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14 Apr, 2010 06:32

Keeping Pandora’s box shut

The US and Russia have sealed a deal on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in Washington which would see both sides disposing of 68 metric tons of excess weapons-grade plutonium beginning in 2018.

The agreement signed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is aimed at ensuring the stockpiles can never be used for weapons or other military purposes.

The protocol will be a logical development of the nuclear security summit, Lavrov said.

"The delegates discussed the suppression of acts of nuclear terrorism at the plenary meeting. The position of Russia, which had initiated many important documents, gained unanimous support," the minister said. He referred to the Convention on the Prevention of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism and the joint initiative of Russia and the United States.

"The delegates also discussed the fulfillment of UN Security Council resolution 1540, which compells member countries to bar terrorists and non-governmental agencies from nuclear material," he said.

Keeping atomic material out of the hands of terrorists is the main goal of the meeting in Washington, which is being attended by leaders of 47 countries.

President Barack Obama opened the summit on Tuesday by declaring that the risk of a nuclear attack has increased.

“Two decades after the end of the Cold War we face a cruel irony of history,” Obama said. “The risk of a nuclear confrontation between nations has gone down, but the risk of nuclear attack has gone up."

He called the conference with the goal of locking down all nuclear materials worldwide in four years.

Obama stressed that the main threat the world is currently facing comes from the possibility of nuclear terrorism.

“Terrorist networks have tried to acquire the material for a nuclear weapon and if they ever succeeded, they would surely use it. In short, it is increasingly clear that the danger of nuclear terrorism is one of the greatest threats to global security”, US President Barack Obama said.

The summit already saw some progress on Monday. On the first day of the conference Ukraine announced a decision to get rid of all its weapons-grade nuclear material by 2012, something the US has been seeking for the past 10 years.

One of the main issues discussed during the summit was possible sanctions against Iran.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made it clear that the goal of non-proliferation, which is a world without nuclear weapons, is impossible when there are still certain countries yearning to possess such weapons.

“The idea of global zero is not an illusion, but we should face the fact that the situation on the planet is not just the responsibility of Russia and the US,” acknowledged Russia’s president. “If mankind ever achieves global zero, it will not happen because of the reduction in Russian and American arsenals; it must be a collective effort.”

“Many of our colleagues in the Arab world say openly that if Iran obtains a nuclear bomb, they will not beat around the bush. They will make their own bomb, just to have it,” Medvedev said.

“That would mean the uncontrolled expansion of the nuclear club,” Medvedev warned, and added that “In that case, no summits like the one we held in Washington will help. That would be a new page in the history of mankind, and a very sad one at that.”

President Medvedev said in a speech to experts at a leading American think tank, the Brookings Institution in Washington, that these sanctions “should not punish the people, they should only prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Only in that case can they be efficient.”

Russia's president has hailed the nuclear security summit hosted by Barack Obama as “a complete success.”

“During his visit to Russia last year, President Obama said that America needs a powerful, peaceful and prosperous Russia. Well said indeed. But Russia also needs a responsible, peaceful, respectful, and dynamically-developing America; an America respected by the entire international community; an America that treats other countries as equals – and keeps it that way, while helping to develop a new system of international relations. That would be just wonderful,” said the Russian president.

Experts' opinion

Many analysts agree that if a nuclear attack were to take place in this day and age, it would come from terrorists and not a specific country.

“Control not of weapons but of nuclear materials – that I believe is a much greater threat, because there are relatively few weapons, but there is a considerably larger number of relatively poorly controlled nuclear power stations and reprocessing plants and so forth,” Anatol Lieven, senior researcher at the New America Foundation, said.

“The US and Russia realize that it’s important to stop the march of states toward gaining nuclear weapons. The more states have nuclear weapons, the harder it is to control the technology and the stuff that builds those weapons – and it can get into the hands of absolutely irresponsible terrorists or irresponsible states,” Scott Bates, vice president of the Center for National Policy, told RT. “So security in the 21st century isn’t found in holding nuclear weapons; instead, it’s found in limiting access to those weapons and securing the material that can make those weapons.”

Walid Phares from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies believes that the Russian-American agreement signed in Prague is a real cornerstone of the non-proliferation deal, but there remains a big question.

