As Nuclear Summit Nears, It's the GOP, Not the President, That Is Promoting Nuclear Arms Control
March 29, 2016
Alan J. Kuperman / The New York Times & Yonhap News
Next week President Obama will welcome world leaders to Washington for his fourth Nuclear Security Summit, a biennial event to prevent terrorists from acquiring atomic bombs. One might expect the president to seize the opportunity to announce a major nonproliferation initiative, then brace for resistance from congressional Republicans skeptical of arms control. But reality is exactly the opposite. It is the Republican-controlled Congress that is pushing an ambitious arms control project. President Obama is the one resisting.
Obama: The Anti-Anti-Nuke President
Alan J. Kuperman / The New York Times
(March 25, 2016) -- Next week President Obama will welcome world leaders to Washington for his fourth Nuclear Security Summit, a biennial event he initiated to mobilize global action to prevent terrorists from acquiring atomic bombs.
As this is Mr. Obama's last such meeting on an issue that he professes to care about deeply, one might expect him to seize the opportunity to announce a major nonproliferation initiative, then brace for resistance from congressional Republicans skeptical of arms control.
But reality is exactly the opposite. It is the Republican-controlled Congress that is pushing the most ambitious arms control project in recent memory. Inexplicably, President Obama is the one resisting.
Some background: In recent years, legislators on both sides of the aisle have become increasingly concerned about global commerce in highly enriched uranium, the same material that fueled the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. If terrorists obtained less than 100 pounds of the stuff, they could almost surely set off a similar explosion. A country with even moderate technical expertise could achieve the same yield with a much smaller amount.
In light of these dangers, the United States in 1978 initiated an international program to reduce the use of bomb-grade uranium fuel in research reactors -- which typically sit undefended on university campuses -- by developing substitute fuel from low-enriched uranium that is unsuitable for weapons. The program has been enormously successful, eliminating highly enriched uranium from dozens of such facilities.
But this initiative failed to address the vast majority of bomb-grade uranium fuel, which is used by the world's nuclear navies, in reactors that propel submarines and aircraft carriers. Indeed, the navies of just three countries -- the United States, Russia and Britain -- use several tons of bomb-grade uranium annually for fuel, at least four times as much as all of the world's research reactors combined.
Naval highly enriched fuel poses multiple risks. First, it creates cover for countries to develop nuclear weapons, since naval fuel is excluded from international inspections under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iranian officials have said repeatedly that they will need highly enriched uranium for their future nuclear navy, but there would be no way to prevent them from diverting it into weaponry.
What's more, such uranium is vulnerable to being stolen by terrorists during transport or storage. And these dangers are expected to grow. Unless our Navy switches to safer fuel in coming decades, the United States will need to resume production of bomb-grade uranium for the first time since 1992 to replenish its supply, undercutting Washington's goal of halting such production worldwide.
To address these risks, last year Congress authorized and appropriated funding for initial research and development of low-enriched uranium fuel for America's naval reactors. This project could be a game-changer, since the United States is the world's biggest user of bomb-grade naval fuel.
Simply by signaling an intention to convert to safer fuel if feasible, the United States would put substantial pressure on Russia to follow suit, and would reduce Iran's justification for seeking highly enriched uranium.
That would seem like a no-brainer addition to the president's laudable nonproliferation agenda, which helped earn him the Nobel Peace Prize. Instead, the president has opposed it. When Congress initiated the program in the 2016 fiscal year, the White House objected on the ground that funding was to be taken from an existing Energy Department nonproliferation account.
This was an odd objection, given the plan's undeniable nonproliferation intent, but bureaucrats guard their budgets vigilantly. Eventually, the president acquiesced to the first-year funding as part of larger legislation.
If Mr. Obama's sole concern was the funding source, he could have provided funds directly to the Office of Naval Reactors in the subsequent fiscal year. But when he submitted his 2017 budget last month, it included no funding at all for the program.
When asked why, an Energy Department official claimed that the program's findings to date were insufficient to justify a second year of research. But that is ridiculous. Nuclear fuel development typically requires at least five years to assess feasibility.
The more likely -- and depressing -- explanation for the White House's opposition appears to be petty turf warfare. Simply because Congress had the audacity to dip into a nonproliferation account, the administration has turned against the program. As a result, this vital security undertaking will grind to a halt later this year -- just months after Mr. Obama hosts the nuclear summit meeting -- unless Congress again comes to the rescue.
Such peevishness is shortsighted. President Obama should instead use the meeting to highlight the naval research as a signature nonproliferation initiative, and he should challenge other countries to follow suit. Not only would that promote global security, but it could help burnish Mr. Obama's foreign-policy record. Indeed, the conversion of naval nuclear fuel could yield the greatest reduction in bomb-grade uranium commerce in human history. Now that would be a legacy.
Alan J. Kuperman, an associate professor and the coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, is the editor of "Nuclear Terrorism and Global Security: The Challenge of Phasing Out Highly Enriched Uranium."
'North Korea Not the Central Focus of Nuclear Security Summit'
SEOUL (March 28, 2016) -- There will be "plenty of discussion" about North Korea at this week's Nuclear Security Summit in the US, but the communist regime will not be the central focus of the premier gathering, a senior US official said Monday.
During the US State Department's video conference with reporters, Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman said the broader agenda of nonproliferation including the North's nuclear conundrum has been dealt with via other global mechanisms -- "separately" from the summit.
"Without a question, there will be plenty of discussion of North Korea," he said in response to a question of whether Pyongyang's proliferation issue would be part of the agenda for the two-day biennial summit that will begin in Washington D.C. on Thursday.
"It is the most active, provocative threat to security in East Asia today, but it is not the central focus of the summit itself," he added.
As for the focal point of the summit, Countryman pointed out that the gathering would focus on the specific question of preventing one of the world's "most frightening outcomes": terrorists' acquisition of nuclear materials in order to make an improvised nuclear device.
The summit does not deal specifically with the proliferation issue involving North Korea, but observers said that it could send an implicit message to Pyongyang that sparked global outrage with its fourth nuclear test in January.
President Park Geun-hye plans to capitalize on her attendance at the summit to beef up pressure on the North to give up its nuclear ambitions, Kim Kyou-hyun, senior presidential secretary for foreign affairs, told reporters.
During a working dinner on the first day of the summit, Park will stress the danger of Pyongyang's nuclear program and call on world leaders to make concerted efforts towards the communist state's denuclearization, Kim said.
In defiance of international pressure, Pyongyang has hinted at the possibility of conducting a fifth nuclear test, which experts here say could make the wayward country a de facto nuclear-power state.
The fourth and last summit will bring together top officials from 52 countries, the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency, European Union and the International Criminal Police Organization.
It was initiated in 2010 by US President Barack Obama seeking to tackle nuclear terrorism through multilateral cooperation -- a departure from his predecessor George W. Bush's approach, which some criticized as "unilateral."
The inaugural summit was held in Washington in April 2010, while the second summit was held in Seoul in March 2012. The last summit was held at the Hague, the Netherlands, two years later.
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