At nuclear summit, Obama calls for global ‘architecture’ to secure materials

The summit, which wrapped up Tuesday in The Hague, featured a number of announcements by countries, including Japan, taking steps to reduce or eliminate their supplies of nuclear materials.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama speaks during their joint news conference with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the conclusion of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, Netherlands, March 25.

President Obama is taking steps to make permanent what he hopes will be an international legacy of his presidency: a global system for securing the world’s nuclear materials and keeping them out of the hands of terrorists.

At a nuclear security summit in The Hague Tuesday, Mr. Obama called for a global “architecture” to carry on the work of securing nuclear materials after 2016, when the next – and perhaps final – nuclear security summit is to be held in the United States.

The gathering of world leaders that wrapped up Tuesday was actually the original reason for Obama’s long-planned European trip, which has ended up dominated by the crisis in Ukraine. Obama used the opportunity of the nuclear summit to organize an impromptu meeting of the G7 countries Monday night, for example, and his visit to Brussels Wednesday, originally focused on the European Union, will also turn largely to Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Crimea.

The nuclear security summits are an Obama initiative, with the first one having been held in Washington in 2010, just months after the US president, in a 2009 speech in Prague, Czech Republic, described what he saw as two essential goals for mankind: a world free of nuclear weapons, and ironclad assurances that all nuclear materials the world over are secure and kept out of the wrong hands.

Since that first summit, some encouraging steps have been taken by countries to secure what in the worst cases have been referred to as “loose nukes,” some security experts say. But they add that the US in particular, as a global leader and initiator of the nuclear security focus, has a responsibility to keep the process moving forward.

“Obama is thinking about a sustainable nuclear system post-2016, so creating the architecture will be his homework,” says Shin Chang-Hoon, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, South Korea, and a member of the Fissile Materials Working Group, an international coalition of experts and organizations focused on nuclear security.

“Sustainable, global nuclear security architecture is a long-term aim,” Dr. Shin says. “The short-term and practical approaches, as Obama said, are to keep carrying out what was agreed to in the ... three summits.”

Yet efforts to turn what has been the work of summits (and not just any summits, but ones with the backing of the American president) over to an as-yet ephemeral global framework may lose the essential ingredient that has made the initiative successful, other nuclear experts say.

“Architecture strikes me as puffery. I’m not sure it gets at what you need – in this case, the power and pressure of the president – to get countries to deliver the kinds of results we’ve seen from these summits so far,” says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) in Washington.  

The White House has been busy expounding on the results the initiative has already had. According to the US, a dozen countries have eliminated their stockpiles of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or separated plutonium – potential fuel for nuclear weapons – and more than two dozen other countries have removed or destroyed thousands of pounds of nuclear material. In addition, 24 reactors have been converted from HEU to low-enriched uranium, or simply shut down.

Those figures suggest some progress toward better nuclear security, but the Fissile Materials Working Group points out that about 2,000 metric tons of “highly radioactive materials” are spread around the world – in hundreds of sites in more than two dozen countries.

The US is also highlighting a number of announcements at the summit by countries taking steps to reduce or eliminate their supplies of nuclear materials. Japan on Monday announced an agreement with the US on a plan for disposal of hundreds of kilograms of both HEU and separated plutonium – part of a Japanese stockpile of nuclear materials that has worried the country’s neighbors for decades.

Japan – the only nation ever to suffer a nuclear attack, at the hands of the US in World War II – has a decades-old policy never to develop nuclear weapons. The weapons-grade material to be turned over to the US for disposal is enough to produce dozens of nuclear weapons.

Japan will still retain a sizable stockpile of lower-grade plutonium from its nuclear power industry that countries like China and South Korea fear might one day be used to produce nuclear weapons.

Also on the “progress” ledger: A dozen countries – Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Georgia, Hungary, Mexico, Romania, South Korea, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, and Vietnam – issued a joint statement announcing the elimination of highly enriched uranium from within their borders. Separately, Italy and Belgium said a partnership with the US undertaken as a result of the nuclear security initiative had resulted in the removal of considerable amounts of HEU and plutonium from those countries.

At the summit’s close Tuesday, Obama called on countries not to bask in the progress already made, but to push toward even stronger results. “It is important for us not to relax, but rather accelerate our efforts over the next two years,” he said, “[to] sustain momentum so that we finish strong in 2016.”

Obama told world leaders that the US would be “soliciting ideas from each of you” for the “ultimate architecture” that he said will be needed to carry the nuclear security initiative beyond the summit process.

One key element, Obama said, would be to figure out how to “sync up” the initiative’s efforts with existing global institutions such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and Interpol.

That sounds like a reasonable goal. But Mr. Sokolski of NPEC says any move to turn the effort over to agencies risks losing the factors that have made the summits successful.

“What Japan announced at this year’s summit that it is going to do is really significant, but I’m pretty confident that without this summit, the odds of pressuring Japan and getting Japan to make this commitment would not have been very good,” he says.

Indeed, Japan was initially strongly resistant to the idea of relinquishing the HEU and plutonium, US officials say. But Obama was able to bring Prime Minister Shinzo Abe around to the idea – which the president was then able to announce at The Hague summit as a solid “deliverable” of his initiative.

“I don’t know of another event that provides this kind of pressure and gets these kinds of results,” Sokolski says. “They may figure out that they have to keep holding these things until they get rid of this stuff.”

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