Seoul summit shows nuclear safety relies on cooperation

This week's anti-nuclear-terrorism summit in Seoul will grapple with some difficult challenges, but solid progress can be made.

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Heads of state and leaders from 53 countries and four international organisations convene in Seoul today and tomorrow for a nuclear security summit meeting aimed at creating a safer, more peaceful world, and one without nuclear weapons.

This vision, presented as a goal for modern-day diplomacy by US President Barack Obama in April 2009, will take time to realise. Until then, our most urgent priority is to prevent nuclear terrorism.

As seen in the attacks of September 11, 2001, terrorist organisations are bent on using any and all means to achieve their goals. Some 1,600 tonnes of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and over 500 tonnes of plutonium exist in the world today. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there have been 2,164 reported cases of nuclear and radioactive material that were out of regulatory control - such as through illicit trade, theft and loss - between 1993 and 2011.

In June 2011, authorities in the former Soviet state of Moldova stopped a black-market sale of uranium-235. This incident was followed by another case in Moldova in August 2010, when officials blocked an attempt to traffic "yellowcake", a form of uranium-238.

Before that a Russian national was arrested in nearby Georgia in 2006 while trying to sell 80 grams of HEU for $1 million (Dh3.67 million).

In the hands of a terrorist organisation with malicious intent, such illicit materials could be used to create a nuclear weapon or a "dirty bomb" - one which causes relatively small physical damage but generates substantial radioactive fallout. Any such weapon could cause loss of life and inflict a serious blow to the world's security, economy and environment.

The inaugural nuclear security summit, held in Washington DC in April 2010, was the first meeting of world leaders dedicated to the prevention of nuclear terror. Participants there included leaders from 47 countries and representatives from three major international organisations.

Together they pledged to minimise the use of weapons-grade nuclear materials in the civilian sector, to ratify international conventions on nuclear security and to establish "centres of excellence" to provide relative education and training and promote nuclear security.

These pledges are being carried out faithfully.

Since the 2010 Summit, 20 countries have ratified the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials, 14 have ratified the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism and 12 nuclear-security training centres are being created around the world.

In addition, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Vietnam and the US are working to shut down nuclear reactors that use weapons-grade nuclear materials, or to modify these reactors to run on low-enriched uranium (LEU).

The 2012 summit in Seoul will build on the achievements of the 2010 Washington meeting by focusing on the formulation of specific practical measures and plans of action.

Even more countries are now advocating the destruction of nuclear materials, since a reduced stock of nuclear materials will mean fewer opportunities for nuclear terrorism.

Of key importance in this endeavour are participating governments' voluntary initiatives to minimise HEU stocks, adopt international conventions on nuclear security, convert research reactors running on HEU to LEU fuel, augment the Nuclear Security Fund and more.

As the 2012 summit in Seoul will also be a forum for evaluating the progress of initiatives adopted at the 2010 summit, there will be immense significance in the voluntary submission, by as many countries as possible, of reports on the status of such initiatives.

This week's summit will also reflect on the changes that have taken place over the last two years. The safety of nuclear power, an issue that has emerged since the nuclear accident at Fukushima, Japan in March 2011, will be discussed in the context of nuclear security. Also on the agenda is the increasing threat of radiological terror.

For such reasons, the UAE, which has been in a strategic partnership with the Republic of Korea since 2009, is an essential partner for Korea in the preparations for the summit. The UAE is the first nation to introduce a peaceful nuclear power programme in the Middle East, and it plans to operate four nuclear reactors, with a combined capacity of 5.6 million kW, by the year 2020.

One of the main concerns in nuclear security is to protect reactors from terrorist attacks. This means that the UAE's cooperation in the global effort to promote nuclear security holds practical importance.

Moreover, the UAE has expressed its firm commitment to non-proliferation by voluntarily giving up the enrichment and reprocessing of uranium. It has also collaborated closely with the IAEA, and shown great interest in the correlation between nuclear safety and nuclear security.

Thus we look forward to active contributions from the UAE at the Seoul summit.

With the eager participation of the UAE and others, the 2012 nuclear security summit in Seoul will be able to produce substantial outcomes to make this world safer from nuclear terrorism.

Kim Bong-hyun is deputy minister for multilateral and global affairs of the Republic of Korea