Nuclear Security: The Road to 2016
By: Sharon Squassoni
In March, more than 50 heads of state met in The Hague for the third nuclear security summit. By far, the highlight of the summit was Japan’s decision to give up about 50 bombs’ worth of weapons-grade material. This material, held for decades at the Tokai facility, was so lightly irradiated that it was considered fresh—about 170 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and about 330 kilograms of plutonium. Reportedly, Japan traded a 10-year extension to ship back spent fuel from other facilities to the United States for the fresh weapons-grade fuel. Some wondered why it needed to be shipped at all, raising questions about U.S. priorities and tactics in the summit process.
Nuclear terrorism has been a high priority for the United States since 2001, but the perception of threat isn’t widely shared. The summit process was designed to change that, but it’s been slow. President Obama has one last shot—in 2016—to persuade other leaders that nuclear security is important enough to keep applying pressure.
After that basic goal, the priorities get murky. What about plutonium? Material in military stockpiles? Nuclear weapons? Radiological sources used in dirty bombs?
Without formally narrowing the scope of the summits, U.S. officials focused on highly enriched uranium (HEU) because, in the hands of terrorists, it could be most easily shaped into a nuclear weapon. But HEU isn’t the only route to a bomb—so is plutonium. And of all the HEU and separated plutonium out there (1,500 tons of HEU and 500 tons of separated plutonium), half is in the military sector. Plutonium and military material may be the topic of uncomfortable discussions in the Sherpa meetings in the course of the next two years.
U.S. tactics may also be questioned. The United States prefers removing material from as many countries as possible and bringing it back to the United States as the quickest, cheapest approach, but others beg to differ. The Dutch themselves refused to surrender some HEU fuel, securing it in place instead.
Most importantly, however, the U.S. approach to the 2016 summit should focus on carving a legacy that lasts beyond the Obama presidency. U.S. officials will need to consider putting in place structures beyond the current voluntary regime that will promote continued progress. Otherwise, the summit process will have provided some nice photo opportunities, but little sustainable change.