The April 2010 nuclear security summit in Washington raised the international profile of the threat of nuclear terrorism and focused attention on the need to better secure all weapons-usable nuclear materials in all corners of the globe. It will be followed by another summit in 2012 in Seoul, a decision that has set the stage for what could become a very important, biennial, high-level international political event.
Because they are attended by heads of state, these biennial summits have the potential to become the pre-eminent international forum where the state of global nuclear material security is evaluated and where new commitments are made to improve the world's defenses against nuclear terrorism. They could become the nuclear security equivalent of what the UN climate change conference process is for transnational environmental challenges and what the Group of Eight (G-8) and Group of 20 (G-20) meetings are for global financial issues. To achieve this status, however, the nuclear security summit process needs to evolve, and participating counties need to be willing to accept changes that will strengthen the nuclear material security regime.
The lead-up to the 2012 summit provides an opportunity to begin this evolutionary process. The Washington summit solidified and underscored the key elements of the current nuclear material security regime, including UN Security Council resolutions, international agreements, and the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The South Korean summit can build on the success of its predecessor by moving beyond the current elements of the regime and endorsing some key new policy initiatives as part of a "Seoul Declaration" package.
This type of a declaration would utilize the inherent action-forcing value of the summit process, set a precedent for achieving further improvements over time at subsequent summits, and position South Korea as a global leader in the nuclear material security field. In particular, because South Korea is a contributor to the G-8 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction and a member of the G-20, it can serve as a bridge between these groups on this issue, encouraging contributions and action from the G-20 on global nuclear security priorities.
Some of the new policy initiatives for the Seoul summit could be prepared for implementation in the short term, and others would require further evaluation and development in order to be implemented at future summits. This additional work could be carried out by empowering a technical expert process at the Seoul summit that would complement the political "Sherpa" process that currently shapes and guides the summits. (A Sherpa is the representative of a government who leads its preparation for an event such as the nuclear security summit.) The current summit Sherpas are generally representatives of the foreign ministries of participating governments and not necessarily deeply knowledgeable about the technical aspects of nuclear material security practices and challenges.
If the Seoul summit could start the policy evolution process and if this step could be continued in subsequent summits, it would help strengthen and expand the existing nuclear and radiological material security regime significantly. This summit process then should be supplemented and coordinated with the related efforts of the G-8 and G-20, the IAEA, and the other national and multilateral programs and initiatives that are focused on the challenge of preventing nuclear terrorism. Therefore, it is important that the summit events not be viewed as an end in themselves, but rather as a facilitating mechanism for the journey toward a modern, stronger, more flexible, and responsive 21st-century nuclear material security architecture.
Acknowledging the Threat
One of the significant challenges in maintaining nuclear material security as a high global …