In pursuit of nuclear-free world
Leaders gather in Seoul on March 26-27 to prevent nuclear terrorism
By Park Si-soo
A Russian military train chugs along a rural railway carrying nuclear weapons to be dismantled in an arms reduction campaign. Another train on the same line is approaching at neck-breaking speed from the opposite direction.
They collide head-on, engulfing the trains in a blazing fireball. Amid the chaos, an international terrorist group steals several nuclear weapons and delivers them to New York in a clandestine manner. The group’s target is the United Nations headquarters.
The plot, which if successful could trigger World War III, ends in failure thanks to a perilous operation by U.S. intelligence agents.
Fortunately, this is not real but the storyline of Hollywood blockbuster “The Peacemaker” starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman.
This film was released in 1997 but the scenario is exactly what the world’s major powers are now seriously worried about and trying to ensure it never becomes reality.
For the United States in particular, nuclear terrorism on its own soil has been a constant possibility since the 9/11 attacks in 2001. A U.S. intelligence agency obtained written orders from the Islamist militant group Al-Qaeda, in which it urges its members to steal atomic weapons to assail the United States. Al-Qaeda masterminded the 9/11 attacks.
The U.S. thought such worries would evaporate if terrorists were swept away — one of the excuses to start the war in Afghanistan, which the U.S. believes is a stronghold of the militant group.
In the face of tough resistance, the U.S. sought global cooperation to alleviate its own anxiety and in line with this U.S. President Barrack Obama declared in 2009 that his country would take a leading role in making a nuclear-free world.
“The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War,” said Obama. He pledged to reduce the U.S. nuclear stockpile, and urged others to do the same.
To fuel the campaign globally, Obama hosted the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in April last year. Forty seven heads of state, including President Lee Myung-bak, and representatives from the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the European Union were present in the inaugural summit.
They jointly pledged to minimize the use of highly enriched uranium; enact laws to advance nuclear security and to join pertinent international treaties; and take action to share information and establish the best practices to advance nuclear security.
Second summit in Seoul
With no tangible and efficient measures against nuclear terrorism in place, Korea will host the second summit on nuclear security in Seoul on March 26 and 27.
More than 50 heads of state and representatives of international organizations, including the United Nations, IAEA, Interpol and European Union, will attend the high-profile meeting, according to the preparatory secretariat for the Seoul summit.
“The summit will become a place for open and intensive dialogue of all concerned parties on a problem facing the entire world,” said Kim Bong-hyun, Korea’s sherpa for the meeting whose role is pre-arranging the agenda to be discussed during the high-profile talks. “The likelihood of nuclear terrorism is very low. Once it happens, however, its consequence defies imagination.”
Kim said it’s meaningful that Korea holds the meeting after the United States.
“It is clear evidence that the world acknowledges that Korea has grown up enough to handle such a global issue as a main player,” Kim said. His prior position was deputy minister for multilateral and global affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
He warned that not only the U.S. but also other peaceful states could be a target of tragic nuclear attacks by terrorists.
“A threat of nuclear terrorism could be everywhere,” he underlined. “For instance, there was an attempt to steal highly enriched uranium from a nuclear depot in South Africa, which was fortunately foiled.”
The number of attempts to steal atomic material enriched to the level of nuclear weapons in the security zone has increased in recent years. In 2009 alone, 215 atomic materials, reserved for power generation, medical or other commercial purposes, were stolen or disappeared, according to the IAEA.
Some of the stolen material is suspected of having been used for assassinations. In November 2006, a former spy for the Soviet Union’s intelligence agency was poisoned to death in London. A tiny amount of polonium-210 was found in his body, a rare case demonstrating the use of atomic material for homicide, British investigators said.
Looking to bigger role
The inaugural summit in Washington concentrated on how to keep terrorists away from highly-enriched uranium (HEU), a key material for nuclear weapons.
But the upcoming Seoul meeting is set to provide broader dialogue by adding two more issues — the security of low-enriched uranium and nuclear power stations — which the preparatory secretariat says will induce more active participation of countries without HEU.
“Exposure of low-enriched uranium and other low-level radioactive material to the public could pose a great health risk,” Kim said. “Also as we learned through the Japanese nuclear crisis in March, the safety of nuclear power stations is as important as nuclear security.” He said low-enriched uranium is widely used in the medical industry worldwide, but its control is “careless.”
“I hope the Seoul meeting to draw global consensus to enhance security guidelines on the use of low-enriched uranium and nuclear power plants,” he said.
The diplomat said North Korea has yet to decide whether to participate. President Lee openly invited North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to the Seoul summit in two separate speeches in March and August.
Arms reduction race
The Seoul summit will come amid an accelerating reduction of nuclear weapons. The U.S., as predicted in the 2009 Obama pledge, is leading the move. This is expected to put pressure on other nuclear-armed nations to follow suit.
Later last month, the U.S. government dismantled a giant yet outdated nuclear bomb, the B-53, which was powerful enough to wipe out an entire metropolitan area.
“It’s significant in the sense that it’s the last of these multi-megaton weapons that the nuclear powers used to build during the height of the Cold War,” Hans Kirstensen of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) said in an interview. “This is the end of the era of these monster weapons.”
Experts said the dismantlement should be a landmark declaring the end of the nuclear arms race. But they said the world still has long way to go to become a nuclear-free planet.
Last May, the U.S. revealed for the first time the actual size of its nuclear stockpile — a total of 5,113 warheads as of Sept. 30, 2009, the Pentagon announced. That figure — a 75 percent reduction from 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell — included active warheads ready for deployment at short notice, as well as “inactive” warheads maintained at a depot in a “non-operational status.”
Under a new strategic arms limitation treaty, agreed in April last year, the the U.S. and Russia — which hold nearly all the world’s nuclear weapons — pledged to reduce their arsenals to 1,550 warheads each.
Russia is estimated to have around 2,800 nuclear warheads, according to the FAS.
France is believed to have the third most nuclear warheads with 300, followed by China with 180, Britain with 160, Israel with 80, Pakistan and India each with 60, and North Korea with 10, according to the federation.
Of them, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea are not members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which mean the international nuclear watchdog is off-limits to those countries and unable to ensure whether their nuclear weapons are controlled properly.