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Obama to attend nuclear summit in South Korea

March 22, 2012 |  4:30 am


REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- President Obama is headed to Asia (again) for his first foreign trip of the year. The White House has not been shy about its attempts to try to strengthen U.S. relationships and economic ties in that part of the world: Obama’s last trip abroad was an eight-day swing around the Pacific Rim.

The destination this weekend is Seoul, the third time in as many years that the president has visited South Korea. The draw this time is the second Nuclear Security Summit, a meeting of more than 50 foreign leaders on the topic of improving the security of nuclear material and preventing nuclear terrorism.

The summit is an Obama administration initiative, born out of his 2009 speech in Prague, the Czech capital, which outlined his broader plans for nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. Obama set a goal of locking down all “vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years.”

He convened the first summit in Washington in April 2010. That effort was welcomed by many nuclear policy experts who have warned for years that nuclear security was an overlooked and increasingly dangerous vulnerability. Al Qaeda has declared its interest in obtaining nuclear material.

In his assessment of the threat, Matthew Bunn, associate professor at the Belfer Center at Harvard, called the possibility of a group making a weapon using highly enriched uranium “very plausibly within capabilities of a sophisticated terrorist group.”

Unlike nuclear safety, which refers to the safe operating of a nuclear reactor, nuclear security -- how a country locks down, stores or eliminates fissile material -– is not governed by a single international body or subject to international standards or monitors.

The Washington summit garnered dozens of voluntary commitments from countries eager to show they were in for the project. The commitments varied considerably in significance. Some were minor promises to hold a conference or improve training. Others, in the case of Chile, involved the removal of all highly enriched uranium from its territory.

Experts have been monitoring the follow-through closely. One report, released in the run-up to the Seoul sequel, found that 80% of the commitments have been completed. White House officials say they’re happy with that record.

But among the countries that haven’t made good on their commitments is the U.S. The White House had pledged to expedite ratification of two nuclear security treaties. The treaties have both been approved by the Senate, but legislation required to enact the measures has lingered in the perpetually jammed up Congress. The administration also aimed to complete the conversion of six remaining highly enriched uranium reactors to lower-grade fuel, but that effort is delayed.

Still, the U.S. fared pretty well in a study by the Nuclear Threat Initiative ranking countries on how well they secure nuclear material. The U.S. landed 13thon the list of 32 countries that store weapons-usable material. The countries were graded on many factors, including the amount of material, political stability and regulatory climate. Deepti Choubey, a senior director at NTI, noted that the U.S. standing was largely a result of the large amount of material within its borders. If that factor had been eliminated, the U.S. score would have shot to second place, she said.

The countries at the bottom of the list are China, India, Vietnam, Iran, Pakistan and North Korea –- in that order. Choubey said that for some of those countries the poor marks were a reflection of secrecy. Those countries have guarded or refused to make public details about their security efforts.

That’s something many experts would like the second summit to address, although few are optimistic. The first summit was dependent on voluntary efforts and did not institute any enforcement measures that might wade into sticky questions of sovereignty. The Seoul summit is not expected to push any further.

“I think it is deeply problematic,” Bunn said. “The governance of nuclear security is weak, and much weaker than the world is willing to accept.”


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Photo: South Korean security officers raise a flag for the Nuclear Security Summit near its venue in Seoul on Wednesday. Credit: Lee Jin-man / Associated Press