Earlier this week, the Netherlands hosted the third Nuclear Security Summit (NSS). More than 50 world leaders where in The Hague to enhance international nuclear security.
Key agreements that were reached at the conference include: reducing the amount of dangerous nuclear material in the world that terrorists could use to make a nuclear weapon (highly enriched uranium and plutonium); improving the security of radioactive material (including low-enriched uranium) that can be used to make a 'dirty bomb'; and improving the international exchange of information and international cooperation.
While the summit has undoubtedly made steps toward making the world safer, much more needs to be achieved before the next NSS which will be held in Washington DC in 2016. It is also important to emphasise that the summit's focus on enhancing security of stockpiles of nuclear materials and facilities across the world is just one element of the overall nuclear security debate.
Last weekend, just before the NSS, I hosted a conference at Delft University of Technology, a on nuclear security, policy and ethics. This symposium, which featured top academics from across the world, highlighted that a fully comprehensive NSS agenda should also include socio-technical and ethical aspects of nuclear security, including nuclear disarmament and expansion of nuclear energy.
Hopefully, these topics can assert themselves into the agenda in Washington DC. The NSS is the brainchild of President Barack Obama and the 2016 summit which take place during his last year in the White House.
In order to understand these inter-related issues, it is necessary to refer back to the key policy document in nuclear security: the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This is founded on the key pillars of non-proliferation: disarmament and peaceful use of nuclear technology.
The rationale of NPT is halting the spread of nuclear weapons and knowledge that could lead to proliferation. In addition, countries that possessed those weapons when the treaty was ratified (United States, United Kingdom, China, France and the-then Soviet Union) agreed to move towards gradual total disarmament.
The latter is what offers moral and legal justification for other countries not to develop nuclear weapons. However, despite gestures by Obama in his first term in office, no substantial efforts have been made in that direction.
Moreover, what is disconcerting to some in the international community is that new weapons are actually being developed - some with euphemistical names such as 'strategic arms' or 'mini-nukes' - in the name of modernising existing nuclear arsenals. This completely undermines the moral justifications of the NPT and incentivises non-weapon countries to move towards development of weapons themselves.
Another issue that the NSS will not address is the global expansion of nuclear power. Currently there are 30 countries with nuclear energy and according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and another 45 have expressed interest in joining the nuclear club.
The NPT as a treaty provides for the principle of access to peaceful nuclear technology for countries in exchange for them renouncing building nuclear arms. However, there are various challenges, mainly from so-called dual-use technologies that could both be used for both civil and military purposes.
Perhaps the best examples of dual use technologies are enrichment and reprocessing facilities.
Enrichment of uranium is needed for technical reasons; existing reactors can only run based on low-enriched uranium (3 to 5%). However, when enrichment is continued up to 70 to 90%, it could be used for military purposes.
Obviously, the question as to whether each nuclear power producing country should have access to such facilities is key. The NPT does give access, even though these facilities carry serious security risks.
Again, the fundamental question at hand would be: what provides for moral legitimacy to halt one member of the IAEA not to develop such proliferation-sensitive facilities, while others do so. The problems contained herein from is illustrated by Iran which insists on enriching uranium for its own use, while the so-called P5+1 countries insist on removing those facilities, or at least Tehran offering safeguards that the country will not exceed low levels of enrichment
Another example of dual-use technologies are reprocessing plants. Reprocessing, or recycling of nuclear waste has various safety and environmental benefits. For instance, we can reuse the still deployable material for energy production.
However, among these still usable materials is plutonium which is also a key ingredient for nuclear weapons. While civilian plutonium is not weapon-grade, the same reprocessing facilities could again be used for destructive purposes.
A good example of how this process can work safely in practice is the deal between South-Korea and United Arab Emirates (UAE). Under this arrangement, also referred to as the 'Gold Standard', South Korea has agreed to build several nuclear power plants for UAE and in exchange the latter has renounced enrichment and reprocessing.
What makes this discussion highly relevant is the advancement of new nuclear technologies in recent years. Currently, nuclear energy is produced using technologies developed in the 1960s and 1970s when safety was the overwhelming concern and, therefore, the leading design requirement of nuclear reactors.
Since then, however, there has been serious advancement in nuclear technologies, particularly in designing and building reactors. Today, for instance, passively safe reactors that do not rely on human operator to ensure safety have been developed.
As safety has been considerably improved, other important criteria have been introduced into reactor design. Reactors can now be developed that produce no, or much less suitable weapons material, while other types of reactors now use resources more efficiently.
Advancement of nuclear technology could help us to perfect design and manufacture for each of these criteria, but it confronts us with an important challenge: the safest nuclear reactor is not necessarily the most secure one, and vice versa. So-called breeder reactors, for instance, could allow resources to be used much more efficiently but they operate on plutonium, and the associated recycling thereof, which brings major security concerns.
If the NSS platform was widened in Washington DC in 2016 to include nuclear disarmament and the implications of nuclear energy expansion it would make for a much more effective mechanism to bolster the NPT. It is increasingly important that these issues are addressed by the international community to help enhance nuclear security at a critical time when the club of nuclear countries is set to expand rapidly.