“There is the national security perception of each country – to what level both Americans and Russians, and other members of the international community will accept to go low in what they have as nuclear weapons – that is a big question,” Phares said.

John Isaacs, Executive Director from the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation believes, “While a large scale nuclear war between Russia and the US is not feasible any more, it is feasible that a terrorist group get can get hold of a nuclear bomb.”

“With some countries, I believe we can feel secure, because their nuclear materials will not get into the hands of terrorists. But some countries are pursuing nuclear technologies about which it is still unclear how they are going to be used,” Mikhail Troitsky, from the MacArthur Foundation’s Moscow office, told RT. “Of course, even if a terrorist organization gets hold of some fissile materials, the construction of a nuclear explosive device is a far cry. It’s a very technically complicated task. But what a terrorist organization can certainly do is to use a dirty bomb – that is, spray radioactive materials across vast territories by using regular explosive devices. That’s a serious threat.”

Vladimir Sotnikov, an expert on disarmament issues from the Moscow-based Institute of World Economy and International Relations, also believes that there is a chance that loose nukes may wind up in the hands of terrorists.

“Unfortunately there are some states which would be vulnerable to that, such as Pakistan or North Korea, because of corruption or crooked politicians, because of lust for money,” Sotnikov said. “In the 1990s there was a program for securing nukes from the old Soviet Union, and it worked quite well. The US actually invested a lot of money into this program. The security of Russian nukes is not a question. The same is true about the United States, as well.”

Kingston Reif from the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation thinks that the threat posed by nuclear terrorism is low, but if it were to occur, that it would have terrible consequences.

“It’s not only that there has to be an appropriate physical protection at these sites, but also that those who responsible for securing this material are also up to speed on the best practices for doing so,” Reif told RT. “I’ve heard one commenter suggest that the matter of nuclear security is 20% actual physical security and 80% having an appropriate security culture in place that would make it more difficult for potential terrorists… to attempt to steal or seize this material.”

“Back in the 1960s, there was a tendency to export materials, including highly enriched uranium, to a lot of countries around the world – to their research reactors,” Hans Kristensen, Project Director for the Nuclear Information Project from the Federation of American Scientists, said. “Now we are trying to get that back and trying to secure the materials.”

Henry Sokolski, Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), a Washington-based nonprofit organization, thinks that there are limits to how much information countries can share about how to secure the material and where the material is.

“Each country is not going to say much at some point,” Sokolski told RT. “I think the surest way is to not have anything that would be tempting for them to take. One of these materials – in fact, two materials – that are most tempting, highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium, and even what they call mixed plutonium oxide fuels, are totally uneconomical to use for any civilian purpose and are not necessary to promote nuclear energy for any peaceful application.”

“On the other hand, people exaggerate how much security can be afforded,” he added. “The guarding of sensitive materials, it could conceivably have the opposite effect, giving people the false sense of security while being engaged in activities and work with materials that are pretty dangerous.”

Iran and North Korea were not invited to the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, although they must be involved, insists Dr Kate Hudson who is a Chair at Britain's Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

“It is a question of getting in. I think that a dialogue with outsiders [Iran and North Korea], involving them into a wider process is absolutely essential,” she said.

“[The possibility of the] theft of nuclear materials needs to be completely ruled out,” insists Hudson, “[and those] materials must be kept away from terrorists or any others who intend to use it with a malign purpose.”

The question is: why did almost 50 countries get an invite and others did not?

Hans Kristensen believes, “This is more an issue for countries that have fissile materials like uranium and plutonium, not necessarily about those countries that have nuclear weapons or are about to get them.”

In addition to Iran and North Korea, Israel refused to attend at the last minute in the fear that Israel’s rumoured nuclear program would be attacked.

“I think it’s a sign that Israel is trying to avoid confrontation with the Muslim and Arab worlds on these themes, clearly,” shared journalist Emilio Riccardi.

According to Riccadri, it was already known in advance what will come out of the DC summit.

“We know all the results more or less. In fact, there is a broad agreement to avoid that nuclear material could finish in the hands of terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and other groups. On that there is a broad agreement, so I don’t think that so much will happen.”

If agreements are followed, analysts say it will mean a huge decrease in the odds of a terrorist nuclear attack, though the danger will not be completely eliminated.

Read also: Obama's nuclear security summit generated more heat than light