Nuclear Security Summit opened with Ukraine surprise announcement
United States President Barack Obama opened his Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on Monday with a surprise announcement: Ukraine, a major inheritor of nuclear weapons materials of the former Soviet Union, said it would unilaterally give up its highly enriched uranium – a key component of nuclear weapons – and downgrade its nuclear power facilities to prevent production of fissile material. Canada made a similar pledge, saying it would send used, highly enriched uranium to the US for disposal.
The announcements generated immediate headlines and put a spotlight on the ambitious agenda of the two-day conference, attended by world leaders representing 47 countries.
Bridging the gap between the high-level efforts of multilateral organizations (like the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency) and individual countries’ measures to secure their nuclear materials from theft or terrorism, the Nuclear Security Summit aims at becoming a powerful international forum, separate from – but connected to – other existing global efforts on nuclear issues.
Security Council issues, larger set of stakeholders
The UN Security Council and its nuclear inspections arm, the IAEA, have historically been the forums for global efforts to contain the spread of nuclear weapons and know-how. But as technology and material have proliferated, the number of states with nuclear capabilities increased, complicating the work of these organizations and highlighting gaps in control mechanisms.
According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, nine countries possessed nuclear weapons at the end of 2009. Five of these are members of the UN Security Council: the US, China, France, Russia and Britain; four are not: India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. (Only one country – South Africa – has ever developed and then subsequently dismantled a nuclear weapons program.)
Additionally, the IAEA notes that thirty countries now have nuclear power plants. Many of these could be potential sources for weapons-grade nuclear material. Theft of nuclear power by-products – and their potential use in a terrorist’s “dirty bomb” – remains a serious concern, and a primary reason for the Summit.
Further, several countries are believed to possess both nuclear power plants and the technical knowledge necessary to produce nuclear weapons – even if they haven’t. Included among this group is Iran.
Iran, a hot sidelines topic
While Iran was not invited to the Nuclear Security Summit and it was not explicitly included on the official agenda, observers have noted that discussion of its nuclear program dominated meetings on the sidelines of the conference.
UN Security Council members are preparing for a new round of sanctions talks for Iran’s continued non-compliance with inspections, with debate over a new resolution likely coming within a few weeks. On Monday, the White House announced that China had agreed to join new negotiations. Beijing – along with Moscow – has been seen as a key player in overcoming opposition to new international restrictions on the Iranian regime.
Next stop: Korean peninsula
President Obama said on Tuesday that the next Nuclear Security Summit would be hosted by South Korea in 2012. The statement seemed laden with symbolism, as talks on North Korea’s own nuclear weapons program remain at an impasse. Negotiators have yet to receive an official commitment by Pyongyang to return to six-party regional talks, which North Korea abandoned over a year ago. The country’s nuclear ambitions remain one of the most unstable elements in East Asian – and global – security.
If the Summit succeeds in its goal to build global consensus on vital nuclear issues, North Korea may find itself the unofficial topic of the next session’s sideline meetings.
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