Move Over, Uranium, Now It’s Time for Plutonium

Can the Nuclear Security Summit actually move beyond stopgap measures and vague promises?

BART MAAT/AFP/Getty Images
BART MAAT/AFP/Getty Images

A new proposal by Western countries to limit holdings of a key nuclear explosive, which appears in a draft communique for the Nuclear Security Summit beginning on March 24, is concise and modest.

But its uncertain fate symbolizes the uphill battle Washington faces in moving the biennial summits beyond what critics depict as stopgap measures, small ambitions, and vague promises to tighten security for the world’s stockpile of nuclear explosives.

A January draft of the communique to be released at the March 24-25 summit in the Netherlands — convened at President Obama’s initiative — for the first time includes a suggestion that nations try to restrain their stocks of plutonium, the fuel for the bomb that devastated Nagasaki in August 1945.

"We encourage states to minimize their stocks of HEU [highly-enriched uranium] and to keep their stockpile of separated plutonium to the minimum level, consistent with national requirements," the draft states.

But that promise, cautious and hedged as it is, has not yet been accepted by the summit participants, according to markings on the draft and interviews with sources familiar with the preparations.

The call to restrict plutonium production — which applies to both military and civilian programs — is a departure and nettlesome to some countries.

Japan, India, and Russia, for example, plan to build new energy systems based on advanced plutonium-burning reactors. France and Great Britain have produced plutonium under contract for other countries. Separately, India, Pakistan, and Israel produce plutonium for weapons, according to a 2013 report by the International Panel on Fissile Materials.

As a result, while the global stocks of weapons-grade uranium have been shrinking after the Cold War, the stocks of plutonium have been growing. They are now estimated at 490 metric tons — enough, in theory, to fuel tens of thousands of weapons.

The two previous summits have, in contrast, focused on securing and eliminating civilian stocks of highly-enriched uranium, the other main nuclear explosive material, which has limited commercial utility.

Jonathan Wolfsthal, a former Department of Energy official and a special advisor to Vice President Joe Biden for nuclear security, said that the United States has been trying for years to persuade countries with large stocks to agree to limit or reduce the amount of plutonium they hold in storage.

But Wolfsthal said countries with civilian nuclear programs "have been reluctant to link the issue of nuclear terrorism to their stockpiles of commercial plutonium," for fear of stigmatizing those programs.

The communiques from the two previous nuclear summits, in Washington in 2010 and Seoul in 2012, mentioned plutonium only once, calling on all countries to promote measures to secure, account for, and consolidate stocks — not restrict or minimize them.

The Netherlands, which is hosting the summit, has been the driving force behind the effort to include the language in the summit communique, according to a source who has followed the negotiations closely.

Ward Bezemer, a spokesman for the Netherlands Foreign Ministry and head of press communications for the Nuclear Security Summit, declined to comment.

The language on plutonium also represents longstanding U.S. policy. At a speech in Seoul during the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, President Obama summarized U.S. concerns about plutonium stockpiles. "We simply can’t go on accumulating huge amounts of the very material, like separated plutonium, that we’re trying to keep away from terrorists," he said.

Jonathan Lalley, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the White House had no comment on "documents that purport to be deliberative drafts of the summit communique." The authenticity of the January draft was confirmed by an individual who has seen several such drafts.

The 2010 and 2012 summits have brought new attention to the threat of nuclear terror and encouraged states to reduce, protect, or consolidate their stocks of weapons-grade uranium.

Since President Obama took office in 2009, the number of countries with at least one kilogram of nuclear explosive material has fallen from 38 to 25, a reduction of about one-third, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based nonprofit group that promotes tighter security measures for fissile materials.

In 2012, for example, Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych promised to return 234 kilograms (515 pounds) of weapons-grade uranium from a reactor in eastern Ukraine to Russia. That’s roughly the equivalent of 14 bombs.

The last of the transfers took place about a year ago, before protests this year led Yanukovych to flee and ahead of Russia’s moves toward annexing Crimea. But nearly 1,390 metric tons of highly-enriched uranium and 490 metric tons of plutonium are still located at hundreds of military and civilian sites in 25 countries. The majority of this total is in the United States and Russia, but large stocks also exist in Britain, France, India, Pakistan, China, and Japan.

A five-pound bag of flour filled with bomb-grade uranium and a grapefruit-sized bit of plutonium is enough to build a nuclear bomb. So altogether, the stockpiles could be used, in theory, to build 20,000 uranium bombs and nearly 80,000 plutonium weapons.

At the summit next week, several additional countries are expected to announce the elimination or transfer of weapons materials, White House officials said, without providing details.

Sources say one of them is Japan, which will announce its intention to return to the United States 330 kilograms (730 pounds) of U.S.- and British-origin high-quality plutonium, the kind favored by weapons designers, from a research reactor at Tokai, on its Pacific coastline.

