The Washington Nuclear Security Summit ended yesterday after two days with a 12 point communiqué and an agreement to meet again in 2012 in South Korea. The 47-nation summit agreed to lock up the world's most vulnerable nuclear materials within four years to keep it out of terrorist hands. The communiqué said nuclear terrorism was one of the most challenging threats to international security and strong nuclear security measures were the most effective means to prevent “terrorist criminals or other unauthorized actors” from acquiring nuclear materials. The conference also issued a call to all nations to work collectively "to strengthen nuclear security and reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism."
The conference follows in the footsteps of the recent US-Russia agreement to reduce nuclear weapons. The outcome will see an renewed role for the International Atomic Energy agency who will inspect sites where fissile material is stored (including in the US). Other positive outcomes include Chile, Ukraine and Mexico agreeing to ship out their entire stock of highly enriched uranium, which can be used in weapons. The Guardian judged the summit a reasonable success, partly thanks to a narrow focus on a field that is more technical than political.
However, the Christian Science Monitor said while the conference objectives were reassuring, a “global reality” will make the goal difficult. It said worldwide production of highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium is going to increase in coming years as civilian nuclear programs grow. Experts such as David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington see contradictions in the approach. Albright said France blocked limiting the production of separated plutonium, which is a core element of the French nuclear energy industry. But there were also successes including the US/Ukraine agreement to secure Kiev’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium and the North American agreement to remove Mexico’s supply of highly enriched uranium to the US for conversion to low-enriched uranium.
This was Obama’s first major international conference on home soil and he used the full force of his personality to bear on events. He held 15 bilateral meetings with regional leaders. Several European diplomats told the Washington Times the large number of attendees reflects Obama's popularity abroad. Nuclear weapons were not a huge issue for many of those leaders and Obama’s challenge was to make them care about securing the military sites, research reactors and universities where nuclear materials are stored. "Coming into this summit, there were a range of views on this danger," Obama said. "But at our dinner last night, and throughout the day, we developed a shared understanding of the risk."
In the president’s closing speech Obama outlines four major planks to the agreement that came out of the meeting. Firstly he declared nuclear terrorism to be one of the most challenging threats to international security. To stop this threat, Obama said, requires action to protect nuclear materials and prevent nuclear smuggling. Secondly he said the conference had endorsed the US position to secure the world’s vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. Thirdly the conference reaffirmed the fundamental responsibility of nations to secure its nuclear materials and facilities. Lastly it acknowledged international cooperation was required to maintain effective security.
Security was quite effective at the conference itself with almost 50 world leaders in attendance. However not everyone was happy about it, with Dana Milbank in the Washington Post complaining of excessive media management. Most sessions were closed to the press, foreign media were given short shrift and no questions were allowed in bilateral meetings with only anodyne readouts available. It wasn’t until the end of the conference that Obama allowed tough questions from his own media corps, including pointing out the nonproliferation agreements weren't binding, the failure to curb North Korea's weapons, and the notable absence from the conference of nuclear rogue state Israel.
But the most notable questions were about Iran. According to Tony Karon in Time the goals of the summit were so modest it could hardly have failed. Karon says the real action took place off the main stage with Obama doing one-on-one lobbying with world leaders over sanctions against Iran. Neither Russia nor China seem prepared to support the US on the matter. China in particular as Iran’s largest energy partner is reluctant to support measures such as shutting down investment in the energy sector, blocking access to international credit or punishing companies associated with the Revolutionary Guard. China and Russia’s veto powers seem destined to defeat any significant move to hobble Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.