The Future of Nuclear Security: Commitments and Actions – Essay

Nuclear security has been one of the major concerns in the second half of the 20th century and continues nowadays to be a crucial matter of interest.

Subsequent to the Second World War it became extremely important to monitor the nuclear countries’ policies and strategies. Eight years after the birth of the United Nations, on the 8th of December 1953, the President of the United States of America, Dwight D. Eisenhower, addressing a UN general assembly laid the foundation for the establishment of an international agency aiming at endorsing the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes only. Three years later, in 1957, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created [1]. Despite such an achievement, numerous geopolitical crises undermined the enactment of a broader nuclear regulatory arrangement between countries. Over two thousand nuclear tests have been made from 1945 to 1996 [2], most of them during the cold war. The well-known nuclear arms race has left us with atomic arsenals which the world has now to deal with.

As a consequence of both the Berlin crisis in 1961 and the Cuba missile crisis in 1962, the negotiations started in 1953 had reached their lowest ebb. Nonetheless, this was the turning point. The silver lining of these years was that the need to think of nuclear energy for peaceful applications only, started to become one of the main political priorities. For instance, after the Cuba missile crisis a letter from the theoretical physicists Viktor Adamsky and Andrej D. Sacharov (Nobel Peace Prize in 1975) to Nikita Khrushchev, who was at that time the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, states that “…reaching an agreement banning testing in the atmosphere and in space and limiting underground testing to low-yield devices would put an end to radioactive contamination of the atmosphere, slow down the arms race, and, most likely, halt the further spread of atomic weapons to countries which do not already possess them…” [3]. In addition, the US President J. F. Kennedy, in an address made at the American University (Washington, D.C.) in 1963, talked about peace and nuclear disarmaments, stating that “a more attainable peace is based on a gradual evolution in human institutions and on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned” [4]. Since then, despite a few other countries having developed nuclear weapons, significant progress and numerous commitments have been made, such as the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, the Reykjavik Summit in 1986, The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 1991, and more recently, the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2015.

Sixty years later, the Eisenhower speech (“Atoms for peace”) is more relevant than ever.

So far, 191 countries have joined the Non Proliferation Treaty [5], which is the primary milestone that led countries’ diplomacies to reach an international regulatory position on the use of the atom for peaceful nuclear activities. This treaty focuses on non-proliferation, disarmament and the right to the peaceful use of nuclear technology. Signatory countries, moreover, commit to follow the NPT safeguards obligations. Being a signatory of the NPT, however, does not ensure that a country is completely unable to produce or trade either nuclear weapons or materials. Conversely, peaceful programs can be used to disguise the illegal production of nuclear weapons. The more recent example was the controversial Iranian nuclear programme. The Islamic Republic of Iran had signed the Non Proliferation Treaty but, despite this, doubt as to the actual respect given to the treaty arose. On the 14th of July 2015, almost two years after negotiations started on the 24th of November 2013, an official agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and the European Union) was reached [6,7]. This is considered by the international community to be the strongest non-proliferation agreement ever negotiated.

In the last six years in particular, significant progress in securing nuclear materials has been made. Since 2010 a World Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) is held every two years. The last NSS (Washington D.C., April 2016) was attended by more than 50 leaders from every region of the world. Within the final press conference [8], the US President Barack Obama asserts that all the highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium from more than 50 facilities in 30 countries has been secured and fourteen nations plus Taiwan have completely rid themselves of HEU and plutonium. Still, South America and East Europe are now entirely free of these materials (Ukraine included, Poland is completing its removal this year). In addition, the United States and the Russian Federation are working together consolidating nuclear materials and reducing, step by step, their surplus of HEU and converting it to electricity in the US. Nonetheless, as President Obama asserts, the work is by no means finished and there is still a huge amount of nuclear material to be secured in order to prevent it falling in to the wrong hands. H. E. Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China, during the NSS 2014 at The Hague (The Netherlands) suggested that “countries should follow a sensible, coordinated and balanced approach to nuclear security, and put it on the track of sound and sustainable development” and, at the NSS 2016, he states that “…a more robust global nuclear security architecture is the prerequisite for the sound development of nuclear energy” [9]. In this particular summit, leaders unanimously conclude and agree on the fact that nuclear terrorism remains a serious threat to international security.

