps him awake at night, reply with two words: “Loose nukes.”