Loophole in nuclear summit: spread of nuclear power?
President Obama's nuclear summit aims to keep terrorists from procuring nuclear weapons. But the US is encouraging countries to develop civilian nuclear power. But what are the proliferation risks?
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“I think one of the concerns is that, by definition, as you have expansion of nuclear programs, peaceful programs, there is going to be an increase in the nuclear byproducts that come out of those facilities, as well as the expertise that is available to run them,” said John Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, in a briefing with reporters Monday.Skip to next paragraph
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That reality “is why we want to make sure that we’re able to work with all the countries of the world so they can do their part,” Mr. Brennan added.
The US has used the occasion of the summit to announce a number of agreements aimed at securing nuclear materials, whether from old weapons stockpiles or from civilian power facilities.
New agreements announced
On Monday the US and Ukraine announced a plan to secure the former Soviet republic’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU) – estimated by experts to be enough to build about seven nuclear weapons – by converting it to low-enriched uranium, probably in Russia. The US will also supply Ukraine with additional low-enriched uranium. And on Tuesday, the US, Mexico, and Canada announced a deal to convert Mexico’s existing HEU-fired nuclear research reactor to low-enriched fuel. The plan also calls for removing Mexico’s supply of HEU north of the border for conversion to low-enriched uranium.
“I welcome this critical step forward, which is a signal of our strong trilateral partnership, and our shared commitment to nuclear security in North America," Obama said of the plan.
Still, nuclear experts say the US effort to sign civilian nuclear cooperation agreements with more countries is not going to make the securing of nuclear materials easier. The US deal with India, reached under President Bush but adopted – and ratified – under Obama, is a case in point.
US deal with India
Under the deal, India is permitted to produce separated plutonium – something ISIS’s Albright calls “unprecedented” given that India is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is expanding its nuclear weapons arsenal.
The India deal is one reason arch-rival Pakistan has embarked on its own nuclear expansion, developing new facilities to produce new stockpiles of weapons-grade fuel.
Obama met with leaders from both India and Pakistan Sunday in the run-up to this week’s nuclear security summit, and he spoke in confident terms of both countries’ commitment to securing nuclear materials.
But nuclear experts shudder at the thought of potential security breaches as India plans for eventually transporting plutonium to distant reprocessing facilities, or as Pakistan – the purported home of Al Qaeda’s leadership – builds more nuclear facilities and develops new nuclear stockpiles.