In this era, two main factors affect the present nuclear security scenario: directly, international terrorism and indirectly, climate change. The former has to some extent removed the stability to international conflicts by which nuclear weapons development was ‘justified’, whereas the latter dictates the construction of nuclear power plants in many countries that cannot generate baseload electricity by other means. On the one hand, the political justification for nuclear weapons may change but on the other the international transport of uranium and wastes may intensify and become more globalised, therefore increasing the proliferation risk. These are significant issues for our generations and those of the future.

One question arises now: what is next?

As well as aforementioned, the Non Proliferation Treaty can be divided into three pillars – non-proliferation, disarmament and peaceful use of nuclear technology – further actions and commitments to be undertaken should follow this same pathway.

Firstly, with regard to non-proliferation, the main concern nowadays is to prevent and avoid the smuggling of nuclear materials and nuclear terrorism. Currently, 448 operating nuclear reactors are present in the world and another 61 are under construction [10], therefore monitoring all the steps of their nuclear fuel cycle is always becoming more complex. Not only can special nuclear materials (SNMs) and/or alternative nuclear materials (ANMs) be smuggled from nuclear reactors, but also from research facilities, nuclear medicine facilities, universities and industries. Policies and nuclear safeguards regulations are already present in some countries, but less in others. Major efforts have to be made in order to establish joint international rules, in particular with countries which are not members of the IAEA and/or not signatories of the NPT. Moreover, the new facilities to be built must have as much proliferation resistance as possible, particularly taking into account the enrichment process, the fuel fabrication process and the whole back-end process, namely the nuclear waste management. Particular focus there should be on how proliferation risk can be reduced by aiming at a closed transmutation fuel cycle. The closed fuel cycle uses waste generated from nuclear reactors and recycles or reprocesses this to give new uranium fuel. The minor actinides americium, neptunium, and curium are also considered for reburning in fast breeder reactors. It has to be said that plutonium is also retrieved within the reprocessing process, and this may present a greater proliferation risk, however, it would be mixed with depleted uranium forming the so called mixed uranium oxide (MOX). In addition to the socio-political difficulty, fast reactors coupled with reprocessing sites, MOX plants, and an underground waste repository are a major problem for the industry and also present a range of economic and environmental issues. Nonetheless, this path is the most preferred way for a more secure and a fully sustainable future.

Secondly, concerning disarmament, diplomacy relationships could be intensified. The positions of some nuclear countries regarding their nuclear arsenals is still unclear. The United States and Russia have started leading by example: their nuclear arsenals are going to be the lowest that they have been in six decades. For instance, since September 2000 both countries have been progressively transforming 34 mega-tonnes of excess military plutonium into a more proliferation resistant form [11]. Russia prefers to irradiate its plutonium in fast reactors whereas the US favours to transmute its plutonium by means of their existing commercial light-water-reactor. The path has been marked out and major efforts must be undertaken in order to persuade the other nuclear countries to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. As said by Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary-General, “What matters most is not which path is taken, but that the chosen path is heading in the right direction – towards the internationally agreed goal of the total elimination of nuclear weapons” [12].

