March 22, 2012

Primer: The 2012 Nuclear Security Summit

On March 25-26, 2012, the second Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), an international conference on global nuclear issues, will take place in Seoul, South Korea. The guest list has been finalized at 58, which includes representatives from 53 countries, and five representatives from four international organizations. In a post-Fukushima era and one in which the threat of terrorists obtaining and employing a nuclear device is viable, the 2012 summit will explore the issues of nuclear safety, security and terrorism. The summit is an avenue for the international community to collectively consider and learn from the mistakes of Fukushima in order to develop measures to prevent future nuclear disasters, the event of nuclear terrorism and restore public confidence in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.  

Enhancing Nuclear Security and Safety

There will be various meetings preceding the March 25-26 event. The two most significant are the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Industry Summit, on March 23-24, when roughly 150 nuclear industry CEOs will discuss the role of the nuclear industry in enhancing nuclear security and safety, and the Nuclear Security Experts Symposium, on March 23, when over 250 representatives from NGOs, nuclear research institutions and nuclear security experts will convene for discussions on innovating nuclear security governance.

U.S. President Barack Obama inaugurated the NSS in Washington on April 12-13, 2010. The first summit addressed preventing nuclear terrorism, or the event of terrorist organizations using a nuclear weapon or one comprised of radioactive materials – “a dirty bomb” – on civilian populations. In the summit communiqué, a document that participating nations signed at the summit’s conclusion, leaders succeeded in defining the current parameters of nuclear security and particular nations, for example Ukraine, agreed to relinquish their stockpiles of highly enriched uranium. However, while the first summit did bring high-level attention to the issue of nuclear terrorism, it neglected to produce collective agreements requiring nations to secure their own domestic nuclear weapons material and facilities. As nations were largely responsible for setting their own goals, naturally these states set the bar low as to ensure positive results. Accordingly, the second summit has the opportunity to set a more ambitious agenda and introduce higher standards for participants.

The three major issues on the agenda at the March summit will be: 1) enhancing the security of fissile materials to prevent nuclear terrorism; 2) radiological source safety; and 3) the interface between nuclear safety and security. Nuclear security refers to a series of preemptive measures to prevent internal and external threats to nuclear materials, radioactive substances and related facilities. Nuclear safety is defined as actions taken by states to prevent nuclear and radiation accidents and also limit their consequences. The Seoul summit will place particular emphasis on the intersection between nuclear security and safety.

What’s more, the Fukushima disaster underscored the reality that no measures or institutions currently exist to confront the non-territorial implications of a nuclear disaster. The issues of national sovereignty, policy consensus and information transparency are interlaced with today’s nuclear security regime, a fact world leaders cannot ignore after the Fukushima tragedy.

Reportedly, the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea will not be on the summit agenda. Event organizers have been keen to make this distinction, repeatedly clarifying that while the issues posed by Iran and North Korea will likely be mentioned on the summit sidelines, nuclear safety and security will govern the agenda.

The Nuclear Energy Future

South Korea’s hosting of the second nuclear security summit not only underscores its tremendous domestic investment in nuclear power, but spotlights the country’s burgeoning role as an exporter of nuclear technology. In December 2009, South Korea won a $20 billion contract to supply four nuclear reactors to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). With this deal, South Korea joined the club of nuclear exporting countries, now on par with powerhouses such as France, Germany and Russia. Seoul intends to progressively add nuclear reactors to its export portfolio, which now includes automobiles, ships and semiconductors. In January 2010, the South Korean Ministry of Knowledge Economy noted that it aims to earn in the ballpark of $400 billion in reactor sales by 2030. The country has high nuclear amibitions, certainly globally, but also domestically – currently, 23 reactors provide over 31 percent of the country’s electricity. The aim is to provide 59 percent of electricity from 40 units by 2030. 

Finally, a theme woven throughout next week’s summit will be the uncertain future of nuclear power. In other words, many will ask if the dream of nuclear energy has in fact failed. While various countries begin construction on new civilian nuclear programs later this year – Vietnam, Bangladesh and the UAE – many, such as Egypt and Kuwait, have abandoned plans to develop nuclear power all together. In the United States, the debate over nuclear power has intensified and this dialogue will only grow stronger as energy consumption increases both domestically and worldwide.

Certainly, public and political confidence is waning in the aftermath of Fukushima. However, despite the somber safety and security risks, nuclear power remains a form of energy that emits virtually no carbon dioxide and can accommodate 24/7 power demand. When compared to antiquated coal plants in the United States, and given the geopolitical strings attached to oil and gas, nuclear power is environmentally and politically attractive. Nuclear energy is evolving and innovation might save the day, yet, as the Economist recently wrote, “whales evolve slower than fruit flies.” While new forms of advanced nuclear technology – such as Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) – are gaining traction politically in the United States, they face significant bureaucratic funding, licensing, and certification hurdles before deployment. Yet, at the end of the day, the fate of nuclear power lies in the hands of economics; simply stated, “For nuclear to play a greater role, either it must get cheaper or other ways of generating electricity must get more expensive.”

In sum, while the dynamics of nuclear energy will continue to unfold and the world recovers from the tragic events at Fukushima, this month’s nuclear security summit will focus global attention on nuclear security and safety, bringing leaders together to chart the way forward on these critical issues.

Bailey Culp is a research assistant with the U.S.- Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies and a former researcher with CNAS’ Asia-Pacific Security Program.