But that amount represents just 3.5 percent of the plutonium Japan has in its own warehouses, and less than 1 percent of its total holdings (some is stored outside the country). Moreover, it is 4 percent of what the country can produce in one year at a new factory scheduled for completion in October.

According to a document published this month by its Radiation Safety Authority, Sweden is willing to transfer ownership of 834 kilograms (1,835 pounds) of plutonium to the decommissioning authority in Britain.

The summits have also encouraged many countries, nonproliferation experts say, to strengthen their rules and procedures for securing nuclear weapons, materials, and the facilities that produce and store them.

Three particularly vulnerable sites in non-weapons states with enough weapons-grade uranium for the kind of simple bomb terrorists might make have put significant security upgrades in place, said Matthew Bunn, a former White House official now teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The sites are in Sosny, Belarus; Pelindaba, South Africa; and Tokai, Japan.

But nonproliferation experts have expressed frustration that Washington has secured only vague security commitments from some countries.

Administration officials say in their defense that many countries remain jealous of their sovereignty, suspicious of foreign scrutiny, and wary of the expense of increased regulation. As a result, the world’s defensive armor against nuclear terror still has many gaps.

"Today, we do not have an effective global security system, based on common international standards, to protect dangerous nuclear materials," former Sen. Sam Nunn, the head of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, told a conference in Washington earlier this month.

Bunn said he agrees that the "patchwork of existing nuclear security agreements and initiatives is weak and urgently needs to be strengthened with new standards and new measures."

Nunn and other public figures have called for a new agreement authorizing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or some other body to set and enforce tough international rules for securing nuclear explosive stockpiles.

But there is no consensus on the issue, with some experts saying that member states would never give the agency sufficient money and power to act effectively as the world’s nuclear security watchdog.

A Harvard study released this month recommends as a stopgap measure that the IAEA gradually raise the profile of its nuclear security programs, until participation and compliance are viewed as the norm. It could, for example, change the name of its nuclear security "guidelines" to "standards," implying "more of a baseline that states should at minimum meet."

The January draft of the summit’s communiqué refers to the IAEA’s "essential responsibility" and "central role" in nuclear security, but does not give the agency a new regulatory mandate. Instead, it emphasizes the IAEA’s advisory capacity. Signatories are being asked only to encourage adherence to the IAEA’s security guidance, while providing greater political, technical, and financial support.

Nunn and others have also called on summit participants to focus on securing the 85 percent of the nuclear explosives in the hands of the nine countries with nuclear arsenals, something that they have so far failed to do.

"The real working focus of the summits has been on civil materials, with the assumption, fair or not, that weapons materials will be more secure because they’re military," said Miles Pomper, a senior researcher with the Monterey Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

But Laura Holgate, who has overseen the summit’s preparation as senior director of weapons of mass destruction terrorism in the National Security Council, said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity that the United States "makes no assumptions" about the relative security of military stores. Both must get better protection, she said.

She added that governments are still trying to work out how they can protect military weapons materials without compromising what they see as vital national security secrets.

While the communiqué requires consensus, some of the countries attending the summit have promised what the administration likes to call "gift baskets," or joint agreements to take action or highlight achievements.

Holgate said that in one gift basket, the United States, South Korea, and the Netherlands will pledge to ensure that their domestic nuclear security practices conform to IAEA standards, in hopes other states will do so as well.

The United States will also join another statement calling for improved maritime security, including support for the installation and operation of radiological detectors in major ports, Holgate said.

Further progress will not come easily, experts say.

Two non-weapons nations, Belarus and South Africa, are still holding onto large stocks of weapons-grade uranium. Japan has 44 tons of plutonium, the fifth-largest stockpile in the world, set aside for its commercial nuclear power program. Rokkasho, a new plutonium plant capable of producing an additional eight tons a year, is scheduled for completion in October.

Both the Kremlin and the White House over the past several days have been careful to say that President Vladimir Putin’s decision not to attend the Nuclear Security Summit was not a result of the recent tensions.

Former President Dmitry Medvedev, now prime minister, attended in 2010 and 2012. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is expected to represent Russia this time.

"We do expect the Russians to continue the important work that we do with them in this context, unabated," Sherwood-Randall said Monday.

But Harvard’s Bunn said the absence of top Russian leaders at the event will be noticed, if only because Russia and the United States together control the bulk of the world’s nuclear explosive materials.

Bunn, an expert on physical security, said that the summits have focused too much on short-term fixes rather than on building more robust systems to prevent nuclear terror. In a report, Bunn and his colleagues call for the establishment of a database of nuclear terror-related incidents to demonstrate that the threat is urgent.

This story was published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

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