Thirdly, with reference to the peaceful use of nuclear technology and strictly related to non-proliferation, investments are needed on research of new nuclear facilities and installations, geological disposal facilities, new sustainable nuclear fuels and decommissioning aspects. In order to promote civil nuclear cooperation, an international fuel bank is being set up in Oskemen, Kazakhstan, after an agreement between this country and the IAEA. Such a fuel bank will be a physical reserve of low enriched uranium (LEU) and will act as a supplier as a last resort for the IAEA’s members, in the case of unavailability of LEU in the global market. The LEU Bank will operate securely and safely under the Kazakhstan legal and regulatory requirements and will be subject of the IAEA safeguards requirements [13]. This is indeed noteworthy progress. There are still several problems to be faced in the civil nuclear industry, which are directly linked to the nuclear homeland security. Global stocks of plutonium are growing, and it has to be solved what to do with this material. Currently, only two plants in the world produce commercial MOX fuel: Melox in France and Sellafield in the UK. The latter is going to be closed but a new MOX fabrication facility is planned to start up in Rokkasho (Japan) in the next years and another one is being built at the Savannah River Site in the USA. In Europe about 40 reactors are licensed to use mixed uranium oxide whereas in Japan there are about ten [14]. Obviously, smaller quantities of nuclear waste will still be produced from the new generation of fast reactors, from decommissioning activities, and also from research facilities as well as hospitals and every company allowed to use radioactive materials. Therefore, there is a primary need to secure and take account of this waste. Geological disposal facilities and deep borehole disposal seem nowadays the way in which nuclear industry might achieve this. Moreover, the intention is for such disposal to be proliferation resistant, even thinking in the long term. However, again, there is still a lack of technological maturity that can be overcome only with new investment, research and information exchange.

In addition, nuclear security must go hand in hand with nuclear safety. Nuclear security is referred to as the “prevention and detection of, and response to, theft, sabotage, unauthorized access, illegal transfer or other malicious acts involving nuclear material, other radioactive substances or their associated facilities” whereas nuclear safety refers to “the achievement of proper operating conditions, prevention of accidents or mitigation of accident consequences, resulting in protection of workers, the public and the environment from undue radiation hazards” [15]. Although being slightly different, they have in common the wide range of measures to be undertaken to protect human life, health and the environment. Control measures and synergies are the link between nuclear security and nuclear safety. Combined efforts should be increased and focused, for example, also on regulatory infrastructures and on categorization of radioactive sources and materials. Not only is cooperation important, but it also must be coordinated and focused. Joint safety and security actions must be implemented between countries: examine, study and inspect national laws and regulation, promoting in such a way dialogues with different diplomacies. Furthermore, efforts in evaluating threats, risks and vulnerabilities via continuous assessments have to be considered.

Another key issue to be highlighted is the imperative to evaluate the feasibility of win-win policies. A win-win policy is considered better than a usual compromise because both sides attain better benefits than their pre-agreement expectations. Win-win policies are often sought in politics, in economics and by both legal and social institutions. Yet they were not used within the nuclear scenario until the past few years. To give an illustration of a valuable win-win approach is the previously-mentioned Iran nuclear deal. Another case is the recent UK/EU-US nuclear deal. The UK will transfer 700 kg of excess highly enriched uranium to the US and will have in return a different type of uranium. The EURATOM (European Atomic Energy Community) then will convert this uranium into medical isotopes for radiotherapy uses. Joint agreements have also been signed between Britain and Japan, Turkey, South Korea and Argentina in order to prevent cyber-attacks on their nuclear installations and waste facilities [16].

Finally, a wide range of different commitments can be made, with regards to the fields mentioned above. Amongst everyone, the attention should be focused on culture and education, in particular to the general public. This could seem prosaic, however, the need for the education of future generations and investments in culture has to be weighted in the balance and never underrated. Prevention is better than a cure and is a way to avoid future issues arising. Furthermore, people have to learn from their past mistakes. In the last two decades there has been substantial progress in improving the international framework on nuclear security, thanks to the aims achieved of increasing cooperation, diplomacy, research and nuclear forensics.  Looking ahead, there is a duty to carry on this trend and ride this wave of attainments. People will change, governments will change, new geopolitical problems will probably arise and new economic crises will possibly come up; nonetheless, the objective of a secure and sustainable nuclear future must remain the same.


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