Why nuclear security matters

THE Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) will be held in Seoul next Monday and Tuesday. Leaders from 57 countries and international organisations, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, will attend.

The concept of so many world leaders meeting to discuss such a specialised issue as ‘nuclear security’ was probably not very realistic in the past. But given the increased urgency of the issue in recent years, this concept materialised as the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington two years ago.

Although the Nuclear Security Summit is in its second edition now, its key concerns need to be better understood by the public. For one thing, the concept of nuclear security itself, which basically means ‘securing vulnerable nuclear materials’, is more often than not confused with ‘security through nuclear weapons’, which has totally different implications.

I would like to share my understanding of some issues related to the summit, partly drawing on my experience in 2009-2010 as South Korea’s first Sherpa in preparing for the summit.

What is nuclear security and how is it different from nuclear safety or nuclear safeguards?

Nuclear security refers to efforts to prevent theft and illegal transfers of nuclear materials, and also to guard against the sabotage of nuclear facilities.

Nuclear safety is concerned with how we prevent and respond to nuclear accidents, such as that at Fukushima. Nuclear safeguards refer to efforts to make sure that states do not divert nuclear materials from civilian to military use.

Why are we concerned with securing nuclear materials when we should be reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons?

Through enhanced nuclear security, we can better control all nuclear materials in the world, which constitutes an important first step to the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons. In fact, since the Washington Summit, we have achieved a significant reduction of nuclear materials, such as the removal of about 400kg of highly enriched uranium from seven countries.

Given the Fukushima incident last year, isn’t nuclear safety more important than nuclear security?

We are more familiar with nuclear safety issues because of what happened at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. These incidents have raised public awareness of the catastrophic nature of nuclear accidents, whereas no country has so far been threatened by a terrorist nuclear device.

But there is no need to prioritise between nuclear safety and security, as they are often complementary to each other. Theft of nuclear materials, for instance, can be both a safety and security issue, and strengthening the safety of a nuclear plant can help limit consequences that might result from an attempted sabotage.

Why should countries, such as Singapore, that do not possess nuclear materials be concerned about nuclear security?

Nuclear security may not seem very relevant to many countries. In fact, only about half of the NSS participants possess any nuclear materials at all. More than 30 per cent of participants, including Singapore, do not even have plans at this time to build a nuclear industry.

However, there has been a global nuclear energy renaissance due to the lack of viable renewable energy sources. Despite Fukushima, according to an estimate, there will be a doubling of nuclear reactors in the world in the next 30 years, from the 443 now. Some countries that may not have an interest in developing nuclear capabilities currently may do so in the long run.

Also, a nuclear disaster, either from breach of security or safety, can have far-reaching effects beyond the country in which it occurs. Given the increased threat of global terrorism and the existence of unsecured fissile materials, preventing nuclear terrorism through global cooperation should be in every state’s key interest.

Will nuclear non-proliferation issues, such as those of North Korea or Iran, be discussed at the summit?

Non-proliferation and disarmament issues are not on the official agenda. However, as this is a summit-level meeting, leaders may raise any issues which they think could be relevant to their discussions. Also, nuclear materials in those countries with proliferation risk, like any other nuclear materials, will be subject to consideration in the context of nuclear security and safety.

What concrete outcomes can we expect from the summit?

The Washington Summit drew international attention to the issue of nuclear security. Together, world leaders declared their commitment to improving nuclear security.

The Seoul Summit will continue to carry the torch, focusing on ways to translate such political will into concrete actions. Among other things, we expect to obtain a new set of ‘house gifts’ from participating countries. These are voluntary commitments that governments will pledge to improve nuclear security in their own countries. Voluntarism and individual initiatives by participating states will provide the necessary momentum to move towards the goal of global nuclear security.

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