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South Korea: Terrorism in focus on nuclear summit agenda

27-03-2012

World leaders are meeting in Seoul to talk about how to prevent atomic attacks. But one problem with preventing the spread of nuclear material is determining how much of it there is - and just who possesses it.

The most prominent attendee at the conference scheduled in the South Korean capital from March 26 to 27 is Barack Obama. Since taking office in 2009, the US president has made curbing the spread of nuclear weaponry a priority and has further redefined the emphasis of the non-proliferation movement.

"Two decades after the end of the Cold War, we face a cruel irony of history," Obama said at a previous nuclear summit in Washington in 2010. "The risk of a nuclear confrontation between nations has gone down, but the risk of nuclear attack has gone up."

Obama added that terrorist groups had tried to acquire nuclear weaponry, and preventing that is what the Seoul summit will primarily be about.

There is great international consensus on this aim. But much needs to be done, if world leaders are to stop the most dangerous forms of weapons from falling into the wrong hands.

One great security obstacle is the sheer amount of nuclear material. Estimates put the stocks of plutonium in the world available for civilian and military usage at more than 200 tons - theoretically enough to build tens of thousands of atomic bombs

In addition, atomic-energy producers annually use some 4,000 kilograms of enriched uranium, which could be used to construct radioactive or "dirty" bombs. Supplies are spread over dozens of countries, and they are not always sufficiently monitored.

Experts say the potential threat should not be underestimated.

"This nuclear summit could serve to further heighten awareness," Annette Schaper from Frankfurt's Peace Research Institute told DW. "In addition we need international, legally binding standards for the handling of nuclear material."

Progress has been made. The US and Russia have agreed to each destroy 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium and have been assisting other countries in destroying their uranium stocks.

The US says that 18 nations have completely cleared out their stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium in recent years, and further countries are expected to announce similar initiatives in Seoul.

But experts still don't have a reliable overview of how much nuclear material is out there and who has it.

"Accessible global statistics about the stocks of highly enriched uranium are something we still don't have," Oliver Thränert, an expert at The German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, told DW.

International cooperation is crucial to rectifying that situation. But not all countries are on the same page on this issue.

Iran's nuclear facilities continue to cause concern

The two nations that cause the most nuclear anxiety in the world, North Korea and Iran, will not be attending the Seoul summit.

North Korea, which withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Agreement in 2003, has said it considers the staging of the conference in its southern neighbor an act of provocation.

The situation with Iran is more subtle, as Tehran often plays a game of cat-and-mouse with the International Atomic Energy Association and its somewhat arbitrary 20-percent distinction between lowly and highly enriched uranium.

"According to everything we know, Iran stays slightly below that," Thränert said, adding that Iranian enrichment of uranium to the level of 19.75 percent has many in the West convinced it is trying to create the conditions for building a nuclear weapon.

Another source of concern is the network built up by the father of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program, Abdul Q. Khan, which is alleged to have supplied nuclear know-how and material North Korea, Iran and Libya in the 1990s.

"Experts still aren't certain whether this broad network has truly ceased all its activities," Thränert said. "However, Pakistan does cooperate with the IAEA on questions of security for civilian nuclear installations."

Relations between the US and Pakistan have been chilly since the American military raid inside Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. But Obama plans to meet with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in Seoul in a move that could improve cooperation between two of the key players in the attempt to prevent the smuggling of dangerous nuclear material.

Since the Seoul summit can only yield action plans, which then must be concretely implemented, this conference will hardly put an end to the issue. But political leaders and experts hope that the meeting can be a further step toward minimizing the threat of a nuclear attack throughout the world.

Author: Daniel Scheschkewitz / jc
Editor: Rob Mudge

http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,15828970,00.html

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