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Looking beyond the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit

Some 50 heads of state and government are meeting today at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in The Hague, the Netherlands, to highlight their commitment to strengthening nuclear security, and to agree on measures to prevent and combat nuclear terrorism. While many states hope that the Summit will increase nuclear security, the question remains as to whether the NSS process will be successful in securing all vulnerable weapon-usable nuclear materials.

At the end of the Summit today, world leaders are expected to issue an action plan and a communiqué that will reaffirm their commitment to shared goals of nuclear disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation and peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Approximately 15 per cent of the potentially weapon-usable nuclear materials in the world—highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium—is currently in civilian use. Since 2012 an additional seven countries have removed all or most weapon-usable nuclear materials in civilian facilities from their territories, and only 25 states now possess such material.

Sweden is now set to approve the transfer of 834 kilograms of separated plutonium from the Swedish nuclear power company OKG to the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. Meanwhile, Japan continues to own 44 241 kg of separated unirradiated plutonium, of which 9295 kg is stored in Japan. It should be emphasized that all nuclear materials in Sweden and Japan remain in peaceful use, and are subject to the full scope of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.

Unregulated nuclear materials in military use

While it is eminently laudable that governments are extremely concerned about the possible misuse of 15 per cent of the potentially weapon-usable nuclear materials in the world, it is strange that these same governments seem less concerned about the remaining 85 per cent of the world’s weapon-usable nuclear materials which are in military use, and that world leaders are not prepared to meet even once to discuss the world’s combined nuclear weapon arsenal, which according to SIPRI figures includes approximately 17 000 nuclear warheads.

Former European defence ministers have noted that nearly 2000 tonnes of plutonium and highly enriched uranium are poorly secured in hundreds of facilities in 25 countries. They point out that if the United States could mistakenly fly six nuclear weapons cross country, permit missile launch officers to fall asleep on the job with the doors to launch control facilities propped open, and allow an 85-year-old nun to successfully cut through four layers of fencing and deface a national storage vault for highly enriched uranium, there is even more reason to be concerned.

Many regard the NSS process as somewhat farcical compared to the possible dangers of failing to address the spread of nuclear weapons. Critics point to the exclusion of some countries—such as Iran and North Korea—with sensitive nuclear material and facilities. If vulnerable nuclear material is the concern, then all 76 countries that possess nuclear material should be invited to the NSS. Instead, the number of states involved in the NSS process is limited, as is its possible effectiveness.

The need for a fissile material cut-off treaty

Given the dangers and risks emanating from all types of weapon-usable nuclear materials, it is imperative that any future global treaty banning the production of nuclear weapon usable materials—the so-called fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT)—must not only prohibit future production of these materials but also include accounting, transparency and monitoring of existing stocks of materials in all nine states possessing nuclear weapons.

In 1991 US Senator Sam Nunn, together with Senator Richard Lugar, initiated the Cooperative Threat Reduction programmewhich led to the safe repatriation of former Soviet nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Nunn recently cautioned that ‘it is the duty of governments to reduce the risks that pose a threat to humanity . . . . Citizens must demand it, and leaders must answer the call. The day after a nuclear catastrophe, citizens and leaders alike would be asking what we should have done to prevent it. I continue to ask the question: Why aren’t we doing it now?’

This is a question that could also be asked of states participating in the NSS in The Hague today.


Tariq Rauf is the Director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Programme.