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?

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama holds bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India at the Blair House April 11 in advance of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.

The goal of President Obama’s unprecedented gathering of world leaders in Washington Tuesday on the issue of nuclear security is to put under lock and key the world’s nuclear materials that could be used by terrorist organizations to make a nuclear bomb.

Yet as reassuring as that objective may sound, it hides a global reality that is going to make the goal all the more difficult: Worldwide production of the primary nuclear materials of concern – highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium – is going to increase in coming years as civilian nuclear programs grow to produce more energy.

And very often that growth will come at the encouragement of countries like the United States, France, and Russia, which want to cement their own nuclear energy industry’s involvement in a growing market.

IN PICTURES: Nuclear power around the world

So while it may be going too far to say that the Obama administration is working at cross purposes as it tries to secure nuclear materials and at the same time encourage their growth, some nuclear experts say there are at least “contradictions” in US and other countries’ actions.

“The administration’s heart is in the right place in wanting to encourage raising the level of security for these materials, and I think they are succeeding at that,” says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. “But the fact is that contradictions remain – like the US at the same time launching a nuclear deal with India that will only raise new security concerns – and they’ve had to ignore some problems to get this far.”

France's concern

One of those “problems,” Mr. Albright says, is French insistence that Obama’s summit not turn into a backdoor to limiting the production of separated plutonium, which is a core element of France’s nuclear energy industry.

The Obama administration would have preferred language in the summit’s final communiqué about limiting the production of separated plutonium, Albright says, “but France was there to block that, so now it will only talk about securing these materials,” he adds.

Administration officials are unequivocal about the coming boom in the very materials Obama speaks of in stark terms as posing one of the world’s greatest threats.

“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.

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.

IN PICTURES: Nuclear power around the world

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