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Next Steps on Nuclear Safety: Enforcement, Enforcement, Enforcement

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2010/04/obama-pakistan-480x332.jpgPrime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan and President Barack Obama at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on Monday (Xinhua/ZUMApress.com)

Later today, the Washington Nuclear Security Summit will conclude by issuing a communique pledging to concentrate the international mind around President Obama’s goal of securing all separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium within four years, in order to prevent nuclear terrorism. It won’t be released until it’s released, of course. But it’s going to promise dedicated national action by 47 countries participating in the summit, rather than empowering international agencies to take control of each nation’s plutonium or uranium supplies. So what comes after this week’s summit for nuclear security?

[Security1]Enforcement, principally. “The summit is a forcing mechanism,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuke expert at the New America Foundation who blogs at Arms Control Wonk. “It causes states to do things for a while.” The communique will make those “things” clearer, but the contours are already taking shape: States will take increasing steps to shore up their legal and regulatory frameworks to keep track of civilian or military nuclear stockpiles. And, especially, they’ll shore up their export controls to ensure government officials keep track of what nuclear materials or components travel across their borders — or, in the case of Malaysia, which didn’t have any before yesterday (though perhaps not because of the summit), they’ll put those controls in place. That’s crucial for tracking international proliferation: A.Q. Khan, the world’s most notorious proliferator, used Malaysia as a hub for shipping centrifuges to nations like Libya, since they’d drop off the grid once shipped.

In other words, what Lewis calls the “house gifts” that states showed up to the summit presenting are less important to nuclear security than the consistent enforcement of the rules in place for monitoring and controlling the establishment and movement of nuclear material. It’s a bit ironic. The administration is understandably touting the commitments of Chile and Ukraine and Canada at the summit to get rid of thousands of kilograms of highly enriched uranium. (The Canadian government, right now, is trying a group suspects known as the “Toronto 18″ for plotting terror attacks on Canadian nuclear facilities, among other targets.) But after the summit ends and countries won’t show up to Washington bearing pledges, the measure of the summit’s success will be in the actions that governments take to safeguard and reduce the weapons-grade material under their control.

And it will be governments that take those steps, with international entities in supporting roles at best. Gary Samore, the National Security Council director with the portfolio for nuclear weapons and proliferation policy, clarified during a Friday conference call that the urgency of the timeline for securing nuclear materials meant working within the “sovereign responsibility” that governments continue to insist holds for all matters nuclear. “If we were to spend a lot of time trying to construct a new international architecture, I think it might actually have the unintended effect of really diverting us from taking the practical measures that we want to take in the near term,” Samore said.

That raised the question of whether steps governments take would really stop the next A.Q. Khan, a Pakistani national hero whom the Pakistanis placed under house arrest after his proliferation network was disclosed, allowing no international access to him. Lewis said strengthening nations’ export controls would probably represent the most important step against international proliferation. “Until we really clamp down, and get, first of all, universal national establishment of export controls and then, second, get countries to actually enforce the export controls they,” he said, “we’re not really going to know how much of a problem we have here.”

Then there’s the task of getting nations to broach subjects the summit neglected for fear of bursting the consensus. “Missing from this discussion is the importance of further production of separated plutonium or highly enriched uranium,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “The French were particularly unhelpful in getting that idea or that principle into the discussion, because they believe that reprocessing of nuclear fuel is important for their energy strategy. But it is also a major proliferation problem.”

Not that Kimball believes that the first-ever nuclear security summit needed to address every crucial proliferation or security issue all at once. “What we’re talking about here is a summit that is attempting to focus international attention on this aspect of the nuclear problem in a way that hasn’t ever been done before,” he said. “The United States has reminded other countries that there are other fora to discuss these issues [like] Iran’s safeguards violations, Israel’s non-[Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] status, nuclear disarmament progress.”

There will be another nuclear security summit in 2012, both to measure nations’ progress in enforcement and, administration officials hope, to expand the aperture of what’s possible in the nuclear-security field. But immediately after the summit concludes, the nuclear issue will remain the subject of high-level international attention. The Obama administration, now equipped with the acquiescence of the Chinese, will present a sanctions package to the United Nations Security Council to raise the cost of illicit Iranian nuclear enrichment within weeks. In May, nations will reconvene to strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the cornerstone of international security. Ben Rhodes, the National Security Council’s director of strategic communications, told reporters Friday that among the summit’s goals was to “provide momentum going forward” for a nuclear-security agenda.

For Lewis, the fact that the terms of the debate are about nuclear security and no longer about military applications of nuclear weapons is vaguely surreal. “It used to be about deterrence, deterrence and then, as a distant third, deterrence,” he said. “All this other stuff was the province of people who wanted to mess around with our beautiful deterrent.”

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